Artillery Row

Repeat after me

Social Work England are making people choose between their jobs and what they know to be true

This week has seen a rousing online debate about the decision of Social Work England to “warn” a female social worker for social media posts it concluded were “discriminatory” to transgender people. 

So rousing, in fact, that it prompted the regulator to issue a formal statement defending its impartiality and commitment to human rights and calling for further discussion about how social workers are allowed to express themselves on social media in areas where “ethical tensions” arise.

For “sharing” and approving of certain social media posts, she was accused of acting towards a “discriminatory” goal and failing to “confront and resolve issues of inequality and inclusion.” Seventy posts were submitted to the regulator in support of this complaint. The worst examples apparently were these:

The social worker supporting a petition to stop a charity supporting gender diverse children and young people, delivering training to the police, schools and public services. • Sharing fake news that a convicted child murderer was seeking gender reassignment. • The social worker sharing the following: — “Boys that identify as girls go to Girl Guides…Girls that identify as boys go to Boy Scouts…Men that identify as paedophiles go to either”. This post appears to be conflating being transgender with being a paedophile.

Social Work England considered there was “a realistic prospect of adjudicators establishing the statutory ground of misconduct,” meaning that the social worker could be found to have used social media “unlawfully and unethically” to bring the profession into disrepute. 

Social workers, of all the professionals, must be able to challenge risky and harmful behaviours

I do not think the investigators employed by Social Work England understand the law. They are led into error by basing their analysis on a false a priori assumption — that anything remotely critical or challenging to “transgender issues” must therefore be discriminatory and unethical. But this assumption is fatally flawed because of the lack of any consensus about what exactly is meant by “transgender issues”.

The majority of “transwomen” do not surgically or medically transition and therefore their “transition” is something that is established by their declaration alone. There is thus an immediate and serious conflict between the rights of women to the dignity and protection afforded by single sex spaces, and the wishes of men to be validated as women while retaining fully male bodies.

Further and of particular relevance to the social work profession, there is an immediate and serious issue about the welfare of children who are encouraged uncritically into medical transition which has life long and irreversible consequences including sterility and loss of sexual function. Social workers, of all the professionals, must be able to challenge risky and harmful behaviours, because when they can’t or won’t the harmful consequences for the vulnerable are often truly terrible. To point out that allowing men to “self identify” as may put children at risk of harm is not risking “conflating paedophilia with being transgender” — it is a recognition of an obvious and serious challenge to safeguarding policies. 

There are myriad legal decisions that expose the unlawfulness of the Social Work England analysis and approach. They should first remind themselves of the judgment in the Forstater case which found that a belief that sex is immutable is a protected belief pursuant to the Equality Act 2010.

Of course, having a belief is distinct from a manifestation of that belief. The Equality Act does not protect abusive speech or harassment of others, even if in pursuit of a protected belief. Social Work England may then wish to consider the considerable amount of case law generated by the protection of freedom of speech pursuant to Article 10 of the ECHR and then move on a little closer to home.  They may want to consider the Court of Appeal decision R (Ngole) v University of Sheffield ([2019] EWCA Civ 1127) where the Court noted that a restriction on speech in a regulated profession, pertaining to a protected belief (here Mr Ngole’s Christianity) would require abusive or inflammatory language or that which was “condemnatory” of any individual.

That others find an opinion or language “offensive” cannot by itself amount to “unethical and unlawful” behaviour or justify an assumption that a social worker is likely to behave in a discriminatory way towards service users. This assumption is in flagrant disregard of the necessary “balancing exercise” between Article 10 and other fundamental rights. 

Consider her “apology” in the context of the lingering threat about what will happen if she dares to agree again

In this present case, the social worker’s manager said they had confidence the social worker had never practised in a discriminatory way, and that she was competent and able to practise. However, she deleted her Facebook posts and accepted a warning that for the next year  “any similar conduct or matters brought to the attention of the regulator are likely to result in a more serious outcome”. Her “apology” makes for alarming reading:

On reflection I feel that I may have been swayed by the mistaken view of other prominent feminists who felt that promoting transgender rights would impede on women’s rights. This was a gap in my knowledge base and this training has shown me how to work in a much more inclusive way.

What we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. “Re-education” has a long inglorious history in totalitarian regimes, to break down the minds and often the bodies of dissidents. As Gulbahar Haitiwaji wrote in January 2021, of the experiences of the Uighurs in China:

I was held in Baijiantan for two years. During that time, everyone around me — the police officers who came to interrogate prisoners, plus the guards, teachers and tutors — tried to make me believe the massive lie without which China could not have justified its re-education project: that Uighurs are terrorists, and thus that I, Gulbahar, as a Uighur who had been living in exile in France for 10 years, was a terrorist. Wave after wave of propaganda crashed down upon me, and as the months went by, I began to lose part of my sanity. Bits of my soul shattered and broke off. I will never recover them.

I am not suggesting that Social Work England is about to set up re-education camps for dissident social workers. But I do think it is necessary to now consider exactly what road we are taking our first steps along. Consider the “apology” in the context of the lingering threat about what will happen if she dares to agree again with those “prominent feminists” (and High Court Judges) who point out the real and significant problems arising from a tension between the rights of women and the desires of men.

Why on earth should any of us be made to choose between our jobs and what we know to be true? I accept that members of regulated professions may sometimes have to accept greater restrictions on our free expression than the general public. But absent incitement to violence, or gratuitous and indiscriminate offensive comments directed at individuals, disagreement with, or light mockery of a prevailing orthodoxy, is not lawfully a matter for regulatory censure.

I can only hope that the stated intention of Social Work England to carry out further discussion to balance these “ethical tensions” is not some kind of distraction or window dressing but an honest admittance of the need for real and urgent reflection about where this road may take us. 

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