Aves and Seebohm: A tale of two reports

Ellie Munro

In our latest post, guest blogger and voluntary sector history expert Ellie Munro explores two classic reports and their impact on voluntary action in the West Midlands and beyond.

50 years ago, two reports were published setting out the direction of social work and the organisation of social services. The Seebohm Committee Report did this from the government’s perspective. The Aves Report, published later in 1968, did so from the perspective of volunteers and voluntary organisations. The way the role of voluntary organisations is framed by these kinds of policy documents is important, because it shapes the rules and roles of the sector, and defines what the state considers its own responsibility. How this translates into practice for local organisations is an important research question.

What’s going on in the 1960s?

At a national level there were lots of conversations about the role and nature of social work in the 1960s. These played out across reports, committees and organisations like the Younghusband Report on social workers’ roles and training (1959 — to cheat a little bit), Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s report Community Work and Social Change (1968) and the two reports we’re talking about here. Government was also experimenting with longish-term, community-based projects like the Urban Programme (1968) and the radical Community Development Project (1968) in poor neighbourhoods and areas where recent immigration was perceived to have brought with it changes and tensions in local places. At the same time new voluntary organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG — 1965) and Shelter (1966) were being formed as the country ‘rediscovered’ poverty and thought they’d better do something about it.

What do Seebohm and Aves say about voluntary action?

The State’s View

The Seebohm Committee report recommended creating single, unified social services departments in every local authority in England. It firmly staked a claim for social work as the state’s responsibility, including taking over services for ‘the blind, deaf and physically handicapped’ (with apologies for the old language), that had traditionally been delivered by voluntary organisations.

But the report still positioned volunteers and voluntary organisations as vital to services’ success. The role of organisations was ‘in educating the public, in fostering links between different professions, in advancing knowledge, in undertaking experiments, and in providing specialised services on a national scale’ and drawing public attention ‘to needs which might otherwise be neglected’. These roles marry up nicely to some themes of perceived or constructed ‘distinction’ of voluntary organisations that can be seen in many similar documents. They have expert knowledge, they can innovate, they can specialise and they can speak up for marginalised communities; here the Report reinforced these values.

There also a sense that the field needs to modernise, breaking from traditions of ‘upper and middle class philanthropy appropriate to the social structure of Victorian Britain’ in order to fit with the new systems. Together these are conflicting appeals to old and new, distancing from past approaches, but still reinforcing perceived traditional values (see Coule and Bennett (2018) for similar themes).

The independent view

The Aves report describes volunteers’ roles, frustrations, relationships with social workers and views on support (or lack thereof). There’s a real sense of celebration of the role volunteers played, but it is not without criticism; things like ‘’friendly’ visiting’ came under fire where it existed without purpose or support. There is plenty in there, both good and bad, that will be familiar to anyone who’s volunteered, worked with volunteers or been supported by them.

The report is absolutely clear that volunteers should not be used to replace services, and should not be expected to do jobs where normally somebody would be paid. Voluntary workers, it says, ‘should be seen as part of an overall social work plan, not as a stop-gap for lack of trained workers’ — this is a point where Seebohm clearly agrees.

There’s a serious tension between public services recognising the potential value of volunteering as part of service delivery, and having the resources and skills to make it a reality. In the report’s words, ‘the feeling was that voluntary workers could be very useful of only we had time to cope with them.’ There is lots of discussion about potential solutions to this problem, but throughout there is a sense that the only way to increase volunteering is to invest in roles and services for recruiting and supporting them. The report recommends government invests in a national network of local volunteer bureaux, and the creation of a national-level Volunteer Centre in Whitehall (it duly did the latter at least). There is a sense of formalisation or professionalisation of roles here, and of fitting in with the state, which is complementary to the state’s own view.

Translating to the local

My PhD research is about how (or whether) reports and policy documents like these are reflected in the history of voluntary organisations in Birmingham. I look at national-level changes, and the national-level history of the voluntary sector, and ask whether the story’s the same in the local field. In this case that means did voluntary organisations change (or stay the same), did they frame themselves differently, did new ones appear, or old ones disappear as social services departments were ‘Seebohmised’ in 1971? Most of what we think of as the voluntary sector now is small and local; that history needs to be told too.

Ellie Munro is a doctoral researcher in social policy at the University of Birmingham, researching the history of local charities in a national context. She works in charity history, social policy and campaigning. She previously worked for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) and the National Youth Agency (NYA), among others. She is a trustee for the FPA (Family Planning Association), and helps to run policy and social media for IC Change, a volunteer-run campaign to end violence against women. She tweets at @elmunro

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