Can Openers

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At a Social Work Action Network Conference a few years ago one delegate shocked those present when he stated that, in his area team, management’s definition of the good social worker was the person who could make the biggest cuts to his or her clients’ care packages.

The fascination of this novel from mental health social worker, Unison activist and revolutionary socialist Malcolm Jones lies in the fact that although set several years in the future, that same craziness of a welfare system based precisely on denying people their most basic needs is instantly recognisable.

The book revolves around an Orwellian Dependency Unit, driven by targets, sanctions and a spurious “scientific” evidence-based practice.

Jones’s anti-hero, Frederik Smyth, is an ambitious manager whose promotion depends on getting more than 50 percent of the claimants on his team’s caseload off all state benefits and into the “self-reliant” category.

His efforts are continually thwarted, however, by the apparent inability of two of his Opportunity Programmers to push Jane, a lone parent with two children, over the 50 percent threshold of a supposedly objective points-based system.

What Frederik does not realise is that the two programmers have come to the conclusion that, far from being “work-shy”, Jane is in fact a model client, doing everything she can to become self-reliant.

Like many social workers and frontline staff working in benefits offices today, they can see the gap between their department’s anti-dependency rhetoric and the brutal reality of their clients’ lives.

They use what limited discretion they have to prevent Jane being removed from benefits.

Jane works part-time in a canning factory and her efforts to deal with the Dependency Unit are supported by other women from the factory, some of whom have set up a union, known as the Can Openers.

Through discussions with these women Jane becomes increasingly political and eventually a union leader in her own right.

Frederik meanwhile has come a cropper with the evidence-based computer programmes which govern the operation of the unit, and experiences a fall from grace which ends with him living quite literally in the gutter.

By chance he comes into contact with Jane, and through her, the Can Openers. Thus begins a journey which leads him to question the values and operation of a vicious system in which he played such a central role.

The book has many twists and turns, some of which work better than others. It holds up a mirror to a society where it is now deemed officially acceptable to deny people any means of feeding themselves for weeks on end, and in this it succeeds admirably.