Alan Johnson MP: “one of the heroes of my life was a social worker”

17th March 2015
Alan Johnson knows Kensington and Chelsea better than most. Before gaining recognition as one of the UK’s most respected politicians, the former Home Secretary spent much of his childhood crammed into a tiny house backing onto Paddington station.
Despite a troubled home-life, which included domestic violence, poverty and the tragic early death of his mother, Alan and his sister Linda fought back.
This week, the former postman returns to the borough to shadow trainee social workers on the Frontline graduate programme. The shadowing coincides with World Social Work Day and Frontline’s determination to celebrate the incredible social workers supporting society’s most vulnerable children and families.
Below, Alan gives his thoughts on the day.
Returning home to shadow social workers
“It’s not the first time I’ve been back since the book was published, but it’s the first time I’ve been back talking to people who have such an intimate knowledge of the area and its problems.
“I had one experience of social work when my mother died. My sister at 16 and me at 13 were assigned a social worker named Mr Pepper. He was a hero to us. He was a hero to us because he came with the intention of splitting us up but my sister argued vociferously that we should be kept together. She’d been bringing me up since she was 8 or 9 while my mum was in and out of hospital. In the end Mr Pepper went out and got us a council flat, 16 and 13 year-old together. That was an extraordinary risk to take. Speaking to social workers here they doubt that could happen today.
“So not only did I have experience of social workers, I had the best experience. What Mr Pepper did was to listen and then allay our fears, concerns and anxiety. You can’t do the second without the first. If he’d spit us up we would have had a very different life – there could have been all kinds of mental health problems. Staying together was crucial. One of the heroes of my life was a social worker.”
Learning from social workers
“I had a pre-disposition to being very sympathetic towards social workers. What I didn’t have a clue about was how it’s organised – the nuts and bolts. Given the different specialities – mental health, child protection, alcohol and drugs – and how it’s all knitted together. I have a better idea of that now. I was dealing in child protection and I was really encouraged by the efforts to keep families together. I thought, because of my own experience and my experience of being a patron of the charity Family Rights Group, there was almost a force of gravity sucking kids away from families. That was totally blown apart by what I saw today. Kensington and Chelsea have a ‘Family Forward Unit’ where they have a main aim of keeping children out of care when there’s an alternative of being looked after grandparents, aunts and uncles or siblings.
“One of the children I met today was living with a foster carer after horrendous problems for the past two years. The Consultant Social Worker has stayed on her case all the way through and that’s the philosophy here. I saw a brilliant relationship. She’ll hopefully do very well in her GCSEs – there was no prospect of that two years ago.
“I also went to a meeting with Jim, one of the Frontliners, who just seemed like one of the other social workers – so enthusiastic, so bright and so determined that he was going to stay in this field.”
The future for children’s social work
“The Munro report has been seminal. People here talk about pre-Munro, post-Munro. She’s obviously done a brilliant job.
“Josh has got this interesting theory that social work is on the up – and I have no reason to contradict him. The people I spoke to were very positive and I think that creates its own momentum. You’ve got a scheme like Frontline – the idea of getting bright graduates involved in this way, and also getting people like me to come and see what they do – it’s just marvellous. It’s going to raise awareness of what social workers do and that’s important. Hopefully the more people understand social work, the more people will be banging on doors on their behalf.”
The role of charities in public sector innovation
“I always thought the Big Society was a bloody good idea. It’s a shame there seemed to be nothing behind it. In my constituency I see social enterprises and charities doing marvellous things. The trick is co-ordinating it, and MPs can really help. Looking at youth unemployment in my constituency, the percentage of young people (18-24) employed was 10 percentage points lower than Bradford. There was no reason why that should be the case. Instead of waiting for government to come over the hill, MPs, Job Centre Plus, social enterprises and great charities like CatZero and Prince’s Trust co-ordinated all our efforts to tackle it together.
“That’s what the Big Society should have been. There’s stuff that charities can do that the government cannot possibly do. It’s how you harness that.”

Alan Johnson is MP for West Hull and Hessle, a former Secretary of State and author of ‘This Boy.’

Interview by Joe Jervis.