January marks the 90th anniversary of the Liverpool Personal Service Society, the charity that many believe planted the seeds of modern-day social work. Established by social reformer Eleanor Rathbone (right) in 1919, PSS has been at the forefront of some of the country’s most innovative developments in welfare and care, many of which have gone on to influence and shape national policy responses to social problems.
PSS was founded in response to the slump that followed the end of the First World War a year earlier. The four year conflict had severely weakened the British Empire; men returning from the war found work hard to find and living conditions were terrible. Liverpool’s economy, with its reliance on trade linked to its port – at the time the busiest in the world – was particularly badly affected by the downturn. It was also the port of arrival for immigrants from Ireland, many of whom stayed.
Rathbone, along with some of Liverpool’s leading figures from the worlds of commerce, politics and academia, could see the devastating effects the hardship was having on people’s welfare and health and so set about providing food, clothes and shelter to some of the city’s poorest denizens. Robin Currie, chief executive of PSS, says the move marked a cultural shift in society. “Things changed after the war. There was a feeling of euphoria that the war was won but they were economically hard times. Ordinary people had played a big part in the war effort and the old world order was no longer appropriate. It marked a break from Victorian times.”
Victorian morals, standards and lifestyle had dominated British society, despite Queen Victoria herself dying in 1901, right up until the end of the war. This was also reflected in the welfare state prior to this, with charity being largely linked to work and religion. Currie says PSS took a different approach to deprivation.
“In the early part of the 20th century the whole concept of social work, with a set of principles and values, was growing. Rathbone took up the idea and wanted to put these values into effect,” he explains.
Connecting with the disadvantaged
Rathbone came from a family of social reformers: her parents were leading figures in the anti slavery movement and in the creation of the district nursing service in the 1800s. She went on to become an independent MP, and her ability to connect with society’s disadvantaged and champion their causes has greatly influenced the development of PSS. In its first 25 years it:
• Created an after-care scheme for hospital patients (one of the country’s first home care services) and supported the drafting of a Parliamentary Bill to “curb the evils of money lending”.
• Formed the Old People’s Welfare Committee, a direct antecedent of Age Concern.
• Was a key contributor to the formation of Liverpool Improved Houses (now the Riverside Housing Association) and took on responsibility for another famous Liverpool charity, the Society for the Relief of Sick and Distressed Needlewomen.
Spreading the word
In more recent times, PSS pioneered the creation of adult placement services (around 300 adults with mental health problems and learning disabilities are currently cared for); established one of the first support schemes for young carers; and in 2006 launched the Dementia Café, the first internet chat room for people with dementia and their families. It now employs 500 staff and around 700 volunteers across projects covering the North West of England, Staffordshire, North Wales and parts of Scotland.
With so many initiatives started by PSS taken on nationally, the charity considers spreading the word of good practice to be one of its important roles. “A big part of what we do is not just the idea but disseminating that and encouraging and supporting other organisations to take these schemes further. All our project managers are expected to speak at conferences, write up and publish information about their work and host visits to the schemes,” Currie says.
In 2009, PSS plans to develop a ‘move on’ placement service for recently released prisoners. Looking further ahead, Currie sees the increased use of assistive technology to deliver services and the empowerment of individuals and communities to shape the services they receive as likely trends. Such developments will set new challenges for organisations supporting society’s most disadvantaged, but PSS’s ethos should ensure they rise to this, Currie says.
“We are focused on listening to the needs of people that are disadvantaged and considered vulnerable and responding to that in the types of services we provide. All PSS services have largely been developed by that route,” he adds.
Review: BBC4's Getting On with Jo Brand
24 July 2009