Helen Dent, chief executive of the Family Welfare Association, believes social workers have become so involved in ideological hair-splitting and "convening meetings for squabbles over whether to write `black' or `Black'" that they have failed to address the real needs of their clients.
"The length of the political correctness wars has been excessive and much time and passion has been misdirected," she says in a report published today by the Health and Welfare Unit of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Ms Dent said that although social workers were committed, little progress had been made because managers were too frightened to challenge the priorities identified by political correctness. She cites an example of an elderly woman being denied home help because she had requested a female carer, which she was told "violated the local authority's equal opportunity policy".
"The woman's children pointed out that their mother had only experienced one man's hands on her, and her husband had died some 15 years previously," Ms Dent said. "They pointed out that she was so embarrassed about taking her clothes off that she did not see the doctor until a lump in her breast had grown to the size of a tennis ball and she needed a double mastectomy.
"Could they not flex the rules for an old lady too embarrassed, proud and dignified to show her mutilated body to a man? Certainly not." A new category of the undeserving poor has emerged, she said.
Moira Gibb, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, said that although she did not think any social worker would have denied an old lady a female home help, she admitted that if a white worker had been requested the position would have been more difficult. "On the race front it is more complicated."
Ms Gibb said she did not recognise the levels of political correctness Ms Dent believed were a threat to the service.
"It may have happened in the mad bad days of the early Eighties in some authorities but that kind of political correctness was not generated by social service departments but imposed on them from elsewhere," she said. "Political correctness and social work no longer go together."