'Social work is an abused profession'

Sometimes the Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is puzzled by a short cut she finds herself taking through a housing estate in Dulwich and West Norwood, her south London constituency. "How do I know this?" she wonders. "Then I remember that 30 years ago I had a foster parent I used to visit there."

As a social worker, she plodded through parts of Southwark and Lambeth which she now represents as an MP. Starting as a child care officer in 1968, she trained as a psychiatric social worker and finally became deputy director of MIND, the mental health charity. She has not forgotten her 16 years of social work.

"Being the keynote speaker at the Guildhall for ITV's 50th anniversary, with the Queen at the reception, was wonderful - and it was far removed from being a social worker in Lambeth and being threatened by one of my clients," she says. When she was based in one of the local hospitals, she was stalked by a disturbed woman. Her car was not safe in the street - and neither was Tessa. "I lived pretty much in a state of terror for nine months. One day she jumped on me from behind and got her hands round my neck and two nurses who were passing had to pull her off."

It was only when the client doused Tessa's office with petrol that the hospital authorities took action and the woman was sectioned. Two decades later, the newly elected Tessa Jowell MP was visiting a hostel in the constituency: "Suddenly I heard that voice. It was the first time for 20 years, but I started shaking."

Another strong memory remains with her: "To this day I can remember the cries of the first child I had to take into care. Years later I still felt appalled that at 22 I had been charged with this power. I can remember her cries as she was carried across the courtyard of the block of flats near the Oval. Her mother was a strange woman who used to lock her in a cupboard, sometimes for a whole weekend, but despite

my concerns for the child's safety I was struck by the fact that the bond of love and dependency was still strong."

Jowell worked with people who were poor, socially excluded, mentally ill and appallingly lonely. "They had a sense of existing only by virtue of decisions made by big organisations. I knew that I could do a lot to mitigate the day-to-day problems in people's lives but I also knew that most of the problems demanded the big solutions of government."

In government and Cabinet, she has been able to fly the flag for her previous occupation: "Social work is an abused profession and I hope that it will become a more self-confident profession. Most of the abuse is by people who will never have to seek the help of a social worker," she says.