Growing Crisis in Social Work

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2009 Local Government Service Group Conference
13 June 2009
Carried as Amended

Conference notes with alarm the mounting pressures on social workers and condemns the witch-hunts and vilification against social workers waged by parts of the media. They ignore the facts and the pressures in favour of finding easy targets to blame. Both Government and Opposition politicians have equally cynically fuelled the media campaign, often in direct contravention of principles of natural justice and employment law. As a result, despite the very loud and public calls for accountability, there has, in fact, been no accountability in this case. These responses serve only to exacerbate the situation with a direct result that children are left at greater risk

Conference believes that social workers do a vital job – keeping tens of thousands of children, adults and families safe and well every year. But social workers alone cannot eradicate all of society’s complex ills.

This conference welcomes the various UNISON responses to the aftermath of the death of ‘Baby P’ and to the second Laming inquiry. The deaths of children in Haringey, Doncaster, Manchester and elsewhere have highlighted the serious pressures on social workers struggling to cope with the effects of under-resourcing, restructuring, fragmentation and an overreliance on the use of agency workers.

As a result some authorities are taking short term emergency measures redeploying other practitioners such as Education Welfare Officers into child protection roles. They have also raised more questions about the damaging effects of the splitting up of social services in England between children’s and adults. While these responses focus primarily on children’s services in England and the legal context – for example, the Children’s Hearing system, is different in Scotland, conference believes that many of the problems identified are common across the UK.

UNISON’s December 2008 survey of members working on the front-line in children’s social work across the UK revealed the failure of governments and of local employers to ensure safe working practices and to give social workers the tools they need to do the job.

This Conference notes with concern the continuing chronic under funding of children’s services, both locally and nationally. In 2006/2007 Scottish local authorities spent an average of 70% over the Scottish Government’s Grant Aided Expenditure on children’s services. This has not changed since the ‘concordat’ and in areas like Edinburgh and Aberdeen the pressures on funding have hugely increased. The governments efficiency savings and cuts exercises over the past few years and the significant cuts in public spending in the coming years will have enormous impact on communities and families therefore increasing the demands for social work services at the same time as resources for these services will be cut.

Unacceptable heavy case load pressures mean that the assessment of need and to act in the prime interests of children is being put secondary to decisions of available financial resources. While members in our survey reported some positive progress on inter-agency working, three-quarters said that their caseloads were higher than in 2003 when the Laming Inquiry report on the death of Victoria Climbie was published. Nearly 60% said untrained or inexperienced staff were more likely to be doing complex child protection work than in 2003 and half said that resources for children’s social services were now worse than in 2003. In many councils social work staff are increasingly being expected to provide a business support service as well as a social work service hence cutting the available time to actually see vulnerable children. Services are effectively rationed either by limiting access to services to only the most critical, reducing times of home care visits, operating waiting lists for services, etc.

There are unrealistically low staffing levels and continuing vacancies. In real terms, front-line qualified staff in children and families social work has been cut in some areas despite the increased pressures and expectations on social work. The 2008 survey of UNISON members across local government found that social workers work the longest hours in local government after managers, experience some of the highest stress, workload pressures and staff shortages in local government, and are among the worst affected by abuse and violence at work.

Staff shortages in social work have been compounded by excessive bureaucracy and form-filling requirements and, in children’s services, by the serious deficiencies of the Integrated Children’s System. Furthermore social workers report the damaging impact of rigid performance indicators which measure times and processes rather than the quality of social work outcomes and at the expense of direct service-user contact. The problem is increased by the chronic lack of admin support.

The Scottish Social Services Council concentrates on sanctions against practitioners while failing to exercise any meaningful sanctions related to its other duty of ensuring employers deliver on their side of the codes of conduct, including providing adequate resources.

Conference recognises that social work services are facing a crisis and that UNISON must play a key role to confront this.

This conference also believes that it is in the public interest for these concerns to be highlighted publicly.

We welcome the efforts of the UK Social Care Forum, Scottish Social Work Issues Group and the various regional fora to ensure that members are aware of the issues and that the UK, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments are aware of our members concerns.

Conference calls on the SGE to work with the social care forum, Scottish social work issues group and regional fora to:

1)Develop a campaign for a better deal for social workers – better pay and safer working conditions, reduced workloads with enough staff and the right tools to do the job – including fit-for-purpose IT systems and proper admin support

2)Lobby and campaign for UK governments and local authorities for increased funding for adequate resourcing of social work teams, and support branches campaigning against cuts in social services.

3) Mount a continuing campaign to expose the resource crisis in children’s services that owns up to the problem and sets out a plan to invest in front-line children and families social work, involving research into staffing, caseloads and practices that recognises the complexity of the task and real time required to fulfil the task. Regular publicity on the issue to ensure the public and decision makers are made aware of the seriousness of the situation.

4)Campaign against job cuts in social work and for clear role definitions and fair pay and conditions for all members of social work teams who work with social workers.

5)Campaign for the reforms to working practices in children’s social work contained in UNISON’s 10-point plan