Date: Wed 17 June 2009
UNISON, the UK's largest public sector union, today accused council bosses of "covering up" the true extent of social work vacancies across the country and the risk that poses.
A Freedom of Information request to all local authorities in the UK has shown vacancy rates topping danger levels of 39% with a UK average of 12%. Councils have consistently claimed that social work vacancies are falling, but the statistics show that the true picture is much bleaker.
In Scotland, six councils exceed the UK average. In Scottish Borders, almost a quarter (24.06%) of social work posts are vacant. This is followed by Inverclyde (20.8%), West Dunbartonshire (19.6%), Falkirk (15%), Highland (13.1%) and West Lothian (12%).
Speaking at the union's National Delegate Conference in Brighton, where the survey findings were announced, Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON, said:
"Social workers are battling against the odds to protect our young children and vulnerable adults. How can they deliver a safe and effective service when vacancy rates are hitting in excess of 20% in so many parts of the country? Councils should not bury their heads in the sand and try and cover up the problem. This situation is no good for social workers and it’s no good for their clients who desperately need help."
UNISON is demanding urgent action to attract new staff into social work and to stem the stream of workers leaving the profession by making working conditions more bearable. This means that councils must ensure that they not only fill vacancies but reassess the number of staff needed to cover the high volume of work. Without such measures the union is warning that there is a very real possibility of another tragedy like baby P.
Most councils turn to agency staff in an effort to plug the gap but this just brings with it other problems. One of the prime reasons people choose agency working is for the flexibility it affords. That same flexibility can be a real headache for managers who need to be able to plan and allocate case work, ensure continuity for clients and build trust in the relationship
It takes time for new agency workers to pick up complex work and when they leave even more time is needed to pass that work on to their colleagues. In addition social work teams complain that money is tight which leads to agency workers being forced to leave at short notice.
Dave Prentis added:
"We are in the middle of a serious recruitment and retention crisis. Social workers are under pressure from all sides. We need action now to attract more people into the job and stem the flow of workers leaving. Councils need urgent action plans and to work with central government and unions to plug the gaps, before we have another tragedy like baby P."
Notes for Editors:
1. UNISON Scotland and the British Association of Social Workers will be launching a Social Work Manifesto for members in Scotland next week.
2. UNISON’s UK action plan includes:
* A planned programme of investment so that more social workers can be employed, with better pay and working conditions, better support systems and the right tools for the job.
* A Revival of Qualify-on-the- Job Schemes which fund social work assistants, care managers and other workers to gain their social work qualification while in the council’s employment
* National Standards on Acceptable Caseloads enforced through the inspection process and regularly audited by the council or Trust leadership, with sanctions against employers who breach the Code of Practice for Social Care Employers.
* A Cull of Red Tape: a root and branch zero-based review of all bureaucracy and consideration of measures used to cut red tape in schools. Overhaul of performance indicators which skew priorities.
* Better Support and More Reflective Practice: consistent, high quality supervision that is both supportive and challenging, focuses on the needs of the worker, not the organisation’s performance indicators and builds in time for reflection and mentoring.
* Measures to Rebuild Morale, Confidence and Status of Social Workers: redress the devastating drop in morale through a sustained campaign to promote positive public awareness about what social work achieves.