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revitaliseThe way forward for Scotland's Social Work

August 2004: UNISON is the union for social work and social care workers, representing the majority of the social care workforce in local authorities and the voluntary sector. This leaflet has been produced by UNISON's Social Work Issues Group which is made up of members working in social care.

It is UNISON members who care daily for the vulnerable in our communities; the elderly, the disabled, children and young adults, people with mental health difficulties and people with drug and alcohol problems. We also achieve amazing results by empowering many of these people to change their lives for the better.

However. we are also on the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse more than most other workers. It is we who struggle with a lack of resources and shortages of staff to deliver quality services. We are often on low wages and some of us need to work extra hours to make ends meet and keep services running.

It is also us, UNISON members in social care, who are blamed and criticised when things go wrong. When a vulnerable child, a disabled or older person is harmed, too many people in politics and the press use us as the scapegoat. And, yet, these people are never there to praise us when things go right.

Our union, UNISON, campaigns for an end to the crisis in social work and for a better future for social care workers, the services we deliver and the people we support.

The crisis in social work

UNISON has pointed out that the crisis in social work in Scotland is far wider than the shortage of qualified social workers (QSW).

Non-qualified social workers and social work assistants working in Community Care and Children and Family teams are increasingly used to cover the gaps created by the shortage of QSWs. This has meant them taking on more complex cases with no consequent increase in training or pay.

Many residential services are so inadequately staffed, that they are dependent upon extensive overtime working to maintain staff : resident ratios. There are high levels of absence as a result of stress and violence. Morale is low and resources stretched. In residential, day services and home care low wages create a difficulty in retaining staff.

The question of pay - to care or to stack shelves?

No one joined social work to earn big money. Throughout the workforce low pay is a fact. This is the case in local authorities, the voluntary and the private sector.

Social workers have watched as other professionals with similar training backgrounds like teachers and nurses have received consistently higher pay awards and can earn more money. Social care workers in residential and day care services regularly work constant overtime, sometimes to cover for unfilled vacancies, in order to earn a decent living.

Home helps, providing high level personal care, working shifts and weekends, earn wages that are often less than what is on offer in their local supermarket.

There is no question that social care work is undervalued in our society and by our employers.

UNISON has launched a pay claim for a £6 an hour minimum wage and a thousand pound flat rate rise for all staff in local authorities from April 1 2004 with a 5% pay rise the following year.

UNISON has agreed a method of job evaluation that, when implemented, will address the issue of equal pay for work of equal value within local authorities. The employers however, have delayed the introduction of this scheme. UNISON will fight to introduce this as soon as possible.

The response to the crisis

The Scottish Executive has established a National Task Force to look at a range of issues across social work. They have also sponsored the Association of Directors of Social Work's (ADSW) Supporting Frontline Workers initiative. UNISON welcomes these initiatives and will participate fully in their work.

However, at the same time social work continues to come under threat from the Government. Proposals to remove Criminal Justice Social Work services from councils to form a single agency with the Scottish Prison Service will have a serious impact on social work. Comments by Ministers that child protection needs to be sorted out "or else", only damages morale in the workforce.

Politicians and the media must recognise at the highest level the fact that we work with risk and give the corporate support and resources to do so.

There should be a consistent approach to inquiries, with a standing system that covers social work, health and police issues as well as resources. Inquiries should focus on lessons to be learned rather than a blame-based approach. Local authorities should also have defined investigation procedures.

The pay of social care staff is outwith the remit of the National Task Force. The responsibility for pay rests with the employers - COSLA, the 32 local authorities and the voluntary sector.

Attempts by the employers to compete with each other for QSWs through 'golden hellos' and 'handcuffs' whilst at the same time holding down the wages of the lowest paid staff will not resolve the recruitment and retention problems. Often where councils have increased pay, the money has come out of other existing services. Additional funding must be secured to pay all social care staff a wage that reflects the true value of their work.This is a national crisis and the Scottish Executive should be providing funds to address it.

The crisis for social workers

The shortage of qualified social workers has led to a crisis in child protection, unsustainable case loads and demoralised staff. Many experienced social workers have decided to leave the frontline leaving the high levels of stress for slightly better resourced areas.

The response from individual local authority employers has been to offer inducements to students to take jobs in their area (Golden Hellos), one-off payments to existing staff to stay in post for 3 years (Golden Handcuffs) or, in some cases, improving the grade of social workers. This means councils competing with each other for the scarce resource that social workers are.

There is also increasing use of non-qualified staff to do jobs previously done by QSWs. UNISON will continue to argue against this and for systems that ensure that only properly trained staff undertake complex work such as work with children, vulnerable adults and older people.

The Scottish Executive has introduced the "fast-track" scheme to enable graduates to train as social workers in under 2 years. They have launched publicity campaigns to attract young people. Unfortunately, while welcome, these will not address the current shortfall of hundreds of vacancies, never mind the anticipated departure of hundreds of social workers who are due to retire in the next 10 years.

We argue for an increase in the numbers of people being trained and for a scheme to allow more of the current unqualified staff to be "fast-tracked" to become qualified without needing to leave their job. Thousands of staff with years of experience, many with SVQs, HNCs or other qualifications should be given the support to become qualified social workers.We need work-based routes to learning, training and qualifications, including routes leading to QSW. These must be available to the whole workforce.

Violence - we don't have to take it

Many of our members face the threat of violence daily. Members have been punched, kicked, spat on, had their hair pulled, been threatened with knives, and bitten. Working in residential, day care, as a lone worker visiting service users' homes or sitting at a reception in a busy office can all be dangerous.

For too long employers have tolerated gross underreporting of the abuse. They must face up to their responsibilities.

UNISON members are not prepared to accept this as just a part of the job. We demand that proper risk assessments are undertaken, additional and more appropriate resources are made available and training is increased.

The Scottish Executive's proposed legislation on the protection of emergency workers does nothing to assist social care workers. UNISON argues that the scope of the legislation should be extended to include all public service workers.

UNISON has produced a number of guides on health and safety at work, including:- Handling Stress; Workplace Violence; A guide to Risk Assessment etc. These are available from local UNISON branches and from the address below.

Registration of the workforce

UNISON welcomes moves towards regulating and registering the social care workforce. This will enhance the quality of the services we provide and raise the value of our skills.

The Scottish Executive proposes to register the title of 'Social Worker', making it illegal for anyone not so registered to describe themselves as one. This should mean more than just a qualification, and should also define the specific tasks that should only be carried out by properly qualified and registered social workers.

For large sections of the workforce, to register will require enormous investment in training to achieve the necessary qualifications. Many of our members have had little opportunity to study or train since they began working in social care. For some the task of achieving an SVQ and HNC is quite daunting. That is why UNISON launched the Return-to Learn (R2L) courses. These are designed to introduce members to learning, developing skills and building confidence.

Employers need to put in place the necessary resources, including replacement costs, to allow staff to study and achieve the required qualifications. UNISON has made contributions to this and we will continue to press the employers - in line with their responsibilities outlined in the Scottish Social Services Council's code of Practice for Employers - and the Executive to ensure that all staff are able to achieve registration.

Registration of the workforce is not the same as the professional registration of nurses, teachers and occupational therapists. All staff in social care will require to be registered in order to work in the sector. This is why UNISON has argued that the employer should pay the annual registration fee and 3-yearly disclosure fee. We will continue to press both CoSLA and local councils on this issue.

The threat to Criminal Justice Social Work

The Scottish Executive has launched a consultation on the future of Criminal Justice services including Social Work services in this field. They have talked of a "single agency" and a "single approach" to tackle the problem of re-offending.

UNISON welcomes an examination of the issues surrounding re-offending and the development of community based alternatives to prison. In fact UNISON members in this field are involved in some of the best initiatives to address these issues.These include intensive work with offenders with alcohol and drug problems, diversionary youth work and programmes working to address offending behaviour.

We argue that additional resources should be directed at providing suitable alternative options for the courts. Criminal Justice social workers alongside other professionals would then be able to use their skills working with offenders to address their offending behaviour.

But we are clear that the removal of Criminal Justice Social Work from local authorities to place them in a "single agency", a quango with the Scottish Prison Service, would do nothing to address these issues. It is likely to diminish the ability of social work to make a contribution to the issue. Individual social workers are likely to opt to stay in local authorities, further undermining the aim of addressing re-offending.

Please see UNISON's response to the Justice 1 Committee on these proposals for more. www.unison-scotland.org.uk/response/rehabevid.html

Continuing the pressure

UNISON Scotland will continue to press the Scottish Executive and the employers to take appropriate action on the issues in Social Work. This will require additional resources, support and training for staff. Pay will need to be improved across the sector.

The Social Work Issues Group would welcome any comments from members on any of the issues above.

Please send them to the address below.

For further Information, or to join the union that fights for Scotland's Social Work service and those who deliver them please contact Joe Di Paola, Scottish Organiser (Local Government), UNISON, 60 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3UQ. Tel 0845 355 0845.

Keep up to date with the campaign, and with UNISON's briefings, press releases and comments on government proposals by checking the UNISONScotland website.