The idea of reinforcements would probably be music to the ears
of mental health staff, community mental health teams and approved
social workers everywhere. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any area
of social care in which a few extra pairs of hands would not be
In mental health, the increasing pressures of community
treatment and the shift of emphasis in policy towards public
protection have all contributed to the demands of the job.
So the final report from the workforce action team into the
mental health national service framework has much in its favour. It
recommends the creation of “support, time, recovery workers” – or
STRs for short – who would form a new layer of unqualified staff
providing companionship and practical support to mental health
In giving much-needed additional support to hard-pressed social
workers, the envisaged role of STRs certainly has its attractions.
But there are also drawbacks of a more insidious kind and it is as
well to be aware of them.
The main drawback is the somewhat fuzzy boundary that marks off
tasks requiring qualified professionals from those that do not. It
opens up the possibility that, little by little, unqualified staff
will end up carrying out tasks formerly regarded as the undisputed
domain of qualified staff. The net effect of this could be that,
far from gaining the additional support it so badly needed, the
overall workforce will merely become deskilled.
There are similar concerns in nursing, where there is the
prospect of a new breed of auxiliary health care assistants, and
the growing reliance on procedures and “checklists” has given rise
to corresponding worries in social work more generally.
As the scope for procedures and checklists is widened, so the
scope for professional judgement is narrowed. Skilled social
workers need support, but they do not want to be superseded.
Right to arbitrate
The move by local government employers to make it more difficult
to end a pay dispute by arbitration is another attempt to erode
social workers’ employment rights.
If unions have to secure the agreement of employers before Acas
can become involved it seriously weakens their position. If a pay
offer is fair then what have the Employers’ Organisation to fear
from independent settlement of a row?
Unison is right to object even though it has never used a clause
in the national agreement to invoke arbitration. If pay
negotiations reach a stalemate, then it is a fair way of resolving
the situation. If the unilateral right to call in arbitration is
lost, surely industrial action by frustrated employees is made more
likely, and that will be bad for service users.
News of this proposal from the employers comes shortly after
Community Care revealed that the British Association of Social
Workers is not recognised by five local authorities. Over-worked
social care staff need their case to be made forcefully and that
right must be upheld.