Service users are helping to shape the social work degree course at Havering College. Their input is far from a marginal afterthought, says Pam Hutton
The General Social Care Council’s decision to put service users and carers at the heart of its new social work degree programme is a welcome initiative in the campaign to make health and social care services more responsive to the views of those who use their services.
In response, Havering College took the unusual step of funding a specific post to facilitate the process, with help from the London Borough of Havering, and recruited a service user.
In trying to make participation a reality, Havering has adopted the policy of addressing the needs of each stakeholder group and examining the possible barriers to facilitate a frank discussion of how they might be tackled. Service users and carers were of course top of the list and an event was held to launch the programme at which individuals were invited to discuss their ideas and any concerns they might have.
The views of users and carers have framed the participation programme from its inception. Values and principles that govern the programme were established and the importance of training, continuing support and regular feedback acknowledged.
Training workshops have been offered, support groups arranged and a newsletter produced to keep people in touch with progress. Monitoring and evaluation is continuing and service users and carers are regularly given the chance to offer feedback and contribute ideas on how the programme can develop.
In addition, workshops in community settings were offered to practice learning staff to prepare for user involvement. It was important to address anxieties and explore strategies to ensure that users and carers are involved in every aspect of a student’s practice learning opportunity.
Service users and carers are now involved in selection, assessment, teaching sessions, practice learning and programme management. Student feedback has been positive with individuals emphasising the value of service users’ comments and willingness to share aspects of their own experience.
Service users and carers have also given positive feedback. As well as enjoying their involvement, it has also been a meaningful activity. One foster carer commented that the opportunity to have an input and help students to be aware of the impact they have on people’s lives had been beneficial to both sides.
A service user described one discussion as ”enlightening” as it was the first event where he had the chance to have any input into how the course could be developed to better understand the needs of users with mental health needs.
Another commented that their sense of self-worth had increased dramatically since becoming involved. But perhaps the most telling comment on the success of the programme came from a telephone call from a service user asking whether I thought it was “a mad idea” for her to apply to train as a social worker.
The programme is constantly developing and expanding as users and carers become more knowledgeable about the course and gain in confidence. However, one issue continues to cause problems and could threaten the success of the programme and others like it – the question of payment.
This dilemma has plagued service users for some time. Paying the market rate for a service shows an individual that their contribution is valued. Conversely, skirting around the issue by paying in vouchers or only offering travel expenses carries the opposite message. The college has a budget for paying users and carers and wanted to pay them on parity with other staff engaged in the same task. But most participants are on benefits, which causes complications.
Jobcentre Plus considers that if payment is given they become employees subject to employment legislation and rules on permitted work. Any attempt to prevent exploitation of users is laudable but the implications of this policy are far-reaching.
Service providers and higher education institutes can find themselves in danger of prosecution if they do not offer contracts of employment and deduct national insurance and tax from any money paid to users on benefits. But if they set up a payment system through their payroll departments, users will almost certainly desert involvement programmes in droves because of the time taken to process payments. Also, few human resources directors are likely to welcome giving employment rights to individuals who might have a financial claim against the organisation.
Users also fear undertaking permitted work in case it leads to being assessed for work that doesn’t suit them and possible loss of benefits.
All government departments seem to have made the assumption that as there are only two categories – employed and unemployed – then involvement, a new activity, must fit into one. A possible solution might be a new third category – permitted activity. Individuals on benefit could undertake a limited number of hours activity and be paid up to a specified limit without it affecting any benefit they are receiving or precipitating a capacity for work assessment. This activity could specifically be excluded from employment law and not incur national insurance payments. It could underline for Jobcentre Plus staff that involvement is definitely not work.
It would simplify the payments system for service providers and higher education institutes and reassure participants that it is safe to become involved. As a service user who has relatively recently returned to work after several years on incapacity benefit, I can empathise with other users’ fears about doing anything that might endanger their benefits.
Paradoxically, this type of permitted activity can improve self-esteem and enhance users’ abilities to secure employment when they feel able to return to work. But the system as it stands discourages them from becoming involved.
Ministers claim credit for their policies on involvement but have made no attempt to address the problems of how to reimburse users and carers for their valuable contribution. This inevitably leads one to question the level of their commitment to the process and I fear that, unless this situation is addressed urgently, users and carers will remain sceptical and suspect that their involvement is merely tokenistic.
Pam Hutton is a service user, chair of Havering Mind, a qualified counsellor and has worked in human resources. She currently works at Havering College of Further and Higher Education where she facilitates the service user participation element of the BA (Hons) in social work.
Training and learning
This article looks at implementing service user participation in social work training and the way in which one higher education institute has endeavoured to avoid the pitfalls of tokenism and achieve meaningful participation. It also explores the difficulties around payments for services users which may affect their entitlement to benefits.
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