Needs assessments, housing claims, benefit problems, children with behavioural issues… these are the staple diet of a social worker. But they are also familiar territory to ward councillors, the 21,000-strong army of local government activists.
“Many people who come to me with their problems regard me as a kind of halfway house,” says Sarah Richardson, a Conservative councillor in Westminster “They may feel intimidated by the prospect of approaching social services and going through all the checks and formalities. I’m still part of the council but I’m also right there in their community and they feel they can talk to me.”
Richardson is a cabinet member for children’s services and a councillor in the Churchill ward of Westminster, where 60% of the people are from ethnic minorities. Her ward covers three major housing estates, which sit alongside row upon row of expensive, privately-owned Georgian town houses. She holds bi-monthly surgeries that give residents the opportunity to meet their councillor and discuss their concerns.
“Some people who come to see us already have social workers or are known to the council in some way,” says Richardson. “But there are lots of others who are on the cusp, who perhaps should be receiving more services but are not aware of their rights.
“They see us as their first port of call. This is helped by the fact that I live in the community and I’ve been a councillor for five years. We often know the same people and they feel more comfortable telling me things than a more impersonal department.”
Rob Banks, a Liberal Democrat councillor for the Oval ward in Lambeth, sees the full gamut of human experience at his weekly surgeries. He recently spoke to a man who was on the run from his wife’s family and was sleeping rough.
Ensuring fair treatment
“Because I know how the council works and whom to speak to, I was able to pick up the phone and arrange shelter for him,” Banks says. “I certainly can’t solve every problem. But I can try to ensure people are fairly and adequately treated by the council.”
Other cases Banks has dealt with involve housing issues, residents being kept awake by loud music, and an older resident being stung by a large Supporting People bill from the council.
“Most people who come to see me have already been down the council service route and have not been satisfied with the response and they’re not sure where to turn next,” he says. “As an opposition member, I don’t have a huge amount of power. But I can get the council to look again at a decision they’ve made or get them to review a case.”
So how does a hard-working councillor, often juggling a full-time job in addition to their civic duties, prioritise their work when confronted with aggrieved residents? And do their actions help or hinder local social workers, who may already be struggling with large caseloads and insufficient resources?
Roger Thistle, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Sutton, south London, and former chair of the council’s social services committee, says: “Almost everyone has an aunt or a granny who needs more care than they are receiving. The question is whether we can stretch existing resources to meet everyone’s needs. You have to have a system of prioritisation and work with a variety of other agencies, which can provide another level of support to residents.
“The point about being a councillor is we are there as representatives and lay people. We are not experts. What we need to be skilled at when faced with a person in need is acknowledging their issues and then knowing exactly where to go to get them practical help.”
To this end, Sutton Council has established a complaints officer post. This person is equipped to receive complaints about council services and act on them.
“It’s also good for councillors because we have someone to refer to who we know will ensure that people get dealt with fairly,” says Thistle. “It also takes it out of the realms of politics, because if you are a councillor of an opposition party you may otherwise not have as much clout and the way you relate to council services may be shaped by your party’s views.”
Richardson adds: “It’s not a case of me running to social services each time someone comes to me with a problem. But if I have a genuine concern that, say, a child or family are in real trouble then I will pick up the phone.
“The caseload of social workers is huge. So if I can give them some information that they wouldn’t otherwise get so they can intervene and prevent problems becoming too serious, then that’s a positive thing. I’m like an extra pair of eyes and ears.”
Banks insists that this doesn’t necessarily have to result in councillors encroaching on social workers’ territory.
“Of course there is an overlap in our roles in terms of the people who seek our help,” he says. “But I’m always conscious that I’m a layman and social workers are the professionals. They are more than able to do the daily work. But we’re there to draw certain things to their attention that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. If I have a concern, I normally take it up directly with a line manager in social services.”
Most councillors understand their limitations in terms of their social work remit. But the same cannot always be said of residents, many of whom have unrealistic expectations of elected members, says John Longsden, Labour councillor for the Bradford ward in Manchester.
“Unfortunately a lot of people come to us at the 11th hour, when they’re receiving warning letters or eviction notices,” says Longsden. “That means we’re limited in what we can do to help.
“Often it’s the very people who need our help most who least understand the role or powers of a councillor. Ideally, the sequence should be that a person first seeks help from the local authority service and, if they’re still dissatisfied, then they should approach their local councillor.
“We can make sure they are getting their rightful entitlement and establish whether they’ve been given correct information. But we need time to do that and also don’t want to be faced with exaggerated expectations of what we can achieve.”
Being a voluntary role with only expenses paid, the service a resident receives from their councillor is also mainly down to the work ethic of the individual involved and there is little by way of uniformity.
“A lot of being a councillor is what you make of it,” says Banks. “There’s a legal minimum we’re expected to fulfil, like attending a set number of meetings. But beyond that it’s a case of how hard you feel you have to work.
“But, obviously, how much or how little you do is likely to have an impact on your chances of re-election.”
This article appeared in the 25 October under the headline “Doing their bit”