Funding cuts and increased workload can make it difficult for social care professionals to maintain their duty of care to service users. Gordon Carson investigates the practical steps staff can take to be guardians of safe, effective services
It is becoming clearer by the day that social care workers feel service cuts will prevent them from providing the best care possible to vulnerable people. More than four in five respondents to a Community Care child protection survey believed thresholds to access services had increased in the past year, while one said cuts that left phones unanswered and messages unchecked were “dangerous”.
The General Social Care Council’s code of practice states that registered social workers have a duty to protect service users from harm, and should tell their employer or an “appropriate authority” when the practice of colleagues may be unsafe or affect standards of care.
But what if the actions of the employer itself are viewed as placing service users at risk? As a regulatory body, the GSCC says it “cannot interfere in the relationship between the registrant and their employer”. Anyone who feels they are being asked to do something that brings them into conflict with their obligations under the code of practice is “best advised to seek the support of their union or professional body”.
It may be even more difficult for lower-paid social care workers, without the status of a registered professional, to challenge their employers’ decisions.
To help workers in this position, Unison has produced a “duty of care” handbook for those looking to question and challenge unsafe practice. This should not be confused with the legal concept of “duty of care”, which has specific meaning in social care (see below).
Unison’s Scotland office has also produced a guide to keeping safe at work for social work practitioners, in conjunction with the Scottish Association of Social Work.
The Unison handbook highlights the impact of excessive workloads, changes to services, inappropriate delegation of tasks or poor health and safety practice.
Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social work, hopes it will encourage social care workers to challenge decisions they feel will place service users at risk.
“There’s a collective way to challenge decisions, particularly for workers who don’t have a professional code of practice – those staff find it particularly difficult,” she says.
“A lot of management style is focused on process, so even trying to get the opportunity to raise these issues can be difficult when supervision is based on output or the number of visits you have to make.”
Unison’s handbook has been endorsed by the Health Professions Council, which is to take over the GSCC’s regulatory responsibilities for social workers in 2012, though earlier this year health secretary Andrew Lansley ruled out extending compulsory registration through the HPC to other groups of social care staff in England.
In the introduction to the handbook, HPC chief executive Marc Seale says it is a “useful accompaniment” to his organisation’s guidelines on raising concerns, which will apply to registered social workers from April 2012.
At a local level, Unison branches are also challenging council decisions on the basis that they could leave service users in danger.
Steve Torrance, Unison’s regional organiser for Yorkshire and Humberside, has written to Hull Council chief executive Nicola Yates warning that redundancies and service cuts could leave Hull open to a tragedy on the scale of the death of Victoria Climbié.
“Staff have real and genuine concerns that proposed cuts will result in remaining staff having an increased and unmanageable workload,” he wrote in March.
Hull’s own business case assessment for the restructuring of children and young people’s services, which estimates up to 677 jobs could be lost and outlines a move to integrated local area teams, sates that a “reduced level of resourcing for intensive social care may result in increased workloads”.
However, a Hull Council spokesperson says there will be “no less social workers in our new structure”. The locality model is “designed to bring support functions together to provide a more effective ‘whole family’ approach with more focus on prevention”, and the council “remains committed to supporting the most vulnerable children”.
Hull is not likely to be the only area of the country where these types of issues are being addressed, and social care workers may increasingly find they have difficult decisions to make in balancing employers’ demands with their caring responsibilities.
The legal duty of care
Ed Mitchell, a solicitor and editor of Social Care Law Today, says the Unison handbook shows how social care workers can comply with their professional obligations in challenging times.
However, the legal duty of care has a more specific meaning. “This is a device that identifies relationships which, if breached, allow compensation to be sought, under the branch of law called ‘negligence’,” says Mitchell.
In child protection, the courts have held that a child left in an abusive situation can sue a local authority for breaching a duty of care, if they should have been removed had social workers followed reasonable practice. But, when conducting investigations, child protection professionals do not owe a legal duty of care to parents suspected of child abuse.