By Martin Morton
When Community Care wanted to revisit the topic of whistleblowing within social care, I was informed by the journalist reporting that, as a social worker who was prepared to speak openly about my experience, I was a rare case. The resulting report’s title said it all: “Fear of bullying prevents social workers from whistleblowing”.
Now following the harrowing revelations of child abuse and exploitation in Rotherham, it appears to me from reading the Jay report that whistleblowing remains anathema within social care.
Findings from the report that “the environment at the council was described as macho, sexist and bullying” and “within social care the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers” were infuriatingly familiar.
What struck me, as these type of revelations always do, is how Rotherham Council and other agencies involved in safeguarding vulnerable children managed to keep serious concerns hidden for so long, when it was clear that many social workers and their managers knew there was a serious issue of abuse, and had known for a very long time.
As sure as night follows day, I discovered that Unison had made claims of widespread bullying within the social services department of Rotheram council in 2010. A survey by the union shows that 75% of its members thought bullying in their department was a “serious” or “very serious” problem.
As this publication wrote in 2012: “Despite the existence of laws designed to protect those who speak out against malpractice, whistleblowers still risk their careers by doing the right thing.”
“On one hand social workers are bound by their professional code of conduct to protect service users, but on the other some employers and organisations use the unspoken threat of personal and professional ruin to keep them schtum.”
In the face of savage cuts to services, I can’t think of a profession that needs to whistleblow more – especially about the impact on the most vulnerable people in our communities and the risks to health, wellbeing and indeed lives. However the issue of bullying is only part of the answer to the question: “why don’t social workers whistleblow?”.
Is it because social workers are not listened to or because they don’t whistleblow loudly or shrill enough?
Might it have something to do with the fact that social work training steers away from the controversial but absolutely vital area of how to safely raise concerns?
Or is it that some of our institutions are now so fundamentally broken that social workers’ ability to speak up to those in power, in the name of protecting children and safeguarding vulnerable adults, is now fatally compromised?
I believe there was an opportunity to raise some of these – admittedly big – questions with the setting up of an independent review “Whistleblowing in the NHS” chaired by Sir Robert Francis QC. The review intends to provide independent advice and recommendations to ensure that:
- NHS workers can raise concerns in the public interest with confidence that they will not suffer detriment as a result
- Appropriate action is taken when concerns are raised by NHS workers
- Where NHS whistleblowers are mistreated, those mistreating them will be held to account.
It is significant that this review only came about as a result of sustained lobbying by high profile NHS whistleblowers.
It is also significant that social care is excluded from this review.
In consideration of reports emanating from Rotherham, Rochdale and other places the fact that the review does not consider whistleblowing issues relating to social care is, regrettably, not only a missed opportunity but an extremely telling statement of the way social care remains the “poor relation” of healthcare.
Martin Morton is a social worker who blew the whistle on the overcharging of disabled adults in Wirral council and was forced to resign.