‘If you put your head above the parapet, you’re likely to get shot’

Social work whistle-blowers describe a ‘culture of fear’ around raising practice concerns

Photo: chhotray/flickr

Attitudes to whistle-blowing in local authorities are characterised by a “culture of fear”, a social work whistle-blower has said in response to the results of Community Care’s survey.

An online survey of 327 social workers conducted by Community Care showed 58% have witnessed unethical practice and over half have witnessed dangerous systems in their workplace. Almost three-quarters had no effective action taken after raising concerns.

Fears of repercussions

Martin Morton, a social worker  who blew the whistle on the £240,000 overcharging of vulnerable adults for rented accommodation by Wirral council, said Community Care’s survey backed up his own experience of whistle-blowing.

In 2012, the British Association of Social Workers carried out a piece of research that found almost half of social workers wouldn’t raise concerns because they feared repercussions.  Although most councils now have a policy to protect whistle-blowers, and social workers’ code of practice obligates them to highlight concerns,  Morton said little had changed since then.

“I think in years to come we’re going to get more historical abuse cases coming out, because nothing seems to have changed in terms of whistleblowing,” he said.

“A lot of people who work in social care get in touch with me, desperate to find out how to whistle-blow and how to whistle-blow safely, and I can’t really reassure them.”

A higher profile in training

Morton was forced to resign and was unemployed for two and a half years after he blew the whistle on his employer’s financial mismanagement.

He added that there should be a higher profile given to how to whistle-blow safely in social work training, and there should be consequences for managers who don’t respond appropriately to concerns raised by social workers.

“Whistle-blowing needs to be re-branded and seen as part of safeguarding,” he said.

Part of safeguarding

“If people don’t feel safe to raise concerns in social care, it’s a worry because the results of people not speaking up can be catastrophic for vulnerable people.”

Malcolm King, a Wrexham councillor who was fired from his position as lead member for raising concerns about social work caseloads, described a similar situation.

Empty words

“What I’ve come to see in the last 25 years or more is – if you put your head above the parapet, you’re likely to get shot.”

“I’ve taken heart in recent years from the institution of whistle-blowing policies, but in so many cases they are empty words,” he said.

“The evidence seems to show that most organisations hate whistle-blowers and their natural inclination is always to cover up mistakes and inadequacies, whatever they say publicly.

“I do believe the first responsibility of any civilised society is to protect its most vulnerable members, and we are clearly failing to do that.”

Unison national officer Matthew Egan said many social care employers had an unhealthy attitude towards whistle-blowing, and encouraged union involvement in these situations.

“The union can speak up about concerns as an organisation, and this offers individuals protection.”

Whistle-blowing charity, Public Concern at Work (PCAW), said the proportion of Community Care’s survey respondents saying they had witnessed malpractice was high compared with the average of one in 10 they recorded.

PCAW director of policy Francesca West said despite a high proportion of their callers coming from caring professions, such as health and education, they did not receive many calls from social workers- around 30 in 2000 callers last year.

If in doubt, seek advice

“There seems to be a lower awareness of what support might be out there in that sector,” she said.

“Managers aren’t offered support to deal with these concerns, Most people will raise concerns with their line managers, so we tell organisations they can’t just have a few high-level people with training. It needs to cascade down.”

She advised social workers to seek advice, if in doubt.

“The more support you can have, the better,” she said.

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One Response to ‘If you put your head above the parapet, you’re likely to get shot’

  1. Vanessa1 January 20, 2015 at 8:46 am #

    I agree with the article since I have first hand knowledge of whistle blowing. I was a Locum Social Worker in a Local Authority. I enjoyed my work and after 15yrs of being a locum I was in the process of applying for the permanent position. However, as a result of speaking out I was forced to leave my job. I was disappointed since I was commended privately then vilified publically. Management forget the power they wield mainly in their mouth, body language and actions. The loose mouth was in my case very hurtful since it is often things said from one person to another so not directly that caused others to behave differently towards me. Also managers have the power to make or break you in relation to caseloads, support, case direction etc so the whole idea of whistle blowing is not as simple as it may seem rather it extends much further. Unfortunately I approached a reputable social work association for advice but the advice given was so poor that I felt completely alone. There needs to be an independent organisation (accountable directly to the government) that has some teeth that will investigate individual whistle blowing claims and pass the information on to OFSTED for them to consider when investigating.