Budget cuts are harming relationships between social workers and service users to the detriment of the quality of support people receive.
That was among the warnings of a report from service user network Shaping Our Lives to inform the Health and Care Professions Council’s review of its standards of proficiency for social workers. The standards set requirements of social workers registering with the HCPC.
The HCPC commissioned Shaping Our Lives to review the standards from the perspective of service users and carers; the network carried out research with users and carers, including some who had been involved in social work education, and also social work students.
Among the key findings was that participants felt cuts were undermining relationships between social workers and service users.
Participants said that positive and equal relationships between social workers and service users, based on trust, mutual understanding and good communication, were a key factor in people receiving good support, but warned that this was being undermined by service reductions.
No time to talk
“The key impact of cuts was that practitioners haven’t got the time now to spend talking to people or even going to see them,” said Becki Meakin, general manager of Shaping Our Lives and co-author of the report. “Now a lot of assessments are done over the phone so there isn’t an opportunity to develop an honest and trustworthy relationship.”
Service users and carers also reported the detrimental impact of having multiple changes of social worker. Based on participants’ views, the Shaping Our Lives report said that poor relationships between social workers and service users were related to:
- Practical problems, for example, social workers making mistakes in recording information, or communicating inappropriately or inconsistently;
- Attitudinal problems, such as not valuing the service user’s experience or perceived breaches of confidentiality.
The HCPC standards currently require social workers to practice legally and ethically, including by recognising that “relationships with service users should be based on respect and honesty” and by recognising the power dynamics within such relationships and managing these appropriately (standard 2).
They also require social workers to practice in a non-discriminatory manner (standard 6), maintain confidentiality (standard 7), communicate effectively (standard 8), work appropriately with others, including service users (standard 9), and maintain records appropriately (standard 10).
The report made a number of recommendations to strengthen the standards, including that:
- The importance of honesty, transparency and consistency is reflected in the standard on working appropriately with service users and carers (standard 9).
- Practitioners be required to understand the theory of service user and carer involvement and co-production to promote equal relationships between people and their social workers.
- Service user feedback should be part of reflective supervision, in relation to standard 11 (being able to reflect on and review practice).
Revising the standards
The HCPC is due to consult on revising the standards shortly. However, it is not clear what impact the government’s recently announced plans to establish a new body to take over social work standards and professional regulation from the HCPC will have on the standards of proficiency.