A local authority plans to save £400,000 in 2017/18 by reducing the number of qualified social workers it employs by more than a third.
Barnet council is deleting 23 (36.8%) of its full-time equivalent adult social worker posts and replacing them with 17 assessment and enablement officers (AEOs), as part of a restructure that started in April this year. The changes apply to older people and disability teams.
There have been no redundancies and the changes have been managed through adjusting vacant posts. So far, six social work vacancies have been deleted, and 7.8 have become AEO posts. The remaining 9.2 posts will become AEO posts as and when social workers leave.
Council papers said changes to the “skills mix” of frontline staff was not unusual, and would align Barnet with many other local authorities.
However, union leaders strongly opposed the proposals and have claimed that staff are already struggling to manage an increase in workload.
Helen Davies, chair of the Barnet Unison branch, said: “We are now eight months into this arrangement and we know that colleagues are struggling.
“Social workers and AEOs are under strain due to an increase in the volume and complexity of work. This was not taken into account during the restructure. We now have a problem with people going off sick with stress.”
In a consultation document for staff, the council admitted that a reduction in posts was a risk to service delivery, but said the implementation of a new IT system should mitigate the impact.
An additional saving of £213,000 is earmarked for 2019/20, which is expected to come through the introduction of the Mosaic IT system.
Social workers are also expected to take on the supervision of up to one AEO as part of the restructure. Davies said this proposal “had much opposition across the board” because it would be in addition to social workers’ existing workloads.
Council papers published in February said this move would help “to share and develop skills across the service and provide development opportunities that will help with career progression”.
“Work is underway to scope the training and development requirements to support social workers in taking on this role and implementation will be sensibly phased throughout 2016/17,” the papers said.
Formal line management will remain with team leaders of lead practitioners under the plans.
‘No foreseeable impact’
Davies also expressed concern at the council’s plans to extend the reduction of qualified social work posts to mental health services.
“There is a lot of media attention on the poor access that people in mental health distress have to appropriate help. We do not think that reducing the numbers of qualified social workers will help one iota in dealing with this,” she said.
“Colleagues are going to struggle and it is debatable how helpful they will then be for their client group.”
Council papers stated that the mental health staffing efficiencies had been assessed as “having no foreseeable impact on service users”.
A spokesperson for the council said: “AEOs are able to carry out assessments, reviews and work in a preventative way with people who require services but they will not have the necessary qualifications to carry out complex casework.
“Our 115 qualified social care practitioners will still carry out work that requires specialist skills and intervention, or safeguarding work.
“All AEOs receive comprehensive training and professional supervision from a social work manager or lead practitioner so they have oversight of the level of suitability of casework.”