Social work in 2016: a review of the year

Community Care looks back at some of the key events from the past year

Picture: Web Buttons Inc/fotolia
Picture: Web Buttons Inc/fotolia

January

Then Prime Minister David Cameron and education secretary Nicky Morgan (London News Pictures/REX/Shutterstock)

The reform programme was set in track by David Cameron and Nicky Morgan (London News Pictures/REX/Shutterstock)

In a shock move the government declares it will remove social worker regulation from the HCPC’s remit and set up a new body to take on the job from 2018. The HCPC claims it was given less than 30 minutes’ notice of the announcement.

The wide-ranging reform package, led by education secretary Nicky Morgan and championed by Prime Minister David Cameron, also promises councils ‘academy-style freedoms’ to innovate in children’s services, reveals all children’s social workers will face a pass or fail accreditation test by 2020 and commits £100m in funding for fast-track social work training schemes.

It’s a bleaker picture for traditional social work degrees as Community Care reveals their funding has dropped 30% in the past three years and the government is considering scrapping social work bursaries entirely. There’s worrying signs for social workers new to the job too as an investigation reveals some councils are failing to offer protected caseloads under the ASYE scheme.

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February

Picture: Gary Brigden

Picture: Gary Brigden

In a sign of things to come the government faces heat over funding for social services as local authority chiefs warn extra council tax raising powers won’t raise enough to plug a funding gap in adult social care. In response to similar concerns surrounding children’s services, ministers claim there is no correlation between spending and outcomes.

A service user group in Norfolk produces a dossier of the impact adult care cuts are having locally. The group accuses the local council of ‘disregarding’ legal duties under the Care Act and calls on the Care Quality Commission to launch an investigation. Norfolk council acknowledges services are under pressure but denies claims of unlawful practice.

In the year’s first sign of social work recruitment struggles, figures reveal the Care Act has driven a surge in demand for social workers in adult services but thousands of posts remain unfilled. Councils in London announce they have joined forces to cap agency social worker pay in the region in an effort to get spiralling bills for temporary staff under control.

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March

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The British Association of Social Workers urges the government to rethink its reform programme, warning that “constant upheaval” is damaging social workers and service users. The HCPC’s chief executive claims ministers have produced no evidence to back up accusations too many social work courses are producing trainees who aren’t up to the job.

New figures reveal a rise in vacancies for children’s social workers, with some councils filling almost a third of posts with agency staff. Peterborough council announces plans to replace some of its social workers with support staff. Elsewhere, Community Care goes behind-the-scenes at Doncaster children’s services to see how things have changed since an independent trust took over.

Figures reveal the Care Act has triggered a surge in safeguarding referrals, with some in the sector fearful the increase at least in part marks a genuine deterioration in service quality. The long-awaited evaluation of the Frontline fast-track scheme is published and broadly positive. The Department of Health announces it will invest more in Think Ahead, a fast-track training programme for mental health social workers. A judge slams the government for ducking its responsibilities to provide adequate funding for deprivation of liberty cases.

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April

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The government pushes on with its reforms. Ministers announce a further £200m will be invested into the Department for Education’s children’s social care ‘innovation fund’. Teaching partnerships, designed to promote closer collaboration between universities and councils on social work training, are also expanded.

Controversy grows around the plans for social worker to face accreditation tests. Experts tell MPs the proposals risk being punitive rather than supportive for practitioners. Community Care reveals most social workers performed well in a pilot version of the assessment by standard exam thresholds but the government says it has still to decide what the pass/fail threshold will be.

The Department of Health rejects the Norfolk service user group’s plea for an investigation into local adult social care provision. However, Norfolk council says it has requested an audit of cases in response to the complaint. Police hunt for two men who fired shots at a social work office in Manchester. No-one was harmed in the incident which is described by police as a “purposeful attack”.

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May

Professor Eileen Munro

Professor Eileen Munro

The Queen’s Speech confirms the government will table new legislation to drive through its social work reforms. The Children and Social Work Bill will open the door to the government directly regulating social workers and allow the education secretary to grant councils exemptions from certain legal duties for children’s social care in order to test new ways of working. Both plans spark controversy.

Professor Eileen Munro wins plaudits from social workers for declaring that hotdesking is harming the profession and robbing social workers of the tools they need to do the job properly. There are signs that a long-awaited replacement for the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards could be watered down significantly due to concerns the government has over the costs of implementing draft proposals tabled by the Law Commission. In a brutally honest interview, an adult services director admits some of the cuts he’s being forced into due to council budget pressures make him “go cold”.

A firestorm surrounds a Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on children’s services. The film sees a social worker go undercover in Birmingham children’s services and secretly film colleagues. The programme provokes a fierce backlash from social workers. The social worker who went undercover breaks her silence and gives her side of the story. She says she wanted to highlight the state of services nationally and reveals she feels let down by the final programme. After talks with the Department for Education, Birmingham council announces its children’s services will be moved into an independent trust.

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June

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More details on the Children and Social Work Bill reveal the government plans to bring social workers under direct regulation of the Department for Education from 2018. Ministers are accused of ducking scrutiny on the reforms. Campaigners fear the ‘exemption’ clauses in the bill will allow councils to opt out of meeting child protection duties.

Ofsted warns councils they need to tackle social worker caseloads that are “too high”, after identifying it as a common problem in poorly performing authorities. Sandwell council looks set to be stripped of control of its children’s services departments after a government-appointed commissioner delivers her recommendations to ministers.

A serious case review into the death of six-year-old Ellie Butler finds professionals felt ‘powerless’ to act on concerns over her safety after a judge exonerated her father of harming her and returned her to his care 11 months before he killed her.

Community Care reveals the government will face a legal challenge from councils over an alleged failure to provide sufficient funding for deprivation of liberty cases. The social worker who went undercover for Channel Four’s Dispatches is referred to the HCPC over her use of covert filming. Tributes are paid to social worker Bob Holman, who pioneered community social work in some of the UK’s poorest communities, after his death aged 79.

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July

A scheme run by Costelloe Business Services was found to fall foul of tax rules Picture: Gary Brigden

A scheme run by Costelloe Business Services was found to fall foul of tax rules Picture: Gary Brigden

A Community Care investigation reveals hundreds of social workers have been caught up in a tax scam. Some have been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy after being left with tax bills of up to £45,000 each.

The education committee delivers a stinging critique of the government’s social work reforms, warning that the package does little to address “endemic” retention problems in the sector. Children’s services directors voice their opposition to the plan for social work regulation to be brought under government control. Nicky Morgan is sacked as education secretary and replaced by Justine Greening by new prime minister Theresa May.

Social work students are hit by a delay in the government announcing social work bursary allocations for the coming year. Academics label the situation “unacceptable” and warn it is placing students in limbo just weeks before their courses are due to start.

Tributes are paid to Harold Bodmer, the president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, following his sudden death. Colleagues remember his “kindness, genersority and commitment” to social work and social care.

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August

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The social work bursary row drags on. BASW writes to health secretary Jeremy Hunt urging him to end the delay in announcing funding for this year. The allocations are finally confirmed.

Just months after Eileen Munro warned of the impact hotdesking was having on children’s social workers, Community Care reveals the practice is growing. In case law news, the Court of Appeal delivers a ruling in an adoption case that one legal expert says effectively means judges “grabbed hold of a can opener and opened about a dozen cans that were labelled ‘worms, do not open’.

Sharon Shoesmith opens up about life after the Baby P scandal and says social workers tell her they’re frightened of “being next” to face a tabloid campaign against them.

A secret report obtained by Community Care reveals Somerset council used a ‘questionable’ strategy to boost its personalisation performance in line with a government target.

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September

A promotional shot for Jo Brand's Damned sitcom

A promotional shot for Jo Brand’s Damned sitcom

It’s time for some laughter (or not) in social work as Channel 4 screens a new Jo Brand-penned sitcom based in a children’s services department. The show sparks huge interest, with articles on it making up three of the four most popular stories on Community Care this month but reviews are mixed.

There are more recruitment and retention struggles as councils warn of a “severe” shortage of Approved Mental Health Professionals. Experts also warn that incoming tax reforms could hit agency social worker earnings. The government launches a free “come back to social work” training scheme designed to attract social workers out of practice to return to the profession.

The chief of the family courts warns that the rising number of care applications means the care system is facing a crisis for which there is “no clear strategy”.

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October 

Emma Lewell-Buck MP, shadow children and families minister

Emma Lewell-Buck MP, shadow children and families minister

Labour’s new shadow children’s minister, Emma Lewell Buck, reflects on her experiences as a child protection social worker and the “baptism of fire” of entering practice. The government makes a u-turn on its plan to directly regulate social workers. Ministers commit to setting up a new “independent” body instead.

A backlog in Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards assessments triggered by a Supreme Court ruling in March 2014 passes the 100,000 mark. Councils consider a controversial plan to turn to desktop assessments to help process cases quicker.

Ofsted’s chief inspector warns that police are leaving social workers to face “dangerous” child protection visits alone. Child protection social worker Sophie Ayers shares her experiences of dangerous visits, describing being held up with a machete as one of her “least favourite” moments in social work.

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November

image of Virgin Care company logo, used in article Landmark deal for private firm to run social work service approved

Richard Branson’s private health company Virgin Care secures a contract to run statutory adult social work services in Bath and North East Somerset. The unprecedented deal marks the first time core adult social worker services will be run by a for-profit firm.

In other moves by councils, cost saving plans at Barnet council will see qualified social worker posts shed to save money. Research by The Transparency Project finds that councils are setting numerical targets for adoption – which prompts a debate social workers are somewhat less-than-happy with.

In better-received news, Walsall council proposes offering its social workers a ‘caseload guarantee’. The winners of the social worker of the year awards 2016 are announced, adding some much-needed cheer to a cold November.

The government reveals its new regulatory body will be called Social Work England. However, a key plank of its reforms is dented after the House of Lords votes to remove the proposed ‘exemption’ clauses from the Children and Social Work Bill. The vote marks a damaging defeat for the government after fierce opposition to the clauses, with campaigners claiming the plans will undermine children’s rights.

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December

Christmas

The government looks to revive the controversial “exemption” plans in the Children and Social Work Bill after the Lords defeat. Ministers table a series of concessions designed to win over critics, including a pledge barring councils from seeking exemptions from child protection duties if the clauses become law.

The government also revises its Care Act guidance after a defeat in the Supreme Court in a case on ordinary residence determinations. The Law Commission postpones the publication of its review into Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards until March 2017.

After coming under fierce criticism for failing to announce any extra social care funding in the Autumn statement, the government announces councils will be given extra flexibility in the way they use the ‘social care precept’ council tax raising powers. The measures do little to quell fears about the funding crisis facing services.

Finally, the month of Christmas lists and annual reviews brings a bumper Christmas gift for social worker list, and this annual review you’ve managed to make it to the bottom of – well done. As a final gift, the Department for Education publishes its much-delayed consultation on the accreditation tests for social workers.

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