How will the recession affect social services?

In the wake of the economic downturn a whole range of careers from banking to retailing have lost some of their lustre. Even where staff have kept their jobs, the financial rewards and the feeling of security are not what they were. In this climate it would not be surprising if social care careers, offering more stability, a pension and a solid sense of self-worth, became more attractive than they were a year ago.

Already the positive effect of recession on recruitment is being felt in several public sector professions. Last month, for example, it was revealed by the Training and Development Agency for Schools that applications for teacher training courses have jumped by 10% this year, partly driven by newly qualified graduates but also by career-changers.

So could the same thing happen for social work? Possibly, says Ian Johnston, outgoing chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, although he emphasises that even in a recession few people are likely to come into social work for selfish reasons.

“You become a social worker because you want to put other people’s needs first,” he says. “You don’t come in to make money for yourself.”

Even if the relative availability of jobs in social work might be a factor in a recession, Johnston adds, it is hard to conclude that it will make careers in social work more appealing. He believes that in the short term the negative impact of the Baby P case is likely to have a far greater effect on retention and recruitment than the potential positive effects of the recession.

This is true within the profession, he says, “with workers still smarting from Ed Balls’ inability to reject The Sun newspaper approach” and also outside it because many of those who might otherwise enter the field are put off by the pressures under which social workers are seen to have to do their jobs.

Martin Green, chief executive of care homes body ECCA, says care home workers are now more likely to stay in their jobs. This is partly because the retail and hotel sectors, which have traditionally seen a lot of exchanges of staff with the care business, are having such a tough time.

“There may be some good news for the care sector,” he says. “As a sector that has suffered from recruitment shortages and also from quite a high staff turnover, the economic downturn may deliver more people into the workforce and will also reduce the incentives for people to leave it.”

Last year Green asked the government last year to provide skills transfer courses for staff laid off by other industries so that they could easily switch to working in care homes if they wished. “There is no reason why lots of former Woolworths staff, who had plenty of training in customer care, could not transfer to the care sector with a short, sharp skills transfer course.”

Green’s idea received an approving reception but, so far, no action, he says. But even the likelihood that more staff will stay in care jobs for longer is an opportunity for the sector, says Green, because it will give an opportunity “to professionalise the workforce and make social care an attractive place to be”.

Such positive spin-offs are much needed, say some, because one effect of the recession is that it is likely to increase the burden on the profession. This idea that a recession causes more social problems and more work for social workers is hardly radical, but it is important. In an already overstretched field, a recession-linked recruitment boost may be not just helpful, but necessary.

Budget cuts

Overshadowing all of this is the likelihood of budget cuts in the state and independent sectors. Councils across the UK are already under pressure to save money – Leeds Council was among those to recently announce net job losses of 450 in 2009-10 – and local government leaders fear this will only increase in the coming months. Negotiations over the next comprehensive spending review (covering the period 2011-14) are due to be finalised before the next general election. Even before the recession the next CSR was expected to be difficult, but with national debt predicted to rise to £100bn by 2010 many are expecting more funding cuts. “We are planning for a significant reduction in our cost base as well as redundancies,” says one adult services director.

Considering this pessimistic outlook it is not surprising that 43% of charity leaders recently surveyed by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) said their organisation’s finances will deteriorate in the next year, with many expressing concern that local and central government funding will not continue at the same levels in future years. NCVO says that Scope, Seafarers and Jewish Care have all made redundancies lately.

If the fears of funding cuts prove well founded then the care sector will find itself competing for a shrinking amount of money. And this is where the most worrying thing of all for the care sector is playing out in 2009: it is not that there will be insufficient people willing to work in it, but that there won’t be the money available to pay those who do.

Children’s services

The rise in child protection activity from the fallout of the Baby P case combined with a likely real terms cut in future town hall funding could combine to create a perfect storm for children services, warns Ray Hart, director of professional services at OLM Group and former assistant social services director (resources) at East Sussex Council.

Hart says a large proportion of the 21% rise in children’s social care funding over the past four years has gone into developing prevention and fostering services to reduce the reliance on residential care, spending on which has dropped by 1% over the same period. However, he warns that when funding is tight it is non-crisis services that often bear the brunt.

“With funding likely to be in short supply after the next CSR, there is a danger that money will be lost from that agenda drawing us back into the cycle of using residential care more,” he says. Hart says that service commissioners need to look at making savings now in order to free up funds to allow future prevention work – some authorities it has worked with have reduced residential placement costs by up to 20%.

The number of days children spend in foster care has dropped over the past four years by 1%, supporting the argument for more energy being put into prevention. Hart says: “The prevention agenda is the right thing to do – if you can release resources from high-cost placements then commissioners will be able to continue in that way.”

Adults’ services

Bill Hodson, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services housing network, says it is still too early to get a full picture of the impact of the recession on adult social care. However, this hasn’t stopped some councils drawing up contingency plans, he says.

“In Yorkshire and Humberside the councils have pledged to ensure good access to money advice and debt counselling and housing aid services for local people in difficulty,” says Hodson. “They have also promised to maintain a flow of affordable housing locally and ensure that regional support agencies are working effectively in the area to support businesses and individuals.”

He fears the recession will push more families below the poverty line. “A number of councils are putting together multi-agency, targeted initiatives in communities that are particularly vulnerable to a recession,” he says. “In York we are focusing particularly on young homeless families, looking at education, training and routes into work as well as social support.”

Hodson says that housing is at the centre of this recession – the increase in house repossessions will lead to more homelessness: “The concern must be that alternatives to temporary accommodation will be harder to find and that more people will therefore be ‘joining the queue’ for social housing. Affordable housing targets were already ambitious and in many areas will take longer to achieve as some schemes will not be viable until the market picks up.”

Victims of recession

Expected fall in supported work schemes

Charity balance sheets suffering

Adult services prevention strategies hit

House repossessions expected to double

Rise in youth unemployment

Child poverty campaign threatened

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