Unison set for strike ballot of Surrey child social workers

    Unison looks set to ballot children’s social workers at Surrey Council for strike action over claims of excessive workloads and management bullying at the struggling authority.

    The local branch has asked the union’s national industrial action committee for permission to ballot frontline staff in children’s social care teams at the council, which is facing government intervention over safeguarding failings identified by Ofsted last year.

    The union said social work shortages meant unqualified staff were handling cases, including serious ones, while it also accused managers of threatening social workers with disciplinary action if they did not meet performance targets.

    ‘Blame and bullying’

    The accusations follow a highly critical report to councillors last month by outgoing interim chief executive Michael Frater, who identified a culture of “blame and bullying” across the authority.

    Unison said an overwhelming majority of child protection team members indicated they would be prepared to strike at a series of meetings held over the past few months.

    A spokesperson added that new members were being recruited “hand-over-fist” because of the council’s attitude and that nearly half of the total child protection workforce now belonged to the union.

    ‘Unbearable work pressure’

    Branch secretary Paul Couchman said: “Unless the unbearable work pressure is lifted from the frontline teams now, more social workers will become ill and the situation will get worse. There has to be a workable caseload monitoring system in place to ensure that social workers can do their jobs effectively and keep the children of Surrey safe.

    “No-one wants a strike, or a work-to-rule, but we are getting to the point where this is our last resort.”

    A Freedom of Information request by Community Care found that Surrey had an overall social work vacancy rate of 13.3%, with a 17.1% rate for children’s services, as of 31 January 2009, compared to national averages of 10.9% and 13% respectively

    Vacancies ‘well below average’

    However, council strategic director for children, schools and families Andy Roberts said the current social worker vacancy rate was now 9% across the council, “well below the national average”.

    Roberts added: “Unison has been threatening to take strike action in Surrey for almost a year now. While Unison continues to complain and make empty threats, the council has continued to take action to ensure that children in Surrey remain safe. This includes successful measures to recruit and retain high-quality staff.”

    He pointed to a new bursary scheme to offer annual payments of £1,500 to 50 social work students, and ten each for council staff looking to train as social workers.

    ‘Inadequate’ on safeguarding

    The council was issued with an improvement notice by ministers after an Ofsted joint area review last July found it was “inadequate” on safeguarding, services for disabled children and in its capacity to improve.

    It has been set 29 performance targets, including cutting social worker vacancy rates, and its progress is being scrutinised by an external board. In May, the council said it had met 13 of 15 targets which it had been expected to meet by 31 March 2009, including on social worker vacancies.

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