A war of words has broken out between Unison and the British Association of Social Workers over whether social workers should be encouraged to form their own independent practices.
Hilton Dawson, chief executive of BASW, drew angry responses from delegates at a Unison conference this week when he announced his support for a government-funded pilot scheme for social work practices.
Unison, which represents 850,000 local government workers, opposes the pilots because they could “open the door towards privatisation”.
Social work practice pilots are now running in five councils in England, where services for more than 1,000 looked-after children and care leavers have been outsourced to external bodies run by social workers and charities.
Dawson told Unison’s National Social Care and Home Care conference in Manchester: “If you’re worried about the future provision of local government services, well yes, okay, we understand.
“But if it’s about the empowerment of social workers to make decisions for themselves, to work autonomously and provide a better quality service to young people, then I think that’s a far more radical approach than to say ‘this should automatically be within local government’.”
The qualified social worker immediately came under attack from Unison activists, including Adrian Picton, convener for adult services at the union’s Nottingham City branch.
Picton told the conference: “I’m concerned to hear that Unison is considering partnering with BASW when BASW is supporting privatised social work.
“The smaller co-operatives will stall and will be taken over by bigger companies. We must make a stand against this. It’s not about empowering social workers – it’s a very dangerous road to go down.”
Another member described the practices as “Trojan horses for privatisation”, while John Burgess, secretary of Barnet Council’s Unison branch and a qualified social worker, said Dawson’s comments were “crass and exceptionally naïve”.
“This totally goes against Unison’s policy and won’t lead to improvements to services and will almost certainly lead to a deterioration of our members’ terms and conditions,” he said. “It opens the door towards privatisation. Look at what’s happened in domiciliary care.”
Burgess said he would prefer to see the funding for the pilots transferred to existing children’s services to help drive improvements in quality from within.
Speaking after the conference, Dawson expressed his surprise that BASW was taking a more “radical and left-wing” approach to Unison.
“I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for all services to be organised by local government, which by definition are large and unwieldy organisations,” he said. “I’m very interested in allowing social workers to organise and manage their own services.”