Disparity in reports of violent incidents leads to call for national record system

Huge regional disparities in the number of violent and abusive incidents against social care staff recorded by councils have been revealed by a Community Care investigation.

BASW says under-reporting of incidents is likely at many councils in England

Huge regional disparities in the number of violent and abusive incidents against social care staff recorded by councils have been revealed by a Community Care investigation.

At the top end of the scale, Staffordshire Council recorded an average of 1,431 incidents a year over the past three years, while Hertfordshire and Cumbria councils were next, recording 1,216 and 918 respectively.

However, according to responses to Freedom of Information requests, three London boroughs – Newham, Camden and Waltham Forest – recorded an annual average of seven, 11 and 13 respectively over the same period.

“I suspect this reflects major under-reporting, rather than the opposite,” said Ruth Cartwright, joint manager for the British Association of Social Workers in England.

“Employers have shown themselves unwilling to take this issue seriously. They should be compelled to report using the same criteria so a real measure of the extent of the problem can be obtained.”

We asked councils for recorded figures on violence, verbal abuse or harassment, but of the councils which responded, few differentiated between the types of abuse. There were also differences in the definitions and job titles within the field of social care, making comparisons difficult.

Cartwright said the true extent of violence against social care staff would not be exposed until a national system of incident reporting was developed.

Differences in council size could also have contributed to the disparity.

For example, there are an estimated 822,600 people living in Staffordshire compared with 208,000 in Camden.

Of the 101 councils in England to respond to our request, 89 had a system in place for recording violent incidents against both children’s and adult social care staff.

Four were only able to supply figures for incidents involving staff in adult services, one only for staff in children’s services and one did not provide the information. Six councils said they kept records for all staff but not for specific workforce groups.

Overall the volume of incidents appears to be declining, from 16,058 in 2007-8 to 15,601 in 2008-9 and 13,357 in 2009-10.

Yet previous Health and Safety Executive statistics showed that major injuries caused by physical assaults against social care staff were on the rise – from 7.4 per 100,000 employees in 2001-2 to 9.7 in 2007-8.

“I simply do not believe that the number of violent incidents has gone down across the board,” said Cartwright. “In my opinion it has remained constant or is possibly more of an issue.

“Many local authorities are not monitoring violence and abuse properly, a serious abnegation of their responsibilities towards their staff.”

Community Care’s investigation also revealed that around two-thirds of councils do not have a written policy on tackling violence against or risk assessments designed specifically for social care staff.

“This reflects a gross failure by employers to show any sort of understanding of the situations in which their staff are working and to exercise any sort of responsibility towards them,” said Cartwright.

John Nawrockyi, secretary of the workforce network at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, agreed that some employers were “not taking violence as seriously as others”.

However, he had mixed feelings about a national system of reporting violent incidents. “On the one hand, it would raise awareness of the issue,” he said.

“But making things mandatory is not necessarily the way forward. The more you make things mandatory, the more you get bogged down in regulation.

“I’d suggest building it into a code of practice for employers instead. It could become part of how councils sell themselves as modern and progressive organisations.”

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