Can a social worker operate ethically while employed by a local authority? Judy Cooper, Molly Garboden and Camilla Pemberton investigate
The debate on ethical social work in local authorities was kick-started by a don at Bedford University. Professor Michael Preston-Shoot, dean of social services, contributed a chapter to a new book Children’s Services at the Crossroads in which he claimed it was not possible for social workers to practise ethically while working for councils.
Preston-Shoot cited evidence from case law, local government ombudsman’s reports and cases where care standards tribunals have overturned applications from the General Social Care Council and the Care Council for Wales to have social workers removed from the professional register because of mitigating factors such as inadequate supervision, chaotic departments and lack of resources to cope with demands.
His claims are supported by social workers on Community Care’s online forum CareSpace, many of whom have cited experiences where they have felt powerless to keep to their code of practice because council budgets were more powerful when it came to decision-making.
However, others have put forward solutions to improve the lot of frontline workers. Community Care has broken down the options and asked Nushra Mansuri from the British Association of Social Workers, Helga Pile from Unison, Colin Green from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and John Chowcat of Aspect for their thoughts.
Ofsted rankings dictated by caseload
● Overburdening of social workers should automatically mean a council is placed under “special measures” or given an Ofsted “inadequate” ranking.
Mansuri: “I can see that social workers want employers to be penalised for this, but my concern about doing it through Ofsted is that special measures tend to stigmatise the department as a whole. That could be very bad for workforce morale.”
Chowcat: “The employer standard being developed by the Social Work Reform Board should achieve the same ends. We’re not sure of the exact status the standards will have because it depends on the position of this government, but it will be influential in Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspections.”
A national hotline for whistleblowers
● Each communication should be logged and assessed.
● Internal thresholds should be determined that will automatically trigger an investigation by the GSCC, Ofsted and Department for Education.
Green: “Most local authorities already have a whistleblowing policy in place and Ofsted also has one. Fundamentally, people need to deal with these problems within their teams and by talking to managers.”
Pile: “Ofsted have got a hotline running but are social workers using it and, if so, what is Ofsted doing with the information? We have no way of knowing whether this has been effective.”
A bigger role for the GSCC
● The GSCC should be provided with automatic weekly reports, from every council including the number of registered child protection social workers present, the number of hours they worked, the number of cases in the possession of each worker at the end of the week and the number of sick hours claimed. These reports should be published anonymously online and highlight every time caseloads are too high or thresholds have been broken.
● Managers and directors to be rendered subject to GSCC provisions.
Pile: “What’s described as monitoring by the GSCC sounds like the health check recommended by the Social Work Task Force. This needs to be done at council level, with reports going to elected members so that they can be accountable for social work decisions. There is a strong case for wider publication of this kind of information so the public can see what conditions are like. Weekly reporting is disproportionate, though, and would tie up too much resource.”
Green: “This would create more bureaucracy. A better idea is to use the health check recommended by the Social Work Task Force and to look for opportunities to have communication with more senior managers. If people have concerns, they need to be communicating with people in charge of the services. They shouldn’t take such a disempowered position.”
Record all concerns
● It’s a question of how completely compliant or complicit we are. Maybe we should be discussing the methods to ensure that what we write and recommend are fully compliant with good practice and are person-centred.
Chowcat: “Frontline social workers need to be aware that there are ways to tell employers that they believe they are entering an area of risk when it comes to their own ethical practice and the GSCC code of conduct. It forces the employer to look at that area and assess if they are meeting the duty of care they owe to their employees. The more these powerful legal tools are used, the more they will introduce a cultural change into organisations.”
Mansuri: “This was drilled into me when I was doing child protection with a local authority. If we had a different view, we were told we had a responsibility to own our own professional judgement. The issue is that you’re employed by this local authority and you have to fulfil contractual obligations, but that doesn’t negate professional responsibility. Social workers have to remember that codes of conduct transcend the practice of an authority.”
Social work practices
● Giving social work teams independence would free them up to practise ethically.
Mansuri: “BASW has always supported this concept. However, the social work practice pilots have yet to fulfil the vision.”
Pile: “Unison is all for giving social workers more autonomy and freeing them up but we believe that contracting out is a dangerous way of offering this. We know from other organisations in the social care field, which contract with local authorities, that councils use contracts and fee negotiations to exercise tight control and restraints. Social work practices will find themselves on the receiving end of this before long too. Social workers need councils to change the culture, rather than seek to outsource their way out of it.”
Green: “It’s a wait-and-see game with the pilots. Having said that, I don’t think it’s a way to solve problems around capacity and capability within the system. Social workers need to contribute to Professor Eileen Munro’s call for evidence [for her review of the child protection system] and put their energy into debates about the national college. That’s a lot more productive than any of these suggestions.”
● Dismissal, blocking pay rises or denying promotion to those who raise legitimate concerns should become a criminal act (with what constitutes a legitimate act to be ruled on by the GSCC).
● Giving newly qualified social workers or support workers a case above their skill level should become a criminal act or prima facie case for constructive dismissal.
Mansuri: “This issue needs heavy sanctions. We need a clear demarcation about skill levels and what workers should be taking on. We also need to look at readiness rather than experience. Some social workers mature more slowly than others, so they need to be assessed on whether they’re ready to take on a certain kind of case.”
Pile: “Protection for whistleblowers needs to be strengthened but we do have legal protection for whistleblowers against unfair dismissal and we need to ensure practitioners know their rights.”