Outsourced social workers could become care user advocates

Plans to outsource adult social workers from councils to social enterprises could enable practitioners to become user advocates, rather than gatekeepers of care, but could put their terms and conditions at risk.

That was the message from sector leaders after Birmingham Council announced proposals to set up an enterprise with responsibility for assessment and care management from 2013-14, employing its existing adult social workers.

The proposal is the latest in a string of ideas put forward by government and councils to take adult social workers out of local authorities.

The government intends to pilot social work practices from next year, which will involve groups of social workers managing the care of service users under contract from councils, while Swindon has also proposed to create a social enterprise with responsibility for assessment and care management.

Sue Bott, chief executive of the user group the National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL), said this approach could allow social workers to be social workers again instead of a “money managers”.

Bott said: “I think they [social workers] would welcome the opportunity to speak up for the client they are working with rather than feel they have to be apologetic all the time [for denying people care]. It makes for a better relationship between the assessor and the person being assessed because it’s being done on the basis of genuinely looking at what the needs are.”

Personalisation consultant Jeremy Cooper, director at iMPOWER, agreed, saying outsourcing could boost social worker autonomy, and hence morale.

However, concerns were raised about the impact on social workers’ terms and conditions by Ruth Cartwright, joint manager for England for the British Association of Social Workers. Birmingham intends to save £4.8m over two years by setting up the social enterprise.

Cartwright said there were questions to be answered about how the savings would be made without job or pay cuts or a worsening service, and warned that the new enterprise would face considerable set-up costs in areas such as IT.

She said: “My main concern will be the well-being of social workers; that their work, conditions and salaries are maintained and they are enabled to do their job.”

Concerns were also raised about the potential for conflict between councils and social work enterprises over the allocation of resources to service users following assessments.

Social care lawyer Ed Mitchell said there was no power allowing a council to outsource decision-making over resource allocation to an outside body so it would have to set up some kind of system that checked all assessments made by an enterprise or practice.

This had the potential to increase bureaucracy and the length of time for approvals, though Mitchell said it need be little more than a tick box exercise.

Cooper added: “My big worry is it will be a bonza time for lawyers and a headache for social workers if we get it wrong in terms of discussions about the legal framework in setting it up.”

However, he agreed that the legal hurdles were not insurmountable.

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