Social workers put off by high-profile whistleblowing cases

Many social workers and care professionals are reluctant to come forward when they witness unsafe practices, for fear of repercussions. Anita Hawser look at what needs to be done to break down the systemic barriers to whistleblowing in the sector.

In association with Unison Workplace Zone

Social workers are duty bound to blow the whistle on harmful practices that could put service users, an organisation or its employees at risk. But there appears to be a disconnect between what regulators and the professional codes of practice expect of social workers, and what happens when they do raise concerns.

[Read our guide to whistleblowing in social work]

There are numerous examples of social workers blowing the whistle on harmful practices, only to find they are vilified by their colleagues and employers for doing so. Francesca West, a policy director at whistleblowing charity, Public Concern at Work (PCAW), believes high-profile examples of social workers who have blown the whistle and suffered negative consequences, such as Nevres Kemal, Martin Morton and Simon Bellwood (see “related articles” below), mean others are reluctant to put their head above the parapet. “I don’t think social workers are particularly comfortable raising concerns at a high level because they have seen other people be victimised,” she says.

Recent research by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) portrayed a climate of fear and intimidation in many social work departments, with almost half of practitioners surveyed saying they would be reluctant to speak up if they had concerns. Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care, says this sense of fear is being compounded by the current economic climate, which has seen hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs cut. “Local government social work has gone through a long period of insufficient staffing, so people are under enormous strain, with too high caseloads – and some of that constant pressure makes it difficult to cope with all the things you have to be responsible for,” she says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if some people felt they didn’t have the capacity to take forward a whistleblowing claim.”

Systemic barriers

Frontline social worker Winston Morson agrees that excessive caseloads and concerns about job security make social workers feel less empowered. They might choose to leave rather than blow the whistle, he says, leading to a higher turnover of social workers in councils with recurring problems. “Social workers aren’t whistleblowing because the systems don’t support them. We are supposed to be the voice of people that are marginalised but if we cannot find our own voice about concerns we have within the organisations that we work for, how can we be the voice for families and children?”

Morson believes structural factors play a part in social workers’ willingness to blow the whistle. Where cases are managed collaboratively with colleagues, he says, it is much easier to raise concerns and build a picture or evidence to support whistleblowing. But working in isolation as a field social worker, it can be more difficult. Pile adds that there is an often a gulf between frontline staff and senior management, which can make it harder for individuals to escalate their concerns.

Every year, a significant proportion (30%) of calls to PCAW’s whistleblowing helpline comes from the care sector. From an analysis of 1,200 care cases brought to the line since 2001, PCAW identified a range of “systemic deficiencies” that prevented care workers from speaking up to protect vulnerable adults. They included poor management training on how to handle concerns, limited feedback given to those who raised concerns, a failure to protect them against victimisation and the absence of guidance on how and when to approach regulators.

Pete Morgan, a spokesperson for the College of Social Work, says the management style of many care providers is not conducive to whistleblowing. “There is a hierarchical closing of ranks because the management style can be very macho. In an environment where care is treated like a commodity there is also a sense of workers keeping their head down and getting on with the job. That makes it harder to blow the whistle because there isn’t the opportunity to reflect on what you and your colleagues are doing – is it abuse, is it bad practice, should I blow the whistle?”

A greater onus on employers

In addition, Pile points out that the care sector is littered with small providers operating within tight margins. “The staff are very exposed, and the providers don’t necessarily have policies in place that would give people a degree of protection.” She says Unison would strongly support the development of a mandatory code of practice for employers, requiring them to have proper whistleblowing support systems in place. “Employers have got to do more to demonstrate that they want to hear about any staff concerns,” says Pile. “Perhaps people could log lower level concerns without having to give their names, for example; sometimes things can be addressed before they become a critical situation.”

All councils should have a whistleblowing policy that encourages the reporting of inappropriate conduct and protects staff from any repercussions, says John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Services’ workforce development network. “Whistleblowing is a key element in safeguarding networks, and services where staff are confident over this issue are probably safer for their recipients,” he says.

But Colin Green, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ families, communities and young people policy committee, says it not enough just to have a policy in place. “Listening to staff should be a fundamental part of continuously improving all services, not just those with serious problems. […] This is even more important when services are facing budget reductions, as frontline staff will have a good idea where savings can be made without damaging service quality.”

Pile suggests all employers should publicly vow to protect whistleblowers from victimisation. “It should come from the top, from council leaders or the board of trustees, and it should be said on a regular basis,” she says, adding: “It’s about demonstrating to the workforce that employers understand the importance of people being able to raise concerns – and that they welcome it.”

Unison’s guide to supporting whistleblowers

Related articles

Social care bodies commit to support whistleblowers

Baby P: the story of Haringey whistleblower Nevres Kemal

Wirral Council to publish review into care charging scandal

Jersey: Simon Bellwood ‘unfairly sacked’ inquiry finds

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