Social workers in Sandwell could strike if plans to move children’s services into a trust are announced.
Unison members voted unanimously for a motion calling for a ballot on industrial action if the government decides to hand control of the troubled services to an independent trust.
The union will ballot members “as soon as practicable if any transfer of employees is imposed by the government”, the motion said.
In December the government appointed a commissioner, Eleanor Brazil, to oversee improvements in Sandwell’s children’s services. She previously oversaw the transition of Slough and Doncaster children’s services into trusts, and in March will make her recommendations to ministers on what action should be taken.
Nothing ruled out
Brazil was appointed at the same time that David Cameron announced plans to have more services taken over by trusts if they were deemed to be failing. He said if a council cannot show improvement in its children’s services after six months, they would be taken over.
Failing services have been taken over by trusts in Doncaster and Slough, but this is the first time social workers have threatened industrial action.
Asked what form industrial action would take, Tony Barnsley, joint branch secretary at Sandwell Unison, said: “Nothing would be ruled in and nothing would be ruled out. What we’re hoping for is that there isn’t a recommendation to move into a trust and alternative models are explored, which means our members can remain council employees.
“There’s just no theoretical reason or track record as to why moving it into a different type of organisation automatically makes it any better…Our members are desperate to be able to provide a good service for the children,” Barnsley said.
The threat of government intervention in Sandwell follows a string of poor Ofsted reports on the council’s children’s services. Unison said “poor management and leadership over the years” had contributed to the previous three inadequate ratings received by services.
While the government may decide to impose a trust model, Unison would prefer that Sandwell was twinned with a good authority to help it improve. It said previous efforts to involve the private sector in turnaround efforts at Sandwell had failed.
“The council has tried to use the private sector by bringing in iMpower to then move the service from ‘adequate’ to ‘good’. This company left Sandwell with £1.5 million [and] an Ofsted judgement of ‘inadequate’,” the motion said.
It also pointed to Doncaster’s experience. The local authority saw its services moved to a children’s trust, only to still be rated ‘inadequate’ last year.
“The creation of a trust means that all future financial risk remains with the trust. The safety net of being part of a council, with its reserves, would be removed,” the motion said.
In a statement, Eleanor Brazil said: “My role as commissioner in Sandwell is to help drive forward improvements and report my findings to the minister by the end of March.
“At this stage it isn’t known whether a trust will be the right future option to deliver improvements in Sandwell.”
Councillor Simon Hackett, Sandwell’s cabinet member for children’s services, said: “We are working hard to make improvements and welcome the appointment of a commissioner who will help us to achieve this.
“But above all our number one priority is to look after children and young people in Sandwell.”