Social workers to strike over caseloads, IT systems and pay

Unison members at an 'inadequate' council are set for a one-day walk out on 27 January

Photo: Markus Mainka/Fotolia

Children’s social workers in Kirklees have voted to go on strike after a dispute with the council over working conditions.

The local Unison branch said its social worker members will strike on January 27 after the walk out was backed by 79% of 75 members who voted on a ballot.

Social workers want action on a “long-running” dispute over pay, unmanageable caseloads, the council’s IT system, bullying, working environments and high dependency on agency staff, the union said.

Councillors in Kirklees accused the union of playing politics with a vital service and claimed the 75 members who voted in the ballot represented a small proportion of union members and social work staff.

In a separate development, the council’s director of children’s services, Sarah Callaghan, has left after less than nine months in post.

‘Not fit for purpose’

The news brings further turmoil to Kirklees children’s services, which has been under government intervention since being given an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating in November last year. Inspectors referred 100 cases back to the authority for urgent review during the inspection and found social care IT systems were “not fit for purpose”.

Paul Holmes, the local Unison branch secretary, said Ofsted’s judgment had reinforced problems members had been raising since 2011, but talks with the council to resolve them had “gone nowhere”.

He said social workers were “at the end of their tether”, adding: “Members are saying the caseloads are too big, the other issue is…people have a wide caseload ranging from easy to middle to hard cases. People accept that, [however] when you get increasing numbers of agency social workers…you get a bigger proportion of the harder stuff.

“I don’t want to achieve a strike, I want to achieve a resolution to the six problems.”


Erin Hill, lead Kirklees councillor for family support and child protection, said documents provided by Unison showed no issues were officially raised between 2014 and 2016, by which point the council “were aware of the scale of the problem and putting plans in place to resolve it.”

“While I recognise we still have a way to go, my view is that we are dealing with the issues he raised as well and as quickly as we can, with support from the DfE [Department for Education],” she said.

Hill questioned Unison’s mandate for the strike, claiming 75 members voted but “around 300” people were balloted.

“When you consider there are almost 400 of our workers with social worker qualifications, and 1300 staff in children’s services – this is a lot of disruption on a small number of votes in favour,” she said. “I repeat my initial offer to all staff, regardless of union affiliation – my door is always open for you to talk about any concerns you might have.”

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23 Responses to Social workers to strike over caseloads, IT systems and pay

  1. Longtime SW January 13, 2017 at 10:30 am #

    The problem is that Councillor Hill won’t be hauled before the HCPC or in the tabloid press if there is a tragedy – no notice will be taken of the six issues raised, (quite rightly), by the 75 social care workers as contributing to a disaster waiting to happen – there will be more of this as social and health care staff, working with adults and children, finally begin to say enough is enough

    Govt needs to understand that the answer isn’t selling public services off to your fat cat mates who race to the bottom to maximise profits – the answer is to listen to the frontline who deal with these things day-to-day

    As for whether the 75 are true representatives, look at your own houses politicians – how representative are you? Either majority balloting works across the board for everyone no matter the turn out or it doesn’t – in which case Govt’s should resign immediately until they have a majority vote from a majority of the electorate.

    Finally, how many others in Kirklees feel the same way but face intimidation or worse if they speak up? Are all the 300 employed in social care? Or are some members in other Local Government vocations and worried about supporting union colleagues at the risk of being accused of wildcat striking if they take action in support?

    • Another Social Worker January 14, 2017 at 11:19 am #

      Totally agree and the non agency social workers are afraid to speak out. Many are even too afraid to go to Unision meetings or do not have the time to. .The concerns in question have been raised by the Unison as far back as at least 2011 and the bullying goes on expecting SWs to do the impossible all the time.

  2. H January 13, 2017 at 12:08 pm #

    We need to do more of this
    Everyone needs to do this to be listened to
    One day won’t be effective

  3. Leon Summerfield January 13, 2017 at 3:37 pm #

    I’m surprised it hasn’t been done by others, sooner! Im a social work student, have I got all this to look forward to…:-(

  4. Leanne January 13, 2017 at 8:09 pm #

    High five to my colleagues xx we need to unite to create change xx BASW

  5. Dani January 13, 2017 at 9:03 pm #

    It never ceases to amaze me when I see doctor’s striking or medics talking about the difficulties they encounter. Teachers, train and tube staff will act and their unions will challenge the management or compsny bosses. What do we do as social workers ?Who talks on the professions behalf? Workers are working all hours yet are in fear of being on informal capabilities or dismissed. I love my job but it is demoralizing working the excessive hours with the continual threat of ofsted looking….. to criticize. It shouldn’t be one local authority striking yet I’m afraid it won’t make a difference.

  6. Hortense January 13, 2017 at 10:48 pm #

    “My door is always open…..” some of the most dangerous words in the English language for social workers who have had enough to hear….

  7. E January 14, 2017 at 1:19 am #

    I don’t think it’s just social workers but all of Children’s services that should strike. The system is failing and is set up all too fail. To much is being put on front line workers and the impact is like dominos they cut left right and centre and they want more in return. Overworked and underpaid! A strike is well overdue!

  8. Rumplestiltskin January 14, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    Sadly Leon…yes this does appear to be the future.

    Disempowered social workers who are often flogging their hearts out from a physical and emotional perspective. I could rant and go on about left wing, radical social work etc and the inept influence of the basw and other unions for that matter but it’s a waste of time. Social workers have no power en mass and despite the strike on a localised scale such as this one….there needs to be a national strike en mass but this is never likely to happen because we are caught and tied up in the emotional links to service users to let them down.
    My view is that it’s right to strike but action needs to be orchestrated on a national level to force the government to act positively and stop beating the social workers themselves via the offsted machine.
    The only critique I have about the six issues raised…is the comments re agency workers…why would someone not be an agency worker? More money (at least in your ass pocket) the capacity to move and a level of flexibility… People need to ask why do agency workers not want to work perm? The answer is often money. Councils will likely always need agency staff to help my opinion perm staff should ask themselves why there is a need for agency staff in the workplace? In one place I am working now, the treatment of agency staff is awful and perm staff are rude. How can they expect agency staff to become perm with treatment like that? You can’t blame the agency workers…the issues here are basic…employ more staff, cap case loads and ensure systems are set in place to support.

    • Rumplestiltskin January 14, 2017 at 2:08 pm #

      Also I want to add…an example of the insular world of social services and the lack of power or lack of motivation weilded by the numerous unions who apparently care for social workers. issues like this debate are very insular and for the most part not heard or cared for by the general public across the nation. For example the rail services go on strike and is all over the national media, social workers go on strike and no one cares….the only messages that ever receive national awareness is sadly when a young person dies…and then social work is yet again vilified.

  9. Phil Sanderson January 14, 2017 at 6:34 pm #

    Well done Kirklees workers let us all send a message of support to encourage them.Playing politics? Councillors should stop cutting childrens services!

  10. Miss Taylor January 16, 2017 at 11:34 am #

    Brilliant and very brave of you at Kirklees. More of us should do the same.

    Please take note we in adult services are treated just as badly for lesser pay too.

    Please don’t blame agency staff. For many there are other reasons apart from money which spurs them into agency work. Freedom being the main reason – freedom from autocratic management regimes especially bullying. Freedom from being told when you can take leave and for how long, and freedom from office and organisational politics being the main reasons.

    A lot of agency staff are very experienced and bring a lot of knowledge to the service and are given the work no-one else wants to do – they get on with it. Agency pay for adult workers is a lot less than people believe too.

    In view of the corporate cosh, fear of HCPC referral, fear of speaking out I agree whole heartedly with Rumplestiltskin, more agency workers may force the good and great to be mindful of how they treat their workers.

    I wish you all the best and look forward to colleagues around the country standing up for themselves too . . .Good luck

    • Kim January 23, 2017 at 12:27 pm #

      Being an agency worker does not give you any freedom from bullying. I was continually bullied by a manager who gave me an unmanageable caseload of 38 whilst the cut off was 25 and then told me to close cases down. Workers were continually threatened with a referral to the HCPC, myself included. Time spent with families to attempt to enact change was frowned upon. And personal crisis was ignored. I feel like I have nothing to offer anymore as this is how I was made to feel.

  11. Grace Easie-Edgar January 16, 2017 at 3:53 pm #

    It is a shame that the pressures being faced by social workers is forcing this possible strike but when you feel that you are not being listened too or you feel that you are dealing with a case load that a manager does not know or understand to support you what else can you do?
    HCPC should also be looking into these issues to support registrants.

  12. Probably not Helpful Horace January 16, 2017 at 7:44 pm #

    When foster carers have been regularly put through the wringer social workers have stared at their own feet. A bit of support would have been nice then maybe you’d have had company on the picket line from those of us unprotected and unable to strike.

  13. Longtime SW January 17, 2017 at 10:16 am #

    One of the advantages of being in social care professions for so long is memory – my comments above were not meant as a criticism of Locum agency staff

    However looking not too far ahead, the race to the bottom will happen for agency’s once there are no more public services and we all work for companies – many years ago, some London authorities got together and told agencies the maximum they would pay for Locum’s (still above Local authority pay rates) – you have probably guessed that what happened was that there was no cut in the ‘cut’ the agency’s took, Locum’s were told that it was take it or leave it when their pay rates were slashed

    Sadly, I foresee that once all social care is in the private sector there will be again a race to the bottom to undercut wages with little or no protection for individuals – please don’t be fooled – this is and always has been about privatisation of public services

    Remember when hospital cleaning services were contracted out? Within months less staff (on minimum wage) were expected and ordered to do twice as much work resulting in a rise in avoidable infections and infestations.

    Kirklees should be supported – if like-minded people in unions as individuals decide that they should withdraw their labour in support that may be a start.

  14. Darren January 17, 2017 at 6:35 pm #

    I am all in favour of this action however it is unlikely to have much impact with social workers in just one department in one local authority striking for just one day. The same social workers will arrive at work the following day with even more work to do and the scabs will deal with any urgent matters thus negating any backlash from the public. We need national action and a longer strike period. As for councillor Erin Hill with her “my door is always open” nonsense, an open door doesn’t equate to any commitment to improve conditions for social workers and without capped caseloads and other improved conditions a demoralised workforce is inevitable. And to undermine the workforce even more by questioning the ballot shows how much she really cares about us. The only power that workers really have to make change in the current political climate is to withdraw our labour. I predict more of the same.

  15. D Smith January 17, 2017 at 6:57 pm #

    Get tired of people assuming agency staff earn a lot more and colleagues being arsey over it does not help. I am self employed and i do earn more up front yes but I also have to personally try to provide for my own future and pension pot not to mention lots of expensive s like renting second accommodation and accounting fees and also the risk of me falling unwell, which due to stress happens quite often. The fact that some colleagues are judgemental towards agency staff is disappointing. If they worked on creating a place I really wanted to work that then who knows may be I would stay. However I am finding relief in the fact that I can move into a new area when things get too much and somehow it helps me to cope. I did agency work to try and empower myself and only did it to get on the ladder as it does work well if you have a certain goal you’re saving towards.

  16. SW and proud January 17, 2017 at 6:58 pm #

    Think you are missing the point. This is not an argument over agency v perm staff. The problems are clearly stated in the statement from Unison. This service would not be functioning without agency staff because so many perm staff have left. The agency staff don’t stay for the same issues and some have contacted BASW. These are deep issues within the Authority which due to a line in the Ofsted report have been deflected onto agency staff.

  17. D Smith January 17, 2017 at 7:01 pm #

    It’s cheaper for councils to fund agency staff than their own perms as they don’t have to put into a pension pot and match pound for pound so to speak!

  18. Yvonne Bonifas January 18, 2017 at 3:20 pm #

    If you work out the sums, and take pensions into account, agency staff generally are being paid less than permanent staff for no security. It is very difficult indeed to make up for the LA pension scheme even in it’s reduced state.

  19. Social worker from another authority January 19, 2017 at 7:21 am #

    Well done Kirklees social workers for challenging a bullying culture managed by inexperienced senior managers. In all honesty other local authorities unsatisfied should be joining you in your strike this is a message not just to local council but government. We are under resourced tired stressed and fed up of CHANGE moving teams changing structures just to save money. New managers come with what they think are better ideas but it’s all about them not the children and not the staff.
    why are unison not tackling these issues nationally? Why do people pay fees for them?

  20. Kim January 23, 2017 at 12:37 pm #

    I think that this is the right action for all social workers to take. Management in my experience are less than supportive and have only one agenda which is to get reports written in a timely manner. This equates to starting work at 6 and working until the early hours with no lunch and working weekends too. There is absolutely no way that work can be completed without social workers having to complete it in their own time. Social workers are contracted to work 37 hours but work at least double that just to try and keep on top of things. There is a continual threat of referrals to the HCPC who then uphold management and suspend social workers! Caseloads spiral out of control and I know that at Kirklees many workers were given full caseloads upwards of 28 / 30 all out of timescales upon arrival and many agency workers left at that point. My experience of child protection social work has been very negative apart from a time when I had a supportive and nurturing manager. Something needs to be done about this before more children are harmed. The only way to really understand children and their families is to spend time with them but this is frowned upon and the emphasis is put upon typing in the office instead. Whilst I totally agree that all paperwork is vital we should not forget that the reason we are working in this area is to make life for children / young people better and enable them to live in loving caring nurturing environments. This is what is vital. And it is about time that all authorities had capped caseloads. At 20 / 23 I would manage. 38 and I sink. I told management this yet to no avail. Something needs to be done about this and urgently. Well done Kirklees workers who have decided to strike 🙂