Profession split over whether assaults on social workers should carry additional penalties

BASW and the SWU have petitioned the government to make assaulting social workers in line of duty a specific offence, but critics warn this risks penalising vulnerable people and heightening divides with non-social work qualified staff

Debate sign
Photo: Chris Titze Imaging/Adobe Stock

Social workers have split over whether assaults on practitioners in the line of duty should carry tougher penalties.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and Social Workers Union (SWU) have issued a petition urging the government to add social workers to a group of professions it is an additional offence to assault. The petition has almost 13,000 signatures so far – which means the government must respond to it – but a group of social workers and academics have come out against the idea, on the grounds it is unlikely to work and is ethically questionable.

BASW and the SWU’s petition asks the government to use the current Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill to amend the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, which makes it a specific offence to assault an emergency worker in the line of duty.

Tougher sentences

The legislation currently covers police, prison, fire, ambulance and NHS frontline staff who have interaction with the public as part of their job. It means that assaults on these staff, as defined by the legislation, carries penalties of up to 12 months in prison, double the standard penalty of six months, though the government has proposed doubling this again to two years through the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The equivalent legislation in Scotland, the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, covers social workers enforcing child protection orders or involved in the emergency removal of children, and mental health officers – who are all social workers  – carrying out assessments under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003.

Government must ‘right historic wrong’

In letter to home secretary Priti Patel accompanying the petition, BASW chief executive Ruth Allen and SWU general secretary John McGowan urged the government to “right [the] historic wrong” of social workers’ exclusion from the 2018 act.

They said: “[We] regularly hear from our members about difficult and challenging circumstances that they have had to work in as part of their job. There is no shortage of stories from social workers about their experiences of being threatened or assaulted when on duty.

“This is unacceptable. Social workers are entitled to parity of esteem with other public sector professionals such as health workers in the NHS. This is not an attempt to penalise those individuals who use social work services and are genuinely vulnerable, “an important right for social workers knowing that they enjoy the same legal protections as other professionals in similar situations.”

However, the petition has prompted an open letter to BASW and the SWU in opposition, which has now been signed by 28  social workers, retired social workers, students and academics, and campaign group the Social Work Action Group.

‘Not the most ethical or effective way’

The signatories said they agreed that social workers, and others who put themselves at risk in their line of work, deserved to be protected when carrying out their roles, but that including them in the act was “not the most ethical or effective way to achieve that”.

The letter said there was no evidence the act had effectively prevented assaults, citing National Police Chiefs Council figures showing assaults on emergency workers had risen. The NPCC said the number of such assaults were 14% higher in February 2021 than February 2020.

It also said including social workers in the legislation would not protect staff who are not professionally qualified and who faced similar risks, which it said did not seem just and risked being “corrosive” to staff relationships.

Increased risks to mental health

It would also create an “asymmetry” by giving citizens who assaulted social workers tougher penalties than social workers assaulting citizens, said the letter, which cited the government’s impact assessment of its plan to double the maximum sentence from one to two years, which said offenders could “create a greater chance of unemployment, loss of housing, negative effects on relationships or mental health”.

The letter concluded: “We [the signatories] are of the view that, in seeking such redress, social workers should advocate for restorative, not punitive, justice approaches, in line with our professional values and principles, our code of ethics and our professional standards.”

The open letter is signed by some prominent names within social work, including Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee Janet Melville-Wiseman, who has signed it in a personal capacity, and academics Brid Featherstone and June Thoburn. Christian Kerr, chair of BASW North East, co-ordinated the letter.

BASW welcomes debate

BASW said that it welcomed debate on the topic. A spokesperson said: “While the number of signatures shows strong support for the petition, we know that rarely are matters in social work simple and clear cut. We welcome debate and will be further detailing the reasoning behind our petition shortly.”

In response to the petition, the Ministry of Justice said: “We changed the law to punish those who assault the emergency workers who risk their lives carrying out their duty. Attacks on social workers are of course also completely unacceptable, which is why the courts already have the power to treat these as aggravated incidents when sentencing.”

Community Care understands that the inclusion of social workers in the Act was considered when the legislation was written, but deemed unnecessary by the Ministry of Justice as courts can already consider this as an aggravating factor in an offence.

More from Community Care

36 Responses to Profession split over whether assaults on social workers should carry additional penalties

  1. Sam May 4, 2021 at 3:10 pm #

    BASW being true to its elitist self. I work alongside a Support Worker colleague who actually has far more intimate contact with users of services than I do. Why is my safety more important than theirs? Stop trying to divide us.

    • Leanne May 5, 2021 at 1:27 pm #

      Perhaps I am focusing on the wrong bit here but I find it surprising and a bit frustrating that within the text and comments social care professionals who are not registered social workers are being referred to as ‘unqualified’. It isn’t just about status, it’s about accuracy. I don’t understand in what sense a worker such as me is ‘unqualified’ when I do have qualifications and am qualified for my particular role.

  2. Some Sw May 4, 2021 at 4:52 pm #

    Everyone has the right to feel safe or so the rhetoric goes why is this even a debate its common sense protect all workers.

  3. Carol May 4, 2021 at 5:02 pm #

    Perhaps we should make it any offence for unqualified workers, undertaking their role, to be included, not just those with the title of Social Workers. But our ‘profession’ should be included otherwise as usual the NHS staff etc are given greater protection, and therefore greater importance for what they do than Social Services.
    However at the end of the day our greatest problem are Adult Social Care managers who just say ‘well its part of your job!’. No IT’S NOT, I did not come into the profession to be assaulted either physically or verbally or in writing (sometimes daily emails), which over the years has increased tremendously.

  4. Sophia May 4, 2021 at 6:20 pm #

    I believe that whether you are a social worker or support worker, we are providing an invaluable service to clients and their families. However just like the police and NHS staff we all want to go home to our families without threat from harm. So many social workers put themselves out there and are either threatened or physically attacked because we have to make difficult decisions. I strongly believe that as social workers we should have been included in that bill. I have been practising as a social worker/AMHP for over 20 years so I have been around long enough to remember reading about social workers killed while working. I am in support of penalties being given to people who assault social workers. our life is equally important. Whilst I accept that our clients are vulnerable, however I worked in forensic settings where people have been convicted of offence, but receive treatment.

    • Patricia May 5, 2021 at 7:25 pm #

      I totally agree with you. Just introducing your self as a social worker puts you at risk. You are responsible for the outcome of the most horrific cases and the perpetrators are well aware of this. They don’t blame them selves, they blame you. In one case, a chainsaw was used on a social worker. I’m all for social workers not doing home visits alone and an actual law that protects them.

    • Jamie May 6, 2021 at 8:40 am #

      Totally agree. I’m completely frustrated with this whole conversation and can’t help thinking if we can’t even agree we are in a vulnerable profession and should have been included in the bill then no wonder we’re treated so badly. We cannot collectively even advocate for ourselves. Why do social workers have to undermine themselves at each turn? You would see the police or health staff saying oh no we don’t want this acknowledgment in law, weren’t not special. It’s ridiculous and nothing to do with being special, finally it acknowledges the risks we face daily and sends a message that we’re are there to help not be abused.

  5. Nihat May 4, 2021 at 7:16 pm #

    Good to know that for the 13000 social workers who have signed this petition vanity, over inflated importance, narcissism and desperation to hold on to the coat-tails of other professionals matter more than dignity and solidarity. So much for justice based ethics. You should all be ashamed for so selfishly putting yourselves above reception staff, administrators, security guards, cleaners, non-social workers in your teams. Their safety might not concern you but it does matter to a lot of us. Still, you have inadvertently managed to expose the hypocracy of BASW and SWU. What was that podcast on multidisciplinary work explaining again?

    • Patricia May 5, 2021 at 7:30 pm #

      You’re talking about on-site staff with security guards and other bodies available to help. Social workers make choices that put them put them in harms way and do home visits. I’m sorry but I fail to see your argument or why they should feel ashamed.

      • Nihat May 6, 2021 at 1:04 am #

        An assault or threat is an assault or a threat whether there are security guards on the premises or not. Haven’t seen a security guard any time I’ve been in an ambulance actually. You should feel ashamed that you are advocating for yourselves while abandoning others who may not be registered social workers but help you do your jobs. Some of them might even be in your own teams. You are not more precious by dint of being anointed by SWE. I find that selfishness shameful. Sorry if that makes me a bad social worker. My argument is for solidarity with all workers, for the same protection for all workers.

  6. Theresa May 4, 2021 at 7:35 pm #

    Another manifestation of the professional inferiority complex of some social workers. Perhaps BASW can also petition the government to provide us with loud blue sirens so we can prove we are a vital response service.

  7. Janet May 4, 2021 at 10:13 pm #

    My husband and i are social workers . He has finally succumbed to serious mental health issues caused by a series of serious attacked with guns ,knives and 4 heavy physical assaults.resulting in broken bones and lasting damage.
    Our future isn’t bright. He should have been protected and he should have been allowed to retire on full pension. We are struggling as he cant work . He has had less concern and treatment than the perpetrators have?
    Social workers need the same protection as other professions..They need the same rights. If a police officer has attacks they are given aid and often full retirement . We have been thrown under a bus professionally and financially .

  8. Katherine May 5, 2021 at 12:24 am #

    Nobody would argue our lives are less valuable, nor that threats are acceptable but it is unedifying to pitch this as a social workers versus NHS workers contest. We are all workers and we all deserve to work in safe environments. Think about that when you are setting yourselves above other staff you work alongside. By the way legislation does not reduce the risk of assaults or victimisation, the data about assaults on paramedics and hospital staff shows that. If we had adequate staffing levels to do pair visits and proper risk assessments on the people we work with we would be safer. But that requires proper leadership and advocacy, much easier to organise a petition though isn’t it? And if you want to quantify threats and actual assaults, spend a day in an A&E.

  9. Nigel May 5, 2021 at 9:02 am #

    Another whipped up pointless furore. Instead of resenting NHS colleagues why aren’t we holding our employers responsible for our safety? Typical of BASW to appear as if they are championing social workers when in fact yet again they are letting employers off the hook. Any assault can be reported to the police now, it does not need new legislation to do that. Its time we demanded our bosses act on our behalf and seek prosecutions if necessary rather than leave it to us to ensure our safety. Get a petition about that and I’ll be glad to add my signature. Smoke and mirrors “activism” disguising the irrelevance of SWU too I’m afraid.

  10. Neil May 5, 2021 at 10:31 am #

    If I had the imagination I would find the irony in BASW asking Priti Patel to lend a hand.

  11. Alison May 5, 2021 at 12:17 pm #

    I’d rather be on a par with the terms and conditions of the police than be lumped in on a piece of legislation that is more about longer sentencing than protection. Their employers support them at almost all cost, they can retire at 60 with a full occupational pension, they have a more compassionate medical/ill health retirement process. Those would make me feel valued, cared for and safer.

  12. Sabne Ebert-Forbes May 5, 2021 at 4:28 pm #

    Nobody should ever be a victim of Violence. I was attacked at work, and it left me traumatized. I think everything needs to be done to keep staff safe. Otherwise you lose them.
    I reported the attack on me to the police. It is zero tolerance towards violence.

  13. Sara May 5, 2021 at 5:16 pm #

    Been a social worker since 1986. Anyone puts their hand on me, I go to the police and get the person charged. Zero tolerance.

  14. Julius Che May 5, 2021 at 5:53 pm #

    Julius Che May 5, 2021 at 5:52 pm #
    I totally agree with BASW and SWE, we social workers are often sidelined by the government and even our respective local authorities. Social workers had to toil during the pandemic and in some instances were obliged to go out and assessed COVID patients in their different roles but the thank you as usual goes to NHS workers. While the government is locked in a debate on wage increase with the NHS, that of the social worker was frozen on day 1 of this financial year. This is share hypocrisy and I completely denounce some of the signatories who are against social workers being included in the Crime Bill because as many, they sit in their air conditioned offices and are completely blind from the reality of day to day social worker. We should be added to the bill because social workers deserve it. In my 5 years as a children social worker, I have been punched, kicked, spat at and racially profiled by the same young persons and parents I risk my life to support, this goes same in my current role as an AMHP. I deserve better and want to feel safe whenever I go out to support service users and this can only be achieved by writing the wrong right this time.

    • Anon May 7, 2021 at 10:36 pm #

      So sorry you had to go out and assess some covid infected persons .
      In your statutory role.
      The clue being the word statutory.
      How very inconvenient of them to be infected with a deadly illness AND vulnerable.

      And how very dare the acutely mentally ill need assessments during a pandemic.
      Which so many AMHPs decided they wouldn’t do either at all, in the legal timeframe, or carried out through doors, windows and then remotely.

      Plus, of course, not forgetting that massive police escort on those home assessments.
      And not forgetting just how many MH Trusts literally closed their doors whilst A&E turned away ALL MH pts.

      Your role as a MH social worker not really comparable with acute care NHS frontline staff though is it?

      And very many social workers weren’t seeing people at all in person.
      And certainly not at bedside for hours on end.

      Many of you weren’t even answering the phone for a very long time.
      And then demanding and still are, that vulnerable people fit in with YOUR needs – as a statutory worker- to have Zoom meetings .
      Or , as social workers like to call it, ‘ remote working.’
      Except it doesn’t work .

      AMHPs literally had to be taken to court to stop such abuse of vulnerable persons rights on this.

      And ‘re your paltry pay have you ANY idea what a fully qualified nurse in ITU starting salary is? 24 k a year.
      Plus 3k extra if in inner London.
      A HCA? A porter? Paramedics?

      Tell us about your 14 hr a day shifts 6 or 7 days a week for months on end in covid infected wards because ALL leave was cancelled in the acute side of the NHS.
      Twice over.

      Tell us about doing this for months on end without adequate PPE or ANY at all.
      Without the option of refusing to or standing metres away. ​
      Or in AMHPs case the other side of a door or remotely.
      And without it entering minds to refuse support to the most vulnerable. in the way yiu are complaining about being required to do.

      Tell us about living in a hotel away from your young family for months on end because you were too terrified/ exhausted/ potentially infectious to return home.

      You see , here, social workers DIDN’T carry on working providing the services needed.
      Including AMHPs who refused to go out arguing they could do the job based on the evidence of others.

      Across the board social workers refused to assess .
      They refused to go out.
      And that is STILL the case.

      And you want some sort of extra recognition and maybe a prize for bashing NHS staff?
      And think social workers have a special status over and above the rest of us?

      Why are we not surprised.

      Guess what – we dont want to be assaulted either. Whoever ‘ we ‘ are.
      Or racially abused.
      And laws are already in place to prosecute and ALL should be treated equally.
      We dont see why there should be ANY special category given in sentancing the context is taken in to consideration.

      And if you still have no clue why you haven’t got huge public sympathy read back your comments and reflect on why attacking NHS staff who have worked in conditions few would endure, might just not promote your cause.

      • Anonymous May 30, 2021 at 7:51 pm #

        Many social workers were frontline in their service, and did carry on working alongside our NHS colleagues, going into homes and other environments where people were stressed and frightened, where COVID19 was present. We did experience an acute lack of PPE and we were exhausted, physically and emotionally. We did loose team members to COVID19 and I for one was thankful that I managed to remain safe throughout the first 9 months of the pandemic. I worried about bringing it home to my family every night and I stripped at the door at the door every evening to reduce the risk whatever the weather! I watched other SW’s go home to work and I’m glad they were safe.

  15. Anonymous May 5, 2021 at 9:25 pm #

    When you put cost and vulnerable people and separate emergency workers and put frontline staff and support worker at the bottom of the pile you minimise the work that we carry out. Remember if their was no social worker and support workers to protect those who have suffered abuse what would the government say and do. I am all for making sure the vulnerable people are protected but they also have to take responsibility for their action and if they feel they can assualt people physically verbally and in writing then what are you saying that we should be a punching bag because they are vulnerable we are all vulnerable and if we all went already just treating people as we please without any real consequences then what are we really advertising. I have been assaulted at work by a vulnerable young person who wanted money to go out and drink with a history of CSE and assault to previous staff and to this day I live with the damage whereby I suffer from severe headaches now after being assaulted by that young person and I was told I can’t press charges because the young person has had a hard life and now I still live with the effects of what was done to me is that fair that person life was worth more than mine. The government needs to move into the 21st century and wake up we need more protection otherwise they will find that they will have a bigger problem getting people to go into the fields and then what will they do then.

    • Anon May 7, 2021 at 9:07 pm #

      And I and virtually every single vulnerable and often completely defenceless person in the MH acute pathway have been repeatedly assaulted by employees when NEVER posing a risk.

      And we can include rape and serious sexual assault in that as you well know given at least 3 published inquiries .

      And then maybe you want to talk about verbal assault by professionals towards vulnerable people?

      You think you’re a punch bag?At least you get to make a report to police.
      Try being a vulnerable person and do that.

      And try recognising the distinction between vulnerable and vulnerable person.

      You are NOT the safeguarder of vulnerable people when you hold such distorted views on the world.
      For your one physical incident listed I can x by 20 and so can very many.

      For your one verbal assault x 100.

      It’s comments like this that are so revealing about how disadvantaged , vulnerable and disabled people are looked down on by the profession .

  16. Sally May 6, 2021 at 8:49 am #

    Please stop this venom against our NHS colleagues. Get yourselves a door step clap if it means so much to you. Remember though that more people have contact through out their lives with health workers than do with so social workers. That might be why people remember health staff more than us. That doesn’t make social workers any less skilled or worthy, its just a different experience for the many. Instead of resenting the NHS why don’t you spend energy getting your employers to provide you with the resources so you can practice safely?

  17. Julie May 7, 2021 at 7:44 am #

    BASW should be spending time on raising the respect and value of SC staff qualified or not yet this debate is going to do it! Alison’s comments are right put us on par with police re; pay, support & pensions not via the justice system for as Sara says we can charge via criminal process should we be assaulted and one would hope the judge would note the public service we offer and the respect re; difficulties of such a role.

    I can’t believe this is how BASW are spending time, energy and money when there is so many more areas that they could be working on yet seems they’ve lost touch with ground level politics.

    Covid has been difficult for many yet SW’s have been visiting throughout with many support services not going out and expecting the most vulnerable of children in significant need being dealt with via phonecalls especially therapeutic services and this in my experience ‘doesn’t work’ and really isn’t justified.

    And No Sally I don’t want a ‘sentimentally motivated’ doorstep clap that just distracts from the years of failings in the NHS that made the service ‘inadequate’ during a pandemic – a period of time compared with ‘war’ by political parties yet thank goodness it wasn’t a battle of war as ‘staying at home to protect our NHS’ wouldn’t have worked with blown off limbs and gun shot wounds!

    BASW a debate I’d be interested in is the removing of SC with Health or Education as in my opinion we should stand alone as a service with excellent working partnerships rather than being the second thought service passed between to other Statutory Service.

  18. John Robinson May 7, 2021 at 12:38 pm #

    My team would like the protection thanks. Reading some of your comments I feel like a man with a fork in a world of soup.

    • Saul May 7, 2021 at 10:41 pm #

      Your managers think you should be grateful tor the fork. That is why they tolerated unsafe work conditions on your behalf. Just think about that and get your team to demand they protect you. Better that than relying on the impotent posturing of BASW.

  19. Anon May 7, 2021 at 3:43 pm #

    Wow, just wow.
    Wouldn’t it be great if you were all as vocal about the day in day out assaults on vulnerable people by workforce? Could we have a petition about that?

    The delineation probably comes at govt and public level about what control you have over the environment you are working in, with a fair few assumptions thrown in
    The groups protected are literally first responders or being required to respond to acute situations often blind of knowledge, with no pre appts, with no risk assessments and no lone working policy. And cannot hide in anyway as in uniform, which like it or not, in itself makes you a target.

    Certainly even preplanned situations can be incredibly unsafe with the awful outcomes as described above and the personal toll is horrific. But where do we draw the line on having extra years of jail time because someone is attacked in the line of duty and why on earth should the privilege of a degree mean anyone is more worthy of safety than their non professionally qualified colleagues?

    This is a sick game with people falling into the agenda of divide and rule the govt comms team has pushed for years. The worthy v the unworthy. As an eg NHS staff are paid so much less than local authority staff so govt creates a narrative about heroes. Cut police so instead of recruitment that would offer some protection let’s create a new law elevating status.

    We already have assault laws in place. Some tariffs need changing and some of us in society are going to be much more prone than others to being victims of violence. But it would be so much healthier if everyone’s lives were valued pn par and all of us protected. Workforce ,clients and pts.

  20. Nihat May 7, 2021 at 6:55 pm #

    It’s your employer and your supervisor who sends you out with a fork into a world of soup John Robinson, not those of us that won’t let our bosses off the hook by enabling them to sub-let their duty to care for us on to the justice system.

  21. Anonymous May 7, 2021 at 7:47 pm #

    Having been physically assaulted which led to PTSD and treatment by a male in drink (the person did receive a custodial sentence) I am strongly of the opinion we should have the same level of respect afforded to us as other professionals. I tried to get my MP and Minister of Justice to recognise our role however the response indicated they have no understanding of our role.

  22. Nicki May 8, 2021 at 9:05 am #

    I agree to additional penalty. We have a very emotive job and in situations this can cause people to become violent. We need to feel safe in practice and people need to know there will be consequences for this behaviour. I know a colleague who was assaulted and the police encouraged the person to apologise and that was the end of it !! Not good enough

  23. Jane May 10, 2021 at 10:13 am #

    When my collague was assaulted and their car smashed up, our manager and director would not bring a corporate prosecution and intimidated him not to pursue it privately. He did anyway and the person was convicted. My colleague is a very experienced social worker, liked and looked up to by many of his peers. Every promotion he has applied for here he has been unsuccessful. Not a coincidence I think especially as he is now a manager in another authority. No law we get added on to can protect us in such a culture. I know from friends in other teams that this is not uncommon. We should be more concerned about how we are resourced to prevent assaults than be grateful that the person hurting us may get a more harsh sentence for assaulting us. Our trauma does not heal any quicker because someone has had a few more weeks of probation, paid a bit more in victim surcharge or got a few more months in prison. I’d rather I was not hit or abused in the first place. We can only be safe if our managers and employers have our wellbeing as their priority too.

  24. Caroline May 10, 2021 at 10:32 am #

    I am writing this sitting on a park bench crying because I have just been spat at, called a slag and pushed out of a flat. I know my manager will be sympathetic but I also know that she will want me to finish the report she is anxious about by end of today. A cup of tea, a biscuit, a few more minutes crying in the toilet is the pattern for such things. She is not a bad manager but she too is worn out by the demands of an uncaring and bureaucracy obsessed organisation. It’s not just laws that protect us. We need fewer vacancies, better resources and a management that takes safety seriously and acts to protect us. Don’t let them off the hook by getting BASW to divert us into arguing with each other.

  25. Giles May 11, 2021 at 9:03 am #

    So well summed up Anon. Unfortunately shame is not a concept embraced by most of my fellow social workers. Envy and bitterness is.

  26. Patrick May 11, 2021 at 9:38 am #

    A patient who assaulted 8 health staff and a police officer on the day of her discharge from a mental health ward in Liverpool was given an 11 months jail sentence today. So much for health workers and police having all the protection and we none. Anon is right. Whatever danger or potential threats I might face as an AMHP, I do have some protection denied other frontline collagues by dint of risk assessments and involvement of other professionals and perhaps family members when doing assessments. Users of our services and all workers should be safe. Unfortunately many more of our colleagues and many patients on mental health wards face potentially more abuse, violence and disrespect on a daily basis than we do. A bit of humility on our part doesn’t mean we accept threats as part of the job. It just gives a proper context to the support we have as AMHPs. Child and Family social workers may have a different view ofcourse. I speak only as an AMHP.

  27. Richard Haywood May 11, 2021 at 12:07 pm #

    But,but,but we are social workers Anon. We are extra special. We tell each other this everyday. We convince each other that we are put-up-on by all and sundry, that we are maligned, misunderstood, victimised. How can we not be loved when we are justice warriors sacrificing our lives for the betterment of others ? We are highly skilled, knowledgeable and mightily qualified. Doesn’t our MA in feelings elevate us above the ordinary? Don’t puncture our self reverential illusions with considered, thought out, cogent, factual comments. Please.