The British Association of Social Workers England has warned of the risks of diluting the social worker role after the government unveiled plans for more assessments to be carried out by non-social work qualified staff.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has given authorities £27m to explore different ways of streamlining the assessment process for adults who may need care and support and carers with possible support needs.
The funding would allow authorities to hire a productivity lead to review existing procedures and implement some or all of the following approaches:
- Purchasing digital tools to enable people with needs or carers to input their information to feed into the assessment process.
- Making greater use of virtual assessments.
- Outsourcing assessments to providers, intermediate care teams or other professionals through so-called trusted assessment arrangements, to reduce the number of times people have to share their information.
- Dealing with shortages of social workers by hiring social work assistants or trainees – for example, those undertaking apprenticeships – who may be easier to recruit.
BASW England warned the proposals risked “[undermining] a system that puts the needs of people first”, while the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services also raised concerns about the training of trusted assessors and how complex cases will be handled.
Government social care plan awaited
The grant to streamline local authority adult social care assessments is worth between £130,000 and £600,000 for councils – depending on their size and level of need – and the DHSC said it would also help fund the purchase of digital tools.
The department will set out further details in its adult social care plan, expected next week.
The proposals echo those the DHSC set out last year to help manage the impact of its proposed adult social care charging reforms – including an £86,000 cap on care costs and an extension of means-tested support to many more people – that were then due for implementation in October this year.
This would have resulted in councils having to undertake hundreds of thousands more assessments and reviews per year, of people who wanted to take advantage of the extended means-test or be considered for the cap.
Waiting lists and social worker shortages
The reforms have now been delayed until October 2025, beyond the next election, casting doubt on whether they will be implemented at all. However, councils still face major pressures on their ability to deliver their statutory Care Act functions, due to levels of demand and shortages of social workers.
ADASS estimated that 492,000 people were waiting for an assessment, review, direct payment or care package as of August 2022.
At the same time, the vacancy rate for council adult social workers rose from 9.5% to 11.6% in the year to September 2022, while turnover increased from 15% to 17.1%, from 2020-21 to 2021-22.
Opposition to ‘dilution of social work role
In response to the proposals, Liz Howard, professional officer for BASW England, warned: “We oppose any attempts to dilute the vital role that social workers play in adult social care. We are concerned that the use of non-qualified staff will undermine a system that puts the needs of people first.
“The best way to ensure the needs of people are met is to invest in the social worker workforce and renew efforts to recruit and retain, including a national review of working conditions that are having an adverse impact on wellbeing and driving so many out of the profession.”
Many councils have long used non-social work qualified staff to carry out assessments, care planning and reviews, though figures are not available for how many there are. By contrast, Skills for Care collects data annually on the number of social workers and occupational therapists in post in local authorities, who numbered 17,300 and 3,200, respectively, in September 2022.
Assessment ‘so much more than completing a form’
In response to the announcement, ADASS joint chief executive Cathie Williams said: “Assessment is so much more than the completion of a form to determine eligibility and funding. It is about ascertaining people’s circumstances and what is important to them.
“It is intrinsically linked to information and advice and to making sure that people are aware of options and can weigh up the risks, benefits and costs of each of them (after recovery and rehabilitation if the assessment is as a result of a hospital admission) so that if they can plan for the longer term.
“Digital technology can contribute to this, as can people other than social workers. However, consideration will be needed around how ‘trusted’ assessors and others are trained and accredited. Capacity and what support or representation/advocacy people need in relation to decision making, together with safeguards in relation to abuse, exploitation, coercion or neglect will also be critical.”