A strike-hit council is struggling to deliver an approved mental health professional service (AMHP), it had admitted.
Swindon council said that recruitment problems were affecting its ability to consistently deliver an AMHP service and it was working to address the issue.
Its admission came after trade union GMB said Swindon now had just one approved mental health professional in its emergency duty service (EDS), which is responsible for the borough’s out-of-hours AMHP service.
This was down from four AMHPs on the EDS as of September 2023, just after GMB members in the service started taking on-and-off strike action in a dispute with the council over pay.
Since then, there had been several instances, on evenings and weekends, in which AMHPs were not available to respond to people in mental health crisis who may require detention under the Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA), the union claimed.
It claimed Swindon was acting contrary to the MHA in not providing a round-the-clock AMHP service (see box).
Councils’ AMHP responsibilities
Under section 13 of the MHA, councils must make arrangements for an AMHP to consider a person’s case if it has reason to think that an application for the person to be detained in hospital, or taken into guardianship, may need to be made.
The MHA code of practice states that councils are responsible for ensuring that sufficient AMHPs are available to carry out their roles under the act”.
It also says that, in order to “fulfil their statutory duty [councils] should have arrangements in place in their area to provide a 24-hour service that can respond to patients’ needs”.
Councils and AMHPs must have regard to the code of practice. This means that they must follow it unless they judge “on admissible grounds that there is good reason to do so, but without freedom to take a substantially different course” (R v Islington LBC ex parte Rixon [1997-98] 1 CCLR 119).
The code states that departing from it “could give rise to legal challenge” and that courts will scrutinise recorded reasons for doing so “to ensure that there is sufficiently convincing justification in the circumstances”.
Union informs CQC
The union has written to regulator the Care Quality Commission about the issue, warning that the borough was not funding other EDS staff to train as AMHPs.
The CQC told Community Care that the information from the GMB had been passed to its local authority assessment team, which is responsible for the new system of assuring the performance of council adult social services. It said it would also use it in its monitoring of health and social care providers’ compliance with the MHA.
A Swindon council spokesperson said: “Like many councils across the country, we are experiencing challenges recruiting approved mental health professionals and this is impacting on our ability to consistently deliver a service. We are working with our teams to explore how we can address this issue going forward.”
Latest strike by emergency duty staff
EDS staff at Swindon staged their latest walkout for a week from Christmas Eve 2023 onwards. The dispute was triggered by a pay and grading review that removed a payment from staff worth £8,400 annually for working unsocial hours.
The council has said that other changes it is making would leave EDS staff about £3,000 a year better off, however, the GMB has claimed that these are not guaranteed – a view Swindon rejects.
At the same time, 11 assistant team managers (ATMs) in social work teams, who are also represented by the GMB, held a two-week strike over Christmas in a separate dispute, also tied to the pay and grading review.
Walkout by assistant team managers
The GMB claimed that, as a result, the average gap in pay between ATMs and advanced social workers (ASWs) has narrowed. It said this meant ATMs’ additional responsibilities – including supervision and running case conferences – were not acknowledged in their salary.
Swindon council said that it was able to cover services during the latest strikes and there were no issues.
The union said that the council had now agreed to meet with it over the disputes in talks mediated by employment relations body Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS).
However, the union has also balloted a third group of social workers – independent reviewing officers – to stage a walkout, also over the fallout from the pay and grading review.
The story has been updated.