Firm pulls out of providing service for council that union claims would have broken social work strike

Flex360 withdraws from service to Barnet Council that both say would not have contravened ban on using agency workers covering to cover striking workers, as social workers begin two weeks of industrial action at borough

Barnet social workers represented by UNISON on the picket line
Barnet Social workers represented by UNISON on the picket line (credit: Barnet UNISON)

A firm has pulled out of providing a service to a local authority that a union claimed would have unlawfully broken a social work strike, which started this week.

Barnet Council had engaged Flex360 to supply “additional service provision” during the two-week strike by mental health social workers in the London borough, from 15-26 April.

Flex360, part of the RT Group, provides project teams to local authorities to tackle case backlogs or deliver specific services, such as Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS), continuing healthcare, child in need or duty and assessment work, among other services.

Strike breaking claim

On the back of an email to the mental health practitioners from the council’s director of adult social care last week about this work, Barnet UNISON claimed that it was unlawful “strike breaking”.

Regulations prohibit employment agencies from supplying workers to an organisation to cover the duties of a striking employees or other employees covering those on strike, so long as the industrial action is legitimate (regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003).

Both Barnet and the RT Group said the agreed work was legally compliant.

Planned arrangement ‘in compliance with law’

In a statement issued last week, before Flex360 pulled out of the arrangement, a Barnet Council spokesperson said: “We are not employing agency workers but are putting additional service provision in place from an external supplier, and this is in compliance with relevant legislation and guidance.”

They added: “We have taken legal advice to confirm what we are doing is lawful and we are not employing agency workers.”

For the RT Group, managing director Sarah Pope said: “I can confirm that Flex360 have not, are not and will not be providing any service to Barnet Council to cover any strike action and can also categorically confirm that we would not contravene regulations covering strike action.”

The authority did not confirm what work the Flex360 staff would be doing. Guidance on the 2003 regulations stipulates that employers can cover a striking worker’s work by contracting out the service.

Firm pulls out of service on eve of strike

However, on the eve of the strike, Barnet UNISON reported on social media that Flex360 had pulled out of the arrangement.

This was confirmed by the Barnet Council spokesperson in a statement issued on Monday, the first day of the strike, which said: “The work with Flex360 is not proceeding. The council is currently reviewing alternatives during the strike action.”

Prior to this week, practitioners in Barnet’s north and south mental health teams and approved mental health professional (AMHP) service had taken 27 days’ strike action in a dispute over pay and staffing levels.

Call for salary top-up to tackle ‘exodus of social workers’

They have called for a market supplement to their salaries of 20% – similar to that received by children’s practitioners in the borough – to tackle what Barnet UNISON describes as an “exodus of experienced mental health social workers”.

In February, the union said 20 staff had left the teams over the previous 18 months, while earlier this month it said that two more social workers had done so.

It has rejected an offer from the council of a payment worth £1,000 per year for two years for the mental health practitioners and their colleagues in adult social care on the grounds that it is too little, at about 2.5% of salary on average.

Also, talks mediated by employment relations body ACAS have proved fruitless.

Nine weeks of strike action

The current strike marks the start of nine weeks of industrial action that the practitioners are due to hold between April and July.

“Social workers are determined to be paid fairly for the difficult jobs they do,” said Barnet UNISON branch secretary John Burgess. “They’ve already taken several weeks of industrial action and will carry on until Barnet Council listens and works with the union to find a way forward.”

For the council, the spokesperson said the mental health social workers provided “excellent support to our residents at a challenging time for adult social care nationally”.

“We are more than willing to continue to be at the negotiating table and have already made an offer that would not only increase the pay of all social workers in adult social care but specifically includes additional staffing resources in the mental health social work teams,” they added.

“We will ensure that regardless of industrial disputes, our services continue to support people with mental health needs. We urge Barnet Unison to continue talks with us through ACAS and to suspend industrial action for meaningful discussions to take place.”

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One Response to Firm pulls out of providing service for council that union claims would have broken social work strike

  1. Dan April 23, 2024 at 9:12 pm #

    Well done to the striking Barnet mental health social workers for taking a stand – what a great Union branch. More power to them for standing up for themselves and their profession.