Social worker and young family

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Colin Turbett – 7th July 2022

Social Work and Social Care Workloads – Two Sides of The Same Coin

The ongoing battle between capital and labour has always seen expression in tensions over productivity in all spheres of working life.  The idea that things just get better and better because of progress over matters such as health and safety law and improved standards of living (at least in the global north), has been severely punctured in recent years by the growth of the gig economy and relentless attacks on public spending. In the post-war welfare state public services were valued as “the social wage” and rarely equated with notions of profit. However, there has always been a concern of governments of all shades, but especially Tory ones, to keep taxes down by curbing the public spending they sponsor.  In this sense a profitable economy is seen as being at variance with extensive and free public services: the Scandinavian notion that high taxes paying for decent levels of public provision is entirely acceptable, has never caught on in the UK. Instead, inequalities at levels that would seem unacceptable in other societies, are perpetuated endlessly.  

So, workers in public services are always under pressure to “do more with less” – a slogan that entered common parlance with the onset of “austerity” after the banking collapses of 2008.  In fact, this process started in the 1990s with the introduction of business models into many areas of the public sector: markets were opened up that included private sector incursion with all its ramifications.  Companies such as SERCO and MITIE have come from nowhere to become vast and profitable, whilst further down the foodchain smaller enterprises are now acceptable “partners” in public sector provision. Social care is no exception: the vast array of companies providing care within people’s homes or in residential settings, small and large, and represented well by Scottish Care, exemplify this, to the detriment we have always argued, of services and standards.  Within this mix the Third Sector has emerged as significant:  competing for public contracts and often driving down the wages and conditions of its workforce.

In amongst this lie concerns about the workloads of social workers in local authority and HSCP (Health and Social Care Partnership) settings.  The organisation representing social work’s leadership, Social Work Scotland, have recently published a very welcome and important report by Emma Miller and Karen Barrie on this matter: “Setting the Bar for Social Work in Scotland”: https://socialworkscotland.org/reports/settingthebar/

At the heart of their concerns lies the dilemma of how employers get the work done when resources don’t match need, and when bureaucratic demands, some arguably of little value to those on the receiving end of services, are excessive and time consuming.  The result, as this report demonstrates, is a workforce worn down and disenchanted, where turnover is traditionally high compared to similar professions.  The report provides an excellent evidence base – its findings are taken from a recent survey whose respondents were 25% of Scotland’s local authority employed workforce (1588 responses).  They report unmanageable workloads, little time for the important face to face work they trained to do, little capacity for preventative work and too much time spent on administrative tasks because of widespread cuts to business support.  Despite all these problems, workers still feel committed and keen to support those in need when they can. The frustrations however, lead many to question how much longer they can remain in their frontline roles.  . 

The author’s recommendations to deal with this could be stronger: their main suggestion, which the report’s sponsors are keen to see debated throughout the profession, are the establishment of “indicative caseload numbers”. These are to provide guidelines for managers and staff in the various areas of service: children and family, justice and adult care.  Sadly, the authors dismiss workload management models in a quite presumptive manner, ignoring work undertaken in the recent past by UNISON and SASW to promote their use – in many cases with successful outcomes.  There is also no attention paid to what happens to work necessarily set aside to establish workable caseloads for social workers which would help make the extent of unmet need public and quantify the number of social workers Scotland really requires.  The Care Inspectorate have demonstrated more concern over unallocated cases in the past than over stress on social workers. At the end of the day of course it is about resources and how they are used.  In our view managerialism, centralisation and business models of performance and accounting, need urgently reformed, and social work taken back to the community-orientated, relationship-based and preventative job that was mapped out over fifty years ago in the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968.  This is about moving forwards by reframing the values of the past that were lost in the false dreams of neoliberalism.

These are important debates as we enter discussion about the shape of Scotland’s National Care Service.  The recently published Scottish Government Bill raises incredible uncertainties for the social work workforce and its basic business model suggests inroads into public sector provision that will inevitably create division and harm to services and their users.  The question of what people-centred services should regard as priorities apply as much to the social care workforce, many of whom are part of the precarious gig economy – and underpaid, undertrained and undervalued.  They also deserve attention over workloads and the importance of relationship-based practice over the measurable outcomes that have led to poor practices such as fifteen-minute homecare visits.  As the recent STUC report (“Profiting from Care – Why Scotland Can’t Afford Privatised Social Care”)  discusses they too should all be employed in the public sector.  In our view that should  be by democratically accountable local authorities (see Nick Kempe’s newsletter article).  This is certainly where social workers delivering statutory services belong and we have to recognise that the government proposals, vague as they are, threaten the public sector and the future of social work and social care. 

Colin Turbett, Common Weal Care Reform Working Group

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