Striking mental health social workers have warned vulnerable people’s safety is being put at risk by staff shortages as demand for their services soars.
The Barnet Council workers staged the first of six days of planned walkouts on Tuesday (26th) to put pressure on the local authority to solve a recruitment and retention crisis that has left staff dealing with “huge” stress levels.
Trade union branch Barnet Unison wants the council to introduce a recruitment and retention payment of up to 20% of salaries for mental health social workers while it works out a long-term solution to the staffing issues. It says this is lower than some social workers in the council’s children and family services department already receive.
But after being offered the equivalent of a 2.7% payment for two years only, staff members gathered on a picket line outside the council’s headquarters in Colindale to urge the authority do more to tackle the problems.
Anita, who has worked for the council for around 20 years, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “For years, social workers have not gone on strike. We are humanitarian and philanthropic people – we care about people.
“We are very aware of the risks that are involved as a social worker to ourselves – and not just to ourselves, to our clients […]
“Our caseloads and stress levels are incredibly high, very much like children’s services, however, the risks to the actual social workers and the clients are much higher.”
Anita said a national pay freeze meant salaries were already behind where they should be, and the strike was aimed at getting a good deal for new workers.
Her colleague Kristiana said a lot of social workers had less than two or three years of experience and were not staying with the council. When staff leave, the remaining members have to take on their cases.
During the past ten months, 13 of their colleagues had left the council, the workers explained. Agency staff are sometimes hired to fill the gaps but can leave “with no notice”.
At the same time, many people coming to councils needing support are “much more unwell than a few years ago”.
“Stress levels are huge,” Kristiana said. “Not because of the adults we work with – they are brilliant, but they have got really complex problems, and we need to have a service that supports them and is fit for them.
“If we can’t provide a safe service because our staff turnover is so high, because Barnet aren’t applying the same recruitment and retention policy to adult social workers that they do to children’s, all of that has combined to bring us out in action today.”
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, a watchdog that monitors councils, considers it “reasonable” for assessments of the needs of people who may require adult social care to be carried out between four and six weeks from the date of the initial request.
But the striking workers said some adults had been on the waiting list for over a year. By that time, they explained, they could have ended up in hospital or even taken their own lives.
Another striking worker, Suzannah, said: “We have got a statutory duty for preventing and delaying needs, not just meeting them, and I don’t think any of us would say we’re anywhere near that.
“We are just completely failing our duty to stop people deteriorating to the point that they need more acute services, and that is a complete failure – it is not a safe service.”
Kristiana said workers had been trying to talk to senior management about the problems for between 18 months and two years, but it was only when they said they were going to ballot for a strike that the council admitted there might be a problem.
Despite constant efforts to work more efficiently, Suzannah said the waiting list had “gone up and up”. She said: “We think the only way we can work on reducing our waiting list is if we have a stable cohort of staff with a variety of experience, rather than the majority [being] newly qualified, so we can provide the care and support we want.”
Gillian, an approved mental health professional service manager for the council, criticised a split between social workers and wider health services that took place last year, saying it had left social workers “completely isolated”.
In the past, she said nurses and junior doctors had been present at assessments, but now social workers were on their own.
She added: “I think it is a perfect storm, in a way. You have a lot of new social workers out on their own without the experience of all the other colleagues. There is no clear pathway route, so you have got this massive volume of referrals coming in with newly-qualified social workers having to manage enormous complexity all on their own.
“I have never worked like that. I’ve always worked with interdisciplinary colleagues. It’s the way we have always worked in mental health.”
John Burgess, branch secretary of Barnet Unison, said there had recently been “complete silence” from the council on the issue of recruitment and retention pay. He added: “The biggest thing for me is if we do nothing now, I predict 20-25% of our current workers will go if they think the council is not taking this seriously.”
Labour MP and former shadow chancellor John McDonnell gave a speech at the picket line in support of the striking staff. He criticised “40 years of a policy of cutting local authority expenditure to afford tax cuts to the rich people, to corporations”.
John said: “People are saying, ‘enough is enough’, we are ready to take action, and it is forcing both individual councils and individual managements to actually start recognising that low pay […] is a significant issue.
“Even this government has had to acknowledge that public services are collapsing because we can’t recruit or retain staff – and we can’t recruit and retain professionals because we are not paying them enough, and they can’t live off the wage they have got.”
Charli, from the Campaign for Real Care, linked the strike to her group’s claim that the council is calibrating adult social care needs to available resources rather than tailoring resources to people’s needs. It has produced a dossier claiming the council is breaching the Care Act, which the council denies.
Paul Edwards, the council’s cabinet member for adult social care, said: “The cost-of-living crisis means that Barnet Council must find ways to help our residents in need and maintain services, at a time when our central government funding is not adequate to the situation we face. It is also affecting all our staff, including social workers and those that work in mental health. Our employees are at the front line of supporting our vulnerable residents. We truly appreciate all the excellent work they do.
“Balancing all these demands – our service users and wanting to support all our staff – we have striven to offer good support and pay to our social workers, with salaries that benchmark well.
“The three teams involved in the strike have 31 posts in total and of these 30 posts are filled – 26 permanently and four by agency staff, of which one is in the process of becoming permanent. We are currently recruiting to the one remaining post. Earlier this year, we added five additional practitioner posts to these teams in recognition of the work being undertaken.
“Unison asked for a 20% recruitment and retention payment for the social workers in the two mental health locality social work teams only. However, the council has many more social work teams who are all working hard and facing increased demand, so we proposed offering an additional £1,000 per year recruitment and retention payment.
“This is in addition to the normal annual pay award that is agreed nationally, to all social workers, occupational therapists, senior practitioners and team managers across all social care teams – 185 staff. This puts us at the very top of the salary range paid by other local councils.
“We are grateful for the dedication and commitment of our mental health social workers, who provide excellent support to our residents at a challenging time for adult social care nationally.”