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NIASW welcomes wide-ranging NI social work strategy

The Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers has welcomed the publication of a strategy for the profession but again emphasised the need for more to be done about excessive bureaucracy and workloads facing overstretched practitioners.

NIASW was responding to the launch of the Social Work Strategy for Northern Ireland by health minister Edwin Poots, who said the document “sets out a vision and agenda for action for social work” in the country.

The document outlines plans to develop a regional social work out-of-hours service, establish a system of extended and flexible hours and improving employer support for frontline staff.

Commenting on the strategy, launched on 16 April, BASW chief executive Hilton Dawson said: “We warmly welcome the strategy for social work in Northern Ireland which builds on some of the highest educational standards in the UK and some of the best integrated services across the country.

“It is vital that the strategy attends to its very first priority of improving employer support for social workers in carrying out their work. It is essential that bureaucracy is reduced, effective supervision is enabled and that practitioners are facilitated to do social work well, unburdened by unmanageable workloads. It is also crucial that social workers are kept safe in undertaking what can be challenging work on behalf of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

Describing it as Northern Ireland’s first ever strategy for social work, Mr Poots said the publication “provides a framework for social work practice that reflects the role of social work in early intervention and prevention as well as in more targeted and specialist services for those in need of care or protection. It will support practitioners, commissioners, Trusts and other employers to strengthen and improve social work services for the future.”

The strategy outlines initial steps towards strengthening the capacity of the social work workforce and ensuring employers better support their staff. It suggests developing ‘standards for employers to promote regional consistency in professional supports for social workers in different settings and sectors’ and also promoting access ‘to professional supervision to agreed standards’. It also recommends risk assessment and prevention strategies ‘to support the safety of social workers in their daily practice’.

The document outlines the pressures facing social work in Northern Ireland, which has the fastest growing population in the UK, as well as growing life expectancies and more people living longer with disabilities or complex health needs.

Commenting on plans to extend out of hours services the strategy describes how social work is currently provided on ‘traditional office hours of 9am to 5pm, between Monday and Friday’, meaning that ‘many service users, including school-aged children, are unavailable’. NIASW offered cautious support for a more flexible model but warned of the need for more funding to support extending the hours that struggling social work teams are expected to work.

BASW’s Hilton Dawson urged the minister to define specific social work responsibilities in order to safeguard service users. He said: “Northern Ireland has led the UK in the integration of social work with health services, but it is now vital that in seeking to ensure all services work together even better for the people of Northern Ireland, that the particular role and significance of social work is recognised through the protection of social work functions.

“Not everyone needs a social worker but social work principles, experience and practice can often underpin vital community services where critical issues of liberty and safeguarding arise. As such, a fully qualified, well supported, experienced social worker can ensure that lives are protected and saved.

“We welcome the strategy and look forward to working closely with the Chief Social Services Officer, as we develop a model for a united College of Social Work, led by and accountable to social workers, which becomes embedded in the Northern Ireland scene.”