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Lords debate on social workers' poor working conditions

Social workers are having to work extra unpaid hours to plug gaps in provision caused by cuts, it was warned during a debate in the House of Lords.

Research commissioned by the Social Workers Union suggesting staff work the equivalent of 64 days a year unpaid overtime was described as “chilling” by Labour Peer Lord Watson.

He claimed the Government was benefiting from the goodwill of social workers who were struggling to keep services running at their own expense.

Lord Watson, who is Labour’s education spokesman, said: “It is a double whammy, because social workers are asked to do more – some of it unpaid – with fewer resources.

“It is also a double whammy for the Government, because not only do they save money through cutting the resources allocated to local authorities, and hence social work departments, they then get greater productivity from social work staff, whose dedication to their job and the vulnerable people they joined the profession to help means that they do not incur the additional wage costs to which they are entitled.”

The SWU research, undertaken by Bath Spa University, found 55 per cent of 1,700 social workers surveyed were considering quitting over the next 15 months, with unmanageable caseloads, a lack of support and bureaucracy among their concerns.

The report led to SWU and BASW launching their ‘Respect for Social Work’ campaign calling for better working conditions.

Lord Watson said the Department for Education had taken action on similar research on teacher workloads carried out by their professional bodies.

He said: “That process is continuing, but the teacher unions are facing the workload challenge and working with the DfE to get assurances on workload reduction. It’s clear that what is required is a similarly positive approach from government as regards social workers and their workload.”

Responding for the Government, Baroness Manzoor said social workers did “vital work” and ministers “recognise the impact that high workloads, stress and low morale have on recruitment and retention”.

Baroness Manzoor said the Government was investing more dedicated funding for adult social care over the next three years and had given more “flexibility” to how funding could be spent on children’s services.

A range of social work reforms, including the creation of a new regulator, social work teaching partnerships and investment in training and development, would also help staff, she added.

“The government must do all they can, as has already been said, to empower and champion social work, but we must also acknowledge the responsibility of local authorities to ensure social workers have manageable workloads and receive quality supervision and support, which prioritises practice over process.” 

The debate was brought by Labour Co-Op peer Lord Kennedy. He said stress could have “devastating consequences” for people and it was vital that the issues social workers raised in the research were tackled “to avoid even more serious problems in the future”.

Click here to watch the full debate