Points to Ponder: Joint Statement on the Partnership on National Care Service
The Scottish Government, COSLA and the NHS have reached an outline agreement about the accountability arrangements for the National Care Service. They have agreed that legal accountability for the service will be shared between Scottish Government, the NHS and local government.
What that means in practical terms is that social work staff who are currently employed by local authorities will remain their employees, and councils will still be responsible for assets like buildings as well as the delivery of services. The detail of how this will work at a local level will be developed in the coming months. This consensus follows the Verity House agreement on closer cooperation between Scottish Government and local government signed last month. Discussions have also recently begun with the trade unions.
The agreement that staff will not be transferred out of local authorities will come as a relief to many social workers. The lack of clarity on this core section of the Bill arrangement had risked causing anxiety in the sector and exacerbating the existing recruitment and retention crisis in social work and social care.
However, we are hearing from Disabled People’s Organisations that their members see this announcement backtracking on a national approach and are concerned about the opportunities lost for radical reform of the culture of care and meeting expectations for people who need support. Many will ask what exactly will change if the duties, powers and assets of the NHS and local authorities remain as they are?
Local authorities and unions have been pre-eminently concerned about keeping the existing employment arrangements, with some refusing to engage with Government until the transfer of staff and assets was taken off the table. For some, this was driven by their belief in the benefits and supremacy of local democracy. For example, that local people should have power through elected members to agitate for the services they need. Others, more cynical, might suggest their motivation is maintaining access to the large adults’ social services budgets that support the operational infrastructures of our councils.
Whilst many have been worried about a potential transfer of employer, many social workers still want some key changes in their conditions to ensure they can support people to the best of their professional and personal ability including:
1. A nationally agreed framework for pay and conditions so that councils with greater resource cannot raise their pay rates and strip workers from their neighbouring local authorities.
2. A practice framework that rewards experience and promotes general and specialised skills development.
3. A profession that is respected, accountable and autonomous: that is not micro-managed and that has proper resource to help people when they need it.
So how might we get to a change in the way we work, a change in the current relationship with our employers, and a thriving profession?
Our unions are our key advocates here. There are several that social workers tend to join; general unions such as Unison, Unite and GMB and the specialist union SWU.
The Social Workers’ Union (SWU) has been in existence for around 12 years and has over 15,000 members across the UK. It is the only specialist union for social workers in the UK but is not part of collective bargaining on terms and conditions because its application to join the TUC was blocked.
The way collective bargaining works now means that social workers are part of a group of local authority employees whose terms are agreed as an inter-related group. Whilst local authorities use the common local government pay spine for pay differentiation between roles, they can set their own pay scale which leads to the “local rate for the job” varying significantly across the country. That is why social workers in some areas are paid more than those in other areas.
Because social workers are part of an inter-related pay group, they cannot negotiate as a stand-alone profession, like teachers and nurses who have a national framework specifically for their profession. Our unions involved in collective bargaining can only campaign for the whole local government job family that social workers are a part of. This makes driving forward better working conditions and remuneration for social workers additionally difficult.
It is important to ensure that all public sector employees are remunerated fairly and well. However, social work is a profession in crisis. Retention and recruitment remain serious issues across Scotland. Do we need a specific approach for social work?
Points to ponder
1. What will it take to bring about increased consistency and better conditions for social workers in terms of pay, learning and development opportunities and a manageable approach to workload across Scotland?
2. Given local structures may remain pretty much as they are:
in what ways can our employers help to transform social work from care management and crisis interventions to offering early support to individuals and communities?
What power do social workers have to influence their employers? What should we all be doing?
Can we realise the aims of the Feeley report and our politicians’ ambitions for rights based public services?
3. Does the way social worker terms and conditions are bargained compromise the ability of the proposed National Social Work Agency to make an impact for the profession?
SASW will continue to articulate and work towards a future where people in Scotland get the support they need in ways that suit them and where social work is a healthy and thriving profession. To achieve this, we need a social work profession that is
Accessible to people and communities when they need it in places they can get to.
Trusted by the public and our employers and accountable for our responsibilities.
Respected by employers and colleague professions.
Supported by national and local government and our employers to have meaningful relationship and to do our best work.
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