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Special report: Social workers reject government’s social work reforms

UNISON report highlights how social workers overwhelmingly reject the government’s plans to reform the profession in Children and Social Work Bill

The government’s planned reforms of social work have been overwhelmingly rejected by the profession, a report by UNISON has found.

Just 1 per cent of social workers thought the government’s reforms outlined in the Children and Social Work Bill will address the significant challenges they face.

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “It seems the government is hell-bent on undermining social services in England. It’s bad enough that there are not enough social workers, or resources to deal with increasing demand. Now ministers are attacking the very legal framework that keeps children safe and secure.”

Removing children’s rights

The report by the public sector union outlines that one of the key aims of the Bill, which was introduced to Parliament earlier this year, is to give local authorities the powers to “test new ways of working” by granting them exemptions from various statutory duties, including sections of the Children Act 1989.

The proposals involve redefining child’s rights to potentially remove certain safeguards and local authorities’ support duties. This means that local authorities could request exemptions from fundamental child protection legislation, which would lead to a dilution of long-held children’s legal rights, the union believes.

“This could remove all current children’s social care rights and replace them with weakened ones, with potentially dangerous consequences,” says the report.

Children’s charity Article 39 provided a list of some of the legal duties currently in place that could be affected by the government’s proposals:

  • The duty to investigate when a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm with the purpose of deciding whether action should be taken to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare (s47, Children Act 1989)
  • The duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need, and to promote their upbringing with their families (s17, Children Act 1989)
  • The duty to provide accommodation to children in need (s20, Children Act 1989)
  • The duty to ascertain and give due consideration to the child’s wishes and feelings when they are being assessed as a child in need, they are accommodated or looked after by the local authority, and when they are subject to a child protection enquiry (s17(4A), s20(6), s22(4) and s47(5A), Children Act 1989).

Legislation is not the big problem

If local authority children’s social work services no longer have to meet these requirements, “children will be at risk of harm”, UNISON highlights.

Organisations representing social workers such as BASW have criticised the proposals. UNISON’s survey results reveal that:

  • Just one in ten (10%) of social workers think local authorities should be able to exempt themselves from children’s social care legislation, which the government believes will allow for social workers to achieve better outcomes for service users.
  • More than two-thirds of social workers oppose the move.
  • Almost 70 per cent of social workers in the survey believe that allowing local authorities to exempt themselves from children’s social care legislation will lead to more children being placed at risk.
  • Less than one in ten (8%) of social workers believe that it won’t lead to more children being placed at risk.

One social worker commented: “The main reason local authorities are failing is due to lack of resources for staffing. The legislation is not the big problem.”

Substandard service to children and families

The government’s plans to allow the creation of social work trusts, exempt from various statutory duties and that can be run outside of local authority control, are seen by many as laying the groundwork for private companies to take over social services, UNISON reveals.

UNISON’s survey shows that nearly all (96%) of social workers said private companies should not be allowed to take over the running of social work functions from local authorities. And while children’s minister Edward Timpson has insisted that ‘there is absolutely no intention of allowing the delegation of child protection functions to profit-making organisations,’ just one percent of social workers in UNISON’s survey trust the government not to privatise social work functions.

“Given the continued cuts to funding it would put pressure on local authorities to choose the cheapest offer when tendering out services,” said the report. “This increases the risk of corners being cut and a substandard service being offered to children and families.”


A further bone of contention in the government’s programme of reform is the proposal for a new regulator of social workers. The Children and Social Work Bill outlined plans for a new ‘government executive agency’ to be established and takeover the regulation of social worker from the Health and Social Care profession. However, following criticism, the government has since reneged on its original plan as children’s minister Edward Timpson told a Westminster debate that a new regulator would be independent.

However, the education select committee originally slammed the proposal for a new regulator as “a waste of money” – and UNISON’s report highlights that the cost of changing regulators from the General Social Care Council to the HCPC cost more than £18 million. Even if the government was to introduce a bespoke independent agency rather than a government agency, it would still prove costly “at a time when local authorities continue to suffer significant cuts to funding levels”.

Both the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Children’s Services opposed any move for the profession to be regulated directly by the Secretary of State. Ninety percent of social workers believe they should continue to be regulated by an independent body. “Therefore it is important that any new regulator is genuinely independent from government,” the UNISON report added.

The survey results also show “the stark disconnect” between front-line social workers and the government regarding their visions for the future of social work, says the report.

  • Less than one in ten (7%) of social workers believe that chief social workers are articulating their concerns about the problems that they are currently experiencing, such as increasingly high caseloads and a lack of resources.
  • Almost 50% said their concerns were mot articulated by the chief social workers.
  • 43% were unsure.

“I feel that the chief social workers are very on board with what the government want to do. They are meant to speak for us as a profession but they seem to be acting as government mouthpieces,” said one social worker.

Just 1% of social workers believe the government’s planned reforms for social work address the main concerns that the profession is facing.

Government should abandon dangerous elements of the bill

Social workers were asked to rank what they believe should be the government’s priorities for dealing with their key problems should be. Social workers said the government’s two main priorities should be investing more in social work services and dealing with caseload levels. Yet the government’s reforms offer nothing to deal with these fundamental issues.

Local authorities face yet more budget cuts which means that there will be less money to spend on social work services at a time when more local people are likely to need them, the report highlights. Just as resources are drying up, the demand for social work has never been higher.

“The overwhelming and wholesale rejection of the government’s agenda by social workers should encourage Ministers to abandon significant elements of this controversial and dangerous Bill,” said the report. “Instead they should seek to engage meaningfully with the workforce and their representatives and local authorities and come up with a plan that will deal with the deep-rooted and fundamental challenges facing social work, including the lack of resources at a time of increasing demand.”

UNISON is calling on the government to:

  • Abandon the dangerous and controversial elements of the Bill which allow local authorities to exempt themselves from important statutory duties towards children
  • Agree to meet with a range of front-line social workers and their representative bodies to properly discuss how the challenges facing social work can be overcome.
  • Listen to the views of looked-after children, their families and supporters to learn about their experience of social services and related support.
  • Invest more resources into supporting social work services across England.
  • Ensure that social workers continue to be regulated independently.

“Social workers themselves have little confidence in the government’s ability to protect children or the social work services they rely on. The government is squandering an opportunity to make genuine improvements to vulnerable children and social work services by failing to engage and listen to the profession,” the report concluded.

What about the children? A UNISON report on social work reform in England

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