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Industrial Growing risk of ‘Baby P-style scandal’ in crisis-hit mental health sector

As staff retention pressure in local authority mental health teams reaches boiling point, workers across the country are beginning a spate of strikes, reports BERNY TORRE

ACROSS the country, increasingly young and inexperienced mental health workers go into work worried to learn that a client has died due to a lack of care.

They don’t enjoy the pay benefits awarded to their equally qualified family service counterparts.

And now that real-terms pay cuts have reached a head during the cost-of-living crisis, a spate of strike action has emerged.

With 28 years’ experience on the job, John Burgess, 61, is a rare veteran in his team as a mental health worker in Barnet, north London.

Amid swingeing local authority budget cuts, he told of his fear that it will take a Baby P-style scandal for his profession to be paid proper attention.

“It’s because it’s about children. There’s a sense that in social work, there’s an element of risk about children and if anything goes wrong they get Ofsted-ed,” he said.

“We would argue in mental health the risks are equal if not higher … if somebody takes a knife and attacks somebody, kills themselves or hurts somebody.

“You quickly find out that in most of the big cases when things go wrong it’s the social worker that becomes the target.”

Ahead of a week-long strike by his team starting next Monday, he explained councils fund children’s social care more due to the fear of the publicity of bad Ofsted reports.

Like the NHS, councils are legally obliged to provide a minimum level of cover in adult social care, which as well as mental health includes home care, nursing, community and social work.

As a result, his department’s budget for adult social care is wildly overspent due to its reliance on agency workers, paid up to £15,000 more than their council employee counterparts, Burgess said.

With Barnet’s waiting lists already topping 15 months, the Unison branch secretary continued: “If you were to meet my social workers, one of the things that you would quickly pick up is a very real concern that somebody is going to die.

“Some people have already died. Definitely there’s a sense that we have got people on the waiting list who have not been seen who need help and anything could happen.

“It’s almost as if is it going to be the case that somebody is going to have to do something really extreme to get them to do something and Barnet is not unique in that.”

Unison members in Barnet’s mental health teams began striking in September. 

Burgess believes this is the beginning of a national trend, and a House of Commons gathering of adult social workers is scheduled for next Tuesday.

Barnet members took their lead from a similar strike in South Gloucestershire which in turn inspired another strike in Brighton and Hove, he said.

“There seems to be suddenly a spate of social workers all voting for strike action and hence the debate on Tuesday in the House of Commons,” he added.

“I can only see potentially more action like this across professional groups across local government.

“There’s a recruitment and retention crisis in mental health services in social work.”

The strike in Barnet is about a demand for pay “equality” with children’s services, who receive a “retention bonus” of between 15 and 20 per cent on top of their pay.

Burgess’s Unison members don’t receive this and are asking for one of 20 per cent to stem the staff burnout and encourage agency workers to become fully employed.  

They have pressed on the Labour-run authority that two-thirds of mental health social workers in post since the start of 2023 are due to leave Barnet Council or have left over the past 12 months, with their real-terms pay having fallen by 25 per cent since 2010. 

“The council has been trying to run it with newly qualified staff, the problem is the experienced staff are leaving and even the newly qualified are starting to leave,” Mr Burgess said.

“At the moment the problem is the job is a difficult job, pay has fallen way behind than in 2010 and nationally they are not able to address the decline.

“When I started social work the average in the team had 10 years’ experience. Now I would say only 10 per cent may be there is only one social worker who has been there more than five years — 80 per cent of the workforce are one to two years’ experience. It’s shocking.”

The responsibilities placed on relatively inexperienced staff are stark and “directly linked to 13 years of austerity,” said the union rep.

“If you were trying to prevent admission [to a mental inpatient unit], there’s a lack of resources,” he added.

“There’s also limited options for people because of the resources in mental health provision.

“When you do section somebody you could get sectioned and end up halfway up the country because there’s a lack of beds.

“Our council is no different, in the sense that they already briefing against a massive deficit in council’s budget because in adults there’s a massive overspend in provision of services, particularly for old people and social care which they have to provide.”

Despite what he described as a “macho” lack of compromise from the council, the most frustrating element was seeing extraordinary sums of public funds being pilfered by the Tory Party’s cronies during the pandemic.

“It’s the absolute scandal of billions of money being handed over to mates, that were never delivered and yet at the same time the the public services are being starved of money. It’s an Alice in the Looking Glass sort of a world.”

Paul Edwards, Barnet 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 our mental health social workers who themselves are at the front line of supporting our vulnerable residents. We truly appreciate all the excellent work they do.

“Balancing all these demands, we have striven to offer good support and pay to our social workers, with salaries that benchmark well. We currently have a staff retention rate of 88 per cent.

“We have proposed offering an additional £1,000 per year to all social workers, occupational therapists, senior practitioners and team managers across all social care teams — 185 staff.

“We are grateful for the dedication and commitment of our mental health social workers and our door is always open for further discussions.”

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