Covid-19: Impact on Social Work — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 23rd March 2022.

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Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood 9:30 am, 23rd March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the impact of the covid-19 outbreak on social work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. World Social Work Day was on 15 March, so it is perhaps timely to hold a debate in this House on the issue of social work. May I begin by wishing social workers everywhere, particularly in my constituency of Lancaster and Fleetwood, a belated but very happy World Social Work Day?

I see from my casework, as I imagine many other Members do from theirs, the amazing work that social workers do to support our constituents. Social work is one of the lesser-understood parts of our social care sector. Social workers come into people’s lives at difficult and challenging times, and there can be a negative association with them. When social workers are in the headlines, that is often because the worst has happened. When the worst happens, that sadly often means that a child known to social services has died.

When Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was murdered by the very people who were supposed to love and care for him, that was national news. Everyone wanted to know what events had led to that tragic incident and how it could be prevented from ever happening again. Some people were asking why social services could not save him, and why they could not save Star Hobson, who was also killed by the people who were supposed to look after her.

Most of the time, social workers are not in the news. I know an awful lot about social workers. In fact, I was brought up by one. My dad is a retired social worker, but he spent many years working for Cumbria social services in probation, child protection and, latterly, in his longest stint, the youth offending team. Although there are probably many cases in which my dad supported individuals but perhaps did not manage to turn their lives around, I want to tell the anonymous story of a school friend of mine who was in contact with me a couple of years ago. She said, “Your dad was my social worker. I had fallen in with the wrong crowd, but your dad helped me turn my life around. Now I am a mum, I work, and I no longer have a criminal record. I managed to do that with the support of your dad.” The story of my school friend would never make a story in a local paper, let alone a national, but that is the kind of work that social workers do in lots of different sectors. In particular, such cases involve supporting young offenders to turn their lives around.

Every single day, social workers carry out their roles. They support people with learning difficulties and autistic people. They work with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. They carry out assessments and reviews, protecting people’s liberties and best interests. Social workers are integral to upholding human rights and child protection, but we cannot ignore the sphere in which social workers work.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for securing the debate. Will she allow me to place on record my thanks to those on the frontline of social work in Glasgow? In particular, I pay tribute to the social work team in Easterhouse in the East community addiction team in Parkhead. Before covid-19, many of those social workers had an enormous workload, which has only been exacerbated by several lockdowns. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that we listen to the voice of social workers on further support from Government as we emerge from covid-19, as their workload has undoubtedly changed?

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

I thank the hon. Member for making that point. As a frequent visitor to his constituency, I know that his social work team in Glasgow do an amazing job supporting his constituents, and he is right to say that the voice of social workers needs to be heard by Government.

I have spent a lot of time with social workers over the years, some of whom have gone on to be elected Members of the House and who were then able to provide a platform for social work issues, and I have huge respect for the Members of the House who come from a social work background. One of the first MPs I met, Hilton Dawson, was a social worker before being elected MP for Lancaster in 1997. After Parliament, he went to work at the British Association of Social Workers, where I worked with him before being elected to the House. There is probably quite a nice symmetry in that, but I suspect that he is probably watching and wondering why it has taken me so long to get a Westminster Hall debate on this important issue. Indeed, given that his most recent political activity was standing in the Hartlepool by-election for the North East party, he has certainly been on a political journey, too.

The British Association of Social Workers is the professional organisation for more than 22,000 social workers in the UK. Its annual survey was carried out at the end of 2021, and the results were published just a few weeks ago. Social workers are on the frontline. They know their own profession and what they need in order to be able to fulfil their statutory and non-statutory obligations to a high standard. The Government should be listening to them.

In the survey, the three biggest challenges facing the workforce were determined to be the demands of administrative tasks, workload demand and adequacy of staffing. Nearly 5,000 family social workers left the profession during 2021—up 16% compared with 2020. How can we trust that we are doing the best by social workers if they are leaving the profession in such numbers and trying to do their job without departments being fully staffed?

High workloads and staff shortages will lead to current staff burning out. In many professions, burnout at work means that someone drops the ball on a deadline and perhaps one or two deadlines are missed, but a burnt-out social worker can be a matter of life and death for a child. It is not the fault of that social worker; the issue is the environment in which they work. Social workers do their very best to support people, so Government must do their very best to support social workers.

The pandemic did not only affect child safeguarding. The challenges facing care homes were also a key focus, but Government failed to bring forward many solutions. They only issued guidance and let care homes make their own decisions about visitors and testing, and that caused a lot of upset. Social workers reported that they were unable to access care homes. Social workers have a key safeguarding role, and residents’ family members and social workers facing access restrictions only heightened the worry about what was going on inside care homes.

How were people coping with the changes? Many care home residents, especially those with illnesses such as dementia, would not have understood why their family members were not visiting. That was never the right approach. I appreciate that the confusion in a pandemic can lead to some rash and ill-thought-out decisions, but it must never be allowed to happen again. Upholding human rights is not an optional add-on; it is a fundamental part of our social care system and should never have been restricted.

The pandemic also had an impact on people with learning disabilities and autistic people. “Do not resuscitate” orders were being issued basis solely on a person’s learning disability. That is a national scandal. Does the Minister understand the distress that those orders will have caused people? People with learning disabilities have, for a variety of reasons, much poorer health outcomes than the population as a whole. Along with other vulnerable and marginalised groups, people with a learning disability and autistic people bore a disproportionate weight of the impact of covid-19, including a greater risk of death.

This cannot be looked at simply in the context of the pandemic, either. We know from scandals such as that involving Winterbourne View care home that people with learning disabilities and autistic people are not always treated in the way they should be. The British Association of Social Workers’ “Homes not Hospitals” group campaigns on this, so will the Minister agree to a meeting with that group to talk about what the Government can do to get people with learning disabilities and autistic people out of hospital and back into the communities where they belong?

Social workers join the profession because they care deeply about society and the people within it, but social workers can do their job properly only if the Government are giving them the resources to do so. There needs to be proper funding for local authorities so that councils can invest in preventive measures. The cuts to local authority budgets affect social work, but also sectors such as youth work. I have secured many debates in the House on youth work and I know that there is sometimes, in some places, a bit of a tension between the youth work profession and the social work profession but, particularly for children in care, a strong working relationship between youth workers and social workers can really make the difference for a young person’s life outcomes.

We do not know whether there will be another dangerous strain of covid-19 or a new virus altogether that may force us into more restrictions on the way we live our lives, but we have to learn the lessons from this pandemic. Social work and social workers must be at the heart of recovery. It is a profession that is often hidden until someone needs the support of a social worker, but it is work that we could not be without.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 9:40 am, 23rd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I add my congratulations to Cat Smith on securing the debate. Like her, I have had the opportunity over many years in the world of local government, to see the transformative benefits that social workers can bring to the lives of many of our most vulnerable people. Those are children in the care system, adults with learning disabilities and people facing difficulties in old age, where the professionalism, attention to detail and the care provided by local authorities across the country have enabled people to live the best life they possibly can in the circumstances they face.

The topic of today’s debate makes clear that the pandemic has tested not just the professionalism of our social workers, but our care system’s capacity to respond. We will all have seen amazing examples of how social workers and those connected to them have stepped up to the plate. The local authorities that serve my constituency—the London Borough of Hillingdon and the London Borough of Harrow—both played key roles in the community. Social workers identified the needs of individuals and harnessed support from volunteers, charitable and community organisations, to ensure that, where there were limits to what the state could do to provide for people in a time of acute need, others were able to step in.

I will give the example of H4All, a charitable organisation in Hillingdon that brought together the efforts of several organisations, supported by a local authority that recognised that social workers would be able to do their best work if they were effectively supported. For example, with libraries closed, library staff were redeployed to man call centres for people who needed to raise a concern about someone they knew, a family member, or who were supporting someone and needed to arrange delivery of medication.

They were able to use staff who were redeployed, so that social workers could concentrate on things that only they could do, such as assessments of need to enable people to progress in their care packages, the preparation of people to be discharged from hospital, and acute work in children’s services, such as child protection for those known to be at risk, who might otherwise have missed the opportunity of a regular visit from a professional to ensure they were safe and thriving in their placement. One of my neighbours, a foster carer, was supported through the process of fostering a baby who was placed with her. Social workers were able to continue ensuring that system for supporting the needs of the most vulnerable, despite all the pressures of covid.

In the context of the debate about the future of social work, covid has given us the opportunity, not just in social work but in many parts of our system, to learn lessons and identify what we can do better, based on how covid tested the operation of the system. As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for social work, I am conscious that, along with other professional organisations, social workers are taking a key interest in how the profession will develop and sit in the context of the care system, of which it is a crucial part.

That is not a new debate. I commend the Department for Education for seeking, through the fast-track programme, to identify ways in which people who want to become social workers could develop their professional standards. They are able to pursue a programme, facilitated by placements in different types of organisations, with different aspects of the social work profession. Having sat in on some of those training sessions, I was fascinated to see how social workers saw things in a different light, through talking to people who managed cases other than the ones they might commonly come across in their day jobs. They were able to support each other to develop their professional judgment. The proposed re-tendering of that programme, although an important part of the system, needs to ensure that it continues to support social workers in developing the highest professional standards, and does not lose the focus it has brought to the system.

Some of those issues are consistent across all parts of the social work profession. We heard, for example, about caseloads, which remain a challenge for social workers whether they are dealing with adults with learning disabilities, very elderly people, or children who are in need for whatever reason. The context of regulation for children’s social workers is different from that of adult social workers, and that also remains a challenge. The work of the Care Quality Commission is perhaps beginning to diverge from the work of Ofsted, so the regulatory framework for the social work profession is becoming more and more diverse, reflecting the fact that the clients that social workers serve are different.

It is worth reflecting on some of the pandemic lessons. We have seen, for example, a move away from significant numbers of family support workers in children’s services, as well as occupational therapists in supporting elderly people, and in the role of youth workers, which was referred to earlier. Perhaps we need to reflect on the structures that we expect from our local authorities and that our regulatory framework drives. Perhaps there should be a greater degree of local flexibility to bring together those different but allied professions so that they focus on the needs of the most vulnerable.

Local authorities will do that for a variety of reasons. I recall Hackney Council’s so-called pod model bringing together youth workers, therapists and social workers. By the time that other local authorities had adopted that model, Hackney had given up on it because it felt it was not working any more, so there is sometimes a risk that, when tested, new ideas prove to be not as effective as we would like. However, we should see the deployment particularly of folks such as family support workers in a way that can really help the social work profession to do what it does best and what only it can do, and the service that vulnerable people receive should be of the highest quality possible.

The greater divergence among the workforces around children, adults and the elderly can be positive, particularly in the context of extra funding, which we expect to see coming into the system through the decisions that the Chancellor and the Government make. Some will say that that is overdue and insufficient, but I can say that from my experience in a local authority it will be most welcome. It will ease a lot of the pressure that has been building up in the system and, because the local authority funding model is so diverse across the country, it can re-base social services departments so that they are more consistently funded through a national programme in a way that putting the burden on council tax payers cannot achieve because of the diversity of how much funding is raised.

The social work profession has an opportunity to consider parallels with what is going on in other professions, especially across the public sector where we see many similar roles. How is the nursing profession developing? How are the lessons from professional development being applied? In teaching and policing we see not just similar salary levels, but often common qualifications and of course a focus often at the most vulnerable end on the same families, so are there things that we can do to improve the way that the training and development across all those professions is aligned so that they can work more effectively together?

The pandemic period, the debate today and the celebration that has been referred to have demonstrated once again that social workers and those who support and work with them remain a key part, often a hidden part, of the social infrastructure of our country. The local authority with the most people coming into contact with any part of social care has less than one in five of its population receiving any form of support from social care during the whole of their lives. Most people will never be touched by social care, but for a critical group in society it is absolutely vital that they receive care to the highest possible standard, and I join the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood in paying tribute to the work that social workers have done in keeping society together during the pandemic.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:49 am, 23rd March 2022

I thank Cat Smith for raising such an important issue. I had hoped that we would have more people here today to participate because there is not one MP who does not have regular contact with their social workers on behalf of constituents; it happens in my office every week. I want to mention some of the issues and care packages in place, and I will mention some figures for my constituency.

I am pleased to see the Minister in her place. I always look forward to her response—not just because she is a good friend, but because she always answers with knowledge and help, which I think we all wish to see. That is exactly what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood is seeking with the debate. I am also pleased to see the shadow Minister, Karin Smyth, in her place—I look forward to her contribution—and my good friend Martyn Day, who speaks on behalf of the Scottish National party. We are pleased to participate in this debate on such an important issue.

It is not the fault of anyone in this room, but the outbreak of the pandemic has cruelly exacerbated the social work situation. How we respond is the subject of the debate and the Minister’s responsibility. There is no doubt those in the profession have faced unprecedented challenges, and it is great to be here today to illustrate some of them and to discuss how we can support our brilliant social workers.

We have mentioned the NHS and many of those who kept the wheels turning and the shelves filled, who visited people and who made everything happen through a pandemic of unprecedented ferocity. All of society gelled together as a team to make that happen. I meet people every week in my constituency of Strangford who make the lives of the vulnerable and those in need better. That is their responsibility, and I have that responsibility on their behalf.

We are sometimes confronted with incredibly difficult cases. I am no different from anybody else, so I suspect that my response is the same as everyone else’s. Social workers are involved in some awful cases: the lives that people are confronted with, probably through no fault of their own, and the impact on children. I have a special place in my heart for children, because I am not only a father, but a grandfather; it is a great stage. Those of us in the Chamber who are grandparents will know that it is a wonderful experience. The great thing, Mr Robertson, is that we can give our grandchildren back at 7 o’clock at night! Whenever they get tantrummy and want to go to bed, or do not want to go to bed—it depends what mood they are in—we can always phone up their mum and dad to say, “By the way, the kids are ready to collect.” We can enjoy all the fun, but for others on the frontline, I am afraid that there are real problems.

As of 2021, 105,000 people were employed as social workers for children, the elderly, and those who are vulnerable and in need. I am not asking the Minister to answer for Northern Ireland as that is not her responsibility, but I want to sew the Northern Ireland perspective into this debate because it echoes what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said in her introduction. The Minister always gives me some succour and encouragement in her response, and that is important.

There is predicted to be a mismatch between the supply and demand of social care professionals, with 1 million workers needed by 2025, which is not that far away. We seem to be having anniversaries regularly—whatever they may be for—and I look back and think, “That can’t have been four or five years ago”, but it was. Three years will pass quickly, and it is predicted that there will be a 35% shortfall in social workers. Will the Minister tell us from a UK perspective what has been done to recruit and train social workers, and to have the support at every level that is critical to a good response?

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend is outlining the extent of the problem and the imminent mismatch between supply and demand, which is just two and a half years away. Does he agree that what we need to see and hear from Government, both centrally and throughout the devolved regions of the UK, is an acknowledgement and admission of an impending problem? Action needs to be taken now, so that social workers and others in the care sector can see that our Governments are looking ahead, planning and preparing for the problems that we will all face.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend has summed up in a few seconds exactly what the debate is about, whereas I will take 10 or 12 paragraphs to explain it. His point is that we have to be strategic and visionary, and have a plan of action. Today is all about what that plan of action is.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I visit schools in my constituency and speak to some of the kids about what they want to be when they grow up—although I am probably not grown up yet and do not know what I want to be—and it strikes me that we have to look at this issue in the context of schooling, which I accept is devolved in Scotland. We need to encourage young people to think about careers in social work. Looking around the Chamber, I was probably the one in school most recently, but I do not recall being encouraged to look at social work, when we were told in the traditional way, “Here are careers you can do.” Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we can do more to encourage young people to consider a career in social work, and would he be willing to promote that in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Many social workers I deal with are probably of a certain generation. He makes the point that we need to be preparing, and that goes back to my question to the Minister about having a strategy and plan in place.

I understand that many young people do come into social work, because I have met some, but—I say this very gently, and it is not in any way meant to be critical—they need to have experienced social workers to work alongside and gain their knowledge. Young people will sometimes be confronted with cases that they might not have the life experiences to deal with. That is not a criticism; experience is gained over many years. I have been confronted by such cases on behalf of constituents, and I feel that decisions are not always made—in my opinion, as someone who is not a social worker—as they could or should have been.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

I entirely agree with the hon. Member’s point. Does he agree that programmes such as the fast-track ones bring the opportunity, in particular for young social workers who might be graduates straight out of university, to work with people who may have been in the profession for 20 or 30 years? Young social workers would have the chance to learn from experienced people and to see how they dealt with cases with which I, as a lead council member, was sadly familiar—for example, sometimes, the sexual abuse of children committed by professionals who were meant to be caring for them, or elderly people suffering complex financial abuse within a family. It is important that the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education continue to support that type of professional development, so that we can grow our own highly professional social workers in the future.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

As my friend, David Linden, said—and as I am trying to say, in my broken words—people have to start somewhere in life; they have to start their job somewhere and learn about their role.

Social care organisations have revealed that 75% of social workers feel more negative about their work life in 2021 compared with in the first year of the pandemic. People come to us all the time with problems, and I like that because it is my job. Many people say, “I don’t know how you do your job, listening to people’s complaints and always solving their problems, and so on”, but I reply, “That’s what life is about. Life is about making lives better.” We need to be aware that social workers sometimes deal with complex and difficult issues. My question to the Minister is, has any assessment been done of the impact of the pandemic on social workers? If the figures are right—I understand that they are—that 75% of social workers feel more negative about their work life in 2021, we have a potential problem. I hope we do not, but we must at least consider that and respond.

This situation is down to the increasing pressures and challenges that the social work sector has faced. Referrals of children to social services in Northern Ireland have increased every month since February 2020. The highest figure was in April 2021, with 3,616 children being referred. That clearly indicates that parents are struggling to cope, and is a clear sign of the increasing pressure on our social workers, which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood illustrated very well in her contribution, and as other Members have reported.

We must not forget the impact that the covid outbreak has had on the social sector in relation not just to children, but to the elderly and the vulnerable. David Simmonds rightly referred to an issue that is on my mind as well: people who depend on family members to look after their financial affairs. I have dealt with a few of those cases, which are always difficult because there are often two sets of family members saying two different things—but there is a person in the middle who is losing out.

The BBC revealed in mid-2021 that almost 2,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for care packages, so that they can be supported to live in their own homes. Just this week, a very lovely man who I have known all my life—he is well into his 80s now—has been ill and had to go to hospital. Although he wants to come home, and would be able to, he needs a care package in place before he can come home because, due to the nature of his disability, his wife would be unable to provide the physical care that he needs. That is not the Minister’s responsibility; I am just illustrating the issue.

The wait for care packages could mean an increase of patients to residential care. My constituency of Strangford takes in the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which has reported that 282 people were waiting from the end of August 2021. Social workers are a key part of making that a success story. The provision of home care is crucial in taking the additional pressure off of hospitals and care homes. We must ensure that our social workers have the capacity to deal with the increasing amount of care packages needed. I have never seen anything quite like it. I know that we are getting older—we are living longer and our bodies are breaking down, meaning that more people need care packages—but there has to be a strategy and a vision for how we deal with that, as has been pointed out in other contributions.

There is an increased risk of covid infection for those who work in the social work industry, as we have seen happen over and over. That is nobody’s fault; it is the nature of life. It cannot be helped when tests are positive and people must take time off work. However, that is where we can step in to ensure that there is a sustainable number of social workers to cope with the level of care needed by children, the elderly, the vulnerable and the disabled.

We must also take into consideration the impact of the pandemic on our social workers’ mental health. Some 55% of respondents to a survey said that they felt increased anxiety—in an already difficult job—given the risk that they posed to the vulnerable by potentially carrying covid. I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on how we can better deal with that. One way would be to have extra staffing, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood mentioned earlier. Social workers are as prepared as they can be in terms of personal protective equipment, as the Government and the Minister have done extremely well in responding to that need, but the Government must step in when it comes to staffing and workload. Many social workers have stated that their casework load has increased by as much as 40% over the pandemic. They are working longer hours—I know that, because they tell me that and I see it—and those longer hours are probably for the same money. Overtime rates will never compensate for the loss of physical wellbeing and mental health.

The Department of Health and Social Care must have provisions in place to ensure that our social workers are not under the most extreme pressure. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response and the encouragement that she will give us. I urge her and her Department to consider the impact of that pressure not only in England, where her responsibility lies, but across the United Kingdom. I know that the Minister, like those in other Departments, regularly contacts her equivalent Minister in the devolved Administrations, be that in Scotland, Wales or, in my case, Northern Ireland, so I know that there is continuity between those Administrations. I say very gently to my two friends, the hon. Member for Glasgow East and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, that I very much think that within this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we are always better together; we can work together and exchange ideas, and we can all benefit from that. I say that gently to my friends in the SNP, because I know that they really do agree with me that we are better together.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

How do you top that, Martyn? [Laughter.]

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 10:05 am, 23rd March 2022

I am managing not to laugh; I will do my best.

I am grateful to Cat Smith for securing today’s debate, which has been thoughtful and consensual. It is a worthy topic and I start by expressing my own gratitude to social workers for their outstanding work during these difficult times. They have continued to work tirelessly to support children, families, individuals and communities across a range of specialisms and services throughout the covid-19 pandemic.

I am grateful for the comprehensive and measured manner in which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood outlined and opened the debate. It is a timely reminder to us all that, sadly, lives can be at risk when things go wrong, so it is vital that things do not go wrong and that social workers play a major role in helping to sort out people’s lives.

There are around 11,000 social workers registered with the Scottish Social Services Council. They are part of a social services workforce of over 209,000 people and are aligned to, but a different profession from, social care professions. Most work in local authority settings, across adults, children’s and justice social work. Registered social workers are also employed by the independent sector and may be self-employed independent social workers. They were all classed as key workers and admirably carried out their roles within the additional pressures of the pandemic climate. However, 77.7% of social workers interviewed by the British Association of Social Workers strongly agreed that working under lockdown had increased concerns around being able to safeguard children and adults. Concerns for the safety of women and children experiencing domestic abuse heightened over the pandemic. In some cases, lockdown and social distancing exacerbated already high-risk situations. It is deeply concerning that referrals to domestic abuse services increased during that period.

The Scottish Government are working tirelessly to ensure that frontline services continue to support adults and children experiencing gender-based violence, with £12 million allocated to tackle violence against women and girls. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Scottish Government allocated an additional £5.75 million to various organisations, including Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland, to support those providing frontline services to people experiencing the violence of domestic abuse, and to ensure that services could meet increased demand. Services, including national helplines, remained open during the pandemic, so that anyone who needed help could access them.

The Scottish Government have also committed to review the funding and commissioning of special services, with an additional twin focus on domestic and sexual abuse services. They recently launched the Delivering Equally Safe fund, inviting applications from public bodies and third-sector organisations. The fund provides up to £13 million a year from October last year to combat violence against women and girls.

Following the Scottish Government’s commitment in the 2020-21 programme for government, they published revised national guidance for child protection on 2 September. The guidance, which incorporates learning from child protection cases, supports improved cross-agency working and outcomes for children at risk. Local implementation of the guidance has been supported by a national group that is chaired by the deputy chief social work adviser. Chief officer groups oversee local public protection arrangements and the assessment and response to risk, vulnerability and protection across the 32 local partnerships.

The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 provisions were also developed to improve capacity and flexibility of local child protection processes and prioritisation of children at greatest risk. A local authority and Police Scotland data return, collected since April 2020, continues to be key to understanding how the pandemic is impacting on Scotland’s vulnerable children and young people.

While the Scottish Government have worked to protect social workers and those they serve, the UK Government’s requirements for mandatory vaccination of those working in care homes has forced valuable workers from the sector. The British Association of Social Workers issued a statement at the time warning of the dangers of the UK Government’s approach and expressing opposition. In my opinion, the UK Government should have followed the Scottish Government’s “educate and inform” approach to vaccination of care and social workers.

Social work relies very strongly on a human rights regime, which the Scottish Government have championed through working to enshrine the UN convention on the rights of the child and the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities in Scots law. The UK Government’s shameless attempt to prevent the enshrining of the UN convention on the rights of the child does nothing to protect the rights of children, and their plans to overhaul or overturn the Human Rights Act are a direct threat to social work, as has been highlighted in the British Association of Social Workers’ briefing. The UK Government should commit to supporting human rights and end their attacks on the Human Rights Act.

There can be no doubt that poverty is a driver of the need for social work interventions. As I have repeatedly called on the UK Government to make the £20 increase to universal credit and working tax credit permanent, it was disappointing that that was not done. The September cut to the £20 uplift has meant that millions of claimants suffered a £1,000-a-year cut, with only tapering to soften the blow. That cut is estimated to have pushed 60,000 people in Scotland into poverty, including 20,000 children.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

I am very much enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. I am glad he has raised the issue of poverty; that is one of the things I did not include in my contribution, but not because it is not important. Does he agree that it is important to understand the link between poverty and families needing support through social work, and that eradicating poverty would go a long way in easing many of the issues that we wish to address through social work?

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

I agree entirely with the hon. Member. I am bringing my remarks to an end, and she has helped amplify my point, for which I am very grateful. On poverty, the British Association of Social Workers has commented in its briefing that

“it cannot be ignored that poverty will have wider repercussions, such as on social work.”

I will leave that thought as my final remark. I hope it helps focus the Minister’s response.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 10:11 am, 23rd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend Cat Smith for bringing the debate before the House, and for the work she does with David Simmonds on the all-party parliamentary group for social work. The debate has been less well attended than some, but it has been high in quality. As parents, none of us really knows what our offspring think of us or what they will say in future, but it was good to hear my hon. Friend talk about her father, Alan Smith—the work he has done in social work, and what she heard from her friend—and for her to bring that experience here today and have it drive her work. I am sure he must be very proud, and we are grateful that she is doing it. Perhaps Parliament sometimes seems aloof to workers in the social work sector, but we all have our own personal stories and we bring them to this place to inform the debate.

Since becoming an MP, I have realised that my inbox is a fairly good indicator of what is happening in my constituency. In Bristol South, the high impact of violence against women in the home has driven my casework in the six years for which I have been a Member of Parliament, but children’s mental health and family crisis have become an increasingly substantial part of my inbox. Often, those cases have children at their core—those are the most heartbreaking, and are very difficult for our staff to deal with. As Jim Shannon said, we are not the frontline of those cases; often by the time parents, family members or friends have come to us, things have gone very wrong, and what we see in our inboxes is the tip of that iceberg. Social workers are at the forefront of the response, and what we have heard today and from the representative bodies in their briefing is really alarming.

I will focus my comments on two key issues: the workforce and more complex work. Every debate I have been involved in since taking on my role as shadow Front Bench spokesperson for health and social care has been dominated by one issue, which is the lack of people available to do the jobs we so desperately need. I say gently to the Minister that next week the Health and Social Care Bill will be back in this place after some excellent debates in the Lords, particularly on workforce, following the work done by the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, Jeremy Hunt. It would be good if the Government could come back with some support for a workforce plan that is credible, is funded, and will give hope to all the people who are keeping our society functioning at that level. We know there are some battles to be had with the Treasury, but everyone in this room is right behind the Secretary of State and his Ministers in that battle.

As we have heard, vacancy rates are up to 9.5%, which starts to mirror the workforce crisis across many areas in the health and care sector. Some 5,000 children and family social workers have left a social worker post in England, which is a massive increase over five years. The vacancy rate is at a five-year high with about 6,500 vacancies and that is part of the wider trend, with the pandemic exacerbating the issue. It is important to note that the situation was not caused by the pandemic, but has been exacerbated by it. The wider trend, from high-pressured jobs to the undermining of support services such as Sure Start, has left social workers to pick up the pieces.

As we have heard, burnout is a worrying problem. A survey by the Social Workers’ Benevolent Trust found that throughout the pandemic 75% of social workers were emotionally and mentally exhausted. That is true across much of the workforce, but we are now asking these people to pick up the pieces and go forward. Some good news from the Government on that would be welcome.

We know that the pandemic has increased the complexity of cases that social workers are dealing with, because of what is happening in the rest of society. Again, the situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic. I pay tribute to social workers in my constituency of Bristol South and across Bristol for the work they have done throughout the pandemic. In a survey of the sector, 67% of respondents who worked in children’s services agreed or strongly agreed that they had seen an increase in referrals or their caseload since the return to schools and colleges in autumn 2020. Members of Parliament know from discussions with headteachers in our constituencies that where children, young people and families are presenting in schools, the vacancy rates and the lack of ability to pick up those cases are causing massive problems throughout the sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood talked about care homes and the experience of disabled adults throughout the pandemic, which is shocking. The Care Quality Commission’s report about death rates in care homes should alarm us all. I know the Minister is very open to meeting with representatives of the sector and I am sure she will look favourably on my hon. Friend’s request for a meeting. It would be valuable to bring that issue directly to the Government and, I hope, get a more positive response.

The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner made an excellent point about foster care support, and I know he has a lot of experience in the sector. Where families become most vulnerable, we need that support for the people who are coming forward. People lead different lives from those they led even 10 or 20 years ago, and Bristol City Council has led a lot of good work in encouraging people to come forward for foster care. People should know there is support available for them from the social work sector and that will help those children who we want to see succeed and thrive.

I shall keep my comments short because we want to hear from the Minister. We want to know that the sector has the Government’s support as they take us out of this pandemic, and that hopefully people can start to thrive. It would be helpful if the Minister could outline how the Government will work with local authorities to address the rising vacancy rates in the social work sector. The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner made some interesting comments about the different ways in which local authorities often lead innovation and how they are prepared to learn and recognise that sometimes innovation does not work out. That is part of the learning cycle, which we need to support and encourage. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.

Has the Minister assessed the impact of the rising cost of living on social workers? This afternoon, we have the spring statement and it would be good if there were some positive news for people who are living on medium wages and experiencing the cost of living crisis, as well as for the families they support, who are feeling the impact of inflation and fuel costs. That is particularly the case for people who are in their homes and people with disabilities, who are feeling the pinch from the increasing fuel and heating costs. They could do with some good news, too.

I gently take the Minister back to the decision to cut universal credit, which pushed more families into poverty. We have started to have a discussion on that serious issue, which affects all countries of the United Kingdom, causing unnecessary hardship for families who are already dealing with complex social issues and escalating the cost of living crisis. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, we could lessen the load if people were not being plunged into greater poverty.

It would be good to hear from the Minister about rewarding the social workers on the front line, who, as we have heard, are a key part of the infrastructure. Thankfully, most people do not encounter them, but for those who do, they are absolutely key to the sort of country that we want to be, and we thank them for their work.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 10:20 am, 23rd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank Cat Smith for securing the debate so close to World Social Work Day, and for using her excellent speech to highlight the excellent and varied work that social workers do day in, day out. I had the pleasure of attending the world social worker of the year award ceremony, which was held here in Parliament on World Social Work Day. I know that many Members from both sides of the House enjoyed going along, meeting their local nominees and celebrating the fantastic work of social workers, as well as congratulating the winners of the awards.

Social work is a highly valued vocational profession and we thank all social workers for their important work to support those who are hardest hit, especially during the pandemic when we really relied on their support. Social workers provide a critical model of practice for the health and social care sector. They undertake relationship-based engagement with individuals, their families and communities, and combine emotional support with practical help at a time of great need. Their strengths-based personalised approach in understanding what matters enables them to shape people’s care and support so that they can have the best possible lives. I pay tribute to them all, including the hon. Lady’s father, who obviously contributed to changing many lives during his career.

Importantly, social workers work across agencies and connect people to the resources and the services that they need. They span the boundaries of our health and care workforce, ensuring that people’s human rights are protected and that the individual’s choice and control of their care and support is respected at all times. The pandemic has taught us that co-operation and collaboration across the health and care sectors are absolutely critical, and social workers are central to embedding that way of working. They co-ordinate health and care planning and make vital links to ensure that people with care and support needs do not slip through the gaps in provision.

We have never needed the expertise and insights of social workers more than we do now. As we emerge from the pandemic—into fresh anxieties and tragedies born from the war of Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and other things that we will have to deal with—we will turn to the social work profession for advice, guidance, leadership and support. Covid-19 had a significant impact on health and social care services, including social work, and the response of our workforce was one of dedication and commitment to the people whom they support. Those were unprecedented and challenging circumstances and we stand by the entire workforce and thank them for their vital work to make a difference to people’s lives.

Our focus has always been on ensuring that the adult social care sector has the resources that it needs to respond to covid-19. Throughout the pandemic, we have made available more than £2.9 billion in specific covid support funding for adult social care, including £1.81 billion for infection prevention and control, £523 million for testing, and £583 million for workforce capacity—recruitment and retention—as we know that there are shortages across the sector.

The infection control and testing fund and the workforce recruitment and retention fund supported the care sector to prevent the transmission of covid and to support local authorities in working with providers to boost staffing and support existing care workers until 31 March of this year. Some of that funding helped to enable local authorities to provide continuous support to those in need of social care, including by delivering social work appointments virtually, as well as in person where it was appropriate and safe to do so.

Social workers went above and beyond during the pandemic and they deserve huge thanks for their tireless work. That is why continuing to help social workers manage their mental health and wellbeing remains a priority for the Government. We are determined that everyone working in social care should feel they have someone to talk to or somewhere to turn when they find things difficult. As many hon. Members have said, they deal with the most complex and difficult cases. We are committed to supporting social workers to recover from their extraordinary role in helping our country through the pandemic. We will deliver a listening service to help relieve immediate pressures, as well as talking therapies and coaching sessions for those with more intensive needs.

The chief social worker for adults, Lyn Romeo, has implemented a range of measures during the pandemic, including partnering with Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust to issue guidance to support the wellbeing of adult social workers and social care professionals. She meets regularly with the principal social workers in each local authority and NHS trust, advising and supporting them on practice and workforce support for their staff during the pandemic.

We have invested in increasing the number of social workers completing their approved mental health professional qualification for local authorities to increase their capacity in responding to the needs of people with mental ill health. An additional 228 social workers will be supported to complete their training. Social workers have been supported to improve their knowledge and skills in working with people with learning disabilities and autism.

My hon. Friend David Simmonds mentioned the vital work that social workers do to support people with learning disabilities. The chief social worker for adults commissioned the British Association of Social Workers to develop a capability statement for social workers working with adults with a learning disability in 2019. That supports best practice in this important area, especially considering the impact of the pandemic on those with learning disabilities and/or autism.

As well as our focus on wellbeing, we know the importance of building and strengthening our social care workforce. A number of hon. Members mentioned that it is vital to strengthen the social care workforce so that we can meet demand now and in the future. It is encouraging to note that the number of child and family social workers in the workforce is increasing every year, up from 28,500 in 2017 to 32,500 in 2021. That is 2% more than in 2020 and 14% more than in 2017.

Jim Shannon rightly focused on recruitment and strengthening the workforce. The Government invest over £130 million a year on recruiting, training and developing social workers to ensure the social care workforce has the values, capacity, skills and knowledge to perform its roles. This includes investments in bursaries for undergraduate and postgraduate social work degrees. A new and very popular addition, which I am very proud of, because I worked on it in my last role, is degree apprenticeships.

We have education support grants to support practice placements in organisations delivering social work services. That is vital to build that experience that was mentioned by David Linden. We also have a range of postgraduate fast-track training programmes for those wanting to work in children and family social work or mental health social work. Our attention is not just on training our social workers of the future; we also invest a significant amount in leadership and development programmes for qualified social workers. That includes leadership programmes for social workers and the assessed and supported year in employment for newly qualified social workers. That provides high-quality support for every newly qualified social worker by sharing best practice and quality-assuring provision.

We have announced record investment in developing the social care workforce. In our recent White Paper, “People at the Heart of Care”, we set out our workforce development strategy and plans for the investment of £500 million over the next three years. I am sure we will be discussing that many times as we develop those plans. The investment will help us to realise our vision for a workforce of people experiencing rewarding careers with opportunities to develop and progress in the future. That includes a focus on how we can develop new training routes for people who want to become social workers.

We will also work with the adult social care sector, including providers and the workforce, to co-develop a universal knowledge and skills framework and careers structure. As well as supporting the development of our care workforce, we will help those wanting to progress into regulated professions such as social work. I am also delighted that the number of people taking part in the new social worker degree apprenticeship programme continues to increase, with 660 starts in 2019-20 alone. That is only the second year for which it has been available, so that is phenomenal growth.

Looking forward, we have commissioned Health Education England to work with partners to develop a robust long-term strategic framework for workforce planning. For the first time ever, the framework will include regulated professions working in social care, such as nurses, social workers and occupational therapists. That work will look at the key drivers of workforce supply and demand as well as careers, as has been mentioned, and will inform the direction of the health and care system over the next 15 years.

The framework will help identify the main strategic choices facing us, develop a shared and explicit set of planning assumptions and identify the actions required at all levels of using all our system levers. That will ensure that we can plan for a workforce that is skilled, confident and equipped with the right support to deliver the highest quality health and social care in the future. It will also form the basis of our next phase of work to develop a long-term workforce strategy, led by NHS England and NHS Improvement in partnership with Health Education England and the Department of Health and Social Care.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

I very much welcome what the Minister is sharing with us today. Does she agree that it would be worth considering how to develop the finance function of health and social care? The recent Competition and Markets Authority report highlighted that a lot of the provision the private sector has brought into the care market, both in children’s homes and adult social care, is, frankly, quite an astonishing rip-off for the taxpayer. Profit margins of 30% and more are not unusual and these are complex structures that are extracting resources that could be spent on care. Does she agree that there is an opportunity both strategically and in developing the skills of social workers and others involved in those decisions locally to bring more focus to the issue so that we can ensure we procure the best possible care with an eye to value for money for the taxpayer?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend raises an important point that we will address as part of the White Paper, “People at the Heart of Care”. It is important that we equip local authorities with the skills and tools they need to commission well in the market and to get the balance right between paying a fair cost for care while making sure that they get value for money for taxpayers.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

I welcome quite a lot of what the Minister is saying, and I hope that I am not straying beyond her brief. The complex issue with social work, of course, is that it crosses many Government Departments. While she is talking about the recruitment and retention of social workers, I would like to invite her to put on record her thoughts about why, particularly in child protection, a social worker tends to burn out a lot faster. People tend to go into child protection and then progress to different parts of social work. Would she share her thoughts on why child protection in particular seems to lead to such quick burnout for social workers?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Anyone who has met social workers doing that vital job, particularly in child protection, has nothing but admiration for the job they do. It is an incredibly difficult job with incredibly difficult choices that are highly complex and have a massive impact on families and individuals. It is a highly stressful job, but we need to do more to support people in the workplace so that they can deal with their mental health, talk to people and share their experiences. There is no doubt that it is an incredibly difficult job and one that is done very well, but every day they face enormous challenges and big decisions.

Finally, last November we announced a review of leadership in health and social care, led by Sir Gordon Messenger. The review will report in early 2022 and is considering how to foster and replicate the best examples of leadership. Strong leadership in health and social care will help to ensure the best outcomes for our key priorities, including, most importantly, improved care for patients and service users. The review aims to ensure that the necessary leadership behaviours, strategies and qualities are developed to maximise these efforts. We all know that leadership is vital in these key professions.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood mentioned the work of the British Association of Social Workers and the “Homes not Hospitals” campaign to help more people to get the support that they need in their community, so that they can leave hospital. I completely agree with the desire to get more people out of hospital and getting the right care in the community. Indeed, we have an action plan, “Building the right support”, which we will be publishing in the not-too-distant future. I will be delighted to meet with representatives of the British Association of Social Workers to discuss this further.

Once again, I thank all hon. Members who have provided valuable contributions and insights today. It is important for the sector that we have this debate. We know, in our role as Members of Parliament, the work that we can do to highlight the fabulous work that people are doing. That does not always get highlighted, so this is a fantastic opportunity to highlight the complexity of the social work role and the variety of the role—the many different areas in which social workers provide vital support and the link to ensure that people get the right services from a load of different public services and get the wraparound care necessary for them.

The measures that I have set out today show that the Government are fully committed to supporting and developing the social work workforce—it is vital, and recognised as vital—as well as the wider health and social care sector. I thank everybody for their contributions and I look forward to continuing to work to celebrate this fantastic profession.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood 10:36 am, 23rd March 2022

Thank you, Mr Robertson. I had actually forgotten that I would get to wind up, but I will take the opportunity to thank all hon. Members for taking part in this important debate. I know that it will be reported on in various publications and read by social workers across the four nations of the United Kingdom, and I think that the contributions by the Members present will be appreciated. It is fair to say that social workers often feel invisible or unrecognised and that the only time they get the spotlight is when, sadly, things have gone horribly and tragically wrong. However, this has been an opportunity, so close to World Social Work Day, to highlight the good work that social workers do.

I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet with the “Homes not Hospitals” team at BASW. If she would not mind, I would be delighted if I could join her at that meeting.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

There has been such a lot of agreement and consensus in this debate, and it has been an absolute pleasure to hear so many positive things said about social workers right across the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the impact of the covid-19 outbreak on social work.

Sitting suspended.