Surrey social workers threaten strike action again

SOCIAL workers in Surrey have again threatened to walk out in a row over their workloads and what they see as a lack of support from the county council.

Unison has claimed the number of cases taken on by people working in children’s services was causing members to suffer from stress and take more time off sick.

Preparations are now under way for an official industrial ballot of workers in the department but Surrey County Council has dismissed the possibility of a walkout.

“Unison has been threatening to take strike action in Surrey for almost a year now,” said Andy Roberts, the council’s strategic director for children, schools, and families.

“While they continue to complain and make empty threats, the council has continued to take action to ensure that children in Surrey remain safe.”

Union leaders made the latest threat after obtaining figures which, they said, showed more than a quarter of social work posts at County Hall had been left unfilled.

There are around 500 full-time members of staff in children’s services, about 200 short of the number needed to ensure the work is properly shared, according to Unison.

The union lodged a formal dispute with the county council earlier this year over workloads and has since held four meetings, which saw a 95% vote in favour of taking industrial action.

Unison said it represented around half those workers who wanted to go on strike.

Branch secretary Paul Couchman said they were still in negotiations with the county council and hoped that a resolution could be found before any strike action was taken.

He added that Dr Andrew Povey, leader of Surrey County Council, had told Unison representatives that social worker recruitment was high on his agenda.

The council has also held talks with neighbouring local authorities over the possibility of hiring their social workers.

“These steps are welcome but our members are still working 12 and 14-hour days and over the weekend to make sure they keep children safe and fill out all the paperwork,” Mr Couchman said.

“Unless the unbearable work pressure is lifted from the frontline teams now, more social workers will become ill and the situation will get worse.”

The possibility of a strike first reared its head back in February when union workers reacted badly to changes in children’s services in the wake of Ofsted’s joint area review, published last July.

The report revealed serious failings in the authority’s care of vulnerable children and found criminal records checks on staff had not been carried out properly.

Mr Roberts, who was appointed to head up children’s services in the wake of the report, admitted staff were dealing with more cases since the death of Baby Peter came to prominence in Haringey last November.

“The shortage of social workers is a nationally recognised problem and is not unique to Surrey,” he added.

“Social workers have the demanding task of giving vulnerable children the best possible start in life and the jobs they do are some of the toughest to fill.”