We need to protect whistleblowing social workers

In social work at present it never rains but it pours. At a time of continuing public scrutiny, the last thing the sector needs is to be told that nearly half of those frontline social workers who plucked up courage to blow the whistle about poor practice or workplace problems subsequently reported that their employer failed to tackle the issues raised.

The findings, in a survey of more than 500 social workers by the General Social Care Council, confirms what many staff already know. Too often raising concerns at work, never mind blowing the whistle, is a bad career move.

However, 45% worried that their employer would not take action if they raised concerns about a colleague, and nearly half of those who had reported problems about colleagues or “operational difficulties” said their employer had taken no action.

The GSCC has had bad press recently, but the publication of this survey ought to earn it a few bonus marks, not least the GSCC’s acceptance that victimisation and career damage were the most common fears of those who said they would not speak up.

Unfortunately this is nothing new. There is a long roll call of those social workers whose careers nosedived after raising concerns, most recently Nevres Kemal whose whistleblowing in Haringey was ignored and led to her unfair dismissal when it ought to have set alarm bells ringing.

The survey results were published on the day that the Unison convenor in Doncaster who has been repeatedly critical of the culture within the council was suspended immediately after speaking out about what he alleged were budgetary pressures distorting professional decisions in child protection.

The failure of staff to whistleblow in the NHS cost dozens of lives at Mid Staffs and Maidstone hospitals in recent years. In social care, the costs are less obvious but no less disastrous. Although social workers and their managers are required as a condition of continued registration to highlight concerns and speak up for those they work with, the inexorable pressure on resources, excessive caseloads and inappropriate delegation of work are a potentially lethal cocktail.

The pressures go to the top. I have spoken to a number of very senior managers who have expressed their concerns at the consequences of questioning budgets and unsafe or unethical resource led decisions. One told me “you can spell out the consequences of inadequate budgets but if you keep waving shrouds, you’ll eventually have a P45 waved back at you”. Their reluctance to speak out is despite the fact that they would automatically have statutory protection as whistleblowers should they suffer detriment as a result.

Making the GSCC code mandatory for employers would help, though it is already a contractual term for staff whatever employers might think. Lord Laming has told the government they should expedite this step so that they are required to ensure staff can raise concerns. The Social Work Taskforce has agreed. So has Ed Balls. Ofsted has started a whistleblowing helpline which is starting to scratch at the surface too.

But until employers as a whole change their management culture so that raising concerns is encouraged and looks good on a CV, and professional supervision becomes an effective means for staff to speak out, staff will fear the consequences of doing the right thing. And that is very bad news for those who use their services .

• Roger Kline works for Aspect, the childrens services union, and is the author of What if? Social Care professionals and the duty of care