Councils sap social workers’ drive – by cutting car allowances

Many social workers depend on their cars to do their jobs, but local authorities are slashing funding and even parking spaces

In August, Sandwell council became the latest local authority to abolish the annual essential car allowance worth up to £1,239 a year for social workers and other employees. The West Midlands Labour authority, like other councils, has also reduced the mileage allowance by more than five pence to a flat rate of 45p, in a package of cuts which it estimates will save up to £1m.

Deputy council leader Monhoob Hussain is frank about the move: “We are doing it to protect front line services – without it it could mean 50 jobs would be lost,” he says. Sandwell is confident that the changes to car expenses, with some of the money going towards creating a car pool which social workers can use, will not stop enable front line staff working as normal.

The growing trend to target social workers’ car expenses, which first started to emerge last autumn, was highlighted in a survey of social workers by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the College of Social Work in May. This found that three quarters of respondents reported cuts to employee benefits with changes in car expenses seen as a de facto pay cut.

Nushra Mansuri, a professional officer for BASW, says: “This is a really big issue. People who make these decisions are very removed from the reality of practice. The car is a tool for social workers to use – if you have to remove a distressed young person from their home and take them to an emergency foster placement you aren’t doing to do that on public transport.”

John Nawrockyi is director of adults’ and older people’s services at Greenwich council in London, and a policy lead for workforce development for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. “I think it raises lots of issues – will families be disadvantaged because they don’t live on a bus route and social workers can’t get to them? Not having a car doesn’t make the job impossible but it does raise the questions about how their time will be used,” he says.

Both Nawrockyi and Mansuri predict social workers will end up reluctantly dipping into their own pockets to cover the running costs of using a car for work rather than resorting to public transport which for some, especially those working in rural areas, is not an option. Says Mansuri: “I think employers are hoping that they will just lump it and continue to use their cars even though it’s going to cost them more.”

Official grievance

BASW’s chief executive wrote to all local authorities in England before Christmas complaining about the cuts to car allowances. At the same time the public sector union Unison has lodged the issue as an official grievance with the Local Government Employers because it breaks nationally agreed employee terms and conditions.

Heather Wakefield, Unison’s national secretary for local government, says: “This is breaking employee terms and conditions but employers are doing this all over the place at the moment. They are picking off [employee benefits] and the essential car allowance is the one that they are going for the most.”

But she is pessimistic on whether local authority employers will change tack. “Local employers are taking a hard line on this and I don’t imagine that they will budge. We will have to consider what we will do next – there is a huge amount of demoralisation and anger as they continue to squeeze every aspect of benefits packages. I think in the long run, when we come out of recession, people will walk out of local government because of the way that they are being treated at the moment.”

Susan Smith* has been a professional social worker with children and families for more than 35 years. Employed as a team leader for a West Midlands local authority, she saw her car allowance disappear last year, her mileage allowance frozen and now her council employers are attempting to take way her free town hall car parking space.

Smith says she tries to rely on public transport as much as she can. “I’m fortunate that we have an excellent public transport system but that isn’t the same for social workers who are based in rural areas – it’s going to be absolutely awful for them and I have colleagues who tell me that it’s almost impossible for them to do their jobs without a car.”

Smith, like others, feels there is little understanding about the impact removing car expenses has on their ability to deliver services. She says: “Social workers are just a pawn in the local authority game – they don’t look at the impact of their decisions in terms of the implications to the service or to individuals. This is a massive issue for us. But the problem is it’s not the issue which is upper most in our minds at the moment – just having and keeping hold of a job is more critical.”

* The name of this interviewee has been changed