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Union: Social work staff exploited

Support staff and assistants are being used as social workers "on the cheap" as local authorities struggle to cope with budget cuts, a union has claimed.

Unison said research among more than 350 staff across the UK showed that the boundaries between the work of professional social workers and support staff were "blurring into non-existence".

Two thirds of the social work assistants and support staff surveyed said they were regularly given work with vulnerable children and adults they did not feel qualified to carry out.

Many said they worked alone on complex cases, often feeling out of their depth, with more than two out of three dealing with an increasing number of cases.

Three out of four worked extra hours, while two thirds earned less than £21,000. Half of those polled had suffered verbal attacks and one in four had received threats.

Helga Pile, Unison's national officer for social care, said: "Our survey shows that social work assistants and support workers are seriously struggling to cope with the pressures being piled on them, as demand continues to grow, while resources are drastically cut.

"Staff are very concerned about vulnerable children and adults who rely on the services. There aren't enough social workers, so they are under growing pressure to step into the breach and carry out work they may be unqualified to do. They end up suffering from excessive bureaucracy, stress and burn-out - just like social workers.

"Support workers and social work assistants have a vital role to play but are often used as cheap labour for social workers. Those who wish to become social workers need continuing support to qualify, yet this cost-effective way of 'growing your own' social workers is being cut.

"We need proper safeguards in the system to protect assistants and support workers, social workers - and the people who rely on these vital services."

One of the staff surveyed said the number of cases she had to deal with in a week had increased from 30 to 54, adding: "We are all leaving because they (managers) totally take advantage."

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