12 AUGUST 1972, Page 21


The stand-by call-out hang-up

Jef Smith

First let me explain the terminology. Most social services departments work office hours. Between 5 o'clock on Friday and 9 o'clock on Monday morning, as well as through weekday evenings and nights, the only field staff available are the one or two officers on stand-by duty to cope with emergencies. An emergency may consist of a homeless family, a runaway child, a psychiatric breakdown or any permutation of a thousand other family crises. Many calls can be dealt with effectively by telephone. What is needed in these cases is advice, or a quick decision, or permission to use a bed for the night. Authorising the appropriate action may not be easy but at least it can be done without leaving home, without getting out of bed if you have your telephone positioned comfortably. But in a minority of cases the emergency duty officer is called out — to a home or an establishment or a police station. Negotiations over payment for these emergency duties have dragged on for months and social workers in a number of authorities are now taking direct action and refusing to work overnight and at weekends. Already in four London boroughs — and discontent is spreading rapidly — the emergency service has been withdrawn. By the standards of strikes this may seem a modest and hardly significant protest, but it is virtually the first sustained industrial action taken by British social workers, a pointer to a mood of growing frustration.

True, to some extent stand-by has merely been the cause round which the growing militancy among social services staff has formed, but it is relevant that those concerned are largely the more experienced field workers or those just one or two steps up the hierarchical ladder, who are far from, yet identified with, management and who have suffered over the last two years• the most acute discomfort from reorganisation.

In welfare departments by and large, those who held themselves available to he contacted out of office hours were the most senior officers; the weight of emergency work was not heavy and it was to some extent an indication of status that one needed to be consulted. In the mental health service this position was reversed. The responsibility was very heavy, involving frequently the statutory decision to admit a patient to mental hospital on order, and the job could be arduous, requiring workers to make visits to the homes of seriously disturbed, even violent, patients. The staff responsible, however, were the basic fieldworkers and the night and weekend duties of a legally recognised duly authorised officer' were regarded as an integral part of the mental welfare fieldworker's role and were written into contracts. The tradition of children's departments on the question of emergency services fell somewhere between the others. The group of people who carried the job were roughly of the level of those responsible now, and it was undoubtedly considered a chore; it was here too that the most significant concessions had been won from employers in compensation for out-of-hours work. Significantly the children's service provided the bulk of the basic level and senior fieldworkers to the new departments and they took with them their discontent about having to do the job and their militancy in fighting for substantial inducements for those on the rota.

These attitudes were sharpened by last year's integration of services. For someone on duty the chance of being disturbed or called out rose substantially with the widening of the range of possible emergencies, and more significantly ,the weight of the burden was felt as much heavier with the addition of responsibility for taking decisions on fields where the duty officers might have very little experience. The ability to carry such uncomfortable responsibility, it might be argued, is precisely the mark of a professional person, but here again the controversy goes to the heart of one of the major issues confronting social work practice. The professionalism of the individual worker is severely hedged around in the course of his daily duties as he reports his activities through a hierarchy of seniors. The whole mechanism within which he works denies him individual professional responsibility and stresses that his role is as a fragment of a much wider corporate machine. By night, conversely, the duty social worker is assumed to be transformed into an all-knowing, totally competent key to a wide range of services. It is ironic that he is paid much less for standing alone to face all the pressures and responsibilities of critical decision taken at short notice, without consultation, in the middle of the night, than he is to deal with more or less similar cases during working hours when backed up by colleagues and superiors.

Will the clients suffer from the dispute? Naturally it is inherent to the action taken that there should •be a measure of inconvenience and this can hardly but be felt by those who would otherwise have made calls on the social services at times, for them, of acute crisis. The social workers' reply is that repeatedly used in such situations — that the long-term good of the service may only be served by a temporary hold-up now, that a client who gets no service at all over the next few weeks is only marginally worse off than one who would previously have got poor, unskilled or reluctant service from an under-recompensed worker. With vigorous fighting in progress about a better financial deal to make the present system work, this may not be a good time to canvass a new proposal, but it is surprising that no one seems to have gone very far to explore the possibility of a whole-hearted emergency centre to be open when other services are closed. Suppose that each social services department kept one office available during out of office hours and staffed it, not with reluctant volunteers or press-ganged officers on rota, but with a select group of experienced social workers employed precisely for those duties. The workers Involved would become specialists in particular forms of crisis intervention. They would be highly skilled and widely knowledgeable and would need ready access to departmental resources. Where is the local authority with the courage to stop trying to shore up the second-rate out-of-hours substitute for a service it currently pretends to provide and the imagination to start a really relevant professional scheme which would break new ground in emergency provision?