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Barnet strikers remain determined as council denies using scab labour

The mental health social workers are fighting for a recruitment and retention payment to reduce staff turnover and patient waiting lists

Sunday 21 April 2024


Barnet strikers on the picket line (Picture: Barnet Unison)

Barnet council’s mental health social workers are standing firm against the stubborn north London authority that is trying to undermine the strike.

After striking for 27 days between September and February, the Unison union members are now on strike for two weeks until next Friday. They plan three weeks of action in May and four across June and July. 

“Our members feel they have been subjected to gaslighting by Barnet council and not treated with the respect they deserve,” Barnet Unison union branch said in a statement.

Senior management announced on 10 April it would temporarily commission an agency to “provide the mental health duty and triage function for a period of 3-4 months”. This was to “mitigate” against the strike. 

This role is ordinarily carried out by some of the strikers. Four days later the agency pulled out after pressure from Unison. 

“Since then, mental health social care was informed by senior management, while staff were taking industrial action, that Barnet council is continuing to seek other providers to outsource this work,” Barnet Unison wrote.

The council has denied using scab workers. It said, “We are concerned about the impact prolonged strike action will have on vulnerable residents and so have been looking at options to provide ‘life and limb’ capacity in ways that are fully in compliance with relevant legislation and guidance.”

Barnet Unison replied that there is “no legal justification for commissioning an agency” to cover “life and limb” as this service is already being covered by agency workers not striking.

Striker Amber undertakes duty and triage work. She told Socialist Worker the decision to outsource her role has left her “absolutely fuming”.

“Every duty worker is on strike so it’s convenient that the council has decided to outsource it,” she said. “I think the council is doubling down on its stance and rather than come to a solution. It’d rather pay more money to an agency. 

“Sorting the dispute would cost a fraction of this. Agency workers get paid around double, and they’re paid per assessment. Does the council think that little of us? It’s infuriating and feels like a kick in the teeth.”

Duty workers screen referrals to decide if they can be sorted through short-term work. They also allocate cases to case workers, who make up the majority of the strikers.

Amber worries that as some jobs are already permanently run by agency staff, more could be privatised. “The strike has had a massive impact,” she said. “This is a way of getting around that action and some of it is stubbornness and not addressing issues. I’d put nothing past the council at this point.”

Mary is an Approved Mental Health Practitioner (AMHP) and has worked for the council for 21 years. She says services have been dangerously depleted, with jobs, wards, safe houses, rehabs and respite care slashed. 

“Someone in crisis used to have three people helping them, including social workers and care nurse practitioners,” she said. “Now you have just one social worker. We’re service led, not care led. It’s all about saving money.

“The Tory government has underfunded social care and merged services together. We’re not a preventative service—we just respond to the most serious crises.”

Mary says the government attitude is “you should look after yourself, or rely on your family, rather than the state looking after you properly”.

“When Labour came to run the council, we were excited, we thought things would change. But it’s not interested, things got worse. And now we’re so far gone, how do we find a way back?”

Mary says her job is to find the most appropriate care for someone. But services are now so bare, the options for care are severely limited. “By the time we get to see someone the care they need is more severe,” she said. “We’re just fighting the biggest fire. You don’t feel like you’re helping anyone.

“Sometimes there’s not beds available, and we send people as far away as Norwich. We do this job to make a difference and you come away unhappy.”

The three mental health teams on strike—Mental Health Social Care North, Mental Health Social Care South, and the AMHP team—suffer extremely high turnovers. This means waiting lists are up to 18 months as workloads are higher.

Out of 23 social workers and lead practitioner posts, in the past 18 months 19 have left with more handing their notices in. Management has ignored concerns since its restructure to mental health social care two years ago.

In a statement the council says, “We simply don’t accept that the recruitment and retention challenges in these teams are worse than the overall situation for qualified social workers and occupational therapists or see that there is a market condition that would necessitate such a payment.”

Barnet Unison replied, “Barnet council cannot retain social workers in the mental health social care teams and that the staff who they do recruit do not have sufficient, if any, mental health experience to work in a specialised mental health team. 

“While the AMHP team currently has no vacancies, we know that 50 percent of their team are due to leave to take up roles in the NHS in the coming months. 

“Our colleagues who have left have largely left for positions which offer significantly better pay, reduced caseloads, and a safer service.”

Meanwhile, social workers in Children and Families services receive a recruitment and retention payment at levels varying up to 25 percent. 

The council has only met Unison twice. During the first Barnet Unison accused the council of coming “without any preparation and the request was therefore for them to return with the relevant data”. 

At the second meeting, the council deliberately grouped retention data together “to hide the issues”, Barnet Unison says.

Unison nationally needs to mobilise solidarity for the strike to put pressure on the council. Unison has to ensure that the council doesn’t get away with privatising jobs, underpaying its workers and failing to provide care for Barnet residents.

  • Donate to the strike fund. Account name Barnet UNISON Industrial Action Fund. Account Number: 20039336 Sort Code: 608301
  • Messages of support to [email protected]
  • Visit picket lines between 8-10am at 2 Bristol Avenue, Colindale, London NW9 4EW

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