FEARS have been raised that a ministerial pledge to revolutionise the care of children in Scotland is under threat as social work staff struggle to deliver services due to understaffing, underfunding and a lack of resources.

A new study by the largest local government trade union UNISON Scotland has found that almost three quarters (74%) said their teams do not have enough staff while nine in ten (90%) of those surveyed said resources determine placement decisions when a child becomes looked after.

The union has warned that without the proper funding, the Scottish Government will be unable to deliver on a pledge to revolutionise the care of children in Scotland and its plans to reform the care service for children as outlined in The Promise report by the Independent Care Review.

The Scottish Government's The Promise aims to create a better deal for children and young people to prevent them from needing local authority care.

It is a ten-year programme that will run till 2030 to implement action points in last year's Independent Care Review aimed at tackling a "fractured, bureaucratic and unfeeling" care system, in which young people’s voices are not sufficiently heard or valued.

The respected think tank Common Weal, who studied the plans through its care working group has already said that "substantial and significant investment" in public services is needed to fulfil make it work, pointing out that social services departments have faced increasing demands in the face of declining investment.

The survey of 261 people found that heavy workloads mean social workers do not have enough time to build relationships with children.

Social work staff said decisions made about children are resource-led rather than child-led in the final instance.

The study found that early intervention is needed but is not possible for financial reasons, with higher thresholds and tighter criteria used to ration support.

Another common theme was the belief that staffing and caseloads must be at a level that enables relationship-based work with children and the workforce must be properly supported.


Stephen Smellie, depute convenor of UNISON Scotland and chair of the union’s social work issues group, said: “Our members in children and families’ social work strongly support The Promise, it’s what they came into social work to do, but they don’t believe it will be delivered without additional staffing and resources from the Scottish Government. We shouldn’t make promises to children and young people that we can’t keep and it worries us that without the funding and resources needed, the Scottish Government is doing just that.

“It’s time for the Scottish Government to ‘keep the promise’ and provide the staff, the resources and the funding to ensure the needs of children and families can be meaningfully met.” Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament after the review was published that it was “one of the most important moments in my tenure as First Minister so far”.

The Promise reflected what over 5,500 care experienced children and adults, families and the paid and unpaid workforce told the review and outlined what Scotland must do to make sure its most vulnerable children feel loved and have the childhood they deserve.

One of the many key elements was the creation of an independent oversight body “with at least 50 per cent of its members being care experienced including its chair".

An arms-length company called The Promise was created by ministers in March to oversee the implementation and deliver changes by local authorities, the third sector, the regulatory bodies, and other key agencies.

The Promise has been supported with £4m of public money in the last financial year to help organisations adapt to cultural shifts and collaboration across the across the care system. The closing date for the scheme was in March and it was expected to be extended.

Kate Ramsden, a child’s rights officer and a member of UNISON’s social work issues group, said: “Our members are telling us that they don’t have the staff or the resources to meet the needs of the children and families who rely on them. They say they don’t have enough time to build relationships with children and they are struggling with understaffing, high caseloads and process-driven systems that mean they must prioritise those most in crisis.

“This makes for alarming reading and should act as a massive wake-up call to the Scottish Government. We need to make sure children and families are at the heart of reform and we need to ensure decisions are child-led rather than resource-led.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government is committed to Keeping The Promise by 2030. We have committed to investing £500m in Whole Family Wellbeing – a significant step forward in our efforts to transform the care system.

“Social work staff continue to do a fantastic job supporting and caring for children and families. We absolutely value the role of social work staff and they will be key in our collective ambition to Keep The Promise and ensuring all children grow up feeling loved, safe and respected. 

"We will continue to work with The Promise Scotland, with service partners - including social workers - and importantly children and families to ensure we drive forward the transformational change that is required to Keep The Promise.”