Sunday, October 09, 2005

'If you're suicidal, please press 1'

The Social Care and Health emergency duty team provides an emergency city-wide facility out of normal working hours including nights, weekends and bank holidays. The team provide a service for people who are in danger and unable to protect themselves, or for people unable to remain in the community without immediate intervention. Each call to the team is received by an experienced and qualified social worker who is able to gain access to residential, day and peripatetic support if necessary.

Good news for the hard-pressed Social Services team at Birmingham City Council! Your political masters are going to relieve you of that pesky out of hours work.

The Liberal Democrat Cabinet Member Sue Anderson, under pressure to cut back her budget has worked out that she can save a small fortune by outsourcing that call-handling and screening work to the Contact:Birmingham call centre from the start of November.

Now, what this means is that rather than having trained social workers screening the out-of-hours calls (which by their nature tend to be emergencies - people with severe mental problems and urgent problems with children in danger, for example), these are going to be handed over to the Vertex call-centre workers. For the princely sum of £14K plus a 30% night shift allowance, they will be expected to switch from residents whinging about uncollected black bin bags to handling the problems of the drunk, the addicted, the abused and the unstable. Not only are they going to handle the calls, they are also going to screen out the ones that can wait until the next working day and only refer the genuine emergencies to the trained on-call social work team.

Don't panic, the call agents will get training in how to talk the clients down. The roll-out schedule suggests that this will amount to no more than a week, but I'm sure that it will be comprehensive and comparable to a four-year Social Work course. NHS Direct does a similar job for urgent medical problems, but at least I know that I get to speak to a qualified nurse with rather more than a week's training.

These are some of the most stressful and distressing calls that anyone can take, so putting underpaid call handlers onto them will only lead to them burning out through stress. I'd also be prepared to place a small wager that part of the deal includes a service level agreement setting out how many calls Vertex are supposed to pass on to the REAL social workers, so putting pressure on the call agents not to transfer calls. Who takes the blame the first time these unqualified call handlers fail to pass on a call from client who then ends up killing themselves or somebody else is rather unclear, but you can bet that no blame will attach to Teflon Whitless and the ship of fools that is the City Council Cabinet. In any case, those who use the out-of-hours service aren't likely to vote Tory/Liberal Democrat anyway, so why should they give a toss? Of course, these calls won't go away and many of them will simply be shoved onto the police or ambulance service instead - who will only call for Social Services assistance anyway, so the screening may prove useless.

So, if you are planning on needing Social Services after the start of November, for your own safety and security, please try and schedule your emergency during normal office hours, Monday to Friday (not Bank Holidays).

Thank you.

This has been a public service announcement.

If you are a member of the Council Cabinet, you may now wash your hands.

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