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Overburdened Social workers, service users fear effect of budget cuts

 - Sunday, 04 March 2012, 00:00

Annaliza Borg

While the number of referrals to social workers is increasing, human resources are not following suit and this is resulting in added pressure on professionals working in the sector.

Social workers should follow cases through to conclusion, but cannot do so because new referrals continue coming in. In addition, social workers and staff working at the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, as well as families using its services, have expressed concern that the recently announced budget cuts will only make the situation worse.

This situation was explained to Justice, Dialogue and the Family Minister Dr Chris Said on Monday at a meeting between him and the Maltese Association of Social Workers (MASW), the association said yesterday.

And apparently taking their concerns on board, Dr Said has requested a second meeting this week.

However, in comments he made at a press conference on Friday afternoon, Dr Said defended the cuts but stressed that more funds would be sought if this was ;considered necessary to avoid affecting services. He said that people would have been right to protest, had the government planned to reduce costs by cutting services.

Making the point that he had just taken over responsibility for the sector “with great enthusiasm”, Dr Said said he would ensure that this was not the case.

Contacted yesterday morning, Anthony Girard, an experienced social worker and chairman of the association that safeguards the interests of social workers, said that he and the association he represents are convinced that the €40 million budget cut announced, and specifically the €715,000 from the agencies under the Foundation of Social Welfare Services (FSWS) – Appogg, Sapport and Sedqa – will increase the pressure on social workers.

The budget for Dr Said’s family portfolio has been reduced by around €1.4 million.

The lion’s share of these cuts affects the three agencies that comprise the Foundation for Social Welfare Services. Aġenzija Sapport, that provides services for people with disabilities, saw its 2012 budgetary allocation cut by €407,000 to €7.7 million. The budget of anti-addiction agency Aġenzija Sedqa was reduced by €130,000 to €2.5 million, while that of Aġenzija Appoġġ – a social welfare agency – was cut by €178,000 to €3.4 million.

In a press release on Friday evening, the MASW said that the cuts can be nothing other than detrimental to its members, their service users and the profession as a whole. It pointed out that, as recently as January, the Finance Ministry announced that such cutbacks (budget adjustments) would not have any impact on social services – amongst other areas.

The meeting with Dr Said was held at his request with the specific agenda being the recent cuts envisaged in the social support services sector. The association described the meeting as “cordial” and said the minister had expressed his wish for a further meeting with the association to get a better understanding of its concerns.

The MASW said in a statement that it will be convening its executive committee to discuss the situation and has already contacted its members for their reactions to the current situation at their place of work and how both they and the service they offer will be affected.

Earlier this week it was reported that there are 164 children waiting for services from Appogg, Mr Girard said. Every social worker has an average of 40 cases, when the report following an inquiry in 2010 that considered the case of two troubled teenagers, a girl and a boy, who were denied bail over the alleged theft of €400, pointed out that state-employed social workers have around 45 cases to deal with, whereas in the UK, 11 or 12 cases are considered a full case load for a full-time worker in child protection or after care.

The report also criticised the lack of resources available to ensure that the services offered by NGOs reach the desired standard, and it called for them to be reviewed or discontinued unless serious and very necessary changes were made immediately. It was noted that the state is closely linked to these services, because children are referred directly by it.

Following this report, a task force was established to recommend ways of ensuring a more holistic approach in the services offered.

In comments he gave to this newspaper yesterday, Mr Girard said social workers needed to be given due credit. “It is frustrating that, after you have established a rapport with a person, you have to tell him you can’t see him anymore,” he said.

So far, it has not been said where exactly the cuts affecting the three agencies will be made and this is something social workers are not aware of because it is decided between the ministry and the agencies, but they are certain that the pressure will continue to increase.

While he agrees that budget cuts have to happen, especially if the European Commission said so, Mr Girard believes they could have been made elsewhere.

People who need the help of social workers are often desperate. They expect help and sometimes that the social worker will resolve all their problems – and the professionals feel obliged to try to do so.

In its press release on Friday, the MASW said that the announced cuts had generated an immediate reaction from the media and the association felt it was paramount to make its views known to the Minister as soon as possible so that he would be able to announce his decisions and the reasoning behind them.

The MASW believes that these agencies are essential to the social fibre of our country but the social workers engaged in this work are often stretched to the limit and find it extremely difficult to provide the kind of service they want to provide because of the increasing number of referrals.

Unfortunately this situation is causing a further reduction in the resources used by social workers, while the need for the services provided is continually increasing, the MASW said.

The Minister’s reaction

Questioned about the issue at a press conference on Friday afternoon, Dr Said defended the revision in the FSWS budget but said he would ensure that the services and projects planned by the Foundation would not be affected, and neither would the planned recruitment of additional staff.

He said that while the original budget for 2012 was higher, the revised budget was still €1 million higher than it was last year, and the increase was one of the largest year-on-year increases ever.

The plan, he explained, was to reduce expenditure where they could, while leaving services unaffected.

Dr Said gave an example – a tender for transport services for people with a disability. He noted that the price had been significantly reduced following negotiations in which the sole bidder was informed that a fresh call for bids would be issued if the offer remained unchanged.

Budget cuts can be made elsewhere’ – Federation of Disabled People’s Organisations

The social workers’ association was not the only one to express its concerns regarding the FSWS’ cuts this week.

The Malta Federation of Organisations for People with Disability (MFOPD), which is the national umbrella organisation within the disability sector, said it was “surprised and very concerned” at the news that the government is to reduce by about €1million the budgets of Appogg and Sapport agencies.

“This decision will badly affect the services provided by these agencies,” it said. “Both agencies make a big difference in the lives of vulnerable people who turn to them for help in order to have a decent life and to be able to participate in the community like the rest of the Maltese population”.

It added that this decision comes at a time when the parliamentary committee that draws up laws is discussing amendments to improve the lives of people with disability.

“Apart from the fact that the austerity measures directed towards children and people with disability are in conflict with the spirit of the amendments being discussed by the committee, such measures can never be justified as budget reductions can be made from somewhere else,” it reiterated.

This decision is unacceptable to the members of the federation and it urged the government to reconsider its “erroneous” decision.

Breakdown of budget cuts

In a statement on 6 January, the Finance Ministry said the budget review will involve all ministries and departments, as well as government entities, and target reductions in the approved 2012 recurrent budgetary allocations which will, on aggregate, amount to 0.59 per cent of the GDP (€40 million).

The expected outcome is to result through savings resulting from restraints in recruitment (0.1 per cent of the GDP), overtime (0.04 per cent of the GDP), operational and maintenance expenditure (0.07 per cent of GDP), programmes and initiatives (0.21 per cent of GDP) and government entities (0.17 per cent of GDP). The cuts were undertaken according to instructions from the European Commissions.

Prior to the government statement, the Prime Minister had announced that ministers were giving up their honoraria in 2012 and 2013 as they are to lead by example.

While some questions regarding the budget cuts are being answered, many other concerns still need to be addressed.

A Parliamentary Question on the Social Policy Ministry’s cuts is expected to be answered tomorrow, while in the last week a number of other ministries began providing replies to questions made by Opposition Whip Joe Mizzi regarding from where cuts are being made.

Replies tabled show, among others, that the Health Ministry’s budget will be cut by €8.5 million. The Home Affairs Ministry’s cut will amount to nearly €3 million and the Infrastructure, Transport and Communications Ministry is making a cut of €0.8 million. The Office of the Prime Minister has not yet given a reply, but the Foreign Affairs Ministry will see a €0.7 million reduction.

More questions need to be answered on health ministry’s cuts – Labour Party

Addressing a press conference on Thursday, the Labour Party’s spokesperson for Health, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, questioned the decision to reduce the Health Ministry’s budget by €8.5 million, asking the government to provide details on what exactly will be affected. In its reply, the government said that its spending on health still remained higher than it was in 2011.

The €8.5 million cut was revealed through a parliamentary question and answered on Tuesday. The question showed that the cuts included a €3.1 million reduction in personal emoluments, a €1.6 million cut in programmes and initiatives and a reduction of nearly €2 million in the contribution to government entities falling under the Health Ministry’s remit.

Dr Coleiro Preca insisted that a further explanation was necessary, as these figures alone did not indicate what would be affected.

She noted that the €3.1 million reduction in salaries came at a time when staff shortages in the health sector were already a problem, including a shortfall of 600 nurses. She questioned whether the government would slow down its recruitment of nurses as a result, for instance.

Moreover, she pointed out, the salaries of care workers were based on an order dating back to 1977, and had become alarmingly low.

As for programmes and initiatives, Dr Coleiro Preca once again wondered what would be cut as these covered numerous issues, such as the provision of medicines, homes for the elderly and primary healthcare.

She added that most of the Ministry’s contribution to government entities goes to Mount Carmel Hospital, and pointed out that the hospital, which accommodated hundreds of patients, was in a far from ideal state. 

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