Concerns raised over amount of abuse aimed at St Helens Council staff

From September 2018 to December 2019 there were 146 physical incidents, including those that were potentially deliberate to staff
From September 2018 to December 2019 there were 146 physical incidents, including those that were potentially deliberate to staff

St Helens Council staff are being increasingly targeted for abuse online, a council meeting has heard.


Around 3,000 employees are employed by the council, delivering a wide range of functions and duties to the public.

The council is currently reviewing its violence and aggression policy, which was last updated in December 2018, following concerns around inconsistency of how abuse is handled.

According to a new council report, some staff are unaware the policy even exists, with the incident report form inconsistently and infrequently completed.

The policy sets out how the council has a zero-tolerance approach to violence and aggression to staff, but over the previous 12-month period, there has been a “significant variance” reported in the scale and prevalence of abuse across services.

The report, which highlights the current scope of the abuse, was presented to the council’s overview and scrutiny commission this week.

“Although St Helens Council does not tolerate violence or aggression of any kind, whether by an employee, a manager a third-party or a member for the public, unfortunately unacceptable behaviour against our staff does continue to occur,” said Caroline Barlow, the council’s director for customer and digital.

She told councillors that from September 2018 and December 2019 there were 146 physical incidents, including those that were “potentially deliberate” to staff.

In addition, there were 39 reports of incidents that could have included violence and aggression to staff.

And according to the latest employee survey, 392 members of staff reported they have experienced “conflict” with service users over the last 12 months.

“Overall the most frequently reported occurrence of abuse across the services is verbal abuse,” Ms Barlow said.

“And there is also increasing evidence of social media targeting, inappropriate targeting of staff online.”

Despite this, Ms Barlow said the majority of staff do feel safe in the workplace, with 94 per cent saying they feel safe in the survey, while 5.8 per cent said they do not feel safe.

Ms Barlow added: “Violence and aggression at work has a very significant impact of the health and wellbeing of our staff and should not be tolerated. One incident is too many.”

Coun Andy Bowden, chairman of the commission, said he has personally seen instances of “inconsistent approaches” towards the treatment of staff and how that is handled.

The former cabinet member said he has seen examples where “vile abuse” has been directed at council staff only for the person directing the abuse to be given a warning about their behaviour.

Coun Bowden said he believes many incidents are not being reported due to an acceptance from staff that abuse is part of the job

Coun Bowden said: “I too have concerns about under-reporting and I’ve seen examples in the last week or so where abuse, the calling into question the honesty and professionalism of officers is met by those very officers with just a shrug of the shoulder, an acceptance that that is part of the job.

“It is not, it is not acceptable and should be dealt with accordingly.”

Independents councillor Donna Greaves, elected member for Rainhill, pointed out that the benchmark for what are acceptable levels of abuse is different between professions.

She said in some professions, a small amount of abuse is seen as “character building” and part of their “professional resilience”.

“It’s acceptable on a daily basis because it’s part of your resilience to demonstrate that you are capable to perform that role,” Coun Greaves said.

Ms Barlow said in certain services, staff are dealing with vulnerable people, often with medical conditions such as autism.

She added that there is a “big difference” between unintentional abuse and deliberate targeted abuse.

But Ms Barlow acknowledged there is a lack of consistency across the council around what is acceptable and what isn’t.

She said some staff members are tolerating behaviour they should not be.

In order to ensure meaningful, refreshed approach is fully implemented across all services and sites, a working group has now been established.

The group will review established practices for areas such as lone working as well as producing guidance for managers in responding to emerging issues such as targeting of staff on social media.

A further report will be brought to the overview and scrutiny commission once the working group has completed its programme of work to update on the findings and present its action plan.