State of the Union September 2016

Published by Nick Totton


This is a summary of Union status and activities up to September 2016. It is obviously not entirely up to date, but a useful snapshot. Current membership is almost 300.

Nick


THE STATE OF THE UNION

Introduction

This seems like a good time to pull together information about how the Union is functioning and developing, and also some thoughts and comments arising from that. Much of this information has appeared on the google list, but it may be useful to have it all in one place for easy reference. Feedback is very welcome, either on the google list or to pcu.union@gmail.com

Membership

As of August 31st, there are 312 people involved. 219 of these are paid-up members; 93 are still supporters (i.e. they haven’t converted to members since we introduced a formal structure), and we are setting a deadline of November 31st after which they will have to either become members or end their involvement.

· 230 of our members/supporters identify as being in private practice;

· 38 work in the NHS;

· 45 work in the voluntary sector;

· 26 work in higher education;

· 60 are trainers;

· and 39 are trainees.

(This adds up to more than 312 because people can occupy more than one category. Not everyone gives us this information on their membership form.)

Our sense is that that to be viable in the long term, we need to increase our membership considerably – the minimum target is 1000, and 3000 would be preferable. This doesn’t seem to be happening via word of mouth and the internet, but will require further measures; see the information below about outreach, publicity and events.

Finances

As of August 31st, our total income so far is £12,038, and outgoings (the largest item being payment for admin work, also printing and publicity costs and subsidising the launch conference) £4,904, leaving a positive balance of £7,134. This seems satisfactory, given that we have made a decision to keep a sizeable reserve available if necessary for a major complaint process.

Internal structure

Most of what the Union has done so far has come from the Committee, and indeed largely from a small subset of Committee members. Several people have joined and then left the Committee because they find that they don’t have space and time for the communication and processing involved – something by no means unusual for voluntary organisations, and which confirms the validity of our early decision to pay an admin worker. We are grateful to everyone who has served or continues to serve on the Committee.

Where we have been successful is in finding volunteers for three panels, willing to give their time to offer help to members in three subject areas – complaints, work place problems, and training issues. Without these volunteers the Union would lose its raison d’etre, and we want to celebrate them.

We also want to thank and celebrate Andrew Samuels, who was initially on the Committee and then left to carry out a campaign - which probably only he had the contacts and knowledge to execute – of creating relationships between the Union and the major organisational players for psychotherapy and counselling: see the section below on outreach to organisations.

Our original hope was that the membership would play a very active role in generating campaigns and creating discussion and action groups of various kinds. This is why we chose to set up a Ning site rather than an ordinary website: it is designed to facilitate this sort of interaction.

So far this hope has not been fulfilled: the Ning site is not being used, and the google discussion list is not generating the sort of initiatives which we had aimed for. This is not to blame anyone – it simply gives us the feedback that our current structure doesn’t work in the way we wanted, and needs to be redesigned, or alternatively that we have to resign ourselves to being the traditional sort of organisation with a few (usually exhausted) activists and a fairly passive majority. We would very much welcome any creative thoughts.

Supporting our members

There have been 14 enquiries about support, which break down as follows:

Just one of these led to no further action being taken beyond an exploratory phone call: a non-member seeking legal support for a complex and ongoing case. The enquirer decided to seek legal assistance through their insurer and Union support/membership was not wanted at this time. This is one of several ways we have become aware we need to be clearer that the Union doesn’t intend to duplicate the function of insurance by offering legal advice: although we have made this decision, we realised that it was not sufficiently explicit in publicity.

13 enquiries led to support from us, ranging from letters written to ongoing contact with volunteer supporters.

Five of those were/are related to disciplinary proceedings,

three of which were internal disciplinary hearings

and two of which involved regulatory/professional bodies.

Four were workplace closure issues,

two of which also involved course closure.

Union support for the closure issues ranged from letters of support, to supporting existing campaigns, to initiating a campaign (member led.)

One was a workplace issue involving bullying,

two were workplace issues with a training element (trainees on placement or accruing hours towards accreditation),

one was a training issue concerning changes in hours and fees.

Of the 13 people accessing support, eight were supporters or members at the time of requesting help, five were new to the Union, and paid annual subs immediately. Three of the people supported by the Union have offered to share their experience in campaign work. One person has become a volunteer supporter.

If you were to draw a Venn diagram of the areas where we asked for support volunteers - Complaints, Training, Workplace/Organisation - it would be noticeable that areas of overlap cluster in workplace/organisation. It is interesting that we haven’t yet supported a member in a client-originated complaint. Complaints have so far all been generated by interactions with organisations (charitable trusts, voluntary organisations, NHS).

Regardless of outcome, members have consistently told us that what has mattered most, and made most difference, is that they have not felt alone and isolated. In relation to disciplinary hearings, people have said that the support from a fellow colleague offered a reflective space, a way to take the pressure off other relationships at a difficult time, and an opportunity to find the best way forward.

The following document is not untypical of the value which members have found in the Union’s support:

Perhaps naively it had never occurred to me that I should join a union. I was confident that I could navigate the terrain of the interrelations between an organization and myself. I was certain of my practice evidenced by my membership of two separate professional bodies. Newly qualified and landing my ‘dream job’ I felt that I understood what was expected of me within my new role. It was going to be demanding work, but I deduced that I had the personal resources to meet the challenge and was placed within a great organisation and team of experienced practitioners.

However, step by step I waded deeper into a swamp of uncertainty. On reflection, I was a small element of a much larger picture. Resources are scarce, and the pressure builds. Everyone is stretched as dominant discourses play out: the neo-liberal economic discourse, the medical model each push, pull and compromise what can be offered. A scene which I am sure is familiar for most, if not all people working in the helping professions.

I was undeniably my own worst enemy and I ploughed more energy, enthusiasm and time into my role confident that it would get better. But I was up to my neck. I made a reckless decision which damaged everything that I cared about in my professional and personal life. I behaved in a way that I never thought I would.

The Psychotherapy and Counselling Union was recommended to me by another professional. Newly established with the intention of supporting counsellors I decided to join. Due to the change in my circumstances I was allowed to pay a minimal amount, an act which I was touched by. Before I spoke to anybody I felt as if they had demonstrated a commitment to their values.

I have had many long conversations with my union representative over the last year. I have been frantic, ashamed, frustrated, embarrassed, lost, hurt, often during the same phone call! The union gave me space. I could say what I wanted and delve into the detail of my case. For me, this is where my personal relationships understandably did not meet this need. My friends and family wanted to know that I was okay in the main; they do not have the professional knowledge or resources to look under all of the stones which needed to be explored.

It was a complex mix of support that I needed. The professional bodies operate in a quasi legal system with all that it entails. Equally, I was working through my own processes. My relationship with myself had changed and I needed to be able to question my values without judgement. I have been ostracised from a profession that I loved, with no ambition to do anything else whilst knowing that I no longer deserve this privilege. It has been a lonely place, and knowing that there is someone to share this with has been invaluable. I have felt respected even when I have not been able to offer that to myself.

It is perhaps an irony of the situation that the quality of support I have been offered has in part aided my personal reflections in regards to why my actions fell so far under what should be expected of a professional. The commitment, warmth and security which I have experienced have been very healing. The union offered me hope. It a simple word, but for me it has been the difference between becoming buried in the past or looking towards the future. I will always be tremendously grateful.

Publicity

Through a creative collaborative process among the members we have created a Union logo, deliberately ‘retro’ and in a traditional labour movement style; and also a flyer, in both electronic and print form – if anyone wants flyers of either kind, please contact Kate O’ Halloran at pcu.union@gmail.com. We have also placed brief articles and new items in Therapy Today, The Psychotherapist, and the BPC electronic bulletin. Very significantly, BACP is going to include information about the Union in its guidance for members facing complaints.

We need to extend this by placing longer pieces and probably also paid advertisements, especially in Therapy Today. The December conference (see below) is a good occasion for this, publicising the event is also publicising the Union.

Coming events

December 3rd conference: Changing the Game

This event will finally see the launch of our first campaigns, which we have always seen as a central part of our purpose: it will introduce two Codes of Practice which we will try to persuade organisations to sign up to, one for trainees in ‘voluntary’ work and the other for qualified practitioners. We hope that the conference and the campaigns will attract a lot of new people, and the pricing structure for the conference offers to convert non-members’ extra charge into part of their subscription fee if they decide to sign up.

AGM

We are committed to holding an AGM in early spring, which will include elections for a new committee (probably including at least some of the existing members), and voting on whatever new proposals emerge either from the committee or from the membership. We need to set a date for this as a priority. It will mark the development of the Union from an interim structure to a fully constitutional one.

Outreach to organisations etc

Complaints procedures

Andrew Samuels very generously (and with help from some other members) took on the task of negotiating with the major psychotherapy and counselling organisations. His efforts have by and large been very successful, and should lead to a large increase in recruitment – also, of course, to a large increase in support work required from us. He has focused on a) gaining access to complaints processes for Union representatives, and b) having the Union’s existence and function publicised by organisations to their members.

On the first issue, most of the organisations - UKCP, BPC and the National Counselling Society – are willing for Union reps to accompany members facing a complaint, with various stipulations: in some cases they can have either a lawyer or a Union rep, in other cases both can attend but the Union rep can only communicate with the lawyer, not with the member. However generally speaking we can get in the room; and to varying extents, the organisations understand what the Union is uniquely offering, and also understand that they themselves cannot credibly offer support to people they are also in effect prosecuting.

The exception is BACP, who made positive sounds in a meeting with Andrew but have since decided that Union reps cannot be physically in the room. The only exception is if there is no lawyer and no other supporter present – in other words, the practitioner has to choose one person.

On the second issue, there will be a piece on this aspect of the union’s work in UKCP’s The Psychotherapist in August and a piece in the BPC’s E-bulletin in July. BACP have also provisionally agreed to include information about the Union in the guidance documents which they give to members facing a complaint.The NCS need to get their Board’s consent to let their members know about us in their Newsletter.

All of this has raised questions about whether we will support people who join only when facing or anticipating a complaint, or whether we require people to already be members before the issue arises (i.e. the insurance company model). There are issues of both justice and affordability involved here. The Committee has decided to keep a watching brief on what happens in practice, and to formulate a recommendation to be proposed at the AGM next year.

Insurance companies

In parallel with contacting therapy organisations, we are also seeking discussion with insurance companies about what relationship we might develop with each other. This has proved quite difficult in practice, but we now have ongoing conversations with two companies – the Psychologists Protection Society and Oxygen – and will continue to approach the other major players.

Training organisations and charitable trusts, etc

Some while ago we asked our members to pursue the possibility of whatever organisations they might be involved with which train and/or employ therapists agreeing to formally recognise the Union as a negotiator. This would obviously be very helpful in raising our profile and credibility. However there has been almost no response to this from members, and only a couple of organisations have given us recognition. Again, this is disappointing, and we would like to renew our encouragement to members to take this up – you are welcome to contact us for guidance on what is required.

Conclusion

A lot has been achieved, and a lot remains to be done – which is about what one would expect from an organisation in its first year of existence! Two big questions pose themselves:

· Will the Union be able to grow to mass membership? We have already gone beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of activist counsellors and therapists; but we need many more members if we are to be a credible force.

· What is the best way of facilitating a grass roots-led organisation? Our attempts so far have not been very successful – and of course this is the case for almost all voluntary organisations in our society currently: people lack time and energy for self-organising, and in many cases are unfamiliar with the very concept. A cultural shift is needed, and it’s not obvious how this can happen.

In general, though, we are very pleased with what has been achieved, and we hope that our members feel similarly.

The Psychotherapy and Counselling Union Interim Committee:

Nick Totton (Acting Chair)

Kate O’Halloran (Secretary/Administrator)

Richard Bagnall-Oakley

Keith Barber

Jane Clements

Philip Cox

Howard Delmonte

Philippa Marx

Andrew Price

Polly Singer

Guy Smith

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