A Unison demonstration against public-sector spending cuts this year. The new College of Social Work has been described as a closed shop for members of Unison. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian
The launch of a professional college for social work has been called off amid claims that £5m of public money is being used to create a closed shop for the public services union Unison.
The College of Social Work had been due for launch by government ministers next Tuesday, the day before Unison plans to take a lead role in the TUC day of action over public sector pensions, Britain's biggest strike for decades.
After a crisis meeting with Tim Loughton, children and families minister, college leaders have announced that the launch event is being postponed. They are blaming logistical problems caused by the following day's strike.
The college is being set up with an initial £5m in government funding to try to give social work greater professional credibility in the wake of the Baby Peter scandal.
Under a proposed deal with Unison, members of the college would automatically become members of the union unless they asked to opt out. But MPs have intervened to try to stop the deal going ahead.
Graham Stuart, the Tory chair of the Commons education select committee, said his colleagues from all three main parties had been aghast to discover the terms of the deal when they took evidence in response to a complaint by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).
"We were collectively horrified to find that government money was being used to start a closed shop for Unison at the expense of other unions which represent social workers," said Stuart. "It's a calamitous mess. It's alarming that ministers have allowed things to get to this position, or were genuinely unaware of what was going on."
The college's launch was due to be attended by both Loughton and the care services minister, Paul Burstow. But the plug was pulled on the event after Stuart wrote and talked to Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, and Michael Gove, the education secretary.
"It's bizarre to imagine that two Conservative secretaries of state are being complicit in the use of public money to create a Unison closed shop for the social work profession," Stuart said.
Unison claims 43,000 members in social work, but there are 128,000 social workers and students in the UK. Under the proposed deal, people would pay £270 to join the college but would get Unison membership – worth £207 – as part of the package unless they asked not to be enrolled in the union. Existing Unison members would pay an extra £60.
A memorandum of understanding between the college and Unison, made public at the insistence of the education committee, states that the £270 fee would be split 50-50 between the college and Unison.
The memorandum adds: "Arrangements will be established to ensure that the College of Social Work is able to influence policy development by Unison and vice versa at the early stages of policy formulation." Stuart branded this an unacceptable compromise of the college's independence.
Leaders of the college say they need to make the deal with Unison to ensure rapid growth for the new body, pointing out that several comparable professional colleges have similar tie-ups with unions in order to be able to offer members a good package of services and support.
Although BASW, which has 14,000 members, says it remains willing to merge into the college, talks over 21 months were dogged by acrimony and ultimately proved fruitless.
Hilton Dawson, BASW chief executive, confirmed that his organisation had given formal notice of seeking a judicial review of the college's tie-up with Unison. "We are quite prepared to push the case along as far as we can because there are fundamental issues at stake," he said.
Maurice Bates, co-chair of the college, said it remained on course to open for business as planned despite the cancellation of next week's launch and the threat of legal action.
"We will not be distracted from delivering one college of social work on 3 January 2012," Bates said.