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Spending on agency social workers increases by a third, costing £1.8m per council

Local authority spending on agency social workers has increased by nearly a third in just one year, with it now costing £1.8m per council.

FOI requests by Community Care found that the average UK council spent £1.2m on agency workers in children’s services and £647,247 in adults’ services in 2013-14.

Unison professional officer Helga Pile told Community Care that the high amount spent on locum social workers was “a really unhealthy situation”.

“It does seem some are making the decision to go over to agency work to get some control back in terms of pressures in their departments,” she said. “Precious resources are going out to agencies and not being spent on boosting up the existing workforce or on the service.”

Dave Hill, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS)’s workforce chair added: “The numbers would suggest people are making the considered choice to come out of permanent jobs and go over to agency work which, if it’s the case, is deeply depressing.”

He said expensive agency staff take away from other spending priorities, sometimes meaning councils can’t afford to fill all their vacancies which will have a major impact on caseloads.

In addition to the high cost of temporary social workers critics of their use have suggested that they do not provide the consistency of care needed in today’s society.

In the wake of the Daniel Pelka scandal, Coventry council has gone on a major recruitment drive to have enough staff to improve social services. In the meantime they are using temporary staff, but council leader Ann Lucas told the BBC that locum social workers aren’t as committed as permanent social workers are.

“We’ve put in about 70 agency workers at the moment but they’re hugely expensive,” she said. “And for as good as they are they are not committed to Coventry and Coventry children in the way that our permanent social workers are. “

Bridget Robb of the British Association of Social Workers also told the BBC that the use of temporary social workers “at its extreme does put children’s lives at risk”, but that the more common consequence is children feeling like they don’t have a social worker committed to helping them.

Debbie Smith, CEO of social care recruiter Caritas Recruitment, and also chair of APSCo’s Social Work Sector Group, was also featured on the report and said: “Locum social workers are in fact some of the most experienced practitioners in the UK and often they can add valuable insight, particularly when they have been working in a high performing local authority and then go on to work with those which may need improvement.”

She added that there is no correlation between the use of locum social workers and poor performance; she pointed to a report released by the Department for Education in March 2014 which showed that those local authorities deemed by Ofsted to be ‘outstanding’ had a higher than the national average usage of locum social workers.

Nick Bowles, Head of Stakeholder Engagement at APSCo added: “Of course the real problem is that there just aren’t enough permanent social workers around and so temporary workers fill an absolutely crucial skills gap. The Local Governments Association has recently said that council leaders are concerned that a lack of suitable vetting procedures has resulted in an inability to attract the very best professionals – just one of the reasons why APSCo developed the Compliance+ audit – a best practice standard for the suppliers of both permanent and locum social workers which goes above and beyond statutory requirements to ensure that local authorities get the best prepared, the best trained and the most appropriate social worker for their particular setting.”

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