National pay scale for Welsh social workers back on agenda

Wales pay graphic
Wales pay graphic

The idea of a national pay scale for social workers in Wales has resurfaced four years after it was recommended by a major review of the profession.

In a poll of 14 Welsh Assembly members published by the British Association of Social Workers this month, most identified the need for a national pay scale for “underpaid and undervalued practitioners”.

Boosting profession in Wales

It emerged as the Welsh government announced the establishment of a task group to look at ways of improving recruitment and retention and boosting the status of the profession.

It seems clear that the task group will be asked to consider the case for establishing a national pay scale given the failure to do so following the 2005 report, Social work: A profession to value.

The report, produced by a group led by the Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru and written by former Bridgend Council social services director Tony Garthwaite, found wide variations in social worker remuneration packages in local authorities.

Vacancy and turnover rates of 15%

Amid overall vacancy and turnover rates of 15%, councils were using a range of financial incentives to tempt social workers, including raising starting salaries and providing additional duty and unsociable hours payments and relocation packages.

The report found that, while this could ease recruitment problems in the short-term, the resulting pay inequalities were likely to cause low morale in lower-paying workplaces and damage retention by encouraging social workers to chase higher salaries elsewhere. Minimum starting salaries ranged from £19,053 to £25,437, with an average of £20,970.

Social workers losing out

It also noted evidence that social workers had lost ground on pay against other professions in Wales, including nurses and teachers – professions with national pay scales in England and Wales. It said average weekly pay was £438,30 for social workers, £474.10 for nurses and £592.50 for primary school teachers in 2004.

Among its key recommendations were for social worker salaries to be raised to ensure consistency – with a minimum starting salary of £23,265 – and equitable pay levels should be maintained thereafter, ensuring councils collaborated rather than competed for social workers.

Challenge to task group

Garthwaite, now an independent consultant, welcomes the renewed interest in the issue and challenges the task group to answer the “difficult” question of why a national pay scale has been achieved for nurses and teachers but not social workers.

However, he admits implementing his recommendations has proved difficult, including because of the ongoing use of recruitment incentives.

“Some local authorities have adjusted pay rates and conditions according to our guidelines, but not everyone has brought their rates up,” he says. “Other areas with extreme pressures on recruitment and retention difficulties have felt the need to have bigger remuneration packages.”

The Welsh Local Government Association set up a working group to look at the feasibility of a national pay scale after Garthwaite’s report.

National pay scale ‘impossible’

It concluded it was “impossible” because of the requirement for councils to review pay and grading structures to eliminate gender inequalities, as part of the 1997 single status agreement.

Under an agreement between unions and employers, single status should have been implemented by April 2007, but some authorities have still not done so.

Beverlea Frowen, director of social services and health at the WLGA, says the idea of a national pay scale “would not be achievable at this moment in time” until job reviews have concluded in all 22 Welsh councils.

‘Poorest settlement in 10 years’

She also questions how it would be funded in the current economic climate, especially given the 2.9% average increase in funding for Welsh councils in 2009-10. “I hope the Welsh assembly wouldn’t expect local government to fund this when we have just received the poorest settlement in 10 years. If national pay scales were set the shortfall would have to be funded, and who would do that?”

Frowen also says authorities have largely succeeded in narrowing salary differences, in a “pragmatic” implementation of Garthwaite’s recommendations. A national pay scale would be an idea for other, “sunnier” times, she says.

Improve support for social workers

The Welsh social work task group should be focusing on improving overall support for social workers rather than attaching too much importance to pay, Frowen argues.

“Social workers don’t just up sticks because they want an extra couple of thousand pounds – there are other factors that leave people dissatisfied with their jobs,” Frowen concludes.

According to Ellis Williams, workforce lead for ADSS Cymru, single status job reviews could be “terribly unhelpful” in achieving consistent salary levels across Wales. “The position of social workers salaries in this job evaluation exercise across Wales is as yet very unclear,” Williams says.

Vacancies coming down

On an optimistic note, Williams says vacancy rates in Wales are dropping, reducing the risk of authorities competing with one another.

He points out that the country’s eight universities now produce “sufficient” new social work graduates to meet demand. Ultimately, Williams believes that any move towards a national pay scale would be “a helpful building block” for a “robust” social worker career ladder in Wales.

Unison Wales also supports the idea of a national pay scale, arguing this would reduce the number of social workers “leapfrogging” between authorities, chasing better pay.

Equitable pay achievable

But Dominic MacAskill, head of local government for the union, recognises implementation would be “complicated” due to job reviews, but is still hopeful that more equitable pay can be achieved.

“Unison’s advice is that employers should use the Garthwaite recommendations on pay scales to inform their consideration of new salaries,” he says. “This is not a centrally imposed national pay structure but would achieve similar outcomes.”

Frontline support

A national pay scale also carries frontline support.

Mark Drinkwater, Community Care’s practice adviser and a social worker who has worked in both Wales and England, supports the idea of a national pay scale “in the name of fairness”.

“It always struck me as odd that one local authority could have one starting salary – and the neighbouring authority could have a more favourable one,” he says. “Having a nationally agreed structure in place seems to be the fairest way of doing things.” .

More difficult in England

Drinkwater believes it would be more feasible in Wales than elsewhere because of its size, adding: “It would potentially be even harder to implement a national pay scale in England because of the sheer number of authorities.”

Rhys Bradley, a social worker within the Vale of Glamorgan’s adult community care team, agrees that a national pay structure would be “appealing”.

“A pay structure that places social workers alongside teachers and nurses would surely help give the profession the recognition it deserves, if not demands,” he says.

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