A Conservative austerity plan to save the public sector £12bn over the next year has prompted fears that social work posts will be axed and services hit.
The party’s efficiency guru, Sir Peter Gershon, said last week that £1bn-£2bn of the savings planned for 2010-11 could be made by reducing the use of agency staff and not filling vacant posts, while £2bn to £4bn could come through cuts in IT spending.
The average social worker vacancy rate is estimated at 11% and, according to Skills for Care, 5% of England’s adult social care workforce are temporary, placed through agencies.
Amid growing pressure on party leader David Cameron to set out how he would tackle the budget deficit, Gershon claimed the action would be “certainly achievable without affecting the quality of front line services”.
The proposals immediately came under fire from Unison, which represents 40,000 social workers. Helga Pile, its national officer for social care, said: “A Tory policy of not filling vacant posts in social work would be a disaster.”
Dismissing the claim that only back office posts would be hit, she added: “Social workers need back office support so they can be out in their communities, helping families, not stuck behind their desks filling in forms.”
The British Association of Social Workers warned that councils should “think very carefully” about how they would retain a flexible workforce before reducing the use of agency staff in social care.
BASW’s development manager, Bridget Robb, said: “Many people want to get away from the office politics and stress of a full-time job, so if councils stopped using agency social workers we might lose those people from the workforce altogether.”
Unions fear that the Tory plans could place between 20,000 and 40,000 public sector posts at risk.
However, Merrick Cockell, the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council and one of the most senior Tories in local government, insisted plans for a freeze on recruitment would only apply to back-office staff and not those in the caring professions.
He pledged that social workers and those caring for the most vulnerable “would be the first area we would be protecting”.
Cockell, also the chairman of London Councils, said: “There are ways of making jobs more efficient. We can find savings before we dream of going near any frontline services. There is an opportunity to look at how we provide local public services in a better way.”
He explained that while agency staff “could be useful in some respects”, there had been “an overreliance” on agencies that needed to be addressed.