Agency social workers could be costing councils £70m a year more than if permanent staff were employed to perform the same roles, Community Care can reveal.
More than one in 10 council posts is filled by an agency or temporary worker, our exclusive Freedom of Information investigation has shown.
Each agency worker costs an estimated £14,400 a year more than a newly-qualified, permanent member of staff, according to research by Sefton Council in Merseyside, cited by the Department of Health.
Trade union Unison condemned “the millions being wasted on agency fees” as a “tragedy”, but employers defended the use of agency staff as a vital measure to tackle high vacancy rates.
“While we would seek to minimise the use of agency staff, there are circumstances in which we have to use them in order to maintain essential services,” said John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ workforce development network.
“Better to use agency staff than not to allocate a social worker to a child in care or to pick up safely adults’ and children’s safeguarding referrals.”
The vacancy rate in social work teams is 10.4%, Community Care reported last week. The figure is higher in children’s services, where more agency staff are used.
“Many agency staff are highly skilled and much sought-after to manage short-term staff shortages and pressures. While retention remains low, they are a necessary, if often expensive part of the system,” said Howard Cooper, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development policy committee.
But Cooper admitted that the use of agency staff could have a negative effect on the long-term operations of social work teams.
“[It could] hinder the development of a committed and stable team and make it more difficult to offer children and their families a stable relationship with an individual social worker,” he said.
Unison has urged councils to stop the “revolving door” of agency and temporary social workers passing through departments. “It is a tragedy that millions are wasted on agency fees to plug shortages of social workers,” said Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social workers.
“Filling posts with permanent social workers would provide continuity of care to children and vulnerable adults.
“It would also allow staff to build up long term experience.”
In Lambeth Council, London, agency social workers are encouraged to take up permanent posts.
“It may be a sign of the times but more social workers are now seeking more secure employment than previously,” said Jo Cleary, Lambeth’s executive director of adults and community services.
Other local approaches to tackling the over-reliance on agency staff include golden hellos for newly qualified social workers.
Community Care surveyed all councils in England, Wales and Scotland, and health and social care trust in Northern Ireland. In the 148 out of 211 bodies that provided responses a total of 3,400 agency social workers were employed. Using the DH’s cost analysis and applying average agency staff figures to the remaining councils, the projected expenditure on agency workers over the cost of permanent staff was just under £70m per year.
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Social worker vacancy rates: a special report