Employers defend rise in use of agency social workers

The British Association of Social Workers says the growing reliance on agency staff raises question marks over how councils use their staffing budgets.

Credit: Ben Cawthra/Rex Features
Credit: Ben Cawthra/Rex Features

One in three social workers is employed through an agency in some UK councils, leading to questions about how staffing budgets are being spent.

The average proportion of agency social workers rose from 6.7% in 2011 to 7.3% in 2012, according to research by Community Care. There was a slight dip in children’s services from 8.9% to 8.1%, but rates in adult services rose from 4.5% to 6.1%.

The ratios spike in certain regions, such as London (11.8%) and the East of England (10.5%).

Find out how many agency social workers are employed in your council (requires registration; link to download dataset is below the vacancy rates map)

The findings have reignited the debate about whether local authorities rely too heavily on agency social workers to plug gaps in services at the expense of outcomes for service users, who are thought to benefit from stable relationships with permanent members of staff.

One agency suggested the use of agency social workers had simply “returned to what we see as a normal level for the social work sector” this year.

“In 2011, public sector cuts had a big impact, with councils reacting by cutting their agency posts,” said Jonathan Coxon, managing director of Liquid Personnel. “However, councils have quickly realised that this was unsustainable.”

John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Services’ workforce development network, agreed that agency social workers are a necessary part of the supply market. “All councils need to use agency staff to resolve short-term pressures or vacancy issues at times,” he said.

Nawrockyi suggested the introduction of new rules for agency workers last year may have led to a false impression that councils were using proportionately more agency social workers than before. The 2011 Agency Workers Regulations stipulate that, after 12 weeks, agency staff are entitled to the same pay and conditions as permanent employees doing comparable work.

“Councils have to be more disciplined about the length of time an agency worker stays in one post,” said Nawrockyi. “I would not be surprised if this results in an increase in the number of ‘employment episodes’ for agency workers, which gives rise to an apparent increase in their utilisation when it is in fact simply more and shorter engagements.”

But Ruth Cartwright, England manager for the British Association of Social Workers, thought it more likely that councils had been too quick last year to offer staff voluntary redundancy in order to meet strict savings targets, without doing the requisite workforce planning.

She insisted that the current usage of agency staff was a cause for concern, despite the need for a flexible workforce. Community Care’s research showed that in London, for example, on average one in eight social workers is employed through an agency.

“Some of those teams will be almost more agency than long term staff,” said Cartwright. “That’s worrying. Agency staff are good at hitting the ground running, because that’s what they’re paid to do, but they do need people to show them the ropes. You need people with a bit of an organisational memory. And in all areas of social work, it is better for people to have social workers who will be there for them in the longer term.”

She added: “If the proportion of agency staff keeps going up, one has to ask where the money is coming from – and why isn’t it being used to recruit staff to permanent posts?”

Highest proportion of agency social wokers by council:

In children’s services:

In adult services:

When asked why almost half of Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s social workers were employed through an agency, Marcus Ginn, cabinet member for community care, said: “The council is currently integrating its health and social care services with Central London Community Healthcare. This will lead to an improved and seamless service for those in need of support and significant financial savings for the taxpayer during the tough economic climate. During this period, the council has chosen not to recruit new social workers on a permanent basis. Once the integration process is underway next year, we will have a far greater understanding of the exact skill set that we require and will then seek to recruit permanently.”

The investigation

Community Care sent Freedom of Information requests to all councils in England, Wales and Scotland, as well as health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland. We asked for the number of social worker posts and how many were filled by agency staff as of August 2012 and received 174 usable responses. If you have an enquiry about these figures, please email kirsty.mcgregor@rbi.co.uk.

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