By Tristan Donovan and Kirsty McGregor
Local authority social worker vacancy rates have fallen for the fourth year in a row, but figures suggest the gap is increasingly being plugged with agency staff.
Community Care’s annual investigation found 6.5% of all social worker posts across the UK were vacant in September 2013, down from 7.1%in 2012.
The fall appears to be largely due to progress in filling positions in adult services. In 2012, 7.5% of social worker posts in adult services were vacant, but this has now fallen to 6.7%.
Vacancies in children’s services rose by one percentage point to 7.1% in the same period.
The investigation, based on freedom of information requests to all councils and Northern Ireland’s five health and social care trusts, also showed that employers are increasingly relying on agency staff to fill posts.
In 2012, local authorities were using an average of 16 agency social workers across both children and adult social services. This year, the average has climbed to 22.
“Agency social workers represent some of the most experienced and capable social workers around,” said Ruth Cartwright, England manager of the British Association of Social Workers. “But if they are working somewhere long term that can be a problem – you want people there for the long haul.
“The question is whether they being used as a short-term stopgap while longer-term plans are made.”
Continuity in support for services users
The fall in the number of social worker posts over the past few years appears to have come to an end, with authorities reporting an average of 240 social workers posts available (both filled and unfilled).
This is up from 214 in 2012 and the first rise since the investigation began in 2010, when the average number of posts was 226.
This year’s freedom of information request specified that social workers of any level should be included in the response, as long as they hold a caseload, which may account for a rise in the number of posts recorded.
“It is encouraging to see an increase in social work posts as some local authorities did overreact when the recession came in with Draconian cuts,” said Cartwright.
The East of England continues to be the region with the highest overall vacancy rates, as it was in 2012. According to the results, 14.7% of social worker posts in the East of England are vacant; almost double the figure for London, the region with the next highest vacancy rate at 8.7%.
Northern Ireland appears to have the lowest vacancy rate in the UK, with just 1.1% of social worker posts across its five health and social care trusts unfilled.
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