Councils struggled to fill more than 2,000 vacant social worker posts last year after the Care Act triggered a spike in demand for staff, figures suggest.
The number of social work posts filled in adult social services departments rose from 16,100 in 2014 to 16,500 in 2015, a hike of 2.5%. This is the first increase in social worker numbers for four years and a sign councils are boosting capacity to deliver the act, which came into force in April 2015.
However, 12% of all adult social worker posts were unfilled in 2015. This is a sharp rise on previous years when vacancy rates were between 7.2% and 8%.
Calculations by Community Care based on the data (see below) suggests at least 2,225 social work posts were unfilled when the 2015 figures were collected.
The data, which is published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), will add to fears over a shortage of social workers in adult services.
Last month Community Care reported concerns among local authorities that problems recruiting social workers were hampering Care Act progress. The most pressing concerns surround experienced social workers trained as best interests assessors (BIAs) or approved mental health professional roles (AMHP).
Demand for both groups has surged in recent years. Use of the Mental Health Act, in which AMHPs play a key role in assessments, hit a record high last year.
Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) cases, which are coordinated by BIAs, increased tenfold following the Supreme Court’s ‘Cheshire West’ ruling in March 2014. The demand for BIAs has also seen a rise in BIA-trained social workers quitting local authority employment to work as independent assessors.
The HSCIC report also revealed the average social worker salary was £32,800 in 2015. This was a 2% increase in real-terms on the previous year but average pay levels are still 1% behind 2012 levels.
Overall, the number of council-employed adult social care roles dropped from 130,100 in 2014 to 120,200 in 2015, a fall of 7.6%. Restructures were cited as the reason for 8,500 job losses, outsourcing led to 5,900 job cuts and service closures 2,600. Most of the losses were in care work roles, which dropped 11% from 68,600 to 60,800.
Ray James, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, said: “This fall in staff numbers is not a surprise given the cuts to adult social care budgets over the last five years, totalling £4.6billion or a 31% reduction. Councils have sought to protect frontline social workers while seeking efficiency in management and outsourcing direct care provision.”
Caroline Abrahams, director at charity Age UK, said: “It is very worrying that there is such a huge reduction in the number of people working on social care in local authorities.
“Although most care is now provided by external organisations, local authority staff are key in making sure the needs of older people are properly assessed, and that follow up care is organised for them if they are eligible – as well as making sure they can come home safely after a spell in hospital.”
How we calculated vacancy numbers
The 133 councils that reported full data to HSCIC had 1,700 unfilled social worker posts and 12,300 filled posts. This meant unfilled posts represented 13.8% of filled posts among these councils. HSCIC figures show there were 16,100 filled social worker posts in England. Community Care calculated this meant there were likely to be around 2,225 vacant posts across the country.