Agency social workers cost councils in the West Midlands 25% to 50% more than permanent staff but often deliver poorer quality services to children and families, a leaked report has shown.
Managers across the region have struggled over the last year to find competent and suitably experienced agency staff to ease the pressure on frontline children’s teams, according to research for the region’s councils by the West Midlands Social Worker Retention Project and consultancy TeamPro Solutions.
A series of interviews with 80 people in 14 local authorities revealed high quality agency workers were considered to be in the minority, while many managers employed less experienced social workers because they had no other option.
Some managers said ill-equipped locums would leave as soon as problems with their practice emerged and find another placement elsewhere, leading to a “trail of poor practice, anxieties and concerns” across the West Midlands.
“There are often issues around capabilities, which they deny,” said one acting team manager in a safeguarding team. “Then they will just up and leave.”
In other cases, permanent employees who had been suspended due to alleged poor practice were found to be working through an agency in neighbouring authorities.
Managers also thought some social workers joined agencies in order to hide previous performance issues, although it was not clear what proportion of respondents held those views.
Councils estimated the additional cost of employing agency social workers for children’s services in the West Midlands to be 25% to 50%. A total of at least £17m was spent on an average of 300 agency staff in the past year.
The report found it would cost £17,450 to employ a senior agency social worker to do 12 weeks work, compared to £11,770 for a permanent member of staff.
National recruitment agency Sanctuary Social Care criticised the report, claiming it contained inaccuracies and misrepresented agency social workers.
Director David Hill said: “We are furious with the suggestion that social workers become locums in order to conceal problems with their conduct and performance.
“This is a slur on over 5,000 professionals who hit the ground running every day, often under difficult circumstances and with the hardest caseloads imaginable.”
But Colin Green, director of children, learning and young people at Coventry Council, who leads on the regional retention project, said the report was “well-researched”. “The report wasn’t written for agencies, but to help local authorities to better manage staff,” he said.
He added: “There are many very good agency social workers; we have had some at Coventry who have been first class.
“But some weren’t.”
Green said councils in the area were now looking at how to implement some of the recommendations.
The report concluded that better joint working between councils in the region would allow local authorities to standardise pay rates and encourage information sharing. It found that £2.5m could have been saved by employing them at a lower and more standardised rate.
Research by Community Care in September found agency social workers could be costing councils £70m a year more than if permanent staff were employed to perform the same roles.
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