Council to invest £1.2 million to cover overspend on children’s social workers after ‘15% rise in work’

Social workers saw a '41% increase in monthly contacts' since local authority was rated 'inadequate' by Ofsted

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A council has submitted plans to invest an extra £1.2 million into its children’s social work budget after a “15% rise in work” since April last year caused the council to overspend on staff.

Social workers in Tower Hamlets have experienced a 41% increase in monthly contacts and a 66% rise in referrals following an Ofsted inspection report which deemed its children’s services ‘inadequate’ nine months ago, the council’s budget report has said.

The council is proposing a £1.2 million investment to mitigate the impact of using agency staff to fill vacancies. The money would be used to plug a funding gap for the ‘vacancy factor’ the service has had since 2013-14.

The vacancy factor was a budget saving measure which the council hoped to reduce spending on agency social workers by taking account of the average number of vacancies in the workforce over a year.

The council reduced the staffing budget by 5% in 2013-14 to account for the number of vacancies, which averaged 8% a month. The move was intended to discourage managers from using agency staff to cover short-term vacancies and that “any additional workload [could] be absorbed in the short term”.

Due to the extra workload and need to improve following last year’s ‘inadequate’ Ofsted inspection however, the service was filling all vacancies with agency staff, which caused a £2.9 million overspend. It is hoped the £1.2 million would plug the vacancy factor part of the overspend, while the extra £1.7 million, would reduce as the council recruited a more stable and permanent workforce.

‘No longer sustainable’

This year’s staffing budget was forecast with an agreed 6% vacancy rate, but the council was told in the 2018-19 budget proposals this was “no longer sustainable in the present climate”.

The proposal said: “Failing to provide sufficient funding will mean the service is unable to adequately respond to the present increase in work.”

It added that while the service had expanded as part of a redesign, this was not large enough to continue holding a vacancy factor as “caseloads have increased and the work continues to be complex”.

“Presently all vacancies have required filling with agency workers, this relates to not only vacancies but also long term sick and maternity. The result being two fold – the overspend on the budget due to not maintaining the vacancy factor but also the use of agency [staff] which comes with added expense due to the rate of fees associated to this cohort of staff,” the report said.

Tower Hamlets council told Community Care it had overspent on its children’s social worker budget every year since 2013/14.

“By not having sufficient workforce with a manageable level of caseloads, it will result in deterioration to the service provided to children and their families, which presents a safeguarding risk for them and risks the health and wellbeing of staff in addition to the risk of damaging the council’s reputation.

“There is also a risk that Ofsted will, on future monitoring visits, not evaluate the council as delivering the improved performance that have been committed to which will result in a form of external intervention of the management of children’s social care.”

The funding is part of a proposed £5.15 million investment across children’s services. A recent monitoring inspection of Tower Hamlets’ children’s services reported concerns from social workers about heavy caseloads.

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