Agency social work to be banned in Northern Ireland trusts next year

Locum staff working for health and social care trusts will be offered permanent contracts over the coming months ahead of June 2023 ban, says chief social worker

Wooden jigsaw puzzle with text TEMPORARY and PERMANENT
Photo: TeacherPhoto/Adobe Stock

Northern Ireland’s health and social care (HSC) trusts will have to stop using agency social workers from next June, its Department of Health (DoH) has said.

Staff working through agencies at the trusts, which deliver statutory social services in the country, are being offered permanent contracts, a process that will take “a number of months”, said the country’s chief social worker.

In a letter to trust leaders, permanent and agency social workers, and students, Aine Morrison said she understood that the policy –announced last month by outgoing health minister Robin Swann – would cause concern.

‘Anxiety’ over agency ban

“I understand that you may feel considerable anxiety about the decision to stop the use of agency social workers by June 2023 and I want to reassure you that we will take a measured and planned approach to making the necessary changes, which will also consider and mitigate against any risks arising,” she said.

Rates of agency social work use across Northern Ireland are lower than in England, where 15.5% of children’s social worker posts in local authorities and trusts were filled by locums as of September 2021.

The Northern HSC Trust said it currently had 17 social work agency staff, while the Southern trust said it had less than ten, out of over 850 registered social work staff.

Social work vacancy rates across Northern Ireland’s trusts and other public bodies – 7.9% as of June this year – are also lower than in English councils, where children’s services had a rate of 16.7% and adult care 9.5% as of September 2021.

However, Ray Jones, who is leading a review of children’s social care in the country, told Community Care that the rate was slightly above 20% in children’s services, with gaps of 30% to 40% in children’s intake and long-term teams.

‘Significant workforce issues’

Morrison acknowledged these pressures in her letter but said that ensuring trusts could maintain a permanent workforce would help.

“As we know, effective social work services are built upon consistent, purposeful and trusting relationships between social workers and those people they seek to help,” she said. “Achieving this can only commence with a stable and consistent workforce which is well-supported.

“I am fully aware of the very significant workforce pressures that exist currently and it is my belief that bringing about an end to recruitment agency use will help to achieve a much more stable and consistent social work workforce.”

She said offering trust agency workers permanent contracts was “in recognition of the significant contribution they currently make to providing essential services”.

Morrison also said trusts would work with other sector bodies to ensure unfilled social work posts could be filled by final year students who had expressed an interest in working for them.

Support from employers

Trusts have been broad backing to the measure to end the use of agency staff. The Northern, Belfast and South Eastern trusts all echoed Morrison in saying that only a stable, consistent and well-supported workforce could deliver the “consistent, purposeful and trusting relationships” people using social work services needed.

The Southern trust, meanwhile, said it had limited dependence on agency staff and was “committed to maintaining a workforce consisting of substantive trust contracts for our employees”.

Belfast said it was “focusing on increasing our social work workforce capacity and reducing spend on temporary staffing through recruitment and education promoting the benefits of working in the health and social care system”.

The South Eastern trust also said it would be supporting final-year students’ smooth transition into the workforce on graduation, as referenced by Morrison.

The trusts and Morrison also pointed to action being taken to support the workforce on the back of Jones’s review, which started in February this year and will run until June of next year.

Action to cut admin and diversify staffing

In an interview with Community Care, Jones, who is emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, said he had recommended that trusts recruit from a wider pool of staff, beyond social workers, and cut administrative burdens for practitioners, and this was now being put into practice.

“Each of the trusts is recruiting for a wider skills mix, recruiting extra admin staff and taking decisions to reduce bureaucracy, and sharing good practice between themselves,” he said.

No extra investment was needed because trusts were underspent on their staff budgets due to the vacancies they have been carrying, Jones added.

Jones said he strongly supported the decision to bring agency social work to an end at the HSC trusts, despite their relatively low use of locums.

“If you don’t take action, it just escalates and you do not have that stable workforce,” he added.

He said current agency staff knew that “the opportunity of employment for the future is there for them”, by taking a permanent contract,, but said employers needed to work towards ensuring that the experience of being employed within the health and social care trusts is a good experience and people will want to stay in their jobs”.

Proposal for single children’s services agency

Alongside the workforce changes, Jones has also proposed creating a single Northern Ireland-wide arm’s-length body to take responsibility for children’s social care from the five trusts, to improve consistency and the priority given to the sector.

“The five trusts have a really busy agenda,” he told Community Care. There are a lot of pressures on the health services, as in the rest of the UK, particularly in terms of hospitals. Within this really busy agenda, children’s social care can’t get the attention it needs.”

While Jones has proposed that services within an ALB would be delivered by local teams, based on current HSC trust boundaries, he said Northern Ireland’s size made it possible to have a single organisation.

“Northern Ireland has a population of 1.85m. It’s big but not massive. It takes up to two hours to get from one part to another. It makes sense to have local delivery, but it doesn’t need to have five organisations. We’d have devolution and decentralised management structures, matching the five trust boundaries, but have one chief executive heading them up. The policies would reflect local services but have greater consistency.”

While he was health minister, Swann commissioned a review by DoH civil servants of options for the future delivery of children’s services, including the case for an ALB, but no further action can be taken in the current absence of an executive to run the devolved government in Northern Ireland. The UK government has set the political parties in Northern Ireland a deadline of 8 December to restore the executive, which has not been functioning since February.

Urgent action a priority – BASW

Responding to Jones’s proposal, and the decision to end agency work at the trusts, British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland chair Orlaith McGibbon said: “Professor Jones’s recommendations are very welcome and represent a vital intervention in the face of insurmountable pressures on children’s social work services. Social workers across children and families services are facing increasing demand, with problems exacerbated by the current cost of living crisis, resulting in the highest number of children looked after by social services on record. 

“Urgent action to address workforce challenges is a priority and BASW NI will work with the Department of Health to ensure long-term sustainable solutions to the high level of social work vacancies and the overreliance on agency staff. I also look forward to the department’s appraisal of Professor Jones’s far-reaching proposals for the reorganisation of children’s services.”


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