Agency social work ban in NI could be in place by end-of-month deadline

Department of Health says most locums have accepted offer of permanent contracts with region's health and social care trusts as it works towards target of ending agency use by end of June

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

Story updated*

A plan to ban agency social work in Northern Ireland’s health and social care (HSC) trusts could be in place, as planned, by the end of this month.

Most locums working for the region’s five trusts – which are responsible for statutory social services – have accepted a permanent contract, with other agency workers still having the opportunity to do so, said the Department of Health (DoH).

“Social workers employed by a recruitment agency in trusts have been offered the opportunity to apply for permanent HSC contracts and the majority have done so,” said a DoH spokesperson. “Opportunities for remaining agency staff to apply remain open as we move towards the 30 June deadline.”

“Ending recruitment agency use in social work will help to build and maintain a stable and consistent social work workforce. This is vitally important, as effective social work services are built upon consistent and trusting relationships.”

The ban on agency work at the trusts – who are responsible for statutory social services –  was announced last October by outgoing health minister Robin Swann. He said it was designed to cut costs and reduce pressures on permanent staff.

The following month, DoH chief social worker Aine Morrison wrote to trust leaders, social workers and students acknowledging the “considerable anxiety” the policy may have caused and pledging to take”a measured and planned approach to making the necessary changes”.

Increased spending on agency staff

Expenditure on agency social workers in HSC ballooned from £2.85m in 2014-15 to £10.57m in 2019-20, before falling back to £8.5m in 2020-21, said a DoH review of the social work workforce published last year.

The rise was driven by “short-term funding and budget uncertainties” had had contributed to “unnecessary turnover of staff in some areas”, disrupting continuity of care and support, said the review.

However, rates of agency social work use across Northern Ireland are lower than in England – where 17.6% of children’s posts in local authorities were filled by a locum as of September 2022.

The Northern HSC Trust said it had 17 social work agency staff, while the Southern trust said it had fewer than ten, out of over 850 registered social work staff, in November last year.

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Feedback from unions and staff surveys indicated that “the vast majority of agency staff” would prefer permanent appointments, if these were available in a timely manner, said the social work workforce review.

Steps taken to implement locum ban

In her letter to practitioners and leaders last November, Morrison set out a number of measures the DoH was implementing to help bring about the ban, including offering trust agency staff a permanent contract and enabling final-year degree students to get jobs in HSC should they wish.

Echoing the DoH’s latest comments, a spokesperson for Belfast HSC Trust said that it “continued to make progress with the plan to cease use of all recruitment agencies and was focused on increasing our social work workforce capacity through recruitment and promoting the benefits of working in the health and social care system”.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) Northern Ireland said it backed the ban and urged the DoH to continue making progress towards implementation.

“For a number of years statutory social work services have faced high rates of vacancies, frequent turnover in staff and heavy reliance on agency social workers,” said BASW NI director Carolyn Ewart. “These problems have been felt most acutely in children’s services and the result is that the relationships between social workers and the people they support, which are central to provision of high-quality services, often cannot be formed.

“I am pleased the Department of Health has taken action aimed at ending the use of agency staff. This much needed initiative is both ambitious and challenging and it is vital the department stays the course to deliver real change for the profession.”

Ban risks loss of practitioners

However, agency umbrella body the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) warned the plan would likely result in agency social workers leaving the profession and accused the DoH of not consulting agencies on its plans, “disregarding recruiters’ expertise in workforce planning”.

“We are asking the department to pause and consult with agencies around how best to work with them to support trusts,” said REC deputy chief executive Kate Shoesmith. “An outright ban is short-sighted and impractical given existing worker shortages.”

Shoesmith urged the DoH to collaborate with agencies “to tackle staff shortages and provide value of taxpayers’ money”.

Children’s social work review awaited

The news comes ahead of the publication of a review into children’s social care in Northern Ireland, by Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.

Jones has already signalled he will recommend 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.

His review will report on 21 June.

*This story originally said that the target for ending the use of agency staff in the trusts was likely to be missed. It has been updated following receipt of new information.


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