No agency social workers are left practising in Northern Ireland’s health and social care (HSC) trusts, says the region’s Department of Health (DoH).
This means that the DoH has met its target of ending locum social work in the five trusts – which are responsible for statutory social services in the region – by the end of June 2023.
However, the region’s main social work union raised concerns about the project being rushed and agency staff being moved into bank social work roles in which they lacked key employment rights.
Chief social worker: ‘a welcome landmark’
Welcoming the development, the region’s chief social worker, Aine Morrison said: “Ceasing the use of agency social workers in HSC trusts is a welcome landmark.
“High quality social work services require stable and consistent social work teams, in which social workers feel valued. I think it is important that all social workers in HSC enjoy the same benefits and entitlements, and I hope that this initiative will have a lasting effect in stabilising the social work workforce.”
The DoH said most staff who were previously agency workers had applied for permanent roles in the trusts and the majority of this group were successfully appointed. Other roles had been filled by newly qualified social workers who graduated this summer.
Former health minister Robin Swann set the target to end agency social work in the trusts last October, after which Morrison acknowledged the “considerable anxiety” the policy may have caused and pledging to take “a measured and planned approach to making the necessary changes”.
The move was vociferously opposed by agencies’ representative body – the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) – who warned it would result in an exodus of practitioners, though the British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland backed the initiative as a way of improving continuity of support.
Union’s concerns over employment rights
Following the DoH’s announcement of the policy’s success, the region’s biggest social work union, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), raised concerns about the process having been rushed and agency staff being moved into bank social worker roles.
These involved zero-hours contracts under which staff were not given rights to annual leave, pension contributions, maternity leave or sick pay, claimed NIPSA.
“This is an interim solution but one that must stop for frontline teams ASAP and permanent staff recruited,” said Damien Maguire, NIPSA’s branch chair at Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.” “It is hoped they will be on what they say on a “recruitment pathway” at the next round of regional recruitment next month.”
In response, a DoH spokesperson said: “The department will continue to engage with staff and their union representatives through well-established channels to address any outstanding issues or concerns that they wish to raise.”
Policy not a ban on agency work
The policy does not constitute an outright ban on agency work.
NIPSA told Community Care that trusts had agreed protocols whereby they could hire agency social workers in the event of a crisis, with senior management approval.
The existing commissioning framework under which HSC trusts engage non-medical staff, including social workers, was recently extended until March 2024.
A DoH spokesperson said that it would take a decision next year on whether to include social workers in the updated framework.