No agency social workers left practising in Northern Ireland trusts

Department of Health hails success of target to end agency work in region by end of June 2023, but union raises concerns about staff being moved into bank roles without employment rights

Post-its with the words 'permanent' and 'temporary' written on them
Photo: Hasif Collection/Adobe Stock

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.


8 Responses to No agency social workers left practising in Northern Ireland trusts

  1. Michael Anderson July 6, 2023 at 8:16 am #

    What a short sighted approach this is. Agency social workers are less likely to go off sick, take less leave and are more likely to take higher profile challenging cases. If these local authorities have to save money then cap the rates we pay private children’s homes who charge multiple thousands a week for one child in care. This would save millions but locum social workers are an easy target. You think there’s a shortage of social workers now? Just wait

    • Fred Whiston July 7, 2023 at 2:33 pm #

      You make some good points, Michael.
      Having a cap on agency workers, for example no more than 10% of a LA’s social work workforce may be a more sensible approach. Such a move would;
      a) bring an abrupt end to many of the private agencies out there doing their bit in milking LAs dry;
      b) massively slow the dangerous and never-ending churn of social workers,
      c) hugely reduce the number of SW ‘vacancies’ because far more people would stay in LAs, and
      d) generate much-needed stability for Looked After Children.
      e) still allow for some flexibility in the workforce to cover absences such as long-term sickness and parental leave.

  2. Ray Jones July 6, 2023 at 10:49 am #

    Well done Northern Ireland. Children and families have consistently told me how they are dismayed and distressed by the turnover of short term agency social workers. Social work is a profession which is built on relationships with and commitment to children, families and adults who are in difficulty and often distressed. May be we should see the world from their perspective rather than promoting agency social work. And may be we should also reflect if we really want to see scarce public funding being creamed off as big profits by private commercial employment agencies. Go back twenty years ago and – a bit like food banks – agency social workers had not arrived as the new kids on the block. And as this comment will probably trigger a tirade of responses from agency social workers – yep, we should do more and better around flexible employment, about the culture in some (but not all) organisations, and yes we need better working conditions – but money pouring into private employment agencies is hardly a sensible direction of travel. So well done Northern Ireland – and thank you to the majority of social workers who are giving a long-term commitment to children and families within their communities.

    • Elle July 7, 2023 at 3:37 pm #

      Watch a mass exodus. Some will take bank, most won’t. No minimum social worker numbers needed on the floor so leaving a department half full is fine. Suits cash strapped councils. How come agency nurses or doctors aren’t getting the same treatment? Look at why we take agency posts. Not a choice. It’s because the job is so underfunded, undervalued and understaffed. Burn out! How will this change that.

      • Christian Kerr July 8, 2023 at 8:03 am #

        ‘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.’

        Has that exodus happened? No.

        Can we trust the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which represents private sector interests in this most public of professions, to give an objective view?

        Absolutely not.

  3. Geri July 7, 2023 at 4:18 pm #

    Having agency social workers to fill vacancies was better than having no social workers to fill vacancies,….. it has never been as understaffed!

  4. Waffle July 7, 2023 at 10:48 pm #

    This lacks data. How many social workers are in practice now compared to before? How many bank workers are there, and how does this differ from agency social workers for the service?

  5. Lesley July 8, 2023 at 9:18 am #

    People posting on here do not seem to realise that the system used in Northern Ireland is quite different than the system used in the rest of the U.K.

    Firstly, social work staff do not work for local authorities but for one of the five health care trusts.

    Secondly, the rates of pay for locum staff was much closer to that of substantive staff than it is in the rest of the U.K.

    The reliance on locum practitioners is also much less that it is in the rest of the U.K.

    I can see this move working well in Northern Ireland, much better than it would in England and Wales (I can’t say about Scotland as I don’t know what the situation is there). For those social workers who do not want to work in a substantive post, working on ‘the bank’ should be much more like agency locum work.

    The main losers in all this will be the employment agencies (which are also -in the main – different from those operating in England and Wales. Winners will of course be the health care trusts and the end users and their families.

    It will be very interesting to see how things go. In my part of England vacancies not filled by substantive staff must be advertised for bank staff before being released to the agencies which does seem to be working. I can see however that things could move more towards the Northern Ireland model in Britain in the future if all goes well over there.