£7m cost of employing agency staff

By Ted JeoryA CASH-STRAPPED council is spending more than £7million a year hiring temporary social worker staff.Essex County Council's accounts have revealed it paid £7.

By Ted Jeory

A CASH-STRAPPED council is spending more than £7million a year hiring temporary social worker staff.

Essex County Council's accounts have revealed it paid £7.4m in 2003/4 on agency staff in an attempt to tackle a recruitment crisis in the care sector - almost 2.5% of its social services budget.

That is 34 times greater than the £215,000 spent by Suffolk County Council on temporary social workers from employment agencies during the same period.

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Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social Workers, called on the Government to set “appropriate” levels of agency staff and to intervene if councils exceeded them.

“There is too much reliance by some local authorities on temporary staff. We need to get a good balance for the sake of clients, particularly young children who benefit from longer-term stable relationships,” he added.

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The care sector has been experiencing a recruitment crisis, with fewer people wanting to enter the profession, which has led to a sharp increase in the pay rates for temporary staff.

Qualified social workers, who look after vulnerable adults and children, hired on a temporary basis by Essex County Council through an employment agency can now expect to earn up to £21 an hour - which equates to a potential salary of more than £40,000 a year.

On top of the payment to the worker, the council also pays recruitment agencies a commission, which can be in the region of £9 an hour.

By comparison, jobs for social workers are currently being advertised by councils across the country with an annual salary ranging from £18,000 to £30,000.

A few years ago, qualified social workers were being paid about £11 an hour for temporary jobs.

County council bosses have become so concerned by the crisis they have sent a team to South Africa in an effort to recruit 70 social workers on permanent contracts from them.

They also introduced three years ago a “golden hello and handcuffs” scheme to attract social workers from neighbouring counties. Under that, workers were paid £1,000 bonuses on a rolling basis as an incentive to stay.

The Essex County Council accounts showed it spent £3.2m hiring qualified social workers, £1.1m on more experienced approved social workers, £2.8m on residential social workers and £282,000 on emergency team managers.

Samantha Davies, manager at the Swim social worker recruitment agency, which last year placed 20 people with Essex County Council, said: “The cost of temporary staff has changed massively.

“Social work is more demanding now than it used to and you need to pay people more to attract them.”

A spokesman for Essex County Council said comparisons with the amount of money spent on agency staff by Suffolk County Council were not fair because of its closer proximity to London.

He added: “There are many areas of social work, for example child care, where in order to maintain and exceed a quality level of care we have to employ agency personnel.

“They are paid a rate that reflects the standard social worker rates paid by local authorities plus amounts that take into account sickness and leave which are unpaid, scarcity value and the agency's percentage.

“Shortages of social workers are a national problem from which Essex is not immune.

The spokesman said the council was working to solve the recruitment problems with a range of initiatives that should reduce the need for agency cover.


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