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Social worker shortage is costing councils

While the rising cost of social care has been in the spotlight, a growing shortage of social workers threatens to drain local authority funds even further. Now a BBC investigation has revealed the scale of the problem, and the expense of covering the deficit with agency employees.

Reputation issues

Council-based workers are facing troubled times. The Association of Social Workers recently warned that many are leaving the job early in their careers, often because of the pressures encountered in front-line work. Separately, Lesley Hagger of Northamptonshire County Council told the BBC that being ‘lambasted’ for failures in the media has made matters worse.

The problem has been compounded by government cost-cutting. Local authorities, such as Worcestershire County Council, have faced problems as employees claim money-saving measures like enforced deadlines on cases and rising workloads are lowering standards and increasing stress.

The cost of cover

Although tightened budgets seem inevitable during a period of austerity, figures released by the BBC suggest that these particular measures could be counterproductive. After collecting responses from English councils, they found that spending on social workers from agencies has increased from £180m in 2012-13 to £356m in 2016-17 – a rise of almost 100% over four years.

According to Department for Education stats, the number of agency social workers working in local authorities rose from 3,250 to 5,330 in the same period. As a result, as staff told BBC journalists, there is a much higher turnover of staff in their children's services departments. They believe that this is leading to poorer quality of provision.

Government support

The Department for Education highlighted to the BBC that it has already spent £750m on supporting the recruitment of social workers. However, Claire Kober of the Local Government Association's Resources Board argues that Whitehall must do more to improve the image and career prospects of social work.

Some councils, like Barking and Dagenham, are attempting to address the problem themselves by lowering caseloads and subsidising housing. But such measures come at a cost. A strong cash flow is a key enabler of these, and that means finding the funds elsewhere, or improving methods to recoup unpaid debt.

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