Wales is facing a social worker shortage and some councils are spending millions plugging the gaps
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
Councils in Wales have more than 400 social worker vacancies and in some cases are spending seven-figure sums each year on agencies to help fill the gaps.
More agencies are springing up and some are charging up to £60 per hour for a qualified social worker, according to one worried council director.
Social workers protect vulnerable people and safeguard them from harm. Children’s social workers try to keep families together but may decide a child ought to be taken into care. Decisions sometimes have to made about adding an unborn child to the child protection register.
Adult social workers assess people who need care, arrange that care, and play a key role in the discharge of elderly patients from hospital.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service asked Wales’s 22 local authorities how many adult and children’s social worker vacancies they had, how much they were spending on agencies, and also how many business support vacancies they had in their social services departments.
The responses to the Freedom of Information request varied from council to council, in part reflecting their population and demographics. Vacancy numbers, as in any organisation, also fluctuate from month to month.
At the time of responding, Cardiff Council, a large urban authority, had 50 children’s social worker and 16 adult social worker vacancies. It spent £5.3 million on agencies in 2021-22. Anglesey, a smaller rural authority, only had four social worker vacancies in total, and spent £490,000 on agencies in that year.
Councils said recruiting and retaining qualified social workers was an increasing challenge, creating a gap for agencies to fill, although many had increased their salaries. But there was no evidence of “golden hello” payments by councils to lure new recruits.
Carmarthenshire Council pays qualified social workers a starting salary of around £36,000 per year – including a £2,500 market supplement – said its director of community services, Jake Morgan, but its 10-15% vacancy rate was still double what it was before the Covid pandemic.
“It is relatively well-paid, and we are certainly among the better ones in terms of our retention,” said Mr Morgan.
However, he said social workers had lost out in terms of real-terms pay over the past decade, that social work degree courses were under-subscribed, and that there was a workforce shortage generally.
“There is also a massive increase in demand post-Covid,” said Mr Morgan. Many elderly people “struggled and struggled” during the pandemic, he said, and were now needing extra help.
He said children’s social workers were supporting more families affected by cost of living pressures, and that there appeared to be a rise in mental health problems among adolescents – particularly girls experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress.
Mr Morgan was keen to emphasise the sense of achievement that came with the role. “It is a fantastic job,” he said. “I don’t think there are many other jobs where you have such a direct influence on people’s lives. You get to be the difference about whether a child grows up with their family or not, or if someone leaves hospital to live back at home.”
He said trying to keep families together underpinned the council’s philosophy, and that Carmarthenshire had the lowest number of “looked after” children in Wales, although some were on the child protection register.
Going to court in a bid to remove a child considered at risk from a family setting was, he said, “the absolute exception”.
Mr Morgan said the council was sponsoring 25 to 30 of its social care staff to qualify through the Open University or Swansea University as social workers.
He said there had been an increase in the number of agencies offering social workers – some of which, he claimed, were “profiteering” by charging £58-60 per hour. Mr Morgan said a group of west Wales councils including Carmarthenshire had decided not to use these high-cost agencies.
In other areas, he said, agencies were “actively poaching” social workers from councils with offers of better pay.
Mr Morgan said these agencies weren’t training or investing in these social workers, and that their activity risked destabilising the wider workforce. He said he would like more regulation of agencies at a national level.
Merthyr Tydfil Council, which has a low number of vacancies, said recruiting was a challenge but that its efforts to retain its social workers – such as giving them a say on how the service worked – were proving successful.
Rhondda Cyn Taf Council, which has a high number of children’s social worker vacancies – although it is a big authority – said councils were competing to recruit skilled social workers and that financial incentives being offered were not sustainable in the long run.
A spokesman for the council said it was training its own children’s services staff to become social workers. It also plans to reimburse students who live in the area to qualify as social workers, in partnership with Cardiff University and the University of South Wales.
“This will be in return for a commitment by the student to join the council as a social worker upon qualifying,” he said.
Jane Dodds worked in child protection for 27 years and is now MS for Mid and West Wales. Although she worked mainly for councils in England she said the recruitment and other challenges she saw would be similar in Wales.
“There is always a recruitment issue in child protection,” she said. “I can’t remember a team where I had a full complement of staff.
“It is one of the most pressurised areas. You may go out in the evenings, you may go to court. It’s hard, people are angry with you. I was assaulted once, for example. Another time I was locked in a room, and the police had to come.”
The responsibility of getting finely-balance judgements right, she said, could weigh heavily. “It’s impossible not to take it home with you,” she said. “I won’t pretend there weren’t a number of times I was beside myself, thinking, ‘Have I got this right’? I found it rewarding though, when you found out later on that a child had gone back to their families or gone on to better things.”
Ms Dodds said her husband has been working in child protection for 30 years, and that people with his experience should be incentivised to remain on the front line. His local authority, she said, rewarded him with an extra week’s salary each year. “That’s not why he does it – he enjoys it,” she added.
The Liberal Democrat MS has been vocal in the tragic case of five-year-old Logan Mwangi, of Bridgend, who was murdered by his mother, stepfather and a teenager in July, 2021. The case was subsequently the subject of a child practice review. Ms Dodds said the short period of time Logan was on the child protection register in Bridgend prior to his death “knocked me over”.
She has repeatedly called for a full review of children’s services in Wales. Asked what she thought this would achieve, she said: “The first thing is listening to frontline workers and managers – they are the people who know what’s happening and will say they need this resource or this support.
“The second thing is to find out where best practice is, so we can learn from it. Some of the really high-performing areas in England have really good ideas. It could be about supervision or a different approach working with health (teams). It’s not always about money.
“Thirdly, reports by (regulator) Care Inspectorate Wales are ‘fluffy’ – a series of narrative processes. I have no idea how well or poorly councils here are performing in child protection.”
In England, she said, child protection services were judged by the regulator as “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement” or “inadequate”.
The Welsh Government said it had asked Care Inspectorate Wales to carry out a rapid review of decision-making about child protection.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “We have set out an ambitious programme for reform to transform children’s services in Wales and have been clear that now is the time for action and not further review.”
On wider recruitment pressures more generally, he said ministers had recently announced a £10 million package of support for social work students in Wales.
“Health and care services in Wales, like the rest of the UK, are working incredibly hard to respond to a complex range of ongoing and significant challenges,” he said.
The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), which represents councils, said “significant levels of funding” were needed to train and retain qualified social workers.
“Demand for adult and children’s care services has rapidly increased in recent years due to an ageing population coupled with a rise in the number and complexity of children needing care and support,” said an WLGA spokesman.
“The Covid pandemic has magnified recruitment issues across the health and social care sector and the recruitment and retention of qualified social workers is a significant challenge across Wales and the UK.
“Currently demand for permanent, experienced workers is outstripping supply and this leads to a greater reliance on more expensive agency staffing. Councils who previously have not had to use agency social workers are now having to rely on them and even then some continue to hold social worker vacancies.”
Older people’s charity Age Cymru said research it had carried out found nearly one in 10 people had to wait more than 30 days to have their social care needs assessed, and that nearly a third of the applicants then had to wait more than a month for a social care package, while nearly one in seven had to wait more than 60 days.
Staff recruitment and retention was, it said, a key reason for this. However, the research also found that councils were making genuine attempts to improve the adult care situation, although the changes needed would take time.
A spokesman for the charity said not having access to the right support could have severe and long-term consequences for the person waiting for care.
“Older people’s needs can change while they’re waiting for an assessment or a care package to be implemented,” he said. “This is particularly the case for some older people living with more than one health condition, or those whose unpaid carers’ health and other circumstances have changed.
“For people living with dementia, delays in care package allocation can result in more rapid deterioration and ‘deconditioning’, particularly for those living alone. In addition to the delays in assessment and support, poor communication from social care services can make people feel forgotten about which can lead to a further decline in mental well-being and a feeling that their life is being put on hold.”
The Freedom of Information responses received:
Anglesey Council: 0 adult social worker vacancies, 4 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £1.52 million
Blaenau Gwent Council: 5 adult social worker vacancies, 11 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £742,000
Bridgend Council: 12 adult social worker vacancies, 36 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £1.45 million
Cardiff Council: 16 adult social worker vacancies, 49 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £16.8 million
Carmarthenshire Council: 16 adult social worker vacancies, 7 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – data not provided
Conwy Council: 2 adult social worker vacancies, 6 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £867,000
Denbighshire Council: 6 adult social vacancies, 13 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £878,000
Flintshire Council: 6 adult social worker vacancies, 22 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £1.86 million
Gwynedd Council: 3 adult social worker vacanies, 2 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £205,000
Merthyr Tydfil Council: 0 adult social worker vacancies, 6 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £780,000
Monmouthshire Council: 0 adult social worker vacancies, 5 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £2.84 million
Neath Port Talbot Council: 2 adult social worker vacancies, 9 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £61,000 although no data available for 2019-20
Newport Council: 21 adult social worker vacancies, 26 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – data not provided as not in easily accessible format
Pembrokeshire Council: 2 adult social worker vacancies, 11 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £2.1 million
Powys Council: 10 adult social worker vacancies, 20 social worker vacancies covered by agency workers, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – data not provided
Rhondda Cynon Taf Council: 3 adult social worker vacancies, 45 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £3.6 million
Swansea Council: 24 adult social worker vacancies, 25 children’s social worker vacancies, money spent on agency social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £485,000
Torfaen Council: 6 adult social worker vacancies, 16 children’s social worker vacancies, money on social care agency workers which is likely to mainly relate to social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £653,00
Vale of Glamorgan Council: 45 adult social worker vacancies, 14 children’s social worker vacancies, money on social social workers in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 – £3.98 million although seven months of data not available
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