Stuart Gentle Publisher at Onrec

REC calls for urgent clarity on badly thought through proposed ‘ban’ on agency social workers in Northern Ireland

The Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) has written to the Department of Health (DoH) in Northern Ireland asking for urgent clarity about its threat to ‘ban’ agency social workers within weeks.

An increasing number of social workers want to work through the 14 on-contract recruitment agencies in Northern Ireland that provide agency workers to trusts. Many people prefer working through agencies because that offers flexibility, better rates of pay and more frequent payment. The opportunity to increase staff based on need and workload helps trusts to manage shortages of social workers which exist across the UK.

But the DoH wants to stop agency social workers from delivering services for trusts in a bid to save money by the end of June 2023. The REC predicts the impact of the plans will see agency social workers quitting the profession entirely and service-users will receive worse care as a result.

REC’s warning comes as a survey it conducted recently shows concern among social workers about the impacts of curbs on agency work.

Kate Shoesmith, REC Deputy Chief Executive, said:

“This ‘ban’ on the use of social workers employed by agencies risks wrecking social care in Northern Ireland. The impact is likely fewer social workers in the system overall which will harm morale for those left behind to deal with already bulging caseloads. All types of workers, not just those in social care, want to work more flexibly for a range of reasons including childcare or elderly parent related responsibilities. Forcing people to work in ways they do not want will strip an already struggling sector of much needed resource and risk worse care for vulnerable people.

“With just weeks to go until the proposed ban, our members who supply social workers to trusts are shocked and concerned about these plans. We are asking the Department to pause and consult with agencies around how best to work with them to support trusts. An outright ban is short-sighted and impractical given existing worker shortages. It is concerning that officials are side-lining recruiters who have long worked in partnership with them by not consulting them about the plans. This is disregarding recruiters’ expertise in workforce planning and ability to build proactive recruitment and retention strategies for short term political gain. Let us collaborate to tackle staff shortages and provide value of taxpayers’ money. The lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly means there is less debate and challenge about this change of tack which could lead to immense pressure on existing services already stretched to breaking point.

“It is unrealistic to think agency workers can be banned when they are a fundamental part of dialling services up and down based on need and at core help trusts maintain patient care. Most agency staff are experienced workers who have their temporary assignments at trusts continuously extended, working with the same group of vulnerable people. Our members do not come across complaints about the safety of agency staff regularly and agencies are great at retaining workers.”

The likelihood of agency social workers leaving the profession entirely, rather than taking up a permanent contract, is well-evidenced. A recent REC survey looked at the impact of proposals to curb the use of agency social workers in England. It revealed that four in 10 temporary social workers (42% of the respondents) would leave the workforce completely if further restrictions were made to their current pattern of employment. The same survey also revealed that many locums do not have an option to work in a full-time permanent role and working flexibly is their only way to continue their career. The plans in Northern Ireland are even more stringent than in England.