Social work vacancies as high as 39%

Social work departments are desperately short of qualified staff – including one authority with a 39% vacancy rate – the UK’s largest public sector union warned today.

The scale of the problem and the consequent difficulty helping vulnerable adults and children have been revealed by a series of Freedom of Information requests submitted by Unison.

The figures show that the national average for social work vacancy rates are running at around 12%. For some councils, staffing difficultes are even more acute. Sandwell, in the West Midlands, has 39% of posts unfilled; Waltham Forest, in London, 34.9%; Hounslow in west London 31% and Essex 28.1%.

“Councils have consistently claimed that social work vacancies are falling,” Unison said, “but the statistics show that the true picture is much bleaker.”

The union is demanding urgent action to attract fresh staff into social work and to prevent the exodus of workers leaving the profession. The controversy over the death of Baby P has added to the casework load and pressure on the profession.

Most councils employ agency staff in an effort to plug professional gaps but that flexibility makes it difficult to ensure continuity of care for clients and inhibits the process of building trust in relationships.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: “Social workers are battling against the odds to protect our young children and vulnerable adults. How can they deliver a safe and effective service when vacancy rates are hitting in excess of 20% in so many parts of the country?

“Councils should not bury their heads in the sand and try and cover up the problem. This situation is no good for social workers and it’s no good for their clients who desperately need help.

“We are in the middle of a serious recruitment and retention crisis. Social workers are under pressure from all sides. We need action now to attract more people into the job and stem the flow of workers leaving.”

Unison is calling for better pay and working conditions and improved support for staff. It would like to revive “qualify-on-the-job” schemes that fund social work assistants, care managers and others to obtain their social work qualifications while in employment.