Northern Ireland

Agency staff social workers to be phased out in Northern Ireland

The use of agency staff social workers is being phased out in Northern Ireland.
The use of agency staff social workers is being phased out in Northern Ireland.

A body representing social workers in Northern Ireland has welcomed plans to phase out agency workers by next year.

In a letter to colleagues, Northern Ireland's Chief social worker Aine Morrison said current agency workers would now be offered permanent contracts.

“I am fully aware of the very significant workforce pressures that exist currently and it is my belief that bringing about an end to recruitment agency use will help to achieve a much more stable and consistent social work workforce,” she said.

In the coming months, she said recruitment agency staff used by HSC Trusts would be offered a permanent contract in recognition of their “significant contribution.”

Recognising that newly qualified social workers may feel "considerable anxiety" about joining the workforce without the safety net of agency workers, she added: "I want to reassure you that we will take a measured and planned approach to making the necessary changes, which will also consider and mitigate against any risks arising."

"The Department of Health will be working closely with the HSC Trusts and trade unions representatives to deliver on this plan. I am also very conscious that stopping agency use will not solve all of our current workforce issues."

She said that other support measures were in place following a recent review of the workforce.

"These include continued work on safe staffing, career pathways, training, supervision and social work staff wellbeing. I hope that I can rely on your support in realising these important goals for the social work profession in the coming months," she said.

In response, Noeleen Higgins from the British Association of Social Workers in Northern Ireland said she hoped the measures would address "unacceptably high vacancy rates" in the profession, which had created an "over reliance on agency staff to plug gaps."

"Where there is high staff turnover and reliance on agency social workers on temporary contracts, the relationships which are central to provision of high-quality social work services cannot be formed. As a result, the individuals and families who use social work services are impacted negatively," she said.

“To ensure retention of existing staff and support the integration of agency social workers it is vital the Department also takes forward at pace its other pledged workforce support measures. This includes continued work on safe staffing, improving career pathways, and enhancing training and supervision for all social work staff."

She said consideration should also be given to how HSC trusts fill vacancies, in cases of illness or other leave requirements, as permanent staff can often be left unavailable for work."