Revealed: Britain’s social worker failure

By Alex Stevenson

Local authorities are being forced to hire social workers from overseas as the post-Baby Peter recruitment crisis deepens.

A growing trend confirmed by today reveals Britain has failed to train and retain adequate numbers of homegrown social workers, compromising the state’s ability to look after vulnerable children across England.

The sector had long-term problems before the tragedy of Baby P’s death, which exacerbated problems to crisis point. Turning to overseas social workers has been the only option left for many desperate local authorities.

Earlier this year Essex county council launched a recruitment campaign which has resulted in the hiring of 52 social workers from Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and the US.

Hackney borough council took on four consultant social workers and four social workers from the US as part of a wider Reclaim Social Work programme.

And Reading council confirmed it recruited two social workers from overseas last year and have another three starting work this September.

These cases are part of a wider trend, as local authorities place greater reliance on overseas social workers above and beyond the base ten per cent level for foreign staff working in England.

The problem was first laid out by Lord Hanningfield, the head of Essex county council, who said in April: “The shortage of qualified social workers is now a problem facing all councils throughout the country and must be seen as a national issue of significant growing concern.”

Nushra Mansuri of the British Association of Social Workers agreed, telling that “nobody would dispute since Baby Peter the recruitment issues have been exacerbated”.

Sarah Loughton of the Local Government Association went further. She said social workers felt “vilified” and “demonised” following the case of 17-month-old Baby Peter.

He died in August 2007 after suffering sustained abuse from his mother, her partner and their lodger – despite having been visited 60 times by social workers in the months before his death.

A review by Lord Laming published in the wake of his tragedy, which sparked outrage across the country last year, urged sweeping reforms to the social care system, including the establishment of a national safeguarding delivery unit reporting directly to Cabinet and more training for frontline social workers.

The media outcry has made what was already a bleak situation much worse.

“Some local authorities are really struggling to deal with the gaps they’ve had, so they’ve gone to South Africa, Australia, America, to recruit people,” Ms Mansuri explained.

“If you distribute those people across your service, ok, but I wouldn’t be happy to see a team the majority of which is overseas because I don’t think that is a balanced team.”

The concern that this is happening across more and more local authorities means the shortage is having a direct impact on the quality of social workers across England.

Judges in family courts have frequently noted staff who start a case are often not the same ones who finish it.

Foreign workers are less likely to build a long-term career in Britain, preferring to stay for two to three years at the most.

And while many of those coming abroad have better qualifications than their British counterparts, others – especially from west African countries and Zimbabwe – appear less able to deal with the problems at hand.

Shadow health minister Tim Loughton told “There is a problem with social workers coming in from other countries where there’s question-marks over their qualifications and their level of expertise dealing with Baby P-type situations.

“There’ve been cases where, all of a sudden, they find themselves dealing with some really big problems in an inner city London borough. Have they got the experience and the tools to deal with this?”

Mr Loughton said the government has adopted many proposals originally mooted by the Conservatives.

He accused ministers of a “knee-jerk reaction” over the last two years “in terms of desperately trying to recruit more social workers” and blamed too much paperwork for driving 30,000 social workers out of the sector in recent times.

The government has denied claims of a short-term approach.

A Department of Health spokesperson said the government was committed to encouraging a new generation into social care, filling vacancies “as the sector has expanded”.

“The government is committed to ensuring that people who train and work as social workers are given the best possible support. This support should continue throughout their degree and placements and also when taking their first position following registration.

“We are working with employers, local authorities, professional social care bodies and skills agencies to create a workforce that has pride in itself, is respected by the public and supported to deliver high quality, personalised services well into the future.”

The spokesperson also pointed out that all social workers in England have to be registered with the General Social Care Council, adding: Registration of social workers is a fundamental principle of public protection.”

Concerns remain initiatives like the adult social care workforce strategy currently working through the system will take time to reap results, however.

“We welcomed making social work a priority area so that we can actually access people from overseas,” Ms Mansuri added.

“But we wouldn’t want that to become the solution to the recruitment of social workers because that isn’t and it shouldn’t be.”

For now, at least, councils are faced with turning the short-term fix of hiring social workers from abroad into a longer-term reality.