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Social Workers: Recruitment and Retention

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 16 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their strategy for increasing the number of social workers and improving their retention rate.

My Lords, the Government remain committed to supporting local authorities and other social work employers to meet their duties regarding social work workforce planning and helping them to understand best practice in recruiting, retaining and developing staff. We have invested over £1.2 billion since 2010 in supporting both mainstream and fast-track qualifying routes into the profession, and our improvements to the supervision and leadership that social workers receive support people to remain and progress in social work.

I thank the Minister for that Answer but I do not think that they can fulfil their requirements or their responsibilities. Particularly for directly employed local authority social workers, workloads must be at red on the risk register and must have been like that for some years. Stress levels, staff shortages and the inability of some areas to recruit—there is a 26% vacancy rate in London—indicate that this must have a much higher priority than this Government are prepared to give. Will she give some more practical answers on how to stop the increasing numbers of social workers leaving the profession, how to recruit more—there has been a 6% drop—and how to get some support for a very pressed service?

I thank the noble Baroness for what is a very important Question. She is absolutely right that we have to ensure that we recruit and retain the social work workforce: it is vital and, like any employers, local authorities are responsible for ensuring that they have the right staff with the right skills. The Government also recognise that we have a role in supporting them. That is why we provide financial support to students who qualify as social workers. We make sure that those entering social work receive the best training possible, with some new programmes to support those who are newly qualified, such as the assessed supported year in employment, so that those who come in with quite a significant workload can be supported in their first year. We understand that high caseloads can be a challenge. Local authorities are responsible for the recruitment and deployment of social workers, but we work with them to think about how they can best manage the delivery of services and make caseloads manageable so that we retain those social workers who are vital to delivering care and support for some of the most vulnerable in our society.

My Lords, social work can be a very rewarding career but it can also be very stressful, as has been said, so can my noble friend say exactly how we are supporting young graduate social workers? She said a bit about that but how, in their first, second and third year, can we actually retain them?

My noble friend is absolutely right that social workers do vital jobs and that it is an attractive career choice. More than 4,000 students enrol in social work courses every year, and we have introduced a fast-track graduate programme that has brought 2,000 more into the social work programme. However, it will work only if we retain those within the system, so we have developed some post-qualifying standards for social workers at key stages of their career to create a consistent, practice-based career progression. In particular, we have introduced the assessed year in the workforce to provide that key level of support in the first year, so that those who experience the shock of the caseload in their first year have the support that they need to remain in the profession and develop the key skills to be able to manage that workload.

My Lords, as a former family judge, I have worked very closely with social workers. Will the Minister consider the aspect of lack of respect and status? If they were given a better status, they would be much easier to recruit and retain.

The noble and learned Baroness makes an excellent point. Social workers play a crucial role in our society and should have the respect and status they deserve. One way in which that can be achieved is through the increasing professional standards being brought into the service. As I have said, these include key reforms such as improving leadership and providing high-quality continuous professional development, through which we seek to improve the quality of social workers’ professional lives while raising standards and recognition for the profession.

My Lords, the named social worker programme demonstrates a new way to support particularly vulnerable people. Social workers and their clients felt more confident and supported; social workers felt more job satisfaction, and we have just heard how important that is. What plans are there to expand this programme to more areas?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right: that is a vital part of the programme. It is part of a wider suite of programmes that have been introduced so that we can bring individuals into social work at different points within the system. This has included the new social work degree apprenticeship scheme and, as I have said, we have 4,000 a year entering the normal degree programme. We have also introduced the fast-track training programme for high-potential graduates and the Think Ahead graduate programme for mental health social work. We are trying to attack this challenge from all angles, as well as guaranteeing that we retain those in the system through continuous professional development. This will ensure that it is a rewarding profession, as she rightly says, but also one in which people feel supported and that they have the skills to deliver for the most vulnerable in our community.

My Lords, the Minister said earlier this week that the need to ensure that we recruit, retain and build on workforce development will be at the heart of the social care Green Paper when it arrives. Has she anything further to say about when we will actually get the Green Paper, other than that it will be very important? In view of the chronic problems of low morale, inadequate pay in the face of unmanageable caseloads and resulting problems in providing key services to vulnerable people, as we have heard about today, can she assure the House that making sure that social care work is valued is recognised as a top priority in the Green Paper?

The noble Baroness will know that we discussed this two days ago. I am happy to reassure her that social work and the social care workforce will be core not only to the social work Green Paper but to the workforce strategy, which will come forward imminently. She is absolutely right that we must ensure that we have the right models to retain and recruit the social care workforce, but we must also have the right funding. That is one reason why the Government have invested £9.4 billion in social work over the last few years, why we have to make sure that we integrate the long-term plan and the social care Green Paper alongside the funding settlement for local authority funding, and partly why we are working in the way we are to bring these papers forward.