‘Give our social workers a return to national terms and conditions’ was the message this morning from Northamptonshire County Council’s scrutiny committee to the cabinet.
After three hours of discussing the situation within the council’s children’s services department the committee ended by deciding to make a formal recommendation to the Conservative administration to increase the pay of the authority’s social worker team.
The call comes after a series of issues within the department, which was deemed as failing by Ofsted in November and is now being overseen by a Government-appointed children’s commissioner. The department has a high number of children who do not have an allocated social worker because of problems trying to recruit and retain staff.
The meeting at council headquarters One Angel Square in Northampton heard children’s services currently has 69 social worker vacancies which means it is running 20 per cent short of the 350 social workers it needs. Ninety of the 281 social workers are agency staff.
Scrutiny committee member Cllr Victoria Perry, who was cabinet member for children’s services before being moved from her post in January, said the problem was not going away and until the issue of attracting and keeping social workers was dealt with the service would not improve.
She said the cabinet had always had the will to improve pay, but that it had ‘usually failed because of lack of support in the wider authority.’
She said: “I want to see some evidence coming forward that the chief executive and commissioners support this.
“I wrote endless questions to the commissioners about the unallocated issue and did not seem to get a response.
“It won’t work unless the budget is there. Can’t do it without backing of wider authority.”
Following the financial meltdown of the council last spring, central government sent in commissioners Tony McArdle and Brian Roberts to oversee the authority. They have the final say on many of the financial spending decisions.
Labour councillor Danielle Stone said pay and conditions, career prospects and working environment all had to be improved and that the council’s social workers had to be ‘properly valued’.
Cabinet member for children’s services Fiona Baker said she entirely agreed with Cllr Perry and in her weekly meetings with the commissioners she has made the case for more resources to achieve what is needed in children’s services. She said plans are now being put in place.
The authority’s new director of children’s services Sally Hodges, who is herself being paid £1,100 per day, said she wanted to move away from the current situation where staff are given incentives such as golden hellos to join and move to a ‘stable and able’ position.
She said:”I want us to move from a system from a bag of things to a good solid career path, without all the extras. I want us to be industry average. That is the position we are trying to get to.”
The director also asked councillors to help improve the department’s reputation by ‘not feeding into the narrative’ and said that a new website launched last year aiming to recruit new social workers had not led to many applications.
Unions have long been making a call for a return to the national pay and conditions that were removed in 2013 and at the meeting Northamptonshire’s Unison’s deputy branch secretary Alvarez Wilkinson told the meeting: “What we need to address immediately is to maintain the staff we have now.
“Returning to national pay and conditions will go along way. Pay now – that would be a start and would seem fair.”
National Joint Council pay scales are local government pay scales which have been set as a result of negotiations between the trade unions and the Local Government Association.
All NCC staff have had a pay freeze this year, although a rise may be given in the coming months.
The meeting also heard many complaints from councillors that agreed recommendations made by the scrutiny committee in October have not been actioned.
This involved changing the working arrangements so that social work staff had private spaces in One Angel Square and also more desks to work from.
The scrutiny committee resolved to ask for a timeline for actions from cabinet and a reason why changes had not been made so far.