CROYDON IN CRISIS: Concerns are growing at Fisher’s Folly that cutbacks on hiring agency workers, implemented since January this year, could adversely impact some of the borough’s most vulnerable. KEN LEE reports
Croydon Council’s children’s services department, which was given a “Good” grading by Ofsted only in March this year following nearly three years rated as “Inadequate”, has seen almost one-third of agency social workers leave their posts since April.
Similar agency social work positions in Croydon’s adult services have been halved in the same period, from April to August this year.
The figures have been obtained from Croydon through a Freedom of Information request which asked for the number of qualified social workers who were on temporary or agency contracts with Croydon.
The response provides a startling insight into the council’s reliance on agency staff, and confirms the worst fears of council workers and unions who have predicted that too wide-ranging cuts in social workers could see the borough’s children’s services department begin a downward spiral to the state it was in in 2017, when Ofsted inspectors declared that some children or young adults in the care of the local authority were at serious risk of harm.
Between 2017 and 2020, an extra £25million was spent on children’s services following the damning Ofsted report, which had suggested strongly that too many staff cuts had been made previously and that the “demoralised” and understaffed department’s social workers were overburdened with too much casework.
The cash-strapped council is currently undergoing an urgent budget review, with hundreds of jobs to be axed. Originally, this was to have been 15 per cent cuts, though an emergency budget to be presented at Monday’s cabinet meeting is now expected to recommend cuts of 20 per cent.
But nowhere has council leader Tony Newman nor his finance chief, Simon Hall, dared to admit in public that cuts as harsh as 30 per cent and 50 per cent were being made to the number of agency positions working among some of the borough’s most vulnerable residents.
Indeed, Newman has been juggling with figures, and excluding those positions which have been deliberately left vacant since January or agency jobs that have been cut, to try to disguise the full extent of the cuts being imposed at the Labour-run council. This week, Newman told Labour supporters only 50 jobs are to be cut. Union officials have estimated that a total of more than 400 jobs are to go.
Despite all the extra funding for children’s services, and even staff recruitment expeditions to South Africa, hiring staff social workers has remained a constant issue for Croydon. A heavy reliance on agency staff will have helped to fill some of the vacancies, though it will have been a costly way to achieve that goal. Agency staff invariably are more expensive to bring in than full-time staff appointees.
Back in 2016, and long before the critical Ofsted inspection, Hall told a council meeting that he had no choice but to splash the cash after spending more than £20million on hiring agency workers in the previous financial year. “That is the reality of the marketplace we are trying to deal with,” Hall said then.
Such an expensive way of delivering its services appears to have caught up with the council.
In one of her final briefings before leaving the council last month, Jo Negrini, the then chief executive, had revealed that the council had begun a process of weaning itself off agency staff in January this year, around the time that the borough’s accountants had given their latest warnings about the Croydon’s shaky finances.
The figures provided under the FoI show that in April this year there were a total of 216 qualified social workers in Croydon’s children’s services and adult services departments.
Of those, 164 – 76 per cent – were agency staff. After three years and £25million spent, the council’s recruitment drive had clearly failed.
In children’s services in April, there were 149 agency social workers. By August this year, according to the council, that had been reduced to 103, a reduction of 29 per cent.
In adults services, there were 15 agency social workers hired by Croydon in April. Less than six months later, that number had been reduced to seven, a 53 per cent reduction.
Insiders at Fisher’s Folly say that by cutting back so many posts in these key areas are likely to see a rapid return to the kind of performance in children’s services which Ofsted inspectors found so troubling.
“Many council employees are raising significant concerns that staff who remain will be left with unmanageable workloads,” one social worker said.
They wrote to the council saying, “It is of profound concern to our members and to your constituents that a Labour-led council is embarking upon cuts of this scale.”
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