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£14m: the amount Northern Ireland health trust have spent plugging gaps in its social work teams

By Cate McCurry

Northern Ireland's five health trusts have splashed out over £14m on temporary social workers in the past five years to plug holes in local healthcare services.

More than £4.6m has been spent on hiring agency social workers in the last 12 months alone - the highest in the last five years.

The number of vacant social work jobs is currently sitting at 348, most of these - 192 - are in the Belfast Trust area.

The worrying figures were revealed by the Department of Health following a number of Assembly questions from MLAs.

Millions have been spent across Northern Ireland's health and social care trusts over the last five years to fill gaps in staffing levels.

Figures show that the Belfast Trust has spent £3,727,862 on social work agency workers in the last five years, while the Western Trust has splashed out £3,080,000 over the same period.

Meanwhile, the Southern Trust spent £430,107, the Northern Trust spent a total of £3,289,000 and the South Eastern Trust forked out £3,522,000 to bring in temporary staff.

Assembly member Daniel McCrossan MLA said the numbers were "concerning".

The West Tyrone SDLP MLA added: "I've met with local social workers who have told me they are over-worked and stressed while the department is not employing more full-time staff to permanently alleviate these pressures.

"It's concerning that £4.6m is being spent on the hiring of temporary social workers across each health trust area.

"It is therefore concerning that the limited resources in the health budget is being spent on agencies rather than on front line social work services.

"Social workers are involved in very complex cases, especially those involving the custody of young children, and this is no easy task. Agency staff can have an impact on these cases and on families, as children are being passed from pillar to post to a different number of social workers, agency workers, all of which impacts on decision making on the best interests of children."

An Assembly question tabled by DUP MLA Gary Middleton revealed that it takes the Southern Health Trust over three months to fill a post, while the Western Trust takes 91 days to appoint a social worker.

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