Belfast Telegraph

Alliance's Dickson warns of caseload disaster for social work in Northern Ireland

By Noel McAdam

Local social workers are approaching caseload tipping point, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill has been warned.

Almost 90% staff are routinely working unpaid hours, while half report vacancies in their teams.

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson demanded an official audit to gauge the extent of the problem after accusing the minister of failing in her duties.

His attack came after a workload survey report from the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers concluded 88% of its members regularly worked unpaid hours.

The Health Minister said: "Social work, like many other services in the HSC (health and social care sector), has seen an increase in demand over the past number of years."

She noted health trusts had employed an extra 375 social workers - an 11% increase - between 2011 and 2016 and stressed there was no shortage of qualified people to fill the vacant posts.

"Employers should be seeking to fill vacancies in a timely way," Ms O'Neill added.

"The HSC Board has been working with the trusts and the Business Services Organisation in an effort to speed up the process of recruitment to vacant posts, which has had some success."

The minister also urged employers to undertake an audit to establish the number of unpaid hours worked staff and the number of vacancies.

"It is unacceptable if staff are working excessive hours, and it is important that employers exercise a duty of care to their staff," Ms O'Neill explained.

But Mr Dickson said: "The minister has thrown up more questions than it answers. She has not given clarity on how she will address the issues.

"The minister highlighted that an audit is yet to be undertaken. Without the audit, we have no clear idea of the number of unpaid hours currently being worked.

"The minister admitted there is no clear idea of the scale of the problem. There is a worrying lack of grasp on the scale of the situation, which will only get worse."

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