Belfast Telegraph

Minister must act on social worker crisis

Editor's Viewpoint

When it comes to challenging professions, the often-maligned social workers must rank highly. Consider the types of situation they deal with on a daily basis: domestic violence, children at risk, addicts, people with mental health problems and the homeless are included in this far from exhaustive list.

Those who work in the field consistently complain of the stress they suffer, with increasing workloads and constricted resources.

Which makes the situation in Northern Ireland all the more puzzling. In the last five years the five health trusts have together spent more than £14m employing temporary social workers, £4.6m of it in the last year alone. At the same time there are 348 vacant positions in the profession throughout the province.

Social work is a job which requires a high degree of skill and the building up of a rapport with clients. It is not the sort of occupation where a temporary worker can be parachuted in at a moment's notice and be expected to provide the type of appraisal and care required.

That is not to demean the abilities of those who are hired from agencies. No doubt they are well qualified, but where is their ongoing experience in dealing with the caseloads which they could be presented with - and what happens when their temporary contracts are ended?

Rather than alleviating the workload or stress on full-time members of staff, the hiring of agency staff would appear to be self-perpetuating the problem. Surely filling the empty posts should be the priority for the health trusts?

Only last year an English council began a social worker recruitment campaign in Northern Ireland and Romania, which were cited as places where highly qualified staff were to be found. That would suggest that professionals to fill the empty posts are available but apparently not being offered full-time jobs here.

Such is the vital nature of the work undertaken by social workers, it is imperative that the fullest possible complement of full-time staff is deployed. Instead, given the rising bill for agency staff, it seems that the practice of hiring people on temporary contracts is increasing. Social workers have to make key decisions about people's lives - it can literally be a question of life or death as well publicised, but thankfully rare, examples have shown when things go wrong. Health Minister Michelle O'Neill should note these concerns as a priority.

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