Birmingham City Council has spent £7.7 million on agency fees for social workers this year as it struggles to recruit and retain staff.
The largest proportion of those costs have fallen on the under performing Children’s Services department which has been in special measures since 2009.
Details emerged as strategic director of children, young people and families Peter Duxbury appeared before a council scrutiny committee enquiry into services for vulnerable children.
Coincidentally Ofsted inspectors had shown up a day earlier, at just ten minutes notice, for an unannounced inspection to check the progress of the council’s improvement plan.
Privately the council leadership is anxious that progress will be recognised and hope that the official notice to improve can be lifted.
Children’s services was placed under notice to improve following a string of damning serious case reviews into the deaths of children known to social workers - the most high profile of which was Khyra Ishaq, the eight-year-old starved to death by her parents in 2008.
The improvement plan, which included the introduction of integrated family support teams and closer working relationships with police, NHS, schools and other agencies, was drawn up and implemented over the last two years by interim director and children’s services troubleshooter Eleanor Brazil.
Mr Duxbury, who was appointed as her permanent replacement in May this year, said that considerable progress has been made but there remain some concerns over the department’s performance, including delays in assessment of children at risk and the consistency of assessment across the city, adding that this is difficult to achieve in a local authority area the size of Birmingham.
But a major concern and a costly one at a time of unprecedented budgets was the retention of social workers and an over reliance on agency workers.
“Recruitment and retention of staff is very important for us. We have many talented and many loyal staff but we do not seem to have enough of them.
“We want to make Birmingham the place where social workers want to work. But at the moment it is viewed as a hard place work.”
He said this was because of its size, its diversity and the scale of social problems.
“We need to change our reputation and show that, even if this is a challenging city, that we support staff.”
The inquiry, chaired by Coun Anita Ward (Lab, Hodge Hill), was told that some agency staff had been with the council for several years and refused to go on the council payroll because they would earn less.
Mr Duxbury said: “They get paid more as agency workers. Some regular staff work side by side with agency staff earning more.
“But the agency staff know they can stay, that they are not going to be out of work, because we are always short of staff.”
He said that he had demanded that all agency appointments go through him first, but warned that because of the desperate need to maintain progress on children’s services and a 15 per cent turnover rate, that they are always in need.”
He told the committee that in the financial year to date the City Council has spent £7.7 million on agency social workers, the majority of that in children’s services.
With Ofsted in the department, viewing cases, interviewing staff and running the rule over the service for another week, Mr Duxbury was asked what his aim is as director.
“We want to be able to demonstrate that we have excellent child protection services across the board. For this inspection we hope they recognise the progress that has been made.”