Medway Council’s reliance on agency staff is costing residents millions of pounds.
The authority’s struggle to attract full-time staff was laid bare in a report to the business support overview and scrutiny committee which showed £13 million has already been spent on agency staff this financial year.
The report highlighted the number of agency workers in the second quarter of the year had risen to 193 from 169 at the same time last year.
With workers costing between £220 and £690 per day depending on their role, the financial pressure of an over-reliance on agencies is of significant concern for the council.
Committee members were told 89 temporary workers worked in children’s services, 40 in adult services, 25 in legal services and a further 39 in other miscellaneous roles, such as project work and on an ad-hoc basis.
A major contributor to the authority’s need for this type of staff is due to difficulties in attracting full-time workers, and losing current staff to agencies and other employers.
The report described how common reasons given in exit interviews by council staff were better pay, career progression, workload, excessive hours, and work/life balance.
It also showed Medway had higher vacancy and turnover rates than the averages for local authorities in the south east and the rest of England.
As of August 31, the vacancy rate for social workers was equivalent to nearly 80 unfilled full-time positions.
Although some staff said working for the council had a good culture and they felt valued and supported and had learning and development opportunities, others said they weren’t supported by managers and processes were too bureaucratic.
The report showed the two departments with the greatest use of agency staff have set out ways in which they intend to reduce their reliance and increase the number of full-time workers.
These methods include regular events to try to convince agency staff to become permanent, an increased focus on wider advertising and creating apprenticeships for new social workers, recruitment events and even an overseas recruitment campaign.
However, Cllr Gary Hackwell (Con) asked how many of the staff from a previous overseas recruitment campaign in 2019 were still working in Medway and was told that although some still remained, many had left.
Samantha Beck-Farley, chief organisational culture officer, said: “We do still have some with us, not all, the whole cohort didn’t stay. The lesson learnt was, most definitely, culturally we probably didn’t tap into the community enough to make sure they had enough support around them.
“Covid didn’t help us, because they couldn’t travel home, they couldn’t visit family, and that left a lot of people quite isolated.”
The authority’s reliance on agency staff was highlighted as an area of concern previously by the deputy leader of the council Cllr Teresa Murray (Lab) who said it was a priority to get the number of temporary workers down.
Speaking at a health and adult social care (HASC) overview and scrutiny committee earlier this month (October 17), she said efforts were being made to reduce the number of staff leaving for other employers, and accused agencies of taking advantage of the difficult situation the authority was in.
She said: “We want Medway to be an employer of choice. We are doing things with the MedPay scheme to try to bring up the local wages of pay because we know that our competitors, including Kent County Council, are paying more and that’s drawing people away.
“Nobody wants to have so many agency staff, it’s expensive, it’s hard to get continuity, it’s hard to get consistency, but it’s the position that we’re in.
“It is a problem and the agencies are taking advantage of it. They are often saying, if we ask for one social worker they say we’ve got to have a project team. So there’s money being made here in, I think, fairly unscrupulous ways.”
However, when Ms Beck-Farley was asked about this at the business support committee she said this wasn’t accurate.
Cllr Mark Prenter (Lab) asked: “I’ve heard this more than once that even if you need one member of staff from an agency you can’t, they make you take more than one, a whole team. Is that correct or is that being misquoted?”
Ms Beck-Farley said: “That’s incorrect. When we do our assignments through our dynamic purchasing system, we put vacancies out and agencies will respond.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that agencies have us to the point where they say ‘You’ve got to take five, not just one’. I don’t see that and I’ve not come across that, so I’d say that is incorrect.”
Medway Council have said a reduction of agency staff is necessary in order to reduce costs, especially considering the financial pressure the authority faces with a £17 million projected overspend.
The report said the equivalent of five full-time agency lawyers in the legal services department have already been made redundant in a cost-cutting measure, but further reductions will be necessary to balance the budget.