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Costs of agency social workers soars in Pembrokeshire from £250k to £1.4m

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CONCERN over the welfare of children has emerged after new figures show that the number of agency social workers employed by councils, and their cost, have been increasing in recent years.

In 2019 Pembrokeshire County Council spent £250k on agency social 8 workers, but by 2020 it had increased to £770k on 11 staff members. By last year it had increased to a staggering £1.4m on employing 12.

Experts say the difficulty experienced by our council, and other local authorities, in attracting permanent staff means vulnerable children and families were often seeing multiple social workers in a single year, making it harder for them to engage with services.

They said the large-scale use of agency social workers was a poor use of dwindling local authority funds, as locums received a higher hourly rate than permanent staff, on top of the fee paid to the company they were employed through.

Across all of Wales, 376 agency social workers were employed by Welsh councils last year at a cost of £20,423,189. This is an increase from 365 for £18,522,072 in 2020/21 and 279 for £16,149,980 the year before.

Already since April this year, £1.8m has been spent on 143 such staff but the cost is likely to far exceed this over the course of a whole year.

The reliance of local authorities on agency social workers has become a significant area of concern in recent months after a council that admitted it failed to prevent the murder of toddler Star Hobson has a serious staff retention problem in its children’s services.

Bradford Council spent £12.3m on agency staff in the last year – representing a doubling of its spend since the 16-month-old girl died on 22 September 2020. It also has the highest spend in the country.

Pembrokeshire was one of five councils to have spent seven-figure sums on agency social workers. On top of Pembrokeshire’s £1.4m, Cardiff spent £5.4m, Powys £4.4m, Merthyr Tydfil £3.3m and Rhondda Cynon Taf £1.3m.

The Welsh Conservatives say that the revelations come after Mark Drakeford’s continued reluctance to implement a review of children’s services across Wales – the only UK nation not to do so – despite having the worst rate of looked-after children of British nations. Calls were prompted after the murder of Logan Mwangi.

Ray Jones, a former director of children’s services and an emeritus professor at Kingston University, said working conditions for social workers had deteriorated, with bigger caseloads, less support and inadequate pay, which made locum work more attractive.

He explained: “You’re paying more for a poorer service [with agency workers] because what you need in terms of children’s and adults social services is continuity – people who know the people they are working with, can build relationships with those families over time, and know their history.”

Commenting, Welsh Conservative and Shadow Social Services Minister Gareth Davies MS said: “We’ve known about understaffing in Wales’ social services departments for a long while now, well before the current labour shortages we are seeing nationwide, which is what makes councils’ reliance on agency workers so concerning.

Logan Mwangi’s case is a prime example of a failure in social services. His mother, stepfather and a teenager were been given life sentences for murdering five-year-old Logan Mwangi and dumping his body in a river last year (Image: Family photo)

“We’ve seen tragic cases like Star Hobson and Logan Mwangi that only go to show that we need a strong presence from social services. This cannot happen when councils are so dependent on agency staff because permanent placements lead to better outcomes as someone can handle a case consistently that way.

“That’s why it is startling to see hundreds are employed every year at substantial cost to the taxpayer, costs that would be lower if resources focussed on paying permanent staff better than shelling out for agency premiums.

“I think our findings only serve to support our calls for a Wales-wide review of social services, especially since Wales is the only British nation not to be doing so and has the worst rate of looked-after children in the UK, which makes Mark Drakeford’s rejection of one so disappointing.”

Speaking in 2019, Nadhim Zahawi, the children and families minister, said: “There are more full-time equivalent social workers than ever before across the UK, which means there are more dedicated people on the frontline to offer much needed support to some of most vulnerable children and families in the country.

“Agency staff can play a vital role in managing short-term recruitment needs, fluctuations in demand or to support improvement.

“We are supporting the recruitment and training of social workers so they have the skills they need for this important job.”

News

Pembrokeshire airport lease expected to be completed by end of year

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HAVERFORDWEST’S council-run airport, which had a circa £119,000 deficit last year, is expected to be leased out by the end of the year following “reasonably complex” negotiations, councillors heard.

Back in May, members of Pembrokeshire County Council’s Cabinet supported the leasing of Withybush Airport as part of plans to make the facility cost-neutral to the authority.

Last year, Pembrokeshire County Council’s Cabinet, members heard the financial position at the council-supported Haverfordwest/Withybush airport deteriorated in 2022/23, with an out-turn position for 2022/23 of £238,000.

That loss has been reduced to an expected £119,000 for 2023/24 “following an extensive review of the operations of the airport”.

At the July 18 meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council’s full council, a series of submitted questions on the airport were heard.

Merlins Bridge councillor John Cole asked: “With the council leasing out the Haverfordwest airport, can members be assured that the lease is at comparable rent with similar airport facilities, and the airport being offloaded purely as a cost savings measure?”

He also asked a second related question: “Are current users protected and assured that their tenancy and rents currently payable to the authority are taken into consideration?”

Responding, Deputy Leader Cllr Paul Miller said the proposed letting was considered to be “best letting,” with restricted private documents detailing the figures available to all members.

On the second question, he said existing tenants had been involved throughout the process, and once the new overall lease was in place tenants would be protected through legislation.

However, he stressed the new leaseholder would be able to change conditions in the future and the council would “not dictate terms” in the future.

A further question was asked by Saundersfoot South councillor Chris Williams: “On a recent services meeting back in 2023, we had a productive meeting at Withybush Airport to look at the impact regarding costs to PCC and to consider options with regards to its future operation.

“Can you please clarify if the airport is still owned and operated by Pembrokeshire County Council and if so at what cost since April 1, 2024?”

Cllr Miller said the airport was still currently owned by the council following the Cabinet decision, with “reasonably complex” negotiations ongoing, complicated by land ownership issues and the need to obtain the civil aviation licence.

“Hopefully by the end of the calendar year we will have completed that transaction,” Cllr Miller said, adding that £25,000 had been spent since April 1.

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Farming

FUW sets out its key priorities at the Royal Welsh Show

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THE Farmers’ Union of Wales has set out its robust asks of the UK and Welsh Governments despite the challenges presented by navigating through a constantly changing political landscape.

Speaking at the Royal Welsh Show this week, FUW President Ian Rickman reiterated the fact that the Union’s stance remains constant and relentless in an ever changing political arena.

“Welsh farming is at an important crossroads which will determine our future for decades to come. Whilst our direction of travel depends heavily on the development of devolved agricultural policies, we must not forget how decisions made by the newly elected UK Government will effectively determine the degree of funding the Welsh Government has available to support agriculture and rural development.

“This, in turn, will have an impact upon the extent to which Welsh food producers can be expected to compete against producers in other UK nations and across the globe on various levels.

“Despite these challenges, our focus as a Union is to keep-on lobbying governments relentlessly for the best possible outcomes for our members, Welsh agriculture and our rural communities.

“The recent Senedd Cabinet reshuffle and UK General Election certainly brought about considerable change to the political landscape in Wales, not least the appointment of Huw Irranca-Davies MS as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and a new UK Labour Government holding a majority at Westminster.

“However, turmoil in Cardiff persists as Vaughan Gething’s resignation leaves the door wide open for yet another reshuffle within a matter of a few months.

At a UK level, the FUW is calling for a fair, multiannual funding settlement of £450 million per year in EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) legacy funding for agriculture and rural development in Wales.

“The role of this support in underpinning food production, environmental protection and rural communities in Wales cannot be underestimated.

“We also need to see a far more robust approach to future trade deals with other countries and trading blocs if we are to protect Welsh farmers and UK food security. Food imports and exports must be subject to the same customs and adherence to similar standards if we are to provide a level playing field for both UK and EU producers.”

The FUW is calling for incentives and support for farmers to invest in on-farm renewable energy production that benefits local communities. Food production should be recognised as a national asset and the use of productive agricultural land to meet tree planting and other environmental targets should be halted.

Procurement policies must prioritise public sector support for Welsh and British businesses, recognising the range of benefits such properly designed policies can deliver for society. The newly elected UK Labour Government must also protect and promote the UK’s high animal health and welfare standards and bring in a law that ensures that all dogs should be kept on a lead in fields near or adjacent to livestock.

“Despite the uncertainty in Cardiff, we call on the Welsh Government to build strong relations with the newly elected UK Labour Government to ensure that Welsh agriculture receives the attention it deserves. EU CAP legacy funding allocated for Welsh agriculture and rural development must be protected for this purpose and such funding should continue to be co-funded using national funds.

“The ongoing process of negotiating a revised Sustainable Farming Scheme that provides stability for our food producing family farms must also continue if the scheme is to be implemented in 2026. It is crucial that the scheme considers economic, social and environmental sustainability on equal footings and is accessible and achievable for all active farmers in Wales.

“We also want to see the adoption of practical and innovative technological solutions as a central part of the Control of Agricultural Pollution ‘NVZ’ Regulations review. The process must be based on robust data and evidence while seeking to address water quality issues through innovation rather than regulation.”

Mr Rickman added that the Welsh Government has to, now more than ever before, adopt a scientific and holistic approach to bovine TB eradication in Wales by working with the Technical Advisory Group in investigating the effectiveness of current testing regimes and methods for addressing disease transmission by wildlife.

“Finally, moves towards net zero must be sustainable and based on robust science in such a way that actions carried out in response to short-term targets are not reversed. Reducing our carbon footprint must be manageable and realistic, and must not compromise production or the economic viability of farming businesses.

“The coming days are a celebration of Welsh agriculture and the farmers who continue to produce high quality food and protect the environment against a constant backdrop of political uncertainty and challenge.”

Mr Rickman said that the impacts of such uncertainty across the UK and some fundamental policy questions would be the focus of the FUW’s seminars being held over the coming days, as panels of professionals tackle a diverse range of areas of concern for Welsh farming.

“As always, in addition to these events, our staff and Presidential Team will be meeting officials and stakeholders in order to highlight FUW’s farming members’ good news stories and industry concerns. Rest assured, despite navigating a constantly changing political landscape, our constant and relentless stance remains; to represent the interests of Welsh farmers,” concluded Mr Rickman.

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Health

Health Board to make decision about the future of St David’s GP Surgery

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THE FUTURE of Primary Care provision for patients registered with St David’s GP Surgery in Pembrokeshire will be discussed by Hywel Dda University Health Board at a meeting on Thursday, 25 July 2024.

An engagement exercise was undertaken to gather patient and local stakeholder views on the future of GP services following the decision of the one GP who runs the Surgery to resign his General Medical Services Contract, which takes effect from 31 October 2024.

The engagement with patients and stakeholders included a drop-in event St David’s City Hall in June. This event was well-attended and gave people an opportunity to discuss their concerns in person with the Health Board and Llais, the patient’s voice organisation for Wales.

Patients and members of the local community were also able to share their views via a questionnaire which was available at the engagement event, and also from the Surgery, the local Pharmacy, online, or by contacting the Health Board by phone or e-mail.

Jill Paterson, Director of Primary Care, Community and Long-Term Care, at Hywel Dda University Health Board said: “Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to feed back their views to us. The Health Board is committed to listening to and engaging with our local populations and we would like to thank patients and stakeholders for their involvement in the process so far.

“We would like to reassure patients that we are working to find a sustainable solution from the limited options available so that services can be delivered as locally as possible for patients from the 1 November.

The main themes picked up during the engagement period include concerns about the impact on the community of St David’s if the Surgery were to close, continuity of care and also travel to another GP surgery, especially with regard to public transport.

“People at the drop-in event were provided with information about the frequency of public transport and other transport support available in the community,” said Ms Paterson.

“There was also much appreciation expressed for Dr Stephen Riley and his team and for the care that they have provided over the years. We very much appreciate the continuing support given by the Community to the team at St David’s Surgery throughout this challenging period.”

On Thursday, 25 July, the Board will consider the feedback received.

Ms Paterson continued: “We understand local people will want to know what the future of their GP services will look like, and we will be writing to all patients to inform them of the outcome once a decision is made by the Board.”

To read the Board papers and watch the meeting on the day, please visit: Board Agenda and Papers 25 July 2024 – Hywel Dda University Health Board (nhs.wales)

An update, following the Board’s formal decision on Thursday, July 25 will be shared with patients and stakeholders.

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