Dáil debates

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

2:00 pm

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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Question 24: To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of social workers employed in the State in child services on 2 July 2012; the number of social workers in child services on long term sick leave, sabbatical and secondment to another Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [33333/12]

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The HSE compiles a monthly census of employment in the public health and social care sector. The latest data available, which are in respect of April 2012, indicate there were 1,190 whole-time equivalent, WTE, child and family social workers employed in the HSE and in directly funded agencies.

The latest HSE records indicate there are 32 social workers on career break, with a WTE value of 26.54. The numbers of social workers in child services on long-term sick leave or secondment for three HSE regions are six in HSE Dublin mid-Leinster, one in HSE Dublin north east and eight in HSE west. I do not have information from HSE south but I have asked the HSE to furnish it. On receiving it, I will forward it to the Deputy.

The national director of children and family services, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, will continue to apply discretion to the filling of social work vacancies, taking account of recent early retirements and identified need, subject to services being delivered within available resources.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I would have liked to have had the relevant detail before me. Sometimes it can be difficult to absorb the information, particularly when it is in statistical format such as that presented.

Much has been made of the employment of new social workers. This is always very welcome but there is continuing confusion as to the number of social workers actually working in the system. I was trying to establish the real picture on sick leave, sabbaticals and secondment to other Departments. Has the Minister a breakdown for these three elements alone or has she just a single figure applying to three of the four HSE areas?

When one considers the report of the child death review group, one notes there is a case to be made for further social worker posts, despite the economic difficulties we all face today. Has the Minister any projection for the number of social workers that will be needed once the Children First guidelines are placed on a statutory footing and once the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill is passed? Will we have difficulty coping with all the additional needs I and others believe will arise on the basis of current numbers? The current position is not sustainable. Can the Minister give us further news on the creation of new social worker posts? This was a key requirement according to the recommendations of the Ryan report.

I have listened very carefully to the exchanges between the Minister and my colleague spokesman on children, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, and have noted there are two very different views on the number recruited over the past 12 months. This does not help us to understand the full facts. We need a full complement based on established need. I want assurances on projected need.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The position is very clear; the current number of social workers employed in child and family services is 1,190. This figure includes 258 of the 263 posts recruited to date in line with the recommendations in the Ryan report. The report analysed this matter and its authors suggested the recruitment of an extra 270 social workers in total. In recent months, a significant number of vacancies has arisen, primarily as a result of retirements but also due to career breaks and extended leave.

As I stated, the HSE's national director has been given the authority to fill key vacancies. The HSE is recruiting 57 social workers to fill recent vacancies that have arisen across all care groups. The posts are at various stages of recruitment. In effect, we have the number of social workers that were in place previously. Additional social workers are being recruited and this process is ongoing. There was some movement in and out of the service, as will be the case given the kinds of numbers that obtain in a national service.

There is a point I need to make that was made by Mr. Gordon Jeyes in response to questions asked of him at a committee meeting on resources. He stated in response to questions from Deputies Ó Caoláin and McConalogue that he remained unconvinced that we are making the most effective use of resources. He told the Deputies that while he was deeply conscious that the system was under pressure, he was not prompted to say more resources comprise the only solution. He told the Deputies the current financial circumstances should lead to a debate on prioritisation and that work should be prioritised within the resources available. That is not to say that if there were more resources available, all else being equal, they would not be used effectively in this area. I have no doubt that they would be.

When there were many resources available to the State, it was quite clear that with regard to the kinds of changes needed to have the kind of national service we have been discussing, be it in respect of after-hours service or national high support and special care services, key policy decisions were not taken. Some of them have considerable implications for finance. Therefore, it is not just a question of increasing the number of social workers but of determining what they are doing, how other agencies are interacting with them, how the work is referred among the many services we are supporting financially, including voluntary services, and how the work is being organised among the voluntary and the statutory services. There are many issues that enter this discussion.

3:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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While Mr. Gordon Jeyes did give the reply indicated by the Minister - I was the questioner in that instance – he did not say additional social workers were not required. That was very clear. As with Mr. Jeyes, I accept it is not just a question of the further recruitment of social workers.

We are all supportive of greater efficiencies within the cohort currently engaged and within the systems in place. That is important. However, the Minister is not the person tasked with the recruitment of the additional number of social workers. How efficient is it that, in July 2012, she still refers to ongoing recruitment in respect of the 57 posts? It has been ongoing for how long and for how long into the future? It reaches a point at which it can no longer be an ongoing process. It needs to come to an end. The cohort of people identified and required should be in place and giving of their professional services.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I call Deputy McConalogue briefly.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for this opportunity to follow up on a previous answer given to me by the Minister. Numerous times last year, the Minister assured the House that she was working towards recruiting 60 additional social workers in 2011. At the start of this year, she needed to admit to us that she had only recruited 14. These are the Minister's figures. We may argue the case, but the proof lies in one of the Minister's previous replies. She indicated that, as of February 2011, 94.5% of children in the State's care had assigned social workers but that the figure has since dropped to 92%. This is a reflection on the pressure in the system and on the fact that the State has failed in its commitment to follow the implementation plan of the Ryan report.

At the beginning of last year, there was an exemption to the recruitment embargo and each position that had become vacant was back-filled. The Minister should reinstate that exemption. Otherwise, the decline in the number of children in State care who have assigned social workers will continue.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy McConalogue but I must call the Minister for a final reply. We have gone over time.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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Mr. Jeyes indicated that it was not just a question of resources but neither did he indicate that he did not need more resources, as Deputy Ó Caoláin highlighted. The least that we can do is put in place the lessons learned from the report of the child death review group.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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This is Question Time.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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That we are going backwards when we should be making progress is scandalous.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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As I told the Deputy the last time we discussed this matter, his figures are incorrect. Of the 263 additional posts recommended by the Ryan report, 258 have been recruited. As I mentioned to Deputy Ó Caoláin, a significant number of vacancies have arisen due to retirements, career breaks, extended leave, etc. The national director has the authority to fill those positions, as they lie outside the embargo-----

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister should give him a direction.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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-----and he is recruiting for them. The 57 recruitments will take the normal course. Some have already been offered and some staff are already in place. The recruitment is going ahead. There is no embargo.

However, I take the Deputy's point. This is an area in which there is high demand, the work is challenging and social workers require support. I pay tribute to the front line work being done, but difficult issues have emerged over many years, as the Deputy knows.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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Fewer children have been assigned social workers.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy, please.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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For example, inexperienced social workers on the front line are often asked to undertake complex work without the kinds of supervision and support that are required. This situation cannot be turned around overnight. I am impressed by the new management system that the new director has put in place. The number of managers has been reduced, a more national approach is being taken to the collection of data and clearer risk assessments. This last was called for by the child death report. Other agencies, in particular child, family and mental health services, need to be involved in supporting the efforts of social workers.

One can parse and analyse any period of two or three months, but the overall trend in the recruitment of social workers is upward. That demands are also increasing is without question. Mr. Jeyes will continue to analyse the precise number of social workers that he wishes to see in place to deal effectively and diligently with these complex cases.