ST HELENS Council spent almost £5m on agency staff over the past three years, new figures have revealed.

A Freedom of Information request by the Local Democracy Reporting Service shows St Helens Council used a total of 437 agency workers between 2016-2019.

In 2018-19, the council used 177 agency staff at a cost of £2,200,271.

This was an increase on the 137 used by the council in 2017-18, which cost £1,467,233.

Last year’s figure was a 44 per cent rise from the number used in 2016-17 (123), which cost the council £1,178,741.

The total cost of agency staff between 2016-2019 is £4,846,245.

Cllr David Baines, leader of St Helens Council, said using agency staff “makes sense” in certain circumstances.

However, the Labour leader said he is “fully in favour” of employing staff on a permanent basis.

Cllr Baines said: “There will be occasions when using agency staff makes sense to fill short-term staffing needs.

“However, as a matter of principle I am fully in favour of wherever possible employing staff on permanent contracts, with all the benefits and rights that brings for employees.

“Secure employment is vital in the fight against poverty, and as a Labour council we will play our full part in that fight.”

The vast majority of staff used by the council over the last three years have been in recycling and waste, grounds maintenance, cemetery and crematorium, and transport services.

The use of agency staff within the council’s waste services department has been well-documented.

Last November, agency staff were blamed for the untidy way some recycling containers are returned to households following collections.

The concerns were raised at the council’s environment, regeneration, housing, culture and leisure overview and scrutiny panel.

Thatto Heath councillor Richard McCauley, who is now the cabinet member for economic regeneration and housing, said he’d received numerous complaints from residents about the state of the streets after collections.

In response, Paul McHenry, the council’s service manager for environmental and transport services, said he was “not happy” about the way some workers return containers, and pointed the finger at agency staff.

He said a lot of agency staff “come and go “ with levels fluctuating throughout the year, particularly in the summer months when the council need to back-fill positions due to holidays.

While acknowledging the high turnover, Mr McHenry said some agency staff have worked for the council for “considerable periods of time”.

He said the council intended to employ some of the agency staff full-time and told councillors he had met with trade union officials about this.

Mr McHenry said at the time: “One of the things I’ve been unhappy with in my tenure – I’ve been here seven months so far – is the fact that we’ve had a number of agency staff who’ve worked for us for quite considerable periods of time.

“So, one of the things we’re looking to do is actually employ some of those people full-time, so that will reduce the reliance on agency.”