ST HELENS employed a record number of agency workers to fill vacancies in its children's social care services, new figures show.

Children's social work charity Frontline said the record use of agency workers across England – which were used to fill more vacancies than in any year since records began in 2017 – is "a symptom of the recruitment and retention crisis" in the workforce.

Department for Education figures show there were 60 full-time-equivalent agency workers in children's social care services in St Helens as of 30 September 2023 – up from 46.3 the year before, and the highest figure since records first began in 2017.

As a result, the local authority relied on agency staff to cover more vacancies than ever before.

In 2023, St Helens had vacancies equivalent to 55 full-time staff, 53.7 of which were covered by agency staff.

Nationally, the number of agency workers reached a record high in 2023 at 7,174 FTE.

Of these, 5,744 were used to fill new vacancies, also a record high.

This meant 74.4 per cent of vacancies were covered by agency workers last year, also the highest figure on record.

Frontline said the figures reflect what it has heard from social workers for some time.

A spokesperson added: "The use of additional agency support and subsequent expenditure associated with this is, without a doubt, a symptom of the recruitment and retention crisis we are seeing in children's social care across the country.

"Agency hires can help meet temporary demand for social workers, but when used to fill a long-term shortfall in staffing, they can cause significant financial strain on councils."

Meanwhile, separate figures from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities show spending on children’s social work services across the country has exploded in recent years, from £8.8 billion in 2017-18 to £12.8 billion in 2022-23.

St Helens spent £65.2 million in 2022-23 – a rise of 85 per cent from five years earlier.

Only one area (Ealing) spent less on services last year than in 2017-18, while eight local authorities saw their spending more than double, including Herefordshire, which almost trebled.

The Department for Education said there are now more social workers employed across the country, with a record number of new starters.

A spokesperson added: "Our investment in recruitment and training of child and family social workers and the hard work of local authorities is generating positive results.

"We will continue to work together to address the overreliance on agency staff, while supporting councils to increase their own provision and reduce reliance on the private sector, through £259 million in capital funding over the current spending period.

"More widely, we are reforming children's social care, with plans backed by £200 million to test and refine our approach."

A St Helens Borough Council spokesperson said: "As there is still a national shortage of social workers, we do use agency staff - however we have reduced this over the past two years and have created stability within the service by appointing permanent members of staff.

"The impact of this has been significant on our children and we have worked hard to ensure our cared for children have the same social worker where possible.

"Two years ago, 40 per cent of our children had more than three changes of social workers. In July 2023 we had reduced this to 11 percent and have since reduced this further by employing permanent staff resulting in 92 percent of children we care for having had only one change of social worker."