Desperately needed social workers are being poached away by ‘rival’ councils offering ‘golden hellos’ of up to £10,000, a meeting has been told.
The city is struggling to fill key vacancies, leaving vulnerable children at risk and had been hit by a string of scandals where abuse has not been detected.
But Birmingham’s head of children’s services has revealed that workers are being tempted by councils, including nearby Sandwell, offering huge payouts to join them.
Jacqui Jensen accused the Black Country borough of having ‘gone for broke’ in an attempt to recruit the best staff available and turn their failing children’s social services around.
But a knock-on effect has seen Birmingham’s City Council children’s services unable to fill 110 vacancies or find enough agency staff to deal with its own spiralling workloads.
Ms Jensen told councillors that while they were offering staff £16 to £25 per hour, Sandwell was tempting them away with £40 plus an hour, on top of £5,000 or £10,000 handouts.
Birmingham has been rated as ‘inadequate’ since 2009 and repeated attempts to turn the service round have failed. Strategic director of children’s services Peter Duxbury left in July amid claims of a department in chaos and morale at rock bottom.
Ms Jensen told the council’s vulnerable children scrutiny committee, that it was unlikely much improvement would be made by the time Ofsted inspectors return in November.
In a stark assessment she said that while the vacancy rate remains high they cannot guarantee the safety of children in Birmingham.
She said: “The staffing situation is grave. We are also struggling to fill with agency staff. With so many vacancies, workloads are high, stress levels are high and sickness rates are a problem. Staff are struggling.”
She said that the decision of Sandwell to offer major incentives to staff had delivered a ‘jolt’ to its neighbours.
She explained there is little problem recruiting newly qualified social work staff from university, but there are major problems recruiting and retaining experienced staff who know their way around the social care and legal systems and can handle the complex cases Birmingham presents them with.
Asked if the service was safe, she said: “No, we do not have a safe service, and it breaks my heart to say it.”
Tory children’s services spokesman Coun James Bird (Sutton New Hall) said: “Sandwell has gone for broke – and do we know if this has worked?
“For the last year we were promised improvement, but really we have just bumbled along when we have needed some sort of strategy. Perhaps we too should consider going for broke.”
Ms Jensen said that golden hellos tended to be a short term measure and that retention bonuses might be a better option to stop the department haemorrhaging staff.
Birmingham children’s services problems date back to 2008, when a serious case review found the death of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq, starved to death by her parents, could have been prevented. Other cases, Toni-Ann Byfield and more recently Keanu Williams, have also exposed failings.
But four directors and four political masters in that time have failed to address the problems leading to a call for stability from the Department for Education.
Cabinet member for Children’s Services Coun Brigid Jones (Lab, Selly Oak) said that a letter from the Department had urged stability after all the changes and several reorganisations and called for a focus on frontline practise.
She said that they are expecting further guidance on recruitment and building capacity. Since acting strategic director Peter Hay took over in July she said that they have looked at workplace culture.
“The first thing was to change the culture in the directorate. It was not one where staff felt they could flag up problems or raise issues. We are creating a more open and honest environment where the safety of children is at the centre.”