Recruiting social workers from overseas is just the tip of the iceberg.
By Alex Stevenson
It's one of the most worrying symptoms of a malaise which has been steadily worsening since the turn of the century - and has now been pushed closer to the edge by the Baby P tragedy.
No one will deny the tragedy of the 17-month-old's death has justified its hype ten times over. It's quite right that society has been outraged by its failure to safeguard this victim of his mother, her partner and their lodger.
But, equally, no one can also deny its knock-on effect for the future of the social work profession is deeply, deeply worrying.
A recruitment drought
It's hard to overstate quite how bad the current situation is. Research by the Conservatives in February showed local authorities' social worker vacancy rates stood at an average of around 15 per cent. In some councils this has increased to up to 40 per cent.
These extreme cases are the ones relying on agency workers, many of whom are coming from abroad. Such emergency solutions are far from ideal.
"Fundamentally social workers do an awful lot of work every single day keeping children safe," Sarah Cordey of the Local Government Association (LGA) says.
"It's not media-worthy or exciting but it does go on. The more vacancies we have the more danger there is you do get gaps in the safety net that's protecting those kids."
Baby Peter's death was undoubtedly media-worthy. He died despite having been seen over 60 times by professionals from Haringey council. The failure to save his life has led to sweeping reforms as the government tries to put its house in order and improve the quality of social work in England.
This will not come quickly, however. For while most scandals result in rapid change for the better, the shock of Baby P has made things worse.
A survey carried out this spring backs this up. According to the LGA, 93 per cent of councillors in charge of children's services believe the reporting of the Baby P case is having an impact on the way social workers are viewed. And 88 per cent say morale has been hit.
As Nushra Mansuri of the British Association of Social Workers puts it: "Nobody would dispute since Baby Peter the recruitment issues have been exacerbated".
Had the Baby P case fallen in prosperous times for social care this feature might not now be being written. As it is, it has come at a time when poor training and an exodus of experienced staff are providing a double whammy to the sector.
Ironically the problem comes from a shift triggered by an earlier scandal. Victoria Climbie, who died in 2000 after being abused and murdered by her guardians in London, shocked Britain just as much as Baby Peter's death did later in the decade.
In both instances the government faced a need to respond with quick action. Among the changes after the Climbie case was a shift from a two-year diploma in social work being replaced by a three-year degree.
This improved the situation "drastically", according to Ms Mansuri, who fondly remembers the good old days when universities were forced to turn people down for the course.
"The demand of the interest was higher than it ever had been," she says. "But we then had to wait for people to qualify."
This, it seems, was problematic. Some of the universities delayed starting their three-year programmes for several years, resulting in a shortage of new starters through the period 2003-05. A shortfall was the result.
This put pressure on the decreasing pool of existing staff. Ms Mansuri believes many "burned out" because of the additional pressure they were being put under. Her disappointment is difficult to hide.
"There is no substitute for experience," she says, a bitter, frustrated tone in her voice. "That's been to the detriment of children and families who need the support."
Conservative frontbencher Tim Loughton, the shadow health minister who has been frustrated by the government's lack of decent action for years, believes the situation is even worse than painted by Ms Mansuri.
He says among the 30,000 experienced social workers who have given up the profession, the single most important push factor has been the bureaucracy piled on their desks through the government's Integrated Children's Systems.
"For every child you have to fill in 50 computer pages of data in what is a very user unfriendly system," he explains.
"They're spending all their time tapping away at their desks instead of getting out on the streets meeting the people they're supposed to."
Social workers spending 80 per cent of their time dealing with paperwork has led to an unhappy truth, he claims. "Being a social worker is not a happy existence at the moment."
Ms Mansuri makes clear that all those who do social work know the profession is risky, but enter it because of their commitment to it.
"But if you make it even more unstable as a working environment with terms and conditions. then all you need to have is a child abuse tragedy on a major scale, like the Baby P case, which sends shockwaves through the workforce and that then creates the pressures [which force people to leave]. It creates a vicious circle."
The recruitment crisis worsened by the Baby P furore will, the government hopes, eventually lead to improved conditions for social workers. That won't filter through just yet, however, meaning local authorities are being forced to deal with the reality of high vacancy rates - and the ever-pressing need for someone to get the job done.
This is the context within which they have opened their arms to social workers from countries like Australia, New Zealand and the US.
Essex county council is the extreme example, launching a full-on recruitment campaign from abroad earlier this spring.
Its leader Lord Hanningfield was uncompromising in his warning to the government at the time.
"The recruitment and retention of social workers is now an issue of national concern experienced not just in Essex but in every council in the country," he said in April.
"Social work can be an immensely valuable and rewarding career. However this country faces some difficult choices if it is to get the profession it wants."
Four months later and 52 staff from Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and the US have been taken on. As Lord Hanningfield's comments show, they know this solution is not sustainable. They just don't have any choice.
Other local authorities have confirmed to politics.co.uk they have been forced to look overseas.
Hackney borough council said its adult social services workforce reflected its "diversity", taking on four consultant social workers and four social workers as part of their Reclaim Social Work programme.
And Reading admitted taking on two staff from overseas last year, with another three due to start this September.
A spokesman plaintively comments: "The government recognised in the recent report of its social work task force that recruiting social workers is a challenge facing local authorities across the country, and Reading is no different from equivalent inner city authorities near to London in this respect."
The problem is not universal, as some local authorities are resisting the trend. But even they are finding the going tougher than usual. West Sussex county council admits recruitment had been an issue.
"We've had a major recruitment campaign, there has been extra funding, we have had a dedicated website for social worker recruitment and so on. The vacancy rate has been improving - and no, we haven't recruited from overseas."
Far from ideal
If it were just a case of our politicians being embarrassed for failing to ensure Britain can provide for its own, this would be significant enough.
Unfortunately there are real concerns about problems associated with bringing in social workers from abroad - making the current state of affairs even worse.
There are two main question-marks: how long they spend here and whether they really are qualified to do the job.
In some cases the latter is far from a problem. Places like Australia insist that social workers must complete a Master's degree rather than the Honours required here. In many instances, staff coming from abroad can improve on existing levels of training.
But as the Tories have warned, others - from Zimbabwe and other west African countries - have less certain qualifications. And in some instances there are issues about whether their qualifications have been properly checked over.
"There have been cases where, all of a sudden, they find themselves dealing with some really big problems in an inner city London borough," Mr Loughton said.
"Have they got the experience and the tools to deal with this?"
Also at stake is whether those coming over to Britain will bother to hang around for long. "We are not offering backpackers' holidays here," Lord Hanningfield warns on his blog.
That's fine - but even the "qualified and experienced staff" he is after cannot be expected to settle down here for life. Most stay for two or three years before moving on.
That's why the current heightened reliance on overseas workers is, as Mr Loughton put it, a "short-term fix rather than a long-term solution"
"We wouldn't want it to become the solution to the recruitment of social workers because that isn't and it shouldn't be," Ms Mansuri added.
The government has its proposed solutions. Its adult social care workforce strategy is designed to "encourage a new generation into social care", a Department of Health spokesperson tells politics.co.uk.
She added: "We are working with employers, local authorities, professional social care bodies and skills agencies to create a workforce that has pride in itself, is respected by the public and supported to deliver high quality, personalised services well into the future."
But until that workforce is created, until these changes filter through, the state of the social worker profession in 2009 is as embattled as it is bleak.
The current recruitment problems have been pushed into crisis by Baby P, but his case does not excuse the failings which preceded it.
Only the government is responsible for those. Let's hope there are no more tragedies for which it must be blamed.