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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A free market

This article in this morning's Western Mail shows that even local Councils are subject to the laws of supply and demand when it comes to recruiting their staff.

It is not a new problem of course. All Social Service departments are struggling to recruit social workers, especially in the field of children's services and as a result many are having to rely on agency staff. In some cases this has had an impact on the performance of the department itself due to a lack of consistency of service and organisation.

Social Workers of course are on national pay and conditions so Councils have had to be canny to compete for their services. This has led to the introduction of 'market supplements' to recruit and retain staff. Those councils who have gone down this route have done so reluctantly and only maintain these supplements for as long as they have to. Nobody likes doing it, it affects budgets and uses up limited resources, everybody complains about the arrangement but Councils feel they have no choice.

In many ways it is the law of economics. Social Workers are in short supply therefore their price goes up. So what Newport Cabinet member, Peter Davies is doing complaining about an 'artificial market' defeats me. It is no more artificial than the market for any other good or service. He is right on everything else of course except for one thing, the idea that the Welsh Government should intervene and stop it.

Now, far from it be for me to suggest that Rhodri Morgan should not sit Canute-like on the shores of some imaginary sea and try to reverse an unstoppable tide, but honestly what can the Welsh Government do and should they be interfering anyway? If they ordered councils to stop paying supplements, if they had the power to do so even, then many of the social workers concerned will vote with their feet and go and work in England where they are still being paid. And what sort of Conservative demands that the Government interfere in market forces anyway? Should be not be taking responsibility for his own portfolio?

This also highlights a fundamental philosophical difference between the Liberal Democrats and some other parties. We believe that Councils are democratically accountable to those who elect them not to a higher body and, subject of course to improving the voting system to make it fairer and more accountable, would only envisage the Welsh Government interfering on matters of proprietry or statutory regulation. The Tories it seems want to have Councils micro-managed from above. They are not alone in that.

One of the problems of devolution is the increased expectation that it is for the Welsh Government to sort out every problem. I have been as guilty as others in this. However, sometimes it is not appropriate that a Welsh Minister interfere. There are other levels of government that have their own accountability and where appropriate it is these paths that need to be followed if we are to maintain our democratic systems and maintain real accountability.
Whatever happened to 'Making the Connections' and the Garthwaite Report which was supported by all Welsh local authorities including Swansea? The Garthwaite report quite rightly pointed out that the existence of 22 different pay and benefits packages was difficult to justify in a region the size of Wales. Garthwaite hoped that local authorities would collaborate to stop the crazy competition for social workers. What we have at the moment is competition which harms the users of the service. An authority is inspected and the inspectors find unallocated cases and files not up to date. The authority is then put into special measures and then starts to spend its way out of this position by a combination of recruiting more full time social workers, employing more expensive agency staff and changing the social service management.The result is that over time cases are now allocated and files are up to date and the authority pats itself on the back as it escapes special measures. But given the fact that the demand for social workers exceeds supply then these extra social workers probably came from an authority close by. Hardly surprising when you consider that before 1996 there were just 4 social service departments from the Severn to the Lougher. Now there are 12. I would thought arguing for a more rational system which would ensure the protection of all vulnerable children and adults in Wales wherever they lived was a bit more important than defending the right of local authorities to pay golden handshakes to attract employees often on a short term basis. I can't see how an all Wales or even an all South Wales pay and conditions package would see social workers go to England. On the issue of the Tories and micro managing local government it will be interesting to see what a Cameron government will do in England. Traditionally until Thatcher came along the Tories were very much the party of non interference in local government Although criticised for his comments on the NHS Daniel Hannen in his book The Plan sets out a pretty radical agenda for freeing local government from the control of central government.
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