Fears are growing over the state of Ceredigion social services as the cost of agency workers to cover the rising number of vacancies has more than doubled since 2018.

The Cambrian News has heard concerns about the performance of the services as well as the satisfaction and retention of staff.

Ceredigion County Council insists there is a UK-wide shortage of social care staff but Ceredigion appears to have seen a far greater turnover and has more vacancies than neighbouring Gwynedd and Pembrokeshire

The number of practitioners and trainees in the social services team has plummeted by nearly a quarter since 2018, down from 76 to only 59, data recovered from a series of Freedom of Information requests shows.

Figures also show the costs of agency staff have gone up from about £240,000 in 2018 to about £600,000 last year – an amount that is extremely likely to be eclipsed by the end of this year, with the council having spent about £580,000 from April to September.

Social services in the county are split between Porth Gofal and Porth Cynnal – which deals with more specialist and intensive care.

A council spokesperson told the Cambrian News the total workforce across the services is 136 staff members, of which 22 are agency workers – with 11 vacancies. This includes all practitioners, such as managers and social work assistants, and not just qualified social workers as with the figures provided in the FoI request.

The number of social work team vacancies (full year cumulative number) has risen from only 10 in 2018 to 24 this year, according to the figures.

An FoI request sent to Pembrokeshire County Council showed the number of staff members in the social services team has not changed from about 105 since 2019. Vacancies have also fallen from 22 in 2018 to 13 this year. And though spending on agency staff jumped to nearly £1 million last year, it is now back down to less than £450,000.

Community activist Dinah Mulholland – who ran to be Lampeter councillor in a by-election this year – told the Cambrian News: “The high number of social worker vacancies in Ceredigion Council is extremely worrying. The consequences are not only an increase in costs in an already stretched council budget with the employment of agency staff. These vacancies also increase the risk to vulnerable clients and further lack of retention and burnout in overworked social services staff on the frontline.

"These high level of vacancies are at a time when child protection referrals to Ceredigion Social Services are rising, Ceredigion has the highest suicide rate per 100,000 people in England and Wales, and elderly people are stuck in hospital for prolonged periods waiting for social services to assess their care needs which impacts on bed capacity in local hospitals.”

A Ceredigion County Council spokesperson said: “There is a UK-wide shortage of workers in the social care sector across all levels, in both local government and the private sector.

“Ceredigion, as are all Welsh authorities, is experiencing a challenging recruitment market but it has implemented a number of initiatives with the aim of recruiting and retaining staff.

“Across Porth Cynnal and Porth Gofal, there are 147 social work practitioner roles, including nine trainees. 136 of these roles are currently filled by a mixture of permanent and agency staff.

“In terms of vacancies, there are currently 11 vacant roles. There are no trainee roles vacant.

“The report presented to council last week explained the position regarding the recruitment of the statutory director of social services and corporate lead officer – Porth Cynnal and a comprehensive recruitment campaign will be undertaken for the permanent appointment.

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic the council has seen an increase in demand across all social care services but, despite this, services have been maintained across all areas and these will continue whilst recruitment processes progress.”

The retirement of corporate lead officer and statutory director for social services, Sian Howys, was discussed at October’s full council.

Some councillors voiced their unease about the appointment of an interim equivalent for only six months.