Millions of pounds were spent employing agency staff within Southend Council’s children’s services department due to a shortage of social workers.

A freedom of information request revealed between 2015/16 and 2017/18, the council was spending at least £2million each year on temporary social workers – totalling £6,805,753.

The numbers peaked in 2017, when they employed so many agency workers that they made up 42 per cent of the total workforce and came at a cost of £2.5million.

During the past year extra funds have been diverted into the service and more social workers have been employed by the council cutting the number of agency staff to under a quarter of the full workforce.

Details on the costs during the latest year are not yet available.

They have also been steadily recruiting more social workers each year, with 35 recruited last year.

John O’Loughlin, director of children’s services, said: “We have a duty of care to make sure all children within the borough are safe and well, and properly cared for.

“To do that properly we must have enough social workers working on the frontline to cope with the demands on the service, which has increased over recent years.

“This means that we often have to use agency staff at short notice or for short term periods to cover staff sickness or to cover vacant posts for example.

“However social care interaction relies on developing a trusting, working relationship with the family you are supporting, therefore recruiting permanent members of staff will always be preferable as they can nurture those relationships and get the best outcome for the child.

“With this in mind, we have worked hard to reduce the number of agency staff we use through restructuring our existing teams, streamlining our processes and recruitment and doing more to promote the council as an employer of choice for social workers.

“We are pleased that this work is proving successful, with a vast reduction in agency staff employed since 2017/18 and an increase in permanent social workers recruited.”

Ofsted’s latest report on children’s services published in 2016 said that significant improvements were needed and rated the service as “require improvement”. But staff recruitment was not identified as an issue in the report, instead it was noted that a workforce strategy had been implemented that was “effective”.

The council recently promised that more than £2million is being invested into extra services this year, with a focus on prevention and support.

National reports published in April say local authorities spent a total of £335 million on social work agencies in 2017/18 - leading to vulnerable children and families seeing multiple social workers in a single year.