Around 80 per cent of Lewisham Council’s social workers are set to be permanent by Christmas after a drive to hire new staff and avoid agency use.

Reducing agency use is part of the council’s plans to find a way to cut tens of millions of pounds from its budget over the next three years.

The council has hired 25 social workers straight out of university, it emerged at the children and young people select committee meeting on Thursday (November 26).

Lewisham has spent £68 million on the Covid-19 pandemic so far, and is planning £40 million in cuts over the next three years, £24 million of those are expected to come from next year’s budget.

The council is overspending by about £10 million, much of which is made up of pressures in the CYP directorate.

The first round of draft cuts are currently doing the rounds in scrutiny committees.

Pinaki Ghosal, executive director of the CYP directorate, told the committee that the funding announced for councils in the comprehensive spending review “doesn’t look like it’s going to be anywhere near enough to cover the gap that we are facing as a council”.

The council is planning to cut £2 million from the children’s social care budget, by better managing demand, such as reducing the number of children at risk of going into care.

It is also proposing to cut funding for short breaks for special needs children by £165,000– though it says the cuts are “modest and should not have a negative impact on families” and relate to underspending in the service.

The service gives parents of children with disabilities or special needs a break from caring, while children take part in activities.

Committee member Jacq Paschoud raised concerns about the cut, saying the service no longer even deals with children with mild disabilities.

“The gate keeping to such services has become tighter and tighter,” she said.

Mr Ghosal said the spend on short breaks is more than £2 million per year, so the cut is “quite small”, and said the council is planning to seek out cheaper provision.

He said staffing was also an issue and that the council is “overly dependent on social workers” when it doesn’t need to be and is exploring increasing direct payments to parents, instead on funnelling the money through the service.

Members also raised concerns about cuts to children in care placements, particularly as there has been a rise in demand over the past ten years.

Mr Ghosal said the council is making savings by ensuring the young people it pays to house access all the benefits they are eligible for.

“There are young people who are eligible for housing benefit who have not been claiming that and we have been paying the provider for that accommodation without taking into consideration the benefit that the young person was able to access.

“We have now resolved our systems around that,” he said.

The chair of the committee raised the issue that Lewisham has a history of low local uptake in foster carers and high agency use for social workers.

The council is planning to cut the fostering service by £500,000.

But Mr Ghosal explained that the council expects that 80 per cent of its social workers will be permanent by Christmas after the hiring drive, while the target for next year is 90 per cent.

He said the short-term challenge of having newly qualified staff, who have less experience and reduced caseloads, was being mitigated by hiring more experienced staff who are mentoring them – though Mr Ghosal admitted they have been hired through an agency.

He added that the cut to fostering isn’t until 2021/22, and it will be achieved through better systems of marketing and recruiting.

A second round of draft budget cuts is set to be published in January, will all cuts going to full council in February.