The Children’s Minister has been called “woefully ignorant” by BBC presenter Emma Barnett, after he admitted he did not know how many social worker vacancies there were.
During the 5Live interview on Friday, Robert Goodwill did not give a straight answer when Barnett asked what percentage of social worker posts for children were vacant across the country.
Goodwill first said it was difficult to know because some councils report vacancies but employ agency staff to fill them, before he conceded, under dogged questioning from Barnett, that “we don’t actually have that data”.
“You’ve just said to me you’ve basically got no idea. That’s what you’ve just said to me as the Children’s Minister,” Barnett said during their exchange.
“The reality is the minister in charge of this, which is you Robert Goodwill, is woefully ignorant about the state of those vacancies.”
Goodwill went on the programme to defend the Government’s investment in children’s care.
When Barnett first asked the question about the number of vacancies, Goodwill said: “I can’t give you that figure now… I know there are shortages.”
Barnett asked for a “rough idea” but when Goodwill still wouldn’t give figures, she cited a BBC report from April 2016 that found nearly 20% of children’s social work jobs in England were vacant and asked him directly: “Is it more or less than that?”
Goodwill did not give a direct answer and tried to emphasise again how the agency staff issue made it hard to be sure what the figure was.
Barnett told him: “You can do some maths. You’re very fond of saying Labour benches are filled with politicians who don’t know their maths or do their sums.
“But you actually need to solve the problem and you can’t solve the problem without data. You’ve passed the buck on pretty much every question I’ve asked to local authorities but you as the minister could pull rank and find out.”
“As I was saying,” Goodwill said, trying again to return to the subject of agencies’ impact on council staffing.
“You don’t have to explain how agencies work, with all due respect,” Barnett hit back. “Give me a picture of the scale of the problem.”
Goodwill returned to the theme of differences between local councils, saying the shortage “varies” between different areas.
“I’m asking for a national picture, which I don’t think is an unfair question,” Barnett said.
She again accused him of having “no idea”, Goodwill said: “It’s not that we don’t have any idea, we don’t have data.”
He added that, because agency staff may be filling temporary vacancies, a council’s report of gaps “doesn’t mean that social work isn’t being delivered”.
“You don’t seem to able to have any way of quantifying how large those vacancies are, which I think many of those listening would find troubling,” Barnett said.
On Twitter, Barnett was praised for “handing Robert Goodwill his arse” and “savaging” him.
One person thanked Barnett, saying it was “not good enough” to suggest vacancies were an issue for local councils rather than national government and added it was a “sad indictment” of social work that it did not know how big the shortage was.