Rise of the locum

The social care workplace has changed dramatically in recent
years. Problems in recruiting and retaining staff have left gaps in
teams which are often filled by agency workers – to the point where
in some teams agency staff are the longest-serving members. Yet
other departments manage with a bare minimum of temporary cover
staff, or have an outright ban on their use.

The latest social services workforce survey (compiled by the
Employers’ Organisation) estimates that about 13 per cent of posts
in London social services departments are filled by agency locums.
Every single authority in London, the North West and West Midlands
that responded to the survey said it was using long-term agency
staff. The survey estimates that, between 1 April and 30 September
2002, social services departments spent £114m on long-term
agency staff compared with £71m in 2001.

Employing agency workers has been slammed as a temporary, expensive
measure but increasing numbers of workers are choosing this as a
career option and permanent positions are proving hard to fill. Is
there a place for agency work in social care?

Dennis Rowe, who works through an agency, is
currently an young people’s outreach worker for a housing
association. “I like being with the agency because of the variety
it offers. I go to bed relaxed and wake up in the morning looking
forward to work. This hasn’t always been the case in my career. I
take my work seriously and put in 100 per cent on every placement.
That way I’m appreciated by employer and agency. I wish I’d started
a lot sooner.”

Rosemary Wright, permanent manager of a children
and families fieldwork team: “We never know when agency staff will
leave, either through choice or because the plug has been pulled on
their funding, so I can’t allocate court work to them, which skews
the balance of work in the team. Most are newly qualified but we
need experience. Some come from overseas and lack knowledge of the
Children Act 1989. The only advantage I can see is that you can get
rid of an incompetent worker, but even then you have to pick up the
pieces afterwards. It is not a satisfactory way of staffing the

Colin Simms, an agency care manager for older
people: “It is easier, faster and less stressful than filling out
application forms and going to interviews. The agency also
negotiates a good wage for me, better than permanent staff. There
is some resentment, but I don’t let that bother me. It’s down to
the organisation to recruit and keep permanent staff.”

Field social worker, children and families
(anonymous): “Agency workers have relieved some of the pressure
when we’ve been short staffed. The only downside is they can leave
quickly, which is disruptive for the clients. I enjoy working with
people I know well: some of us have been together for years. But I
do tend to get sucked into the work and have to fight it invading
my private life. Agency workers seem to maintain a level of
detachment, which has its downside, but is preferable to

Kirk Corbin co-owns two residential homes for
children with challenging behaviour. “We’ve had some good agency
workers, but some have been reluctant to get involved in
challenging situations. If we find good agency staff we try to use
them regularly. But ideally, we would rather be overstaffed than
use agency workers as stop gaps. That way we have staff we have
chosen, trained and we know will pull together. The needs of the
young people are best served by a good, consistent staff

Juliet Marsh, social care director of Celsian
agency for education, health and social care staff, argues that
permanent staff have invisible costs attached. “A huge amount is
spent on advertising for staff. If this results in securing good,
permanent staff it is money well spent. If not, it is wasted.
Applications and interviews aren’t necessarily the best way of
getting good staff and it can be more cost effective to recruit
through an agency.”

Colin Tucker, assistant director of children,
families and schools at Brighton and Hove Council: “We want to
minimise the need for agency staff by providing enough permanent
staff to do their job properly, with increased salaries and

Employment costs

Approximate costs to the organisation of employing staff,
including national insurance contributions and pensions

Qualified social worker in a field work

1. Permanent (newly qualified): £750 a week. This includes
paid annual leave, national insurance and pension contributions,
training and sick pay. Recruitment incentives, market supplements
and inducements may be pushing up this figure.

2. Agency: £1,000 a week. This includes the cost of
Criminal Records Bureau checks, limited training, statutory sick
pay and paid annual leave, national insurance and pension

Residential Social Worker

1. Permanent staff member: £12 an hour, plus £25 for
each sleep-in. This includes sick pay, paid annual leave, national
insurance contributions, training and induction.

2. Agency: £15 an hour, plus £50 for each sleep-in.
This includes sick and holiday pay, national insurance, any pension
contributions and training.

Hidden costs of agencies:

  • Agency: One-off fee of 17 per cent of annual salary to employ
    an agency worker as a permanent member of staff (this varies
    between agencies and may increase significantly according to the
    seniority and salary of the post).
  • Permanent: Recruitment of permanent staff. In 2002, the average
    social services department spent about £113,000 on
    recruitment advertising alone.

 Source:Social services workforce series, report 31, 09/03
available from www.lg-employers.org.uk

Agency staff 



  • Flexible work and hours
  • No long term commitment – can leave immediately if the going
    gets tough
  • Choice of locations, jobs and departments
  • Good for overseas workers on a temporary visa
  • Plenty of work across all client groups and sectors
  • Better pay
  • Some agencies can make staff feel more valued than permanent


  • Filling temporary gaps in a team
  • May save on recruitment advertising costs
  • Convenient for time-limited projects
  • Can get rid of unsatisfactory staff at short notice



  • May face some resentment from permanent staff
  • Fewer training opportunities
  • Fewer promotion opportunities
  • May have to move for work
  • Holiday entitlement and sick pay not as good
  • Insecure


  • Quality of staff cannot be guaranteed
  • Lack of consistency for service users and clients
  • Expensive
  • May be difficult to allocate work or plan long term.
  • May lack commitment
  • Difficult to manage people who work irregularly

Permanent staff



  • Seeing work through and building relationships with
  • Being part of a permanent team and knowing your colleagues and
    your department
  • Providing a consistent service
  • More opportunities for promotion
  • Pensions, annual leave and sick pay arrangements are generally


  • Can invest in training to increase the range of skills in the
  • Can build a strong team of people, who work well together
  • Can be cheaper



  • Pressure due to overwork and understaffing
  • Work can intrude into private lives Employer
  • Can be difficult to dismiss unsatisfactory staff

Want to work for an agency?

  • Shop around – some are better than others in terms of training,
    staff benefits and reputation
  • Supervision must always come from the workplace
  • Think hard about whether this is the kind of work you want to
  • Be prepared to prove yourself among permanent staff some of
    whom may resent

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