Sole traders

If independent social workers were to choose their own theme
tune then Independent Women by American pop group Destiny’s
would surely be a contender. The song’s lyrics preach
the benefits of being independent, standing up for oneself and
making one’s own decisions. Becoming more independent is something
an increasing number of male and female social workers are thinking
about – a recent poll on
revealed that 80 per cent of respondents would consider becoming
independent social workers.

There are many reasons why some social workers might choose to
become self-employed. Frustration over bureaucracy is a major
factor, particularly for experienced social workers. Gail Tucker,
an independent social work consultant and co-chair of the British
Association of Social Workers Independents’ Forum, says: “There is
an overburden of form-filling and accountability to performance
indicators in public sector social work.” It’s not that
practitioners are unwilling to be accountable, she says, but that
the current mechanisms in place to measure performance do not
enhance standards of practice. “What people seek to gain by setting
up independently is the balance between accountability and the
ability to get on and do the job they went into social work to do,”
she says.

Some social workers choose to become independent because they want
to improve the type of work they do and the conditions under which
they do it. For example, independent social workers often do direct
face-to-face preventive work, something that is often lacking in
statutory settings. Others desire a better work-life balance. When
a social worker becomes independent they can choose the hours they
work – be it through a recruitment agency or their own business –
and the type of work they undertake. These are two luxuries that
most of those employed in social work departments are not

But are there particular skills that an independent social worker
needs? For a start they must be willing and able to trumpet their
expertise, regardless of whether they are working on the front line
or acting as a consultant. In this game of independence,
wallflowers do not get far.

Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social
Workers, says social workers who want to branch out on their own
must be confident. Early on in his career he worked for himself for
15 months, but admits he was uncomfortable at charging employers
the going rate – “because of my philanthropic nature!”

As well as having confidence in their knowledge and ability –
including their financial worth – Tucker says independent social
workers must know their limitations and not take on more than they
can deliver. They must also be able to run their own business and
market what they can offer in order to maintain cashflow. More
significantly, they need to bear in mind that they are only as good
as their last job and so must constantly strive to improve their

Importantly, there are some areas of social work that they are not
legally allowed to engage in. Some duties, such as taking children
into care in child protection cases, can only be carried out by
employees of a statutory body.

Many social workers who choose to become independent are highly
experienced. To this end, is there a danger that councils are
losing staff with specific skills who cannot be easily replaced by
more junior workers?

Johnston says there are many staff who do not wish to run their own
business. This does not mean that those in local authority social
work departments are less capable than their go-getting
counterparts. What is vital, however, is that the statutory sector
needs to nurture the qualities that are so often seen in
independent social workers.

Johnston says: “Skills such as being a confident practitioner are
required; we need much more confidence in the workplace,” he says.
“Independents are confident enough to sell their wares and they are
using the same skills some in the statutory sector are not
confident enough to champion.”

One impact of social workers leaving local authority employment is
that it adds to the overall staff shortages. To address their
recruitment problems some councils recruit social workers from
abroad, but Johnston argues this does not alleviate
the problem and can in fact be counterproductive. BASW has
anecdotal evidence that some overseas social workers have left
their local authorities to become independent social workers.
“Clearly, there is a better way of making use of the resources used
to recruit social workers from around the world,” he says.

Overall, Tucker says, although social workers leave statutory
employment when they become independent practitioners, it is not to
the detriment of the social care sector. “The workforce leaving has
years of experience but the fact that they work independently means
their skills stay in social work,” she says. “The level of
frustration social workers describe to us is such that if they
hadn’t been able to become independent they would have left the
sector altogether.”

Perhaps this is the issue that local authorities need to address,
not the fact that increasing numbers of social workers are becoming
independent. If the workplace was more to staff’s tastes, then who
would choose to leave it?

Going it alone….?
….then here are some tips: 

  • Trading under a company name, rather than your own name, 
    clarifies your status for income tax and national insurance
  • Companies House website
    details what company names  already exist and gives information on
    what you can and cannot name yourself. 
  • Tax and national insurance – you need to notify your tax office
    before starting work. 
  • Accountancy – hire an accountant at the start. He or she will
    also advise on how to structure the business records. 
  • VAT – you need not register for VAT unless your turnover
    exceeds the current threshold of about £58,000. VAT National
    Advice Service 0845 010 9000

    Source: Getting Started, March 2005, BASW Independents’


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