Necessary Evil?

Should employment agencies be involved in policymaking given their extensive use by social care employers? Helen McCormack reports

Seduced by the prospect of less stress, shorter hours and more pay, many social workers and social care staff are now working through employment agencies.

The expansion of services in recent years has brought with it greater demand for staff, but the exact numbers opting for the agency route remains unclear.

However, recent figures suggest they are becoming more prevalent, at local authorities at least. The Employers’ Organisation for Local Government’s Social Care Workforce Survey Report 2004 found that long-term agency staff – those on contracts of one month or more – accounted for 3.3 per cent of the council social care workforce in September 2004, up from 2 per cent in 2003. Almost half were working as social workers. Spending on long-term agency staff from April to September 2004 was £151m, up from £120m in the same period of 2003.

These figures exclude those on short-term contracts who, presumably, were responsible for filling a significant proportion of the 11.1 per cent council social services vacancy rate in 2004.

Anecdotal evidence suggests a substantial proportion of new social work graduates and 4,500-plus social workers from overseas are working through agencies.

The presence of agencies in social care is most apparent in London, where agency workers accounted for 10.8 per cent of council social care staff in September 2004, while vacancy rates for social workers were nearly 20 per cent.

For councils, filling children’s social work gaps – where national vacancy and turnover rates have traditionally been particularly high – represents the biggest headache. Some councils complain of being held to ransom by recruitment agencies all too aware that, with a child in need, authorities have no option but to accede to agencies’ fees and pay rate demands. This helps feed a perception in the sector that agencies’ sole aim is to make a fast buck.

Whether agencies are simply helping to fill the gap or serving to sustain it, their role in shaping the workforce and service delivery is significant.

Given the current largescale reforms to children’s services and planned shakeup of adults’ services, agencies have started to ask whether they should be treated more like stakeholders.

If the industry’s absence from the Department of  Health and the Department for Education and Skills’ current social care workforce review – Options for Excellence – is anything to go by, the government’s answer is a resounding no.

The review, which is due to produce its first report this spring, is aimed at increasing the supply and improving the quality and training of social care staff, as well as driving up standards.

But although the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association, employee representatives and independent sector provider bodies are represented on the review, agencies are not.

Jo Cleary, co-chair of the ADSS human resources committee and its representative on the review, defends the decision to exclude agencies.

She says: “We have to be very clear that Options for Excellence is about the commissioning of future requirements. It isn’t about providing.”

This view is shared by Skills for Care and the Children’s Workforce Development Council, which handle workforce strategy for adults’ and children’s services respectively.

But the cold-shouldering of the industry is a cause of concern for Peter Cullimore, chair of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s Nursing and Social Care board, which represents agencies employing social workers. 

He says: “It would be fair to say that employment agencies are certainly as near to the workforce as many of the bodies that are represented on this board.

“We are no more or less aware of the needs of the clients than local authorities. They are there to provide services and be economical with the way they do it. That’s precisely what we are trying to do.”

Ignoring the expertise that agencies could bring to the review is a wasted opportunity to help improve standards, according to Tim Wood, sales and marketing director of social care agency Reliance Care.

He says: “We have been doing this for a long time and we have something to say about how we can drive up standards and retain workers of the right quality.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the British Association of Social Workers is leading the call for a more formal stakeholder role for agencies.

Nushra Mapstone, professional officer at BASW England, says: “They are big players, and that needs to be recognised.”

Employment agencies’ responsibility to ensure they support those on their books is vital if standards are to improve, she says. Accounts of agencies failing to provide enough training are all too frequent, she adds, with the  anger of a lack of training particularly acute for graduates entering the profession through agencies.

But alongside their focus on how to ensure good standards and practice among agency staff, social care leaders also emphasise the positives of agency work.

Andrea Rowe, chief executive of Skills for Care, says the benefits that short-term staff can bring to a service, such as freshness of mind, should not be overlooked.

However, Kathryn Kelly, senior consultant at the Employers’ Organisation, says the importance of continuity of care for service users means that the proportion of agency workers must be reduced. And the view that  recruitment agencies should ideally only be used as a last resort is still held by many councils, some of whom have managed to significantly cut agency usage.

At Kent Council, vacancy rates in children’s services have dropped from 25 per cent to 6 per cent in the past six years. Julie Cudmore, the council’s personnel manager for social services, says the quality of services has improved after the council addressed the two main reasons given for leaving the job: stress and overwork. Grow-your-own strategies and a student trainee scheme have been key parts of the council’s retention strategy, aimed at ensuring staff are given enough time to train.

In south east London, Lewisham Council has had similar success, with agency use for children’s social workers “dramatically reduced” and agency staff used now only as a last resort, according to Mike Holder, lead councillor for adult social care.

He says: “We’ve by no means solved the problem, but we’re getting there. If you’ve got staff constantly moving around, it’s no good for anyone, least of all the service user.”


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