Employment agencies: regulation doubts persist as overseas staff go unchecked and information about UK staff’s records is not passed on

Agency employers are supplying overseas staff despite being unable to carry out checks and are failing to pass on information about unsuitable British workers. Sally Gillen reports

Criminal record checks on people who have just arrived in the UK seeking jobs in the social care sector are meaningless, Community Care has discovered.

Overseas workers are increasingly drawn to Britain, and parts of the sector such as domiciliary care are benefiting from the recent arrival of migrants such as eastern Europeans.

But they are a mixed blessing for agency employers, who are forced to take a gamble on their suitability because the Criminal Records Bureau cannot access records from abroad so they have no way of checking whether a new recruit has a clean criminal record.

People with a past they would rather keep hidden can effectively shed their criminal history when they land on the UK’s shores.

As Peter Cullimore, chair of the nurses and carers sector group at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which represents the recruitment industry, explains: “It is a tremendous responsibility. If a serious mistake is made, an agency’s reputation could be destroyed.”

So too could the lives of vulnerable people, who have little option but to trust that the people employed to care for them are suitable for the job.

Agencies taking on people newly arrived from another country must accept there is a risk connected to a lack of criminal record checks from the person’s home country.

But there is evidence that the practice of some recruitment organisations ignores safeguards put in place to check British workers too. Social care training body Skills for Care says that unscrupulous operators motivated solely by profit blight an industry that provides 18,000 locum staff to the adult social care sector. And, for those managers who are increasingly reliant on recruiting in this way, selecting a reputable agency can be difficult.

Most managers carry out their own interview but they must also be able to trust that the agency has carried out checks and has passed on all relevant information about a prospective employee.

But evidence that some agencies are withholding vital details from employee records is also emerging. A source, who did not wish to be named, told Community Care that one candidate he came across had held 35 positions, eight of which had resulted in some sort of unfinished disciplinary action. This information was not volunteered by the agency but discovered later.

Former social work team manager Andrew Reece is not surprised by this story. Reece, who has years of social work experience, says: “Agencies do not always give the ‘full picture’ about someone they are putting forward for a position.”

Often, he says, agencies supply people who they know are not up to the job. “We had someone who couldn’t even write assessments. I had to rewrite them. I informed the agency that we didn’t want the worker anymore. For the sake of children and their families we cannot afford to compromise standards.”

Reece adds: “There are people who crop up again and again. They are still working and nobody is bringing them to task. They will just move to another agency,” he adds. “Half of these agencies do not know about social work. They do not pick up that there are gaps in someone’s CV. I have seen people floating around the system.”

The transient nature of agency work means people can move from place to place evading detection. In December, the General Social Care Council’s conduct committee heard a case involving Eric Charlesworth, an agency social worker, who allegedly touched service users inappropriately and sent a text to one saying he had lined up some “top-totty” for him. Next month, the panel will decide if he is guilty of misconduct. During the hearing, it emerged that allegations of inappropriate touching had previously been made against Charlesworth when he was a social worker at Leicestershire Council in the 1990s.

Failing to pick up on inconsistencies in CVs or pass on essential information raises questions about the ways agencies are inspected and regulated. Agencies, with the exception of those providing nursing and domiciliary care, are not required to be licensed. Anyone can set one up from home, place a few adverts and then wait for the phone to ring.

Agencies must comply with the Employment Agencies Act 1973 and the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003. Under the latter, agencies have a duty to carry out checks on those working with vulnerable people and if new or adverse information is discovered they are required to withdraw the worker or inform the employer.

The government’s Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate investigates complaints about agency conduct. In 2004-5, the most recent period that figures are available for, 167 of the 1,380 complaints received by its helpline concerned health and social care.

Inspectors can impose fines of £5,000 for each occasion when an agency has breached the code and they have the power to prohibit anyone deemed unsuitable to operate an agency for 10 years.

But despite these measures, the ease with which someone can set up an agency and the lack of a licensing requirement mean poor quality agencies could operate for some time without being identified. Most inspections are spot-checks, rather than a rolling programme such as that carried out by the Commission for Social Care Inspection into domiciliary care agencies.

Some agencies are members of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, which has 165 members in England that provide social workers, who adhere to a code of practice. In 2005-6 it received 39 complaints about agencies supplying social care workers.

Others take voluntary action to ensure they are providing a good quality service. The British Standards Institute, which assesses standards across a range of industries and provides grades, operates a standard for social care agencies, but so far only one has taken it up.

Quality has become one of the most frequently used words in the social care vocabulary in recent years. Organisations such as the General Social Care Council were set up to ensure that social care workers are professional, skilled and, most importantly, of a high quality. Now its efforts are being seriously undermined by the conduct of some agencies prepared to compromise safety in pursuit of profits.

The GSCC declined to comment on this issue. 

Good Practice

Susan Cranie, director of social care agency Careplan, says: “It’s a high-risk business. As an agency you’re very vulnerable. All you need is one mistake and you could be closed down.”

Here she offers some tips on the information you should ask for when hiring agency staff:

● Ask for at least two references.
● Ask for a full history, including any disciplinary matters, even if incomplete.
● Ask for copies of all documents, including a Criminal Records Bureau check.
● Only use an agency that’s accredited by the Recruitment & Employment Confederation.

Releated articles
Regulator puts onus on employers to plug foreign criminal check gaps

Guidance for employers on choosing agency staff

What are your experiences of using employment agencies? E-mail Comcare News

This article appeared in the 29 March issue under the headline “Are employment agencies putting profit before safety?”

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