Spending on agency social workers has increased by a third

Community Care’s annual investigation finds average spend on temporary agency staff is £1.8m per council

work life balance
Exodus to agency to gain work-life balance Photo: flickr/ Zena M

Social workers are making an exodus to agency work in an attempt to gain some control over their lives, Unison has said in response to stark figures on agency spend.

A Community Care investigation has revealed spending on agency social workers has gone up by nearly a third in the last year, leaving councils with a £1.8m hole in their budget.

The average UK council spent £1.2m on agency workers in children’s services and £647,247  in adults’ services, an increase of 33% in the past year.

Unison professional officer Helga Pile said the agency spend was “a really unhealthy situation”.

“It does seem some are making the decision to go over to agency work to get some control back in terms of pressures in their departments.

“Precious resources are going out to agencies and not being spent on boosting up the existing workforce or on the service,” said Pile.

More money was spent on agency workers in children’s services, but a bigger increase (45%) was seen in adults’ services.

Association of Directors of Adults’ Services (ADASS) president David Pearson said the huge rise in Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) assessments was a major cause of the increase in spend on agency workers in adults’ services.

“One of the best ways to release capacity so people can focus on DoLS assessments is to backfill their role with agency staff,” he said.

Rather than training people up to carry out these best interest assessments, councils will divert workers who already have the training to focus entirely on assessing DoLS cases, bringing in agency workers to take on their normal duties.

However, the  27% increase in spending on agency staff in children’s services appears more difficult to explain.

Dave Hill, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS)’s workforce chair said: “The numbers would suggest people are making the considered choice to come out of permanent jobs and go over to agency work which, if it’s the case, is deeply depressing.”

He said expensive agency staff take away from other spending priorities, sometimes meaning councils can’t afford to fill all their vacancies.

“That’s going to have an impact on caseloads and it’s not going to be a good place to work,” Hill said.

Pile said: “It really is about employers addressing the working conditions and making the job more manageable by looking at caseloads, supervision, administrative support and stress levels rather than just simply handing over the money to agencies.”

Despite a 33% increase in spending UK-wide, there were regional variations with many Scottish and Welsh councils reporting almost no spending on agency workers.  6 out of the top ten biggest spending councils were in Greater London and the home counties.

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9 Responses to Spending on agency social workers has increased by a third

  1. Toni November 14, 2014 at 8:31 am #

    It’s absolutely right that agency staff are in the main disgruntled ex-permanent staff. I for one went from feeling like a minion with little control waiting for the next axe to fall, to someone who was valued, appreciated and regularly offered other roles. And in the event I don’t like where I was (hasn’t happened yet) I can find another role. Ultimately I would prefer to be settled somewhere but I also want to be respected and treated fairly. Until I know that will happen as a permanent worker I’ll have to continue as an agency worker, even thought I have to live away from home during the week.

  2. LD November 14, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    If social workers were paid a little more, and treated well by their employer I am sure many agency SWs would consider going permanent. Also, as an agency SW, employers need to remember, if they are wanting to encourage people to go permanent or stay permanent, they need to treat their staff with respect and value them. I have seen many agency social workers treated badly and scapegoated. Sometimes LAs are very short sighted in my view.

  3. A November 14, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    Social workers are moving from LA to agency as they are higher paid more protected due to fear the good ones will walk and due to the fact that they can leave at very short notice if things get stressful. The LA should increase pay and retention to protect the hard long term workers they have, rather than see them go off stressed with burn out simply to replace with am agency worker. Their seems to be a big I in teams these days

  4. Nick Bowles November 14, 2014 at 11:05 am #

    The Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) has a specialist social work sector group and as the Chair of that group points out, Locum social workers are in fact some of the most experienced practitioners in the UK and often they can add valuable insight, particularly when they have been working in a high performing local authority and then go on to work with those which may need improvement.Additionally she adds that ‘there is no correlation between the use of locum social workers and poor performance; a report released by the Department for Education in Mar 2014 showed that those local authorities deemed by Ofsted to be ‘outstanding’ had a higher than the national average usage of locum social workers
    Of course the real problem is that there just aren’t enough permanent social workers around and so flexible workers fill an absolutely crucial skills gap. The Local Government Association ( LGA) has recently said that council leaders are concerned that a lack of suitable vetting procedures has resulted in an inability to attract the very best professionals – just one of the reasons why APSCo developed Compliance+ a best practice standard for the suppliers of both permanent and locum social workers which goes above and beyond statutory requirements to ensure that local authorities get the best prepared, the best trained and the most appropriate social worker for their particular setting.

  5. JJ November 14, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    If permanent staff were paid a decent wage then perhaps they wouldn’t want to leave for agency. I take no joy sat next to someone else in my team who is on double the money an hour that I am and I have to say that in this particular case their caseloads are no bigger or complex than my own. Its completely demoralising. The government needs to wake up or the agency/ permanent staff ratio is going to ever increase with more workers flocking to agency.

  6. students/w November 14, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    I will defo be going to an agency to work for the money side of it. The work is hard, supervsion is not always great and nor is the support if im going to leave my job with burnout i need to make as much money as possible!!

    • Jazz November 14, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

      Agency workers are usually expected to be experienced. They’re generally given more cases that permanent staff and expected to ‘hit the ground running’. So, they’re paid more. As a bribe. But they’re also scapegoated on occasion. What a trick. Burn-out applies to both agency and permanent staff. It is unacceptable that any social worker goes without adequate supervision and support resulting in the latter! No amount of money is worth that. Related to this it’s important that students begin their careers with the right attitude, being mindful of maintaining and promoting social work values, and that they need to work as permanent staff whilst gaining experience. Not cynically leave for financial greed and with the arrogance that they can do as a good a job if not better than more experienced workers. Dangerous practice. Professional development and the necessary training are not provided for agency workers as standard. Bad practice. There is too much reliance on agency workers. Experienced social workers and newly qualified ones need to unite whatever their employment status for equal pay and equal opportunity for all. Break the pattern of the necessity of employers forced to seek temporary staff at inflated prices and workers needing to leave for more money so that can pay their bills. Or just live. The bar (2yrs) needs to be reintroduced along with standard pay scales across the UK. Destruction of these has contributed to LAs needing to seek agency workers as permanent staff leave for grass that appears greener … This in turn has all contributed to destabilising of the social work force. And the ‘tail wagging the dog’. Reminded of Thatcher’s greedy babies and those market forces again. ‘Defo’. (That means definitely, doesn’t it?)

  7. Milo November 14, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

    When hcpc suspends people or strikes them off for what appear yo be very easy mistakes to make its scary for social workers to out themselves in the care of the LA. Agency is a way of protecting yourself from the political areas of work the bit of independence social workers have in practice.

  8. Carol November 15, 2014 at 11:35 am #

    I am joining the exit , 28 years working for local authority, no lessons have been learned regarding how they treat staff. Higher management making life changing decision regarding restructure and then awarding themselves Voluntary redundancy leaving the mess behind . I lost a very dear friend who could not cope with the pressure of work, no supervision high complex cases no management support . Nothing changed. Constant battle to be heard in work place nor respect for skills, staff morale terrible, why stay? we came into the job to challenge but didn’t realise we had to challenge the people who manage us so much. Really sad.