‘Leaving the local authority sector after IR35, I feel I’ve gone back to proper social work’

An adults’ practitioner recounts how austerity-driven practice and the recent tax law changes for agency workers have led him to say goodbye to statutory services

image: Leon Brooks

By Richard James

Last year, when the tax rules for agency social workers changed, there was a lot of talk of people being persuaded back into permanent local authority positions. For me, they’ve resulted in my re-evaluating my situation and leaving statutory social work altogether.

I qualified as an adults’ social worker about a decade ago, working around various local authorities in the south of England and rising to team management level before taking redundancy with a view to going agency.

I had always believed in my role as a social worker in statutory services and felt passionate about supporting, enabling and empowering service users. But successive years of austerity took their toll on resources and services at my local authority.

Decisions were no longer based on the legal framework but were driven by finances, while multiple restructures had an impact on the stability of my service, with a significant reduction in staff – and morale.

There were too few senior managers with an in-depth understanding of the law and, to be honest, who actually cared. Support packages and reviews rested on managers’ arbitrary decisions and there were wholesale diktats such as ‘we don’t do washing, laundry or cleaning’, which led to poor living conditions and outcomes for service users.

Taking redundancy was a difficult decision – it was like giving up – but the reality is I felt battered and bruised, and that I needed to take charge of life.

Care Act dismissed

As an agency worker I went back into frontline practice, but ended up once again managing a team – at a lovely county council, with a good work-life balance.

Being agency gave me more of a feeling of control. I knew I could walk away, even though doing so felt unlikely as I was happy in my work, and the higher take-home pay enabled me to plan for breaks.

Unlike where I’d worked in my last permanent job, this council properly interpreted the Care Act, taking into account what people’s needs were and not making assumptions about what they could and couldn’t do. It was a settled and positive place to work.

Then funding problems, which are now hitting so many authorities, arrived there too – exacerbated by money being diverted into children’s services in the wake of a bad Ofsted report.

A new director came in, who was not from a social work background, and the whole working culture changed, with the principles of the Care Act being openly dismissed.

Funding panels were also introduced suddenly, mostly staffed by finance people and commissioners who issued demoralising cost-driven decisions to social workers who had put in months or years of work with people they were supporting.

Within six months the whole senior leadership team went – and as a result social workers were also leaving in droves, while others went on sick leave because they were sinking under their caseloads.

Weighing options

With the council also cutting back on agency staff, I was one of those who left – and ended up back as a temp at one of my former permanent employers, just as the IR35 legislation, affecting how agency workers can manage their taxes, was changing.

Encouraged by my agency, I briefly signed with an umbrella company, SmartPay, which I felt dubious about as to its legality. I was getting a big chunk of take-home pay, about 85%, but I’m not stupid – and at the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘At some point someone will be knocking on my door about this’.

Weighing my options, and with agency work no longer feeling worthwhile if it involved dodgy tax arrangements or a huge pay cut, I put in for a permanent manager post. Yet I ended up turning the job down twice.

It was down to a mix of things – first they offered me less money than I’d been on prior to me leaving the authority first time around, then agreed to match it. But I ended up concluding that I just couldn’t go back to full-time statutory work.

The prospect of going through more cuts-driven restructures, and of continuing to work under the Care Act when you know many local authorities put in blanket rules in that are unlawful, was the biggest reason.

When you’re managing a team and know they are doing everything they can, doing great assessments, but ultimately it’s a funding panel that decides what happens – it feels almost like prison.

‘Proper social work’

I’m now working as a support specialist, based in a mobile unit, with a charity for people with serious illnesses. I still work as a social worker, though I’ve got nursing colleagues with me too.

We don’t assess, casehold, risk-manage or budget-hold. I can tell people the legalities of the Care Act and help them challenge local authorities’ decisions.

It feels like proper social work, talking to people about their emotional wellbeing, and how they’re feeling, and helping them take control of their lives. It’s a total U-turn from local authority work and I’m paid at least on a par with most local authority social workers.

Ultimately I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to take this leap, thanks to a job advert I saw at random. I still keep in touch with many old colleagues and I know how hard some of their jobs are.

Without change, starting with social work practice being directed by social workers, I worry that adults’ services may get as unstable as children’s in future. In the NHS there is a statutory requirement for there to be a director of nursing, but no parallel requirements exist in a local authority and some of my previous directors have lacked both social care qualifications and understanding.

Many practitioners may stay in post for a time – especially in rural areas where they can’t find other work – but they then risk burning out and leaving anyway. Then, with the agency market under increasing pressure, how will councils find recruits to fill their posts?

Richard James is a pseudonym 

11 Responses to ‘Leaving the local authority sector after IR35, I feel I’ve gone back to proper social work’

  1. Jo August 31, 2018 at 10:46 am #

    Thank you for sharing your reflections and experiences. Painful to read how hard things have been for you and co-workers/service users, and of the increasing problems and seemingly dire future.
    And heartening/inspiring to hear you have found a new role where your experience and dedication can be put to good use. The pendulum swings and a future where charities again cater to the key needs in society seems to the way.

  2. E August 31, 2018 at 10:52 am #

    I applaud you for being able to make a decision based on your principles, it could not have been an easy decision for you. I work in a LA as a team manager where senior management actually listen and are becoming more proactive in acting in line with our recommendations. I still sincerely belie that change will come but it will be a gradual process because of so many extenuating circumstances- especially financial reasons.

  3. Rosemary Trustam August 31, 2018 at 11:40 am #

    While the climate bullies social workers into submission LAs actually risk judicial reviews but I appreciate despite their role to ensure their decisions reflect their professional opinion as well as the the actual law, it’s hard to keep sticking to this. Little support for them, lots of pressure to cut (illegally?) and hot-desking doesn’t help a team support each other either…. along with more and more unqualified assessors who don’t have their professional practice to support them. However maybe they should be ensuring that clients know the law entitlement too and get informed Care Law advocacy to support them… and maybe such as CASCAIDr to give them some free legal advice about their entitlements too. Well over due time for such as BASW to consider how to help… and registration ought to expect evidence that social workers adhere to the law – at least pointing this out in writing to employers if they try to pressurise illegal cuts. Such as ‘we don’t do washing, laundry or cleaning’ can be an example of illegality if this is the best and most appropriate way of meeting eligible needs and should be defended. Let’s see how to support social workers to do their job and assert their professional role

  4. John Adams August 31, 2018 at 9:42 pm #

    Let’s be honest it was the fact that you had to pay more tax, IR35 isn’t new, it’s how it’s being applied, and rightly so, Agency social workers are part of the reason LAs don’t have money, £35+ an hour for a SW is absurd!

    • Kathy Vardy September 5, 2018 at 6:39 pm #

      Sour grapes?

  5. Peter Rice September 2, 2018 at 10:01 am #

    I’m four years in to practicing as qualified Social Worker, currently in post as a Senior Social Worker (seconded to an NHS team, employed by an LA) and AMHP. Prior to beginning as a Social Worker I worked as a Carer for 7 years. I have always noted morale is like shifting sand in social care no matter the political and financial climate. The basis for morale often depending on factors such as consistency, retention, good leadership. Even in times of austerity these factors are to me the key. I agree with the sentiment that more needs to be done to increase these factors and look at the bigger picture of retaining people / consistent teams post, and not to promote people to move location to progress (or simply due to burnout). I agree that truly understanding of what is required is key. I worked as an agency / bank Carer for many years and therefore moved around many providers, and always what was clear was retention and good leadership makes for brilliant social care, often no matter the changing pressures; this has been a reflection which has remained true in my Social Work post and something that has driven me to remain in the same team throughout my 4 years in qualified practice despite dark times and sometimes overwhelming pressure. It’s however great and inspirational to hear ‘Richard James’, that you remain so dedicated to the core values which certainly do get marred in statutory social care by bureaucracy and poorly directed ambition promoted within the ranks. I hope however that you can continue to make an influence to statutory services’ organisation and structure, even if it’s done so externally. There are still so many of us in the statutory sector that continue to fight daily for the best delivery of LA social care to be in place, true to the word of legislation and codes of practice so integral to implementing the best Health and Social Care practice.

  6. Glynis Berry September 2, 2018 at 11:28 pm #

    Very similar.. Left LA after 22 years and I feel that I am doing social work once again, working as a palliative care social worker in an independant hospice. When I think back to what the profession has had to endure and how much you have to do to get support for people, its a miracle that so many of us old timers retain our registration. I love my job now and even though the majority of my colleagues are health qualified, there is a sense of together for the greater good, no us and them. I can’t see myself ever going back into LA, I’d rather leave the profession. In my last LA post, I was in a Macmillan pump primed sw role, employed by LA, which disappeared once the funding ended and there was a LA restructure, something that had happened to many of my palliative sw colleagues. Just based on personal experience, getting out was absolutely the right thing to do.. Don’t be afraid to jump, you just might find you have renewed vigour for the job again!

  7. Jo September 3, 2018 at 8:45 am #

    What a flippant remark to make however if there was not the need for agency staff that cost would not exist. Obviously there is an overwhelming need for agency social workers one if the reasons is the sickness in permanent staff if your agency sick leave is not going to be an issue as if you don’t work you don’t get paid.

  8. Red1 September 7, 2018 at 12:03 pm #

    “Richard James’ ” account mirrors my own observations about Adult Services and funding panels making the decisions…. delaying decisions by telling SWs that their assessments were not good enough and so on. Very experienced senior leadership all left in rounds of redundancy. A Director not from a SW background. I considered Agency Work but in the end I left a Senior SW post after 22.5 years and joined another LA in a different role, taking a pay cut to do so. Best move I made…. but I despair for the future of Adult Services and LA SWs.

  9. Tommy C September 8, 2018 at 7:51 pm #

    I’m going to mimic some other replies here and indicate that it’s a bit hypocritical to one hand talk about the ravages of austerity and the impact it’s had on our work but then apply for an agency position. Agencies are one of the reasons why Local Authorities are struggling with their budget so much. I don’t resent the individuals for earning more than me, as I feel I’m adequately paid as a band 6, however it’s the exorbitant agency fees going from NHS into private businesses that upsets me.

    Other than that though a good, insightful and interesting article, I’m sorry to focus on that it just stuck in my throat a little.

  10. Stephen September 14, 2018 at 3:40 pm #

    This was an interesting article but also interesting comments. Everyone has a choice about how they work. Some prefer the security and benefits of sick pay, parental leave, training and development opportunities while other prefer flexibility of agency work. Yes the hourly rate is more but if agency workers pay into a pension, save for annual leave and pay for their own training the only benefit is the ability to find other contracts quickly.

    Agency workers are given the more complex work, are expected “hit the ground running”, often don’t get to take toil and have no grounds to complain (after all, why would they when they earn £35ph).

    If Local Authorities created environments where staff felt positive, real reflective supervision was provided and valued creative practice those on agency contracts would consider moving into permanent contracts. It is not just about the money but also the satisfaction in knowing that you are valued for the work you put in. Why tie yourself into at least 3 months notice when everyone in a perm contract feels undervalued, over worked and close to emotional breakdown?

    The same arguments exist for independent private foster placements. If LAs could provide effective support for foster carers and appropriate remuneration then there would be more in house foster carers. This is the future of work in local authorities.

    LAs don’t have to pay National Insurance contributions, for annual leave, have the risk of parental leave, sick pay or pay for long term training needs of agency staff. Within 10 years Agency work will be the standard model for employing in the Public sector.

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