Agency social workers across England and Wales are working with vulnerable children and adults under invalid Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and right-to-work checks, Community Care has found.
Ten agency practitioners, working in different regions, said they had started local authority roles between 2015 and 2018 without having been seen face-to-face by a consultant or had their original identity documents verified.
Multiple recruitment industry sources confirmed the cases uncovered were not isolated ones.
Ronnie Tong, a partner at Devonshires Solicitors, described the situation as “very serious”.
Meanwhile Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) workforce development policy committee, said it was a “cause for concern” for local authorities.
Government guidelines stipulate that registered bodies processing applications for the DBS criminal record and safeguarding checks, which include recruitment agencies and umbrella firms that operate on behalf of smaller agencies, must physically check original documents.
To ensure candidates are who documents say they are, recruiters must also either meet them in person, before they start work, or see them over a live video link such as Skype. The latter method only became permissible on 3 September 2018, meaning all checks before then should have been carried out in person.
It is good practice to regularly update the checks – although workers can now pay a subscription to a live updating service, many do not, meaning new checks are carried out with a change of employer.
Right-to-work checks, which establish whether individuals can legally work in the UK, follow a similar procedure. Employers who, without carrying out the right checks, take someone on who is then found not to have the right to work can face fines of up to £20,000.
But social workers we spoke to said that in many cases they never met anyone prior to starting their first assignment for an agency, instead communicating solely by phone and email and submitting scanned documents electronically.
Several provided email evidence relating to major social work recruiters – including Caritas, Liquid Personnel and Tripod Partners – requesting they scan and send documents.
‘I’ve never met anyone in person’
During Community Care’s recent investigation into the social work agency marketplace in the wake of 2017’s IR35 tax changes, we also asked social workers how their DBS and right-to-work checks had been carried out. Almost all were still working for agencies and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Half of the 20 social workers interviewed said they had commenced roles where fresh checks had been carried out without any original documents being seen or their identities verified by a consultant.
“I’ve never met anyone from an agency in person – it’s all online,” said one social worker.
“I’ve used Liquid, Caritas, and Tripod – three different agencies – and never met anyone,” the social worker added. “In two and a half years as a locum it’s always been, ‘scan it in, send me documents via email’.”
Another social worker said: “I was with two agencies, Caritas and Liquid. I had to scan documents and send them over to them, which is not strictly how you should be doing things.
“You should have face-to-face verification so it was slightly naughty – but that’s how they did their checks,” the social worker added.
A third social worker told Community Care that lax practices were rife within the sector, mentioning a WhatsApp group they were part of.
“I have about 70 friends [on there], all social workers, and we often talk about this stuff – it is very rare for agencies to check documents, even your certificates,” the social worker said.
Social workers we spoke to mentioned Caritas, Liquid Recruitment, Aurora Resourcing and Tripod Partners as having started them on jobs without following compliance guidelines – though some also said Liquid employees had come to meet them in person.
A number of other agencies were named by just one social worker as relying on scanned documents and not verifying identities.
In practice most agency social workers will have had regular checks carried out, lessening the likelihood of a serious safeguarding failure relating to false documents.
But one senior source at a small agency told Community Care they were aware of at least one instance in which a social worker had been caught practising using someone else’s identity documents and Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) registration.
Social workers confirmed that once agencies had completed the checking processes, they commonly walked straight into jobs working with children and vulnerable adults without any further checks being made by local authorities.
Agency directors we spoke to declined to comment in detail as to whether failings had occurred without being provided with details of individuals’ cases.
Stuart Ward, director of Liquid Personnel, said: “Our primary concern is the quality and safety of our service. Our rigorous recruitment processes require that an appropriate DBS check is in place for all candidates. We would take any breaches of these processes very seriously.”
Debbie Smith, chief executive at Caritas Recruitment, said: “Caritas prides itself on its high levels of commitment to safeguarding and has strict processes in place. We are regularly audited by our clients and have an excellent track record of audit results.”
A spokesperson for Tripod Partners said: “It is strict Tripod Partners policy to meet all prospective candidates. Any candidates sending in scanned documents will always be qualified ultimately via sight of original documents (by the Tripod Partners compliance team).”
The spokesperson added: “At Tripod Partners, we undergo regular compliance audits from our clients and have passed on every occasion. Any evidence to suggest our processes – or that of our consultants – have not been thorough will be investigated rigorously.”
Aurora Resourcing did not supply a comment within the timescales of this article.
‘Exposed to penalties’
Solicitor Ronnie Tong said that in the event of lax practice being uncovered, it would most likely be the agency – which acts as the employer for temps – that would face punishment. He said it would be “harsh” for councils to be punished, providing they had entered into agreements that placed the onus for compliance on agencies, but nonetheless suggested councils should be auditing the process if they had any doubts.
“What employers must do, to have any defence, is obtain original documents, check them in the presence of individuals and ensure they are not fake or altered,” he said. “If they’re not doing that then [for right-to-work checks] they are exposing themselves to civil penalties.
He added: “Sometimes the Home Office does audits – let’s see your recruiting practice – and if people have scanned copies of documents they lose their statutory defence, and risk a £20,000 fine and potentially criminal action.”
Tong said that when it came to DBS checks, penalties were based around knowingly taking people on who were on a barred list, whereas failure to properly verify identities was a grey area, in terms of attracting civil or criminal penalties.
“[Lack of compliance] falls between two stools – I’m not sure it would be classified [as liable for penalties] but it’s certainly not good employment practice,” he said.
Tong added that in the case of premises regulated by the Care Quality Commission, inspectors could theoretically close premises down if severe irregularities with DBS checks were found.
‘Take appropriate steps’
Responding to Community Care’s findings, ADCS chair Rachael Wardell said she would expect all agencies to carry out thorough checks in relation to the agency social workers they supply to local authorities, to ensure they can safely and legally work with vulnerable children and families.
“Local authorities should take appropriate steps to assure themselves of the thoroughness of the agencies from which they draw their locum workforce,” Wardell said. “This issue has not been raised with ADCS by our members; nevertheless, if any agencies are not following the necessary recruitment processes this would be a cause for concern for local authorities.”
Wardell added: “These recruitment checks are an important part of keeping the children and families we work with safe and we would urge anyone who has concerns about such practice to raise it with the relevant local authority.”
She said it would be “interesting” to see if Social Work England, as the new regulator, considers this and the actions it might propose to tackle such practice.
Tania Bowers, general council at agency member body APSCo, said: “Under our Compliance+ programme [in place since 2015], meeting a candidate face to face with their original documents is an absolute requirement.”
She added that APSCo would be updating guidance in line with latest government guidance on live video feeds. “Compliance+ accreditation is undertaken by our social worker members and this does involve an audit,” she said.
‘Agencies could be barred from carrying out checks’
Gary Blanchard, chief operating officer at the DBS, warned that agencies and other registered bodies failing to comply with the conditions of their registration could be suspended or cancelled from carrying out checks.
“Safeguarding is at the heart of everything we do at the DBS and we play a vital role in keeping people safe,” Blanchard said. “Since our foundation five years ago, we have issued more than 22 million disclosure certificates to help employers make safer recruitment decisions.”
He added: “The DBS takes the integrity of the identity verification process very seriously. There are clear lines of responsibility within the DBS process, with Registered Bodies (RBs) interacting directly with employers and recruiters. There are clear guidelines for how the process is to be carried out and the DBS assures that these are followed through a compliance regime and inspections.”