By Rosa Jones
As of April 2018 there were well over 96,000 registered social workers supporting service users and their families in England alone. A significant number of us work via recruitment agencies.
The expectation for any agency worker new to an organisation is to hit the ground running, while the agency in the background sorts out contracts and payment. It should be a straightforward, hassle-free relationship.
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Unfortunately this is not always the case. The Employment Agency Standards (EAS) Inspectorate, responsible for protecting agency workers’ rights, recently reported it received 1,261 complaints in 2017/2018. These figures, which of course relate to the wider workforce rather than just those performing agency social work, signify a 50% increase in agency workers’ complaints compared with the previous year.
In a sense this is good news, because it appears employees across various sectors are finally becoming savvy in speaking up about their rights. That said, on a more cynical note, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that many concerns go unreported because of fear of reprisals and loss of income.
Common gripes within agency social work include payment delays and discrepancies, not receiving referral bonuses, promised costs of training overheads not being received and consultants’ bully-boy tactics.
Master vendor problems
One part of the agency social work system that can often cause difficulties is when employers operate via so-called managed service providers, also known as master or neutral vendors, as happens in many areas. Basically this involves a local authority or clinical commissioning group contracting a large recruitment agency to run their locum contracts.
Master vendors handle the bulk of vacancies from their client (such as a local authority or NHS trust), farming out the remainder to smaller agencies as necessary to fill the roles. Neutral vendors, meanwhile, supposedly operate more transparently by acting as the ‘neutral’ middleman between the client and smaller agencies who form their ‘preferred suppliers list’.
Recruiters have told me, though, that the list can be influenced by personalities, or by incentives offered by agencies, as much as by genuine merit.
I’m also aware of agency workers in several boroughs being told to transfer from their chosen agency to one dictated by the managed service provider or else lose their job. One agency rep I’m in touch with told me their firm challenged this practice under the Competition Act 1998 as well as the Modern Slavery Act 2015 – and the locums were able to stay in place.
It is your right to challenge, should this issue come your way. But as a worker within this system, it’s a worry that if you raise concerns with agencies you could effectively become a pariah.
Another recurring theme I see raised on social media forums is workers being blocked from moving to a different agency if the local authority they are working for wishes to extend their contract.
With this in mind, read the contract small-print when you initially sign up and get them to confirm in writing how much notice you need to give. Speaking from personal experience, if you end up unhappy with an agency – or simply want to work through another – change can otherwise be very hard to facilitate.
In my situation, I ended up resigning. After giving two months notice to a very large agency they would not negotiate and provide the end client with the requested release email, despite my having worked in good faith for three months over the three-month contract I had initially signed for.
After 14 weeks, an end client should also incur no charges if you wish to move from your temp role to a permanent one with them.
Conflicts of interest
Local government procurement also gives cause for concern for agency workers. The Cross Government Fraud Landscape Annual Report 2017 states that “an estimated 40% of all fraud committed against local authorities concern abuse of the procurement cycle”. This is an alarming statistic – but also one backed up by my own experience.
I wanted to move agency after realising the one I was working through was behaving unethically – but was blocked for months via a mix of intimidation and evasion of the subject.
I then discovered the real reason – the staff member acting for the managed service provider, who held responsibility for the transfer, lived in a property owned by one of the directors of the agency I was trying to leave. After a disclosure to the local authority fraud department, who substantiated my concern, I was hastily transferred.
With regard to potential conflicts of interest, this area is covered by the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. Councils must take appropriate measures to “cover any situation where relevant staff members have directly or indirectly, a financial, economic or other personal interest which might be perceived to compromise their impartiality and independence in the context of the procurement procedure”.
Dodgy umbrella companies
Another connected issue is agencies’ relationships with umbrella companies. Community Care has previously reported on some recruiters pushing workers to go with one umbrella or another – with recruitment industry insiders citing referral ‘backhanders’ and other hidden reasons – and in some cases leading to tax problems down the line.
Be mindful of this and do your homework to ensure that any umbrella company you sign up for, whether from your own research or at the suggestion of a recruitment agency, is fully compliant with HMRC.
And if you are paid in this way double check that HMRC are receiving your tax correctly. Some umbrellas have been known to liquidate while owing the taxman big money – and sadly, HMRC will view the worker as culpable for any loss in these situations.
If this all sounds extremely negative do not despair – all is not lost.The local government counter fraud and corruption strategy (2016-2019) details the threat of corruption within authorities and thus safeguards are in place.
Robust legislation exists to protect both workers and the taxpayer. This includes the 2010 Bribery Act and the 2017 Criminal Finances Act, which ensures that there are serious consequences for those involved in bribery, backhanders and kickbacks.
There are also definitive rules on gifts and hospitality, and if as a locum you’re worried enough to raise concerns, you are protected under whistleblowing policies. The Centre for the Protection for National Infrastructure (CPNI) has developed the ‘It’s OK to say’ toolkit, designed to support staff in reporting concerns, while NHS trusts have a network of ‘Freedom to Speak Up’ guardians.
If you do have concerns, then, avenues are open to you. Making a formal complaint to your agency should be your first point of call. If no joy, you can consider the Recruitment Employment Confederation, Agency Inspectorate (who do take prosecutions forward), an employment lawyer and your local authority’s section 151 officer, who is responsible for the proper administration of its affairs.
You can also, of course, seek advice from your union. And as a last resort, if you believe a criminal offence is occurring contact the National Crime Agency.
Hopefully this article will offer an insight and workers will take heed of potential pitfalls. A large proportion of agencies operate both ethically and legally – it’s a question of avoiding the bad apples, but thankfully word gets around pretty quickly on social media forums about the ones to watch out for.
On a final note, if you do run into problems it is worth securing a reference before leaving. There are incidences in which workers have been hindered in their attempts to start a new job. If these tactics are employed then a data subject access request can be considered. Consider a solicitor if necessary to guide around loss of earnings.
We do need, as a profession, to come together to challenge bad employment practice as much as we can. Social workers are both known for and are excellent at advocating for those they support. It could be argued, they are less so for themselves. When you have bills to pay and families to support you may be reluctant to take on large organisations with numerous resources at their disposal.
That said we are also a large number. We should be better at operating as a collective, providing an effective support system to each other. Health and education colleagues should also be included as they are often in the same boat. Together we can facilitate change.
Rosa Jones is a senior social worker, writing under a pseudonym