A directors’ leader has suggested introducing national pay rates for agency staff to bring consistency to locum wages and help ease recruitment challenges for local authorities.
In an interview with Community Care, Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) president Charlotte Ramsden said national caps could help overcome the issue of councils breaching existing regional agreements to curb agency worker costs.
A Department for Education (DfE) survey of directors last year found that, while 96% of authorities were a signatory to a regional memorandum of co-operation, just 26% of directors thought they had been useful in reducing the number of agency staff and 44% in reducing the cost.
The main reasons cited for them not working were individual councils – particularly those with low Ofsted ratings – not complying. Ramsden said it was hard for local authorities not to exceed regional pay limits when they had a large number of vacancies and had received a negative Ofsted report.
“When the chips are down, you’ve got a large number of social work vacancies, unallocated cases and perhaps you are an ‘inadequate’ authority, you are not going to sit there and say ‘oh I’ll wait until someone comes along willing to take the low rate of pay’, I’ll pay more,” she said.
However, she said the current system was not good for children as it sometimes led to agency workers leaving mid-contract to work for an authority paying a higher rate.
‘Not good for children or staff’
“At the moment an agency worker might arrive in my authority, supposedly there for four or five months, and then two weeks later somebody’s put out a call and they are paying significantly more on a day rate so that social worker would say ‘sorry, I’m off,’” she said.
“But if you had allocated them cases, that’s not good for the children, it’s not great for the staff.”
She said that a national approach, with London weighting, would help.
“If we were able to have more of a national agreement about pay rates for basic rates of social workers, that might just stop some of that issue,” she added.
The memorandum of co-operation between London boroughs, published in 2019, set maximum rates, including national insurance and holiday pay, ranging from £25 per hour for a newly qualified social worker to £42 per hour for a team manager.
Nick Hollier, regional lead for the London memorandum, said some authorities were exceeding these pay levels, which the agreement allows for in “exceptional circumstances”.
“Boroughs continue to report that there are breaches of the memorandum, particularly where authorities have had adverse Ofsted judgements,” he said.
“Further discussions with the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services group are taking place to ensure continued commitment to the memorandum.”
The latest Department for Education workforce figures showed that agency staff accounted for 15.4% of social work roles in statutory children’s services roles as of September 2020, a rate that has been broadly stable since 2013.
Calls to reduce agency rates
However, there has been renewed focus on reducing agency staff costs and turnover from national leaders in recent weeks.
Children’s minister Vicky Ford raised concerns about agency costs and staff churn, in a speech to the annual ADCS conference this month, saying she was keen to share learning from authorities that had “made fantastic progress in driving down their agency rates”.
Meanwhile, the government-commissioned children’s social care review called for reductions in agency social work use to reduce costs and turnover, in its ‘case for change’, published last month.
“A widespread and long-term reliance on short-term staff inevitably has a negative impact on children and families, who face disruption in their relationships with services, as well as creating significant additional costs to local authorities, diverting funding that could potentially have been used to deliver additional support to children and families,” it said.
The review declined to comment on whether it would consider a national pay cap as a potential solution.
National cap concerns
However, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) expressed concern at the idea of a national cap lest it result in cuts to locum social workers’ pay.
“If there was to be a national cap, I’d be very concerned if that was felt by individual social workers,” said Gavin Moorghen, BASW England professional officer, who added that he was not aware of agency staff “making extortionate amounts of money”.
He said the focus should be on improving working conditions to encourage staff to move into and stay in permanent roles and address the causes of attrition.
“Maybe if they focused on that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about there being too many agency workers,” he added.
Agency firms also pushed back against the idea of a national cap.
The Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) said it was important that agency worker rates recognised the “onerous compliance requirements; including referencing and right to work checks” undertaken by recruiters.
“We are concerned that any proposed caps will not necessarily take into account the internal and external costs of on boarding compliance and placement and candidate management,” said Tania Bowers, legal counsel and head of public policy at APSCo.
“Additionally, in our experience, in a candidate short market, hirers are willing to circumvent the caps, which can reduce transparency and clarity of the supply chain.”