How, if at all, should agency social work be reformed?
- There should be no change to current arrangements (36%, 360 Votes)
- National pay rates should be introduced for agency staff (18%, 180 Votes)
- Local authority-owned staff banks should become the first port of call for temporary staff (18%, 180 Votes)
- Agencies should be banned from statutory social work (12%, 116 Votes)
- Social workers should be prevented from working for agencies in their early career (11%, 112 Votes)
- Regional memoranda of understanding capping pay rates should be more tightly adhered to by councils (5%, 48 Votes)
Total Voters: 996
The government should “regulate or preferably ban” social work employment agencies to tackle increased “profiteering” in the way they supply staff to councils, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services president has said.
Steve Crocker made the call in his speech to the association’s annual conference yesterday, in which he said agencies were “contacting our social workers, hoovering them up and then selling them back to us at twice the cost”, which was contrary to the public interest and that of taxpayers.
However, the industry body for employment agencies described his comments as “absurd” and said they did a “huge amount” for the sector.
Speaking to Community Care after the speech, Crocker took particular aim at what he said was an increasing practice of agencies limiting their supply of staff to teams of workers, rather than individual locums.
Councils ‘struggling to manage agency behaviour’
“I think things have changed,” said Crocker, the director for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. “Increasingly, we’re struggling to manage the activity and behaviour of some of the agencies, which is increasingly focused on limiting the supply of the workforce to only offering them as a team rather than individual workers.”
If I have someone in Andover who has gone off for six months on maternity leave, I can’t find an agency worker for love nor money. I can get eight agency workers. This seems really wrong.
“Increasingly, directors of children’s services are frustrated and we can’t see why this is in the public interest. We’re increasingly seeing social workers being tapped up by agencies then offered back to us for double the cost. We think this has gone beyond the point where it’s acceptable and we need urgent action.”
Crocker’s proposal goes beyond one made last year by his predecessor as ADCS president, Charlotte Ramsden, who called for the introduction of agreed national pay rates to tackle issues including locum staff leaving mid-contract to take up more lucrative positions.
Ramsden raised concerns that councils were not adhering to regional memoranda of understanding – which cap agency pay rates – when they had acute recruitment needs, particularly following poor inspection outcomes.
Crocker said his tougher stance reflected the fact that the situation had got worse in the past year. He added that the tendency for agencies to supply teams had two key effects.
“It means we don’t have enough social workers to do the work we need them to do,” he said. “You are carrying vacancies until you have the need for a whole team. And/or you end up paying high costs for those you bring in because you’re desperate.”
Crocker’s proposals also go beyond those put forward by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, which called in its final report for tighter rules on the use of agency staff to reduce their use by councils. It suggested ensuring councils adhere to existing regional memoranda of understanding and be prevented from hiring agency social workers who had not completed the first two years of its proposed early career framework.
Crocker endorsed the second of these points in his speech, saying that the sector should “move quickly to tie an early career framework to a statutory provider, so social workers can’t work for agencies in their formative professional years”.
Preventing early career social workers from going locum
He added: “Graduates being drawn to agency work almost straight out of university is a relatively new phenomenon. The worry is that this could compromise
on quality as access to support, supervision and reflection are critical to excellent practice.”
The number of full-time equivalent agency workers in statutory children’s services in England increased by 3% from September 2020 to September 2021 to 5,977, a fourth consecutive annual rise, according to Department for Education figures. But agency worker rates have remained relatively flat since at least 2017, with 15.5% of all local authority or trust children’s social workers in England employed through agencies in September 2021. Just over three quarters (76.3%) of agency social workers were covering vacancies, a similar rate to 2020.
In his speech, Crocker said that councils needed to be open to looking at what they offered staff to attract them to take up permanent social work roles.
He told Community Care that he backed the care review’s call for a five-year early career framework, coupled with national pay scales which practitioners would move up as they progressed, saying this would incentivise people to stay with employers.
Crocker also backed the review’s proposal to create local authority-owned staff banks, which it said should be the first port of call when councils needed additional practitioners.
DfE – we need to do more
In its spending review in 2021, the government set a target on the proportion of agency social workers used by local authority children’s services though did not set a specific measure to reduce this to.
Responding to a question on the issue at the ADCS conference today, the DfE’s director for children’s social care, Suzanne Lunn, said: “I think our strategy in recent years has been to encourage regional memoranda of understanding but we recognise the concerns those are not working when individual authorities have particular pressures.”
She added: “We recognise that we probably need to do more in this space at a national level. I can’t say what. We will need to test the evidence on it and the views of ministers – I don’t know what these are yet. We really want to hear your views about regulation options in this space. It’s not just about the money – we’ve heard concerns about quality and what you are buying. Over the next few months, we should have some serious discussions on what we should do.”
However, Cocker’s comments were heavily criticised by the industry body for employment agencies.
“The president of the ADCS’s comments are completely absurd,” said Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation.
“Agencies do a huge amount of work to support the care system, and are certainly not the cause of its problems. Rather than blaming agencies unfairly, ADCS would do better to work with us to build a care system that delivers a great service at good value to the taxpayer – as well as paying social care workers what they deserve and treating them well, whether they are substantive or temporary staff.”