What is the most likely outcome of the proposed rules on agency work in children's services?
- More agency workers leaving social work in children's services (81%, 617 Votes)
- More agency workers taking permanent children's services posts (13%, 95 Votes)
- Little or no impact (6%, 47 Votes)
Total Voters: 759
Agency social worker pay in would be capped to the equivalent earned by permanent staff under government plans to reduce the use and cost of locums in statutory children’s services.
The Department for Education (DfE) has proposed introducing national rules to regulate the use of agency staff in response to concerns that their increasing use is destabilising the workforce and adversely affecting children and families through high staff turnover.
As well as capping the rates councils pay for agency staff, the proposed rules – published for consultation yesterday as part of the DfE’s response to the care review – would ban the use of so-called project teams and bar early-career practitioners from agency work.
They would be brought into force in spring 2024.
More on the DfE’s response to the care review
The DfE said there were “many excellent social workers working for a local authority via an agency who are delivering for vulnerable children and families as part of the workforce.”
Agency ‘overreliance’ leading to instability – DfE
“However, overreliance on agency social work resource has led to workforce instability, churn and high costs,” it said.
“This makes it more difficult for social workers to consolidate learning, build expertise and develop quality relationships with children and families. Certain conditions imposed by some agencies, such as capped caseloads and fully remote working, continue to increase pressures on social workers who are permanently employed within local authorities.
“Such practices embed disparities into the workforce and put at risk stable and sustained relationships with families and colleagues.”
It said national rules were needed because existing regional memoranda of understanding, while showing some success in reducing costs, were “fragile”.
“A key issue raised is that the regional MoUs can be challenging in a context where the rules and procedures are different to a neighbouring region,” it said.
Proposed agency staff rules
- All procurement of agency staff should follow national rules.
- National price caps on what local authorities may pay per hour for locums.
- A requirement for social workers who graduated in or after April 2024 to have a minimum of five years’ post-qualified experience working within children’s social care and completion of the ASYE to be appointed to an agency post.
- A ban on agency project teams.
- A requirement for employers to request and provide references for all agency social worker candidates.
- That councils do not engage agency workers for a period of three months after they have left a substantive role within the same region (excluding certain exceptions).
- A requirement for a minimum six-week notice period for agency social workers.
- The collection and sharing of core agency and pay data, to support better workforce planning and the ability to monitor, enforce and assess the impact of the proposals.
National price cap proposal
Its headline proposal is to cap the rates local authorities pay to agencies at a national level.
It suggested the capped price would consist of the worker’s basic pay, holiday pay and employer pension contribution – which agency workers are entitled to after 12 weeks with an employer – the employer’s national insurance contribution and a fee for the agency.
The DfE said its aim would be to “bring agency workers’ pay more fairly in line with substantive workers’ pay”, with basic pay for locums being no more than the average for a permanent post.
While the department has rejected a separate care review proposal to bring in national pay scales for social workers, it said it wanted to see “greater national consistency and fairness around pay” for practitioners doing the same role in different councils, whether agency or employed.
Most councils follow the National Joint Council for Local Government pay agreement, which has a 43-point national pay spine, though it is up to authorities to determine where they place different job roles on this. As a result of this and supplements designed to support recruitment and retention, there were differences in pay between authorities for the same role for employed staff.
‘Fragile’ regional agreements
Existing regional memoranda typically involve pay caps for specific roles. However, the DfE said these were “fragile” because of inconsistencies in rates between regions, lack of transparency and enforcement of rates and competition between authorities for the same pool of staff.
The proposals follow longstanding calls from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services for the DfE to regulate locum work in the face of agency practices described by its president, Steve Crocker, as “profiteering”.
Crocker described the DfE’s proposals as “sensible” but said the 15-month timeline for implementation was “too long”, and that the DfE needed to move faster.
Councils ‘need faster action on curbing agency work’
“Local authorities are facing real recruitment and retention challenges now, particularly amongst our social workers which, in the short term, is leading to an increasing reliance upon agency staff to help us meet the growing levels of need we are seeing across our communities,” he said.
“At the same time, we are seeing increasingly aggressive recruitment tactics being employed by agencies to attract our staff and the costs of buying back their services spiralling.”
However, agency leaders said the proposals themselves were misguided.
“The staffing shortage in social work needs to be addressed, including through tackling the underlying funding crisis,” said Recruitment and Employment Confederation chief executive Neil Carberry.
“But these proposals will do the opposite. Banning workers from freely choosing who they work for and ending team-based service delivery will damage services and drive people out of social work. A sensible framework to maintain quality and reduce unnecessary costs would be a far better choice.
Plans ‘likely to worsen staff shortages’
“These proposals are likely to worsen staff shortages and burnout, underpin a lack of flexibility for staff and embed high caseloads. They treat skilled social workers as a commodity, rather than engaging with them as professionals.”
He added: “We know many people choose to do agency work to enjoy the flexibility and working conditions – this has not been addressed in the government’s proposal. The sector needs to understand why people prefer to work via an agency. Without this, we are just scraping the surface of the staffing problems.
“The REC has been engaging with the Department for Education on these issues in recent months and we look forward to opening up a more positive conversation with a view to explore sustainable, realistic steps that work for service users, first and foremost.”
Jonathan Wadsworth, managing director of the agency Charles Hunter Associates, said: “The consultation is proposing a clear attack on vital hard working agency social workers. It is seemingly an underhand tactic to forcibly make prospective agency workers go permanent. It is essential that all stakeholders remember the critical staffing shortages we face and that this is only going to make things worse.”