Readers’ Take: the impact of proposed agency social work rules

Following the government's proposals for regulating the use of agency social work, we look at what our readers think the most likely outcome will be

Photo by Community Care

The Department for Education’s (DfE)  proposals to reduce the use and cost of agency social work in children’s services have split sector opinion.

For directors of children’s services (DCSs), the proposed rules – including national pay caps for locums, barring early-career practitioners from agency work and banning project teams – are right, but their likely implementation  – spring 2024 – comes too late to tackle mounting workforce pressures.

For agency leaders, they are a “misguided” attack on locum social workers that will worsen existing staff shortages.

But what do social workers think the most likely outcome will be?

According to a Community Care poll, which drew 759 responses, most back the agencies’ viewpoint: 81% said that more locums would be pushed to leave social work in children’s services as a result.

Just 13% thought that more agency staff would take up permanent posts in statutory children’s services, as the DfE intends. The remainder (6%) said the proposals would have little or no impact.


The results are reflected in the more than 90 comments on Community Care’s recent article on the news, most of which were opposed to the DfE’s plans.

‘Social workers will simply stop practising’

Several readers said the proposals would result in an exodus of agency staff, particularly due to the proposal to cap agency pay to the equivalent of permanent staff in the same role.

“This isn’t going to have the desired effect on retention rates,” said Michelle. “Social workers will simply stop practising and move into other non-social work roles with far less stress to bear.”

“It will only backfire,” wrote Jenny. “As usual, they fail to address the reason for the poor retention of permanent staff. They would also need to address the issue of benefits agency staff do not receive, such as sick pay and holiday pay, which are compensated for by a higher rate of pay.”

Many said the roots of the workforce instability the DfE was intending to address were poor terms and conditions for permanent staff.

Agency staff ‘not to blame for poor conditions’

Caroline said: “Agency staff are not to blame, it’s the systems that expect staff to have high caseloads, work long hours without pay, [the] lack of care or respect for workers and treating them like machines.”

From a similar perspective, Christopher wrote: “It’s not the use of agency workers that has led to workforce instability, churn and high costs. It’s the underfunding and undervaluing of the social work profession and the discrimination against the people it works with that has caused all this. That in turn causes workers to leave, many to use agency work as a way of doing what they love but at the same time surviving a hostile, broken system.”

Linda was one of few to take a different view. She said: “I am so pleased that at last proper measures are being taken to address the issues of using too many agency staff at an eye-watering cost to all the councils. Maybe the money saved can help to employ more permanent staff and this will help reduce caseloads. Ultimately this means better outcomes for the families and children we serve.”

Impact on staff from minority groups

One reader, Anita, also contemplated how social workers from ethnic minorities would be affected by the proposals, writing: “As an agency worker this will only push me to leave the profession. As agency workers, we are often given the heaviest caseload. Very little care goes towards our mental health and wellbeing. A high proportion of agency social workers are from ethnic minorities – ‘why?’ is the question that should be asked.

“Ethnic minority social workers are often marginalised and discouraged from applying for senior posts and often have to jump over hurdles like leadership programs white social workers don’t have to go through before obtaining a senior management position. The highest an ethnic minority social worker can rise comfortably within a local authority is team manager. The numbers drop significantly as one goes up the levels.”

Have your say

You can have your say on the proposed rules on agency work by responding to the DfE’s consultation, which closes on 11 May 2023.

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10 Responses to Readers’ Take: the impact of proposed agency social work rules

  1. Paul February 21, 2023 at 2:50 pm #

    The issue is more complex than merely capping pay. In the “good old days” you needed be level 3, have 3 to 4 years experience to go agency. Directors are responsible fof taking less experienced, or just qualified, workers to get bums on seats.
    This creates a churn of staff, less experienced leave when it gets tough going, more experiencec get dumped cases in a mess, mid-flow in proceedings etc.
    Capping pay will not help more remote and rural authorities, may work fine in and around ,London.
    No doubt market forces will prevail with councils offering a range of perks.
    Finally, stop picking in social workers, what about heads servicd, asst directors and directors,many locum, on big rates, and shunt from one poor council to anothef?

    • Nicola February 28, 2023 at 2:16 pm #

      Totally agree. This is a big distraction from the real issues that DCSs are simply unwilling to address because it will open an ugly can of worms and force them to look at the real reasons social workers are leaving in droves. Very disappointing but not particularly surprising that social workers end up shouldering the blame for what is a much bigger issue. And these are supposed be our greatest champions!

  2. Alec Fraher February 21, 2023 at 9:08 pm #

    There’s an ‘Orrery of Errors'(1) shaping this Review and the most obvious, at this stage, appears to be a complete lack of Departmental oversight.

    My concern are that planning decisions, like the creation of RCC’s, are already taken and the evidence gathered to fit the decisions. This is placing the cart before the horse and is the antithesis of what social-working is about. The approach increases anxiety and uncertainty which os meant to be supervised and managed out of the system. Not
    exaggerated. It is dangerous.

    Reaching a decision whilst managing the emotional impact of an often accidental disclosure, or other discrete source of information requires evidence, whilst also managing one’s own unconscious bias or team group think.

    It’s this information that ought to inform service planning not drive it. The Review itself is panic stricken.

    Working with uncertainty about safety is very rarely easy.

    Yet we know from reasonably reliable data like Messages from Research, namely, Private Lives,Public Risks by Farmer and Owen (????) is that in 78% of a significant number of LA cases examined, the intervention decisions were based on good social work judgement. The remainder were described as poor largely because of the inability or lack of capacity to do more work with the parents and families. (Farmer and Owen)

    Working with uncertainty about safety is never easy. It’s made all the more harder when the Review of arrangements are wrapped up with unnecessarily dualistic constraints, like agency v permanent staff, Council v RCCs or CMA v Ofsted etc etc etc.

    In my experience of Commissioning ,which includes Decommissioning, it’s very rare that a Public Authority would without good cause, give notice on it’s obligations to meet its statutory duties. Where are the records and minutes of such decisions. They must exist. They must also be published. Where’s the press coverage?

    1. (for cpd) The term an Orrery of Errors is lifted from ‘A Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors by EP Thomas. It’s available to download free. The significance of the work is to provide a re-freshed conceptual framework and challenges to that advocated by other more managerialistic efficiency fads. It is more fully understood when read with ‘From Phenomenology to Thought Errancy and Desire by Babette Babich. This deals, although abstractly, with how commercially driven notions of, say, advocacy are coupled to the judiciary and work counterintutively, seemingly promoting democratisation while purposefully undermining Local Government.

  3. Louise February 22, 2023 at 6:28 pm #

    I would love to know where social workers who leave the profession go. What kind of jobs?

    • Anita February 24, 2023 at 3:35 pm #

      Well I would hope that we have lots of transferable skills which would be very useful in business settings . We are brave , tenacious, hard working, flexible, willing, educated to at least degree level and hopefully have very good interpersonal skill. Don’t sell yourself short ?

    • Kim Normanton February 25, 2023 at 9:15 am #

      There are lots of jobs that social workers can take up that is not specifically a social work role. Social work profession is not the bee all and end all. If the changes to into affect then that’s the end of my 13 year career. There are a host of roles out there, we don’t need to rely on local authorties and quite frankly if it wasn’t for being agency I would have left a long time ago.

  4. Elle44 February 24, 2023 at 4:51 pm #

    I successfully moved into private practice. LAs regularly need independent practitioners to act as expert witnesses in cases. I left LA work after twenty years because I couldn’t bear another minute working for jumped up, mostly male, managers, whose success is measured purely on how much money they save.

    Sadly, this decision leaves less options for social workers which in turn does nothing to encourage managers to look after their staff, to stop them leaving.

  5. mar February 26, 2023 at 12:17 pm #

    If the LA would pay social workers what they are worth, there would be less need for agency social workers. Agency social workers I suspect prevent the collapse of services and are not protected in the same way full-time workers are. I fear it is an initiative that will not get off the ground

  6. Nicola February 28, 2023 at 2:07 pm #

    Are Directors, who have been pushing for these measures for quite some time, so far removed from what is happening right under their noses that they really believe this is the answer to staff shortages?

    They have spun a narrative that social workers are leaving the LA for more money, and that capping pay will solve this problem. We all know social workers leave for much more complex reasons that that, with pay actually being one of the lesser factors, to work stress and an often toxic working environment driven by a rigid hierarchy and blame culture.

    Maybe try making your social workers feel valued for the work they do, for the unrealistic expectations that are placed upon them in terms of workload, and the unpaid hours they are expected to work on a daily basis.

    Capping pay and restricting agency social work will only force social workers out of the profession altogether exacerbating the already huge problem of staff shortages.

    This is yet another example of the sad fact that until social workers have a stronger voice/union representation, they will always be the fall guy.

  7. Leiiyah March 4, 2023 at 2:05 am #

    I feel like another unspoken problem is how few ASYE opportunities there are for graduates. Most of Social Work graduates end up going to agencies because of rejection from local authorities offering ASYE. Newly Qualified workers end up working as trainee Social Workers, a role that demotes their level of experience. Why would they put further barriers on Newly Qualified Social Workers? Locum supports the demographic that get rejected by local authorised and now they are going to be forever to be unemployed.