‘Agency social work is a response to demand and a flexible choice for staff – so rules curbing it won’t work’

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) says improving partnership working between councils and the agencies it represents is a better way of tackling staffing shortages than the DfE's locum rules

Notebook with list of rules and pen on yellow background, flat lay
Photo: New Africa/Adobe Stock
Kate Shoesmith, deputy chief executive, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation

Kate Shoesmith, deputy chief executive, the REC

By Kate Shoesmith

We welcome the fact that the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) is no longer calling for curbs on agency social work in England to be implemented earlier than the government’s April 2024 target date.

Moving the date forward would have been risky short-termism at a time of shortages of social workers.

However, our core view is that the Department for Education’s (DfE) proposed rules on agency work (see below) won’t fix the issues facing the local authority children’s services workforce.

What are the proposed rules on agency work?

  1. All procurement of agency staff should follow national rules.
  2. National price caps on what local authorities may pay per hour for locums, based on the average earned by equivalent permanent staff, on a like-for-like basis.
  3. 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 to have completed the ASYE to be appointed to an agency post.
  4. A ban on agency project teams.
  5. A requirement for employers to request and provide references for all agency social worker candidates.
  6. 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).
  7. A requirement for a minimum six-week notice period for agency social workers.
  8. 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.

Social work recruitment challenges

The results from the DfE’s latest children’s services omnibus showed that, of the third of local authorities who responded, a majority cited recruitment and retention to be a key challenge.

Seven in 10 local authorities, who were polled in January to March 2022, were not confident they would have enough permanent child and family social workers to meet their needs over the next 12 months.

The situation for the workforce has since deteriorated, with the vacancy rate in local authority children’s services rising from 16.7% to 20% in the year to September 2022, according to the DfE’s annual workforce census.

We need to move beyond suggestions that there is something unacceptable about people choosing to work for agencies or agencies existing – when they are just a response to demand and provide a flexible choice in how people work.”

Why practitioners go agency

Social workers turn to agencies primarily to help them manage their work/life balance. A lack of flexibility, poor pay, heavy caseloads, burnout and, sometimes, difficult work cultures are fundamental challenges to social work – which this proposed policy will not really address.

In fact, four in ten children’s agency social workers, out of a sample of 147,  told the REC that they would leave the profession entirely if these DfE rules go ahead. They predicted the impact of the plans would also see colleagues quit and children receive worse care.

The loss of agency staff in anything like this proportion would give vulnerable children even less chance of getting the care they need.

It’s also really not the case that agency work is so much more expensive or less compliant. There are already regional agreements in place to ensure the rates of pay and agency margins are reasonable.

In fact, in many areas, agency margins have significantly declined over the last few years – despite demand increasing. Recruitment is a professional service and if you’ve ever tried to hire on top of doing your day job, you may know how much work it takes, especially in a tight labour market.

Making social work a more attractive profession

But it is also a fact that we believe social workers should get the pay they deserve. Expecting to increasingly get more service for less pay serves no one.

Where the focus should really be is on how to make social work a much more attractive profession, one that is rewarded fairly. We question how this can be achieved by simply curbing the agency services that are just plugging gaps in services when needed.

There will always be a need for contingent workers – sick leave, parental leave and immediate and urgent increased demand for services happen in every workplace.

Many local authorities and recruiters work well together.

Better partnership working needed

Based on our experience working with the NHS, the most efficient arrangement is when the hirers – local authorities in this case – and agencies work in a genuine partnership.

Recruiters can provide insight on workforce issues alongside supplying workers – both temporary and permanent – when the need arises, freeing up councils to focus on delivering services.

What will help in the long term is the establishment of a national agency and temporary staffing strategic forum.

This should bring together sector stakeholders, including recruiters, to collectively discuss workforce challenges, sharing insights across sectors such as health, social work, education and others. This would support learning in building better, more strategic staffing procurement.

That will do far more to ensure we have more social workers in England in the long term than the DfE’s proposed rules.

Kate Shoesmith is deputy chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, the representative body for employment agencies.

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14 Responses to ‘Agency social work is a response to demand and a flexible choice for staff – so rules curbing it won’t work’

  1. Christian Kerr August 2, 2023 at 6:20 pm #

    Plugging gaps?

    The mouthpiece of the £multimillion agency social work industry here completely avoiding mention of the fact that the concerted efforts of its members to lure social workers from permanent AND temporary roles on the promise of increased pay rates actually contributes to the gaps it seeks to present itself as doing some kind of public service in addressing.

    No mention either of the adverse impact of the resultant staff churn or the fact the agencies this body represents profit immensely from it.

    This piece should be read in the knowledge that the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) represents above all the vested business interests of its members, not the interests of social workers or the people they support.

    • dk August 3, 2023 at 9:54 am #

      Quite. The notion that “recruiters” and local authorities should or even can work in a “genuine partnership” is laughable. I lost count of how often agency recruiters would track down my CP team’s duty number and call it to solicit whoever answered the phone. I wonder what Kate has to say about the practices of the recruiters she represents? One thing in public and another behind closed doors, I’d expect.

      Agency recruiters do not exist to valiantly provide a service to local authorities. They exist, as any business does, to make money by extracting more value than they provide. I don’t think this is the most helpful place to have a helpful conversation about the ethics of making money and I’m not making any judgement of agency social workers, but I also do not think we should be kidding ourselves about the existence and motivation of agency recruiters.

    • Mr Social Work August 3, 2023 at 12:42 pm #

      Perhaps you need to have proven facts before you comment Christian. Everything you have stated is nonsense.

  2. Paul August 3, 2023 at 9:44 am #

    Capping agency pay to that of perm staff will not work, it is too simplistic. Local authories do not pay employer NI, or holiday pay, quite generius sick pay, pension contributions, so comparing take home pay is not a realistic measure.
    Secondly, more rural and remote councils do not have a local pool of workers to draw on. This was worsened by chancellor preventing locums be self employed, and stopping claiming basic working away expenses, creating more problems for some local authorities, now being forced to up pay and give contributions to overnight accommodation, funded by council tax payers. Issue was not the IR35 regs, my experience is many LAs and workers did not understand it, eg: how long you could be in post before it was deemed not temporary.
    I agree workers need be experienced, its not about just social work, its about knowing how LAs work, about proving can manage “cases” from referral to outcome etc. When I started agency you had to be (an “old”) level 3, been in post for a good 4 to 5 years.

  3. Lou Wright August 3, 2023 at 12:13 pm #

    Absolutely agree with a Christian above. The agencies themselves are a massive part of the problem.

    I despise the DFE But these are entirely reasonable measures that need to be put in place. The article is correct though there is a meeting in the middle required and the issues for permanent staff must also be tackled. For example, if agency staff can have 6 weeks notice periods, couldn’t permanent staff be reduced from 3 months to say 2 months?

    Better grievance policies where perm staff are confident in situations of workplace bullying. So so so much to still do, to improve the experience of perm staff

  4. Pete August 3, 2023 at 1:57 pm #

    Christian, it is not only the workers agency making money. Local authorities also use another agency to put the job adverts out, collate cvs etc. Why not use own HR and save costs?

  5. Mei Wong August 4, 2023 at 8:33 am #

    Social Work is a highly skilled profession, without a significant pay rise on permanent position, we will lost more work force. The budget driven government tried to be clever to ‘cut’ here and there, it continues to do the most stupid things to harm the profession. Cut doesn’t work! Pay social workers a respectable salary, you increase your MPs’ pay and allowances to enrich yourselves but treat public sector like slaves , how is it going to work?

  6. SW Prac August 5, 2023 at 12:09 pm #

    It’s interesting that the govt feel that temp recruitment in social work needs curving, yet nothing is said of education temps and nursing and medical temps, of which the NHS is significantly reliant, who are also a draw on limited public service budgets !?

    I however believe there needs to be control upon agency recruiters exploiting current recruitment and retention challenges faced by Local Authorities. However, equally, Social Work is a highly complex profession which places challenge on the practitioner, yet such is not reflected in salaries and conditions offers by local authorities who themselves exploit by imposing overwhelming and unrealistic work demands on the practitioner often way beyond what is manageable or safe a d which impacts on the quality of service provided to the service user.

  7. Brenda Harte August 5, 2023 at 12:55 pm #

    Who cares that agency social workers are stripped of holiday pay, sick pay, employment rights training opportunities, pension rights are removed by grasping agencies. Agency social workers earn less than permanent staff and have no rights or representation as are being systematically squeezed out, with agencies and local authorities profiting whilst shedding crocodile tears. Not a good deal. Agency social workers increasingly treated as trash.

  8. The voice August 5, 2023 at 2:18 pm #

    Council’s are forced to use a deficit version of social work, where social workers recommendations are secondary to service managers who have no social work professional values and show that by hiding in offices not facing the social workers let alone the people their bad decisions affect. E.g. when there are no Foster placements or residential placements,a social worker then becomes a glorified messenger…”is there a friend or family member who can help?” is a familiar overused, disrespectful phrase they hide behind. For goodness sake, start battling to defeat austerity and gain more resources please service managers. Britain is a broken culture.

    Agency social work demonstrates the worst capitalism has to offer alongside selling life giving commodities like water and profiting from addictive products like alcohol and cigarettes, 2 of those 3 habits that then see right-wing coke sniffing politicians sneering in judgement at people. Caring is a basic need and should never be a marketplace.

    Revolution social workers…it is the time. Long overdue.

  9. B Kinnear August 11, 2023 at 12:19 pm #

    When Local authorities cut pay by 8% and loose a significant number of experience staff to create more senior management positions it doesn’t give you much faith that the staff on the ground are valued. Working in agency is not ideal but gives flexibility to look around at other local authorities pressures, priorities and how they value their staff and if they have a good retention policy.

    I think the question needs to be why is it that agency’s became such a thriving business?

    I agree the pressures working in local authorities for young people joining are such with such poor pay it is putting them off.

  10. kay August 18, 2023 at 8:27 am #

    we need to increase the flexibility, pay, and benefits for permanent staff to encourage them to stay and remain permanent employees. we need to offer more flexibility within the authority to learn new things and practice in new areas. and not he so precious about roles or hierarchy.

  11. Roryboy August 24, 2023 at 12:24 pm #

    “ we need to value Social Workers “.

  12. education jobs luton August 24, 2023 at 2:02 pm #

    I completely agree with Kate Shoesmith. The proposed rules on agency work seem to miss the mark on addressing the root causes of staffing shortages in children’s services. If anything, they might drive more experienced social workers away. It’s vital to focus on making the profession more attractive through fair pay and improved work conditions.