‘There is no justification for agency and permanent social workers having very different pay’

ADCS says DfE locum rules are needed to tackle high costs and damaging practices of some agencies

Close-up of woman's hands with calculator and utility bills. The concept of rising prices for heating, gas, electricity. A lot of utility bills and hands in a warm sweater on a calculator
Photo: Anna/Adobe Stock

By Rachael Wardell

Are price caps for locum social workers the solution to the pay gap between agencies and local authorities?

  • No, a price cap won’t work (51%, 378 Votes)
  • Yes, permanent and agency social workers should be paid the same (45%, 334 Votes)
  • I’m not sure (4%, 30 Votes)

Total Voters: 742

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Kate Shoesmith’s recent article for Community Care argued that the Department for Education’s (DfE) proposed rules on agency work  won’t fix the issues facing the local authority children’s services workforce.

I think your readers would benefit from an alternative perspective. I chair the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) workforce policy committee.

ADCS is confident the DfE’s proposed rules for the use of agency social workers will help to create the conditions to tackle the unaffordable costs and unacceptable practices of some social work agencies while maintaining a sufficiently flexible agency market.

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.

Recruiting and retaining a stable cohort of social workers is an increasing challenge for local authorities, particularly ensuring an appropriate balance of experienced social workers and newly qualified practitioners.

The level of turnover, including churn among agency workers, is not good for the children and families we work with, who say they value consistency of a worker who knows their story and has built a strong, lasting relationship with them.

As employers, we are looking at our own offers so they better reflect how we value our social workers and what social workers are seeking. Above all, we are working hard to create the conditions where good social work can thrive. The DfE’s proposals will help with this.

The case for price caps

Social workers choose agency work for a variety of reasons, and better pay can be one. But there is no justification for two social workers with similar experience and caseloads in the same local authority having very different pay.

Introducing price caps for the use of agency social workers will ensure greater equity of pay between permanent and agency social workers, reducing incentives that unfairly skew the market in favour of agencies, and drive high churn.

This will help local authorities recruit and, crucially, retain the permanent workforce that we need to benefit children and families through relationship-based practice.

The costs of project teams

Currently, one damaging practice is the refusal of many agencies to supply the single social worker a local authority needs to cover one vacancy.

Instead, we are offered project teams. These consist of a full team of social workers, sometimes with a manager and on condition of protected caseloads.

This practice is costing local authorities substantially more money when budgets are already stretched, and the stipulation of caseloads has a knock-on effect on the workloads of permanently employed local authority staff. This is a deeply unfair practice.

The DfE has proposed a ban on the use of case-holding child and family project teams and ADCS agrees that this practice must stop.

Though we recognise the value of a ‘traditional’ project team to work on a time-limited piece of work, ADCS is clear that case-holding social work is not a short-term project.

In many cases, project teams leave with little or no notice,which creates further significant churn in the workforce and is ruinous to the long-term, relationship-based practice that is at the heart of good social work.

Why rules are needed

Social workers make a profound difference to the lives of those they work with; it is a profession that is driven by people’s experiences and values. It is a role like no other, defined by the strength of the relationships you form with those who need our support the most.

Clearly, the impact of the DfE’s proposals is unknown. However, ADCS does not see evidence that they will result in a significant number of social workers leaving the profession. Every social worker I have spoken to is in the role to make a difference. These proposals will not change that.

We urge the DfE to implement the full set of proposals and not shy away from change that is urgently needed to enable us to better support children, young people and their families.

Rachael Wardell is chair of the ADCS workforce policy committee

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41 Responses to ‘There is no justification for agency and permanent social workers having very different pay’

  1. Duncan August 14, 2023 at 12:35 pm #

    I would like to see the development of Not for Profit organizations in this sector. Local Authorities are traditionally poor at staff retention and promoting a good working culture and practitioner wellbeing.
    Not for profits could offer a viable affordable alternative to either statutory employment or recruitment agency worker.
    Profits could be re-invested in staff development and resources to support best practice.

    • John G August 21, 2023 at 9:25 pm #

      good idea

  2. Captain Fog August 14, 2023 at 1:41 pm #

    Translated. We want to keep social workers pay low and also exploit their goodwill to do extra hours unpaid.

  3. Dr. Tony Spinks August 14, 2023 at 2:40 pm #

    This article is misleading! Having been both a permanent Social Worker in Children Services for many years and an Agency Social Worker, the article does not explain that Agency pay does NOT include paid holiday, sick pay, provision for pension (employer contribution) and lower mileage rates in some cases. In essence, Agency Social Worker are self-employed and also have to pay for services such as PAYE compliant payroll services often via an umbrella company. When such additional costs are factored in the disparity claimed disappears.

    • Megan August 14, 2023 at 10:34 pm #

      Excellent point!!!!

    • Mrs Raisin August 16, 2023 at 8:55 pm #

      Agreed, and agency workers also have to pay employers national insurance out of their gross pay which is a huge extra tax burden that permanent workers don’t have. I have also been denied paid training as an agency worker in an LA so had to fund my own CPD. I have found that many permanent staff have the impression that agency workers are paid twice what they are. Whilst the hourly rate may suggest this the reality is that take home pay is not dramatically more than permanent workers. Clearly if we were paid the same as permanent workers we would be substantially worse off than them. Give us the same benefits as well as the same pay and then maybe there might be more of an argument. I fundamentally disagree with the title of the article that there is no justification for agency workers to be paid more. As well as all of the financial factors cited above, we also have no job security and are often given the most complex work on hand. If, as usual, local authorities are so lacking in understanding of the needs and motivations of their workforce that they choose to go ahead with this plan they will inevitably find that it backfires. You’ve had the view from the agencies and now from the employers. How about a view from the workers??

      • John Gatling August 21, 2023 at 9:35 pm #

        very much agree. I spent a few years as an agency SW in Adult Care before returning to a permanent post. There was a minority of perm SW staff in various offices who would make catty comments about what they assumed I earned. Actually I very likely earned less than them. A lot of permanent staff fail to realise that pension, holiday pay, sick pay increase one’s pay by at least 30% as well as the psychological benefits of having relative job security.

        Also the assumption was sometimes that I was not a committed worker – well not as committed as the perm staff. The irony was that I had no real desire to be an agency SW but felt I had to leave a previous perm post because of the insensitive way I was treated in relation to my MH issues. The longer term consequences of having to give up that perm post is my retirement has been delayed and Im likely to be significantly poorer as and when I do retire

    • JP August 19, 2023 at 8:07 am #

      Spot on!
      I have been both permanent and agency, if you work it out there is not a lot of difference on paper.
      I feel that if local authorities up the pay, give better incentives and flexabilities in holidays people may think harder of which route to go down.
      They need to look at the greedy agencies that rinse the local authorities, and expand their own HE departments to source agency worker = more money in the pot!

      • John G August 21, 2023 at 9:36 pm #


  4. Georgie August 14, 2023 at 3:19 pm #

    Agency social work, once the costs of sick pay, annual leave and additional taxes have been taken into consideration, does not leave you much better off. I have taken 2 weeks leave in 2 years as an agency worker as I can’t afford the time off just in case I’m sick in the future. I am exhausted.

  5. Gemm August 14, 2023 at 3:50 pm #

    How about the govenrmemt pay spcial workers their worth.

  6. Paul August 14, 2023 at 4:27 pm #

    It needs take into account, holiday pay, sick pay, pension contributions.

    • Vera August 15, 2023 at 6:57 am #

      This article is clearly misleading and is clear that there is lack of understanding of the facts behind agency role and deductions including the real cost paid to agencies and not the social workers. The local authorities should cap payment to recruiters and fix a national rate too.

      Most social workers choose to work as agency due to their own personal circumstances and not necessarily because of higher pay.

      The retention of social workers is often associated with management and team culture. Some local authority managers attribute to social workers is the cause of poor retention. A good manager can create a positive environment that is not discriminatory and oppressive to allow social workers retention. I have had positive experiences as an agency social worker and I do not tolerate nonsense so it allows me protect myself and sanity but I have been very lucky to work with fantastic colleagues and managers!

      This analysis did not include the sick pay, PAYE and all the deductions for agency social workers by their umbrella companies. It is missing loads of facts!

      I have experienced permanent and agency role, the opportunity to work in different local authorities has provided me the opportunity to gain more experience. I usually give 6-8 weeks notice to prepare everyone about my exit.

      I personally agree with DFE recommendations because in my experience it favours everyone because is balanced!

      • Roryboy August 31, 2023 at 11:21 am #

        Agency social workers can leave a culture of bullying from individuals who want to impress inspection standards…

        Social workers are educated ( well were) to be free thinkers, this is not what is wanted or accepted in many local authorities.

        Call me radical, my priority is the child and their carer, I was taught that my service / practice should be needs lead.

        DfE intend Section 17 work to be conducted by other professionals, who I greatly respect. However, we do not share the same education, teachers are teachers, doctors help sick people, police officers keep law and order, social workers work with those in society who are vulnerable for what ever reason, age, mental health, domestic abuse etc.

  7. Anonymous August 14, 2023 at 5:12 pm #

    This article just illustrates how out of touch with the reality of frontline social work policy makers are.
    Totally agree that there is no reason for 2 people doing the same job to have a huge gap in their pay. However, reducing the pay for agency staff will not cause local authorities to retain workers. Social workers don’t leave their job because of thrill seeking and liking to jump around, they leave because they are mistreated, burned out, often bullied by their organisations, and handling unmanageable case loads. This will continue happening for permanent or agency workers. If the issues are not addressed from their root causes, i am afraid staff turn over will continue to be a problem, as it has been for the past decade. All this policy will manage to achieve is having more and more people leaving social work altogether.

  8. Jan Hegarty August 14, 2023 at 5:53 pm #

    There is no security for agency staff, no sick pay or annual leave and no chance of promotion.
    Some local authorities have difficulty retaining permanent staff as well as obtaining them in the first place so have no option but to use agency. Then some councils who integrated with the NHS have created pay disparities between already permanent staff.
    Such is the nature and complexity of caseloads agency workers have sometimes walked away without a handover, thus adding pressure onto the remaining team to deal with the fall out.
    Such is the nature of the beast that it will always be a competitive market linked to supply and demand, where there will always be room for negotiation.

  9. Francis August 14, 2023 at 6:04 pm #

    The easiest option is for local authorities to pay permanent staff similar rates as agency staff. That way there will be no incentive for staff to go agency.

  10. Jay August 14, 2023 at 7:30 pm #

    This will encourage social workers to shy away from local authority work, agency or not. They will work for independent companies where their skills are valued and this is reflected in their pay. Local authority social work pay is a pittance, managers are aggressive, target driven and forget their roots within direct practice.
    Work/life balance is much more achievable with agency work, something many managers refuses to acknowledge as they clock off at 5 regardless.
    Personally I would never work for a local authority again.

  11. Guy James August 14, 2023 at 9:15 pm #

    Doesn’t seem that they have thought about the legality of all this. And there’s good reasons why retention is so poor.

  12. Claire August 15, 2023 at 5:55 am #

    Agency social working is a choice based on finances and in my case a lack of good working practices within a local authority. The ‘high’ pay is a rate which encompasses more than basic pay and in many cases renumeration for experience, skill, high case loads, long hours, abuse at work, stress, high mileage, unpaid overtime that is often required,/ecpected,registration fees, training costs….

    The basic pay structure requires an over-haul to attract and retain staff.

  13. Anonymous August 15, 2023 at 6:23 am #

    The true cost of a social worker to a LA earning £38,000 is £28.61 per hour. In addition, the employed worker has more employment rights and job security, a better chance of promotion and more opportunity for secondment to become a specialist practitioner.

    So if you are an agency worker earning just £28.61 per hour, you are no better off. You are just cashing in your perks. If you are paid more, this is what you are being paid for the employers freedom to end your contract when they choose too, with little to no notice. Don’t forget the extra you have to pay towards costs of getting to the office each week if you are not working locally. This also comes out of you taxed wage so add 20%.

    So the real question is… how much is job security and promotion opportunity worth to you?

    Personally, I wouldn’t take an agency job as a social worker on less than £32 per hour. It’s just not worth it.

  14. Claire August 15, 2023 at 7:37 am #

    This article seems to be extremely misguided with absolutely zero mention of the well-being of social workers and the fact that the job can be so tough that a social worker might simply have to leave a certain job or a certain area and cannot be tied to a permanent contract. Nobody does this job for the money. The oppressive tone of this article is the very thing that could drive social workers out of the profession permanently. We’re taught to use Anti-Oppressive Practice in our work and then senior leaders talk like this?! Wow.

  15. Deb August 15, 2023 at 8:25 am #

    I don’t think the cap would work. You have to factor in the fact that agency staff don’t get holiday pay, sickness pension etc. there will always be a need for agency staff who do a very valuable service, often at short notice and for short periods. The only solution is for the government to treat all social care staff fairly and provide a good salary with fair pay rises to recognise the gr8 work they do. That way local authorities would retain more staff and need to use less agency staff.

  16. Steven marr August 15, 2023 at 9:01 am #

    As others have said, this is totally misleading because as an agency worker, we don’t get holiday/sick pay etc. The lack of honesty in the report is a real worry. Project teams also work, and have been in them in various LA’s. To say there’s no evidence that SWs will leave is just ridiculous.

  17. Steve August 15, 2023 at 10:27 am #

    The biggest single sacrifice as an agency social worker is the loss of sick pay – the authority I worked in would regularly have workers off sick for months at a time. This isn’t a criticism of those workers, as the reasons were legitimate and social workers should be provided this safety net for their health and wellbeing, but as an agency worker no such safety net existed. If I was exhausted or became physically unwell, not only would I lose my pay, I’d also potentially lose my position, leaving no job security at all.

    Essentially this is wanting to make agency workers the equivalent to full time staff – which authorities are unable to recruit or retain to make up staff shortages as it is.

    All that will happen is that there will be fewer agency workers, alongside fewer permanent staff members, as social works skills are easily transferrable to other professions, professions which don’t come alone with the emotional and mental pressures.

    • Eleanor August 18, 2023 at 8:49 pm #

      Not sure I understand this. If there are no more extra lucrative agency jobs paying well over the odds , why wouldn’t the agency workers take the vacant permanent jobs, seeing as they love social work and want to help the vulnerable?
      Or are you saying they are only driven to be social workers if they are paid an embarrassingly large sum of public money? Because if you are, then that gives me a bit of a worry about value bases and motivation.

      • Helena August 24, 2023 at 7:53 am #

        I don’t understand your point….Social workers want to be financially compensated for the job they do. It has nothing to do with values otherwise social workers would accept any salary because, as you put it, it’s helping vulnerable people

        Furthermore, you have not considered agency workers do not get sick pay, holiday pay or a pension. If a agency worker broker his/her leg and couldn’t work, the agency worker wouldn’t receive a salary from their employer. Whereas a permanent would

        • Eleanor August 26, 2023 at 12:41 am #

          Why do people keep saying agency workers don’t get holiday pay? They do in my authority, they are obliged to take statutory holidays or pay in lieu of they don’t. My authority robustly challenges agency staff to take holidays but the significant majority prefer to end the assignment with a further pay out of holiday in lieu pay. My point was, everyone wants fair remuneration for their work. But 50 pounds an hour for agency?

          • Nicola September 10, 2023 at 4:29 pm #

            £50ph!? Where on earth have you pulled this figure from??

  18. Not My Real Name August 15, 2023 at 10:45 am #

    Fieldwork is just not rewarded, financially or in any other way. Once a Social Worker gets some experience they move to a less exposed, and less stressful, role. When I meet fieldwork teams it’s rare I find anyone with more than three years experience.

    • Pete August 15, 2023 at 12:43 pm #

      Not met me then. Near 30yrs fieldwork, perm and temp. Love it

  19. Anna August 15, 2023 at 2:00 pm #

    Yes very misleading we do not get more than permanent staff no holiday sick pay insurance pensions etc they will.leave that uncomfortable truth out to justify their actions I will leave the profession their scapegoating of agency staff is a disgrace

  20. T. Smith August 15, 2023 at 2:13 pm #

    As a student social worker coming into the profession it’s somewhat disheartening reading what the ADCS are saying. One comment that stood out to me was. Every social worker I’ve spoken to wants to make a difference. In other words “They’ll do it for what ever, because they want to make a difference”. Yes indeed we do but does that not mean we should do it at the expense of not being able to have a life for our selves that reflects the hard work, effort and dedication that we put into ensuring that others lives are being made different and improved because of our interventions. It just seems the profession isn’t really viewed in the highest regards by the decision makers but if there was a serious incident with a child for example I’m sure they’ll be the first to ‘look at what could be learnt’. Pathetic and subtly patronising to such a awesome profession.

  21. Leafy tree August 15, 2023 at 7:16 pm #

    Where I currently work we are all agency workers. The first first permanent assistant team manager was ‘off sick’ hardly two weeks in the job..When they got back, they are constantly whinging about how busy it is’ .My goodness,

    I’m sorry to say this but as agency workers we are pulling the weight! We turn up and not go off sick when things get tough. The flexibility of knowing that you can serve your few weeks notice helps, however, unlike permanent staff members we turn up!!. The problem is deeper than pay. Unfortunately we have lots of ‘managers who lack experience and those who treat work place like a family, subtle racism, bullying and all sorts that force social workers to agency working. Trying to financially abuse people will not work, the last I remembered UK was a democratic country.

  22. RM August 16, 2023 at 10:40 pm #

    Why, when given an opportunity to reform and transform social work delivery, has there become a fixation on demonising agency social workers and a suggestion that they are the cause of the unstable workforce (and social care crisis!!)?
    As it becomes more and more evident that local authorities cannot effectively managing social care services, policy makers come up with this? Divide and rule, hold on to the power (and failing services), set the ‘requirements’ and ‘bans’ , reign those rogue agency workers in. And, ultimately, drive more and more social workers away. Is this the real intention?

  23. Vicki August 18, 2023 at 5:52 pm #

    I have started to comment on this several times hoping to be both eloquent and profound. However, words simply fail me. Wow, that is all!

  24. Jeanette August 18, 2023 at 8:36 pm #

    Well said ADCS! And by the way – I am tired of seeing so called interims…(this is what high up agency workers call themselves to make it sound like they are not really agency) getting 500 quid a day at middle manager level. Yes. A DAY. and 1000 quid a day – yes a day – at assistant director level / DCS. they all move around every time the water gets too hot for them and re-employ each other – you can track them trailing the country and tracking the the money on Linked In. They turn up to work in new Mercedes and holiday in exotic locations off the back of people’s council tax. So yes, lets control the agency pay of lower grades, but not forget the higher grades who are draining the public purse. Social work in the public sector used to be about values and public service. For some it still is but for others, it is about how much money they can extort whilst doing a mediocre job before they are exposed and have to start their parasitic existence with another struggling authority. If the agency bill were not so high, councils might have the money to pay their permanent staff a decent wage, and certainly the quality of some (not all) agency frontline workers leaves a very great deal to be desired, but they come with their glowing tick box references supplied by their mates on the circuit and so it goes round.

  25. Eleanor August 18, 2023 at 9:05 pm #

    I think ACDS stance is correct and lets not forget the managerial interims, agency managers who get paid hundreds a day. They have given up charging an hourly rate. Its so high. Frontline social workers can opt to be PAYE or Ltd and can offset lots of things in the latter case against tax. Many agency workers do in fact get paid holiday under employment rules if they opt to work as PAYE, and all tax payers get statutory sick pay, so some of these comments don’t ring true for me. I know a lot of agency workers and its hard going listening to how much they earn for doing the same job as me, and many of them have been employed frontline for over 2 years so there is job security there for those who want it. When I finding it hard to pay my heating and the worker next to me doing the same jo is taking about buying a holiday home they earned so much last year, that is not motivating. All my council goes on about is being short of money and not bein able to keep libraries open and sorry to have to put council tax up to pay for adult and children’s social care. Agency workers are also routinely being given accommodation allowances, travel to work allowances and all sorts, on top of their hourly rate of (in my areas) £50 an hour. Because the £50 an hour doesn’t seem to be enough and children’s services cant operate a waiting list by law, they have to allocate and so the employer is over a barrel. Its not about demonising social workers as one commenter said – its about saying enough is enough. This is not what people pay their council tax for, agency staf f need to step back into the reality zone.

  26. K Smith August 19, 2023 at 10:57 am #

    Tax rules should change back to allow agency social workers to work independently as a limited company will mean no need for project teams when LA don’t require a full team – since the change in 2016 wages have spiralled due to forcing social workers into project teams otherwise lose hundreds of pounds to umbrella companies – blaming agency workers and enforcing silly rules will not force a return to permanent roles and more likely to leave the profession

  27. Bowing Out August 21, 2023 at 9:16 am #

    What a piece of propaganda! Agency staff (of which I am currently after many years a perm local authority social worker) are not much better off than permanent staff and have a lot less job stability, as well as no sick pay etc.

    What continually flabbergasts me is how managers seem to sit there scratching their hands about why they cannot retain staff yet I have attended workshops (when permanent) with managers asking how they can keep us and social workers offering a couple of huge reasons for leaving (caseloads, KPI’s and lack of support) and absolutely nothing ever comes of it. There are never any material changes, our voices are continually disregarded as management continue to plan restructures and reinvent the wheel each time without addressing any of the reasons for poor retention that they got from the horse’s mouth.

    For several months I have been considering my future within social work and I think my mind is made up now, it’s time to plan my exit within the next year. 17 years in social work/care and I am only 40 so I would have had many more years to give, if LA’s could just stop overburdening their workers. Hopefully I can take my social work degree and my skills into the third sector.

  28. Leanne August 23, 2023 at 10:53 pm #

    I currently work for a LA in a remote area which due to its location struggles to recruit staff. The permanent social workers who are there are regularly talking about the agency workers behind their backs and do very little to make them feel welcome. However, the agency staff hold higher caseloads, get given the more complex cases and run around covering visits when permanent staff go off sick. It’s interesting really how the immune systems of a permanent worker are often not as strong as a agency worker..

    Despite this divide the permanent staff know full well that they need the agency staff who often travel from afar to work for the LA. These permanent staff are definitely going to feel the hit if this comes in and the agency staff leave to take jobs closer to home (or leave the profession completely). I know I certainly won’t be sticking around.