The government has delayed its response to a consultation on controversial national rules to regulate agency social work in England’s statutory children’s services.
The response was due in September, but the Department for Education (DfE) said it would now be published later in the year because it needed further time to get the policy right.
In its response to the separate consultation on its wider children’s social care reform strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love, the DfE said it was “important we take the time to get proposals right and carefully consider the issues raised”.
However, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services criticised the move as “hugely frustrating” given its longstanding view that action to curb agency work was long overdue.
Unclear whether policy will be delayed
It is not clear whether the delay to the consultation response will herald a delay to the implementation of the actual policy itself, which was due to in spring 2024.
In its response to Stable Homes, the DfE said it would, within the next 18 months, “consult on statutory guidance for national rules on local authority use of agency child and family social workers, the first of which will come into force in spring 2024”.
When asked by Community Care whether this meant some – but not all – of the rules would come into force next spring, the department said that “further details will be set out in the consultation response due by the end of the year”.
The rules (see box) would place a national cap on how much councils could pay agencies for different roles, so that take-home pay for practitioners was broadly equivalent to that received by permanent staff, on a like-for-like basis.
They would also ban the use of so-called project teams – under which councils hire agency workers en masse, often with their own management and restrictions on caseloads – and prevent early career social workers from taking locum roles.
What are the proposed rules on agency work?
- All procurement of agency staff should follow national rules.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
ADCS has strongly backed the proposals due to longstanding concerns about the “profiteering” practices of some social work agencies, specifically that of only supplying councils with project teams, instead of individual workers, at much greater cost to the public purse.
However, agencies and many social workers have warned that the rules risk driving agency staff out of the sector rather than persuading them to take up permanent posts, at a time of already deep social worker shortages in children’s services.
‘Hugely frustrating’ – ADCS
In response to the delay in the consultation response, ADCS president John Pearce said: “It is hugely frustrating that the department’s response to the agency social work consultation is delayed when urgent action is needed to tackle the unaffordable costs and unacceptable practices by some social work agencies.
“ADCS believes the Department’s initial proposals are the right ones, in the best interests of children and young people, and should be implemented in full and at pace. The costs associated with the use of agency social workers and project teams have risen sharply in recent years, we simply cannot afford to stand still and allow this trend to continue.”