DfE ditches plan to cap agency social worker pay to equivalent for permanent staff

Rules limiting use of agency staff in local authority children's services to go ahead but in diluted form, amid gulf between the views of permanent and agency social workers over key issues

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How effective will the DfE's revised national rules be in limiting the use of locums in children's services?

  • Not at all (67%, 110 Votes)
  • Not very (24%, 40 Votes)
  • Very (5%, 9 Votes)
  • Quite (3%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 164

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The Department for Education (DfE) has ditched plans to cap agency social worker pay to the equivalent of permanent staff in local authority children’s services.

The move is part of a wider dilution of proposed national rules to limit the use of locums, who accounted for a record 17.6% of full-time equivalent posts in council children’s services as of September 2022.

The rules, part of the DfE’s children’s social care reform agenda, are designed to reduce workforce churn, thereby improving continuity of support for children and families, while cutting mounting costs to councils.

However, while it still going ahead with national rules, the DfE has made significant changes to its original plans, following a consultation that exposed a wide gulf in views on the issue, in particular between permanent and agency social workers.

No outright ban on agency project teams

The DfE has dropped the idea of banning outright the use of so-called project teams, where agency staff are engaged en masse, while it has shortened the period during which early career social workers will be prohibited from carrying out locum work.

It will also carry out further consultation on statutory guidance to define the detail of the national rules, delay their planned implementation from spring to autumn 2024 and allow councils and the agency market a transition phase before they apply across the board.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), which has pushed strongly for the rules, to help councils control the agency market, expressed disappointment at their dilution.

Meanwhile agency leaders, who have opposed the changes on the grounds that they would risk an exodus of social workers from children’s services, welcomed the prospect of further consultation.

The changes came after the DfE received over 1,200 responses to the consultation on the rules, 70% of which were from individual social workers. Overall, 64% of respondents backed having national rules in principles, as against 33% who disagreed.

How proposed agency rules have been amended

Price caps

  • Original proposal: national price caps on what local authorities may pay per hour for an agency children’s social worker, with locums earning no more than the average for a permanent worker doing the same role.
  • New plan: councils to be required to work within their region to agree and comply with agency social worker price caps, with no prescribed link to permanent staff pay.
  • Rationale for change: the lack of data, and extensive variation between councils, on permanent staff pay.

Early career social workers

  • Original proposal: children’s social workers qualifying after the rules’ implementation would have to have had five years’ post-qualifying experience in permanent council children’s social care and completed their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) before taking up an agency post.
  • New plan: all children’s social workers, regardless of when they qualified, must have acquired three years’ experience in permanent employment before taking up an agency post, with no requirement to have completed the ASYE.
  • Rationale for change: to avoid a two-tier system (based on year of qualification) and in response to concerns that a five-year limit would have a negative impact on the supply of social workers.

Managed service project teams

  • Original proposal: councils to be prevented from using project teams, which involve agencies supplying a group of practitioners, who are often managed by the supplier rather than the authority and whose use has increased significantly in recent years, at significant cost.
  • New plan: project teams will be permitted but their practice must be fully under councils’ management with the engagement of each individual worker subject to all the national rules.
  • Rationale for change: some consultation respondents identified circumstances under which project teams were appropriate, for example, where caseloads, staff absences or vacancies were high, or to support struggling authorities.

Implementation date

  • Original proposal: spring 2024.
  • New plan: the DfE will issue draft statutory guidance for councils on implementing the rules in spring 2024, with a view to them being brought into force in autumn 2024.
  • Rationale for change: the department said it recognised that the introduction of national rules was a substantial change for councils, agency social workers and recruitment bodies, in the light of consultation responses calling for more time for implementation.

Application of rules

  • Original proposal: all contractual arrangements through which agency social workers are engaged should comply with the national rules by spring 2024.
  • New plan: all new contractual arrangements for hiring agency staff should comply with the rules at their implementation, with existing ones transitioning to them over time.
  • Rationale for change: the risk of disruption to existing framework agreements for hiring agency staff.

Pay cap plan dropped

The plan to cap locum pay to the average of permanent staff in the same role, once contractual differences are taken into account, was part of a wider proposal to limit nationally the amount councils paid agencies for staff, in order to reduce costs.

Most respondents (58%) agreed that agency pay should be “brought more fairly in line” with that for permanent staff in similar roles.

In its consultation response, the DfE found mixed views on whether agency pay really was higher, once contractual differences, such as permanent staff’s access to holiday and sick pay, were accounted for.

However, many locums told the department that higher pay was the main reason they chose agency work, and several said they would leave the profession if the pay cap plan were introduced.

The department also concluded that it did not have the data on pay – and variations in salaries between authorities were too great – to calculate national caps.

Regional limits on agency costs

Instead, it has proposed a system based on the current caps employed by councils through their regional memoranda of understanding.

Councils would be expected to work within regions to agree and implement price caps that they would all comply with.

The DfE also pledged to work with councils and the agency sector to “build a more consistent and robust evidence base”, to enable it to model, and understand the impact of, national price caps.

It would also set out in the statutory guidance a process for mapping social worker job titles to broader groupings of roles that agency costs could be reported against consistently across regions.

Gulf in views between agency and permanent staff

The consultation response revealed a gulf between the views of the 453 permanent children’s social workers who responded and those of the 309 agency staff who also contributed:

  • 84% of permanently employed social workers backed the national rules in principle, compared with 16% of agency staff.
  • 75% of permanent staff, but just 10% of agency workers, believed the rules should be implemented in spring 2024, as originally proposed.
  • 81% of permanent staff thought there should be more consistency in social worker salaries between local authorities, compared with 27% of agency workers.
  • 84% of permanent staff backed a cap on the fees agencies charged councils, compared with 18% of locums.
  • 69% of permanent workers supported an outright ban on project teams, as against 24% of agency staff.
  • 85% of permanent staff thought the national rules should apply to all contractual arrangements involving agency workers, compared with 18% of locums.

Directors’ concerns over project teams and pace of change

John Pearce, ADCS president, 2023-24

John Pearce, ADCS president, 2023-24

The ADCS, which has long championed the rules, said the finalised proposals “would help better manage the agency market and reduce churn”.

However, president John Pearce said it was “disappointing the original proposals have not been taken forward in their entirety”, particularly highlighting the DfE’s decision to allow project teams to continue.

Pearce and fellow directors have warned that agencies are increasingly only supplying agency staff as project teams, rather than individual practitioners, pushing up costs and removing control over their management from councils.

“We have not seen any positive case for the use of project teams to undertake case-holding social work and the original proposal to remove them from these activities would be clearer and in the best interests of children and young people.

“Case-holding social work is not a short-term project, yet local authorities are reporting using more project teams that do not engage with the kind of long-term, relationship-based practice that children and families want and need. The current position we are in, with many agencies refusing to supply a single social worker to local authorities and instead offering a whole project team is unacceptable and costs local authorities significantly more money when budgets are already stretched.”

He also urged the DfE to “move at pace” in rolling out the rules, given the number of councils on the brink of issuing section 114 notices, declaring they are unable to balance their budgets.

‘Climbdown reflects rushed approach ignoring root causes’

The British Association of Social Workers England said that the “government’s climbdown on several of its proposals reflects the strength of feeling in children’s social care and opposition to a rushed approach that ignores the root causes to this crisis in the workforce”.

“BASW maintains that to address the reasons for people opting for agency work the government must look at the driving forces that underpin this: organisational culture, the cost-of living, a need for flexibility, issues of institutional racism and bullying,” it added.

“Social work has seen the worst pay growth of any public sector profession since the introduction of austerity and any serious plan should not ignore this.

“We reaffirm our calls for a review of pay and conditions, as well as a national recruitment campaign that champions the vital role that social workers play in children’s care services.”

Recruitment heads welcome further consultation

Kate Shoesmith, deputy chief executive, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation

Kate Shoesmith, deputy chief executive, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation

Agency representative body the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which has opposed the rules from the start, welcomed the prospect of consultation on the planned statutory guidance, as a way of preventing agency staff from quitting the sector.

“By working together across government, local authorities, recruiters and social workers, we can lessen the risk of losing these vital workers from the sector,” said deputy chief executive Kate Shoesmith.

“We understand the need to save money in public sector spending, but targeting agency social workers through a change in rules is not the solution,” she added. “We need to make social work as attractive a profession as possible – and that means offering flexible work which is only really provided by agency contracts at the moment.

Agency social work rules

  • Working within regions to agree and implement agency social worker price caps.
  • Ensuring all contractual arrangements to supply social work resource (including project teams) clearly identify all workers, disaggregate worker costs and those of other services and enable councils to maintain complete control of practice.
  • Aligning notice periods for agency staff with those for permanent social workers in the same or equivalent roles.
  • Not engaging social workers as locums within three months of them leaving a permanent post in the same region.
  • Only using agency social workers with a minimum of three years’ post-qualifying experience in direct employment in a UK local authority.
  • Providing a detailed practice-based reference for all agency social workers they engage and requiring the same before taking on a locum.
  • Supplying the DfE with quarterly survey data on the use and cost of agency social workers, including those engaged through project teams.

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24 Responses to DfE ditches plan to cap agency social worker pay to equivalent for permanent staff

  1. I.K. October 27, 2023 at 4:51 pm #

    It is about time that someone starts telling John Pearce and all directors that agency social workers and agencies are a symptom of their inability to create work environments where people would love to stay for prolonged amounts of times.

    The whole idea of this consultation is a futile exercise triggered by ACDS who are showing absolutely no level of reflection on their inability and unwillingness to deal with the toxic environment they have created in children social work.

    This was a sad fight between directors who are stuck in the 1980/90s and social workers who are trying to survive in an environment where they are systematically abused and overworked whilst at the same time they are the profession with the least increase in the Salary in the past 15 years.

    • frustrated October 30, 2023 at 6:01 pm #

      well said

    • Ella November 1, 2023 at 11:25 am #

      Very true. And don’t forget the dinosaur recruiting processs that keeps the same in the top jobs.

    • Steve November 3, 2023 at 8:27 pm #

      Absolutely, getting to the nub of the problem.
      More consultation = more delay and inactivity disguised as being seen to do something.

  2. Alison October 27, 2023 at 5:22 pm #

    So, let me get this straight, you have 4 years post qualification, in continuous work with Children’s services, but only 1.5 of these years are permanent.
    Is the government really proposing that all your experience is now invalid and you can no longer work as a locum??

  3. Paul October 27, 2023 at 8:50 pm #

    Tad dictatorial. We live in a capitalist society and should be free to sell our labour to whovever and whenever. Issue of agency pay been made worse by Hammond, ending IR35, then preventing claiming CHEAP accommodation and travel costs via umbrella, yet all agency jobs are in (hmrc directive) temporary workplaces, so long as does not exceed 2 years

  4. Leighanne October 28, 2023 at 9:18 am #

    It seems the focus on problem solving a sector in crisis it to blame the agency staff. The sheer amount of workload, stress, pressure and unpaid over time does not equate fairly to what social workers are paid for in permanent or agency roles. With support services cut for children and families and the heavy work load of social workers, It’s become increasingly hard to make positive, meaningful and long lasting change to families and its soul destroying and I believe that is a major factor of social work burn out and recruitment of permanent staff. They need to focus on the well-being, and work life balance of all social workers currently and I believe this would help with the work force stability and recruitment. These new agency requirements will just result in social workers leaving the profession and will cause a huge crisis. I am one of those that would leave as I have heard from many of my colleagues.

  5. Claire October 28, 2023 at 9:54 am #

    Surely it isn’t legal to say someone can’t take up a locum post in the same region for 3 months after leaving a permanent position? SW is supposed to be an anti-oppressive profession yet it’s okay for a social worker to be unemployed and potentially destitute?! This proposal is surely wide open to legal challenge and judicial review around Employment Law and Human Rights legislation. All it will do is cause a lot of perm staff to go locum quickly before the new rules are in place and this is already happening. Also larger regions will be much more disproportionately affected.

    On the Notice Period issue this is also potentially on dodgy legal grounds as Locum SW have very few legal protections from the LA so I can’t see how the LA can impose this. If locums have to give 2 months notice, for example, then presumably the employer has to give the same notice period?

    All in all, the original proposals seem to be shockingly lacking in legal and statistical rigour.

  6. Dave Barnett October 28, 2023 at 1:29 pm #

    What a shame that agencies will continue to be allowed to bleed the local authorities dry of cash. Makes you wonder how many of these agencies are Tory donors. Gutless DfE as always

    • Roxy November 5, 2023 at 9:07 am #

      If you want to join the locum club please do. When you have 200 pounds after paying bills and unable to care for your children, that’s when you understand why people go locum.

      • Paul November 7, 2023 at 7:18 pm #

        Well said Roxy

    • Anonymous November 25, 2023 at 4:30 pm #

      Agreed, Dave.

      No one is saying “ban agency social workers”. No one is saying locum social workers aren’t valuable – obviously, agency pay has to be commensurate with the lack of benefits (sick pay, holiday pay, pension). The problem is that many agencies (and an unsettlingly high number of agency SWs) are profiteering.

      Locum work should pay fairly, it should not pay a king’s ransom – and the rates we’re seeing are so obscene that they call the integrity of the profession into question.

  7. Dave October 28, 2023 at 5:17 pm #

    These changes may see people who will already contemplating it, leaving the profession all together. Social Work is already in crisis.

  8. frasierfanclub1 October 29, 2023 at 1:56 am #

    I started as a locum in my LA and went permanent after a year. The drop in salary is miniscule, plus I get sick and holiday pay, plus money put into my pension pot. The only downside has been reverting back to monthly pay.

  9. Micoco October 29, 2023 at 6:09 pm #

    Local Authorities treat social workers appallingly. The whole system is run on goodwill and unpaid overtime. They should look at what they can do to make permanent roles more attractive not try to cut off choice for social workers. Really glad I’m coming to the end of my career. I’ve loved working in social work, but we are taken for granted.

  10. Alec Fraher October 30, 2023 at 2:05 am #

    Council’s a whole want rid of their liabilities. The economic development of the city regions, including the night-time economy as a lure to investment and the new money inhabitants are the priority.

    This ain’t new ~ it’s been going on since Utting. The shift is towards regionally organised services, the formation of Children’s Trusts via the Teckal Exemptions already underway; the regional commissioning function going on since around 2007 if not before.

    SOLACE, in May 2007, at a Summit with Senior Procurement Officers concluded that, and inlight of Messages from Research, as an industry ‘we don’t care’ and echoed Utting saying ‘corporate parenting doesn’t work’.

    The MacAlister Review found it’s way into the FT, who have already signalled an Initial Public Offering through Camilla Cavendish coverage of the issues facing children. It is the writing on the wall ~ that the CEO of The Boston Consulting Group is also chair of the CMA is a mute point, no?

    The case-law has shifted away from State liabilities and not towards them, not least because hard pressed Council’s are increasingly creating the conditions that cause harm ~ poor housing and bad neighbours attributed, in one case, to the death of a child.

    Whether it’s right or wrong Children’s Services are now considered by the Competition and Mergers Authority as a viable market alternative to Council provision of direct services. It was said, under the now defunct EU law, that child protection and social services would not be treated as a relevant market, except ‘we’ did go to market and with the energy of great gusto.

    This has been coming for nearly two decades. The contracting and procurement landscape, as it’s called, is though pretty shakey ~ the aggregated spend across Council’s far exceeds that which any one Authorities can spend.

    Staffing and workforce development is, and has been for an age, a regional activity.

    Fostering and Adoption, once the bread and butter for Council’s is now run by regionally organised organisations, some using the Teckal Exemptions and becoming Children’s Trusts, some commercially provided.

    This is the operating context for all social worker’s.

    That the finer detail of the limitations of transferring actual statutory functions, like records management and crucially ensuring the primacy of the Child’s Care Plan over contract level agreements, and the information rights owed to the Child, has fallen on deaf ears, and from within the profession too.

    An examination of full agency costs at a global industry level is a matter for the CMA, as has happened in the Care Home Industry for older people, issues of Unfair Terms and Conditions of Contract Law will inevitably surface.

    It’s a solicitor’s charter and the sooner Children’s Rights and Representation Services, most of which are already procured adopt a socio-legal stance the safer children’s rights will be. Incidentally, any contract that interferes with the right to redress and/or the satisfaction of social and public policy is simply null-and-void. That much of the public procurement activity is by way of Part B procurement procedures, ie restricted or open tender, that inevitable and almost immediately falls outside the scope of the original services tendered is, also, highly contentious legal ground. It’s not tested because, and as SOLACE pointed out a decade or more ago, ‘we don’t care’.

    Children’s Services are lucrative business. Follow the UKREITs portfolios and the ROI makes them a sure bet for investment.
    This is the world ‘we” have created. Pitching agency staff against Council staff will not address this. Making representation to the CMA about the ill-suited procure and dodgy commissioning processes will.

    Councillors and MP’s have to decide whether elected members constitutionally want the responsibilities and accountabilities that go with doing the job properly.

    Once over, it was common place for both Councillors and MPs to rely on Social Work to be their eyes and ears of policy impact. The over reliance, called a path dependency on the EU to mitigate UK Government in all areas of social protection are gone ~ except of course for the continued growth of markets where once there was but a dedicated few. Hyper competition is, now, inevitable and Children’s will suffer unnecessarily.

    The DCS group are standing ground for Council run services and rightly so ~ the details of the transferability of duties though have not been worked through with any rigour, and the CMA has said as much itself.

    It’s time to change the record, it’s not about what it’s about and get damn serious about who’s fit to actually care for children who are wholly dependent on social workers to be at their best, and irrespective of whether agency or Council.

  11. Claire October 30, 2023 at 7:56 am #

    Have we seen the Impact Analysis for these proposals?

    It’s likely they will disproportionately negatively affect older social workers, those with caring responsibilities, those with disabilities or other physical and/ or mental health issues, those who live in large geographical regions with poor transport links and specific demographic groups. Surely the answer is to cut agency fees rather than attack social workers trying to do a good job in an increasingly impossible environment?

  12. Anonymous SW October 30, 2023 at 9:14 pm #

    While I understand the need for fiscal responsibility and efficient allocation of resources, it is crucial to recognize the unique challenges and demands that social workers face daily. These professionals play a pivotal role in our society, ensuring the safety and well-being of vulnerable individuals and families.

    Capping agency social worker pay could have had adverse effects on the recruitment and retention of skilled and dedicated social workers and led to a shortage of qualified professionals, potentially compromising the quality of services provided to those in need.

    There are undoubtedly other important matters that require attention, but we must not overlook the welfare of those who protect and care for the most vulnerable in our society.

    Regarding the recent consultation process where individuals were asked to share their thoughts and feelings about agency workers. While I appreciate the effort to gather input, I would like to express a concern about the request for personal details.

    It’s essential to create an environment in which individuals feel safe and comfortable to share their wishes and feelings openly. By requesting personal details, we may inadvertently discourage some from participating, particularly if they have concerns about their privacy and anonymity.

    To encourage more candid and honest feedback, I suggest considering an anonymous submission process for future consultations. This way, individuals can express their opinions without the fear of their identities being disclosed. Anonymity can lead to more genuine responses and a broader range of perspectives.

    I understand that gathering personal information may have administrative or data collection purposes, but I believe we can strike a balance between data needs and the need for open, honest feedback. Anonymity would ensure that individuals are more likely to share their true feelings and wishes, contributing to a more productive and accurate consultation process.

    Thank you for your attention to this matter, and I look forward to a productive discussion on how we can support social workers and maintain the high standards of care they provide and improvements in future consultation processes to better serve the voices and concerns of those we aim to engage.

  13. Teknik Informatika October 31, 2023 at 2:37 am #

    How would capping agency social worker pay have affected recruitment in the social work sector?

  14. Anonymous October 31, 2023 at 6:36 am #

    Just create a standard pay grade for social workers they councils have to follow. It would stop all of the unnecessary movement and show which councils treat and support their social workers the best. It encourages retention and better working practices. We have created a postcode lottery where the wealthiest areas will thrive.

    Capping agency staff at a reasonable comparable level isn’t a bad idea, but it should take into account a lack of job security, pension contribution costs and sickness insurance costs to the council in order to make it fair.

  15. Not My Real Name November 1, 2023 at 8:52 am #

    The reason we use agency Social Workers is that the last three times a qualified Social Worker post was advertised in our team we received exactly zero applicants. Apparently the first two agencies that were approached also failed to find anyone who would actually take the job. Maybe the fact we have less resources, lower wages and significantly higher case loads than surrounding authorities may be a factor, but what do I know?

  16. SW NorthEast November 6, 2023 at 11:46 pm #

    Social Work is such a difficult, challenging and complex job, mostly unmanageable in regards to expectations. The route cause of the staffing issue is not touched upon.

    1- Government to spend more, initially to bring caseload numbers down, reinstate Social Work Assistants. To enable Social Workers to prioritise statutory tasks instead of doing passport applications, finance requests, supervising every family time and other tasks which are delaying statutory duties.
    2- Permanent staff pay increase matching the pressures Social workers deal with on the daily. Review terms and conditions.
    3- Agency staff to have representation and a voice on pay, conditions and benefits if HMRC view as an ’employee’, albeit a pretend umbrella employer who doesn’t offer more than being an accountant.

    The state of the profession is not due to Social Workers, agency or permanent. It is underfunded, undervalued and forgoten about. HMRC targeting agency staff for more tax is clearly more important than all Social Workers getting paid what they deserve, MORE!. That is clear as policy moves fast when it comes to tax, but not so fast when we are talking about improving the role of Social Worker and making it more manageable (points above have been requested over a decade)

    I have worked with some great Social Workers both agency and permanent. I do not see the two as different if they keeping children safe and improving outcomes, but that is just me having Social Work values.

    I am proud to be a Social Worker and I’m still optimistic things will change. That we will be respected for the professionals we are.

    Before you go looking at penalising colleagues, please ask any Social Worker what will make their job easier and more manageable, simple

  17. Paul November 7, 2023 at 7:36 pm #

    I love it but it’s a tough gig for anyone. Simple solution Pay social workers what they are worth and you won’t have people like myself going agency. You should be looking at minimum 50k for all that stress responsibility and hard work. Social work is the profession that’s swept under the carpet yet it’s one of the toughest jobs in this country. Local authority’s don’t care about you I’ve worked in 3 all high case loads and high expectations all terrible it’s all about data it’s driven by number not working with families. Go locum your choice. It’s a job! How has it become acceptable to have staff crying head in hands because they are over worked. Chaos

  18. M. November 13, 2023 at 10:54 am #

    What they they are achieving, is that after 8+ years of statutory child protection work, both as senior SW and in management.. I am now considering leaving the profession, looking around already for options. The workload and organisational pressures are too much. There is no recognition for what we do. The salary is a joke. I am choosing to get my sanity and work/life balance back.