Councils to be able to exceed agency social work price caps under planned locum rules

    Leaders would be able to sign off on breaches of regional caps to hire children's social workers, though councils would have to report all such cases to DfE, says proposed statutory guidance

    The word price cap written in blocks with red arrows pointing up to it
    Photo: Aadon/Adobe Stock

    Should councils be able to exceed regionally agreed agency social work price caps?

    • No, this will undermine the caps and drive up costs. (40%, 261 Votes)
    • Yes, this will sometimes be necessary to fill staffing gaps. (35%, 227 Votes)
    • There shouldn't be price caps at all. (26%, 168 Votes)

    Total Voters: 656

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    Councils would be able to exceed regionally agreed agency social work price caps under proposed statutory guidance issued by the Department for Education.

    Leaders would be able to sign off on breaches of the caps, but all such cases must then be reported to regional partnerships and the DfE, said the draft guidance.

    The flexibility comes despite Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) concerns that breaches would risk undermining national rules on councils engaging child and family social workers, of which the price caps are a part.

    Rules designed to reduce use of agency staff

    The draft statutory guidance sets out how the DfE intends to implement the rules, which are designed to reduce councils’ reliance on agency staff, cut costs, improve workforce stability and enhance continuity of support for children and families.

    As of September 2022, 17.6% full-time equivalent children’s services social work posts were held by a locum, up from 15.5% a year earlier.

    As well as price caps, the rules also include significant restrictions on councils engaging groups of locums, known as project teams, and a ban on practitioners taking on agency work without three years’ permanent experience in children’s services under their belt.

    In issuing the draft guidance for consultation this week, the DfE also said it would be bringing forward the implementation of most of the rules from autumn to summer 2024, with the exception of the price caps and data collection requirements.

    The ADCS, which sees the rules’ introduction as an urgent necessity to curb costs and tackle what it calls “profiteering” by some agencies, welcomed this move.

    Proposed price caps

    When it originally consulted on the rules, the DfE proposed national caps that would limit locum pay to the equivalent of that of permanent colleagues in a similar role, once contractual differences had been taken into account.

    However, locums responding to the proposals said they would leave the profession in that event as higher pay was the main reason they chose social work, while the DfE also concluded it lacked the data to calculate national caps.

    Instead, it said that councils should agree regional caps on the prices they pay agencies that they would all comply with.

    Criticisms of current regional price limits

    Such a system is, broadly, in place through councils’ existing regional memoranda of understanding (MoUs) on engaging agency workers in children’s services.

    However, the DfE has previously described MoU caps as “fragile” and there are longstanding concerns about councils exceeding them to deal with high vacancies, case backlogs or the fallout from negative Ofsted inspections.

    Respondents to the original consultation were split on whether councils should be able to exceed any cap, with some saying authorities needed the flexibility to respond to market conditions and the ADCS warning that such flexibility would undermine the rules.

    How proposed price caps would work

    • Councils in each of the nine English regions should come together to assign agency social work roles to the following core job types: social worker; senior social worker; advanced practitioner; team manager, and independent reviewing officers/child protection conference chairs.
    • They should then agree regional caps for how much they will pay agencies per hour to engage a locum for each of the core job types.
    • The cap should include the worker’s pay; the employer’s national insurance contribution; the apprenticeship levy (if applicable); holiday pay; pension contribution (if applicable); administration fees, including for the agency and any managed service provider, and any other fees.
    • The cap should be applied whether the locum is being paid through PAYE or an umbrella or limited company.
    • It should also be applied to all contractual types, including when the locum is hired through a project team.

    Source: Draft agency rules (DfE, 2024)

    Permission to exceed price caps

    In its draft guidance, the DfE said that the price caps “represent the absolute maximum that local authorities should pay per hour for an agency child and family social worker and should not be interpreted as standard or default prices”.

    Where agencies sought to get round the caps, councils should consider restricting their access to new vacancies or reporting them to their regional improvement and innovation alliance (RIIA), the grouping of councils that supports children’s services improvements in each region.

    However, the DfE added that caps could be exceeded with the sign-off of the council’s director of children’s services or chief executive, along with any additional requirements agreed by regions.

    The council would then need to report the breach to the RIIA and the DfE, the latter notification forming part of quarterly reports to the department on compliance with the national agency rules.

    Ban on post-qualifying agency work

    The rules will also bar councils from engaging social workers in agency roles unless they have three years’ post-qualifying experience in children’s services in an English local authority.

    Time spent working in adults’ services or in a children’s services role in the voluntary or private sectors or in a statutory role outside of England will not count, though the three years need not be continuous, said the draft guidance.

    Councils will also be prevented from engaging a locum who has left a permanent local authority children’s services role in the same region within the previous three months.

    The draft guidance said this prohibition would not apply if the practitioner had been made redundant, left during their probation period in the previous role or in exceptional circumstances, determined by councils on a case-by-case basis.

    Restrictions, but no ban, on project teams

    The DfE had originally backed a complete ban on councils engaging project teams, following significant ADCS criticisms of certain agencies only supplying locums through such teams, driving up cost.

    The number of social workers hired through teams rose fivefold from January to June 2021 to the same period in 2022, according to ADCS research.

    However, the department then dropped the idea of a complete ban, after some respondents to the initial consultation said there using them was appropriate where caseloads, staff absences or vacancies were high, or to support struggling authorities.

    Instead, 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.

    Agencies would have to provide the names, references and registration numbers of all workers within the team, with councils able to approve or decline each one, said the draft guidance.

    Agencies would also need to make transparent all of the costs of the teams, with those relating to each practitioner subject to the regional price caps.

    Notice period and reference requirements

    The other rules are that:

    • Notice periods for agency staff should be the same as for permanent social workers in an equivalent role.
    • Councils provide a detailed practice-based reference for any agency social worker they engage, using a standard template set out in the guidance, and require the same before engaging a locum in children’s services.

    In response to the draft guidance, ADCS president John Pearce said: “The costs associated with the use of agency social workers and project teams have risen sharply in recent years at a time when local authority finances are in turmoil. We are pleased the government has a plan to address the challenges we face and it is positive that the timetable for implementing change has been accelerated.”

    Directors welcome speedier implementation of rules

    In response to the DfE’s decision to move implementation of most of the rules forward, he added: “We support the plan to move at pace and implement the statutory guidance at the earliest possible opportunity; we cannot afford to stand still.”

    Agency representative body the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which has opposed the rules’ introduction, welcomed the consultation but reiterated its concerns about the policy’s impact.

    Its deputy chief executive, Kate Shoesmith, said: “We welcome the opportunity to feed into this policy by providing insight about the critical role of agency workers in public services, the benefits they have brought to social care for decades and the real-life consequences for curbing their use which may include less people willing to work in the system.”

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    10 Responses to Councils to be able to exceed agency social work price caps under planned locum rules

    1. Sue Griffiths February 2, 2024 at 3:59 pm #

      Locum social workers don’t get sick pay or holiday pay or a regular monthly pay cheque. We have to hit the ground running. It’s sad that social work is looking at reducing employees pay. Social workers and teacher will continue to leave. I know 2 SWs and 2 young teachers who have left their professions and are doing very well with very little stress.

      • L February 5, 2024 at 12:19 am #

        That’s the choice the locum makes. If you want to be paid more change jobs. Go work on the stock exchange. As for project SWs they get paid a fortune one recently told me they were getting 82,000 py for consultancy work – been qualified 5 years. Shameful when there are limited services to support the people we serve.

      • Same old February 5, 2024 at 9:48 am #

        You do, I suggest you look at and understand exactly what AWR is after your qualifying 13 weeks in placement

    2. Helen February 3, 2024 at 10:30 pm #

      What a crock of ….. What will changes achieve now? Isn’t this a waste of all that money paid for Joshua McAllister to do his review? Would it not be more sensible to simply work on better permanent wages to even the system up and encourage the move to permanent jobs? And fairer to all who do the same job for less.

    3. S February 4, 2024 at 6:18 am #

      What a load of s***. I would 100% leave the profession if this happened. We’re already massively underpaid and overworked.

      Social workers have no appreciation at all for what we do day to day. This is yet another insult injury. Councils cannot function without locum social workers so trying to force their hands is very careless and stupid. Furthermore, whoever suggested that locums should give 8 weeks notice is clearly out of touch with reality and getting paid far too much

    4. Sally February 5, 2024 at 10:54 am #

      There are lots of common misconceptions here. A locum who gets paid 45 pound per hour does not get this in their pocket. By the time you have paid agency fee. Employers and employees national insurance. Weekly fee for umbrella and tax you probably come out with around 780 per week. If you are coming out with 1000 plus. HMRC will catch you up as this is tax avoidance! You cannot impose an 8 week notice period on locum unless you are prepared to give them employee rights. You can’t sat you have to give notice however I can end your contract whenever I want. Most locum do t do it for the money these days it around flexibility. Not getting involved in local authority politics and retaining some level of autonomy. There are a few locums who give us a bad name but most are very hard working !

    5. Claire Henderson February 5, 2024 at 6:19 pm #

      Having been both a locum and a permanent social worker, what has to be appreciated is as a locum you dont get sick pay, holiday pay or bank holidays, you have to hit the ground and know all the different systems that are used and have experience. The last local authority and team I was in was 80% locums as most of the permanent workers left due to the stress of high waiting lists, poor management and more senior management not being supportive and aware of the stresses from lack of resources and more vulnerable people requring adult social care. I was also in a temporary post of nearly 4 years and applied for the role I did for over 2 years and was passed over for someone whose face fitted better and didnt have my experience and this has an impact on you as a worker. What has happened in social work is not new and doesnt just apply to social care, its all public sector roles. Lack of investment in support and resources causing more stress and now that many are being CQC inspected this has further increased this stress and focusing time on not showing the true picture. There are high vacancies and lack of care for adult social care and the pressure being faced is being filled by locums who then get blamed ( personal experience if this) so whats the way forward. Many local authorities would not have workers, I agree that agencies and project teams costs and charges need regulations and more on a level playing field and the abuse of IR35, no one should be paid £82k, that is obscene, however better pay scales and rewarding experience and not having to do a course for progression and more focused support would also encourage people to stay in a post permanently.

    6. P Jennings February 6, 2024 at 6:21 pm #

      So will the same rule apply in the nhs where living consultants earn thousands per shift.

    7. Pauline O'Reggio February 14, 2024 at 1:16 pm #

      Agency work is not a secure form of employment. Agency staff have to deal with all the issues described, and little regard or respect is afforded to agency workers. It is usually the manager who ends your contract, and you are expected to work on cases that are out of timescale therefore you are open to being blamed for decisions made before you were allocated the case.

      It is not the agency staff who are the issue. It is a far more wider issue, without agency staff local authorities would struggle even more than they are now.

    8. Pauline O'Reggio February 21, 2024 at 12:04 am #

      Should the question be why agency social workers hand in their notice? If they do not feel valued, not a part of a team, but only present to manage unrealistic caseloads and timescale, or feel unsupported and unprotected ask yourself why anyone would remain in such an environment.

      Should the question also be why some team managers end a worker’s contract or is the worker automatically assumed to be the problem/issue from the manager’s point of view? Are these questions ever asked? Agency workers work hard but are undervalued, where do they go for support? when some environments can be very unfriendly places to work.

      One example. I worked somewhere for three weeks I never met the team once either in person or via teams, I never had access to teams, and if I needed support the attitude was “It was not their role”

      Two times per week all teams were required to be in the office, if the team I was assigned to was in the office they never made themselves visible or were never present in the office and yes I attempted to locate the team several times but never found them before leaving.

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