Agency social work price caps will not come into force until spring 2025

Introduction of regional limits on how much councils should pay agencies per social worker they hire will now be implemented a year later than original planned start date for locum practitioner rules

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

Regional caps on the amount that councils should pay agencies to hire social workers will not come into force until spring 2025, the Department for Education (DfE) has said.

This is a year later than the original planned start date for the DfE’s rules to curb local authorities’ use of locum practitioners in children’s services, which are designed to reduce cost and improve continuity of support for children and families.

The rules will now come into force in three stages. Most will be implemented this summer, with councils then required to submit data on their use of agency staff from the start of 2025 and then the price caps coming into force in spring next year.

Agency requirements on council children’s services in full

  • 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.

The news came in draft guidance on implementing the rules on data and price caps, published yesterday by the DfE.

Job mapping exercise

Under the plans, which will be finalised this summer, councils will firstly need to map all of the jobs covered by agency children’s social workers to five groups:

  • Social worker – for experienced practitioners expected to hold cases independently.
  • Senior social worker – for experienced practitioners with responsibility for more complex cases, who may also supervise students, less experienced colleagues, support or volunteers.
  • Advanced practitioner – for staff whose role involves driving practice improvement, and also incorporating assistant team managers and principal social workers.
  • Team manager – for those responsible for managing staff in a specific service and/or geographical area.
  • Independent reviewing officer or child protection conference chair – for practitioners who review the cases of children in care or oversee child protection conferences.

Councils must complete their job mapping exercise and submit it to the DfE by 13 September 2024 through a template that will be published this summer.

Submitting data on agency workforce

They will then need to submit two sets of data each quarter: one providing details of each agency social work they hired and the other providing general information on its agency usage during the quarter.

Data required on individual practitioners includes their hourly rate, total hours, whether they are paid through an umbrella company, a limited company or via PAYE, whether they were hired on an individual basis or as part of a team and how long it took the authority to fill the role.

The general data required includes the total cost of the agency workforce during the relevant quarter, the council’s level of compliance with the agency rules, including reasons for non-compliance and details of cases where the authority has exceeded the relevant agency cap.

However, the caps themselves will not be set until after the results of the first round of data collection – for the period 1 October to 31 December 2024 – has been shared. According to the draft guidance, councils are expected to submit this data to the DfE between 2 January to 28 February 2025, though this is subject to change.

Agreeing price caps

Councils will be expected to use this first set of data to agree and implement price caps for each of the five role types within their regions and then submit these by 27 March 2025.

In draft statutory guidance on the rules as a whole, published earlier this year, the DfE said that 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.

It should be applied whether the locum is being paid through PAYE or an umbrella or limited company, and to all contractual types, including when the locum is hired through a project team.

Exceeding the caps

In its draft statutory 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”.

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.

This would then need to be reported to regional partners and to the DfE.

Existing price limits

Agency pay limits already exist in most regions of England through existing memoranda of understanding (MoUs).

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.

Next steps

The DfE said the statutory guidance on the agency rules would be published in the summer, signaling the implementation of all of the elements apart from those on data collection and price caps.

Alongside this, it will publish the finalised version of the data collection and price cap operational guidance, which will confirm dates by which councils must submit specified information to the department.

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7 Responses to Agency social work price caps will not come into force until spring 2025

  1. Disappointed May 15, 2024 at 11:26 am #

    I’ll be leaving social work in 2025 then

    • Jubilee Miah May 17, 2024 at 10:21 am #

      I feel the same

  2. John Simpson May 15, 2024 at 4:38 pm #

    In a stunning display of governmental gymnastics, the powers that be have decided to don the cape of regulation and swoop into the realm of social work vacancies with the grand notion of price capping. Yes, you heard it right, folks! The same government that usually sings the anthem of “let the market decide” seems to have misplaced its laissez-faire hymnbook when it comes to the public sector.

    Picture this: a group of bureaucrats sitting around a table, sipping their overpriced coffee, and suddenly one of them has an epiphany: “Why let supply and demand dance their waltz when we can choreograph it ourselves?” And just like that, price capping for social work vacancies is born.

    But oh, the irony! It’s like watching a cat preach the virtues of vegetarianism while licking its lips over a mouse. The government, champion of free markets by day, turns into the caped crusader of regulation by night, swooping in to save the day (or so they claim).

    Meanwhile, in the real world, social workers scratch their heads in bewilderment, wondering why the rules of economics seem to apply differently when it’s their livelihoods at stake. But fear not, dear citizens, for in the land of government logic, inconsistency is the only constant. And so, the saga of price capping in social work vacancies continues, a comedic tragedy in the theater of bureaucracy

  3. Rory boy May 16, 2024 at 6:26 am #

    Well said / written John!

  4. Mike May 17, 2024 at 8:45 am #

    Brilliant John!

  5. Paul May 17, 2024 at 10:45 am #

    Try paying permanent staff decent wage with decent caseloads.

  6. Dawn Urwin May 19, 2024 at 2:59 pm #

    Agency social workers often work away from home incurring work away bills. They often have higher more complicated caseloads in my experience have to hit the ground running no holiday or sick pay. This in my opinion commands a higher hourly rate.

    Social worker pay is a joke when compared to other jobs. I would leave social work 22 years in and I think a lot of advanced practitioners would do the same…why bother…why have the hassle.

    I agree pay us a least a 50K salary which is fair rate of pay for a social worker and then they may not be the issue with recruitment and retention.

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