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National price caps proposed for agency social worker pay in local authorities

A new Department for Education consultation has proposed establishing price rates on the amount local authorities can pay per hour for an agency worker to bring agency worker pay in line with permanent employees.

06/02/23

National price caps proposed for agency social worker pay in local authorities

The government is proposing introducing price caps for agency social worker pay as part of its response to recommendations in last year’s Care Review.

The plans were outlined in a consultation paper released last week on tackling the social work sector’s ‘overreliance’ on agency workers.

“The employment of agency workers can be helpful in allowing an authority to manage fluctuations in demand, fill in for staff temporarily absent and manage crises,” the DfE said introducing the proposals. “There are agencies who are committed both to effective workforce planning across the sector and to supporting the needs of social workers and employers. There are also many excellent social workers working for a local authority via an agency who are delivering for vulnerable children and families as part of the workforce.”

“However, overreliance on agency social work resource has led to workforce instability, churn and high costs. This makes it more difficult for social workers to consolidate learning, build expertise and develop quality relationships with children and families. Certain conditions imposed by some agencies, such as capped caseloads and fully remote working, continue to increase pressures on social workers who are permanently employed within local authorities. Such practices embed disparities into the workforce and put at risk stable and sustained relationships with families and colleagues.”

The DfE hopes that the proposed policies will “bring consistency and quality assurance to the use of agency social workers” by establishing a set of national rules around their use. This will include acceptable notice periods, a requirement for comprehensive references, and expected levels of post-qualified experience. The rules also suggest a three-month period of non-engagement with agency workers after they have left a ‘substantive role’ within the same region.

It is hoped that the plans will bring agency pay in-line with local authority employees and in-turn “create greater consistency and fairness for social workers carrying out the same role”, as well as reducing spend on agency workers so it can be invested in children and families services.

The DfE says these actions are right to pursue “in the immediate term”, with further actions – such as potential legislation to prevent local authorities from using agency social workers, and options to regulate and inspect suppliers of social workers – kept under review.

Responding to the consultation Steve Crocker, Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) President, said he welcomed the proposals but warned that the timeline for implementation was too long.

“We cannot wait 15 months for change and urge government to progress the changes even more quickly,” Mr Crocker said, adding: “Local authorities are facing real recruitment and retention challenges now, particularly amongst our social workers which, in the short term, is leading to an increasing reliance upon agency staff to help us meet the growing levels of need we are seeing across our communities.

“At the same time, we are seeing increasingly aggressive recruitment tactics being employed by agencies to attract our staff and the costs of buying back their services spiralling.

“Our children and young people tell us that they benefit from having a consistent worker who knows them and their story. The significant churn in the workforce and the increasingly short-term nature of agency social work placements makes this harder to achieve.”

The proposals also include a ban on the use of ‘managed service’ or ‘project teams’ for child and family social work. The practice usually involves an entire team being brought in from an agency to provide an existing service within a local authority. However, Mr Crocker said that agencies will often offer this as the only option available, even when only one or two social workers are required.

“Whilst this announcement is a positive step, we also need to see bold efforts from government to tackle the recruitment and retention crisis we all face in public services. There are multiple factors at play, from the cost-of-living crisis offset against a backdrop of annual public sector pay freezes and more children and families coming into contact with children’s services. We must promote the value of this transformative profession and the lasting impact this can have on children and families.”

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