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The Government’s response to the ‘Stable Homes, Built on Love’ Agency Social Work Consultation

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The Government’s response to the ‘Stable Homes, Built on Love’ Agency Social Work Consultation

​​Introduction to the consultation

Between February and May 2023, the Department for Education ran a public consultation seeking views on the introduction of new national rules regarding the use of agency social work in children’s social care settings.

After publishing ‘Stable Homes, Built on Love’, it became clear that loving relationships and safe, stable homes were what mattered most to children and young people. The consultation came in response to many recommendations from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and DfE. One such recommendation was to review the use of agency social workers in children’s social care with a view to evaluating a supposed overreliance on agency workers.

The need for agency social workers

Agency social workers play a key role in the children’s social care sector. Their ability to fill in last-minute and temporary absences and manage crises is crucial to the management of demand from local authorities. Agency workers often work on three to six month contracts, which can be extended. However, this instability can cause issues with creating long-lasting relationships with families, children and young people.

While the consultation addresses an issue within children’s social care, it does not address or offer solutions to the underlying issue - attracting and retaining social workers.

The consultation respondents

The consultation is putting forward changes that will affect the whole industry, however, there were only a total of 1,243 respondents and only 42% of those respondents described themselves as being child and family social workers.

In 2022, there were 33,690 children and family social workers employed by local authorities in England. This means, over 33,000 children and family social workers have not had their say. It cannot be argued that the whole workforce was listened to.

Those who disagreed with the proposed rules had concerns about the implementation and the impact of social workers leaving the workforce. These are incredibly valid concerns, that may be present for the majority of social workers who did not have their say.

The proposed national rules included introducing price caps, banning project teams, extending notice periods, having a cool-off period and increasing the amount of experience needed.

Price Cap

The consultation proposed a price cap to align agency workers' wages with permanent staff’s and to ‘create greater national consistency and fairness around pay for social workers’. However, only a third of the 0.5% of social workers who responded to the consultation were agency social workers. The majority of respondents agreeing to a price cap were organisations, rather than individuals.

Social workers often begin working locum, due to the poor conditions and benefits of working in a permanent role. If the ability to earn more by working as an agency social worker is taken away, there is a high chance agency workers will no longer work in the sector. Due to the rising cost of living, and increased caseloads for social workers, many may not accept the average wage for a permanent role.

Creating greater national consistency around pay for social workers also comes with some concerns. There are existing regional variations in pay, which are essential to be competitive in the wider market. Organisations raised concerns about how competitive they will be with neighbouring councils and the implementation of new contracts and terms and conditions for current agency staff.

The government admitted that at this time they do not have enough data to implement a price cap across the industry and therefore they would set out statutory guidance that local authorities should comply with.

Post-qualified experience

It was originally proposed that social workers who graduate in or after April 2024 would require 5 years of experience to become agency workers. Out of the agency social worker respondents, 44% said they agree with a minimum post-qualifying experience, however, 5 years is too long. 35% of total respondents agreed with the proposal.

It was argued that 5 years is a considerable portion of the average social worker’s time in the profession and while adding a minimum is a good idea, it should be shortened. The most commonly suggested time frame from respondents was 3 years.

In 2021, 60% of children and family social workers had been in the profession for less than 5 years, with 33% leaving the sector after less than two years. 23% of the permanent social workers who left their jobs moved to agency roles. There is reason for concern that if agency work becomes unattainable for those newly working in the sector, they will leave the industry all together.

By extending the post-qualifying period, concerns were raised about the effect it would have on the pool of agency workers. It was suggested that the time frame be shortened to three years, as social workers would have developed their skills and had enough experience for an agency role.

The government agreed that 5 years was longer than necessary to achieve experience and have reduced the minimum requirement to 3 years. The post-qualifying experience rule will apply to all child and family social workers, irrespective of the year of first registration.

Project Teams

The proposal included a ban on project teams, a team of six or seven social workers who are contracted to deliver a specific project. This ban was proposed to ensure relationship-based practices were maintained and to avoid issues with accountability, reduced quality assurance, increased cost and limited resource allocation for children and families.

Organisations were 25% more likely to agree to the ban on project teams than individuals. The ban does not address the core issue of staffing gaps and project teams often fill these gaps and are crucial during critical times. Without agency staff, local authorities would not meet their responsibilities.

It is suggested that there are more regulations around project teams, and they are only used when appropriate - when caseloads are high or when a local authority has a high number of job openings or staff absences.

Cool-off and notice periods.

The consultation proposed that local authorities should implement a minimum six-week notice period. The majority of respondents agreed that there should be a notice period, however, a quarter of the respondents agreed that it should be shorter than six weeks.

Agency workers are employed on a flexible and short-term basis. By introducing a six week notice period, it would limit the flexibility. It was noted that a four-week notice period aligns with other similar sectors.

The government’s response to the notice period feedback was to set out statutory guidance – all agency social work assignments in local authorities should align with the local authority’s contractual notice period for permanent staff in the same or similar role.

A cool-off period was proposed and would not allow local authorities to engage with an agency worker who has worked in the same region within the last three months. There would be an exemption for social workers who had been made redundant by their last local authority employer.

A third of respondents disagreed with the proposal, with disagreement higher amongst individuals. It is not surprising that many agency social workers disagreed with the proposal, as they will now have longer travel times to new roles. Social workers spend a considerable amount of time travelling to and from visits. By not allowing them to work in their local region consecutively, it is increasing time travelling, and reducing time spent with children and young people.

Statutory guidance will be released in relation to the cool-off period. The guidance will state that local authorities should not engage agency staff for a minimum of three months after they have left a role in the same region.

Government response

A draft of the statutory guidance will be released in spring 2024, with local authorities expected to comply from autumn 2024.

While it is clear that there needs to be reform within the children and families social work sector, the consultation does not address the issues of attraction and retention.

Brian Allbrighton, a team leader in our social work locum division explains that the lack of benefits and poor working conditions for permanent workers is what sways social workers into agency work.

‘Social workers become agency workers due to the additional benefits and better working conditions. They are offered flexible contracts and higher pay rates. There is a serious lack of benefits and poor working conditions for permanent staff, including high caseloads, lack of supervision and poor environments. It’s no wonder so many social workers decide to go locum. They feel better rewarded for their hard work.

Locum social workers plug a lot of the gaps within local authorities. Without them, I worry that all responsibilities will not be met, and it’s the children and young people that will feel the impact.’

Due to the lack of agency social workers having their say in the consultation, there is a valid argument that these workers may leave the profession. The industry is known to have a high workload and low retention rates. The caseloads given to social workers and the benefits available to them must be reformed before any other changes are made.

If locum social workers do not agree with the government’s responses and new statutory guidelines, the workforce may continue to shrink.

You can read the full consultation response here.

Please get in touch with your thoughts. Contact Mollie at