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  • Writer's pictureSteve Stuart

Plus ca change?

The Independent Review of Children's Social Care was released this morning. It will be undoubtedly be scrutinised in minute detail across the entire breadth of its contents. I have no doubt that it is well intentioned and that the Josh MacAlister and his team working on it will have worked tirelessly to bring it to the public.

The scrutiny which will now follow should be considered to be part of this process. To drive forward conversations and actions that will lead to positive outcomes for everyone.

My own contribution to this scrutiny process are the 21 points below. It relates purely to chapter 7.3. I am aware it may look overtly critical, this is not the intent, however it is important that measures suggested meet the Vric Consulting tests. Namely are the recommendations practical, pragmatic, beneficial and sustainable. I am not sure that the review meets these objectives. As always, comments welcome.

1. Lack of nuance in the definition of the issue. The report fails to distinguish between on-contract, off contract and the provision of “project teams” and the costs and relative delivery benefits for all these models.

When it details that competitive environments between councils leads to increasing agency profits it fails to consider that many councils work to fixed pence agency margins.

The use of “off-contract” agencies and more recently project teams means that the transparency of costs is much less and almost certainly much higher.

Similarly, there is no mention of the effectiveness of regional MoUs in terms of restricting rate inflation. The figures in the report quoted are extrapolated from the figure quoted in 2020. In the West Midlands rates of pay for agency workers reduced from an inflationary increase of 20% per year in the run up to the installation of the regional MoU to 0% for the following five years in which it was actively managed.

2. Identifying the profiteers. The mention of profiteering in agency staffing has been mentioned but there is no mention as to who is benefitting. The suggestion is that it is the agencies but the lion’s share of the difference in cost between perm and temp staff is in worker pay. The inflation of worker pay has generally outstripped that of agency margin (where the spend is with “on contract” agencies through a Managed Service Provider) for nearly two decades.

A council facing significant supply issues can often find a much more effective solution by offering a £1 increase to a £2 agency margin than by upping a social workers rate of pay by £5.

3. Differences in job experience across services and councils. The pressures on social workers vary wildly in terms of the teams they are in and the councils for whom they work. There is no recognition of this in the care review. The impact that these environments have on the resilience of social workers and their retention within the profession needs to be acknowledged and factored in to any solution.

4. Removing the fuel from the agency market. No mention is made as to the drivers around the agency staff market. Whilst it is often considered that the driver for the market is an overall shortage of workers this is not in itself the driver. The driver is the supply of temporary vacancies from councils. This will not be simply addressed by the creation of social work banks which may not ever be able to effectively meet the requirements of the councils and trusts concerned.

5. Learning the lessons about agency churn. One of the major concerns about agency staff was the impact that a constantly shifting workforce has on the relationships with the Children and Families with whom they are dealing.

The MoU in the West Midlands had the impact (unintended) of reducing churn of agency staff across the region. However, this led to a further unintended consequence that meant there was significant restriction to the flow of contingent labour which meant that there was limited capacity to react to crisis situations across an entire geographical region.

This lack of flow highlighted the overall lack of suitably experienced social workers (both temp and perm) within the region in a way that wasn’t so stark when experiencing significant churn.

6. The benefits and disadvantages of bank staff. The use of contingent labour banks is appropriate in certain cases. It can have many added benefits such as allowing for exposure to greater ranges of work, experience and environment. It can provide a through put into permanent employ and it can allow for the bolstering of pay. However, there are downsides, it is most suited to the supply of shift-based workers and has been implemented effectively in children’s services to this end previously. It is more problematic around longer-term placements such as is suggested here.

7. Pay is not an effective retention tool. Research behind Redzone into the reasons why workers leave positions do not place rates of pay amongst the major issues. (Feeling undervalued yes – pay distinctly no). However, it is a major factor in deciding where to apply for. The proposals created in terms of national pay scales and creation of banks (without any detail on the wage levels for these) could lead to the greatest inflationary increases within the workforce seen since the austerity agenda or alternatively lead to existing agency workers leaving the profession.

8. Social workers do not “spawn” with greater pay. When considering exemptions for the West Midlands MoU the rule of thumb was “will this increase in rate lead to an overall increase in supply within the region as a whole”. The answer was invariably no, which lead to the creation and implementation of Operation Wrongname. Will a proposed increase in wage for permanent staff lead to an increase in supply? The evidence is not strong to support this assertion.

9. Pay does not equal value. That is not say that workers should not be properly rewarded for the work they undertake, but valuing staff is more than pay. It is supporting them to be able to work in the way they wish to work.

10. Robustness of comparative data. The figure that is quoted in the report relating to the comparative costs of agency social workers have been calculated with little consideration to methods of supply or completeness of data. Variations of cost of agency staff and other forms of contingent supply are massive as are the splits between charge and margin of supply not via an MSP.

11. Consideration of the financial position of new Social Workers. No consideration is given to the position of Newly Qualified Social Workers after coming into the market. Often with considerable debt from university the individuals are not swayed by traditional benefits of permanent employment at a local authority such as a final salary pension scheme. Agency work effectively provides an increase in salary at the expense of these high-level pension contributions which assists in the progression of life ambitions relating to home and family.

12. Rising through the ranks. Similarly, the competition between councils exists for permanent staff. Recently qualified social workers can progress more quickly up lengthy scales of pay increase by moving around or shifting to agency.

13. Differential between temp and perm staff can act as an inflationary driver. Increase in permanent members of pay is often matched not by a switch to permanence but by an increase in the rates of temporary workers as they seek to maintain their differential.

14. Inflationary impacts of crisis management across a region. Major inflationary pressures within the agency market come at times of crisis management (Inadequate OFSTED / High profile case) Nothing in the care review details on how a crisis in one council may impact across its neighbours or how this can be managed in a sustainable fashion.

15. Potential for legal challenge. There are several points in the care review proposal that could lead to operational legal challenge which may, even if overcome, impact on the implementation and therefore the timescales and level of projected benefits. These include the creation of mutuality of obligation within candidate bank staff. The charging of punitive agency introduction fees by off contract agencies. Challenges to the barriers to employment created by rules such as those suggested to prevent a shift to bank staff working and question marks how such a national payscale would fit with existing measures used to address equal pay issues.

16. Suitability of commercial frameworks. The proposals to use “approved commercial frameworks” to secure agency staff are somewhat positive. The use of off contract agencies does undermine the ability to effectively operate an MoU. However, nothing has been noted around the supposed benefits of aggregating social worker temporary provision with the wider corporate use of agency staff. Councils may be better conducting their own procurement activities which meet the needs of children’s services outside of wider corporate contracts. This allows for different models of supply and a better and possibly bespoke fit as opposed to dealing with a larger corporate supplier.

17. Creation of suitable frameworks. The creation of suitable frameworks for Children’s Social Work Professionals would potentially be beneficial to a number of councils and should be considered. However, care must be taken that this does not push out smaller specialist agencies that have a local rather than national focus and are able to provide a more bespoke service as a result.

18. Procedural and Methodical issues in supporting Children’s Services Staffing. In recent work with a Local Authority, I was able to identify that the issues that were barriers to full employment for Councils were structural, methodical and procedural. The review addresses none of these issues. Furthermore, detailing the use of in-house banks these solutions will, unless developed in the knowledge of market drivers, will repeat if not reinforce these errors.

If you are a Local Authority Leader and you want a demonstration of what this means…just think how long it takes for you to get someone into post. Just how are you going to “stock” a regional bank of staff in a way that meets their needs? The social worker market acts as a stark comparator between the candidate experience of private and public organisations, that the public sector doesn’t even acknowledge it as an issue means that it cannot design processes and solutions that overcome this.

19. Lack of workforce research. No acknowledgement is made in the review of the lack of workforce research to allow for evidence-based decision making as to models of supply.

20. Lack of specialist knowledge. No acknowledgement is made in the review of the lack of specialist market knowledge or capacity in the decision-making process. The outsourcing of agency supply to managed service providers means that there is a lack of strategic knowledge around the bespoke Children’s Services workforce market.

21. No observation around the pressures faced by corporate services The Children’s Services agency supplier market is frequented by a large and diverse range of individuals. They are however well versed and knowledgeable about the workings of their marketplace and commercially savvy. Corporate services such as Procurement / HR / Finance as well as Children’s Services do not routinely have the direct knowledge or experience to provide the right environments for agencies to support them, or to challenge them effectively should performance not be sufficient. Skills sets like those in the agency market will be required within corporate services if measures are to be effective.


I have a series of practical recommendations which are split into local, regional and National methods of addressing these matters based on my direct engagement in this work for nearly two decades. Should anyone wish to discuss these further please do not hesitate to get in touch.

It will probably be questioned why these recommendations are not listed here, or that I am seeking to simply profiteer in my own right. However I have provided excellent direct service to councils across the country for nearly two decades and provided value way above my cost. I cannot however countenance other commerical and public sector organsiations seek to monetise my ideas and knowledge to their benefit and my direct detriment again.

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