Agencies are opening up to a scheme that shifts more control to contractors. By Lynne Curry
With weekly earnings of more than pounds 1,000, Britain's army of freelance IT consultants is rarely associated with the term "underclass''. But being comparatively rich, successful and in demand is still no protection against the discovery that one's CV has been scattered around like confetti by an unscrupulous agency in pursuit of its 17 per cent.

Contractors complain that agencies send off CVs without seeking authorisation - so that the same CV, ridiculously, arrives at a company from several sources - do not bother to tell candidates if they have been turned down, do not respect confidentiality, do not ensure the CV suits the job and sometimes treat the contractors themselves with downright rudeness.

Now, in an attempt to rein in the agencies, the freelancers' professional body has introduced its own scheme to shift more control to the workforce from which the agencies make their money. It has not been universally welcomed.

The Recognised Recruitment Agencies scheme has been put together by the Institution of Analysts and Programmers (IAP) and is another endeavour to introduce an element of standardisation and answerability to a key part of the industry.

"Contractors are in danger of becoming the underclass in the triangular relationship between client, agency and contractor,'' the IAP declared when it launched the idea. But it was not so much the code of conduct it incorporated, covering best practice which reputable agencies already aim for, but the pounds 250 annual fee for endorsement and - the sting - the obligation on an agency to declare up front the profit margin it charges when it places a candidate.

Mike Ryan, the IAP's director-general, says the move was not confrontational, and points out that the margins are asked for only in case of a dispute between the contractor and the agency. "People who sell relatively low- grade staff who work for months or years on a contract make a low margin, whereas if you supply obscure, high-powered skills once in a while, it may take three or four months to line the job up, and of course a bigger margin is needed.

"We understand that, and I think it's a pity that the agencies can't adopt a more philosophical view, where they're altogether more open about what they charge," Ryan says. "Any damage this did to an individual name would be balanced by the enormous amount of good it would do generally.''

IT is a bitty profession to which many organisations have tried to bring cohesion. The IAP, formed about 20 years ago, has some 3,000 members, about half of them freelancers. But that leaves 40,000 or more contractors in the UK who are not members, and there are many other organisations they can join.

The agencies most frequently belong to the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services (FRES), which has its own code of conduct. Richard Butcher, a senior member of FRES and director of 1st Future Recruitment, has described the IAP's project as "a non-starter'' and says information about margins is confidential.

So far, only eight agencies have signed up for the IAP scheme, enabling them to mention the IAP's endorsement in their advertising and marketing. Another dozen, says Ryan, are actively considering it. While this may seem insignificant among the 400-plus agencies operating in the country, the fact that the third biggest in the country, Lorien, has joined could bring pressure to bear on others.

"Yes, it is good marketing, but that wasn't the reason for our decision,'' says Paul Dodd, Lorien's southern regional manager. "It is because the market is moving towards accreditation, and we want to show that we are serious about being accredited and that we take our job seriously - because we intend to be in the market for a long time.''

Lorien already has accreditation for its procedures under BS5750 and ISO 9001, as well as holding Investors in People status. Dodd says agencies are having to move towards declaring margins, with or without stipulations from the IAP. "The industry is moving that way already. We're not ever going to be a charity, but we are honest and open and accountable. A number of our clients have asked us to have an open-book policy with them and we are happy to abide by that. We don't have skeletons.''

Mike Ryan was slightly taken aback by others' hostile reaction to the proposal, but not deterred. "We are in a situation where my members and other professionals will increasingly find that the long-term permanent jobs have gone and during a working lifetime, instead of having two or three jobs, you will have dozens of jobs.

"You need people to organise this for you, so everybody is going to be relying on agencies, one way and another, a lot more than they have in the past. This scheme is looking towards the future".