There could be lots of desk tidying and organising of case files in
Scotland’s social work services come 1 April. No, it is not
national feng shui day but rather the date when the new Social Work
Inspection Agency (SWIA) officially replaces the existing Social
Work Services Inspectorate (SWSI).
Formally announced by the Scottish executive last year, the SWIA
was created in the wake of two high profile cases: the death of
11-week-old Caleb Ness in Edinburgh and the Borders inquiry
conducted by the SWSI and the Mental Welfare Commission. Both
highlighted systematic failures and neither reflected well on the
organisations involved and exposed the belief that the SWSI’s remit
did not go far enough.
The SWIA will have four specific functions: inspection and review
of social work and social care services; evaluation of services;
additional investigative work commissioned from the Scottish
executive; and providing professional advice to ministers. It will
operate independently when inspecting social work services but be
directly accountable to the Scottish executive.
A consultation on the SWIA’s draft framework closed earlier this
month. In the introduction Peter Peacock, Scotland’s minister for
education and young people, wrote that the Scottish parliament and
ministers are committed to identifying “best practice in social
work services, driving up standards and improving quality of social
work services” across the country. He added that “rigorous
independent inspections and reviews” of all social work services
were vital to achieve these aims.
A shadow version of the SWIA has been in operation since July 2004,
and its 15 inspectors and three deputy chief inspectors will all be
transferring over. New inspectors and a fourth deputy chief
inspector are being recruited and by spring next year the agency
intends to have 27 inspectors in post. Alexis Jay, the president of
the Association of Directors of Social Work (ADSW), has been
seconded to the agency as chief executive and chief social work
inspector for 18 months.
Jay is ideally suited to the role as she spent most of her social
work career employed by local authorities – and she is looking
forward to her new position. “The agency is needed because there
has been no robust, central, systematic approach to inspections in
place in the same way as education has benefited from for years,”
Many feel that establishing such an inspection agency will give
social work services the credibility they need.
The SWIA will inspect social work services provided by or on behalf
of local authorities, leaving the Scottish Care Commission to
oversee the care services, including fostering, housing services
and care homes, that are often provided by the voluntary sector.
This is different from England where the Commission for Social Care
Inspection covers both, having taken on the work previously
conducted by the Social Services Inspectorate and the National Care
Standards Commission. Whether inspection and regulation is better
carried out by one single agency is yet to be seen.
What about the risk of overlap between the SWIA and the Scottish
Care Commission and between other bodies that review services such
as the Audit Commission and Inspectorate for Children’s Services?
Jay says that, while the new inspection agency has a specific
remit, agreements will need to be established on areas where there
is potential for overlap. “We don’t want to duplicate work or
confuse service users. There needs to be clarity for service users
and providers of services.”
To prevent duplication, the inspection bodies will need to
establish clear and distinct ways of working – providers already
encounter enough inspectors. Could it be a case of too many cooks
spoiling the broth?
Colin Mackenzie, ADSW vice-president, insists the association will
be “very quick” to point out any duplication and to take it up with
the Scottish executive. He adds: “The SWIA needs to develop a light
touch in inspection – not in terms of getting to the facts but so
that there isn’t repetition with different inspectors going to the
Repairing the damage done by the Caleb Ness case and the Borders
inquiry is vital if the SWIA is to succeed. Ruth Stark,
professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers
in Scotland, believes the new agency will help to highlight the
positive work done by social work professionals. “Because there is
a lack of information about inspection of services there has been
no strong evidence for politicians to use to credit that work that
is done by people in the industry,” she says.
During its first year the inspection agency needs to build
constructive working relationships with local authorities,
voluntary organisations and users so as not to be seen as
“outsiders coming in”, says Stephen Smellie, chair of the social
work issues group at Unison Scotland. “The agency should establish
good lines of communication, share information and listen to
people. Everyone should be an equal partner,” he says. In addition,
service users need to be involved in the inspection process.
Expectations of the new agency are high. The SWIA is fine-tuning
its methodology so that it fits in with the way other inspectorates
work. It hopes to have it agreed by the end of April and to have
conducted several pilot inspections by December. The aim is for all
of Scotland’s 32 local authority social work services to be
inspected within the next few years.
So after much anticipation, what is the likely impact of the new
agency for social work professionals? Mackenzie says that imposing
inspections on practitioners “will not be helpful”. He believes
that social work staff should be seconded to the agency as
inspectors. This would have a two-fold benefit – the inspectors
would be more knowledgeable about what takes place on the ground
and the agency would not have to rely solely on permanent staff.
Smellie thinks that the agency needs to be proactive rather than
reactive. “If inspectors come in looking for faults in a narrow
way, without looking at the situation in the whole, it will be a
But what is the biggest fear? On this, Jay is clear: “For local
authorities to feel the SWIA is not making an important
contribution to improving practice and for service users to feel we
are not making a difference for them.”