The General Social Care Council will strive to leave a strong legacy for the sector’s workforce when the organisation is disbanded in 2012, its chief executive has said.
In her first interview since taking over in March, Penny Thompson said she was disappointed not to be able to implement her GSCC reform plans.
But she vowed the GSCC would continue to uphold standards among England’s workforce until its functions are transferred to the Health Professions Council (HPC) in two years.
The regulator employs about 230 staff in London and Rugby and trade union Unite has expressed concern about their uncertain futures.
But Thompson said the message she has given them is to “keep calm and carry on”.
“Our priorities are continuing to run a safe and effective function now, while we’re still the regulator,” Thompson said.
The coalition government announced in July it was scrapping the GSCC as part of a review of arm’s-length bodies overseen by the Department of Health. Regulation of social workers will be carried out by the HPC, which oversees 15 health-related professions, including occupational therapists and paramedics.
“I’d understood the way forward was for [the GSCC] to become independent over a number of years by becoming more efficient and effective,” Thompson said.
“My corporate plan and business plan were geared towards achieving that over a period of time, so I was surprised by the announcement.”
Thompson, who has a reputation as a troubleshooter, was brought in as the permanent replacement for Mike Wardle after he was sacked in November 2009 following a damning review of the GSCC’s conduct system.
She was adamant that the work led by her and the two interim chief executives before her, Paul Philip and Paul Snell, would not be wasted.
For example, the GSCC has been developing a fitness to practise model of regulation to replace its conduct system. This could make the transfer of functions easier, because the HPC already has such a model in place.
“We’ll want to discuss with the HPC how we would have sought to bring the best of modern fitness to practise to bear,” Thompson said.
Although the HPC and GSCC are broadly agreed on the benefits of fitness to practise, they remain divided over the question of whether to register students.
In addition to 85,000 social workers having to register, all 15,000 social work students must do likewise, meaning they have to pay £10 a year and abide by the code of practice.
However, Marc Seale, chief executive of the HPC, has previously said registration of students is not necessary to protect the public.
But Thompson said: “The HPC’s position has been that, in the areas they regulate, they don’t see a reason to regulate students partly because, for example, they don’t have access to users of services without supervision.
“Student social workers do have unsupervised access to users of services.”
The HPC encourages higher education institutions to monitor students’ behaviour, but Thompson said universities might not be able to handle 15,000 social work students.
“The government may want to take a view on what they would require of the regulator and the HPC will have to think about what they’re managing in relation to social work,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, the HPC needed to understand the differences between social work and the other professions it regulates.
“Social work is conducted with individuals and families in often troubling and trying circumstances. It involves the identification of significant risk and sometimes the use of authority in a way that a number, if not all, of those other [15 professions] don’t.”
Many social workers have expressed concern that the transfer of functions to the HPC will result in social work losing its identity as a distinct profession.
The HPC can address these concerns in several ways, Thompson said, including changing its name and ensuring its standards reflect social work and use the right language.
“You don’t want language that’s focused entirely on using words such as ‘patients’,” she said.
An independently-chaired advisory group will be set up in September to oversee the transfer to the HPC. “That’ll provide the architecture for early conversations,” said Thompson. “But we’re a long way from the detail.”
➔ Community Care interviewed Penny Thompson in conjunction with www.personneltoday.com
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