Care services minister Paul Burstow has given the strongest hint yet that the government will create a chief social worker role in England.
The Liberal Democrat minister has also indicated that the post would be given more power than had been proposed by the Conservatives before the general election.
In a House of Commons debate on the Health and Social Care Bill on Tuesday, Burstow confirmed that the coalition “saw the value of the office of the chief social worker”.
His Labour shadow, Emily Thornberry, had asked why England, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, had no chief social worker and proposed that the bill was amended to include one.
She suggested the post should function along the lines of the model drawn up by BASW – the College of Social Work. Under BASW’s proposals, the chief social worker would report to and advise ministers and make an annual report to parliament on the state of social work in England.
Burstow said: “The government proposes to give further consideration to the role of a chief social worker, which [Thornberry] raised on behalf of BASW and other social workers.”
He went on to explain that the potential merits of a chief social worker were being considered as part of the review of adult social care and Professor Eileen Munro’s review of the child protection system in England.
“If the findings of these reviews indicate that the creation of such an office should be part of the reform of the social care system, we will need to give careful consideration as to how the office would be established, what duties and powers the office holder should be given, the costs and so on,” he said.
When pressed by Thornberry about the functions of a chief social worker, Burstow admitted that a definition proposed by the Tories in 2007 was “insufficient”.
This called for the post holder to work across government departments and with social work organisations and the media to monitor the “health” of the profession and provide good news stories.
But Burstow said: “I think the role is far more important than that. We need to make sure that we fully capture the range and responsibilities of such a post.”
During the debate, Burstow rejected BASW’s request to include a more detailed definition of the role of social workers in the bill, which currently states: “‘The social work profession in England’ means the profession engaged in social work in England.”
Thornberry said a more detailed definition would give social workers more recognition and support.
But Burstow said adding a detailed definition could cause problems: “We are not going down that routebecause there is a danger that anything omitted is excluded from the role of social work.
“To take the point one step further, by including a list as long as she proposes and protecting the title of social worker by assigning it to those who perform that list of functions and tasks, there would then be a question whether practitioners in the police force or mental health services who discharge some of the same duties could continue to do so.”
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