Wales faces radical shake-up of social work regulation

The proposed Social Services (Wales) Bill promises a radical shake up of social services in Wales, particularly in extending the regulation of social work.

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The proposed Social Services (Wales) Bill promises a radical shake up of social services in Wales. It would restructure the adoption system, slim down government guidance into a single code of conduct for social services and reengineer safeguarding structures for both children and adults.

All big stuff, but among its most far-reaching changes are the plans to overhaul workforce regulation – changes that would affect almost every social worker in Wales to some degree.

First, the Welsh government intends to use the bill to require local authority social services and other providers of social work services to register as services with the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales, as care providers such as domiciliary care services and children’s homes already do. This raises the possibility of councils and providers from the voluntary and private sector facing enforcement measures imposed by the watchdog if they fail to meet standards on social work.

At the moment, in the extreme cases, the inspectorate is able to prosecute services for breaching certain regulations under the Care Standards Act 2000, stop services from admitting further people, restrict the type of people the service can help or require changes in the way a service operates (for example by increasing staff). The inspectorate is also due to get powers to impose fixed penalty notices on failing services from 1 October this year.

Robin Moulster, the manager of BASW Cymru, says that bringing local authority social services under this regime is a good idea but notes that the important question is how they could be punished in practice should they breach standards.

“When I’ve spoken to the Welsh government they have said that they can’t stop a local authority providing services and of course that’s a difficulty but there are ways of doing this,” he says. “One way would be to name and shame councils, another would be financial penalties. Financial penalties might sound perverse but there’s nothing that inspires an employer to correct things more than attaching a pound sign to the problem.”

But Ellis Williams, the lead director of the workforce policy group at the Association of Directors for Social Services Cymru, says the measure won’t present a big change for councils. “If all they are talking about is upholding standards that we would ourselves uphold then we’d welcome this,” he says. “If we are not upholding these standards we should be rightly criticised. This is about improving the lives of young people and older people and we would want to make it work.”

Instead it is the plan to require private and voluntary sector providers of social work to register with the inspectorate that is likely to have bigger implications, he says.

The bill could also see certain tasks being reserved for social care staff with specific qualifications – in effect fencing off some activities as ones that only qualified social workers should handle. As an example of what this could mean in practice, the Welsh government’s consultation on the bill floats the idea of only allowing qualified social workers to handle child and adult safeguarding investigations.

Moulster believes it’s a sound idea. “Some employers think they can meet certain targets on the cheap by using unqualified staff, but that brings a danger of unqualified workers who lack the experience and knowledge not getting the assessment right,” he says. “This would tie tasks to the training and expertise that social workers have.”

Williams says that it is likely that it would only apply to child protection and adult protection investigations for the foreseeable future although as the career pathway for social work in Wales is implemented there may be opportunities to expand its scope.  “I think they will be fairly cautious about extending this widely,” he says. “Child protection and adult protection is fairly safe territory. There would be little dispute about those.”

Williams adds that since these safeguarding tasks are already largely performed by qualified social workers, implementing the measure is unlikely to cause any issues for councils.

What the Social Services (Wales) Bill would mean for:

Adoption

A National Adoption Service would be created to take over from local authorities as the service that recruits, trains and assesses potential adopters. The Welsh government hopes the National Adoption Service would reduce delays thanks to the pooling of expertise and economies of scale.

Assessments

Councils would be required to provide accessible information and advice on social care services and to assess any person who may have needs that can be met by a social care service. Once someone has been assessed as being in need, local authorities would be required to prepare a care and support plan for them in conjunction with partner agencies such as the NHS and keep that plan under review. Welsh ministers would be given the power to set how assessments are conducted. Assessments would also be portable so that when a service user moves to a different local authority in Wales their new local authority would be obliged to adhere to that assessment until it reviews that assessment.

Management

Guidance for Welsh social services departments would be streamlined into a single code of practice. Welsh ministers would be handed powers to decide what qualities every director of social services must have and local authorities would be allowed to share their social services director with other councils.

Safeguarding

The bill would create the National Independent Safeguarding Board, which would oversee work on adult and child safeguarding throughout Wales. The number of local safeguarding children’s boards would be reduced from 22 to six that match the country’s policing and NHS regions. Adult protection would be put on a statutory footing, and adult protection boards would be merged with the six safeguarding children’s boards. Those who work with adults at risk would be required by law to report suspected abuse to social services.


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