By Ray Jones
The Children and Social Work Bill released on Friday is the most dramatic and significant legislation the social work profession has seen.
The legislation surpasses, and undoes many of the positives of, the Care Standards Act 2000. With that legislation, which came into force in 2002, the government wanted to strengthen the profession of social work. To do so it introduced:
- Social work as a graduate profession.
- Social work as a protected title so that only those who were appropriately qualified and registered could be called social workers.
- An independent professional regulator (the General Social Services Council) to approve, regulate, register, and review and re-register social workers, and to remove registrations, and to assess and approve social work education providers.
Now, in 2016, the government is determined to make social work politically controlled and no longer an independent profession. The new bill will achieve this by giving the secretary of state powers to:
- Decide on the education and training of social workers, dictate the content of this education and training, and who should provide it in qualifying programmes, CPD, and advanced specialist programmes such as best interest assessor training.
- Decide on the accreditation frameworks, processes and standards for those who have qualified as social workers and therefore determine post-qualification who will be allowed to practice.
- Directly regulate social workers – and social work education providers – or set up an agency accountable to the government required to meet criteria set by the government.
And this will all be achieved not through open and full parliamentary debate and approval but through the secretary of state issuing statutory regulations.
The government previously took this approach to reform in 2014 when it changed regulations to allow third party providers to provide statutory children’s social work functions. Under the regulations, these organisations would not be required to be regulated, registered, or inspected.
The 2014 changes prepared the ground for statutory children’s services to be opened up to the marketplace. Since the changes were made David Cameron has hailed the role of “insurgent companies” and promised “zero tolerance of state failure” in social care.
At the Department for Education these new providers have been called ‘newcos’ (new companies. Discussions were held with Serco, G4S, Mouchel, Amey, Virgin Care and others.
It is in this context that another set of major changes in the Children and Social Work Bill must be seen. Section 15 of the bill offers government the power to grant exemptions to local authorities from statutory duties. The government has presented these changes as offering the “power to test different ways of working”. No doubt to “insurgent companies” this starts to look attractive.
So we have a bill that increases political control of who and what social workers are to be, alongside measures that aid the political ambition to move statutory children’s services outside of councils and into a market place.
The legislation provides the power to give greater freedoms for current and any future providers and for this to be promoted and achieved without further political debate. And to date Labour as the major parliamentary opposition have shown no interest or appetite to challenge the government and its declared intentions.
Marginalisation of social work’s voice
This is all happening against a backdrop of an undermining of the organisations set up to give social work a voice.
First there is the loss of The College of Social Work. The Department for Education snubbed The College’s bid for a £2m contract for the development of accreditation standards for children’s social work, instead awarding the funding to KPMG and Morning Lane Associates. The decision played a key part in The College’s closure.
Then there is the continued marginalisation of a set of professional standards – the Professional Capabilities Framework – that were developed through the Social Work Reform Board and championed by the British Association of Social Workers. Instead the chief social worker for children has developed her own standards statement for children’s social workers.
Now, as described above, we also have the removal of an independent regulator for the profession – the Health and Care Professions Council.
These changes, which create intensified political control of social work, are tagged on to the end of the Children and Social Work Bill. They come behind the first section which makes a set of what look like positive proposals to enhance the care and life-chances of care leavers and the education of looked-after children (albeit the major cuts to councils will see the rhetoric of the legislation hitting the hard reality of frontline funding).
Yet even in this more positive section of the bill, there is the intention to ramp up political control through the news that a ‘Child Safeguarding Review Panel’ will be set up by the secretary of state.
This in effect, it seems, will take over the control of the doing and reporting of what were previously serious case reviews commissioned and reported by Local Safeguarding Children Boards.
Through regulations and guidance the government will be able to determine when and how reviews should be done, who should do them, whether they are acceptable or not, and how they should be published.
I fear we may be walking into a nightmare of the demise of an independent profession of social work and the advent of social work increasingly politically controlled and even more as an agent of government.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, and a former director of social services.
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