‘The government’s new legislation will strip social workers of our independence’

The Children and Social Work Bill shows the government’s determination to make social work a politically-controlled profession

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.

Granting ‘freedoms’

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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6 Responses to ‘The government’s new legislation will strip social workers of our independence’

  1. Heather Pritchard May 23, 2016 at 5:59 pm #

    Presumably the plan to outsource statutory services is based on the outstanding success of the management of Young Offender Institutions by organisations like G4s Serco and the like. Unfortunately too many of the profession have been asleep at the wheel or too busy and too worn out to summon the energy to mount a rearguard action. I should like to be able to say that I will be in the vanguard of any action to stem this tide of destruction but I fear that the juggernaut of government ideology will inexorably sweep all before it. Sad times.

  2. PeteFeldon May 24, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    And if they succeed with social work, who will they come for next?

    • Heather Pritchard May 24, 2016 at 7:48 pm #

      I take your point but I feel that I can honestly say that over the years (and there have been more than I will admit to), I have fought to uphold standards, support colleagues and work together with other professionals. I have wrestled with the dilemma of whether social work is an agent of social change or social control and I fear the introduction of this bill will tip the balance toward the latter, contributing to the raft of measures which increase the subjugation of the disadvantaged whilst giving the appearance of improving their lot

  3. Hilton Dawson May 24, 2016 at 11:16 am #

    An important bill before Parliament & Ray Jones does social work no favours by greeting it with bluster & incoherence.
    The strength of social work is in its international codes of ethics and principles, in its global preparedness to work with and for individuals, families and communities whatever the circumstances and policies of the state.
    Suddenly deciding that social work is about to lose its ‘independence’ because of changes to regulation and raising standards seems bizarre. Fulminating against the removal of local authorities from their near monopoly position with regard to social work practice and outcomes flies in the face of so much failure over the years.
    It wasn’t the government who brought the College of Social Work down but those who so arrogantly ran it without taking heed of the voices of the profession.
    Genuine organisations run by this most radical profession will always be ignored by governments intent on imposing their own ideology on the rest of us. However social work and social workers will go on – making the best and taking the opportunities to serve people well, wherever and however they occur.
    There may be a chance to serve children and young people in and leaving care better with this new approach to legislation. That’s where the real focus of our profession should be.

  4. Yvonne Bon if as May 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

    I cannot fod the lifeof me understand why anyone should think that socialwork is an independent ptofession. In living memory social work is a bureacratic construct, working to implement legal duties as delegated to local authorities. It has never been a role which can “change society” and sw academics should be had upfor fraud for suggesting it is. If you want to change society, be a lawyer, a politician or a technologist.

    As they say in the army, if you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.

  5. Mark May 26, 2016 at 10:23 am #

    One only needs to look at the Health Service where Virgin are now running some outsourced provisions to be very concerned about the way ahead. As a social worker with over 30 years of child protection experience I can only see any moves to move Children’s Services into the hands of the private sector, profit making or not, to be a disaster waiting to happen. In my opinion the method of cash starving a Local Authority to the point where services cannot safely be provided, so that they can then be taken over is a disgrace. Even looking at it from a non political stand point, to put staff and service users through this is wholly unacceptable and goes against everything that social work stands for. It is no wonder that more and more social workers are leaving the profession or signing up to agencies. What really concerns me is that it appears that most Directors of Social Services departments remain silent on the matter. Whilst some have been parachuted in to improve services on obscenely high rates of pay, others have presided over the collapse of their own service due to funding cuts without an utterance of protest or group representation to government. Personally I would hold my head in shame and resign. I would like to see Directors publicly defending their staff, publicly resist budget cuts, publicly advocate for service users and publicly walk away if they are professionally compromised. Unlike junior doctors, teachers, and the police, social care professionals are too ready to take the punch on the chin and just get on with it. Whilst we continue to do so every part of social care is falling apart, where more service users will be at risk, whether they are the child on a child in need plan or they an older person trying to safely live in their own home.