All social workers should care about the Children and Social Work Bill

The government’s new legislation might focus on children’s social care but it has huge implications for social workers in all settings, writes Ruth Allen

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Photo: Andy Drysdale/REX

By Ruth Allen, BASW chief executive

The Children and Social Work Bill has huge implications for the future of children’s social care and for all social workers – in children and adults services.

These proposals could be a defining moment for our profession and require serious debate. As the professional body for social work BASW (the British Association of Social Workers) is taking a lead in working with other organisations and practitioners in developing our collective position, influence and actions.

Putting ‘children’ and ‘social work’ together in the bill’s title shows how the government’s view of social work continues to be defined through a narrow focus on child protection. In BASW we are acutely aware that most of the 90,000 social workers in England work in other fields. All need to have their voice heard and their expertise given profile.

The bill is a curate’s egg in that it starts with some good proposals to improve services for children in care. Ahead of the bill’s publication there was concern it would give yet more emphasis to adoption as the government’s preferred permanence choice but, in practice, the legislation proposes little that would change day-to-day decision-making.

It is instead the rest of the bill which raises profound implications and concerns, not only for all of social work but for the direction of travel for children’s services and the protection of children’s rights and entitlements.

Regulation

For the profession, the most significant elements are the changes proposed for the regulation of social work. The legislation proposes powers which could give unprecedented direct control over social work regulation to the (unspecified) Secretary of State. This could change the working lives of all of us in the profession.

It is important to recognise that the Department for Education and the Department of Health have worked together to make proposals for whole-profession regulation – a split between adults and children’s social work was possible and would have been disastrous. But the question now is, under what controlling hand?

BASW’s position is that retaining an independent regulatory system for social work is a key constitutional and professional requirement. The need for independence is particularly important because in many situations social workers act as agents of the state (e.g. as Approved Mental Health Professionals or in child protection). It is important for public confidence that they do so in a way that is just, has cross-party support and is independent from immediately prevailing government ideology and policies.

Independence of the regulator has been sacrosanct for all other health and care professions. The Children and Social Work Bill potentially places social work in a unique position, controlled and directly accountable to the minister/s of the day in terms of their very fitness to practice and judgements on adherence to standards.

There have been reports that civil servants promoting the bill have said this is motivated by the view that social work lacks ‘maturity’ as a profession. The implication is that we still need a ‘nanny state’ to bring us into professional adulthood. The irony of this being led by the Department for Education and children’s social care is not lost on us! We would dispute that the profession is immature – but development will be hampered if there is a lack of respect and mature dialogue with the profession.

While we may still be a new profession chronologically compared to our colleagues in medicine or law, the further development of social work and public confidence in social workers can only be achieved through the profession shaping change and leading on its own excellent practice. No profession can be created by government; it must be owned and developed from evidence, ethics and the reality of day to day practice.

The role of BASW as the professional body for social work and social workers needs to be recognised in the development of any new regulatory arrangement – in setting standards and ethics, in providing post-qualifying development frameworks and leading the way on the profession owning its own standards and commitment to highest quality.

BASW should be key to developing and setting the quality framework for all parts of our profession, including seeing English social work in its international context.

Implications

The bill also proposes giving local authorities the opportunity to opt out of meeting aspects of statutory duties towards children (e.g. as laid out in the 1989 and 2004 Children Acts) where better outcomes ‘may’ be achieved through other means.

This is designed to give local authorities ‘Powers to test new ways of working’. This may be aimed at promoting innovation which is always needed, but we believe this is also aimed at incentivising new providers of children’s social work to enter the market, paving the way for more children’s services to come out of direct local authority control.

As an association we’re very concerned about the ethics of loosening democratic accountability of social work services in this way and denying children access to rights and entitlements within existing legislation. The loosely worded proposals also seem to leave local authorities wide open to legal challenge about their rationale for opting out of statutory provisions and could leave the DfE itself open to challenge if authorising opt out.

We will be working on these and all aspects of the bill on behalf of the profession and people using social work services.

5 Responses to All social workers should care about the Children and Social Work Bill

  1. Hilton Dawson June 14, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    This is a competent summary of some of the key concerns about the Bill and it’s good to see Ruth taking an early opportunity to stress how central BASW should be to any goverment’s efforts on professional standards & policy development.
    A shame though to see this uncritical approach to local authorities. There is an enormous democratic deficit at local level & a huge opportunity for BASW and other professions to work with local communities and people who use services to drive standards.
    Why should the essentially 19thC structures of local government be taken for granted & where among local councils are there really good sustained examples of excellence in practice.
    As a UK organisation operating in a global context it would be good to see BASW leading a drive away from the ‘little England’ thinking that dominates Whitehall & dusting off that BASW Social Work Bill that some of us promoted a little while ago.

  2. londonboy June 14, 2016 at 8:16 pm #

    I’m the mother of an autistic young man who for a brief time was a looked after child. What I experienced as a parent of a neuro-developmentally disabled child in the Care system profoundly shocked me.

    If I had to ask for just two things to change it would be –

    for robust first health checks for disability (ADHD, ASD, Intellectual disability etc) at the point of being taken into care leading to new Care Paths for children with these hidden disabilities.

    and

    a new system of virtual clinicians eg the borough psychologist for disabled LAC and former LAC up to age 25 irrespective of borough placement, level of engagement and whether the young person is out of borough, homeless, in the secure estate or an ATU etc.

    Neither of these provisions nor any similar provisions are includedn the proposed Bill which is largely silent on new ways of meeting the health needs of looked-after-children.

    Please advocate for these changes too

  3. londonboy June 14, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

    The Children and Social Work Bill (soon to be re-named the ‘there are no autistic children in Care Bill’ )

    I took the time to read today’s discussions on the new Children and Social Care Bill available here

    https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2016-06-14/debates/Holdebdt20160614scrlgtgnewdebateod15tichildrenandsocialworkbill(Hl)/ChildrenAndSocialWorkBill(HL)

    I counted the ‘ADHD’ twice and’ Autism ‘or ‘neuro-developmental disability’ not at all – took me 45 minutes to read.

    If I read this in isolation I would think there are no autistic looked-after-children … not one in the whole of the England or Wales!

  4. Denise Roach June 15, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    Well said Hilton

  5. Mary June 17, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    Londonboy raises a valid point and I see where she is coming from, surely this is a perfect opportunity for the experts to start responding to the people who actually matter and use services?
    So what do you say guys? Start talking.