By Lyn Romeo and Isabelle Trowler
With all that has happened in the past week, it’s easy to forget that policy making never really stops. As chief social workers, we are as committed as ever to improving the lives of children and adults and the social work profession as a whole.
The Children and Social Work Bill continues to move forward. It is a wide-ranging bill that will allow the provision of greater support to young people in care. It will also make clear the duties of the local authority and extend the offer of support from a personal adviser to all care leavers up to age 25.
Today, however, we would like to talk about the second part of the bill, containing the clauses allowing government to legislate for a new regulatory body for all social workers.
We suspect that this will be the headline proposal for many social workers, and that since it was first announced by the education secretary in January, lots of people across the profession have had questions.
This week, the health and education departments published a policy statement on the regulation of social workers, alongside a set of indicative regulations, which set out how the new arrangements will work.
This is the first time we have been in a position to offer this level of detail and we would like to help explain what the new regulator will mean for the profession.
Committed to one profession
The first thing we should make clear is that the regulator will be for the whole of the profession across England. We are firmly committed to maintaining a single social work profession with a single standard of qualification enabling registration.
Of course, like many people in the profession, we know that different parts of the profession face different challenges. Ensuring that mainstream qualifying programmes are well placed to respond to the challenges that social work faces in delivering best life chances for all, as well as supporting programmes like Frontline and Think Ahead, is essential to addressing those challenges.
But getting the new regulator right is about much more than initial training. We need both initial and post qualification standards of professional practice and a robust system of regulation which secures the highest levels of practice, including the development of career pathways in specialist areas of practice.
A closer relationship with government
The policy statement confirms that government will initially establish the new regulator as an executive agency. It will be jointly supported by both the Department of Health and Department for Education.
We know that this closer relationship with government will cause some concern but believe that this is the right model to deliver the changes that we all want to see as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Government has recognised the concerns by committing to reviewing the arrangements after three years, to consider whether the regulator should be moved to a more independent footing.
The government wants and is committed to working in partnership with the sector and the profession. This is an opportunity for social workers to influence and shape the standards and regulatory approach that are right for the profession, and most importantly, right for the people we serve.
Opportunity for debate
There will be plenty of opportunity for debate. The policy statement makes firm commitments to engage with the sector and consult on proposals to ensure that new standards are developed in partnership with the profession – and we are very keen that as many people as possible contribute towards establishing the regulatory regime that the profession deserves.
It is important for us to remember that many social workers carry out statutory functions on behalf of the state – we make decisions that can lead to the temporary or long-term removal of children from their families or to the deprivation of liberty, including compulsory admission to hospital under the mental health act.
The government relies upon social workers to do these things and to do them well. Given the importance of what we do, the opportunity to have government having a stake in the standards expected of us, supports how vital and valued our work is.
Our profession is based on the values of respect and dignity for all, commitment to equality and fairness and working to improve life chances and well-being for everyone, so social justice is at its heart. We believe it is our role to ensure, with practitioners, academics and employers that this remains at the heart of excellent social work practice.
Fitness to practise
While there will be changes, things will not change for change’s sake. With fitness to practise, we expect the broad framework to stay much the same, although there will be improvements. We want to hear from the sector on the operation of the current framework and we will also be incorporating improvements recommended by the Law Commission, in its recent review of regulation.
Social work offences, the subject of much debate when the bill was first published, will also remain broadly the same.
It has been suggested that social workers who fail to meet the new professional standards will be prosecuted. This will absolutely not be the case. The title of social worker will remain protected; meaning that only those who are properly qualified and registered can call themselves social workers. False representation to being registered or to entries in the register or qualifications will also continue to be offences.
It is here – in relation to false representation – that the offence provisions will be slightly extended to include those who falsely represent having undertaken a course of education or training relevant to social work. This is a small but important change that will provide further reassurance that social workers have the necessary competence and skills, particularly in relation to their specialisms.
It’s impossible to cover the full breadth of the new regulator in so few words. That’s why the policy statement was published and we would encourage you to read it and to engage through the various opportunities for engagement and dialogue in the coming months.
We will, of course, continue to engage as much as we can through events and visits, and look forward to working with you in the formation of a new, dedicated regulator for social workers.
Lyn Romeo is the chief social worker for adults. Isabelle Trowler is the chief social worker for children.