An Inspector Calls

    There could be lots of desk tidying and organising of case files in
    Scotland’s social work services come 1 April. No, it is not
    national feng shui day but rather the date when the new Social Work
    Inspection Agency (SWIA) officially replaces the existing Social
    Work Services Inspectorate (SWSI).

    Formally announced by the Scottish executive last year, the SWIA
    was created in the wake of two high profile cases: the death of
    11-week-old Caleb Ness in Edinburgh and the Borders inquiry
    conducted by the SWSI and the Mental Welfare Commission. Both
    highlighted systematic failures and neither reflected well on the
    organisations involved and exposed the belief that the SWSI’s remit
    did not go far enough.

    The SWIA will have four specific functions: inspection and review
    of social work and social care services; evaluation of services;
    additional investigative work commissioned from the Scottish
    executive; and providing professional advice to ministers. It will
    operate independently when inspecting social work services but be
    directly accountable to the Scottish executive.

    A consultation on the SWIA’s draft framework closed earlier this
    month. In the introduction Peter Peacock, Scotland’s minister for
    education and young people, wrote that the Scottish parliament and
    ministers are committed to identifying “best practice in social
    work services, driving up standards and improving quality of social
    work services” across the country. He added that “rigorous
    independent inspections and reviews” of all social work services
    were vital to achieve these aims.

    A shadow version of the SWIA has been in operation since July 2004,
    and its 15 inspectors and three deputy chief inspectors will all be
    transferring over. New inspectors and a fourth deputy chief
    inspector are being recruited and by spring next year the agency
    intends to have 27 inspectors in post. Alexis Jay, the president of
    the Association of Directors of Social Work (ADSW), has been
    seconded to the agency as chief executive and chief social work
    inspector for 18 months.

    Jay is ideally suited to the role as she spent most of her social
    work career employed by local authorities – and she is looking
    forward to her new position. “The agency is needed because there
    has been no robust, central, systematic approach to inspections in
    place in the same way as education has benefited from for years,”
    she says.

    Many feel that establishing such an inspection agency will give
    social work services the credibility they need.

    The SWIA will inspect social work services provided by or on behalf
    of local authorities, leaving the Scottish Care Commission to
    oversee the care services, including fostering, housing services
    and care homes, that are often provided by the voluntary sector.
    This is different from England where the Commission for Social Care
    Inspection covers both, having taken on the work previously
    conducted by the Social Services Inspectorate and the National Care
    Standards Commission. Whether inspection and regulation is better
    carried out by one single agency is yet to be seen.

    What about the risk of overlap between the SWIA and the Scottish
    Care Commission and between other bodies that review services such
    as the Audit Commission and Inspectorate for Children’s Services?
    Jay says that, while the new inspection agency has a specific
    remit, agreements will need to be established on areas where there
    is potential for overlap. “We don’t want to duplicate work or
    confuse service users. There needs to be clarity for service users
    and providers of services.”

    To prevent duplication, the inspection bodies will need to
    establish clear and distinct ways of working – providers already
    encounter enough inspectors. Could it be a case of too many cooks
    spoiling the broth?

    Colin Mackenzie, ADSW vice-president, insists the association will
    be “very quick” to point out any duplication and to take it up with
    the Scottish executive. He adds: “The SWIA needs to develop a light
    touch in inspection – not in terms of getting to the facts but so
    that there isn’t repetition with different inspectors going to the
    same providers.”

    Repairing the damage done by the Caleb Ness case and the Borders
    inquiry is vital if the SWIA is to succeed. Ruth Stark,
    professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers
    in Scotland, believes the new agency will help to highlight the
    positive work done by social work professionals. “Because there is
    a lack of information about inspection of services there has been
    no strong evidence for politicians to use to credit that work that
    is done by people in the industry,” she says.

    During its first year the inspection agency needs to build
    constructive working relationships with local authorities,
    voluntary organisations and users so as not to be seen as
    “outsiders coming in”, says Stephen Smellie, chair of the social
    work issues group at Unison Scotland. “The agency should establish
    good lines of communication, share information and listen to
    people. Everyone should be an equal partner,” he says. In addition,
    service users need to be involved in the inspection process.

    Expectations of the new agency are high. The SWIA is fine-tuning
    its methodology so that it fits in with the way other inspectorates
    work. It hopes to have it agreed by the end of April and to have
    conducted several pilot inspections by December. The aim is for all
    of Scotland’s 32 local authority social work services to be
    inspected within the next few years.

    So after much anticipation, what is the likely impact of the new
    agency for social work professionals? Mackenzie says that imposing
    inspections on practitioners “will not be helpful”. He believes
    that social work staff should be seconded to the agency as
    inspectors. This would have a two-fold benefit – the inspectors
    would be more knowledgeable about what takes place on the ground
    and the agency would not have to rely solely on permanent staff.

    Smellie thinks that the agency needs to be proactive rather than
    reactive. “If inspectors come in looking for faults in a narrow
    way, without looking at the situation in the whole, it will be a
    problem.”

    But what is the biggest fear? On this, Jay is clear: “For local
    authorities to feel the SWIA is not making an important
    contribution to improving practice and for service users to feel we
    are not making a difference for them.”

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