Further delays to the closure of the General Social Care Council could lead to confusion and problems in registration renewals for social workers, experts have warned.
The government confirmed that it has delayed the handover of regulation of social workers in England from the GSCC to the Health Professions Council from April 2012 to July 2012.
This is because the Department of Health has put the Health and Social Care Bill, which legislates for the changes, on hold for three months as part of its “NHS listening exercise” – intended to address strong opposition to government plans to reform the NHS.
Melanie Henwood, an independent social care consultant and former vice chair of the GSCC, said there could be some advantages to the delay, including a smoother handover between the two regulators.
But she warned against further delays beyond July 2012: “This would add to public confusion and could lead to social workers failing to renew their registration on time.”
She added: “It is also important for the staff and conduct panel members working for the GSCC that they have clarity about the timetable they are working to.
“Further uncertainty would be disruptive and could create capacity issues, making a managed handover to the HPC more challenging to deliver.”
A spokesperson for BASW – the College of Social Work agreed that it could cause concern if the delay was to “drag on”.
The GSCC is urging social workers and students to continue registering and re-registering as usual until the HPC takes over. The GSCC’s chief executive Penny Thompson said: “The three month delay will give us an excellent opportunity to fulfil our objectives and facilitate an efficient and effective transfer to the HPC.”
Hilary Tompsett, chair of the Joint University Council’s social work education committee, said the additional three months would allow the Social Work Reform Board to further clarify the professional capabilities framework and arrangements for post-qualifying training.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health explained: “We have taken the opportunity of a natural break in the passage of the Bill to pause, listen, reflect on and improve our plans to modernise the NHS. The transfer of the function for the regulation of social workers to the HPC, which will be re-named the Health and Care Professions Council, will now take place in July 2012. This is because the transfer relies on legislative changes being made as part of the Health and Social Care Bill 2011.”
Many in the sector have refuted suggestions that the delay indicates any significant reconsideration of government policy on the issue.
However, Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, London, argued that there was an emerging trend towards valuing specialist social care bodies.
He said this was exemplified by a recent recommendation by MPs to split Ofsted into two inspectorates, separately overseeing children’s social care and education.
“Within that context, the merger of the GSCC’s regulatory responsibilities with the HPC seems to stand out against a trend,” said Jones.
“The delay may offer some opportunity of reflecting further on whether it’s sensible to have social work merged into a regulatory authority which is largely focussed on health professions.”
The DH spokesperson added that the GSCC and HPC would continue to liaise with the Social Work Reform Board, and the Department did not anticipate the delay to the wider programme to reform the social work profession.