Ministers have offered no evidence to justify plans to strip the Health and Care Professions Council of its social work regulation remit, according to the organisation’s chief executive.
Speaking to Community Care, HCPC boss Marc Seale said the government’s decision to create a new social work-specific regulatory body by 2020 would be expensive and likely require a sharp hike in registration fees or substantial public funding to cover the costs.
Ministers want the new body to take on responsibility for regulating social workers, approving social work degree programmes and setting professional standards.
The HCPC currently regulates social work alongside 15 other professions. Seale said the legislation the organisation worked under was “flexible” and questioned why the social work changes sought by the government, including more post-qualifying development, required extra upheaval.
“I don’t think the government has given any justification for it full stop, not necessarily just to us. We like to see ourselves as an evidence-based regulator. You should be able to justify why you do certain things,” he said.
“What we’d be interested in is seeing the evidence for this. There may be some fantastic things needed that we’ve just not thought of, but nobody’s showed us yet.”
A government spokesperson told Community Care too many social work education programmes were producing poor quality trainees and a new direction was needed.
The new body would also oversee implementation of accreditation of children’s social workers, the spokesperson said. This is a Department for Education (DfE) policy that will add extra tests on top of the HCPC standards of proficiency that all social workers must meet to be registered to practice.
Seale said he’d asked the DfE for examples of HCPC approved courses that were producing “incompetent” social workers but “nothing turned up”.
“I said can you tell us the name of the programmes because we have the powers to step in and do something about it? Nothing ever came out of those meetings”.
On accreditation, he said: “The question is for us – if you want a year of [extra] assessments, what’s wrong with the standards of proficiency? Show us the evidence that the people coming onto the register are incompetent because then that’s a crisis and we need to do something about it.”
Education secretary Nicky Morgan announced the plans for a new social work body in January.
A government source said the HCPC had been engaged, and continued to be engaged, with the plans.
Seale said he and his colleagues were given less than 30 minutes’ notice of Morgan’s announcement.
The shock move comes just six years after ministers decided to scrap the General Social Care Council (GSCC’s), a dedicated social work regulator.
The GSCC’s responsibilities for overseeing England’s social workers were transferred to the then Health Professions Council (HPC).
At the time the government said the HPC (it became the HCPC after the move) was the best “long-term” option as it would make the regulation of social workers “financially and operationally independent of government”.
This was because the HPC, as a multi-professional regulator, could deliver economies of scale to fully fund its work through registration fee income. The GSCC, as a single profession regulator, needed around £25m in government funding each year to deliver its functions.
The government estimated a self-financing GSCC would have needed to raise its registration fees from £30 to at least £235 per social worker. The HCPC charges £90.
Seale said the HPC agreed with the government’s cost estimates at the time and the creation of the new social work body would likely cost even more.
“You have two solutions here. The profession pays or the taxpayer pays. The £235 fee figure was about the GSCC, an established regulator, becoming independent of government. It wasn’t about setting up a new body and the costs that come with that,” he said.
“Then you have the nature of what social workers do. It’s a difficult job in sometimes charged environments. The result of that is more fitness-to-practice cases.
“We currently have an infrastructure where our fitness-to-practice costs are spread across all the professions – so 340,000 registrants. So I think a registration fee of £235 might be at the bottom end of the bracket [for a social work-specific body].”
Seale said the HCPC’s financial independence was “really important”. It allowed the regulator to strike a balance between competing pressures from employers – including central and local government – and professional bodies, he said.
Social work education concerns
As part of its regulatory remit, the HCPC is responsible for accrediting social work degree programmes. In his DfE-commissioned review of social work education, Sir Martin Narey was highly critical of the HCPC’s performance in this area and pointed out no course had failed to get HCPC approval.
Narey wrote: “I remain entirely unconvinced that an overwhelmingly paper based exercise and which measures universities against HCPC’s inadequate prescription for social work training, can provide ministers, employers, or potential students with adequate assurance about the quality of individual degree courses.”
Seale said Narey’s report put forward some “interesting ideas” but pointed to the fact the Professional Standards Authority, which oversees the HCPC, rated the organisation as a good regulator in 2014-15. Correspondence from the Department of Health (DH) also said the proposed social work reforms were in “no way a criticism of the work of the HCPC”, he added.
Seale said the way responsibility for social work was split between the DH and DfE differed from other professions.
He said he’d never come across a system where you have one profession “where the political strategy is driven by two different secretaries of state”. However, he stressed that HCPC had a “good relationship” with the DH as well as its equivalents in the devolved nations.
Another challenge specific to social work was the relative weakness of its professional bodies compared to other sectors, he said. This was an issue because it should be the regulator and these bodies, not government, that led discussions on professional standards, he added.
“The debacle with The College and BASW has just been bad for social workers. Just imagine if civil servants were deciding what the standards for radiographers will be. Hopefully BASW is now doing very well and is beginning to articulate some of this…I think a profession is better served by an independent organisation setting up those standards.”
A government spokesperson said: “Whilst some social work training courses are excellent, we know that too many don’t give trainees the skills and knowledge they need. This lets down social work trainees, and moreover, it lets down the children and adults they support.
“That is why we need a new approach to the regulation of profession that has a relentless focus on improving initial training for all social workers. The new body will also oversee the roll out of a new, rigorous assessment and accreditation system for children and family social workers. This will be based around the knowledge and skills we know social workers need to deliver excellent services, helping to empower and support them to do the job they came into the profession to do.”