The regulation and professional standards of social workers could be directly run by government, under legislation published today.
The Children and Social Work Bill will give the government powers to directly regulate social workers and set professional standards, or create a body to take on these functions.
The move would make social workers the only health and social care profession to be directly regulated by government.
It would also mark a u-turn from the government’s decision in 2012 to hand responsibility for social work regulation to the Health Professions Council, now the Health and Care Professions Council.
Loss of independence
At the time the government said it was “confident that the HPC is well placed to take on the regulation of social workers and that this option will be best in the long-term for the public, social workers and their employers by delivering independent and sustainable regulation.”
It added: “Making social worker regulation in England independent of government and placing it with a proven successful and efficient regulator is in keeping with the Hampton Principles [from a government review of regulation]. This should lead to better regulation and improved public safety.”
The British Association of Social Workers raised concerns over any move to take professional standards and regulation away from an independent body.
Ruth Allen, BASW’s chief executive, said: “The point of an independent regulator is that standards can be set that reflect fundamental good practice and good evidence. It means they are not simply driven by government policy over short periods of time.
“The risk of the government being the regulator is that professional standards will follow specific policy lines of a particular government rather than the profession’s evidence base that’s been gathered for many years. Government cannot create a profession.”
‘Driven by children’s reform agenda’
Allen said BASW was “very concerned” the changes were being driven by the children’s social work reform agenda despite social workers working in a “diverse” range of settings beyond children’s services.
“Regulation and standard setting needs to meet the requirements of a capable profession across all specialisms,” she said.
“We need to know a lot more about what government is going to do to involve the professional body [BASW] in setting core standards, informing post-qualifying awards and developing a CPD framework for the whole of social work.”
The new chosen regulatory system will oversee accreditation of social workers. It will also approve social work education providers, including training courses for approved mental health professionals and best interests assessors.
Much of the detail on how the new system will work is not set out in the Children and Social Work Bill itself. This is contrary to the standard approach under which regulators are established by primary legislation.
Instead details will largely be determined by regulations. These will, for example, dictate the identity of the regulator, the scope of the fitness-to-practise regime, the eligibility criteria for the register and will potentially also introduce criminal offences for social worker misconduct.
The government is required to launch a public consultation on the regulations.
Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, said: “I am determined that social workers are able to carry out their role in the best interests of the children and families in their care, and am delighted that raising the standard of social work practice is central to this bill.
“The bill will allow the government to create a new regulator to oversee the social work profession – it will have a relentless focus on raising the quality of social work, education, training and practice in both children’s and adult’s social work.”
The bill also includes a series of changes to the way councils deliver social care. These include moves to strengthen the rights of care leavers and new powers for the government to ‘exempt’ children’s services from certain legal duties. Read about those changes here.