by Andy McNicoll and Luke Stevenson
Last week the government published the Children and Social Work Bill – a set of legislation it hopes will drive up standards in the profession. What does the legislation have in store for practitioners? Here are five key changes…
1. Government will have more control over your professional standards
— UK Prime Minister (@Number10gov) 18 May 2016
What’s the change? The bill allows the government to potentially directly regulate social workers, or set up a government-controlled body for social workers. This would replace the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), an organisation financially and operationally independent, as social work’s regulator. The move would also hand government control of the conditions of registration and continued registration.
Why’s it happening? The government says the new social work regulator will have a “relentless focus” on the profession. The inference is the HCPC, in regulating 16 professions in total, cannot or will not give social work the attention the government feels the profession needs.
Any concerns? The British Association of Social Workers fears a shift to direct government regulation of social workers risks professional standards being dictated by short-term political priorities rather than the profession’s evidence-base. No other health and care profession is directly regulated by government but are instead answerable to parliament. There also question marks over how much the new regulatory system will cost, and who will pay for it.
2. You could face criminal offences for misconduct
What’s the change? The bill allows for a set of criminal offences to be introduced for social work misconduct. The offences could apply to practitioners who fail to comply with restrictions on registration or in cases where social workers facing fitness-to-practise cases fail to attend hearings or provide evidence in their defence.
Why’s it happening? Not sure. The government hasn’t set out any arguments for this measure and it was not mentioned in the build-up to the bill.
Any concerns? The move shifts the emphasis of fitness-to-practise from a focus on public protection to the punishment of practitioners.
3. You could be exempt from meeting certain statutory duties
What’s the change? The bill allows the government to ‘exempt’ local authorities from legal duties under certain pieces of children’s social care legislation, including some sections of the Children Act 1989 and the Children Act 2004. The freedoms can be applied for up to six years.
Why’s it happening? The government says the change will allow councils to test out new ways of working in a bid to achieve better outcomes or achieve the same outcomes “more efficiently”. Ministers want to give local authorities “academy-style freedoms” to allow them to innovate and the Department for Education is working with several councils to identify what they need.
Any concerns? Legal blogger Suesspiciousminds has raised concerns the powers will open the door to “academy-style incentives” and, if it goes through as drafted, “opens the door for profit by private sector companies by removing chunks of duties”. The move will also renew longstanding concerns that the government wants to move to an ‘academies’ model in children’s social care, with services backed by a mix of public and corporate funding.
4. You could have to change the way you carry out assessments
What’s the change? Social workers will have to factor in the impact of harm a child has previously suffered, or are likely to suffer in future, as part of their permanency assessments and plans for care proceedings. How well the current and future needs of the child, and the way in which they can be met by the parents, will also have to be considered. In practice many social workers will already do this, but the bill enshrines it in law.
Why’s it happening? David Cameron has said he is “unashamedly pro-adoption”. The government want to increase use of adoption following a dramatic fall in adoption orders since a landmark family court ruling (Re B-S) in 2013 said orders contemplating non-consensual adoption should be used as a “last resort” when all other options had been exhausted. Downing Street says the changes in the bill will “tip the balance” in favour of adoption.
Any concerns? The main concerns so far have focused on Cameron’s spin around these changes, with question marks raised over the claim they “tip the balance” in favour of adoption. In general people have expressed support for the bill essentially enshrining good practice in law.
Adoption UK has said the legislation could bring balance back to proceedings in light of the B-S case. Writing in Community Care, social worker and adoption and fostering expert Andy Elvin said the move was “eminently sensible” as it would raise the bar for all care planning but he dismissed the suggestion it was a fundamental change in law that would increase adoptions.
5. Your social work training could change
What’s the change? The potential for social work to become directly regulated by government could hand ministers control over the way social work education providers have to operate in order to be accredited.
Why’s it happening? The Department for Education feels social work education is currently producing too many graduates that are “poorly trained and not ready for frontline practice”.
The DfE has longstanding criticism of courses. Back in 2013 Michael Gove, then education secretary, claimed too many social workers had been filled with “idealistic” dogma that viewed people as victims of social injustice. Gove vowed to “strip this sort of thinking out of the profession”. The government gatekeeping the approval of courses would be one way of doing it.
Any concerns? Social work education providers fear the government is creating an increasingly two-tier system in education, offering financial backing and praise for fast-track training providers and criticism and funding cuts for traditional university routes. Those concerns are likely to intensify given the measures in the bill.
So what happens next?
The bill has had its first reading and will now be debated in the House or Lords on 14 June. There will then be three more opportunities for peers to debate the measures and table amendments. Amendments are voted on.
The bill then goes to the House of Commons to be scrutinised by MPs. Again there is a first reading followed by four separate stages of scrutiny. Again amendments are voted on. Once a final bill is agreed. You can read more about the process in this guide to the passage of a bill.