By Professor Brid Featherstone
The Children and Social Work Bill contains a proposal that could significantly change the way social workers in England are regulated, yet few practitioners seem aware of it.
The legislation will introduce a new social work focused regulator to take over the HCPC’s remit for overseeing our profession. When I’ve mentioned the move to social workers it has taken most by surprise. Their second reaction has been to ask – is this a good or a bad thing?
It’s a good question and one I’ve found myself asking employers, civil servants and families since the bill was announced. Pinning down an answer is made harder by certain ambiguities in the way the legislation is worded but it’s worth considering the potential pros and cons of the plans.
Firstly having a dedicated social work regulator is, I think, good news (although I do wonder how costly it will prove and who will pay). It provides an important opportunity to focus on the profession, its education and practice and contribute to the debates and changes that are necessary for social work to grow in confidence and standing.
Secondly, it is indeed possible to see the proposal as evidence of this government’s often stated commitment to social work and its wish to support excellent standards of practice.
Thirdly, there could be opportunities offered by the change. These include integrating qualifying and post-qualifying education and establishing stronger mechanisms for strengthening public confidence in both education and practice.
Loss of independence?
Running counter to these factors are concerns that the proposal in the bill could see social work regulation lose its independence, and for me that casts a pall over this particular area of social work reform.
The legislation leaves open the possibility that social workers could be regulated by a newly created body (that is what has been promised by ministers) or even directly by the secretary of state.
The bill does not specify which secretary of state would be involved. This is a key issue given both the Department for Education and the Department of Health have a stake in social work. The legislation also does not specify if any new body would be controlled by government or not (the HCPC is financially and operationally independent).
Details may be, and certainly should be, forthcoming on what the government’s preferred position is. However, under the bill as it stands, it is entirely possible that ministers will transfer the existing regulatory functions away from the HCPC to a secretary of state or a body overseen by them.
Why it matters
Why does this matter? For a start this would be a significant shift of significant powers. The HCPC decides who should be regarded as appropriately qualified to join the register and practice as a qualified social worker. It sets the remit for the fitness to practise process and conduct hearings that can lead to removal from the register. It decides the criteria social work education providers must meet to become accredited.
There is also a matter of principle. Why should social workers be regulated by government? Other professions such as nursing and medicine are not. They are all public service professions using professional skill and judgement to make vital and potentially life changing decisions and provide skilled services to vulnerable members of the public.
Bringing regulation under government control also runs the risk of sending a really demoralising set of signals to the sector. While the intent might be benign, the loss of independence is likely to be read as evidence that social work is really not up to it and needs a close eye kept on it.
It will increase fears that we are retreating to a pre-Munro landscape where we require lots and lots of government monitoring to keep us in order.
A centralising ethos?
This centralising ethos also feels completely at odds with what government ministers and civil servants have been saying for some time now about what they are seeking to achieve with their reforms. Social workers it is suggested have been disempowered by command and control type initiatives from central government. They should be trusted to exercise their professional judgment and respected as professionals who undertake very complex work.
It is sobering to reflect on these developments just a year after The College of Social Work met its demise. Many of us who got involved with the College did so in order to build a profession committed to the highest standards of social work, one that was robust and self-critical.
We sought to position social work in England as a part of an international profession united by a code of ethics and committed to working alongside service users to advance human rights and social justice. With the College now but a distant dream, the potential loss of an independent regulator signals yet another setback for such a vision.
Brid Featherstone is professor of social work at the University of Huddersfield