By Ruth Allen, BASW chief executive
The Children and Social Work Bill has huge implications for the future of children’s social care and for all social workers – in children and adults services.
These proposals could be a defining moment for our profession and require serious debate. As the professional body for social work BASW (the British Association of Social Workers) is taking a lead in working with other organisations and practitioners in developing our collective position, influence and actions.
Putting ‘children’ and ‘social work’ together in the bill’s title shows how the government’s view of social work continues to be defined through a narrow focus on child protection. In BASW we are acutely aware that most of the 90,000 social workers in England work in other fields. All need to have their voice heard and their expertise given profile.
The bill is a curate’s egg in that it starts with some good proposals to improve services for children in care. Ahead of the bill’s publication there was concern it would give yet more emphasis to adoption as the government’s preferred permanence choice but, in practice, the legislation proposes little that would change day-to-day decision-making.
It is instead the rest of the bill which raises profound implications and concerns, not only for all of social work but for the direction of travel for children’s services and the protection of children’s rights and entitlements.
For the profession, the most significant elements are the changes proposed for the regulation of social work. The legislation proposes powers which could give unprecedented direct control over social work regulation to the (unspecified) Secretary of State. This could change the working lives of all of us in the profession.
It is important to recognise that the Department for Education and the Department of Health have worked together to make proposals for whole-profession regulation – a split between adults and children’s social work was possible and would have been disastrous. But the question now is, under what controlling hand?
BASW’s position is that retaining an independent regulatory system for social work is a key constitutional and professional requirement. The need for independence is particularly important because in many situations social workers act as agents of the state (e.g. as Approved Mental Health Professionals or in child protection). It is important for public confidence that they do so in a way that is just, has cross-party support and is independent from immediately prevailing government ideology and policies.
Independence of the regulator has been sacrosanct for all other health and care professions. The Children and Social Work Bill potentially places social work in a unique position, controlled and directly accountable to the minister/s of the day in terms of their very fitness to practice and judgements on adherence to standards.
There have been reports that civil servants promoting the bill have said this is motivated by the view that social work lacks ‘maturity’ as a profession. The implication is that we still need a ‘nanny state’ to bring us into professional adulthood. The irony of this being led by the Department for Education and children’s social care is not lost on us! We would dispute that the profession is immature – but development will be hampered if there is a lack of respect and mature dialogue with the profession.
While we may still be a new profession chronologically compared to our colleagues in medicine or law, the further development of social work and public confidence in social workers can only be achieved through the profession shaping change and leading on its own excellent practice. No profession can be created by government; it must be owned and developed from evidence, ethics and the reality of day to day practice.
The role of BASW as the professional body for social work and social workers needs to be recognised in the development of any new regulatory arrangement – in setting standards and ethics, in providing post-qualifying development frameworks and leading the way on the profession owning its own standards and commitment to highest quality.
BASW should be key to developing and setting the quality framework for all parts of our profession, including seeing English social work in its international context.
The bill also proposes giving local authorities the opportunity to opt out of meeting aspects of statutory duties towards children (e.g. as laid out in the 1989 and 2004 Children Acts) where better outcomes ‘may’ be achieved through other means.
This is designed to give local authorities ‘Powers to test new ways of working’. This may be aimed at promoting innovation which is always needed, but we believe this is also aimed at incentivising new providers of children’s social work to enter the market, paving the way for more children’s services to come out of direct local authority control.
As an association we’re very concerned about the ethics of loosening democratic accountability of social work services in this way and denying children access to rights and entitlements within existing legislation. The loosely worded proposals also seem to leave local authorities wide open to legal challenge about their rationale for opting out of statutory provisions and could leave the DfE itself open to challenge if authorising opt out.
We will be working on these and all aspects of the bill on behalf of the profession and people using social work services.