Moves by government to make social work regulation “politically controlled” risk worsening the profession’s recruitment and retention problems, campaigners have warned.
Social work bodies and unions issued a joint call for the government to scrap a section of the Children and Social Work Bill which would hand ministers powers to directly regulate social work.
The bill is currently going through parliament. The government plans to use the powers to set up a new agency, based in the Department for Education and accountable to the education secretary, to take on regulation of social workers from 2018.
The move would hand government control over social work’s professional standards, criteria for approving education providers and fitness to practise. Those functions currently sit with the HCPC, which is financially and operationally independent of government.
In a joint statement five organisations, including the British Association of Social Workers, Unison and academics bodies, raised concerns the move would leave social work “politically controlled” and defined by government agendas. It would also see social work become the only health and care profession to be directly regulated by government.
“This will further weaken trust between [social workers] and Whitehall. It could have a negative impact on the extent to which social workers feel ownership of improvement initiatives and, paradoxically, could stifle the very development of the profession which government states it wants to see,” the group said.
“It could deter some social workers from maintaining their registration. We predict it would also stoke the demoralisation of social workers and the well documented current problems with recruitment and retention in parts of the workforce.”
The group said it was open to exploring ways to reform regulation and improve the accountability of social workers.
“But we are opposed to these proposals that concentrate government control and that contain no incentive for the profession to lead in setting standards and developing its self-governance,” they said.
“Government cannot create a profession. If regulation is to change, we want the case for change to be made with the profession, and if change is needed, it should be founded on a proper collaboration between social workers in practice, social work educators, the representative, independent professional body, and all key stakeholders from across social work and government.”
The group said the regulation changes were one of two sections of the bill that sparked “profound concerns” and should be scrapped.
The other part of the bill they said should be deleted is clause 15. This would hand the government powers to allow councils to “test new ways of working” by granting them exemptions from duties, including sections of the Children Act 1989, for up to three years.
The social work organisations said that rather than promoting innovation, this freedom could lead to fragmentation in children’s social care pathways. A “postcode lottery” for children and families could open local authorities up to legal challenge if service users had poorer outcomes because a council had been able to opt out of duties, they warn.
“We believe Clause 15 fundamentally undermines a rights-based approach to meeting children’s needs,” the group said.
“In practice, rather than simply promoting ‘innovation’ this will lead to more confused and less consistent offers, and the increased likelihood of a postcode lottery for quality and coherence.”
The unions and academics reiterated concerns that the legislation lacked detail and there would be less scrutiny and “democratic accountability” for the specifics.
They argue that the proposed changes to regulation have been put forward in the bill “without any proper prior consultation or dialogue with the social work sector”.
The statement was signed by:
- British Association of Social Workers
- Association of Professors of Social Work
- Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee
- Social Work Action Network
- Social Workers Union
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Leading figures, such as Professor Eileen Munro, have voiced their support for our reforms and the Bill has received widespread praise for the improvements it will deliver for children and the professionals who care for them.
“Our Innovation Programme has already successfully empowered local authorities to re-think the way they approach their children’s services and councils are telling us that they want to go further – the Bill is the next step in this work so they can provide a better service for the families they look after. Establishing a specialist regulator will enable a relentless focus on raising quality, education, training and practice and we will be working with the sector to develop the framework for this.”