Why plans for government control of social work are dangerous

The chief social workers are championing changes to regulation that would be unimaginable in other professions, writes Ray Jones

An example of the government's rhetoric on social work reform

by Ray Jones

In an article for Community Care the two chief social workers argue bringing regulation of social work under government control, via an ‘executive agency’ based in the Department for Education, is “the right model”.

The wish for more political involvement in social work could hardly come at a more surprising time. The past week has shown how volatile things can become when politicians act for short-term gain.

In the wake of the EU referendum, we’ve seen disunity, discord and division as our politicians squabble among themselves. Promises made only weeks ago to win favour in the referendum campaign have already been reneged on. In the background we have seen a rise in hate crime as bigots feel empowered to abuse others, including children from Europe living in England.

The current circumstances of national politics may be extreme. The point in mentioning them is that a government-controlled regulator could see key decisions influenced by short-term political priorities (remember how ministers bent to the demands of tabloids in the Baby P case? More of which later). Our current political climate is about as stark a reminder of the dangers of political short-terminism as you’ll get.

Politics in England has shifted to the right. Expect more, with a right wing press, led by The Sun and Daily Mail, gloating about the UK’s exit and a candidate for Prime Minister, Michael Gove, being told by his wife that securing the backing of The Sun proprietor Rupert Murdoch and Mail editor Paul Dacre is key to his leadership ambitions.

When it comes to social work we already know a fair amount about the political agenda led by the government’s Department for Education. This is the proposed home of the new ‘executive agency’ to be tasked with regulating social work. While the government is keen to stress the body will be ‘supported’ by both the DfE and the Department of Health and will cover the whole profession, in legislation the agency will be accountable to the education secretary.

The DfE has advocated for increasing private involvement in children’s social work. It has backed fast-tracked social work education for a privileged cohort of graduates and promised them rapid promotion to leadership roles. It has supported the view that social work education gives too much time and attention to concerns about inequality and disadvantage. Remember Mr Gove, when education secretary, vowing to strip left wing “dogma” out of social work education?

So it ought to cause social workers considerable concern that, from 2018, it is proposed that this ‘executive agency’ based in the DfE would determine who will be allowed to register and practice as social workers; who can be removed from the register and barred from practising; who will be allowed to educate and train social workers; and what the content of social work courses should be.

There is a question mark too over how a government-controlled regulator would respond to a crisis. During the media firestorm surrounding the ‘Baby P’ case social workers were regulated by the GSCC. The GSCC resisted relentless pressure and campaigning from the press for heads to roll. The government at the time did not, and instead caved in to the Sun’s high profile media campaign.

While it received government funding, The GSCC had operational independence from government and was accountable to parliament as a whole, not ministers. The current proposals present a very different picture. Can we trust that the response of a government-controlled regulator will not be influenced the next time the tabloids demand social workers should be hung out to dry?

No other health or care profession in this country is directly regulated by government. It would be surprising if the chief nursing officer was to argue, advocate and facilitate that the nursing profession should be controlled by politicians or an agency on their behalf. And it is beyond imagination that the chief medical officer would back government control over the medical profession, the content of its education, who can provide this education, and who can be doctors.

Yet this is what we now have ahead for social work, with the chief social workers as champions for this change. For a profession such as social work, with its foundations in a strong value base of challenging discrimination and disadvantage and confronting the distress which may result from government policies, it is especially shocking.

If ever there was a time for social workers to create a stronger, louder and independent professional collective voice for the profession and those we seek to assist, it is now.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University

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12 Responses to Why plans for government control of social work are dangerous

  1. jack cordery July 1, 2016 at 11:14 pm #

    I couldn’t agree with you more Ray. It strikes me as a betrayal of social work.

  2. helensparkles July 2, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    Very worrying that our chief social workers advocate this particular change, makes me wonder why they are even considered ‘ours’ they are not. They are government advisors that the government chose.

    • Jonathan Ritchie July 7, 2016 at 10:34 pm #

      The Chief Social Workers are public servants, not representatives of the Social Work Profession.

  3. Nell July 3, 2016 at 10:30 am #

    I have long felt uneasy about the role of the CSWs. Where they choose to intervene and, more significantly, where they do not should be of great interest to us all. It seems that periodically they arise to tell us again how much of a failure the profession is – this is truly at odds with the message we received when they were first in post. You are right of course – the CMO does not adopt the role of constantly denigrating doctors nor of becoming yet another stick to beat them with. There are situations of professional interest where they say absolutely nothing and then when the word reform is mentioned, here they are. I despair. My view is that politics and social work are indivisible as it is because of political decisions that many of our families are in deep distress. No doubt after 30 years I will be past my sell by date under the proposed regulation. That makes me sad because I have (if I say so myself) done a very good job as a practitioner and then a senior manager and despite my left wing views, have never caused a child further harm, in fact I have probably made better decisions because of my own perspective.

  4. Richard Leighton July 3, 2016 at 11:12 am #

    It is indeed a worrying time for a profession, seemingly, under siege from the populist media and government. It is unconscionable for both CSWs to advocate for the ‘hands on’ government oversight of a professional body. As a collective, we cannot and must not let this happen. Better the ‘toothless hag’ of the HCPC than a perniciously, vindictive government appointee to oversee professional practice, education and development.

    Oh, hang on, we have the government appointees in positions of oversight, already! Thankfully, the CSWs are in the ‘toothless’ category already. Will we see a ‘beefing up’ o f their roles, under this proposal? Let’s hope not, at least while they remain political appointees. The alternative, though, that they become even more worthless puppets of successive corrupt and vengeful ministers is a course we cannot afford to allow to happen, either.

    The current CSWs, trotting out dogma, straight from the ministers’ ‘playbooks’ has little effect on the social work profession, at present. To be honest, the CSWs are simply spokes people, for a government, who have social work qualifications and can, hopefully, help the doctrine from government resonate with the practitioners. In essence the experiment has singularly failed. Romero has been a useful ‘link’ for practitioners in the ‘adult’ sector; Trowler less so, much, much less so.

    The two people expected to speak up for the social work profession are sadly silent on the issues that matter to the profession and the practitioners it is their job to represent. Shame on both their houses.

  5. James July 4, 2016 at 11:26 am #

    Like in many other areas, I’m relieved that I made the decision to leave England and return to Scotland. The move to change social work education, fast-track promote privileged careerists who will push government agenda, and increased government control to slash-and-burn the public sector is truly frightening. Won’t get complacent here, though, as we will have our own privatisation agenda when the climate is right. We need collective grass-roots action to safeguard the profession and wider public services.

  6. David Gaylard July 6, 2016 at 12:03 am #

    Professor Jones timely comments of caution are extremely welcome and absolutely correct so need to be reflected upon by our CSWs.

    Would any other profession so uncritically accept government regulation and short- term political idealogical interference? I don’t think so …. especially in the current turbulent socio-economic climate with further public sector cuts and privatisation on the horizon.

    As Professor Jones rightly concludes it is vital for the long-term continuation of the social work profession that it maintains a strong, collective and independent voice. Sadly, it would appear that our CSWs have since become civil servants as oppposed to articulating the views of practitioners in terms of safeguarding the future and development of social work during these hard times.

  7. Clare Evans July 6, 2016 at 2:32 pm #

    Thanks Ray! It is a valuable contribution to show how detrimental it would be for control to move outside the profession. Don’t forget everyone we need social workers who can act without fear of control in the interests of service users based on the value base of the profession.

  8. Jimmy Doyle July 6, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

    Ray Jones makes some critical and valid points on behalf of the social work profession. It is vital that regulation of the profession be independent of government. Current proposals from government are influenced by a perception that children’s social care is a continual failure. There is never any acknowledgement that the profession contributes to achieving one of the safest child protection systems in the world. This is thanks to the dedication and hard work of staff across the country who are often coping with limited resources and high caseloads. There can be little confidence that politicians who ‘dabble’ with the future shape and regulation of this important profession understand, value and genuinely want to cultivate a strong profession that students will aspire to. There is an urgent need for the profession as a whole to respond to the consultations and lobby to influence the future direction.

  9. Elcee Osagie July 7, 2016 at 1:19 am #

    I think it is high time that Social workers got a Union. And im not talking about BASW or College of Social Work…A strong and loud voice for Social workers by Social workers. The solution to all issues raised by the PM and other such folk; is not Goverment control but less of the red tape and a collective professional body that Social workers can be supported as well as held to account.

  10. Helen Gormley July 11, 2016 at 10:28 pm #

    This is a time for all social workers and students to stand up and be counted. Surely now is the time to come together through organised membership, a collective voice is a stronger and more powerful voice. Can the 70 thousand or so none BASW member social workers and non BASW member students not see how vital it is to get behind a ‘say no’ campaign to strengthen the voice. If you don’t like and are concerned of what these changes mean for the future of social work and your career JOIN BASW help the rest of us fight the good fight.

  11. LongtimeSW July 18, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

    What are Messrs Trowler and Romeo’s salaries and allowances?

    Only asking . . . . .