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