Story updated 22 November
On 2 December, Social Work England will take over for the regulation of England’s nearly 100,000 social workers, replacing the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), the regulator since 2012.
Social Work England will be responsible for registering all social workers, setting professional standards, ensuring practitioners carry out continuing professional development, regulating social work education providers and handling fitness to practise concerns.
Unlike the HCPC, which regulates 15 other professions, Social Work England will be dedicated to social work; it will also, unlike its predecessor, be directly accountable to government, rather than independent of ministers and accountable to Parliament, as the HCPC is.
But the new regulator will also bring a number of other changes. We spoke to Social Work England itself and sector leaders to assess whether the transition was on track and the challenges that lie ahead.
Is transition on track?
With less than two weeks to go until Social Work England takes over, a key question is whether the transition is on track?
Sarah Blackmore, executive director of strategy, policy and engagement for Social Work England, says she and colleagues are “pretty confident” they are on course.
“We’ve been doing a huge amount of planning and preparation; we’re now having daily meetings to ensure we’re all on track and our whole senior team are meeting every morning to discuss priorities and ensuring we’re across all of those,” she says.
“Like all projects we won’t know until 2 December, but we feel we have done and are doing everything we can do leading up,” she adds.
Blackmore says that, because the change of regulator was on the government’s major project list, Social Work England had been subject to a series of reviews, in which they had “performed very well”.
More on Social Work England
In terms of staffing, the new regulator will have about 160 in place, either on permanent contracts or on a fixed-term basis to support the transition, come 2 December. It currently has four vacancies to be filled.
The sector is also awaiting finalised guidance documents on registration, CPD, fitness to practise, following a consultation earlier in the year. These are due to be published before the transition date.
A Social Work England spokesperson says: “We took a staggered approach to the roll out of all of our guidance documents and our initial priority was to develop our professional standards ad rules in collaboration with social workers, training providers and people who use services. All of our guidance documents have been done via consultation with social workers, people who use social work services and social work education and training providers, and published documents are available on our website.”
New social work roles to keep regulator ‘rooted in values’
One of the major changes Social Work England will implement is the introduction of eight regional engagement leads, overseen by a head of strategic engagement. Their role will be to work with employers and educational institutions to ensure they implement Social Work England’s standards, identify performance issues in their region and support improvement, including to prevent the need for fitness to practise cases.
The regional engagement leads are also intended to alleviate pressure on council departments in dealing with concerns about their practitioners in-house.
All the leads are registered social workers and Social Work England says that they will help the regulator “to stay informed, authentic and collaborative, and firmly rooted in the principles and values that are the foundation of social work practice”.
Social Work England has six regional leads in place, as well as the team head, but has not yet hired regional engagement leads for London or the East of England.
Blackmore says there had been a lot of interest in both roles but “because it’s such a crucial role we want to make sure we have the right people”.
Neither position is likely to be filled by 2 December, but she says the whole team is looking at the needs of London and the East to see how they can best look after those areas while the posts are vacant.
The new roles were welcomed by Claudia Megele, chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker Network, who describes them as “a helpful development that can facilitate communication with the new regulator”.
While the roles are indicative of a rootedness in social work within the new regulator that is popular with the profession, the same does not apply to the absence of regsitered social workers on Social Work England’s board – besides chief executive Colum Conway – which still rankles with sector leaders.
Reducing the need for fitness to practise cases
Fitness to practise (FtP) has had a difficult history under the HCPC, which was accused of a legalistic and punitive approach that was not sensitive enough to the management and resourcing context – exacerbated by years of cuts – within which alleged failings take place.
Not only did social workers feature disproportionately in FtP cases compared with professionals from other disciplines but they often faced long delays for cases to conclude.
A statement provided by the outgoing regulator to Community Care in September said the HCPC was “very conscious” of FtP’s emotional impact and offered mental health support to people involved in procedures.
“Within the bounds of our legislation, [we] have delivered a significant programme of work to make the process more efficient, reducing the time and stress for both registrant and complainant.” it added.
In a statement this week, an HCPC spokesperson said Social Work England’s new approach to FtP was made possible because it is “operating under more modern legislation which enables a more consensual approach to fitness to practise”.
“We have been engaging government with the need for legislation similar to that given to Social Work England for some time and are pleased that the government plans to modernise legislation,” the statement said.
In an interview with Community Care in September, Social Work England executive director for fitness to practise Jonathan Dillon said practitioners would see significant differences in the way it handled FtP cases, with an emphasis on reducing the need for investigations, hearings and, as a result, delays.
Part of this relates to the role of regional engagement leads, who will seek to intervene early to prevent FtP concerns being raised in the first place by working constructively with employers.
Dillon said there would also be a more expansive initial process than under the HCPC, with Social Work England determining if there were reasonable grounds for an investigation, rather than simply considering whether a concern fell within its remit.
These grounds include its seriousness, the likely availability of sufficient evidence to support an allegation of impaired fitness to practise, and whether the social worker has taken any remedial action in respect of the concern – all things Dillon said are considered later in the process under the HCPC than will be the case under Social Work England.
Also, case examiners – most of whom are registered social workers – will be able to resolve cases without a hearing, including through the use of warnings, suspensions and placing conditions of practice on the social worker, if the practitioner accepts the concern and has taken remedial action.
Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUC-SWEC) chair Janet Melville-Wiseman says the new regulator has “ambitious plans to streamline and speed up fitness to practise processes which have historically taken a long time to reach a conclusion”.
“However, the sector will obviously be monitoring these issues very carefully to ensure that the process remains fair and measured and underpinned by our long-established professional values,” she adds.
While Social Work England consulted on not having a registered social worker on every FtP panel, in order to make hearings easier to schedule, it decided against it after the idea was roundly rejected by the sector.
Megele says having a practitioner on the panel “can add unique practice wisdom to FtP processes and ensure better informed decisions and judgments”.
She also says the proposed triage process can “improve the timeliness and efficiency as well as quality of FtP processes by ensuring that FtP investigations are more proportionate both in their process and outcome”.
With the change of regulator, registration will move from being a two-yearly process to one that takes place every year. Accompanying this, social workers will be required to register their CPD on an online account.
While Social Work England will, like its predecessor, only audit the CPD of 2.5% of the registrant population, all social workers will have to register at least one piece of CPD on their accounts to ensure re-registration in 2020.
This is in contrast to the situation under HCPC where social workers not called for audit are only required to declare that they have carried out CPD during the registration period.
Megele says this will “re-emphasise the importance of evidencing CPD and its impact on practice”, though adds: “Although the renewed focus on CPD is a positive development, the requirement for annual rather than bi-annual renewal of social workers’ registration can create added pressure for busy practitioners, as well as local authorities, who will have to reconfirm the currency of their social workers’ registration on an annual basis.”
Communicating about the change of regulator
Social workers’ registration should transfer automatically to Social Work England on 2 December. They only need communicate with the HCPC in advance if they need to change their contact details before the transfer date.
However, the co-chair of the Adult Principal Social Work Network (APSWN), Beverley Latantia, is critical about the level of communication with social workers about the transition.
“The APSWN don’t feel the transition from HCPC to SWE has been communicated well as to the steps that will be taken on 2 December. No acknowledgment of the change has gone out to individual social workers even though we are three weeks away from the changeover,” Latantia says.
Blackmore says this is because Social Work England does not have the authority to make contact with individual social workers until 2 December.
“We are confident we’ve used all communication channels at our disposal and we’ve done all we can to communicate details about the transition,” she said.
‘Regular communication with social workers’
A spokesperson for the HCPC said it had worked very closely in partnership with the Social Work England communications team to ensure they had the right level of engagement with registrants.
“We communicated initially by letter and email last year during the social worker registration renewal period and we have communicated regularly since.
“We have also regularly updated information on the HCPC website in our news section and registrant hub,” she said.
The spokesperson added: “We have communicated all stages of the transfer, announcing the decision to transfer, confirming the transfer date, and in order to highlight and encourage engagement with Social Work England’s consultation on their draft standards.”
Melville-Wiseman is positive about the way Social Work England has engaged with the sector, adding: “The committee was very pleased that the approach taken by Social Work England (SWE) has been one of engagement with social workers and social work academics and that they have given primacy to the views of experts by experience and service users and carers.”
Despite the APSWN’s concerns about communication, Latantia says the network is pleased to see a “dedicated organisation committed to ensuring the standards, values and profession of social work is maintained to a high level”.
“The roll-out of the new regulations. including the strengthening of service user input, more scrutiny of students and educational settings and a more flexible approach to investigations is important,” she says.