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Government U-turn on regulation of social workers

Edward Timpson’s comments in Westminster debate suggest an ‘independent body’ will regulate social work rather than a ‘government executive agency’.

The government appears to have abandoned its plans for a ‘government executive agency’ to regulate the social work profession.

In a debate in Westminster Hall, children and families minister Edward Timpson appeared to renege on the Department for Education’s plans revealed in June this year to set up an agency within government to undertake the regulation of social workers and “drive up standards” within the profession.

Instead Timpson told the debate that a new regulator would be independent, a move potentially motivated by criticism in the sector following the June announcement.

Distinct regulator

Department for Education proposals had previously stated that a government ‘executive agency’ will take over the regulation of social work and set standards on behalf of the Secretaries of State for Education and Health.

A policy statement from the DfE said: “A distinct social work specific regulator will have the expertise and standards oriented approach essential to this drive for improvement. Given the need for reform, the desire to effect change quickly and the links to its wider reform programme, government believes that the most appropriate course of action at this time is for regulation to move closer to government."

The government agency was to deliver a comprehensive regulatory framework which would include:

  • Publishing new professional standards, aligning with the Chief Social Workers Knowledge and Skills statements
  • Setting new standards for qualifying education and training, and reaccredit providers against these standards by 2020
  • Maintaining a single register of social workers.
  • Setting new, social work specific, standards for continuous professional development;
  • Overseeing a robust and transparent fitness to practise system;
  • Approving post qualifying courses and training in specialisms such as Approved Mental Health Professionals and Best Interest Assessors;
  • Overseeing the proposed new assessment and accreditation system for child and family social workers; and,
  • Overseeing the required arrangements for successfully completing the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE).

Stifle development

However, the social work sector criticised the plans. A statement from BASW said: “The Secretary of State would have complete power over practice standards, curriculum content and assessments at qualifying and post-qualifying levels. This would place social work in a politically controlled position unique amongst health and social care professions.

“Should social workers be directly regulated by government, this will further weaken trust between them 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. It could even deter some social workers from maintaining their registration,” it added.

The Education Select Committee published a report into social work reform having taken evidence from the sector. The report highlighted that the decision to remove the regulatory responsibility from HCPC was not based on its competence and the Minister told the committee that the government wanted a regulatory body “focused purely on social work”.

The Education Select Committee report said: “A regulator should concentrate on public protection by upholding standards and should not stray into defining professional standards for qualifying and post-qualifying education which we consider to be the role of an independent professional body.

“The Government’s proposals for a new regulator to have power in these areas will further marginalise the voice of social workers in influencing the standards of their profession. Our proposals for a successor for The College of Social Work should be the Government priority rather than changing the regulatory system once again,” it added.

Independent regulator

The original plans outlined in June said that more independence may be possible for the government executive agency “further down the line” and added that government is committed to placing the body on a more independent footing three years after its establishment.

However, at the Westminster debate last week, Timpson said he was “working in partnership with my colleagues in the Department of Health to establish a new, bespoke independent regulator for social work”.

The new independent regulator would set higher standards for social work both in what is expected of professionals in order to practise and in what is expected from universities and others providing initial social work education.

“It will also create a more rigorous approach to continuing professional development in social work—an area the Chairman of the Select Committee rightly raised—ensuring that social workers continue to develop throughout their careers, as called for in the report. In the past there has been too little recognition of the role this area has to play,” added Timpson.

Social workers are currently regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council and a spokesperson said the council was “very surprised” by the announcement when it was first mooted back in January.

A spokesperson said: “We are an efficient and effective regulator with robust regulatory processes and standards for conduct, education and professional skills.  We will continue to fulfil our primary aim of public protection by regulating the 16 health and care professions on our Register”.

He added: “We look forward to seeing the detail of this decision and will work closely with Government as they bring forward any necessary legislation to facilitate this change.”

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