A new social work regulator called Social Work England (SWE) set to take over from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) has published a survey asking for feedback on its plans to protect the public from malpractice. And it misses the main issue by a country mile.

The background to this latest development is set out in SWE’s consultation guide, which tells us:

“The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) currently regulates social workers in England alongside 15 other professions. The Government believes that the regulation of social workers in England will be better carried out by a social work specific body able to develop an in-depth understanding of the profession. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 (the 2017 Act), provides for the establishment of Social Work England for this purpose…

In January 2016, the then Secretary of State for Education announced, in partnership with the Secretary of State for Health, the intention to set up a new regulator for social workers, as part of wider reforms to improve confidence in social work and raise the status of the profession…

As a single-profession regulator, Social Work England will be able to use the data and evidence it gathers through delivering its core regulatory functions to gain an expert understanding of the challenges that face the social work profession in England and use this information to feed learning back into the wider social work system…

Establishing and maintaining a transparent and accurate register of social workers is fundamental to effective regulation and public protection. We are proposing that Social Work England maintains a single register of social workers in England providing assurance that only those who are sufficiently qualified, have up to date knowledge and remain competent are able to practise as social workers in England.

Social Work England is a specialist regulator for social workers in England, whose primary objective is to protect the public. The regulator claims that it will fulfil this objective by “setting professional, education and training standards for social workers, and providing assurance that those registered meet the standards, are qualified and remain fit to practise.”

Whilst this initiative could potentially be a good thing for the social work sector, there are two very worrying aspects about Social Work England, and its current proposals.

The first lies in the phrase, “…providing assurance that those registered meet the standards.” A dangerous loophole in the registration rules for social workers currently exists, which lets social workers practice without registering with the HCPC, or other regulatory body. This effectively allows unregistered individuals to work without being monitored, or held to account for breaches in practice or law. The SWE’s proposals only focus on social workers who have elected to register, and fails entirely to include those that choose not to.

This loophole isn’t addressed anywhere inside SWE’s survey either, nor do they ask whether registration should be mandatory, which it should be. Whilst it is impossible to quantify the number of social workers practicing without registering, we have come across several instances ourselves. Dr Ireland’s ground breaking report identifying a significant proportion of expert witnesses in Family Courts who don’t have the necessary qualifications or training is also a sobering reminder that just because the extent of a problem might not be immediately visible or quantifiable, it doesn’t mean it’s not lurking beneath the surface. And this problem is hugely concerning, because it could lead, or may have already led, to the death of a child.

There does appear to be a small concession to service users who wish to complain about an unregistered social worker in the Grounds For Action. S.23 suggests that a social worker can still be investigated for an actionable offence regardless of whether they were registered at the time of the offence or not, however this doesn’t necessarily apply to social workers who were never registered in the first place.

So, the SWE’s proposal to “set professional standards which individuals must meet as a condition of registration,” means very little if registration isn’t compulsory in the first place.

The second aspect of these proposals which concerns us relates to the makeup of the SWE. There is absolutely no mention of who will be running it, or what their professional credentials are. On this point, we have written to the Department For Education to find out, and will let you know as soon as we hear back from them.

As for the first point about mandatory regulation, we mention it in our response to the consultation. And the SWE want to hear from you, too. The following groups have been invited to offer feedback:

  • Social workers (including Approved Mental Health Professionals and Best Interest Assessors);
  • • Social work employers;
  • • Social work sector organisations;
  • • Social work academics and social work education institutions and providers; • Children and families, adults, and the wider public;
  • • Other organisations and individuals with an interest in social work; and
  • • Other professional regulators.

You can access the survey here. 

The consultation closes on 21st March, 2018.