As recently appointed Chair of the new social work regulation body Social Work England (SWE), Lord Patel outlines his vision for social work in England and Wales, Researching Reform invites him to push for mandatory registration of social workers.

Dear Lord Patel,

In the ten years that this project has been assisting families, we have grown increasingly concerned about the number of social workers practicing inside councils and private agencies, who either have no social work qualifications or who are so badly trained and behind in their CPD courses, that the advice they are giving is endangering lives. That advice is also leading to gross miscarriages of justice and the often unnecessary removal of children from their families.

Currently, there is no legal requirement on social workers to register with an independent body like Social Work England. Whilst no figures appear to be available on the number of social workers who are unregistered in England and Wales, a piece in Community Care in 2013 revealed that over 8,000 social workers were struck off after failing to renew their registration. 

As of July, 2017, 100,000 social workers were registered with the HCPC, the current regulation body for social workers and health practitioners. Of those, 28,500 are children’s social workers. A further 5,340 are agency workers, working as children and family social workers.

The 8,425 social workers struck off in 2013, are only a small part of a much bigger picture, which includes social workers who never registered in the first place. Conservatively, we can assume that at least 8% of social workers are practicing without the necessary regulation or qualifications needed to carry out their jobs effectively. That’s a significant statistic when taking into account the number of families and children affected, and the potential for negligence where a social worker is either unqualified or making mistakes which could be fatal, and in the process remaining undetected.

Past attempts at enforcing registration without legislation have failed. In 2004, the sector attempted to introduce a £5,000 fine for any social worker who failed to register. Ten months after implementing the fine, 55,000 of the estimated 60,000 social workers in England and Wales remained unregistered.

At the same time, the government passed legislation that would make the title of ‘social worker’ protected, meaning that anyone who wanted to call themselves a social worker could only do so if they had registered with the HCPC. The legislation was not robust enough, and social work practitioners began creating new titles which were not protected, and using them to avoid the registration process.

Alarmingly, some of the titles which remain unprotected encompass duties and responsibilities that are not only hugely sophisticated but require years of experience to perform. In a case involving an unregistered social worker which we wrote about last year, one service user was shocked to discover that the social worker in charge of her case, whom she wished to complain about, was calling herself a senior practitioner. The role of a senior practitioner is exceptionally demanding, requiring a high level of experience as a social worker, so any poor decision making or incompetence could change the life of a child forever. The service user was left unable to complain about the misconduct to an independent regulator as the title was not protected. The social worker remains free to continue making the same errors with other families.

And it’s not just families in England and Wales who are suffering under the current registration arrangements. New Zealand is currently calling on their government to not only make social worker registrations compulsory, but to ensure that a proper definition of social worker is laid out, so that no one can hide behind an unprotected title.

Lord Patel, we would like to invite you to take up this important issue and call on the government to:

  • Make registration with SWE a legal requirement, for all social workers.
  • Remove, or expand the list of Protected Titles to encompass all roles and;
  • Set out a working definition which covers anyone engaged in social work, ensuring that everyone engaging in that work is registered.

Researching Reform.