Social Work England

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 15 Rhagfyr 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Regulation clauses in part 2 of the Bill deal with the establishment of a new regulator for both children’s and adults’ social work across all specialisms. It will be called Social Work England. The Department for Education and the Department of Health, without any prior consultation or dialogue with the social work profession, propose to end regulation by the Health and Social Care Professionals Council and to replace it with an inevitably much more costly bespoke regulatory system.

In recent years there has been a lot of flux in relation to social work regulation. There was the General Social Care Council, the college and then the Health and Care Professionals Council, and now we will have Social Work England. I hope that the Minister will confirm that this ever-changing landscape is going to cease and that we will not be debating another regulator in another year or so, because all that this change does is create constant disruption in the profession.

I profess to being relieved to be speaking to this clause without having to battle against the Government on their initial proposal that the new regulator be established as an executive agency of the Department for Education. The fact that that was proposed at all is disgraceful. State-run regulation is something that none of us ever wants to see. Indeed, a survey by Unison in August found that around 90% of social workers thought the profession should be regulated by an independent body and not by Government. I congratulate the noble Lord Watson and Lord Warner for their tireless work on this section of the Bill in the other place. They were successful in getting a number of concessions on the regulator to make it independent from Government.

Although I am pleased that I do not have to stand here and talk about a state-run regulator, it is worth reflecting for a moment on what the Government were planning to do, because it indicates their true feelings towards the profession. This would have had a hugely negative impact on the extent to which social workers feel ownership of improvement initiatives, and it would have stifled the development of the profession—[Interruption.] I will shorten my comments.

What might have been done is somewhat off what is being done.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I appreciate that.

Even with the amendments to the clause, the original proposition was outrageous. It has left a bad taste in the mouths of many in the sector, and distrust and scepticism behind the whole idea of the new regulator. What assurances can the Minister give that will ensure that social work regulation has the appropriate autonomy and distance from prevailing Government policy, and that it focuses on public protection, which is the proper priority of regulation? Will he tell us why social work is always treated differently from other health and social care professions?

Regulation of all professions should focus on assuring fitness to practice and public protection. All other professions are regulated to ensure consistent and safe practice. That arrangement provides continuity through the changes that inevitably come from successive policy developments under different Governments. Given that there is little cross-party consensus on children’s social care policy at the moment, and that subsequent Governments could take a different path, this is particularly worrying.

Although the amended proposals for a non-departmental public body regulatory body suggest more independence than was first proposed, a NDPB can mean a wide range of governance and independence options. We are challenging the detail of current proposals that intend for the Government to directly appoint the leadership of the organisation. We expect that the key roles of chair and chief executive officer, as well as the board, will be appointed without political control of process and decision making. Current Government proposals mean that the Secretary of State for Education controls those appointments.

It would be better for regulatory standards to be set out through a profession-led process. The British Association of Social Workers and its partners should drive that; BASW has always supported and campaigned for regulation to ensure high standards and to protect the public. If independence from Government control is not instituted in these new arrangements, that will detract from the profession developing its own standards and setting capabilities and a culture of responsibility for excellence at every single level.

We are also concerned that the proposals risk fostering resistance to regulation and might lead to social workers choosing to deregister if a new regulator focuses on delivering current Government policy and sets requirements for registration that inappropriately narrow down the options for how social workers can demonstrate their fitness to practise. That risk is exacerbated by the probability of significantly increased fees for social workers from an expensive and bespoke regulator. There has recently been a decline in the number of social workers being trained. There is a further risk of decline with proposed changes to training bursaries disincentivising good candidates from the profession. Problems in retention persist. The profession and our public services cannot withstand the further risk of a drain of talent and capacity from the registered workforce. I hope that the Minister understands that and will sum it up in his comments.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

Clause 33 underpins our ambition to improve the practice of social work and raise the status of the profession. It establishes a new body corporate, Social Work England, which will be a new, bespoke regulator for this vital and unique profession.

First, I will set out the case and motivation for reform. In many ways, the easiest thing would be to do nothing and not prioritise social work as a key plank of the Government’s efforts to transform children’s social care. I think we all agree that high-quality social work can transform lives and that social workers play a critical role in our society. They deliver a range of vital services, from safeguarding the most vulnerable to supporting those with complex needs to live life to the full. Every day, social workers deal with complex and fraught situations that require a great depth of skill, knowledge, understanding and empathy. When social workers are not able to fulfil their role competently the consequences can be catastrophic, which is why the Government have developed a significant reform programme to improve the quality of social work and of the systems that support social workers. That includes investing £750 million since 2010 in supporting both traditional and fast-track routes into the profession and investing £100 million to date in the children’s social care innovation programme, so that local authorities and others can evidence how to reform services and practice to be more effective.

More is needed. To underpin the reforms, social work needs a regulatory system that meets the needs of this unique profession. Such a regulatory system will help to improve public safety and promote the status and standing of social work. The need for an improved system of regulation for the social work profession in England has been highlighted in recent independent reviews.

The hon. Lady asked why the social work profession should have a different regulator from the health profession. The approach of the current regulator, the Health and Care Professions Council, is designed to maintain minimum standards of public safety and initial education across a range of professions, rather than to drive up standards in any one profession. Driving up standards is vital for a profession in which the safety of our most vulnerable people is inextricably linked to the highest standards of practice. I would argue also that social work is a distinct and highly skilled profession and that its practitioners manage complex risks and work with vulnerable children and adults on a daily basis. A new specialist regulator for social work reflects that reality and will be able to focus on the unique nature of social work practice and on the education and training needed to support it in a way that is, unfortunately, not currently possible.

Clause 33 provides for the establishment of a new regulator for the social work profession in England. It makes it clear that our intention is to set up a regulator that is a separate legal entity at arm’s length from Government. It is important to maintain appropriate distance between the new regulator and Government, and I make it clear that it has never been our intention to give Government the power to make decisions about the fitness to practise of individual social workers.

The clause also introduces schedule 2, which sets out the new body’s governance and accountability arrangements. We may want to discuss that in more detail later, but our ambition in establishing a new bespoke, independent regulator for social work is to continue improving the practice of social work and raising the status of the profession.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Llafur, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I thought it might be better to intervene now rather than take up time later. On the financing of the regulator, the Minister will be familiar with the experience of the College of Social Work, for which the start-up cost included about £5 million of Government money. The college only ever reached half its anticipated registration figure, and it eventually had to close because it did not have sufficient funds to continue.

I have three specific questions. First, is the Minister confident that the regulator will be financially self-sustaining without the cost being prohibitive enough to cause a problem with registration? Secondly, will individuals have to register as individuals, or will it be possible for an employer or local authority to register them? That happened under the College of Social Work, but of course that was part of its undoing. Finally, the regulator appears to be taking on some of the functions that were previously associated with the College of Social Work and the former Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, including education and training. Is he confident that the combination of setting the standards, approving the qualifying training and regulating the practice of individuals is compatible with having a single organisation? I recognise that he has made a lot of changes since the original proposals, so I am not criticising what he is trying to do. I am trying to be clear about how the regulator will work, given past experiences of efforts in this direction that have not exactly been that successful.

That was a substantial intervention.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I am always happy to talk with the hon. Gentleman at any time about the details of policies and their implementation, and this is no exception. Despite the short time I have had to prepare an answer, I will do my best to give him the details that he seeks.

The Government will significantly support the establishment of Social Work England as a regulator in terms of the set-up costs. We anticipate that about £10 million will be provided by the Government from the Department of Health. The Government will also contribute up to £16 million over the rest of this Parliament to support the running costs of Social Work England. We anticipate that it will become a self-sustaining model. For the reasons that the hon. Gentleman set out, we want to ensure that, during that period, that is exactly what we work towards.

The administration and workings of the new regulator will be overseen by the Professional Standards Authority, which will be keeping a close eye on its ability to be sustainable. At the moment, we are looking at individual registration, but I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman said about whether there are other mechanisms. The important thing is that we are confident that every person who is meeting the necessary standards is doing so as an individual, as opposed to as part of a team. It is that person’s professional capacity that we are most interested in.

The regulator is not an improvement body; it is purely a regulator. One point I will pick up on for the hon. Member for South Shields is that we want to work with the various professional bodies that support social workers so that we have a single body that can help social workers with their improvement journey through their career, so that they feel supported in the process.

We have established an advisory group that includes the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the British Association of Social Workers, Unison, the Local Government Association and the PSA, which will act as our critical friend and provide effective challenge to help us to develop the detail and the practical delivery of the new regulator. The first meeting took place on 9 December. The intention is that the group will meet every six weeks to discuss the challenges that the changes will have for the wider social workforce, and to help support the development and detail of Social Work England. There are requirements in the Bill for Social Work England to consult on its standards, so there is another opportunity to look at those more closely. On that basis, I hope that the clause stands part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 33 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clauses 34 to 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 44