Improvement standards

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:15 pm ar 10 Ionawr 2017.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

‘(1) The Secretary of State may—

(a) determine and publish improvement standards for social workers in England;

(b) carry out assessments of whether people meet improvement standards under paragraph (a).

(2) The Secretary of State may make arrangements for another person to do any or all of those things (and may make payments to that person).

(3) The Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate before determining a standard under subsection (1)(a).

(4) In this section “improvement standard” means a professional standard the attainment of which demonstrates particular expertise or specialisation.

(5) Nothing in this section limits anything in section 38.’—

This new clause allows the Secretary of State to determine and publish improvement standards for social workers or arrange for someone else to do so. There is also a power to carry out assessments. The clause does not limit the regulator’s functions under clause 38.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause supports our aim of establishing a new career pathway for social workers that recognises specialist, post-qualification expertise in child and family social work and will reinforce our focus on the quality of practice. It makes provision for the Secretary of State to determine and publish improvement standards for social workers in England, or to arrange for someone else to do so on her behalf. An improvement standard is a post-qualification professional standard which, if attained, demonstrates a particular expertise or specialisation. The Secretary of State will be required to consult before determining any improvement standards.

I would like to make it clear that these standards are distinct from the proficiency standards which the regulator, Social Work England, will set and which must be met by all social workers in order to register. The new clause is vital to enable the introduction of the national assessment and accreditation system which is a fundamental part of our national reform programme that seeks to ensure that all children and families get the support and protection they need.

We are all aware that child and family social workers do an incredibly important job under very trying circumstances, and we all thank them for it. They deal with complex and fraught situations that require great depth of skill, knowledge, understanding and empathy. To clearly set out what characterises effective work with children at their most vulnerable, the chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler, has published three statements on the knowledge and skills needed to operate at three levels of practice for child and family social workers. That includes frontline practice, supervisory roles and practice leaders. One of the Department’s priorities is supporting the workforce in consistently meeting these aspirations.

The knowledge and skills statements will form the basis of a national assessment and accreditation system for child and family social work, or NAAS. Child and family social workers will be accredited against these standards in order to recognise consistently the specialist knowledge and skills that child and family social workers, supervisors and leaders need in order to practise effectively. NAAS will provide, for the first time, a consistent way of recognising the specialist knowledge and skills needed by child and family social workers, supervisors and leaders to practise effectively. It will recognise progression through the child and family specialism, making clear what good practice looks like and what path a career in social work could take. Supporting social workers to improve their practice is vital when it comes to supporting the profession, and thus the children and families they work with.

We have carried out extensive work with the profession to establish what form assessment will take, and we have launched an open consultation to support our thinking on how the new system is to be rolled out. While there are no current plans for a NAAS for adult social work, this measure would enable the Secretary of State to determine and publish a similar set of improvement standards in relation to adult social workers in England. There is already a degree of specialisation in this area through the roles of approved mental health practitioner and best interest assessor. We intend to look closely at whether taking further steps in this direction for adult social work is desirable.

I trust that the Committee will support this important work to build the professional and public status of children and family social work and support the profession so that it can focus ever more closely on practice that delivers for vulnerable children. [Interruption.] I cannot conclude without hearing from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak.

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

As I have said before, the Minister is extremely generous. I wanted to ask him about people who have acquired higher-level awards and qualifications as part of previous accreditation exercises. He will be familiar with the old CCETSW post-qualification award in children services. I think I am right in saying that the NSPCC ran a similar award at one stage. There are therefore practitioners who have a previous higher-level qualification award. Is it the Minister’s intention that their awards will be accredited or in some way fitted into the new framework or will those people now be expected to acquire an additional higher-level qualification?

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

This is a new form of accreditation and assessment. Over time, all practitioners who want to work in the field will need to be accredited against the new standards set out in the knowledge and skills statement. The difference now is that there are three different tiers. One of the things that has led to our bringing in this proposal is the strong feeling that there has not been a clear career pathway for children’s social workers. When they become experienced they may even become Members of Parliament or they end up in management, away from the frontline but still using their great expertise and knowledge about how to deliver good social work. They have an opportunity to supervise practitioners or to become a practice leader.

Those who are already accredited and have shown that they have relevant experience will be well placed to meet the new accreditation standards that are being set for supervisory and practice leader role. We hope that over time that will enable more of those very high-quality, well-versed and experienced social workers to remain active in social work, rather than our losing that precious commodity as they move into corporate roles within their organisation. I hope that explanation finds favour with the hon. Gentleman and that hon. Members will support the new clause.

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

I have a few brief comments and questions for the Minister. I am a little concerned that we are seeing an attempt to put back into the Bill powers for the Secretary of State to determine professional standards and assess whether social worker practitioners meet them or not. It is right that Ministers should want to take action to improve standards, but will the Minister explain what those standards will be as they will be subject to secondary legislation and therefore not to intense parliamentary scrutiny? It is only right that the Committee is clear about the intention of the new clause and understands why the Secretary of State feels the need to determine professional social worker standards. It is also a little concerning that after the success in the Lords of the noble Lord Hunt as regards an arm’s length social worker regulatory body, new clause 10(1)(b) is now proposed. Will the Minister explain the rationale for the new clause and give assurances that there will not be Government interference, influence or Government-funded assessment activities of social workers against improvement standards?

The new clause attempts to reassert the role of the Secretary of State in setting standards and developing assessment benchmarks post-qualification. Could that not result in confusion and conflict with the role and functions of the proposed social worker regulatory body, or is the intention that the Secretary of State and persons appointed to assess improvement will be a de facto second regulator? I am sure the Minister agrees that that could have the adverse effect of creating confusion about who is setting and who is assessing standards. It could create more bureaucracy in an already highly complicated arena and would have an adverse effect on recruitment and retention—an area in which, as the Minister knows, the sector is already struggling.

After this morning’s debate, I cannot help thinking that there is an attempt to do something else with the new clause, especially as it has been introduced once again without any consultation or discussion with the social work sector. In answering my questions, can the Minister convince us otherwise?

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

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her reasoned and helpful questions to try to establish what the new clause proposes. I think I have set that out in some detail already, but I will try to address some of the specifics that she has raised.

I have already given a picture of what the consultation has involved to date. It is also worth reminding the Committee that more than 1,000 social workers have volunteered to test out the assessment accreditation process as it is rolled out so that we can be sure that what we have at the other end is fit for purpose. There has been widespread involvement of the social work profession. This is not a new phenomenon. It is being brought in very carefully as regards this important change for those working on the frontline.

The knowledge and skills statements are simply statements and they will not take on any formal status until the Secretary of State has powers to publish standards against which an assessment of skill and knowledge is made. That is not unusual; in other public service professions, such as doctors, nurses and midwives, there is a similar approach.

Social Work England will have a role as the regulator in approving post-qualifying courses, both those relating to the approved mental health professionals, which I mentioned before, and the training of the best interests assessors. In time, the new regulator will also be able take responsibility for the national assessment and accreditation system.

The system will be rolled out in the first instance by the Department for Education. Phase one of the roll-out will be in 2017-18 and phase two in 2019-20. Once the regulator is up and running, there is a clear logic for it to take on that role of approving post-qualifying courses, of which this would be one. That is an important distinction to make and is very much in line with what happens in other parts of the public service.

As I set out in my opening remarks, this system is very different from the clear remit of Social Work England and the regulation of the profession. This is about how to maintain standards post-qualification, how we support social workers as they move through the profession and gain experience, and how we can be confident that they have the requisite knowledge and skills to provide a first-class service for children in their area.

I will continue to discuss these points with the hon. Lady. If there are other specific questions that I have not covered, I will endeavour to do so in writing. This measure has not appeared suddenly overnight; it has been through a long process of development with the profession. It has been welcomed and constructively engaged with by social workers and local authorities, which are very interested in seeing how they can ensure that it improves not only the quality but the status of social work in their areas.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 10 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 11