Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]

Written submission to Children and Social Work Bill Committee from Emeritus Professor June Thoburn, CBE, LittD. University of East Anglia Centre for Research on Children and Families

This submission refers to new clauses 2-9 (testing new ways of working) and Part 2, Social work regulation (and including new clause 10- ‘Improvement Standards’)

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· I hold a social work qualification and research doctorate and have for many years been involved in the education of social workers and research on services for vulnerable children, their families and carers.

· My comments are additionally informed by having served as Vice Chair of the General Social Care Council and as an elected member of the Children and Families Faculty of The College of Social Work.

· I was invited to give evidence to the Education Select Committee, specifically on the relationship between professional bodies and the professional regulator (submitted as an attachment)

· My research (much of it on the effectiveness of aspects of the Children Act 1989 and amendments) has been funded by government departments, local authorities and voluntary sector funding bodies and been published as government reports and in international peer reviewed journals.

· As a Trustee of a voluntary organisation providing family support services and residential care and post-care services to looked after children I welcome the clauses in the Bill which further clarify and strengthen the rights to services of vulnerable children and their families and carers.

My specific comments and reservations about the Bill are as follows:

New clauses 2-9 (testing new ways of working)

1 I am a member of the Together for Children network and am entirely in agreement with the submission made by Article 39, so I will not repeat their comments. They are the result of wide consultation amongst young people’s and families’ groups, social workers, lawyers, social work educators and researchers. None of the substantial body of research on the workings of the Children Act 1989 (as amended), some government-funded, some independently funded, points to the need for any specific sections of the legislation to be suspended on the grounds that they are impeding flexible and good quality practice.

2 There may be aspects of the statutory regulations and guidance that could usefully be revised, and indeed there have been several revisions since the legislation was implemented in 1991. These revisions, the most recent being the very helpful 2015 updating of the ‘permanence’ guidance on long term foster care and reunification of looked after children to parents, have not required ‘trials’ by selected local authorities, before becoming required practice for ALL local authorities. These revisions have resulted from civil servants, lawyers, specialist social work practitioners and managers, service user groups and researchers getting together to review current best practice and consider whether current flexibilities are insufficient and regulatory changes needed. This process has also worked well in leading to legislative change (the Children Act 1989 itself being a prime example), as with the ‘leaving care’ amendments and ‘staying put’ legislation and some of the proposed changes in the current Bill. It is my submission that the proposed evaluated ‘trials’ by a small number of ‘volunteer’ local authorities, as well as weakening children’s rights to service over a period of up to 6 years, will result in unnecessary delay if departmental/ professional reviews conclude that adjustments are necessary. Given the current squeeze on local authority children’s services resources, it is also an important consideration that they will be costly (robust independent research is costly and eats into funding that would otherwise be there to provide services).

Part 2, Social work regulation (and including new clause 10- ‘Improvement Standards’)

3. The changes made to these clauses during the Bill’s passage through the Lords are to be welcomed - specifically the move from setting up the Regulator as an Executive Agency of Government to it becoming a NDPB. The greater clarity brought in by government amendments to ensure that the emphasis will be on the regulatory/ protection of the public role of Social Work England is especially to be welcomed.

4. However there is ambiguity in the wording of the proposed legislation which should be clarified during scrutiny of the relevant clauses. This arises from the name ‘Social Work England’ which differs from the terminology for the other Health regulators in England, Social Work Regulators in the other UK nations, and predecessor England social work Regulators (GSCC and HCPC) which all contain the word Council. The comments made by the Professional Standards Authority in its submission to the Bill Committee are relevant here: ‘It is important for the regulation of the health and care professions to remain aligned at a time when the need for a close relationship between health and social care services is becoming ever more apparent’. The PSA submission continues: ‘If Social Work England is set up as a non-departmental public body, we will not however have a role in scrutinising appointments to its Board, as these would not be made by the Privy Council’. This assumes that there will be a ‘Board’ or ‘Council’ but the wording in Clause 35 refers only to the ‘Regulator’ and to ‘advisors’ who may be appointed by the Regulator and agreed by the Minister.

5. It is important that it is made clear in the wording of the Bill that the Regulator will be supported by a Council, as it will be essential for the profession’s confidence in the Regulator that such a Council has membership which includes members of the social work profession, social work educators and HEI representatives and service users as well as lay members. This needs to be specified in the wording of the Bill or in a Schedule setting up the new body, and this should be available during the passage of the Bill.

6. It is not clear why New Clause 10 is a necessary part of the Bill and why it has been introduced after the Bill has been scrutinised by the Lords, and when a consultation on Accreditation and Assessment (relevant to New Clause 10) has just been initiated. The Secretary of State already has powers of the sort envisaged by this Clause. A key recommendation of the House of Commons Education Committee on Social Work Reform is highly relevant to this proposed new clause. The separation of regulation and professional registration from the determination of qualifying standards is in line with the recommendations of that Committee, but the Committee report goes on to say (para 92): ‘defining professional standards for qualifying and postqualifying education….. we consider to be the role of an independent professional body’ and ‘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’. This comment may also be relevant to the proposed powers of the Secretary of State in NC 10.

7. Whilst it is necessary for systems to be in place for the Secretary of State to ensure that standards are set for continuing professional development and the publication of these standards (the aim of NC 10, 1,a), it is not clear why legislation is needed to change established practice for the ways in which the Department for Education (and Health?) exercise their accountability for the determination of post-qualifying standards. This Clause envisages a departure from the recommendations of the Social Work Reform Board, with no evidence supplied that those recommendations are not being successfully implemented.

8. With respect to NC 10 1,b, it is even less clear why the Secretary of State should be given legislative powers to ‘carry out assessments of whether people meet improvement standards’. This is a major departure from recognised divisions of responsibility for the assessment of professional standards for other health and care professions that come under the remit of the PSA

9 The issues raised by New Clause 10, on the establishment of quality standards for post-qualifying practice, should be clarified and fully discussed with social workers and social work managers and their representative professional bodies as well as with the LGA, PSA and HCPC.

10. Although the proposed powers set out in the new clause are different from those envisaged for Social Work England, there is potential for them to impinge on the work of Social Work England. They may be far reaching in terms of careers of registered social workers, and indeed of possible fitness to practice decisions with respect to those working as child and family social workers

11. Meetings are already taking place between Ministers, civil servants and professional bodies about how roles will be shared and consultation mechanisms agreed as transfer to Social Work England is achieved. It would be preferable to withdraw NC 10 in its entireity, and certainly 1,b (for which no clear case is made for its inclusion in this Bill) and the consequential NC 10, 2, 3 and 4). This will allow for the Departments of Health and Education to consult further with all those who will need to work together to achieve necessary improvements in all areas of social work practice.

12. The entrenchment of the proposed new Ministerial powers in legislation is premature and is likely to impair the further developments of positive relationships between the Departments of Health and Education and professional social workers, which was a major recommendation of the Education Select Committee.

Other relevant papers:

· Written submission to the Education Committee’s inquiry into Social Work Reform: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/education-committee/social-work-reform/written/32969.pdf

January 2017

 

Prepared 9th January 2017