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Baroness Pitkeathley: I declare an interest as a member of the General Social Care Council Advisory Group. The noble Baroness articulates very eloquently the anxieties of the whole field in regard to this matter. Indeed, the Social Care Advisory Group is no exception to that.
It seems to me that the anxieties stem from two sources. First, we have waited so long for this council and we are all keen and anxious that it should now move on and do its work. Secondly, we are all very anxious that there should not be a social work registration but a social care registration. And so there is no dispute about the principles of what the noble Baroness said.
However, there are practicalities involved in this. It is rather too early in the process to be thinking about the timetable. Even the shadow social care council does not yet exist. We are at a very early stage. I hope that we shall all take on board the noble Baroness's views about a timetable but I suggest that it is a little early to be thinking about that matter. However, we should take the principles very seriously and think about that a little further down the line.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for raising this matter. While I do not accept that the amendment is the right way forward, I share her sentiments concerning the need for this process to be manageable.
We all wish to see far greater numbers of the social care workforce trained and qualified appropriately and, in due course, registered with the councils. We see that as a crucial driver to the highest standards of conduct, practice and care that we wish to see.
We have said that we expect that professional social workers will be registered probably early in the life of the council, perhaps by April 2002, given that the council will be up and running by April 2001. Almost all social workers hold a professional qualification.
Clearly, we cannot stop there. As a government, we are committed to raising the qualification levels in the wider workforce to much higher levels. That, in turn, will open the way to an extension of registration. To take the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, we need to be realistic. I think it would be difficult for the council to draw up meaningful timetables for training for which it would then be held to account, given the number of other players. In England we have charged the training organisation for personal social services in England with the responsibility for producing a training strategy in consultation with all employment interests in the field. We expect the councils and the wider employment interest to work closely together to discharge their own responsibilities to achieve higher qualification levels.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that I do not think that there is anything between us in wishing not to see sudden imposition, wishing, as she said, to see the process managed and manageable, but overall seeing the process as a crucial way to raise standards in the whole social care field. While I do not wish to accept her amendment, I do very much accept the thrust of her arguments.
Baroness Barker: I wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, for what she said. It is very reassuring to know that there is very little between us in this matter. In withdrawing the amendment, I do so in the knowledge that at this time, with many councils, many providers, looking not only to the national framework but also in the work they are currently implementing--modernising social services--there is a general move towards increasing quality of services. That is beginning to have an effect at local level. In withdrawing the amendment, I accept what the Minister says about needing to identify particular groups and to begin training in their functions. I still reiterate that untrained care staff have to be the next priority group for this kind of measure. I believe it would be one of the single most important ways of stopping abuse. I have been pleased to hear what noble Lords have said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
What is in the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, is much better than the Government's position but I feel that the words may be irrelevant if the DDA is applied. If the rest of Clause 54 is acted on, the training is good and people can acquire the skills, they will, by definition, have proved that they are capable of taking on the job. If we carry on with what the Government propose, we shall end up in the courts very soon. I suggest that the Government have slipped up here. I suggest that we remove paragraph (b) or include an amendment very similar to the amendment standing in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Howe. At the moment, I think that what is proposed breaks existing law.
Earl Howe: I support entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, has just said. I was astonished to read the wording of Clause 54(1)(b). It begs all kinds of questions. The most significant point about it is its ostensible conflict with the Disability Discrimination Act. We really must ask what the provision is supposed to mean. What criteria will be used to assess someone's state of health and what will constitute a failure of this test? To me, someone's state of health is of significance in this context only if it is such as to make him or her inherently unsuitable to do the job of social care worker and therefore to be entered on the professional register. But that is not what the Bill says. I really do think that the wording should be looked at again if it is not to cause all kinds of difficulty when the council begins to set about the task of processing applications.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I am very sympathetic to the spirit of the amendments and can immediately reassure the Committee that I shall be bringing forward in due course a government amendment designed to clarify the extent of the councils' concerns about the health of applicants for registration. I want to make it clear that it is not our intention that the councils should be involved in making casual or arbitrary judgments about an individual's health or lifestyle when considering him or her for registration. The workforce must reflect the nature of society at large. We will expect the councils to take a balanced and reasonable approach, which would rule out from registration considerations of such issues as ageism, smoking or other unjustified bars.
However, I believe that for the service user the health of a social care worker is as much a quality issue as is the holding of an appropriate qualification. The process of making health checks is a common part of regulatory bodies' registration procedures. We are not breaking new ground by introducing them for the new councils. Perhaps I may again make it clear that it is not our intention to disbar people from registration simply because they are disabled or have mental health problems. But because this is a quality issue, we want the councils to be able to ensure that all applicants for registration, whether they are able bodied or disabled, are safe and competent to practise for the type of social care work for which they are applying to be registered.
The amendments also give me an opportunity to clarify the impact of this approach in the light of the Disability Discrimination Act. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, suggested that the proposed good health condition for registration contravenes that Act. We do not accept that that is so. The DDA applies to discrimination in respect of services and facilities provided to the public. It is possible, but unlikely, that a council's decision as to whether an applicant satisfies the registration conditions could be regarded as such a service or facility. Even if it is, the discrimination will not, in our view, be unlawful if it is necessary for the council to discriminate in order to perform its statutory registration function or to avoid endangering the health or safety of any person.
However, in the light of the amendment and the concerns that have been expressed in this area, we do think that our policy intentions should be more clearly expressed. I reiterate that there is no intention to discriminate against disabled people. Therefore, I shall consider the matter further and propose that we bring forward a government amendment at the earliest possible opportunity.
Lord Addington: I believe that is called back-pedalling under fire with considerable good grace. That is something that I hope the Government will take on board generally. I believe that someone was trying to put on belt and braces and realising that they were putting them on the wrong suit. It went very badly wrong; at least it gave a very bad impression.
There are genuine worries in this area. I cannot help but feel that the Government should take on board at least the fact that, when all these other regulations are brought in, the process of proper training courses and individual job interviews--if you are required to use physical exertion, that will come into the equation--would stop the inappropriate person getting through. If this system has any validity or any teeth at all, those things are already there.
I hope that the Government take this on board. I appreciate what the Minister has said. It is as good an answer as we could reasonably expect. I hope that the Minister will take this back and tell his colleagues in his department and others that this type of approach must not happen again. Apart from anything else, it simply wastes our time.
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