My Lords, a small number of representations has been received regarding the abolition of the General Social Care Council from the council itself, the British Association of Social Workers, the Social Care Association, Unison and individuals. Most of the comments focus on ensuring the effective regulation of social workers by the health and care professions council under the proposed new arrangements.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. She will be aware that yesterday the Munro review was published, containing a number of recommendations for enhancing the quality and status of social workers, particularly in relation to child protection. How does the Minister square that with the abolition of the General Social Care Council and the placing of the regulation of social workers under a health body that has absolutely no experience of social work?
The noble Lord—who I believe was the Minister responsible for setting up the General Social Care Council—is, not surprisingly, challenging us on this. As he will know, in 2009 there was a review of the council which concluded that it lacked focus. In essence, there was a muddling together of the regulatory function and the professionalisation of this area. One of the things that the review strongly recommended was that the profession of social workers should be regulated in the same way as the independent Health Professions Council has done. This change introduces that. The noble Lord expresses concern about whether it will reduce the effectiveness of that regulation. I do not think that it will; I think that it will make it clearer. It is very important that other bodies which, as he knows, currently exist, take forward the separate professionalisation and strengthening of the profession of social work.
The noble Baroness will recall that some years ago a former distinguished Member of the Benches opposite chaired a royal commission on social work. One of its aims was to create a separate identity for social work. I am sure the noble Baroness will agree that since then a great deal of time and effort have been devoted to helping social workers become both more competent and more confident. Is she aware that if this arrangement proceeds, all of that good work will be placed in jeopardy?
I thank the noble Lord for those comments. Although he is right about his first point, he is not right about the second. It is by separating these areas that we will better promote the professionalisation of social work. In medicine, for example, the GMC regulates the medical profession while the royal colleges and the BMA make sure that they promote the profession as such. The noble Lord himself has contributed so much to the development of the social work profession. It is extremely important that those two elements are kept separate so that professionalisation can be concentrated on more effectively.
My Lords, at present social workers are able to take an appeal against any finding against them to the Care Standards Tribunal, whereas with the new registration body such cases are taken to the High Court. This is a much more costly option. Will the Minister please tell the House whether the Government will maintain the Care Standards Tribunal—a smaller- scale, equally effective and lower-cost procedure?
One of the changes recommended by the review was that this procedure should be followed. The new arrangements give greater scope when there is a problem. For example, one of the things that the HPC can do is suggest further training for somebody who has run into problems. That was not possible under the tribunals system. Therefore, there is a wider range of devices at the disposal of the council under the new arrangement than would have been the case in the past. Although taking a case to the High Court is clearly a more serious option than a tribunal, it is extremely important that we remember that this is the regulation of a body of professionals, and that we are seeking to protect the public.
Last year the Education Select Committee recommended that there should be more robust and more specific regulation of social work training providers. When social workers are responsible for life and death decisions every day—totally different from physiotherapists—why are the Government handing regulation to a light-touch, hands-off regulator? Are we not in danger of repeating the mistakes that were made in relation to the banking industry?
Again, I have to disagree with the noble Baroness. The new structures that have evolved since 2009 rather belie what she has indicated. It is extremely important that you have a strong regulator, and that is what we have. It regulates 15 professions—not just this one—including nursing. It is extremely important that it understands social work. Measures are in place to try to ensure that that is what happens. There are also the new bodies, which the noble Baroness will know about, which are obliged to develop the social work profession. It is clear that in many ways a lot of what is emerging from the Munro report is going in the same direction.
My Lords, is the Minister’s vision that regulation will in future be set at a more minimal level? If so, where will the development of the social work profession which was originally envisaged in the GSCC be taken on? I declare an interest in having worked for SCIE in the development of the College of Social Work.
As I say, other bodies have already been set up. The College of Social Work is being established and will help take this forward, as will the social work task force and various other organisations. In the light of what the Munro report and other reports have said, it is extremely important that the profession takes forward how best to protect the most vulnerable in our society. Separately, we have to make sure that the regulation of the fitness to practise of those who are working in this area is carried out properly.
My Lords, the Department of Health has admitted that the abolition of the General Social Care Council is not down to its performance, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is the case. As my noble friend has said, the Health Professions Council has no experience of social care. Therefore, is it not the case that this is driven by an ideological need to abolish arm’s-length bodies that is so overwhelming that the Government are prepared to put at risk such important work?
I must say that I disagree. It is as though the noble Baroness were to set in aspic. I can see why the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, thought that this was the best way to go forward in 2000, but we are now 11 years on from when that process was set up. The profession of social work has, fortunately, progressed and developed, and it must progress further. At the same time, we must make sure that the regulation is fit for purpose. Our proposal does this far better. I am sure that the noble Baroness would expect the Government to scrutinise and to work out the best way of taking the matter forward, and to propose a better way of regulating. There has been tremendous support for that decision.