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Social Workers (Amendment and Transitional Provision) Regulations 2022

Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2022

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, I am pleased to introduce this instrument, which was laid before both Houses on 17 October. It seeks to make several small yet important changes to the Social Work England regulatory framework. As noble Lords will be aware, Social Work England is a relatively young regulator, taking over the regulation of social workers in England from the Health & Care Professions Council only in December 2019 as part of wider reforms to improve confidence in social work and raise the status of the profession.

Social Work England currently maintains the register of approximately 100,000 qualified and practising social workers in England. This includes those working in both child and adult services, whether they are employed by local authorities, the NHS or the independent sector. The Social Workers Regulations 2018 set out the detail of Social Work England’s regulatory framework, covering registration of professionals, education standards, professional standards and the fitness to practise regime for registered social workers. The Government are committed to doing all we can to maintain a strong and consistently effective social work profession that is well trained and properly supported to transform the lives of the most vulnerable. Having operated under the new framework since December 2019, the Department for Education and Social Work England identified several small changes which could be made to the 2018 regulations to improve operational efficiency and to support the regulator in delivering effective public protection better.

I now turn to the regulations themselves, and again, I am grateful to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for their consideration of them. These regulations predominantly make technical changes to Social Work England’s fitness to practise processes and procedures. They also make improvements to its duty to co-operate, introduce the right for registrants to request voluntary removal from the register, and extend the Professional Standards Authority’s oversight of Social Work England to match that of its oversight powers for other regulators.

Social Work England was set up with the overarching objective of public protection. An effective fitness to practise system is critical, both for public protection and public confidence in social work as a regulated profession. As a result of the amendments in this instrument, certain fitness to practise outcomes will be recorded on the register more quickly, and automatic removal where a social worker has been found guilty of one of the serious offences in Schedule 3, such as rape or human trafficking, will have immediate effect. In addition, the instrument makes several changes to the regulator’s internal processes relating to interim orders. These are orders that temporarily prevent a social worker practising while the regulator investigates concerns regarding their fitness to practise. The instrument removes delay in the current system by allowing the regulator to initiate interim orders directly, bringing Social Work England in line with other regulators.

Further, interim orders will now be linked to individual cases rather than a specific social worker. This ensures that, in the rare instances where a registrant has simultaneous yet unrelated open fitness to practise concerns, the regulator can implement the most appropriate fitness to practise response to each individual concern.

I turn to the provisions relating to data sharing, the regulator’s duty to co-operate, voluntary removal and oversight by the Professional Standards Authority. The instrument addresses an omission in the Social Workers Regulations 2018 to make it clear that the regulator can co-operate with relevant bodies outside England in addition to those outside the UK.

The instrument also introduces two new provisions on data sharing: a duty to share information relating to the regulator’s functions on request, where it is in the public interest to do so, and a power to disclose any information relating to a registered social worker’s fitness to practise. The instrument is clear that the new provisions do not override existing data protection legislation, ensuring that the changes deliver effective and proportionate public protection.

In line with our approach of providing Social Work England with a flexible model of professional regulation, we are introducing a provision to allow the regulator to consider applications for voluntary removal from the register—a power held by many other health and care regulators. Protection of the public from registrants whose fitness to practise could be impaired will be the regulator’s primary consideration when deciding whether voluntary removal is appropriate.

Finally, this instrument extends the Professional Standards Authority’s oversight to mandatory reviews and restoration decisions by the regulator post fitness to practise removal where a social worker is restored to the register without conditions. This will enable the Professional Standards Authority to refer such cases to the High Court where it feels that Social Work England’s decision is insufficient for public protection. These changes strengthen public protection safeguards and ensure that the Professional Standards Authority’s oversight of Social Work England is equal to what is in place for other regulators.

Every day, social workers support millions of people to improve their chances in life. These changes support Social Work England to maintain a strong and consistently effective social work workforce so that people receive the best possible support whenever they might need it in life. The Government consulted on the draft changes to Social Work England’s regulatory framework from 23 March to 11 May 2022. We received 48 responses from a wide variety of interested stakeholders; they expressed broad support for the proposals, with approval ranging from 68% to 94%.

These changes are necessary to support the regulator to deliver improved public protection. I hope the House will approve the measures and I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction to the regulations, and the department for the helpful Explanatory Memorandum, notwithstanding that for the uninitiated the notes are at times necessarily dense.

Paragraph 2.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum talks about Social Work England. Is it appointed by Ministers? How many are on the board? Who is the chair? I presume that members obtain some payment. What is the remuneration of the chair?

Concerning paragraph 7.3, will the Minister elaborate on the Disclosure and Barring Service and the reference to “local policing bodies”? What is the extent of the interface with the police? The same might be asked about NHS trusts. The Minister might admit that Regulation 7 is somewhat complicated. How often does barring take place? Are there figures for that? With reference to paragraph 7.4, are there figures for how many people have been struck off, say, over the last three years? At paragraph 7.5, the Explanatory Memorandum mentions registration and removal from the register. Can the Minister say how many were removed last year?

I will conclude, as time is of the essence, but we should instance the hard work and professionalism of social workers—certainly those whom I know of. Social workers are hugely important to all of us, particularly to the lives of our children. It must be very difficult for professionals to negotiate the legislative thickets and potential booby traps amid great social change, political correctness and, if I may say, wokery. Surely we do need the social worker.

My Lords, we welcome this SI. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jones, that it is nice to have a policy background that is concise, well written and easily understandable to those who are not particularly knowledgeable in all social service matters. I also preface my remarks by welcoming and highlighting the incredible work and professionalism of social workers in our country, as he rightly said.

As the Minister rightly said, it is important that the public always have confidence in public workers, whether teachers, police officers or indeed social workers. This SI goes some way to strengthen and enhance their professionalism. It is right and proper that public workers can be removed from their role where they do something that is not acceptable. I like the notion of a voluntary opportunity to take that action but, of course, there will be occasions where a voluntary action is not appropriate and a harsher response is needed.

I do not quite understand the DBS in terms of social workers, so perhaps the Minister could elaborate. I understand that all social workers must have DBS clearance; my only question is how often that is renewed. Is it the same length of time as for teachers?

Similarly to the previous speakers, we broadly support these measures. The noble Lord, Lord Jones, has gone in on some very fine points of detail. I want to deal with a bit more of the broader context and refer to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, which called for a total reset of children’s social services. Half of local authority children’s services departments were rated either “inadequate” or “requiring improvement” by Ofsted in their last report. Can the Minister say anything about how the Government are planning to tackle this? That is a completely unsustainable situation.

We note that these changes are also supported by Social Work England and almost all the consultation respondents. However, as the Minister will know, important concerns were raised during the consultation about the impact that these measures might have on social workers as individuals, particularly the plans to allow the regulator to publish details of orders before an appeal has expired. While we absolutely support strengthening accountability and the measures in place, it is very important that whatever we do has the confidence of practitioners and their employers. It would be helpful if the Minister could say a little about that.

Perhaps I might press the Minister on the wider crisis in children’s social care. The MacAlister review sets out starkly the pressures and challenges facing children’s social care and makes a compelling case for change. We have not had a formal response to the review yet and we are very keen to get one.

On DBS, my understanding is that if something happens that may result in a voluntary withdrawal from the register, that information would be flagged or logged with the Disclosure and Barring Service, so that should that individual wish to go on and work with children in another context or with vulnerable adults, that information is able to be taken into account by a future employer. Clearly, the current situation is not working as it should, either for social workers or the children they are supporting.

We are content to support these measures today but, as the Minister will know by now, we will continue to press her on the Government’s plans to reform children’s social services with some urgency.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions and echo the sentiments expressed about the extraordinary job that our social workers do in protecting and supporting those in need.

I may have to write to the noble Lord, Lord Jones, to answer all his very detailed questions but I hope he is reassured to hear that our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, is chair of Social Work England and the remuneration for the chair is £450 a day. But I am happy to send more detail and I think the information the noble Lord seeks about the board may well be on the Social Work England website.

When Social Work England was established, it took over responsibility for 1,500 fitness to practise cases from the Health and Care Professions Council, which was about 300 more than had been anticipated. The noble Lord asked how often barring takes place. All this information is available on the Social Work England website, as is the number of social workers who are struck off the register.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about DBS checks. As he rightly said, of course social workers need DBS checks. Social Work England then does thorough checks as part of the registration service and will share information with the relevant agencies. I will need to write to the noble Lord to confirm the exact renewal timing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, raised broader questions about the state of social work services in this country, particularly in relation to children’s social care if I followed her question correctly. Of course, the Government recognise that although there has been improvement and there are fewer local authorities judged not to be providing good services, that number is still far too high.

Overall, councils have access to over £54 billion in core spending power for their services, including the £2.3 billion grant for social care. In the current spending review, we are continuing to provide financial support to students who qualify as social workers through investment in social work bursaries and in the education support grant. We invest as a department over £50 million each year in recruiting, training and developing child and family social workers to ensure that the workforce has the capacity, skills and knowledge to support and protect vulnerable children.

The assessed and supported year in employment has supported more than 20,000 newly qualified social workers, with more than £20 million invested since 2012, and, as the noble Baroness has heard me say before, the department is working on an ambitious and detailed implementation strategy in response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

The noble Baroness also raised the concerns about decisions being published before an appeal is completed and whether that is unfair to social workers. Obviously, this is the balance that we need to strike between public protection and an individual’s rights. As I said in my opening remarks, Social Work England’s primary focus is on public protection. Of course, these cases are very rare but are also very serious, where a social worker has been automatically removed from the register following conviction for one or more of the listed offences; I gave the examples of rape and human trafficking. It is right that this is then recorded on the public register without delay.

We also think that it is important to remove delays to publishing interim orders; it is vital for public protection that this information is made public. Interim orders are needed only where concerns about a social worker’s fitness to practise are so serious that if Social Work England allowed the social worker to continue to practise, public safety would be put at risk or there would be a risk to the social worker themselves. Therefore, while we recognise that the change will have an impact on a limited number of registrants, we consider that it is necessary to ensure public safety and maintain public confidence in the regulator. As the noble Baroness knows, the changes do not affect a registrant’s rights to appeal.

In response to the noble Baroness’s questions, I confirm that my honourable friend the Minister for Children has already met Josh MacAlister. This is obviously an area where she is completely committed, and she is aiming to publish the implementation strategy as quickly as possible.

I hope that I have addressed some, if not all, of your Lordships’ questions, but I am happy to write on those that I have not. These changes support Social Work England to continue its excellent work regulating the social work profession, to ensure that every social worker is well trained and that they are properly supported so that they can continue their important work supporting and transforming the lives of the most vulnerable.

Motion agreed.