As Social Work England begins to take shape, there has been concern expressed at the lack of registered social workers appointed to the Board. Amongst many voices raised on this issue, David Jones of BASW has complained on Twitter that ‘the excellent work setting up @SocialWorkEng is at risk and will be grievously undermined if a social worker and service user aren’t appointed to the board’. Should we really be surprised by the appointments, or was the direction of travel clear from the outset?
The present board members are as follows:
- Lord Patel of Bradford is the Chair. Although he began his career as a social worker in Bradford, it would not be unfair to say that he does not have any recent experience of front-line social work, having, in the course of an illustrious career, moved to various academic positions and to the management of a variety of organisations.
- Colum Conway is the Chief Executive. He is a registered social worker and comes from five years running the Northern Ireland Social Care Council which is the regulator for social workers in that part of the UK.
- Jonathan Gorvin is a career regulator. He was previously Head of Regulatory Affairs at the Press Recognition Panel, where he developed the regulatory framework for recognising press self-regulators following the Leveson Inquiry. He is now Head of Regulatory Policy at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
- Dr Helen Phillips was previously the Chief Executive of the environmental regulator, Natural England and is now Chair of the Board of the Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; and Chair of the Legal Services Board.
- Dr Andrew McCulloch is the Chair of GMC Services International, a Board Member of Healthwatch England and a freelance consultant in health and social care and international development.
- Baroness Taylor of Enfield was the Chair of Cafcass from 2012 to 2018 and is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on mental health in the House of Lords.
- Mark Lam is described as a digital technologist. He was previously Chief Technology and Information Officer with Openreach and is currently Chair of the Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust.
Before criticising the composition of the board, it is necessary to ask, what is the function of Social Work England? Only then can we decide if the right people have been recruited to carry out the work. For this we need to go back to the Children and Social Work Act 2017. Whilst this legislation was making its progress through Parliament in 2016, most of the attention was focussed on the ‘exemption clauses’ and there was, perhaps, insufficient critical analysis of the creature which was forming within the statute to shape the profession’s future.
The cornerstone of Social Work England is to be found in section 37 of the Act. I t is sufficiently important to set it out here in full:
37 Over-arching objective
- The over-arching objective of the regulator in exercising its functions is the protection of the public.
- The pursuit by the regulator of its over-arching objective involves the pursuit of the following objectives
to protect, promote and maintain the health, safety and well-being of the public;
to promote and maintain public confidence in social workers in England;
to promote and maintain proper professional standards for social workers in England.
I would suggest that this section should be read carefully and read several times over. The main job of Social Work England is to protect the public from social workers. It is implicit in sub-section 2(a) that Parliament believes social workers to be a potential source of harm to the public. The regulator’s job is to manage that risk. Parliament’s view is that the social work profession is something which must be managed, to keep the risk of harm to the public within acceptable levels.
It is worth looking at the absences from the over-arching objective too. What are the things which the regulator is not concerned about? Subsection 2(c) requires the maintenance of an irreducible minimum standard of professional standard, but anything above and beyond that, is not part of the body’s brief.
Under section 41, the regulator is responsible for determining and publishing professional standards, but this is subject to two important provisos. The first is that any such standards are subject to mandatory prior approval by the Secretary of State. The foundations for political control of the profession are therefore laid. It remains to be seen, whether that ability to create a politicised social work profession will be taken up by a future administration. It is a dangerous weapon to have laid on the desk when you leave office.
The second point, is about what the Act does not say that the regulator is responsible for. You will search the Act in vain for words such as leadership, inspiration, research and disseminating new learning. That is simply not Social Work England’s job. It is simply required to hold a line, fixed at the lowest acceptable common denominator and to intervene with anyone who may cross that line.
We must conclude is that social workers are to be the regulated and not the regulators in this relationship. On 4 June 2018, Nadhim Zahawi MP made a written statement to Parliament about Social Work England. In a footnote to that statement he refers to the Social Work England Advisory Group, describing BASW’s membership as being ‘service users’. The position of the profession is quite clear; you are controlled by the regulator, not the other way around. If you seek further evidence look at the advertised vacancies on the Social Work England web site. Try to find posts which require social work qualifications. At the date of writing, there was only one advertisement, for three qualified social workers to assess overseas courses, experience and qualifications and their equivalence with the UK.
Given that the overarching task of the regulator is the protection of the public, it is more surprising that there is no lay representation on the board. No voice for those who are being protected. Perhaps the professional functionaries do not wish to share the table with those who need social work help? Perhaps the Secretary of State wishes to confine membership to those who are tried and trusted? It is unlikely these questions will ever be answered.
The final point is that, with the regulator having confined itself to policing minimum standards, the fields of leadership, development and improvement stand empty and fallow. There is still scope for the profession, through its professional bodies, to take control of its future direction of travel. Social work is quickly passing the fork in the road, where the paths to independence and state-control diverge. The latter is a smooth and well-made route which requires no effort whatsoever; the former is unmade and often uncomfortable and may require everyone to get out and push. Is the destination worth the effort?