On 14 June 2016, the Children and Social Work Bill (the Bill) had its second reading in the House of Lords. One of the topics of the second reading debate concerned the clauses in the Bill that will provide for a new regulator, and regulatory regime, for Social Workers in England.

This blog post examines in detail some of the issues raised in the debate.

Background to the Children and Social Work Bill

The Government announced in the Queen’s Speech 2016 (delivered on 18 May 2016) that it would introduce a Bill to, amongst other things, “improve the standard of social work and opportunities for young people in care in England”. The full text of the Bill was published shortly after the Queen’s Speech and, in Part 2 of the Bill, there are clauses that provide for the establishment of a specialist regulator for Social Workers in England.

Currently, Social Workers in England are regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (the HCPC). The HCPC regulates 16 professions including Social Workers. The HCPC took over the regulation of social workers from the General Social Care Council in  August 2012.

The Government’s announcement in the Queen’s Speech was anticipated.  For some time, the Government had indicated its desire to introduce a new bespoke regulator for Social Workers. The Conservative Party’s general election manifesto of 2015 had alluded to the idea. On 14 January 2016, Nicky Morgan MP, the Secretary of State for Education, delivered a speech in which she confirmed that the Government planned on creating a new regulator “charged with driving up standards in social work and raising the status of social workers”. On the same day, the Department for Education publishedChildren’s Social Care Reform: A Vision for Change which confirmed that a new regulator for Social Workers would be established.

The Children and Social Work Bill

The Bill has three stated purposes:

  1. To “ensure that the state delivers on our collective responsibility to help children leaving care make a good start in adult life, through a new “care leavers’ covenant” underpinned by a statutory duty requiring local authorities to publish the services and standards of treatment care leavers are entitled to”;
  2. To “tip the balance in favour of permanent adoption where that is the right thing for the child—helping to give children stability”;
  3. To “drive improvements in the social work profession, by introducing more demanding professional standards, and setting up a specialist regulator for the profession”.

The Bill contains 47 clauses across three parts: Clauses 20 to 38 concern Social Worker regulations.

The second reading debate in the House of Lords

The Bill has been introduced to Parliament through the House of Lords. The Bill had its first reading (its formal introduction) on 19 May 2016. The Bill had its second reading (a debate on the main principles and purpose of a bill) on 14 June 2016 (the Hansard transcript of the debate can be accessed here).

Lord Nash, a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education, said, with regards to the new regulator, that:

“The Bill provides for a new bespoke regulatory body dedicated to social work, with the ambition and vision to develop and regulate the workforce across the profession—across a whole career, different specialisms and different levels of seniority..…

The new body will replace the current role of the Health and Care Professions Council in respect of the 93,000 social workers currently registered in England. The change to the system of regulation of social workers is in no sense a criticism of the HCPC. I commend the work that it has carried out since taking on the regulation of social workers in August 2012. Rather, it is a reflection of the unique position of social workers and of the uniquely difficult role they perform in supporting those people and children in society who are the most vulnerable or who have the greatest need. It is the Government’s belief that the interests of the people supported by social workers and the interests of the social work profession will be best served by a specialist regulator with a single focus on this profession”

Lord Nash’s remarks, and the Government’s proposed changes to the regulatory regime for Social Workers, were received cautiously by the members of the House of Lords. A number of peers (for example Baroness Pitkeathley (Lab)Lord Warner (Non-Afl), and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab)) were critical of the Government’s proposed changes. Lord Hunt, for example, asked whether “the [Social Worker] profession needs a complete upheaval in its regulated arrangements just four years after the previous one must be open to question”. Baroness Pitkeathley said “The HCPC is now assessed by everybody who knows this field as doing an excellent job, and doing it most efficiently and cost effectively. So while I bow to no one in my desire to see the profession of social work properly recognised and supported, I have to ask the Minister why he is doing this, and what he expects to gain from it”.

During the second reading debate, some peers questioned the legislative means through which the Government will create the new regulator and regulatory regime. Their criticisms were reflected (in a report published on 13 June 2016) by the House of Lords Constitution Select Committee which has said as follows about the matter:

“Clause 20 grants the Secretary of State power to make regulations for the purpose of regulating social workers in England. By these regulations, the Secretary of State may appoint a regulator of social workers—who may be the Secretary of State—or establish a new body to be the regulator (Clause 21), as well as define the functions and powers of the regulator. We would expect the creation of a significant statutory body, such as a regulator, to be enacted by primary legislative provision to enable proper parliamentary scrutiny. The House may wish to consider whether it is appropriate for the creation of a regulator of social workers to be left entirely in the hands of the Secretary of State, rather than set out to some degree on the face of the Bill”.

Next steps

The Bill is scheduled to have its committee stage debate in the Lords from 27 June 2016 onwards. Given the concerns raised by many peers about Part 2 of the Bill, it will be interesting to see whether the Government will be willing at committee stage to accept any substantive amendments to the proposed new Social Worker regulatory regime. Whilst the Government may want to press ahead with the creation of a new regulator, it might be minded to provide further detail on the form of the regulator within the Bill, as opposed to simply relying on secondary legislation.