Regulation, regulation, regulation

The government consultation on how the new social work regulator (Social Work England) will operate in England is open till 21 March. A few months ago, I discussed regulation in the Helpful Social Work podcast with Jo Fox. Here are some of my thoughts.

The vision for Social Work England is for a regulator that “focuses on public protection and supporting practice excellence (page 11, Consultation document).  

I think that the true role of a regulator is public protection. Where a profession works with people who are at high risk of being harmed if this is not done well, regulation is put in place to ensure a standard of practice that protects the public. Where there are particular roles that carry additional risk, the regulator may specify requirements for these too.

The regulator should set essential standards for registration as a social worker. And ongoing registration should require evidence of professional development as well as of safe practice. However, I think the role of the regulator in promoting excellence is a supporting role. I believe excellence should be led by the social work profession in partnership with people who need social work. There are several important reasons for this:

  • Excellence in practice is firstly an individual professional and ethical responsibility that needs to be fostered by the profession
  • An understanding of what excellence is comes from research, service user views and professional experience coming together to create an evidence base, rather than from policy
  • Regulation checks up on people’s competence at a particular moment, however professional excellence needs to exist at all times – again, this is fostered by the profession itself working in partnership with the people it serves
  • Regulation is costly and needs to be proportionate – peer support is more cost effective than checking up on people
  • Setting standards that people must meet tends to focus them on the standards, rather than exceeding them.

Regulation needs to be supported by the profession and this is enabled when there is involvement of the professional body (the British Association of Social Workers). The professional body should:

  • Advise the regulator on what to include in essential standards so they are effective - based on expertise, evidence and co-production with people who use services
  • Advise the regulator on roles that may need additional regulation and input to these standards
  • Ensure that the regulatory standards fit with the global identity, ethics and purpose of social work so that social workers can meet them with integrity
  • Support social workers to meet regulatory standards, for example through education, mentoring and supervision from other social workers
  • Support social workers to gather evidence of meeting regulatory standards, for example through observation or assessment from other social workers
  • Support social workers who are facing fitness to practice enquiries (without in any way condoning poor practice), advise on how far social workers are affected by context outside their control, and demand good working conditions
  • Help the regulator evaluate its role in terms of promoting good social work.

I consider that the professional body, working in partnership with people who need social work, should develop clear capabilities and learning opportunities for excellent practice that goes beyond public protection. These may then be accredited by the regulator (as the General Medical Council accredits specialisms developed by the medical colleges). However, professions have traditionally developed specialised educational training and have themselves recognised members who can be trusted to work to a particular standard. Social work can build on the tradition of self-regulation that professions have. We are clear about our purpose, capabilities and ethics, and should recognise social workers who meet these.

Regulation is an important element in ensuring that a profession, which works with people that it could harm, acts ethically and works well. However, regulation alone is not enough. We need to join up as a profession to build our own excellence. It is good to see BASW’s statement on how it intends to work with regulation:

“As the professional association for social work, BASW will work closely with government departments and regulators across the four nations of the UK whenever possible.  BASW will also pursue robustly the development of profession-led, post-qualifying CPD and an evidence base that comes from research, practice and our value base, working from a position of professional independence and collaboration with multiple stakeholders across the sector.” (page 4)

Do respond to the survey on regulation from BASW to inform our profession’s input to the consultation.