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Social workers work with individuals and families to try and improve outcomes in their lives. There are currently around 96,497 registered social workers in England, located in a variety of public, voluntary and private sector bodies.

The regulation of social work is a devolved matter in the UK. Social work has existed as a profession for many years, but in England it has only been subject to statutory regulation since 2001. Since 1 August 2012 the profession has been regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). A Memorandum of Understanding sets the framework for HCPC’s working relationship with the other three social work regulators in the UK.

Policy responsibility for social work in England is primarily shared between the Department of Health and Social Care (adult social care) and the Department for Education (children and families).

Social work reform

The last decade has seen a series of reviews, reports, and reforms of social work. A raft of reform initiatives have been, or are in the process of being, put in place to improve the quality of social work and strengthen the profession. However, the extent to which these measures have impacted on the frontline of social work has been called into question.

Serious case reviews and inspections have identified inconsistency in social work practice across the country and in some cases failings in practice. Many social workers are under pressure from increasing service demands and funding constraints. Large caseloads, negative media coverage and a ‘blame culture’ are said to be contributing to high vacancy and turnover rates in the profession.

The Government has set out a broad social work reform programme intended to improve the quality of social work practice and the systems that support social workers.

The first social work regulator: General Social Care Council (GSCC)

Social workers in England were first brought into statutory professional regulation in 2001, when the General Social Care Council (GSCC) was established. The key functions of the GSCC were to: set and promote standards of conduct and practice for the profession; maintain a register of professionals who met the standards; hold to account those who failed to adhere to the standards; and ensure high standards of education for social workers.

As part of its review of Arm’s-Length Bodies in 2010, the Government decided to abolish the GSCC and transfer its regulatory functions to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

The College of Social Work (TCSW)

The College of Social Work (TCSW) was set up in 2012 to represent, support and strengthen the social work profession. It was envisaged that this professional body would complement the work of the HCPC. The Government provided £8 million to establish the College and support its formative years. However, TCSW was forced to close in 2015 primarily because of financial difficulties. The House of Commons Education Committee has recommended that the Government facilitates the development of a new professional body.

The current social work regulator: Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)

Since 1 August 2012 the social work profession in England has been regulated by the HCPC, a UK statutory regulator of 16 health and care professions. The HCPC is operationally independent of government, and fully funded by fees from the professionals it regulates.

The HCPC is responsible for: setting standards for the education and training of practitioners; setting standards of professional conduct, performance and professional development; maintaining a register of practitioners who meet those standards; and removing from practice registrants who are not considered fit to practise. HCPC’s work is overseen by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA).

Reviews of the current health and social care regulatory framework

Comprehensive reviews of the health and social care regulatory system were published by the Law Commissions in 2014 and the PSA in 2015. The reviews made a wide range of recommendations intended to improve regulation of the health and social care sector as a whole. The Government welcomed the review recommendations and committed to consult on options for taking forward broader regulatory reform.

Social Work England

On 14 January 2016 the Government announced its intention to establish a new regulatory body to improve standards in the social work profession. Legislative provisions to establish a new, specialist regulator of social workers in England – Social Work England – were included in Part 2 of the Children and Social Work Bill [HL] 2016-17. Stakeholders raised a number of concerns about the Bill, which was amended during its passage. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 received Royal Assent on 27 April 2017.

Social Work England will be an independent Non-Departmental Public Body with oversight of its regulatory functions from the PSA. The regulator’s overarching objective will be to ensure the protection of the public. It will have a remit to:

  • keep a register of social workers in England;
  • set social work professional, education and training standards; and
  • determine an individual social worker’s fitness to practise.

The 2017 Act sets out the broad legal framework for Social Work England, but much of the detail of the regulatory framework will be set out in secondary legislation. Following a public consultation, the Government laid the The Social Workers Regulations 2018 on 4 June 2018. The regulations are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and require approval from both Houses of Parliament.

The Government has established an Advisory Group, consisting of key social work sector representatives, to advise on the development and implementation of Social Work England. The new regulator is not expected to take over from the existing regulator HCPC before Spring 2019.

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