New Supplementary Order Paper fundamentally changes Social Work Registration Bill – and should not proceed

A guest post by John Darroch

As many readers of this blog will be aware the government is currently considering the Social Workers Registration Bill. This bill was introduced to parliament in 2017 and contained a range of changes including mandatory registration and title protection for social workers. This bill has been through the select committee process, allowing for public submissions, and is currently awaiting its third reading in parliament.

Recently however, a new Supplementary Order Paper (SOP) introduced by Carmel Sepuloni has dramatically changed the purpose of the bill, and has the potential to significantly disrupt the social work profession in Aotearoa. The proposed SOP would change the registration process so that registered social workers will no longer have the ability to practice in whatever area they wish to. Instead, registration would involve applying to practice within a certain Scope of Practice. In order to gain endorsement to practice within a particular scope the applicant would have to meet conditions set by the SWRB. It seems likely that this will involve minimum levels of training, or demonstration of specific knowledge and/or experience relating to a particular type of social work.

This is a fundamental change to the purpose of the bill, and to the structure of the social work profession in Aotearoa. Without further information, and debate, we have no real idea what the implications of this SOP may be.

For example, social workers who wish to change their area of focus may be required to undertake costly postgraduate training. Organisations, which face having to recruit from a small pool of social workers endorsed in a specific scope of practice, may choose to define roles as non-social work. A social worker in a small community, faced with complex multi-layered problems, may risk disciplinary proceedings if they choose to work across a range of different scopes of practice.

These risks are amplified by the lack of democratic control over the Social Work Registration Board by the profession. The board is not accountable to social workers, and we cannot choose who is on it. The fact that control lies in the hands of government means that such scopes of practice could be used to further direct social work towards a neo-liberal conceptualisation of social work.

This is a view of social work in which social workers are functionaries applying a narrow range of specialised skills – rather than social change agents who are working across communities and issues.

It is my opinion that this SOP should be withdrawn, and that the bill should proceed to a vote in its current form. Should Carmel Sepuloni wish to proceed with the proposals contained in the SOP a future bill should be submitted. This would allow for the select committee process to fully consider the impacts of such a change.

Here are some of the potential problems I see with the SOP. I apologise in advance for a lack of references to the writers who have informed my thinking in the following sections. This post has been written at short notice due to the fact that parliament is voting on the SOP in the near future.

Worsening problems with organisations skirting around hiring registered social workers

One of the key issues with the proposed bill (prior to the introduction of the SOP) was that it only covered people who chose to call themselves social workers, and jobs which employers chose to define as social work. Many submitters to the bill highlighted this issue and the risk that organisations could re-define roles to not specifically require social workers.

Dr Carole Adamson’s (2018) submission to the select committee highlights this risk clearly:

The risks inherent in this Bill’s wording is that it hands the responsibility to define the role over to an employer, who may choose to call the tasks (that require a professionally qualified social worker to competently fulfill them) something other than ‘social work’, in which case there is the potential to employ someone without social work qualifications (because they don’t have to pay the costs of registration, continuing professional development and supervision)

The proposed SOP does not resolve this problem, instead I believe it exacerbates it. Instead of simply being able to recruit a registered social worker, certain positions would require that organisations hire a social worker who held (or was eligible for) appropriate endorsements.

In principle requiring social workers to have appropriate knowledge for a specific role is clearly a good thing. However, faced with recruiting from a narrower range of eligible social workers, it seems likely that some organisations will simply choose not to define roles with reference to social work.

This is not a hypothetical risk. Anecdotally I have heard several stories of social workers who currently have had to fight with their employers in order to get them to pay costs associated with registration. I have even heard cases where individual social workers have had to personally cover the costs associated with being registered, such as supervision.

We also have an existing issue with organisations failing to recognise that certain positions should be filled by registered social workers. This is not only confined to non-governmental organisations, many of which are not funded adequately, but (in my anecdotal experience) extends to governmental organisations such as Probation.

The SOP seems to respond to submitters concerns, not by putting any meaningful protections in place to ensure that organisations actually hire qualified social workers, but rather by increasing the incentive for organisations to fail to do so.

I note that in the select committee report (Social Services and Community Committee, 2018) there is an explicit recognition that government needs to work on ensuring that organisations receive adequate funding to cover costs associated with mandatory registration. This is sensible, and I hope that the current Labour government follows through on this suggestion. As a profession however, we need to face the reality that future governments are likely to continuing implement policies of neoliberal austerity. A regulatory regime which works while there is ample funding available may be deeply problematic if organisations are struggling to remain in operation.

Risk that scopes of practice do not recognise the reality of practice

Once again I must start this section by stating that we do not know what the scopes of practice for social work will look like.

It is fairly easy to imagine however that there will be a range of scopes which cover areas which are seen as core domains of social work practice. For example, there could be a scope of practice relating to child protection, requiring specific knowledge and training in this area.

One of the potential issues with this approach is that it could cause significant problems for social workers whose practice covers a range of different domains. For example, it is easy to imagine a social worker in a small community whose practice transcends boundaries. They may work with clients who have issues with substance abuse, families where violence is occurring, and with young people who are in need. Indeed, they may work with families where all issues are present concurrently. This is the reality of practice for many social workers, practice is dynamic and often involves complex issues. Theoretically, such a social worker could be registered to work across several scopes of practice, and this could provide a simple solution to the problem.

I would anticipate that at first this is the path that the SWRB will take, recognising prior experience in order to allow for social workers to continue practicing. Over time it seems likely however that the SWRB may require formal post-graduate training in order for a social worker to be recognised as having the knowledge to practice in a certain domain. If this were to occur, the (imaginary) social worker may face a very real risk of choosing not to work on certain issues in their community, or risking disciplinary action by going beyond their scope of practice.

Future costs likely to be shouldered by students

It seems almost certain that over time scopes of practice will come with a requirement for relevant post-qualifying education. This is something which I, in principle, like the idea of. I was well aware upon my qualification from a BSW (hons) degree that I had a basic set of skills which would need further professional development.

One of the risks I see with the possibility of a future requirement for training is that the cost of such training is likely to be shouldered by students. As a tutor, and post-graduate student, I have first hand experience of how the current system causes harm. We currently have no post-graduate student allowance in Aotearoa, and the undergraduate allowance is insufficient to live on.

If practicing in a certain area (like child protection) were to require post-qualifying training, and this cost was carried by students, then it would risk creating a tiered system in which privileged students were more able to enter certain areas of practice. Any changes to social work registration must grapple with the systemic racism and oppression play in society, in tertiary education, and in practice (Keddell & Hyslop, 2019).

I also can’t help but think that new scopes of practice will continue to privilege academic knowledge generated with western constructs – ignoring the wealth of knowledge and expertise that Māori hold. In order to address these concerns, we need clarity on what scopes of practice will involve, and what the requirements for meeting them will include. We need to know what the road-map is for social work – and an understanding of the systemic consequences of the proposed changes. Taken to its extreme we risk qualified social workers finding that they are in effect “locked-in” to certain fields of practice – unable to afford the cost or disruption required to meet a new scope of practice.

Risk that scopes of practice do not reflect the social change mandate of the profession

At present the Core Competence Standard which the SWRB requires social workers to meet contain explicit requirements that all social workers are actively shaping social policy and acting to bring about structural change within society. These competencies reflect the fact that the defining feature of social work isn’t the narrow application of skills, it is an active commitment to change society.

I am not confident that future scopes of practice will reflect this commitment. Instead I believe that they are likely to narrowly focus on casework skills. Even if this is not immediately the case, the fact that the board is politically appointed and is not accountable to the profession, means we should be cautious about giving away power to define significant aspect of social work practice.

Conclusion

This blog post has focused on the negative aspects of scopes of practice, this is deliberate, and not meant to obscure the fact that there are genuine reasons to support having scopes of practice for social work. Instead I am hoping that this post conveys the significance of the proposed changes contained in the SOP, and illustrate why robust debate within the profession should be taking place.

I believe that until such debate has occurred, and we have more clarity about the proposed changes, the SOP should not go forward. If parliament does vote to accept this SOP then I believe it will be circumventing the select committee process and the legitimate concerns that many social workers will have about the proposed restructuring of the profession.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Eileen Joy and Liz Beddoe for the discussion on Twitter which sparked this blog post, and their suggestions for the post.

Image credit: Paul Carmona

References

Adamson, C. (2018). Social workers registration legislation bill – Carole Adamson .Retrieved from https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/submissions-and-advice/document/52SCSS_EVI_74844_368/carole-adamson-dr

Keddell, E., & Hyslop, I. (2019). Ethnic inequalities in child welfare: The role of practitioner risk perceptions. Child & Family Social Work, 0(0) doi:10.1111/cfs.1262

Social Services and Community Committee. (2018). Social workers registration legislation bill – New Zealand Parliament: Final report of the social services and community committee. Retrieved from https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/reports/document/SCR_78026/social-workers-registration-legislation-bill

4 thoughts on “New Supplementary Order Paper fundamentally changes Social Work Registration Bill – and should not proceed

  1. A further comment

    I think in terms of this debate there is a core point which needs to be distinguished relating to who scopes of practice apply to.

    1) Scope of practice – in order to restrict the ability of employers to hire non-social workers from carrying out social work tasks.

    This is what I see referenced to in quite a lot of documents. This type of scope of practice would prevent employers circumventing the hiring of registered social workers.

    The SOP does not include this.

    2) Scope of practice – in order to regulate the activities of social workers.

    This involves defining areas of practice within social work which social workers will have to demonstrate required levels of competency in order to practice.

    This is what the SOP contains.

    Part of the difficulty I have had in understanding the position of different organisations is that the two have been used interchangeably. I note – for example – that the PSA’s submission on the bill states that.

    “The PSA’s core concern with this bill is section 6AAB where social work is only defined by reference to the title social worker. The effectiveness of the title protection provided by this bill will be undermined by the absence of a scope of practice describing social work and who should be covered.”

    Despite the new SOP focusing on scopes of practice – it does not meet this purpose – the scopes of practice contained in the SOP only apply to registered social workers – and the SWRB has not been given the power to apply them to employers.

    That organisations have been arguing for a scope of practice in order to protect the profession – rather than regulate within the profession – makes the consultation and discussion around this bill all the more insufficient. An engaged social worker could have hunted down these documents and still come to an erroneous conclusion about the purpose of scopes of practice.

    The full PSA submission which goes into greater detail is here: https://www.parliament.nz/resource/en-NZ/52SCSS_EVI_74844_409/5d0abf25495ad113915dabad5afe72ee7eb41e60

  2. Here are some further resources which include the perspective of the PSA and ANZASW about this change:

    While I accept many of their reasons for supporting these changes I believe that the profession needs time to debate these changes and that we need a clearer picture of what the long term implications of these changes could be.

    ANZASW public statement on this change to the bill: http://www.scoop.co.nz/…/anzasw-statement-on-amendments-to-…
    MSD update on the changes to the pill: https://www.msd.govt.nz/…/social-worker-registra…/index.html
    ANZASW page with links to resources and information about the change: https://anzasw.nz/social-workers-registration-legislation-…/
    PSA briefing document explaining why they support a scope of practice: https://www.psa.org.nz/assets/Uploads/Scope-of-practice.docx
    Select committee report on the original bill (scopes of practice are referred to on page 6/7): https://www.parliament.nz/…/8d3387fb916ff0442653338df429d82…
    Full text of the SOP: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/…/20…/0187/latest/whole.html…
    Cabinet briefing paper which includes rational for introducing Scopes of Practice: https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/work-programmes/social-worker-registration/2018-08-cabinet-swc-paper-social-workers-registration-legislation-bill-additional-policy-decisions-for-inclusion-in-a-supplementary-order-paper.docx?fbclid=IwAR0et5oMGZmx55dk9LVrCz-Yf1briXoY4aM3IWKYM7mP4vq4QKYTu2rtOCc

  3. I cannot pass this excellent post without comment. Jon and Ian have done a good job in introducing the questions which are not often asked when this type of regulation is proposed. It is too easy for ‘reform’ to take what can be a ‘panic’ or ‘knee-jerk’ pathway towards more ‘regulation’, especially when the welfare of vulnerable citizens, children in particular is at stake.
    I point out more for myself as an ‘ordinary’ citizen’ that John’s post acknowledges that social work manages the circumstances of people who are closest to experiencing the most dire circumstances of loss and trauma, death and injury themselves, and of those closest to them.
    The working environment for NZ’s social workers, as it is with most social workers world wide is one of witnessing the constant trauma of others. Their role is often about creating ‘order out of chaos’. In such a volatile work environment, the ability to act out of compassion very often becomes most difficult when the ability to act is strictly regulated and the regulations, while created with the best of intentions, in attempts to protect all parties involved, often result, and have resulted, in creating ‘silos’ which ‘lock’ access to resources so that they do not reach those people who (desperately) need them. In these circumstances people who ‘survive’ have mostly taken matters into their own hands, and/or had ‘a significant and often random opportunity’.
    Much more work needs to be done to explore the real needs of the community of people facing both sides of the spectrum created when challenged by bad life changing experience.
    This impacts most on the lived experience for social workers and it is right (at a ‘professional’ level) that this bill prioritizes the needs of people in this profession at all levels. But unless carefully crafted will create an environment where the needs of people social workers act upon could become subservient to the need to ‘follow the (prescriptive actions described as ‘being allocated’ by the funded pathway) of the regulation’.
    I experienced a small example of this paradigm. It also describes a reality of being in a situation where social workers are heavily involved in your life. Not every situation is like this but too many are to make this qualify as a “rare” situation. -summary of one of “those experiences” below-
    In this instance when I was volunteering for a community organization. I delivered a food parcel to a woman who had asked our organization for help. She was extremely distressed when I arrived. We routinely gave food parcels out when visiting.
    The woman was living in a group of units managed by a significant community mental health NGO which managed accommodation for people experiencing MH issues.
    A man had recently been allocated the unit next door to hers. His general behavior was unreasonable and violent. When I arrived I could hear him banging and kicking the walls and throwing objects yelling and screaming. There were no Police, or MH crisis teams in sight. She had called for help from them.
    There was glass piled up at both entrances to her unit where he had smashed the glass panels in her front and back doors overnight. She was terrified. For sure he kept up the behavior while I was present. He perceived that I had limited authority. As is my experience, the man ‘knew’ what behavior he could get away with and to whom.
    She also told me that her assigned support worker had just left after her routine visit. The support worker held exemplary qualifications. I asked her what help the social worker offered her. I thought maybe the support worker had left to get some assistance.
    But after some time this had not happened. Instead the social worker adhered to her prescribed ‘rehabilitative routine’, stepped over the broken glass and simply asked the woman if she had “considered giving up smoking”.
    When the woman asked her to help with the neighbor’s behavior, the support worker told her to “call the Police” which she’d tried to do but with little response, other than to be told to “call the crisis team” who had also failed to attend (this was not considered sufficient for a crisis response, I assume because nobody had been injured yet). The support worker, at that point terminated her visit and that was when the woman called me for help.
    I eventually managed to get the property manager on the phone. He called the Police, who responded to HIS call, and he arrived about an hour later to assess the damage.
    No the neighbor did not get evicted or removed and continued to misbehave brutally for some weeks until the Landlord and property manager tired of managing his behavior and moved him on to a respite unit for a few weeks where he ‘behaved’, and when I last heard about him, he was still doing the same to his ‘new’ HNZ neighbors, which included terrorizing a family with children.
    What sort of implications would the proposed regulatory environment mean for this family? Would they be forced to “move” or face loosing custody of their children. Keep in mind, this family was already reliant on HNZ for accommodation. ….Thanks John. heaps of issues come to mind with your post!

  4. Very important post John – you raise some very good questions for discussion. One of the risks with the professionalization project has always been the question of who holds the power to define the necessary skills and knowledge for practice. The politically motivated leftist rationale of social work has always sat in tension with a narrow casework focus (identify and fix the dangerous). More than this, child and family centered practice is a relational and communicative process that involves and creates awareness of the barriers that social and material hardship create. This is what makes social work – even state social potentially – different from distant diagnostic science. So if we leave this power of definition to conservative interests we are colluding with those who would narrow our role even further. Is this what we want from professionalization? Whose interests are served? What else is possible and who decides? I hope your post generates some robust dialogue.

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