A guest post by Amy Ross
Amy Ross writes a response to John Darroch’s article “New supplementary order paper fundamentally changes social work registration bill – and should not proceed”.
Any registration of any profession by the state carries risk. The state has an appalling history of allowing atrocities to be undertaken by ‘officials’ and ‘professionals’ with the backing of the law. Therefore, registration for social work should of course be undertaken with vigilance and we need to ensure that implementing any legislation is done by us and does not erode the core principles of social work or allow the state to define our theoretical or ethical basis.
The first iteration of the Social Work Registration Bill tabled as a last act by Anne Tolley and the National Government posed enormous challenges to the future of our profession. The Social Work Community swung into action. There was a huge number of submissions (see the PSA one here) and an open letter petition that caught the attention of the new Minister Carmel Sepuluoni.
There were two core issues for the Social Workers Action Network (as articulated in more detail in our submission). One was the circular and meaningless definition of social work the original bill provided which created ability for employers to define social work themselves. The PSA and ANZASW both received many calls from employees who had already had their job title changed by their employer to remove the title ‘social work’ in anticipation of being able to have their social work employees do the same job without calling them social workers; or paying or recognising them as such.
The problematic reporting of misconduct to the board was another key issue for the PSA. The way it was worded created a risk that more organisations would use the Social Work Registration Board as a defacto HR department, calling into question the future security of basic employment rights for social workers in the workplace.
The PSA joined the voices of our members with many other social work organisations in the Social Work Alliance, including ANZASW, The Tangata Whenua Social Work Association, The Council of Social Work Educators; DHB social work leads and the Social Service Provider Association (amongst many others) to influence change. It was an almost unprecedented cooperation between social work advocates and community leaders and we were able to influence a number of positive changes to this dangerous bill in the form of a supplementary order paper (SOP)
John Darroch’s article calling out this SOP as making things worse and arguing for the bill to go through to vote in its original form is disappointing after such a widespread, community led response. The SOP is certainly not perfect (no legislation I have ever seen is) but if the bill was to go to vote in its original form this would undo significant cross sector work. The early National Party bill was full of attacks on the profession and also technical problems, of which I have only highlighted two.
The concern expressed in the aforementioned article about scopes of practice is valid in that it is true we don’t know what will be in them yet as they are not in the legislation. This is purposeful as we don’t actually want them to be in legislation where they would be unable to be changed or influenced by our community as we develop our own understanding of practice. We don’t want to have to go cap in hand to the Government of the day to change and develop social work practice.
However it is inaccurate to say that the scopes will be written without the community or by the board alone. The bill requires involvement from stakeholders in the development of any scopes of practice. The SWRB is just the coordinating body which holds the pen. Social workers must claim this opportunity and be involved in every debate, every nuance of the scope discussion. I know that when the SWRB put out their first iteration of a general scope of practice PSA members provided scathing feedback and as a result of this feedback, (amongst other community feedback) it was dramatically changed. This process could be a thousand time more robust, if we seize the chance and get involved. The risk of the scopes not reflecting reality can only come to pass if we as a community do not stand up and make sure that they do. The debate about how many there ultimately are is still one we have a chance to have robustly as a community.
It is also not accurate to say that scopes of practice will necessarily mean that people will have to undertake expensive and inaccessible post graduate qualifications as a matter of course or that they must register multiple times in complex siloed systems. The course of the scopes of practice is likely to be the same as the Health Practitioners Competency Assurance Act upon which it was based. This works effectively for many professions that social workers regularly intersect with. The core general scope of practice that defines core competencies, responsibilities and qualifications for social work will be critical. This must in my view be based on our strong core ethics and values as is the International Definition of Social Work. Having a strong core scope of practice will prevent employers cherry picking what they call social work or employing social workers to do social work in jobs that simply are not named as such. It removes the ability for them to say social work is “vague” or argue that because that the words ‘social work’ are not used that it is therefore not a social work job.
When it comes to specific scopes of practice for a specific area, (such as those in health) the purpose is not to create a whole lot of bureaucratic obstacles and multiple points of registration. Certainly, none of the many social work organisations pushing for change would ever have argued for that. A scope of practice does not necessarily make a task or responsibility exclusively yours nor does it have to be a specific list of restricted tasks. Just as in a health setting where scopes overlap all the time (for example a Nurse Practitioner and a Doctor in their ability to prescribe medication or Occupation Therapists and Nurses in their ability to assess) the same will be true for different areas of practice in social work. All social workers must engage with a person holistically as that is a core element of our praxis.
Different scopes of practice can essentially be defined as having two clear purposes:
- Articulating the competencies and responsibilities of social work in a particular field to help delineate and protect the social work role, something we have already seen under attack with the rise of “social work assistant roles” or “case workers” etc which can act in effect as unqualified, unsupervised, low paid workers doing a social work role. We heard a lot throughout the process of fighting the original bill that social work is difficult to define (Cabinet paper, Regulatory Impact statement, select committee report, MSD advice to select committee). This becomes problematic in multi-disciplinary environments where social work ends up with the “everything else that nobody else wants” or so poorly understood that the real value social workers bring is ignored or distorted.
- Allowing different areas of the social work community to build on the general scope of practice to refine and add to the things important for their sector. NGO social workers don’t want Oranga Tamariki to define social work for their sector, Health don’t want to be defined by NGOS and so on. The ability to develop (over time) specific scopes of practice should absolutely be monitored but can also be an opportunity for us to get some real control back and ensure social work doesn’t become simply ‘child protection’ as it is often seen. There is absolutely no reason that a Kaupapa Maori scope could not be created which could challenge many conventional notions of qualifications and practice for example. We will need to be vigilant against any creation of hierarchies, deliberate or inadvertent, through this process but again does offer an opportunity to allow each field of practice to “come out into the sunlight” so to speak.
I hold no illusions about not having to fight to prevent the cult of managerialism and neoliberalism creeping into the wording of scopes of practice or about the need to fight against the reality of austerity cutting our ability to practice or resource ongoing learning deeply. However the coherent community organisation around this bill shows me that we are ready to take on the task of being involved in any scope development and make it truly our own. It will not be without challenge. But implementation of any registration would pose some challenges, particularly in a neoliberal environment. This bill is an opportunity as I see it, an opportunity which will be well and truly gone if the bill were to proceed in its original form, leaving us dependent on the goodwill of employers to retain any social work jobs.
 Indeed during this process the HCPA Act was getting reviewed and MSD officials were able to have conversations to understand the learnings of this review so they could be included in any replication of the HCPA process