I wasn’t always pro-registration. Coming from more of an activist background I was suspicious of the role of regulation by a government body when social work is about resisting and ameliorating the harms of the state. There are still tensions for me, but the latest social work registration bill has some significant implications for anyone who wants to practise social work in this country, where the profession, like others, has fought to be recognised as a legitimate one that involves more than just having a cup of tea and telling folks ‘there there, you’ll be ok’. Under the weight of lack of funding for decent wages and constant criticism by the public and in some cases, employers, social workers have several ways to ensure that their working conditions and the quality of the services able to be offered are maintained. Registration is one way to support these aims. It’s not perfect, but it contributes to a strong professional identity that can then be protected from anyone without the right qualifications and comitment to a code of ethics from claiming it. It helps provide the public with some level of confidence in the profession, and a remedy if it’s not up to scratch. It also allows us, in an ideal world, to define social work as the unique combination of social justice and self-determination aspirations it has always professed. In these ways, registration at least has the potential to maintain standards of practise, ensure a strong professional identity and provide people we work with as ‘service users’ (there is no good term) with some protections from unethical practise. The proposed legislation, fresh back from select committee, damages these aims. How? In the section defining what is ‘practising social work’, there are almost directly contradictory elements, both with significant drawbacks (Parliament website)
The first part is as follows:
s6AAB Definition of practising as a social worker
(1) A person is practising as a social worker for the purposes of this Act (and practises and willing to practise as a social worker have corresponding meanings) if that person—
(a) is employed or engaged by another person in a position that is described using the words “social worker” or “social work”
(b) in undertaking any work for gain or reward, holds himself or herself out to be a social worker:
(c) holds a position, in a voluntary capacity or as a member of any body or organisation, that is described using the words “social worker” or “social work”:
(d) holds a position or performs a role described in an enactment using the words “social worker” or “social work”:
(e) undertakes restricted work:
(f) in any other way claims to be a social worker.
What this means is that anyone employed as a social worker where the position is described using that label, anyone working for money (or not) and claiming to be a social worker, anyone doing ‘restricted work’, or someone performing a role described in an enactment as a ‘social worker’ IS practising social work and so must be registered. The two drawbacks here are this: that it’s up to an employer, rather than the profession, to name a job as being ‘social work’. Without a scope of practise – a description of what exactly counts as social work – then some employers will just change the name to family worker or care worker and avoid having to employ social workers. This helps keep wages low and qualification expectations low, and therefore cost to the employer low. The second drawback is that the main ‘enactment’ that used to list ‘social worker’ as a specific statutory role – the now-called Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 – had that named role removed last year from a number of sections. So on two counts the jobs currently done by social workers are opened up by this new section: to the vagaries of job title, and the reduction of a named statutory role in the OT Act. Combined, this means that for example, if the title of a job was ‘child protection worker’, then that person can now undertake statutory duties previously restricted to ‘social worker’ (delegated from the CE), and there is no way to argue that what they are doing is social work, because the definition comes from the title, not from a scope. It’s like saying a person administering medication is a teacher because the employer says it’s teaching, even if the job content is really nursing. Without a scope stating that administering medication is part of what nurses do, there is no way to challenge that defining power of the employer. But the real sting is in the next section which appears to contradict the first:
(2) A person (A) is not practising as a social worker—
(a) if A is employed in, engaged in, or holds a position that is described using the words “social worker” and—
(i) being a social worker is not specified as a requirementfor the position and is instead expressed as an alternative qualification to 1 or more other qualifications for the position; and (ii) A is not and does not hold himself or herself out to be a social workerand holds at least 1 of the alternative qualifications; or
(b) if an enactment describes a position or role using the words “social worker” and—
(i) the enactment specifies that the position or role may be held or performed by either a social worker or another type of person(who is not a social worker); and
(ii) A is not and does not hold himself or herself out to be a social worker and is that other type of person.
So let me get this straight. According to 6AAB(1), if a job title is ‘social work’ then that person is a social worker. But according to AAB (2) (a), even if the job title is social worker, as long as social work is just one of a number of qualifications listed as requirements for the role (including informal quals- see (3)), and the person doesn’t claim to be a social worker, then that’s not social work. That means that even if an employer advertises a ‘social work’ job (remember they don’t have to call it that) as long as they list various quals or types of people, then a person with those alternatives can get that job, and not be considered to be practising social work. If this is the case, then why bother having registration at all? That means that all the people currently holding social work jobs but are not registered, as long as the qual they do have is one of a number listed in their job description, and they are not claiming to be a social worker (while doing a job entitled ‘social work’) they will not have to get registered. Nor will they have a professional body to hold them accountable to. I don’t get it.
If the aim of registration is to protect the title and the public then this legislation fails on both counts. An employer can call a job something else and so avoid employing someone qualified and registerable. Even if they call it social work, as long as they list alternative quals/people, and the person applying doesn’t claim to be a social worker, then they can get the job and not be considered to be practising social work. While it’s true that there is variable social work practise out there, and there is a need for post-qualifying education and support to assist with ensuring quality practise, this legislation is likely to reduce rather than increase the quality of social work and the ability to ensure it meets a minimum standard.
Image credit | Logo from the 2015 UK Community Care campaign