DfE shelves plan to create social work regulator as executive agency

Independence fears prompt U-turn as Children and Social Work Bill enters report stage in House of Lords

By Jim Dunton

07 Nov 2016

Proposals to create a new social work regulator as an executive agency of the Department for Education have been junked by the government following concerns that such a structure could be subject to undue influence.

The Health & Care Professions Council currently regulates social workers in England, with sister bodies responsible for the work in the devolved nations.

But measures in the Children and Social Work Bill had proposed a new executive agency under the DfE and with joint governance from the Department from Health.

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Ahead of the start of the bill’s committee stage in the House of Lords this Tuesday, the government has amended its plans for the new regulator – due to commence work in September 2018 – and instead proposes a non-departmental public body “in line with the approach in devolved administrations”.

According to a revised policy paper deposited in parliament last week, the new preferred model for Social Work England will provide “clear separation between the regulator and ministers and a clear role for government in holding the new regulator to account for overall delivery of its functions".

The policy paper said DfE and DH would have joint scrutiny of the regulator, and that while the secretary of state for education may appoint Social Work England’s first chief executive, subsequent appointments would be a matter for its chair and board, but subject to ministerial approval.

In a letter to peers explaining the rationale for the change of tack, schools minister Lord Nash said feedback from the original bill proposals – both from members of the House of Lords and the social work profession – had flagged clear problems with the original approach.

“We have listened carefully to your concerns and those of the sector and I am pleased to confirm that we are today bringing forward a number of amendments which seek to address them,” he said. 

“They deal in particular with the points raised on the regulator’s relationship with government, ensuring it has a clear focus on regulation and providing for robust oversight of its operations.

“It will operate at arm’s length from government, modelled on a similar approach taken in the devolved administrations, ensuring an appropriate separation between the regulator and ministers. It will be a non departmental public body with clear lines of accountability.”

Lord Nash added that the bill would also provide for independent oversight of Social Work England by the Professional Standards Authority.

The British Association of Social Workers welcomed what it described as a “government U-turn” on an independent regulator for the profession. 

According to the DfE’s updated policy paper, the government will spend £10m on setting up the new regulator and a further £16m funding its running costs over the remainder of the parliament.

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