On 20 May the Children and Social Work Bill 2016 had its first reading in the House of Lords. Among other provisions, it includes enabling legislation for a new regulator of social workers in England, taking over from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).
Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, initially announced plans for a new regulator of social workers in England in January to spin out social worker regulation from the HCPC. In a press statement at the time the HCPC stated that it was "very surprised" at the announcement. Last month the HCPC launched its consultation on the standards of proficiency for social workers in England, stating that the timescale for the creation of a new regulator was uncertain and that it was still responsible for the regulation of social workers in the meantime.
The Children and Social Work Bill provides for a new regulator to be created by Regulations made by the Secretary of State under the affirmative resolution procedure (whereby they are approved by both Houses of Parliament). The Regulator will have the power to keep a register of social workers (and social work students), enforce restrictions on practice, set standards of education and proficiency and uphold fitness to practise procedures. The Bill also allows for summary offences to be created in connection with registration as well as for prohibitions and restrictions on practice.
The creation of a new regulator using Regulations made by the Secretary of State, even if those Regulations must be approved by both Houses, would put it on a substantially different footing from the other healthcare regulators, all of whom are either set up by an Act of Parliament or an Order in Council (although there are other non-healthcare regulators set up by Regulations). The different method for establishing this new regulator could have implications for its future independence; while the originating Regulations will need to be scrutinised and approved by both Houses, future amendments to the Regulations may be simpler to make, potentially reducing its ongoing independence and putting it on a different footing from other statutory regulators.
Social workers in England have only been regulated by the HCPC (which was known as the Health Professions Council until taking on responsibility for social workers) since 2012; they had previously been regulated by the General Social Care Council; at that point Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland opted to keep their own Councils to regulate social workers. This new Bill could potentially lead to the third regulator of social workers in five years, risking turbulence in the sector. However, even if the Children and Social Work Bill is passed by both Houses of Parliament, a public consultation will be required on the eventual Regulations (which will themselves need to be affirmed by Parliament), meaning that there will be plenty of further debate on the need for a new regulator and what it should look like.