Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 15 December 2016.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

There are concerns that the new regulator, Social Work England, has been developed without any prior consultation or dialogue with the profession. There is a worry that it is likely to have cost implications for social workers in the form of high registration fees. I hope that the Minister can today confirm that that will not be the case, and that the Government can protect already practising social workers and require that fees for the new regulator’s initial five years of existence be set no higher than the projected fees over that time for the existing regulator.

Social workers are already grossly underpaid for the work they do. The job is done seven days a week. It involves great personal and financial sacrifices and affects their mental and physical health. They should not have to bear the burden of paying for a new regulator that they never asked for.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education) 3:15, 15 December 2016

Clause 44 enables the Secretary of State, through regulations, to confer power on the regulator to charge fees in relation to registration or continued registration in the register provided for in clause 36; assessing whether a person meets a professional standard relating to proficiency, under clause 38(4); and the approval or continued approval of education and training courses in accordance with a scheme provided for in clause 39. Social workers currently pay £180 every two years to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. Those fees enable the HCPC to carry out its functions effectively. Clause 44 will enable Social Work England to have a power similar to the one that already exists.

Our vision is to create a confident and highly capable social work profession with the right knowledge and skills. I am sure that hon. Members would agree that that is worth pursuing, but to support that vision we need to invest in the profession by putting in place a new, bespoke regulator that focuses on practice excellence from initial education through to post-qualification specialism.

The clause is clear that before the regulator can determine the level of the fee, it must consult those persons whom it considers appropriate and must gain approval from the Secretary of State. That is a very significant part of the clause. Although it is right and proper that the regulator has appropriate freedoms and flexibilities, we want to ensure that any potential increase in fees is proportionate. I assure hon. Members that there is no intention that this will involve any element of profit making. The powers in respect of fees simply allow flexibility in the use of funding, thereby allowing cross-subsidisation. They would allow, for example, newly qualified social workers to pay a reduced fee for the first two years of registration as they do now.

The clause also enables the Secretary of State to confer power on the regulator to charge for the approval or continued approval of education and training courses. Again, that happens in other professions, but not currently in social work.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I just want this to be clear. Is it the Minister’s intention that anyone working for any organisation in England whose job could reasonably be described as that of a social worker will have to be registered with the regulator to continue to do that job?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

This is in relation to a children and families social worker. There are other roles that people can have within children’s social care, but if someone wants to qualify and be accredited as a social worker in that respect, the regulator is there for them. Of course it also incorporates adult social work and the regulation of that profession, but for any social worker there is a generic part to the degree, which the hon. Gentleman will be aware of. We want to ensure that there is consistency of approach to how we ensure that we know who meets the necessary standard, and that is reflected in the detail set out in subsequent clauses and the regulations that will follow.

Under the current regime, the cost is met from the registration fees paid by individual social workers. Again, it is right to make provision to enable the regulator at least to consider that option, but the clause is clear that it would need to consult before determining the level of any fee in order to understand any potential impact. The clause will also enable the new regulator to charge for assessing whether a person meets a professional standard relating to proficiency. Under clause 38(4), the Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about arrangements for such assessments.

The Government are keen to promote the development of post-qualification specialist practice, and we firmly believe that Social Work England can play a positive role in that, albeit as a regulator. In the first instance, it will take on functions relating to best interest assessors and approved mental health professionals. Over time, it may have a role in supporting efforts to develop post-qualifying specialisms for accredited child and family practitioners. The power under clause 38 for regulations to make provision about arrangements for the regulator to assess proficiency and the power dealt with in clause 44 for regulations to make provision for the regulator to charge a fee in respect of such assessments are included to support this future possibility. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that it is sensible in not tying the regulator’s hands to the extent of potentially affecting sustainability in the long term.

Before exercise of the powers, including determination of the level of any such fee, regulations must be made through the affirmative procedure and the regulator must consult any persons whom they consider appropriate. That ensures that the appropriate safeguards are in place and addresses the issues raised by the hon. Lady. I hope that on that basis, the Committee will support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 44 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 45 to 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clauses 51 to 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Syms.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 10 January 2017 at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.