Final hammer blow for social care pledge
On paper, it made sense to set up a common register for every paid worker in social care, says David Brindle
The dream of a professional register of 1.4 million social care workers in England is over. Today’s report on the inquiry into the failure of the General Social Care Council (GSCC) to regulate competently the conduct of social workers and social work students – the first and easiest 100,000 of that hugely ambitious target group – drives the final nails into the coffin of a plan that was a Labour commitment when the party took power in 1997.
In truth, the idea has been dying for a while, but nobody wanted to mention the smell. On paper, it made huge sense to set up a common register for every paid worker in social care, whether a social work manager or part-time care assistant, but the sheer scale of the task and the practical difficulties were massively underestimated. Just how do you keep tabs on a workforce where annual staff turnover of 30% can be the norm?
It would be grossly unfair if the GSCC took the rap for this outcome. Shocking as some of the findings of the inquiry undoubtedly are, not least the conclusion that conduct cases involving serious allegations against social workers were held back on cost grounds, the hard fact is that sector-wide professional registration would have been just as unlikely to become reality had the council made a brilliant fist of phase one.
To say there was no great enthusiasm for the project in the Department of Health (DH), the GSCC’s sponsor in Whitehall, would put it mildly. In an angry open letter to health secretary Andy Burnham, written a couple of weeks ago, a leading care sector figure has attacked the department’s “stop-go dithering” on when registration would be extended beyond social workers and students. Bill McClimont, a former chair of the UK Homecare Association and a former GSCC council member, wrote: “Despite the manifesto pledge, despite inevitable high-profile instances of abuse and much more which has gone below the media radar, there has been little urgency or appetite shown by DH.”
This interpretation is lent support by the fact that, it now emerges, the GSCC was told by the department to use funding intended for extending registration when it protested that it had insufficient resources to carry out the conduct function in respect of social workers. Whether that protest was itself justified is another matter.
So where do we go from here? Plainly, we must have some form of regulation of care workers who will increasingly be doing their job, unsupervised, in people’s homes. In calling on the government to reconsider the idea of statutory registration of homecare workers, which was to have been the GSCC’s phase two, today’s report by the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) urges other approaches, such as a compulsory licensing scheme or an employer-led system.
Signals from the DH indicate that it is indeed looking at licensing, but everything now awaits the imminent report of the social work taskforce. If that leads quickly to the setting up of a college of social work, as looks likely, then the functions of the GSCC, the Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie) and Skills for Care will be reapportioned. One or even two of these three may not survive.
The CHRE believes that regulation of social workers, and presumably social work students, could continue separately. But it warns that their registration fees would have to rise to make the GSCC financially independent of the DH so as to avoid any repeat of the problems that have occurred. That looks tricky, especially if social workers are also to be asked to cough up to join a college.
Not the least difficulty in all this is that regulation costs money. And there’s not a lot of that about in social care.