Nadhim Zahawi responds to Social Workers Debate

13th March 2018

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the contribution to society of social workers.

Let me begin by tackling the issue of funding, which has been raised a couple of times by colleagues here. We are keen to understand the sector’s concerns about funding and the demand on children’s services. We are currently consulting on the fair funding review. We have heard the sector’s concerns about the fairness of current funding for their local authorities and the challenges that children’s services in particular are facing in managing demand. The Department for Education and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have commissioned independent research to inform the fair funding review. We are very much cognisant of that fact.

Will the Minister give way?

I have a lot to say about Social Work England and the accreditation and assessment, so I would like to make some headway. Maybe, if I have time, I will come back to the hon. Lady.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on securing this important debate. Listening to him speak, the sheer depth of experience he has in this hugely important area soon becomes clear. From the world of think-tanks, the Eileen Munro review, the charity sector, the Children’s Commissioner, and more recently as a constituency Member of Parliament, his experience is considerable and wide-ranging. So too is the experience of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I could listen to them all day and I have been taking note of everything they say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar focused his contribution on the work of children and family social workers and I will respond accordingly, but before I do so, I should place on record the valuable work done by those in the adult social care community. When I speak of the value to society of social workers, I very much include all social workers.

Above all else, we agree on a single unarguable point: social workers have a vital job in ensuring that vulnerable adults, children and families receive the best possible support to help them to overcome the challenges they face, and to enable them to look positively towards their future. I have only been Minister for children and families for a few months, but so far, from my visits to children’s services across the country, I have seen a dedicated and passionate workforce. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham described what is needed in one word: leadership. When we see good leadership, we see good outcomes for children. Every day, social workers deal with complex and challenging situations. The one thing they say to me is that the real magic sauce—whether it is the trust in Doncaster that has turned it around, or in Hackney, which had a turnaround—is consistent leadership: people they can refer to and teams they can work with, knowing they will be there the next day.

Social workers play a unique role in supporting people, often at the most difficult times in their lives. To do that successfully, they require a distinctive set of skills, knowledge and values. To do their job well requires compassion, empathy, analytical thinking and an understanding of the positive impact they can have in people’s lives. They work with complexity, uncertainty and conflict within a complex legal framework. They are required to use sound professional judgment in balancing needs, risks and resources to achieve the right outcomes. Done well, social work can improve people’s opportunities and quality of life, enabling them to lead the lives they want to lead.

In my constituency, I often hear from people in the social care system. It is overwhelming. To work closely, day in, day out, with such difficult and sometimes devastating cases requires exceptional passion and resilience. Members across Parliament will all be familiar with that from their surgeries. It is a job that a precious and extraordinary minority undertake and we must do all we can to support, empower and elevate the profession. As a Minister, I see this as one of my key priorities, and I will do my utmost to ensure that social workers get the recognition they deserve.

The debate is timely. As colleagues have mentioned, World Social Work Day is a week today and provides a moment to pause, reflect and celebrate the difference that social workers make. We in Government will be doing our bit to promote and champion the profession, both in what we say publicly and in how we support social workers.

All children, no matter where they live, should have access to the same high-quality care and support. That is about empowering social workers to excel even further in their practice, as well as building public confidence in the social work profession. One thing is clear: the quality of social work practice is, above all, the core of what we want to achieve. This is vital work and the reason we are prioritising social work reform. Social workers are not always given the right tools for the job, and can be held back by burdensome systems, which we have heard colleagues eloquently describe, including the horrendous time it takes to fill in a form.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar spoke with authority about the Munro review, about reducing bureaucracy and about empowering professional judgement. What he said is true, and while great progress has been made, more is to be done. Those entering the social work profession must have the best training possible. Teaching partnerships bring together universities and local authorities to improve the quality of social work degrees. Good continuing professional development is also essential, particularly at key stages of a social worker’s career such as the daunting task of moving from education to employment and when stepping up from the frontline to managing and supervising teams, and for those aspiring to be social work practice leaders. I believe that these reforms will have a positive impact for all and, most importantly, vulnerable children, families and adults in need of support.

I draw attention to two specific reforms mentioned by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). The first is the new accreditation scheme for child and family social workers. Through that innovative programme, we will introduce post-qualifying standards for child and family social work expertise, based on the current knowledge and skills statements, and offer voluntary assessment against them. The introduction of the standards will mean that employers and social workers will have a national benchmark to aim for, and learning and development can be planned in line with meeting the standard. If a social worker takes the assessment and becomes accredited, they may be offered career development opportunities, including promotion. I heard it directly from social workers who are involved in the early stage. We are doing this with social workers, rather than to them.

Will the Minister give way on that point?

I have not got much time, but let me see how far I get because I want to talk about Social Work England as well.

We are supporting local authorities and social workers to get ready for this new system in a unique way, working with early adopters. Rather than, as in the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, stuff being done to them by IT people who know nothing, we are co-creating the assessment and accreditation. We will be working with more than 150 children and family social workers. I am also delighted that Essex County Council is in discussions with the Department about becoming a phase 2 national assessment and accreditation system site from 2019.

The other major reform I want to highlight is establishing Social Work England. Focused purely on social work, this bespoke professional regulator will cover both children and family social workers and those working in adult services. Social Work England will have public protection at the heart of all its work, but it is more than just that. It will support professionalism and standards across the social work profession.

I have two small questions. First, I agree with the need for ongoing professional development, but where will the time come from in social workers’ busy schedules to take this critical training? Secondly, does the Minister not agree that it is time that social workers got a decent pay rise?

I dealt with funding at the outset. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar that funding has increased since 2010.

Does the Minister share his predecessor’s view that local authority children’s services departments do not need any more money because they are not spending what they currently have appropriately? How on earth does he think it conceivable that any difference can be made, even if money is put into the system, when ongoing Government austerity is cutting every other service that impacts on children’s social services?

I have already put on record what we are doing in terms of reviewing the funding for this area.

As a social care-specific regulator, Social Work England will develop an in-depth understanding of the profession. It will use that to set profession-specific standards that clarify expectations about the knowledge, skills, values and behaviours required to become and remain a registered social worker. Finally, it will play a key role in promoting public confidence in the profession, championing the profession and helping to raise the status of social work.

It is fair to say that creating a new regulator is no easy task, but we are making great progress. In December, we launched the recruitment of the chair and CEO of Social Work England. In February, we launched a consultation on Social Work England’s regulatory framework. I think that the hon. Lady mistakenly alluded to there being no consultation, but there clearly was. The consultation sets out our approach to establishing the secondary legislative framework for Social Work England. Our ambition is to create a proportionate and efficient regulator. As part of this, we need Social Work England to be able to operate systems and processes that adapt to emerging opportunities, challenges and best practice. That means it can ensure professional regulation reflects the changing reality of delivering social work practice safely and effectively.

I shall end there in an attempt to be disciplined in the timekeeping that you asked of us, Mr Hollobone.

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