On 2nd December 2019, the regulation of social workers in England transfers to the aptly named Social Work England. This is a new regulatory body created by the s.36(1) of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 but has been on the table since David Cameron announced his social work reforms in 2016 in the light of scandals such as Baby P.

Social workers have, since 2012, been regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). However, joining the social workers to this register was not without criticism due to a feeling that this body would not have enough specialist experience to deal with social work cases. This seems to be, in part, a reason for the move. However, it is intended that Social Work England will have a wider remit than that of the HCPC, in particular regarding ongoing standards for social workers in life-long education and continuing professional development.

The driving force for a new social work body also seems to be a desire to drive up standards. What effect will this have then on fitness to practice? Some commentators have lamented the possible loss of independence which they say that the HCPC maintains in its role. Others have welcomed the move in light of Social Work England’s apparent desire for the fitness to practice procedure to become less combative, more nurturing and with more early resolutions. This could result in less registrants having to face their regulator in the formal fitness to practice capacity.

In practical terms this means that a team of case examiners will review cases and may decide that if allegations are admitted they can be dealt with by way of sanctions up to and including suspension, but not including removal from the register. However, this can only happen where the registrant admits the facts. There is also a provision which requires automatic removal for some cases, for example where an individual has been convicted of certain listed offences such as murder, sexual offences and slavery.

A new and almost certainly welcome addition to Social Work England’s fitness to practice rules is the provision of advice and warnings if no impairment is found. These would not be published, and may assist in those cases where a mistake has happened, but not one that is so serious as to amount to impaired practice.

If a registrant’s practice is found to be impaired then the sanctions that may be imposed range from no further action, an advice order, a warning order (max 5 years), conditions of practice, suspension to a removal order. Again, the provision of advice is likely to be a welcome addition to the sanctions list, offering concrete analysis of a situation through hopefully independent eyes.

Social Work England’s website states that they are taking a new approach. The language used in Social Work England’s rules, standards and procedures is certainly indicative of what they are trying to achieve. Time will tell how this will translate into practice, and there may well be a hefty transition period.

Alecsandra is an experienced advocate in regulatory and professional discipline cases, crime and general litigation. She also has experience of advising in international policy matters. Prior to joining 5SAH, Alecsandra had been exclusively conducting advocacy in regulatory and professional discipline cases on behalf of Kingsley Napley LLP in their Regulatory team. She has extensive experience of regulatory and professional discipline cases.