The clumsily-drafted Social Work Registration Bill avoids defining the scope of professional social work practice while purporting to protect the public, writes the University of Auckland’s Dr Ian Hyslop
New Zealand and wider Western society has witnessed growing social inequality over the past 40 years following the breakdown of the post-war welfare state consensus. This phenomenon has impacted on the delivery of social work as much as any profession because social work deals with those are pushed to the margins by our social and economic system.
There is always a tension in social work between reforming individuals or changing the structures which generate inequality. Social workers attempt to achieve each of these objectives and – this is the rub – the generative friction that goes with this work.
Increasingly, social workers have become focused on delivering cost-effective, evidence-based therapeutic services that aim to put people back in the social race. The task of levelling the playing field is seen as either the stuff of politics or, more commonly, as unnecessary in a market society.
By failing to develop a scope of practice definition these objectives are fundamentally undermined – they are effectively a nonsense.
The Social Work Registration Bill, which has just been reported back from Select Committee, needs to be understood in this context. This Bill has generated fear and trepidation across the social service sector since it was introduced. This very clumsily-drafted piece of law avoids defining the scope of professional social work practice while purporting to increase professionalism and protect the public. By failing to develop a scope of practice definition these objectives are fundamentally undermined – they are effectively a nonsense.
In its present form, the Bill allows any agency to employ workers without qualifications and professional registration to do social work tasks, provided that the words ‘social work’ or ‘social worker’ are not included in the job description. Further, if a position which is described as social work also states that an alternative qualification may be sufficient, then non-social workers can carry out this work and will be exempt from meeting professional social work standards.
It is bizarre, to say the least, to suggest that such provisions advance social work professionalism.
Finally, if a statute (the current Oranga Tamariki Act springs to mind) states that a position or role which is described as social work may be delegated to non-social workers with other qualifications, the same exemptions apply. It is bizarre, to say the least, to suggest that such provisions advance social work professionalism. Similarly, public protection is undermined if social work tasks are not covered by the legal and ethical rules associated with registration.
The Select Committee suggests that the scope of social work practice is too difficult to define – too much trouble and that they were short of time. We should expect better from politicians. Graduates study for four years and they are encouraged to think about the social and economic system as well as the problems of individual and families. Social workers carry out a wide range of helping roles, but they also critique the structures around them and advocate for change.
A government that cannot live with this definition is not committed to social democracy.