Regulation of the social care workforce is a surprisingly new development. A raft of legislation in 2000 and 2001 introduced registration for all those working in social care as well as changes in social work education like the three-year undergraduate degree. The new acts were introduced soon after devolution and four separate councils were set up - the General Social Care Council in England, the Care Council Wales, the Scottish Social Services Council and the Northern Ireland Social Care Council.
Social work professionals have been campaigning for many years to introduce registration so standards could be maintained and there would be greater recognition of the professional status of social work. Other professions such as doctors and nurses have been registered for many years. However, much of their regulation arose from self-regulating professional associations. The legislation for social work regulation takes a much firmer line on public protection. Lay and service user membership makes the councils special, following a model other regulators are now following with amendments to their structures.
Registration is essentially a contract between the regulator and the individual social worker, however, local government is a key partner in this relationship as the main employer of qualified social workers across the UK.
Councils have a duty to conduct checks on their workforce and to facilitate their registration. This means in practice that social services departments must verify identity and provide endorsements based on their insight into their employees' suitability. Once all social workers are registered, councils will benefit from having clear standards of qualif ication and regulation.
In the six months leading up to the opening of the Social Care Register in April 2003 I worked as interim director of registration for the General Social Care Council and a four-country group worked together discussing policies.
We needed to take into consideration a number of differences between the four countries. For instance England has 80% of the estimated million strong workforce, and the other countries have their workforce spread over very large geographical distances. In Wales there is a wish to see registration extended to all social care workers as soon as practical and safe to do so.
Priorities for Scotland include wanting registration to improve social workers' qualifications. The changes heralded by the children's green paper in England will introduce further policy and structural differences not happening in the other countries. These acknowledged differences affect how regulation of the social care workforce is put into practice in each country.
Councils wanting to take on workers from one of the other three countries need not worry about mobility of the workforce. Social workers who work in more than one country will be registered by more than one council. This is essential so unfit and abusive workers removed from the register in one country cannot simply go to work in another part of the UK.
Developing consistent standards while respecting the need for differences to develop in the post-devolution climate has presented new challenges. As time goes on the councils will probably learn and adapt more to local situations providing even greater opportunities to learn and share with each other. However, the fundamental policies and rules - the foundations and building blocks of the regulation of the workforce - although changeable, will stay aligned.
Programme manager, the King's Fund