The Social Work Registration Legislation Bill is set to have an enormous impact on the social work profession, including those who work in the health sector.

The bill has just passed through the Social Services Select Committee and – as it stands – this piece of legislation could cause long-lasting damage to not only the reputation of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand but also to the capacity of practitioners to provide quality services to very vulnerable people.

The bill’s central flaw is contained in a clause that effectively grants employers the right to decide who is or is not a social worker. Section 6AAB states that only those who are working in positions described using the terms “social work” or “social worker” are required to be professionally registered.

As a senior social worker from the health sector told me, this means that: “as the Bill is presently written, who is and who is not a social worker is not defined by what we do – but by our job title”.

“So without a job title of ‘social worker’ a health practitioner would not be registered or subject to monitoring and accountability as they would not be considered a social worker,” they continued to tell me.  “Any vulnerable people they work with would have to reassure themselves about any information they provide.” A social worker who is not registered is not regarded as a health professional under the provisions of the Health & Disability Commissioner Act.

The Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW), the organisation I work for, have identified 110 roles in which members work that do not use the term “social worker” or “social work”. We estimate that more than half of the workforce fall into this category. This means that, as a result of the bill, the profession stands to be divided roughly in two, leaving the biggest proportion unable to provide guarantees of competency to the public and unaccountable to their clients.

In the health sector this would include practitioners who work with clients in emergency situations. These include people working in roles like Duty Authorised Officers, who “respond to people with acute mental health needs, when they are at high risk to themselves and others” a senior health social worker told ANZASW.

They added: “Clinical Assessors support our vulnerable elderly in the community. We provide intervention in cases of elder abuse and neglect, or those with dementia who no longer retain capacity to make decisions for themselves.”

As these examples clearly show, health practitioners providing key services without a social work title are involved in extremely sensitive work with vulnerable people, including clients who could easily be taken advantage of by unscrupulous practitioners.

It is simply unjustifiable that such people will be left unaccountable for their practice and therefore unable to command the confidence of the public.

“This approach, as it is currently framed in the legislation, weakens protections around public safety, decreases accountability and monitoring of service and creates potential for perceived or actual conflict of interest by employers,” the member concluded.

What is particularly frustrating for many of our members who work in the health sector is that social work is the only profession which is set to suffer from this imposition. Compare this situation with health colleagues who operate under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act – like doctors, nurses or pharmacists – all of whom have their profession defined by a scope of practice and are universally required to be registered and fully accountable for their practice.

For example, it is unthinkable that a Chief Medical Officer, as a healthcare professional not operating under the title ‘doctor’, would not be required to be accountable for their practice to the Medical Council. Yet for those working in the positions listed above, who also work with highly vulnerable people at times of crisis, an exception is made.

Another senior health social worker told ANZASW that they were frightened that section 6AAB would mean that  “many employers will see this as an opportunity to devalue the profession” by “insisting that those in alternative roles not be registered – despite the fact that the reason they are employed is because they have a social work qualification and practice  – to all intents and purposes  – as a social worker.”

ANZASW believes that the bill in its current form incentivises employers to not maintain roles in which the practitioner works under the title “social worker” or “social work.” This is because staff employed under an alternative title would command a lower wage than a professionally recognised practitioner and could not require that registration fees, or the cost of obtaining an annual practising certificate, be paid as part of their contract.

As a result, rogue or unethical practice is made more likely; for example, if a registered social worker is struck off, they could simply re-enter the sector in a role which does not contain the words social worker or social work. There is also an increased risk of unqualified people occupying jobs that should be performed by qualified social workers.

All of which means that high standards of practice cannot be guaranteed to the public.

Evidently, this bill is not in the public interest and should be amended. ANZASW and other organisations are currently engaging with the Minister of Social Development and her officials with a view to altering Section 6AAB. There is a level of optimism that a positive outcome can be achieved.

We call upon our colleagues in the health sector to support us in our efforts to ensure that social workers are fully regulated and therefore treated like any other profession that deal with vulnerable people.

 Emanuel Stoakes is Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW), the professional  association for social workers.

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