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Social Workers Registration Bill second reading

Social Workers Registration Bill second reading

Mr Speaker, I move that the Social Workers Registration Bill be now read a second time.

Mr Speaker, this Bill provides a framework for the registration of social workers in New Zealand. It puts in place a number of measures designed to protect the safety and well being of all New Zealanders who receive the services of registered social workers.

The development of this legislation

The regulation of social workers has been the subject of debate over a number of years. There has been concern about the lack of credibility of social work as a profession. There has also been a growing expectation from New Zealanders, particularly those who use social services, that social workers should be more accountable and their work more transparent.

In the 1999 Labour Party Manifesto, the Labour Party pledged to establish a system of professional registration for social workers. The Social Workers Registration Bill delivers on that commitment.

The nature of social work requires social workers to assist individuals, families and communities who have to cope with stressful life events and difficult circumstances. Because these circumstances often make people vulnerable New Zealanders need to be sure that people are protected from poor social work practice and the harm it can inflict. The proposed legislation addresses this need.

The aims of the legislation

The aim of the Social Workers Registration Bill is: to protect the public by providing mechanisms to ensure that social workers are competent to practise and accountable for the way in which they practise; to create a framework for the registration of social workers in New Zealand; to provide for a Board to promote the benefits of registration and administer the registration system; and to enhance the professionalism of social workers.

The Bill stipulates that registration will be based on a person’s competence and fitness to practice social work. The entry criteria for registration will require an educational qualification and practice experience, followed by an assessment of competence. The person must also be judged competent to practice social work with Maori and different ethnic and cultural groups in New Zealand.

The Bill proposes that only those people who have been through the competency process will have the right to use the title ‘Registered Social Worker’. While other people will not be stopped from practising social work, uncertified practitioners will not be able to call themselves a ‘Registered Social Worker’. The Bill also requires that registered social workers renew their registration every five years, including undertaking a further assessment of their competence.

Registered social workers will be made accountable for their practice through the establishment of a complaints and disciplinary process.

Select committee consideration of the bill

Mr Speaker, the Social Services Select Committee received 37 submissions on the Bill. The majority of these submissions (30 out of 37) supported the Bill. These submissions supported the intent of the Bill which is to provide public protection, to improve the quality of social work services, to scrutinise the fitness and competence of social workers, and to ensure they are accountable for their practise. They saw that the Bill will benefit the people who use social work services.

A smaller number of submissions expressed reservations about the Bill. In particular, they questioned whether the Bill would be able to achieve its purpose and offer enough protection to the public if registration is not mandatory.

Mr Speaker, I would now like to briefly address this issue of the voluntary nature of the registration framework that is proposed in the Bill.

Mr Speaker, as the Select Committee quite rightly noted, it is not viable to introduce mandatory registration immediately. Although the specific criteria for registration have yet to be defined (this will be a function of the Social Workers Registration Board), it is likely that a significant proportion of social workers currently practising would not immediately meet the criteria for registration. It would also be unrealistic to expect that employers and individual social workers have the time and money to gain registration immediately.

Mandatory registration is not consistent with other forms of occupational regulation. Voluntary registration regimes are the most common form of regulating professions. For example, they are used for accountants.

Mr Speaker, as a result of considering this issue, the Select Committee has recommended that as part of their regular review of the Act, the Social Workers Registration Board should specifically consider the extent to which the system of voluntary registration is achieving the purposes of the Act. I fully support this amendment to the Bill.

Mr Speaker, as a result of the submissions received and its own consideration, the Social Services Select Committee has recommended a number of other changes to the Bill, all of which I support. These changes strengthen and clarify the intent of the Bill. There are four changes that I’d particularly like to mention.

Members of the Committee were concerned to ensure that the registration framework was established as soon as possible after the Bill has been passed. To assist this they have recommended that the commencement clause of the Bill be amended to require that members of the Social Workers Registration Board must be appointed within 12 months of the Bill receiving Royal assent, and that provisions relating to the establishment of the Board also come into force on enactment. The remaining provisions in the Bill would come into effect by Order in Council and different dates may be appointed for different provisions. These amendments enable the Social Workers Registration Board to be established as soon as possible, but no later than 12 months after enactment. I support any change that will enable the Board to be established and operational quickly, so that the first registrations can happen as soon as possible.

The Select Committee saw merit in one submission which suggested that if a similar complaint against a registered social worker has previously been made and investigated, then that information should be taken into account before a Complaints Assessment Committee makes its assessment of the complaint it has received. The Select Committee has recommended amending the Bill to allow that when assessing a complaint about a registered social worker, a Complaints Assessment Committee may have regard to any previous investigations or considerations and the consequences (if any) of those investigations.

Another change that the Select Committee has recommended, which I fully support, relates to the complaints procedures that are maintained by the employers of social workers. The Commissioner for Children suggested that the Social Workers Complaints and Disciplinary Tribunal should have a role in ensuring and promoting the establishment of complaints mechanisms within agencies which employ social workers. Such mechanisms would assist the Tribunal to better manage the complaints that are likely to be referred to it. The Committee agreed with that suggestion. The Bill has been amended to include a new function for the Social Workers Registration Board, which is to promote the establishment of complaints procedures amongst the employers of social workers. This amendment also addresses some of the issues raised by other submissioners regarding the need for employers to take primary responsibility for investigating unprofessional activities by social workers in their employment.

Finally, the Select Committee recommended that a new penalty be included in the Bill. The penalty would be against a person who holds an employee or a professional associate out as a registered social worker knowing that the employee or associate is not registered or that their registration has been suspended. Again, this amendment addresses submissions that were concerned that the Bill could take responsibility away from the employers of social workers.

Mr Speaker, I would like to thank those organisations and members of the public who made submissions on the Bill. I would particularly like to acknowledge the contribution that the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers has made to this Bill and to the professionalisation of the social work occupation generally. I would also like to thank the Select Committee for its work and the considered changes that they have suggested.

Mr Speaker, I have circulated Supplementary Order Paper number 73. The Supplementary Order Paper largely makes minor technical improvements which give more clarity to the provisions within the Bill. The most significant amendment made in the SOP is to extend the time limit for provisional registration from six to eight years. This will allow social workers, who have been granted provisional registration within three months of the Bill being passed, more time to gain the qualifications and practical experience that is required for registration. For example, it allows for those people who need to study part-time. This change signals the Government’s keen interest in investing in the people who work in this important occupation.

Conclusion

Mr Speaker, the measures in this Bill provide a process for the registration of all social workers in New Zealand. New Zealanders are entitled to be assured that social workers are competent and practising safely, that people are protected from poor social worker practice and that there is a high level of accountability in the social work profession.

Mr Speaker, I am confident that the provisions in this Bill will put in place a framework that will enhance the services that are provided to some of the most vulnerable of all New Zealanders. I thank the social work profession for being so willing to meet the challenges and opportunities that this Bill presents.

Mr Speaker, I commend this Bill to the House.

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