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Raising the status and standards of social workers

Hon. Steve Maharey
5 November 2003 Speech Notes

Raising the status and standards of the social workers

Comments at a function to launch the Social Workers Registration Board. Turnbull House, Wellington.

Introduction

Tonight’s celebration of the Social Workers Registration Act is a landmark. A landmark in our journey towards raising the status and standards of the social work profession in New Zealand.

The social work profession is peopled with committed, hard working, dedicated individuals. People who deal every day with the problems many of us avert our gaze from. Making the hard decisions and taking the difficult actions at the frontline of social and personal trauma.

The International Federation of Social Workers describes social workers, among other things, as ‘change agents in society’. This is, I think, a very succinct and apt definition. Social workers are constantly creating and responding to change. Minimising the effects of negative change. Enhancing the potential of change to lead to positive developments in people’s lives.

Change is why we’re here this evening. We are making a change that will enable the social work profession to determine its own standards and direction. To ensure that all social workers are competent to practise and accountable for the way they practise. To protect the people who use social work services from unethical or unsafe practices.

The social work sector has been vocal in its desire for change. Members have expressed concerns about the lack of credibility of social work as a profession. They’ve supported the growing expectation that social workers be more accountable in their work. That people in vulnerable positions need to be protected from any harm that might result from social work practice.

The new system of social worker registration, introduced in the Social Workers Registration Act, addresses all these concerns.

‘Setting the bar’ for the profession

Two principles are at the heart of the new social worker registration system. Competence and accountability. The Social Workers Registration Board, which we’re launching this evening, will assess whether a social worker is competent to practice, and will make that social worker accountable for how they practice.

It’s up to the Board to establish the detail around the registration criteria. In doing so it will ‘set the bar’ for social worker registration.

How high to set this bar will be a decision not taken lightly. Too high, and it might exclude excellent social workers from registering. Too low, and it will compromise the very standards that registration seeks to set. The Social Workers Registration Act has provided the flexibility that the Board will need. The Act sets the broad framework, and leaves the detail to the experts.

The Act is intended to empower the social work sector, not to be prescriptive towards it. It makes sense that people from the sector remain firmly in the driver’s seat. The Act gives the Social Workers Registration Board the tools to take control of its own profession and standards.

To ensure transparency and accountability of social work practice, the Board will also establish a complaints and disciplinary process, and create a Tribunal for this purpose.

Future vision for registration

A registration system will bring the social work profession into line with other professions such as nursing, teaching, law, and psychology. Registration is an accepted standard in these professions. We expect that over time, registration will become an accepted standard in the social work profession. It will become the hallmark by which employers such as Child, Youth and Family, social services and District Health Boards judge potential employees, and a means for funders to assess community service providers.

Registration will not be compulsory. We’ve made registration voluntary because we want to give it the chance to create its own value. Let it become the standard that social workers want to achieve. Let it become the means by which the profession determines the minimum standard for its practitioners.

Recruiting more people, and the right people, into the social work profession will be a major, long-term benefit of registration. Most providers struggle today with a lack of suitable social workers, not a surplus. Building professionalism and credibility is an excellent way to create a ‘pull’ factor into social work as a career.

Delivering on a commitment

The Social Workers Registration Act delivers on one of the commitments made in the Labour Party’s 1999 election manifesto. It recognises the enormous support in the social work sector for a system of registration.

In 2000, the Government consulted the social work sector about the need for, and possible structure of, a registration system for social workers. The submissions, focus group meetings, hui, and fono all delivered the overwhelming message that the sector wanted to move to a regulated system.

In September 2001 the Social Workers Registration Bill was introduced and referred to Select Committee for submissions. In April this year, the Bill was passed into law.

A long history of debate

The momentum for change has been particularly strong over the last three to four years. However, social workers have debated the issue of registration for some three decades.

When the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers was formed in 1964, registration was a key discussion point. In the 1970s, heated debates took place around eligibility for membership of the Association.

You will hear more about these debates from other speakers this evening. Suffice it to say that around this time, professionalism was equated with elitism and exclusivity.

This is a valid concern, and one we have been very aware of. The registration system will achieve the essential balance between setting a high standard, and recognising the different life experiences and backgrounds of social workers.

I want to acknowledge the contribution that the Association has made to the development of the legislation we are celebrating here tonight. I have appreciated your readiness to share your extensive knowledge and expertise. The new registration system builds on the principles of the competence assessments the Association was already using. I expect the Association will work closely with the new Registration Board.

I also want to acknowledge the support that social workers have shown for the Government’s work to establish a registration system. This is testimony to your professionalism and to the commitment you have to the welfare of your clients. I congratulate everyone in the social work sector on your positive and constructive response to this new system.

The first registrations of social workers should start happening in late 2004. The Social Workers Registration Board has just under a year to set up the policies and administration processes for registration. It certainly has the expertise for the job. Its members represent the various interests of the social work sector, including practicing social workers.

In the Board’s expert hands, registration will positively influence the future of social work in New Zealand. It will change what it means to be a social worker. Change for the better.


Introducing Imelda Dodds

Your next speaker, Imelda Dodds, is President of the International Federation of Social Workers. Imelda is a social worker and a consultant in the fields of social policy, disability, and guardianship. She has been an Executive Member or Office Bearer of the International Federation of Social Workers since 1994.

Imelda has a strong commitment to the critical role of social work in the international community, and to the principles of social justice and a tolerant and peaceful society.

The International Federation of Social Workers has clear goals :
- to promote social work as a profession, through international co-operation;
- to promote the establishment of national organisations of social workers; and
- and to support those organisations to promote the participation of social workers in social planning and policies.

All these goals are reflected in the Act we are celebrating tonight. An Act that aims to create stronger accountability and self-determined standards for the social work profession.

Imelda will, among other things, talk about why accountability frameworks are so important for social workers and their clients. She’ll also talk about why a registration system provides those frameworks most effectively.

Ladies and gentlemen, Imelda Dodds.

ENDS

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