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Social Worker Registration

On this page, you can find out about the changes that the Government is making to social worker registration. Legislation is being progressed that will bring into effect mandatory registration for anyone who is practising as a social worker. There will also be more requirements of employers, some changes in how the Social Workers Registration Board (the SWRB) operates, and a range of other changes impacting on social workers. Some of the changes will happen as soon the legislation becomes law, while others will happen in stages. The key change is that within two years of the changes becoming law, all people practising as a social worker will need to be registered.

Update on what’s happening

February 2019 – The last stage of the Social Workers Registration Legislation Bill (SWRL Bill), the third reading, is happening on 21 February 2019. Once passed, the Bill will come into effect in four stages.

On 19 February 2019, the Committee of the Whole House stage was completed and passed the amended Bill. This stage considered a Supplementary Order Paper that had been released by the Minister in December 2018. It proposed various changes to the SWRL Bill, the most significant of which is introducing the provision for scopes of practice for social workers. The changes have been agreed by the Government following submissions made to the Select Committee and further discussions with social worker representative organisations and government agencies.

Legislative changes are being made to better regulate social workers as a profession

The SWRL Bill amends the Social Workers Registration Act 2003 (SWR Act) to introduce mandatory registration of social workers. These changes are intended to:

  • promote the increased wellbeing of vulnerable adults and children as a result of a more professional and qualified social worker workforce
  • increase the safety of vulnerable adults and children, who may be placed at risk from social workers who are not competent or fit to practise
  • update and streamline the functioning of the SWRB, which is responsible for the registration and ensuring ongoing competency of social workers.

Significantly, amendments to the SWR Act will be proposed that introduce the provision for scopes of practice in line with the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 (HPCA Act). This reflects that fact that social workers as a profession operate in a similar environment to health practitioners.

The SWRB has a lead role in preparing for giving effect to the SWRL Bill.

There are limited protections available for people supported by social workers who are not competent

Since 2003, there has been a voluntary approach to the registration of practising social workers under the SWR Act. Overseen by the SWRB, the SWR Act provides a process of registration as a social worker, annual practising certification, and five-yearly competency assessments. It also provides for a disciplinary process applying to registered social workers.

Under the current voluntary regime, non-registered social workers are practising in an environment where serious misconduct and incompetence cannot be adequately addressed, and those social workers who cause serious harm can potentially continue to practise without appropriate penalty or sanction. The full disciplinary power of deregistration is ineffective in a voluntary system, as those who have had their registration cancelled can still practise social work. Non-registered social workers with serious complaints lodged against them may be able to continue to practise if they change employment and do not disclose that complaints have been raised.

The types of harm that could be caused by social workers fall into the following categories:

  • poor professional judgement or poor practice (including failure to properly investigate reports of risk to vulnerable people, inadequate or incorrect assessments, and breaches of confidentiality)
  • inappropriate in nature (including relationship boundary violations)
  • abusive (abuse of trust or power)
  • criminal (dishonesty, theft, violence, sexual assault).

Outside of the registration system, the responsibility for detecting and addressing harmful practice or addressing misconduct falls solely to the social worker’s employer.

Requiring all social workers to be registered provides a mechanism for any employer to check the status of any potential new employee and to address serious misconduct, as well as supporting continuing professional development. In particular, smaller Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) would benefit from an external mechanism.

If a social worker is a member of a professional social worker association, then they may also be subject to disciplinary procedures of that association in relation to their practice. However, this will not prevent a social worker from continuing to practise as a social worker.

Registration of social workers will become mandatory

The existing occupational regulation regime does not fully cover the social work profession. Anyone can call themselves a social worker whether they have qualifications or not. Only registered social workers are subject to the standards, competency requirements, and disciplinary processes in the SWR Act.

A range of amendments have been proposed in the SWRL Bill that will improve the quality and competency of social workers. The increasing professionalisation of social workers means it is timely to move on from the voluntary regime of registration. It is estimated that around 75 percent of practising social workers are already registered.

Mandatory registration will protect vulnerable adults and children from unsafe or incompetent social work practice by:

  • ensuring social workers are appropriately qualified to carry out their work
  • requiring continuing professional development and specific competencies
  • having processes in place to address any concerns about a social worker’s practice through a complaints and disciplinary process
  • ensuring social workers who have had their registration cancelled are not able to practise social work again.

The key change is that within two years of the SWRL Bill gaining Royal assent, all people practising as a social worker will need to be registered with the SWRB.

Social worker representative organisations have been involved in developing the legislation

The Ministry of Social Development has worked with the Social Work Alliance, a cross-sectoral group of organisations representing the interests of social workers, in the development of the legislative changes.

The Social Work Alliance is convened by the Board, and includes:

Many of the legislative changes have come about due to advocacy from the social worker sector.

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