Social Workers Registration Bill

Social Workers Registration Bill

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 5 September 2018.)

The Hon. I. PNEVMATIKOS (17:02): I rise today to speak about the Social Workers Registration Bill 2018, as introduced by the Hon. Tammy Franks. Social work is a profession that provides support and services to individuals and families who may be experiencing challenging circumstances and therefore may be vulnerable. It can impact upon a wide range of people, including people in acute and chronic health care, aged care, mental health services, Indigenous health, disability services and addiction support, as well as children and families, refugees and individuals affected by natural disasters.

Social workers intervene during these vulnerable times to assist clients with a range of issues encompassing physical, psychological, social and economic wellbeing. Yet most social workers practice in environments alone. For example, sessions are often conducted on a one-on-one basis, with few or no witnesses or others involved. Currently, social work is a self-regulated profession, where professional standards are maintained but not enforceable.

They are represented by their professional body, the Australian Association of Social Workers, which was established in 1946. Registration and formal recognition of the profession through legislation is something that they have been pursuing. Through enabling registration we are legitimising a professional and specialised area to ensure consistency and transparency and recognised parameters and standards. This will also result in increased community confidence. Accordingly, this bill seeks to make provision for the registration of social workers to establish the social workers registration board.

I also understand it is the desire of the Hon. Ms Franks to refer this bill to a cross-party joint house committee, which the opposition supports. I am pleased to report the member for Hurtle Vale will be representing the opposition from the lower house, while I will also be taking a seat on the committee from this chamber. I am looking forward to contributions to this bill from those opposite, particularly the Minister for Human Services, given the government's strong commitment to this policy position ahead of the last election. Indeed, I note in their policy paper 'A strong plan for real change' reveals a commitment to, and I quote:

draft legislation to require the registration of social workers in South Australia

lobby to have social workers included under the National Registration Accreditation Scheme (NRAS) with oversight from the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).

Given the absence of national leadership on this important issue, it is incumbent upon us as a state parliament to legislate in the interests of South Australians.

I would also seek to briefly pay tribute to the former member for Playford, Jack Snelling, who as health minister was a determined advocate for a national social workers registration bill. He took this position to COAG but was sadly defeated by the Liberal-National government in Canberra. I pay tribute to his work and thank him for his contributions.

I want to be clear: Labor supports and would prefer a federal scheme or agreement to move the regulation of social workers to sit under AHPRA, as it would ensure a nationally consistent framework. This would, of course, be beneficial for social workers who practice in more than one state or who move jurisdictions in mid-career.

Given that this has time and again proven to be a fringe issue for the federal parliament, the time for us to act as a state legislature has arrived. The work of the Social Workers Registration Bill will increase community confidence in the standard and professionalism of the social work profession, improve safety for members of the public who interact with social workers, and provide a complaints mechanism for individuals or organisations that suspect wrongdoing or impropriety on the part of a social worker. It will also provide security for social workers in terms of ethics and standards. It will do this by establishing a registration framework for social workers, and the social workers registration board. Significantly, it will recognise educational and professional development training for social workers in South Australia, leading to better patient and community outcomes.

It is also significant to note the support of the Australian Association of Social Workers who strongly support registration within the profession. Indeed, as the Australian Association of Social Workers national president, Christine Craik, rightly points out, 'Comparable countries such as the UK, USA, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada have long recognised the complexity of social work and have regulatory schemes for social workers.' Indeed, Australia is the only English-speaking country in the world that does not require social workers to be registered as a strategy for public protection.

The evidence and the recommendations are on the record for all to see. Commissioner Mullighan called for the registration of social workers in the past, as has Professor Scott, former director for the Centre for Child Protection through the 2009 parliamentary select committee findings. The Public Service Association also supports this bill and 'considers that registration would be of benefit to the clients of the department and to social workers'. Clearly the time has come for South Australia to step up. Labor reserves the right to make amendments and alterations to the bill going forward but currently supports the referral of the Social Workers Registration Bill to a cross-party joint house committee.

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY (17:08): I rise very briefly to indicate my support for the Hon. Tammy Franks' position on this matter in referring the issue to a committee. I understand the push to register social workers has come from the industry to bring accountability and standards into the profession. This is commendable, but I also understand there are concerns about what will occur if South Australia is the only state to do this. What problems will this cause for those who work across state borders? I support referring this bill to a joint committee so that this matter can be investigated more thoroughly and look forward to reading the report once finalised.

The Hon. C. BONAROS (17:09): I rise to speak in support of the second reading of the Hon. Tammy Franks' Social Workers Registration Bill 2018. The bill would make an act to make provision for the registration of social workers, the establishing of a social workers' registration board and other associated purposes. SA-Best agrees with the policy of social workers registration that has given rise to this bill; others do too. In fact, the policy is one the Liberal Party took to the election. I will read a few words from their policy document:

If elected in March 2018, a Marshall Liberal Government will ensure a system of registration for social workers is introduced.

This could involve the inclusion of social workers under the National Registration Accreditation Scheme…

The policy goes on to state:

A State Liberal Government will:

draft legislation to require the registration of social workers in South Australia

lobby to have social workers included under the National Registration Accreditation Scheme…with oversight from the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency...

The issue of social worker registration is a critical reform acknowledged by the Marshall government in opposition. The legislative reform is long overdue. It was recommended by the Layton report on the review of child protection in South Australia 15 years ago. It was also recommended by Justice Mullighan in the Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry 10 years ago. It was also a recommendation of State Coroner Mark Johns' inquest into the death of Chloe Valentine three years ago, a recommendation of a South Australian parliamentary committee three years ago and a recommendation by the deputy coroner in the baby Ebony case two years ago.

The Marshall government, when in opposition, were highly critical of the former Labor government for not implementing the reform, arguing that it was ignored by the former government—and rightly so. I cannot fathom why such an important reform has been delayed by the Marshall government when they were so strident about the need for its implementation in opposition. The need for the reform is simply overwhelming. The aforementioned reviews, inquiries and inquest into our child protection system are a testament to that overwhelming need.

Social work is a fundamentally important profession, providing support and services to individuals and families experiencing difficult circumstances and vulnerabilities, including people in acute and chronic health care, aged care, mental health services, Indigenous health, disability services or addiction support, and, most importantly, children in out-of-home care, among others. Social workers routinely work with children and adults at risk, including women and their children escaping from family violence—an issue that we have canvassed quite extensively in this place today. They also work with victims of sexual assault—an issue that we have canvassed very extensively in this place recently over recent months—people suffering with mental illness, survivors of torture and war, the elderly and infirm and people with disabilities.

The capacity for serious harm is therefore compounded by the very nature and life circumstances of a very vulnerable cohort of people. The Australian Association of Social Workers conservatively estimates that social workers come into contact with approximately half a million people a year. The vulnerability of the client population is significant when you weigh the risk, as misconduct and abuse has the potential to have a profound and ongoing impact on the lives of the most vulnerable in our community.

Social workers are the largest allied health profession in the public health system, and the fact that they remain unregistered means that serious misconduct cannot be adequately addressed. The vulnerability of their clients, many of whom are vulnerable in multiple ways, means that few of them will raise complaints and voice their concerns in cases of misconduct. It is unacceptable that social workers, even when employed in the public system, are free to move to a new jurisdiction and continue to work without being detected. The current institutional arrangements are so lacking that the minority of social workers who cause serious harm can continue to hold themselves out as social workers and practice without adequate penalty or sanction.

The self-regulatory system in place at the moment is not adequate, and is limited with respect to the sanctions and penalties it can impose. The industry itself is crying out for a regulated system of registration. Such registration would allow for legally enforceable probity, qualification and practice standards, and for these to be a requirement for entry into the profession. It would also allow for the maintenance of continuing professional development, something that many professions across the board are having to undergo, and something marriage celebrants are even required to undertake as a requirement for maintaining their registration and accreditation.

Registration of social workers will provide a safety net for vulnerable individuals and families to exercise their right to protection from social workers who do harm. We cannot and we must not risk another Shannon McCoole in this state. I note that the bill requires further consideration, and it is the intention of the Hon. Tammy Franks to refer the bill for inquiry, and SA-Best supports that course of action. I close with another quote from the Liberal Party's policy for the registration of social workers:

The longer this important reform is delayed the greater the risk to vulnerable children...

I and SA-Best completely concur with those comments.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (Minister for Human Services) (17:15): I rise to make some remarks in relation to this bill, and thank the honourable member for putting this matter on the agenda. Social workers are one of the largest professional groups in Australia, responsible for protecting and supporting the wellbeing of some of Australia's most vulnerable people. It is critically important that they are qualified, trained and accountable, and work within an ethical framework. The Liberal Marshall government has committed to work across jurisdictions to establish a national registration scheme for social workers, and to develop state-based legislation consistent with that national scheme.

The Liberal Marshall government committed to establishing a registration scheme for social workers that would ensure public safety, embed higher standards of conduct, improve professional development and, most importantly, drive improved outcomes across a number of social services, including health, education, justice and child protection, which demonstrates the breadth of areas in which social workers operate. As honourable members who spoke prior to myself have noted, the Liberal Party took to the 2000 election a policy of social worker registration. From our position in opposition in 2016, a scheme of registration of social workers was made a policy of the party, called for in part in response to the Chloe Valentine coronial inquest.

Following the Liberal Party's adoption of that policy, the then health minister, Jack Snelling, took a proposal to the health minister's COAG in 2016, which was unsuccessful—but I might add that I recall that he had quite a bit of reticence at that time. The Australian Association of Social Workers has been calling for a registration scheme for more than 15 years. I have managed to retrieve a letter from July 2012, addressed to someone named Mr Martin Hamilton-Smith MP, the shadow minister for health, ageing, mental health and substance abuse. I think they wrote to a number of us, but the copy I have before me requests that he:

…support the inclusion of social workers in the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme (NRAS).

The letter goes on:

We have asked Health Ministers to address this request at the August Standing Committee on Health Meeting by agreeing to develop a Regulatory Impact Statement for the inclusion [of] social work in NRAS.

Social workers have been seeking regulation through a registration process for a considerable period of time. I have been long enough in this place to recall that we used to have at a state level registration for a range of medical professions: doctors, nurses, all the allied health professionals, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, optometrists, dentists—a whole range which has transitioned. We debated each of those professions in this place to transition to a national scheme but, in that process, social workers were omitted.

I have, in my former professional life, worked with a number of social workers at the Repat Hospital in particular as part of a multidisciplinary team, and appreciate that they have a critical role in those areas. What they do is quite broad. There is a range of areas in which they work, and I appreciate their concerns that anybody can hang up a shingle, so to speak, and claim to be a social worker, and that social workers can, and do, cause harm.

The government supports the referral to a committee. We think that will be an excellent way to tease out some of the issues. Clearly, there is a national scheme, and we will be able to outline a range of those issues in a cross-party and cross-chamber way. Some of the things that the government would like to have fleshed out through this process are to demonstrate how a scheme—whatever the committee ends up coming up with—will sit within a national framework and to develop a nationally consistent approach.

Consultation with stakeholders clearly will be very important because there are a number of different fields in which social workers are employed, a range of agencies in the non-government sector as well as the government sector, so it is broader than just child-related social work. We also need to look at some of the key processes and responsibilities, as previous members have talked about, in relation to professional development.

Other things include the potential composition of the board, what relationship the board might have with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) and the definition of a social worker, as well as providing for a continuum approach to the disciplinary actions resulting from unprofessional conduct, which I think is probably one of the key concerns of the association of social workers. My understanding of the bill is that it provides for practice restriction and deregistration without consideration of warning or warnings with conditions such as supervision.

We look forward to further debate on this legislation. I thank the honourable member for putting this matter on the agenda. I also thank the Australian Association of Social Workers for their persistent and diligent pursuit of this issue and look forward to the committee reporting in due course.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:22): I would like to thank those members who have made a contribution, not just today, to this bill. They are the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos, the Hon. John Darley, the Hon. Connie Bonaros and the Hon. Michelle Lensink. Indeed, many members of this parliament and outside this parliament have been very supportive and worked together, aside from our political and party differences.

Particularly in terms of members of this parliament, I would like to thank the minister, Rachel Sanderson, who as a minister has engaged in this most actively. I look forward to working with her further on this, as well as with the member for Badcoe and the member for Hurtle Vale, Nat Cook, who are also going to be actively engaged in this process, as is the member for Heysen, Josh Teague.

Minister Stephen Wade, as health minister, has some interest in, and I do believe some support for, progress in this area, and he has been most cooperative. I acknowledge the work of the previous Labor health minister, Jack Snelling, on this matter. He attempted time and time again to have this agitated at a national level.

I particularly want to thank the Hon. Michelle Lensink as Minister for Human Services, who has gone above and beyond, working across the portfolios. It was a Marshall election commitment to see a move towards the registration of social workers. I have to say, in terms of sitting there at the Australian Association of Social Workers forum that they held on this and other issues, it was possibly the cutest election forum, given her young son, Mitchell, took the microphone for part of the night, and it was all on Facebook live.

It is going to be young children like Mitchell and the most vulnerable members of our community who will benefit from us putting aside our party political differences and working together. This has been a long time coming for Australian social workers, but it does already exist for social workers across the seas. I would note that there was a live stream of when I introduced the bill across the country and we had a full gallery come to watch. I commend the work of the Australian Association of Social Workers for not giving up.

The discussion of the registration of social workers back in 2010 was actually part of the debate on one of the very first bills I ever handled in this place, and at that time it was still being put in the too-hard basket. I could not believe that eight years on it was still in the too-hard basket and it had not happened at a national level. What I will say is that there is hope. This is the first step today in a journey. We will pass the second reading of this version of the bill. I do not think the bill will come back in exactly the same form. I am sure it will come back in a new, improved version and that this state parliament and this state government will get on with the business of progressing it.

However, we are not alone. Across the border in WA, my esteemed colleague the Hon. Alison Xamon is also working on this with the health minister in the McGowan government. That health minister wrote to my Greens colleague Alison Xamon back in I think May this year, noting that he had been advised that, during the recent second reading debate in the Legislative Council in WA on the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (WA) Amendment Act 2018, she raised the concerns regarding the inclusions of psychotherapists, social workers and counsellors in the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme. The minister there has gone on to say:

As you may be aware, the…(AASW) provided a submission on the inclusion of social workers in the National Scheme.

I think many members of this place are now very well aware of that. He noted that that submission was referred to the Australian Health Ministers Advisory Council for advice in 2016 and that the proposal was then considered by COAG. Based on that advice, a decision was made not to include social workers in that national scheme. He states:

I agree that it is important for health professions to join the National Scheme and for those health professionals to meet the relevant qualifications, standards and guidelines to protect the public from unsafe practices.

He goes on to say:

As you know, I was not the Health Minister at the time that the proposal to regulate social workers was considered. However, the AASW may wish to resubmit their proposal to the COAG Health Council strengthening the areas where there may have been a lack of detail or evidence.

The protection of the public is paramount and a measure that will assist in this regard is the proposal to implement a National Code of Conduct for Health Care Workers (National Code) in WA.

He also goes on to say that WA will cover those three professions that were previously mentioned, including social workers. He continues:

The Government Department that will be responsible for the National Code is the Health and Disability Services Complaints Office (HaDSCO). When the National Code is implemented in WA; [that body] will have the necessary powers to stop a particular unregistered health professional from acting in an unsafe manner and causing harm to members of the public.

That is similar to what we now have here where the state is managing the situation but not through a specific registration scheme. However, he goes on to say, very hopefully:

Please note, I will consider any proposals that are included in COAG Health Council papers based on the matters that you have raised regarding the inclusion of social workers, psychotherapists and counsellors in the National Scheme.

Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention…

I hope that gives hope that we are not alone here in South Australia and we can work on addressing this issue that has been so far put in the too-hard basket, because it cannot be put in the too-hard basket for much longer. We are here in these parliaments across all the jurisdictions in this country to protect the most vulnerable members of our community, and I believe that passing this bill and taking a first step today is the very first step in ensuring that in the social work profession and that those who come into contact with it are not harmed and certainly that we have done all we can to protect those citizens of our state. With those few words, I commend the bill.

Bill read a second time.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:29): I move:

1. That the bill be withdrawn.

2. That, in the opinion of this council, a joint committee be appointed to consider and report on the Social Workers Registration Bill 2018.

3. That, in the event of a joint committee being appointed, the Legislative Council be represented thereon by three members, of whom two shall form a quorum of council members necessary to be present at all sittings of the committee.

4. That this council permits the joint committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it thinks fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being reported to the council.

5. That standing order 396 be suspended as to enable strangers to be admitted when the joint committee is examining witnesses, unless the committee otherwise resolves, but they shall be excluded when the committee is deliberating.

6. That a message be sent to the House of Assembly transmitting the foregoing resolution and requesting its concurrence hereto.

As you know, there have been discussions in this place and briefings held, done with both goodwill and good intent, and we should just get on with it. I thank members of both the opposition and the government—and, indeed, the crossbenchers right across the parliament—who have expressed an interest in progressing this. I look forward to a committee that comes back with a model that can be adopted, not just here but hopefully across the country.

Motion carried.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: I move:

That this order of the day be discharged.

Motion carried; bill withdrawn.

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