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Speech: Social Worker Registration Bill – Joint Committee Report

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

That the report of the committee be noted.

I rise today to speak to the report of the Joint Committee on the Social Workers Registration Bill 2018. It feels like we, along with this bill, have been on a long journey since 2018. The committee has met with and heard from so many people and organisations with regard to the registration of social workers. The hearings and evidence provided were invaluable, and I believe that the report before us today in this council, and the amended draft bill, which I will discuss later, are better and richer for the time and effort so many people have put into this process.

I would like to acknowledge my colleagues who were also on this committee: the Hon. Connie Bonaros MLC; the member for Hurtle Vale, Nat Cook MP; the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos MLC; the member for Adelaide and Minister for Child Protection, the Hon. Rachel Sanderson MP; the now Speaker but then simply member for Heysen, the Hon. Josh Teague MP; and the Hon. Russell Wortley MLC. My particular thanks go to the committee secretary, Ms Leslie Guy, and our research officer, Ms Sue Markotic. I would also like to give my thanks to the Australian Association of Social Workers and, in particular, their CEO, Cindy Smith, for all the advice and information that they have provided to me and to the committee over these years.

Over the past 20 years, numerous state inquiries have called for the registration of social workers. In the ongoing campaign for the registration of social workers I must also thank and acknowledge the Australian Association of Social Workers for their work during this period of time. As has been reflected on many times and indeed during the initial debate on this bill for social worker registration, and during the committee process, it would be preferable to have a national registration scheme for social workers. However, for one reason or another, this has not yet been the case and it is now I think time for South Australia to consider the matter of leadership quite significantly in this area.

The AASW have not been alone in their call to register social workers. The current Marshall government promised this reform in its 2018 election platform, and the former Labor government were also interested in this reform. It has been called for in the Layton report, in the Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry, and it was called for in the inquest into the death of Chloe Valentine. It has been a long time coming, but I am optimistic that with the findings and the work of this report we can see real reform and leadership finally happening and, I hope, happening here in South Australia.

Social workers do incredible work each and every day and I want to recognise that work. They provide invaluable support and services to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Social workers represent one of the largest professional working groups in Australia, but they have no formal registration requirements. They practice in a range of health and welfare settings, with the three main areas being mental health, health and child protection. They work with some of our community's most challenging and most complex social problems, yet there is no regulation in the entire country that prevents an unqualified person from calling themselves a social worker.

Social workers can of course join the AASW; however, membership is voluntary. In the financial year 2018-19 one-quarter of complaints the AASW received that were made against social workers could not be progressed because the social workers these complaints were made against did not have that AASW membership. Disturbingly, the committee also heard that some social workers had withdrawn their membership of the AASW at the point of a complaint having been made to avoid any further scrutiny.

Even if a complaint or disciplinary matter is upheld, the penalties are quite limited. Even if a person is precluded from membership of the AASW, there is no power to stop them from continuing to identify as a social worker. There may be some further oversight in certain situations by the Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner or by the Ombudsman, but the committee heard that these bodies only have recommendatory powers. This is simply not good enough. Overall, the AASW, as the professional body representing social workers throughout Australia, has over a long period of time maintained that the statutory registration of social workers is the preferred pathway to achieving adequate professional standards for the social work profession.

All of this makes it clear to me, and seemed to make it clear to the committee, that we should introduce legislation in South Australia for the registration of social workers. We found that in the absence of a federal determination towards the registration of social workers, a state level registration scheme was generally supported and seen as a very important first step. Certainly, most submissions the committee received agreed that registration would, amongst other things:

improve public safety, strength and confidence in the social work profession;

improve accountability;

ensure appropriate qualifications and practice standards were upheld;

define safe and competent scopes of practice;

ensure continuing professional social work development and education; and

establish a profession-specific complaints and disciplinary process with a public record of registered and deregistered persons.

While we could be leaders in Australia through implementing social work registration, it is worth noting that compared to the English-speaking world we are lagging far behind.

In particular, I would like to note that across the ditch in New Zealand they have had a voluntary registration scheme there since 2003. It became a mandated system in 2019. I would also like to take this moment to thank Ms Lucy Sandford-Reed, who is the chief executive of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers, for the evidence and information she provided to our committee with regard to the New Zealand legislation. The United Kingdom also requires registration of social workers through the Health and Care Professions Council. Canada and the USA also have registration schemes.

Something that was made quite clear to the committee was that only those who hold recognised social work qualifications should be included in the registration scheme, and the committee agreed that, in particular, only qualifications accredited by the AASW should be eligible for registration. However we did hear, as well, that there are many people out there currently practising as social workers who have been doing so for quite a long time, and that people are understandably concerned that registration would mean they would be unable to keep their jobs.

The new draft bill, therefore, allows for a transitional period, similar to that operating in New Zealand, to allow those who are already employed in the public sector as social workers but who are without the requisite qualifications to be assessed to demonstrate that they are appropriately skilled and competent for registration. The amended bill allows for the Social Workers Registration Board to develop an experience-based pathway for those social workers without formal qualifications but who have extensive practical experience.

The committee considers this experience-based pathway particularly important as we found that excluding, for example, Aboriginal workers from a registration scheme solely on the basis that they did not have formal tertiary qualifications not only disrespects their extensive work experience and cultural competencies but also serves to further disadvantage those families and communities with whom they have worked closely, and supported, over so many years. This bill also ensures that people are required to hold AASW accredited qualifications to be eligible for registration, ensuring that social workers have gained an appropriate degree before they can practise.

Social workers are also now required to be 'fit and proper' persons to be eligible for registration. In recognition of the fact that social workers provide support to and work with a range of vulnerable groups, including both children and adults, the draft bill amended as part of this report we have discussed today now includes a broadening of the reference to 'working with children checks' to include other relevant screening checks. It now also includes a requirement for a national police certificate to be included as part of the application for registration.

I will not go through all the recommendations today and the subsequent amendments, because they are explained in this report, but I highly recommend that all members of this council read it. We do know that registration in and of itself will not ensure safe and effective social work practices, but it is a critical step towards protecting vulnerable people in our state and ensuring that we have consistent standards and practices amongst social workers. I will quote from the submission made by the AASW to our committee. It states:

Statutory registration provides a systemic response and is much needed because: it sets and protects professional education and practice standards; it defines safe and competent scopes of practice; it ensures qualification and fitness to practise checks prior to practise; it requires minimum continuing professional development for practitioners; and it establishes a profession specific complaints and disciplinary process with a public record of registered and deregistered persons.

Through this process, and based on the advice and information provided to us by those who came before the committee, we now have a new draft bill attached to the back of this report. The committee has also made 20 recommendations following its inquiry into the bill, which has resulted in an amended draft bill. The final recommendation of the committee is that:

Subject to the above amendments the Committee recommends that the Social Workers Registration Bill 2018 be passed.

I will not speak for much longer but I would like to draw everyone's attention to the concluding statements of the committee:

In the absence of a federal scheme, submissions to the inquiry overwhelmingly expressed support for a state-based system of registration. The Committee notes that registration will not, in and of itself, automatically ensure safe and effective social work practice. The recent coronial inquests, while calling for social work registration, have been critical of, among other things, the child protection system's lack of understanding of, and compliance with, its statutory obligations. Notwithstanding, the Committee is of the view that the legislative reform is urgently needed. It considers that the proposed legislation will provide a solid framework towards improving the accountability and standards of the social work profession.

When I introduced the originating bill back in 2018, I said at the time that I was doing so with great excitement and positivity, and I hope that it will continue to be viewed in a collaborative spirit in this place. I believe that we have really seen that collaborative spirit through the committee process and because of that I think we have a very strong report with a draft bill that could be carried forward following on from the acceptance of this report.

I know that some people have been keeping an eye on the work of this committee from well beyond South Australia's borders, and indeed right across the country there is that same sense of excitement and positivity. I hope that in South Australia we can, in the absence of a federal scheme, take this important step forward and start legislating for the registration of social workers in our state. I commend the report.

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