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Speech: Social Worker Registration Scheme

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (20:16): 

Today, I rise once again to introduce a bill for the registration of social workers. It is three years since I last did this. I introduced my original bill in 2018, and it then went to a joint committee that reported at the end of last year. As part of that committee process, we agreed upon and drafted an updated version of the bill I first introduced in 2018.

For over 20 years the Australian Association of Social Workers has been calling for the registration of social workers, and they are not alone in recognising the need for this reform. The current Marshall government promised reform in its 2018 election platform, and the former Labor government was 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. This reform is a long time coming.

Given the committee reported at the end of 2020, and that we have had this bill drafted since then, I would like to explain why it has taken so long to actually get this new version of the bill before the parliament. It is because, truthfully, I am not the one who was supposed to be doing it. I had received commitment after commitment from the government that they would do so; indeed, we thought it would happen during government time and that the ministers who would be responsible for the bill, once it passed, would be the ones who had carriage of it.

However, it has been so many months now and we are rapidly approaching the end of the year; there are only a few sitting days left, and of course there is a state election. My office and I have tried to follow this up with the government on multiple occasions but have received no response. Similarly, I know stakeholders, very keen stakeholders, who have been trying to find out when this legislation will be introduced but who have had their questions and their requests for a meeting go unanswered for many months, only finally hearing back with an offer of a meeting yesterday.

The joint committee unanimously endorsed both the report and the draft bill that came out of it. All members in this chamber, across all parties in this chamber, have also voted for the original version of this bill and provided their in-principle support. Similarly, I note that the Minister for Child Protection in the other place, during her speech regarding the report of the committee, said that the government would continue to advocate for a national scheme. Certainly, everyone would prefer a national scheme for the registration of social workers, but everyone has also being saying that for decades with no action. So I would draw this council's attention to these lines from the report of the joint committee. It states:

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 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.

I repeat: the committee was of the view that legislative reform is urgently needed. We have done all the groundwork, consulted extensively through the committee process and created a revised bill with a collective understanding that that bill would be introduced and hopefully passed through the parliament. The final recommendation of this committee was that:

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

That is pretty clear. Those changes have been made and we now have the Social Workers Registration Bill 2021 before us. It is regrettably late in the year. We could have and should have had this introduced sooner, and certainly I had been assured that the government would be doing that, but now we are well towards the end of October with no-one getting any further answers from this government and so the Greens are going to introduce this bill, and what could I do but introduce it myself.

There are many eyes on this legislation and people and organisations around the country are watching right now and they will be reading and looking and waiting and watching with great interest to see what this state does. I know they were very interested in the joint committee process. There is potential here for South Australia to lead the nation in this reform. It is a waste of time and opportunity to continue to wait for a national scheme that has not eventuated over the past 20 years.

We cannot keep putting registration of social workers into the too-hard basket. We have a model here that has been heavily consulted and that we have all agreed to. Why waste all of that work by then not even introducing the bill that resulted from that work? So here is the work, here is the bill. The key objects of this bill are:

(a) to establish and maintain a registration system for social workers;

(b) to safeguard the public interest by ensuring that only suitably trained and qualified persons are able to practise as social workers;

(c) to encourage the maintenance of high professional standards of both competence and conduct by registered social workers;

(d) to ensure that registered social workers are held accountable professionally for the conduct of their practice.

This bill establishes the social workers registration board of South Australia. The role of the board is as follows:

(a) to administer the provisions of this Act for the regulation of the practice of social work;

(b) to provide a definition of social work services in accordance with section 17;

(c) to establish and maintain the register contemplated by this Act;

(d) to prepare or endorse codes of conduct, professional standards and ethical guidelines for registered social workers;

(e) to determine the qualifications and other requirements appropriate for registration under this Act;

(f) to receive and determine applications for registration of social workers under this Act;

(g) to hear and make determinations in disciplinary proceedings against a person;

(h) to carry out other functions assigned to the Board under this act or by the Minister.

This bill also defines social work services, outlines the requirement for the board to determine the scope of practice for social work, and has provisions that will ensure that those with prescribed qualifications can become social workers.

This bill requires that all social workers must be registered and that someone cannot work as a social worker without being registered. Similarly, offences are outlined should someone be engaged to undertake social work services without being a registered social worker. It outlines the eligibility requirements for registration and other aspects of this registration process.

I note as well that the bill does include transitional provisions for people who have been practising as social workers for some time but who could not meet the qualification requirements under the bill as it currently stands. A person must also be a fit and proper person to be registered as a social worker.

With that, I commend this bill to this council and given the many years of work and consultation and multipartisan support that went into this version of the bill, I hope we can pass it quickly. I would prefer that the government took carriage of it, but I certainly think we cannot let this parliament forget that this issue has had so much work put into it, has had cross-party support and indeed the social work profession is looking and waiting for us to act. With that, I commend the bill.

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