Valuing social care workers: The Northern Ireland Experience

Valuing social care workers: The Northern Ireland Experience

In 2001, Northern Ireland became the first place in the United Kingdom to legislate compulsory registration for all social workers, social work students, and social care workers. The reform was born out of a major review of the social care system commissioned with the goal of improving the quality of services. The review’s findings led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC), a regulatory body responsible for overseeing the registration of all workers in the sector and ensuring they meet agreed upon standards of conduct and practice.

This month, FSSI and the Disability Service Commissioner invited Marian O’Rourke and Fidelma Carolan, experts who worked on the roll out of the registration scheme, to visit Melbourne and share their knowledge and experiences with key representatives from our local sector. Marian is currently the Interim Director for Regulation and Standards at the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) and Fidelma works for the Leadership Centre delivering a range of training programmes to health and social care workers. At the time of the roll out she was a Regional Official at UNISON, one of the UK’s largest trade unions.

When the introduction of a worker registration scheme was first discussed, union officials such as Fidelma were concerned. What model of regulation would be decided upon? How suitable would it be for Northern Ireland’s existing social care workforce? Would it involve a qualifications-based register? Fidelma and her colleagues knew that such a move would result in approximately 80% of the workforce being lost overnight as most workers were highly skilled but lacking in formal qualifications. What would happen if the registration fee was set too high and some workers couldn’t afford to pay it? What standards would workers be measured against? How would the complaints process be structured? How much new paperwork would be introduced for workers? And what support would be provided for those with low levels of literacy? 

In order to ensure that the registration scheme was a success, NISCC knew that it must work closely with UNISON and the community to alleviate their fears and develop a practical model of regulation that would support staff and have positive ramifications for the sector. The Council collaborated with social workers, home care workers, social care staff, the union, and other core groups to develop new Standards of Conduct and Practice for the sector and set the parameters of the register itself. What had initially been viewed as a threat by many, soon came be to seen as an opportunity to improve the quality of services and support the development of a strong, professional workforce.

In 2004, a phased approach to the roll out of the Social Care Register commenced. Social workers were the first to join, followed incrementally by social care workers across a range of areas including residential care, day care and home care. It took until 2017 to complete the roll out process. Currently, there are over 45,000 individuals on the register, with approximately 38,000 of those being social care workers.

One of the key benefits of regulation, Marian explained, is that social care work used to be overlooked by many, but now young people are considering it as a career option. In order to satisfy the requirements of registration, all social care workers must complete ninety hours of professional development over a five-year period. NISCC and UNISON have developed ranges of e-learning modules and face-to-face workshops to assist workers in meeting this requirement. By providing greater access to education and training resources, the registration scheme has enhanced the competence and confidence of existing workers, provided greater opportunity for career progression, and encouraged new recruits to the sector.

The Standards of Conduct and Practice have also contributed to raising the quality of social care in Northern Ireland. Developed by NISCC as part of the regulation process, the standards must be adhered to by all social care workers in order to satisfy registration requirements. A recent evaluation of the impact of the new standards revealed that 73% of the public believe they have made a positive difference to the quality of care provided.

If a worker fails to meet the standards, they are required to participate in a Fitness to Practice hearing. An independent committee investigates the complaint and decides whether they have behaved in accordance with the standards, whether further training is required, or whether their misconduct was serious enough to warrant removal from the register. According to current figures, only 1% of workers will face removal from the register due to misconduct. The vast majority, Marian explained, are working in social care because they want to help people and will never breech the standards.

The regulation scheme has also provided improved access to data about the sector. Prior to the Social Care Register being set up, the size of the workforce was unknown. Now up-to-date figures on workforce size and constitution are readily available, allowing advocates to more effectively push for greater recognition of the sector. A recent economic review revealed that social care provides more jobs than ICT and the financial services, and generates wages in excess of £500 million a year.

In Marian and Fidelma’s experience, the worker registration scheme has been overwhelmingly beneficial for Northern Ireland. Social care workers have increased self-confidence and greater access to training and career development, the union has increased engagement with workers in the sector, and the public now has greater protection against abuse and access to a higher quality of care.