Plan for register of social workers

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The Independent Online

Public Policy Editor

The Government is considering setting up a "professional register" for social services staff, to tackle the problem of those who abuse children, the elderly and others in their care.

Given statutory backing, a General Social Services Council, similar to those for doctors and nurses, would take disciplinary action and have the power to strike staff off, preventing them from working again with the vulnerable.

The register would prevent a repeat of the Islington fiasco, as revealed in the Independent, in which legal and administrative barriers are preventing councils from checking whether they have employed former Islington council staff allegedly involved in child abuse.

John Bowis, the health minister responsible for social services, yesterday said he had an open mind on the issue, as social services directors said such a council would provide the only long-term way to prevent child abusers working in care homes.

Two government-commissioned studies on the feasibility of creating such a body have just reached the department, and will shortly be on ministers' desks, a spokesman said.

Mr Bowis said the issues to be considered included whether both qualified and unqualified staff would be covered, what standards and sanctions would be applied, who would adjudicate, what rights of appeal there should be and whether the council would be statutory or self-regulating. He said a review was under way of the controversial index that the department currently maintains of those considered unsuitable to work with children.

The department has been criticised for failing to cope with the outcome of the Islington child abuse inquiry in May. Only 4 of the 22 people named in a confidential annexe to the report are currently on the list. The department and Islington blame each other for that situation. Mr Bowis did disclose, however, that the department is now unofficially checking the annexe when local authorities submit names for scrutiny.

In reviewing the workings of the index, ministers will examine "whether we have got the balance right, between natural justice towards someone who has faced allegations of abuse, and the need for children to be protected", Mr Bowis said.

Robin Sequeira, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, said the review was welcome but the index could only be of limited value.

"The issue of who should and should not be working in these sensitive occupations can only ever properly be solved by the establishment of a General Social Services Council," he said.

"Nothing short of that is going to be effective, because anything else is a voluntary arrangement. It needs to be statutory, with clear regulation and uniform national standards. If it can be done for lawyers and doctors, it can be done for social services."

The idea has cross-party backing, including that of La-bour, despite union opposition.