Social work and the law in Scotland
Social work and the law in Scotland

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Social work and the law in Scotland

2.3 Social work and social change

The social work profession in Scotland is undergoing a period of significant change at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In a process which largely mirrors developments across the UK, new systems for the education and regulation of social workers have been introduced to improve standards in the provision of social services, to raise public confidence and protect service users. For the first time entrants to the profession are required to obtain an undergraduate degree in social work, the title ‘social worker’ has been reserved and protected in law to only those who possess an ‘entitling professional qualification in social work’ (Regulation of Care (Scotland) Act 2001, s77), and since September 2005 it has been an offence for any person to call themselves a social worker if they do not have current registration with the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).

The SSSC was created by the Regulation of Care (Scotland) Act 2001 and regulates the social service workforce through registration, the publication of codes of practice for social service workers and their employers, and quality assurance of education and training across the sector (see the Scottish Social Services Council [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . The codes of practice apply to a range of social care professionals (including, for example, residential care workers) and are not specific to social work. They do, however, provide a clear statement of the core values and competencies which are expected (see Box 1).

Box 1: Scottish Social Services Council Codes of Practice

Social service workers must:

  1. Protect the rights and promote the interests of service users and carers.

  2. Strive to establish and maintain the trust and confidence of service users and carers.

  3. Promote the independence of service users while protecting them as far as possible from danger or harm.

  4. Respect the rights of service users while seeking to ensure that their behaviour does not harm themselves or other people.

  5. Uphold public trust and confidence in social services.

  6. Be accountable for the quality of their work and take responsibility for maintaining and improving their knowledge and skills.

(SSSC, 2002)

The codes are ‘complementary and mirror the joint responsibilities of employers and workers in ensuring high standards’ (SSSC, 2002).

In 2004 the Scottish Executive also commissioned a wide-ranging independent review of the profession, the 21st Century Social Work Review (see Social Work Scotland). This was in response to the perceived crisis in social work, faced with increasing demands, finite resources and a changing landscape of integrated services. The findings of the 21st Century Social Work Review were published in a report entitled Changing Lives (Scottish Executive, 2006a) and are likely to shape the future direction of social work in Scotland. The Scottish Executive has initiated a change programme in response to this review and you can follow its progress via the Social Work Scotland website.

The key objectives of the 21st Century Review were:

  • to clearly define the role and purpose of social workers and the social work profession;

  • to identify improvements in the organisation and delivery of social work services;

  • to develop a strong quality improvement framework and culture, supported by robust inspection;

  • to strengthen leadership and management, giving clear direction to the service;

  • to ensure a competent and confident workforce;

  • to review and if necessary to modernise legislation.

It may come as a surprise to find that the role and purpose of social work was recently up for review and is subject to change. In fact these questions are a matter of ongoing debate as a dynamic profession adapts to changes in society, its needs and expectations. The next activity asks you to reflect on this further.

Activity 3: The role of the social worker

0 hours 40 minutes

Read Chapter 4 of the Changing Lives report from the 21st Century Social Work Review (Scottish Executive, 2006a).

Read its conclusions on the role of the social worker and make notes in answer to the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of social work?

  2. What principles or values underpin social work practice?

  3. What do social workers do?

  4. Why does the review propose that certain functions are only to be undertaken by social workers?


Locating the answers to these questions in the review report should be relatively easy, but interpreting what you have found may be more difficult. What for example do ‘promoting social change’ or ‘enhancing well-being’ actually mean? When separated from their context these descriptions of the aims of social work can seem too abstract, but if you consider practice examples they should become clearer. Working to protect a child or vulnerable adult who is ‘at risk’ enhances their well-being; empowering families, older people and those with disabilities to cope with their situations or overcome oppression involves promoting positive social change. Social work is not a neutral or value-free activity; practitioners may not always achieve their desired outcome, but they are (or should be) motivated by the aspirations of an internationally recognised profession to ‘change lives’ for the better.

The International Federation of Social Workers' definition of social work recognises that ‘principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work’ (IFSW, 2004). In this sense the social worker is a ‘human rights worker’ who respects the rights of individuals and marginalised groups and is concerned to challenge injustice which interferes with their rights (Ife, 2001). But whose rights must they protect? How are these rights to be defined and who decides where change is needed? It is clear from the chapter that there are tensions in the social work role. Practitioners must balance the interests of the service user and other members of the public, and when these come into conflict, in order to secure social justice they may have to act as agents of social control.

The complexity of the social work role should now be apparent. How are social workers to exercise their powers whilst maintaining the kind of ‘therapeutic relationship’ which is identified here as the key to good practice? How can they work in partnership and empower service users who might be subject to compulsion? This course suggests that developing an understanding of the relationship between social work and law can help us to answer these difficult questions.

One of the main findings of the 21st Century Social Work Review was that, contrary to public expectations, social workers do not have all of the answers and cannot do everything. It was, however, felt that certain tasks in social care should be reserved to social workers alone because they have the legal ‘authority to act on behalf of society when people pose a risk to themselves or others or are placed at risk by the actions of others’ (Scottish Executive, 2006a, p. 29). From this perspective social workers are therefore legal actors with powers of intervention and a mandate to manage risk for the social good. Their education needs to equip them for this role.

Social concern with the prevention and management of risk, which has shaped the definition of social work in this review, is not universally accepted as a central social work function because of its negative connotations (see Parton, 2001). It is, however, part of the context in which social work currently operates and to which it must respond if other more positive values, such as social justice and well-being, are to be attained. It is also a good example of how social change impacts on the social work role.


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