The social work profession in Aotearoa New Zealand is at a turning point. A crucial decision is about to be made that could have long-term implications for social workers across the country.

The threat is a section of the Social Work Registration Legislation Bill which is before Parliament's social services select committee. If the bill remains as it is, it could mean up to 50 per cent of currently registered social workers and practitioners with a social work qualification in roles not described using the words "social worker" will not be required to be registered, meaning they can operate without any accountability.

This is despite the fact that the bill's chief purpose is mandatory registration for all social workers, moving on from the current system of voluntary registration.

Crucially, the bill determines that only those whose employers describe their position using the words "social worker" and those who identify themselves as social workers will be required to become registered or hold a practising certificate.

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A cynic could argue the Minister of Social Development is using social work registration as a workload management tool to address the Ministry for Children workforce crisis rather than as a fitting accountability framework for the profession.

Registration is essential to social work and should be applied universally. It maintains standards and ensures clients can be protected from rogue operators and unethical practice. The public need to know they are working with qualified and trustworthy people, especially as social workers often assist clients who are at their most vulnerable or disadvantaged.

To quote a member of my organisation, the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers, "The work undertaken by social workers is challenging and life affecting for our children, families and individuals. Frequently the support or interventions provided can be the difference between life and death, especially in areas relating to mental health, child abuse and family violence. All of New Zealand needs to be assured that those undertaking the work of social workers are professionally and personally competent to be in the role."

The role title approach to registration is flawed because it arbitrarily divides the profession solely on the basis of what a social worker is called. This will leave many people who effectively practise social work out in the cold - rendered unrecognised and unaccountable - even though they have a social work qualification and are using their social work skills, applying their knowledge and utilising their training.

Furthermore, giving the employer the right to determine who is and who is not a social worker disincentivises them from calling employees engaged in social work by their proper title. It is safe to assume many employers would like to avoid the costs associated with registration and obtaining an annual practising certificate if it can be avoided.

No other regulated profession in any other Western jurisdiction or in Aotearoa New Zealand suffers from this ambiguity over registration. Psychologists, doctors, nurses, lawyers and teachers, for example, have to be registered with their respective authorities to be able to practise.

For example, a doctor working as the chief medical officer for an organisation would still be regarded as a doctor despite their role title not including the word "Doctor"; it would be considered totally unacceptable for them not to be registered with the Medical Council.

Why should social work be treated differently?

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Fortunately, there is an alternative model which should be adopted, a scope of practice model. The term refers to an overarching description of what a profession encompasses. A scope of practice and a definition of the practice of social work have already been published by the Social Workers Registration Board and would be accepted by the profession if the approach was adopted.

The Association of Social Workers firmly takes the position a scope of practice approach is the correct way forward. The New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services, Presbyterian Support New Zealand, the Public Service Association, Social Services Providers Aotearoa, Stand Children's Services and even the Social Work Registration Board support our stance.

In fact, almost 80 per cent of the submissions to the select committee support the "scope of practice" model.

The bill is the most consequential of its kind for the social work profession in decades. New Zealanders are entitled to have a fair, regulated social work registration system that protects the safety of the public through mechanisms that ensure social workers are competent to practise and accountable for the way they practise.

To leave the decision about who has to be registered to employers fails to fulfil the purpose of the Social Workers Registration Act, fails to protect the public and ultimately fails the profession itself.

Emanuel Stoakes is advocacy and communications co-ordinator for the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers.