Social Workers Registration Board Decision on fees and levy changes

Background

The Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB) has been consulting on proposals to change our fees and the disciplinary levy for social workers in Aotearoa.

This was the first full consultation of SWRB fees and the levy since 2005. Our fees have not kept pace with inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI)) so over time the funding has covered less. This has in turn reduced our ability to meet all our core regulatory functions required under our legislation. 

Since the introduction of mandatory registration of social workers earlier this year, more is required of us as a regulator, and we are not able to risk regulatory failure by only delivering some of our statutory obligations under the Social Workers Registration Act 2003. We are also bound by financial sustainability obligations under the Crown Entities Act 2004.

In November 2021, the SWRB Board approved for the release of the consultation document on the fees and levy change proposals. The consultation document was released to the public on 3 November 2021 and the consultation closed on 1 December 2021.

Submissions received

We received a total of 317 submissions in response to consultation. Of these, 185 submissions were received through the online survey and 132 by email. This included submissions from sector groups representing their organisation and/or members. All submissions were considered by the Board as part of their decision making.

Thank you to everyone who provided a submission, whether that was an individual, or as part of a group. We appreciate the time and effort that was taken to respond.

Board decision

On Thursday 16 December 2021, the Board met and agreed that the change proposals should proceed as stated in the consultation document, except for:

  1. The proposal on annual CPI adjustment is not proceeding (proposal 1). Instead, the Board is committed to undertaking a funding review within the next three years, and regular reviews at least every three to five years after that.
  2. Fee changes to the education provider recognition fees (proposals 16 and 17) which will not change until the programme recognition standards review has been completed.

The fees and levy changes are set out in the table of confirmed changes to fees and disciplinary levy.

SWRB believes that this provides a balanced approach to delivering our functions under our legislation, the Social Workers Registration Act 2003, which sets how we regulate social workers in Aotearoa.

If the proposals to change the fees and levy hadn’t gone ahead, SWRB would not have been able to carry out the regulatory functions it is required to do, which undermines the purpose and intent of the legislation, and in turn would impact the social work profession.

A clear message from the submissions was the significant financial pressure on the NGO (Non-Government Organisation) sector for social workers, both with lower pay and funding constraints. While as a regulator we have no direct influence over this, we do recognise the pressures on the sector, in particular those working in the community and voluntary sector. SWRB is committed to working with funding agencies and Ministers to help addresses these challenges where we can. We note that NGO providers are entering fair pay and funding negotiations with government funding agencies.

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When will the changes come into effect?

The changes will apply from:

  1. Practising certificate fee and the disciplinary levy – 1 May 2022 for the 1 July 2022 annual renewal round
  2. All other fees – 1 July 2022
  3. The exception is the Experience Pathway application fee, which applies from 1 March 2022.

Main themes from SWRB Fee and Levy Consultation 

We received a total of 317 submissions. Of these, 185 submissions were received through the online survey (run via Survey Monkey) and 132 by email. This included submissions from sector groups representing their organisation and/or members.  

While there were submissions on specific proposals, there were also wider themes for social workers in Aotearoa that many people commented on.  Below are the main themes of submissions: 

Pay parity  

The pay disparity between NGOs and government organisations was a general theme across many submissions. Submitters expressed concern that increasing fees annually to remain in line with inflation was unfair for smaller NGOs in particular.  

It was outlined that NGO employees did not receive annual increases to their wages that were in line with CPI increases nor did NGO government contracts. For example, one person said that they didn’t support CPI increases “because a lot of social workers do not have a wage increase in line with CPI”. As such, participants were concerned that social workers would have to spend an increasingly large proportion of their unadjusted income on an inflation adjusted fee. 

Fee increase is too high, and fees were meant to decrease  

A prominent theme was that participants thought the level of increase was too high to introduce all at once. For example, one person stated they are “not against an increase of the fees but the minimal increase is set at 28% which I believe is just too high. I would be in support of a 10% increase”.  

A further theme from many submitters was the view that there were unmet promises made by SWRB about reduced fees due to an increase in the number of registrations. 

Changes could decrease quality and create barriers to entry for social workers 

There was a concern that an increase of the practising certificate fee would lower the standard of social work and  that the increase would drive individuals away from the profession due to the lack of finances to pay for these fees. 

Some submitters also outlined that employers may change social work roles to not require “registered social workers” resulting in decreased professionalism of the sector. The concern raised was that there would be public protection risks if unregulated and unaccountable individuals are filling social work roles and that would undermine SWRB’s mandate.

Consultation before any future changes  

There was considerable consensus among submissions that there needs to be some form of consultation with the sector before an annual inflation increase to fees and levies is applied. For example, one person said, “it’s important for SWRB to keep in touch with its members when considering fee increases”.  

Disproportionate impact of changes on social workers 

It is clear there is significant financial pressure on the NGO sector for social workers, due to lower pay and funding constraints. There were concerns that NGOs would not be able to keep up with this increase. For example, one person stated that “an increase of 28% will mean that we have to take from other places in our budget, this may have to include PD, wages or additional services to families”. 

Changes could have disproportionate impacts on Māori 

While there weren’t high numbers addressing concerns specifically for Māori in the submissions, there were specific points raised by some submitters through the consultation process.  

Submitters highlighted that any fee changes could affect Māori both due to their higher representation as social workers in NGO settings, and for Māori who are more likely to access the services of social workers.  

A further concern raised was that the increased fees would reduce the quality of services delivered by NGO and iwi service providers and this would disproportionately impact upon Māori, due to their overrepresented use of these services. “This may have a disproportionate effect on Māori and Pasifika workers, who are more likely to work in the community sector”.  

SWRB should seek more government funding or cut costs 

Some submitters asked SWRB to look into getting government funding because registration was a public good so it should be funded as such. Others said that registration and APC costs should be factored into NGO contracts with government.  

Further, some said SWRB should be cutting its costs or functions rather than increasing fees. 

Broad support for pro rata of fees  

Largely, there was support for the introduction of a pro rata scheme where the practising certificate fee is divided into quarter periods. There was a common theme in the submissions regarding the pro rata being “fair” and “equitable”.  

Submitters pointed out that social workers should not have to pay for a service that they are not using. For example, an individual stated that “you cannot ask people to pay for what they are not getting. They should not be paying to be registered for a time period in which they are not registered”.  

Overall support for not cross-subsidising the disciplinary levy but not necessarily an increase  

There was a high proportion who supported not cross-subsidising the disciplinary levy from the practising certificate. However, many people did not agree the levy should increase to achieve this.  

Alternatively, some submitters believed that the individual should pay.  

Others stated that cross- subsidising this fee was a way of collectively supporting the sector.  

The consultation document included a table that highlighted the large number of complaints from Oranga Tamariki. Some submissions referred to this table and noted that because most of the disciplinary levy was covering issues relating to social workers employed by Oranga Tamariki, then the increased cost should be covered by the government.  

Lack of benefits from registration and clarity on role of SWRB 

Some submitters stated there was a lack of benefits seen from registration. This included the move from plastic APC cards to digital only. Some were unsure what SWRB did in their work and to warrant any increase in the fees as a result. Others thought that SWRB were trying to do too much and should focus on just being a regulator.  

Experience pathway changes had a mixed response 

While agreement was strong for a change to one fee, there was a split throughout submissions over whether the fees for Experience Pathway registration should be increased. Some thought that the fee was fair in comparison to what people paid to study. “Personally, I think this should be coming to a close. I am aware of people still coming through to social work under experience. I think there is a lot of access to social work degrees, and it is possible to be gaining the degree while working. So yes, I agree with this fee.” Others thought the fee was too high and should not increase. “The current fee is far too high, and again could lead to s/w leaving the profession.”  

Others suggested that they thought there needs to be transparency with what costs are associated with the fees being charged.  

Overall support for some other changes 

Some changes had strong support, especially changes to fees for those social workers from overseas wanting to register and practice in Aotearoa, and charging fees to those who are late to pay their APC. 

Education provider changes 

There was broad support for name changes, but some concern about education fee increases, particularly with any increased costs for students.  

Two similar themes emerged for the changing of the names for academic fees. The first was that people thought it was clearer or more streamlined. The second theme was that individuals didn’t care about the change in name as it was not relevant to them personally. 

There was concern that any increase in fees would spill over to the students. As a result, students would end up having higher course fees and have to pay more to complete the courses to cover these costs. Again, this was highlighted as a potential barrier to entering the social work profession.  

Some submissions pointed out that social work education programmes are funded as a 3-year arts degree whereas it is actually a 4-year degree with a placement. As such, educators receive the lowest amount of funding available to provide a social work degree. Concerns were raised that due to this underfunding, an increase in the fees would have a negative impact on social work education providers. 

Others noted that there wasn’t enough information to warrant an increase: “it is inappropriate to increase fees until this work (a review) has been undertaken and there is an agreement about the essential work associated with the recognition of social work programmes.”  

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Response to specific issues raised in submissions

Assumption that increases are to cover previous deficits or under recovery of costs

There were some assumptions made in some consultation responses that this funding review was to make up for previous shortfalls in recovering costs. However, this is not the case.

SWRB, similar to other Crown entities, holds financial reserves as part of maintaining ongoing financial viability. For 2020/21 SWRB used the reserves to meet disciplinary proceedings costs and held back on staff recruitment required for meeting all regulatory obligations, while the fees and levy proposals were consulted on.

Also, the Crown, through Budget 2019, provided $1.9m over two years to support operational implementation of the updated SWR Act by SWRB in the lead up to mandatory registration in 2021. This enabled SWRB to continue its usual regulatory activities while this implementation occurred.

SWRB had previously signalled that fees may decrease following mandatory registration, as referred to in a Regulatory Impact Statement in 2017

We acknowledge that in the past SWRB said that fees would go down when mandatory registration came into effect. Unfortunately, when those statements were made there were many unknowns – including having an accurate understanding of what operating in a mandatory environment would require (we have seen in recent years that other regulators have fallen short of the public expectations).

A possible fee reduction was put forward in a Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) by the Ministry of Social Development in 2017. However, following the introduction of a significant Supplementary Order Paper in 2018, an updated RIS was released in 2018 which stated:

The Board is no longer anticipating an immediate reduction in registration costs, although this is still expected in the longer term.”

Could SWRB seek more Crown funding to cover costs?

SWRB has to operate primarily under a full cost recovery model, with fees and a levy, similar to most regulators in Aotearoa.

In all our working, including this funding review and consultation, we have applied the Treasury and Auditor General guidelines. Under those guidelines, fees and levies need to be reviewed regularly to ensure they remain appropriate, and the assumptions on which they are based remain valid and relevant. Fees and charges should:

  1. Be no more than the amount necessary to recover costs
    1. Be authorised under legislation
    1. Not be used to cross-subsidise other activities or functions
    1. Be based on the principles of equity, efficiency, justifiability and transparency.

SWRB does receive a small amount of Crown funding that contributes to its Crown entity statutory activities and for Workforce Planning (announced in March 2021). However, this funding is largely ring-fenced for those functions (noting as above those functions operate on a cost recovery model).

SWRB is regularly looking for opportunities for further Crown funding. However, similar to other regulators has to continue to use the full cost recovery model for its regulatory functions. Any changes to this are outside of SWRB’s authority.

Concern that fees have already gone up and the increases are too large

The consultation document outlined the rationale and reasons for the levels of increases in fees and the levy. As is mentioned previously, the consultation document also laid out how proposed changes met Treasury and Auditor General guidelines for setting fees, meaning that the fees and levy proposed were set to recover costs, keeping a viable level of reserves, but not more.

Reserves are kept by Crown entities (and other fee-based regulators) as a way to mitigate any unforeseen economic and environmental shocks that could suddenly affect an entity’s accounts.

While the disciplinary levy was reintroduced in 2019 and increased this year, the funding from the levy is ring-fenced only for complaints and disciplinary matters, because of the rules around cross-subsidising.

The practising certificate fee hasn’t increased (other than an increase for GST) since the establishment of SWRB, meaning that at the current fee level it no longer supports both the new SWR Act, nor all of SWRB’s regulatory functions under the Act, to the level expected of a modern regulator.

The Board considered the balance between SWRB’s regulatory requirements and our understanding of current pressures on the social worker sector raised by submitters when making its decisions.

Concern about the impact of changes, and if they will disproportionately affect Māori

There were a small number of submissions which highlighted that any fee changes could affect Māori both due to their higher representation as social workers in NGO settings, and for Māori who are more likely to access the services of social workers.

In our consultation document and our work at SWRB there is a clear intent to better be able to meet our legislative requirements. This includes the obligations of Board in relation to Māori under section 100 of the SWR Act and improving our standing as a Te Tiriti Partner.

Improving the professional standards of social workers will in turn lift the standard of social work services provided to Māori who are more likely to be accessing the services.

Should different fees be charged for government (OT and DHB) social workers and NGO social workers, and different fees charged for part time social workers be considered?

Themes came through about inequities between government agencies, in particular between Oranga Tamariki and District Health Boards (to a lesser extent), and NGOs with concerns that a fee increase will impact NGOs more. It was suggested there could be different rates for social workers in government agencies and those in NGOs.

In practice this would be a significant exercise to operationalise, and not something SWRB could undertake in the short to medium term. It may be feasible in future years, if this is still an issue after the conclusion of the fair pay and contract funding negotiations are completed by the sector, and further investigations are undertaken by SWRB and potentially its policy agency.

Some submitters also highlighted that those social workers who work part time should pay a pro rata fee based on hours worked. This would carry a significant administrative burden. SWRB also considers that the regulation of a social worker should be the same, no matter the hours worked. This is in line with other regulators.

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Table of confirmed changes to fees and disciplinary levy

Fees and the disciplinary levy ($ incl GST)
CurrentConfirmed change
Registration application fee
The fee applies to an applicant seeking to be a registered social worker.
A further registration application fee applies if registration documents are not received by SWRB within six months of the application being received by SWRB.
$345$360
Practising certificate fee (annual)
The fee applies to a registered social worker to practise for 12 months from 1 July to 30 June each year.
$368$470
Disciplinary levy (annual)
The levy applies to a practising registered social worker.
$100$135
Experience Pathway registration application fee
The fee applies to an applicant who does not have a SWRB-recognised Aotearoa qualification or an overseas qualification.
The fee includes the panel assessment and registration application fee.
$2,021$3,570
Overseas applicant: qualification assessment fee
The fee applies to an applicant who has an overseas qualification and does not have a SWRB-recognised Aotearoa qualification.
$300$540
Competence review fee
The fee applies to an applicant or a registered social worker where SWRB requires the applicant’s or registered social worker’s competence to be reviewed.
– the fee applies per review.

This fee does not apply for a competence review because of a complaint.
$255.55$540
Competence assessment fee
The fee charged depends on the competencies involved and the process applied.
If the applicant or registered social worker requests the competence assessment be done in person, the applicant or registered social worker must also pay the reasonable costs of any travel, accommodation and meals incurred by SWRB.
The fee applies to an applicant or a registered social worker where SWRB requires the applicant’s or registered social worker’s competence to be assessed.
– the fee applies per assessment.

This fee does not apply for a competence assessment because of a complaint.
$3,102.70Up to $3,330
Certificate of Good Standing or hard copy registration certificate fee
The fee applies to an application for a Certificate of Good Standing for overseas registration purposes or a hard copy of a registration certificate.
There is no charge for digital copies of practising and registration certificates.
$46$70
Overseas applicant: provisional registration competence assessment application fee
The fee applies to an applicant who has an overseas qualification and does not have a SWRB-recognised Aotearoa qualification.
The fee does not apply to an applicant who has been in Aotearoa six months or more and has 2000 hours or more social work experience in Aotearoa.
$345
Overseas applicant: full registration competence assessment application fee
The fee applies to an applicant who has an overseas qualification and does not have a SWRB-recognised Aotearoa qualification.
$345
Provisional to full registration application fee
The fee applies to an applicant who is a provisionally registered social worker and has completed 2000 hours or more of practise and met any conditions on the applicant’s provisional registration
$60
Practising certificate late non-declaration processing fee
The fee applies to a registered social worker if the registered social worker’s practising declaration is not received by SWRB within 60 days of SWRB’s renewal first notification date.
$140
Return to practise application fee
The fee applies to a registered social worker where the application to practise is received by SWRB three years or more after the applicant’s previous practising certificate expiry date.
$345
Pro rata practising certificate fee
The fee applies to a social worker who, before 1 July or after 30 September:
• is newly registered, or
• registered but returning to practise and has not been working as a social worker since their last certificate expired.
The full practising certificate fee applies for subsequent years.
Pro rata fee as quarterly periods (based on the proposed increased practising certificate fee), for the balance of the year before the next 1 July annual cycle
Registered or returning to practise between:
1 July – 30 September
$368$470
1 October – 31 December $368$354
1 January – 31 March$368$236
1 April – 30 June$368$118
Unpaid volunteer practising certificate fee (annual)
The fee applies to an unpaid volunteer who is a registered social worker who does unpaid social work as a volunteer and has no paid work either as a social worker or for anything else.
Even if a registered social worker is only doing social work as an unpaid volunteer, they must hold a current practising certificate because the Social Workers Registration Act 2003 applies whether or not a registered social worker is paid for the social work they perform.
NOTE: If you have a practising certificate issued for a pro rata period (e.g. 1 quarter), then want to practise for longer within the 1 July annual cycle, you need to have your certificate issued again for that further period and pay the applicable pro rata fee for quarter or quarters the further period covers.
Reduced full fee of $370 or a reduced pro rata fee as quarterly periods
Practising certificate issued for:
Unpaid volunteer practising certificate full fee:
12 months (full 4 quarters, i.e. 1 July – 30 June)
$368$370
Pro rata unpaid volunteer practising certificate fee
Certificate issued for a period of
9 months (any 3 quarters, e.g. 1 July – 30 September, 1 October – 31 December, and 1 January – 31 March)
$368$278
Pro rata unpaid volunteer practising certificate fee
Certificate issued for a period of
6 months (any 2 quarters, e.g. 1 July – 30 September and 1 January – 31 March)
$368$185
Pro rata unpaid volunteer practising certificate fee
Certificate issued for a period of
3 months (any one quarter e.g. 1 April – 30 June)
$368$93
Education programme recognition vetting fee
The fee applies to an education provider seeking SWRB recognition of an Aotearoa education programme.
Up to $29,900Unchanged
Education programme annual fee
The fee applies to an education provider of a SWRB-recognised Aotearoa qualification.
Up to $10,350Unchanged

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21 December 2021