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Ethics and Practice Blog


My friend and colleague, Tor Levin Hoffgaard, President of the Norwegian Psychological Association, once contrasted the thinking styles of politicians and scientists. The scientists tend to prefer rigorous, theory-based, statistical, context-free, evidence, while politicians tend to prefer contextual, practically relevant, readily comprehensible evidence. Scientists, he suggested, tend to work to long time scales, as long s the problem demands, while politicians are dictated by the rapid electoral and news agendas. Scientists tend to communicate in measured language, using technical terms, while politicians need clear, even catchy, messages. And while scientists are, of course, swayed by the influence of funding requirements, their reputations and career advancement, at least they pride themselves on the objectivity and validity of their findings. Politicians focus on meeting the immediate (and longer term) needs of citizens, as well as the demands of their political parties and the media.  

political science I like that analysis. But then I like both science and politics. I have now attended both the Liberal Democrat and Labour Party Conferences on behalf of the Society, and I hope I can appreciate the benefit of the marriage between psychological science and politics.

While I tend towards the academic approach, the political stance has merit. It is genuinely good to value contextual, readily comprehensible evidence, presented in clear and accessible language. I see little wrong in addressing issues of practical relevance, of direct interest to the needs of citizens. And I am as impatient for rapid change as the next person.

The obvious response is to marry these perspectives, and to value and understand them both. As I listened to the speeches of politicians, it’s fair to say that some of them were merely vacuous hot air, Trumpesque promises of sun-lit uplands, fluffy bunny rabbits and effortless progress consequent upon no particular discernable policies. But I was also impressed by men and women who were passionate about improving their communities and helping their fellow citizens, who had coherent theories about what sort of change was needed, and what was required to bring that about and who were prepared to listen as well as talk. I’ve said before that psychology, because it’s about human behaviour, is the stuff of politics, and have I found that politicians tend to want to engage with the mirror of their profession – the rigorous, theory-based, statistical, evidence, gathered objectively over an appropriate time-span and reported in measured, defensible, language. Of course… I have the Conservative Party Conference still to attend…

Tue, 27/09/2016 - 13:31


Promoting “the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied” and “the efficiency and usefulness of members” are core to the charitable aims of the Society. Members expect the Society to represent their views and defend their profession. And that means, in part, discussing the distinctive contribution of psychology and psychologists.

This is an undeniably complex topic – we celebrate the values, knowledge and skills that we share, and yet we also celebrate and promote our distinctive contribution. This overlap between generic and distinctive competencies is not unique to psychology (medical practitioners, for example, have much in common but also defend their vital specialist competencies). There is considerable overlap between the Society’s Divisions and that overlap is asymmetrical. There is a complex, asymmetrical mosaic of shared and distinctive competencies and the individual career paths of practitioner psychologists make this even more complex.

In my view, our professional identity – and indeed greater opportunity - is best served with greater clarity of the different domains of specialism within our wonderful and diverse profession. As I suggested in my blog post last week, it has implications for the professional regulation of applied psychologists  as well as for training 

In regulatory terms, it is important to recognise the generic skills and values of all healthcare professionals, of all psychologists, but also those specific standards of proficiency that mean it would put the public at risk if any of us claimed to be competent in areas in which we have no specialist skills. I have been clear that we should not permit colleagues to claim, by implication, skills that they do not possess. 

In my opinion we could do more to recognise the shared competencies of all applied psychologists, and benefit from greater unification of the profession. But of course, the distinctions between the different branches of psychology are meaningful. I do not have all the competencies possessed by colleagues in different branches of psychology (indeed I do not have specialist competencies possessed by some other clinical psychologists, for instance skills in working with children and families), and it would be inappropriate for me to claim that. We need to be judicious in when we emphasise those distinctions, and do so when it benefits the public, but only when justified. 

As I’ve said in other blog posts if you possess the relevant qualifications and offer a service to the public, you should register with HCPC. If you don't possess such qualifications, don't imply that you have. Jobs should be planned, and then advertised and recruited to, on the basis of competencies, from which any use of adjectival title should follow. If psychologists from several Divisions could fulfill the requirements of a particular post, then it's wise to maximize your chances of successful recruitment, and recruit accordingly. baby boy eating cake

We launched a Presidential Task Force to investigate and make recommendations in this area. I encourage members to debate this issue, including with other colleagues in your relevant Division, and to communicate with me directly. We will be looking at examples of best practice - including such things as innovative curricula for the training of psychologists, novel approaches to supervised practice and clinical placements, examples of job descriptions and recruitment advertisements - as well as listening to members’ views on Society policy in the areas of training and regulation. As the Presidential Taskforce begins its work (and we are having our first meeting this week), we will explore how we can encourage greater visibility of the “efficiency and usefulness” of members and promote the competencies of our various branches of psychology. 

Sometimes common sense – rather than ideological polemic – is a good guide to working things out. We value our distinctive competencies, and the public benefit from clarity about what skills we each do or don't possess. These are all matters for the new Presidential Taskforce to address. But we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t both claim distinctive competencies are important on the one hand, and dismiss their relevance on the other.  


Wed, 10/08/2016 - 12:10


The current edition of Private Eye (publication date 4th August 2016) outlines concerns about the regulation of psychologists. In particular, the journalists comment that; “providing psychologists don’t use one of the … so-called protected titles … any can offer their services without the need to be registered and regulated by the UK’s watchdog the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Even if serious concerns or complaints are raised about them, they remain immune from investigation because they’re not registered”.

Many BPS members have raised this issue with me and my predecessors. So what’s the solution?

One option might be to press for regulation of the title 'psychologist'. That may well close the loophole to an extent, but it’s far from perfect. Protection of the public from charlatans is vital, but it may be seen as disproportionate to require all who call themselves psychologists to pay to register with HCPC. Our academic colleagues, who do not offer services to the public in that sense, may find that onerous. That solution would require legislative change and wouldn’t do anything to bring people legitimately using titles such as ‘psychotherapist’ or ‘cognitive therapist’ into the regulatory fold (and thereby help protect the public). The unscrupulous would merely avoid that new regulated title and would continue to mislead the public with new variations on the theme.

But we probably don't need that solution, as I believe the HCPC already has more power to act.

Under Article 39(1) of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, it is a criminal offence for a person, with intent to deceive (whether clearly or by implication), to: – claim that they are on the HCPC Register; – use a title protected by the Order to which they are not entitled; or – claim falsely that they have qualifications in a relevant profession. It is clear to me that a person who uses a title such as 'consultant psychologist' is by implication claiming qualifications or professional status that they do not possess. 

In other words, we do seem to have the legal powers to act, but seldom do. Perhaps a better question, then, would be to ask why HCPC don’t avail themselves more often of this route. It’s at least possible that we, as psychologists, are complicit  assuming that there’s a legal loophole and not complaining. 

At the same time, we need to get our house in order. Those of us who are legitimately qualified and experienced professionals who provide a service to the public but feel it is acceptable not to be registered because they don’t use a protected title should consider this as a call to action to reflect on their own accountability. The Society is improving its professional practice guidelines and could use them in collaboration with HCPC to outline more clearly the standards of professional behaviour that we value.

It’s possible that we also need more explicit legislation to clarify the language and allow prosecution more easily. This could also bring professions such as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapists under the regulatory remit. The Government is beginning the process of consultation to consider major reforms that would unify the regulatory Councils. The aim is to improve the legislative approach to address these ‘regulated functions’ rather than merely ‘regulated title’ issues. We have quite a lot to benefit from such changes. We need to close loopholes, and we can learn from the other regulatory Councils. For example, the title ‘doctor’ is not a protected title (that is, instead, ‘registered medical practitioner’) and yet the public is relatively well protected from charlatans pretending “by implication” to be doctors in the lay-person’s meaning of the word. Having a PhD obviously wouldn’t protect me, for instance.

We should engage closely in the imminent consultation, and press for both a more intelligent approach to the regulation of our profession and sister professions, as well as for a closure of the ‘implied competence’ loophole, if necessary. It would be timely to look to improving investigatory processes, and to look at a more mature relationship between the BPS (which has a duty to promote the profession) and HCPC (with a more specific remit to protect the public) as they work together in the public interest. There is a lot to be gained from a unified approach to regulation in health and social care, and I believe that it would be valuable to extend statutory regulation to all the psychotherapeutic professions. However, in the meantime I think that there is a lot that the BPS and its members can do to ensure that those legitimately offering a service to the public ensure that they are registered, regulated and accountable, that they report cases where people appear to be committing offences by implied possession of qualifications they do not possess, and pressing HCPC to pursue prosecution using means that appear to be available by seldom used. 



Wed, 03/08/2016 - 14:53

The EFPA Congress is a major biennial event for European psychologists so I was delighted, with colleagues, to represent the Society, and to be able to network with representatives of the other psychological associations and societies from across Europe. This is a significant scientific gathering for all in our field.

Members of the BPS delegation were Professor Dorothy Miell (Vice President), Professor Peter Kinderman (President Elect), Dr Carole Allan (Honorary General Secretary), and Dr Mark Forshaw (Chair, Membership and Standards Board).

Personally, it was also a huge honour for me to be invited to co-chair the General Assembly following the Congress, together with Dr Christopher Kabas of the Austrian Psychological Society. This was a gathering of 140 psychologists from 35 different European Psychology Societies and Associations, speaking 25 different languages. I was pleased to be able to welcome delegates in their own languages.

I am a great believer in the benefits of sharing knowledge and supporting development of psychology across borders. EFPA is central in this work and I would encourage all our members to help to promote international links.

Delegates at the General Assembly took the first steps of provisional and conditional planning for a 2019 Congress to be held in Moscow. There was also agreement on statements in support of the Greek Psychological Association and on Colonialism. News on the Hoffman Report had broken just before the Assembly and delegates agreed a statement issued by EFPA.

Last, but not least, the EFPA Executive Committee elections were held. I should like to offer my congratulations to those elected :

  • President - Dr Telmo Mourinho BAPTISTA (Portugal) 
  • General Secretary - Robertas POVILAITIS (Lithuania)
  • Treasurer Christoph STEINEBACH (Germany)

Committee members are:

  • Bernard CARUANA (Malta) 
  • Eleni KARAYIANNI (Greece) 
  • Tor Levin HOFGAARD (Norway) 
  • Bruna ZANI (Italy). 

The next congress in 2017 takes place in Amsterdam. It will be hosted by the Belgian and Dutch Psychological Associations.

It was a packed few days in Milan and I know that the Psychologist magazine is publishing conference reports on some of the key talks later in the summer. I'll be reporting about the other events from  the EFPA Congress over the next few weeks.

Fri, 24/07/2015 - 13:38

Since becoming BPS President in May I’ve been invited to numerous events to talk about the Society. On Friday 17 July I gave the opening keynote address at an event on professional and ethical practice issues for psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors: an important part of civic and community engagement .

Hosted by University of East London the event was aimed at practitioners from a range of fields to help them find out about issues including ethics, standards, accountability and possible legal considerations in all areas of professional practice.

I was pleased to be part of a programme where other speakers included Andrew Reeves, Chair of the BACP, and Professor Steve Pilling, Director NICE.

Events like this give us an excellent opportunity to ensure that the Society’s messages about ethical practice are shared. It is a privilege to be invited to address a peer audience and an important opportunity to meet colleagues from other fields of work to listen to their points of view.

Later in the day I was pleased to be able to facilitate a workshop with Dr Pauline Lane, of Anglia Ruskin University, on working with suicide and self-harm and, over lunchtime, launched the Handbook of professional and ethical practice for psychologists, counsellors and psychotherapists (2nd edition) Rachel Tribe, Jean Morrissey (eds) Routledge, 2015, 341pp,isbn 978-0415705295.

The Presidential diary for the year is already pretty full and so I shall be blogging about other events as the year progresses.

Thu, 23/07/2015 - 16:23