The creation of the General Social Care Council in 2001 marked the beginning of a new era of regulation for England’s social care workforce.
Up until last week the watchdog had appeared to be making steady progress in driving up standards in social work, overseeing the introduction of a protected title, conduct system, and a standardised degree in the past six years.
Mike Wardle suspended
But now the body which makes judgements on the suitability of social workers is having its own fitness to practise called into question, following the suspension of its chief executive Mike Wardle.
The GSCC faces an urgent review of its governance and performance, after health secretary Andy Burnham last week described the discovery of a backlog of 203 unassessed conduct referrals as a matter of “extreme concern”.
The Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence has been asked to establish what further action is needed to restore confidence in the GSCC’s ability to “promote high standards of conduct and practice in order to protect the public”.
GMC head drafted in
The body’s role and functions were already under scrutiny before the current crisis, which has seen Paul Philip, currently deputy chief executive at the General Medical Council, drafted in as acting chief executive.
The Department of Health commissioned a separate review into the cost-effectiveness of the GSCC, Skills for Care and the Social Care Institute for Excellence in September 2008.
Community Care has learned that this so-called “delivery chain review”, rumoured to recommend a radical shake-up of the organisations, was completed months ago.
Review of Scie, Skills for Care and GSCC put on hold
However, it has been put on hold until after the CHRE report is published at the end of September, and the final report of the Social Work Task Force, due in the autumn.
“It would be wasteful, and very unfair to the people working in those organisations, to make decisions now, only to have to revisit them in a few months’ time,” a DH spokesperson said.
As attention shifts towards the work of the GSCC’s conduct department, the chair, Rosie Varley, explained that there had been an increasing number of referrals in the last few months. She added that plans were being drawn up to appoint more investigators to add to the 51-strong conduct team, spread between offices in London and Rugby, Warwickshire.
Baby Peter impact
A GSCC spokesperson linked the increase to the heightened public awareness of social care services following the baby Peter case in Haringey, north London, which led to a public outcry in November last year after revealing serious child protection failings.
The spokesperson said it was receiving around 90 enquiries each week. A previous report published by the GSCC in September 2008 showed there had been 503 allegations in 2007-8, compared with 916 in the previous four years.
Questions over capacity
Michael Preston-Shoot, professor of social work at the University of Bedfordshire, said questions were already being asked about the GSCC’s capacity to regulate England’s 80,000 social workers and 16,000 students before the referrals crisis came to light.
The GSCC’s annual budget rose from £18m in 2008-9 to £18.6m in 2009-10, of which £3.4m has been allocated to conduct cases this year.
Preston-Shoot questioned whether the current level of resources was enough to cope with the ongoing re-registration of social workers and the increasing volume and complexity of conduct cases. “I’ve been aware over the past year of the growing number of cases where decisions on social workers’ registrations are being debated, and the growing number of appeals to the Care Standards Tribunal over registration decisions, where social workers have been successful on appeal.”
Opening of register to domiciliary care workers
One source familiar with the work of the organisation who asked not to be named said the GSCC’s capacity would be further tested by plans to open the register to domiciliary care workers and managers.
“Imagine what the backlog of disciplinary conduct hearings will be when workers are registered who have as a minimum of eight days’ induction training,” the source said.
The DH confirmed in April that the GSCC would launch the registration scheme for the 500,000-strong workforce early next year on a voluntary basis, before it becomes compulsory.
Those concerns were echoed by Jo Moriarty, research fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London, which has undertaken research into the GSCC codes of practice and recently began a study of vetting and barring schemes.
Low income from fees
Moriarty added that compared to General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the GSCC’s income from registration fees was low.
Preston-Shoot said he could still see a future for the organisation, but stressed a robust, transparent action plan was needed following a thorough investigation by the CHRE to restore public confidence.
“Given the high profile concerns that exist about social work it’s really important we have a care council that’s clearly fit for purpose.”
Expert guide to the GSCC’s conduct system