Short suspensions for Haringey pair welcomed as call to regulate employers gathers support
The General Social Care Council’s decision to suspend the social workers responsible for safeguarding Baby P put its at-times beleaguered conduct function back under the spotlight.
At a hearing last week, the regulator banned Maria Ward, the social worker allocated to Peter Connelly at the time of his death in August 2007, and her team manager, Gillie Christou, from practising for two and four months respectively. This is the first time since the conduct system began in 2006 that the GSCC has suspended anyone for fewer than six months. The relatively short suspensions allowed for the fact both had already served 16-month interim suspension orders, lifted a month before the hearing in April.
Questions have been raised about the consistency of sanctions handed out by UK regulators as a result.
But trade union Unison and the British Association of Social Workers welcomed the approach of the GSCC conduct committee for taking into account mitigating factors.
Committee chairman Jonathan Roberts said the “systemic failings” at Haringey Council’s children’s services left the social workers operating in difficult conditions.
He said removing Ward and Christou from the register would have been “disproportionate” and “would only have been done to satisfy public demand for blame and punishment”.
Other social workers have received harsher treatment. The First-tier Tribunal (Care Standards) last year accused a Care Council for Wales conduct committee of allowing the emotion surrounding the death of 13-month-old Aaron Gilbert to influence its decision to strike off Eleni Cordingley in January 2009.
The tribunal overturned the decision in September 2009. It said removal had been a disproportionate sanction, which made no reference to the poor conditions at Swansea Council where Cordingley worked.
“The rules are open to wide interpretation and that creates inconsistency,” said Lily Robertson, a member of the British Association of Social Workers’ advice and representation team.
However, some conduct hearing decisions had surprised her, one being the sanction handed down to Daniel Bester, a children’s social worker who failed to report that a colleague was having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old service user. In January the GSCC suspended Bester from the register for one year but Robertson said she might have expected a stronger sanction.
“Part of the problem is there are so many different people in council who sit on these committees, so the outcome depends on who you get on the day,” she said.
But the GSCC said it was impossible to make direct comparisons between cases.
A spokesperson said: “The panel will weigh up a whole range of factors in making its decision, including written and live witness statements, other pieces of evidence, the context behind the misconduct, submissions from both parties, mitigation and the indicative sanctions guidance.
“We appoint experienced panel members, many of whom have prior experience of working in a hearings environment, and we have no cause to question their ability to make sound and reasoned decisions.”
Allan Norman, a solicitor who represents social workers in conduct proceedings, said it would be fairer if the voluntary code of practice for social care employers was legally enforceable.
“Social workers are under huge pressure, both morally because they care, and practically because of their employers’ obligations, to accept caseloads that cannot be managed to a high standard,” he said.
“They still submit to a code [of practice] which expects something close to perfection from them. When something goes wrong, they face the consequences personally, and those consequences are framed in terms of misconduct rather than support towards best practice.”
Wider range of sanctions
The GSCC does not regulate employers. However, at this year’s Community Care Live, GSCC chief executive Penny Thompson said the national standard for employers should become legally binding if it fails to deliver improvements for frontline social workers.
There have also been renewed calls for a wider range of sanctions to be made available.
Robertson said the Ward-Christou case provided further evidence for this.
Last year, the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence recommended giving GSCC conduct committees the power to impose conditions of practice on social workers where necessary, in addition to the existing power to admonish, suspend or remove individuals from the register. This is similar to a system used by the Scottish Social Services Council.
“If, in some cases, the social worker could remain registered with appropriate conditions in place, that would allow greater consistency and fairness,” said Robertson.
GSCC chair Rosie Varley has made extending the range of sanctions a priority for the regulator. A consultation on the subject, due to begin in April, was delayed by the general election.
Examples of sanctions
Part of the problem when it comes to imposing consistent sanctions is that no two conduct cases are the same. Two examples of the types of sanctions that can be handed out by the GSCC show this.
● Registrant: Claire Long
● Date of decision: 20 April 2010
● Employer: Lewisham Council, London
● Misconduct: Failed to properly assess and arrange care for a vulnerable adult and keep up-to-date records
● Sanction: 18-month admonishment
● Mitigating factors: Long showed insight and remorse; she had an unblemished record; this was deemed to be an isolated incident involving one service user; her working environment was “disorganised and unsupportive”
● Registrant: Jacqueline Mullins
● Date of decision: 16 April 2008
● Employer: Rotherham Council
● Misconduct: Failing to complete case notes and keep files up to date
● Sanction: Two-year admonishment
● Mitigating factors: Poor management and supervision; high caseloads; showed insight and remorse