Ministers have raised the General Social Care Council’s overall budget after a sharp increase in the number of hearings involving social workers accused of misconduct.
In the first six months of 2010 there have already been 69 conduct hearings – more than two a week, which is more than double the 33 hearings held in the whole of 2009, when there was an average of about one every fortnight.
The Department of Health has now stopped issuing annual budgets for the GSCC. Instead, funding will be reviewed on a quarterly basis to allow for variations in the rate of conduct referrals, with £6.2m already allocated for the first quarter of 2010-11.
Although the overall amount for 2010-11 has not been established, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “We want the GSCC to become more effective and efficient and that is why we are planning to increase funding this year so it can deal with a larger number of conduct cases.”
Experts welcomed the move towards more flexible funding for England’s workforce regulator, as a plan to turn around its troubled conduct function continues to bed in.
A spokesperson for the GSCC said the increase in the number of hearings was due in part to an increase in referrals but also “the progressing of cases in the backlog and our revised, more efficient process for dealing with referrals as part of the transformation plan”.
She added it was still too early to predict a “steady state” level of resourcing it might require as it continues to implement a transformation plan for its conduct function.
According to Denise Platt, former chair of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, officials have been struggling to estimate the cost of the increasing number of conduct hearings.
“A mutual agreement was reached to release the budget quarterly in relation to the number of hearings held – so over the year the budget would be better estimated and probably at a higher level than before,” she said.
The spokesperson for the DH said the GSCC played an important role in regulating social workers and promoting public protection.
However, June Thoburn, emeritus professor at the University of East Anglia and former vice chair of the GSCC, said uncertainty over possible changes to the future role of the GSCC could also be behind the move to quarterly budgets.
“If the GSCC is to focus only on social work and drop ‘social care’ from the title, the government may wish to resolve exactly what GSCC roles and tasks will be in the future before finalising budget.”
The recovery plan was launched in agreement with ministers last year after the Department of Health raised strong concerns over the GSCC’s handling of conduct cases.
The regulator reported a backlog of more than 200 unprocessed referrals in summer 2009.
A report by the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence which followed in November found conduct cases were being shelved after the department went over budget. The report concluded that the GSCC’s conduct system was “not effective, efficient or well-governed” and led to the dismissal of chief executive Mike Wardle.
The GSCC spokesperson added: “The practice of drawing down funds in this way is not uncommon among organisations undergoing transformation work of this kind.”
Commenting on the number of referrals received in the first quarter of 2010, the GSCC spokesperson said there were 460 complaints in January, which related to the processing of a large volume of student applications prior to their first placement. By March, this had fallen to 279 – a decrease of nearly 40%.
“This illustrates the variable case load that we manage,” she said.