The proposal to raise registration fees for social workers in England should be scrapped and a review of how to make the fitness to practise system more cost efficient undertaken instead, according to union officials.
The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) is proposing to increase its annual registration fee from £76 to £80 and its one-off scrutiny fee, which covers the initial cost of processing an application to join the register, from £53 to £56. This would be effective from 1 April 2014.
In a consultation document, the HCPC explained that it relies on registration fees to cover its operating costs, which are going up every year.
However, Unison, the main trade union for social workers in England, has rejected the proposal, claiming it is “unacceptable” to increase fees in the current economic climate.
Responding to the consultation, Unison noted that social workers in particular would suffer a “double whammy” if the proposal went through, having already absorbed a rise in fees, from £30 to £76, when the register transferred to the HCPC in August last year. This happened because the HCPC is not government subsidised, as its predecessor, the General Social Care Council, was.
The union added: “[Local government social workers] suffered a three-year pay freeze starting in 2010 and have received a mere 1% increase from April 2013.
“Many have suffered from down-banding and/or cuts to pay and conditions as a result of austerity cuts by their employer. And many are having to pay higher pension contributions as a result of changes to public sector pension schemes.
“In this climate, it is completely unacceptable for the HCPC to propose a fee increase of over 5%.”
But the HCPC staunchly defended its position: “We understand the economic climate in which we operate. However, the proposals set out in our fees consultation will allow us to manage the yearly increases in our costs in an incremental way, preventing substantial and unexpected increases in the fees.”
Unison said it was particularly difficult to swallow a fees hike given the HCPC received a £1.6 million grant from government to cover the transfer of social workers, while at the same time gaining an estimated additional fee income of more than £6.5 million from this group.
The HCPC said the £1.6 million grant had covered the essential costs incurred from the transfer, including the preparation and management of open conduct cases, and costs associated with changing its name to include the word “Care” (it was formerly the Health Professions Council).
Seeking an alternative
Unison went on to add that it could not accept the proposal to raise fees when the HCPC could save money by make its fitness to practise system more efficient instead.
The fitness to practise system accounts for approximately 45% of the HCPC’s budget. Unison said the regulator lets too many cases get to costly final hearing stage, only for them to be dismissed.
The HCPC told Community Care that its initial investigating panel has considered 206 allegations against social workers since it took over in August 2012. This panel determined there was a need for further investigation in 112 cases, a need for more information in 10 cases and chose not to proceed with the rest.
Of the cases requiring further investigation, 75 went to final hearing. Thirteen – or 17% – of those were deemed “not well founded” by the final hearing panel, meaning there was no case to answer, the allegations were not proved or the social worker’s fitness to practise was not impaired. In two other cases, no further action was taken against the registrant.
The HCPC’s fitness to practise annual report 2011-12 showed that nearly a quarter of all of its final hearings that year, across all 16 of the professions it regulates, were not well founded.
Unison said each of these hearings would have cost the HCPC at least £4,000.
“Before even considering raising registrants’ fees, HCPC should be doing everything in its power to scrutinise the number of hearings it holds and eliminate any that are unnecessary or could be avoided.”
The union has called on the HCPC to freeze fees as long as registrants’ pay scales are fixed or increasing at a rate below inflation, and while it undertakes a review of its costs.
The HCPC told Community Care: “We make every effort to manage our costs as efficiently as possible. We are continually looking at ways in which we can develop and enhance our fitness to practise processes whilst striking a balance between protecting the public and ensuring the rights of the registrant.
“Recently, this has included further developing our processes of disposing of cases via consent, enhancing our pre-hearing case management processes via our discontinuance process and a pilot project to investigate the use of mediation.”
The consultation closed on 1 October and the HCPC is currently analysing the responses.