Is enough attention given to caseloads, supervision and management during fitness to practise hearings?

As the number of social workers sanctioned by the Health and Care Professions Council grows, Community Care looks at whether the system is fair to social workers

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Credit: Monkey Business Images/Rex

Last December, a social worker was brought in front of a panel of the Health and Care Professions Council’s (HCPC) conduct and competence committee accused of failing to make regular visits to some of the children on her caseload and to maintain adequate records. After hearing from the social worker and other witnesses, the panel acknowledged that she “clearly had a high workload”. It also said “some aspects” of her supervision “appeared to be lacking” and eventually concluded that she should be allowed to continue practising under certain prescribed conditions.

A few months earlier, in June 2013, another social worker stood before another of the HCPC’s panels, accused of failing to visit two vulnerable adults on her caseload within an acceptable timeframe, or offer them an appropriate level of support. Again, she raised the lack of support she had received from her manager and colleagues at the time as a mitigating factor. However, on this occasion, the panel took the view that she was trying to excuse her misconduct, and that in fact this suggested she had “limited insight” into her own failings. In the end, she was given a formal caution.

Of course, we cannot really compare these – or any – fitness to practise cases like for like. The women worked for different employers, one in children’s services and one in adults, and the allegations, context and aggravating factors in each case are unique.

Yet, as time goes on and the HCPC brings more and more judgements to bear on social workers in England, and as working conditions deteriorate in the face of budget cuts, cases such as these beg the question of whether the regulator is paying enough heed to the conditions in which many social workers are practising.

Assessing competence

Before it closed in 2012, the General Social Care Council considered complaints against social workers in England using a conduct model, focused on whether the registrant’s behaviour or actions were a breach of its code. The HCPC, on the other hand, uses a fitness to practise model, which looks at whether someone’s ability to practise safely and effectively is impaired because of misconduct, a lack of competence or their health.

For a profession like social work, however, assessing competence is not a straightforward task. At a health select committee hearing last month, Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George challenged the HCPC on whether the fitness to practise of social workers could be assessed in the same way as biomedical scientists and other professions the HCPC regulates, “given the subjective nature of decisions regarding the welfare of children and vulnerable adults”.

HCPC chair Anna van der Gaag responded: “There are circumstances where there will be much clearer objective parameters around a judgement and others where the nature of the relationship, how it’s interpreted and understood, will be very difficult because there will be often very diametrically opposed views on that relationship, as is the case in social work practice – and we are very aware of that. But I think that’s also the case in other disciplines, perhaps not to the same extent, but certainly psychologists, occupational therapists, speech and arts therapists.“

Andrew George is not the only one to have raised concerns about this approach. In the letters page of the British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) in-house magazine, Professional Social Work, this month, a member writes: “The HCPC does not seem to distinguish between ‘misconduct’ and ‘doing a poor job’. … In my experience, many under-performing social workers can turn their practice around with the right attitude and help – a misconduct panel is not the place for people whose confidence will already be at rock bottom.”

BASW and its trade union arm, the Social Workers Union (SWU), represent social workers at some conduct and fitness to practise hearings. Martin Weinbren, a SWU official who has been a qualified social worker for more than 30 years, says: “We will not defend bad practice; however, I would question whether the HCPC should be looking at technical social work decisions as an issue of conduct or competence, when in fact it’s an issue of professional judgement.

“Social work is not an absolute science. If you make a considered decision based on your professional experience, if it’s not an act of intentional misconduct, then it shouldn’t be framed in that context by the HCPC.”

A lot to learn about social work

At the health committee hearing, Van der Gaag pointed out that most of the cases that come before the HCPC’s fitness to practise panels involve allegations of misconduct or a combination of incompetence and misconduct. She said only 8% (of all substantive fitness to practise hearings, not just those involving social workers) were exclusively about technical incompetence. However, she admitted that the HCPC still had a lot of learning to do when it comes to regulating social work. “We will be doing an in-depth analysis of the cases as time goes on,” she told the committee.

It is perhaps unfortunate that social work regulation in England should switch to a model that assesses conduct and competence at a time of such severe cuts to budgets and services. In July 2012, just before the HCPC took over from the GSCC, a Community Care survey found half of social workers had seen a colleague quit over high caseloads in the preceding year. In June 2013, nearly a third of social workers responding to another survey said they were not currently receiving any supervision. In December 2013, nearly a third of social workers told us they had taken time off due to stress in the previous year. A whopping 78% of respondents said stress was affecting their ability to do their job properly.

Of the 94 substantive hearings (where a decision was made on the facts and sanction) held by the HCPC and involving social workers between 21 January 2013 and 30 January 2014, excluding those where the case was dismissed or adjourned, roughly one in 10 involved mention of poor or no supervision, 16% referred to workload pressures and 16% to issues with management.

Yet it seems these concerns are often dismissed. Weinbren says the HCPC’s indicative sanctions guidance does not allow for proper mitigation: “The HCPC wants to see evidence of reflection, remorse, reassurance and recognition of the seriousness of what you have done. The way out is not to say ‘I had a caseload of 65 children and was working seven days a week, 20 hours a day’. They don’t want to hear that.”

A level playing field

So Community Care asked the HCPC, how do you judge whether complaints about lack of supervision, poor management and/or high caseloads are valid excuses for individual failings? And how can you ensure social workers are not unfairly penalised for incompetence when they were working in near impossible conditions?

A spokesperson replied: “With regard to the accountability of managers and how this would relate to a fitness to practise case about a registrant, this would be considered within the context of the case and the scope of practise of the individual involved. We also actively engage with employers to ensure they understand the fitness to practise process. This includes a series of events for employers, as well as specific information and guidance in print and on our website.”

She added that there is always a social worker on the panel, who can provide insight into the working conditions of social workers. However, while in both of the cases described at the beginning of this article the registrant attended their hearing, over the course of last year only 40% of social workers turned up to their hearings, with or without a representative. That means it is more often than not left to the social worker on the panel – and the other two panel members – to make sure the context of cuts, high caseloads and stress is properly taken into account.

“It does depend on the panel,” confirms Weinbren. And, while he says the HCPC’s substantive hearings “by and large offer a level playing field”, he adds: “There are a couple of brilliant chairs and social workers on the panels and there are some for whom I don’t have quite as much respect. I have come across some who ask the most intelligent questions and some who don’t ask any.”

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6 Responses to Is enough attention given to caseloads, supervision and management during fitness to practise hearings?

  1. Ian Merry February 19, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    Managers of social workers are by and large social workers themselves registered with the HCPC, so they are governed by the same conditions as frontline social work practitioners. Their involvement in any case referred to the HCPC must be taken into account, as context for alleged failure is vital to understanding that failure. Management involvement must be rigorously scrutinised as part of any alleged failure by a frontline social worker.

    After spending nearly 40 years on the frontline I very rarely got any significant supervision from my managers. Many of them possessed lesser knowledge and expertise than I did in casework but that didn’t stop them from telling me what I needed to do on cases, and resource implications frequently became the superordinate imperative of managers, and not the best interests of children and families.

    I have observed a significant decline in the quality of managers over 40 years, so much so that my rule of thumb is that for every 5 managers 4 will be demonstrably incompetent, many of them using coercive and oppressive practices to reinforce their positions, when challenged, and only one in 5 will possess the necessary experience and expertise allied to a strong moral and ethical stance that commands respect from their workforce.

    It is these managers themselves who take action against the hapless social worker, whilst in employment, should he or she be seen to lack compliance, not with established best practice, but the hidden callous and cruel working conditions. It is these managers who hand over the case lock stock and barrel to the HCPC, with a guilty verdict already found by the employer. HCPC do no independent investigations of social work failings no matter who reports them. They just refer the complainant back to the employer, for initial investigation and action. This seems to me to be manifestly unfair and deeply flawed, and metes out dual punishment for alleged wrongdoing, first of all the sanctions that the employer imposes and then the sanctions that the HCPC imposes following referral to them. The HCPC are a body wielding a great big stick with which they publically beat individual social workers, they have no other purpose. They are the manufacturers and endorsers of scarecrows and scapegoats.

    The amount of social workers who have no access to representation at fitness to practice or do not even bother to turn up to hearings is a shocking indictment of civil justice and demonstrates that an individual social worker who gets into difficulty is really on his or her own in attempting to rebut the allegations of employers. I have seen good individual social workers deprived of their livelihoods by the actions of some vindictive and wicked managers…so it goes

  2. John Ramsey February 20, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    I would endorse Ian Merry’s comments and add my usual refrain; Join a decent Union. If there isn’t a decent one operatig in your workplace, become a rep and be prepared vigorously to defend your colleagues.
    I agree that the HCPC and the GSCC before them impose a kind of double jeopardy; for example it is quite possible that a worker might be subject to a disciplinary process by their employer, given a sanction short of dismissal yet be de-registered by a fitness to practise hearing, thus losing their career.
    Of course, the reverse is not true; I represented a Social Worker who was dismissed for gross misconduct; the GSCC subsequently found no case to answer and she kept her registration. But it didn’t get her her job back or any compensation!

  3. Miss Taylor February 20, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    Thank you so much Kirsty McGregor. Especially thank you to Ian Merry and John Ramsay. I don’t know who you are or where you are from but I am so grateful that someone has at last highlighted these issues.
    When something goes wrong most social workers do punish themselves and reflect how things could’ve been different, what could they have done better etc. It’s awful when managers are not supportive and leave you to fed to the lions. Bad experiences can often be one of the best learning tools, and quite often mistakes don’t happen again.

    I am a HCPC accused, tried and convicted guilty social worker. I thought I had a sound fully supportive union t too. However I had to challenge and fight so hard for representation. When finally I was allowed representation the legal team strongly advised that the issues of bullying, isolation in the work place, no supervision a manager who was sexually inappropriate and frightening where for an employment tribunal and not for the HCPC to listen to. Therefore no witness’s were required. This included my work place rep and my full time branch rep, both had witnessed lots of the torment I was put through.
    In addition to this my case involved some complex legal issues which I had acted upon correctly. My legal team advised that my highly respected Expert witness was not required. However their (HCPC) expert witness (who had very limited knowledge and experience) was allowed to be heard.
    It must be said I did not act dishonestly, I did not hurt anyone, no-one was placed at risk and all ended well (or so I thought)
    On top of that the HCPC legal advisor at my hearing stopped my Barrister from cross examining me as a guilty party and was reminded that she was there to defend me.
    As you can imagine I was traumatised in a very vulnerable state and felt powerless to defend myself further. The legal team had also reminded me that my union was their customer therefore if I did not heed their advice the union would pull the funding, leaving me with no representation. I was powerless.

    As a result of all this the HCPC ruled that as I had not presented any evidence of what I had suffered in the work place and no witness’s were put forward there was no proof.
    I was given a caution which is almost as bad as being struck off or suspended. It took the HCPC well over 2 years to bring my case to a hearing, by that time I was very, ill.

    6 months after the hearing I still feel I was treated unjustly and the punishment continues. Though I am fit to work I cannot get a job, the stigma amongst my peers feels worse than the stigma afforded to those we try to protect. I hope my experience is warning to other social worker

    I hope the HCPC take on board what has been said here, but there’s lots to be said about the very poor managers that seem to be protected above all others, thank you so much Ian, your Knowledge and experience should be heard respected by all.

  4. g hall February 20, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    I have considered this double jeopardy situation also. If there is a question mark about your practise or a serious complaint about you perhaps co-operating with the investigation by your employer without representation is a mistake. If you don’t know whether what you say will make you unemployable it might be better to say nothing at all. This is hardly the sort of situation that would be conducive to a happy work force, or in the interests of the people we work with. .

  5. Philip Measures February 22, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    This is a good article – and whilst it raises relevant concerns it also brings into focus the whole issue of social work registration.

    Let me start my stating that I firmly believe that ALL decision-makers in social care (and I include Managers and commissioners etc.) should be social work qualified AND registered with the HCPC – it is unacceptable that there can be non-social work qualified or social work qualified staff who are responsible for the supervision – either directly or more remotely – of social workers who are not subject to registration and scrutiny.

    Registration should be on ‘fitness to practise’ grounds – that encompasses other related issues such as behaviour and conduct and ought to be a welcome improvement to the previous GSCC standards.

    There also has to be the INDIVIDUAL responsibility of workers to formally raise issues of concern – initially in Supervision and to make certain that they are formally recorded and what actions, if any, were taken. It should not be possible to escape individual responsibility – and I know the climate of fear that exists around that but our ethical basis has to be upheld.

    I have far more sympathy with Mr Merry’s comments (above) than those of Mr Ramsey – certain Trade Unions have a lot to answer for themselves – and that very much includes inadequate representation of Members.

    So within Local Authorities, but not exclusively, we see certain senior managers on huge salaries; some leaving with huge payouts and accepting Compromise Agreements / ‘gagging’ Clauses to keep quiet; some staff leaving with ‘agreed References’ (again with ‘gagging’ Clauses) to keep them quiet and staff fearful to even raise issues of concern because of what they have seen happen to others.

    I have no confidence in the College of Social Work either to improve matters – it is hugely funded by Government and Employers (i.e. £42k from CAFCASS alone) – so how can it properly represent social workers when it is funded by their employers? And IF it assumes any sort of regulatory role, as Michael Gove seems to indicate it should, then I see matters only becoming more oppressive for social workers – the very Body set up to represent them will become their chief oppressor.

    Ironically the HCPC may yet be social work’s best hope.

  6. Philip Measures February 26, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    One wonders why, Miss Taylor, you did not submit your Case in the form of the equivalent to a signed Affidavit to the HCPC – you would then have been able to set out all of your own facts and concerns and the HCPC would then have had all the information in front of it.

    There is certainly a lesson of not relying on Trades Unions – they let too many people down.

    Social Work is all about defending the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the disadvanged and those who do not understand the ‘System’ as well as those of us who work within it – we must use that skill and knowledge when it comes to representing ourselves.

    When criticising the HCPC we need to be clear whether it was they at fault or those (wrongly) advising us.