Why social workers are subject to fitness to practise complaints

It’s important that professionals, employers and regulators alike learn from the reasons why people make complaints, says Robert Templeton

Health and Care Professions Council

By Robert Templeton

In 2015-16, social workers made up 27% of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) register, but accounted for 55% of all fitness to practise cases we received.

In 2016, we commissioned a team at the University of Surrey to research why we appear to receive disproportionately more fitness to practise concerns about social workers than for other professions we regulate, and what we might be able to do about this trend, and their report has now been published. Among the different regulators of health and social care professions in the UK there is an increasing recognition that we need to try to rebalance our energies, away from reactively dealing with instances of poor practice and conduct towards an approach which focuses more on prevention.

The research included a review of the published literature; interviews and focus groups with social workers, employers and service users; and a review of 10% of fitness to practise cases over two years at all stages of the process.

Changing expectations

Overall, the research found a number of themes that appear to be behind fitness to practise concerns, which I’m sure will resonate with social workers. Changing public and societal expectations was one theme – the case analysis revealing a cohort of concerns from members of the public, many of whom complained about multiple social workers, raising issues which at their heart were about disagreements with decisions and a desire to see them changed. Other themes included the challenging nature of social work practice, including the sometimes conflicting values of ‘care’ and ‘control’, and the challenges of pressurised work environments in meeting service users’ needs.

Our task when we first receive a concern about a social worker is to decide whether it is sufficiently serious and requires further investigation. There can sometimes be a perception that we pursue every matter referred to us, but in 2015-16 we closed 1,006 cases which did not require further consideration at that stage. One interesting finding from the case review was that many of these cases came from members of the public and concerned disputes between family members over place of residence and access to children. Overall, the case review found that while the number of concerns received about social workers is relatively high, the number of cases where we need to take action is not.

The above can only be an incomplete discussion of the research. We are at a very early stage of thinking about how we might respond to and take forward the findings. Some initial actions are likely to include using the insights from the research to further engage with the public and with employers on when to refer a fitness to practise concern. We will also want to consider how we might use fitness to practise case studies developed as part of the research to develop teaching and learning materials for social work educators.

The research is an interesting read and is now available on our website. I think it’s important that we (professionals, employers and regulators alike) constantly strive to learn from the concerns we receive and use the learning positively to improve. However, whenever we talk about this area we always need to remind ourselves that the fitness to practise process affects only a minority of social workers in any one year (around 1%). The vast majority of social workers are hardworking, dedicated professionals doing their best day-in-day out for service users.

Robert Templeton is a social worker and member of the HCPC Council

6 Responses to Why social workers are subject to fitness to practise complaints

  1. Danny Mee October 8, 2017 at 10:29 pm #

    I was amazed how badly witnesses are treated by the panel when giving eveidence. To the point of bullying.

    I was called to provide evidence, which I did, the legal representative said she was there to see fairness and then acted as the representative of the person who was not there!! It was turned in me. The whole process was horrific. If I veneer are another Sw conduct case I swear, I’d neve whistle blow ever again. Regardless what they did

    It’s not worth it. And took 2 years to reach panel buy then these Sw could have damaged more lives. The hcpc is not fit for purpose

  2. Ian Blake October 9, 2017 at 6:56 am #

    Surely the biggest problem with the HCPC is that they act like a Court. When a Social Worker is investigated and subsequently goes before this ‘Court’ there is no legal advice or representation available to the Social Worker at all. Unless of course they pay privately for legal representation (around £20,000).
    The case worker assigned to ‘support’ the Social Worker is employed by the HCPC and will go on to form part of the ‘prosecution team’ if there is a hearing, so certainly no impartial support there. Being investigated by the HCPC and any subsequent hearing would be terrifying for any Social Worker and something they would go through alone and unaided. Imagine someone accused of a crime going through the criminal court system with no access to a solicitor beforehand or to a barrister at trial. Defending yourself with no knowledge of the law or the court system.

    Should a HCPC panel pass a judgement that places restrictions on a Social Worker’s practice, or they are suspended or even struck off. The only appeal open to the Social Worker is to the High Court. Again with no legal representation it would simply be impossible to submit an appeal (particularly as you would only have 30 days post-sanction to lodge the appeal). If a Social Worker did find the money to make an appeal to the High Court, the minimum cost would be £40,000. Perhaps this is why there has never been a Social Worker who has appealed a HCPC decision. If the High Court heard the appeal, and found in favour of the HCPC then the Social Worker would also have to pay the HCPC’s legal costs. Easily £80,000-£100,000 on top of their own costs.

  3. David Steare October 9, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

    That the HCPC has been criticised by the PSA for not being ‘fit for purpose’ (August 2015) seems to have been forgotten.

    That the HCPC can fabricate allegations until they find one they take to a hearing seems to be ignored (in my case, the HCPC fabricated four different allegations including the fabricated LA allegation that was not found).

    That the HCPC can fabricate allegations outside common law, legislation, guidance, local policies & procedures, and conditions of service seems unjust and unethical.

    That the HCPC can take years from referral to end of final hearing also seems unjust and unethical (in my case, it took three years & 5 months).

    That the HCPC can employ and accept the evidence of so-called expert social workers who are unqualified in and lack experience of a clinical approach in breach of the HCPC’s own Standards of Conduct not only seems unjust and unethical but also hypocritical and abusive.

    That the HCPC can accept evidence from LA managers and professionals who failed to provide proper supervision in breach of local policies and procedures also seems unjust, unethical, hypocritical and abusive.

    That the HCPC can strike off social workers like me who did not harm anyone, and who did not breach any law, policy or procedure, also seems unjust and unethical. As to what the point was to pursue me two years after ceasing social work and when I was drawing my state pension to the extent and cost of 8 days of hearing, I cannot imagine other than to speculate about bureaucratic stupidity.

    The main problem within social work as I now see it from the outside is that there appear to be too many registered social workers acting as managers, expert witnesses and HCPC representatives colluding with a regulatory system that seems unjust, unethical, hypocritical and abusive.

    An example of such collusion may be evidenced in the implications in the final statements of the article: “…the fitness to practise process affects only a minority of social workers in any one year (around 1%). The vast majority of social workers are hardworking, dedicated professionals doing their best day-in-day out for service users.” This statement demonstrates to me at least an unwarranted and oppressive assumption within the HCPC that those social workers who are subject to a ‘fitness to practice’ process are not hardworking, dedicated professionals doing their best…for service users. Even though I am no longer a registered social worker I now work as a coach on a voluntary basis to support local families who are no longer able to access support services because of cut-backs and increasingly higher thresholds.

  4. LongtimeSW October 11, 2017 at 3:56 pm #

    Simple really – Join Unison or a Trade Union of your choice – they will represent you from the earliest stages of any investigation

    • Ian Blake October 11, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

      ‘LongtimeSW’ perhaps you should ask people who have requested support from such Trade Unions what the response and support was like?

      We can fantasise that these Trade Unions will swing into action and provide all the specialist support people need. But more and more we find the reality is that unions have just a handful of volunteers that have had a little training. They are not lawyers or barristers and the unions will not engage such professionals to support their members.

      If you were charged with a serious crime and were going to be tried in a crown court, would you be satisfied with a Social Worker advising and defending you against a good prosecution barrister, even if they had been on some inhouse training events?

      • Also Longtime SW October 19, 2017 at 11:02 am #

        Ian, I have to disagree with you. I was referred to a HCPC fitness to practice hearing and my union were excellent.

        They supported me every step of the way, they ensured I was given time from work to attend (my employer wanted me to take unpaid leave) hired me a solicitor and barrister.

        The barrister was amazing and was with me every step of the way, and he made all the managers that gave evidence against me accountable for their allegations.

        I spent 5 days in London, and the end result was that the allegations against me were unproven, and that I am able to continue to practice.

        My union is now continuing to fight on my behalf, but this time they are fighting for me to be reimbursed the cost of 5 days in London (Which came close to £1500).

        Please don’t dismiss trade unions, mine ensured I kept my career and was able to walk with my head held high after a very traumatic period of time.