Regulation of social workers in England

What you need to know about the Health Professions Council’s approach to professional standards and misconduct

Conduct hearings bite the dust on 31 July and, with their demise, England’s social workers will face a new regulatory regime run by the Health Professions Council (HPC), which will be renamed the Health and Care Professions Council as of 1 August. Here’s our guide to what to expect after the General Social Care Council shuts its doors for the last time. By Tristan Donovan.

Regulation of social care in England

(Pic Credit: Linda Matlow/Rex Features)

Fitness to practice

The HPC has a different philosophy when it comes to regulation. The GSCC used a “conduct” model whereby it sought to impose sanctions on social workers who breached its codes and in doing so committed misconduct. In other words, the GSCC punished those who fell short of the expected standards. But the HPC uses a “fitness to practice” model, where it seeks to assess whether individuals who fall short of professional standards are capable of continuing to work in their profession by seeing if their fitness to practise has– in HPC lingo – been “impaired”.

So what difference does this make? Well, it means that the HPC will not just be looking to see if a complaint against a social worker is true but, assuming it is, assessing what implications that has for their ability to continue their work. The GSCC by contrast simply looked to see if the complaint was correct and, if so, usually imposed a sanction.

In one HPC case, a registrant was found to have viewed pornography on a work computer while on duty. When considering whether the incident impaired the individual’s fitness to practise, the HPC panel noted that the person’s actions had not adversely affected their clinical activities and that the porn, which was not extreme or underage, had not been seen by a colleague or a service user. As a result, the panel decided that the allegation of impaired fitness to practise was not found.

Grounds of allegation

Another key difference between the old and new system is that, while social workers could only be referred to the GSCC for alleged misconduct, the HPC has six “grounds of allegation” that it will look into.

• Misconduct: Just as with the GSCC, social workers who breach the standards expected of them professionally or personally can be referred to the HPC
• A lack of competence: This is where the standards of proficiency come into play. HPC registrants can be referred to the regulator for incompetence in their work
• Physical or mental health issues that could impair a registrant’s ability to practice
• Convictions or police cautions
• Inclusion on a list of those barred from working with vulnerable children or adults
• Decisions by another health or social care regulator, such as the Scottish Social Services Council

Hearings

If a valid allegation is made against a social worker on the register then the HPC will investigate the matter. Unlike the GSCC, the HPC has legal powers to demand information or documents from individuals or organisations. These powers overrule the Data Protection Act and refusing to comply is a criminal offence. However, these powers do not apply to the social worker facing the allegation.

Aside from its extra detective abilities, a HPC hearing differs from GSCC conduct hearings because of its need to perform a fitness to practise test. Each hearing has four stages. First the HPC panel examines the facts to see if the allegation stands. If that holds up then the panel will look to see if the facts amount to one of the grounds of allegation – under the GSCC system they would consider whether the registrant’s action amounted to misconduct.

Assuming the facts and allegation stand, the panel then has to decide if the registrant’s fitness to practise has been impaired; the crucial test as far as the HPC is concerned. Under the GSCC this part of the process didn’t exist, so it would have gone straight onto the final stage – deciding what sanction to impose – as soon as it found an individual had committed misconduct.

Sanctions

If a registered professional is found to have impaired fitness of practice, the HPC can take five actions in response.

No further action

Just like the GSCC, the HPC can decide to take no action whatsoever. This tends to happen when it feels there is little risk of a repeat of the behaviour in question or other factors make a further sanction irrelevant. One example is the case of Sarah Sherratt, an operating department practitioner at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust who let her HPC registration lapse while continuing to work. While the HPC found she had failed to renew it as required, it decided to take no further action as she was thought of as a competent professional and re-registered as soon as she found out she was no longer registered.

Caution order

This is the HPC’s equivalent of the GSCC admonishment and are used to minor, isolated breaches of standards. These orders don’t affect a person’s ability to work but are noted against their name on the register for between one and five years depending on the severity of the case. Paramedic Andrew Orme, for example, was given a four-year caution order on 28 April 2010 for shortcomings in his handling of a emergency call in Runcorn where a two-year-old suffered a head injury and later died. The HPC said that while the death was not his fault there were steps he should have taken and decided to give him a longer caution order so that he “continues to be reminded of the paramount importance of maintaining high standards”.

Conditions of practice order

Unlike the GSCC, the HPC can place requirements on registrants that can last up to three years. These requirements are designed to prevent a repeat of past mistakes while allowing the individual to continue working. The conditions that the HPC can impose are very wide ranging and the only limit is that they need to be realistic and should be actions that the HPC can check when the case comes back for review towards the end of the order’s lifespan.

In the 5 May 2009 case of physiotherapist Barbara Henshaw, who was referred to the regulator after a drink driving conviction, the HPC panel required her to abstain from alcohol, attend Alcoholics Anonymous, stop working as a sole practitioner and undergo liver function and blood tests every three months.

Podiatrist Jonathan Mintz, who was reported to the HPC for failing to maintain adequate clinical records, was given an order that required him to inform anyone who employed him as a podiatrist of the order and the reasons for it. It also required regular auditing of his clinical notes.

Suspension order

Just like the GSCC, the HPC is able to suspend people from the register, effectively barring them from practice for a set period of time. The HPC’s suspension orders can last up to one year and the case is reviewed towards the end of that order’s lifespan.

Striking off order

As with the GSCC the ultimate sanction available to the HPC is to remove a professional from the register and, thereby, prevent them from working in their profession. HPC panels use these orders for the most serious cases or for when they feel that doing anything less would undermine public confidence in the profession. Striking off orders last five years, after which the individual can apply to register again.

Appeals

As with the GSCC those who feel that a HPC panel’s decision against them was unfair or incorrect can appeal. While the GSCC handled appeals itself, appeals against HPC rulings go straight to the High Court.

For further information visit: www.hpc-uk.org/apply/socialworkers/ftp

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The new standards for social workers

Once the Health Professions Council (HPC) takes over on 1 August, the GSCC’s Codes of Practice will no longer apply. Instead, registered social workers will need to adhere to the HPC’s Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics.

The HPC’s standards are not specific to social work; they apply to all of the HPC-regulated professions. However, they are much the same as the GSCC’s codes: keep accurate records; respect service user confidentiality; don’t take illegal drugs outside (or at) work, and so on. There is a more social worker-specific “standards of proficiency” document that sets out what registered social workers are expected to know, understand and be able to apply.

Changes to continuing professional development (CPD)

Confused about the changes to CPD requirements for social workers in England, which come into effect later this year? Read Community Care’s eight-point guide.

The HPC requires social workers to undertake a wide range of continuing professional development (CPD) activities. Here are some examples of what this could entail.

How students will be affected

How students will be affected

The HPC will introduce a new “suitability scheme” for student social workers from 1 August, under which the regulator will maintain a record of students who are prevented from participating in a social work programme in England. Find out more

Clarification for social work students on when they can apply for registration

Timeline of transfer

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