Social worker conduct cases take two years on average


Management of information at GSCC “not anywhere near good enough”

Paul Philip photographs by Tom Parkes

The General Social Care Council took more than two years on average to process conduct cases that went to a full hearing from 2007-9.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed that, on average, 789 days passed between the date of initial referral and the final outcome for cases that were concluded between April 2007 and March 2009.

The finding comes with the GSCC’s conduct system under intense scrutiny after a backlog of 203 unresolved cases – 21 of which involve public protection concerns – was identified in July, leading to the suspension of chief executive Mike Wardle in July.

Between April 2007and March 2009 there were 58 hearings, of which three cases were dismissed, 17 resulted in admonishment (a public caution), seven in suspension and 31 in removal from the social work register.

The longest case took 1,155 days – three years and two months – to reach an outcome.

More than half of the social workers in question were put under an interim suspension order (ISO).

ISOs prevent someone from working as a social worker for a maximum six months, and can be renewed for a period of up to two years.

In an interview with Community Care, Paul Philip (pictured below), who was brought in to head the GSCC after Wardle’s suspension, said two years was too long for conduct cases to take.

“It’s not proportionate for an organisation to take that long and have concerns hanging over individuals about their future and their employment prospects,” Philip, who returns to the General Medical Council this week as acting chief executive, said.

“When you [suspend] a social worker’s registration, you stop them from working – and that should never be done lightly. We are beholden to get that case through as quickly as possible.”

Philip said the management of information at the GSCC had not been “anywhere near as good” as it should have been. Eight weeks ago, for example, the GSCC could not identify how many cases were at various stages of the conduct process.

Customer care

To rectify this, the GSCC has developed a database to record what happens when a referral comes in, what customer care is given to the referent and to the social worker, what investigation is done, and what the timescales for that should be.

That way staff can measure how long it takes to process each case to conclusion, and prioritise the oldest cases.

As a result, the GSCC has identified about 50 cases that it intends to move through the conduct system before the end of the financial year. After that there will be no case in the system that has been open for longer than two years, according to Philip.

Employer co-operation

However, he said some cases took a long time because the GSCC was awaiting the outcome of another process, such as a police investigation or local disciplinary action. In particular, the council relies on employers to co-operate quickly and in full.

“I can say, from the files we’ve reviewed, that employers often don’t respond in the way we need them to,” said Philip.

“There may be a need for statutory change. The GMC has the power to [order] organisations to give them information, and that needs to be considered as a possible tool in the armoury of the GSCC.”

He said strengthening the GSCC’s relationship with employers was a top priority.

Range of outcomes

As well as creating a database, the GSCC is going to reflect on how it undertakes conduct work in relation to other regulatory bodies. “At the GMC we [sanction] a reasonable amount of doctors, but some can still practice in a fettered way, under supervision,” Philip said.

“The GSCC should consider expanding the ranges of outcomes, so you might be able to say, ‘you can continue to practise but only if you work under the supervision of a more senior practitioner’, for example.

“Your employer would need to take a degree of responsibility for your practice.”

Sandra Howell, national officer for Unison, said that although some conduct cases needed “months rather than weeks” to process, due to the need for all parties to gather evidence, “having to wait a year is too long”.

Howell said Unison has had concerns about the way the ISO process has worked. For example, there had been cases where social workers had not been able to give a full submission to the panel considering the ISO.

Right to a fair trial

This, she said, could be in violation of a social worker’s right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights..

“The protection of the public shouldn’t be at the expense of the human rights of the individual social worker,” she said. “They have a right to a proper hearing.”

Marcia Lawrence-Russell, head of advice and representation at BASW, called ISOs “grossly unfair”. She said the GSCC should prioritise cases where the social worker has been temporarily suspended.

“It’s crucial because they can’t work as social workers, so in most places it’s halving their salary capacity,” she said.

There are 95,000 social workers on the GSCC’s register and there have been 81 conduct hearings so far.

The Commission for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence is carrying out a review of the GSCC’s conduct function, and is due to report this month.

Philip has been succeeded as acting chief executive of the GSCC by former Commission for Social Care Inspection chief inspector Paul Snell (pictured, right).

Revealing cases

● One social worker was referred to the GSCC in February 2006 and removed from the social work register in April 2009 – 1,155 days later. An ISO was imposed 174 days after the referral.

Philomena Lemon, from Essex, was under investigation for 1,134 days before the case was dismissed at a conduct hearing. She was never suspended.

London social worker Sandra Gardener’s case was dismissed in March 2009, 1,091 days after referral.  

Jacqueline Bonhomme received an ISO 198 days after referral but when the case concluded – 800 days later – she was given an admonishment for poor practice while working for Essex Council.

● The shortest case was that of Thomas Mark Ritzler, who was referred to the GSCC in July 2008, given an ISO 92 days later and removed 255 days after referral. The former Surrey practitioner was jailed for underage sex last year.

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