The General Social Care Council failed to ensure public safety by deliberately stalling cases of social workers accused of misconduct in order to save money.
The revelation emerged in a shocking assessment of the regulator’s conduct system by the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence, which found the backlog of cases that led to the suspension of chief executive Mike Wardle in July had existed for “many years”, and at one time stood at more than 700.
During a six-week investigation, the CHRE, which oversees the work of healthcare regulators, uncovered serious failings in three main areas: a lack of scrutiny; the quality of information provided to committees; and the standard of risk assessments. It also identified:
- Cases managed with no overarching case-management or risk-management systems, leading to important files being mislaid
- Cases allocated to investigators on an ad hoc basis without consideration of their caseloads
- Poor-quality investigations, record-keeping and inconsistent decision-making
- Inexperienced staff not provided with adequate training or guidance
- Differences in performance and procedures because teams were split between offices in Rugby and London
- Inadequate performance management
Backlog known “at all levels”
The most damning evidence came from GSCC conduct officials, who told the CHRE they felt pressurised by their managers from 2007 onwards not to proceed with cases for financial reasons, “regardless of the public protection implications”.
The existence of a backlog of cases was “well known at all levels” of the organisation but the council, the regulator’s strategic body, failed to take action because it did not understand the implications of the failures.
Even the the Department of Health was aware of the situation, and council members said they believed the DH had approved the management decision to allow cases to remain unprocessed.“Not effective, efficient or well-governed”
The report, published weeks after Community Care revealed the average length of time it took the GSCC to process cases was more than two years, concluded the overall system was “not effective, efficient or well-governed”.Recommendations
The CHRE produced a string of wide-ranging recommendations, including replacing the conduct system for social workers with a “fitness to practise” regime of the kind used by healthcare regulators; allowing committees to impose conditions as a new type of sanction; giving the GSCC new powers requiring employers to share information about concerns about employees; increasing registration fees for social workers to improve efficiency; and referring appeals to the High Court rather than the upper-tier tribunal.
It also recommended that the GSCC should become more financially independent of the Department of Health.
The CHRE’s review was ordered in July by health secretary Andy Burnham after 203 unallocated conduct cases came to light, including 21 with public protection concerns. This prompted the suspension of Wardle, who took over the running of the organisation in October 2007.Management instructions
The chief executive’s report to the council in September 2007 stated that the head of conduct had been instructed not to schedule any more conduct hearings until the following year, because the conduct department had overspent its budget for 2007-8.
The policy was reiterated in July 2008, in an email telling staff to delay cases until after March 2009 due to “severely limited funds”. They only referred the most serious cases to interim suspension order hearings, such as those involving violence or child abuse.
The report noted that Rosie Varley, the GSCC’s chair, who assumed her role in November 2008, the council and senior managers were addressing the problems and had developed a recovery plan, which was being discussed with the DH.
Responding to the CHRE probe, Varley welcomed the report and said she was pleased the recommendations were in line with the GSCC’s recovery plan.
She added: “There is a lot of work still to do to get the conduct function onto a sustainable footing, but we now have greater clarity of focus and a platform to build from. I have invited the CHRE back next year to examine the progress made on our transformation plan, and I am confident that we will then be able to demonstrate that we are rigorously and robustly exercising our powers to hold social workers to account for their conduct.”