Rosie Varley: ‘my first year at the GSCC has been a tough one’

Rosie Varley (pictured) has had a turbulent first year as chair of the General Social Care Council. In an exclusive interview she tells Community Care how the GSCC is coping under special measures imposed by government, two weeks after a report by the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence slammed the organisation’s performance in the regulation of social workers’ conduct.

Q: You took over in November 2008; how will you reflect on your first year at England’s social care regulator?

A: It’s been the most extraordinary first year and one that nobody could have anticipated. It’s been a year of enormous change and upheaval – in the public criticism after the tragic death of baby Peter, swiftly followed by Shannon Matthews and other cases. Then when we began to examine our own processes we had no idea where that was going to take us. It’s sad that the impetus for reform always comes out of tragic failings but I feel that this year will turn out to be a watershed for the profession.

Q: Were you surprised by the extent of the failings in the GSCC’s conduct system when the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence issued its findings?

A: When I came into the GSCC I had concerns in a number of areas. I invited the CHRE to do a full review of our work a year ago; they weren’t able to do that because there weren’t resources but a number of other reviews and audits took place. Through this process we identified the backlog of cases. We reported the backlog to the Department of Health and it was through our own awareness that the extent of the weaknesses were identified. So by the time I read the report I was well aware of the problems but as the work progressed it became evident that the weaknesses were more pronounced than we had at first realised.

Q: Ministers have asked you to report back to them by March 2010 having made “significant operational improvements” – how confident are you that you will achieve these within the timeframe?

A: The recovery plan is now well embedded and we are already seeing dramatic differences and improvements in our own performance. We don’t have a backlog any longer – we allocated the last case on 30 October. We assess every case within 24 hours of it being received and if there’s a prima facie case that the social worker needs to be taken out of practice then we would apply for an interim suspension order within two days and it will be heard within seven days.

We have an interim case management system in place which gives us all the information we need to track progress. We’ve recruited a senior case work specialist who directs the work of all the cases, and we’ve created 63 new investigator posts.

Q: How can the GSCC regain credibility in handing out judgements against social workers for poor practice, who will look at the report and say “They’re telling me how to behave in the workplace when they can’t even run their own department”?

A: We are an organisation that has demonstrated that we have the confidence and ability to set in train a process that identifies its own weaknesses and we have taken swift action to turn around the performance and restore confidence in our public protection.

Of course there’s a long way to go and it’s not a quick fix. We welcome the CHRE review and entirely accept all of the findings, conclusions and recommendations and we intend to use this as a platform for reform to operate as an effective and mature regulator. We’re working hand in hand with the CHRE – we’re not being defensive and see this an opportunity to move forward.

Q: The CHRE recommended that the GSCC should have the power to issue all of the sanctions against social workers now available to the General Medical Council and other healthcare regulators. Which sanctions would you like to see?

A: At present we can only admonish, suspend or remove – these are too black and white. We need a more sophisticated range of sanctions or disposals that are aimed at improving people’s practice and making their practice more safe. These could be requirements to take extra training, to work under supervision, or not to work in an area of practice until they can demonstrate their competence in that field or with that particular client group.

Q: Will social workers’ registration fees go up in future?

A: I absolutely support the view that a regulator needs to be independent of government and it needs to raise its own funds to do this. That would necessitate an increase in registration fees and of course that will have an impact on social workers and it would be phased in over a number of years.

Q: The British Association of Social Workers has suggested that the GSCC’s responsibilities for the regulation of social work training should be handed over to the proposed national college of social work. What do you think of this proposal?

A: Equating regulation only with conduct and discipline is a very limited definition of regulation. What a mature regulator needs is to set standards for the profession by means of registration, by making sure that training providers deliver education effectively, and having the processes in place to remove from the register anyone who is incompetent or who behaves in an unprofessional way.

My own view is that there’s a role for the GSCC as a regulator and for the national college in education. It would be for the GSCC to accredit universities and approve courses but the college would have a very important role in informing the content of the courses and taking forward the frontiers of the profession.

Q: You said last year that you wanted to see the social care register extended to cover the whole of the social care workforce in England. Given that plans to register the first group in addition to social workers, domiciliary care workers, were once again put on hold recently, do you stand by that statement?

A: There’s no doubt that we need to have some form of regulation across the whole of the social care workforce – more thought needs to be given to the form it should take.

At the moment the GSCC needs to concentrate on being a strong and professional regulator for social work and in discussion with others we need to consider what form of registration should be taken with other groups. It’s clear that the model will be one of partnership between the GSCC and employers.

Q: How would you describe the morale of social workers in England at present?

A: I think morale has understandably been hit by events in the last year and by the criticism and media onslaught against social workers. That’s been very hard for the profession. But I’m also really pleased when I talk to social workers about the need to strengthen initial training and career-long development and the notion of personal accountability. But in addition we need employers to provide ongoing training, supervision and support.

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