By Michael Guthrie
Community Care’s recent caseloads survey has highlighted the very real concerns about the increasing workloads of many social workers.
But what does this mean for the regulation of individuals who are concerned that their workload is putting vulnerable service users at risk or fear they could be hauled in front of the HCPC for making a mistake?
The first thing to recognise is that the vast majority of social workers in England are dedicated individuals often undertaking difficult jobs. They play an important role in society and the vast majority are practising within the HCPC’s standards.
As with all the professions on our register, the number of professionals subject to the fitness to practise process is small.
In 2013/14 just 1.22% of the profession was subject to concerns. The majority of these cases (76% in 2013/14) relate to conduct rather than competence, typically including boundary violations, dishonesty, theft, poor record keeping, poor communications or poor clinical skills.
The fitness to practise process is not designed to be punitive nor is it there to punish people for mistakes. It is about public protection and ensuring that individuals who pose a serious risk to themselves or the public are prevented from causing further harm.
We recognise that people sometimes make mistakes or have a one-off instance of unprofessional conduct or behaviour. This does not mean that we will pursue every isolated or minor mistake but if a professional is found to fall below our standards, we will take action.
In respect of caseloads, the process is also not about making individual registrants responsible for the policies, actions or omissions of their employers.
Best interests of service users
If you make informed, reasonable and professional judgements about your practice, with the best interests of your service users as your prime concern, and you can justify your decisions if you are asked to, it is very unlikely that you will not meet our standards.
As a registrant, you must act in the best interests of your service users so it is important that you know how to raise and escalate your concerns.
We are often contacted by registrants asking us for advice on raising concerns about a policy or someone’s behaviour in the workplace. While we cannot offer specific advice for every situation our standards are clear that you must act immediately if you become aware of a situation where a service user is placed in danger or take appropriate action to protect them.
You should raise concerns internally with your manager or employer first. This is because your concerns may be able to be addressed at a local level. If for any reason you cannot do that, or your concerns have not been addressed in a timely way, you should escalate to a higher management level.
Where possible, act in accordance with your employer’s whistleblowing policy. If you’re unsure about what to do there are other possible sources of help including colleagues, your manager, your employer, the human resources department for your organisation, your professional body or association or Public Concern at Work.
In the unlikely event you find yourself subject to a complaint our panels will consider a range of mitigating circumstances including employer environment.
Employers have a responsibility to support employees and ensure that they have adequate supervision and safe caseloads, something that is articulated in the standards for employers of social workers.
It is also important that employers and others understand the HCPC’s role and function, which is to ensure public trust and confidence in the professions we regulate. We provide a range of information for employers to ensure they understand the fitness to practise process and what the HCPC requires as a statutory regulator.
Michael Guthrie is the director of policy and standards at the HCPC