Dispatches undercover social worker referred to HCPC over secret filming

Regulator says it ‘can take fitness to practise action’ over social worker’s actions in Channel 4 documentary if necessary

Screenshot from the Dispatches investigation.

A social worker who secretly filmed colleagues for a Channel 4 investigation into child protection has been referred to the HCPC, Community Care has learned.

The social worker went undercover at Birmingham children’s services for a Dispatches documentary screened last month. The programme gave her the pseudonym ‘Vicky’.

Community Care understands the HCPC has received at least one referral urging it to take action over ‘Vicky’s’ use of covert filming for the investigation.

Social workers are required to meet the HCPC’s standards of conduct, performance and ethics. This requires them to be “honest and trustworthy” and “respect confidentiality” in their practice.

An HCPC spokesman said: “We are aware of the recent Dispatches programme and can take fitness to practise action if that is deemed necessary”.

In 2009 a nurse who secretly filmed the neglect of patients for a BBC Panorama programme was struck off for breaching patient confidentiality.

Margaret Haywood’s sanction was later downgraded to a one-year caution order after she won a High Court appeal against the striking off order on the grounds the nursing regulator had to balance her duty to protect patient confidentiality with her duty to raise concerns about poor standards of care.

In 2010 Dispatches broadcast an undercover documentary on Surrey council’s children’s services. The film was billed as an ‘undercover social worker’ but the covert filming was actually obtained by a journalist who was hired by the council as a support worker, so was not a registered care professional.

The Dispatches programme on Birmingham, which featured the footage obtained by ‘Vicky’ has sparked controversy since it aired.

Some social workers said ‘Vicky’ had done social work “a service” by highlighting the working conditions facing child protection teams, but many accused her of undermining the profession by resorting to secret filming.

In her only interview so far, ‘Vicky’ said she decided to get involved with the documentary because Dispatches told her they wanted to change “the discourse away from social workers being the problem towards looking at the environment they work in”. The story of social work being “starved of resources” needed to be told, she added.

After viewing the programme, she said she felt it was “too Birmingham-centric” and did not go into enough details about the resource pressures facing social workers or central government’s role.

Asked what she’d say to social workers who felt she had betrayed the profession by going undercover, ‘Vicky’ said: “I have fought for social work and for social workers my entire social work career. Even whilst in Birmingham I was advocating for my colleagues, many of them recently qualified, who were at times quite badly treated by their then managers.

“People might not agree with my reasons or justification for being part of this, but to say I am against social workers is ridiculous.”

What happens to an HCPC referral?

The HCPC receives thousands of complaints each year. Each one is reviewed to see if it’s a matter the regulator should deal with. If it is, a case is opened. Last year the HCPC opened 1,251 cases relating to social workers.

Each case is weighed up to see whether it meets the regulator’s ‘Standard of acceptance’. The test includes whether the complaint provides credible evidence to suggest that the registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired.

If the case meets the ‘standard of acceptance’ an investigation is opened. Last year 41% of the cases opened on social workers proceeded to an investigation. The registrant is sent the allegation and information gathered and given 28 days to respond with their observations.

An investigating committee panel then considers whether there is a case to answer. The panel meets in private and makes a decision based on paper evidence. The key test here is whether the documentary evidence suggest the allegations amount to a statutory breach, the registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired and the panel is satisfied that there is a realistic possibility of the allegations being proven.

If the committee finds there is a case to answer the complaint proceeds to a fitness to practise hearing. The case is heard by a panel, and evidence taken from the complainant and registrant. At the end of the hearing the panel can decide to take no further action, caution the registrant, make conditions of practice that the registrant must work under or order that the registrant is struck off.

Last year panels ruled on 155 fitness to practise hearings involving social workers. Allegations were found to not be well founded in 36 (23%) of the cases. A fifth (20%) of hearings led to the social worker being suspended, in 15% of cases the registrant was struck off, 18% received a caution and 7% a condition of practice order.

More from Community Care

20 Responses to Dispatches undercover social worker referred to HCPC over secret filming

  1. Aj Wildcard June 7, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

    Vicky needs to be struck off! No doubt about it! I saw social workers on that so called documentary that I know an do not feel it was fair that they were plastered all over c4. I was lucky enough not to meet this woman as I may too have found myself on the programme. Blurring people out did not protect their identity as I can name almost everyone shown! I feel it’s not fair or just that Vicky is getting the privilege of keeping her identity secret from the masses. If she’s bold enough to make secret films why is she not bold enough to put her name an identity to her work. This was not whistle blowing this was rolling up and making a documentary! Vicky lacks a lot of things that make a good social worker! Being open, honest and ethical is something Vicky is lacking. Vicky has breached the ethical code in many ways an should not be allowed to practice in the future for that reason. I struggle to understand what she an Chanel 4 were trying to achieve!!! We are all doing the best we can to keep children safe! We are not distracted in our practice by trying to create a sensational documentary!

    • right to reply June 13, 2016 at 11:56 am #

      When I first heard of, watched and read the comments about the above documentary on C4 I would have possibly agreed about the conduct of the SW undercover.
      I agree that it was unfair to the staff at Birmingham to be filmed covertly, they had no say in it being shown on television. I would agree that even though their faces, etc. were ‘blanked out’, having seen someone on tv in the past, I knew, and was also ‘blanked out’, trust me if you know them, you know who they are, so who was anyone kidding in doing this. I would be worried as one of those workers that I was now not taken to task by their Managers and my career would suffer as a result; this must have been anxiety ridden for those people and may still be. However, this is the film makers responsibility, not the SW.
      The SW was possibly naïve in doing this and more or less indicated that her take on what was being documented was not what emerged in the showing on the day.
      I agree that the up side is that it clearly shows how ‘things’ are for most workers in similar working environments and is definitely not all ‘rosy in the garden’ and unfortunately may have been only one way of showing this. Whistle blowing – great if your case is proven and the right things happen. Get it wrong, and you will be the scape goat and it is likely to be your career that suffers and you will end up in the wrong, so that is enough to put most off whistle blowing. Take it from someone who knows.
      I do feel, yet again, it portrayed SW’s in a not so brilliant light again, which only feeds those who are ‘anti SW’ and didn’t help promote the more positive aspects that ‘we’ all know are out there and show the brilliant job of all the good work going on or that has happened.
      My worry would be that by referring the SW involved in the undercover documentary is a ‘shot over the bows’ of all SW’s to put them off ever stating anything negative about their work places or the state of SW at the moment when there are concerns that do not promote the safeguarding of those we hope to help and protect.

  2. Hels June 7, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    Can’t happen soon enough , a discraceful act

  3. Sandy June 8, 2016 at 12:16 am #

    I totally could not disagree more, Vickye highligted some of the main issues that is currently facing social worker, which no one wants to address such as high case load, high staff turnovers and lack of support from managers.

    This was clearly highligted in this documentary.

  4. Caloub June 8, 2016 at 8:01 am #

    I think this was poor judgement by the Social Worker but she appeared to have good intentions of highlighting the stresses the service is under. What she failed to take into account was the manipulation by the show’s editors and from her own account this did not take the slant she wanted it to. If this was a colleague of mine I would feel totally betrayed by the conversations she was secretly recording but was her intention malicious? She didn’t appear to be trying to highlight poor practice by any of the Social Workers; in fact she had nothing bad to say about the workers in Birmingham just that they were working in difficult circumstances. It’s a difficult one – personally I don’t think she should be struck off however I think it will be very hard for her to get a job anywhere now.

  5. Miss Taylor June 8, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    Very harsh comments. I personally think she was very brave to do what she did.
    We all know what happens to whistle blowers . . . don’t we? They end up bullied, persecuted worn down and often forced out of the job they trained hard for and love.

    Social workers are their own worst enemies they sit and moan, many cry and go off sick many are burned out and become bitter toward the establishment but what do they do about it? No wonder nothing changes.
    I’ve been in the job 20years plus I’ve seen and heard many brave but ineffective speeches, I’ve attended many ineffective consultations over the years and heard a lot of hot air and promises spouted by local authorities and government, all to no avail, the job is as miserable now as it was years ago.
    The only response we ever get is that we need more training, more classroom time and of course more regulation.

    How sad when one social worker is brave enough to put her head above the parapet she is vilified by her own, she was only doing what most think and putting her money where her mouth is. What chance has anyone got to try to make a change when attacked by their own, perhaps by making the real issues very public change may come? Perhaps if we all follow her lead and all go public we may see real changes.
    We should be supporting her.

    As for the HCPC, they should butt out of our lives, they take our money then use it to build cases against us holding us responsible for appalling conditions of work, they pay their witness’s expenses and have the best legal services while we are left hung out to dry. Much akin to the Stazi in years gone by.
    But most shameful of all, we are stupid enough to keep giving them the money to do it to us. This social worker definitely should not be dragged before their kangaroo court system

    Please, fellow social workers show a bit of compassion perhaps her working conditions were more unbearable than yours. We should stand together, if one social worker is brave enough to try to make a difference in which ever way, anything is better than nothing. Or, shut up.

    Who referred her to the HCPC anyway? Whoever you are please consider that you too may not be a trustworthy person either.

    • Simhne June 8, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

      I sincerely hope that on reflection you regret your request for the HCPC to “butt out of our lives”. Surely you can’t mean that Social Workers should not be regulated? In fact, the HCPC are in my view relatively toothless and as a Social Worker of 22 years I would like to see them act more robustly and more frequently to uphold the high standards of our profession.
      We must have regulation to root out poor practice, witnesses of course must have their expenses paid and be encouraged to stand up and give evidence (remember your basic ADP) and stop making ridiculously disproportionate comparisons between a regulatory body and a cold war secret police force.

  6. Anna June 8, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    I think it’s rather hypocritical to report Vicky to the HCPC for highlighting the sad truth about working for Social Services. Most Social Workers are over-worked and have much too high caseloads and lots of teams have to make do with agency workers if they are lucky enough to at least have those.
    Instead of scapegoating a person who helps to show an uncomfortable truth, the criticism should be with govenment and senior management who are pretending Social Services across the country are meeting service users needs when that is clearly not the case.
    Do you ever hear or see a senior manager publically saying that Social Services are failing service users because of underfunding? No!
    In my own council senior management pretend re-structuring will miraculously meet all children’s needs when this clearly is not the case and everyone who works in frontline knows that.
    It takes quite a lot of courage to risk ones own career to point out failings in a system and if there would be more, maybe things would eventually change rather than the whistleblower being struck off for not towing the line!

    • agreeing socialworker June 9, 2016 at 7:31 pm #


  7. linda wyatt June 8, 2016 at 2:28 pm #

    I believe that she needs to be referred to HCPC. What I have not seen so far is an acknowledgement that when taking up the position within that council, she knew in advance that she was only going to be there for a matter of weeks. She was introduced to vulnerable children and families as their new social worker, knowing that she would not be there that long. That is poor judgement on her part. The families we work with have enough ‘professionals’ and enough changes in ‘professionals’ without a worker knowingly joining the team for a number of weeks. Thoughtless, unprofessional and certainly not child-centred practise!

    • Planet Autism June 8, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

      linda wyatt that is silly logic and heavy over emphasis. SWs can leave for all sorts of reasons or go off sick long-term etc. SWs are chopped and changed regularly for all sorts of reasons without a 2nd thought so how can you judge someone doing something for a good reason. Like it says in the article, regarding the nurse:

      “she won a High Court appeal against the striking off order on the grounds the nursing regulator had to balance her duty to protect patient confidentiality with her duty to raise concerns about poor standards of care.”

      Sometimes the greater good is the pressing point and she may have been the best SW those families had ever had, giving them a welcome break from rotten apples they’d been subject to before.

  8. Miss Taylor June 8, 2016 at 3:09 pm #

    All very experienced and highly skilled and very professional agency workers join teams in full knowledge they will only be there a matter of weeks.
    Must they be referred to the HCPC too?

  9. John June 8, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    Shoot the messneger, why don’t you!

  10. Nell June 8, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

    I feel conflicted. Uncomfortable about the whole ‘undercover’ aspect but also uncomfortable about the referral to HCPC which is more of the blame game I so detest. If I were on the Panel I would want to know exactly what is attributable to Vicki going undercover – e.g. was a child harmed or not safeguarded as a consequence? I doubt it. Bringing the Council into disrepute – well, she drew attention too failings not of her making. By the by, I have recruited workers who after a few weeks decide to leave so she is certainly not unique. And I don’t believe they all had squeaky clean reasons for leaving either. I have never referred one of them – its a risk you take with agency workers.
    She was not open and honest with her employers and colleagues, that seems to be the one which might stick. As for the rest, the programmes editors have a lot to answer to – they may also have misled Vicki. I suspect she is no fool and will have already considered this might happen. I guess she will look to the social work community for support but it doesn’t look as though she will get it. I don’t believe she had any malice in her actions and I hope she gets a ticking off rather than anything else. I don’t see evidence of any actual harm to children which after all is why we do the work. Colleagues p***ed off? Understandably but should she be struck off for simply being another person who upsets social workers? I don’t believe so.

  11. Kave June 8, 2016 at 7:34 pm #

    Well Vicky has breached human rights on a number of levels not to mention displaying a level of un professionalism which is second to none in what we do as social workers. Whistle blow and be ignored and then go undercover I would understand . Aren’t we supposed to be open and honest? I hope they throw the book at her…. I have never worked in Birmingham and honestly now never would as it would appear the management have flounced around and again fallen on their sword rather than make a statement defending some of the excellent work their social workers do. Spineless !

  12. Karen June 8, 2016 at 8:35 pm #

    I feel conflicted too. Mainly because I thought the documentary was very poor and unbalanced.
    I wonder whether if you took an undercover camera into 100 workplaces of any description what percentage would have stressed, distressed or worried staff in them? I don’t think this can count as whistleblowing. Personally, I actually thought it detracted from the brilliant job that SWs do every day in every setting including, no doubt, in Birmingham. A bit like another recent Dispatches programme that highlighted poor home care: shameful that it happens even once, but to expose an individual in very intimate circumstances without any explanation of consent (or not) that they are on national TV and without any counterbalance about the incredible and lowly paid carers who go a million miles to support the people they care for???
    Fuzzy pictures in a workplace…. I didn’t recognise anyone but I would personally be extremely uncomfortable if a colleague did this to me: I’d feel it was a breach of trust and I felt for those on camera. We’ve all offloaded with colleagues, even the most professional of us. We’ve all probably also been in pressured teams at some point or another. Does the end justify the means? And is there a positive end to this?

  13. Fred Brand June 8, 2016 at 11:34 pm #

    In my opinion the poor press that social workers get is associated largely with a chronic lack of resources coupled with an almost unmanageable increase in associated paperwork so that we can provide the tightest audit trail possible.
    After 30 plus years post qualification experience, over 20 of which were spent in the child protection public law Court arena as a Children’s Guardian/FCA I returned to front line social work managing a busy child protection assessment team covering a relatively large area. With 14 social workers in the team we are regularly trying to manage in excess of 500 cases. The team is reliant on a high level of agency workers many of whom have little or no post qualification experience and have to be closely supported and mentored throughout the time they stay with us.
    However we seem for the most part to manage the situation although at times our performance indicators are like a roller coaster.
    Anyone that highlights the crisis facing social work has my vote.

  14. collins June 9, 2016 at 8:09 am #

    So this means that we shouldn’t have whistleblowers, that we should allow poor practice and management issues to continue in all our social care environments including care homes and hospitals. We should allow abuse and neglect in order to protect the ‘professionsals’?

    If this witch hunt continues then we can kiss goodbye to any progress we have made (very little) on uncovering issues that put children and the elderly at risk on a daily basis in our society.

    She did right to highlight issues – the problems will never be dealt with by simply making a complaint to management – that results in the originator being placated at best or sidestepped and tarred as a troublemaker at worst – this programme might actually make management sit up, take notice and institute changes. It might also encourage people to act when they see people at risk.

  15. Jacob Daly June 9, 2016 at 10:18 am #

    This is a difficult one and I am sure will be equally difficult for the HCPC to process. I think for me the issue around regulation is about its underpinning rationale. Is it a matter of social control of social workers and placing unrealistic standards upon human behaviour, with one code or another waiting in the wings to be used against those who are deemed unsuitable in the profession? It does worry me that in an environment of deep cuts to services, the increase in workloads for many colleagues, the often untenable working environments for many, that the Regulatory Body still places responsibilities upon the individual social worker to manage this in terms of self-responsibility. A more balanced and just approach would and should include employer responsibility and duty of care. The problem is that everyone from the top to the bottom is overwhelmed and each on their own become individual silos of stress. The thing about human conflict is that humans cause it and humans may resolve it. When we get in to the ‘them and us’ we create blockages. I think we need to focus upon ‘we’ whether this be HCPC, Government, Local Authorities, individual social workers and focus upon freedom to speak truth. This may be pie in the sky but it is up to us to make the changes and the differences. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this social worker’s actions, I think their heart was probably in the right place and maybe she felt just frustrated that there was nowhere to speak ‘truth’ and be heard. Codes in short should reflect a common good and not be a trip rope which within the context of human nature are fundamentally unrealistic and I think probably for most people unachievable. Life just isn’t like that. We do our best and when we get it wrong, lets learn. The opposite can only engender fear and defensive practice.

  16. Ellie June 11, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

    As many of the above comments so correctly identify, this is a difficult case. I think that it is important to consider ALL the issues involved, before making any judgement. Otherwise, all we do is become negatively judgemental – which is to say, overly and unfairly critical.

    In reading the comments, I note that there is a huge disparity of opinion, much of which as become polarized. It concerns me to see that even social workers risk acting in a negatively judgmental manner. Far better, and more appropriately balanced, are such comments as those made by Jacob Daly, Neil, Fred Brand, Collins and others, who appear to be making at least an attempt (and some more so) to consider and understand all the issues involved.

    Personally, I do think that there are most definitely two sides to this coin, and that opinion will remain divided as a result of perspective. I can sort of understand why some people may be upset or angry regarding the issue of hidden camera filming. It saddens me somewhat to think that a person could resort to this. My feelings arise from concern that hidden camera clearly does not mean out in the open; it is covert. The covert nature of such filming suggests that those filmed may not always be consenting. Alas, this DOES have the potential to cause affront.

    However, I am also aware that said filming was undertaken with a specific intent in mind – to highlight some of the many serious problems faced by today’s social workers. To draw attention to the difficulties of working in a job that has been forced to deal with funding cuts, resultant resource deficiencies, and staff shortages, as well as things like “hotdesking”. Personally, I do believe that there is a place for “whistleblowers” and a need for “whistleblowing” activities. People who attempt to highlight the problems faced by social work proffessionals, especially when they do so in the hope that improvements can be made, ought to be lauded. It is a brave person who speaks out and “blows the whistle” on poor working practices, poor working environments, and so forth. If they do so with the intent that this leads to improvements, then is not this intent admirable?

    I cannot help but think that there is a question of ALTRUISM here, and whether the act of the social worker in question could be considered altruistic, or self-serving. If the former, then her actions – though they may have been somewhat misguided or ill thought-out – are still to a degree laudable. To act altruistically is to act with a selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. If this social worker’s desire to film working conditions represented an attempt to highlight the problems faced by child protection teams, in the hope that this lead to resolution of such problems, and an improvement in working conditions then her act was one of ALTRUISM. However, the problem appears to lie in the fact that her actions may also be interpreted as self-serving. If her participation in the documentary was more an attempt to secure financial gain, kudos, and perhaps fifteen minutes of fame then it is likely her act was self-serving in nature. Such an act could well be seen as deserving of criticism.

    Here, I shall outline my own opinion – and I ask, too, that critics of this social worker’s actions give it some consideration. IF we are to correctly attribute the criticism “self-serving” to the acts of the social worker in question, THEN we should stop to think about the nature of what was done, and whether it could be considered likely to achieve a self-serving aim. So… for the act to be self-serving, the social worker would have had to do it with the aim in mind of securing financial gain, kudos and fame. They would also have had to be fairly certain that the act in question would prove to be a good way of securing such things.

    I see somewhat of a problem here. True, the social worker HAS secured a degree of fame; or rather, notoriety. They are now equally as UNPOPULAR as they are popular. Surely this is NOT a risk that would be lightly taken by a truly self-serving individual. The aim of a self-serving act is the seeking of one’s own advantage, sometimes at the expense of others. A self-serving person seeking fame; especially if that person also seeks kudos; would most likely NOT wish to risk notoriety. If this social worker was truly seeking only the advancement of their own interests, then it does not make sense to suggest that they would risk notoriety and contempt.

    Rather, I see this as the act of somebody who was well-intentioned, but also somewhat naïve and idealistic. It IS important that people, including social workers, care enough about their work to want to stand up and speak out about things that make the job unnecessarily or intolerably difficult to do. SOMEONE has to “blow the whistle” when things go wrong. Alas, in the current working climate it seems that “blowing the whistle” is almost always fraught with difficulty and dilemma. There remains often a corporate desire to hide problems, and not to acknowledge mistakes. True, organizations do like to maintain their “corporate image”, but it seems unwise to do this at the expense of transparency, and the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

    Perhaps we should all stop to consider the REAL issues that this article raises. WHEN is it right to “blow the whistle”? And… HOW should a worker go about doing it? And finally… If nobody listens to, and acts upon, conventional ways of “blowing the whistle”, then are desperate measures justified?