‘Inappropriate’ social work referrals to HCPC could be cut by better employer support

Research into why social workers make up a high proportion of HCPC referrals identified a ‘blame culture’ as a possible reason

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Many complaints against social workers made to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) arguably should not have been referred to the regulator, research has found.

The research, commissioned by the HCPC, said that if there had been appropriate local support and intervention, many social workers “would, and arguably should, never have been referred to the regulator in the first place”.

Robert Templeton from the HCPC looked at some of the questions from the research in a Community Care blog you can read here.

It said local agencies had a responsibility for a more “proportionate” response to concerns about practitioners.

The report, by researchers at the University of Surrey, investigated fitness to practise complaints against social workers and paramedics, as the HCPC receives a disproportionately high number of complaints about the two professions.

‘Blame culture’

Social workers make up 27% of the HCPC’s regulated professionals, but account for more than half of all referrals.

A case analysis found a disproportionate number of complaints against social workers did not meet the threshold for investigation, and 56% were referrals made by members of the public.

It said this could be down to the nature of the role and working with families who may be unhappy with the outcome of a case pursuing grievances through every available avenue.

It added there could be a tendency towards a “blame culture and defensive practice” in social work, which results in employers regularly referring concerns to the regulator “as a way of maintaining public credibility, and protecting themselves from blame by ensuring ‘misconduct’ or ‘incompetence’ is seen to be dealt with at an individual level”.


Poor working conditions and high levels of stress could contribute to actions that lead to a referral, the research said.

“Inadequate supportive supervision (as opposed to performance management), it is claimed, contributes to an environment where errors, omissions and misconduct are not picked up,” the research said.

“However, the extent to which improvements in supervision, training, support and workplace culture can either be achieved or make a difference in the current climate of economic austerity is open for debate,” it added.

It said the impact of austerity could be linked to growing service user dissatisfaction, which leads to more referrals.

It added that the “contradictory purposes and values” of the social work role, of both care and control, combined with societal ambivalence towards the work could contribute to “mistrust and negative attitudes”, leading to more referrals.

‘Local interventions’

The report recommended a “greater emphasis on local interventions” to reduce the number of “inappropriate” referrals to the regulator.

In focus groups consisting of service users, social workers and academics, the researchers identified four themes for the disproportionate number of concerns: public perceptions and expectations; challenging practice; pressurised environment; and the evolving profession.

Themes for preventative strategies identified by practitioners were:

  • Employers: ‘provide better support and supervision’
  • Regulator: ‘widen regulatory options’
  • Professional body: ‘exert stronger influence’
  • Educators: ‘broaden professional education’
  • Registrants: ‘foster self-care and reflection on practice’
  • Joint responsibilities: ‘improve inter-agency working’

The report recommended that the public be better engaged to raise awareness of appropriate places for complaints, that the fitness to practise process is enhanced to perhaps proactively encourage more professional body and employer support, and pilot intervening at the local level.

It said the HCPC could use regional officers to intervene earlier and provide education for employers on dispute resolution.

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10 Responses to ‘Inappropriate’ social work referrals to HCPC could be cut by better employer support

  1. Chris October 5, 2017 at 2:42 pm #

    The conduct process is supposed to be about just that: conduct. I’m tired of the number of referrals about social workers where the issue is, frankly, that the registrant is only guilty of ‘not doing their job very well’, if that. If a social worker is struggling with their job, there are varying reasons for this and various approaches. We all have to start somewhere, and we could all do better, and we all make mistakes. My experience as a union rep led me to conclude that employers often didn’t want to go through a lengthy ‘performance’ process for overwhelmed or weak staff, so they tried to short-cut firing them by going down a conduct route.
    Differentiating clearly between a conduct issue and a performance issue would help resolve this problem.

    • Louise Marshall October 6, 2017 at 12:03 pm #

      You are so so right…that alongside early help support that is both threatening and involves poorly trained practitioners can have a huge impact on the interaction between client and Social Worker.

  2. Planet Autism October 5, 2017 at 3:18 pm #

    “A case analysis found a disproportionate number of complaints against social workers did not meet the threshold for investigation, and 56% were referrals made by members of the public.

    It said this could be down to the nature of the role and working with families who may be unhappy with the outcome of a case pursuing grievances through every available avenue.”

    Doesn’t that tell them something? How could a parent make a complaint without any evidence and an actually abusive or neglectful parent is highly unlikely to be the type to complain about the consequences of their failures! People don’t tend to put the spotlight on themselves when they are guilty for one. But a parent who doesn’t care enough about their children to parent them properly by their nature also won’t be the type to care enough to complain either. It doesn’t add up. And the hypocrisy of claiming a “blame culture” when the blame game is the very root of a SWs job (as we all know it has swung far away from being about supporting families to do well and far more about finding fault and protecting backs leading to extremely over-zealous interventions) is farcical.

    Perhaps the issue is not so much that parents are making complaints that are below threshold but that the threshold is set too high and needs lowering. There are I am sure some fabulous SWs out there, but there are also a heck of a lot of bad apples in the barrel, which has nothing to do with inadequate support or too high a caseload and is in fact about their lack of personal integrity and wholesale dishonesty. These types should simply not be allowed and there should be heavy oversight into the psychological capacity and motivation of SWs on an ongoing basis throughout their career. Addressing overwork is a separate issue.

    • LongtimeSW October 6, 2017 at 2:51 pm #

      ‘How could a parent make a complaint without any evidence . . . . . .’

      – It is not the complainant that has to base their complaint on evidence (though it would be very helpful) – it is for the responder to the complaint to look at the evidence (on both sides) before making a decision (which is challengeable) as to whether there is a ‘case to answer’

      You repeatedly, both now and in past posts, make general claims about social workers dishonesty and that social workers ‘blame’ family for the interventions of social workers.

      Where is your evidence? Is it from personal experience, in which case the only evidence is in that one case.

      Are you in the profession or related ones? Again where is your evidence?

      I am telling you that if the interventions reach the threshold for intervention by Social Care it is illegal to ‘intervene’ unless it is under legislation – parents have responsibility for their children – social workers don’t.

      I ask that you and we look in the mirror and ask ourselves ‘Why am I here?’ (In whatever circumstance there is an intervention) ‘What have I done/not done that warrants intervention’ and be honest.

  3. Dave October 6, 2017 at 11:59 am #

    Social Workers spend so much time protecting themselves becausecof the blame culture, it can make it difficult to focus on the work in hand. It’s a dangerous situation to be placed in. Support is essential to keep focused on what is important

    • Xontheweb October 6, 2017 at 10:20 pm #

      Sorry to read some comments here. I work in a team that prides itself in being extremely supportive, throughout the whole hierarchy. When complaints come they are seen as an opportunity to improve practice and to have a reflective session when the complaint is justified. Social Work practice can be healthy, regardless of the climate it operates in. The dominant culture in a service will be crafted by individuals being nice and professionals. As a TM I aim to have a ‘happy bunch’ of people working together and enjoying the job. Having this in mind always brings eventually everyone together. No room for blame in such environment.

  4. Jeremy Bedford October 6, 2017 at 12:06 pm #

    I understand that a tiny minority of Social Workers do some things that deserve sacking and de-registration, but unfortunately The HCPC as an organisation, is not fit for purpose.

    If a manager or an employer does not like a worker, they can complain about them without following an internal process first. The HCPC does not hold records on the identity of who is referred to them, and if it did, I beleive that we would find that there would be a disproportionate amount of workers from minorities, being referred to them, and a disporportionate amount of agency staff being referred (previously, when there were less agency workers, and more unionisation, I think these issues would be dealt with via perfomance meetings, or other means, and the workers were better defended).

    The HCPC is misused by employers to bully people. I have overheard an Agency worker being threatened with the HCPC because they were leaving, and they had not been able to complete every task on the 40 or so cases they were holding.

    The misuse of the HCPC leaves cases stacking up, and it taking 18 months to 2 years to hear cases, that wait has a disproportionate impact on the mental health of the individual professional, and it can cost them up to £40,000 to defend themselves.

    I think that there should be some financial cost to the employer, or at least a stricter screening process, if they are bringing a case against a worker, just to make them think twice.

    • Stuart October 7, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

      And after letting two years pass by from first hearing of a complaint the hcpc then has the gall to claim it is barring people from work ”to protect the public and confidence in the registration system”.

      If they really wanted to protect the public there are lots of better ways to achieve it, by referring to ‘confidence in the regulation system’ what they are actually saying is ‘.. to justify our existence [and ridiculously high salaries]’

      I could do far more good for the public with wise donations of my hcpc fee than by giving it to them.

  5. Tufan De October 6, 2017 at 10:04 pm #

    High caseloads. Unachievable tasks. Lack of time. Lack of services.

  6. Michael Murphy October 27, 2017 at 11:33 am #

    I agree that some employers are using the HCPC referral process completely inappropriately, sometimes to get them out of a difficult ‘political’ situation. A large NW employer referred 3 members of staff. Two and a half difficult years later one had no case to answer, one ‘minor’ conditions and one retired. Sheer torment for good practitioners. Completely inappropriate!