Delays in fitness to practise process having ‘life-changing impact’ on social workers, says union

Social Workers Union says low triage threshold means too many practitioners are being wrongly investigated, while others placed on interim orders for excessive periods, causing "emotional and reputational damage"

Image of laptop and magnifying glass (credit: Paweł Michałowski / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Paweł Michałowski / Adobe Stock)

Severe delays in the fitness to practise (FtP) process are having a “life-changing impact” on practitioners, the Social Workers Union has warned.

The issue was one of a number of concerns raised by the union – which represents 15,000 social workers – with Community Care in relation to the way Social Work England was managing fitness to practise.

Other concerns included the regulator having a “low bar” for deciding that cases merited further investigation at the triage stage, for example, where “malicious complaints” had been received from individuals who were not happy with social workers’ interventions in their lives.

The union’s general secretary, John McGowan, also raised concerns about practitioners being placed on interim conditions of practice orders for several months, in some cases preventing them from working or causing “emotional and reputational damage”.

In response, Social Work England said that it believed the FtP process was “fair, effective and robust”. However, it conceded it was receiving a higher number of concerns than its predecessor, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), an issue that has been compounded by the pandemic.

‘Not sustainable for the long-term’

In his report to the regulator’s December board meeting, chief executive Colum Conway said that cases were running at a higher level than expected, and that the organisation was planning to restructure its FtP teams and increase resources for the process.

While Conway said he was “confident” that this would “manage caseloads well over an appropriate timescale” he said it was “not sustainable for the longer term”.

He added: “We have therefore planned to undertake further analysis on the nature of the complaints coming to us and determine how we can influence the landscape that is currently producing this level of complaints.”

McGowan said that while he understood the pressures that the regulator was under, the impact on practitioners of long delays in the processing of cases was not acceptable.

“I am fully aware of the difficulties that Social Work England have encountered in terms of a significant number of legacy cases being transferred over from the HCPC and the added complications of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the delays in these processes are having life-changing impacts on registrants and for this reason, I do not feel that it is acceptable for these delays to be continuing.”

‘Emotional and reputational damage is huge’

McGowan cited a case in which a member checked the progression of their fitness to practise case with Social Work England and was informed that all paperwork had been received and that, as soon as the bundle was redacted, this would be forwarded. However, four months later McGowan contacted Social Work England on the member’s behalf and was told that the regulator was “still waiting for the bundle to be redacted”, which he said was “unacceptable”.

He added: “We have members waiting years for the outcome of their fitness to practise proceedings. I have one member who has been on an interim conditions of practise order for 14 months and her case has still not progressed to the case examiners for a decision to be made as to whether or not her case goes to a hearing.

“In the meantime, the emotional and reputational damage that this can cause is huge. I do think that the delays bring the whole FTP process into disrepute.”

He said practitioners were being placed on interim conditions of practice orders – which place requirements on the registrant’s practice – for too long or having them applied several months after concerns were raised about them.

McGowan said: “One of these members was referred for a conditions of practice order 22 months after she had been referred to HCPC. More concerningly, despite this social worker having worked for over a year as a locum social worker before the hearing with no issues raised about her practice, this order was granted, which resulted in her losing her position.”

Low triage threshold

Amid the high number of concerns being received by Social Work England, McGowan said the threshold for cases being referred for investigation, rather than closed, at the triage stage, was too low.

A diagram of Social Work England's new fitness-to-practise process

A diagram of Social Work England’s fitness-to-practise process

These included investigations being carried out in cases of “malicious complaints” about social workers from service users unhappy with practitioners’ decisions or recommendations.

McGowan added: “Some of these are quite clear on the face of them that they are not fitness to practise issues and in our view, a social worker should not be spending months under investigation for simply doing their jobs.”

McGowan said it is also concerning that there did not appear to be a procedure for dealing with vexatious complaints.

Need for vexatious complaints policy

“The purpose of such a policy would not be to necessarily exclude concerns, but to bring about a way of managing a complainant when they are presenting with unreasonable, persistent complaints about the same social worker or are covertly recording/videoing social workers,” he said.

Other issues raised by McGowan included a handful of social workers being placed on interim suspension orders “when the risks were low and there was absolutely no new evidence”

He also said a number of agency social workers had raised concerns about Social Work England contacting their current employer before an outcome of the investigation were known, which had led to agency social workers having contracts ending early and others subjected to disciplinary processes,

Overall, McGowan said the union had received 100 cases of concern regarding the FtP process from members recently, with half of these being at a serious level of concern.

In response to the union’s comments, Jonathan Dillon, executive director of fitness to practise at Social Work England, said the regulator’s overall objective was to protect the public and legislation set out how it must do this.

Proccess is ‘fair, effective and robust’

He added: “We understand that the fitness to practise process can be stressful, but we are confident that it is fair, effective and robust. Social workers should be reassured that at every stage, from triage onwards, we follow a statutory process in a legal framework. Anyone who requires support can access a number of organisations via our website.”

Dillon said the regulator was receiving higher levels of concerns than the HCPC, which had created challenges when combined with the impact of the pandemic, adding that organisations it routinely shared information with to progress cases had also been affected.

“In response to changes in the working environment and wider sector this year we have put strategies in place to maintain effective case progression and to ensure that cases are resolved appropriately and proportionately,” he added.

“The fitness to practise process was developed as part of our rules and standards consultation in 2019, which involved social workers, trade unions, employers and people with lived experience of social work.

“We meet fortnightly with the trade unions to answer their questions and discussed these matters with the Social Workers Union at our most recent meeting.”

Social Work England has published guidance on the FtP process. This includes information on the support available to social workers and links to organisations that may be able to help them.

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22 Responses to Delays in fitness to practise process having ‘life-changing impact’ on social workers, says union

  1. John Stepheson. February 12, 2021 at 6:50 pm #

    This process has been a travesty for years and significantly more practitioners from ethnic minorities are facing conduct and capability hearings.The really travesty is that these proceedings have gone unchallenged for years,why aren’t the Unions raising these issues more forcefully.

  2. KF February 12, 2021 at 7:16 pm #

    8 of us were investigated after an untrue and unsubstantiated complaint by a disgruntled Carer after being deregistered as a foster Carer. It took 3 and half years to clear my name and three others have still not had resolutions It was very stressful and one of the social workers gave up her career. When I chatted to SWE staff after being cleared they confirmed the system does not fit the role it is meant to play and that anyone can say anything about a SW whether it is true or not and it then has to be investigated. Things need to change and any allegation should be backed by evidence

  3. Carol Hopkins February 12, 2021 at 7:38 pm #

    Not surprised by the callousness. I informed this so called regulator that my partner had died and should be removed from the register. No compassion, made worse by having him classified as “failed to register”. These people are career bureaucrats incapable of empathy. See how they switch the debate by referencing and implicating social workers, unions, employers and people with lived experience as co-partners in their failures. Shameless.

  4. Jeremy Bedford February 12, 2021 at 7:40 pm #

    “We have therefore planned to undertake further analysis on the nature of the complaints coming to us and determine how we can influence the landscape that is currently producing this level of complaints”….apart from being a load of tosh, this suggests they are aware of some issues.

    I am not against the existence of S/W England, but with FTP they don’t know what they are doing.

    My observation is that LAs use FTP instead of their own disciplinary processes, to deal with issues, and because, the ‘bar’ is low, good Social Workers get caught up in their bureaucratic mess, and are lost to a profession, that has a perennial recruitment crisis.

    S/W England processes appear prejudicial if not downright racist – they don’t collate figures on the profile of those hauled before them.

    How can they influence the landscape when they don’t seem to be recording who refers to them (there will be some authorities with a disproportionately high referral rate), or the ethnicity, sex and disability of those referred.

    To say that the process is ‘fair effective and robust’ does not suggest an insightful or listening organisation.

  5. A Man Called Horse February 13, 2021 at 8:02 am #

    The entire system treats Social Workers as criminals from the minute a complaint is received from the public. They are transformed overnight to the status of witches requiring burning at the stake. Social workers are a target for the Government and obviously many of their customers will make malicious complaints about the decisions they take especially in child protection. Social work England are ruining their careers of staff many left for long periods of time without any resolution. I have no doubt many are left with no income while being investigated and financially ruined. Remember Social workers have mortgages to pay families of their own and are treated as guilty from day one. It is obvious that the system in place stems from a set of values that at its heart has a hatred of social workers driving policy. Why would anyone want to do this job anymore?

    • JasonM February 15, 2021 at 9:29 am #

      A Man Called Horse, your hyperbole helps no-one. Imagine how you make our colleagues who are newly subject to complaints feel, please? If this reflects your personal experience then fair enough, but personally I have been treated with the expected uninformative politeness for the past 5 months.

      Clearly they are short staffed, as evidence sent promptly to repudiate the allegations against me has been awaiting attention for two months. This hurts, yes, and the system clearly needs review, but I don’t see any evidence that anyone is acting out of hatred. All that shouting. Please stop.

      • John February 15, 2021 at 9:09 pm #

        Agree Horse is harsh but don’t agree that the contempt SWE show toward social workers is due to shortage of staff. I welcome the energy Horse brings to these debates. Did you know that it is solicitors and ex-police officers who deal with fitness to practice referrals? Still want to defend a social work regulator that has no social workers making decisions about our “conduct”?

      • A Man Called Horse February 16, 2021 at 4:26 pm #

        Hello Jason

        No offence meant, hope you get a fair hearing and it doesn’t take too long. Accountability is important and cuts two ways. I was not encouraged by SWE over the CPD issue in January, seemed a little harsh to me and ok I hope I am wrong about the micromanagment of Social Workers, but we too need some protection as workers and really looks quite hard to defend your position without legal representation in hearings. Recent Community Care articles said that most Doctors have strong representation and hardly any social workers arrive at hearings with legal representation. Unison told me that it is possible to have legal support with employment issues if a member, perhaps more people facing hearings will consider joining, certainly hope so. Being called to hearings without support must be very difficult and perhaps that is why so few social workers actually attend.

  6. Steven Jakes February 13, 2021 at 8:10 am #

    My colleague is caught up in this mess. SWE appear to take on investigations without clarifying, questioning or challenging the referrer, there is no form of duty system and so the case is taken on. The worker is then in that investigation for possibly a year or more even though everyone knows it will come to nothing. I am sure workers will leave the profession because the process is not fair or quick.

  7. Stuart February 13, 2021 at 10:13 am #

    Jonathan Dillon hiding behind ‘legislation’ to justify tardiness. Who knew the regulator has no flexibilty or autonomy. If everything is rigidly set down why do we need him and his team? Save money, install algorithms to interpret the rules.

  8. Adele Boyd February 13, 2021 at 11:02 am #

    Such a complex and challenging issue. However surely some responsibility must be attributed to the employing organisations who initiated many of these FtP complaints. It is essential employers have sufficient governance and expertise to adequately assess any complaint before a decision to refer to the regulatory body is made. Without this such ‘vexatious’ complaints will continue to clog the system in spite of additional investment in regulatory resources/capacity. Equally government must invest in the regulator to maintain professional and public confidence. This is a systemic issue requiring strategic consideration, unlikely to be resolved swiftly.

  9. JT February 15, 2021 at 8:39 am #

    How often in social work do the people who are supposed to HELP become the ‘PROBLEM’.

    I am not a frontline social worker but work with the families of frontline social workers. Not one week goes by without families and children saying the main problem is their social worker. E.g. 1. referred to social care by a school. 2. Social work (even without COVID restrictions) gathers info which is mostly guess work and second hand because a teachers do not spend time in family homes and social workers visit for an hour or two. 3. social worker is too worried about being accountable and avoiding risk that their intervention is not the same as the families truth. 4. there are not enough services, staff, resources to make the social workers assessment better. 5. THE PROBLEM IS NOW SOCIAL CARE not the original referral concern.

    Social work England is leading by example. Where is the trust?

  10. Grant February 15, 2021 at 9:22 am #

    I have yet to hear from anyone who uses our services say they feel secure and protected because SWE regulates me and my colleagues. I do not know one person who is even aware that SWE exists. So stop talking about public confidence due to regulation, it’s not the case. People have confidence, they feel safe, they see us as empowering when their experiences of social workers are positive, not because a bureaucracy creates it’s own narrative to justify itself. Simple really. When we are energised, listened to, have the support and resources to work collaboratively with service users, when we have supervision that allows us to truly reflect and learn from good practice and from our shortcomings without fear, we will have a social work that truly has the confidence of the public.

  11. Steven Jakes February 15, 2021 at 2:27 pm #

    Not sure if people know but there are no social workers involved in investigating your case. How can that be? No wonder they are overwhelmed if they take on mostly any referral. Problem is at the Triage stage. If there is a social worker on Triage I am sure they have not practiced for some years or they limited duty work experience. They dont know what they are doing. The CEO needs to review current casework and confirm if the investigation warrants investigation but have social workers involved in that, social workers who are on the front line only.

  12. Carla February 16, 2021 at 8:24 pm #

    Of course SWE don’t have social workers investigating social workers. Wouldn’t expect anything different from a body which has zero respect and zero confidence in us. My evidence: the farce of registration, CPD and the “temporary register”. I remember the high expectations when SWE replaced HCPC because they had a Chair and a Chief Executive from social work backgrounds. Didn’t take long for them to transform a relatively competent process into the shambles of now. I was investigated by the HCPC following an unfounded allegation by the father of a person I was working with. HCPC appointed a social worker, the irony, to investigate the allegation. She spoke to the complainant, spoke to my manager, spoke to me. She concluded that the allegation was malicious and set out her reasons for not proceeding to the complainant, my employer and personally to me. A difficult and anxious time was made a good bit more bearable by someone who was close to practice and who understood the social work environment. No doubt SWE would regard her investigation as flawed and compromised by her being a social worker.

  13. Daisy February 16, 2021 at 10:21 pm #

    It took over three years for my case to reach the Final Hearing. In those three years I endured severe financial hardship, almost lost my home and almost my life. I had a stroke which my GP said was almost certainly due to the extreme stress I was under.

    The investigator on my case was a retired police officer who said mine was his first social work case. He kept reassuring me during interview that all would be well, which I thought was unusual, however his report was biased towards what service user parents had stated, even though they held held a grudge against me. I also believe some Local Authorities use the process against workers they may not be happy with for a variety of reasons. This should be weeded out at an earlier stage in the process and dealt with in a fairer manner.

  14. Claudia February 17, 2021 at 10:00 am #

    I despair at the constant negativity in our profession. Most social workers seem to totally misunderstand what a regulator is for. They are not there to love us, they are not there to praise us, they are not there to mollycoddle us. Regulator exist to test the assumption that a professional is capable of misconduct, they can cause harm, they can be unscrupulous, they can be unskilled and hey can be dangerous. If you want love, join a union, even indulge the delusion that is BASW but don’t expect that from SWE or your employer. If you want constant validation you are in the wrong job.

  15. Sue Cooper February 17, 2021 at 6:05 pm #

    We don’t expect to be loved by SWE, we just expect them to know what social workers actually do and to understand the environments in which we work. After all we do pay for the privilege to indulge their ignorance.

  16. Elise Hubert February 18, 2021 at 8:11 am #

    I for one am not seeking constant validation, I just want a regulator that protects the public but one that also has a vision for what the professional standards should be other than the banal farce that is CPD. Of course the public should be protected from harmful practitioners but I want a regulator that also acts to explain and promote social work meaningfully. The BMA manages both, why can’t SWE?

    • Fed up February 19, 2021 at 5:50 pm #

      “I just want a regulator that protects the public but one that also has a vision for what the professional standards should be other than the banal farce that is CPD” – I love this sentence and couldn’t agree more.

  17. Fed up February 19, 2021 at 5:49 pm #

    Thank you for highlighting this.

    My colleague is being investigated for something over a decade ago – I worry that the threshold was too low and also worry about how this route is used…

    Can feel like the investigation (if any) should be into how a case was worked at a departmental / LA level, but ends up being treated as an issue around an individual social worker’s fitness to practise.

    Poor frontline social workers bearing the burnt for systemic problems.

    How are we meant to put in practice Munroe’s recommendations about not being risk averse when this is the system.

  18. Not a fan! March 11, 2021 at 2:16 pm #

    SWE clearly take the view that social workers are guilty of what is being alleged. This is evidenced in the language used in all their literature and by the fact they said today in a seminar that they “take forward all complaints where they feel there is a real chance to prove a practitioner is unfit for practice” that decision is taken at the Triage stage before they even hear from the social worker in any way. Sadly guilty until proven innocent appears to be their moto.

    The system is fundamentally flawed. The triage stage is not robust and any vexatious complaint can be allowed through without evidence. If the case is investigated this is not by a sw. My complaint is being considered by a para legal at the firm SWE use to present their case against a SW at a hearing / trial. How this can be considered a fair and just process who knows!

    My complaint has been open for 18 months. I have responded twice to the issues raised as requested and my only response are letters saying they “will get back to me”. I have had no sight of any “evidence” to support the allegations being made. I have asked on numerous occasions what the timescales are for the process and no one is able to provide a response so the process is allowed to take as long as they like regardless of the impact upon the SW involved or indeed the complainant.

    I have had periods of up to 6 months of no contact whatsoever. I am fortunate to work for an organisation where the HR team are supportive and efficient and they have even tried to chase SWE on my behalf with no luck. The impact on practitioners emotional wellbeing, financial /carer security and mental health is clearly being significantly compromised as a result of this process which is not fit for purpose.

    Like all good social workers I welcome a robust system which allows for challenge and transparency and I am happy to account for my practice, but SWE’s system for this to take place is currently dangerous and flawed.

    Perhaps when I am next efficiently chased for my social work registration fee, I shall follow their example and advise SWE they will be paid at some point but that the timescales will be open ended and they should not expect anything for at least 18 months I’ll get back to them!.