Social Work England is falling significantly behind almost all of its fitness to practise (FtP) targets because of a high number of legacy cases from the former regulator, the impact of the pandemic and a higher caseload than forecast, it has said.
The situation, which the Social Workers Union has said is having a “life-changing impact” on practitioners because of the resulting delays, has led the regulator to restructure its FtP service and boost headcount by 20%.
A report to its February board meeting revealed that nine of the 10 targets relating to fitness to practise were being missed as of January, with eight being in the red, indicating they were being missed by a large margin. The report showed that in January:
- 629 cases were open to the triage team – which determines whether the case merits investigation – compared with a target of 300 or fewer.
- 49% of cases were progressed following investigation to case examiners – who determine whether a case should proceed to a hearing – within six months, against a target of at least 80%.
- 31% of cases inherited from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) had been closed or progressed, meaning the regulator was not on track to meet its target of having at least 80% dealt with by December 2021.
Jonathan Dillon, Social Work England’s executive director for fitness to practise, said there were several reasons why the regulator was lagging behind its targets, which were set in early 2020 before Social Work England “knew what it was facing” in relation to the pandemic.
Managing HCPC inheritance
The first significant challenge was the management of the transition caseload inherited from the HCPC when Social Work England took over regulation in December 2019, which it took three months for staff to assess.
“A lot of those cases were, as we’ve reported previously, very old and not in the condition we expected when we got them,” Dillon said.
“That took us to about March and almost exactly the point where we completed the sift of those cases and our focus was turning to how do we get them to where they need to go for a resolution, we of course went into the national lockdown.”
Dillon said that created “significant challenges” for the service, the most obvious being the inability to legally hold final hearings to resolve cases for seven months.
“Our legislation and processes require hearings to be physical events in a room and it wasn’t safe to do that so we had to, in collaboration with our oversight body [Professional Standards Authority] and [other] regulators, consult on a process that allowed us to change our rules and hold final hearings remotely.”
The regulator’s target was to conclude about 16 hearings per month so it lost the ability immediately to conclude about 80 cases, Dillon added.
“It would have been the oldest highest risk cases, the ones where social workers had been in the process for two or three years,” he said.
Social Work England’s focus now is getting those cases to hearing as quickly as possible.
Alongside that, Dillon said the impact of the lockdown made it “much harder” to get information from employers to progress investigations.
“So employers weren’t able to provide us with information as quickly as they might otherwise and that slowed our investigations down for a period of time.”
The pandemic also made it challenging for the regulator’s own teams because they had to adapt to working remotely, while still learning their roles, after inheriting the significant HCPC caseload and having to deal with incoming cases, which Dillon said were much higher than expected.
Referrals 30% higher than forecast
“So we forecast as we’ve reported at the beginning of the year, based upon what we’ve seen in the previous two years with the previous regulator, that we would get about 120 fitness to practise referrals a month for the first year; that averaged down about 145 and it’s increased further since then, so incoming cases are 30% higher than we’d forecast,” he said.
Dillon said the regulator was unsure why this was.
“We are doing a piece of work to interrogate our data and assess why we are getting more referrals than the previous regulator; we could make assumptions that it’s due to the impact of the pandemic, or that as a specialist regulator for social work we are more visible and accessible,” he said. “However, it’s important we make informed assessments from the data we have.”
Restructure and staffing boost
As a result of the pressures faced, Dillon said it was clear the regulator had to restructure the service to deliver cases in a different way, “effectively streamlining its processes”, and increase resource.
Across the service, Social Work England has now increased its headcount in all areas of the FtP service by about 20%.
“In order to manage the incoming and transition caseload, we have to increase productivity by about 30% so it’s left us having to find that extra 10% through productivity,” Dillon said.
He added that the regulator’s experience in its first year, along with the engagement of expert trainers, have provided a greater understanding of how to progress different types of case.
“We have therefore created case streaming and progression methodologies that are appropriately tailored to the profile of the case. For example, we have created dedicated transition teams to manage the older legacy cases from the HCPC, which involve the application of different rules, we stream cases through our triage process and assign cases of higher complexity to a decision-making committee and we expedite cases to our case examiner in circumstances where we conclude after initial investigation that there is no evidence to support a finding of impairment.”
Improvements being seen
In a report to its October board meeting, the regulator said it had increased the average target time to conclude the triage process from four weeks to eight weeks with cases streamed at the outset for a desk-based assessment, a more robust analysis by a decision-making group or to a process for further enquiry.
Dillon said the regulator is seeing improvements already and is “speeding up in all areas of the service”.
In its February board report, Social Work England said that in two of the three previous months the triage team had resolved enough cases to stabilise its caseload, though this was set back by high levels of self-referrals in December when social workers had to re-register.
It also said that productivity had increased at the hearings stage since remote hearings were introduced for final hearings in October, and it was expecting to meet target levels by March.
“If we look at hearings now, obviously we have those seven, eight months where we couldn’t hold anything and we’ve implemented a remote process, which is running well.”
He said that “there’s a different level of competence with the hearing participants as to how comfortable they are with the remote technology”, which means that the adjournment rate for hearing is higher than the regulator would like.
Closer to a full service
However, Dillion said it was getting closer and closer to a full-running service that will bring the caseload down in the other areas of the service.
The regulator has now held all cases that transitioned from HCPC for about 14 months, and most cases were over 12 months old on transfer.
“The most useful thing is to say we’ve got about 760 cases that have transitioned, but still need to go to our case examiners for a resolution and we’ve set up a targeted, experienced team to work on those cases and expedite those.
Of the referrals being received by Social Work England, 67% percent are getting to the case examiner stage within six months, 75% within seven months and 87% within eight months.
“So in summary, the age profile of new cases is far, far lower than the age profile of transitioned cases, but from our perspective, we don’t really look at it like that, we’ve held those cases more than a year now and they’re all our cases.
“It’s just simply that the challenges associated with getting them to where they need to be are quite different,” Dillon said.
‘We understand impact on practitioners’
In February, Community Care reported claims from Social Workers Union general secretary John McGowan that delays in the fitness to practise process were having a “life-changing impact” on practitioners, because of the stress and reputational damage that came from being under investigation.
Dillon said he “understands the impact of the fitness to practise investigation has on a social worker”.
“I’ve worked within fitness to practise for a long time and it’s incredibly stressful and certainly during periods whereby not much seems to be happening because the regulator has to investigate and get information from the parties to build the evidence that it needs for the decision-makers and it can feel like quite an uncertain time for social workers,” Dillon said.
He said the regulator was “determined to put everything in place to progress cases as efficiently as possible” and communicate and collaborate with social workers going through the process.
In response, McGowan said SWU completely accepted that the regulator had “far more legacy cases than they expected” and that this has had a huge impact on their ability to progress cases.
“SWU also completely appreciates that the pandemic made things difficult for them and that no regulator in the world could have predicted or prepared for it, but in the same way that social workers (and every other employee in the world) has had to adapt to working life during Covid, Social Work England needed to do the same,” he said.
When the UK went into lockdown and Social Work England “started to appreciate the challenges that caused to the service”, it set up a steering group with SWU, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and UNISON, Dillon said.
“For a period of six months, we met with that group every week for an hour to communicate what was happening, the challenges we were facing, and work collaboratively on solutions whilst at the same time understanding from them the impact of the delays and decisions on the social workers they were representing.”
The group now meets monthly.
Speaking about the meetings, McGowan said the regulator does appear to want to hear and take on board what the union has to say.
Social workers ‘distressed’
“But the problem is that as much as they say they are trying to resolve the issues, and they do inform us of things they are doing to try to improve things, we continue to work with distressed members who are losing their livelihoods as a result of delays in proceedings or unnecessary investigations.”
McGowan said there is a “bigger issue here”.
“The whole regulatory system needs overhauling and resourcing properly. Social Work England seemed to start with really good intentions and the right attitude and has not delivered due to having a much higher caseload than they expected and insufficient resources to manage those.
“Most regulators have huge delays in progressing cases and this has to be down to a resource issue,” he said.
The other issue is that the only method a registrant has to appeal an outcome of a hearing is via the High Court, McGowan added.
“One of our members wanted to appeal an interim order being imposed – the quote she received for a barrister to represent her to do so was £10,000. Social workers (and most other regulated professionals) simply cannot afford this, so there is a complete inequality of arms and no real way of social workers being able to challenge inadequate processes or inappropriate decisions.”