How Social Work England is battling fitness to practise caseloads in face of Covid, legacy and high referrals

Regulator has boosted staff headcount by 20% and restructured service as latest figures show it is failing to hit most of its fitness to practise targets and union says delays are having life-changing impact on practitioners

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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.”

Pandemic challenges

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.”

29 Responses to How Social Work England is battling fitness to practise caseloads in face of Covid, legacy and high referrals

  1. Steve Braun. March 19, 2021 at 6:24 pm #

    All BS excuse my language. They don’t know what they are doing. It is a Triage stage where it goes wrong, they take virtually anything on without checking that the referrer is not malicious. You can say anything, make any allegation regarding a social worker and SWE run with it as if it must be true. Then the SW is stuck for months/years in an investigation where if due diligence had happened at referral stage it would have ended. Any half decent duty team would have ended such referrals early, within an hour or two of phone calls. SWE drive workers away from the profession. Shame on them.

  2. Daisy March 19, 2021 at 8:45 pm #

    The report states SWE is missing targets in 9 out of 10 FtP cases and is falling significantly behind on FtP cases due to ‘having a much higher caseload than they expected and insufficient resources to manage them’. Well I wonder how many social workers have found themselves subject to the TfP process for the very same reasons? Will SWE be referring themselves to their own process?

    • Tom J March 23, 2021 at 9:34 am #

      Well said!

      Though we all know that the benefit that Social Work England has is that they are accountable to no one. They could make a social worker wait two, three, four, five years for a resolution and nothing will happen to Social Work England unless that social worker is extremely wealthy and can taken them on through the courts.

  3. Anonymous March 20, 2021 at 5:00 pm #

    SWE are an enemy to Social Workers. How they got this contract is beyond belief and blaming Covid or cases handed over is not acceptable, why should everyone else adapt to such change but not SWE, did they not know the cases to be handed over? Was this not raised prior to agreeing to take the work on? The profession will lose good workers due to their poor performance. it seems they have no filter and will take any referral on. No wonder they cannot cope. How many social workers, recent frontline workers, actually work at SWE? It is mainly unqualified people and ex Police. Shambles.

  4. Dee J March 20, 2021 at 7:15 pm #

    I found myself subject to a Fitness to Practise Hearing from the previous HCPC Regulator.
    It took well over a year for my hearing to take place by Social Work England.
    My hearing had absolutely nothing to do with my direct practise as a social worker.
    Following the hearing the Panel failed to reach a decision regarding whether my practise was impaired. It took SWE a further 3 months before they reached a decision.
    SWE and the Professionals Standards Authority have no consideration to the stress and trauma that FtP investigations and hearings have on Social Workers.
    As the Union state, the only way to appeal against a decision is to the High Court.
    The majority of social workers that find themselves under investigation and/or subject to FtP hearings will have already lost their job and their career, making any appeal totally unaffordable. In addition to the further stress and trauma involved on social workers.
    Shortly after my hearing, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress.
    I was considering an appeal but was told the cost could be in excess of £30,000. If I lost my appeal, the costs would be higher.
    It is a totally unfair and out of date process.
    I am glad to be out of the social work profession. I would not want to be in a profession that has treated me so appallingly.

    • David F March 25, 2021 at 12:10 pm #

      I empathise with you completely Dee. I am in the same boat and my level of anxiety and trauma accrued over the YEARS my straightforward case was going on means that after 32 years as a SW with an excellent record I no longer feel I am fit to work. God knows what I am going to do. SWE seem so defensive that they will send any case to a hearing. Even a client making an allegation with no other evidence will get you into the hearings process – and it’s years to get out of that….

      • Mandac1 March 27, 2021 at 7:32 am #

        How awful. Am sure you have already looked but there would be loads of third sector organisations that would love to have your expertise and experience.
        I haven’t had a fitness to practice experience but am burnt out for other reasons so am looking around to see where I can make changes.

  5. Kieran March 21, 2021 at 11:00 am #

    BASW and SWU co-opted to SWE “Steering group” to “discuss” how to continue making our lives miserable,victimise, discriminate and persecute us. No improvements made but no doubt credit points for future “partnership” crumbs off the high table for BASW. We don’t believe in your Voice of Social Work guff BASW. At least Unison is a proper if equally compromised mass membership union. Shame on you all for collaborating in this farce.

  6. Sally Trent March 22, 2021 at 12:03 am #

    Poor SWE, under resourced, dumped on by HCPC, caught upon a pandemic only adversely affecting them, remote technology distressing their staff, hamstrung by rules they have no power to adapt, tardy local authorities too incompetent to provide information, high caseloads. Obviously none of this applies to social workers. Own up to your own incompetence before blaming all and sundry. Every social worker has adapted to working during lock down. We put our lives in jeopardy to work without proper PPE while you were all apparently struggling with remote technology. You found the resources and the ‘skills’ to persecute us over CPD and registration though didn’t you? Why is it your responsibility SWU to shed tears about lack of resources at SWE? Represent your members, behave like a proper union, rage against these bureaucrats. They have no regard for us or our well being. Having a weekly cup of virtual tea with the bureaucrats can’t be worth being co-opted to their abuse of social workers surely? We are your pals not the authoritarian has beens. Get your loyalties and priorities in right. These are the people who told me that their rules do not allow them to remove my partner from their register as he had the affrintery to die before submitting evidence of CPD. No empathy, no sympathy, rule obsessed jobsworths. Why would they take responsibility rather than hide behind blaming others.

  7. Andy March 22, 2021 at 7:28 am #

    Isn’t there a cruel irony that SWE is struggling with an extremely heavy FtP caseload?
    Should social work degree courses include a module on whichever professional regulatory body is in existence at the time of the course?

  8. Claudine March 22, 2021 at 8:19 am #

    SWE is so unfit for purpose that it would be a compliment to describe it as incompetent. Anyone who has had the misfortune to communicate with these bureaucrats knows the frustrations of script reading call centre mentality that confronts them. Self regard does not a regulator make. Unknown to the public it claims to protect, punitive, rude, seemingly rudderless to the rest of us. I am beyond angry with a supposed professional regulator that can’t even be bothered to compile an online memorial to at least the 36 social workers it purports to oversee who have died in the pandemic. Why would I respect let alone have confidence in such a bunch of obeying orders mentality automatons? BASW/SWU I know you are an ignored irrelevance by anyone worthy but is it really worth getting a profile by disreputably giving credence to this lot? Stick to promoting consumer products and mildly informative tweets, at least you don’t promote harm to our well being that way. Unison, I have nothing but contempt to your collusion with victimisation of workers. You know you have no influence with these people. Is sharing a biscuit really worth selling us out?

    • Jill March 30, 2021 at 4:26 pm #

      All the SWE people ihave met have been very empathetic and willing g to do their best to help. We know how difficult it is to work with too few resources. Now who’s lacking empathy.

      • John March 31, 2021 at 10:09 am #

        I am glad that you are so blissed out by SWE Jill. Sadly you are in a very tiny minority given the accounts of other collagues here. We pay them, they should serve us, its really a simple transaction don’t you think?

  9. Clinton March 22, 2021 at 8:27 am #

    Misleading headline Community Care. Sitting around trying to read allegations without resolution for 14 months is not “battling” now is it? Journalistic licence and all that but you are much better than this. How about “SWE still has no idea what it’s doing”

  10. Tainted March 22, 2021 at 9:29 am #

    Here’s one example where the local authority responded swiftly to an enquiry that SWE still hasn’t progressed. I was accused by a relative of a person I was working with of sexual abuse. Dates were provided and photographs apparently showing me leave the flat late at night were promised. My employer were quickly able to confirm that on the supposed dates of alleged abuse, I was at my PhD tutorials in another city. The university also provided the same and addedd that I had stayed in student acommodation overnight. Outcome? SWE are, 8 months and counting, still awaiting the “photographs” so cannot say how they are progressing this investigation. They confirm that they’ve not been able to contact the complainant as they do not respond to phone calls, e-mails or letters. I write this as a now ex-social worker broken by thecinability of SWE to conclude this either way. Compassion, empathy, regard for well being? Not in the vocabulary or the mindset of SWE. No one can safely practice with these emotions and anxieties buy SWE are comfortable to drag the process out by bleating about resources and blaming others. Come work in our environments to understand how we manage with inadequate resources. My employers and my colleagues have been very supportive and I cannot thank them enough. But gratitude only sustains so far. It’s horrible to be accused of such a heinous thing. it’s almost as bad being condemned without any recourse to defend yourself for months. This is the reality. I am heart sick that unions are providing cover for these bullies. 24 years of service ends like this. Do you really care about us BASW?

    • Mandac1 March 27, 2021 at 7:35 am #

      So sorry to hear of your experience, how awful! Glad to hear you have supportive colleagues.

  11. Marvia March 22, 2021 at 12:19 pm #

    Can SWE say what the percentage of BAME social workers are caught up in this backlog? Also what is the percentage when compared to the whole workforce.
    We have learnt (and understand) from BLM and Covid-19 that BAME communities are subject to Institutional racism and we may be over represented.

    How many of SWE’s staff who consider FtP cases are from the BAME community?

  12. Keith March 22, 2021 at 9:10 pm #

    This is the background of staff working at SWE:

    Asian or Asian British: 4.5%
    Blac or Black British: 2.7%
    Mixed: 2.7%
    White British: 84.1%
    White Irish: 1.8%
    White Other: 2.7%
    White British-Chinese: 0.9%
    Not Stated: 0.9%

  13. Lee March 23, 2021 at 10:43 am #

    Can it really be that SWE have only now developed “methodologies appropriately tailored to the profile of the case”? No wonder there is a backlog if it took them a year to work this out. I am far from the skills set of SWE but I would have predicted with some accuracy the types of fitness to practice issues that might be referred. I am fairly confident that both in my recruitment and in my training needs analysis I would have identified what skills and knowledge were needed to triage and investigate the majority of fitness to practice concerns. Perhaps I am being naive and uninformed working in a team with an 8% vacancy rate with agency staff on average lasting 3 weeks before leaving behind more chaos.

  14. Eric Matthew Thomas March 23, 2021 at 11:39 am #

    What a joke that Mr Dillon is trying to blame the old regulator. Yes they made mistakes but you have had the cases for well over a year. Stop trying to shift the blame and take some responsibility Mr Dillon/SWE.

  15. Tony March 24, 2021 at 7:36 am #

    Can those who berated us for issues we raised about CPD, told us how SWE were improving standards, promoting social work, called us unprofessional, lazy, having the wrong ethics and values, whether they still believe SWE is “enabling positive change in social work?”

  16. Adrian March 24, 2021 at 3:39 pm #

    I agree with all you said Tony. I too recall a berating tweet about us supposed stragglers on CPD that went something like “we either want to be taken seriously as a profession or we don’t”. Would really appreciate knowing where we are now if the answer is not too embarrassing.

  17. Anonymous March 25, 2021 at 3:03 pm #

    This is tragic for social work, SWE are tragic for social work. How has it got this bad. Are Ministers aware? It feels like SWE are caught in the headlights and dont know what to do. Like asking a plumbing firm to run run a restaurant. Almost clueless. Run by Police Officers! The very sad bit is they wont admit it and continue put some good social workers through months/years of ‘investigation’ without them having any power. When the worker is finally found not found guilty its too late, that worker has had all of their wind taken out of them. Their gone.

  18. Nolan Principles? March 29, 2021 at 4:39 pm #

    Would this be the same SWE which only managed to update its Conflict of Interest register a year after its Chair got a job as a Senior Independent Director on the Board of a private health provider that also employs social workers? Evidently transparency and probity are somewhat opaque concepts unless applied to social workers. Lets hear from the champions of SWE, be they PSW’s, social work ‘professionals’, BASW fellow travellers, Unison and academics, why this doesn’t matter and shouldn’t cause disquiet? Perhaps I’ll find a way of incorporating some reflections on openess and trustworthiness when I get round to updating my CPD.

  19. Carol March 30, 2021 at 10:40 pm #

    All the SWE people I have had contact with have had zero empathy and zero desire to be helpful Jill. So our differing opinion doesn’t take us very far. What does though are the many posts here describing experiences akin to mine. Now those numbers are a bit more objective in the round aren’t they? Let’s hear from the multitudes who have positive stories to relate too. I would be happy then to forget what they told me about my dead partners registration status then. You are aware that SWE say they are “unable” to remove the deceased from the register if they haven’t uploaded CPD? I think your sympathy for SWE having too few resources is a bit misplaced. I know for definite that the colleague relating their experience of working with an 8% vacancy rate would love the resources SWE have.

  20. Sally April 3, 2021 at 7:51 am #

    Social Work England is the only professional regulator that believes having non-social workers deciding competence and safe practice of its professionals adds value. An importance lesson the British Medical Association can learn from. No need for social work training and practice experience when deciding whether a social worker failed to meet ethical standards is a very strange message is it not? My next CPD reflection will be on why retired police officers are best qualified to decide whether a social worker is competent and safe to practice.

  21. Frasierfanclub1 April 5, 2021 at 7:30 pm #

    There needs to be a complete overhaul of how SWE receive referrals. Employers should have to produce all of its evidence at the point of referral. If they have concerns they should already have the evidence. A referral from a disgruntled parent or relative should be crosschecked with the employer within a week of the referral being received. I waited 6 months before the local authority produced the paperwork. As a locum I was unable to secure employment for 18 months and the outcome was no case to answer. It was HCPC who played havoc with my mortgage,marriage, mental health and professional reputation and I had hoped that SWE might have delivered the improvements they had promised.

  22. Olu April 7, 2021 at 8:32 am #

    Come on everybody buck up. The bureaucrats did manage to put together Social Work Week to tell us how they are improving our practice and promoting “the profession”. Well worth our lives being ruined by insensitivity and incompetence surely.

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