Social Work England has defended its impartiality and commitment to human rights, and called for further discussion about social workers’ use of social media, after warning a practitioner over posts it concluded were discriminatory towards transgender people.
The case, concerning a social worker who shared dozens of posts on Facebook that were found to constitute “an extended pattern of discriminatory behaviour”, has sparked fierce online debate over the past week.
Questions have been raised about the regulator’s decision-making and sanction, which the social worker accepted, whether holding so-called ‘gender-critical’ views has any bearing on the ability of people to practise as social workers, and the case’s broader free-speech implications.
The regulator said in a response that the reaction “shows that a much broader conversation is needed on how best to support social workers to engage respectfully and professionally online when areas of ethical tension arise”.
Social Work England’s warning to the social worker over future behaviour, which stays in force for 12 months, came after officers decided there were no grounds to proceed to a formal fitness-to-practise hearing. It follows a recent High Court victory for a woman who lost her job after tweeting that transgender women could not change their biological sex, with a judge-led panel concluding that ‘gender-critical’ beliefs are protected under the Equality Act.
The report into Social Work England’s investigation, and its outcome, was taken down by the regulator, which a spokesperson said was “while we consider an issue of factual accuracy raised with us”. The report has since been republished online.
‘Derogatory and potentially discriminatory’
Social workers have previously been sanctioned as a result of views posted online.
In 2019, a social worker was given a conditions of practice order, with one of the factors considered relating to posts on Facebook deemed racially insensitive. In 2017, meanwhile, a social work student was expelled from a university course for calling homosexuality a sin – a decision that was subsequently endorsed by a judicial review, though this was overturned on appeal.
In this latest case, officers acting in response to a complaint from a member of the public reviewed “more than 70” screenshotted posts from the social worker’s Facebook account. These included them backing a petition against a charity supporting gender-diverse young people delivering training to public-sector organisations, and sharing comments appearing to conflate being transgender with paedophilia.
‘Case examiners’ – who review the evidence from investigations – said the social worker’s posts “could be perceived to be derogatory and potentially discriminatory” to members of the transgender community.
“They further consider that others who may not be from that community would also find these views offensive,” Social Work England’s report into the complaint, made by a member of the public in June 2020, said.
The social worker claimed she “did not fully read or analyse their content before posting” – something case examiners said “concerned” them – and since being investigated has undertaken training “to broaden their understanding of working with gender diverse and trans people”.
The social worker stated in submissions that she supported a feminist perspective, and said: “On reflection I feel that I may have been swayed by the mistaken view of other prominent feminists who felt that promoting transgender rights would impede on women’s rights. This was a gap in my knowledge base and this training has shown me how to work in a much more inclusive way.”
The social worker’s manager said they had confidence the social worker had never practised in a discriminatory way, and that she was competent and able to practise.
‘No public interest’ in full hearing
Case examiners considered whether the social worker had breached professional standards requiring social workers to:
- Use technology, social media or other forms of electronic communication unlawfully, unethically, or in a way that brings the profession into disrepute.
- Behave in a way that would bring into question my suitability to work as a social worker while at work, or outside of work.
“There is a realistic prospect of adjudicators establishing the statutory ground of misconduct,” Social Work England’s report said, on the basis of the social worker’s posts damaging the profession’s public reputation.
But case examiners concluded the social worker’s actions were not so serious that a full hearing would serve the public interest.
“[Case examiners] have also taken account of the social worker’s submissions about learning from their mistakes and moving forward,” the report said. “They are satisfied the social worker can continue to practise safely without restriction, therefore a swift resolution to the case is preferable.”
The social worker deleted the Facebook posts and accepted a warning, which the examiners felt was appropriate after considering whether or not her fitness to practise would continue to be impaired.
The published warning will remain for one year, with the regulator stating that “any similar conduct or matters brought to the attention of the regulator are likely to result in a more serious outcome”.
‘Conduct must not harm public or undermine confidence’
In its statement this week, Social Work England said “We are aware of the debate that’s taken place on Twitter over recent days in relation to professional practice and individual social workers’ positions on gender identity.
“We want to be clear that as an independent public body we are committed both to upholding human rights and to maintaining impartiality – as must social workers on our register who support some of the most vulnerable people in society.”
The statement added: “We are clear in our professional standards guidance that conduct on social media should in no way harm the public or compromise the support social workers provide to people. This includes undermining public confidence in the profession.”
Announcing a new look into guidance around social media and social work the statement concluded: “We will be reaching out shortly to encourage participation from across the sector and include people with lived experience to help take this work forward.”