Action to tackle fitness to practise inequalities limited by lack of data on social workers, says regulator

Social Work England calls on practitioners to share information on protected characteristics to help shine light on disparities, but BASW and SWU urge immediate action to tackle "known issues of inequality" in profession

Millie Kerr, Ahmina Akhtar and Shantel Thomas, pictured at Community Care Live, discussing racial inequality in social work
Shantel Thomas, of BASW, (right) has said Social Work England can do more to tackle racial inequalities after the regulator's head of equality, diversity and inclusion, Ahmina Akhtar (centre), launched its action plan on the issue. They are pictured with Millie Kerr, anti-racist lead practitioner at Brighton & Hove Council.

The lack of data on the profession’s diversity is hindering Social Work England’s efforts to tackle inequalities in the fitness to practise system, the regulator’s equality lead has said.

Ahmina Akhtar called on registered social workers to share data on their protected characteristics to enable the regulator to identify the scale of inequalities and how to tackle them, in an interview to mark the launch of its equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) action plan last week.

Just 4% of registrants have submitted their diversity data through their online accounts with Social Work England. Without more doing so, the regulator would be unable to draw “reliable conclusions” about the impact of its activities on different groups, added Akhtar, appointed last year as its first head of EDI.

However, in response, the British Association of Social Workers and Social Workers Union said action should be taken now in relation to “known issues of inequality”, notably, the disproportionate impact of fitness to practise cases on black and ethnic minority social workers.

This was an issue raised by Social Work England itself in July 2020, when its executive director for fitness to practise, Jonathan Dillon, said practitioners from minority groups were disproportionately represented in referrals. He said the regulator did not have precise data on this or evidence on how it treated registrants from different groups through the fitness to practise process, but was committed to action on the issue.

His comments came nine years after predecessor regulator the General Social Care Council had identified disproportionately high rates of fitness to practise referrals concerning black, disabled and male social workers from 2004-11.

‘We haven’t got as much data as we would like’

Social Work England’s EDI action plan includes an objective to “use available diversity data to identify and monitor any disproportionate impacts of our work on different groups and take steps to understand and deal with potential bias and discrimination”.

This encompasses measures to ensure EDI issues are referred to its decision review group, which scrutinises fitness to practice decisions, and to commission research on a sample of cases to identify any themes related to social workers’ protected characteristics in referrals from the public. This is due to take place at the start of near year, budget permitting.

More broadly, the regulator has revised its approach to assessing the impact of its work on EDI and is training staff in this.

However, Akhtar said the lack of data on the profession’s diversity was a block to taking further action in addressing inequalities in fitness to practise and its other regulatory activities.

Learning for social workers on EDI

Community Care’s inaugural Festival of Learning is full of learning on equality, diversity and inclusion from expert speakers. Our virtual event runs from 28 March to 1 April, and includes webinars on:

Register now to book your place on these or other sessions. We are offering three sessions for free – courtesy of sponsors Surrey County Council, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and Medway Council. Other sessions cost £25 + VAT each.

“We haven’t got as much data as we would like. Having that data will enable us to analyse and understand and, if necessary, revise any systems or policies, or look at any trends or differences in outcomes for people with protected characteristics,” she said.

Social Work England called on registrants to submit their data as part of last year’s registration renewal period, from September to November, and also last June, when it simultaneously launched a survey on experiences of racism in the profession.

4% response rate

However, just 4% of England’s roughly 100,000 registered social workers have done so, and Akhtar urged others to follow suit.

Under the action plan, Social Work England will review, early next year, how it seeks diversity data from social workers in order to increase the response rate, and that it would make use of key “communication and engagement moments” to encourage practitioners to submit.

“To be able to draw reliable conclusions about our processes and fitness to practise referrals we would need that data,” said Akhtar. “Without it, it would be very challenging.”

Social Work England EDI plan: key points

  • Reviewing the way it seeks diversity data from social workers in order to increase the response rate (Jan-March 2023).
  • Embedding, and training staff in, its new approach to conducting equality impact assessments of its work (January to June 2022).
  • Commissioning research in relation to a sample of fitness to practise cases to identify themes related to the protected characteristics of social workers in concerns raised by the public (January to March 2023, subject to budget).
  • Ensuring EDI issues are considered in decisions to refer fitness to practise cases to the regulator’s decision review group (January to March 2022).
  • Developing learning outcomes for what should be expected of social workers, on qualification, including in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion and anti-oppressive practice (September 2022).
  • Reviewing the benefits of anonymous recruitment to Social Work England, and implementing accordingly (July to September 2022).
  • Analysing staff leavers’ questionnaires, grievances, disciplinaries, promotions and probation extensions by diversity to identify any inequalities (January to March 2023).
  • Piloting a positive action mentoring scheme for staff with protected characteristics (January to March 2023).

However, while welcoming the plan, BASW’s anti-racism lead, Shantel Thomas, said the regulator should go much further, saying “everyone knows” about the disproportionate impact on black and ethnic minority staff of fitness to practise cases and other issues.

“Eighty per cent of the referrals we get to [BASW’s] advice and representation service are to do with race,” she said. “Social workers are failing their ASYE and being disproportionately hit by fitness to practise…The number who are being referred for disciplinary action is massively disproportionate.”

Regulator needs ‘zero-tolerance approach’

“I don’t think it goes far enough,” she added. “What I would expect from a regulator is a zero-tolerance stance.”

Thomas said “mistrust of authority” may be behind black and ethnic minority social workers not submitting their diversity data.

“[People ask]: ‘What are they going to do with the data? We already know the system is systemically racist. We don’t need the data to do tell us that’.”

For the Social Workers Union, general secretary John McGowan said the regulator’s plan “rightly highlights the need to co-produce work with people with a range of protected characteristics, and to embed EDI across the profession from social work courses to organisation cultures”.

But he said it was important that “known issues of inequality – such as black and ethnic minority social workers being over-represented in fitness to practise cases and also facing disproportionately white adjudication panels – are addressed without delay”.

Data released by the regulator in 2020 showed that 80% of independent adjudicators sitting on the regulator’s fitness to practice panels were white, with 18% from black, Asian, mixed-race or other backgrounds. This is below the proportion of non-white social workers in the profession, which was 22% in statutory children’s services and 27% in adults’ services as of September 2020.

Social Work England recently held a recruitment drive for fitness to practise panels targeted at people from underrepresented groups.

Akhtar said this was among the steps it was taking to tackle fitness to practise inequalities.

BASW criticises lack of anti-racist practice focus

Thomas also criticised the plan’s lack of reference to anti-racist practice, and Social Work England’s failure to incorporate the concept into its professional standards.

The standards currently require social workers to “recognise differences across diverse communities and challenge the impact of disadvantage and discrimination on people and their families and communities”, and to “promote social justice, helping to confront and resolve issues of inequality and inclusion”.

But they make no direct reference to anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive or anti-racist practice. The EDI plan includes an objective to develop learning outcomes for what should be expected of social workers, on qualification, including in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion and anti-oppressive practice.

However, Thomas said: “They don’t talk about anti-racist practice, as opposed to anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice, and they still haven’t incorporated anti-racist practice into professional standards. We are not giving this the attention it deserves.”

In response, Akhtar said: “As a regulator, Social Work England has set out professional standards that require social workers to ‘confront and resolve issues of inequality and inclusion’ and ‘challenge the impact of disadvantage and discrimination’. We expect social workers to consider all forms of discrimination when they are applying these standards to their daily roles. Our action plan addresses many different forms of inequality that people with lived and learned experience of social work encounter.

“Our focus remains on all issues relating to equality, diversity and inclusion in order to have the biggest impact on people’s lives. Race is important. So is disability, neurodiversity, religion, and all the other topics that EDI encompasses. We know that we can’t achieve change alone and we know that we can’t achieve change by looking at just one piece of the puzzle. The key is a large scale, coordinated effort where the sector works together for lasting change.”

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34 Responses to Action to tackle fitness to practise inequalities limited by lack of data on social workers, says regulator

  1. Kate February 18, 2022 at 10:24 am #

    Does “zero tolerance” extend to protecting gender critical feminists of colour from hostility and ill treatment? Asking as a former BASW member.

    • Andy February 20, 2022 at 10:49 am #

      Social work as a profession has always wrestled with the dynamic nuances of intersectionality but it also seems to have singularly failed to give any space to women (of any ethnicity) when it comes to the issue of gender critical feminism and that’s despite women making up 85% of the workforce!

  2. john stephenson February 18, 2022 at 4:34 pm #

    I have been saying this repeatedly for years and have been totally ignored.Even raised it at the University of Sheffield’s Workshop about poor practice at H.C.P.C. and they were not interested in it.This has been ignored for years as an inconvenient truth.

  3. Margaret February 19, 2022 at 8:48 am #

    BASW don’t engage with mere members current or otherwise, their priority it seems is hankering after crumbs from the big table, so I’ll have a go. In their position paper on social work with trans people BASW accepts the principle of self identity. So on protecting feminists of colour from abuse or indeed threat from losing their jobs they are unequivocal. If you hold a contrary belief to the self identity orthodoxy, you need to get ” informed support” to purge yourself of those views. If you do not than anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice meets its bedrock there. Therefore no feminist can expect “zero tolerance” of what comes their way for having wrong thoughts. You didn’t really believe in the primacy of “proactive anti racist practice now” did you social workers? The limit of intersectionality buffers against gender critical feminists of colour so it seems we just need to know our place and be good and subservient. That’s not racism, it’s advocacy of trans rights. Am I correct BASW and SWE?

  4. Dr R Buck PhD February 19, 2022 at 10:37 am #

    Ok, but let’s not forget how social work regulation perpetuates institutional racism –

    https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2021/04/09/social-work-regulation-perpetuate-institutional-racism/

  5. Maureen February 20, 2022 at 6:13 pm #

    Much as I recoil from the vacuity of what passess for ethics in SWE and BASW world, there is something begrudgingly admirable in the unfathomable confidence with which they dissociate values from ideas and invert common reality by mythologising myths to promulgate them as universal truths. These are the skills of the propogandist though and sadly it is to our detriment that we are saddled with a regulator and a self proclaimed professional association with the same scruples. “Our action plan addresses many different forms of inequality that people with lived and learned experience of social work encounter”. Actually it does no such thing. “Mistrust of authority.” Well ofcourse. But some of us mistrust you too BASW given you pick and choose which members deserve defending when faced with discrimination and threats to their livelihoods for having the “wrong” beliefs. “Zero tolerance” within prescribed establishment parameters really doesn’t live up to the claim can it? Kate knows, I know and many many more too. “To call on them to give up their illusions on their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions” wrote Marx about religious beliefs. Replace “them” with SWE/BASW and the point is made here too.

  6. Triton February 20, 2022 at 8:13 pm #

    If only 4% of registered social workers have submitted diversity data how does SWE know that ” minority groups” are disproportionately subject to FtP investigations? All it an possibly know is that a disproportionate number out of the 4% are overrepresented “minority groups.” Similarly if 80% of referrals to BASW are to do with “race” all that tells us is the percentage of cases coming to their representation service. I could just as easily say that visually impared social workers are over represented in disciplinary hearings in my authority based on the two social workers i know who have been persecuted by our bossess. That SWE is unable to tackle racism, that it has a totally unrepresentative workforce, that it’s hamstrung by government expectations is a given to me because I understand how and why it functions. I can also pass a similar judgment on BASW because I was a member and I have participated in motions and votes. But I could be wrong. HCPC data showed us that male social workers were disproportionately represented in their hearings. How do we know that they have now been overtaken by social workers of colour? On the data and opinion expressed here we don’t and we cannot.

    • John Stephenson February 22, 2022 at 6:32 pm #

      As an ex sessional worker for B.A.S.W. I can say that members welfare is very low on their priorities.This organisation needs in depth investigation.As a crude determination of ethnicity one only has to trawl through the name of those facing capability and conduct proceeds,my rough estimate is at least 20%of those going through proceedings are from an ethnic background.

      • Patsy B February 23, 2022 at 7:52 am #

        John, your last sentence undermines your whole comment. Are we not all from an ethnic background? Comical.

  7. Susie Quattro February 22, 2022 at 7:18 pm #

    Translation: “Paralysis by analysis” – the usual guff from SWE.

    How stupid do they think we are?!

  8. Ariel February 23, 2022 at 4:50 pm #

    Maybe the best way of tackling inequalities is having a fair process that instead of assuming all social workers are only one step away from being bad, SWE can start by looking at the veracity of allegations and just a thought, speed up.the process.

    • Hounded Out February 24, 2022 at 1:36 pm #

      Yes. 18 months and still saying this will not improve this year is a shocker. I had to leave social work when they decided to investigate me for a year later then they decided I was not guilt. I suffered so much anguish that I had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward fir my safety. I tried to kill myself in hospital and was sectioned. None of ti’s apparently matters to our leaders. 2 years on I can’t sleep for the anger I feel at SWE and their apologists. I force myself to follow CC even though I will never be a social worker again just to keep some dignity that I was a qualified social worker before SWE destroyed all my confidence and pride for something I was maliciously accused of. A year to say no case to answer. So why fo we expect these egotistical to care about discrimination. How cheaply are our bosses bought by shiny baubles and the vapour that will passes for Social Work Week. My thoughts are with our Bradford colleagues today. It breaks my heart to read their experiences.

  9. Bev Hodson February 24, 2022 at 3:59 pm #

    The wheels fell off SWE for me when I read this article last year to be honest:

    https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2021/04/09/social-work-regulation-perpetuate-institutional-racism/

  10. Hassan February 26, 2022 at 11:01 am #

    Surely the point is that SWE is an equal opportunities discriminator. As long as you are a qualified social worker they will persecute you irrespective of any “protected characteristics”. That’s why they exist. And also to infect our teams with their apologists. That’s it.

  11. The Watcher February 28, 2022 at 3:04 pm #

    “Our focus remains on all issues relating to equality, diversity and inclusion in order to have the biggest impact on people’s lives. Race is important. So is disability, neurodiversity, religion, and all the other topics that EDI encompasses…”

    Basically, ALL LIVES MATTER and we will do our utmost to deflect accountability and responsibility.

  12. Tasha February 28, 2022 at 5:47 pm #

    Meanwhile a woman has been sleeping in a wheelchair and cannot attend her dialysis treatment because Brighton and Hove Council blame shortage of home care staff and shrug. Anti-oppressive practice only goes so far for SWE and others it seems. Social work really is improving with CPD isn’t it. And ofcourse there is the inevitable silence from BASW. Some leadership that.

  13. Black Diamond 💎 February 28, 2022 at 8:55 pm #

    The mear fact that they are not recording practitioners race/ethnicity as compulsory tell you a lot , about their actions to do more about fairness when it comes down to fitness to practice of Black practitioners. We have to record the race/ and ethnicity of children and families when completing assessments , in our work these families don’t have a choice , so why can’t we do the same with all registered social workers, excuses. The figures and data will expose the truth, that black social workers are disproportionately referred for fitness to practice, despite only making up a small % of the registrants. I believe it’s a delay tactic…

    • Black Diamond 💎 March 3, 2022 at 3:38 pm #

      The Social Work England standards need to be altered they need to make a very clear statement around zero tolerance in relation to practices overt and covert ( conscious and unconscious biases) racism and discrimination.
      It needs to state explicitly about anti-racist, anti oppressive and discriminatory practices. These are the fundamental values of social work practice. I’m not sure what they are waiting for.

      Yes Sarah , the indefensible cannot be defended, as stated by Sophia.
      frankly I am sick of the excuses around institutional racism in social work .

  14. Sarah February 28, 2022 at 11:58 pm #

    Actually its social workers themselves refusing to provide the information rather than SWE not collecting it.They are a shower but this not on them.

    • Sophia Gratton March 1, 2022 at 9:38 am #

      Sarah, the indefensible cannot be defended. There are various indicators of institutional racism in social work, which SWE could address TODAY (without further data) – but they choose not to. Why? Delay tactics as identified by Black Diamond.

      This IS on them. They are a shower of acid rain on social work. Hopefully a passing shower.

      • Sarah March 1, 2022 at 9:12 pm #

        They are all of that but social workers have to own where they fail too. What prevents anyone of us providing them with our data? Of nothing else it’ll stop them hiding behind not having it. I am no friend of SWE or their buddies BASW by the way. In my view both perpetuate discrimination.

        • Cecilia Thomas March 2, 2022 at 10:36 am #

          But why would we give our data to an incompetent regulator that we can’t trust? What would they do/not do with it? Just because they are performative in their actions, it doesn’t mean we should comply does it?

          • Sarah March 2, 2022 at 10:25 pm #

            Then we can’t complain if they can’t tell us anything about the racial profile of social workers then can we.

          • Alan March 2, 2022 at 10:28 pm #

            Slightly confused by your argument Cecilia given that you presumably comply with their nonsense about CPD and pay them your money for the privilege too.

  15. Meena A March 3, 2022 at 8:03 am #

    Sarah, what can SWE possibly tell us that we don’t already know? Social work is institutionally racist. What have SWE done about it since this was brought to their attention? Bugger all!

    Alan, we may have to comply with the compulsory CPD circus and SWE’s financial demands, but that doesn’t mean we have to engage with their optional data collection (delay tactics) does it?

    When can we have an effective non-government imposed regulator?

  16. Bashir Khan March 3, 2022 at 9:13 am #

    There are some unmistakable parallels with Priti Patel and the Conservative Party afoot here!

  17. Black Diamond 💎 March 4, 2022 at 1:00 pm #

    The local government association should be also holding to account employers, who do not follow the, The Standards for Employers of Social workers in England , and help to perpetuate systemic racism, however the standards are not a legal requirement. That’s is why employers / social work managers have such a brazen/carefree attitude when referring black practitioners for fitness to practice. My opinion is if Black practitioners get their selves in difficulties with the regulator, they have to remember they can also refer individual managers or social workers for wrongdoings such as race discrimination or any other wrongdoing to the regulator too ,remember that as they are also social work registered
    This is what LGA quotes”
    …. Strategic lead social workers/principal social workers must understand and manage the organisational responsibility across all Standards. Employers should ensure their systems, structures and processes promote equality and do not discriminate against any employee……

  18. Maria March 4, 2022 at 6:20 pm #

    As a LA SW who is being bullied/harassed/victimised/discriminated against etc (especially if they whistleblow/raise concerns/make grievances etc) don’t expect any support whatsoever from ANYONE ie unions, BASW & SWE! No wonder so many LA SW’s feel let down & are leaving the profession in droves & are deregistering from useless SWE (who will often collude with your employer!)

    • Black Diamond March 7, 2022 at 3:01 pm #

      I repeat again , social workers Black , Asian and other non white practitioners, need to know Social Work England is not an organisation that is prescribed agency for whistle blowing however you can still refer individuals practitioners managers or social workers who are registered to social work England for theses matter and other wrongdoings , such as racial discrimination whether this is indirect or direct ( conscious or unconscious) . So if you have evidence that you have been wrongly accused by managers/social workers don’t be afraid to use the referral process and refer individual managers/social workers who have made up trump up allegations against you to social work England in their own rights. If social work England operates fairly then they will investigate these individuals.

      Social work England have a legal and regulatory obligations, under the equality 2010 with regards to various protective characteristics who include race.

      See what Standard 3 of the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care’s good standards of regulation, that came into effect in January 2020, ……..

      Social work England, is in place to protect the public, however the above paragraph about standard 3 says the regulator should understand the diversity of its registrants and their patients and services users…. ….ensure that it’s processes do not impose inappropriate barriers or otherwise disadvantage people with protective characteristics.

      I don’t feel that social work England is really following its legal requirements as urgently as it could they only work that has been completed has been in relation to reasonable adjustments. Race and other protective characteristics appear to be the last resort, and leaving registrants to record their ethnicity/race if they want is wrong 😑. Social work England needs to understand that if black practitioners and social workers from other ethnic groups are discrimination against by white social workers/ managers this means that these same social workers/managers will act the same way when working with black children and families who receive social work inventions. Remember I am not saying all white practitioners, let me be clear about that!

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