Less than 1% of social workers reported to regulator referred to hearing or found to have fitness to practise issues

Figures show that relatively few practitioners about whom concerns are raised are found to have issues with their ability to practise safely or effectively

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Less than 1% of social workers reported to Social Work England last year were referred to a hearing or found to have impaired fitness to practise (FtP), show figures released by the regulator.

Of 2,328 referrals received from December 2020 to November 2021, 0.5% were deemed serious enough, following investigation, to require a hearing.

In a further 0.3% of cases, the social worker accepted the verdict of the regulator’s case examiners that their fitness to practise was impaired without a hearing being required (a so-called “accepted disposal”).

Both rates have fallen since Social Work England’s first year regulating the profession (December 2019 to November 2020), when 0.8% of 1,983 initial referrals required a hearing and there was an accepted disposal in a further 0.5% of cases. Figures are not yet available for the outcomes of hearings in either year.

High referrals

The statistics show how few social workers about whom concerns are raised are found to have issues with their ability to practise safely or effectively, or with their character, in the context of high numbers referred.

Social Work England said they showed the impact of its “risk-based approach” to FtP cases – with priority given to the most serious issues. However, the Social Workers Union, while welcoming the fall in the proportion of practitioners referred to a hearing, raised concerns about the impact on professionals’ practice, lives and mental health of the “inordinately long” FtP process.

The falls in the proportion of hearings and accepted disposals were mainly driven by a drop in the percentage of cases investigated following the regulator’s initial triage process and by post-investigation decision-making by case examiners.

Triage is designed to determine whether there are reasonable grounds to start an investigation, with the regulator’s staff considering factors including whether there is likely to be evidence to support the concern, there has been a breach of standards, the issue is isolated or repeated and whether action has already been taken to address it.

Practitioners filtered out of process

In 2020-21, 45.4% of cases were deemed worthy of investigation following triage, down from 55% in 2019-20.

Following investigation – which tends to take around six months – 30% of remaining cases were referred to case examiners, up from 24% in 2019-20.

Their role is to consider the evidence and decide whether there is a reasonable prospect the person’s fitness to practise will be found to be impaired at a hearing – and also whether a hearing is in the public interest.

Where it is not, they can agree an accepted disposal with the practitioner that their fitness to practise is impaired, potentially resulting in a written warning, suspension or a conditions of practice order, which places requirements on the social worker to enable them to continue practising.

Of cases considered by examiners, 8.9% were referred to a hearing and 5.8% resulted in an accepted disposal in 2020-21, down from 11.3% and 10.6%, respectively, in 2019-20.

Social Work England ‘learning and improving’

Social Work England’s executive director of fitness to practise, Jonathan Dillon, said: “The declining referral rate into investigations is as a result of us learning and improving during our first year of operations. This means that we referred fewer cases for investigation in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20. The same applies at the case examiner stage as we have been able to optimise the tools available to the case examiners to conclude cases at that stage of the process without referring to a hearing.”

He added: “The decrease in decisions resulting in a finding of impairment is as a result of the risk-based approach to case progression that we have adopted since go-live. The higher risk cases are more likely to result in a finding of impairment and these cases have been prioritised for progression.”

Since becoming regulator, Social Work England has faced a trio of pressures in managing the FtP system: problems with cases inherited from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), much higher than expected referral levels and the impact of Covid. The pandemic lockdowns initially prevented the regulator from holding in-person hearings and slowed evidence gathering from under-pressure local authorities.

These resulted in substantial delays for practitioners, which it has sought to tackle since, including through investing more in the FtP system, with government funding.

However, the “inordinately long” process was still causing “devastating” problems for the practitioners concerned, said the Social Workers Union in its response to the latest figures.

“We welcome the reduction in number of cases that have proceeded from triage to investigation and the reduction in the number of cases referred to hearing, because this may be an indicator of fewer cases proceeding unnecessarily through the FtP process,” said a spokesperson.

‘Devastating effect on lives and careers’

“However, the time in which social workers remain in the fitness to practise process remains inordinately long. Our experience shows that registrants can be in the regulatory system for many years, causing a devastating effect on lives and careers.

“Individuals may lose their jobs, struggle to find alternative work or experience vastly reduced incomes. We have seen this result in severe financial detriment for people including the need to access food banks, and in some cases homelessness.”

The regulator has also sought to understand why its referral rate was higher than the HCPC’s.

It will shortly publish the results of research based on investigating the experience of members of the public making complaints about social workers.

“This research aimed to help us develop our understanding around the public’s expectations and perceptions of our role so we might better understand why members of the public were raising a higher than anticipated number of referrals with us,” said Dillon.

“This research is due to be completed in early 2022 and we will use the findings to inform the way we explain our statutory responsibilities and make improvements to the way anyone can raise a concern with us online.”


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8 Responses to Less than 1% of social workers reported to regulator referred to hearing or found to have fitness to practise issues

  1. Jack March 25, 2022 at 6:05 pm #

    SWE. The enemy of the social worker. They will try and evidence their existence with weak cases and take years to complete and then say nothing found meanwhile the decent social worker is totally demoralised and driven from the profession. You can cough on the wrong place and SWE will take the case on gladly and pursue seeking guilt.

  2. Tafi Waynoni March 25, 2022 at 6:10 pm #

    Have there been any further improvements in the ethnic minorities being unfairly represented in these referrals?

  3. Anonymous March 25, 2022 at 6:24 pm #

    Shock, horror. SWE taking on any case it can get its filthy hands on. Take years to decide there was no case meanwhile driving decent SWs away from the profession. Good work SWE.

    • Anonymous March 28, 2022 at 1:00 am #

      100% lost all faith in this career, its demoralising and brutality abusive

  4. Chloe March 25, 2022 at 9:49 pm #

    What about when they know your pregnant going through the investigation process and get their solicitor to contact you on your due date when you are in active labour, threatening you that if you dont submit answers to their questions within 5 working days you will be penalised with a fine. What about when this leads to a serious panic attack and has detrimental consequences to the labour and birth of a baby placing both the social worker and the unborn child at significant risk. What about when they already were made aware of their slow investigation process and the impact on the pregnancy and the possible pre birth labour with evidence from GP and midwife. Absolutely disgraceful process, still ongoing, no resolution and the trauma this has caused. Its a job, not one’s life and the health and wellbeing of social workers and their families need to be paramount in the shit show they call an investigation. Any solicitors who can assist in this breach of their own standards?

  5. Craig Ducker March 25, 2022 at 11:51 pm #

    Ah, so clear evidence that SWE are a waste of time then…??

  6. Anthea March 27, 2022 at 1:08 pm #

    Until the cosy chums together collusion between SWE and BASW is exposed for the harm it does us this will continue. The irony of SWU mildly rebuking while its bosess at BASW hold tea and biscuits chats with SWE is my definition of the death of satire.

  7. Eboni March 29, 2022 at 3:20 pm #

    Its called black racism … Lets be clear about the predominant high levels of BME Staff being referred