Fitness to practise delays set to rise further due to Social Work England budget pressures

Regulator says measures to tackle overspend on current budget and likely tight government settlement for 2024-25 means case lengths will rise from current average of just over two years

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What is a reasonable timeframe for a regulator to investigate a fitness to practise case thoroughly and fairly?

  • Up to six months (73%, 510 Votes)
  • Six to 12 months (20%, 139 Votes)
  • 12-18 months (4%, 25 Votes)
  • Two years plus (2%, 14 Votes)
  • 18 months to two years (1%, 6 Votes)

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Fitness to practise (FTP) delays are set to rise further due to pressures on Social Work England’s budget, the regulator has confirmed.

Case lengths – from referral to a decision on the practitioner’s fitness to practise – will increase over the next 12 months from a current average of just over two years, Social Work England said in a report to its board meeting last month.

The situation is driven by the regulator’s constrained capacity to hold hearings determining the outcome of an FTP case.

Social Work England has reduced hearing numbers in recent months to tackle a projected overspend on its 2023-24 budget. Also, it is expecting its Department for Education (DfE) funding for 2024-25 to be insufficient to prevent increases in how long social workers spend waiting for their case to be heard.

The news prompted warnings from the Social Workers Union about the mental toll on practitioners of being subject to lengthy FTP processes.

Budget difficulties reducing hearing numbers

Social Work England said its current financial difficulties were mainly triggered by ministers requiring all government departments and agencies to pay non-senior civil servants a cost of living payment of £1,500 last summer.

The “unbudgeted” item cost the regulator £355,000, leaving it facing a projected overspend of £488,000 for 2023-24, net of income from social worker fees, as of the end of September last year.

To counter this, it developed a “financial mitigation” plan that included a recruitment freeze and reducing hearing numbers, which resulted in the projected overspend dropping to £222,000 as of the end of 2023.

However, this meant that the number of hearings per quarter fell from 64 in April to June 2023, to 35 in July to September and just 17 in October to December.

And though the number of cases awaiting a final hearing had fallen from a high of 412 last February to 354 in September 2023, it rose slightly in the last quarter of the year, to 361 in December.

DfE funding to tackle case backlog

The DfE has provided the regulator with additional resource beyond its core funding in each of the last three years, chiefly to tackle the backlog of ‘legacy’ FTP cases Social Work England inherited from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

These payments were worth £1.9m in 2021-22, £5.5m in 2022-23 – £1.2m of which was carried over to 2023-24 – and an additional £0.8m in 2023-24. Social Work England completed a project to deal with the legacy cases in June 2023.

About Social Work England’s budget

In 2022-23, Social Work England:

  • Spent £23.94m in revenue expenditure.
  • Earned £10.14m in fees from social workers.
  • Received £15.49m from the DfE in grant, £1.2m of which was reallocated to 2023-24.

Source: Social Work England Annual Report and Accounts 2022 to 2023

Likely 2024-25 budget means increase in waiting times

For its 2024-25 budget, Social Work England presented the DfE with three scenarios, at the department’s request:

  1. Returning to its core funding level, with “minimal” adjustment for known price rises, meaning a reduction in its 2023-24 budget.
  2. Similar funding levels to 2023-24, enabling it to meet known pay and price increases and slightly increase its work influencing national policy.
  3. An increase on the 2023-24 budget.

While the number of FTP cases awaiting a hearing “would begin stabilising” during 2024-25 under scenario 3, the DfE has told Social Work England a budget rise is unlikely, the regulator said.

As a result, it was preparing for one of the first two scenarios; however, in either case, “waiting times at the hearings stage would continue to increase”, it added.

‘Limited scope to tackle hearings challenge’

In response to the situation, a Social Work England spokesperson said: “Whilst we continue to focus on being as efficient as possible, as a small organisation there is very limited scope within our current budget to re-focus spending from other essential activities to address the challenge in hearings.

“We will continue to:

  • Explore future funding options that may allow us to increase capacity to progress more cases to hearings.
  • Prioritise case investigation, examination, and scheduling for hearings based on risks that have been identified through our consideration of the concerns raised.
  • Explore additional operational efficiencies within our fitness to practise process and consider further ways to resolve cases without a requirement to hold a final hearing, where this would be appropriate. These efficiencies may reduce the number of cases requiring a final hearing, but will not allow for more final hearings to be held.”

Distress is ‘unmanageable’ for social workers waiting on cases

The Social Workers Union said some of its members had had hearing dates adjourned up to three times and been told by the regulator to expect their case to be rescheduled to 2025.

Assistant general secretary Callum Gallacher said “elongated” waits for cases to reach a hearing were taking their toll on social workers.

“Some electively stop working because the distress is unmanageable, impact on immediate mental health, personal safety and wellbeing, and adversities also faced by their families who depend on them for emotional and financial support unmanageable. Some become trapped unable to move from problematic workplaces, or silencing cultures.”

Pressures across fitness to practise system

Social Work England’s performance report also revealed that the regulator was facing pressures across the whole of the FTP system.

The regulator received more FTP concerns from April to December 2023 (1,405) than during the same periods in 2022 (1,369) and 2021 (1,299).

The average age of cases at the triage stage rose from 18 to 23 weeks, against a target of 14 weeks, between July to September and October to December 2023.

The triage team determines whether there are reasonable grounds to investigate the social worker’s fitness to practise, and the delays reflect significant vacancy and absence levels during the second half of 2023.

This has had a knock-on impact on the age of cases being investigated, which rose from 62 to 66 weeks – equivalent to one year and three months – between July to September and October to December 2023.

Drive to rebalance fitness to practise system

The situation comes with Social Work England’s 2023-26 strategy having set an ambition to reduce FTP caseloads and delays by “getting ahead of the curve” to prevent concerns about practitioners from arising.

The strategy says that, in particular, the regulator would seek to achieve this by:

  • improving and strengthening the transition from education to employment;
  • supporting and guiding early career development;
  • making continuing professional development (CPD) routine, impactful and core to improving professional practice;
  • enhancing the development and accountability required of specialist roles, such as approved mental health professionals, best interests assessors and practice educators.

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36 Responses to Fitness to practise delays set to rise further due to Social Work England budget pressures

  1. Cora G March 10, 2024 at 6:52 pm #

    As a registered social worker and UK taxpayer I feel strongly that more must be done to hold Social Work England to account for how it spends and manages its finances.

    Are they still based in fancy modern offices in Sheffield? Looking at the annual reports I’m concerned about money being wasted.

  2. R Manning March 10, 2024 at 6:55 pm #

    The chaos at SWE would be funny if they weren’t so dangerous to social workers careers.

    • People you Support March 11, 2024 at 3:47 pm #

      or to the lives of the people you support.

  3. B. Kidd March 10, 2024 at 8:36 pm #

    SWE also need to stopping putting cases through with the wrong conclusion having been reached for a panel decision ,when the case is so obviously not going anywhere or is based on vindictive complainants or incorrect information, following 2 years of stress for those under so called investigation. Waste of money right there.

  4. Just wondering March 10, 2024 at 10:48 pm #

    Imagine if Community Care ran a poll on how confident social workers are in SWE. If confidence was low, would BASW speak up for social workers or side with SWE?

    • Andrea March 11, 2024 at 2:12 pm #

      BASW will side with SWE always.

  5. Jim Greer March 11, 2024 at 8:26 am #

    It would be interesting to know how much they have spent on legal costs as a result of their wrong headed actions against Rachel Meade who has recently won her Employment Tribunal against them.
    See article elsewherevon Community care website.
    The decision on what Social Work England will have to pay out is imminent.
    Hopefully, there will be a policy change which will accept the rights of social workers to express views on important social issues without fear of being taken to FTP.

    • Jane March 13, 2024 at 8:52 pm #

      That’s a good point. It would be easy to find out if you request freedom of information access to this information. The information should be public knowledge. Im hoping BASW are being curious about this matter.

  6. David March 11, 2024 at 3:04 pm #

    Regarding my FtP investigation it took SWE 2 years and 7 months to conclude this, with Case Examiners confirming the recommendation of the investigation report, ie no further action and no concerns regarding my social work practice. SWE did not inform me about the complaint until a full 12 months after it had been received.

    The complaint was from a parent who was refusing to have his wayward teenage child at home. I challenged the parent about this, with a reminder about his legal parental responsibility and duties towards his child. This was not well received by the parent, hence the complaint.

    It was the parent who was abandoning his son, not me as the Social Worker. The parent should have been the one under investigation

    Given the above I lost faith in SWE and have now left the profession

  7. Malteser March 11, 2024 at 9:08 pm #

    I feel sorry for both SWE and Social Workers caught in this huge delay of FTP cases. Alternative disposals need to be strongly considered and a realistic view taken of the concerns already shunted through via Case Examiners. It isn’t fair to all concerned – alleged victims and alleged unfit social workers. The mental torture both sides go through as well as no income if interim suspended for the social worker is HUGE and cannot be underestimated. These issues need to hit the media – just like the NMCs backlog did in September! Maybe then the DfE might loosen their purse strings (!)

    • Dave March 12, 2024 at 8:30 am #

      Sorry (not sorry), but I stopped reading at “I feel sorry for both SWE…”

      • Malteser March 12, 2024 at 11:13 am #

        I understand, however, they have been blighted by lockdowns and reduced funding. Some things are out of their control – same with the criminal justice system backlogs. I appreciate however that there needs to be something done urgently for those social workers stuck in the system, and I can only think that should be a realistic review of all cases waiting to be heard and the application of common sense/proportionality being applied.

  8. Charlie March 12, 2024 at 12:14 am #

    Yet SWE are spaffing our registration and tax money up the wall for Social Work Week 🙄 🤦‍♂️

  9. Claire M March 12, 2024 at 8:18 am #

    I have it on good authority that SWE are not even looking at new fitness to practice referrals until April 2025. Apparently, they are begging other social work organisations to ask DfE for extra funding on their behalf.

    We need to call SWE out for what it is – an incompetent and repugnant government department with morally bankrupt leadership.

  10. Alastair Gibbons March 12, 2024 at 10:14 am #

    I know of a colleague who is still awaiting a FTP hearing date 5.5 years after the complaint referral and 8 years after the complaint event. This is grossly unfair and unjust and has caused enormous distress. SWE’s processes are too legalistic and adversarial. They should be based on restorative and learning approaches rather than blame. There should be a time limit (say 2 years) after which complaints about FTP are dropped if SWE have been unable to reach a conclusion.

    • People you Support March 13, 2024 at 8:52 am #

      “There should be a time limit (say 2 years) after which complaints about FTP are dropped if SWE have been unable to reach a conclusion.”

      That would be really fair to the victim/complainant, it is not their fault that SWE have a backlog.

    • Alan March 15, 2024 at 8:15 pm #

      Well said Alistair. I also wonder about the need for a route to recourse – compensation. Hemorrhaging money on public services and supporting the workforce as opposed to spanking it on cheese and wine and dodgy procurement contracts seems to be the only concern the government has. No regard for social workers welfare, health, or safety

  11. Rob March 12, 2024 at 10:46 am #

    I retired after a 32 year journey from an unqualified Houseparent, remember those?, qualified Generic Social Worker, recall those?, to at point of retirement a Team Manager. 2 years after retirement I occasionally meet up with other managers and sometimes with Strategy and Service Development colleagues. Conversation sometime strays on to SWE, I know retirement is never boring. Invariably given the social nature of these conversations professional inhibitors are somewhat loosened. To a person opinion on SWE is very critical with confidence in it very low. These senior managers all say that the collusion with the official line about how well SWE performs it’s purpose is so hardwired in the LA that criticism or any questioning in management meetings is quickly shut down. I have personally experienced a SW I managed being humiliated, ignored, judged within a “no smoke without fire'” mindset following a transparently malicious service user complaint. For 26 months there was near silence from SWE while it ‘investigated’ only for the complaint to be closed without sanction but also without any acknowledgement of the debilitating effect that process had on an experienced, diligent, conscientious and dedicated social worker. A profession truly committed to transparency and open discussion would not shut down its own senior managers from raising concerns. Community Care navigates the increasingly publicly apparent failings of SWE with commendable diligence which post retirement I appreciate even more. It’s telling that no senior managers publicly expresses even the mildest criticism of SWE. Even BASW seems loathe to represent practitioner views if these a critical of SWE while having what appears to be a chums together cosiness over tea and biscuits relationship. Personally I view SWE as financially incompetent and professionally adrift from the realities of social work and the experiences of practitioners. My one contact with SWE over how they conducted their investigation, the length it took and the cursery manner in which they informed us of their exonerating conclusion makes me believe that they are unfit to regulate social workers and unqualified to set standards for social work.

  12. Straight tired talker March 12, 2024 at 6:57 pm #

    The delay is not acceptable! This is a profession that makes all the right noise regarding doing the right thing in timely manner for everyone else. Why can’t we look after each other? SWE please, function or resign …
    How is this fair?

  13. J Newton March 12, 2024 at 7:50 pm #

    I’ve been waiting 7 years to return to practice . 2 years investigation and 5 years removal. FTP admin error. Not much hope for my career moving forward.

  14. R Mitchell March 12, 2024 at 9:56 pm #

    We need a vote of no confidence in SWE and QUICK! BASW?? Community Care??

  15. David March 13, 2024 at 8:46 am #

    Clearly there is some considerable and strongly expressed dissatisfaction with the workings of SWE. Will SWE, and indeed others, heed this and act accordingly?

  16. David March 13, 2024 at 12:41 pm #

    Thanks for making me aware of the Professionals Standards Authority. I agree that others need to express the above shared concerns regarding SWE and its workings

    • Beverley T March 13, 2024 at 6:38 pm #

      To be fair, it was clear that SWE were government poodles from day 1. I’ll be complaining to the PSA too.

  17. Johnny March 13, 2024 at 2:22 pm #

    Swe is not fit for purpose that’s clear. What are CC, BASW etc saying about this? This can not go on no other professional “regulator” would be or is such a joke.

    • Tahin March 14, 2024 at 10:32 am #

      The job of CC journalists is to report and hopefully reflect the diversity of opinion on stories. I wouldn’t expect them to be advocates. I expect ADASS and ADCS to be the champions of the profession and being critical when it’s being damaged. Their silence is ample evidence that they are too close to SWE to criticise obvious failings. I would expect BASW to have a critical distance from SWE also but it seems cosying up overrides representing their members interests. I know of a BASW member who sought advice from BASW when they were subject to FtP who got short shrift and the SWU was “unable” to get involved. Our organisations are a cabal really. There is no independence, there is no inclination to be ‘controversial’ and all are agenda driven so not really geared to respond to our practitioner concerns effectively. BASW included they are great at developing policies and talking up a report. That’s all. So I don’t expect CC to be “the voice of social work”. I expect our Leaders to be that. What I expect from CC is accurate reporting of these stories. For me Community Care journalists do that admirably.

  18. Frasierfanclib1 March 13, 2024 at 9:36 pm #

    Maybe they should insist that all of the evidence accompanies the referral. The LA in my case took 6.months to produce anything and then it took a further 6 months for them to conclude no case to answer. It feels that SWE just go on fishing expeditions. If they are not provided with any evidence then the case should be closed.

  19. Josef K March 13, 2024 at 9:59 pm #

    What I find very curious is the that the Professional Standards Authority are consulting on new guidance to support the other regulated professions rolling out the unique SWE accepted outcomes case examiner process, seemingly on the basis it offers flexibility and speeds things up and decreases delay .
    Also There’s a lengthy process of referral, triage ,investigation before you get to the 2 year minimum wait for a hearing . Potentially 4 to 5years in the this stigmatising process is unacceptable .
    SWE surely have to explain how this delay protects the public and ensures a just and timely intervention to registrants and witnesses.

    My money is on SWE having to hike the cost of registration to bring in revenue to cover costly adversarial litigations and compensation for failure .

  20. David March 14, 2024 at 3:13 am #

    It does not look good for SWE. It seems to me that there is clearly a lack of confidence in SWE

  21. Tom J March 14, 2024 at 2:28 pm #

    Thankyou to Community Care for shining a light on this.

    Social Work England routinely taking over two years to conclude investigations is not good enough. Not good for the social worker who has this hanging over them. Also makes a mockery of the person complaining i.e. how seriously are you taking my complaint if it takes you over two years to bring it to a conclusion?

    They need to do better. Six months to investigate and conclude should be more than enough time. I hope to push through my trade union a ‘6 Months is Plenty’ campaign.

  22. David March 15, 2024 at 1:26 pm #

    As previously stated it was 12 months before SWE informed me of a complaint and then a further year and 7 months for SWE to conclude NFA and no impairment as to my social work practice.

  23. Calum March 15, 2024 at 8:18 pm #

    Can you imagine the outcry if it took social workers 2-8 years to complete an assessment!

  24. David March 16, 2024 at 10:27 am #



    SWE are claiming inadequate resources related to insufficient budgets. Social Workers have been saying exactly the same for years impacting upon their ability to do their job effectively. They have been ignored

  25. David March 16, 2024 at 10:37 am #

    Perhaps SWE should investigate this and thereby itself for not keeping to timescales. Its websites did say that investigations should take around 6 months


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