Social Work England’s performance improved last year, finds regulator’s watchdog

Regulator met 17 of 18 measures set by Professional Standards Authority in 2023, up from 16 the previous year, with one exception being in relation to the timeliness of fitness to practise cases

Image of series of ticks in boxes (Credit: Ralf Geithe / Adobe Stock)
Credit: Ralf Geithe / Adobe Stock

Social Work England’s performance improved last year, the regulator’s watchdog has found.

It met 17 of 18 standards it was assessed against by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) in 2023, up from 16 in each of the previous two years.

For the first time, the regulator met standard 17, under which it is expected to identify and prioritise all fitness to practise concerns which suggest a serious risk to the safety of people using services, and to apply for an interim order where appropriate.

It continued to meet all other standards, including on areas such as monitoring social work education courses and effectively managing the register, with the exception of standard 15, concerning the fairness and efficiency of the fitness to practise process. It missed this for the second year because of the long delays to cases.

Progress on risk assessment

In its previous report, which covered December 2021 to December 2022, the PSA found that Social Work England did not meet standard 17 because the time it took to make an interim order from the point of referral had increased on the previous review period.

What are interim orders?

Interim orders either suspend social workers (interim suspension orders) from practice or place restrictions on their practice (interim conditions of practice order), where Social Work England believes that concerns it has received are so serious that there would be a risk to the public, or the social worker themselves, if they were allowed to continue practising without restriction.

These include concerns about sexual misconduct, serious criminal convictions, theft or dishonesty in the workplace or serious errors relating to unsafe practice. In such cases, Social Work England investigators or case examiners refer the case to a panel of adjudicators, who determine whether to impose the interim order. They last up to 18 months – though Social Work England can apply to the High Court to extend this timeframe – and are reviewed every six months by adjudicators. Social workers can appeal to the High Court to have an order withdrawn.

The timeliness of the process improved in the first half of 2023, falling from an average of 32.4 weeks in the last quarter of 2022 to 21.5 and 22.1 weeks, respectively, in the first two quarters of last year. Case timeframes then increased substantially, to 45.1 and 44.6 weeks, respectively, in the last two quarters of 2023.

‘Reasonable explanations’ for case delays

However, a PSA audit identified no cases where it considered there had been a delay in Social Work England applying for an interim order. The watchdog also said the regulator had provided it with “reasonable explanations” for why case delays in the second half of 2023 were due to factors beyond its control.

The most significant of these was other investigations, for example, by employers, taking longer than expected to conclude, with subsequent challenges for Social Work England in obtaining evidence. In other cases, where the concern was about an agency worker, there was no prior investigation for Social Work England to rely upon, meaning it had to investigate the concern from scratch.

Another issue cited by the regulator was that it sometimes had to seek primary evidence about the context around a social worker’s decision making, in cases where they had acted properly but a person did not like the decision they had made.

The PSA also pointed out that Social Work England had met its own target on interim orders, to approve them within 20 working days after identifying that such an order may be necessary.

As a result, it concluded that the regulator had met standard 17, though added that it needed to ensure all aspects of the process within its control worked as effectively as possible, given the high risk to public protection in these cases.

No improvement on timeliness of fitness to practise

However, it found that the regulator had not met the standard on dealing with fitness to practise cases fairly, proportionately and as quickly as is consistent with a fair process, because it had not improved timeliness.

The PSA found that Social Work England was lagging well behind its targets on the median age of cases at the triage stage – where it decides whether there are reasonable grounds to investigate a social worker’s fitness to practise – and at the investigation stage.

As of the end of December 2023, the median age of the triage caseload was 23 weeks – against a March 2024 target of 14 weeks – and that of the investigation caseload was 66 weeks, against a March 2024 target of 54 weeks.

“It appears unlikely that Social Work England will meet either of these KPIs,” said the PSA, which added that Social Work England had explained this with reference to high levels of vacancies and absences in its triage and investigations teams.

The PSA also pointed out that the overall time from receiving a fitness to practise referral to a case conclusion had increased from 117.3 weeks in the last quarter of 2022 to 133 weeks in the last quarter of 2023.

As reported in Community Care last month, overall case lengths are set to rise further over the coming year because Social Work England’s 2024-25 budget settlement from the Department for Education (DfE) will likely prevent it from increasing the number of final hearings it holds to determine cases.

The PSA said that Social Work England had taken actions to improve timeliness – such as increasing capacity in its triage and investigations teams and reviewing triage processes – but it was too early to detect any impact from these.

Regulator ‘will do everything it can’ to tackle case delays

In response to the PSA’s report, Social Work England chief executive Colum Conway said the regulator was pleased that it had improved its performance year on year.

“The review recognised that we continued to face challenges in our fitness to practise process and this was the reason that we did not achieve one of the standards. It highlighted that we have taken several positive actions to streamline and improve this, he added.

“Whilst these actions have made improvements to this key element of our regulation, we agree that we can only improve timescales by increasing our capacity to hold hearings. We will do everything we can to do this within our resources.”

Social Work England’s performance in 2023

  1. The regulator provides accurate, fully accessible information about its registrants, regulatory requirements, guidance, processes and decisions (met).
  2. The regulator is clear about its purpose and ensures that its policies are applied appropriately across all its functions and that relevant learning from one area is applied to others (met).
  3. The regulator understands the diversity of its registrants and their patients and service users and of others who interact with the regulator and ensures that its processes do not impose inappropriate barriers or otherwise disadvantage people with protected characteristics (met).
  4. The regulator reports on its performance and addresses concerns identified about it and considers the implications for it of findings of public inquiries and other relevant reports about healthcare regulatory issues (met).
  5. The regulator consults and works with all relevant stakeholders across all its functions to identify and manage risks to the public in respect of its registrants (met).
  6. The regulator maintains up-to-date standards for registrants which are kept under review and prioritise patient and service user centred care and safety (met).
  7. The regulator provides guidance to help registrants apply the standards and ensures this guidance is up to date, addresses emerging areas of risk, and prioritises patient and service user centred care and safety (met).
  8. The regulator maintains up-to-date standards for education and training which are kept under review, and prioritise patient and service user centred care and safety (met).
  9. The regulator has a proportionate and transparent mechanism for assuring itself that the educational providers and programmes it oversees are delivering students and trainees that meet the regulator’s requirements for registration, and takes action where its assurance activities identify concerns either about training or wider patient safety concerns (met).
  10. The regulator maintains and publishes an accurate register of those who meet its requirements including any restrictions on their practice (met).
  11. The process for registration, including appeals, operates proportionately, fairly and efficiently, with decisions clearly explained (met).
  12. Risk of harm to the public and of damage to public confidence in the profession related to non-registrants using a protected title or undertaking a protected act is managed in a proportionate and risk-based manner (met).
  13. The regulator has proportionate requirements to satisfy itself that registrants continue to be fit to practise (met).
  14. The regulator enables anyone to raise a concern about a registrant (met).
  15. The regulator’s process for examining and investigating cases is fair, proportionate, deals with cases as quickly as is consistent with a fair resolution of the case and ensures that appropriate evidence is available to support decision-makers to reach a fair decision that protects the public at each stage of the process (not met).
  16. The regulator ensures that all decisions are made in accordance with its processes, are proportionate, consistent and fair, take account of the statutory objectives, the regulator’s standards and the relevant case law and
    prioritise patient and service user safety (met).
  17. The regulator identifies and prioritises all cases which suggest a serious risk to the safety of patients or service users and seeks interim orders where appropriate (met).
  18. All parties to a complaint are supported to participate effectively in the process (met).

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12 Responses to Social Work England’s performance improved last year, finds regulator’s watchdog

  1. Tahin April 3, 2024 at 8:17 am #

    Relying on the marks SWE gives its own homework to say it is meeting standards it has defined and set for itself is not evidence based. Ask me to define Sunday in my own words and when I say actually it’s cream cheese not a 24 hour period adopted by Emperor Constantine and you conclude that I have met my own definition is equivalent to Ofwat saying water companies are discharging sewage according to their own criteria. We have eyes, we are capable of observing reality, we can decide for ourselves. The more critical point of course is that given few social workers have confidence in SWE because of our own experience of it, the most credible report, which this certainly is not, would fail to convince us that it is a competent, social work focused and publicly accountable regulator not a fee collecting machine cranked by no purpose bureaucrats. That should worry all of us.

    • Victoria Coker April 4, 2024 at 11:54 am #

      Depends on those they’re interviewing as to get the true picture. Many people are praised even when the standards are poor. The watchdog needs to be more diverse.
      Please to get the true picture. Can the watchdog speak to those that the SWEngland don’t register just mainly for the boxes ticking. To get the balance to speak to those that the SW England refuse to register for no valid reasons. Also those experienced social workers who have moved away from the social work posts because of the SWEngland. We need a balance and a diverse views.

  2. Duncan Ross April 3, 2024 at 2:23 pm #

    Social workers with mental or physical health problems get put to the bottom of the pile of investigations. Clear discriminatory practice in how SWE operates, by not taking into account the impact on registrants with protected characteristics of the unreasonable investigation delays .

  3. Carol April 3, 2024 at 5:28 pm #

    SWE might tick boxes but they also kill careers – unfairly.

  4. David April 3, 2024 at 11:13 pm #

    SWE have recently claimed that it has not been able to fully fulfil its role due to inadequate funding. I do hope that SWE will have greater understanding that front-line Social Workers are on the same position and have been saying the same for years, alas to no avail

  5. Jackie Mahoney April 4, 2024 at 9:58 am #

    Interesting considering I know of cases which are still waiting to be dealt with, and interim orders being applied for extending up to 4 years!! This causing untold distress and harm to social workers involved in some cases financial difficulties (loosing home) relationships, mental & physical health problems. Totally agree with comments made. Needs to be independent review.

  6. Jim Greer April 4, 2024 at 1:22 pm #

    Considering the recent Employment Tribunal decision against them for harassing a registrant I cant see how they meet criteria 13. Their approach is clearly not proportionate. They have not issued an apology to Rachel Meade nor issued an explanation of how they will avoid a similar unjust process occurring in the future.
    Also, considering that gender critical beliefs are a protected belief under the Equality Act, their failure to publicly acknowledge that they were wrong to proceed against Rachel puts them in breach of criteria 3.

  7. Yoda April 5, 2024 at 4:33 pm #

    I agree with the comments above and also agree that an independent inquiry into the gross failings of this organisation should be considered. It is not fit for purpose, nor has it been since its inception – thus why I came off the register. I did not feel that they were fit to look after the qualification I worked so hard, and so efficiently to achieve.

    The disgraceful delays is having a huge impact on social workers’ mental health, family planning, careers, jobs, etc. If those under SWE’s scrutiny used the excuses that SWE is using, they would be told that they lack insight, remediation and are likely to repeat the behaviour. Their practice would be deemed impaired and they would be given a harsh sanction, so perhaps it’s time we do the same to them.

    I think every social worker should bombard their MPs with complaints about this organisation and the way it is harming the public, the profession and the individuals to whom they have a duty of care!

  8. V Wilson April 6, 2024 at 9:05 pm #

    SWE has not apologised for harassing a registrant & was found by an Employment Tribunal to have been culpable of such. How can a Regulator be deemed fit for purpose after such a clear failing? Social workers pay a handsome annual fee for what exactly? To be illegally discriminated against by their own Regulator?

  9. David April 7, 2024 at 7:12 pm #

    SWE has stated that it is unable to fully fulfil its functions due to inadequate funding. Social Workers are unable to fully fulfil their functions due exactly to the same lack of support, ie neither do they have the resources and time. Therefore will SWE now take this into consideration in its investigations of Social Workers, eg, when employers refer SWs to SWE for a lack of maintaining adequate recording?

  10. Richard April 9, 2024 at 5:07 pm #

    What complete nonsense from the PSA. I am afraid that their assessment of SWE is badly flawed and already outdated. Regulation of social work is undertaken by powerful regulators who themselves face little true accountability. This report should be read alongside the court reporting in the Meade case, where a very accurate picture of SWE’s manifest shortcomings could be seen. And it gets worse. SWE have now effectively ‘gone on unofficial strike’ with its decision to stop undertaking any FTP hearings (other than interim) until April 2025 because of lack of resources. How on earth a regulator can simply put social workers lives on hold is beyond me. Dreadful conduct and the patronisng attitudes of their senior managers to any criticism becomes culturally more ‘PostOfficeesque’ every day. They are completely unable to develop any insight into their own failings and misuse of resources, something a social worker would be deeply criticised for. If the government has any sense they will not offer any further funding to this failing organisation but make plans to replace it.

  11. JG April 14, 2024 at 2:15 pm #

    Performance doesn’t equal effectiveness and never will. I use to work in statistics many moons ago.

    For example – a car can reach a top speed of 120mph (performance figure) but in the real world it never reaches that speed (effectiveness figure). A crude example but here for some context!

    The published data doesn’t match the real world.

    SWE are driven by performance figures and meeting those figures by any means possible even if it means rejecting serious cases in place of less serious cases to boost those performance figures.

    SWE are very quick to boast on how many FTP cases are rejected at the Triage stage but there’s no context to those rejected cases. In the meantime less serious cases are dragged out for nothing but a performance figure in a report because that looks better in a report (because they’re reaching their top speed in a performance sense).

    SWE are being rewarded for failure and they “mark their own homework” and are continually allowed to do this – but who regulates the regulators? SWE are at the top of the food chain and are in effect an “apex predator” in a regulatory sense of the word.

    SWE definitely need a “Post Office” moment in being investigated for their total “IN-effectiveness”! But as with the Post Office it would take a group action!

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