Social Work England committed ‘abuse of power’ in ‘punishing’ practitioner’s gender critical beliefs

Tribunal takes rare step of imposing exemplary damages on regulator for allowing its fitness to practise processes to be subverted to suppress social worker Rachel Meade's lawful speech

Book with title employment tribunal on a table.
Photo: Vitalii Vodolazskyi/Adobe Stock

Social Work England carried out a “serious abuse of its power as a regulatory body” in allowing its fitness to practise (FTP) processes to be “subverted to punish and suppress” a practitioner’s protected gender critical beliefs.

That was the damning verdict of an employment tribunal in a judgment issued this week.

The ruling was to determine remedies to compensate social worker Rachel Meade for the harassment she received at the hands of both the regulator and her employer, Westminster City Council, through disciplinary and FTP processes related to her beliefs.

The tribunal ordered the two organisations to jointly pay Meade £40,000 for injury to her feelings, as well as £5,000 in aggravated damages, which are imposed when an act of discrimination has been carried out in a “high-handed, malicious, insulting or oppressive” way, it said.

Exemplary damages imposed on regulator

However, it then took the rare step of imposing exemplary damages of £5,000 on Social Work England. These are designed to “punish conduct that is oppressive, arbitrary or unconstitutional” and are “reserved for the most serious abuses of governmental power”, said the tribunal.

The panel of one judge and two lay members said that in its FTP process, Social Work England had taken “a pre-ordained view” that Meade’s beliefs were “unacceptable” and an “an institutional view to favour one side of the debate” on gender – that which supported gender self-identification.

In response, the regulator said it took the ruling “extremely seriously” and had “already started implementing [its] learning from this case”.

About gender critical beliefs

In its original judgment, the tribunal said Rachel Meade’s case concerned a high-profile public debate between those espousing gender self-identification as opposed to those with gender critical views.

The former broadly refers to a belief that people should be recognised in society and law as the gender they identify as, and equivalently to a person of the corresponding sex, regardless of their own sex and without a requirement for medical transition.

The latter refers to the belief that sex is real, immutable and significant, such that there should be limits on trans women’s access to female spaces, including toilets, prisons, refuges, hospital wards, sporting competitions and all-women shortlists.

In Maya Forstater v CGD Europe and Others (UKEAT/10/20/JOJ), the employment appeal tribunal ruled that holding gender critical beliefs was covered by the protected characteristic religion and philosophical belief, under the Equality Act.

Facebook posts

The case concerned 70 posts that Meade made on her private Facebook account that prompted a complaint to the regulator from a fellow social worker.

They included links to a petition calling for male athletes not to compete in women’s sports, to a petition calling for female only spaces and to a satirical post which stated:

“Boys that identify as girls to go to Girl Guides. Girls that identify as boys to go to Boy Scouts. Men that identify as paedophile go to either.”

Both Social Work England and Westminster contended this post – referred to as the Girl Guides/Boy Scouts post in the original judgment – conflated transgenderism with paedophilia.

Fitness to practise and disciplinary cases

Following an investigation, Social Work England found there was a realistic prospect that Meade’s fitness to practise was impaired, with its case examiners’ report saying she had engaged in a pattern of discriminatory behaviour over an extended period.

It then agreed with her that she should receive a one-year warning, though Meade later rescinded her consent to this, meaning the warning was removed.

The regulator later received advice that there was no realistic prospect of a determination of impairment and so applied for Meade’s case to be discontinued. This was then agreed by an FTP panel.

Following Social Work England’s original decision, Westminster suspended Meade on gross misconduct charges in July 2021, pending an investigation under its disciplinary code.

The suspension was not lifted until nearly a year later, and, in the meantime, she received a letter from her employer suggesting that she may pose a risk to vulnerable clients if she returned to work. After she did return, following a disciplinary hearing, Westminster placed Meade on a 24-month final written warning, with the risk of dismissal for similar further actions.

However, after Social Work England ended its fitness to practise case, Westminster removed the written warning from her record.

What the tribunal ruled

In its original judgment, tribunal found that none of the posts could reasonably be regarded as offensive or inciting hatred. All fell within Meade’s protected rights to freedom of thought and expression, under Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

For example, it said the Girl Guides/Boy Scouts constituted “a reasonable satire” and addressed a “legitimate safeguarding concern that some transwomen, retaining male bodies, could exploit their position to have access to young and vulnerable girls”.

The tribunal concluded that Westminster’s disciplinary process constituted harassment, on the grounds that the council had taken the view that in the expression of her protected gender critical beliefs, Meade “had behaved in a manner which warranted a suspension and a disciplinary process”.

In relation to Social Work England, the tribunal concluded that its “prolonged investigation” related to Meade’s protected beliefs and “created an intimidating, hostile and offensive environment for her” and, as such, constituted harassment.

Aggravated damages

In its remedy judgment, the tribunal said £40,000 was an appropriate sum for the two organisations to pay Meade in compensation for the injury she had suffered.

In imposing aggravated damages on Westminster, it referred to the council having contended that Meade posed a risk to vulnerable service users as “highly insulting and upsetting to her as a long serving social worker with an impeccable reputation”.

In relation to Social Work England, the tribunal said that its reformatted statement of the case against Meade, in July 2022, had been “insulting and oppressive” and “sought to demonstrate the claimant’s culpability”.

It also found that both organisations “in the conduct of the respective procedures demonstrated considerable animosity against the claimant on account of her gender critical beliefs”.

‘A serious abuse of power’

In imposing exemplary damages on Social Work England alone, the tribunal said that its actions “constituted a serious abuse of its power as a regulatory body”.

It had “allowed its processes to be subverted to punish and suppress the claimant’s lawful political speech, and to do so on grounds of her protected beliefs” and that, furthermore, it had “a pre-ordained view as to the claimant’s beliefs being unacceptable”.

The tribunal also criticised Social Work England for “its failure to offer any form of apology” to Meade following the original judgment, and said it had “demonstrated an unwillingness to accept that its actions were unacceptable and caused [Meade] considerable distress”.

As well as the damages, the tribunal recommended that Westminster, within six months, ensure that all of its managers and human resources staff receive training in freedom of expression and protected beliefs, including the implications of the Forstater judgment (see box above). The details of this should be shared with Meade, it said.

It recommended the same training in respect of Social Work England’s fitness to practise triage, investigation and case examiner staff, adding: “We consider that this is appropriate given the deficiencies in the process, we have found to have existed in the liability judgment.”

‘We take this case extremely seriously’

Colum Conway, chief executive, Social Work England

Colum Conway, chief executive, Social Work England

In its response to the judgment, Social Work England chief executive Colum Conway said: “As the national regulator for the social work profession we take this case extremely seriously. We want to reiterate again how we recognise this has been a particularly difficult case for Rachel Meade and all others involved.

“Gender critical views, namely the belief that sex is immutable, are a philosophical belief protected under the Equality Act 2010. We have already started implementing our learning from this case.”

He added: “We have already developed internal guidance for our fitness to practise team. The guidance considers concerns raised to us on the use of social media by social workers. In addition, we are in the process of updating and delivering training on the drafting of regulatory concerns, have started providing case law updates and implemented amendments to our regulations on the review of case examiner decisions.”

He said that the regulator would deliver training to its triage, investigation and case examiner teams on the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act, their impact on regulatory process and how to appropriately factor this into decision making. This would include training on freedom of expression and protected characteristics and would be delivered by an external legal trainer within two months.

Conway added: “While we remain committed to learning from this case and implementing next steps, we are still considering the remedy judgment and our options.”

The Professional Standards Authority, which oversees Social Work England, said, in a statement: “Through our performance review process, (in which we assess regulators against the Standards of Good Regulation), we will monitor how Social Work England responds to the employment tribunal judgment and its recommendation. Social Work England’s performance review period runs from January to December and we aim to report on this by the end of March each year.”

‘A huge relief that it’s finally over’

Rachel Meade

Rachel Meade

In response to the remedy judgment, Meade said: “It’s a huge relief that it’s finally over and that the [employment tribunal] awarded significant amount of compensation to reflect the serious nature of the harassment I experienced at the hands of my professional regulator and employer just for expressing legitimate beliefs and concerns.”

A Westminster City Council spokesperson said: “We have received the findings of the remedy hearing and will need to take a little time to digest before responding more fully.

“We have apologised to Rachel Meade and the points which emerged during the tribunal and remedy hearing are an important and helpful guide in clarifying what is acknowledged to be a rapidly evolving area of employment law.”

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45 Responses to Social Work England committed ‘abuse of power’ in ‘punishing’ practitioner’s gender critical beliefs

  1. J Knowles May 3, 2024 at 4:51 pm #

    This is true. These horrible people,are run by ex Police not social workers. If there are social workers there if so they are not wanting to be front line. Filthy operation.

  2. Gina May 3, 2024 at 4:58 pm #

    Still no apology from SWE. No remorse even when it’s proved wrong. SWE is an embarrassment to everything social work stands for.

    • Stacey D May 6, 2024 at 4:04 pm #

      If every social worker refused to renew their registration in protest, what would happen to SWE then?

    • Bev May 6, 2024 at 8:04 pm #

      I’m thinking of all those Principle Social Workers who celebrate SWE on Twitter. Are they hanging their heads in shame now?

      • Lesley Anne-Marie May 7, 2024 at 5:42 pm #

        Probably not but they absolutely should be.

      • Andul May 11, 2024 at 9:18 am #

        Not in our authority. Ours said we don’t have to accept unjust laws that entrench discrimination. Warned us that a similar complaint would still be considered a disciplinary offence here.

    • Lesley Anne-Marie May 7, 2024 at 5:40 pm #

      I absolutely agree. SWE are not fit for purpose. I thought that HCPC were bad enough but SWE take bias and discrimination against practitioners to a whole new level. I think it’s clear that SWE do not have a clue what they are doing and have zero understanding of social work with it’s ethics and value based.

      To be candid, I think that they got off very lightly in respect of this case. I think that in addition to the damages awarded against them, SWE should have been fined for their misconduct with that fine being a minimum of a six figure sum to actually teach them a stern lesson.

      As for Westminster Council, the director of the relevant SSD should be holding his/her head in shame at the way that they have behaved.

      Finally, I think that if one is publishing on social media. It’s far to easy to get caught out and subsequently get dragged over the coals irrespective of if there is actually any wrong doing or not.

      Let’s be careful out there😊

    • Clare May 12, 2024 at 10:12 am #

      Its appalling there’s no apology, in fact the statements for colum Conway read like a veiled threat to others. I have written to the DHSC but basically the response is that there is no accountability for the regulator, they can just do what they like. Its terrifying.

  3. David May 3, 2024 at 5:03 pm #

    Social Work England roundly condemned, eh? Let’s hope it learns lessons

  4. Disillusioned May 3, 2024 at 5:04 pm #

    Good! Finally common sense prevails. You can have your own personal beliefs/opinions as long as they do not cross over and impair your practice. I am sick to deaf of all this nonsense.

  5. Karen M May 3, 2024 at 5:26 pm #

    Poor Rachel, what a horrendous experience, I hope she can recover from this X

  6. Anne May 3, 2024 at 6:18 pm #

    Well done Rachel. Womens beliefs should be validated and not dismissed. This is a moment where social work England and social work employers need to think before condemn gender critical beliefs.
    Having worked with transgender sex offenders I think there are huge safeguarding issues which appear brushed to the side and the discussions have been to criticise and silence those who question.
    SWE processes are extremely oppressive and harassing. Hope they genuinely learn not to be so aggressively hostile in pursuit of a negative and unfair outcome.
    Thank you for your integrity and challenging rigid systems. You deserve a medal. You have my respect.

  7. Victoria Coker May 3, 2024 at 6:39 pm #

    I am not surprised. Social work England staff need training. Many of them are inexperienced. I have a case based on ageism and the fact that the members of staff lied about my situation. I made a complaint and I was totally ignored. I end up stop working even though my job didn’t require registration. It makes me question whether this set up by the government is fit for a purpose.
    I have had horrible stories from other people as well. Why should an organisation like that be in charge of social workers when there should be responsible, accountable and respect for social work staff. Many of the approvals are tick boxes. They are only able to examine and assess properly a very small percentage of those put applications in for registration. In my case they definitely abuse their powers because they have powers to do so. I was going to go to the Tribunals and still debating whether I should go or not. At present they have shocked me and drained me out of my energy. I no longer have any respect for social work England. AND can never ever trust them. They’re slowly destroying this organisation reputation The Watch dog that assessed them should be talking to those that put complaints in to the Social Work England and those that Social Work England refused to register. In a lot of times their conducts are unfair, unjust and unprofessional

    • Lesley Anne-Marie May 7, 2024 at 5:50 pm #

      Let’s be candid about this Victoria, SWE are plain and simply not fit for purpose and should be disbanded.

      Their hypocrisy knows no bounds, if a practitioner behaved in the way this so called regulator behaved, quite simply their feet wouldn’t touch the ground and that is exactly how the regulator should be treated.

  8. Gemma May 3, 2024 at 9:50 pm #

    Perhaps us social workers who are planning on applying to re register this year should focus our peer based cpd peice on SW England’s ‘serious abuse of its power as a regulatory body”. That should make for some interesting reading 🤣🤣

  9. Theresa May 3, 2024 at 10:13 pm #

    If SWE has been found guilty of “seriously abusing its power” at what point do we say enough is enough and demand a new regulator for social work? This is now getting scary… 😱

  10. James W May 3, 2024 at 10:27 pm #

    Good to see the pendulum is starting to swing back on SWE.

  11. Claire May 3, 2024 at 11:06 pm #

    The process is the punishment.

  12. DA May 4, 2024 at 7:07 am #

    And the fellow social worker who reported Rachel Meade: any consequences for her?

  13. Adenike May 4, 2024 at 8:03 am #

    This case has a lot of learning within it, social workers should not be silenced in fear of being reported to their regulator. No other profession does this, we provide a critical service and are already under staffed. To lose people in this job due to conflicting “political” views, is outrageous. Not to mention the impact on the livelihood of Mead and her quality of life from the loss of income and the impact this would have had on her mental health.

  14. Yvonne May 4, 2024 at 8:44 am #

    Hooray Hooray Hooray
    Rachel you are truly an inspiration and a rare gem.
    Well done for sticking to what you believe in. Can’t imagine what these organisations who are meant to protect you/us put you through. Lessons to be learnt hopefully.
    Well done !!!!!!!

    • Lesley Anne-Marie May 7, 2024 at 5:59 pm #

      Yvonne, I’m not sure who lead you to believe that SWE is supposed to protect us / the profession. They are an organisation, created by a government that hates social workers and sees us as no good incompetent do gooners. As a consequence they are doing whatever they can get away with to marginalise the profession. The care act is a prime example of this and I have that from one of the lawyers who was key in the consultation process of the care act.

      I find myself in the absurd position of lamenting the demise of the GSCC as the regulator for social work.

  15. Jim Greer May 4, 2024 at 11:36 am #

    It is very concerning that the regulator has still not issued an apology to Rachel or admitted that it was wrong to subject Rachel to fitness to practise procedures at the start. It has also failed to issue a statement saying that social workers have a right to free speech and to take part in important debates on public policy. Many social workers will still be afraid to openly discuss issues such as gender identity in case they face similar proceedings.
    The issue of freedom of speech in relation to gender issues is especially salient in light of the recent Cass Review on care of children with gender dysphoria. What emerged was that there is no proper body of evidence to support the social or medical transitioning of children. One of the early whistle blowers of the poor practices of the Tavistock was a social worker. Without her courage and that of other colleagues children would still be being funnelled towards medicalised pathways, rather than receiving a holistic exploration of their difficulties.
    One of the strengths of social work is that it is a skeptical profession. We do not accept anything at face value. To maintain that strength social workers have to be able to challenge ideas and practices without fear of being unjustly tarnished with labels such as transphobic.

    • Lesley Anne-Marie May 7, 2024 at 6:02 pm #

      Absolutely agree with everything you post here Jim.

  16. Theresa May 4, 2024 at 1:15 pm #

    Hopefully everyone is now realising how dangerous SWE is to social work.

  17. Josef K May 4, 2024 at 2:34 pm #

    Perhaps this is evidence of bias in the context of regulation and the case examiner process . A recipe for disaster and here is the outcome . I personally expected Rachel to have been awarded a far greater amount given the effects of a drawn out adversarial process and the damning verdict . This in my opinion indicates in particular that SWE case examiner system is unfit and needs revision. Instead it’s being rolled out enthusiastically in other regulated professions. The alternative for social workers in this process is to fight via an adjudication hearing and be subjected to years of adversarial litigation ,most likely without funds for legal support , in a system known to be failing with unacceptable delays for listing hearings .

    It is heartening that Rachel has achieved justice and had the support and resources to overturn and then challenge this abuse of power .
    Who funds the compensation ?
    This is Public relations disaster for Social Work England and it’s reputation with the public and the profession.

  18. Holly Gordon May 4, 2024 at 5:17 pm #

    Congratulations to Rachel, who should never have been put through this.

  19. David May 4, 2024 at 8:38 pm #

    What else might SWE be responsible for?

    • Sarah May 8, 2024 at 9:04 am #

      That is the crucial question. SWE will have destroyed lots of social workers careers unnecessarily. They exacerbate the recruitment and retention crisis!

      Chief Social Workers? A.W.O.L.

  20. Dee May 5, 2024 at 11:14 am #

    Worst case of organisational abuse. Shame on both in not promoting nor protecting the rights of a professional seeking to protect others. What was said is factual. There are no clear safe spaces anymore and adults responsible for children, do need to be extremely observant and questioning. Well done Rachel.

  21. David May 5, 2024 at 9:42 pm #

    It took SWE 12 months to inform me about a complaint regarding my practice from an an irate parent I’d challenged regarding his chaotic and inconsistent parenting. It then took SWE a further 17 months for an investigation to determine that there was no evidence to justify the complaint. All I received was a thank you for my patience. I left Social Work thanks to Social Work England. It needs to investigate itself

  22. Ryan Webb May 5, 2024 at 10:24 pm #

    To quote from the article: “[t]he latter refers to the belief that sex is real, immutable and significant, such that there should be limits on trans women’s access to female spaces, including toilets, prisons, refuges, hospital wards, sporting competitions and all-women shortlists.” How on earth has the hitherto unquestionably essential and universally endorsed exclusive and separate access of women and girls to these domains been reduced to a “belief”? Also, why is it almost exclusively women who are being forced to negotiate protracted legal mechanisms in order to defend their “gender critical” stance? To utilise once again the language of the article, why does “transgenderism” not have an equally direct, significant and meaningful impact on men as it does on women?

    • Jim Greer May 7, 2024 at 5:54 pm #

      These are good questions Ryan. There are other social workers facing sanctions for voicing gender critical beliefs- from their employers- not Social Work England. One of them is a lesbian who questioned whether biological males could be lesbians. What all of these people have in common is that they are women. Women face huge hostility when they question and aspect of gender ideology. Dr Cass, whose review of gender services for young people was recently published has been advised by the Police not to to travel on public transport for her safety. The rights of women to have opinion about these issues appears to have been abandoned completely.

  23. May May 6, 2024 at 1:55 pm #

    SWE will never issue an apology because as the PSW in our service told us progressive ideas only advance when laws are broken. Ignore the law when it’s inconvenient is where SWE and ‘Leadership’ has taken us. What’s not been widely reported is that two other social workers were suspended by Westminster Council for “failing to report” Rachel. Authoritarian bullies masquerading as progressives will never tolerate being questioning nor apologise.

  24. Richard May 7, 2024 at 7:52 am #

    The biggest concern I now have about this is the fact that Colum the SWE CEO says that ‘they take the case extremely seriously’ and that ‘lessons will be learned from the case’. The thing is that their problems go far beyond this single case. Much of the criticism seen directed at SWE’s FTP practices in this Rachel Meade case, has far greater and more widespread application. The same FTP failings are seen in very many cases where the focus is on practice or conduct far less controversial than in the Meade case.

    There is a cultural issue at the heart of SWE’s approach that they simply appear unable to comprehend. Their arrogance to challenge is breathtaking and they appear to be unable to reflect or remediate on their own conduct. The PSA appears content to rubber stamp SWE’s clear inadequacies. I wonder whether they will look at ‘the abuse of power’ now it has been identified. We are heading for Post Office 2 with this regulator but at this stage their corporate defensiveness does not appear to permit them to actually act and change their approach.

  25. Phyllis May 8, 2024 at 8:45 am #

    In the past a CEO would have resigned for less, not Conway.

  26. £90 for what May 11, 2024 at 9:41 am #

    For me the real point here isn’t that both SWE and Westminster City Council have been found to have acted in a discriminatory way and sanctioned but that neither the SWE investigator nor the Westminster manager who took the decision are facing any action. It’s instructive reading the SWE investigation report and the predetermined prejudice that Investigator brought to the investigation. It’s easy paying out public money, what should be happening is that real sanctions that hurt the reputations of those involved here should be applied. The Tribunal can’t do that of course but we can keep the pressure up on SWE and Westminster ourselves even if it’s through Community Care. This is a time for BASW to show it’s on the side of social workers and not their chums at SWE. This is a time for social work academics to actually do something in real time to expose the authoritarianism endemic to social work management cultures. I raised the Tribunal decision in our team meeting and was told by our manager, “we are still absorbing that. I need to remind you though that we do not tolerate discrimination against our trans colleagues and this decision doesn’t change that.” So business as usual then. Meanwhile what’s happened to the 2 social workers who were also persecuted by Westminster “for not reporting” Rachel?

    • Jim Greer May 12, 2024 at 9:03 pm #

      Sounds as though your manager hasn’t read the tribunal decision. Rachel was not found to have been transphobic in any way- so the remark about not tolerating discrimination is completely unnecessary. Apparently elements of the social work profession and the authoritarian left seem to be only able to keep in mind the rights of one group in society at a time. Women’s rights and their right to defend them seem to have been abandoned.

      • £90 for what May 13, 2024 at 10:31 am #

        Oh they have and just like their dismissal of the Cass report as not credible, they have decided that the law and the science Cass is based on doesn’t apply and indeed “promote discrimination.” I know social workers in other authorities who have had perhaps a more muted but similar messages given by managers. Most social workers work under and are supervised by seniors who have very entrenched authoritarian outlooks tolerated by their own managers. Our realities are very different from the DEI projected by employers. Threats of a disciplinary action rather than validating open debate between adult professionals is why Westminster and SWE believe they have immunity from complying with law and treating staff not as professionals but as potential embarrassments who need to be micro monitored and reminded of consequences if they fail the ‘loyalty’ test. None of this is an exaggeration in our authority.

  27. Linval Hermitt May 16, 2024 at 9:40 am #

    It may already be noted the above community care report 3.5.24, also coincides with later joint issued statements circa 7.5.24 from BASW, SWU and UNISON to SWE regulatory.

    Where the joint statements appear gives focus on the ‘processes’, of SWE FTP hearing, I’m mindful of the ‘content’ issues to the complex discussions (gender critical beliefs vis gender identification) and stated regulatory ‘abuse of powers’, related to the Meade case. I do wish to commend the fortitude of Rachel Meade. The issues, however, are also far reaching and have huge implications still to be processed. For instance concerning discrimination and equality and Human rights legislations. For instance, how strong held views and opinions, borders if expressed whether arrived either by philosophical or religious routes. There is concern also these and such individuals holding views are at risk subject to disciplinary and regulatory sanctions. Importantly, how colleagues who find needing to express or challenge held views, could be protected and/or supported when and if these falls legitimately within the domain of professional practices.

    I envisage the tribunal outcome has not come without personal costs and other considered resources.

    • Jim Greer May 16, 2024 at 11:47 am #

      Hi Linval. Do you have a link to the Joint Statement?

      • Linval Hermitt May 16, 2024 at 3:40 pm #

        Hi Jim,

        I’ve researched but will also find further on Community Care published link above, entitled ‘Delay’.


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    […] Tribunal takes rare step of imposing exemplary damages on regulator for allowing its fitness to practise processes to be subverted to suppress social worker Rachel Meade’s lawful speech… […]

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