‘Hundreds of social workers left in limbo’: BASW and unions urge action on fitness to practise delays

    BASW, Social Workers Union and UNISON say Social Work England is investigating too many cases and taking an overly adversarial approach, while delays are leaving many practitioners without work

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    Hundreds of social workers in England are being “left in limbo”, often unable to work, because of long and increasing delays in fitness to practise (FTP) cases.

    That was the warning from the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), Social Workers Union (SWU) and UNISON in a joint statement yesterday setting out their “significant concerns” about Social Work England’s operation of the FTP system.

    The bodies, who each represent tens of thousands of social workers, were responding to an admission from the regulator in February that average FTP case lengths would increase from just over two years, currently, during 2024-25.

    This was because Social Work England had to reduce FTP final hearing numbers to manage a projected budget overspend in 2023-24, and also due to the high likelihood that its 2024-25 budget settlement from the Department for Education would be insufficient to increase the number of hearings.

    BASW, SWU and UNISON said they worked collaboratively with Social Work England and had raised the issue of FTP delays in their regular stakeholder meetings with the regulator in order to resolve the issue.

    ‘Hundreds of social workers left in limbo’

    However, they added: “The time has now come for swift action, as hundreds of social workers are currently left in limbo.”

    This exerted an “intolerable and unfair” toll on these practitioners’ mental health, which led some to stop working because of “unmanageable” distress.

    Others were unable to work because employers did not consider them for roles when they learned they were subject to an FTP investigation. This was even the case when practitioners were not subject to interim orders placing restrictions on their practice or suspending them altogether, said BASW, SWU and UNISON.

    They called on Social Work England to divert resources to FTP, including by simplifying the “laborious and obstructive” approach to registration renewal and making this biennial, rather than yearly.

    They also warned Social Work England against raising the fee practitioners pay to register, which has been fixed at £90 a year since the regulator’s inception in December 2019, but which the regulator has said it would review between 2023 and 2026.

    Regulator criticised for ‘adversarial approach’

    However, while BASW, SWU and UNISON acknowledged that Social Work England had received more cases than expected since 2019, they also claimed delays were driven, in part, by the regulator investigating too many cases and taking an “adversarial” approach.

    There were “many examples” of cases that progressed beyond the triage stage when there was “no reasonable reason for them to do so”, said the bodies. At triage, Social Work England determines whether there are reasonable grounds to investigate the social worker’s fitness to practise.

    Then, at the investigations stage, the regulator “in almost all cases” only sought evidence supporting the allegation against the registrant, they said. Information that could clear the social worker was “not considered or overlooked” even when drawn to the attention of investigators, the bodies added.

    What BASW, SWU and UNISON want to see

    “This has the effect of cases progressing that do not need to, taking up significant resources, the very problem that leads to delay at all stages,” said BASW, SWU and UNISON.

    They called on the regulator to ensure investigations were “more collaborative and thorough” and update training and guidance for case examiners. These FTP staff determine, following investigation, whether there is a realistic prospect that the concerns about the registrant could be proved and, if so, whether their fitness to practise may be found impaired.

    Such revised guidance for case examiners should ensure examiners “make assessments from a neutral, less combative position, taking into account contextual factors”.

    BASW, SWU and UNISON also called on the regulator to “develop alternative outcomes” for cases where the person has been awaiting a final hearing for multiple years and “adopt a more reasonable approach to voluntary removal”.

    Call for urgent discussions

    This is the process by which the regulator decides whether to accept a person subject to FTP proceedings’ request to be removed from the register, which is based on whether there is a public interest in the fitness to practise case continuing.

    The three organisations sent the statement to Social Work England on 25 April, along with a letter in which they asked for “urgent and progressive discussions…to address the issues we have raised”.

    Social Work England responded to them on 3 May, and has now published this response on its website (see box below). 

    In this, it said it looked forward to meeting with BASW, SWU and UNISON to further discuss the issues.

    How Social Work England responds to FTP criticisms

    1. Delays in concluding FTP cases: the regulator said it agreed that “delays in concluding cases that have been referred to a hearing are unacceptable and [had] said so publicly on a number of occasions”, and it had raised this with the DfE. It also said it kept affected social workers updated on delays.
    2. The impact of delays on social workers: Social Work England said it had a support process in place when it has serious concerns about the wellbeing of any party to a case and considered serious concerns about a social worker’s health when prioritising cases referred for a hearing.
    3. Employers not hiring social workers subject to investigation but with no restrictions on their practice: the regulator acknowledged that this happened sometimes, and in such cases it offered to write to prospective employers to confirm that were no restrictions on the person’s practice, while it had also issued guidance that stated this. It offered to work with BASW, SWU and UNISON on any work they planned to do to address this issue.
    4. High case numbers: Social Work England said it had received 30% more FTP concerns than was planned for before its establishment and its resource level was “insufficient to deal with the new cases referred for, and awaiting, a hearing”.
    5. Whether too many cases pass the triage test: it said that of 1,900 concerns it received last year, 66% were closed at the triage stage, and that internal reviews and its watchdog, the Professional Standards Authority (PSA), had concluded that it used its triage test appropriately and in line with its duty to protect the public.
    6. Whether it only seeks evidence in favour of the complaint during investigations: Social Work England said that while investigations were inevitably focused on the regulatory concerns identified at the triage stage, this did not mean it only gathered evidence that supported the concerns. It added that its investigators were impartial and that they invited social workers to make any comments they wished at the start and also the end of the investigation, with both of these being passed to case examiners for consideration. It said the fact that 50% of cases decided by case examiners in 2023-24 were closed without further action did not indicate that they should not have been investigated. However, the regulator agreed that “more can be done to ensure that investigators have all the information they need to allow case examiners to make a decision, but this requires everyone involved in the investigation to engage consistently and fully”.
    7. Whether the case examination process is impartial: neither internal reviews nor the PSA had indicated any problems with decision making at this stage, said Social Work England. It also pointed to its case examiner guidance, which includes measures to promote fairness and impartiality. These include ensuring the social worker has had a reasonable opportunity to respond to the case against them and having each case determined by a pair of case examiners, who must agree.
    8. The reasonableness of the voluntary removal process: Social Work England said that, of 44 applications for voluntary removal received and considered since January 2023, 15 had been granted and 29 refused. It said that neither the PSA nor its internal reviews had raised concerns about the voluntary removal process.
    9. The need to explore alternative options for disposing of a case, without a hearing: the regulator agreed with this and pointed to a specific objective in its 2024-25 business plan around this. It said it would welcome further discussion with BASW, SWU and UNISON on this issue.
    10. Diverting resources from the registration process: Social Work England said it only spent 5% of its budget on registration, including annual renewal, and that the fact that over 98% of practitioners renewed last year did not suggest the process was too difficult for social workers.
    11. Whether registration fees will rise: the regulator reiterated that it would review the current fee structure during its current strategic planning period (2023-26) and that any increase would involve a full public consultation and engagement with the profession. “We understand the financial pressures that registrants face, which is why we continue to look to make efficiencies,” it added.

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    14 Responses to ‘Hundreds of social workers left in limbo’: BASW and unions urge action on fitness to practise delays

    1. Richard May 9, 2024 at 12:05 am #

      Great to see this collective action from BASW, UNISON and SWU.

      Unsurprising to see the usual defensive and dismissive responses from SWE.

      It’s sad, but also self-inflicted, seeing the regulator so increasingly embattled at the moment. Could this be indicative of their demise? I suspect many hope so.

    2. Sentence May 9, 2024 at 9:16 am #

      Stop the wastage on bogus EDI initiatives and £70k+ for head of EDI at SWE. How many staff hours spent on EDI training each year?

      Would be great to see some efficiency savings along these lines to funnel more resource into case work and freeze the registration fees.

    3. Charlie May 9, 2024 at 11:17 am #

      Until the system is changed and Tony Blairs “possible risk of future harm ” culture is changed and until social workers are trained to work with families then you won’t get social workers to join. These new social workers don’t want children out into care unless they can help it .they want the funds and resources to help the parents to keep their children. Then you will be able to empty and get good social workers. If this gets deleted we know that you don’t want to listen listen parents.

    4. Tahin May 9, 2024 at 1:17 pm #

      So it took the exemplary damages judgement for BASW, ‘Social Workers Union’ and Unison to voice a bit of mild criticism of SWE. Principled stands matter during challenging times not after someone else has taken a stand, got bruised and you 3 walk in when the lemonade is being served.

    5. Abigail May 10, 2024 at 10:17 am #

      “You can’t practice unless you are registered, it’s not a choice it’s mandatory for employment.” “98% of social workers are registered” which apparently proves the process not onerous and in the fantasy world of SWE and their social work cheerleaders, we validate, celebrate, venerate and embrace the process. It’s impossible to parody this vacuity.

    6. People you Support May 10, 2024 at 3:48 pm #

      It’s not just ‘Hundreds of social workers left in limbo’.

      I suspect also hundreds of service users that are also left in limbo having to deal with a social worker that is/may be unfit to practice – with all the dangers that may lead to…

      My social worker is clearly not fit to practice, but my concern has been in ‘triage’ with SWE for over a year now.

      • Patricia May 11, 2024 at 9:12 am #

        Social Work England barely take notice of social workers they are meant to be regulating so they are hardly going to think about how their inaction impacts on service users. I wrote to them a while back to say a complaint made to them by a family member was malicious. Haven’t heard back from them. No acknowledgement, just silence that makes me feel I’m a nuisance. Still at least we don’t have to pay to be ignored.

        • Philip May 15, 2024 at 5:54 pm #

          I really think we should start a class action against SWE for their overall incompetence. They should be disbanded and non of its employees work for any social care agencies. I’m not against the social work standards. I’m against the manner in which guilty until proven innocent and then wait a few years until we are bothered to act mentality SWE have regarding fitness to practice cases. But social workers are too meek to take action for fear of repercussions. We need to be more like the French.

      • GB May 14, 2024 at 7:46 pm #

        I agree. I don’t see that the problem here is the number of investigations but the number of social worker who are being reported. There should, absolutely, be an investigation into every social worker who is potentially unfit to practice but what is happening in recruitment and training that so many social workers are be8ng reported as unfit.

    7. david turner May 11, 2024 at 1:35 pm #

      I was referred to SWE for “fitness to practice” issues in 2020 during the pandemic
      My case is still going through investigation.
      I was unfit, I was underperforming, had poor concentration and became bogged down by burn out. I also have PTSD from armed services days
      I also had undiagnosed Diabetes
      I was bullied at work, whilst off sick with PTSD symptoms a reorganisation meant that the role of social worker became mechanistic
      My daughter was in a serious RTA, losing her unborn child.
      I am aware this sounds like a victim, however I loved my job, was an effective and efficient BIA
      Still under investigation means I am unable to work in SW, risked losing my home and became suicidal
      The union rep was near retirement and whilst sympathetic was winding down
      SWE have been adversarial from the start, I have legal rep who is overworked and sadly off sick
      After 30 years of practice this is not how I wanted my career to end

      • William May 15, 2024 at 11:01 pm #

        Hi i’ve had a very similar experience- been 2 years heard waiting for a hearing- and now been told another year- the interim orders don’t look at facts and they’ve made incorrect assumptions based on the information- as a result my mental health has struggled which has almost made me unfit again. I was unfit but i’ve been able to demonstrate no repeat of risk- but in limbo with no fair hearing. I was even being contacted by SWE case investigators in the hospital quiet room as my father was dying in the next room. I did made a mistake but have practiced well for 2 years since- but the delays and their approach only looking at the complainant and being adversary has destroyed me both mentally and physically- as interim order proceed and hearings don’t look as facts they just make adversary and risk averse judgements based on the info but ‘don’t look at finding of facts- which is core practice for determining risk in our practice- (so why aren’t SWE) and providing a fair hearing. mental health and standards fell during the pandemic, which was a mitigation.

        i’ve lost my career fearful everyday of loosing my job and have considered ending it all due to the 2 years of distress caused.

    8. David May 13, 2024 at 4:09 am #

      Tragic. It seems to me that there is a distinct lack of compassion on the part of SWE, and also on the part of managers in the caring professions towards those they should be supporting. Compassion is a value essential to social work. Do such values become diluted as one rises up the managerial ladder?

    9. Uzume May 14, 2024 at 10:30 am #

      The standards for Social Workers are (understandably) high! I don’t know any good social worker who is unhappy to be held to account for their practice. However, there is a balance to be struck, as even the best social workers are human beings, not robots! I. Any think of any other job where employees would be happy to be charged money every year to fill in evidence of learning/development, feel like someone is standing over them waiting for them to do something wrong, then keep changing the goalposts for how they do their job over and over.

      Social work is now impossible to follow through as even when you think you’re doing the right thing, today you might not be! Not surprised there’s so much stress and burnout! Anxiety and fear of failure causes mistakes too…and guess who’ll be in the firing line 🤔 Not the Greek chorus SWE berating from the sidelines, that’s for sure!

      Return to 2 year registration and a sensible, balanced, human approach to managing issues!

    10. Debs May 17, 2024 at 8:18 pm #

      Maybe Community Care could run some articles on people adversely affected by the fitness to practice process?

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