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Social Work England called to act over catalogue of complaints

BASW's advice and representation service writes to regulator as patience over delays in processing cases runs out...

Left, Collum Conway, chief executive of Social Work England, with its chair Lord Patel

Published by Professional Social Work magazine - 15 February, 2021

“Unacceptable delays” in resolving cases referred to England’s regulator are having a “life-changing impact” on social workers, BASW officials warned.

The association’s advice and representation (A&R) service has written to Social Work England expressing concern over this and a raft of other issues.

It marks a souring in relations with the regulator which took over from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in December 2019 promising to be more social work-friendly.

The letter lists a catalogue of cases that have dragged on for years despite Social Work England promising to speed up the process.

Head of A&R Lien Watts said: “There are lots and lots of social workers who have not been able to work during that period. The worst cases are taking three or even four years.

“We have had people losing their homes and suffering extreme ill health and there just doesn’t seem to be any progress.”

The regulator says it has had to deal with almost 2,000 new fitness to practise referrals since taking over, a 30 per cent increase in its first year than the HCPC's final year.

The proportion of cases actively investigated went up by nine per cent in the first 14 months. Measures put in place include hiring external solicitors, creating "transition case teams" and additional training for staff.

Watts said: “We have tried to impress upon them the impact of this on registrants who are just left in limbo.

“It is we who take the calls from members who are in tears, sometimes feeling suicidal

“You then get situations where the registrants write to Social Work England or we write to them and ask what is going on and we don’t get a reply.”

Watts said it was not acceptable for the regulator to blame the backlog on increased demand as “social workers are held to account and can’t blame lack of resources”.

She added: “Up until the end of last year we were very tolerant and tried to be understanding of the situation. But it just seems to be getting worse.”

Watts said the regulator was not fulfilling its promises to filter out cases that did not need to be escalated at an earlier 'triage' stage.

Some of these were from service users, predominantly those involved in children’s services, who had complained because they were unhappy with difficult decisions, said Watts. Members of the public now account for 75 per cent of referrals. 

Watts added: “They have recruited a team of solicitors to help with the backlog. But they don’t understand social work, therefore we believe they are progressing things to the case examiner unnecessarily.”

She repeated previous concerns expressed by the Social Workers Union of a lack of social workers in senior roles within the regulator, adding: “Many of the case examiners seem to be ex-police officers who have a very different approach to regulation and they often don’t understand social work.”

Watts called on the regulator to live up to early hopes that a dedicated social work regulator headed by former social workers Collum Conway and Lord Patel as chief executive and chair respectively would be better than the HCPC which regulates more than a dozen health and care professions.

“When we first met Social Work England we were saying this is like a breath of fresh air, we were filled with optimism,” she said.

“Yet here we are two years later feeling it is not only what they promised but worse than it was before."

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, said the delays processing cases was unacceptable and called for action .

“We want to ensure workers’ rights are not diminished by a lack of rigour and diligence from a regulator set up to uphold the values and reputation of the profession.

“I’m getting emails from members saying I have tried to get through by email or phone but nobody ever gets back to me.

“I got one this morning from someone saying: ‘Social Work England is killing me. I don’t know what to do or who to turn to or who to trust. All I know is I can’t carry on waiting anymore’.

“I would like them to look at the issues we have raised and have an action plan in place to address this.”

Social Work England said a plan was already submitted to its board last October and a review of fitness to practise investigations in its first year instigated.

It maintained cases were progressing faster now with 67 per cent of investigations it has handled since December 2019 completed within six months, 75 per cent within seven months and 87 per cent within eight months.

It had 1,394 active cases under investigation at the beginning of February, with 215 hearings pending.

The regulator also stressed nine out of its 15 case examiners are social workers and a social worker sits on every adjudication panel during hearings.

Jonathan Dillon, executive director for fitness to practise at Social Work England, said: “We are receiving higher levels of concerns than the previous regulator, which has created challenges when combined with the impact of the pandemic.

“Organisations that we routinely share information with to progress our cases have also been affected. In response to changes in the working environment and wider sector this year we have put strategies in place to maintain effective case progression and to ensure that cases are resolved appropriately and proportionately.”

Dillon added the regulator met fortnightly with unions to answer concerns and maintained its fitness to practise process is “fair, effective and robust”.