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Relationships matter: An analysis of complaints about social workers to the Northern Ireland Social Care Council and Patient and Client Council

Author: David Hayes

This research project was originally jointly commissioned by the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) and the British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland (BASW NI), which was previously known as the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers (NIASW). The NISCC is the statutory body responsible for the regulation of social workers and social care workers in Northern Ireland and it also sets the standards for, and regulates, social work training at both qualifying and post-qualifying levels. BASW NI is part of BASW UK which is the largest professional association for social work in the United Kingdom. As the professional association in Northern Ireland, BASW NI aims to promote the best possible social work services for all people who may need them and also to secure the wellbeing of social workers.

Referrals about social workers can be made to the NISCC where a referrer believes that the worker’s practice or conduct has fallen below one or more of the six standards set out in the Code of Practice for Social Care Workers and Employers of Social Care Workers (NISCC, 2002) which were revised in November 2015 to include standards of conduct and practice (NISCC, 2015a). Referrals are investigated in order to determine if the social worker has breached the Code of Practice and committed misconduct with the threshold for regulatory action being that there is admissible, substantial and reliable evidence to prove misconduct. As noted by NISCC (2015b), a substantial number of referrals do not reach this threshold and are closed at the investigation stage due to there being no, or insufficient, evidence to substantiate the allegations made.

This project focuses on referrals made about social workers by service users and carers during the period 1st January 2006 to 1st November 2015 (i.e. the date that the new Standards of Conduct and Practice for Social Workers came into effect). Referrals made during this period were recorded as ‘complaints’ but, following the introduction of the revised standards in November 2015, are now referred to as ‘allegations’ or ‘concerns’ about a worker’s fitness to practise. During the period that this study focused on, the NISCC received a total of 368 ‘complaints’ about social workers of which 19 were the subject of a Conduct Hearing and 349 were closed. These complaints were received from a variety of sources although the largest category of complainant, accounting for approximately one-half of all complaints received, is ‘service user/member of the public’ (NISCC, 2015b). Complaints from service users/members of the public often focus on:

…how they feel they have been treated by social workers – for example, that they have not been listened to; they have been spoken to in an inappropriate manner; that their circumstances have been misrepresented in reports or through communication; or they believe the social worker has displayed poor professional practice, in particular a poor attitude. (NISCC, 2015b: 28).

The NISCC, therefore, identified the need for a review of the complaints received about social workers from service users and carers in order to identify common practice issues which lead to complaints and to highlight key messages for the social work profession. This was also endorsed by BASW NI given their interest in promoting the best possible social work services for all who need them.

The aim and objectives of the project were agreed as follows:


  • To conduct an in-depth analysis of all complaints received by the NISCC from service users and carers about social workers over a ten-year period from 1st January 2006 to 1st November 2015.


  • To provide a detailed analysis of the nature of the complaints made by service users and carers about the values, attitudes, behaviours, knowledge and skills of social workers;
  • To provide detailed descriptive data relating to the source of complaints, the characteristics of social workers about whom complaints are made, and the outcome of complaints;
  • To set this information within the context of the growing national and international literature on service user/carer expectations of social workers and the central importance of relationships within social work practice;
  • To produce a detailed report for the NISCC and BASW NI on the key messages for the social work profession.