New regulatory body – what can social workers expect?
Does the impending arrival of Social Work England (SWE), the third regulatory body of social workers within the last eight years, come as positive news for social workers?
Like the GSCC (General Social Care Council) did previously, SWE will focus solely on setting the standards for regulating the social work profession and ensuring that children, adults, families and communities receive the best support in times of need.
But with such organisations, including the current regulator the HCPC (Health and Care Professions Council), often perceived as forcing social workers into having to ‘pay to practice,’ what does the latest move to the SWE mean for those in the sector?
The first likely impact of Social Work England, after potential confusions over registration, is an increase in registration fees. Reading between the lines, SWE is probably planning to increase fees for social workers from 2020 announcing, “[Registration] fees are not anticipated to increase until at least 2020…so good news for us all1”- is it good news though?
The GSCC’s fees, although a number of years ago now, were considerably less than the HCPC’s (around two thirds less) and recent proposals suggested that the HCPC’s bill is (or was, before the decision to transition to SWE) set to rise by a further 18%2.
Considering the current estimated annual revenue the HCPC generates from social workers sits in excess of £8m, we ask should social workers really be paying more, or at all, to practice their profession?
There is no uncertainty surrounding the importance of the full and thorough investigation of all concerns raised, however these inquiries are already at the expense of ‘every’ registered social worker and if there is any consideration of a fee increase, it would be a fair expectation that the delivery of such a service improves.
What is the HCPC?
3 HCPC, formerly the HPC (Health Professions Council) is an official body formed in 2003. Its core purpose is to protect the public, through the approval of training programmes and management of a register of health and care providers. 4In 2012 the HCPC took over the regulation of social workers from the GSCC.
Today, as anyone in the sector will know, all social workers, regardless of qualifications or experience, need to be registered with the HCPC to legally practice. And as social work professionals will also be aware, the privilege is not cheap with membership costing around £90 per year.
The GSCC’s fees in comparison, although a number of years ago now, were almost 70% less.
Shortcomings of the HCPC
December saw the HCPC publish its 2018 Fitness to Practise report. The insight, released annually, provides a breakdown of statistics detailing the volume, source and type of cases referred to them, along with action taken and the eventual outcomes.
But are the latest figures yet another example of social workers getting a bad rap? Of 361,061 registrants, a total of 2,302 conduct concerns were raised last year. 1,174 of those – that’s a staggering 51% of all complaints - were raised against social work professionals.
Our questioning, however, lies in the approach to which the HCPC takes to carrying out such investigations, as according to the latest report more than 50% took over five months to complete, and a staggering 11% more than two years.
The Fitness to Practise report further shared that 161 social workers attended hearings in 2017-2018 with no representation. That’s a massive 73% of the total 222 hearings that took place, and whilst we are not provided with details as to why those social workers did not have representation, we can assume that a high percentage will have been down to the costly process of engaging a legal representative – especially in light of the average length of time it takes to close out a case.
Although health and care professionals under investigation with the HCPC can normally continue to practice, all ongoing investigations must be disclosed to potential new employers, almost certainly dampening the chances of an individual being hired.
Whilst the report doesn’t divulge a breakdown of the number of discontinued cases against social workers specifically, it does state that 106 conduct concerns were concluded as ‘no further action’ or ‘not well-founded’; that’s 24% overall.
This leads us to query, at a time when many authorities are crying out for social workers, whether a significant number of competent social care professionals are unnecessarily out of work for a substantial amount of time.
Should regulatory bodies be doing more?
It’s no secret that the social work community takes its fair share of knocks. Although a vocation usually chosen by those wanting to make a difference, the reality of trying to help others takes physical stamina, emotional strength and a very thick skin. It’s a calling; a role which many simply couldn’t do. And although in most cases, people are in favour of the service provided, it’s impossible to meet everyone’s needs and there will inevitably be others who are disgruntled by the intervention of the authorities.
It’s perhaps a combination of this latter group and the often negative press coverage of social workers, that triggers those referrals which are later dismissed. But we question, although a regulatory body set up to protect the public, whether the HCPC’s paying members should be getting a better deal too.
The report tells us that 42% of all referrals made last year (across all registrants, not only those in social care) came from members of the public. But of all of those public concerns, the majority - 63% - were raised against social workers.
Interestingly, the report also shares that following investigation a total of 48% of health and care professionals referred last year were deemed fit to continue to practice, with 24% of those unfound.
In such cases, should registration bodies be doing more to help their paying registrants get through investigations quicker? And in instances where social workers are found guilty of misconduct, surely speedier processes would increase the protection of the vulnerable public that they set out to safeguard.
Where does that leave social workers?
Worryingly, the stats depict a steady year-on-year increase in the length of time it takes to close out a case, suggesting further strain for those in an already highly pressurised career... and from an organisation with which practitioners are required to register.
There is no doubt that a governing body, and strict investigation procedures are needed in the world of health and care. But the length of time taken to close out cases needs to drop – the HCPC’s report acknowledges this, but prompt action must be taken to divert the upward trend which has been apparent now for the past five years. Ultimately, the HCPC, and going forward SWE, have no control over the number of concerns submitted, but could the answer lie in better benchmarking for referrals? And could more be done in ensuring that social workers are not expected to take on more than the recommended number of cases at one time? Perhaps some investigations could be prevented if social workers were not so overstretched.
We have protection in place for the public, but should this not be two-fold? Who is raising the profile of social workers? And should it be the organisation which already generates an £8.7m revenue from social workers each year? With media and the public already giving social workers a bad name, is it not time for these individuals to get a little something back?
5The government has just announced funding for 900 new social workers on the Frontline training programme, which is great news for the industry, but is it enough to counteract the number of talented and unsung heroes forced to leave this increasingly taxing job?
Hopes for SWE
Working closely with social workers daily, we know that there are frustrations with increases in registration costs and changes (once again!) in regulator. So, from the viewpoint of these professionals, it’s hoped that the upcoming transition to SWE will in fact mean a fresh start and improved service. And specifically, in regards to the time it takes to close an investigation.
Perhaps regulators could do more to provide guidelines that prevent social workers from taking on an unmanageable number of cases at one time. Anything that would provide health and social care specialists with the added support that may be expected from a body to which qualified professionals are paying annual fees. Last year, registrant fees when divided by the 1,174 cases, will have equated to more than £7k per investigation.
OneTrue witnesses daily the realities of this taxing job. We believe that there needs to be greater support for the vocation and a body which supports not only the public, but the welfare of our social workers too.
We are hopeful about the changes that SWE may bring to the industry in the very near future. With mental health issues, stress and low morale amongst social workers reportedly on the rise, regulatory bodies need to support, not discourage, people into the sector.
Considering the leadership of the SWE there is certainly a range of backgrounds and experience with the potential to implement real change. But with some already involved with social care regulating, and some from HCPC backgrounds, will there be a real desire to do things differently, or will the SWE simply function in the same (costly) vein as the HCPC?