Social Work England missed standards on fitness to practice referrals, registration speed and diversity data in first year

Colum Conway, chief executive, Social Work England

Colum Conway, chief executive, Social Work England

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Social Work England fell short of standards on assessing the risk of fitness to practise referrals, processing registrations and recording the diversity of the workforce in its first year, its own watchdog has found.

The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) judged the regulator to have met 15 of its 18 “standards of good regulation” from December 2019 to November 2020 but said it needed to improve in three areas.

Social Work England welcomed the report, published by the PSA last week, and vowed to meet all 18 standards in future assessments.

In the report published last week, the PSA praised Social Work England for its engagement with the sector since becoming regulator, saying other organisations had given it positive feedback on this.

‘Encouraging start’

It said it had “engaged constructively with feedback and…shown commitment to improvement”, and, in the context of the pandemic, had made “encouraging start” to its role as regulator.

The PSA said that Social Work England had met its fitness to practise (FtP) standards in relation to raising concerns, fair investigations, appropriate decision-making processes and effective participation.

It also acknowledged the severe challenges the regulator faced in its first year due to the impact of the pandemic on its ability to process FtP cases, higher-than-expected referrals and the state of the 1,545 cases it inherited from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Social Work England found just 10% of cases that the HCPC identified as ready to schedule for a hearing to be complete, despite the average age of the legacy cases being almost a year.

Risk assessment failings

However, the PSA found Social Work England had not met the standard to identify and prioritise all fitness to practise cases that suggested “a serious risk to the safety of service users” and seek interim orders where appropriate.

Firstly, it found that Social Work England was not making decisions about interim orders promptly enough in legacy cases. The time it took Social Work England to make these decisions increased during the year, from 51.7 weeks on average (including their time with the HCPC) to 80.1 weeks. It also raised concerns about case examiners – who review a case following an investigation – making decisions about interim orders, and said that in a small number of cases examiners had made referrals for interim orders on the basis of information available earlier in the process.

The second issue raised by the PSA under this standard was that Social Work England did not do full risk assessments at the triage stage for most of the review period, so it did not demonstrate that it could identify and prioritise higher risk cases. It said this had improved since August 2020 when, following a review, it started requiring staff to do full risk assessments at this stage.

The PSA also found that Social Work England failed, on numerous occasions, to follow its own policy on recording risk assessments by not doing so when new information emerged.

However, the PSA said it did not see any cases where the regulator failed to act appropriately on information increasing the risk level on a case.

“We will monitor Social Work England’s work to learn from interim order referrals, such as the establishment of its investigation review group shortly after the end of our review period, and any further changes it makes as a result,” said the PSA’s report.

“However, based on the range of concerns we identified and the importance of effective risk assessment, we determined that this standard is not met this year.”

Social Work England said that, since the review period, it had introduced refresher training for investigators on risk assessments and interim orders.

It said it now did full risk assessments earlier in the triage process, and had conducted further risk assessments for all outstanding legacy investigations “to ensure that these are accurate and appropriate”.

Slower than other regulators

The PSA said it was not assured that Social Work England was dealing efficiently with registration applications in the period under review.

It said it took account of the “challenging context” of the Covid-19 pandemic in its decision, but it found that its processing was slower than that of the other regulators the PSA oversees from April 2020 to March 2021.

“We appreciate that there are differences between regulators’ processes and requirements, and we need to take care in comparing their data,” the report said. “Nevertheless, the difference between Social Work England and most other regulators in performance against these measures was striking.”

From April 2020 to December 2020, it processed 77% of UK registration applications requiring no further investigation within 10 days, against a target of 95%.

Though performance improved during the year, the PSA said it would expect these types of application to be the most straightforward for a regulator to deal with.

Social Work England said it was “confident this is no longer an issue” and was now meeting its targets for processing applications.

The regulator said it had improved information sharing with other organisations including education and training providers, increased student awareness of the registration process and improved its reporting mechanisms.

‘Not enough diversity data collected’

The PSA also found that Social Work England did not collect enough information about the diversity of social workers on its register, making it difficult for it to assess whether any of its processes may be affecting registrants differently based on their protected characteristics.

It recognised that the HCPC did not pass on to Social Work England any information regarding registrants’ demographic characteristics and said it would take time for the regulator to gather this data.

Nevertheless, the PSA said Social Work England had “made only limited progress during its first year in gathering this important information”.

The PSA welcomed the regulator’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy, led by EDI lead Ahmina Akhtar, but this was not finalised and published until after the review period.

“Social Work England has been clear that it understands how important this work is and its relevance to social care,” said the PSA’s report.

“We have no reason to doubt its commitment. But given how little information it had about the diversity of its registrants, and the early stage it had reached in its strategy work, we could not be assured about its performance during our review period.”

Social Work England acknowledged that it had made limited progress in its first year in this area and said it was committed to meeting the standard in future reviews.

It now collects equality, diversity and inclusion data from social workers as part of the registration process.

Commitment to meet standards

Colum Conway, chief executive of Social Work England, said: “Becoming the regulator for social work was our first important step during the period of this performance review.

“We are committed to continue working to meet all the PSA’s standards of good regulation and welcome both the PSA’s annual assessment and ongoing engagement.”

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