Social Work England failed to meet standards on fitness to practise and diversity

England’s professional regulator is criticised by the professional standards watchdog for failing to meet three ‘Standards of Good Regulation’.

05/10/21

Social Work England failed to meet standards on fitness to practise and diversity

The Professional Standards Authority has published its first annual performance review of Social Work England, finding that the regulator failed on three of its standards.

This review, carried out by the Professional Standards Authority – an independent organisation accountable to the UK Parliament – covered Social Work England’s first year as the regulator of social workers in England, from December 2019 to November 2020.

The watchdog found that Social Work England failed to meet three of its eighteen ‘Standards of Good Regulation’, falling short in areas of understanding diversity, registration, and fitness to practise risk assessments. The Standards of Good Regulation are designed to ensure that the regulators are protecting the public but also promoting confidence in health and care professionals and themselves.

The Professional Standards Authority said Social Work England had made “limited progress” in its first year on gathering data about the diversity of its registrants and on developing and implementing its strategy for equality, diversity and inclusion. The Authority recognised, however, that Social Work England was a new organisation collecting data for the first time, and that it had undertaken further activity in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion since the end of its review period.

The Authority, which oversees 10 statutory bodies that regulate health and social care professionals in the UK, also criticised Social Work England’s slow process for applications, saying that no other regulator took as long, on average, across all categories of application. It said that although pandemic had an effect on the regulator’s ability to deal with registration applications, it “did not see evidence that the effect of the pandemic on Social Work England was so different from the other regulators that it justified the significant difference in processing times.”

Social Work England also failed on one of the five standards for fitness to practise, falling short on Standard 17 because of concerns about risk assessments in fitness to practise.

“For most of our review period [Social Work England] was not routinely carrying out full risk assessments at triage,” the watchdog said. “In our audit of cases we found numerous failures to follow the relevant policy; and we were not assured that it was making decisions about interim orders promptly enough in transfer cases.”

The Authority also said that while Social Work England did meet its standard about supporting people to participate in the fitness to practise process, they recommended that it consider some further action for improvements in this area.

“Social Work England has engaged constructively with feedback and has shown commitment to improvement,” the watchdog said.

“It has already made some progress in addressing the issues we identified: this includes starting to implement its strategy for equality, diversity and inclusion, and improving its risk assessment process at the first stage of fitness to practise cases.

“We think it has made an encouraging start, particularly in the difficult circumstances of the pandemic. We will continue to monitor its work and will report on its progress next year, including in relation to our recommendations.”

Responding to the performance review, Colum Conway, chief executive of Social Work England, said he welcomed the findings.

"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 Professional Standards Authority’s (PSA) Standards of Good Regulation and welcome both the PSA’s annual assessment and ongoing engagement."

The regulator’s issues with diversity were highlighted in 2020 after reported Freedom of Information (FoI) requests showed that Black, Asian and ethnic minority social workers were disproportionately subject to fitness to practise investigations. Additionally, it was found that the panels ultimately making the decisions on social workers’ fitness to practise were, on average, less ethnically diverse than the social work workforce generally.

Subsequently, Social Work England appointed Ahmina Akhtar its head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, as well as launching two surveys to help the sector get a better understanding of diversity and the impact of racism. Asking social workers to update their equality and diversity information on their online account, the regulator says this will ensure that its policies and processes provide a fair opportunity for everyone regardless of their background.

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