Friday, June 21, 2024

Fitness to practise delays set to rise further due to Social Work England budget pressures – Community Care

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What is a reasonable timeframe for a regulator to investigate a fitness to practise case thoroughly and fairly?

  • Up to six months (73%, 510 Votes)
  • Six to 12 months (20%, 139 Votes)
  • 12-18 months (4%, 25 Votes)
  • Two years plus (2%, 14 Votes)
  • 18 months to two years (1%, 6 Votes)

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Fitness to practise (FTP) delays are set to rise further due to pressures on Social Work England’s budget, the regulator has confirmed.

Case lengths – from referral to a decision on the practitioner’s fitness to practise – will increase over the next 12 months from a current average of just over two years, Social Work England said in a report to its board meeting last month.

The situation is driven by the regulator’s constrained capacity to hold hearings determining the outcome of an FTP case.

Social Work England has reduced hearing numbers in recent months to tackle a projected overspend on its 2023-24 budget. Also, it is expecting its Department for Education (DfE) funding for 2024-25 to be insufficient to prevent increases in how long social workers spend waiting for their case to be heard.

The news prompted warnings from the Social Workers Union about the mental toll on practitioners of being subject to lengthy FTP processes.

Budget difficulties reducing hearing numbers

Social Work England said its current financial difficulties were mainly triggered by ministers requiring all government departments and agencies to pay non-senior civil servants a cost of living payment of £1,500 last summer.

The “unbudgeted” item cost the regulator £355,000, leaving it facing a projected overspend of £488,000 for 2023-24, net of income from social worker fees, as of the end of September last year.

To counter this, it developed a “financial mitigation” plan that included a recruitment freeze and reducing hearing numbers, which resulted in the projected overspend dropping to £222,000 as of the end of 2023.

However, this meant that the number of hearings per quarter fell from 64 in April to June 2023, to 35 in July to September and just 17 in October to December.

And though the number of cases awaiting a final hearing had fallen from a high of 412 last February to 354 in September 2023, it rose slightly in the last quarter of the year, to 361 in December.

DfE funding to tackle case backlog

The DfE has provided the regulator with additional resource beyond its core funding in each of the last three years, chiefly to tackle the backlog of ‘legacy’ FTP cases Social Work England inherited from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

These payments were worth £1.9m in 2021-22, £5.5m in 2022-23 – £1.2m of which was carried over to 2023-24 – and an additional £0.8m in 2023-24. Social Work England completed a project to deal with the legacy cases in June 2023.

About Social Work England’s budget

In 2022-23, Social Work England:

  • Spent £23.94m in revenue expenditure.
  • Earned £10.14m in fees from social workers.
  • Received £15.49m from the DfE in grant, £1.2m of which was reallocated to 2023-24.

Source: Social Work England Annual Report and Accounts 2022 to 2023

Likely 2024-25 budget means increase in waiting times

For its 2024-25 budget, Social Work England presented the DfE with three scenarios, at the department’s request:

  1. Returning to its core funding level, with “minimal” adjustment for known price rises, meaning a reduction in its 2023-24 budget.
  2. Similar funding levels to 2023-24, enabling it to meet known pay and price increases and slightly increase its work influencing national policy.
  3. An increase on the 2023-24 budget.

While the number of FTP cases awaiting a hearing “would begin stabilising” during 2024-25 under scenario 3, the DfE has told Social Work England a budget rise is unlikely, the regulator said.

As a result, it was preparing for one of the first two scenarios; however, in either case, “waiting times at the hearings stage would continue to increase”, it added.

‘Limited scope to tackle hearings challenge’

In response to the situation, a Social Work England spokesperson said: “Whilst we continue to focus on being as efficient as possible, as a small organisation there is very limited scope within our current budget to re-focus spending from other essential activities to address the challenge in hearings.

“We will continue to:

  • Explore future funding options that may allow us to increase capacity to progress more cases to hearings.
  • Prioritise case investigation, examination, and scheduling for hearings based on risks that have been identified through our consideration of the concerns raised.
  • Explore additional operational efficiencies within our fitness to practise process and consider further ways to resolve cases without a requirement to hold a final hearing, where this would be appropriate. These efficiencies may reduce the number of cases requiring a final hearing, but will not allow for more final hearings to be held.”

Distress is ‘unmanageable’ for social workers waiting on cases

The Social Workers Union said some of its members had had hearing dates adjourned up to three times and been told by the regulator to expect their case to be rescheduled to 2025.

Assistant general secretary Callum Gallacher said “elongated” waits for cases to reach a hearing were taking their toll on social workers.

“Some electively stop working because the distress is unmanageable, impact on immediate mental health, personal safety and wellbeing, and adversities also faced by their families who depend on them for emotional and financial support unmanageable. Some become trapped unable to move from problematic workplaces, or silencing cultures.”

Pressures across fitness to practise system

Social Work England’s performance report also revealed that the regulator was facing pressures across the whole of the FTP system.

The regulator received more FTP concerns from April to December 2023 (1,405) than during the same periods in 2022 (1,369) and 2021 (1,299).

The average age of cases at the triage stage rose from 18 to 23 weeks, against a target of 14 weeks, between July to September and October to December 2023.

The triage team determines whether there are reasonable grounds to investigate the social worker’s fitness to practise, and the delays reflect significant vacancy and absence levels during the second half of 2023.

This has had a knock-on impact on the age of cases being investigated, which rose from 62 to 66 weeks – equivalent to one year and three months – between July to September and October to December 2023.

Drive to rebalance fitness to practise system

The situation comes with Social Work England’s 2023-26 strategy having set an ambition to reduce FTP caseloads and delays by “getting ahead of the curve” to prevent concerns about practitioners from arising.

The strategy says that, in particular, the regulator would seek to achieve this by:

  • improving and strengthening the transition from education to employment;
  • supporting and guiding early career development;
  • making continuing professional development (CPD) routine, impactful and core to improving professional practice;
  • enhancing the development and accountability required of specialist roles, such as approved mental health professionals, best interests assessors and practice educators.

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