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How we use personal information when considering concerns

How we use personal information

Last updated: 25 November 2019


About this guidance

Social Work England is responsible for protecting the public and setting the professional standards that social workers in England are expected to meet. To help us meet this responsibility, our legal powers require us to investigate concerns about the fitness to practise of social workers.

To investigate a concern, we need to gather as much relevant information and supporting evidence as we can. This is likely to include personal data, which in turn may include highly confidential and sensitive details about individuals, including service users and social workers. This might be in the form of witness statements or in relevant documents, such as healthcare records and reports.

We need to share some or all of this information with the social worker we are investigating, those we appoint to make decisions about the social worker’s fitness to practise, and other bodies responsible for protecting the public such as employers or other regulators.

In some circumstances we may also need to share the evidence we have obtained, or the comments of the social worker in response to the concern, with the original person or body who raised the concern, the ‘referrer’. We explain more about this below.

In some cases we are also required to publish formal decisions arising from fitness to practise proceedings, such as the outcomes of public hearings. This helps to maintain confidence in registered social workers and helps social workers to understand the standards expected of them. Published decisions are written to exclude, as far as possible, information capable of identifying members of the public.

This guidance explains the circumstances in which we share information outside Social Work England, and what we do to keep the disclosure of personal data to a minimum to meet our duty of protecting the public. It also explains when we need to publish information about a concern. The guidance is intended for:

  • Members of the public, including users of social work services (‘service users’)
  • Bodies referring concerns to us, such as employers or other regulators
  • Social workers (including their representatives)
  • Social Work England staff, and associates such as adjudicators


Guiding principles

We are extremely aware of the highly sensitive nature of the personal information we handle. We are fully committed to handling this information fairly, lawfully, transparently, accountably and proportionately.

The information about concerns we publish or share outside of Social Work England will, where practicable, be the minimum necessary to enable us to meet our responsibility to protect the public. This includes our responsibility to act in the public interest by maintaining confidence in, and promoting professional standards of, social workers. It also includes our responsibility to conduct our investigations fairly, by making the social worker fully aware of all the information on which we will take our decisions.

Where appropriate and proportionate, we will redact from decisions we publish, or documents we share with others, any personal data that is not relevant to the concern about the social worker’s fitness to practise, or which is not relevant or necessary to satisfy the specific purpose of the disclosure.

Once we are aware of a concern that is sufficiently serious, we are duty bound to investigate it and to share relevant information as necessary in order to protect the public. This means we don’t need permission to disclose information, but we will take into account any objections individuals may have to the disclosure of specific information. Even so, we may still disclose in the face of those objections if we think we need to, in order to investigate a concern to protect the wider public.

In doing so, we must ensure that we have a sound basis for the disclosure, to ensure that it is justified. We must disclose only the minimum amount of information necessary for the purpose of that disclosure, considering what the recipient needs to know. For example, if we held sensitive information that was shared with us as part of the concern, we could not automatically justify disclosing it in its entirety to an employer. What we shared with the employer would depend on our purpose for doing so and what that employer needed to know. We will explain this to referrers when they first raise a concern about a social worker.


When we first receive a concern

When we receive a concern, we must first decide whether to open an investigation. We may ask the referrer whether they have further information to help us understand the nature and seriousness of the concern, including whether it has been investigated locally and what the outcome was.

If the social worker has taken steps to address issues about their practice raised by the concern, we may ask for further details to see if there are any remaining public safety issues. We might ask if there are other bodies that have already considered the concern that we could approach; for example, if we are told that a social worker has been convicted of a criminal offence, we may need to contact the relevant police authority or court to ask for confirmation.

At this stage we will not usually contact the social worker. We will therefore not be disclosing information about the concern outside of those who have raised it with us or are already aware of it. The only exception to this is that if we approach a body other than the referrer, then we may be disclosing the fact that the concern has now been raised with us.


If we decide not to investigate

Triage officers decide whether to open an investigation. We will notify the person or body raising the concern of the triage officer’s reasons for a decision not to investigate. There will usually be no wider disclosure of the decision.

Exceptionally, where this is in the public interest or where we have another lawful basis for the disclosure, we may decide to disclose information about a concern which we have decided not to investigate. An example might be where another body is investigating new, similar concerns and we consider that the other body may be disadvantaged by an information gap about a possible pattern of behaviour if we do not disclose the information we hold.


If we decide to open an investigation

When we open an investigation, we must tell the social worker we have done so and give the triage officer’s reasons and share with the social worker the information that raises a concern about their fitness to practise. We also notify the referrer that we have opened an investigation.

If the concern was referred to us by a body, for example the social worker’s employer, and it relates to a service user, we will, where possible, contact the service user to let them know we are investigating the concern and to ask them if they want to be kept informed of developments as the investigation progresses.

The social worker is entitled to see at this stage all information that could be relevant to the fitness to practise concern, including details such as names of people who are said to have been involved in the events giving rise to the concern. This is because the social worker must know exactly what events are being referred to, so they have a fair opportunity to recall and respond to the concern.

As the investigation progresses, we must continue to disclose to the social worker all information we obtain that is relevant to the fitness to practise concern. We will identify and exclude from disclosure any personal information that is clearly unrelated or irrelevant to the fitness to practise concern or its credibility, for example the home address, phone number or email address of a witness. But fairness requires that, if in doubt, any information that might be relevant should be disclosed to the social worker. This includes any information that may assist the social worker in defending the concern that has been raised. In practice this means the vast majority of information we collect in an investigation will be shared with the social worker.

Some referrers may ask for their identity to be withheld. We will listen to those requests and respect them where possible. However, we have a duty to protect the public, which may outweigh the wishes of the referrer to have their identity withheld.

In cases where the public interest in investigating the concerns raised outweighs the referrer’s request for anonymity, we may need to disclose the referrer’s identity to the social worker as part of the investigation. The referrer’s identity may be apparent by implication, and we may not be able to honour requests for anonymity because we have a duty to protect the public which may outweigh the wishes of the person making the request.

Only information that has been disclosed to the social worker may be taken into account when we decide if the social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired. Any information that hasn’t been seen by the social worker cannot be put before the decisionmakers.


Disclosure to current employers

The social worker being investigated must tell us who they are currently employed by. Where the social worker is employed by a body that may not know of the concern, we will usually share outline details about the nature of the concern with them. We will then invite the employer to let us know if they have any relevant information about the social worker’s current fitness to practise, for example whether similar concerns have been raised with them, or alternatively whether there are no concerns about their current practice.

Sharing this information also enables the current employer to consider taking any steps they may consider necessary whilst we investigate the concern further. We may provide further details about the concern to the current employer if we consider it in the public interest to do so.

If a current employer tells us about further concerns, in addition to the ones we are investigating, and we decide to add the new concerns to our investigation, we must tell the social worker and will consider if it is necessary and proportionate to inform any or all of the social worker’s other current employers.

We will not normally share this new information with the referrer of the original concern. To do so would usually serve no purpose in helping to progress our investigation, and so would go beyond the minimum disclosure necessary to deliver public protection.

This means that if you are a member of the public who has referred a concern to us, we will not usually be able to tell you if we have found other similar concerns unless or until a formal decision is made and published, or the case is heard by a fitness to practise panel.


Disclosure of social worker’s comments on the concern

We invite the social worker to comment on the concern and we take any comments into account at the end of the investigation when we are deciding what action we may need to take. If there is a conflict in the evidence, then we may need to disclose the social worker’s comments to the person or body who raised the concern to see if they have further comments which may help resolve the conflict in versions of events. Where we do so, we will normally disclose only those parts of the comments relevant to the possible conflict in evidence.

We will not usually otherwise disclose the social worker’s comments to the person or body raising the concern. This is because to do so would not normally help to progress our investigation and so the disclosure would be likely to go beyond the minimum necessary at this stage of the fitness to practise process to deliver public protection. However, the social worker’s comments will be summarised in the decision reasoning at the end of the case.


Disclosure of expert reports

The social worker is entitled to see all evidence we may take into account when considering the concern. This includes any expert report(s) we may obtain as part of the investigation. The person or body raising the concern is not usually sent the expert report but may request access to it.

Expert reports will usually contain data personal both to the social worker and to the other person or persons involved in the events giving rise to the concern. If the social worker consents, the expert report can be disclosed to the other person or persons.

If the social worker refuses consent then we may still disclose in response to a request from a person whose personal data is included in the report, if we decide it is reasonable in all the circumstances of the request to do so. However, we must conduct a balancing exercise, to weigh the interests of the social worker against those of the other person whose data is included in the report.

These are complex decisions depending on the specific circumstances of each case, so it is not possible to provide definitive guidance here about when we might decide to disclose. If we decide to disclose despite the objections of the social worker, we would need to give the social worker the opportunity to pursue further legal challenge to disclosure before we could give effect to this decision.

It is very unlikely we would disclose an expert report to anyone other than the social worker while an investigation is ongoing, because this could be prejudicial to the evidence a witness may give if the case was referred to a hearing.


Cases involving more than 1 social worker

In some cases we may need to investigate more than one social worker in relation to the same set of events, or in relation to a type of behaviour where it is in the public interest for us to make one determination about the standards to be expected of social workers.

Disclosure in these cases may be complex but must still apply the principle that the disclosure must be the minimum necessary to enable the investigation to progress effectively and fairly. This may require us to share information about a social worker with other social workers in the case.


Case examiner decisions

At the conclusion of our investigation, we pass all the information and submissions relevant to the question of the social worker’s fitness to practise to 2 case examiners. They are members of staff who are appointed to make decisions on fitness to practise concerns.

The case examiners consider cases entirely in private and will consider all available evidence from Social Work England and the social worker. They do not hear live evidence or receive oral submissions. The 2 case examiners appointed to consider each case will be one social worker (professional case examiner) and one lay person (lay case examiner).

Individual documents sent to the case examiners are not normally redacted; only those documents and evidence relevant to the fitness to practise concern we have investigated will be provided to them. So, for example, elements of a concern that were not pursued at triage will normally be redacted from the papers put to the case examiners.

The case examiners may close the case, or offer advice or a warning; alternatively, they may propose that the social worker accepts conditions restricting their practice or that their registration be suspended for a period of up to 2 years.

Any decision other than to close the case will be published for a set period of time depending on the type of decision. More information can be found in our publications policy.

The case examiners will give full reasons for their decision. These reasons will include the social worker’s name and may include information about employers and persons acting in an official capacity; but they will not include information capable of identifying a third party, a service user or other member of the public involved in the case.

Where there are concerns about a social worker’s health, the published decision reasons will not refer to the specific nature of the health condition or to any information capable of identifying the condition. A separate private annex to the decision referencing any health issues, which is not published or disclosed to anyone else (including the referrer), may be prepared and provided to the social worker.


Fitness to practise panel hearings

The case examiners may refer a case to a fitness to practise panel if they consider a removal order may be required, where an accepted disposal could not be agreed with the social worker, or where it is otherwise in the public interest to hold a hearing.

Hearings are usually conducted in public unless the hearing relates to the social worker’s health. However, hearings may be held in private if the panel is of the view this is necessary in the circumstances of the case.

All decisions of fitness to practise panels must be published, however in cases that were heard in private, a redacted version will be produced to reflect the parts of the hearing that were heard in public. In drafting the decisions to be published, panels will apply the same principles to personal data as the case examiners: information capable of identifying a service user or member of the public will not be included, and nor will any information capable of identifying the nature of a social worker’s health condition.

During the hearing, the panel, legal assessor and the parties will have copies of the documentary evidence relevant to the fitness to practise concern that has been referred to the panel. Information about concerns not pursued after investigation will be redacted so as not to prejudice the panel’s consideration of the evidence. Personal data such as addresses will also be redacted from these documents as far as possible, but the names of witnesses will be available to the panel and parties, to help them understand the evidence in the case.

The social worker, persons acting in an official capacity such as an employer, and other professionals will usually be referred to by name during the proceedings. All other witnesses will also be referred to by name unless they request that they be anonymised when being referred to in public, or when giving their evidence. If so, the parties will be provided with a witness identification key, for example Miss A, Mr B, Dr C.

Even if a witness agrees to be referred to by name in public, the panel and parties will take great care not to refer in public to any other identifying data such as home address or date of birth.

There will be a public and where necessary, a private transcript produced of all fitness to practise hearings. We may redact from a transcript any reference to information which should not have been made public, for example if a party accidentally refers to an anonymised witness by their name rather than their allocated initial. Transcripts will not routinely be published on our website, but we will consider individual requests to access hearing transcripts.


Interim order hearings

We can apply for an interim order to restrict or suspend a social worker’s right to practise while we conduct our investigation. An interim order panel will decide whether to impose an order.

If the social worker requests a hearing, the interim orders panel meets in private. Its decisions on whether to impose an order are provided in a public decision which will be published on our website in the section 'Hearings and decisions'.

Interim orders are usually imposed to provide immediate protection for the public. The urgency of this means that it may be less practical to redact all irrelevant information from documents and statements before they are sent to the panel or the social worker. However, the panel will apply the principle that only information relevant to the question of whether to impose an order will be referred to during any hearing or published in the reasons for their decision.


Review hearings and restoration applications

A review hearing is where a conditions of practice or suspension order has been made and the fitness to practise panel must review it to decide whether to vary, extend or revoke the order. These hearings usually take place in public and will rehearse the information in the original hearing. The decision of the panel will be published, including a summary of the original concern. We will normally notify the referrer of the concern to let them know when a review hearing is taking place.

A social worker whose name has been removed from the register after a fitness to practise hearing may apply for restoration after 5 years. The fitness to practise panel considering the application will review the information from the hearing when the removal was directed, and the decision of the panel on whether to grant the application will be published including a summary of the original concern that led to the removal. We will normally let the referrer of the concern know if a restoration application has been made and when it will be heard.

Review and restoration hearings will not result in any additional personal information being disclosed that was not in the original panel determination, but the hearing will result in the republication of information about the original concern.


Appeals

Social workers have a right of appeal to the courts against any decision to impose a sanction on their registration. The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) may also appeal if they think a fitness to practise panel decision is insufficient to protect the public.

In appeals, we must provide the court with the full set of evidence that was put before the decisionmakers, and a transcript of the proceedings if the case was heard by a fitness to practise panel.

Appeals are usually held in public, and the court’s judgment is published. The court is responsible for how it handles your information but will invariably apply the same principles, for example to anonymisation, as were adopted in our proceedings.

We will let all interested parties know if an appeal is lodged.


Further concerns

Where we receive a new concern about a social worker, we review what information we hold about them including any concerns we have previously investigated. This is called ‘previous history’. If a new concern is investigated, the published case examiner or fitness to practise decision may refer to the previous history, resulting in a fresh published reference to the earlier concern and investigation.


Using your information to improve the way we work

We may use your information to improve the way we work and so better meet our responsibility to protect the public. Whenever we use or share information, we will always apply the principle of only accessing the minimum level of personal data necessary to enable us to complete the task. We may do this in the following ways:

Published reports

We may include anonymised data about our fitness to practise cases in some of our publications. For example, we may publish annual statistics of cases by type of concern and by outcome. We may also use anonymised case studies to illustrate what is expected of social workers and the likely consequences of breaches of our guidance on professional standards for social workers.

Research

We may commission researchers to help us learn more about why concerns can happen so we can see what we might do to prevent them. Researchers may be given access to case data and if so will be bound by the same strict rules on confidentiality that apply to all Social Work England staff and associates.

Audit of our work

The Professional Standards Authority is responsible for auditing our work. They need access to our complaints data so they can make sure we are fulfilling our responsibility to protect the public and are following our procedures correctly. They can also appeal to the courts against a fitness to practise panel decision if they think it is insufficient to protect the public. They may therefore request access to individual case files so they can decide whether to appeal.

Staff training

We may use case studies to help train our staff and so improve the service we provide.

Disclosure to other bodies

We must send other bodies our decision where we have made a finding against a social worker. These bodies include any employer of the social worker, and any other regulator with which the social worker is registered.

Depending on the nature of the case we may also need to inform other bodies of the outcome or of evidence we find during our investigation. These other bodies include:

  • The police, if we find evidence to suggest a criminal offence may have been committed
  • The Care Quality Commission
  • The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills
  • The Disclosure and Barring Service