Mr Peter Richard Walker

Profession: Social worker

Registration Number: SW36683

Interim Order: Imposed on 21 Sep 2018

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 10:00 26/04/2019 End: 17:00 26/04/2019

Location: Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service, 405 Kennington Road

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Struck off

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Allegation

On 07 June 2018 at Wolverhampton Crown Court, whilst registered as a Social Worker, you were convicted of:

1. 5 counts of 'Dishonesty make False Representation to make gain for self/another or cause loss to other/expose other to risk'.

2. By reason of your conviction as set out at particular 1 above, your fitness to practice is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary Matters
Amendment of the Allegation and the Registrant’s Response
1. Mr Dite for the HCPC applied to amend the date on the Allegation from 7 June 2018, which was the date of sentence, to 15 March 2018, which was the date of the conviction. The Registrant did not oppose the application. The Panel determined that this was a simple technical amendment to correct a date and there was no prejudice to the Registrant in allowing the amendment.
The Registrant’s Response
2. The Registrant admitted Particular 1 of the Allegation. He made no admission to Particular 2 of the Allegation on the basis that impairment would be a matter for the Panel to determine after having heard submissions from both sides.
Background

3. The Registrant is a registered Social Worker. Over a period of at least 8 years, he was employed by Sandwell Borough Council (‘the Council’) as a Learning and Development Officer for 37 hours per week. The position involved the training and supervision of social workers and students. On 31 July 2006, he also obtained employment for an average of 22.5 hours per week as a Counsellor for the Black Country Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.  He therefore worked for two employers and claimed two salaries when he could not have been working for each employer for all the hours that he claimed. He submitted timesheets of his working hours to the Council that were described by the sentencing Judge as ‘plainly contrived’.
4. The fraudulent benefit that he gained amounted to at least £110,000 over 8 years from July 2006 to September 2014. He pleaded guilty to five counts of Dishonestly Making a False Representation to make a gain for himself or a loss to another, or to expose another to risk of loss, contrary to Section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006, at Wolverhampton Crown Court on 15 March 2018. He submitted a basis of plea, which was not available to the Panel, but it appears that there was a trial of issue on the extent of the loss and the hours that he had worked. He was sentenced to 2 years’ imprisonment on 7 June 2018.
5. The transcript of defence counsel’s plea in mitigation and the Judge’s sentencing remarks shows that the Registrant was aged 47 years on the date of sentence and that he had no other convictions. He pleaded guilty to the offences. He had obtained part-time work at the University of Birmingham since leaving his previous employment.
6. In passing sentence, the Judge sentenced the Registrant on the basis that his offending was of high culpability, in breach of trust, and had involved significant planning over a sustained period of time.  The appropriate sentence, after credit for his guilty pleas, was 2 years’ imprisonment to be served concurrently on all five counts.  He has since been released from prison but he remains on licence until June 2020.
7. The Judge’s sentencing remarks were as follows:-
“I have to deal with a Defendant who has lied to me...over a period of 8 years from July 2006 until September 2014 you committed this fraud. And the fraud you knew about quite clearly, you knew what you were doing. You were doing two jobs, 37 hours per week you were supposed to be doing work for Sandwell as a learning and development officer. And then you took a job on at roughly the same time working for the NHS Trust as a counsellor….The job you had at Sandwell was an onerous one…In my judgment, you could not possibly have done that, and the NHS job at one and the same time…there must have been corners cut, and training which was not carried out…You abused the trust which you accepted in evidence was placed upon you…There was significant planning…and the fraudulent activity was conducted over a sustained period of time…
Facts / Grounds
8. Article 22 (1)(a)(iii) of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001 provides that a criminal conviction or caution constitutes a ground for finding that fitness to practise may be impaired.
9. The Registrant had admitted the offences by pleading guilty. He furthermore accepted that he was convicted of the offences when responding to the Allegation at the start of the hearing. The Panel relied on his admission and the evidence of the facts of the offences as described in the transcript of the Judge’s sentencing remarks. The conviction as set out in Particular 1 of the Allegation was therefore found proved.
Submissions on Impairment
10. Mr Dite for the HCPC submitted that the Registrant’s conviction was for serious offences of dishonesty over a sustained period of eight years, involving a breach of trust and significant planning. He accepted that the Registrant had shown some insight by pleading guilty, but submitted that his insight was limited by pleading guilty on a factual basis that was not accepted by the Judge, following a trial of issue before sentence.
11. He submitted that the Registrant had failed to demonstrate adequate insight into the seriousness of his offences or the effect upon the reputation of his profession. He contended that the Registrant’s letter of 11 September 2018, showed that he was concerned more with the personal impact of his conviction on himself and his family than on his students or colleagues. He further submitted that a finding that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired is necessary in the public interest in order to uphold professional standards and to maintain public confidence in the profession and the regulatory process.
12. The Panel considered the Registrant’s letter to the HCPC, dated 11 September 2018, which he wrote whilst in custody. He said that he was very sorry for what he had done and acknowledged that his conduct had fallen below the expected standard for a Social Worker. He had reflected on what he had done. He pointed out that he had never received any complaint about his practice but did not wish to make excuses for what he had done. He had sought to redress his behaviour in prison by becoming a Peer Mentor and Support Worker for other prisoners. He said that he regretted the effect on himself personally and professionally and the impact on his family. He asked the Panel to take account of the adverse financial effect upon him and his family if his ability to gain employment were to be effected by any restriction on his registration as a Social Worker.
13. The Registrant also made oral submissions. He said that he had been employed in social work since 1994 and there had never been any complaint about the standard of his work or any concern about him posing a risk to the public. He had served most of his sentence as a category D prisoner, which indicated that he was adjudged to be a low risk to public safety. He told the Panel that he had reflected on his actions during his eight months in prison and helped other prisoners. He had undertaken an academic course in Peer Mentoring and gained a BTEC level 3 qualification in that field whilst in custody. 
14. Since his release on 24 January 2019, he had met with his probation officer regularly to consider his offending and what he could learn for the future in order to avoid reoffending. He had researched working with ex-offenders, but had not yet done any courses or voluntary work.
15. He agreed that his fitness to practise was impaired at the time of his conviction but submitted that it was not currently impaired, because he had had time to reflect on his offending and the personal and financial cost of what he had done.
Decision
Decision on Impairment
16. The Panel has considered the submissions of both parties and had regard to the HCPTS Practice Note on Finding that Fitness to Practise is Impaired. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor on the principles of proportionality and fairness in considering impairment. The Panel had firmly in mind that the purpose of this hearing was to conduct a thorough appraisal of the Registrant’s current fitness to practise and an assessment of future risk.
17. The Panel considered the two components relating to impairment: the personal component and the public component. It first considered the personal component: whether the conduct was remediable, whether it had been remedied and whether it was likely to be repeated.
18. The Panel found that the Registrant’s conduct fell far short of that which would be expected of a Social Worker. He had committed serious offences of dishonesty that had been planned over a period of eight years, including the production of contrived timesheets that were intended to deceive his employer. The Panel noted that the offences were described by the sentencing Judge as offences of high culpability in breach of trust. The dishonest gain was substantial. The Registrant appeared to have committed the offences with little regard for the effect on others or public confidence in his profession.
19. The Panel found some limited evidence of insight and remorse. The Registrant had become a mentor for other prisoners and had engaged with his probation officer in identifying trigger points that might lead to reoffending. The Panel however determined that the Registrant had not demonstrated sufficient insight into the risk of impact of his prolonged offending on work colleagues and others. The Panel also noted the difficulty in remediating dishonesty. The Panel therefore found that the Registrant’s fitness to practise was currently impaired on the personal grounds.
20. The Panel then reminded itself of the public component in Cohen v GMC [2008] EWHC 581: “the need to protect the individual and the collective need to maintain confidence in the profession as well as declaring and upholding proper standards of conduct and behaviour which the public expect…and that the public interest includes, amongst other things, the protection of service users and the maintenance of public confidence in the profession.”
21. The Registrant had brought the reputation of the profession into disrepute by his criminal offending and a prolonged course of dishonesty over an extended period from 2006 to 2014. The Panel found that the Registrant expressed only limited remorse and that he failed to express an adequate understanding of the effect of his offending on others or on the reputation of his profession.
22. The Panel therefore determined that the Registrant’s conviction was such as to undermine public confidence in his profession and that a finding of impairment was required to uphold proper standards of conduct and behaviour and to maintain confidence in the regulatory process. A reasonable and informed member of the public would expect such a finding of impairment in the circumstances of this case.
Decision on Sanction
23. The Panel considered the Indicative Sanctions Policy of the HCPC and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor that a sanction should be the least that is necessary to ensure public protection and to maintain public confidence in the profession. The Panel reminded itself that the purpose of a sanction is not to punish the Registrant and that a sanction must be appropriate and proportionate.

24. The Panel took into account the submissions of both parties. Mr Dite for the HCPC submitted that the nature of the sustained dishonest conduct was fundamentally incompatible with continued registration. He relied on paragraph 47 of the Indicative Sanctions Policy to the effect that striking-off may be the appropriate sanction where there is a serious abuse of trust involving dishonesty.

25. The Registrant submitted that he had over 20 years of experience in social work, which he could apply for the benefit of the public, notwithstanding his offending. He invited the Panel to give due weight to his previous good record as a Social Worker and “everyone deserves a second chance.”

26. In determining the appropriate sanction, the Panel identified the following mitigating factors. The Registrant had been a Social Worker for 24 years. He was not the subject of any reported complaints or serious concerns. He had pleaded guilty and had used his time in custody productively in order to support fellow prisoners. He had demonstrated some insight and remorse, albeit limited, and had engaged constructively with the regulatory process.

27. The Panel found that there were aggravating factors. The offending was of high culpability, involving a breach of trust, the deception of both his employers over a period of eight years, which must have required sustained planning. The offences were serious enough to merit an immediate sentence of imprisonment. In relation to the offending, the Panel adopted the Judge’s finding in his sentencing remarks in relation to the impact on others: ‘…there must have been corners cut, and training which was not carried out…’ There was a lack of adequate insight and remorse other than an appreciation of the impact on himself and his family.

28. The Panel then considered the available sanctions in ascending order of gravity. The Panel determined that the nature of the conviction was too serious to make no order.

29. The Panel then considered whether to impose a Caution Order and noted that such an order may be the appropriate sanction when there is an isolated instance of misconduct that is out of character and where there is strong evidence of remorse and remediation. The Panel found that this is not such a case because of the gravity of the allegation. The Panel therefore concluded that a Caution Order would not provide sufficient public protection or uphold the public interest.

30. The Panel determined that a Conditions of Practice Order was neither appropriate nor workable because the Registrant was on licence until June 2020, so he was liable to recall to custody and he had no immediate prospect of securing work as a Social Worker. Furthermore, there were no conditions that could be formulated to address the level of dishonesty in this case or prevent its repetition. Such an order would not protect the public interest in any event where there is evidence of planned and sustained dishonesty.

31. The Panel went on to consider whether a Suspension Order would be a proportionate and appropriate measure, but concluded that a period of suspension would not be in the wider public interest and would not be sufficient to maintain public confidence in the profession.

32. The Panel then considered the sanction of Striking Off. The Panel had in mind that this was the sanction of last resort and that there was a public interest in retaining qualified practitioners. However, the Registrant had committed high culpability offences of fraud, involving serious dishonesty in breach of trust and a loss of £110,000 over a sustained period for which he had received a significant sentence of imprisonment.

33. The Panel had particular regard to the guidance in paragraph 49 of the Indicative Sanctions Policy to the effect that a Striking Off Order ‘may also be appropriate where the nature or gravity of the allegation is such that any lesser order would lack deterrent effect or undermine confidence in the profession concerned or the regulatory process.’ The Panel also gave particular weight to the aggravating factors that are identified above. The Panel therefore determined that an order to strike the Registrant’s name off the register was the appropriate and proportionate sanction to maintain public confidence in the profession and the regulatory process.

Order

Order: That the Registrar is directed to strike the name of Mr Peter Richard Walker from the Register on the date this order comes into effect.

Notes

The Order imposed today will apply from 24 May 2019.

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Mr Peter Richard Walker

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
26/04/2019 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Struck off