Ms Victoria M Peplow

Profession: Social worker

Registration Number: SW95338

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 10:00 29/07/2019 End: 17:00 01/08/2019

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

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Suspended

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Allegation

Whilst employed by Worcestershire County Council in the capacity of Social Worker, you:

1. On 13 November 2017, smoked marijuana:

a) During your working hours;

b) In the presence of Colleague 1, a student that you were supervising.

2. On unknown dates, used marijuana on more than one occasion.

3. The matters set out at paragraphs 1 and 2 amount to misconduct.

4. By reason of your misconduct, your fitness to practise is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary matters:
1. At the start of the hearing the Panel was provided with two additional bundles of documents.
2. The Panel labelled the HCPC hearing bundle C1.
3. The Panel labelled the second bundle of documents provided as C2. C2 contained the following documents:
i. the Registrant’s submission to the Investigating Committee, which the Registrant had requested be placed before the Panel;
ii. an email exchange between the Registrant and her employers, consisting of three pages;
iii. a letter from Melanie Lyons, at WorkingWell, dated 30 December 2015;
iv. an occupational health report compiled by Dr Owen Thomas, dated 12 September 2016;
v. a letter from Maitland Medical Services Ltd, dated 5 January 2018; and
vi. an occupational health report compiled by Dr John Brennan, dated 21 December 2017.
4. The Panel labelled the third document C3. C3 consisted of three pages and contained the Registrant’s responses to the ‘Response Pro-Forma and Pre-Hearing Information Form’ (‘the Pro-Forma document’). It was received by HCPTS on 26 March 2019.

Proof of Service
5. The Panel was provided with a signed certificate as proof that the Notice of Hearing had been sent in a letter, by first class post on 10 May 2019, to the address shown for the Registrant on the HCPC register. The Notice of Hearing was also sent to the Registrant by email on the same date.
 
6. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and was satisfied that notice had been properly served in accordance with Rule 3 (Proof of Service) and Rule 6 (date, time and venue) of the Conduct and Competence Committee Rules 2003 (as amended).


Proceeding in absence of the Registrant
7. Ms Mond-Wedd, on behalf of the HCPC, made an application for the hearing to proceed in the Registrant’s absence as permitted by Rule 11 of the Conduct & Competence Rules.
 
8.  Ms Mond-Wedd, submitted that the Registrant had been sent a copy of the Notice of Hearing and that it was clear from the Pro-Forma document C3, that the Registrant would not be attending the hearing.

9. Ms Mond-Wedd also submitted that matters should be dealt with expeditiously. She further submitted that the HCPC have four witnesses who would be called to give evidence to the Panel during the course of the hearing and that an adjournment would be unlikely to result in the Registrant attending.


Panel decision
 
10.  The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and took into account the guidance as set out in the HCPC Practice Note “Proceeding in Absence”.

11. The Panel determined that it was reasonable and in the public interest to proceed with the hearing for the following reasons:
i.  the Panel noted that the Registrant completed document C3 in advance of the hearing. The Panel also noted that on the Proforma document in response to the question ‘Are you planning on attending the hearing?’ the Registrant had circled ‘No’; Further the Panel noted that the Registrant had also circled ‘No’ in response to the question ‘Do you have a representative?’;

ii. the Panel was satisfied that it was reasonable to conclude that the Registrant’s non-attendance was voluntary and therefore a deliberate waiver of her right to attend and participate in person;

iii. there had been no application to adjourn and no indication from the Registrant that she would be willing or able to attend on an alternative date. Therefore re-listing this final hearing would serve no useful purpose;

iv. the HCPC had made arrangements for four witnesses to give evidence during the course of the hearing. In the absence of any reason to re-schedule the hearing, the Panel was satisfied that the witnesses should not be inconvenienced by an unnecessary delay and should give evidence whilst the events would be reasonably fresh in their minds;

v. the Panel recognised that there may be some disadvantage to the Registrant in not being able to give evidence or make oral submissions. However, the Panel noted that she had previously provided written submissions to the Investigating Committee, dated 11 October 2018 and these submissions went some way to mitigate any potential disadvantage to the Registrant; and

vi. as this is a substantive hearing, there is a strong public interest in ensuring that it is considered expeditiously. It is also in the Registrant’s own interest that the allegation should be heard as soon as possible.

Application to amend the particulars
12. At the outset of the hearing, Ms Mond-Wedd made an application to amend the Allegation. The Registrant had been put on notice of the original proposed amendments in a letter dated 25 January 2019.
13. The proposed amendments were as follows:
i. Particular 1 (b) – deletion of the word ‘presence’ and insertion of the word ‘vicinity’;
ii. Particular 1 insertion of a new sub-particular and the words ‘(c) With Colleague 1’s knowledge;
iii. Particular 2 – deletion of the words ‘more than’ and insertion of the words ‘or more’; and
iv. Particular 2 – insertion of an‘s’ at the end of the word ‘occasion’.

14. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and carefully considered the HCPC application to amend the Particulars.
15. After reviewing each of the proposed amendments, the Panel agreed to the Particulars being amended for the following reasons:
i. the Registrant had been provided with significant notice of the HCPC’s intention to amend the Allegation, having been put on notice in January 2019, seven months before the commencement of the Substantive Hearing;
ii. the Registrant had not objected to the proposed amendments;
iii. the proposed amendments were to correct typographical errors and to provide further clarification of the Allegation; and
16. The Panel noted that Particular 1c) could, be deemed potentially to heighten the seriousness of the Allegation. However, the Panel determined that the proposed amendment would not cause any injustice to the Registrant as she had been put on notice of the amendment a number of months prior to the hearing and she had not raised any objection to it.
17. The Panel therefore concluded that the proposed amendments to the Allegation did not cause any likelihood of injustice to the Registrant. 
Application for parts of the hearing to be conducted in private
18. Ms Mond-Wedd invited the Panel to conduct the parts of the hearing in relation to the Registrant’s health and private life in private, submitting that conducting the hearing in private would protect the Registrant’s right to a private life.
19. The Panel carefully considered the public interest grounds in the case being heard in public. The Panel was satisfied, given the medical reports and medical evidence regarding the Registrant’s health before it, that there was a need to protect the Registrant’s right to a private life and decided that the parts of the hearing pertaining to the Registrant’s health and private life should be conducted in private.
20. During the course of the hearing, the Panel also directed that evidence relating to the Registrant’s family members should be conducted in private, so as to protect their right to a private life.
Background
21. The Registrant began her employment at Worcestershire County Council (‘the Council’) on 16 March 2015, working as a Level 3 social worker within the Children with Disabilities (‘CwD’) team.
22. She started as a newly qualified social worker and performed her ‘Assessed and Supported Year’ in Employment with the Council, before becoming a registered social worker on 1 December 2016.
23. The Registrant was line managed by LL from May 2016 until March 2017 and then RL took over as her line manager from around June 2017, until the Registrant left the Council.
24. In mid-September 2017, the Registrant became the work place supervisor for FW, a student who had started her placement within the CwD team. As the Registrant had not yet obtained the ‘Practice Educator Award’, she had a Practice Educator overseeing her work.
25. The Particulars of the Allegation follow on from an incident which took place on 13 November 2017 when the Registrant is alleged to have smoked marijuana during her working hours and in the vicinity of FW. Concerns were also raised regarding the Registrant’s use of marijuana on previous occasions.
26. The concerns were raised on 16 November 2017, during a meeting between FW and her personal tutor EQ. The concerns were then referred to LL, who was the Group Manager of the CwD team at the Council.
27. An investigation was subsequently undertaken by LL who was the Investigating Officer in the matter. She produced a final report, dated 15 December 2017. The Registrant was suspended whilst the investigation was conducted.
28. The matter was subsequently referred to the Health and Care Professions Council (‘HCPC’).
29. The HCPC relied on the evidence of four witnesses who provided statements and exhibits. The witnesses also gave oral evidence at the hearing.
30. The Registrant was not in attendance at the hearing. However, the Panel had regard to the Registrant’s submission to the Investigating Committee and also its supporting documentation.  

Previous disciplinary findings contained within the HCPC bundle
31. Prior to her closing submission, Ms Mond-Wedd drew the Panel’s attention to D6 – D12 of the HCPC bundle. She submitted that it contained the ‘Investigation findings’ of the Council’s investigation into the Registrant’s conduct. Ms Mond-Wedd submitted that this information should have been redacted from the bundle and acknowledged that this was an omission on the part of the HCPC.
32. Further, Ms Mond-Wedd submitted that the Panel should have regard to the case of Enemuwe v. Nursing and Midwifery Council [2016] EWHC 1881 (Admin). She submitted that the Panel should make decisions of fact solely based on the evidence before the Panel and that any findings made by other bodies should be disregarded.

Decision on Facts
Assessment of Witnesses
Witness RL
33. RL gave evidence by way of video-link.
34. RL informed the Panel that, as the Registrant’s line manager in November 2017, she was responsible for her supervision and management. RL met with the Registrant for formal supervision monthly, and informal supervisions in between if she needed guidance.
35. The Panel found witness RL to be credible and reliable. She was clear and gave compelling evidence on the matters covered. The Panel was of the view that RL provided consistent evidence regarding the supportive environment within which the Registrant worked.
The Panel considered that RL provided a balanced view of the Registrant’s character, citing many positive attributes. 

Witness LL
36. In her written statement, LL informed the Panel that she is currently employed as the Group Manager of the CwD team at the Council. She was the Registrant’s line manager from May 2016 until March 2017.
37. LL informed the Panel that she was appointed on 20 November 2017 to investigate the concerns regarding the Registrant allegedly smoking marijuana.
38. The Panel found LL to be a credible, reliable, open and helpful witness. Her oral evidence was balanced and consistent with her witness statement. If she was unable to recollect a particular event she said so and she provided reasons for any views expressed. She also spoke positively about many of the Registrant’s attributes.


Witness FW
39. FW told the Panel that she holds a BA (Hons) degree in Social Work, which she obtained from the Heart of Worcestershire College. For her third year placement, she worked at the Council, within the CwD team, between September and November 2017 with the Registrant as her supervisor.
40. The Panel found FW to be straightforward and credible. She accepted when she could not recollect things because of the passage of time. When she had any doubts she expressed them. The Panel found FW’s oral evidence to be consistent with her witness statement and found her evidence to be compelling.

 Witness LR
41. LR informed the Panel that she had known the Registrant and her family for about eight years. She and the Registrant had supported each other through their degrees and would read each other’s assignments. However, since the time of the alleged incident, she and the Registrant no longer have any contact.
42. The Panel found LR provided a degree of corroborative evidence, in respect of some of the matters put to her. However, the Panel also found LR to be guarded regarding the alleged incident.  Furthermore, the Panel found that LR’s evidence was sometimes inconsistent with FW’s evidence; and in those matters the Panel preferred the evidence of FW. In general therefore, the Panel was unable to attach great weight to LR’s evidence.

Panel’s Approach
43. The Panel noted Ms Mond-Wedd’s submission in respect of the unredacted Council ‘Investigation Findings’ and had regard to the case of Enemuwe v. Nursing and Midwifery Council [2016] EWHC 1881 (Admin). The Panel considered this carefully and concluded that as it was a professional and experienced panel it could set aside the material that had not been redacted; and that a fair minded, informed observer would not conclude it had been prejudiced by it.
44. In reaching its decisions the Panel took into account the oral evidence of the HCPC witnesses, the documentary evidence contained within the hearing bundles, excluding the findings of the Council’s investigation, as well as the oral submissions made by Ms Mond-Wedd and the Registrant’s written representations.
45. The Panel understood that the witnesses used the terms “cannabis”, “weed” and “marijuana” interchangeably. The Panel accepted that these all related to the same substance, that being marijuana.
46. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.

Particular 1
Whilst employed by Worcestershire County Council in the capacity of Social Worker, you:
(1) On 13 November 2017, smoked marijuana:
47. The Panel noted that there was no dispute that the Council employed the Registrant as a Social Worker.
48. The Panel also noted that the Registrant had admitted all the facts alleged by HCPC.  
49. In particular, the Panel noted that the Registrant had signed a copy of the transcript of her interview with LL and that the Registrant had stated the following:
 “LL: I understand that you said to C1 [FW] that “I’ve got a   secret to tell you no one else in the team knows and I’ve been trying to suss out whether to tell you or not”. Is that correct?
VP [Registrant]: “Yes. I’ve reflected 1000 times to think why did I feel safe enough to share that with her. From her response I didn’t think I had jeopardised my whole career. I said it was a secret because it is a secret. Nobody would ever know, I hide it. My judgment was clouded by pain and by anxiety from the phone call – which brought back personal memories. The phone call was literally 10 minutes before the meeting.
LL: Was the ‘secret’ that you told C1 that you use marijuana?
VP: Yes
LL: I understand that you told C1 that you ‘smoked weed and had been doing so for many years’ and that ‘ you didn’t see a problem with it’. Is that correct?
VP: I don’t think I would have said ‘I don’t see a problem with it’. I have smoked it on and off since my 20’s. I come from a family that don’t see a problem with it. It’s never stopped me when I have smoked. It has never stopped me raising 2 amazing kids by myself, holding down a nursery manager job, doing a Social Work degree, doing a job I love and am proud of. That’s probably what I meant.
LL: Why do you use marijuana[?]
VP: redacted
50. The Panel noted that further on during her interview with LL, the Registrant also stated:
 “VP: I was having a cigarette outside as I don’t smoke in the house. P2 [LR] smokes cigarettes. P2 had seen the box and she knows it’s normally not downstairs. She said ‘What you doing?’ when we were out having a fag.
LL: So you’d brought the box down when it was just you and C1 and then did you go outside to smoke cannabis with P2[?]
VP: P2 had packet cigarettes (cigarettes that she buys to use in the car). I made another roll up with a small amount of cannabis in it. P2 had packet fags.
LL: Did P2 know you had cannabis when you were outside?
VP: She smelled it and she probably saw me put it in just before we walked outside. She gave me a bollocking at that point. She said ‘what the fuck do you think you’re doing babe?’
LL: How did you respond?
VP: I was upset and said it had just been such a bad day. 
LL: Did anyone else present on 13th November smoke marijuana?
VP: No…”
51. The Panel also had regard to the Registrant’s admissions in her written submission to the Investigating Committee, contained within bundle C2, where she stated:
 “ I have thought very hard about why I made the poor choice I did that day, I feel that my barriers were down and as I was in my own home I felt safe to share very personal information about myself to someone I hardly knew. As she was a mature student and had been working with me I felt sure that she would not for a minute think that I was a habitual cannabis user and that it was something I had reached for on occasion when my pain levels were severe. I had worked on the team for three years nearly and no one knew this information about me or would ever have considered it as relevant to me.
The impact of my poor choice I made that day has been incredibly detrimental to my life.
52. The Panel also noted that in her oral evidence LR said that she recognised the smell of cannabis when she went with the Registrant outside of her house to smoke.  LR told the Panel that she challenged the Registrant at the time and used words to the effect of “What the hell are you doing?” to which the Registrant responded “I am just going to have a couple of puffs.
53. Furthermore, the Panel noted that FW had assumed that when the Registrant went out to smoke, she had smoked marijuana. This was because the Registrant had shown her a box which she said contained marijuana; and had told her that she was a marijuana smoker. In addition, the Registrant had told FW that she had invited LR to come over and “smoke weed”.  
54. Taking all of the aforementioned into account, the Panel was satisfied that on 13 November 2017, whilst employed by the Council as a Social Worker, the Registrant had smoked marijuana.
55. Accordingly, the stem and Particular 1 are proved.

Particular 1 (a)
(a) During working hours;
56. During the Council’s investigation into the alleged incident the Registrant had initially claimed that she was not actually working on the afternoon of 13 November 2017 but was taking time off in lieu (‘TOIL’), in accordance with the Council’s flexible working system. 
57. The Panel heard evidence from LL that the Council had a flexible working system and policy in place which allowed the occasional working from home and TOIL subject to the needs of the social work team, provided the TOIL had been approved in advance.
58. LL told the Panel that she had also spoken with the other CwD managers and confirmed that they had not been contacted by the Registrant in relation to her taking TOIL that afternoon.
59. RL gave evidence that she had not authorised TOIL for the Registrant for 13 November 2017. However, RL did not work on 13 November 2017. In those circumstances, if the Registrant had wished to take TOIL on that day, she would have needed to seek approval from LL or another CwD.
60. LL also informed the Panel that during the course of her investigation into the Registrant’s alleged conduct, she was provided with a screenshot copy of the Registrant’s calendar for 13 November 2017. The Panel noted that the entry for the afternoon of 13 November 2017 stated ‘protected time (JA planning paperwork) home’. The Panel was told, that ‘JA’ related to the initials of a Child in Need.
61. In her oral evidence to the Panel, FW told the Panel that, after working at a school in the morning, she and the Registrant went to the Registrant’s house. FW told the Panel that the plan for the afternoon was that she would write up the minutes from the ‘Child in Need’ meeting and that the Registrant would write up the ‘Child in Need’ plan. FW said words to the effect that she “definitely saw this afternoon as being work” and that “she wouldn’t have had any other reason to be at the Registrant’s house” as they were professional colleagues and did not socialise outside of working hours.
62. FW told the Panel that after a brief lunch, both she and the Registrant worked on their laptops and that the Registrant had also taken two telephone calls: one from the mother of a child and the other call from a manager called “Simon”.
63. FW also informed the Panel she and the Registrant discussed work quite a bit and that the Registrant answered work related questions from FW.
64. The Panel noted that FW was “100% sure” that she and the Registrant had been working during the afternoon of 13 November 2017.
65. The Panel noted that whilst the Registrant had, initially claimed that she had been taking TOIL during the afternoon of 13 November 2017, she did not continue with that assertion in her subsequent representations.
66. The Panel noted that the Registrant’s calendar had shown her as working during the afternoon and that she had also not sought permission from her line managers, to take TOIL. Nor had the Registrant sought retrospective approval from any of her managers to take TOIL.
67. Furthermore, the Panel considered that FW’s evidence in respect of the work undertaken by both FW and the Registrant, during the course of the afternoon of 13 November 2017, whilst working from the Registrant’s home in line with the flexi policy, demonstrated that both had been conducting Council business and therefore had been working. Furthermore, the very fact that the Registrant was supervising FW at her home address meant that she was working.
68. Having regard to all of the evidence presented to it and the Registrant’s own admissions to the Allegation, the Panel concluded that the Registrant was working on 13 November 2017 and that she had smoked marijuana during working hours.
69. Accordingly, Particular 1a) is found proved.

Particular 1b)
 b) In the vicinity of Colleague 1, a student that you were  supervising;
70. The Panel noted that there was no dispute that the Registrant had been appointed as FW’s supervisor during FW’s placement within the CwD team.
71. FW told the Panel that on 13 November 2017 LR and the Registrant both left the kitchen, where she and the Registrant had been working, and went outside to smoke. She stated that she did not see either of them smoking from where she was seated.
72. LR confirmed FW’s evidence and stated that she and the Registrant both went outside to smoke. LR also provided evidence to the Panel that they were a short distance from the kitchen. 
73. The Panel had regard to the Registrant’s admission to all of the alleged facts.
74. The Panel was satisfied having regard to all of the evidence that the Registrant did smoke marijuana in the vicinity of Colleague 1, a student that she was supervising.
75. Accordingly, Particular 1b) is proved.

Particular 1c)
 c) With Colleague 1’s knowledge.
76. The Panel had regard to FW’s evidence that she assumed the Registrant had smoked marijuana on 13 November 2017 based on what she had earlier been told and shown by the Registrant. 
77. The Panel noted that in her initial statement regarding the incident FW stated “Victoria [the Registrant] and Person 2 [LR] then stated that they were going out for a smoke, they went out into the garden to smoke, and I could not see either of them and cannot say what they were smoking.”
78. FW also confirmed this account, during her oral evidence, when she stated words to the effect “You cannot see into the garden from where I was sat. They were not out there long. I could not smell anything either.”
79. Whilst the Panel noted that it was not unreasonable for FW to infer   that the Registrant and LR had gone out to smoke marijuana, owing to the preceding conversation that the Registrant had with her, regarding her use of marijuana and keeping secrets, the Panel was not satisfied that FW knew that this is what the Registrant was going to do.
80. The Panel was also cognisant of the fact that FW had confirmed, during her evidence, that she had not seen inside the contents of the box, which purportedly contained marijuana, nor could she confirm what was inside the cigarette that the Registrant had taken outside to smoke.
81. Therefore, notwithstanding the Registrant’s admission in respect of this particular, the Panel was not satisfied, having received direct evidence from FW as to what was within her knowledge, that she did know that the Registrant was going to smoke marijuana.
82. Accordingly, Particular 1c) is not proved.

Particular 2
 2. On unknown dates, used marijuana on one or more occasions.
83. The Panel noted that Particular 2 was confined by the stem of the Allegation to the period during which the Registrant was employed by the Council as a Social Worker. The Panel also noted the reference to the term ‘on unknown dates’ within the Particular and considered that this meant on non-specified dates.
84. The Panel therefore considered whether there was evidence of the Registrant having used marijuana on more than one occasion, other than on 13 November 2017. The Panel noted that the Registrant was registered with the HCPC on 1 December 2016. The Panel therefore formed the view that the appropriate dates for its consideration were between 1 December 2016 and 12 November 2017. 
85. The Panel had regard to FW’s interview with LL during the Council’s investigation when FW stated …”She came down with a wooden box in her hand. She sat opposite me and said ‘I’ve got a secret to tell you’. I’ve been trying to suss you out since your placement started. I know you don’t smoke so I wasn’t sure, but I think I can trust you’. She said ‘I smoke weed’. She said ‘you can’t tell anyone’. I said ‘that’s okay I wont tell anyone’. She said ‘I smoke weed and have done for a long time’.”
86. The Panel noted that the comments made by the Registrant, to FW and LL, use a present tense, ‘I use’, when referring to her use of marijuana.
87. The Panel noted the Registrant’s own admission and FW’s evidence, and found it to be more likely than not that the Registrant had used marijuana, in what she claimed to be a self-prescribed attempt to alleviate her pain on unknown dates and on one or more occasions during the course of her employment as a social worker with the Council.
88. Accordingly, Particular 2 is proved.

Decision on Grounds
Panels Approach
89. The Panel first considered whether any of the facts found proved amounted to misconduct. In doing so, it took into account the HCPC’s submissions and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
90. The Panel also considered the relevant Practice Note issued by the HCPTS, “Finding that Fitness to Practise is ‘Impaired’”, together with the HCPC’s Standards of Conduct, Performance Ethics 2016 and the HCPC’s Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers in England 2012.
91. The Panel found breaches of the following parts of the HCPC’s ‘Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics’ (dated January 2016):
 6.2 - You must not do anything, or allow someone else to do anything, which could put the health or safety of a service user, carer or colleague at unacceptable risk; and
 6.3 – You must make changes to how you practise, or stop practising if your physical or mental health may affect your performance or judgment, or put others at risk for any other reason.
 9.1 – You must make sure that your conduct justifies the public’s trust and confidence in you and your profession.
92. The Panel also found breaches of the following parts of ‘The Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers in England’ 2012.
  2.10 - understand what is required of them by the Health   and Care Professions Council;
  3 - be able to maintain fitness to practise; and
  3.1 - understand the need to maintain high standards of   personal and professional conduct.
3.4 - be able to establish and maintain personal and professional boundaries 
9.1 - understand the need to build and sustain professional relationships with service users, carers and colleagues as both an autonomous practitioner and collaboratively with others.
15.1 - understand the need to maintain the safety of service users, carers and colleagues. 
93. The Panel considered that smoking marijuana, which remains an illegal substance in the United Kingdom, during work hours and whilst supervising a student, constituted a serious failing on the Registrant’s behalf.
94. The Panel was of the view that the Registrant was in a position of trust and power, in respect of her supervision of FW. By asking FW if she could “keep a secret” regarding her use of marijuana, she had breached FW’s trust and abused her own position as FW’s supervisor.
95. The Panel noted, with concern, that FW had told the Panel that the incident had left her feeling “anxious” and “worried” and the Registrant’s actions had resulted in her leaving the Council to complete the remainder of her third year placement at an alternative employer. The Panel was very concerned that the Registrant’s conduct had a direct and negative impact on FW, to whom she owed a duty of care. The Panel was of the view that the Registrant had misplaced FW’s trust in her as a supervisor.
96. Further, the Panel was also of the view that smoking marijuana during working hours, could have affected the Registrant’s judgement and decision making, potentially impacting on the very vulnerable service users for whom she was responsible.  However, the Panel noted that neither FW nor LR noticed any actual changes in the Registrant’s presentation after she had smoked marijuana.
97. In addition, the Panel noted with concern that the Registrant’s conduct was also in direct contravention of her employer’s policies regarding drug and alcohol use.
98. The Panel considered that the above matters represented serious breaches of professional standards, falling far below the behaviour expected of a registered Social Worker, and amounted to misconduct.
99. The Panel found Particular 1a), Particular 1b), and Particular 2 each amounted to misconduct.

Decision on Impairment
100. Having found misconduct, the Panel went on to consider whether, as a result of that misconduct, the Registrant's current fitness to practise is impaired. The Panel took into account all of the evidence, the submissions made by Ms Mond-Wedd and the written submissions of the Registrant.
101. The Registrant’s conduct is potentially remediable. However, there is no evidence before the Panel that the Registrant has sought in any way to remedy her shortcomings.
102. The evidence that the Panel has received from the Registrant is that she regretted her actions on 13 November 2017, in respect the impact on FW. However, having smoked marijuana for many years she does not appear to understand or accept that smoking an illegal substance is wrong, or a breach of professional standards. Instead she has sought to use alleviation of her pain as a justification for using marijuana. The Panel therefore believes her conduct is likely to recur.
103. Whilst the Registrant does demonstrate remorse and insight into her actions including the impact on FW, the Panel is concerned at the Registrant’s lack of insight into her use of marijuana during work and the effect that it could have had on vulnerable service users or her colleagues.
104. The Panel went on to consider whether this was a case that required a finding of impairment on public interest grounds in order to maintain public confidence in the profession and the Regulator. The Panel was satisfied that a fully informed member of the public, who was aware of all of the background to this case and the failings and lack of insight of the Registrant, would have their confidence in the profession and the Regulator undermined if a finding of impairment was not made.
105. Accordingly, the Panel found the Registrant’s current fitness to practise is impaired in respect of both the personal and public components.
106. The Panel therefore concluded that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.

Decision on Sanction
107. In reaching its decision on sanction, the Panel took into account the submissions made by Ms Mond-Wedd. The Panel also referred to the “Indicative Sanctions Policy” issued by the HCPC on 15 July 2019.
108. The Panel had in mind that the purpose of sanction was not to punish the Registrant, but to protect the public, maintain public confidence in the profession and maintain proper standards of conduct and performance. The Panel was also cognisant of the need to ensure that any sanction is proportionate.
109. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
110. When considering insight, the Panel was of the view that the Registrant has demonstrated some insight in respect of the impact of her actions on FW. However, the Panel also noted that the Registrant’s insight was limited solely to the impact of her actions on FW.  The Registrant had, for example, failed to demonstrate any insight in respect of how her actions impacted her employer, colleagues and the wider profession. Further, the Panel was particularly concerned by the illegality of the Registrant’s conduct and her lack of insight in this respect.
111. The Panel noted that the Registrant had demonstrated some remorse when in her representations, she had used terms such as “embarrassing” and “shameful. However, the Panel determined that the Registrant had, again, only demonstrated remorse, in respect of the impact of her actions on FW.
112. The Panel noted that in her written submissions, the Registrant stated that had she been offered the chance to apologise to FW, she “would have gladly”.
113. The Panel considered the aggravating factors in this case to be:
i. the Registrant’s smoking of marijuana was illegal and not isolated;
ii. there was potential for the Registrant’s professional judgement to be impaired as a result of her drug misuse; and
iii. the Registrant abused the position of power between supervisor and student when she asked the student to “keep a secret” and hide her drug misuse;
114. The Panel considered the following to be mitigating factors:
i. the Registrant had a previously unblemished social work career, with no previous disciplinary record;

ii. the Registrant had made early admissions during the Council’s investigation and also during the HCPC investigation;

iii. the Registrant’s colleagues and line manager gave positive evidence to the Panel in respect of her enthusiasm and commitment for her work and her role.  The Panel also noted the documents, provided by the Registrant, regarding positive feedback that she had received from an Independent Reviewing Officer regarding a specific case that the Registrant handled very well; and

iv. the Registrant had endured a challenging time with her health, which was confirmed by medical practitioners, and which, she claimed, underpinned her use of marijuana to alleviate her pain and her poor judgement.

115. In light of the seriousness of the misconduct, the Panel did not consider that this was an appropriate case to take no further action. Taking no further action would not protect the public from the risks identified by the Panel; nor would it mark the seriousness of the issues.
116. The Panel then considered whether to caution the Registrant. The Panel was of the view that such a sanction would not reflect the seriousness of the misconduct in this case. The Registrant’s failings could potentially have put vulnerable service users at risk of harm.  The Panel has already concluded that there is a risk of such behaviour being repeated in the event that the Registrant continues to use marijuana. Therefore, a Caution Order, would not protect the public from any such risk. The Panel was also of the view that public confidence in the profession, and the HCPC as its Regulator, would be undermined if such behaviour were dealt with by way of a caution.
117. The Panel next considered whether to place a Conditions of Practice Order on the Registrant’s registration. As identified at the impairment stage, the failings identified are of a kind that could potentially be remedied. However, for a Conditions of Practice Order to be effective, the Panel has to be satisfied that the Registrant will co-operate with any conditions imposed and be genuinely committed to resolving the issues highlighted. In light of the Registrant’s limited insight and limited engagement with this process, it was not possible for the Panel to formulate conditions that would be suitable, workable or realistic. Owing to the Registrant’s non-attendance, the Panel was unable to determine whether the Registrant would have complied with a Conditions of Practice Order. The Panel was therefore not confident that the Registrant would comply with any conditions imposed.
118. The Panel next considered whether to impose a Suspension Order. Such an order would provide the necessary degree of protection for the public, whilst leaving open the possibility of remediation and improved insight in the event that the Registrant decided to return to practise as a Social Worker. Given the serious nature of the Registrant’s breaches, the Panel considered that a Suspension Order would reflect the seriousness of the Registrant’s failings and send out a clear message that such conduct was not to be tolerated. In light of all the matters highlighted in this case, the Panel considered that this was a suitable case for a period of suspension.
119. The Panel considered that to strike the Registrant from the Register, which is a sanction of last resort, would be disproportionate at this stage and that a lesser sanction was therefore appropriate in this case. Whilst the Panel determined that the Allegation was serious, and that there remains an ongoing concern regarding the Registrant’s lack of insight in respect of her use of marijuana, the Panel was of the view that it would be disproportionate to strike the Registrant from the HCPC register and deprive the public of an otherwise well regarded practitioner.
120. Accordingly, the Panel made an Order directing the Registrar to suspend the registration of the Registrant for a period of 12 months. The Panel was of the view that a 12 month suspension would provide the Registrant with a period of reflection and would also afford her with an adequate opportunity to remediate.
121. The Panel considered that a reviewing Panel would be assisted by the following:
i. the Registrant’s attendance at the review hearing;
ii. a reflective piece on the Panel’s findings  particularly addressing her insight in respect of her marijuana use and the steps she has taken to address her misuse;
iii. medical evidence, such as a report from her General Practitioner or another qualified medical practitioner, of her ability to control and/or manage her pain through the use of prescribed medication;
iv. evidence of her on-going professional development as a Social Worker; and
v. up to date testimonials from any organisation or employer, whether remunerated or otherwise.

Order

Order: That the Registrar is directed to suspend the registration of Ms Victoria M Peplow for a period of 12 months from the date this Order comes into effect.

Notes

Right of Appeal:
You may appeal to the High Court in England and Wales against the Panel’s decision and the order it has made against you.
Under Articles 30(10) and 38 of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, any appeal must be made to the court not more than 28 days after the date when this notice is served on you.
European alert mechanism:
In accordance with Regulation 67 of the European Union (Recognition of Professional Qualifications) Regulations 2015, the HCPC will inform the competent authorities in all other EEA States that your right to practise has been prohibited.
You may appeal to the County Court against the HCPC’s decision to do so.  Any appeal must be made within 28 days of the date when this notice is served on you.  This right of appeal is separate from your right to appeal against the decision and order of the Panel.

Interim Order:
Proceeding in absence:
1. Ms Mond-Wedd made an application for the hearing, in relation to the imposition of an Interim Order, to proceed in the Registrant’s absence.
2. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had been warned in the Notice of Hearing dated 10 May 2019 that there was a real prospect that an Interim Order application would be made by HCPC, should a substantive finding be made by the Panel.
3. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and took into account the guidance as set out in the HCPC Practice Note “Proceeding in Absence”.
4. The Panel determined that it was reasonable and in the public interest to proceed having noted, in the Proforma document, in response to the question ‘On what dates are you and your representative unavailable for the months May – July 2019’ that the Registrant had responded with ‘Irrelevant as wont be attending’.

5. In these circumstances the Panel was satisfied that it was reasonable to conclude that the Registrant’s non-attendance was voluntary and therefore a deliberate waiver of her right to attend and participate in person. For the same reasons as previously outlined, the Panel was satisfied that it was reasonable to proceed in the absence of the Registrant.

Decision Interim Order:
6. The Panel makes an Interim Suspension Order under Article 31(2) of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001. For the same reasons given in its determination on sanction, the Panel concluded that an Interim Conditions of Practice Order would not be appropriate. It concluded that the only proportionate interim order was an Interim Suspension Order for the period of 18 months to cover any appeal period and was necessary for public protection and is otherwise in the public interest. The Panel has made a finding that the Registrant should not practise for at least 12 months owing to her conduct. To make no order would be inconsistent with the Panel’s earlier findings.

7. This order will expire: (if no appeal is made against the Panel’s decision and Order) upon the expiry of the period during which such an appeal could be made; (if an appeal is made against the Panel’s decision and Order) the final determination of that appeal, subject to a maximum period of 18 months.

 

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Ms Victoria M Peplow

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
29/07/2019 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Suspended