Mr Michael V Webster

Profession: Social worker

Registration Number: SW41633

Interim Order: Imposed on 06 Jul 2019

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 10:00 17/06/2019 End: 17:00 19/06/2019

Location: The Health and Care Professions Council Tribunal Service, 405 Kennington Road, London, SE11 4PT

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Hearing has not yet been held

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Allegation

Whilst registered with the HCPC as a Social Worker and working for Wigan Council, between August 2017 and February 2018, you:

1. Obtained money from the petty cash account for your own personal use.

2. Submitted petty cash requests indicating that the funds were for service users, when this was not the case.

3. Your actions in particulars 1 and 2 were dishonest.

4. The matters set out in particulars 1 to 3 amount to misconduct.

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

Finding

Preliminary matters

Service

1. The Panel, having taken and accepted legal advice, was satisfied that the Registrant had been served with Notice of today’s hearing in accordance with the Health and Care Professions Council (Conduct and Competence) Committee (Procedure) Rules 2003 (the Rules). The Panel had sight of a letter dated 19 March 2019 which was sent by first class post to the Registrant at his registered address. This letter contained all the necessary information required for proper notification of the hearing.

Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant

2. Ms Parry, for the HCPC, applied for today’s hearing to proceed in the absence of the Registrant. She submitted that the Registrant had voluntarily waived his right to attend and had not sought any adjournment. She further submitted that, as the Registrant had not engaged with the HCPC at any stage of these proceedings, an adjournment was unlikely to secure his attendance on a later date

3. In reaching its decision, the Panel considered the various matters set out in the HCPTS Practice Note on “Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant”. It also received and accepted legal advice. The Panel noted that it should exercise great care and caution before deciding to proceed in the absence of a registrant.

4. The Panel decided to grant the HCPC’s application and proceed in the absence of the Registrant for the following reasons:

• It was satisfied that all reasonable steps have been taken to notify the Registrant of today’s hearing in accordance with the relevant Rules;

• The Registrant has not engaged with these proceedings to date and so it was a proper inference that he did not intend to attend or be represented and, therefore, it was clear that he had deliberately and voluntarily waived his right to be present;

• The Registrant had not applied for an adjournment;

• There was no reason to suppose that an adjournment would result in the future attendance of the Registrant;

• No adverse inference would be drawn as a result of the Registrant’s absence;

• Two witnesses were present and the Panel had concerns as to the effect of any adjournment on their memories of the events about which they were to give evidence;

• Whilst there was a disadvantage to the Registrant in not being present today, there was a clear public interest in proceeding with this hearing expeditiously;

• In conducting the balancing exercise between the Registrant’s interests and those of the wider public interest, the Panel was satisfied that the balance fell in favour of the hearing proceeding.

Background

5. The Registrant was employed by Wigan Council as Social Worker from 30 March 2009 to 4 May 2018. In May 2016, the Registrant became an Advanced Practitioner Social Worker working in the Children’s Social Care Team, and was responsible for managing a case load of Children In Need (CIN), Child Protection (CP) and Children Looked After (CLA) cases, supporting newly qualified social workers and completing Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) social workers. He was also responsible for the supervision of one social worker and would be available to advise team members in his capacity as an Advanced Practitioner.

6. Wigan Council operates a petty cash system in which social workers requesting petty cash must complete and sign a CP28 petty cash form. This form requires the social worker to provide the name and address of the family or service user for whom the petty cash is required, the reason for the request, and the amount. The CP28 form must then be authorised by a senior manager. Once authorised, the signed CP28 form is given to a Business Support Officer who will allocate the petty cash and provide the social worker with a receipt slip that must be completed and signed by the family/service user and then returned to the administration staff, together with receipts for any goods or services purchased.

7. In his role as an Advanced Practitioner, the Registrant had authority to authorise petty cash payments of £50 or less. Amounts up to £250 could be authorised by a Practice Manager and amounts over £250 had to be authorised by a Principal Manager.

8. Wigan Council’s Business Support Officers periodically carry out petty cash reconciliations to ensure that all petty cash requests have been authorised by a manager.

9. During one such reconciliation, a concern was raised that the Registrant may have obtained petty cash for personal use. This concern led to an internal investigation, during which an audit of all the Registrant’s petty cash requests for a six-month period between August 2017 and February 2018 was carried out. Discrepancies were found which were raised with the Registrant at interview on 6 March 2018 as part of the internal investigation.

10. The Registrant was on sick leave from 7 March 2018 and has since left his employment with Wigan Council.

11. The matter was referred to the HCPC by Wigan Council on 11 May 2018.

Decision on Facts

Evidence

12. The Panel heard evidence from two witnesses called by the HCPC:

• SK, a Senior Business Support Officer employed by Wigan Council; and

• DA, the Registrant’s Line Manager and Practice Manager, who was also appointed as Investigation Officer for the internal investigation.

The Panel also received documentary evidence from Wigan Council, including answers provided by the Registrant on 20 March 2018 when he was interviewed as part of the internal investigation.

13. The evidence called by the HCPC included some hearsay evidence:

• Relating to inquiries made of some families in connection with whether or not they had received petty cash requested in their names; and

• The business records obtained during the reconciliation and audit processes.

The Panel received and accepted legal advice as to how to approach hearsay evidence. The Panel bore in mind that this evidence had not been tested by cross-examination or by any questions from the Panel, and it therefore took particular care when considering it.

14. The Panel found SK to be a credible, consistent and knowledgeable witness whose evidence was as set out in her statement. There was no evidence of any animosity towards the Registrant.

15. The Panel found DA to be an honest, fair and credible witness. She gave clear and balanced evidence, acknowledging the Registrant’s previous good work record, conduct, and professionalism.

16. The Registrant was not present and therefore did not give evidence, nor did he provide any written representation. The only information available to the Panel as to the Registrant’s position regarding the Allegation was in his answers when interviewed by DA on 20 March 2018 during her internal investigation. Although these answers were not given on Oath, they did amount to clear admissions against his interests, and the Panel considered that it was appropriate to take these into account in reaching its decisions on the facts in this case.

Particular 1 – proved

17. The Panel accepted the evidence of both SK and DA as to the procedures in place at Wigan Council for petty cash and how periodic reconciliations are in place to ensure that the system is operating as it should be. It also accepted that the Registrant was fully aware of these procedures and of Wigan Council’s Employee Code of Conduct, which makes clear that employees:

10.1 “must not obtain money from the council … that they are not legally entitled to …”

10.2 “If an employee’s role involves dealing with money belonging to the council … they must ensure they act in a responsible and lawful manner and follow the council’s guidance and regulations”.

18. The Panel had sight of some sample CP28 forms completed by the Registrant and a spreadsheet prepared by SK as part of the audit of all the Registrant’s petty cash requests from August 2017 to February 2018. In total, the spreadsheet showed that the Registrant made 64 petty cash requests for amounts totalling £2,705.73. In these, receipts were provided by him in only 12 cases. In three of those 12 cases, it would appear that the family involved did not receive the petty cash. The Panel accepted the figures given in the spreadsheet to be accurate and it was clear that, in the period August 2017 to February 2018, the Registrant had obtained monies for his own personal use.

19. In finding this particular proved, the Panel also relied on the admissions made by the Registrant in his interview as part of the internal investigation on 20 March 2018. In those admissions, the Registrant explained that he had started to obtain petty cash for his own use after submitting a genuine claim for which he did not obtain a receipt and this was not picked up by the administrative support staff as it should have been. He had then gone on to obtain amounts for his own personal use over a period of about six months. He explained that he had done this as he had had financial and personal difficulties at the time and obtaining the petty cash in this way had given him a sense of being in control. The Registrant confirmed in that interview that if there was no receipt with the petty cash request, he had taken the money for his own personal use.

Particular 2 – proved

20. The Panel had sight of sample CP28 forms completed by the Registrant. Although these were heavily redacted to remove the name(s) of the service user or family involved, the Panel accepted the evidence of SK and DA that these were all CP28 forms submitted for petty cash amounts for service users or their families. The Panel was therefore satisfied that the Registrant submitted those petty cash requests. The Panel was also satisfied that the spreadsheet compiled by SK represented petty cash requests made by the Registrant during the period of the audit. The Panel accepted the evidence of DA that she did not, as part of her internal investigation, check with all the servicer users or their families shown on the spreadsheet. The Panel considered that it was a proper inference that, in respect of all the CP28 forms without a receipt, as well as three where there was a receipt, these were submitted by the Registrant indicating that the funds were for service users when this was not the case. The Panel also reached this conclusion based on what the Registrant told DA during the interview on 20 March 2018, that “if there is no receipt then they didn’t get it”.

Particular 3 – proved

21. The Panel considered the submissions of Ms Parry for the HCPC. It received and accepted legal advice as to how it should approach the issue of dishonesty. The Panel also considered and applied the test for dishonesty as set out in the case of Ivey v. Genting Casinos [2017] UKSC 67 (at para 74) (the Ivey test). In applying the Ivey test, the Panel first decided the Registrant's knowledge or belief as to the factual circumstances of his conduct in relation to particulars 1 and 2. The Panel understood that the Registrant’s belief does not have to be reasonable, so long as it was genuinely held. It then considered whether, based on the factual circumstances as the Panel found the Registrant believed them to be, his conduct was dishonest by the (objective) standards of ordinary decent people. The Panel understood that there was no requirement that the Registrant must appreciate that what he had done was, by those standards, dishonest.

22. The Panel considered that particulars 1 and 2 were, in this case, effectively different sides of the same coin: particular 1 was the obtaining of the petty cash for personal use, and particular 2 was the method by which it was obtained, namely, submitting what were in effect false petty cash requests.

23. The Panel found the factual circumstances at the material time, when each petty cash amount was obtained by the Registrant on the basis of a false petty cash request, to be:

• That the Registrant was aware of the correct procedure to obtain petty cash for service users;

• That the Registrant prepared requests for petty cash in the names of service users which he knew were false and then usually obtained authorisation from a manager in a different team who would not have detailed knowledge of the families he was dealing with;

• That the Registrant knew that if he had told the manager the real reason for the petty cash request it would not have been authorised; and

• That the Registrant submitted the authorised petty cash requests knowing them to be false, as a result of which he obtained the petty cash.

24. The Panel also had regard to the Registrant’s own assessment of his conduct in his interview on 20 March 2018, when he stated “I have been dishonest with everyone …” and “I knew this was very wrong” and “I’m nothing more than a common thief”.

25. In these circumstances, and applying the Ivey test, the Panel had no hesitation in finding that the Registrant was dishonest when he obtained petty cash for his own personal use (particular 1) and when he completed the false petty cash requests purporting to be applying for a service user when this was not the case (particular 2).

Decision on Grounds

26. In reaching its decision on the statutory ground of misconduct, the Panel took into account the submissions of Ms Parry for the HCPC. It also received and accepted legal advice. It had in mind that the misconduct involved must be serious.

27. The Panel had no hesitation in finding the statutory ground proved in relation to all three particulars of the Allegation. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant’s conduct in obtaining petty cash intended to benefit service users, and submitting fraudulent paperwork to do so, fell far below the standards of conduct expected of a Social Worker. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant not only breached his Employees Code of Conduct when he acted as he did, he also breached the HCPC Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics (2016):

Standard 9 - Be honest and trustworthy

Personal and professional behaviour

9.1  You must make sure that your conduct justifies the public's trust and confidence in you and your profession.

28. The Panel was satisfied that the public would not expect a social worker to act as the Registrant acted in this case. It judged the Registrant’s dishonest conduct to have been deplorable.

Decision on Impairment

29. In reaching its decision on impairment, the Panel considered the submissions of Ms Parry for the HCPC. It had regard to the HCPTS Practice Note “Finding that Fitness to Practise is ‘Impaired’”. It received and accepted legal advice. The Panel bore in mind that the purpose of this hearing is not to punish the Registrant for past misdoings but to protect the public against the acts and omissions of those who are not fit to practise.

30. The Panel noted that no known actual harm was caused to any of the families/service users whose cases were allocated to the Registrant. The Panel also noted that the Registrant had not engaged with the HCPC throughout the entirety of these regulatory proceedings. He did, however, engage with Wigan Council’s internal investigation, where he made full admissions when interviewed about petty cash requests.

31. In relation to the personal component, the Panel first considered whether the Registrant’s misconduct could be remedied. It was of the view that, whilst it is difficult to demonstrate that misconduct which involves dishonesty has been remedied, in particular when this continues over a period of time, it is not impossible to do so. The Panel then considered whether there was evidence that the Registrant had remedied his shortcomings. As the Registrant has not engaged with this regulatory process, there was no such evidence. There was no evidence at all as to what the Registrant has done since he went on sick leave in March 2018. This lack of remediation indicated that there is a risk that the Registrant’s misconduct will be repeated.

32. The Panel also considered whether the Registrant has insight into his misconduct. The Panel did not consider that the admissions which the Registrant made during the internal investigation, and his attempt to explain this behaviour, showed that he has achieved an appropriate level of insight into his misconduct. Although the Registrant has demonstrated some remorse for his misconduct, there was no evidence that he has properly reflected on his failings. This lack of proper insight also indicated that there is a risk that the Registrant’s misconduct will be repeated.

33. The Panel was also satisfied that the Registrant’s dishonest conduct has brought the Social Work profession into disrepute and breached fundamental tenets of that profession. The Panel was of the view that, looking forward as it must, there is a risk that he will repeat his misconduct in the future. In these circumstances, the Panel concluded that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired on personal component grounds.

34. In relation to the public component, the Panel was satisfied that a reasonable and informed member of the public would consider that public confidence in the Social Work profession would be undermined if there was no finding of impairment in the circumstances of this case, where public authority funds have been dishonestly obtained by a registrant on the basis of false documentation.

35. The Panel was firmly of the view that it would be failing in its duty to protect the reputation of the Social Work profession and its regulatory process if it did not find impairment in this case. It is essential that the public can have confidence that those employed as social workers are honest in carrying out the role to which they have been appointed.

36. The Panel therefore found, on both the personal and public component grounds, that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired. Accordingly, the Panel found the Allegation is well founded.

Decision on Sanction

37. In considering the appropriate and proportionate sanction in this case, the Panel was referred to and took account of the HCPC “Indicative Sanctions Policy”. The Panel also considered the submissions of Ms Parry for the HCPC, and it received and accepted legal advice. The Panel was aware that the purpose of any sanction it imposes is not to punish the Registrant, although it may have that effect, but it is to protect the public, to maintain confidence in the Social Work profession, and to uphold its standards of conduct and behaviour. It also had in mind that any sanction it imposes must be appropriate and proportionate bearing in mind the nature of the misconduct involved.

38. The Panel considered the mitigating and aggravating factors. The Panel considered the following to be mitigating factors in relation to the Registrant:

• His 31 years of unblemished career;

• His admissions in the internal investigation interview;

• His remorse as expressed in that interview;

• His limited insight;

• The support he gave to a fellow colleague in a personal context;

• The high standard of his work.

39. The Panel considers the following to be aggravating factors in relation to the Registrant:

• The serious and prolonged nature of his misconduct;

• That the misconduct was premeditated, and its execution was planned;

• The misconduct occurred during his employment in a senior position, and was an abuse of trust;

• The obtaining of the petty cash was for his own personal gain.

40. The Panel considered the available sanctions in ascending order of seriousness. It decided that to take no action or to impose a Caution Order in this case would not be appropriate or proportionate given the gravity of misconduct concerned, which involves dishonesty over a period of six months. The misconduct was not an isolated incident and it could not be described as relatively minor. The Panel also found that there is a potential risk of repetition. In these circumstances, the Panel was satisfied that, to ensure public confidence in the profession is not undermined, it must consider a more severe sanction.

41. The Panel considered a Conditions of Practice Order. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant’s lack of proper insight into his misconduct and the risk of repetition made this sanction inappropriate in this case. The Panel considered the matters set out in paragraph 31 of the “Indicative Sanctions Policy”, which states:

“Before imposing conditions a Panel should be satisfied that:

• the issues which the conditions seek to address are capable of correction;

• there is no persistent or general failure which would prevent the registrant from doing so;

• appropriate, realistic and verifiable conditions can be formulated;

• the Registrant can be expected to comply with them

• a reviewing Panel will be able to determine whether those conditions have or are being met.”

42. The Panel was of the view that it would not be able to devise appropriate, realistic and verifiable conditions which would address the serious concerns in this case. As the Registrant has failed to engage with his regulator, the Panel had no evidence that he would comply with any conditions. The Panel has already recognised that, whilst it is difficult for a registrant to remedy misconduct involving dishonesty, it is not impossible to do so. However, the Panel noted that in this case there was no evidence that the Registrant had taken any steps at all towards appropriate remediation. The Panel also considered that an informed member of the public would be concerned if a registrant without a proper level of insight, and who has not engaged with the regulatory process, was able to practice subject to conditions.

43. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order. It took account of the relevant paragraphs in the “Indicative Sanctions Policy” and determined that this would be the appropriate and proportionate order in this case, in order to adequately protect the public and to satisfy the wider public interest concerns. It paid particular regard to paragraph 41 of the “Indicative Sanctions Policy”, which states:

“If the evidence suggests that the Registrant will be unable to resolve or remedy his or her failings then striking off may be the more appropriate option. However, where there are no psychological or other difficulties preventing the registrant from understanding and seeking to remedy the failings then suspension may be appropriate”.

44. The Panel took the view that, given the Registrant has expressed remorse and has some insight into his misconduct, there was no conclusive evidence at this stage that he is unable or unwilling to remedy his failings. The Panel therefore concluded that the appropriate and proportionate sanction is a Suspension Order for 12 months. This period will provide the Registrant with the opportunity to develop full insight, to fully reflect on his shortcomings, and to take steps to remedy them.

45. This Panel cannot bind a future panel which reviews this Suspension Order, but considers that it might be assisted by the following:

• The attendance of the Registrant at the review hearing, either in person or via telephone;

• A reflective piece;

• An update on his current work situation;

• Testimonials and references.

46. The Panel did consider whether an order striking the Registrant off the Register was appropriate in the circumstances of this case, but has decided that it would be disproportionate and unduly harsh.

Order

That the Registrar is directed to suspend the registration of Mr Michael V Webster for a period of 12 months from the date this order comes into effect.

Notes

This order will be reviewed before its expiry.

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Mr Michael V Webster

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
17/06/2019 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Hearing has not yet been held