Mr Lee Robert Patrick Higginbottom
During the course of your practise as a Social Worker at Northamptonshire County Council, whilst working as an Independent Review and Conference Officer, during the period between December 2009 and November 2013:
1. You did not keep accurate records on CareFirst for approximately 87 Statutory Looked After Children (LAC) Reviews relating to 64 children.
2. You did not update / record their LAC review reports in Care First on their file within the 20 days as required.
3. You did not provide documents for reviews relating to Service Users A and B.
4. You did not enter outcomes of the Child Protection (CP) Conferences between 10 -12 June 2013, in relation to the following Service Users:
a) Family C x 3
b) Family D x 3 and;
c) Service User E x 1.
5. Within the case files audited from your caseload:
a) In relation to Service User F, you did not record the Chair report on Care First following the Looked After Review (LAR) held on 4 March 2013.
b) In relation to Service User G:
i) You did not complete and / or record the LAR Meetings since January 2012.
ii) You did not record the content of the review meetings
c) In relation to Service User H, you did not complete and / or record the LAR chair reports on Care First, following the LAR held on 3 November 2011 and 17 July 2013.
d) In relation to Service User I
i) You did not complete and / or record the Chair reports from LAC Reviews located on the file since 11 July 2012.
ii) You did not complete the Chair report dated 8 January 2013.
iii) You did not record any Review Reports on Alchemy.
e) In relation to Service User J, there are missing reports for the following dates:
i) 24 October 2011;
ii) 1 March 2013,
iii) 6 May 2013 and;
iv) 19 August 2013.
f) In relation to Service Users K and L, you did not complete and / or record the Chair reports from LAC Reviews located on the file since October 2010.
g) In relation to Service Users K and L, you did not record any Review Reports on Alchemy.
h) In relation to Service User M and N, you did not complete and / or record the LAC chair reports on Care First, following the LARs held on the following dates:
i) 9 July 2012;
ii) 27 November 2012 and;
iii) 7 February 2012.
i) In relation to Service User O:
i) You did not complete the Chair report dated 4 December 2012 and 21 February 2013.
ii) You did not record the Chair report following the LAR held on 29 July 2013 on Care First.
6. You did not keep your managers proactively informed about the significant backlog.
7. The matters set out in paragraphs 1 - 6 amount to misconduct and / or lack of competence.
8. By reason of your misconduct and / or lack of competence, your fitness to practise is impaired.
1. The Panel is satisfied that there has been good service of the Notice of Hearing. A letter was sent to the Registrant’s registered address giving notice of these proceedings on the 22 June 2016.
2. The Registrant has not attended the final hearing and is not represented.
3. The Panel first considered whether it ought to exercise its discretion to continue with this hearing in the absence of the Registrant. The Panel concluded that it was in the public interest to do so, having considered the HCPC Practice Note on Proceeding in the Registrant’s Absence, having taken the Legal Assessor’s advice, and considered the guidance in R v Jones  UKHL 5 and GMC v Adeogba and GMC v Visvardis  EWCA Civ 162, for the following reasons:
(a) The Panel is satisfied that the Registrant had notice of the hearing.
(b) The Panel has seen no evidence that the Registrant has engaged with the HCPC with regard to these proceedings or the regulatory process.
(c) The Panel was of the view that, even if these proceedings were adjourned, there is very little likelihood that the Registrant would attend on a subsequent occasion, noting that he has not requested an adjournment.
(d) The Panel concluded that the Registrant has deliberately chosen not to take part in these proceedings.
(e) The Panel further concluded that it was reasonable and in the public interest to proceed today in the circumstances, given the time lapse since the allegation, the seriousness of the allegation and the fact that a number of witnesses have attended to give oral evidence.
4. The Panel next considered an application by the HCPC to amend the allegation. The proposed amendment was sent to the Registrant on the 4 January 2016. The reason for the amendment was twofold: firstly to reflect the evidence from witness 2, and secondly, to anonymise the identity of service users.
5. The Panel concluded that it was in the public interest to allow the amendment and that there was no substantive prejudice to the Registrant. He has not raised any objection to the proposed amendment, despite having 10 months’ notice of the proposed application. There was an additional amendment, not included in the letter of the 4 January 2016, in respect of Particular 4(d), which should relate to service user “O” and not service user “I”. The Panel concluded there was no prejudice is allowing this amendment, noting that the correct reference had been made in the case summary.
6. In addition, during the course of hearing the evidence, there was a subsequent application by the HCPC, to amend Particular 4(c), which should relate to service under J and not H. The Panel acceded to this application, noting that the substance of the Particular had not changed, an error had simply occurred during the process of anonymising the service users. There was no substantive prejudice to the Registrant in allowing the amendment.
7. The allegations set out above, is therefore the amended allegation.
8. The Panel has been provided with an exhibit bundle of documents which runs to 615 pages and a core bundle running to 97 pages.
9. The Panel was very conscious that when a witness has not given oral evidence, this is hearsay evidence. When considering hearsay evidence, which is admissible, the Panel has paid due regard to the weight which it can attach to it, bearing in mind that it has not been possible for that evidence to be challenged or probed. The Panel has, in respect of each allegation, sought to corroborate the allegation where possible through documentation and the oral evidence it has heard.
10. The Panel also granted an application to hear part of the evidence in this case in private, having regard to the matters pertaining to the health/private life of the Registrant.
11. The Registrant was employed as an Independent Review and Conference Officer (IRCO) at Northamptonshire County Council, (the Council) from 1 December 2009, until his resignation, in the course of a disciplinary hearing, on the 19 March 2014. Witness 4 told the Panel that the IRCO role, at that time, was equivalent in seniority to a Team Manager, and required at least 3-5 years’ post qualification experience. The Registrant had previously been both a Team Manager and an Independent Child Protection Conference Chair for other local authorities.
12. The Registrant’s IRCO role involved him chairing the statutory reviews of Looked After Children (LAC). Part of the role is ensuing that decisions and reports are recorded on a child’s file within a prescribed period of time. Decisions should be recorded within 5 days of the review and reports completed and circulated within 20 working days. The statutory guidance defined in the IRO Handbook sets out the time scales for the dissemination of information. Given the need to circulate information to a proscribed list of people within the 20 days, the Council requirement is for the IRO to submit and upload the full report within 15 days of the LAC Review so that it can be quality assured and checked before it is sent out.
13. The time limits are set strictly in the IRO Handbook to avoid drift and delay in cases of vulnerable service users, including children and young persons. The purpose of the IRO guidance is to avoid delay and to ensure that any recommendations made are acted upon quickly. It is imperative that these documents are an up to date record of the child’s/young person’s life. An IRO can also make recommendations and challenge local authority decisions and actions - this should be recorded on the system, so there is a clear link as to why conclusions have been reached and rationale behind these.
14. Witness 1’s evidence was that there should be no backlog in respect of LAC Review reports being uploaded onto the Care First IT system, but that he would be concerned, in practice, if there were more than 6 outstanding reports. Witness 4 was in broad agreement, saying that 6-10 outstanding reports at the end of the 20 day period, would be a cause for general concern, depending upon the context of sickness and other workload issues.
15. The Registrant had frequent periods of sick leave. The Panel has seen Occupational Health reports from Medigold, dated the 3 April 2013, 15 July 2013 and the 22 August 2013.
16. The Council underwent an OFSTED review on the 15 July 2013. This identified that that there was a lack of reports on their IT system, and in particular highlighted concern over the Registrant’s cases. The Council was given an “Inadequate” rating by OFSTED, and had to take urgent measures to redress the issues which had been identified. Thereafter, a series of audits were undertaken, and this process highlighted further concerns about the Registrant’s LAC Review cases.
17. Witness 1 subsequently requested, as part of an internal investigation, a specific audit on the Registrant’s cases. This was originally limited to a period of 6-12 months, but was later extended back to 18 months, and in fact, problems were identified dating back 3 years. This further extension was because the Registrant had raised issues concerning his health, which he alleged had affected his ability to complete the required documentation over the previous 18 months. Witness 1 reviewed the Registrant’s supervision records where concerns were raised about delays in writing up case documents and discovered evidence of delays being raised with the Registrant, as far back as 13 April 2010, and regular similar concerns being raised thereafter. The concerns therefore appear to pre-date the Registrant’s health issue.
18. Witness 1 also noted that the Registrant was well enough to Chair Child Protection Conferences, which can be very intense, dealing with high emotions from various parties, and which he managed well, yet was unable to record a basic form on Care First, which as an administrative task he regarded as being less stressful. He did not think this was consistent with the Registrant’s health being the sole cause of the backlog in his work.
19. The Registrant nearly always adhered to the requirement to record the decisions from a review meeting on the Care First system within the required period of 5 days, Uploading the decisions onto the system is extremely straightforward. However, the internal investigation concluded that the Registrant “rarely maintained” the requirement to upload the full report within the 15 day timescale and to ensure it was circulated to relevant parties within the 20 day period.
20. Witness 1’s investigation concluded that out of 97 LAC Reviews which were allocated to the Registrant, there were 87 reviews which had no reports completed on Care First. Witness 1’s evidence was that the Registrant’s caseload was “never unmanageable” and that placing review notes on the system is not “an unwieldy task” and “there was no apparent reason why Lee Robert Patrick Higginbottom was not completing these as required.” At the time of the investigation the Registrant had approximately 64 cases which was within the guideline of 50-70 cases, according to Witness 1. Witness 4 thought the Registrant’s caseload was above government guidance and was in the region of 85-90 cases, but this was not out of proportion with the workload of other social workers with the Council.
21. Witness 1 also noted that the Registrant was well supported during the period he had health issues, including a phased return to work, a reduced caseload and additional administrative support. Witness 4 also stated that the Registrant was provided with an enhanced level of support, over and above anything which the Council would usually provide to someone of the Registrant’s seniority.
22. The Panel heard evidence in relation to the Registrant’s level of supervision. Witness 4 was the Registrant’s direct line manager between June 2012 and June 2013. It was clear that she believed that she had been working very hard to address the backlog in the Registrant’s work. However, it became apparent as a result of the audit that the Registrant was further behind that she had been led to understand. She describes a “disconnection” between what she was being told by the Registrant, and the “reality of the situation”. She also expressed concern that the Registrant did not appear to appreciate the potential impact his inactivity and lack of LAC Review recording could have on vulnerable service users. Witness 4 expressed the view that the Registrant wished to resolve the outstanding backlog; he had an understanding of its importance but shut himself off from the reality of the problem: “burying his head in the sand”, even when the process of performance management was commenced by the Council.
23. Witness 3, when working as an Interim IRCO with the Council, told the Panel that the period between October and December 2013, when he was supervising the Registrant, that the team was very busy and there was lots of pressure on the team. He started supervising the Registrant following his return to work on a phased basis, following his sick leave. The Registrant was at this stage not fulfilling the traditional role of an IRCO and was undertaking a desk job, offering him a high level of support and adjustment in recognition of his phased return to work and to provide an opportunity for him to address the backlog of outstanding work.
24. It was not until subsequent meetings that Witness 3 realised the extent of the Registrant’s outstanding work. He says that it had not been immediately apparent just how far behind the Registrant had fallen. Following a meeting with HR, matters were treated more formally, and it was agreed that some additional administrative support would be provided to the Registrant. As a result, a sizeable number of further outstanding reports were identified. Witness 3 gave evidence of his surprise at finding so many additional outstanding reports, which had not originally been identified by the Registrant during the initial meeting with HR.
25. Witness 3 told the Panel that the Registrant did not ask for extra time to complete the backlog of work which was outstanding. He never indicated that the backlog of work was unmanageable, but did say that “this would not happen particularly quickly” and noted that in October 2013, the Registrant said he would not be able to comply with the deadline imposed by Witness 5 (via his email of the 16th October 2013, asking for all outstanding LAC review reports to be completed by the end of October).
26. Witness 3 gave evidence that the Registrant appeared to “dissociate” himself from the issues regarding his workload and did not seem to appreciate the importance of addressing the outstanding reports. He added that the Registrant “never really seemed to demonstrate any drive or acknowledgement that he had a large backlog of work which needed addressing.”
27. Witness 5 told the Panel that from August 2013 the Registrant was placed in a largely administrative function, undertaking a specific piece of work to address the 15 day indicator between a strategy meeting taking place and the occurrence of the Child Protection Conference. This far less demanding role came with the expectation that the Registrant would address the backlog of outstanding work. Witness 5 gave evidence that despite the adjustments made to the Registrant’s workload, he was unable to address adequately the backlog in outstanding LAC Review reports.
28. When interviewed as part of the internal investigation, the Registrant accepted that he had a large backlog of work and accepted that his work was not of the standard expected of him. However, he appears to have challenged Witness 1’s concern that the lack of recording put vulnerable children at risk by not having up to date information recorded. He felt this assertion was harsh as he knew his children well and he had developed a good rapport with service users. Witness 1 stated that the Registrant struggled with this concept and did not have insight into how his actions impacted on service users. The Registrant further admitted, that he had put a front on with managers, and did not admit the extent to which he was struggling.
29. As a result, the Council instituted disciplinary proceedings. A disciplinary hearing took place on the 18 and 19 March 2014. Towards the end of the hearing, the Registrant offered to resign from his post. The resignation was accepted, but the hearing continued, arriving at outcome.
30. The Panel has heard oral evidence from:
(a) Witness 1: presently Interim Head of Service for Safeguarding and Quality Assurance at Bedford Borough Council, and formerly Interim Complaints and Disciplinary Investigator. He was the investigating officer for the Council;
(b) Witness 2: presently Service Manager at Leicester City Council, formerly an Auditor with the Council,
(c) Witness 3: presently Independent Social Work Consultant and formerly Interim Senior Independent Review and Conference Officer (IRCO) with the Council,
(d) Witness 4: presently Agency Decision Maker for Adoption and Fostering at the Council;
(e) Witness 5: presently Service Manager for Safeguarding and Care Planning at the Council and formerly acting up as Head of Service for Safeguarding and Quality Assurance at the Council.
31. The Panel received a written statement, but did not hear oral evidence from Witness 6. He was formerly the Senior Independent Review and Conference Officer, and the Panel noted that he had been suspended from his post, as of February 2014. The Panel notes that his suspension is not related to the matters relevant to this case, having sought and received assurances from the HCPC, that there was nothing relevant, which would reduce the weight the Panel was able to accord to his evidence.
32. The Panel found the witnesses credible, consistent and reliable. There were some minor differences in recollection between the witnesses, largely explained by the lapse of time since the issues arose, but the Panel did not think these were serious enough to undermine the general credibility of the written and oral evidence it heard.
33. The Panel has heard and accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice and has exercised the principle of proportionality at all times. In approaching the task of deciding the facts, the Panel has kept at the forefront of its deliberations, the importance of requiring the HCPC to prove matters against the Registrant. The standard of proof to which the HCPC is required to prove matters is the civil standard – on the balance of probabilities.
Decision on Facts
Particular 1: Proved
34. The Panel concluded the Registrant did not keep accurate records on Care First for approximately 87 Statutory Looked After Children (LAC reviews relating to 64 children.
35. The Panel accepted the evidence of Witness 1 on this issue, and the “Summary of Lee Higginbottom’s backlog of review Reports - November 2013” document compiled as a result of his investigation. The document shows that out of 97 reviews allocated to the Registrant, 46 reviews had no written reports at all; there were 41 reports on the H drive, but not on Care First (i.e. typed by administrative staff as draft for the Registrant to amend and enter onto Care First); there were 10 cases with reports completed and on Care First. The H drive was a shared drive for IROs and was only accessible to them The report is not completed until it has been uploaded onto Care First, and is then accessible to other professionals.
Particular 2 (i) and (ii): Proved
36. The Panel has seen evidence that the Registrant did not adequately record all minutes or recommendations for reviews relating to service users. This Particular related to service users A and B.
37. Witness 2’s evidence was that when the Care First system was checked by auditors (who reported to her) the only minutes recorded for service user A dated from June 2012. There were no meeting minutes recorded for service user B.
38. Witness 2 stated that there were no records for service user A or B which were completed to the requisite standard and also that there was reputational damage to the Council, amongst other agencies, by not recording notes of meetings. Partnership agencies rely upon the IRO minutes as a source of information about that child and their needs. Robust records are an important tool to enable a child in care to understand the rationale behind decisions made about his or her care.
Particular 3(a), 3(b) and 3(c): Proved
39. The Panel found the allegation proved. There is evidence that the Registrant did not enter outcomes of the Child Protection Conference between 10-12 June 2013, in relation to (a) Family C, (b) Family D and (c) service user E.
40. The Registrant chaired Child Protection Conferences just before he went off on sick leave in June 2013 for an extended period. It is the Conference Chair’s responsibility to record the outcome of the Conference within 24 hours of the conference taking place. This is a standard expectation across all local authorities. It provides a written record that a child is at risk of significant harm. Once it has been uploaded onto the network, it can then be accessed by other relevant persons, such as social workers, healthcare professionals and other family members. It is important for the Emergency Duty Team to be able to access relevant information outside normal office hours.
41. Witness 6’s evidence was that the Registrant was only undertaking Child Protection Conferences for a period of approximately 2 weeks in June 2013. Shortly after beginning this role, he went off sick, telephoning Witness 6 to inform him of his ill health. The Registrant did not disclose to Witness 6 that there was any outstanding work on his child protection cases, despite it being a professional responsibility to do so. Witness 6 discovered the fact that there was outstanding work, in terms of Decisions and Recommendations, for the week commencing the 11 June, when he reviewed the Care First system. There were no Decisions for 4 or 5 children and he had to place the information on the system himself. This was less satisfactory, as he had not been in attendance at the meetings, and was unsure as to exactly what had happened and the reasoning behind the Decisions which had been reached. The implication was that operational staff did not have the most up to date information on that child, and were having to work without a clear child protection plan.
42. The Panel accepted the evidence of Witness 2 on this issue, who confirmed that the result of the audit was that these specific records of the outcome of the Child Protection Conferences were not entered on Care First by the Registrant.
43. Witness 2 gave evidence that Child Protection Conferences should be written up with 24 hours in order to provide the most updated information for other professionals and the Emergency Duty Team. There was also evidence that whilst the Care First system was not the easiest to use, the Registrant had received induction training, and that it was his professional responsibility to enter the information on this system.
Particular 4 (a)(i), 4(c) (i) & (ii), 4(d)(i) in relation to 21 February 2013 & (ii): Proved
Particular 4 (a)(ii), 4(b), 4(d)(i) in relation to 4 December 2012: Not Proved
44. In relation to 4(a), concerning service user F, there was clear evidence from Witness 2 that from January 2012 onwards, the Registrant only completed and or recorded the LAR Meetings decisions and or minutes from July 2012 and December 2013. This is demonstrated by the notification of concern document within the exhibits bundle. The first 3 LAC Review Chair reports were missing from Care First, along with the LAC Review held on the 4 March 2013.
45. However, the Panel did not find 4(a)(ii) proved as there was no evidence of the inadequacy of “those” review meeting notes. Witness 2’s evidence was that the Registrant would often record the decision from a review, but would not record the further information and full minutes from the review. She stated that there should be details about who was present, what was discussed and what the outcome was, but the substantive parts of this were often missing from the Registrant’s recording. However, the Panel concluded that these comments were of general effect, pertaining to the Registrant’s report writing and not specifically related to the minutes for July 2012 and or December 2012.
46. With respect to 4(b), which concerned service user G, the Panel found this allegation not proved. The allegation was that the Registrant did not complete and or record LAR chair reports on Care First, for each review. However, there was evidence in the exhibits bundle, that such documents existed, albeit they had been produced only after a significant period of delay. The Particular is explicitly drafted to state that the Registrant did not complete the reports, as opposed to not completing them within the specified and or a reasonable timeframe.
47. With regard to 4(c)(i), and 4(c)(ii) which related to service user J, the Panel was satisfied that there were missing reports for the 1 March 2013 and the 19 August 2013. The Panel has seen the audit summary document for service user J in the exhibits bundle. Witness 2 also gave evidence that the records were missing from Care First.
48. In relation to Particular 4(d)(i), which relates to service user O, the Panel could not be satisfied that the Registrant did not complete the Chair report dated 4 December 2012. The LAC review is contained within the exhibits bundle, albeit that it was not completed until the 21 October 2013. There is clearly an issue about the timing of the report, which was very late, but this is not how the allegation is framed.
49. However, the Panel is satisfied that Particular 4(d)(i) is proved in relation to the 21 February 2013. The Panel has seen evidence that 21 February 2013 LAC Review was written up, in the exhibits bundle, albeit late, on the 29 October 2014. However, this appears to have been completed by Mrs Jacqui Wimbush, and not by the Registrant (who had left the Council in March 2014) hence the allegation is proved.
50. Having regard to 4(d)(ii), the Panel accepted the evidence from Witness 2 that the Registrant had not completed the Chair’s report, following the LAR on the 29 July 2013. This was corroborated by the audit report in the exhibits bundle and the extract from the Care First relating to service user O.
Particular 5: Proved
51. The Panel concluded that the Registrant did not keep his managers informed about the significant backlog of work, which had been identified. The Panel heard evidence on this issue from witness 3 and 4 on this issue, as set out in the background section above. The Registrant had the opportunity to provide full details of the extent of the backlog in supervision sessions, but instead indicated that the backlog was small and manageable. In addition, the Registrant failed to mention the true extent of the backlog during the meeting with HR and Witness 3 with further outstanding work being located thereafter, and drawn to Witness 3’s attention by the administration manager.
Decision on Grounds
52. The Panel considered whether the Registrant’s actions amounted to misconduct, which fell well below a reasonable professional standard for a social worker, and what would be proper in the circumstances. It concluded that they did fall well short of the standard expected.
53. The Panel did not think that the Registrant’s actions amounted to a lack of competence. In simple terms, the Panel concluded that the Registrant knew the standard which was expected of him but failed to adhere to it. The evidence was that there were occasions when the Registrant was able to adhere to the IRO statutory guidance of which he was aware. The Registrant joined the Council, having previously been employed as a Team Leader and Conference Chair. The evidence was that the Registrant was able to take notes during the LAC review meetings, but simply did not write them up within the required timescale. The Registrant had a similar workload to other social workers in the team, but he was the only one with anything like such a substantial backlog.
54. The Panel concluded that the Registrant was aware of the statutory guidance in the IRO handbook and was aware of the strict time limits contained therein, and the important child protection reasons why these robust time limits were in place. Witness 1 gave evidence that an IRO induction process would include work shadowing, and guidance on both national and local policies, the statutory framework and child protection procedures, although he could not say what specific induction process the Registrant had undergone with the Council. In addition, the Registrant was able to chair the review meetings which could be challenging, but failed on the more basic administration of writing up the LAC review meeting notes and ensuing that they were placed in the Care First system within the required timescale.
55. The Panel concluded that the Registrant’s conduct had fallen well below a reasonable standard, in respect of each of the proven particulars, with the exception of 4(c)(ii) and 4(d)(ii). In respect of these particulars, the Panel determined that the Registrant was not culpable as the records show that he was not in work, having been on sick leave at the relevant time. Even though the Registrant was also off sick immediately following the Child Protection Conferences in June 2013, which form the basis of particular 3, there is no evidence that the Registrant entered the outcomes on to Care First as a priority or drew this to the attention of his manager when reporting sick. The Panel concludes that individually and collectively the remaining particulars found proved amount to misconduct which is serious.
56. The Panel concluded that the Registrant is in breach of the following Codes of Practice for Social Care Workers (2010):
1: As a social worker, you must protect the rights and promote the interests of service users and carers.
57. The Panel also concluded that the Registrant is in breach of the following Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics (2012):
Standard 1: You must act in the best interests of service users,
Standard 7: You must communicate properly and effectively with service users and other practitioners,
Standard 10: You must keep accurate records.
Decision on Impairment
58. The Panel went on to consider whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired in light of the HCPC practice note on impairment.
59. The Panel is mindful of the forward looking test for impairment. The question is whether the Registrant’s current fitness to practise is impaired, with a view to protecting service users and the public interest.
60. The Panel, after reviewing all the evidence in this case, considering the submissions from the HCPC and the advice from the Legal Assessor, has concluded that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired, after considering both the personal and public components. The Panel had regard to the following matters:
(a) The Panel considers that the failings identified above had a potentially negative impact on service users, with a risk of harm being caused by notes not being written up in accordance with the statutory timescales;
(b) The Registrant has shown no insight into the effect his actions may have had on service users;
(c) There is no evidence of remorse/ insight before the Panel;
(d) The Registrant has provided no details of his current employment, and or whether he remains employed in the field of social work;
(e) Although the Registrant raised a health condition in the internal investigation, the Panel has not been provided with any up to date medical evidence. Secondly, the backlog appears to have pre-dated his health issue. Finally, the Panel had regard to the occupational health evidence from April, July and August 2013. The final report envisaged a return to work, initially on a gradual basis over 4 weeks, but there is no suggestion he would not be fit to manage his normal workload thereafter and to deal with the outstanding backlog;
(f) The Panel concluded that there was no evidence of current insight and or reflection, and that if the Registrant found himself in similar circumstances, there could be a repetition. The Panel can only address the question of current impairment on the basis of the limited evidence advanced in these proceedings. The Panel concluded that the Registrant was impaired having regard to the personal component of impairment (competence and behaviour);
(g) The actions of the Registrant have damaged public confidence in the profession of social work and has brought the profession into disrepute. The Panel noted that the OFSTED report criticised the Registrant’s files and had the potential to bring the Council into disrepute when LAC Review meeting notes were not circulated in accordance with the required timescale;
(h) The Registrant’s cases involved vulnerable children, young adults and their families, and the Panel concluded that the Registrant had breached a fundamental tenet of the profession of being a social worker;
(i) The Panel had regard to the need to protect service users and to uphold the proper standards of behaviour, in concluding that the public component (protecting the public, maintaining confidence in the professions and its regulation, upholding proper standards) of impairment is clearly established
Decision on Sanction
61. The Panel has heard submissions on sanction on behalf of the HCPC. It has had regard to the HCPC’s Indicative Sanctions Policy and has accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
62. The Panel considered the mitigating circumstances of the case:
• There is evidence that the Registrant had a health condition which pertained to at least some of the period in question;
• There was a high turnover of staff at the Council which resulted in frequent changes in line management;
• There was evidence that IRCOs at the Council had high caseloads;
• Witnesses were complimentary of certain aspects of the Registrant’s work.
63. The Panel also considered the aggravating features of this case:
• There has been a lack of engagement from the Registrant with the regulatory process;
• The Panel has not received evidence of any current insight, remediation or remorse;
• Vulnerable service users were exposed to risk.
64. The Panel has carefully considered what type of order should be imposed, starting with the least restrictive order. It has taken into account the principle of proportionality, and balanced the rights of the public and the rights of the Registrant to practise in his chosen profession.
65. The Panel concluded that the public would not be protected and public confidence in the profession would be undermined by taking no action or imposing a Caution Order, given the findings of misconduct it has made. The Panel considered that the misconduct was much too serious to justify taking No Further Action or a Caution Order.
66. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order and concluded that this was not appropriate. The Panel was unable to formulate any conditions of practice which would be achievable or workable, given the lack of information regarding the Registrant’s present employment or future intentions. The Panel also noted the Registrant had been provided with support and assistance by his managers, but that had not produced positive results. The Panel further considered that some evidence of insight was required to enable a Conditions of Practice Order to be workable, but this was not apparent in the case.
67. The Panel next considered whether to impose a Suspension Order and concluded that this was appropriate to protect the public and to retain confidence in the social work profession, given the serious nature of the misconduct, and the lack of evidence of insight or remediation.
68. The Panel took the view that the failings identified in these proceeding are potentially remediable, but has no evidence that they have been resolved, given that the Registrant has not attended the hearing. This sanction, in these circumstances, provides an opportunity for the Registrant to address the deficiencies identified, and to provide evidence of insight on the findings that have been made.
69. The Panel then considered the duration of the order and concluded that a Suspension Order for 12 months was appropriate and proportionate. This would give the Registrant sufficient time to demonstrate insight, acceptance of responsibility of a role, learning and remorse, and an opportunity to remedy many of his shortcomings whilst providing an appropriate degree of public protection. The Panel concluded that a Suspension Order of this duration demonstrates how seriously the Panel regards the Registrant’s failings in fulfilling statutory duties which were fundamental to his role and vital to service users. It also concluded that such an order would provide the appropriate level of deterrent to other social workers.
70. The Registrant should note that he can request an early review if he can provide evidence that he has addressed the issues identified in these proceedings at any time within the 12 month period.
71. Having arrived at an appropriate and necessary sanction, the Panel concluded that to impose the more restrictive sanction of striking off the Registrant from the register would be unnecessarily punitive and disproportionate. The Panel concluded that the Registrant’s misconduct was potentially capable of being remedied in the future and hence Striking Off was not appropriate. However, the Registrant should be aware that this sanction will be a possibility for a future Panel. The Panel strongly encourages the Registrant to attend the review hearing.
72. Whilst in no way seeking to bind any future Panel, at a subsequent review hearing, the Panel envisages that the following matters would be of assistance:
a) The Registrant should provide a reflective piece of work demonstrating clear evidence of insight into the failings identified in these proceedings;
b) Up to date references or testimonials from the Registrant’s current employer, or any voluntary or unpaid work;
c) Evidence of maintenance of the necessary knowledge, skills and competence to practise as a social worker, including for example, reading journals and relevant training undertaken.
The order imposed today will apply after the appeal period, on 28 October 2016 (the operative date).
This order will be reviewed again before its expiry on 28 October 2017.
History of Hearings for Mr Lee Robert Patrick Higginbottom
|Date||Panel||Hearing type||Outcomes / Status|
|29/09/2017||Conduct and Competence Committee||Review Hearing||Struck off|
|26/09/2016||Conduct and Competence Committee||Final Hearing||Suspended|