Deborah Johnson

: Social worker

: SW93641

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:09:30 20/04/2017 End: 17:00 21/04/2017

: Health and Care Professions Council, 405 Kennington Road, London, SE11 4PT

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Suspended

Allegation

Whilst registered as a Social Worker and employed by Hull City Council, you:

1. Made car mileage claims for journeys to Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, claiming to visit a service user, which were not undertaken on:

a. 13 August 2014
b. 18 September 2014
c. 8 October 2014
d. 11 November 2014
e. 11 December 2014
f. 11 February 2015

2. The matters described at particular 1 were dishonest.

3. The matters described at particular 1and 2 constitute misconduct.

4. By reason of your misconduct your fitness to practise was impaired.

Finding

Preliminary matters


1. At the outset of the hearing, having given both parties the opportunity to make submissions, the Panel determined the following issues:


Private Matters


2. The Registrant has a health condition. The Panel determined that during the hearing the condition would simply be referred to as ‘the health condition’ whilst in public session. However, if it became necessary to refer to the condition in more detail the hearing would go into private session and the matter will not form part of the public record.
Outcome of Internal Investigation
3. The outcome of the internal investigation is not relevant to these proceedings. The Panel noted that an effort had been made to redact the documents to prevent disclosure of the outcome of the internal investigation. However, reference to the outcome appears in the Registrant’s representations. The Panel made it clear that the outcome of the internal investigation is irrelevant to the Panel’s determination of the issues in this case and would be completely disregarded.


Hearing Procedure


4. The Panel determined that rather than hearing Stage 1 (fact finding) and Stage 2 (impairment) together, these stages should be considered separately. As the parties subsequent submissions would be better informed by knowing the factual findings, particularly with regards to dishonesty, the Panel took the view that the stages should be separated.


Application to Amend


5. Ms Jones, on behalf of the HCPC made an application for Particular 4 of the Allegation to be amended by replacing the word ‘was’ with the words ‘is currently impaired’. Mr Smith, on behalf of the Registrant, did not object to the proposed amendment.
6. The Panel granted the application to amend. The Panel was satisfied that the proposed amendment reflected the correct legal test to be applied and that the use of the past tense was a typographical error. The Panel was also satisfied that the proposed amendment did not alter the meaning of the Allegation as originally drafted and therefore would cause no injustice to the Registrant.

Background


7. The Registrant is a registered Social Worker. The Registrant commenced employment with Hull City Council (‘the Council’) as a Grade 7, newly qualified Social Worker which involved travelling in connection with her work to meet with service users and their families. The Registrant was entitled to submit mileage claims to cover the cost of fuel when carrying her duties out on behalf of the Council. 
8. In March 2015, GS, who was the person responsible for authorising the Registrant’s mileage claims, noticed that the Registrant had submitted a claim for a journey to Newton Aycliffe, where there is a secure children’s unit. GS was aware that the Registrant no longer needed to travel to Newton Aycliffe as the service user who had been located at the secure unit had been transferred elsewhere. GS asked the Registrant to amend the claim. GS subsequently checked the previous mileage claims that the Registrant had made and discovered that the Registrant had made claims for six journeys to Newton Aycliffe that she had no professional need to make. The Registrant, when questioned, stated that she had made a mistake in relation to these claims.
9. A formal investigation was undertaken by Witness 1 on behalf of the Council. The Registrant was subsequently reported to the HCPC.

Assessment of Witnesses


Witness 1 – Senior Manager of Safeguarding and Placement Services


10. Witness 1 conducted the Council’s internal investigation. She relied on her written statement and the documentary evidence relating to the internal investigation. Witness 1 was careful not to overstate her evidence and was clear about the limits of her knowledge and experience of information technology at the Council. There was no evidence before the Panel to suggest that Witness 1 had an ulterior motive; in fact she commented positively on the Registrant’s work and capability as a Social Worker. Witness 1 described Oracle, an IT system used by the Council for the making of expenses claims, as being time consuming but not difficult. Witness 1’s oral evidence was consistent with her written statement and the Panel had no reason to doubt that she was anything other than a credible and reliable witness.

The Registrant

11. The Panel recognised that the Registrant is of good character and that this not only supported her credibility, but also means that she may be less likely to have acted dishonestly. The Panel also recognised the effort and commitment it must have taken for the Registrant to progress from Teenage Pregnancy Adviser to a qualified Social Worker. The Panel accepted that the Registrant worked hard to obtain her social work degree and is committed to helping children and families.
12. The Panel recognised that giving evidence is a stressful process and made appropriate allowances. However, there were aspects of the Registrant’s evidence which could not be adequately explained on the basis of stress alone. At times, when questioned, the Registrant appeared to be improvising by changing or developing her answers. For example, she stated that a colleague was sitting with her when she submitted her mileage claims on the online system (Oracle) in January 2015. However, when questioned further she stated that she was not sure if it was that month or some other month. The Registrant also stated that there was no-one available to assist her with Oracle which she found complicated and difficult, because her colleagues were busy and the IT Helpdesk had other priorities. However, she also informed the Panel that she was advised on more than one occasion by colleagues to use ‘duplication’ on Oracle to save time and on occasions a colleague sat with her to assist her.
13. The most concerning aspect of the Registrant’s evidence was her assertion that she duplicated her entries on Oracle from the previous month to save time, as advised by one of her colleagues and then manually amended the entries. The Panel did not accept that ‘duplication’ provided a credible explanation for the various manual entries that were made as a number of the entries showed changes in the text as between separate claims. The Panel also rejected the Registrant’s other explanation that she often completed the claims on Oracle over days and weeks and that for an unknown reason, some entries were saved whilst others were not. The implausibility of the Registrant’s assertions on this issue undermined her credibility and reliability as a whole.

Decision on Facts


Panel’s Approach


14. The Panel was aware that the burden of proving the facts was on the HCPC. The Registrant did not have to prove anything and the individual particulars of the Allegation could only be found proved, if the Panel was satisfied, on the balance of probabilities.
15. In reaching its decision the Panel took into account the written and documentary evidence, including the Registrant’s representations and character references provided by former colleagues and friends. The Panel also took into account the oral submissions from both parties.
16. The Panel noted that the Registrant admitted that she made errors in claiming for journeys that she had not undertaken, but denied dishonesty. Notwithstanding the admissions the Panel proceeded on the basis that the HCPC was required to prove all of the particulars of the Allegation.
Decision
17. There was no dispute that the Registrant had been employed by Hull City Council as a Social Worker. There was also no dispute that the relevant Service User had been relocated from the Newton Aycliffe secure unit to a new placement in Humberside on 8 July 2014.  Nor was there any dispute that the Registrant, accompanied by Witness 1, had personally driven the Service User from the secure unit back to the Humberside area on that day.


Stem of Particular 1


18. The stem of the particular alleged that the Registrant ‘Made car mileage claims for journeys to Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, claiming to visit a service user which were not undertaken…’  As there was no dispute that the Registrant submitted a number of mileage claims between August 2014 and February 2015 the Panel went on to consider the specific dates as set out in Particulars (a) – (f).


Particular 1(a) – Found Proved


’13 August 2014’
19. The Panel accepted the evidence of Witness 1. The documents she produced included Expense Reports. The Expense Report submitted on 9 September 2014 contained a number of entries.  One of the entries indicated that on 13 August 2014, the Registrant attended a review meeting in Durham, as under the justification column was the entry: ‘LAC REview Durham’ (including the  capital ‘E’ in Review). The mileage was recorded as 237.6 miles which automatically generated a reimbursable amount of £154.20. There was no dispute that the reference to ‘Durham’ suggested that the visit was to a service user who had been placed in secure accommodation at Newton Aycliffe.
20. Although the Panel accepted that the Registrant may have visited the service user at her then current address or had some other reason to travel outside of the office on Council business, the Registrant did not make a visit to Durham on 13 August 2014 and had no reason to do so. Therefore, the Panel concluded that the journey as recorded on the Expenses Report was not undertaken.

Particular 1(b) – Found Proved


‘18 September 2014’
21. The Panel accepted the evidence of Witness 1. The Expense Report submitted on 3 November 2014 contained a number of entries.  One of the entries indicated that on 18 September 2014, the Registrant made a visit to Newton Aycliffe, as under the justification column was the entry: ‘Secure visit-Newton Aycliffe’ (with a lowercase ‘v’ and – between visit and Newton). The mileage was recorded as 154.2 miles which automatically generated a reimbursable amount of £100.08. There was no dispute that the entry suggested that the visit was to a service user who had been placed in secure accommodation at Newton Aycliffe in Durham.
22. Although the Panel accepted that the Registrant may have visited the service user at her then current address or had some other reason to travel outside of the office on Council business, the Registrant did not make a visit to Newton Aycliffe in Durham on 18 September 2014 and had no reason to do so. Therefore, the Panel concluded that the journey as recorded on the Expenses Report was not undertaken.


Particular 1(c) – Found Proved
‘8 October 2014’
23. The Panel accepted the evidence of Witness 1. The Expense Report submitted on 3 November 2014 contained a number of entries. One of the entries indicated that on 8 October 2014, the Registrant made a visit to Newton Aycliffe, as under the justification was the entry: ‘Secure Visit Newton Aycliffe’ (with a capital ‘V’ and no -). The mileage was recorded as 154.2 miles which automatically generated a reimbursable amount of £100.08. There was no dispute that the entry suggested that the visit was to a service user who had been placed in secure accommodation at Newton Aycliffe in Durham.
24. Although the Panel accepted that the Registrant may have visited the service user at her then current address or had some other reason to travel outside of the office on Council business, the Registrant did not make a visit to Newton Aycliffe in Durham on 8 October 2014 and had no reason to do so. Therefore, the Panel concluded that the journey as recorded on the Expenses Report was not undertaken.


Particular 1(d) – Found Proved


‘11 November 2014’
25. The Panel accepted the evidence of Witness 1. The Expense Report submitted on 12 January 2015 contained a number of entries. One of the entries indicated that on 11 November 2014, the Registrant made a visit to Newton Aycliffe, as under the justification column was the entry ’LAC Review Newton Aycliffe’. The mileage was recorded as 237.6 miles which automatically generated a reimbursable amount of £154.20. There was no dispute that the entry suggested that the visit was to a service user who had been placed in secure accommodation at Newton Aycliffe in Durham.
26. Although the Panel accepted that the Registrant may have visited the service user at her then current address or had some other reason to travel outside of the office on Council business, the Registrant did not make a visit to Newton Aycliffe in Durham on 11 November 2014 and had no reason to do so. Therefore, the Panel concluded that the journey as recorded on the Expenses Report was not undertaken.


Particular 1(e) – Found Proved

‘11 December 2014’
27. The Panel accepted the evidence of Witness 1. The Expense Report submitted on 12 January 2015 contained a number of entries. One of the entries indicated that on 11 December 2014, the Registrant made a visit to Newton Aycliffe, as under the justification column was the entry: ‘Visit Newtron Aycliffe’ (with Newton misspelt as ‘Newtron’). The mileage was recorded as 237.6 miles which automatically generated a reimbursable amount of £154.20. There was no dispute that the entry suggested that the visit was to a service user who had been placed in secure accommodation at Newton Aycliffe in Durham.
28. Although the Panel accepted that the Registrant may have visited the service user at her then current address or had some other reason to travel outside of the office on Council business, the Registrant did not make a visit to Newton Aycliffe in Durham on 11 November 2014 and had no reason to do so. Therefore, the Panel concluded that the journey as recorded on the Expenses Report was not undertaken.


Particular 1(f) – Found Proved


‘11 February 2015’
29. The Panel accepted the evidence of Witness 1. There was no dispute that Witness 1, having noticed the discrepancy in the Registrant’s expense claim for 11 February, sent the Registrant a Withdraw Report by email dated 2 April 2015. The Withdraw Report contained the 11 February 2015 entry. The Registrant confirmed that Witness 1 instructed her to amend the 11 February 2015 claim which was subsequently checked and authorised by Witness 1.
30. The entry indicated that on 11 February 2015, the Registrant made a visit to Newton Aycliffe, as under the justification column was the entry: ‘Secure Review-Newton Aycliffe’. The layout of the Withdraw Report differed from the Expense Reports. There was no confirmation of the mileage but the reimbursable amount was recorded as £74.44. There was no dispute that the entry suggested that the visit was to a service user who had been placed in secure accommodation at Newton Aycliffe in Durham.
31. Although the Panel accepted that the Registrant may have visited the service user at her then current address or had some other reason to travel outside of the office on Council business, the Registrant did not make a visit to Newton Aycliffe in Durham on 11 February 2015 and had no reason to do so. Therefore, the Panel concluded that the journey as recorded on the Expenses Report was not undertaken.


Particular 2 - (Dishonesty) – Found Proved

32. The Registrant submitted that the ‘wrong’ entries on her expense claims were simply errors, due to her unfamiliarity with the system which she found complicated and difficult. However, the Panel noted that the Registrant was sufficiently familiar with the Oracle system in that she was able to submit and amend her expense claims. In her evidence the Registrant described in some detail the process for scanning petrol receipts and then attaching the scanned documents to an expenses claim.  The Panel also noted that the Registrant had received training on the Care First data entry system, used it daily and was familiar with using the AA Route Planner to calculate her mileage. The Panel concluded that the Registrant was sufficiently competent at using information technology.
33. The Panel noted that of the six ‘erroneous’ claims submitted by the Registrant, there were five different entries in the justification column, three different mileages and five versions were individually typed. For example, the entry for the mileage claim relating to 18 September 2014 is not a duplication of the previous Durham visit, which was purportedly made on 13 August 2014. The words used to justify the claim and the mileage amounts are not the same. There was no satisfactory explanation as to how the entry could have been erroneously saved and as the 18 September 2014 entry was not copied and pasted the Panel concluded that it must have been entered manually. There is no evidence to show, and it has not been suggested, that anyone other than the Registrant was responsible for typing these expenses claims.
34. It was submitted on behalf of the Registrant that it was GS’s role to check the claim and as she did not notice the error until April 2014 the Registrant should be given the benefit of the doubt. The Panel did not accept the premise of this submission. The Registrant generated the form by typing the entries and at the time the claim was made was focussed on that task, whereas GS, as a busy manager, had a number of claim forms to sign off. The Panel was satisfied that it was the Registrant’s responsibility to ensure that her expense claims were accurate. The submission process required her to confirm the accuracy of her expenses claim on each occasion before final submission.  Furthermore, if the entries had been entered erroneously, the Registrant should have noticed that the amount that was transferred into her bank account and confirmed on her payslips did not correspond with the expenses she had incurred. The evidence before the Panel from the Registrant herself was that she was paying attention to her payslips. The Panel concluded it was likely, therefore, that she would have been alerted to the high amounts.
35. The Panel concluded that it was implausible that the Registrant would make these mistakes on repeated occasions whilst making manual entries.
36. The Panel did not accept that the Registrant’s entries were as a result of an innocent mistake.  The ‘wrong’ entries were not isolated one off incidents; the entries were made six times over several months.  The evidence showed that there was no other reason for the Registrant to have travelled to Newton Aycliffe after July 2014 and that there was little need for her to undertake long car journeys at all. The vast majority of her car journeys were local, of relatively short distances, and incurring reimbursement of relatively modest sums of money.  The claims for trips to Newton Aycliffe would have been conspicuous and not readily overlooked either at the time of submitting the claim forms or in the amounts paid into her account. In addition, her explanation of duplication of entries from one month to subsequent months does not stand scrutiny. Nor was her explanation credible for  how actual local journeys had been multiplied  on the claim form  by approximately a factor of 10 in error, particularly as the justification column showed a journey to Newton Aycliffe and not locally.
37. There was no current medical evidence to suggest that the Registrant’s health condition meant that she was unable to work with the necessary IT systems. She had not sought reasonable adjustment at work and there was evidence that she was sufficiently competent at using IT systems.
38. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant made the entries consciously and deliberately for the purposes of financial gain. Making a false expense entry would be regarded as dishonest by the standards of honest and reasonable people. The Panel was also satisfied that the Registrant was in no doubt as to the true position, and therefore she knew that her actions were dishonest by those standards.
39. For all these reasons the Panel has found the allegation of dishonesty to be proved.

Decision on Grounds


40.  Whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired is a question for the Panel. The Panel paid due regard to the submissions of Ms Sheridan and Mr Smith and reminded itself of the HCPC’s Practice Note ‘Finding that Fitness to Practise is Impaired’. It also accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
41. The Registrant received £662.76 which she was not entitled to as a result of the false travel claims. Had her last claim gone through undetected, she would have received £737. The false claims ceased only when she was challenged.  The claims were dishonest, made over a period of months and the sums involved were considerable.
42. The Panel had particular regard to the HCPC Standards of conduct, performance and ethics and found breaches of:
3: You must keep high standards of personal and professional conduct; and
13:  You must behave with honesty and integrity and make sure that your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in the profession
43. Taking these matters into account the Panel finds that this behaviour was so serious as to amount to misconduct in that it fell far below the standards expected of a social worker.
44. The Panel accepted that the Registrant is a competent Social Worker in terms of her direct work with service users.
45. In reaching its decision on current impairment, the Panel had regard to the public interest in relation to the maintenance of public confidence in the profession, and the upholding of proper standards of conduct and behaviour. The Panel further considered whether the Registrant has remediated her misconduct and whether there is a risk of repetition.
46.  The Panel noted that the Registrant accepted that she made the claims, and co-operated with the investigation conducted by her employer and with the HCPC but she did not admit dishonesty. Dishonesty is always hard to remediate and the Registrant did not demonstrate that she had gained insight. In her evidence, the Registrant sought to shift some of the blame to her supervisor and the Panel found a lack of openness and transparency in respect of her explanation for the false claims. There was no evidence of remediation, either in the documentary evidence or in the Registrant’s oral evidence. The Panel therefore finds that there must be a risk of repetition.
47. These were serious breaches which go to the core of the Registrant’s role as a Social Worker, the public perception of the profession and the maintenance of standards in the profession. Social workers are autonomous professionals and therefore need to be trustworthy. The Panel accepted that there was no evidence of a direct risk to service users, but service users and the public need to have confidence that social workers are acting with honesty and integrity at all times. Were there not to be a finding of impairment in this case, public confidence in the profession and the regulatory process would be undermined. It is also important for other social workers to understand from this case the standards they are expected to meet. The Registrant has breached a core tenet of her role as a Social Worker and this impacts directly on the question of impairment. There is, therefore, a very significant public component in this case.
48. The Panel accordingly finds that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired on both the personal and public components.

Decision on Sanction


49. The Panel heard the submissions of Ms Sheridan and Mr Smith with regard to sanction. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
50. The Panel had regard to all the evidence presented, and to the Council’s Indicative Sanctions Policy. The Panel reminded itself that the purpose of a sanction is not to be punitive although it may have a punitive effect. The Panel bore in mind the principles of fairness and proportionality when determining what the appropriate sanction in this case should be.
51. The Panel considered the aggravating factors in this case to be:


a. These were falsified travel claims. The claims spanned a period of some months which only ceased when the Registrant was caught.
b. The Registrant’s actions amounted to a breach of trust and involved the misappropriation of public funds.
c. The Registrant has not accepted that her actions were dishonest and during her evidence cast a degree of the blame onto her manager, who she suggested should have checked the claims.


52. The Panel considered the following to be mitigating factors in this case:


a. The Registrant was of good character.
b. The dishonesty was not sophisticated;
c. The dishonesty was not against a service user and there is no suggestion that the Registrant is a danger to service users.
d. The Registrant co-operated with the investigative process conducted by her employer and has fully engaged in these proceedings
e. The Registrant was a relatively newly qualified social worker. The evidence of Witness 1 was that the Registrant was a good practitioner. This is reflected in the reference from a supervisor of her from when she was employed as a social worker who described her as ‘hardworking and able to carry a complex caseload’. She described the Registrant’s strength as being her ‘child focused’ approach and her ability ‘to keep the voice of the child alive’. The reference provider described the Registrant as reflective both in ‘her developmental supervision sessions and reflective logs’. Other references contained in the bundle speak of her dedication, inspiration and commitment.
f. The Panel note that the Registrant came to social work later in her career.  She demonstrated effort and determination to qualify as a social worker. These proceedings have been hanging over her for two years. She is the sole earner in her household and as a result of this incident she has lost her job and her home has been repossessed. There were clear financial pressures although it is unclear why the Registrant acted dishonestly.
g. There is no suggestion that the Registrant could not go on to be a valuable social worker.
h. The Registrant has used this time to do some voluntary work.


53. In considering the matter of sanction, the Panel started with the least restrictive, moving upwards.
54. The Panel first considered taking no action but concluded that, given the seriousness of the Registrant’s misconduct, this would be wholly inappropriate.
55. The Panel considered that mediation was not appropriate in this case.
56. The Panel then considered whether to make a Caution Order. The Panel was mindful of its finding that the Registrant’s actions were dishonest. The finding of dishonesty coupled with the fact that this was not an isolated or a minor incident mean that it was too serious for a caution order to be considered appropriate.
57. The Panel next considered the imposition of a Conditions of Practice Order.  Mr Smith invited the Panel to consider the imposition of a Conditions of Practice Order as the Registrant has a job offer.  He stated in mitigation that the Registrant would welcome a period of reflection and that a Conditions of Practice Order could include close supervision. The Panel has  carefully considered paragraph 28 of the ‘ Indicative Sanctions Policy’ which states that:-  ‘Where  the allegation before the Panel is based upon actions which constitute dishonesty, breach of trust  or abuse, conditions of practice  are unlikely to be appropriate  unless the Panel are satisfied  that the registrant’s conduct  was minor, out of character, capable of remediation and unlikely to be repeated’.  Whilst the testimonials speak of the Registrant’s integrity, the Panel find that the dishonesty was not minor in nature and that the Registrant has not yet demonstrated insight into the dishonesty involved. This is not a case where the Registrant’s practise skills are in question. Cases of dishonesty are serious and remediation is difficult without insight having been demonstrated first. The Panel has already found there to be a risk of repetition. Overall, the Panel concluded that a Conditions of Practice Order would not send out a clear enough message to the profession or reassure the public about the seriousness with which cases of dishonesty by a professional in a case such as this are to be regarded.
58. The Panel went on to consider whether a period of suspension would be appropriate in this case. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order and concluded that this was the appropriate and proportionate sanction, both to protect the public and to meet the wider public interest.  The mitigating factors in this case were sufficient to enable the Panel to draw back from striking the Registrant off the register. There was no evidence of deep seated attitudinal failings which mean that the Registrant will not be able to gain insight when she has had time to reflect fully on the findings of the Panel. In addition it is important to note that the Registrant’s actions did not place service users at risk. The Registrant is a committed social worker who has good references and is the sole breadwinner. She has had these proceedings hanging over her for over two years and has lost her home. She has engaged in the process and continues to work in a voluntary capacity. Given the serious nature of the Registrant’s conduct, together with the risk of repetition which has been identified, the Panel is satisfied that a suspension order is proportionate. It would mark the serious nature of the misconduct and maintain public confidence in the profession, as well as sending a clear message of deterrence to others.
59. The Panel considers that the length of the Order should be for 6 months in all the circumstances of this case. This is to mark the seriousness of the misconduct and is with a view to giving the Registrant the opportunity to demonstrate to the next panel that she has reflected on her conduct and has developed insight.
60. Given that the Panel is of the view that the impairment is remediable it is of the view that a Striking Off Order would be disproportionate at this time, although all options in relation to sanction would be open to a future reviewing panel.
61. This Panel does not seek to fetter the discretion of a future reviewing Panel, but it considers that such a Panel may be assisted by the attendance of the Registrant at any review, along with the submission of a reflective piece and testimonials.

Order

ORDER: The Registrar is directed to suspend the registration of Mrs Deborah Johnson for a period of six months from the date this Order comes into effect. 

Notes

The Order imposed today will apply from 19 May 2017 (the Operative Date).


This order will be reviewed by the Committee no later than 19 November 2017 or earlier if evidence which is relevant to the order becomes available after it was made.

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Deborah Johnson

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
20/10/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Review Hearing Suspended
20/04/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Suspended
12/01/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Adjourned part heard