Kerry Jane Barnett

: Social worker

: SW67663

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 25/04/2017 End: 17:00 28/04/2017

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

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Struck off

Allegation

During the course of your employment as a Social Worker for Suffolk County Council, you:

 

1. Submitted mileage claims under the Travel and Subsistence Allowance (TSA):

 

a) Between approximately March 2012 and September 2014, for days when you were absent from work:

 

b) Between approximately April 2013 and June 2014, for journeys that you were already receiving payment for under the Disturbance Travel Allowance (DTA);

 

2. Did not inform the payroll department when:

 

a) you received a lump sum DTA payment on or around 30 April 2013, that you had already been paid for some of the same journeys under the TSA;

 

b) you were temporarily based in Mildenhall between approximately November 2013 and March 2014 and were therefore not entitled to DTA payments during this time;

 

c) you received a lump sum in January 2015, to cover the period July 2014 until June 2015, that you had been absent from work since approximately 18 September 2014;

 

3. Your actions as described in paragraphs 1 and 2 were dishonest.

 

4. The matters as described in paragraphs 1 - 3 constitute misconduct.

 

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

Finding

Preliminary Matters

1. The case for the Health and Care Professions Council (the “HCPC”) was presented by Ms Rebecca Turner of Kingsley Napley, Solicitors. The Registrant was not present and was represented by Ms Lily Robertson of the British Association of Social Workers. Ms Robertson advised that the Registrant admitted the facts of particulars 1(b), 2(a) and 2(b) and denied the facts of particulars 1(a) and 2(c). Ms Robertson also advised that the Registrant denied dishonesty and misconduct and denied that her fitness to practise is currently impaired.

Application to amend the allegation

2. Ms Turner, on behalf of the HCPC, applied to amend the allegation, which had been notified to the Registrant by letter dated 29 November 2016. She submitted that none of the proposed amendments materially affected the case that the Registrant had to meet. She submitted that the amendments were to  delete “September” in particular 1(b) and substitute “June”; to insert  the words “lump sum” prior to “DTA” and deleting the figure “4” and substituting the figure “30” in Particular 2(a) of the allegation so as to reflect more accurately the evidence in the witness statements. Ms Robertson advised that the Registrant had no objection to the proposed amendments.

3. The Panel agreed to allow the application to amend the allegation. It took into account that the proposed amendments had been notified to the Registrant, by letter dated 29 November 2016 and that the Registrant had no objection to the amendments.  It was of the view that the amendments can be made without unfairness to the Registrant and that they properly reflected the likely evidence to be received, according to the witness statements.

Background

4. The Registrant was employed as a Social Worker by Suffolk County Council (the Council”) from 2009 until she resigned on 29 January 2016.  Following an injury, the Registrant raised a concern about the amount of miles she was driving in the course of her employment, which prompted her Manager, GS, to examine her mileage and travel claims. He was concerned that there were fraudulent claims being made and he therefore referred the matter to the Investigating Officer, AH, who conducted an investigation with the assistance of Suffolk Council Auditor, LF. LF analysed the Registrant’s “Disturbance Travel Allowance” and “Travel Subsistence Allowance” claims over several years, together with evidence from the Registrant’s paper and electronic diaries, and absence records from Human Resources (HR), produced an audit report for the purposes of the investigation. Following that investigation, a decision was taken to proceed to a disciplinary hearing which was fixed for 12 June 2015. However this did not proceed as the Registrant was on long term sick leave and subsequently resigned. The Council thereafter referred the matter to the HCPC.

Decision on facts

5. The Panel heard live evidence from three witnesses on behalf of the HCPC: AH (Witness 1) County Safeguarding Officer for Sufffolk County Council who was appointed as Investigating Officer; LF (Witness 2) Lead Auditor for Suffolk County Council who analysed data in respect of the Registrant’s travel and subsistence claims and produced an audit report and GS (Witness 3), Service Manager for Suffolk County Council.  The Panel also considered the statement of Emily Elliott of Kingsley Napley (Witness 4) who exhibited the Registrant’s hard copy diaries from 2013 and 2014.

6. The Panel also had in evidence the letter received by the HCPC on 21 August 2016 from the Registrant, in response to the allegations against her. It also had regard to all the documents provided by the Registrant, which included testimonial and character evidence as well as copies of letters and emails.

7. The Panel heard and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. It recognised that the burden of proving each individual particular rests always on the HCPC and that the HCPC will only be able to prove a particular if it satisfies the required standard of proof: the civil standard, whereby it is more likely than not that the alleged incident occurred.

8. The Panel found all of the live witnesses to be honest, reliable and credible. The Panel was of the view that their evidence was fair and measured and that they all had a clear grasp of the detail of the issues. In addition their evidence was supported by the documentary evidence and in particular the very detailed audit report produced by LF which was produced following a very thorough investigation of records held within the Council.

Particular 1(a)

9. The Registrant has denied this particular. The Panel heard evidence from AH and LF in support of this particular. The Panel also had regard to the audit report produced by LF which demonstrated that there were 11 occasions when the Registrant claimed mileage under the Travel and Subsistence Allowance Scheme when she was recorded as absent. The information in relation to these absences was taken from a printout of the Registrant’s electronic diary, the Registrant’s manual diaries and a printout detailing all of the Registrant’s absence which was obtained from HR within the Council. Ms Robertson has submitted that the Registrant’s hard copy diaries were kept in such a way that they could not necessarily be relied upon as accurate and that the Registrant may have been at work on a day when she is recorded in her diary as being absent. In his evidence GS confirmed that the Registrant’s diaries were the most appalling he had ever seen. However, it is clear from the audit report that the evidence of absences was not based solely on the Registrant’s diary. The Panel has accepted the evidence of AH and LF, supported by the very clear documentary evidence and finds this particular proved.

Particular 1(b)

10. The Registrant has admitted this particular. Again the Panel heard evidence from AH and LF in support of this particular and had regard to the audit report produced by LF. The Panel has had sight of the Registrant’s payslips which show that monthly payments were being received under the Disturbance Travel Allowance Scheme. The audit report demonstrated that there were 108 occasions when the Registrant submitted claims under the Travel and Subsistence Scheme for these same journeys and was effectively claiming twice for the same journey. The Panel finds that the evidence from the HCPC witnesses supports the Registrant’s admission and finds this particular proved.

Particular 2(a)

11. The Registrant has admitted this particular. The Panel has seen evidence of the payment having been made to the Registrant and heard evidence from AH that her investigation revealed no evidence of the Registrant having notified her Manager, Payroll or HR that she had already been paid for some of the same journeys under the Travel and Subsistence Scheme.  Again the Panel finds that the evidence from the HCPC witnesses supports the Registrant’s admission and finds this particular proved.

Particular 2(b)

12. The Registrant admitted the facts of this particular.  The Panel heard evidence From AH and GS in support of this particular and it is not disputed that the Registrant was based at Mildenhall between November 2013 and March 2014. The Panel has also had sight of the Disturbance Travel Allowance Scheme from which it is clear that the onus is on the employee to notify HR if their place of employment changes so that it can be considered if the allowance needs to be amended or terminated. The Panel is satisfied that the Registrant’s admission is supported by the evidence of the HCPC witnesses and finds this particular proved.

Particular 2(c)

13. The Registrant denied this particular. The Panel has had sight of the Disturbance Travel Allowance Scheme from which it is clear that the cost of travel will not be paid on days when an employee is not at work. The Panel also heard evidence from AH that the Registrant was on discretionary paid leave from September 2014 until January 2015 and that the Registrant received a lump sum payment in January 2015 which included the period of discretionary leave. The evidence of AH, which was accepted by the Panel, that the Registrant did not notify Payroll that she was not at work and therefore ineligible to receive payment in respect of the period from September 2014 until January 2015. Although it was contended on behalf of the Registrant that as the Payroll department was part of HR, which was aware that she was on leave, the Panel did not accept that this relieved the Registrant of her obligation specifically to inform Payroll in relation to her receipt of the lump sum. The Panel also noted that, although the Registrant claimed to have contacted Payroll in January 2015 to ask for a breakdown of the payment and complain about the absence of an apology, she had not mentioned that she had been on leave for a significant part of the period in question. Accordingly the Panel finds this particular proved.

Particular 3

14. The Panel next considered the issue of dishonesty and has applied the two stage test. The Panel has first considered whether what was done was dishonest by the standards of reasonable and honest people and if the Registrant in fact realised by those standards that what she was doing was dishonest. The Panel has found that a social worker claiming expenses twice for the same journey and on occasions claiming for journeys which had not been made and failing to notify her employers of changes in her circumstances, which would have had an impact on payments would be considered dishonest by the standards of reasonable and honest people and by the standards of reasonable and honest social workers who, by virtue of their profession, are bound to act with integrity and honesty.  The Registrant has obtained a financial gain to which she was not entitled by virtue of her acts and omissions and this would clearly be considered to be dishonest.

15. The Panel next considered whether the Registrant in fact realised that what she was doing was dishonest by those standards. The Panel has heard evidence that the Registrant initially refused to hand over her diaries to her manager when the issue of her mileage claims was first raised. The Panel has also had regard to the Registrant’s interviews during the investigatory process and to her letter of 21 August 2016 submitted to the HCPC. In the Panel’s view the submissions are full of prevarication and attempts to blame others for the situation she found herself in.

16. It is clear to the Panel that the Registrant was fully conversant with the relevant policies and had a very clear understanding of her entitlement. This is demonstrated by the fact that she successfully challenged the Council’s decision to terminate her payments under the Disturbance Travel Allowance Scheme early and did so with assistance from her Union and advice from HR. The Panel also noted that the Registrant is an experienced Social Worker who would have been familiar with Local Authority policies and procedures. The Panel does not accept that the Registrant could have misunderstood or been confused by the policies, nor does it consider, in the light of the volume and pattern of the unjustified claims, that they could have been the result of mistakes by her.

17. The Panel is therefore satisfied that the Registrant in fact realised that what she was doing was dishonest by the standards of reasonable and honest people, hence her attempts to withhold her diaries to conceal what she was doing and to continue to blame others. This demonstrates to the Panel that the Registrant in fact realised that her actions were dishonest and the Panel is satisfied that the subjective test for dishonesty has been met. The Panel has therefore found that the Registrant’s actions in particulars 1 and 2 were dishonest.

Decision on Grounds

18. The Panel next considered whether the Registrant’s actions in particulars 1 and 2 amount to misconduct. The Panel is aware that this is a matter for its professional judgement. In reaching its decision, the Panel has considered the submissions of Ms Turner on behalf of the HCPC and of Ms Robertson on behalf of the Registrant. The Panel has also accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.

19. The Panel has found that the Registrant has dishonestly obtained a significant sum of money from her employers over an extended period of time. The Panel is of the view that the Registrant’s conduct in particulars 1 and 2 fell far short of what would be proper in the circumstances and breached the following standards of the HCPC’s Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics in force at the relevant time :-

• Standard 3 – You must keep high standards of personal conduct.
• Standard 13 – You must behave with honesty and integrity and make sure that your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in you or your profession.

20. The Panel considers that honesty is one of the fundamental tenets of the social worker profession, particularly for Registrants who are in a position of trust and dealing with vulnerable service users. The Registrant’s conduct was serious and fell well below the standards expected of a registered professional. Taking all of these matters into account, the Panel is satisfied that the Registrant’s conduct in particulars 1 and 2 amounts to misconduct. 

Decision on Impairment

21. The Panel next considered whether the Registrant’s current fitness to practise is impaired by that misconduct. In reaching its decision the Panel has considered both the personal component and the public component.

22. In terms of the personal component, the Registrant has been involved in claiming for journeys that had not taken place, actively claiming double payments for journeys and failing to declare that she had received payments to which she was not entitled. This course of conduct has taken place over a prolonged period of time. The Panel has seen no evidence of insight or remorse and, despite her admissions to some of the facts, the Registrant does not accept responsibility for her actions. The Panel has also considered the question of remediation.  While accepting that it can be difficult to demonstrate remediation in relation to dishonesty, in the absence of full insight and remorse in respect of her failings, the Registrant will not be in a position to begin to address those failings. In these circumstances, the Panel has taken the view that there is a real risk of repetition.

23. The Panel has also considered the critically important public policy issues which include the collective need to maintain public confidence in the profession and in the regulatory process, the protection of service users and the declaring and upholding of proper standards of behaviour.

24. The Panel has found that the Registrant has dishonestly claimed expenses from her employer in a number of different ways over a considerable period of time.  The Panel has concluded that there is a serious risk of an adverse impact on public confidence in the profession of social workers and in the regulatory process, if a finding of impairment were not made in these circumstances.

25. The Panel therefore finds that the Registrant’s current fitness to practise is impaired by her misconduct and the allegation is well founded.

Decision on Sanction

26. The Panel has heard submissions from Ms Turner and Ms Robertson on the issue of sanction. The Panel has also considered the advice of the legal assessor and had regard to the HCPC’s Indicative Sanctions Policy.

27. The Panel is aware that the purpose of sanction is not to be punitive and that it must consider the risk the Registrant may pose to those using or needing her services in the future and determine what degree of public protection is required. The Panel must also give appropriate weight to the wider public interest which includes the deterrent effect on other Registrants, the reputation of the profession and public confidence in the regulatory process.

28. The Panel considered the following mitigating factor; there have been no previous referrals to the HCPC.

29. The Panel also had regard to the following aggravating factors; the Registrant’s actions involved a course of conduct of dishonesty over a prolonged period of time and involved both making false claims and failing to declare when she received money to which she was not entitled; her actions were a serious breach of trust and occurred in the work place, thereby breaching one of the fundamental tenets of the profession; the Registrant has not demonstrated any insight or remorse; nor has she accepted responsibility for her behaviour.

30. The Panel has considered the sanctions available to it in ascending order of severity. The Panel considered that to take no action or to impose a Caution Order would not be appropriate, given the serious nature of the Registrant’s failings and the risk of repetition identified. In addition the Panel is of the view that neither would be sufficient to address the wider public interest considerations. The Panel is of the view that honesty and integrity are fundamental prerequisites for a social worker in whom both the public and employers must have full confidence that they will act with honesty and integrity.

31. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order. However, given the Registrant’s actions which involve repeated dishonesty over a prolonged period of time, the Panel is of the view that it could not formulate conditions to address this issue. The Panel therefore considers that a Conditions of Practice Order would not be an appropriate or proportionate sanction.

32. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order. In terms of the Indicative Sanctions Policy a suspension order would be appropriate where the allegation is of a serious nature but is unlikely to be repeated. However, the Panel has found that the allegations are serious and that there is a real risk of repetition. In addition, there is no evidence before the Panel which suggests that the Registrant would be willing or able to resolve her failings. The Panel has given careful consideration as to whether a period of suspension would enable the Registrant to develop appropriate insight. However, over the last two years the Registrant has not developed any insight or accepted responsibility for her behaviour which leads the Panel to conclude that a period of suspension would be very unlikely to achieve this. Furthermore, the Panel is of the view that the seriousness of the conduct found proved, particularly in relation to dishonesty, is such that a Suspension Order would not be sufficient to satisfy the wider public interest.

33. The Panel has therefore concluded that a Striking Off Order is the appropriate sanction, given the nature and gravity of the conduct found proved and given the lack of insight and remediation on the part of the Registrant. Where a registered social worker acts dishonestly by repeatedly making false claims and accepting expenses to which she was not entitled over an extended period of time in the course of her employment, and fails to demonstrate insight, remorse or remediation in the ensuing period, the Panel is agreed that any lesser sanction would fail to declare and uphold proper standards and would undermine confidence in the social work profession and the regulatory process. In all the circumstances, the Panel has concluded that a Striking Off Order is the necessary and proportionate sanction.

Order


Order: That the Registrar is directed to strike the name of Ms Kerry Jane Barrett from the Register on the date this order comes into effect.


 

Notes

The Registrant is currently appealing this decision.

The Panel had imposed and Interim Suspension Order to cover the appeal period, which will remain in place until the appeal process concludes, subject to a maximum period of 18 months.

 

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Kerry Jane Barnett

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
25/04/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Struck off