Saddia Shafiq

: Social worker

: SW98904

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 03/07/2017 End: 17:00 05/07/2017

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

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Struck off

Allegation

Whilst registered as a Social Worker:

1. On dates between July 2014 and December 2014 you:

a) Failed to promptly notify the Department of Work and Pensions that you were in paid employment;

b) Received Council Tax Support which you were not entitled to;

c) Received Housing Benefit which you were not entitled to; and

d) Received Employment Support Allowance which you were not entitled to.

2. The matters described in particular 1 were dishonest.

3. The matters set out in paragraphs 1-2 constitute misconduct.

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

Finding

Preliminary Matters

Proof of Service

1. The Panel was informed that an original Notice of hearing was sent to the Registrant’s address, as it appears on the HCPC Register, on 21 March 2017. The Panel was satisfied that good service had been effected in accordance with Rules 3 and 5 of the HCPC (Conduct and Competence Committee) (Procedure) Rules 2003 (“the Rules”) and it was satisfied that all reasonable steps had been taken by the HCPC to inform the Registrant of today’s proceedings.

Proceeding in the absence of the Registrant

2. Ms Thompson, on behalf of the HCPC, applied for the hearing to proceed in the absence of the Registrant pursuant to Rule 11 of the Rules. She referred the Panel to the fact that there had been no application for an adjournment by the Registrant, whose last contact with the HCPC was a letter dated 23 November 2015, received from her solicitors.

3. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor that the decision to proceed in the absence of the Registrant is a decision to be taken with the utmost care and caution. The Panel had regard to the relevant HCPTS Practice Note, “Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant”, including the criteria set out in R v Jones [2002] UKHL 5 and the guidance in General Medical Council v Adeogba/Visvardis [2016] EWCA Civ 162. In particular, the Panel noted that it must consider whether to proceed by reference to all the circumstances of which it is aware, with fairness to the practitioner being of prime importance, but fairness to the regulator and the public interest also being taken into account.

4. The Panel noted that the Registrant had not sought an adjournment. It was satisfied that all reasonable efforts had been made to serve the Registrant with the Notice of hearing and concluded that the Registrant had voluntarily absented herself from the proceedings. The Panel noted that there had been no engagement with the HCPC since 23 November 2015. Furthermore, hearing bundles sent by Special Delivery to the Registrant at her registered address on 15 May 2017 had been returned by the Post Office marked ‘not called for’. In these circumstances, there was nothing to indicate that the Registrant was likely to attend a subsequent hearing if the matter was adjourned.

5. The Panel recognised that the Registrant could be disadvantaged if the hearing were to go ahead in her absence, as she would be unable to challenge witnesses and put her own case forward. The Panel determined that the Registrant had voluntarily absented herself from the proceedings and she had also failed to take the opportunity to put forward written representations. Furthermore, the Panel knew something of her position from the representations she had made during Peterborough City Council’s internal investigation and disciplinary hearing. In this respect, the Panel was mindful of its role, in accordance with McDaid v NMC [2013] EWHC 586, to make such points on behalf of an absent Registrant as the evidence permitted, which would go some way to mitigating any disadvantage.

6. The Panel also noted that there were two witnesses scheduled to attend the hearing. Accordingly, it would be in the interests of the witnesses for the hearing to proceed on the date it was scheduled rather than incurring any further delay and the associated effect on their memories. The wider public interest is also best served by dealing expeditiously with cases where a Registrant’s fitness to practise is in issue. This is consistent with the HCPC’s role to protect the public.

7. In all of these circumstances, and given the serious nature of the concerns raised, the Panel concluded that the public interest and the interests of the witnesses required it to consider the issues associated with this case expeditiously. It was therefore appropriate and fair to proceed in the absence of the Registrant today. The Panel would draw no adverse inferences from her non-attendance.

Background

8. The Registrant commenced employment as a Social Worker within the Looked After Children Team at Peterborough City Council (“the Council”) on 9 July 2014.

9. In November 2014, the Registrant had live and ongoing claims at the Council for Council Tax Support and Housing Benefit. There was also a live claim to the Department of Work and Pensions (“the DWP”) for Employment and Support Allowance (“ESA”).

10. In February 2015, the Registrant was issued with a £50 civil penalty for late notification of a change in circumstances to the DWP.

11. In early 2015, the Council undertook an internal disciplinary investigation into the Registrant’s claims for benefits during a period when she was in paid employment.

12. The Registrant resigned from her position as a Social Worker at the Council with effect from 22 August 2015.

Decision on Facts

13. The Panel carefully considered all of the evidence in this case. It noted the submissions of Ms Thompson and it accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. On behalf of the HCPC, the Panel heard oral evidence from Witnesses 1 and 2.

14. The Panel also received two bundles of documentation from the HCPC, comprising the witness statements of those who gave evidence and 457 pages of exhibits. A letter dated 23 November 2015 from Rehman’s Solicitors was submitted on behalf of the Registrant, in which the issue of dishonesty was denied.

15. The Panel disregarded any reference to incidents which do not form part of the Allegation and reminded itself that the burden of proving the facts is on the HCPC alone and that the standard of proof is the ordinary civil standard, namely ‘the balance of probabilities’.

16. The Panel noted the case of Enemuwe v Nursing and Midwifery Council [2015] EWHC 2081 and disregarded the findings of the internal disciplinary investigation conducted by the Council. Furthermore, the Panel ensured that it was not influenced in its deliberations by its knowledge of the internal processes.

Credibility of the Witnesses and Assessment of the Evidence

17. The Panel first made an assessment of the credibility of the witnesses and the reliability of all of the evidence presented to it:

Witness 1

18. Witness 1 is, and was at the relevant time, a Benefits and Systems Manager for the Council. He gave uncontentious evidence in respect of the Registrant’s entitlement to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support based on his interrogation of the Council’s records. He does not know the Registrant. His evidence was clear, credible and entirely consistent with his statement.

Witness 2

19. Witness 2 undertook the Council’s benefit fraud investigation and the internal disciplinary investigation. She exhibited certain documents and records produced during the internal investigations. She had no direct involvement in the incidents upon which the factual particulars of this case were based and does not know the Registrant. Her evidence was clear, credible and entirely consistent with her statement.

The Registrant

20. The Registrant was not in attendance and did not therefore avail herself of the opportunity to give evidence. No weight or inference was attached to her absence. The Panel was informed that she was of previous good character; however, it was notable that the matters giving rise to the Allegation arose at the outset of her career as a Social Worker.

Findings in Relation to the Factual Particulars of the Allegation

21. The Panel accepted the documentary evidence which was corroborated by the independent witnesses as follows:

22. During the relevant period, the Registrant had claimed and received Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support, both of which are administered by the Council. These benefits had been awarded on the basis that she was in receipt of ESA. ESA is administered by the DWP and was awarded to the Registrant after a means assessment, conducted by the DWP, on the basis that she was not in remunerative employment. The Registrant was automatically entitled to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support once the she was assessed as being entitled to ESA. The Registrant was not entitled to the benefits whilst she was in paid employment as a Social Worker.

23. The Registrant was in paid employment as a Social Worker with the Council from 9 July 2014 to 22 August 2015. Her entitlement to benefits ceased on 8 July 2014. Overpayments in respect of all three benefits claimed were made to the Registrant between July 2014 and December 2014. On various dates in 2015, the Registrant paid back all overpayments made.

24. No notification was received by either the Council or the DWP from the Registrant to notify them that she had commenced paid employment. The Registrant confirmed, in the internal disciplinary interview, that she was fully aware that it was her responsibility to notify the Council and the DWP of any change in circumstances. She had received correspondence making her responsibilities in this respect clear and she was familiar with the benefits system in any event. She stated during the internal disciplinary interview that she had sent a total of six letters notifying the relevant departments that she had secured paid employment. Three letters (one to each department), she said, were sent on 30 June 2014 and 18 September (no year identified) respectively. Nevertheless, there was no trace of any of these letters having been received by any of the relevant departments of the Council or the DWP. There were no reported problems in the postal systems employed at the Council and the DWP during the relevant time.

25. The first recorded notification of the Registrant’s change in circumstances which could be traced was a notification sent to the DWP on 16 December 2014 from Witness 2.

26. In all of these circumstances, the Panel is satisfied that the Registrant failed to promptly notify the DWP that she was in paid employment and as a result she received Housing Benefit, Council Tax Support and ESA to which she was not entitled.

27. Accordingly, particulars 1a) to 1d) inclusive were found proved.

Dishonesty

2. Your actions described in particular 1 were dishonest.

28. In considering whether the Registrant was acting dishonestly, the Panel first considered the mental state of the Registrant in relation to each of the acts found proved. In particular, it looked to the evidence in respect of her motive and intention when the acts occurred. The Panel is satisfied that the only plausible explanation for the Registrant’s behaviour is that she carried out each of the acts proved in order to gain a pecuniary advantage. The Panel considered whether there was another potential explanation and could think of no other realistic motive for her behaviour.

29. The Panel next applied the two-stage test in R v Ghosh [1982] QB 1053 as adopted in Twinsectra v Yardley [2002] UKHL 12. It is satisfied that each act would be considered dishonest by the standards of reasonable and honest people given that unjustified claims were made on the public purse over a period of six months to the detriment of tax payers and the public in general. When challenged, the Registrant provided the explanation that six letters notifying the various departments of her change in circumstances had inexplicably not reached their destination, which the Panel found to be implausible. Furthermore, she provided conflicting information relating to her retention of the monies she received. She was given three opportunities to provide bank statements to the Council to demonstrate that she had not drawn on the monies received and failed to do so. In all of these circumstances, the Panel is satisfied that the Registrant knew what she was doing was dishonest by the standards of reasonable and honest people.

30. Accordingly, particular 2 was found proved.

Decision on Grounds

31. The Panel next determined whether the facts found proved amounted to misconduct. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. It bore in mind that there is no standard of proof to be applied at this stage; consideration as to whether the threshold for misconduct has been reached is a matter in its own judgment. In considering the ground, the Panel first considered the individual particulars found proved and then the behaviour in the round.

32. The Panel had specific regard to the helpful guidance provided in Roylance -v- GMC (No 2) [2000] 1 AC 311, Meadows v GMC [2007] QB 462 and Shaw v GOsC [2015] EWHC 2721. It noted that misconduct involves an act or omission which falls short of what would be proper in the circumstances and that in order to amount to misconduct, the act or omission needs to be serious and one which would attract a degree of strong public disapproval.

33. The Panel then considered whether the proven facts amounted to breaches of the HCPC Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics 2012 (“the HCPC Standards”), which were relevant at the time. It bore in mind that breaches of any of these Standards did not, in themselves, necessarily constitute misconduct.

34. The Panel determined that the following HCPC Standards had been breached:

3 You must keep high standards of personal conduct.

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.

35. The acts of the Registrant in continuing to claim benefits to which she knew she was not entitled constituted a serious breach of trust and also a breach of one of the fundamental tenets of the profession, that of honesty. Her acts were designed to deceive. She compounded the situation by putting forward an implausible explanation during her internal disciplinary interview that she had, in fact, notified the various departments appropriately via 6 letters which had inexplicably never been received. This was during a period when she worked in the same building as the Housing and Council Tax Departments of the Council and opposite to the DWP offices, and therefore had ample opportunity to notify them in person on numerous occasions. This constituted behaviour which fell far short of what would be expected of a social worker in the circumstances and would undoubtedly attract a degree of strong public disapproval. Accordingly, the Panel finds that the statutory ground is made out in respect of each of the particulars found proved.

Decision on Impairment

36. The Panel next determined whether, by reason of her misconduct, the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and had regard to the HCPC Practice Note “Finding that Fitness to Practise is Impaired”, dated July 2013. It bore in mind that not every finding of misconduct will automatically result in a conclusion that fitness to practise is impaired and noted that impairment is ‘forward looking’. The Panel had specific regard to the guidance in the case of Meadows v GMC [2007]1 All ER 1, and Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) v NMC and Grant [2011] EWHC 927.

37. The starting point for the Panel was that the misconduct identified was serious.

38. The Panel noted that whilst the failings identified in this case are difficult to remedy given the attitudinal issues associated with dishonesty, they are, nevertheless, not impossible to remedy. However, there is no evidence of any remediation on the part of the Registrant. There is an absence of insight on her part, and there is no evidence that she has acknowledged her culpability; neither is there any demonstration of reflection or remorse. The Panel therefore concludes that the failings have not been remedied and there remains a high risk of repetition.

39. Although the losses were eventually recovered from the Registrant, this does not compensate for the resources required to investigate and deal with her behaviour.

40. The behaviour complained of is suggestive of a systematic course of dishonesty over a six-month period of time. This pattern of behaviour fell far short of that which would be expected of a registered Social Worker. The Registrant has abused a position of trust and breached a fundamental tenet of her profession. Furthermore, she has damaged the reputation of her profession by pursuing a course of conduct designed to defraud the public purse. Given that there is a high risk of repetition of the failing identified, the public interest in upholding proper professional standards and public confidence in the profession and the regulatory process would be undermined if a finding of impairment were not made in these circumstances.

41. Accordingly, the Panel finds that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.

Decision on Sanction

42. The Panel has taken account of the submissions made by Ms Thompson on behalf of the HCPC. It has accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.

43. The Panel is aware that the purpose of any sanction is not to be punitive, though it may have a punitive effect. The Panel has borne in mind that its primary function at this stage is to protect the public, while reaching a proportionate sanction, taking into account the wider public interest and those of the Registrant. In so doing, the Panel has taken account of the HCPC Indicative Sanctions Policy, applying it to the Registrant’s case on its own facts and circumstances.

44. The starting point for the Panel was that the misconduct was serious, it constituted a serious breach of the HCPC Standards and also a breach of a fundamental tenet of the profession. Maintaining honesty, integrity and trust is self-evidently a fundamental obligation upon all professional social workers. To be a social worker you must be trustworthy.

45. The Panel identified the following aggravating factors in this case:

• The dishonesty continued over a six-month period, involved a misappropriation of public funds and did not cease until it was discovered by others;

• The Registrant showed a lack of insight and attempted to conceal her culpability during the internal investigation;

• There was an absence of evidence in relation to remediation, remorse, insight and reflection on the part of the Registrant;

• The Registrant abused her position of trust;

• The dishonesty was perpetrated against the Council which employed her and with which she had a fiduciary relationship;

• The Registrant understood her responsibility to inform the Council and the DWP of a change in circumstances given she had previously made ongoing legitimate benefits claims. She deliberately disregarded this responsibility.

• The Registrant has failed to engage with the HCPC since November 2015.

46. To balance against those issues, the Panel identified the following mitigating factors:

• There was no evidence that the Registrant was other than of previous good character.

• The Registrant paid back all of the misappropriated funds.

47. Nevertheless, the Panel has found that there is a high risk of repetition of dishonest behaviour and that she has damaged the reputation of the profession. 4

8. The Panel considered the important observations of Sir Thomas Bingham M.R. (as he then was) in Bolton v The Law Society [1994] when he said:

“The reputation of the profession is more important than the fortunes of any individual member. Membership of a profession brings many benefits, but that is part of the price”.

49. In light of all of these matters, the Panel has considered what sanction, if any, should be applied, in ascending order of seriousness.

No Further Action

50. The public interest would not be upheld if the Panel were to take no further action in a case of this seriousness.

Mediation and Caution

51. These disposals would be entirely insufficient to mark the seriousness of the Panel’s findings and to protect the wider public interest.

Conditions of Practice

52. The Panel concluded that it would not be possible to formulate workable or practicable conditions that would adequately address the issues identified or reflect the wider public interest. Even if the Panel could formulate appropriate conditions, it has no confidence that the Registrant would be willing or able to comply, given her lack of insight and engagement in the regulatory process.

Suspension

53. The Panel was satisfied that there had been a serious breach of the standards of expected behaviour which caused harm to the reputation of the profession. Further, the Registrant has failed to demonstrate, in the three years since the misconduct commenced, any personal reflection, insight, remediation or genuine remorse. She therefore continues to present a risk of repetition. Whilst there might be a possibility of remediation at some point in the future, this is purely speculative given the absence of any evidence of an ability or willingness to change. In light of this, and given the gravity of the misconduct, a Suspension Order, which recognises that there is potential for remediation at a future point, would be insufficient to uphold the wider public interest and sustain confidence in the profession.

Striking Off Order

54. The Panel weighed the implications for the reputation of the profession, given that the public is entitled to trust that registrants will act with honesty and integrity. Considering all the circumstances of this case and all the information before it, the Panel finds that the only means of protecting the public from the risk of repetition and maintaining public confidence in the profession, in this instance, is by way of a Striking Off Order. The failings, coupled with lack of insight, remorse, reflection and remediation, indicate an attitudinal problem which gives rise to a very real risk of repetition and is fundamentally incompatible with the Registrant remaining on the Register. The Panel is mindful of the personal and financial impact this Order may have upon the Registrant. However, it is satisfied that this is an appropriate and proportionate sanction in these circumstances. The need to protect the public and maintain confidence in the profession and the regulatory process outweighs the impact upon the Registrant. In light of this, the Panel is satisfied that this is the appropriate and proportionate sanction in this case.

Order

That the Registrar is directed to strike the name of Ms Saddia Shafiq from the Register on the date this order comes into effect.

Notes

The order imposed today will apply from 1 August 2017 (the operative date).

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Saddia Shafiq

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
03/07/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Struck off