Mr Thomas Geoffrey Farncombe

: Social worker

: SW27985

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 15/01/2018 End: 17:00 16/01/2018

: Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service (HCPTS), 405 Kennington Road, London, SE11 4PT

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Conditions of Practice

Allegation

Allegation (As Amended at Final Hearing):

While registered as a Social Worker with the Health and Care Professions Council, you:

1. Did not appropriately store and/or handle service user documentation in that, you:

a. stored the documentation at your home address;
b. left the documentation at the address upon leaving. 

2. Your actions described in paragraph 1 constitute misconduct. 

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

Finding

Preliminary matters:

1. HCPC was repre sented by Ms Hannah Eales of Kingsley Napley Solicitors. Mr Farncombe participated by telephone and was not represented. The Panel was provided with documents on behalf of the HCPC consisting of a Final Hearing bundle numbered pages 1-35, and an Exhibits bundle numbered pages 1-18. The Panel was also provided with documents on behalf of Mr Farncombe consisting of emails dated 24 February 2017, and 10 November 2017. The Panel also had a letter from HCPTS to Mr Farncombe dated 14 November 2017.

Application by Registrant to attend the hearing by telephone

2. On 10 November 2017, Mr Farncombe informed HCPTS by email that given where he lived, he would be unable to attend a hearing in London in person however, would make himself available by telephone for the hearing. 

3. On the morning of 15 January 2018, Mr Farncombe contacted HCPTS from a telephone number which he said had been provided by him to the HCPTS prior to the hearing.   Mr Farncombe indicated to the Panel that he did not want the hearing to be adjourned and applied to be allowed to give evidence by telephone.

4. Ms Eales, on behalf of the HCPTS did not object to the application for Mr Farncombe to participate by telephone. The Panel was satisfied that Mr Farncombe did not want the hearing to be adjourned and was willing to participate by telephone. The Panel was further satisfied that there was a clear telephone line available and also a spider “speaker” telephone which could be moved around the room and that everybody could be clearly heard. For these reasons, the Panel allowed the application.
Application to amend Particulars of Allegation

5. Ms Eales applied to amend the wording of the stem of Particular 1 and the wording of Particular 1(b). The proposed amendments had been notified to Mr Farncombe in the hearing bundle sent to him on 31 October 2017. Mr Farncombe did not object to the proposed amendments.

6. The Panel considered that the proposed amendments were necessary to properly reflect the HCPC’s case and did not cause any prejudice to Mr Farncombe. Accordingly, the Panel allowed Ms Eales’ application.

Background:

7. Mr Farncombe was employed by Devon County Council [DCC] as an Agency Social Worker for a brief period in 2013. He was part of a task force of agency social workers brought in by DCC to clear a backlog of child assessment work.

8. On 18 April 2016, DCC received a telephone call from a member of the public to say that she had found boxes containing what appeared to be confidential papers relating to childrens’ social care services in the shed of a property she had just moved into. On collecting the boxes, DCC found some Social Care Records relating to different families and different local authorities. The boxes also contained personal documents referring or addressed to the Registrant.

9. Following an investigation by one of DCC’s Principal Child and Family Social Workers, the matter was referred to the HCPC on 3 June 2016.

Decision on Facts

10. The Panel heard oral evidence from witness 1 (AM), who, at the relevant time, was a Principal Social Worker at DCC. The Panel found her evidence was reliable and credible. The Panel also heard oral evidence from Mr Farncombe which the Panel found to be honest and credible.   The Panel also noted the considerable distress that recalling the relevant issues caused Mr Farncombe.  In the course of the Panel’s questions to Mr Farncombe, it became apparent that Mr Farncombe’s oral and written evidence had been presented on the basis that the documents had been found at a different address to the address set out in the Identification Key which formed the basis of Particular 1.

11. In the circumstances, the Panel decided to give Mr Farncombe time to consider whether he wished to apply for an adjournment in order to prepare evidence relevant to the actual location and time period pertinent to the allegation.  At the start of the second day of the hearing, Mr Farncombe indicated that he did not seek any adjournment and asked for the hearing to proceed. Mr Farncombe admitted the facts set out in Particulars 1a) and 1b), however he did not admit the stem of Particular 1 in relation to Particular 1a).

12. The Panel took into account Mr Farncombe’s admissions in relation to the factual elements of Particular 1. The Panel also had regard to the oral and documentary evidence, in particular the statement of witness 2 (EJ), a member of the public who discovered documents relating to children’s Social Care casework in a box which had been left in a shed at the property which she had moved into in April 2016.

13. The Panel also had regard to the nature of these documents which were subsequently recovered by DCC and is set out in the exhibits. These documents included copies of electronic records encompassing placement reviews, referral records and relationship notes in relation to vulnerable child service users. Furthermore, the documents emanated from at least three different Local Authorities.

14. The Panel was satisfied that Mr Farncombe had knowingly placed the documents in the shed of the relevant address and had left these documents there when he moved from that address sometime in 2015. Mr Farncombe’s own evidence was that only he had a key for that shed and he therefore deliberately left that shed unlocked when he moved from that house.

15. The Panel was further satisfied that by leaving confidential material relating to child service users in an unlocked shed after he had left the premises, Mr Farncombe did not appropriately store and/or handle service user documentation. Accordingly, the Panel found Particulars 1a) and 1b) proved in their entirety.

Decision on Grounds

16. The Panel was in no doubt that the proper storage and handling of confidential information regarding service users is a fundamental aspect of good practice as a Social Worker and is something about which all Social Workers ought to be aware. The Panel also had regard to the number of service users involved and that the files emanated from at least three separate Local Authorities, spanning an extensive period of time.

17. The Panel considered that Mr Farncombe’s actions were serious and fell far below the standards set out in the HCPC Standards of Proficiency for Social workers in England, in particular, standards 2.3, 2.4, 2.7. 2.10 and 10.2 which all relate to protecting and safeguarding the well-being of children, young people and vulnerable adults and recognising the need to manage records and all other information in accordance with applicable legislation, protocols and guidelines.  In addition the Panel was of the view that with regard to the Standards of conduct, performance and ethics standards 1,5,6 and 10 had been breached. 

18. In all the circumstances, the Panel was satisfied that Mr Farncombe’s actions amounted to misconduct. 

Decision on Impairment
 
19. The Panel considered that the Registrant’s misconduct had the potential to cause harm to service users and undermine public confidence in the profession. The Panel further considered that the Registrant had breached a fundamental tenet of his profession by not respecting their confidentiality, which was not in their best interests. Accordingly, the Panel considered both the personal and public elements of current impairment.

20. The Panel accepted Mr Farncombe’s evidence that at the relevant time, he was suffering from adverse health and subsequently endured very difficult personal circumstances. Whilst the Panel had sympathy for Mr Farncombe’s ill health, it considered that, as a Registered Social Worker, he was responsible for managing the impact of his health and personal circumstances on his practice.

21. The Panel also accepted that Mr Farncombe had expressed genuine remorse. However, the Panel considered that Mr Farncombe failed to demonstrate full insight into the potential harm which could have been caused to vulnerable service users by his actions and to the potential damage caused to the reputation of his profession.

22. The Panel was not satisfied that Mr Farncombe’s misconduct was highly unlikely to be repeated. Mr Farncombe’s oral evidence was that “he would no longer take work home”, which the Panel considered to be an unworkable and inappropriate solution, given that he practises as an agency Social Worker. 

23. The Panel considered that Mr Farncombe failed to demonstrate an awareness of the need to ensure that confidential files are kept securely at all times and are returned or destroyed as soon as it is appropriate to do so.

24. The Panel was also satisfied that members of the public would be justifiably outraged by a casual and careless handling of confidential and sensitive personal information. The fact that the witness who found the documents almost a year after they were left by Mr Farncombe, immediately contacted DCC, demonstrates this concern and the need to uphold the public’s confidence in the profession.

25. For all of the above reasons, the Panel found that Mr Farncombe’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.

Decision on Sanction

26. The Panel considered the submissions made by Ms Eales on behalf of the HCPC and from Mr Farncombe by telephone.  The Panel received and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.

27. The Panel was mindful that the purpose of any sanction was not to punish the Registrant but to protect the public and maintain public confidence in the profession and the HCPC as its regulator, by the maintenance of proper standards of conduct and behaviour.

28. The Panel had regard to the HCPC’s Indicative Sanctions Policy. The Panel applied the principle of proportionality by weighing the Registrant’s interests with the public interest and by considering each available sanction in ascending order of seriousness.

29. The Panel had regard to the HCPC’s Indicative Sanctions Policy which states,

 "Even if a Panel has determined that fitness to practise is impaired, it is not obliged to impose a sanction. This is likely to be an exceptional outcome but, for example, may be appropriate in cases where a finding of impairment has been reached on the wider public interest grounds identified above but where the registrant has insight, has already taken remedial action and there is no risk of repetition".

30. In deciding whether to impose any sanction, the Panel had regard to paragraph 14 of the Indicative Sanctions Policy which states,

 "The degree of insight displayed by a registrant is central to a proper determination of whether fitness to practise is impaired and, if so, what sanction (if any) is required. The issues which the Panel need to consider include whether the registrant: 
• has admitted or recognised any wrongdoing;
• has genuinely recognised his or her failings;
• has taken or is taking any appropriate remedial action;
• is likely to repeat or compound that wrongdoing.”

31. Having carefully considered the above paragraphs of the Indicative Sanctions Policy, the Panel concluded that given the seriousness of the misconduct and that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired, a sanction is required to protect the public and is in the public interest, to mark the seriousness of the matter.

32. The Panel considered as aggravating factors the potential for harm to several service users from three local authorities caused by the Registrant’s misconduct, and that the documents had been left in an unlocked shed for almost a year before being found.

33. In considering mitigating factors, the Panel took into account the lack of any disciplinary record, the Registrant’s participation in the hearing, his adverse health at the time and his difficult personal circumstances. The Panel also took into account that the Registrant has practised as a Social Worker for over 17 years.

34. The Panel considered the available sanctions in ascending order of seriousness and concluded that taking no action or imposing a Caution Order would not be appropriate to mark the seriousness of the matters for which the Registrant’s fitness to practise is found to be impaired. The nature of the misconduct was not of a limited or minor nature. The Panel did not consider this to be a suitable case for mediation.

35. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order. The Panel had regard to the Registrant’s evidence that he had returned to work in October 2017, and was now able to practise as an Agency Social Worker. The Panel also had regard to the Registrant’s genuine remorse and his willingness to remedy his misconduct .

36. In all the circumstances, the Panel concluded that workable and practical conditions could be formulated which would adequately protect the public and satisfy the public interest. The Panel considered that Conditions of Practice Order for a period of 12 months was sufficient and proportionate.

37. The Panel also considered a Suspension Order but decided it was not necessary or proportionate at this time. 



 

Order

Order: The Registrar is directed to annotate the HCPC       register  to show that for a period of 12 months from the date that this Order takes effect (“the Operative Date”), you, Thomas Geoffrey Farncombe, must comply with the following Conditions of Practice:


1. Before accepting any work as a registered Social Worker whether paid or unpaid you must satisfactorily complete a course in Information Governance/Data Protection and forward evidence of this to the HCPC.

2. If you are employed as a Registered Social Worker, you must place yourself and remain under the supervision of a workplace supervisor registered by the HCPC (or other appropriate statutory regulator) and supply details of your supervisor to the HCPC within 4 weeks of the Operative Date. You must attend upon that supervisor as required and follow their advice and recommendations.

3. If you are employed as a Registered Social Worker, you must work with your workplace supervisor to formulate a Personal Development Plan designed to address the deficiencies in the following areas of your practice:

i. Handling of confidential information
ii. Information Governance

4. If you are employed as a Registered Social Worker, within three months of the Operative Date you must forward a copy of your Personal Development Plan to the HCPC.

5. If you are employed as a Registered Social Worker, you must meet with your workplace supervisor on a monthly basis to consider your progress towards achieving the aims set out in your Personal Development Plan.

6. If you are employed as a Registered Social Worker, you must allow your workplace supervisor to provide information to the HCPC about your progress towards achieving the aims set out in your Personal Development Plan.

Notes

The Panel imposed a Interim Conditions of Practice Order to cover the appeal period. 

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Mr Thomas Geoffrey Farncombe

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
15/01/2018 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Conditions of Practice