Ermintrude2 Special Edition

Conflicts of interest and the Nolan Principles

At first glance, it might seem like a strange connection between an analysis of conflicts of interest and openness in Social Work England and the Care Review about which this edition is based. For me, the relevance is one of oversight and of governance. It is a linked to the understanding, or lack of understanding of the Nolan Principles in the social work and social care sphere. In some ways, it is a practical demonstration of why principles which govern public life, need to operate in practice and why signing up to these principles by taking the leadership roles need more than lip service. While it might seem that I am diving down a rabbit hole, it shows the need to take these principles and the professional ethics and values as social workers. On a personal level, as a social worker with no ‘skin in the game’ so to speak, in the circles of professional leadership, and holding on to the desire to do my job to the best of my ability and with honesty, clarity and integrity – it disappoints me that those who are lead within the profession so scant regard to those same values.

The Nolan Principles have required a bit of a workout recently. If you are not aware of them, they were based on the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life chaired by Lord Nolan, published in 1995. The principles apply to ‘all those elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the Civil Service, local government, the police, the courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies and in health, education, social and care services’ (Committee on the Standards in Public Life)

As a social worker, I see them being bound up with professional ethics and standards but these are specific and the reason I was trawling through them was to explore the role that the Chair of Social Work England has in maintaining these standards.

Lord Patel of Bradford is the said Chair of Social Work England. He was appointed as the regulator’s inaugural chair. He has, of course, a distinguished career and was seen to be suitable to hold the role. It’s not my place to comment on that. I want an effective regulator but don’t have the experience to know too much about the details.

So why I am bothered? What led me to the Nolan Principles?   At the end of March 2021, I saw a tweet mentioning a new appointment to the Cygnet Hospital ‘family’. I went to the website of Cygnet and saw that Lord Patel had been appointed as Senior Independent Board Director of Cygnet in April 2020.  It’s curious that Cygnet don’t mention on their website that he is the Chair of Social Work England – especially when you consider that Cygnet directly employs social workers. I would have assumed that may have been relevant.

More concerning to me, in lines of the requirements of non-executive board members of public bodies to maintain the Nolan Principles, was the lack of any mention at all on the Social Work England website. This was the last week of March 2021. The appointment was announced in April 2020, when we were probably all a little distracted. Nothing.

I tweeted about this when I noticed it, in March 2021, because I thought it was a matter of interest to the social work community, for us to know that the chair of our regulator has been appointed to a post by a provider with a somewhat mixed (and that is me being very kind) history in terms of the quality of delivery of services. Problems with Cygnet services are easy enough to find but they don’t, by any means, all predate Lord Patel’s appointment.  The information is available and accessible from CQC.

Does this mean he doesn’t have the right to take an appointment with Cygnet? Perhaps that’s another argument for another day. It is enough though to make me curious and concerned that this appointment did not appear on the register of interests of the board of Social Work England.

Lord Patel’s appointment to the board of Cygnet was placed on the Social Work England register of interests on the 24 March, 2021. Before that, this information was not publicly available on the website of Social Work England.  It was coincidence that found me on the Cygnet website, a place I don’t often frequent, and an old piece of news about the appointment of Lord Patel.

So back to Social Work England, who, the day after of the tweet I sent, updated their register of interests to include Cygnet under Lord Patel’s listing here.  That’s an awful lot of interests. Again, this may be fine, but why the lack of honesty, openness and integrity (some of those Nolan Principles again), when the page on the register of interests was updated in November 2020, a good eight months after the appointment was made? 

So when does the register of interests need to be updated? This is from their website

The register of interests is updated as material changes occur and reviewed at least annually. To ensure that our board members remain in an optimal position to manage any real or perceived conflict, it is standard practice for the chair to ask for board members to declare any potential conflicts at the start of each board and sub-committee meetings.

While there could be an argument they ‘got there’ within the year (the website was updated on 24 March 2021 and Cygnet announced the appointment on their website on 2 April 2020. But I believe this would be an entirely disingenuous argument. My argument would be that this appointment was a ‘material change’ and that the review is ‘at least’ annually. Cygnet employ social workers. If Patel is declaring his appointment to the BBFC as potentially relevant, surely being appointed onto the board of a private healthcare company that employs social workers directly, has to be of interest. But maybe it’s just the website not being updated? Nope.

I went to look at the board Papers for 26 June 2020 and out of the 31 interests that Lord Patel declares to the board, Cygnet Healthcare is not among them. We get to the minutes though and it looks like there was some mention of some ‘interests’ but they weren’t updated:

2.2 The Chair declared there would be a reduction in his commitments and several amendments to his declarations. These will be sent to Alison Edbury as soon as possible.

Oh, ok, he seems to have acknowledged ‘changes’ by June but wait, there’s no mention of what those changes are, despite the other director with changes making it explicit in the minutes:

2.1 Andrew McCulloch (AMC) declared that there is a live contract between GMC Services International, for which he is the Chair of the Board, and Social Work England. Mark Lam (MLA) declared that he became Chair of East London NHS Foundation Trust on 1 June 2020.

So why doesn’t it say in the minutes that Lord Patel was appointed to Cygnet Hospital?  And why wasn’t the register of interests updated with this information when we know the Social Work England website was otherwise updated in November 2020?  I mean, the updated register of interests was attached with the June Board Papers (so presumably would be updated with the information referred to in the minutes of the February meeting – but there is no mention of Cygnet). Curiously, the September and October board papers don’t have the register of interests published (they should be published at every board meeting).

So we get to the minutes of the December 2020 meeting where:

The Chair declared that he had recently been appointed as Chair to the Independent Health Providers Network.

That’s nice, but there is still no mention on the Social Work England website of Cygnet, which itself had announced Lord Patel’s appointment to their board in April 2020. And, when there was mention of ‘changes’ to Lord Patel’s interests. There was no reference to Cygnet in the minutes of the relevant Social Work England Board meeting. My interpretation is that it seems there is some embarrassment about linking Lord Patel to Cygnet. There is no mention of his Social Work England connection on the Cygnet site, despite it being relevant to their core business. There is (or at least, wasn’t until late March 2021) any mention of them on Social Work England’s site in relation to Lord Patel’s interests. Curious. If it is an ‘oversight’ it is a particularly convenient one.

So why does it matter? I don’t work for Cygnet. I have no issue with the operation of Social Work England. I want the regulator to operate well. For me, though, it is a matter of integrity, openness, and honesty.

There were veiled references to changes in the register of interests in the minutes of the February meeting, and then no update in the June board meeting, which is the last time the register of interests appears in the Board papers on the website. Is it conspiracy? I don’t think so, but it does appear to be obfuscation.

Adding to the published register of interests off the back of a tweet, without any acknowledgement of the lack of update is poor, because by the time of the update on 24th March, 2021, he had been on the board of Cygnet for nearly a year, possibly more, as that’s only when the announcement of the appointment was made by Cygnet.

So it remains a problem for the regulator and Lord Patel, if they wish to be taken seriously as ethical and transparent regulators, who operate as they expect social workers to operate. And if you say ‘oh, but it’s not a conflict of interest’ I’d say the register is clear about declaring potential conflicts. If Lord Patel is declaring being on the British Board of Film Classification, how can being on the board of an organisation which employs social workers not be a declarable interest?

This will end with the website now, having been updated, but it shines a light on problem with overall governance. It indicates that either there is an intentional obfuscation at worse and at best, a governance team which is not able to keep on top of their responsibilities. This is because, while it might not be of material interest to many people, it is a matter of values, judgement, and confidence. It’s a matter of what you agree to when you join the board of a organisation about being held to the Nolan Principles. It’s about openness.

How can we have confidence that the regulator is an open and honest regulator if they did not, despite many, many opportunities (updating the website, publishing the register of interests along with the board papers), do so until challenged? You don’t ‘forget’ you are on the board of Cygnet.  Yet here we are, as if values and honesty are an optional extra. It’s not just social workers let down by this, it is the decent people working for Social Work England who get tarred with this brush.

Governance matters. It might not be interesting to many, but it reflects the values of organisations.  I want a regulator I can have confidence in and I’m afraid I feel that incidents like these damages that trust.  

I’d like Social Work England, and Lord Patel, personally, to acknowledge this gap, explain how being paid by Cygnet fits with his role at the top of Social Work England and an explanation of the lack of honesty in not publishing the information when a new, directly relevant interest arose. I find it hard to understand how someone can build a portfolio of other 30 appointments and forget the one that has direct relevance to social work.

This is what I’d like. Moving back to the Care Review to link up, I’d say that it is a further erosion of faith in social work leadership and the direction of social care when the same people  have their fingers in multiple pies and one has to unravel the declared (or, in this case, non-declared) interests and actively research a swathe of private companies and their much cloudier governance processions to work out who is involved with what.

Ermintrude2  – a pseudonym for a social worker based in London