Last Friday I posted about a worrying case in which the UKCP has been taking since February 2009 to investigate the conduct of a psychotherapist, during which the individual has been able to carry on practising regardless.
The case is important because of the self-regulating nature of psychotherapy in the UK. The UKCP is currently trying to position itself to become an “assured voluntary regulator” for the profession, whereby its complaints and disciplinary procedures will receive official endorsement. Cases such as this could cast doubt on its ability to take on such a role.
At the moment, there’s no statutory regulator for counsellors or psychotherapists. There’s also no minimum qualification. A psychotherapist could be somebody who’s undergone an arduous post-graduate training lasting several years, or they could be just some yahoo with “psychotherapist” printed on their business card. They might belong to a professional organisation, or they might not. If they get struck off by one organisation, they can just join another one, or they can remain unaffiliated to any body and still practice.
Of the professional bodies out there, the two biggest are the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). The BACP has a good, accountable complaints system with clear procedures.
With the UKCP, the complaints system is far more muddy, which is partly down to its nature as an umbrella body for nearly 80 smaller psychotherapy organisations. If you want to complain about a UKCP psychotherapist, you first have to complain to their member organisation. If the member organisation rejects your complaint, you can then appeal to the UKCP. These 80 organisations all have different complaints procedures.
For some of these organisations say, the Association for Family Therapy, their complaints systems are of good, robust quality. Others are clearly not.
Take a look at the Code of Ethics for the Guild of Psychotherapists. In particular Parts 4 and 5. A complaint has to be proved to the criminal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” (the usual standard of proof for such procedures is the civil standard of “on the balance of probabilities”). The complaint is heard by members of the Ethics Panel, with no provision for lay members at the hearing. Oh, and “the Panel shall have the power in its discretion…to require the Complainant to pay such costs and expenses in the event of the complaint not being upheld.”
Yep, that’s right. If you can’t prove the complaint beyond reasonable doubt, to a panel made up of the therapist’s colleagues, you could be handed a huge legal bill! And only then can you take your complaint to the UKCP. Most people would just back away and not complain.
The UKCP is currently trying to replace this clearly-inadequate system with a new Central Complaints Procedure, but this is very much a work-in-progress. As the UKCP’s latest bulletin admits, only a third of member organisations have so far signed up for it. In a startling piece of candour, the same bulletin also admits, “There has been too much crony-ism and amateurism in the conduct of complaints for far too long.”
Under the previous Labour government, plans were underway for counselling and psychotherapy to be regulated by the Health Professions Council, which already regulates clinical psychologists and arts therapists. While many psychotherapists supported this move, there was also a vociferous campaign against it. The UKCP chair, Professor Andrew Samuels, has spoken against HPC regulation.
The new Coalition government currently favours a different approach of “assured voluntary registration”. Under such a system, the Council for Regulatory Healthcare Excellence (the uber-regulator that oversees bodies such as the General Medical Council, Health Professionals Council etc) will be renamed the Professional Standards Authority. This body will be able to give an official mark of approval to self-regulating bodies such as the UKCP.
Providing, of course, that they can show that they’re able to effectively police their own profession. However, a previous UKCP Bulletin admits that without reform, “we will not pass muster at CHRE/PSA.” The apparently mishandling of the Smalley case would certainly cast doubt on the ability of UKCP to be a credible self-regulator.