Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families First Report

4  Representation

23. The Bill amends the functions of independent reviewing officers (social workers who chair all looked-after children's statutory review meetings, from which position they can identify any problems with the child's care, or with the care plan).[27] The White Paper said that:

    "As well as […] reforms at the strategic level, it is equally important to ensure good quality and consistent individual needs assessment, care planning and service provision for each individual child […] for children in care, all […] support must be grounded in a high quality assessment of their needs and a care plan which is based on those needs."[28]

Evidence to us from the CAFCASS Young People's Board indicated that young people in care thought that the role of the independent reviewing officer (IRO) was extremely important and felt that IROs should be committed to involving the young person and making the care plan work.[29]

24. The Minister told us that:

    "There is a great deal of concern within the system that the independent reviewing officer function is not yet working properly and strongly enough. There is recognition within the system that we have to make sure that there is better care planning and that the voice of the child is more effectively represented within the system."[30]

25. He also commented on the debate on whether IROs should remain within local authorities or should be made independent of them, saying that the evidence was mixed:

    "We decided in the Bill to leave independent reviewing officers within the remit of the local authority, although they can swap. An independent reviewing officer could come from a neighbouring local authority. The provision could be swapped if we wanted to strengthen the Chinese wall and the role, which we encourage. We have done that because children and young people, independent reviewing officers and local authorities have told us that having someone within the structure and who is well connected with it can be more effective at good care planning for the individual child."

He added that

    "if that does not work and we do not have an improvement in care planning for young people or on the ground in the stability of care plans and listening to the voice of the child, there is power under the Bill in future to take independent reviewing officers out of local authorities completely and put them into a national body. That could come under the remit of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service or a completely new body, but we thought that it was right to continue to make the system work by strengthening the role of the independent reviewing officer at this stage."[31]

26. Amongst those submitting evidence on these issues of representation were those who were concerned that the Government had not taken sufficient account of submissions to the Care Matters consultation proposing independent advocacy on behalf of looked-after children.

27. The Children's Advocacy Consortium argued this point, noting that it and others have sought an extension of independent advocacy in the Bill by "Extending the statutory right to advocacy to the care planning and review process; and requiring providers of residential care and fostering services to ensure that children are provided with an independent advocate". It argues that the Government confuses informal advocacy (as provided by parents and social workers) with professional advocacy, defined as "about empowering children and young people to make sure that their rights are respected and their views and wishes heard at all times." The Consortium adds that "It is our view that the expression of the child's views in the decision making process by those who are responsible for the outcome of that process is quite distinct from the representation of the child's wishes and their rights by a professional who is independent of the system."[32] The group Every Disabled Child Matters made similar points.[33]

28. When asked why the Government had not adopted proposals on advocacy, the Minister answered:

    "We wonder whether that would be the most effective way to improve the service to the child and to improve the way in which care planning takes place for that child… We have to empower the people who work around the child and ensure that they focus on the thoughts, wishes, feelings and the voice of the young person, rather than creating a national system of advocates, which some organisations who specialise in advocacy would like to see. We wonder whether that would really produce what we want: better outcomes for these young people. The right way to achieve that is to focus on strengthening the system."[34]

29. We asked the Minister if advocacy might be required in cases where a child has difficulty in expressing themselves or has a serious disability. He told us:

    "In a case like that, it seems to me that it would. I am unable to judge an individual case, but if a young person is unable to effectively express themselves without professional advocacy or assistance of some sort, it would quite clearly be good practice for an advocate to be brought in. There are many disabled children in care. I do not think that that point could be expressed within the Bill; but in guidance, it will be clear that the thrust of the reform that we are introducing is that, if a child's voice cannot be heard because of some disability, there should be a process by which it can be."[35]

30. It is clear from all the evidence that a truly independent voice is needed for all looked-after children to ensure their needs and wishes are properly considered and acted upon in the care process. The Minister told us of his concern that the independent reviewing officer system was not yet working effectively, and the Government acknowledges this in the Bill by making provision for the Secretary of State to establish a body to be the employer of independent reviewing officers to provide greater independence if matters do not improve. The Government needs to be explicit about how it will judge if this change is needed, and how long it will allow present circumstances to continue without perceived improvement.

31. There remains the question of whether formal advocacy arrangements should be put in place for looked-after children. If the new arrangements for independent reviewing officers do not improve the way the system works, the Government should look again at independent advocacy and whether there is a need to replace the neutral independence of the IRO with active advocacy on behalf of the child or young person.


32. The Bill makes provision for looked-after children to be visited by a representative of the local authority who should ensure that they receive 'appropriate advice, support and assistance' if they request it, and by independent visitors whose duty it is to 'visit, befriend and advise the child'.[36] These roles already exist, but the Bill will extend availability of independent visitors from children in care who have no contact with their parents to all children in care who would benefit from such a relationship.[37] We welcome the extension of the provision of independent visitors to all looked-after children.

33. These two individuals together with others such as the IRO, social worker, designated teacher and possibly a personal advisor form part of a substantial group of adults designed to assist each child. The concern is that there are too many people involved, causing fragmentation of functions and causing confusion for the children affected. What Makes The Difference? and the National Leaving Care Advisory Service in their joint memorandum to the Committee said in relation to the local authority visitor:

    "[…] we believe that, in order for this to be of maximum benefit, these visitors should be the child's lead professional, and must be known to the child […]. Good relationships will provide the attachment that these young people need to succeed. However young people have told us how difficult they find it to form these relationships as a result of the large number and high turnover of professionals who deal with them […]. We are concerned that local authorities may assign people as visitors who do not play any other role in the child's life which would both limit the value of these visits and introduce yet another professional into a child's life."[38]

34. We asked the Minister about the need for a child or young person in care to have one core relationship. He said:

    "[…] a key relationship for most young people in care would be with their foster carer and for those in a children's home, with the manager or the people who work with them in the children's home. You are absolutely right that there are a number of relationships with adults, and the whole purpose of the Bill and of the Care Matters agenda is to try and stabilise that and to give more stability to those relationships".[39]

He added that provisions on independent visitors were being changed not "because we decided that it would be a good idea, but because children and young people themselves said that they welcomed it."[40]

35. We recognise the importance for looked-after children of stable relationships with adults, and we also recognise that the various people mentioned—the so-called 'team around the child'—have different roles. However, as in all these issues, the welfare of the child or young person should be paramount. Every looked-after child should have one key individual to whom he or she can turn, and wherever possible the child should be entitled to say which individual should perform that role.

27   Clauses 9 to 13 Back

28   Care Matters: Time for Change, para 1.29 Back

29   Ev 21, para 5 Back

30   Q 36 Back

31   ibid  Back

32   Ev 24-25 Back

33   Ev 38 Back

34   Q 39 Back

35   Q 41 Back

36   Clauses 14 to 17 Back

37   Care Matters: Time for Change, para 7.36 Back

38   Ev 72 Back

39   Q 43 Back

40   Q 45 Back

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