Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

To be published as HC 518-iv

House of COMMONS



Justice Committee

The Operation of the Family Courts

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Martha Cover

Baroness Howarth OBE, Anthony Douglas CBE and Bruce Clark

Evidence heard in Public Questions 219 - 293



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Justice Committee

on Tuesday 22 March 2011

Members present:

Sir Alan Beith (Chair)

Chris Evans

Ben Gummer

Mr Elfyn Llwyd

Claire Perry

Elizabeth Truss


Examination of Witness

Witness: Martha Cover, Co-Chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, representing the Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children, gave evidence.

Chair: Ms Cover, welcome. We are very glad to have you with us this morning representing what we note is a very broad alliance of many organisations who are putting forward a proposal for an alternative to Cafcass. We will be talking to Cafcass later this morning, but we are interested in your proposal, and Elizabeth Truss is going to ask you some questions about it.

Q219 Elizabeth Truss: Could I start by asking why you believe that Cafcass ought to be abolished?

Martha Cover: Yes. The Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children, as you know, is an umbrella group of about 16 or 17 different organisations: children’s charities, doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers and social workers. We have reluctantly come to an overwhelming consensus that Cafcass is simply not capable of reform. I take your question to mean why it should be abolished rather than reformed. Do I have that right?

Elizabeth Truss: Exactly.

Martha Cover: Because that is another question that has been suggested might be asked today. We have anxiously considered the possibility of reform of the organisation rather than abolition and starting again. But we have come to the conclusion, after a lot of debate, that the culture is so entrenched, and the inability of the organisation to take on board and to change to meet the concerns of all of the other partners in the family justice system is such, that we simply have to start again.

Q220 Elizabeth Truss: Is that a culture because it is part of the Department for Education as opposed to the Ministry of Justice or because it is an overly centralised service so you are not getting that level of local connection?

Martha Cover: It is an overly centralised service. It is a very top-heavy and hierarchical managerial structure, which very closely mirrors, in fact, the model of local authority delivery of service which has already been substantially discredited as a way of effectively delivering front-line services to children and families. It is not of the essence of the organisation, in our view, that it is sponsored by the Department for Education rather than the Ministry of Justice. That deals with another aspect of which way the organisation is facing. It is much more a question of the hierarchical line-managed system, which does not pay sufficient regard to the independence and autonomy of the professional guardian and the professional family court reporter. It is also, if I may add, an extremely expensive model to deliver.

Q221 Elizabeth Truss: My understanding is that, before Cafcass was established, there was a system that is similar, if not distinct, from what you are proposing. Could you just outline what the similarities and differences are with the previous system and how you would address the criticisms, which, presumably, is the reason that Cafcass was established in the first place?

Martha Cover: This is the consultation paper from July 1998, which was a joint production of the Department of Health, Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department and the Welsh Office. That paper made it very plain that this was not a failing service. In fact, the comments in that paper are that "the current service provided by the family court welfare guardians and official solicitors", which were the three services that preceded Cafcass, "are highly regarded by the courts and many other agencies with whom they have contact. This is also evidenced by inspection reports and the guardian services. That professionalism is recognised and valued. It needs to be sustained and, where possible, enhanced." Later on it says: "The role of the guardian ad litem in particular is widely regarded as one of the major success stories of the Children Act."

We weren’t looking at a failure. We were building on a success. The aim was to try to offer a more managed service and to control costs. But, of course, we can now demonstrate that the cost of the three combined previous services, even when corrected for inflation from 1998, was about a third of the cost of Cafcass today, and yet the service was widely regarded, and is widely regarded, as much superior.

I want to make it plain that the Alliance is not harking back to a "golden age". That is a phrase that has been used, I fear possibly with some sarcasm, by others. We are not harking back. We are doing the cost comparison to show you where the money has gone. We are trying to indicate to you that you can follow the money and you can provide a far better, dedicated service to children and families, which we are in danger, I might add at this very point, of losing. We are down to the bare bones and the bare bones are under attack. We can provide that, and we can provide it more cheaply than the existing service simply by removing great tranches of unnecessary management.

Q222 Elizabeth Truss: Can you explain a bit more about why that management is unnecessary? What are those people doing at the moment? Is there a risk that, if they are removed, there will be unintended consequences of that?

Martha Cover: When Cafcass was first set up, it was never envisaged that we would have such a heavy and hierarchical management structure. According to NAPO, which is the trade union for the employed guardians-or for many hundreds of them anyway-and family court reporters, the head office staff at the moment, or staff who are not based in any local office, is about 170. Of the staff based in the local offices, about 46% are not front-line practitioners, and this is according to Cafcass’s own annual report of July 2010. I am not sure what they do. I don’t know enough about the organisation, but I do know that, if you look at a local Cafcass office and compare it to a traditional local authority structure, you will see an almost mirror image of a hierarchical management structure with three or four layers, and then a lot of specialists who are called Transformation Managers, Key Performance Indicator Business Support people and so on.

This is not a successful model. This is the model of a failing local authority but replicated on a national scale, in fact. We now have within this service all of the symptomotology of failing local authorities, of which we know a great deal because we work every day in the courts with failing local authorities. They are good people who are working very hard but struggling against their own authorities to be able to manage to do the work for the children. That is just the way it is. This is what Cafcass resembles to us: a failing local authority on a national scale.

Q223 Elizabeth Truss: How do you see accountability working under your proposal?

Martha Cover: Accountability? I have been asked at some point in the list of questions I was given by your clerk to run through the model. I don’t know whether that is a good moment to do that.

Chair: I think Mr Llwyd had a supplementary question.

Q224 Mr Llwyd: I would like to ask one question. When you compare the situation of Cafcass with a failing local authority, we don’t abolish local authorities, do we? We send people in to sort them out, by and large. I am concerned, for example, with what Linda Lee of the Law Society said. If you abolish Cafcass, you might end up with something not even as good, and, at the end of the day, if there is a management problem, we need to concentrate on improving the whole situation rather than abolishing it. The problem is, of course, that, when you abolish these things and set up a new procedure, it costs a lot of money. We all talk about being cost-neutral and so on. I don’t know of any reorganisation ever that has been cost-neutral, frankly. Is it absolutely beyond the pale or is there some way of moving in, stripping away some of the middle management or whatever it might be and identifying the big problems, almost as if we are dealing with a private sector company?

Martha Cover: What is at the heart of our scheme is the primacy of the professional. It is a more high-trust model. Our model is about high-trust professionals working in consortia of 40 or 50 people, linked to the local care centres in England, of which there are 39. We simply do not acknowledge or accept that the various strata of management, and indeed the ideology of Cafcass as a managerial culture, are necessary for these types of professional workers.

I know I am coming back to the accountability issue, and you are saying no one is ever cost-neutral when you talk about getting rid of this and having something brand new. That is another question that we have been asked: have we costed it? We can’t because we would need access to a lot of information about transfer of undertakings, transfer of employees to a new organisation and also elements such as the pension costs and pension liabilities to existing employees. That is obviously a one-off cost that might be considerable.

What we are saying is that, if almost half of the work force are not actually doing the job, and it is fair to estimate that they are earning more money because their managers are not front-line workers, then about 40% of Cafcass’s annual budget is only being spent on front-line practitioners, with the rest going elsewhere.

Q225 Mr Llwyd: That bolsters my point, doesn’t it? I am not being jingoistic now. You have picked up on the fact that I am a Welsh person, I am sure.

Martha Cover: I had.

Mr Llwyd: Cafcass Cymru on most indicators performed better.

Martha Cover: Yes.

Q226 Mr Llwyd: Is it beyond improvement? That is what I am putting to you.

Martha Cover: We fear that, from the top down, the culture in the organisation is too ingrained. We note, for instance, that Anthony Douglas has recently said that some workers had 35 cases each and that they were their highest caseloads. Instead of deploring that and regarding that as a very bad thing, he said it was "probably at the limit of what you can carry to do anything meaningful. It is a question of whether our work force as a whole can get up to that benchmark." So, rather than considering it a disgrace that that should be the position, it is now a benchmark to be aimed for.

I appreciate what you are saying: can’t we simply reform it? We can’t see quite how that can be done. We have thought about "Cafcass Lite" or "the organisation formerly known as Cafcass", which is the way one person put it. It would be possible, but we fear that the managerial culture, the ethos and the identity is so damaged, in fact, that it would be necessary to start again.

Chair: Mr Gummer had a supplementary point.

Q227 Ben Gummer: I have a quick question. Are you not just describing endemic problems of any monopoly?

Martha Cover: These problems were not endemic. In fact, they weren’t problems in the earlier system.

Q228 Chair: But there wasn’t a monopoly in the earlier system.

Martha Cover: There were three services that offered all of the court welfare services: the Official Solicitor, the court welfare service and the guardian service. They weren’t in any competition with each other. They were performing discrete tasks.

Q229 Chair: Independent guardians were contracted to do particular tasks in what was not a monopoly.

Martha Cover: Yes. I am struggling with this because there is still a mixed economy within Cafcass, although it is one that has been significantly eroded, and there is a considerable degree of resistance and hostility to using self-employed guardians. In fact, agency staff are now preferred to self-employed guardians, at much greater expense. The fact is that there is, and always has been, a mixed economy. In other words, there have always been self-employed guardians, employed guardians and court welfare officers, who worked for the probation service, so they were employed by the probation service. It is wrong to think of it as a monopoly.

Q230 Claire Perry: I want to go back to the idea of how the proposals would work in practice. We obviously have our very helpful diagram. One of the things that strike me is that, essentially, you are pushing out a lot of the decision making to the 39 Family Court Welfare and Child Representation Units and keeping some core co-ordination functions in the centre, if you like. How do you avoid unnecessary duplication and cost in that decentralised model? How do you stop those units effectively reinventing the same business model and spending more on bureaucratic functions?

Martha Cover: You mean growing in bureaucracy?

Claire Perry: Essentially, recreating mini-Cafcasses 39 times, effectively.

Martha Cover: I understand. If I can look at our model, which is the diagram, we are proposing a Family Justice Commissioning Board. We propose that there should be a Chief Family Justice Officer and that that national board should also be responsible for setting national standards. Of course it will have audit and financial responsibilities. It will employ the employed staff. It will also set entry requirements, discipline, grievance requirements and continuing education requirements nationally. The beauty of this system is that there is a great deal of power to decide on local needs; for instance, in education. You may have a centre that is near an international airport and the workers need a great deal more training in asylum-seeking children or international child trafficking than guardians and family court reporters who are in a rural area. That is just an example

You devolve down to each of the 39 centres a great deal of responsibility for the training and also for the oversight, assessment and appraisal of individual workers. Is that what one of your major concerns is?

Q231 Claire Perry: What I am worried about is that there is an opportunity to lose accountability in the system with this devolved model, as well as to create cost, because you end up with the board almost as the in-house regulator, I suppose. That is how it looks, but then there is quite a lot of independent operation at each of the 39 family court levels. Often, that means that organisations will build capability or spend money on IT systems or whatever it is. I am just wondering how you make that more efficient than the current system we have today.

Martha Cover: If each of the 39 areas is simply not permitted to have more than, for instance, one director, a deputy and two or three administrative staff, and the consortium is run on the basis that it is a hub-that is another word that people have used-you will have 40 or 50 professional practitioners working in that group that can cover that range of functions within that area. There is a little bullet point list of all the statutory functions that are necessarily met by guardians, family court reporters and so on. If it is simply not permitted that the centre is allowed to grow in terms of its bureaucracy, then there will not be any scope for that.

Q232 Claire Perry: Thank you; that answers the question. However, what would happen if one of the centres had unacceptable delays? If you ended up with a postcode lottery in a particular area, who would be accountable for that problem and how would we get a grip on it, assuming the whole thing went back to the Ministry of Justice, which I think many of the Committee would support? Who would be accountable and would fix that problem?

Martha Cover: There can be spikes in applications for section 31 orders and there can be spikes in private law applications. It is very difficult to predict them. There can be a national spike, for instance, post Baby P obviously, but before that there had been a national drop because of the introduction of the raised fees issue and also government targets to reduce the population of children in care. That had been an artificial drop.

The way in which it was dealt with pre-Cafcass was that each of the local neighbouring panels would lend workers to cover the bulge. One of the beauties of self-employed contractors and having a self-employed element is that they are a flexible work force. In other words, if you have a bulge, you get some more self-employed guardians in to cover it, and then, when the work is gone, they move on. They are not on the payroll. They are an extremely cheap and effective way of dealing with the problem.

Q233 Claire Perry: Would that monitoring role, say, around delays, sit with the commissioning board, so that, if you were running the commissioning board, you would know that my area had a bulge of cases and Liz’s area had a surplus of self-employed practitioners? Would you try and put us together effectively and manage the internal economy that way?

Martha Cover: I suspect that local knowledge between care centres would develop quite well and also using the link with the local Family Justice Councils, which you have probably heard about, which are a multi-disciplinary local body of judges, social workers, lawyers, guardians, family court reporters, and sometimes doctors and psychologists, in that group locally. I suspect that the neighbouring centres would get to know very well that they needed to lend some people to Luton, but next year it might be Luton lending people to Herts, or that sort of thing.

Chair: Elizabeth Truss wanted to come in on a point.

Q234 Elizabeth Truss: If we are going to weaken central accountability, which this proposal will do, I am interested in how local accountability can be strengthened. You mentioned these Councils. Would that be a way that local performance could be held to account? I much prefer local accountability to central accountability. I think it would be a good thing, but what I worry about is lots of different organisations, all with a string up to a national level, not necessarily operating in the most efficient way for that locality.

Martha Cover: You mean being able to pass the buck by saying, "Well, that is not our strand. That is the strand belonging to some other few people in our group."

Q235 Elizabeth Truss: Exactly. I think there should be somebody locally who is accountable and who has an holistic picture of what is going on in the different parts of the justice service.

Martha Cover: Obviously, there are different types of accountability. There is accountability of employed staff to their employer. There is also the professionals’ accountability in this context to their own professional bodies-the General Social Care Council in this case-but also the accountability is set down in a statute of the guardians and the family court reporters to the court.

There was a lot of talk about the variability of guardians’ performance in the past and that this has somehow improved. First of all, it hasn’t. You will always have variability in the performance of individual guardians because it is a professional exercise of judgment and skill. Different guardians, just as different judges and different social workers, will take a different view of a case from another. That does not mean that they are not equally reasonable and defensible.

What I think people are most worried about is how individual guardians, who may be self-employed and not therefore under the control of an employment contract, are to be governed, supervised and appraised. The present system of appraisal is certainly very frequent. It is, according to the guardians, not very focused on the actual work they do but much more on systems, forms, the shape of their report and whether it accords with certain dictats about the format of the report. It is very rarely about the actual intrinsic quality of the work that they have done.

We would propose that each local centre has individual annual appraisals for each guardian and family court reporter, which are in depth, and which take at least two or three of their cases at random, and go through it with that guardian or that family court reporter in depth. Also, there are practice assessors for each area. This is the way in which, traditionally, the senior echelon of the guardian service and the family court service grows the next generation. It is an absolutely essential part of that.

I should say, also, that it is still the case that guardians who are confronted with a very difficult case will often ask another, more senior and experienced guardian to effectively supervise them or to almost case-conference it with them. That is a function that Cafcass will say is now taken up by their managers, but not all managers have practised as guardians. They are all social workers certainly, but they don’t necessarily have those kinds of skills.

Q236 Claire Perry: I have a couple more questions, if I may. One of the problems that your proposal was trying to address was the difficulty of retaining social workers in the current system. You made some very good points about the age of the work force and the lack of value put on the work force. Cafcass, in their submission to the PAC, did say they didn’t have a problem in general in recruiting new practitioners. I wondered whether you were trying to solve a problem that actually didn’t exist across the UK in its entirety.

Martha Cover: Certainly one of the key difficulties for the Alliance has been the very substantial lowering of standards of entry so that it is now possible to be a newly qualified social worker with no experience. Of course it is right that the courts have been used to people with very considerable experience, educated to a very high degree, with 10 or 15 years of experience, including experience in other areas, in psychotherapy, social science and social policy, probation and so on. It may be the case-I don’t know-that Cafcass does not have difficulty in recruiting newly qualified social workers, but their value to the service cannot be anything like the value to the service of experienced people

Guardians and family court reporters were seen as a senior echelon of the social work profession. Family support workers who are unqualified are also now being used by Cafcass to go and visit children and carry out wishes and feelings reports. It may be that some of those individuals are quite good at what they do, but there is absolutely no way of knowing that and they are not qualified social workers.

If you say we are identifying a problem that doesn’t exist, what we say is that there are many senior practitioners who have left. They have gone to other jobs. Cafcass says that a lot of people have retired or taken early retirement. A lot of people have left and gone to other jobs. People have left the service and gone back into social work because they feel that they can still make a difference there, but they can no longer do the job to their own professional satisfaction. Although it may be possible to recruit a number of newly qualified practitioners with ease, whether they can be properly trained and retained is another matter.

Q237 Claire Perry: So it is a quality problem and not a quantity problem?

Martha Cover: I don’t know if it is a quantity problem. I do know that in some areas the turnover in Cafcass is almost 20%. I don’t know whether there is a problem in recruiting. There may not be in recruiting newly qualified staff or staff with three years’ qualification, but there is certainly a problem in retention and there is a very serious problem in training.

Q238 Claire Perry: Thank you. I have one final question which gets back to Mr Llwyd’s point about the overall costing of the change. Like him, I am also always sceptical about the cost of change. Has there been any financial analysis done of the cost of closing down Cafcass-presumably it will entail a very large number of pension and redundancy commitments, etcetera-and also the cost of setting up the commissioning board? Has there been any analysis of that? Are there any numbers we could look at?

Martha Cover: No. We can’t do that without access to information, which is clearly confidential information relating to employees, just as you say, in terms of pension liabilities and staff costs. If, for instance, there was a decision simply to radically reform Cafcass and to strip out a great deal of the management and head office expenditure, which I think is about £10 million in itself, then you would need access to a great deal of sensitive and confidential information about staff salaries and pension liabilities.

It is not possible for us to do that, but it is possible for us to say that, in 1998, the same number of care cases was being dealt with by guardians as now, despite what is described by Cafcass as "a relentless surge". The relentless surge has brought us now to the position that we were in, in terms of the number of applications for guardians to be appointed, in 1998. It is true that the number of requests for private law reports has increased, but that service was being offered at a third of the cost of the service that is being offered now. It is universally regarded as a superior service by everyone in the business.

Q239 Chair: I want to clarify something about your model and who is doing the commissioning. You have something which is called the Family Justice Commissioning Board. What that is doing, apart from the High Court side of it, is commissioning the 39 local units.

Martha Cover: Yes.

Q240 Chair: Presumably, they are doing the commissioning of individual guardians. When the judge says that a guardian is to be appointed, then it is the local unit the area uses.

Martha Cover: It is the local consortium that the duty falls upon to provide the guardian or the family court reporter; yes, that is right.

Q241 Chair: But, in your model, the Family Court Welfare and Child Representation Unit is going to make that decision, isn’t it?

Martha Cover: Yes.

Q242 Chair: It is not the local authority as such, or is it?

Martha Cover: Not the local authority, no. These bodies will not be associated with the local authorities. They can’t be; we have to get away from that.

Q243 Chair: I will come back to the structure, but are you implying in what you are saying that there is a conflict of interest within the present system in the role of local authorities?

Martha Cover: For guardians and family court reporters?

Chair: Yes.

Martha Cover: No. Cafcass is an independent body. One of the raisons d’être of setting up Cafcass, aside from saving money and offering a nationally managed service, which were the goals of this paper, was to take the responsibility for the guardians away from the local authorities because of the perceived conflict. The primacy of the role here is not a narrow and rigid safeguarding role. It is the representation of children who are people under a disability in court proceedings affecting their lives. That is the core responsibility of Cafcass: to provide suitably qualified and suitably managed people to provide that service.

Q244 Chair: But what you will have is 39 PCTs, if you like-39 Primary Care Trusts-all of whom will appoint a head of commissioning, whose job it will be to know who is available locally. There will be a bureaucracy with that, won’t there?

Martha Cover: But the bureaucracy can be controlled. Are you saying that the commissioning board will simply give the global budget to each of the 39 centres and let them thrash it out as to how much of it is going to go on directors, managers and administrative staff and how much of it is going to go on front-line services?

Q245 Chair: That is not clear to me. Is the National Commissioning Board simply approving, or even choosing, who provides the local Family Court Welfare and Child Representation Unit, which is then doing the real commissioning, i.e. choosing individuals and organisations to carry out particular functions?

Martha Cover: What we are very clear about is that the managerial and administrative staff of each of these consortiums need only be a skeletal staff. It is not necessary to have this degree of bureaucracy and management oversight of a group of dedicated professionals. In a sense, it is more analogous to a large GP practice.

Q246 Chair: So why do you need a national Family Justice Commissioning Board?

Martha Cover: Because we do accept that one of the failures of the old system was that there was not sufficient standardisation in terms of the guardians and the family court reporters reporting to the court. Obviously, the court is the ultimate consumer of their work and they can be cross-examined on the failures and fragilities in their thinking and in their reporting, but we do accept that it is right that there are national standards for entry, qualifications, reporting, discipline, assessment, grievance and continuing education. They should be set nationally, although how that is operated is devolved extensively to the local consortium. It is not entirely in their gift to say, "Nobody can do a report that is more than five pages long", just to take a ridiculous example.

Q247 Chair: It is not really a commissioning board at all; it is a regulatory or supervisory body.

Martha Cover: We definitely want it to have regulatory, supervisory and entry level functions that are applied nationally, yes. I should say that, although managing the service was one of the chief aims of setting up Cafcass, you will have heard from others, including judges, to say that there is still a very worrying variation between the services that are available nationally. It has not achieved that goal.

Q248 Chair: Thank you very much indeed. We are very grateful to you. If, subsequently, you feel there is any aspect that has not been explored properly that you want to draw to our attention, do feel free to drop us a note about that. The way we have asked you the questions has got at the points that we ourselves were concerned about and wanted to clarify. Therefore, that is probably a better way of approaching it than by presentation. We have your documents and we will look at them very carefully.

Martha Cover: I wanted to check with you that you have three documents. There is a diagram of the system. There is a short document, which is a joint position statement signed by the 17 organisations that form the Alliance. There is also something called a cost comparison pre and post-Cafcass.

Q249 Chair: Yes; we have them all. The last of those we only got yesterday and it was circulated electronically last night. Thank you very much indeed for your help.

Martha Cover: Thank you very much. If there is anything further that we can add, of course we would be very happy to consider it.

Chair: Thank you very much.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Baroness Howarth OBE, Chair, Anthony Douglas CBE, Chief Executive, and Bruce Clark, Director of Policy, Cafcass, gave evidence.

Chair: Baroness Howarth, Mr Douglas and Mr Clark, you must be becoming quite familiar with appearing as witnesses in front of Select Committees, having just been through the Public Accounts Committee experience. I think Mr Douglas’s memory goes back quite a long way in these matters.

I suppose I should recall the history in the early days of Cafcass of the predecessor Committee to this Committee issuing a very critical report and beginning a new process of attempting to make Cafcass fit for purpose. We want to explore what has happened and where we are now. I am going to ask Mr Llwyd to begin.

Q250 Mr Llwyd: Good morning. There has been quite a focus recently on the increase in cases post the Baby Peter case. The number of new public law cases rose by 3.3% between 2010 and 2011. However, the number of public law cases on Cafcass’s books rose 21% as cases were staying open longer. Why are cases taking so much longer to resolve?

Baroness Howarth: Can I possibly just say a few things by way of introduction very, very briefly? Is that allowed?

Chair: It might be helpful, while it is fresh in our minds, if you did answer Mr Llwyd’s question and then we will give you an opportunity to say a few things briefly.

Baroness Howarth: Mr Clark will answer the questions about the statistics, so that is clear. Anthony will answer the questions about practice. If there are issues on where we have come from and where we are going, that is my role. So this is Bruce’s question, I think. That is all I wanted to say.

Bruce Clark: That is right. There is a difference, of course, between the flow of new cases coming into the system each year and the stock of open cases that are in the system at any point in time. What we have seen in particular, since the surge in applications that began in November 2008 with the publicity surrounding the Baby Peter case, is not only a sharp increase, 35% in 2009-10, in the flow of new applications, and, as you say, now around 3% in the year to date 2010-11, but a much bigger increase in the size of the stock of cases in the system. The HMCS figures suggest that there was an increase during 2009 of some 50% of care cases in England and Wales across all of the circuit areas.

The reasons that cases are taking longer are many and varied. There have been at least four inquiries by the Ministry of Justice primarily and the Department for Education, as it is now called, into the causes of delay. They include the growing complexity of family life, the difficulty in appointing experts, problems in listing, late appointment of guardians, the preparedness of local authority cases and others. They were subject to a Finch Review commissioned by Margaret Hodge in 2004 and reviews in 1996 and 2002, and now of course the Family Justice Review is looking at that issue very closely. The causes of delay are varied, but you are very right to observe that the stock issues are just as pressing for organisations in the family justice system as the flow issues.

Q251 Mr Llwyd: You have been very helpful in that answer. Is it possible that individual Cafcass officers are carrying far too heavy a caseload?

Bruce Clark: There has been recent anxiety on the part of the recognised unions-Unison and NAPO-about the size of the caseloads carried by their members, our staff. We share that worry because, if workers have excessive caseloads, we are failing in our duties as an employer and they are on the road to burn-out and making bad judgments in individual cases. What we have just commenced this month, after six months’ careful work together with the unions, is a workload weighting system. In my experience, they can be terribly complicated and difficult to set up, with all sorts of fancy points systems and cases having to be argued over at every level of supervision about their current weight and value. What we have done is to create a very simple system that looks at the stages that the different types of private and public law cases are at, rather than come up with a fixed number, which is inevitably spurious because any fixed number of cases may vary in their degree of difficulty according to the actual issues in the case.

Q252 Mr Llwyd: I believe we are going to be questioning you in greater detail about this aspect, but I was just curious at this stage that that didn’t appear in the list of possible reasons why there is delay. Clearly, it has to be one factor, does it not?

Anthony Douglas: If I may, Mr Chairman, it is important to say that a year ago we had over 1,000 unallocated public law care cases after the significant rise. We now have just seven. Yes, caseloads are higher, but we did have a consensus with our staff and our self-employed contractors that every child deserved a service; that we would allocate all the work; and that we would do our best within the resources we have to give every child a service. That has led to more pressure, but there was an agreement that no one liked the duty systems we were bringing in temporarily. So they have reduced considerably, but the consequence is that caseloads have increased and they may continue to increase if demand increases. That is the way of the world. We have a responsibility to each child, and the vast majority of our staff are doing the best they can on the individual cases, despite average caseloads now being about 20 to 25. It is not 35, as Martha said. There are one or two workers in that position, but the average caseload is 20 to 25.

Q253 Mr Llwyd: We will come back to that point in a minute. I could ask you further questions on it, but we will leave it for the time being. A press release last year talked about the "success" of the Interim Guidance, yet the vast majority of the submissions we have had before this Committee have been very critical of the service Cafcass is currently providing. Do you accept that the current service is not acceptable in the long term?

Anthony Douglas: No. We deal with 140,000 children a year. That is about the largest number of children that any single organisation is dealing with. They split roughly 65% care cases and 35% private law cases. This is very difficult work, without overstating it, and often child protection work is not done that well by any of us in local authorities across the board; we know we need to do it better. But the service in the vast majority of cases is now on time. For example, in March, we filed something over 1,300 private law cases. 95% were filed on time and about 3% were three to five days late. I would say at four months, judged by a year ago, the time, with which the NAO and PAC were concerned, has improved considerably. We are providing a good service to the vast majority of children.

Each case is unique. I have been doing this work for over 25 years, and every case I look at, even as a chief executive, has a uniqueness and a difficulty, which again, without overstating it, needs considerable professional attention. Often, we don’t have as much time as we would like to deal with all cases, but we are fit for purpose now. That was the Government’s response to the PAC. We are in a stronger position than a few months ago. Of course, with the Family Justice Review, we are about to embark upon another transition and we will wait to see on 31 March what that is.

Q254 Mr Llwyd: You say that the service is up to scratch. We have heard a range of claims about working practices which have been quite concerning: for example, not meeting children under the age of six; interviewing people over the telephone; not visiting people’s homes. Those were brought to us by NAPO. Guardians being told not to read files or attend meetings was brought to us by the Law Society. Was this true under the Interim Guidance and is it true now? When did the service turn itself around? If these practices have been ongoing, surely there is something wrong in the system, is there not?

Anthony Douglas: The reference to phone calls is a President of the Family Division endorsed programme to triage initial private law cases by risk phone calls to applicants and, where possible, respondents. This is to get a first view of a case, a safeguarding and welfare position, in order for the first hearing at court to reach a view about whether more work needs to be done. Phone calls are not our only means of working but that is a particular programme.

We do not instruct practitioners not to visit children under six or not to carry out home visits. What we do say is that, as we are so stretched, each visit has to have a purpose. Each case has to have a clear plan of adding some value to it. Yes, there is an accountability that we simply have to exercise. This is public money. With the pressures upon us, we have to combine performance management with professional discretion. Ultimately, we have to make a judgment about whether to make a phone call or a visit, or whether to visit a child under six. After all, visiting babies and very young children is not necessarily the best way of finding out what is going on in a household. Serious case review after serious case review tells you that.

Q255 Mr Llwyd: Can I disagree with you on that, because I also have 25 years’ experience of family law? Surely, the circumstances of the home are relevant in any case in terms of protection of children.

Anthony Douglas: But in care cases that is the local authority’s responsibility. Our responsibility is to review whether that work is done properly. That will often, over the course of a year, be combined. On average, our practitioners visit three to four times. What I am saying is that we know enough about deceit amongst parents of children who are abused to know that visiting is not the whole story. You have to piece information together forensically and you have to analyse it properly. It isn’t just a question of visiting. Primarily in care cases, we are checking the work of the local authority and not substituting for it.

Q256 Chair: But a visit may be the crucial pointer as to whether there is an issue in representing the child that requires the local authority to be challenged.

Anthony Douglas: Indeed, yes. I am making the point that representing a baby is different from representing a 13-year-old, when your first point of call would be to meet and work it through with a 13-year-old.

Bruce Clark: An interesting fact from the work of London self-employed contractors in 200 is that, of the average 99 hours that they claimed for each case, five hours of that time was claimed for direct contact with children. I am not at all critical of the fact that the professional judgment of those self-employed contractors caused them to take the view that, on average, in those cases that was the amount of time they needed to spend in direct contact with children.

Q257 Mr Llwyd: Can I press you a bit about what the Law Society said? What possible reason could there be to request a guardian not to read a file?

Anthony Douglas: Reading files is quite difficult, especially since they have become electronic. What is important is to read the key documents, which are often in the court bundle and which you would read through the court process. In many cases, the guardians do visit children’s social care offices to review the whole file. We have no instruction about that. We simply say, "You have to read the crucial information to back your case analysis."

Q258 Chris Evans: I took home the Public Accounts Committee report last night and I have to say it is absolutely damning. I have read through it and it is an absolute litany of bad management. Is there any reason for Cafcass to continue? I have read things here that say eight out of 10 Cafcass areas failed an Ofsted inspection. If that was a school, the school would be placed under special measures. Can you give me any reason why you should continue?

Anthony Douglas: The research for that was in April 2010. Four of the last five Ofsted inspections have been satisfactory or good. As I have said about four months on cases, in most of the areas looked at we have made considerable improvements. The sickness of our practitioners is down, on average, from 16 days to 11 days. We have seven unallocated public law cases and over 95% of our private law cases have been filed on time. The PAC did raise some very important points. At that point we were under the most impossible pressure after the big hike in cases and all of us struggled. Local authorities struggled, the court system struggled, and it has taken us a while to get to grips with it. We are still under huge pressure, but our performance has improved, not declined, since that time.

Q259 Chris Evans: The PAC says here, "It is shocking that Cafcass has not previously collected all the information it needs to manage its workload more effectively." That problem was created by yourselves, was it not?

Anthony Douglas: Most of our data audits at the moment are showing over 95% to 97% accuracy. Within the family justice system, as I am sure the Family Justice Review panel will note, information is not that clear. Our information has been broadly acknowledged as the best there is in the system, for all its faults.

Q260 Chris Evans: You mention staff there, and we have heard from a witness earlier, Martha Cover, who said-and I think you were back there when she said it-it seems that the situation is that the top management is top-heavy. I notice there again the PAC has said, "Cafcass took far too long-until October 2008-to put in place an acceptable performance management framework and is still dealing with the legacy of under-performing staff and low morale. Cafcass acknowledged that the morale of staff was unacceptably low before 2008, and said that staff had become tired of constant change."

How confident can we be that you can put in any measures that will bring about a significant change within Cafcass?

Baroness Howarth: I am sure Anthony will answer the question about the management. I think Mr Evans is quite right to raise the position we are in now in relation to the time scale. One of the things I did want to mention briefly is the time scale. I have been in Cafcass for six years. It has been a cultural struggle. I think it is important that we acknowledge that cultural struggle.

Before that, I was a Director of Social Services. I had guardians who were in teams in social services. There is huge fantasy about the past. I chaired the All-London Panel of Guardians Ad Litem. There are real issues in all of that about where we are now, the kind of service we produce and the harping back to the "golden age" when people did different kinds of work. When I joined, we were dealing with one in six children, and the children are central to our work. We are now dealing with all children.

The issue you raise is: why has it taken so long? I think it has taken so long because you have heard witness after witness, and we have spent years trying to deal with anecdote and issue which comes from the history of the organisation rather than moving forward. There was a belief that our workers were better than all local authority workers. The Ofsted inspections showed that was not necessarily true. We have spent a lot of time with our workers bringing them up to quality standard. I think we are just on the point of change. My great hope is that the Family Justice Review doesn’t stop that stability, which I believe we now, at last, have in the organisation.

Anthony will answer the question about the staffing levels.

Anthony Douglas: If I may, because I think several questions refer to that. 91.5% of our staff are front line. 61% are family court advisers, children’s guardians, practitioners in private law cases. 4.5% are family support workers. As Martha said, they do carry out some pretty effective wishes and feelings work with children. Their backgrounds are diverse and they have sometimes 10 or 20 years working with children in different settings and sectors. 9% of our staff are front-line managers. These are service managers responsible for perhaps 10 to 12 practitioners. When I chaired the London Guardians’ Panel throughout most of the 1990s, we had one panel manager to over 120 guardians. It really is not sustainable to do without front-line management these days, both to keep standards and to support, protect and challenge staff carrying out very difficult work. 17% of our staff are front-line business support staff. They talk to people using our service.

Q261 Chair: I am afraid I am slightly puzzled by the addition of the words "front line" to each category of staff.

Anthony Douglas: They are defined by our Secretary of State. Certainly our business support staff, our first line managers as well as practitioners, are defined as front line, and we are following, of course, Cabinet Office guidelines about recruitment at the moment. They are, if you like, officially defined, and they are, front line.

Q262 Claire Perry: What percentage of your staff actually spend the majority of their time working with children?

Anthony Douglas: About 65%.

Q263 Claire Perry: So 65% are actually what we would think of as front line, as in out there actually blocking and tackling with the children.

Anthony Douglas: Yes.

Q264 Claire Perry: The remaining 35% are, therefore, effectively managers and administrators. Have you done any benchmarking to see whether that is an acceptable level of managerial support?

Anthony Douglas: We have, yes. We have made fairly draconian cuts in management and administration. We have met the Government’s one-third reduction target over the CSR period in the first year. We have reduced those costs by 33%. When we have benchmarked all of our services-finance, HR and IT-we are about the lowest in the respective family for all but our IT service. We have a particularly expensive IT contract that we are trying to make fit for purpose, but that is in common with many other organisations.

Q265 Chris Evans: But when you have the Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children calling for your abolition, don’t you think you have lost the confidence of your partner organisations? How do you get it back, if you have?

Anthony Douglas: I met the IDA last night. As ever, they made some very powerful points. This is very emotive work; it is very politicised. The Family Justice Review panel has had over 700 submissions. Everyone has a view about this. We work with very high-conflict parents and children in great vulnerability. It is no surprise that the standards we are expected to meet are high. It is a problem for us that we are not more popular, both internally and externally. Social work like this with the most vulnerable children in the country does need to have a better press. It does need to have more public support, more understanding and more popularity. We have struggled, all of us, whatever setting we work in, to achieve that degree of public confidence, and Cafcass is no different.

Q266 Ben Gummer: I just want to flesh out one thing. You say that you have cut your entire CSR projections in one year by a third.

Anthony Douglas: Our admin reduction.

Q267 Ben Gummer: While reducing your backlog of casework from 1,000 to seven.

Anthony Douglas: Yes.

Q268 Ben Gummer: What does that suggest about your management structure a year ago and currently?

Bruce Clark: What that points to is the Government’s vision that we need to do something radical in the light of the post Baby Peter increases. This financial year has given us a £10 million transformation programme, more than a third of which we have spent on additional staff. There is no point in simply spending money on staff without changing the fundamental models of work to ensure that they are sustainable, otherwise, as we have seen in the past within Cafcass, the backlogs are back within a year or so. We have to cut our suit according to our cloth permanently, not just to clear a temporary backlog only to see it return as soon as the temporary staff go away again.

Baroness Howarth: The Government also did a report which showed that we were very short of resources compared to demand. They gave us this help really to clear backlogs. One of the things we know about the throughput of work is that people manage better, and the cases are dealt with more speedily, if you don’t have backlogs. If we can clear the backlogs, which is what we have been able to do, and keep up to speed, then our staff have a better hope of giving quality work to the children.

Bruce Clark: That is where the issue of phoning parties in private law cases is so important. We have more than 40,000 new private law cases coming in every year compared to only about 9,000 care cases, but by telephoning those 80,000 parents before the first hearing, by undertaking the police and local authority checks and putting the results of that work in writing to the court and then attending the first court hearing, we are seeing reducing levels of court report ordering, but, more important than that, a much better focusing on what it is the courts want. If a wishes and feelings piece of work needs to be done directly with the child by a suitably competent family support worker rather than the traditional mass "any colour you like as long as it’s a black, full welfare report that will take six months if you are lucky", we are doing these pieces of work in eight to 10 weeks and returning them to the court on time because delay is as injurious in private law work as it is in care work.

Anthony Douglas: I should answer, if I may, Mr Gummer’s question directly, which I think, if I understood it right, implies that we may have had a lot of managers and administrators we should have lost some time ago, if we can remove them at that speed. The truth of running organisations is that you have to follow the public and political The aim clearly is to reduce management and administration, and we have cut it to what we think now is the minimum with which we can run a safe service. We have been in the position of making redundant a lot of staff who did provide very good levels of service. The question now is whether we have gone too much in the other direction.

It may sound odd if 35% of our staff are not directly seeing children and families, but we have a lot of things to do in relation to being a managed, accountable organisation that I don’t think are simply removable or, in a model that does without a managed accountability structure, easy to substitute. We have, for example, 40 cases from London being dealt with by children’s guardians in Devon and Cornwall, primarily using video-links and phone calls supplemented by visits. We have many of our areas covering pressure in other areas. We are a very peripatetic mobile service. Just as local authority care levels vary four or five times, you would be as a parent four times more likely for your child to be in care in some parts of the country than in another, so peaks and troughs go up by 100% perhaps in one area and down in another. We have to be very mobile, very peripatetic and we need certain types of staff. They do need good administrative and management cover.

Q269 Claire Perry: None of us underestimate the complexity of the work that your staff are being asked to do, but, to pick up on Mr Gummer’s point, I find it deeply depressing that you say it is in response to the public and political mood that you have finally decided to run a lean organisation. Forgive me, but none of you have any private sector experience. I have this very strong sense that this is a business process problem. You have spikes in demand in some parts of the country and capacity. This is simply a business process that, frankly, has not been managed at all effectively.

What are you doing to ensure that you can manage your resources more effectively, both for very vulnerable children but also for the taxpayer whom, frankly, I think you have failed dismally in the last 10 years in terms of the allocation of your resources? What are you going to do differently going forward?

Anthony Douglas: Fundamentally we are decentralising and devolving responsibility that did sit with national specialists to more front-line administrators. That is the biggest shift. There have been references to money. We have balanced our budget in five of the last six years. The costs of children’s lawyers in cases doubled between 2005 and 2010. We have had some harsh financial realities to get to grips with.

Q270 Chair: You are saying that the fees paid to the lawyers doubled between 2005 and 2010.

Anthony Douglas: The money spent through the Legal Services Commission on children’s lawyers doubled between 2005 and 2010. The point I am making is that, if we had had those same increases, then perhaps we would be in a different position. We have had some hikes and very supportive input from the Department for Education, but our budget has not increased by anything like that amount and yet the responsibilities and the expectations have increased. I would say from now on that we will see what the Family Justice Review says, but, fundamentally, to stay within budget we have to decentralise and devolve to local teams what were national responsibilities. You are looking at quite a sophisticated level of financial management, of the analysis of management information, and we have to train up our local administrators to be able to do that.

Q271 Chair: That sounds a bit like the Interdisciplinary Alliance’s own scheme, doesn’t it?

Claire Perry: It does.

Anthony Douglas: For me, there were lots of positives in that. I feel more positively about them perhaps than they do about us, but I think there are proposals within the submissions to the panel, and that you will have heard, that have huge merit. But I do think one of the risks, as you have identified, is that, if you have 39 stand-alone units, with the expectations these days of an accountable structure, they are very expensive.

Q272 Elizabeth Truss: I wanted to follow up and just ask whether the workload of your team is increased by failures in other parts of the public sector. If so, which ones and how is that being addressed? Also, in terms of those front-line services, how are you going to ensure accountability at a local level? Is there a possibility of working more with other services locally so that you are not duplicating admin costs and there is also a local level of accountability?

Bruce Clark: That question has two levels of answer. If you take the private law side of things, Cafcass and the family courts are the only specialist services involved because most of these children are only known to universal general services because family breakdown affects people from all situations. As I have said earlier, we are getting more than 40,000 new applications a year and, as of today, we have around 27,000 allocated private law cases. Though case durations have risen very slightly-not as much as the increase in volume of cases-that is not really a reflection of failure in any other public service organisation; nor do I think it is simple to say that this is a failure of family life either. The fact that most people who separate don’t make court applications doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take seriously as a society that 10% of separated parents who do feel they wish to make a court application.

The public law side of things is a very different one. So the number of care applications, as we have been discussing, and indeed the number of cases in the system has risen sharply in recent years. But is it a failure? Serious commentators and researchers have explained that maybe in the mid-2000s the threshold at which local authorities were bringing care applications had risen too high. Certainly, our immediate own post Baby Peter research showed that no footling irrelevant cases were being brought before the court in a panic. The cases that were being brought in the immediate wake of the Baby Peter publicity were long-term chronic neglect cases, and there were strong arguments that these cases should have been being brought before the court sooner and they should not have been kept away from the court.

We have yet to reach the point where local authorities have scraped the barrel right to the bottom and they are bringing children where the parents smack them in a supermarket or the mother gave the child a nasty look. These are really serious cases that are still coming before the courts in public law, reflecting serious problems of drug and alcohol misuse, parental mental ill-health and domestic violence.

Q273 Mr Llwyd: Can I go back to something that Mr Douglas said earlier on? He said that the ratio of people who work regularly with children to those who don’t within the organisation was 65% to 35%. What was the ratio before what was described as the draconian cull?

Anthony Douglas: It would have been about 5% more managers and administrators.

Baroness Howarth: Could I just add to that? One of the issues about managers is who is a manager and who is a supervisor. One of the Munro recommendations is that social workers should have proper supervision and that a team should be manageable through that supervisor. People can apply different names, but our team leaders are looking after about 10 people in terms of managing and developing the thinking and helping them think about their children and their business.

When I joined it was 1:50. You could say that is a better ratio in terms of management. It is a very poor ratio in terms of supervision. Those supervisors need to be seen very much as the front line because without them we can’t actually ensure quality, and it is the recommendation of anyone who looks at social work.

Q274 Elizabeth Truss: Are they doing cases themselves as well?

Bruce Clark: In the additional information I provided to the secretary a couple of weeks ago, I gave detailed information about the precise case holdings of our service managers. I am delighted to say that many of them do keep their hand in with the odd case, while others who have been more recently promoted have to finish off their caseload, particularly their children’s guardian caseload, because it is not right for the children or the courts to suddenly switch horses midstream with a guardian. To see around 280 cases substantively allocated to managers is something with which I am very content.

Q275 Mr Llwyd: Can I move on to workload? We touched upon it earlier on and Mr Clark gave us some details. Can I ask about your new "workload weighting system"? My understanding is that it is intended to encourage the movement of staff towards the median position. We have heard from NAPO and other people. We know about the earlier agreement in 2004 of 12. We are now talking about 25, if that is right, and possibly in some areas higher than that. Could you tell the Committee how this weighting system works?

Bruce Clark: The first thing to say is that the notion of 12 is a popular myth. If it would help the Committee, I can send you a copy of the 2004 Workload Agreement that is still in force. It makes no reference whatsoever to any number of cases, including 12.

The "workload weighting system" operates like this. In private law cases-that 40,000 plus cases a year that are coming in, 27,000 open at any point in time-the pre-first hearing work is worth one point and the work that is done after the first hearing, which could be just tidying up and completing the police or local authority checks, is worth half a point. We have a couple of thousand cases in that position. Then the meat of the work is where we have to do a section 7 report. That takes something between eight and 14 weeks typically, depending on how complex the report is. There are four different types of report now. That is worth two points. There is also one point for that small portion of cases where there is work to be done after the filing date.

Public law cases are heavier. Anthony explained that they consume 65% of our resources even though today they only comprise about 12,500 in number, compared to 27,000 open private law cases. The early work in care cases is absolutely critical-that first six weeks of the life of a case before the case management conference. We give that three points, so it is worth, if you like, three times as much as the one pointer in private law. The subsequent stages of the work in care cases, so between the case management conference and the issues resolution hearing and then again between the issues resolution hearing and the final hearing, are worth two points each.

A typical care case during the course of its life will accrue eight points, and if it is an unusually long case more, whereas a private law case will either accrue just a single point because it is dealt with at the first hearing and there is no further work for Cafcass or, typically, three points if it goes on to post-first hearing work. Our practitioners are made up of people who specialise primarily in private or primarily in public law working as children’s guardians. We have a few hundred people who are what we call "hybrid". They have a mixed caseload of both law types.

It was essential to create weightings for the range of different types of caseload that our staff carry: our 1,250 practitioners within that system. What we have done to build confidence amongst our union colleagues is to make that information fully available all the time about every member of staff and their caseload to the full-time union representatives that they have nominated. They can look at exactly the same management information as the individual line managers can. Also, we have a mailbox for anyone with comments or queries. That is also accessible to the union reps. We are meeting every two months across the course of the next six months to work out whether the joint ambition that we have, which is to stop people overworking or underworking but to move to that central position, is being achieved. But it is not a number of cases and it isn’t even a number of points, even though the median is around 35.

We are creating a range either side of that middle position. Individual workers have cases of particular types of complexity that shift; so crude numbers is not the way to deal with this. You need to be supervised by your manager every six weeks and to discuss what work is coming to an end, what capacity might be emerging to take on new work and what the nature of the work that you are doing is to really have a focus on the casework for children.

Q276 Mr Llwyd: But we have received evidence to the effect that the current median may be too high. Do you agree with that?

Bruce Clark: I think that will be something we need to explore across the course of the six-month trial. It is possible, but I don’t think so.

Q277 Mr Llwyd: Could you assure the Committee that, in every instance where cases are assigned to a manager, the manager is working on those cases?

Anthony Douglas: No. As Bruce said, managers will hold cases if they have been practitioners and promoted for a very short period or in transition. It is not realistic for managers to hold cases over the duration of a case. Sometimes, as Bruce said, you get more in touch with front-line work if you take one or two cases, particularly if you are trying to demonstrate a particular way of working, but it is not sustainable.

Q278 Mr Llwyd: May I ask you about your target that 97% of cases should be allocated at any one time and that public law cases should be allocated within 45 days? Should that target be allocated to someone who has fewer than 20 cases?

Anthony Douglas: That is a target that is set in our remit letter by the Secretary of State. We are on course to meet it this year despite the pressures. From next year it will be continuous, so we will have to be performing at that level all the time. The reason we have put in a new operating manual is to change working practices in order to keep at that level of performance because 20 to 25 cases is really about the limit of what someone should be carrying. If work increases and we are committed to hitting that target, the variable we have is what people do on those cases and that is why we have introduced the manual. We are consulting on it to begin to distinguish more between the cases that need our attention more. I believe that is what will also come out of the Family Justice Review.

Q279 Claire Perry: I wanted to press a little bit on the question of qualifications for social workers. One of the many strands of evidence we have taken relating to legal aid has focused on the very high cost of expert witnesses and the fact that the courts are relying more on experts and less on social workers, partly because there seems to be evidence, as we heard in the last session, that experienced social workers are leaving the profession. I confess I am concerned that you are now hiring basically social workers with far less qualifications, although I understand your logic for doing so, who may not be able to assess some of these incredibly complicated cases. Yet you are relying less on self-employed social workers and more on much more expensive agency workers. Could you help us understand why you are making some of these decisions?

Anthony Douglas: It is important to say that we only have 10 newly qualified social workers out of 1,730 full-time equivalent staff. I am a member of the Social Work Reform Board. We do have to play our part in the training of new social workers, but those 10 will not hold a care case for their first three years. For the first year, they carry out some private law work under close supervision. For the second year, they are seconded to a local authority for child protection experience. They won’t be children’s guardians for three years.

The average post-qualification experience when practitioners come to us is still around seven to eight years. Even though we have a qualification timing of three years post-qualifying, mostly, people are much more experienced. I would say that, while many experienced staff have the benefits of that experience, I would not underestimate the abilities of the newer staff that have been trained in more modern methods to the degree course especially in the last few years. We are certainly seeing an improvement in standards coming through. I am also very pleased that more people are applying to social work courses than ever before to reverse what was becoming a profession in danger of not enough people coming into it. The average age is standing up quite well. The average quality people come in with is good.

For experts, there is general agreement that there are far too many and they are the biggest cause of delay at the moment in cases. Certainly, complex cases do sometimes need radiological experts and paediatric assistance, if miscarriages of justice are to be avoided.

Bruce Clark: I would also draw the Committee’s attention to the additional information that we have provided to show how much post-appointment experience our family court advisers have. As you can see, very few of them have only three or five years. They have a lot of experience before they join us, and they stay for a long time and get more experience.

Q280 Ben Gummer: Lady Howarth, you have a long career in consumer protection organisations beyond your work in social work. Can you tell me, in your mind who is the consumer for Cafcass?

Baroness Howarth: The child is the consumer for Cafcass, but that is a simplistic answer. We have many stakeholders. The child or the young person must be our key focus because that is, if you like, our legislative remit. But you can’t work with a child unless you understand and are working also with the child’s family-I don’t have to say that; you all know that-and a number of other stakeholders. If we don’t have a good relationship, say, with our judiciary, then our capacity to give that quality service to the child and their family is lost. We have a number of consumers.

Q281 Ben Gummer: I agree with your answer. The consumer primarily is the child. With your long and distinguished career in consumer protection, how do you react therefore to the comment of the Children’s Rights Director when discussing his conversations with children? He says, if they haven’t mentioned it, "‘Have you discussed this with your guardian?’ More often than not they will ask me, ‘Who is that?’ If I name the guardian, if we are lucky enough to have a guardian by then in a case, they will say to me, ‘I think maybe I saw them once’, or, ‘I haven’t ever seen them.’" How do you react to that?

Baroness Howarth: I react with disappointment but I don’t think it is a generalisation. I think it is a pity that the Children’s Rights Director is not talking to us about some of these issues and, where he has information, talking to us about how we could improve our performance. We would want to follow through any criticism of this kind.

We do have our own Children’s Board, as you know, so we involve children. A young person joins the board at every meeting and is able to address the board on issues. They have a mentoring service of their own. They can draw issues to the board’s attention if they believe there are issues. We think we have some mechanisms, although they are not perfect. Just as Roger Morgan, another Children’s Rights person, often hears that children don’t see enough of their social workers, I am sure that is true of ours.

In a wonderful world where resources were ever-flowing and we had more qualified social workers, of course we would like young people to see more of their social worker. I personally would like young people to be able to see more of social workers-their local authority social workers and maybe our workers-but we have to stay within our remit.

Q282 Ben Gummer: But, Lady Howarth, if you will forgive me, you have just given me a boiler-plate response that, "If we had more money and more social workers this would be possible." I am asking you about the focus of the organisation apropos the discussions we had earlier about staffing.

May I put to you someone else? I t is not just the Children’s Rights Director. Jonathan Ewen of Barnardo’s said, " You can actually go through a social work course and do practically nothing on the needs of very young children, the importance of attachment and early stability. So it is a much wider problem but this is one ingrained within Cafcass."

Again, as someone with a consumer rights background, how do you react to that statement about your organisation?

Baroness Howarth: We are child focused. You have to accept that within our remit the child is always the centre of our work, always the centre of the case, always the centre of concern. What we have to make sure is that we give a service to every child. One of the concerns I had in the very early days was that we had a Rolls-Royce service for some children, where they were being seen very regularly and where reports were written of up to 40 pages, where the local authority’s work was being rehashed, and we had hundreds of other children who were never seen. In business terms, that was no good for the children because you have to give some sort of service to children. Just as local authorities have to ration, we too have to ration. What I am saying is that we may not want to do that in another world, but that is the reality of the world that we have to work in. I know Anthony wants to come in.

Q283 Ben Gummer: Can I just continue on this line quickly? It is very easy to give a response and to say, "We are a child-focused organisation", but the nature of your answers about a Children’s Board and a child reporting to the board, and then in your written evidence a draft operating manual, suggests that you are a process-focused organisation and not a child-focused organisation. My problem with your response is that none of you seem to grasp the gravity of the accusations put to you. Given the fact that Women’s Aid and, amongst others, the FLBA, Nagalro, Great Ormond Street Hospital, Adoption UK and all of these stakeholders of whom you have spoken in general think your organisation is not child focused, you have given a response that somehow in the process you are.

Baroness Howarth: Anthony wants to come in, but I heard the Chairman talk about the need for a system. Bureaucracies are not always negative; they have to exist. Any organisation has to have a system to function. When the organisation was set up, it had no systems whatsoever, nil, and no compliance. That meant that children did not get a service. Our focus has been to build an organisation that works so that children get a quality service. It is just about beginning to come to fruition.

Anthony Douglas: I wanted to acknowledge some of that because the Interdisciplinary Alliance, when I met them last night, did talk about our operating manual as being too process based. Looking at it again, it probably has slipped too much into that and needs to be partially redrafted to be much more focused on how children’s guardians are going to be able, under pressure, to stay in touch better with children throughout the course of the case. Practitioners under this degree of pressure do tell me that they are sometimes not able to see a particular child for too long in between contacts or visits. It is a genuine problem. One of the shifts we have to make is to find ways, despite all the other pressures and priorities we have, to do that.

Q284 Ben Gummer: I admire your candour and the fact that you are willing to accept criticism, but it worries me, given the fact that you are a relatively new top management team, how you have not come to that conclusion yourself and that we are only getting here after the most extraordinarily strong criticism from the Interdisciplinary Alliance.

Anthony Douglas: We have always had some degree of criticism, and it shifts. At the time that we had 1,000 unallocated cases the main criticism was about delay. Now we have done much better on that, this is the main criticism. The two are linked in that, if you absorb that much more work in a short period, then some of the ways you were able to work before just aren’t possible any more.

I would say that some of the young people I speak to need a guardian a lot more than others. Also, many do have a lot of people around them. Some children are still terrifyingly isolated, but one of the advantages of the services that have built up over the last 15 to 20 years, far more than when I was a practising social worker, is that there are other people supporting children. Our staff have to come to a view about what value they can add to that process. Sometimes they are the child’s sole voice, but in other cases there are other people speaking up for children and the role is less crucial. The role differs from case to case. It may well be that, if you are a young person who has 11 or 12 advisers of different types, the guardian may not stand out relative to other people. You may be particularly close to your social worker, to your foster carer or to an adviser for a specific purpose. What is important is that young people have someone to stick up for them and represent them.

Q285 Ben Gummer: If we take all of your comments and assume that you are correct that in the course of time you will be able to remedy many of the problems that you have in the organisation. Lady Howarth, could I ask you, therefore, as Chairman of the organisation, what target you have given to your executive officers about the point at which you feel that the kind of complaints put by the Interdisciplinary Alliance, Barnardo’s and others about the child centricity of the organisation should be remedied?

Baroness Howarth: What was the last word, sorry?

Ben Gummer: When will those complaints be answered? If I can phrase it differently, Mr Douglas, you said earlier that it was a great concern to you that the organisation was held in such little repute by people in the profession. That clearly is a concern. At what point will that image be reversed?

Chair: How long have you set yourselves to reverse it?

Baroness Howarth: I believe we will always come under criticism. We are an organisation that deals with family conflict. Every one of our 145,000 cases is a conflict case. In the majority of them, if not all of them, someone will not be satisfied. That someone will have another stakeholder to whom they will complain. We will either be under pressure from Fathers 4 Justice or from the Government for not meeting our targets in terms of allocation, or we will be under pressure because of caseloads. What we have to do is to continually try and balance all of this, keeping for ever-and I am just delighted, Mr Gummer, that you are taking this position-in mind that the children are central to our service.

It is not always easy. I have discussed this with our Minister from time to time. But sometimes I am concerned about the pressure we put our staff under and whether or not we can achieve the quality level we are now looking for while we are dealing with the quantity we have.

When I walked into this organisation, it was chaos. There were no systems. Half the children were not being seen. There was no managerial structure. The local teams all behaved idiosyncratically and in their own way. There was no business model. To say we were a business-there was not a business model. That is what we have been trying to put together. Only if you have a decent organisation can you deliver quality to children. As you know from my background, I am absolutely committed to quality for children.

My great anxiety now is that having just reached some sort of stability-and we will still be criticised because we can’t please everybody with an organisation that deals with what we deal with-that stability will be destabilised through the Family Justice Review. Our job is to try and keep that stability and to meet our critics.

One of the things we are just about to do is to reinstate a meeting that we haven’t had because of the pressure, which is our stakeholder meeting. We invite people, as on your list, to come and talk to us again. We used to have them and we got into a good position with the fathers’ groups and those activists. We need to have people in to say, "You tell us where you are seeing things that we might not be seeing"-I am not saying we are perfect-"so that we can pull it into the organisation." We have just arranged for a stakeholder meeting to be put together so that we can hear again, afresh, what the criticisms are. I don’t think we are going to stop people criticising us, but we can at least be open to hearing what is being said and try and do what we can for the children.

Q286 Ben Gummer: You might find that progress. I have to say that I find it deeply worrying that you have only just begun that process. These are baby, baby steps.

Anthony Douglas: There is one rider because I think we are in danger of conflating the public disputes with what goes on day to day on the ground between professionals. There was a question about whether we could work better with other agencies. Our practitioners, with children’s solicitors, often specialists, sometimes experts and with judges, do in the vast majority of cases collaborate effectively, working, as Valerie said, with sometimes extremely troubled and difficult people going through great pain themselves. We do work highly effectively together. That is what matters most: what is going on now at four minutes past 12 in all of our different services around the country. There is a gap between the public revolving door dispute about all of this in the family justice system and actually what goes on, on the ground, in individual cases.

I am always heartened by very effective and, I would say, increasingly effective joint working, particularly between judges and our practitioners. I think judges would say that. In their feedback over the last year they have said that the Interim Guidance has helped to structure the work better and of course there are fewer delays. But at the public, political and reputational level we still have a problem.

Q287 Chris Evans: Like Mr Gummer, I was seriously worried by your response, Lady Howarth. I don’t think you are facing up to the seriousness of this. This is not a mountain of complaints coming in, "I’m just not having the right service", as it would be in a bank. These are organisations that have worked with you. The Association of Lawyers for Children, Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Grandparents’ Association, Women’s Aid and the Family Law Bar Association are all calling for your abolition. I have not seen anything this morning to make me think that you are facing up to that at all. How are you going to address these organisations that have worked with you for years, who plainly do not think you are up to the job? What are you going to do about them? That is the essential question you have to ask yourself.

Baroness Howarth: It is not comfortable. There are moments when one wonders why one does it. It is certainly not for any reason except the belief that you might be able to bring some stability in an organisation and quality for children. Over the last 18 months we have been struggling with a crisis, and there has been a crisis. Baby P set us in front of an avalanche-there is no other way to describe it-of cases which we had to get control of if we were going to deliver a service to the children. I think we neglected our stakeholders-

Q288 Chair: Can I stop you there? I am sorry to interrupt you, but the evidence we had earlier from Mr Clark suggested that the popular impression that there was an avalanche of cases that probably should never have come to court was not what happened.

Baroness Howarth: Yes, we did.

Bruce Clark: They were cases that should have come to court and are now back in court.

Chair: But it was still an avalanche.

Baroness Howarth: There was a vast increase, yes.

Q289 Chair: So there was a very large number of cases not coming into court before Baby P that should have come to court.

Bruce Clark: Yes. In the second half of 2008-09 there were 50% more cases than in the first half of the year. The year as a whole was fairly unremarkable, but they were all weighted into the period after the coverage of the Baby Peter case.

Baroness Howarth: And then they stick in the system.

Bruce Clark: Then they rose a further 35% and this year a further 3%. The case durations get longer and longer.

Baroness Howarth: The lesson for us is that we need to get back to talking to our stakeholders more closely, which is something we did a lot of and we do some of now, but in terms of use of time we have been really concentrating on getting the service for the children.

Q290 Claire Perry: Is this document effectively your response to the criticism? This is your draft operating manual. Look, I have an MBA and I find this almost incomprehensible. I don’t know what it is that you are focusing on. I have seen some business flowcharts at the back that, if I was a manager, I would find absolutely impossible to follow. I don’t think I would know from this document what it is you wanted me to do as a staff member. I see the word "proportionate" appearing dozens of times throughout the manual, suggesting that what you are most concerned about is clearing this backlog and making sure you don’t spend a penny extra in providing a service that may not be proportionate to the case. Honestly, I have to agree with Mr Evans. I don’t think this reflects in any way the situation that you are facing and the steps that you are taking. I think this is an incredibly process-heavy piece of bumph that all your staff will put in their drawers and completely ignore.

If I might just say, I am just reading your guidance for your service managers where you suggest they have to be good in 20 thematic areas in order to carry out proportionate service management. That is a terrible job description for people who, effectively, as you said yourselves, are supporting the front-line services in extremely difficult situations. How do we know what is important, given this?

Baroness Howarth: We accept your criticism absolutely. In fact, I have been talking to Anthony today about whether or not we should have put this out at this stage. The thing is that we want our staff to be able to add their perspective to it. In getting it into the wider remit, what I think we have missed is the trick of all the material about the direct work with children which will go into it. We were talking today about: maybe we should have put that in before it got more widely circulated. But we wanted our staff to have a first draft of a document on which they could then come back and say, "These are the areas we would like to add to."

We would be delighted to have your feedback, Ms Perry. I think any of that would be of value to us.

Q291 Claire Perry: I just think you have completely crowded out common sense and judgment if you are attempting to do this, which is indeed one of the things for which your service is heavily criticised. I feel that relying on process is not going to get you out of this problem. Even if we get rid of the backlog in technical terms, we are still lacking in confidence that the best possible service will be provided for our children.

Baroness Howarth: We need more about the practice.

Anthony Douglas: I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The responses to it have been mixed; they always are. Many of our staff do appreciate greater role clarity. In a really high-volume service of 140,000 children, you do have to have systems and processes, otherwise you just don’t function properly. As Valerie said, we do need to humanise it in a redraft, for want of a better word.

To give an example of some of what it is trying to address, we think that, in the Family Justice Review future, the court social work service that we are doing is seen as valuable, but it will have to continue to respond to this incredibly high level of cases. One of the areas we are focusing on next year is to write more analytically, more as expert witnesses, and to train practitioners to do that more. Sometimes they still write quite long reports, fearing that under cross-examination they will be criticised for not seeing a mother or a father enough. What we have to do in each of these cases is to understand the needs, wishes and feelings of an individual child quickly and to advise a court as quickly as possible about what should happen. That does need some process behind it in order to be effective across that high volume of cases. We clearly missed out some of the child-focused work, at least visibly, although we don’t tell people not to visit children and we don’t tell them not to do this or that. They do have to work to professional standards; all social workers do.

Q292 Chair: For the record, the Government has responded to the Public Accounts Committee report. What it has done in its response is to agree with every single recommendation but disagreed with the conclusion that Cafcass as an organisation is not fit for purpose. Is your position in both respects the same as the Government’s?

Anthony Douglas: Identical.

Q293 Chair: Identical; thank you for clarifying that. Thank you very much for giving us candid evidence this morning. We much appreciate it. In due course we will be reporting not this time purely on Cafcass, as our predecessor Committee did, but on a much broader range of issues raised in family law. Thank you very much indeed.

Baroness Howarth: We are grateful for being invited, thank you.

Anthony Douglas: Thank you very much.

Chair: Thank you.