Cafcass's response to incerased demand for its services - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)

David Bell, Permanent Secretary, Department of Education and Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive, CAFCASS, gave evidence.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Q1   Chair: Right, welcome. We're a bit chaotic; this is the second day back. Welcome to David Bell and Anthony Douglas. Thank you for coming to see us. Now, David, if I can turn to you first. I think we all understand the impact of the Baby Peter case. I think we can take that as a given, but on reading this report, there is a whole range of performance measures where CAFCASS have been failing. To take a few, not just in the non-allocation of cases, where, at its worst, there were children subject to care proceedings for 40 days on average—so goodness knows what the worst case in that was. If you look at the timeliness of the reports to the courts, there is a figure there that 37% were late and nearly a third of those were over 11 working days late. If you look at staff sickness and staff morale issues, they are dreadful. If you look at the inaccuracy of data, it is shocking—27% of the data in one area, South, was inaccurate. One in five of the areas had not submitted a business plan four months into the financial year. If you look at the Ofsted inspections, eight out of 10 failed; it was not just that they were on the "okay/adequate" line, they had actually failed. If you look at overspending, they spent more than their budget consistently; we have had to bail them out. All that reads to me as—it is one of the most shocking reports that I have read—of an organisation that is not fit for purpose; and you are responsible for it.

David Bell: I wouldn't dispute those facts that you have laid out because they were in the report, but I would want to say two or three things by way of introduction. First of all, CAFCASS was subject to a massive change after a damning Select Committee Report in 2003, and it was almost unprecedented to have the whole board removed. That actually illustrated the depths of difficulty that CAFCASS faced. From that period onwards, there was a very significant programme of change and improvement; and it was moving forward—it wasn't moving perhaps as fast as we would've wanted—but I think as you have acknowledged, and the report acknowledges, it was then significantly blown off course by the events of 2008. Now, I don't sit here and make excuses for what then happened, but it was, to use the words of the report, "unprecedented".

What we then did, what CAFCASS did, was to try to react and respond. In all the areas that you have described, I think we now see improvements—whether it's on the sickness absence, where the figures for the period that we have just gone through are substantially down from where they were previously; whether it's to do with the improvements on the back of the Ofsted "inadequate" judgments that you've pointed out; whether it's on the business planning; whether it's on the data—all of these we have seen improvement. In fact, from the Department's point of view, we ourselves took action through the Accounting Officer's review that I commissioned in 2009.

One of the features of that report, I think, was the recognition that while there were improvements that CAFCASS had to make itself in relation to its own operating procedures and so on, it was also under very significant pressure because of the other demands after Baby P, and that's why we had to put in extra money. So I think we have been very clear throughout the process on the pressures that CAFCASS has been under, the areas of underperformance, and we have sought, with CAFCASS, to bring about improvement. Now, we're not where we need to be yet, but with all of those measures that you described, I think we can point to improvements and, perhaps, as this hearing goes on, we can say more about that.

Q2   Chair: I just want to come back to you because this organisation has now been in being, I can't remember—2001.

Mr Bacon: Eight years.

Chair: Eight years.

Mr Bacon: Nine years.

Chair: I remember when I had responsibility for it that we tried to completely reconfigure it; you had a 2003 report, which was damning, we are now 2009, and we all accept that, okay, Baby P created an increase in demands for children to go into care, but I cannot—and I don't think any of us who read this report can—accept that that was the sole reason for every indicator. Find me one indicator which demonstrates that CAFCASS is providing an efficient, effective, value­for­money service to the courts, to you as the commissioning Department, to the public and to the taxpayer. There is not one indicator. You can come here and say, "Of course, since they did the report, it's all got a bit better", but actually this is eight years of failure to perform.

David Bell: There are key performance indicators that the Department sets for CAFCASS that we can point to in relation to improvement and allocation of cases and so on, which we will come to, but, Madam Chair, on the point regarding 2008, I am not sitting here and saying that it was all the result of the new pressures that hit us in the aftermath of 2008. For example, I don't think anyone could argue that staff morale and sickness levels in CAFCASS were at an acceptable level prior to 2008; I'm certainly not arguing that at all. We are simply trying to understand in a sense the magnifying effect that 2008 had on some of those pressures that CAFCASS was facing. Of course, it meant that the progress that CAFCASS was making was knocked sideways and, in some cases, put back as a result of 2008. So I am not under any illusions about what was happening.

Q3   Chair: Were the Ofsted inspections post-2008? No.

David Bell: Indeed, that it is what I am saying. In fact, the five areas which have now had a revisit or re-inspection by Ofsted have moved from "inadequate" to "satisfactory", so we have seen these failures or problems highlighted, and since those Ofsted inspections have taken place, we have seen improvement. I just want to make one more comment before Mr Douglas might want to comment on the performance indicators. I think the system, which CAFCASS is a part of, is recognisably under strain. For that reason, the previous Administration—and it's been maintained by the current Administration—have a review under way and in progress of the family justice system. Now, we don't know what the outcome of that review will bring and I can't obviously pre-empt it, but I think that in itself was a recognition that we have a system—not just CAFCASS, but we have a system—that is under pressure and hence this review which will report at some stage next year.

Q4   Chair: We will come back because I think CAFCASS has been helped by the system. But if I look at paragraph 22, page 9, that seems to suggest that the problems were there and that what happened with the Baby Peter case was that it simply was the last straw. It was the last straw and it ended up in complete chaos. I think blaming it on that—trying to say that this is all resulted from an increased workload; it was all there before, so maybe we should have had this report in 2008 before Baby Peter. I am not sure the report would have been any better before 2009, when there was the publicity.

David Bell: November 2008, yes.

Chair: That was when the case went into the public domain. If we'd had a report from the National Audit Office mid-2009, I think we would be sitting here saying more or less the same things.

David Bell: I think in relation to staff morale, organisational cohesiveness and so on, that was part of what was being dealt with, worked on, and Anthony might say more about that in a moment. I think as the first recommendation of the NAO report points out, and, in a sense, as my Accounting Officer report pointed out in 2009, there was clearly a change fatigue in the organisation which was manifesting itself in negative attitude; it was manifesting itself in sickness absences, as you have pointed out, and it has taken time to bring about those sorts of changes. There have been a very large number of performance disciplinary cases against staff to take action where performance is poor. The sickness absence has been improved.

Q5   Chair: We want to deal with the staffing issues separately. I just want to come back to my very first question. CAFCASS is your organisation. Is it fit for purpose?

David Bell: Yes, it is. It is, Madam Chair, fit for purpose, but we recognise—and I think the previous Government recognised and current Government recognised by maintaining the family justice review—that the system is under pressure, and it's not just as a result of the immediate aftermath of Baby P. The kinds of numbers of cases that are coming into the system are maintaining at a very high level. For that reason, CAFCASS is doing the best job it can in these circumstances, but I think we do have to look into the future to see what the system will be like in the future.

Q6   Chair: Are you saying that in a time of financial constraints the only way that you can make an effective, efficient, value­for­money organisation is by giving it more money?

David Bell: No, and in fact actually if you looked—the NAO report touches on this—the Accounting Officer report of 2009 highlighted that there were a number of productivity improvements to be made, a number of business process improvements to be made, dealing with sickness absence and dealing with poor performance. All of those are about making better use of the people that you've got. We are under no illusions about the spending review that we are about to enter; we cannot make assumptions about the CAFCASS budget expanding massively. We have of course, as you know, put extra money in to address some of the demand pressures since 2008, and the Department has also put in an additional £10 million to assist the change and transformation programme.

Q7   Chair: I'm going to let other people come in. I'm just going to say one other thing to you before I go to Anthony Douglas. If you look at page 18, the two figures there, it's just gobsmacking, honestly, to find that CAFCASS was not even collecting the data before April 2009 either on care cases or private cases. It's gobsmacking. Whatever happened to workloads or caseloads, they didn't even know. That's the sort of thing that makes me think, if you are running an organisation, and your organisation is about dealing with cases, and you are not even collecting the ruddy stats, how on earth can you know? What have you got to say about that?

David Bell: Well, we have detail about aspects of what CAFCASS is doing; but again I think we absolutely recognise that not in every case or against every measure was the data complete. That's why we have agreed with CAFCASS to set up performance measures which are referred to in the report to provide that data. So the data was incomplete. There is no denial of that.

Q8   Chair: It was not just incomplete; it was outrageously awful. You didn't know how many care cases you were having. You didn't know many private cases. If you had known—there is another trend graph somewhere—you would have seen that the trend was upwards, Baby P or not.

David Bell: Madam Chair, we did know in a sense. We expected the growth to be on a fairly even trajectory. We knew that in the aftermath of any major case you would get about a 3% or 4% increase. What we didn't anticipate, of course, was what was coming. Madam Chair, if you are happy, perhaps Mr Douglas might want to deal with specific points about the data that you have just raised there.

Chair: We will in a minute, but Stephen come in; you were just going to say something.

Q9   Stephen Barclay: Paragraph 1.13 backs that up—does it not?—where it says, "Poor data validity compromised the usefulness of some of the performance indicators".

David Bell: I'm sorry, Mr Barclay, I didn't catch the latter point of the question.

Stephen Barclay: Page 15, paragraph 1.13, "Poor data validity compromised the usefulness of some of the performance indicators".

David Bell: Yes.

Stephen Barclay: And indeed the Department's performance indicators seem to be changing year on year as well.

David Bell: On the first point, we accept that, and in fact again I can point to improvements in data quality, given the reference in the report to improvements in data quality in certain areas. In relation to the key performance indicators, I think one of the issues that arose from our Accounting Officer's report and before was trying to get the right measures to be able to tell us what we really needed to know. So we've now got these seven key performance indicators, which are designed to give us exactly the kind of information that we require. Behind that, of course—that is the Department's key performance indicators and measures for CAFCASS—will be other data that CAFCASS itself will hold, but these are the headline measures which are our KPIs.

Q10   Stephen Barclay: This year, you have got seven performance indicators; last year, you had four; the year before, you had eight—so it's a moving feast. Can I come back to another comment that you just made? You said things are rosier now because there is improvement on the sickness front. Do we actually have enough data in order to make that conclusion? Is it possible that those improvements are seasonal?

David Bell: Could I ask Mr Douglas? I can answer the data numbers, but for your specific question, if the Chair agrees, perhaps Mr Douglas can touch on that one.

Anthony Douglas: Yes, on sickness, our current data is 7.7%; that is seasonally adjusted. It's 2% below the public sector average, and the number of days by our practitioners, which is the most important measure, has come down from 16 to 13 days.

Q11   Chair: That's not—that's way above the public sector average, way above.

Anthony Douglas: For Children's Services, which is notoriously higher because of some of the stresses of the role.

Q12   Chair: Can we have help from the NAO? Do we know what public sector averages are? Do you know either of you? I think it's something like five days a year and private sector is about two or three.

Angela Hands: It's just under 10—9.7.

Anthony Douglas: And we're at 7.7 at the moment.

Stephen Barclay: In the family courts?

Angela Hands: No, that's a public sector average.

Q13   Stephen Barclay: And that's for what period of time?

Anthony Douglas: That's our current snapshot at August. Most of the figures that I'll be giving you are from last August to this August, so they will be up to date, compared to a year ago. So there won't be any seasonal adjustment. We have done a lot of work particularly to crack down on long-term sickness, which was the age-related problem. But 35% of our sickness is stress, anxiety and depression. The rest is necks, backs, and other—cancers—that affect a working group whose average age is above 50, but the primary one to get a grip of is stress-related, and particularly related to the pressures of front-line work.

Q14   Stephen Barclay: Sure, and are these pressures not going to increase post-September, when the President's Guidance is removed and in certain localised areas the scope to use the duty allocation drops away?

Anthony Douglas: We've worked very hard to get a replacement for the President's Interim Guidance, and I am confident that before the end of September we will jointly announce an extension of local schemes. So the current local agreements—we have 42 around the country—will continue for a further year in all likelihood, so the impact of the family justice review and the comprehensive spending review can be properly taken into account. So we do need another transitional year, and I am confident that the progress we have made will be consolidated into a new set of agreements.

Q15   Chair: That is pretty shocking in itself, because the concerns expressed by the president, as I understand it, of the risks involved with the interim procedures and guidance will therefore continue to the detriment to children for a further year, because you're still in a mess.

Anthony Douglas: Well, all our indicators are in the right direction, apart from the stocks and flows in the public law system. We have now 150 unallocated public law cases; it was a 1,000 a year ago now. That is 150 too many, but the guidance has helped in both public and private law to help the system get a greater grip of a record increase in demand.

Q16   Chair: The average time for private law cases—the average—is now 58 weeks, which is over a third increase in the length of time. So you allocate them; you have too big a workload; and you don't get on with the work. So, from the point of view of the kids, that is an average—over a year in the life of a child on average, before you have provided the reports that will start enabling the courts to take a decision on the child's future. That's dreadful.

Anthony Douglas: But the context of that is this time scale reflects the residual group of the most complicated and intractable private law cases.

Chair: No, it's an average. The average is 58 weeks. Some will be undoubtedly three or four years.

Anthony Douglas: But the President's Guidance has restricted the number of reports we write very successfully. The cases that we are left with are the most complicated and the work goes on over about a year, as it does in a public law case, culminating in a report. These are not simple cases to report.

Chair: I'm sorry Mr Douglas; it's an average, an average of 58 weeks. That means your most complicated must be three or four years. It's an average, which is an outrageous time. Not every case is complicated; some will be, and if you had said to me, "We've got 20 up there at a high level", fine. This is an average and it's a 33% increase.

Anthony Douglas: What I could say, Madam Chairman, is this year we do have, through the President's Guidance, four different types of work in private law cases. We have seen the timescales drop considerably since we've been narrowing the issues on cases with judges, and we're trying to do the same now in public law cases. So the President's Guidance, which was Stephen Barclay's original point, has made a positive difference.

Q17   Stephen Barclay: It was only a temporary measure though, wasn't it?

Anthony Douglas: It was, and it will be extended as another temporary measure. We do need permanent, sustainable measures in the family justice system.

Q18   Stephen Barclay: If you go to figure 8, if you want to go on that line, you see the brown line going up to a record high in June; so duty allocation is at a historic record high, which correlates with the green line going down, which suggests that the way the numbers are being managed is by using the duty allocation. One of the problems with that is that people—the guardians—are making a judgment just on a paper reading of the file, and then when someone actually looks at it in detail, they're often giving different judgments, which is one of the problems the courts are facing, is it not?

Anthony Douglas: The major shift in the figures over the last year, particularly in the last few months, is that duty allocations have stayed the same at around 1,000. Substantive allocations to children's guardians have come down from waiting 40 days on average, which is far too high, to 27. The numbers of unallocated cases have gone down. So we've seen an increase in allocated work and a decrease in unallocated work, with duty work remaining much the same. It is really only now a feature in London, which has half of the duty cases, and South Yorkshire, where the leading judges in South Yorkshire are very fond of that system and it works very well, but in the bulk of the country we're ending the majority of duty systems and replacing them with permanent allocations.

Q19   Stephen Barclay: You're saying, in essence, "We're putting things in place. It's going to be okay moving forward." Could I just take you back to what you said in the past? On 18 October 2005, when you launched your consultation paper, "Every Day Matters", you were saying then, and this was a year into your tenure as a CEO, "Every child referred to CAFCASS through the family courts will have a social-work qualified practitioner allocated to their case within two days". Has that ever happened?

Anthony Douglas: Yes, as Madam Chairman said, in 2004 we had an organisation with record numbers of unallocated cases. We had to put an organisation together; we had to retrofit an organisation. For the first few years—it's a long time ago—but certainly we had to put an infrastructure together and it did take us two to three years. By 2006, we had no unallocated public law cases.[1]

1   Note by Witness: I should have said that it was by 2008 that we had very few unallocated public law cases. In May 2008, 98.8% of all public law cases were allocated. During the same period the allocation for section 31 care and supervision cases were: 79.0% allocated within two days; 94.6% allocated within seven days; and 98.5% allocated within 28 days. Back

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