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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 20-39)

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

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Q20   Chair: Were you allocating within two days in 2006?

Anthony Douglas: In all but a tiny minority of cases.

Q21   Stephen Barclay: Can I just comment on that because Community Care reports that between April 2005 and February 2006 in London only 15.2% of cases were allocated within two days. You are giving the impression that this isn't really a problem.

Anthony Douglas: Well, I'm trying not to generalise from London. We had a particular problem with London just through volumes and we still do. It's where a disproportionate amount of our work comes from; but in the bulk of the country, we had cracked all of those difficulties until 2008.

Q22   Stephen Barclay: What I'm driving at is that in 2003 we had the report, which is referred to on page 16 paragraph 1.14, where there was an enquiry by the Committee of the Lord Chancellor's Department which criticised CAFCASS for its lack of forecasting. You are quoted in the media in 2005-2006 saying this is your key priority; you're taking personal control; and every child is going to have access within two days. Yet, when I speak to the magistrates courts, they say there is a serious problem with unallocated cases; we've had a temporary solution with the duty allocation; and we're having, in the magistrates courts, children removed from their families under temporary orders, removed from their families with no guardian to represent their interests, and this is six years after you took over.

Anthony Douglas: The situation now is that of the 150 cases that are not allocated and the 1,000 that are duty allocated there is work going on on those cases until the allocation, on average, on the 27th day.

Q23   Stephen Barclay: When you say "allocated", because you're putting great stress on "allocated", does that mean work has started, work is happening, or does it mean that it has just been given a name?

Anthony Douglas: It varies from case to case; but in each case, we operate a triage system.

Q24   Stephen Barclay: So, when you say 'allocated', it doesn't mean actually any work is happening?

Anthony Douglas: Well, it means that the case is triaged for priority.

Q25   Stephen Barclay: Is that a yes or no? Does it mean, in all cases, you have allocated them? This is a very material issue; this is a magistrates court hearing to remove a child from their parents, whether a guardian has done any work on that. You are saying that it is fine because in only 150 cases has it not been allocated. Are you saying when it has been allocated work has happened or not in all cases?

Anthony Douglas: Yes, the practitioner is responsible for it—we have a system of proportionate working—and does what needs to be done. We have 2,500 more open public law cases on our practitioner caseloads than a year ago.

Chair: Can you answer the question?

Anthony Douglas: I've answered by saying that work is being done proportionate to the needs of each case. In cases where children have already been removed, at the point where the case comes to court, and are in stable foster care, not in danger, they need less work in the short term than a case where a local authority is applying to immediately remove the child. We would be involved in much more depth in those cases.

Q26   Stephen Barclay: In some cases, will the duty allocation purely be someone speaking over the phone?

Anthony Douglas: Sometimes, to gain intelligence and positions from different people, particularly where a child is in a stable situation. What we have to spot straight away is the immediate risks and dangers either of a child being left in an unsafe situation or a potential miscarriage of justice for a parent. That is our priority in the first few days. Now, these cases, on average, are in the courts for anything between 46 weeks and 65 weeks. Our involvement, if it doesn't come actively for the first two to three weeks, is still there in the case for well over 40 weeks and usually 60 to 70 in the toughest cases.

Q27   Stephen Barclay: Would you describe this—where the duty allocation is quite similar to having a quick scan of the papers, perhaps no work has started or someone just makes a call over the telephone—as a world-class service?

Anthony Douglas: I would say that certainly a scan of the papers is crucial, because to understand the history of what has happened to the family, and particularly any benchmark reports, the forensic analysis and review, particularly of children's services' involvement in a family, is a crucial part of the guardian's role, sure.

Q28   Stephen Barclay: The reason I use the phrase "world-class service" is that you're paid more than the Prime Minister. In the 2004-05 accounts, which were the first ones you signed off, you referred to delivering a world-class service. In the 2003 report, there was reference to the problem of forecasting which we have had reference to. What I'm trying to understand is, in your eyes, given what happened in 2009—as the Chair has referred, Ofsted said eight out of 10 regions were "inadequate", none were "good" or "outstanding", so it failed on quality, and we've also seen that it's failed on timeliness—is it a world-class service?

Anthony Douglas: I believe it is.

Stephen Barclay: You believe it is.

Chair: On what basis?

Anthony Douglas: We have represented in the course of our history from 2001 well over a million children

Q29   Chair: Yes, but that's numbers; that's not quality.

Anthony Douglas: In many of those cases we have saved children's lives by either preventing them from being removed or insisting they are removed. There is no system—

Chair: But that is your job.

Q30   Mr Bacon: Hang on. Can I just stop you there because this is interesting? You were asked whether you think it's a world-class service, and you say yes. The two reasons you have given so far are, one, because you have intervened in a million cases, which, as the Chair says, is a quantitative measure—it is not a qualitative one—and the second one is because you have saved children's lives. Neither of the things that you've said indicates whether or not it's a world-class service. So the question I'd like to ask you is, for you, what would be the main criteria for identifying a world-class service?

Anthony Douglas: It's a service in which children are kept safe and put back on their proper and normal development. The children we come across are quite often in the most horrendous circumstances imaginable. Our role is to play a part—one part among many agencies, as the Permanent Secretary said, in a complicated system—to make their lives better. I believe on that measure we have been successful.

Q31   James Wharton: I don't envy you in the area in which you work. I think it must be incredibly difficult, because you are managing a large organisation with finite resources and are dealing with some, as you rightly point out, very, very difficult individual circumstances; and of course like any organisation of this nature, you are reliant on the people who work for you, who are delivering the service at the hard end, as it were, at the front end and actually dealing with these cases and making assessments.

There are just two areas in the qualitative assessment that I'd like to explore briefly with you. One is a point that has been raised with me. Now, I don't know whether you measure this; I would be interested in whether you do and whether you've considered this as a measure of your performance. How often, once reports are provided to the court, does the judge actually seek a second opinion, because they don't feel that that report is of sufficient quality for them to make their decision based on it?

Anthony Douglas: From CAFCASS?

James Wharton: From the people who are actually doing the work for your organisation. Do you measure that and have any idea how often judges effectively say, "I need a second opinion" and get further consultation?

Anthony Douglas: We don't. We have proxy measures for when, in other words, cases are referred, under certain categories of law, to other organisations because there might be a conflict of interest. Along with the Legal Services Commission, we have measures, but it's a very small number.

Q32   James Wharton: Not where there is specifically a conflict of interest, but where a report is provided to a court and the judge looks at the report and decides, for whatever reason, a second opinion is needed, which, of course, in terms of many of the measures of performance that we looked at from CAFCASS, would actually be, "Job done. The report has been provided. We have gone through that process. We have done all that we can up to that stage." However, because of the low quality of the report and the information that has been provided, the courts actually seek further opinion, delaying the process, causing that further potential danger for the child in question or the children in question. It sounds like you don't measure that, and you may want to consider that?

Anthony Douglas: We don't specifically measure it, but I don't believe that those cases would be more than a dozen in my time. I have letters about some of those, but the vast majority of the thousands of reports we produce are welcomed by judges who find them helpful. Sometimes, we've had to do work with our practitioners to be clearer in their recommendations and we have had some cases that have been played wrong, as every organisation would do, and we have had to take action to correct them and send in a second report, sometimes by another practitioner.

Chair: You have taken disciplinary against 10% of your staff. We hear it from our constituents.

Stephen Barclay: It's 5%, because it's over two years.

Chair: 5% over two years. Presumably, it's the quality of their work that you're challenging. We all hear it, round the table, we all hear it from our constituencies that all too often either cases aren't allocated, CAFCASS doesn't appear, doesn't attend at hearings, someone doesn't appear and reports have to be rewritten. There is too much of this, and you're not measuring it, of course, because you don't measure anything that is difficult to you.

Q33   James Wharton: It should be relatively easy to assess. Your perception as someone at the top of the organisation is that these reports are going in, and it's very rare that on the basis of the quality of the report, the judge would seek to get a second report. Setting aside a conflict of interest and so on, you said that you would be surprised if there were more than about a dozen reports or so where the judge believes he needs to get a second opinion.

Anthony Douglas: Standard judicial court practice is to refer it back to us, with an adjournment, and we would either have that practitioner carry out better work or reallocate it for a second opinion from one of our own practitioners.

Q34   Chris Heaton-Harris: Sorry, can I just quickly ask? How does that get communicated up the management network now in CAFCASS where there has been a problem? Does it just stay at that kind of local level, get reassigned, whatever it might be? Is there now a reporting mechanism to higher management?

Anthony Douglas: We have escalation measures for serious concerns. That situation would be dealt with at local Head of Service level by one of our 21 Heads of Service across the country, as normal operational day-to-day responsibility.

Chris Heaton-Harris: Okay.

Q35   Mrs McGuire: Just to keep on this theme, I used to do safeguarding in Scotland; I appreciate the system is entirely different. One of my internal benchmarks used to be how many times my interpretation of the best interest of the child was rejected by either a sheriff or a children's panel. We can talk about incompetent work that is not up to scratch, but do you have any feel or can you give us any information on whether or not the recommendations of your practitioners are accepted in the overwhelming majority of cases? I'm not saying, obviously, that the people who do these reports are infallible, but it is quite an interesting internal way of judging whether or not there is a quality element both in the analysis and in the recommendations.

Anthony Douglas: We do cover that in the supervision of frontline staff, and of course, courts have to record a decision they make if they disregard our advice. We have had some quite high profile cases, particularly in cases where we felt that unsupervised contact in a private law case posed risks to a child and where that advice that has been disregarded which has led to a debrief. Of course, judicial decisions are not subject to serious case reviews or other parts of the examination process, but we do debrief them and it is relatively rare; in the vast majority of cases our recommendations are accepted. The work we have to do is to make sure that we don't sit on the fence in any case and make a very clear recommendation. As Madam Chairman and many of you have said, we've still got further work to do on the quality of that.

Q36   Austin Mitchell: You said, Mr Bell, the service was satisfactory before the big explosion in demand in 2008, but all the evidence here indicates that it was a bit of a mess. In fact, the Department has been concerned with timeliness. There have been concerns with quality, as Mr Wharton as raised, and I indeed raised and the Chair has raised, in individual cases. Now if it was a mess, and I think it was, why was it a mess? Was it because of lack of staff? Was it because of lack of money? Was it because of lack of morale? Was it because Mr Douglas was too busy writing books on resilience to show any in the service? What was the problem before the big explosion in demand in 2008?

David Bell: I think there were a number of factors coming together, Mr Mitchell. I think the legacy of the effect of the 2003 changes was being worked through. There was low morale among staff; I don't think there is any doubt about that.

Q37   Austin Mitchell: Why?

David Bell: I think, as Mr Douglas has perhaps touched on, this is very stressful work. This is in children's services. This is very much at the sharp end of dealing with cases that are particularly difficult. There was low morale. There was a sense, not just of the pressures of the day-to-day work, but CAFCASS itself having undergone a number of changes, which were referred to earlier as a kind of "change fatigue". There was also, to be frank, the kind of proper pressure that Mr Douglas and senior managers were bringing to improve performance and drive down sickness absence, and that, frankly, does cause ripples in organisations, and I do think that some of the absence was probably attributable to a harder line being taken exactly in the ways that Mr Douglas described.

There were also obviously internal business process issues, which CAFCASS had recognised, so I think it's very difficult to identify one particular factor that had given CAFCASS its difficulties. I just would say, and this should not, again, be seen in any way as making an excuse, this was a really tough job that Mr Douglas took on that was not likely to be susceptible to change within a very short period. Progress was being made slowly, but it was being made; that inevitably meant that there was turbulence and the kind of morale and the impact that you've described.

Q38   Austin Mitchell: Mr Douglas has been there since 2004. The Baby P case was August 2007. You weren't involved in that, but I would have thought that bells would have rung and some surge in demand could have been anticipated from the very facts of that case, because it was going to send alarms through local authorities. Now, why wasn't there any contingency plan for dealing with a sudden surge in demand, such as was predictable and did in fact occur? Why were there no contingency plans?

David Bell: Just for the record, it was the autumn of 2008 when the Baby P case hit the headlines and the report points out that CAFCASS's assumptions based on previous such difficult situations had been of a spike of around 3% or 4%. So you would have a major incident in the courts generate quite a lot of publicity. You would get a 3% or 4% rise in demand, and what tended to happen was a kind of settling down after that. We all remember just the explosion in the publicity, in public interest, anxiety and concern. Of course, you got this massive increase in the aftermath of Baby P, and what happened then was very different then to what had happened previously, where you didn't get a settling back; in fact actually, even if you look at this year, this calendar year that we're in, there are months where we have got a higher number of cases than had even been the case in the aftermath of 2008.

Q39   Austin Mitchell: But you had no slack in the organisation to cope.

David Bell: Should CAFCASS have anticipated that kind of demand? I think the NAO report says that nobody in the system—the Department and nobody else in the system—anticipated that we would get that massive increase in demand in light of Baby P. So I don't think it is fair to say that CAFCASS should have spotted it and should have dealt with it immediately. It did take CAFCASS a number of months to react and to respond to the demand and both Mr Douglas and I would accept that that probably wasn't perhaps as fast as it should've been to respond, but it was a very, very exceptional period of time, and it was in the light of the increasing demand and some of the other concerns that Committee Members have raised, that I thought it was important to do the Accounting Officer review in the Autumn 2009, which has then led to us taking this next phase of change and improvement in CAFCASS.

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