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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 60-79)

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

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Q60   Mr Bacon: Yes please, if you could send us a note anyway,[2] just to confirm, that would be great. Why were they leaving the organisation?

Anthony Douglas: I took the view, particularly in response to the Ofsted inspections, that the organisation had moved on and needed to put in place stronger performance managers with a local authority background.

Q61   Mr Bacon: So these people weren't strong enough performance managers?

Anthony Douglas: Well, they did a terrific job to bring the organisation from where it was to where we got to in 2008. They put the infrastructure together, but in my job you have to have the team around you at any one point in time that is right for the situation. Faced with the demand increases that we had and the various accountability regimes like Ofsted, we needed to have very strong performance managers who were used to managing heavy-end child protection services. That was the basis of our change to the structure. We didn't particularly want to change the structure—as the Permanent Secretary said, it can give you more change fatigue—but we did also make £2.7 million corporate savings, so they were three of over 50 staff when we downsized; in fact, we're going to have to do the same again in a few months to again stay within budget to meet these extra pressures.

Q62   Mr Bacon: I'd like to come on to the other 50, but you've mentioned Ofsted. In paragraph 3.22, it says that "Ofsted recommended that CAFCASS should ensure that service managers understand and implement stated priorities", so that sounds so mind-blowingly obvious that you would hope that an external regulator wouldn't have to come along and recommend that service managers understand and then implement stated priorities. It should be sine qua non of being a service manager that you understand the priorities and you implement the priorities. It makes it sound that, from what you're saying about these people, that they weren't strong enough performance managers—that is basically what you said—even though they did stuff to get the organisation up and running.

Anthony Douglas: Operational matters.

Q63   Mr Bacon: But they weren't strong enough performance or operational managers; they weren't up to that and you paid them an awful lot of money to go. Why didn't we have managers in the organisation in the first place who were capable of understanding and then implementing the stated priorities—in other words, managing?

Anthony Douglas: Well, I think there are two different questions. We did have the right people to put together an infrastructure; those particular three directors did put together the performance management system we had. They were central managers. The emphasis that we needed to place, especially with this huge increase in demand, was to have very hands-on operational managers, and we replaced a number of corporate people around the corporate centre with a smaller, tougher group.

Q64   Mr Bacon: They were organisational designers, rather than operational managers?

Anthony Douglas: Well, they were strategists. Under pressure, you lose strategists and you put in place operational managers. On the point about service managers, they are often between a rock and a hard place; they have demands from the organisation at the centre, but also they work in a fundamentally unmanaged system, the family justice system, where many of the demands do come from local judges, local courts, who don't directly manage them, and they have to somehow balance the local demands for the service, which may sometimes conflict with the central demands, but certainly our levels of compliance are no longer a significant problem.

Q65   Mr Bacon: You mentioned that there were 50 staff altogether; three of them seem to have got £250,000 or so between them. You mentioned £900,000 spent in compensation in total. The other £650,000 was distributed among the other 47. Is that right?

Anthony Douglas: Indeed.

Mr Bacon: And how was it distributed? What would have been the largest payment after these three here?

Anthony Douglas: It maybe more sensible if you want me to itemise the payments for me to send you a note, but they would've been in descending order; some of our long-serving central managers would have attracted, legitimately because of accrued benefits, £70,000, £80,000—right down to administrators who would have only qualified for £10,000.

Mr Bacon: If you could send us a note with a breakdown, including these ones here in the annual report, so it's in one place, that would be very helpful.[3]

Q66   Eric Joyce: It may be an ignorant question—it probably is—what is an accrued benefit?

Anthony Douglas: Accrued pension rights over a long period of time.

Eric Joyce: It's not cash; it's pension rights.

Anthony Douglas: And statutory redundancy rights.

Chair: Right, I've got Stephen and Nick. Eric, do you want to come back in again? Stephen.

Q67   Stephen Barclay: Can I just clarify what you were saying about 50? On page 8, it refers to 150 employees left or chose to retire following the assessment of their performance as poor. How many of those 150 got some sort of pay off?

Anthony Douglas: Well, nobody got a pay off in those terms. Everybody who left got the statutory minimum they were entitled to. Some of that group would have exercised a right to early retirement—not early retirement, but they were eligible for retirement. Some, especially if their posts were going, were in that group of 50-plus. They would have had a legitimate redundancy right; others would've resigned potentially prior to dismissal.

Q68   Stephen Barclay: So do you have management information that clarifies exactly how many went, for example, without any pay off?

Anthony Douglas: Yes.

Stephen Barclay: And you can share that with us?

Anthony Douglas: Yes, okay. If you wanted a larger group that left as a result of performance and conduct procedures then we can send you, anonymised, every single one.

Q69   Stephen Barclay: Why did it take you four years to put in place a performance management system for staff? Because that was introduced in 2008.

Anthony Douglas: We had performance management measures but not an adequate system for a national organisation. The development of it we started in approximately 2006. I think the question the NAO had is the one that obviously the Chair has, which was, was the pace of change quick enough? Many of you are saying it wasn't. All I can say is that, for a national organisation bringing 117 predecessor organisations and cultures together, that got off to a pretty disastrous start by common consent, to retrofit the organisation from 2004 or thereabouts, it did take us working flat out three to four years to put that infrastructure together. We had, if you like, no HR service of note. We had a finance service that needed a complete overhaul, so many of the basic functions needed a complete overhaul. You cannot replace groups of staff who you're not able to retrain overnight. These processes do take time. You have to follow due process and, in the meantime, you have to keep a service going and that is always most important—what is happening now, around the county, in our 93 teams on individual cases.

Q70   Chair: I've just got to say this: six years on, you have an organisation where four of your districts haven't put a business plan in four months in. The report says there was no implementation plan for the new judicial process and the report criticises your communication. This is all six years on. We keep coming drip, drip, drip. Of course, the work you do is important. I would hope to goodness that the work you do does improve children's outcomes and save lives at the very worst, but it's not acceptable six years on to find all these things in such a bad, bad way.

Anthony Douglas: For the record Madam Chairman, we do now have 21 business plans from local service areas.

Chair: We are now in September.

Anthony Douglas: Yes, we had to train at a local level. We've always had a very solid national, corporate business plan. What we've been seeking to do, particularly as the Permanent Secretary said, in our current programme this year is to extend what had become viable national systems down to the local level and that's very much in keeping with policy now. And for our local areas to have really good business plans based upon good evidence and data has taken us a while to put in place.

Q71   Stephen Barclay: But 150 people were managed out for poor performance, some of whom got a pay off. That was over two years, so we're talking about 5% of staff. In the first four years that you were in charge, what percentage was managed out for poor performance?

Anthony Douglas: I would suspect it would have been a gradual rising percentage, probably starting at 20 per year and increasing year on year, as we put more of an infrastructure together. We started with the central teams, as you have to; we didn't have the capacity to overhaul some of the local teams that needed it. That took us more time.

Q72   Stephen Barclay: What I am trying to understand is that in 2004, with much fanfare in The Guardian, you introduced a 10-year workplace strategy, so what was different about that workplace strategy? Why was it in that workplace strategy that you didn't have a systematic framework for managing staff, which was introduced in 2008?

Anthony Douglas: Well, we've always had a workforce strategy, and in particular it was to train frontline practitioners to increase standards. We have over the years put in new tiers of staff, family support workers. We have increased the number of service managers to give the supervision of complex cases more priority. So we have done a lot of things. What we didn't have was a sufficiently rigorous performance management system that would stand up to the tests of an employment tribunal at the local level. To do that, we needed a good HR service; it took us until 2006 to change the previous dysfunctional service to a good service.

Q73   Stephen Barclay: But Mr Bell has just said that this is an organisation not susceptible to a quick turnaround—I think those were your words—but you were saying in 2004 that this implies a step change with your 10-year plan.

Anthony Douglas: Well, I have always said, from 2005, that the programme to transform CAFCASS would last until 2011. We have been on the record about that now for several years and that illustrates the various steps that need to be taken. We also don't work in isolation. For many of the changes we need to make, we're not in the position of, say, a local authority, able to set eligibility criteria, to control budgets and to say, "We will do this work and that work", which you can change very quickly. We've had to negotiate each single change with colleagues in the judiciary, and we've had to build up a consensus, because in the family justice system, there isn't a single point of authority to determine change. That has taken some time. I would say that we're on track to deliver what we said, despite these record increases in demand, by 2011. And it's just as well, given the additional pressures that we face and the next CSR.

Q74   Stephen Barclay: Can I just come back to Mr Bell? You commissioned I think PA Consulting to do a review of progress, presumably against the 10-year implementation plan. Can you tell me how much that cost, when it was printed, and when it's going to be made public?

David Bell: I can't tell you off hand how much it cost, but I'll certainly write to you and let you know.[4] That, I think, would fall into the category of policy advice, which normally would not be made available, but it's advice to me as the Permanent Secretary and Accounting Officer, so it wasn't intended for publication.

Chair: Anne, I've got you next. If people can keep their questions a bit tight—sorry, Anne, I know it's your first time.

Q75   Mrs McGuire: Can I say first of all that I am sympathetic to organisations that are not in control of their own agenda—and effectively you're not in control of your own agenda—and particularly when those organisations have to interface with something as powerful as the court system, who can make quite significant demands. However, over the course of the last three quarters of an hour or so, I'm still not clear how we move forwards, because we have had explanations—I'll not call them excuses—about inefficiencies, an older workforce which is more liable to be sick and more liable to be stressed. We've got complexity of cases, increase in numbers, trends, inadequate performance management, but what I am not clear about with all of those explanations is how we get to that transformation goal of 2011.

Now, we're only four months away from 2011. Where actually are we in terms of that plan, given the fact that you're still going to have to meet the demands of a court system, in whatever manifestation you survive? Is it about money at the bottom line? And if it's about money, is there a case to be made that this is an organisation that has transformed itself and therefore will respond to the needs of children? Because what concerns me about all this, as I say, given my own background about doing work with the courts in Scotland about judging the interest of the child, is that sometimes you don't have the 40 days or the 63 weeks or the 48 weeks, or whatever it is; those judgments have to be made really quite quickly, and I'm just not sure where you are in this. As I say, we've had some great explanations this morning, but where are we in September 2010 to meet that goal of 2011?

Anthony Douglas: Okay. The private law system, dealing with the most difficult residence and contact disputes in England, is pretty much in balance and working better. As I've tried to show by the 30% increase in the demand from local authorities for care in the last year, that is the system everyone is worried about. Referrals to local authorities continue and actually before Baby P they started to rise I think because the expansion of provision has brought, for a good reason, more children to attention. We are more aware of the needs of very vulnerable children. That has gone on into high numbers of child protection plans and court applications. So the system as a whole, including pressures on foster carers, shortages of adopters for some children, is under great pressure. From my organisation, we have improved our productivity by 17% over the last 15 months, which has met ministerial expectations. So we are just about getting through the work. Now, what we will have to do over the next year is to negotiate a further set of changes with the judiciary to pare our work back to the work that adds the most value, and I've tried to set out what I think it is.

Q76   Mrs McGuire: Can I just unpick this a wee bit about the work that adds the most value? If you're saying that there is an increasing complexity out there of cases—I think most of us looking even at the daily newspapers would say, with some of the stories that are filtering through with parents taking unbelievably violent action against their children, that we appreciate that there is a complexity of cases out there—how do you negotiate a position where you pare back on some of those complex cases? Because I would've assumed that at some point earlier down the line there is some initial gate-keeping about what sort of cases come to you anyway, so you're actually going to get the cases that somebody else cannot solve.

Anthony Douglas: Yes, it does get progressively more difficult because if there were any easier cases they don't come through any more. I think, as you said, one of the most worrying recent trends is in private law cases where the court application has triggered a higher level of tension and violence; we've seen a number of homicides and suicides of parents and their children in private law cases.

So I think that what I meant by "complexity" is that the court process itself can sometimes escalate difficulties, especially if children are in limbo for long periods of time, as you've all said. We know that there needs to be a different solution and system, but it's not easy; there are several principles that have grown up over the years that are United Nations Convention compliant, the independence of children's guardians is one, so that there is a check and balance for children that need it most. I'm just saying that when you're in the situation that we're in, people like myself have the responsibility to manage it as best we can, and the most successful step we've taken is jointly with the judiciary to forge agreements that have helped us collectively to at least stay on top of the work, rather than letting it get, if you like, completely chaotic and out of control, which was a risk about a year ago.

Chair: Nick, are you all right there; so I've got Nick, Chris, James, Eric—just so you know you're there.

Q77   Nick Smith: Thank you, Chair. I want to come in on that point actually. Like Anne, I'm sympathetic to the context in which you find yourself, in which you were establishing your new organisation and that you had to deal with the shock of the Baby P case. We all understand that; that seems fair enough. However, this issue about the systemic situation you find yourself in; you're not a prisoner to it though, are you? What are you saying to the people around you that you have to work with, in this complex judicial system that is ever so difficult, ever so time-consuming because of the individual cases that you have to deal with? What are you saying to that organisation around you to make things clear, simpler, easier for children? It seems to me that, because you're in it, you're not subject to it; you're subject to it to a degree, but equally you are a strong voice for change and improving it. So are you going to do about that in terms of working with the judicial system? And I wonder what more you're going to do in terms of engagement with service users, with children and families, who'll be constructively critical of the service you provide? Because it seems to me looking through the reports that you haven't been very good at doing that either, and that's something that's come out of the Ofsted review of your work. What are you doing about the system? And what are you doing to engage with service users?

Anthony Douglas: Well, I have strong working relationships with the leading judges in the country. They have been forged over many years. That, I would say, is partly a reason that we've been able to secure some agreements and some change. At the end of the day, we are a group of people managing the system together through negotiation, so I am going to carry on doing that and, as you've said, the report talks about anxiety about the end of the interim guidance, but between us we are putting a continuance of that together. Around the organisation, I am personally championing a different model of working, which is to say this work is more important than that work, and, under this pressure, this is what we do. I go to every team about that and every service area and we have made a lot of changes through that approach. I missed the last part of your question; I do apologise.

Q78   Nick Smith: What are you doing to engage with service users?

Anthony Douglas: Yes, well, again, we're having to set internal priorities and what we're saying is most important is to handle complaints promptly and properly and to share information, particularly case records and reports, with people who use the service. Those are the two points we are prioritising.

Q79   Nick Smith: Chair, those do seem to me to be quite weak answers. It feels as if you're just dealing with the cards you've dealt, rather than addressing the system. And it feels to me that you're not really engaging with service users in a good, strong way. You've got to do better at that, surely.

Anthony Douglas: With respect, I think the best engagement is, as the performance indicator says, to allocate all of our work, at a snapshot, 97% of the time. If you have an allocated children's guardian if you're a child, or if you have allocated work in a private law case, then that is the service. And the service to get good service user engagement is prompt contact, listening to someone, reflecting their case properly in a report and, if you go against them, because, in our work, you often have to be for someone and against someone else—we're not in a situation where we can agree with everybody—you have to work that through properly with the person, so we think we have most work to do in getting service user engagement on cases, as quick as it can be.

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