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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 80-95)

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

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Q80    Chris Heaton-Harris: I'm not even sure if I should declare an interest, because I've got an in-law who is a family law barrister who works either for you or against you, depending upon how she's paid and, indeed, a couple of friends who work within your organisation. My concern: actually, I think they're unique because my concern is actually in 3.17. We've heard about the problems in the past, but 3.17, page 36, talks about the 200 employees that are expected to retire in 2010-11, the age profile demographic of your staff and where it is going forward. Realistically, I would like you both to talk about the risk that the organisation faces and how you're going to deal with that, because there is a risk, obviously, for the organisation itself, and I would also like to know how the Department perceives that risk and how it's helping you address those matters.

David Bell: Perhaps I'll kick off. If anything comes out of this session, it's just the increasing emphasis on the risk and the riskiness of the system that we're in, for all the reasons that have been described here. That was one of the reasons why I was very keen in commissioning the report in 2009 to ask ourselves what more can be done to first of all understand what we're facing and do something about it. I think we are aware that the kind of transformation and change progress that CAFCASS has got in train is a way of addressing the risks that we face. As one or two people have said here today, engaging the workforce is absolutely central to that. The NAO report, to be fair, does actually highlight in one or two places the work that Mr Douglas, particularly, but other senior managers were doing.

There is also then the question, and I just want to tease it out a bit, that once or twice Mr Douglas has made some observations that you have to make judgment calls about areas where you perhaps, to use his word, have to have a "proportionate" response. It's easy—isn't it?—to criticise that and say that means that you're not going to be providing the same sort of service to every particular case that comes on to your books. But actually that is part of what you have to do in running a service like this. You have to make judgments about what is likely to be more risky or less risky; that in itself is risky, but the way of course of trying to minimise that risk is ensuring that the professional practice is right, and that is why Mr Douglas' change programme is absolutely focused on the quality of front line practice, because only if you get that right have you got the best chance of making the judgment. So it is risky, but I think we must improve the business processes, alongside the front­line practice. Just to be very clear, I'm under no illusions about the risk that we face because of the demand and the complexity of the system.

Q81   Chris Heaton-Harris: Mr Bell, that sounded fantastic, but it says here that six service areas currently have both higher than average vacancy rates and an age profile skewed towards older staff. The processes sound as though they are fantastic, but actually the processes for the last eight years have sounded pretty good and the statements have been pretty good, but you have a relatively old workforce, many of whom are leaving and want to leave; you've got high vacancy rates; you've got 200 employees retiring this year; and high sickness. So it all sounds great, but my concern is there is a different type of risk, which is actually what is happening in the six areas which have these problems.

David Bell: If it's alright by the Chair, I suppose to allow us to pick some of the actions that we've taken, or rather CAFCASS has taken rather, in relation to recruitment and bringing in new staff.

Anthony Douglas: The first thing to say is that for social workers, it's a tough job and it goes on being a tough job, and the work of the Social Work Reform Board will be important to build a more sustainable profession over time. Our vacancy rates are now down to 3%, mainly because we've expanded our HR service to have stronger case management of individuals, particularly those who've been off sick. Actually, it is, in many ways, good to have some turnover. We don't have a problem recruiting new practitioners. We of course have budgetary constraints, but new practitioners are trained in newer methods and they are actually better, if you can generalise, at working faster on duty, faster throughput, and the PA report that was being referred to was particularly focused on productivity, and when you measure throughput per social worker, that's what we've been able to improve. And for many long standing practitioners, who've worked in a traditional way, they don't particularly like that; they don't like that extra degree of pressure. You might say that whether they like it or not doesn't matter because, in many ways, they are better because experience shows what you can do and what you leave alone. But generally recruitment isn't difficult—vacancy rates are quite healthy at 3%—and what we have got to watch is that we don't have everybody retiring in a particular team, so that we lose continuity in one team. It's another strategic risk, but I wouldn't say it was one of our high risks.

Q82   Mrs McGuire: Can I turn to these two questions? Now, I'm beginning to feel that somehow all of these older social workers out there have been utterly resistant and almost happily sabotaging some of the work—that is just the impression I'm getting. This ties into Nick's question about where was the engagement in terms of teaching these old dogs new tricks, because I fail to understand that they were all in the business of being adverse to change, unless that's what you're telling me.

Anthony Douglas: No, I should correct that impression.

  Mrs McGuire: I have to say that I'm beginning to get it; maybe I'm feeling a bit sensitive about it.

Anthony Douglas: I do apologise. I simply said they're the group that are more likely to be in performance measures and more likely to want to go. Actually, they have been the bedrock of the service through thick and thin. I'm just saying that, if there is a trend, it's that where staff on the front line are able to leave through being eligible for retirement, they are tending to go perhaps a year or so earlier than they might otherwise have done. That simply reflects pressures. If you have been working for the last three years on a local authority duty desk, you're more used to the kind of work we have to do now.

Those are the changes that we've had to make from a service that, back in 2004, was fundamentally a court reporting service. We've had to make the change, added to by the recent pressures, to being effectively a front­line duty­based operational service. Many colleagues have made that change and they are at the forefront of mentoring the newer staff. I'm simply saying that a percentage of them haven't. Certainly, compliance levels are now not an issue. They were several years ago, but not any more. The issue is far more staff perhaps needing greater role clarity under this pressure, and that is what, through the transformation programme, we are seeking to give, although it is not in our total gift alone. It's not in my gift to say that you will do this type of work on cases full stop, because any court can say something different on any individual case, and they frequently do.

Chair: I've got three more and then I'm going to draw it to a close. I've got James, Eric, and Austin, okay.

Q83 James Wharton: We've discussed quite a lot looking back over particularly the costs of—and I hate the phrase—managing people out of the organisation, people who've left, costs that are just shy of £1 million in identifiable redundancy payment and other payments that have been made to people. How many or what measure have you got of the numbers of your staff who are still underperforming and may need to be managed out, and the cost of that? Do you have any idea what could be the cost of that, looking forward?

Anthony Douglas: Yes, I probably should just say, for context, that for the £900,000 the main purpose was twofold: the roles were no longer the ones we needed—we did follow due process and assess people who went for those roles and we made £2.7 million continuing revenue savings. The main purpose was a downsizing to get greater revenue savings.

In terms of continuing performance management, we have a slightly lesser number, about 100 staff currently going through that process, but I would say two thirds of our staff that go through our performance system, through action plans, practice improvement notices, do change. It's a positive picture, on the whole. One third over the last two years have gone. In relation to the future, poor performance isn't anything like the issue it was and we now have a much more manageable group. The issue is far more: can practitioners absorb much higher case loads? In our teams with the highest case loads they are carrying around 35 active cases: probably at the limit of what you can carry to be able to do anything meaningful on any one case. It's a question of whether our workforce as a whole can get up to that benchmark, but we'll always have a small group of people, at any one time, to manage out. Really, our next corporate review that we have to go through is to stay within budget. These are not poor performing staff; if we have to make those changes it will be because of the budget and because we need to make savings.

Q84 Eric Joyce: This is a question about IT and the future, actually. I just noticed that in paragraph 3.3, it talks about developing new IT systems to support flexible working and then further down on page 33, maximising online services, and then in paragraph 3.5 on page 34, it talks about IT literacy improving but remaining an issue for some CAFCASS staff. And it strikes me that changes in IT, particularly with online services and so forth—a bit of musical accompaniment. I hope that's improving my performance here—it occurs to me that IT changes are sometimes enormous in terms of organisational change. Particularly, although it's not always true, that older staff find it harder to learn new systems—that's a misunderstanding—but there are clearly going to be issues with quite a few of your staff, so how do you see those two things tying together in respect of developing the IT systems?

Anthony Douglas: It is a major part of our transformation programme to make our IT system more fit for purpose, working with a provider to get our management information system, that we've made several references to, our data quality is much better than it was at the time of this report but it could still be improved and we need to do more to facilitate our practitioners taking more work with better systems around them, particularly to be able to record more briefly out in the field and to be able to upload that onto the systems that we have - because we have a number of home workers - so giving people the tools for the job and improving basic IT, including its reliability, is a huge issue. I would say there is 10% more productivity improvement if we can get that right.

  Chair: Austin, if your phone is all right.

Q85 Austin Mitchell: Paragraph 3.20 in the report, you've dealt with it partly, but sickness.

Mrs McGuire: Why don't you just switch it off?

Austin Mitchell: I have, I mean it's on silent, I'm sorry. It's just that I'm not used to something like this. Sickness absence has increased further. CAFCASS's sickness absence rate averaged 11.6 per staff member. Family Court Advisors missed 16.1 days on average, that's nearly 17,000 days. Why is that? Is that part of a reflection of the amount of work and change that has been pushed on them or is it a reflection of the crisis in social work generally where they are underpaid and over-exposed.

Anthony Douglas: About a third is stress related in some shape or form. Some of that is a combination of what goes on in people's personal lives in addition to what goes on at work, work based stress. The rest is, if there is a factor, is age-related: 5% on necks 5% on backs, cancers, not things that can be readily stopped. The area to case manage is long-term sickness - that's where we've made the biggest change recently. But it's still a big problem. At the time of the NAO report, we were losing £3.3 million a year to sickness; we've reduced that to £2.5 million, but that is a lot of frontline service that we're losing.

Q86 Chair: This report is a July 2010 report, fieldwork done in May and June. So, I can't believe - and we've had August in the middle, which I know the courts work, but lots of people take their holidays -the impression you've given that there has been a fantastic gap between this report and a sudden change. This is May, June, to the end of August. We're just the beginning of September. July is the only month you had to improve, really, because August everybody is on holiday. This is irritating.

Anthony Douglas: We have made a 34% reduction.

Q87 Chair: In July?

Anthony Douglas: Between July 2009 and this July in practitioner sickness. Now, that equates to about 400 days.

Q88 Chair: Can I ask our official? Your figures are May, June year-on-year?

Angela Hands: Yes, they were the previous, they were looking up to the end of -

Chair: What?

Angela Hands: They were looking up to the end of where we -

Anthony Douglas: I think it was the end of April.

Chair: What? I can't hear. I'm really sorry, I'm a bit deaf.

Angela Hands: Ours were up to the end April, so it was a year.

Chair: So, your figures ended when?

Angela Hands: April

Chair: April of which year?

Angela Hands: April '10.

Chair: April '10?

Angela Hands: Yes.

Chair: So you went April to April, you've gone June to June?

Anthony Douglas: July to July.

Q88 Chair: You've actually got figures have you?

Anthony Douglas: Yes, and I'm very happy to make them available.

Q89 Chair: So, it's only a three-month difference, and there has been this dramatic change? It stretches credulity.

Anthony Douglas: I'm more than happy to send you the figures if you like.

Q90 Mrs McGuire: Is it not a comparison between July 2009 and July 2010?

Anthony Douglas: Yes, indeed.

Q91 Mrs McGuire: It's like when they do things about how many car sales there are year on year. It's not the annualised number, is that right?

Anthony Douglas: The underlying trend is coming down by three days.

Q92 Mrs McGuire: Comparing last July with this July?

Anthony Douglas: Yes, but there has been a major improvement, particularly by case managing long-term sickness. I'm very happy to make detailed figures available.

Chair: Angela do you want to just clarify?

Angela Hands: I think if the Committee were to ask for the annualised figures that would be helpful ­ the figures for the whole year.

Chair: Okay, what every month, each month?

Angela Hands: And for the whole year as well, so that we—

Chair: Okay, what do you define as year?

Angela Hands: Yes, up to -

Anthony Douglas: We do it by quarter and if you look at the quarter by quarter—

Angela Hands: Good, you need them for every quarter.

Chair: I'm just finding all these things have dramatically improved and this is fieldwork May/June with report that came out, actually I remember, it was right at the end before we went on recess, so it was right at the end of July.

Q93 Eric Joyce: You're comparing last July with this July, so it's a trend that goes over a whole year rather than just over a three-month period, I think?

Anthony Douglas: Madam Chairman, if I may, I would just say that it has come down considerably, rather than either remaining static or going the other way, despite the pressures, and I think that shows the loyalty and commitment of our workforce to pick up new work and as Austin Mitchell said, they don't get a great press; the work is tough, but they have been, following the NAO report and the Ofsted inspections determined to pick up the work and, as best as possible, give every child a service. Otherwise we would not have got through this extra work.[5]

Q94 Stephen Barclay: When you're talking about it coming down, in 2006 when you targeted sickness because it was too high, your management targeted it, it then went up and then when you're now talking about it coming down, you're talking about it coming down from that higher point, you're not talking about it coming down from where it was when you were in charge in 2006.

Anthony Douglas: It has been an extraordinary 18 months. I don't want to use that as an excuse, but as an explanation, for anyone in social work, whether you're in Local Authorities, the voluntary sector or organisations like mine, it has been the most intensely difficult period of any of our time. For people who are under pressure, they live in the margins and that extra pressure can just be too much for them. That is what happened; we were at our worst point for every indicator around July 2009. As the Chair said, we didn't predict it, but my defence would be, nobody predicted it; the care system hadn't gone through that kind of upheaval since the early 1990s or the early 1980s, with the big switch from residential care to foster care.

Chair: I think nobody in this room underestimates the importance of that change; our questioning is around, a) whether there was sufficient contingency planning in place to deal with these sorts of incidents, they will happen again, they happen with sad regularity; and b) whether that was the only cause of the poor performance. I'm going to bring this to an end now. I just wanted to ask David—

Q95 Austin Mitchell: Can I - just one final question? I mean, all politics is local and I noticed from Appendix 2, that area N4, which is mine, and encloses the four corners of the civilised world as far as I'm concerned is the only one that has two inadequate verdicts on it. Now, what's the problem there?

Mr Bacon: I blame the MP.

Austin Mitchell: Despite vigorous representation of the area, there are still two "inadequates". Now, what are Sharon Tappin and the gals and guys doing about it and what's the problem?

Anthony Douglas: The pace of change there has not been fast enough to deal with the problems and we've now put one of our managers from South Yorkshire in charge. We're running it slightly differently in consultation with the Department and Ofsted because it's been a very serious matter there; it's been the only area in the country that we've not been able to improve within a reasonable period of time. So, we're on, if you like, our third regime of formal intervention internally.

Austin Mitchell: Thank you.

Chair: Okay, thank you very much for your thorough answers to our questions. What I want to say to you is, there are concerns by the Committee. You, both of you, have given assurances that you think this is an organisation that is fit for purpose and will cope with any future changes, whether it is growth in numbers or length of time cases remain open. We will want to return to this issue to test that, and we will be reporting from the evidence that you've given us and from the NAO report before that, after we've hopefully taken evidence from others as well, so thank you very much indeed.

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