Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
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
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 easyisn'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.
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 difficultvacancy
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 workthat
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.
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
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
ofand I hate the phrasemanaging 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?
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 neededwe 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
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 fortha bit of
musical accompaniment. I hope that's improving my performance
hereit 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
systemsthat's a misunderstandingbut 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 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
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.
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.
We have made a 34% reduction.
Q87 Chair: In July?
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 -
Angela Hands: They
were looking up to the end of where we -
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
Angela Hands: April
Chair: April of which
Angela Hands: April
Chair: April '10?
Angela Hands: Yes.
Chair: So you went April
to April, you've gone June to June?
July to July.
Q88 Chair: You've actually
got figures have you?
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.
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,
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?
Yes, but there has been a major improvement, particularly by case
managing long-term sickness. I'm very happy to make detailed
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 -
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,
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.
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.
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
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?
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
Austin Mitchell: Thank
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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