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

2  Managing the performance of staff

10.  The President of the Family Division and the Family Division Liaison Judge for Greater London told us that the judge's role in the family court had been extended to encompass case management, including the casework carried out by the family court adviser.[33] Judges now issue directions to family court advisers about the work they want carried out on cases, a significant change from the former practice whereby the advisers had independently determined the scope of their enquiries. Some advisers regarded the changes as a challenge to their independence.[34] Despite the pressures on Cafcass staff from changes in organisation and working practices, the judges told us that family court advisers had maintained the quality of their advice and reports to the courts.[35]

11.  Prior to autumn 2008, Cafcass's performance across a range of other measures was nevertheless unsatisfactory.[36] Ofsted inspected 10 of the 21 Cafcass service areas between December 2008 and April 2010, and assessed the overall effectiveness of eight as inadequate and only two as satisfactory.[37] Cafcass's response was to appoint what it viewed as stronger performance managers.[38] In 2009, it underwent a corporate restructuring,[39] and replaced the senior managers who had established the organisation's infrastructure with managers with experience of running busy child protection services.[40] Four of the five subsequent Ofsted visits reported that areas had made satisfactory progress against previous recommendations, but progress was judged inadequate in one.[41]

12.  Prior to 2008, Cafcass's system for managing staff performance was not adequate.[42] Work started on an improved system in 2006, and a new system was introduced in 2008. After 2008, around 150 staff were managed out of Cafcass because of underperformance. Cafcass put in place a new tier of stafffamily support workersto support its family court advisers, and increased the number of service managers to increase the supervision of staff and of complex cases.[43] At the time of our hearing, there were still around 100 staff whose performance was being addressed through action plans and practice improvement notices. The Chief Executive told us that he considered poor staff performance to be under control and no longer the issue it had been a few years previously.[44]

13.  Sickness absence among family court advisers had also been a particular problem for Cafcass, and in 2006-07 it set a target to reduce sickness absence to an average of 9.0 days per employee per annum.[45] However, in 2009-10 sickness absence averaged 11.6 days per staff member, and was 16.1 days on average for family court advisers. By comparison, the public sector average was 8.3 days in 2009.[46] Cafcass attributed the high rate of sickness absence to the stress associated with all social work, as well as to the relatively older age of many of its staff. Cafcass told us that it had recently taken action to reduce the number of staff on long-term sickness absence, and had reduced the total cost per year from £3.3 million to £2.5 million. For the first five months of 2010-11, sickness absence had reduced to 13 days per year pro rata for family court advisers.[47]

14.  Cafcass acknowledged that the morale of its staff was unacceptably low before 2008, and said that staff had become tired of constant change.[48] The Department told us that the frequency of new instructions, combined with the pressures of day-to-day work, had led to negative attitudes, and contributed to sickness absence.[49] Cafcass also suggested that the pressure from senior managers to improve performance and drive down sickness absence affected morale.[50] Staff morale remained low in some service areas.[51]

15.  Cafcass had experienced a high turnover of staff, through retirement and those leaving for performance reasons, and had a vacancy rate of three per cent in September 2010. Despite problems in attracting people into the wider social work profession, Cafcass said it did not find it difficult to recruit new practitioners.[52] Cafcass nevertheless accepted that there were risks to be managed where teams had a high proportion of staff approaching retirement age. There was potential for key people to leave at around the same time. In reflecting on the quality of family court advisers' advice and reports to the courts, the President of the Family Court expressed some anxiety about the risks of losing knowledge and experience.[53]

16.  The compliance of Cafcass's staff with its corporate initiatives in some areas was poor. For example, at 15 July 2010, four of the 21 areas had still not submitted business plans for 2010-11. Cafcass had only recently extended core national systems, such as business planning, down to the local level.[54] It is involving staff in developing tools to reduce bureaucracy and improve consistency in practice.[55]

33   Qq 101, 109, 125 Back

34   Q 125 Back

35   Qq 114-116, 127 Back

36   Qq 1-2 Back

37   Qq 1 and 28 Back

38   Q 60 Back

39   Q 53 Back

40   Q 61 Back

41   C&AG's Report, Appendix Two Back

42   Q 69 Back

43   Q 72 Back

44   Q 83 Back

45   C&AG's Report, para 3.20 Back

46   CBI report Absence and Workplace Health Survey, June 2010 Back

47   Ev 24 Back

48   Qq 2 and 36 Back

49   Qq 4 and 37 Back

50   Q 37 Back

51   C&AG's Report, para 3.23 Back

52   Q 81 Back

53   Qq 81 and 115 Back

54   Q 70; C&AG's Report, para 15 Back

55 Back

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Prepared 11 November 2010