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Public Accounts Committee Report (CAFCASS)

Volume 518: debated on Thursday 11 November 2010

I beg to move,

That this House notes the publication of the Sixth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, on Cafcass’s response to increased demand for its services, HC 439.

This is a new procedure for the House and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving my Committee the first opportunity to present a Select Committee report to the House. I wish to highlight key points in our report, but I am conscious that the House wants to move on to the debate on growth so this should not take longer than 15 minutes. I will be most happy to take interventions from those on both sides of the House, to which I shall try to respond. The Backbench Business Committee does not envisage that Members will seek to speak after I sit down and the intention is that the Deputy Speaker will put the question right away before we move on to the main Back-Bench debate.

The role that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—CAFCASS—plays is crucial for the most vulnerable children in our society at the most vulnerable point in their lives, when their future is being decided by the courts. CAFCASS advises the courts on behalf of the children—it advises what is in the child’s best interest—so ensuring an effective, efficient and timely service is essential if we are to serve our children well.

In the discussion about the response of CAFCASS, was there any discussion about children who have been trafficked? They seem to be falling through the system at the moment.

I agree entirely with the point made by the hon. Gentleman, but our Committee focused more on the service that CAFCASS was able to give to children whose future was being determined by the courts and therefore on whether CAFCASS officials were writing reports that the judiciary could take.

Our Select Committee undertook its inquiry on the basis of a National Audit Office report into the way in which CAFCASS had responded to a substantial and sustained increased demand for its service in the wake of the tragic death of baby Peter. We were particularly grateful to Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, and Sir Mark Hedley for giving us important insights into how they, as the customers of CAFCASS, experienced the service. It was welcome and important that they both felt that the quality of the reports they received from guardians in public law cases was good. However, we have grave concerns as to the whether the organisation itself is fit for its purpose.

I read the Select Committee’s report with interest this morning, especially given that CAFCASS told me in response to a constituent complaint that it was

“unable to revisit the contents of its reports to courts.”

Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is impossible for an organisation to identify and rectify any errors if it refuses to examine its previous work?

I am extremely puzzled by the allegation that has been made by the hon. Lady’s constituent about the veracity or otherwise of reports that are considered by the courts. I think that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that, but I urge her to take it up through the appropriate mechanisms, because it is clearly an area of concern.

The Committee had grave concerns as to whether CAFCASS was fit for purpose. We all accept that it was hugely difficult for CAFCASS when it was faced with a 34% increase in the number of care cases, but in our view it was ill-prepared to respond appropriately and the reasons for that failure go beyond the crisis created by the sudden influx of new cases. The facts established by the NAO, and accepted by the permanent secretary in signing off the NAO report, cause us grave concern. At the height of the crisis, it was taking 40 days on average to allocate fully a care case to a family court adviser. I understand that it currently takes 27 days—nearly a month in a child’s life—just to start the work that will lead to a decision for that child’s future. The goal that CAFCASS has set for itself is to allocate cases within two days, but two years after the end of the baby Peter case in the courts, CAFCASS is still not meeting its own standard.

The report and what the right hon. Lady is now saying are depressingly similar to what we in the then Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs said in 2003, which led to the removal of the entire board of CAFCASS. Does she think that what she is now describing can be resolved by changes at the top, either at board level or in senior management, or do we also have to look at whether the remit and work of CAFCASS can be refocused as part of the family law review?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, I was the Children’s Minister when his Committee considered that report. We had hoped that putting in a new chief executive and a new board would enable the organisation to manage the transition to the new arrangements and provide an effective service for children. It is particularly depressing in coming back to this issue a few years later to find that that has not taken place. I agree with the implication of his assertion—the time has probably therefore come to review the arrangements that were put in place and to see whether they are appropriate to ensure the proper care of children. I take that point seriously.

CAFCASS’s ability to respond to private law cases, where demand is still increasing, was also woefully inadequate. One third of the section 7 reports required by the courts are more than 10 days late and CAFCASS also faces the ongoing challenge of an ever-increasing number of open care cases remaining on its books. At the end of September, CAFCASS had nearly 12,000 open care cases—over 2,500 more than a year before.

During 2009-10, CAFCASS reached an agreement with the judiciary which enabled it to prioritise new and delayed cases, to introduce a duty system to support the courts in care cases and to write fewer reports in private law cases. All sides agree that, although those temporary changes were necessary, they were not desirable and the duty system for public law cases did not serve the needs of children well. The guidance underpinning those practices has now been amended to minimise the use of duty guardians, but that simply adds to my Committee’s concerns about the capacity of CAFCASS as an organisation to respond to the demands placed on it.

It is a pleasure to serve under the right hon. Lady on the Public Accounts Committee. Will she take this opportunity also to note the evidence that we heard that, despite all the problems, the hard work and commitment of the case workers and of social workers were commended by everybody from whom we took evidence?

I agree entirely. We changed the way in which my Committee normally operates in that we deliberately took evidence from members of the judiciary. It was heartening to hear that they found the quality of the reports presented to them to be good; there was no criticism at all of the quality. We found it rather more disturbing that both the permanent secretary in the Department and the chief executive of CAFCASS thought that they were running a world-class organisation, whereas the evidence suggested that the quality of the organisation was far from world class.

On that point, was not one of the most shocking aspects of our Committee’s inquiry the discovery that CAFCASS had not previously collected all the information that it required? However difficult it is, CAFCASS must undertake the data collection that it needs to manage its business.

Yes, there was unanimous agreement in Committee that the failure to collect adequate data to be able both to predict future case load and to manage current peaks and troughs in case loads was extremely worrying. I do not think that we were given any proper undertakings or comfort that CAFCASS was on top of the data and information requirements that would allow it to improve its performance.

One way in which CAFCASS was world class was in the amount of pay that the chief executive received: £168,000. Given how long he had been in the role—since 2004—and the litany of failure against key performance indicators that the report exposed, did the right hon. Lady feel that the Department was sufficiently engaged with the possibility of management change at the top of CAFCASS?

That is a matter for Ministers. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is in his place, will note this point: we were all a bit taken aback by the fact that the permanent secretary appeared, from the evidence that he was giving, to believe that the organisation was world class, as all the data in front of us suggested otherwise.

We did not put forward recommendations on either of those two individuals. However, we have made recommendations on our beliefs about the capability or otherwise of CAFCASS.

The evidence that we had before us suggested that CAFCASS is an unhappy organisation with underlying problems and challenges. Let me draw the House’s attention to two of the facts in our report. First, Ofsted carried out inspections of 10 CAFCASS areas in 2009 and failed eight of them. That is a terrible indictment of the organisation. Secondly, the NAO found that sickness rates among family court advisers averaged 16.1 days per annum—double the average for the public sector as a whole and indicative of low morale in an organisation that is not being properly managed by its senior executive.

CAFCASS was established in 2001 and brought together the work previously carried out by more than 100 organisations based in the Court Service and in local government. I know from my time as Children’s Minister that there have been continuing challenges and problems with the organisation, and it is particularly disheartening for me to return to considering the organisation after the reviews in 2003.

I welcome the fact that a family justice review is taking place and although that might impact in the short term on the already low morale in the organisation, I hope that it makes proposals that will ensure that the most vulnerable children in our society are properly served. I hope that in determining the future of the service the Government will have regard to the conclusions in our report.

I urge the Government, as they are considering financial cuts to services across the board, not to place at risk the response we should collectively make to the needs of the most vulnerable young people in our society.

Question put and agreed to.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. We are all grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for enabling the Select Committee report to be presented, but I hope you will encourage the various parties involved, including the Backbench Business Committee, to review the procedure. Perhaps a little longer is required—such as a half-hour slot—in order that the Chairman may present the whole case and then take questions, including from the Minister. I saw that he tried to intervene. On behalf of Committee Chairs in general, I would like to encourage further consideration of the exact procedure to be followed for this excellent innovation.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point of order. I have been an MP for 18 years and we seem constantly to be modernising the House. This procedure is embryonic—this is the first time we have followed it—and I am sure that the Backbench Business Committee will reconsider it and consider what changes need to be made to make it more effective. I agree with his comments about the first running of the procedure; it was very useful.