A parliamentary report into the children’s guardians
organisation reveals a story of conflict and mismanagement. Derren
Hayes reports on how Cafcass got into such a mess.
Alan Beith doesn’t have to think long or hard about how
poorly constructed the Children and Family Court Advisory and
Support Service (Cafcass) is.
“I can’t think of an organisation set up so inadequately,”
says the MP and chairperson of the all-party select committee of
the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
The committee’s report into the organisation is damning in
its verdict on nearly every aspect of Cafcass’s work and
formalises what most people already knew: that, since its launch
two years ago, the organisation has struggled to live up to its
mantra of representing the interests of children and young people
in care proceedings.
In Beith’s words, the report leaves Cafcass “with a
desperate need to raise its game”.
The result of this has largely been seen in delays in Cafcass
appointing children’s guardians to cases. The severity of the
delays has been debated at length – the inquiry was told that in
some parts of the country it reached 90 days – but the report notes
that any delay “undermines the welfare of children, their rights
and those of their parents”.
However, delays are a symptom. The report focuses on many of the
Although there has been an increase in the number of cases in
which it is acting, the effect has been magnified by the shortage
of guardians working for Cafcass. This can, in part, be attributed
to the national shortage of social workers, but also to the dispute
Cafcass had with self-employed guardians just weeks after being
The dispute over the tax status of self-employed guardians led
to Cafcass withdrawing self-employed contracts, a decision
overturned in the High Court after a challenge by guardian
association Nagalro. It also resulted in a general moratorium on
The report states that behind the history lies “an unfortunate
tale” of conflict between guardians and Cafcass management, “the
legacy of which continues to affect the service today. The overall
impression guardians were left with was that they were
Despite tax and pay issues being resolved, hundreds of
self-employed guardians voted with their feet and Nagalro believes
Cafcass continues to operate policies that discriminate against
them. A recent poll showed the number of self-employed guardians
spending more than 80 per cent of their time on Cafcass work has
halved since 2001.
Attracting back these guardians is key to Cafcass overcoming its
workforce crisis, says Beith.
“They have been treated badly,” he says. “Cafcass needs to make
it clear it is committed to a mixed economy workforce.
“Without significant recruitment and the ability to draw quickly
on self-employed guardians, delays won’t be tackled.”
Alison Paddle, chairperson of Nagalro, believes if there was a
“very public commitment” to a mixed economy linked to discussions
on workload planning and management practice, “quite a number could
be won back”.
“We think this is the last opportunity,” she says. “There is no
way I can persuade any guardian to come back unless Cafcass does
some significant changing.”
She says this needs to include a major overhaul of the Cafcass
board – another issue picked up by the committee. The report states
the board has failed to hold management to account.
The lack of board members with experience of child care
proceedings or front-line practice – only one has experience of
court reporting – has resulted in it failing to “deal effectively
with the task with which it is entrusted”. One board member admits
the board is “disempowered, and unable to make a valued
contribution to the oversight and strategic direction”.
“The lack of experience relevant to the board’s sphere of
work is striking,” says Beith. “I think the whole membership of the
board should be reviewed.”
Paddle says it would be “extremely worrying” if there were no
changes. “We want to see some high-profile appointments of people
who know the family court business inside out.”
The report calls the board’s response to submissions sent
to the inquiry “deeply depressing”, with the chairperson and other
board members “determined to bury their heads in the sand and
pretend there is nothing wrong”.
This attitude still prevails. In the response issued to
employees by Cafcass chief executive Jonathan Tross last week he
says he “personally regretted” the criticism of board members who
had “steered Cafcass through a difficult period demonstrating
dedication and commitment to the interests of children and the
Beith also recognises concerns that the Department for
Constitutional Affairs – formerly the Lord Chancellor’s
Department – has too much influence over the board and recommends a
clarification of the lines of accountability. “It appears the board
was incapable of making decisions without referring to the
department, which it should not need to do,” he says.
The committee admits that delays in appointing board members,
the lack of a shadow board to bed in the organisation before its
official launch and the loss of the original chief executive in its
first year were all factors, the blame for which lies partly with
the department and the then LCD minister Rosie Winterton.
Short-term thinking is a common criticism through the report,
and this is typified in Cafcass’s approach to IT. Beith says
the committee “would have regarded IT as a significant failure if
there weren’t bigger failures”. Initial attempts to create an
integrated case management system were halted, wasting millions of
pounds, and the committee says it doubts whether a simpler case
recording system will be enough in the medium-term.
The organisation is still using “rickety” paper-based systems to
collect information about cases and service needs. “People are
using IT systems you could get from high street stores,” says
Beith. “This is supposed to be a serious case management system and
it is not.” He adds that more resources are needed to address
Cafcass’s failure to establish “even a minimum training
and professional development strand… is one of the more
serious of its early period”, the report says. It failed to take
forward much of the preparation work done by professionals or use
training courses in the field.
The worst failure of all, though, is the lack of proper
induction training. It amounts to what inquiry witnesses described
as little more than a “trip around the bay”.
The committee report recommends establishing a dedicated
training and development strand in Cafcass and for a board member
to take responsibility for it.
Paddle says there is pressure being put on some newly employed
guardians to take on too much work, while self-employed guardians
Cafcass argues that the committee focused too much on its
history and that many of these problems from the early days have
been overcome. But, as Paddle points out, this focus does provide
“external confirmation and validates concerns”.
And questions remain about those early, bungled months. The
committee has recommended the National Audit Office investigate
what Beith calls “the misuse, mismanagement or inappropriate use”
of millions of pounds of money from its start-up budget.
This includes £9m spent on a task force, working to smooth
the transition from separate services to a unified one, whose work
was never used. Also, the former director of operations’
submission to the inquiry revealed that, at the time of his
appointment, Cafcass was spending £9,000 a day on
The one issue that everyone agrees on is the high quality of
guardian work throughout Cafcass’s brief history.
“Under considerable pressure, practitioners have continued to do
a good job and are trying to make children a priority,” says Beith.
By contrast, Cafcass has “not convinced anybody it has made
children its priority”.
Ultimately, this is what the organisation will be judged on in
Have your say
Can Cafcass persuade the guardians who left the service to
return and, if so, how?
Read responses to our ‘Have your say’ debate