Staff groups slam reform plans

Management and staff are at loggerheads over proposals for efficiency gains at Cafcass. Amy Taylor reports

After several critical inspection reports, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service last month announced a  draft of proposals designed to boost resources at the front line, increase supervision and create manageable workloads.

Cafcass says that change is required because demand for its services is increasing faster than its budget, which has remained static over the past two years and is not expected to increase in the short term. It must also continue to hit efficiency targets set by government and has produced plans to make efficiency savings to fund improved services.

But staff argue that the proposals will threaten good practice and what is needed is an increase in the budget.

Jonathan Ledger, assistant general secretary of family courts union Napo, said that costcutting seemed to be the main theme of the proposals. “Cafcass hasn’t successfully argued with the government for the resources that it actually needs and consequently it’s making decisions that are generated by the financial straits that it finds itself in,” he says.

 Anthony Douglas (pictured), chief executive of Cafcass, says that the proposals are set within the context of the resources available to the organisation.

“It would be irresponsible to do otherwise as we have a duty to show that we are using public funds efficiently,” he adds.

One controversial part of the proposals is for high-cost Cafcass teams to have their budgets slashed to the same levels of the most efficient teams from April 2008. The lower budgets will be phased in over one to two years and the amount of money given to teams will be weighted in areas where Cafcass says it can be “objectively shown” that workloads are more difficult, such as where more interpreters and translators are necessary.

Ledger says that Cafcass gives the impression that some teams are not working as hard as they could be when this is not the case.

Alison Paddle, chair of guardians’ association Nagalro, is also critical of this part of Cafcass’ plans. She says the service had applied “simplistic labels about costs and productivity” which do not reflect “the reality of the family justice system”.

Ledger agrees that it is unfair to expect all teams to work as quickly as the most efficient and argues that there are too many  differences between areas and the types of cases teams may encounter to make this reasonable.

“What happens in Colchester is very different to what’s happening in Wolverhampton.” But Douglas rejects the argument that  such differences entirely explain teams’ different speeds of working. He says that although the “performance gap” between areas has narrowed, some “structural inefficiency” persists that needs to be tackled.

He adds that Cafcass has made improvements in private law practice through “innovative working practices” and that this could be replicated in public law cases. One issue staff representatives and Cafcass are in agreement on is the need for more money.

The document says Cafcass will push its case hard with the Department for Education and Skills, and concludes by warning that failure to fund the service properly in future years will have serious repercussions for vulnerable children.

Other proposals to improve Cafcass:
● Practitioners will receive more supervision and be given more manageable workloads.
● Paying more competitive salaries where they fall short of the market level.
● Bringing in a bonus system.
● 11 regional directors reduced to five operational directors.
● Some senior management posts will be cut to save more than £500,000 a year.
Organising for Quality

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 Amy Taylor

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