Cafcass’ response to rising care applications would have been more effective if better progress had been made in tackling existing organisational problems, the National Audit Office has found.
Its report, published today, examined whether the family courts body was prepared for “reasonable” variations in future service demand and whether it could have responded more effectively to the post Baby-P increase in care applications.
The report concluded that Cafcass could not have predicted the “rapid and sustained” referrals spike and the extra money it needed to cope could still be considered fair. However, it criticised its slow progress in dealing with problems in IT systems, data accuracy and management supervision that existed before the Baby P case came to light.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office (NAO), said Cafcass’s ability to respond effectively was “limited by the known problems within the organisation which, had management made more and faster progress in dealing with them, could have reduced the negative effect of the rise in demand.”
Margaret Hodge, chair of the House of Commons’ public accounts committee, said the report raised “serious concerns” about the way in which Cafcass met the needs of vulnerable children. The committee will take evidence on the report in September.
“I will want to understand why, some seven years after it was formed, the organisation lacked the managerial competence to deliver an effective service,” Hodge said of Cafcass. “The case of Baby P highlighted serious underlying issues and we will want to understand whether backlogs and delays were generated solely as a consequence or could have been avoided with improved management practice.”
High staff sickness rates and low staff morale were highlighted by the NAO as areas in need of improvement. On average, Cafcass staff were absent through sickness on 16 days last year, while poor management and use of the duty systems in some service areas was blamed for low morale and poor performance among staff.
The NAO made several recommendations, including that the government requests an assessment of Cafcass’ data accuracy and considers whether formal indicators be introduced to oversee the organisation “to add transparency to existing monitoring”.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said the body was planning a transformation programme to help tackle the challenges ahead and ensure it was better placed to manage future fluctuations in demand.
“We’ll be developing and improving the way in which we work with the rising number of children and families referred to us and ensuring that we have the right support in place to assist our family court advisers who work with them,” Douglas said.
The NAO recommended improved partnership working as key to the successful implementation of the transformation programme, highlighting the “interdependence” of Cafcass and its partners.
Morse said the transformation programme “needs further work if Cafcass is to rise to the enormous challenge it still faces and improve how it serves vulnerable children and families.”
Douglas said: “In June 2010, 11,243 care cases were allocated to a Cafcass children’s guardian – that’s 2,496 more care cases than in July last year and a 28.5% increase in our allocated care case workload. This is a terrific achievement given the pressure that we, and all organisations in the family justice system, are under.”