Family courts body Cafcass has hit back at MPs who concluded it was “not fit for purpose” after care applications soared following the death of Baby P.
A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published today said the 34% rise in referrals after the tragedy led to “chaos across the family justice system and exposed Cafcass as an organisation that was not fit for purpose in dealing with the increased number of cases”.
The committee found Cafcass resorted to measures which enabled it to “do less work or delay work” and failed to tackle “fundamental weaknesses in its culture, management and performance”.
“These problems have been to the detriment of children,” the committee said, also criticising “unacceptably high” staff sickness rates, delays in allocating cases and the lack of a contingency plan.
However, MPs did also acknowledge that the quality of local authority assessments on care cases were not always adequate and this placed additional pressure on Cafcass.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas denied the claims. “Cafcass is fit for purpose because we have absorbed a massive number of new cases in the last 12 months and have improved our productivity by 17% – a performance any organisation would be proud of,” he said.
“We have improved on every measure considered by the PAC, including falling staff sickness which stand at 12 days for our frontline staff and is comparable to other social work organisations, faster filing times of court reports, with 85.8% of reports filed on time or only 1-5 days late and quicker allocation of care cases.
“We will take heed of the PAC findings, and we will continue to defend the interests of the 140,000 children who we work with each year, each of whose cases is unique and many of whose lives we improve as a direct result of our involvement,” Douglas said.
A Cafcass spokesperson added that, despite continuing high levels of referrals, the body is “doing better than ever before in terms of allocating cases”.
“At the end of October 2010, 99.7% of care cases were allocated and only 45 out of a total of 12,869 remained unallocated. Overall, we are working on 3,000 more cases in October than we were in April this year.”
She said the body was also less reliant on the use of duty guardians. “There were 568 duty allocated care cases in October compared to 1,061 duty allocated care cases in April 2010, a 46.1% reduction in duty allocated care cases over six months.”
Giving evidence to the PAC last month Sir Mark Hedley, a senior family law judge, defended Cafcass. “The service that is actually delivered on the ground for most of us is certainly fit for purpose,” he said.
However, Margaret Hodge, the committee’s chairwoman, said Cafcass was “ill-prepared” for the increase in care cases. Its “lack of readiness”, she said, was a “direct result of the organisation’s continued failure to get to grips with the fundamental weaknesses in its culture, management and performance.
“It is still dealing with a legacy of low morale, unacceptably high levels of sickness absence and under-performance by some staff,” Hodge said.
Ann Haigh, chair of guardians body Nagalro, said: “We agree with the PAC that Cafcass is unfit for purpose. But we do not think the PAC has got the solution quite right. Cafcass does not need more management…What we need is a much less bureaucratic service that allows experienced professionals to do the job they are trained for without having one hand tied behind their back.”
Nagalro has told the Family Justice Review and children’s minister Tim Loughton that it would be more effective and cost effective for family court services to be commissioned at local level with stronger links to courts and a range of specialist services.
According to the latest figures, care demand is continuing to rise. Between April and October 2010, Cafcass received 5,222 new applications, up 3.3% on the same period last year. With the exception of June and October, care applications for all months this year have been the highest ever recorded by Cafcass.
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