MPs have called on Cafcass to use more self-employed guardians and to respect the professionalism of its staff by taking a lighter-touch management style.
The justice select committee today published its report on the family courts in which it states that it is “puzzled and concerned by Cafcass’s continued aversion to the use of self-employed guardians”.
The committee points out that Cafcass has doubled its spend on agency social workers in the past year even though self-employed guardians are cheaper.
“Self-employed guardians offer greater flexibility and their expertise is valued by the judiciary,” the report says. “Cafcass should be making considerably greater use of self-employed staff, particularly in the geographical areas where it has difficulty recruiting.”
It adds that the appointment of such experienced social workers would justify a lighter touch in management, allowing staff more discretion about the way they work “than the detailed and process-driven [Cafcass] Operating Manual would suggest.
“This is the future for social workers Professor [Eileen] Munro has set out in her report. Cafcass should look at the lessons that it can learn from her report and adopt Professor Munro’s proposed approach.”
However, a Cafcass spokesperson said many self-employed guardians were London-based and were unable to be recruited in other areas. “We do already make use of self-employed guardians,” she said. “They handle about 10% or our care workload so they are an essential part of our workforce.”
She added that Cafcass was already trying to adopt a lighter-touch management style. “Like all organisations, we’re working to ensure that practitioners aren’t bogged down in bureaucracy. Our case plans are becoming far less onerous and the model we’re bringing in is an applied learning model, with less auditing.”
MPs were encouraged by Cafcass’s progress on reducing backlogs but wanted evidence to show that managers were “actively working” on cases they held and that they were coping with the caseload “given that there is no sign of a future fall in the number of care applications”.
The report points out that council budget cuts are likely to exacerbate the problem. Already, 40% of care cases reached court without the local authority having carried out a core assessment, leaving Cafcass guardians to undertake more social work.
The committee is also questioning the Family Justice Review’s interim recommendation of a statutory six-month time limit on care proceedings, given that many cases can take well over a year to complete.
The report expresses concern at the lack of evidence on the number of cases processed through courts, the costs and how many decisions were made by judges against local authorities in public care cases. It also recommends that the government should rethink how to make family courts more transparent after evidence that children were opposed to opening them up to media reporting.
MPs agreed more measures were needed to help resolve public law cases without taking children into care, such as family group conferences or letters before proceedings. They pointed out some needed more evidence of their effectiveness while councils, such as Liverpool, appeared to be cutting back on family group conferences, despite an apparent 100% success rate.
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