Controversial measures in the Children and Social Work Bill “threaten the existence” of the independent reviewing officer role, according to the national body that represents them.
The National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO) said the bill’s so-called ‘power to innovate’, which would allow the government to exempt councils from statutory duties, would have a “disastrous impact” on children’s rights and weaken IROs’ ability to challenge local authority decisions about their care.
The bill, which is currently going through parliament, would enable councils to apply to ‘opt out’ of certain legal duties for up to three years (with the possibility of it being extended by a further three years) in order to “test different ways of working”. Councils under government intervention due to poor performance may also be directed to opt out of certain functions.
The government, which claims the measures will promote innovation and cut red tape, dismissed suggestions exemptions would be used to place children at risk and stressed that any council plans would have to go through a “strict approval” process.
NAIRO fears the measures open the door for the “dismantling” of the IRO role, which was established on a statutory basis in 2004 and is filled by registered social workers with sufficient experience to perform the role’s functions, as set out in the Children Act 1989.
Every child in care currently gets an IRO, who reviews their plan and attends meetings to make sure decisions are made in their best interests.
But NAIRO fears councils will look to opt out of that requirement. The group pointed to comments from schools minister Lord Nash that IROs brought “no additional benefit” to “low risk cases” and exemptions would help councils to “trial redirecting IRO resource differently”.
The group claims Hampshire council has already drawn up proposals to apply for exemptions to test non-social work qualified staff carrying out duties in place of IROs, and to cut the frequency of children’s reviews from the current minimum of once every six months.
The council denied it wanted to replace IROs “with unqualified social workers” but said it was looking at ways to make more “effective use” of its reviewing officers. It was unable to comment further as proposals had to be signed off by the Department for Education (DfE), a spokesperson said.
Jacki Rothwell, chair of NAIRO, said: “This measure is not about “innovation” it is about dismantling children’s rights. I have not met an IRO in the country who thinks these measures would help children in care.”
Rothwell said NAIRO backed the Together for Children group, a partnership of lawyers, social work bodies, service user organisations and others who are campaigning for the government to scrap the clauses.
One of the organisers of the campaign, Carolyne Willow, director of children’s rights campaign group Article 39, said she’d been told about Hampshire’s plans for IRO reform at a meeting with the DfE.
“I left the building with the impression that our discussion about IROs had sowed doubts about the efficacy of such an exemption. But who knows what is being planned, because there has been absolutely no public consultation.”
Willow accused the government of failing to produce any evidence of why ministers believed “legal duties are detrimental to children” or why exemptions were needed, adding: “The examples coming out, little by little, cannot conceivably be described as red tape. They are core children’s rights and safeguards.”
The DfE said the innovation powers aimed to allow councils to test different approaches in a controlled environment. The proposals concerning IROs were only “initial ideas” and any use of the ‘exemption’ power would require consultation in line with the bill, it added.
The bill requires any council to consult with any local safeguarding partners “and relevant agencies” it considers appropriate before applying for exemptions. The government must consult the Children’s Commissioner and Ofsted before making a decision on councils’ applications.
A DfE spokesperson said the new powers would hand councils “the freedom to develop new and effective ways of supporting children and young people”.
“Some of the best local authorities in the country, such as Hampshire and North Yorkshire, are already doing this. To suggest it would place children at risk is simply wrong, any changes must undergo a strict approval process and demonstrate that safeguards will be put in place,” she added.
The Children and Social Work Bill will be debated in the House of Lords later this month.