The fostering stocktake brings back dangerous ideas from the ‘exemption clause’

Carolyne Willow analyses the link between recommendations in the fostering stocktake and the government's failed 'exemption clause'

Photo: antic/Fotolia

by Carolyne Willow

Less than a year since former education secretary Justine Greening added her name to Labour amendments to delete dangerous clauses in the then Children and Social Work Bill, several of the ditched plans have found their way into Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers’ Foster Care Review.

The exemption clauses would have allowed local authorities to opt out of any of their statutory duties in children’s social care. Shadow children’s minister Emma Lewell-Buck asked the House of Commons library for a list of the endangered legislation: it ran to 12 pages.

Government motives slowly emerged during the parliamentary passage of the Bill –there had been no Green or White Paper – and we heard that independent reviewing officers (IROs) could be removed from “low-risk cases”; that councils may want to test not having adoption and fostering panels; and social workers may not be necessary for every child in care and care leaver.

In the dying days of the exemption clauses, there was also a suggestion that opt outs could be used to offer respite foster care to older children without them being legally looked after (with the obvious consequence of young people losing their leaving care entitlements).

‘Affect every child in care’

Every one of these reductions in children’s legal safeguards has appeared as recommendations in the Narey/Owers review of foster care.

When it comes to independent reviewing officers, though, the ambition has extended far beyond removing them from “low-risk cases” (a deeply problematic concept anyhow) to their complete demise. A footnote on page 38 calculates that local authorities could save up to £76 million if they got rid of every independent reviewing officer. This would affect every child in care, including those remanded to custody.

Even though their companion ‘call for evidence report’ makes just one reference to IROs, and this is that some respondents called for “improving the role”, Narey and Owers confidently conclude: “We saw little to recommend the IRO role and believe local authorities should be allowed to dispense with it, re-investing savings in front line staffing.”

There is no discussion of the unique children’s rights function of IROs in the 51 lines of the report discussing them.

In 2001, the Court of Appeal introduced a radical means of holding councils to account. Starred care plans would have required councils to report on progress and possibly return to court if the child’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) “had been or were at real risk of being breached”.

The mechanism was overturned in the House of Lords the following year, though Ministers went on to introduce a provision in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 requiring councils to appoint a person to undertake children’s reviews, monitor the performance of the local authority and refer appropriate cases to Cafcass.

Threadbare content’

It is inconceivable that Ministers will seek to remove all three elements of independent scrutiny and safeguarding on the threadbare content of this Review. Since IROs are enshrined in primary legislation, their removal would have to have the consent of Parliament.

I am not suggesting there isn’t a lot of scope for improving the effectiveness of IROs. There is, but there is also solid academic and case study evidence to show the enormous benefits for children of having a highly experienced social work professional holding their corporate parents to account.

Those who followed the Children and Social Work Bill closely will recall the moving case studies submitted by the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO) to the House of Commons. The majority of these described actions taken by IROs to stop children being moved against their best interests.

One case study concerned a 13-year-old boy who felt no-one believed his serious complaints about his foster carers. IRO intervention led to the complaints being investigated and the foster carers were deregistered.


On the subject of abuse allegations, the Review rightly recommends carers be properly supported when concerns are raised about them, but makes no comment about care for children during investigations. Further, Narey and Owers state “between one-fifth and one-quarter of allegations are confirmed as involving an act that could be defined as abuse or neglect” [their emphasis], whereas the research they cite actually indicates that in around a quarter of cases (23 per cent) abuse or neglect was confirmed to have occurred.

Narey and Owers refer to all unproven allegations as being “without merit”, yet the research they rely on inevitably shows this to be more complex than that. Data from 85 local authorities, concerning a total of 1,490 allegations, showed 26 per cent to be confirmed and 29 per cent to be unfounded. Insufficient evidence was available or investigations were continuing in the remainder.

Narey and Owers’ choice of words – “an act” – could also be misleading, since proven allegations included physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.

Problematic proposals

There are other deeply problematic proposals, including that a single social worker could support “the child in placement and would undertake looked after children reviews, personal education plan reviews, and managing contact with the birth family, while continuing to offer support to the foster carers”.

Narey and Owers say this will cut down family intrusion as well as save money for councils; and that it is “irrelevant” whether the social worker is employed by the local authority or an independent provider. At the back of the report, there is an annex which describes the views and wishes of 100 children in foster care consulted by the Office of Children’s Commissioner.

This concludes: “In terms of contact with their social worker, the majority of responses suggested contact with the social worker was ‘not enough’. Many viewed this unresponsiveness as ‘lazy’ and expressed that they would like more contact with their social worker.”

As they so frequently do, children also asked for more contact with their brothers and sisters. Their views on this are also included in the report’s annex: “The majority of young people for whom the question applied indicated that they had too little contact with their siblings.”

Narey and Owers recommend that councils should not presume that keeping siblings who enter care together is in the best interests of the individual children. Professionals are urged to “not shirk offering evidence to the courts about the potentially damaging consequences of contact” with siblings or parents.

At the same time, in relation to former foster carers, Narey and Owers state: “Quite simply, children need to be asked who’s important to them and with whom they’d like to remain in contact.”

They recommend a presumption of continuing contact after a child has moved placement, unless it would not be in his or her best interests. I believe it would be an unforgivable insult to children for public policy to recognise the love, attachment and shared history they have with former foster carers, but not to similarly validate the brothers and sisters they shared their earlier lives with.

Media coverage of the report’s launch has inevitably concentrated on foster carers being able to show physical affection towards babies and children. This is a massive credit to the work of Max Wrigley and A National Voice which started campaigning for children in care to be hugged in 2013.


Article 39 is naturally delighted that Narey and Owers have recognised the value of independent advocacy, so soon after we launched a national campaign with the National Children’s Advocacy Consortium and NAIRO. This has the backing of the current and former Children’s Commissioners for England and nearly 40 organisations.

Last week, we announced our official campaign name – Advocates4U Your future, your dreams, your voice – devised by Heather and Megan from Sheffield Children in Care Council.

The Review recommends that statutory guidance around advocacy be “reinforced”, which is baffling because it is badly out-of-date: it was drafted when children’s social care policy was the responsibility of the Department of Health and advocates worked primarily with children in care.

Now children also receive advocacy support in child protection, mental health in-patient units, prisons and sometimes during education exclusion processes. A fresh look and a national strategy is desperately required and, when this happens, children and young people’s voices, experiences and rights must be all that matters.

Meanwhile, I cannot be alone in wondering why Narey and Owers want children in care to know about their right to advocacy while at the same time recommending the dilution or disappearance of rights protection, which advocates are employed to defend.

Carolyne Willow is Director of Article 39 and a patron of NAIRO. She received the award for Championing Social Work Values at the 2017 Social Worker of the Year Awards.

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9 Responses to The fostering stocktake brings back dangerous ideas from the ‘exemption clause’

  1. John Kemmis February 9, 2018 at 5:56 pm #

    Carolyne Willow sets out so well the concerns with Martin Marey ‘s report. If a review was concerned with how best to safeguard children in care and ensure the best outcomes rather than cost it would draw rather different conclusions. Equally even on cost in the long run poor planning and decision making can be expensive in Teheran long run. It would be very foolish to consider dispensing with the IRO role or the child’s social worker. We also know the importance that young people in care or have left care give to sibling contact and complain how the stst split them up. The emphasis given to separation in the report seems quite unhelpful.
    Obviously some positive recommendations but there is a need for the government to be very cautious about accepting recommendations that could leave children in care more vulnerable. John kemmis
    (Former CEO Voice )

  2. Chris February 10, 2018 at 4:40 pm #

    I think this article should be clearly marked as ‘comment’ or ‘editorial’, given that it is written by a patron of NAIRO (National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers).

    I think it’s fair comment what is written, but this is clearly from a vested view point.

    It would be interesting to have an article with an opposing view.

  3. Jonathan Stanley February 12, 2018 at 2:47 pm #

    Child care theory allows an observation to be made regarding the proposition for the removal of IROs.

    What could be the implications of the proposed compression of social work roles? There would be inevitable role confusion for an individual social worker, being both internal to the care relationship, and external reflecting and managing. Social work and social work manager roles are essential as is the IRO enabling, facilitating, and complementary to the other two. There is a role required to ‘hold’ those directly involved in the care of young people to their task. It is crucial that someone has the containing function and manages what Winnicott observed as a ‘scatter of interested parties’.

    How will we be enabled to have a dialogue such as that above over the proposition? The necessary conversations would not be possible within a usual consultation. It needs an appropriate method and time to allow consideration, probably an extended period.

    This IRO proposition opens for scrutiny the current predominance of solution focused propositions in policy. Critique is essential and a necessity in policy making.

    Critique of the proposition was given in the Parliamentary discussions of the Children and Social Work Bill. Critique was applied and the resulting Act has Parliamentary authority. There is a large debate to be had as to effects of an Executive subsequently acting outside of that Parliamentary authority.

    Having made a maximalist case the proposition perhaps might become a platform for a removal of the IRO for some young people? Again, we need to think about the proposition in child care theory and practice terms. The same regard has to be given to all roles, long term and mainstream care is just as specialist as crisis intervention or intensive. We need to consider the potential for the proposition to act to introduce a tiered children’s services system, a different set of rights applying to one group and another. How is this distinction to be made; who would make it; would it be national or locally determined; and would it be by young people challenged from a children’s rights perspective?

    There is also critique needed of the idea that the funding would be distributed to front line work. In the scheme of things the stated amount to be redistributed would be very small. Would it be ring fenced for use in directed ways? How do we determine what these ways would be of most influence in securing the welfare of the maximum number of young people? The recent work of Paul Bywaters is important here. Elsewhere on Community Care pages with Calum Webb he writes,’ An unspoken, undiscussed policy change, is rebalancing services away from family support at a time when families have faced exceptional pressures…In 2010 almost half of all children’s services spend went on supporting families, with the other half on Safeguarding and Looked-After Children (LAC) services’ (As a result of the hollowing out of children’s services) ‘… Now, child protection and LAC dominate with over 70% of total spend’.

  4. Anita Singh February 12, 2018 at 5:02 pm #

    This government has absolutely no concern, no commitment and no real interest in spending any of OUR MONEY on those who need it the most. Children in Care are an onerous and unwelcome financial burden, that much is very clear.

    The government’s sneaky and underhand tactics to try to find alternative ways of quietly introducing their agenda through this so called ‘Review’ through the back door to find any way of shirking OUR collective responsibility to OUR most vulnerable children really is shameful but predictable.

    We are drowning in evidence of what has happened to children in care historically, yet we have a government who is hell-bent in implementing an agenda to weaken and virtually eliminate what minimal measures that exist to safeguard our children rather than strengthen children’s positions through better safeguarding measures, improved advocacy, promoting children’s rights, supporting a positive identity and preserving children’s heritage.

    God only knows what is going to happen after Brexit when we do not have the benefit of the European Courts to seek redress or to set the very basic standards that children in the rest of Europe will enjoy.

    • Anita Singh February 13, 2018 at 1:14 am #

      Sorry forgot to add a few of the following minor details:

      1. 2008 – start of enquiry into serious abuse of Children in Care by Jersey Police

      2. 2012 – start of Operation Yewtree – investigation of widespread serious abuse of children across the UK by Jimmy Saville and other paedophiles spanning decades

      3. 2013 – Operation Fernbridge MET investigation re: decades of serious abuse of children in care in West London

      4. 2013 – Operation Athabasca MET Investigation re: decades of serious abuse of children in care in SW London

      5. 2014 – Operation Midland MET Investigation re: decades of serious abuse of children in South England and SW London

      6. 2015 – Operation Cayacos MET AND Manchester Police continues iinvestigations of serious abuse in SW London and it’s links to abuse of children in care by Politician Cyril Smith et al.

      7. 1979 – 2017 – Manchester Police investigate decades of abuse of children in care by MP Cyril Smith (linked to MET Investigation)

      8. 2015 – More than a Dozen police forces investigate serious abuse of children in care in Wiltshire linked to MP Edward Heath

      9. 2015 – Further investigations of serious child sexual abuse by Jersey Police due to further allegations involving a further four institutions caring for Children in Care and involving high ranking politicians

      10. 2014-15 Independent Inquiry was set up to investigate the serious abuse of children in care, where two judges were removed, one because of links to Leon Brittan

      11. 2015 IPCC investigates alleged cover ups of the serious abuse of children in care

      12. 2015 Wanless Review into historical cover up of Child Abuse of children in care.

      13. 2015 Review of historical serious abuse of children in care in Northern Ireland

      14. 2015 Scotland Care Inquiry into historical serious abuse of children in care in Scotland

      15. 2015 Operation Pallial – re: serious abuse of children in care in Wales

      16. This is to name but a few of the investigations into the abuse of children in care.

      How many millions (or billions) did the government actually spend on paying police officers, social workers, victim liaison officers, solicitors, courts, judges, civil servants, public enquiries lasting for many years and other enquiries by media corporations? Then once we established what we already suspected all along, how much did we actually pay in compensation (or not). JOB DONE we have satisfactorily dealt with the unpalatable truths?

      Now let’s compare that to how much the government is looking to save by scaling back on the minimal safeguards in place for children in care – what a great idea is it not?

  5. Hilton Dawson February 12, 2018 at 10:56 pm #

    If we have an Opposition in Parliament why doesn’t it get Carolyne Willow to write a proper report on reforming the Care system ?

  6. Paul February 13, 2018 at 8:53 am #

    I do have concerns with some aspects of the objectivity of this article – both in terms of its political underpinnings and also some of its basic assumptions. In particular the assumption that IROs are good and not having one in place will be a bad thing is challengeable. Whether the investment in IROs has been an overall good thing is not clear from the research. Elaine Farmer et al’s research on care planning… in 1997 took a more balanced view in my opinion -suggesting that in long term care team managers were better placed to chair / oversee reviews of these children. This was a good poece of research undertaken by very good researchers and it always surprised me how the IRO legislation that followed 5 years later swung to far the other way. Aside from this – the recruitment of IROs has led to a significant loss of very experienced social workers working cases and being front line team managers. In my experience once you become an IRO you do not go back to a job As a font line SW. I would argue it would be better to reinvest the money for IROs in to more front line social worker jobs – reducing caseloads. That could offer a better outcome for children and young people.

    Aside from this – there is I think a general lack of the type of creativity that people like Narey are trying to bring to social work. Research (and there is not much of it) into creativity in social work has found that local authorities tend to wncourage adaptive styles of creativity rather than the out of the box thinking that (perhaps) is more abundant in the private and voluntary sectors. The culture / organisational climate of local authorities tends to discourage the out of the box / innovators – even though it genuinely wants them (up to a point). Is it any wonder perhaps that social work (whose creativity credentials are questionable compared to other professions – after all we are a profession that reflects conventions in society) finds news ideas a bit Scarey.

    As for the politics – having experienced social work as a profesion under both Labour and conservative and colation governments – my experience is that conservatives tend to increase accointability of social work while reducing investment while Labour governments have increased investment whilst also increasing central control and consequently resucing professional accountabilty and professionalism. If you look at the last Labour administration – manageriaslism which Blair and Brown increased from the Thatcher years to a new level almost destroyed the profession. It was in my ipinion a dark age in social works history even though funding was generally good (albeit from the education agenda rather than social work itself). My fear of a Labour goverent is that we return to this dark age – where social work suffers again from the tendancy of Labour governments to want to control everything we do – turning us imto robots.

  7. Rob Brotherstone February 13, 2018 at 7:21 pm #

    I have not had the opportunity to read the report by Narey and Owens, and can only comment on the proposal to abolish the role of the IRO. I am a retired IRO, having previously worked for the probation service for 30 odd years, where my path did occasionally cross with that of Mr Narey

    It appears to me that the main thrust of the proposal is about saving money, dressed up as redistributing it to front line services. If there is one thread which ran through the several thousand reviews I chaired, it was that the authority’s plans for the child were driven by the need to save money, rather than focus on the needs of the child. That was not the fault of the hard pressed social workers, or their managers. It was the inevitable result of the huge cuts in budgets. The resulting debates and disagreements between IROs and managers did result sometimes in better outcomes for the child ranging from not changing a placement to being able to see their mum on their birthday and a hundred other small things of no moment to policy makers but of great matter to the children. To substitute just one social worker as judge and jury on the issue of change of placement or seeing mum on a birthday is not giving children much of a chance, and who would they turn to? Once i became the IRO for a child, i stayed the IRO, in some instances, for the 11 years i did the job. So inevitably i knew my kids, their history, their siblings, their parents. If they weren’t placed with their siblings, then there was at least a link, albeit tenuous. Despite carrying a caseload of around a hundred, I can think of very few children who kept the same social worker throughout their time in care. I could go to reviews where the previous social worker had left, and the one who had replaced had also gone, so the child had 3 social workers in the course of two reviews six months apart. Again, recruitment and retention problems are not the fault of individual authorities, but children have to face constant change and constant re-telling of their story.

    Before this proposal is implemented, I hope that someone has the decency to ask children who are in or have been through the care system what their views are. You might find that some of them are as good advocates for the IRO as I hope that IROS are (and were!) For the kids at the sharp end.

  8. Andy Loverock February 22, 2018 at 9:47 am #

    Having spent seven years as a foster carer working tirelessly to help promote positive outcomes for 13 children, I’ve found the input from the vast majority of IROs fantastic. I have sat in many reviews where I’ve felt that some bad decisions could have been made without the presence of an astute IRO.

    Suitably experienced IROs who adopt a child-centered approach and meaningfully engage with children are in my opinion, extremely valuable.

    And Chris – if you think this article warrants being marked as ‘comment’ or ‘editorial’ I would like to say that I too share Carolyne’s concerns about the stocktake – as I’m sure most other foster carers do.

    I don’t know Carolyne but maybe her ‘vested viewpoint’ is balanced by her award for Championing Social Work Values at the 2017 Social Worker of the Year Awards.

    Over 90% of IROs being directly employed by their local authority is a slight concern because I’ve witnessed the enormous pressure that this can put them under – when to act in the best interest of a child they have to – in effect – challenge the practices of their employer. Conversely, there are advantages to them working within the local authority teams.

    For example, it enables IROs to have a better understanding of the local authority context, to build more productive working relationships, and hopefully, to contribute to policy and practice improvement.

    I had hoped that the stocktake would strengthen and support the role of IRO’s. Many seem to have high caseloads along with various other responsibilities, which must make it difficult for them to meet all the demands of their role.

    As I witnessed for over two decades working as a mental health nurse, budgets and finances often get in the way of logical, client-centered decision making.