Should local authorities be able to scrap the independent reviewing officer role?

A key recommendation of the government's fostering stocktake has prompted discussion and criticism from social workers

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Photo: makibestphoto/Fotolia

The government’s fostering stocktake report, published earlier this month, made 36 recommendations about how the system for children in care could be improved.

One of the more eye-catching recommendations was to give local authorities the opportunity to remove the independent reviewing officer (IRO) role and use those savings to invest in the frontline.

The report’s authors, Martin Narey and Mark Owers, explained the rationale behind the recommendation was that it would return experienced practitioners to the frontline and give more resources to social workers and teams making placement decisions.

“The real issue is whether, rather than spending large amounts of money checking that children are being appropriately placed and cared for in the care system, we should invest that money in more frontline and line management staff to make that happen,” the report explained.

The authors stressed that cost savings are not the core reason behind the recommendation to scrap IROs; instead it would give local authorities the opportunity to invest that money on the frontline.

‘Beyond its brief’

However, these suggestions have been met with strong criticism.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW), says the fostering stocktake had gone “far beyond its brief” in an attempt to re-introduce the controversial exemption clause from the children and social work bill. The clause, which was eventually struck from the bill before it became law, would have allowed councils to request exemptions from statutory duties, which the government said was a way of trialling innovation.

“It seems folly that the sector, once again, finds itself in a position of having to defend the introduction of important checks and balances for children in the care system.”

A BASW statement adds: “It is vital that children’s care plans are reviewed by individuals who are not directly involved in providing support to either the child or the foster carer. IROs need to be objective and able to scrutinise and hold to account the individuals and agencies who are charged with meeting the educational, health and day-to-day care needs of the child.

“Rather than see the role of IROs removed or diluted, BASW England feels this role needs to be strengthened in increasingly challenging resource-led environments.”


Jon Fayle, co-chair of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO), told Community Care the recommendation was based on “superficial and flimsy” evidence, and shared the opinions of “a small number of children’s services director”.

“It is extraordinary and irresponsible, that a major service that seeks to protect the rights of children and promote their welfare should be recommended to be stopped in such a cavalier manner,” Fayle says.

Local authorities have been required to employ IROs since 2004 as a means of protecting children’s interests during the care planning process and placements.

Fayle believes the recommendation is a second attempt to “dismantle” the role.

“NAIRO has always been of the view that the service is patchy and steps need to be taken to strengthen the role, and we have proposals about how that might take place. We’re not arguing the service is perfect,” Fayle explains.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, likewise didn’t agree with the recommendation, nor did the charity Become.

The fostering stocktake report cites a 2013 thematic review of the role by Ofsted, which highlighted problems including “poor oversight of care plans; excessive caseloads; lack of rigour in review recommendations and follow-up; a failure to consult properly with children; poor quality annual reports; and inadequate oversight of IROs’ work by their line managers”.

Favourable research

However, other research into the role of IROs has been more favourable. A National Children’s Bureau report from 2014 said the role “can make a real difference to children’s lives” in situations where it can work well, after analysing the views of IROs, managers and directors, as well as analysing resources available for the IRO services, their time use and carrying out case studies of four local authorities.

The call for evidence for the Fostering Stocktake, published alongside its recommendations, only had one sentence about the role, which argued it should be strengthened.

Fayle adds: “Some directors regard the role as a nuisance and think they could use these resources better by ploughing them into the frontline.”

In the stocktake’s passage on IROs, two directors of children’s services and one assistant director are quoted raising concerns about the role. One said IROs are in underperforming services “all too often” and can get “caught up in the culture and find it incredibly difficult to speak truth to power”.

Another added: “Some of our authority’s most experienced social workers are IROs. I would much rather they worked with children or led services.”

Alison Michalska, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said the decision on the stocktake’s recommendations would require careful consideration and would be ultimately made by government, but she welcomed the idea of “increased flexibility” around the IRO role.

“It is important that there is independent scrutiny and challenge to local authorities during the care planning process,” she says.

“In view of the current staffing and funding challenges we face, increased flexibility around the role of the IRO would be welcome and may help to free up social work capacity to address some of the frontline recruitment challenges we face.”

NAIRO will “mobilise” the support of people speaking out against the recommendation, Fayle says, before adding if the recommendation was put in place it would threaten “the protection of the rights and welfare of our most vulnerable children to ensure this recommendation does not come to pass”.

“Our evidence was this service is quite variable and steps need to be taken to raise the standard, that would be fine.”

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19 Responses to Should local authorities be able to scrap the independent reviewing officer role?

  1. Annon February 20, 2018 at 12:01 pm #

    “The report’s authors, Martin Narey and Mark Owers, explained the rationale behind the recommendation was that it would return experienced practitioners to the frontline and give more resources to social workers and teams making placement decisions.”

    As a recruiter in social work I know for a fact this will never happen. Most IRO’s are in the post as they are trying to avoid the frontline services, and wont just simply return back into the post. They will end up looking for chatirys or other organisations that actually respect having their experience rather demanding them to do more.

  2. Peter Endersby February 20, 2018 at 12:35 pm #

    “…cost savings are not the core reason behind the recommendation to scrap IROs; instead it would give local authorities the opportunity to invest that money on the frontline.” Isn’t that the same thing?

  3. Paul February 20, 2018 at 12:45 pm #

    I think that the fostering stocktake has raised a really important question about IROs and how they should be used. Prior to the 2002 legislation research by Elaine Farmer et al in 1997 on care planning indicated a more balanced aproach to independent scrutiny – where n IRO role was useful in some cases but where a team manager was also likely to be more effective in others (such as long term care cases). That seems more sensible than the stance taken by BASWvand the iro association. A more balanced approach may enable IROs to focus on cases where advocacy and challenge is really needed and allow others – Team Managers and foster carers to oversee reviews for children in long term care.

    Bureaucracy works best in my opinion when the person making the decision is not shielded from the person who the decision affects. In most cases that means that the child’s immediate carers are the people we should be enabling to take more decisions – albeit with appropriate safeguards – that makes more sense for children and helps to normalise their sense of family life.

    If the savings from reducing the number of iros was reinvested in front line posts I think this would be a more effective way of using this resource. An alternative would be to make the IRO role time limited to encourage Social workers returoning to front lime practice with their experiences. I also think that all social work managers should be required to spend some time each year working in a fromt line team. Many managers are too removed from day to day practice and this can affect their decision making.

  4. Katie Politico February 20, 2018 at 1:15 pm #

    It was inevitable the government would reintroduce the opt-out clause in a new form. It is dismantling statutory provision in order to render children’s services a profitable entity prior to privatisation. However when things go wrong the local authority will remain responsible rather than the private provider which is exactly why local authorities need to resist the plan to do away with IRO provision. Social workers may already have become commodities, as evidenced in the new accreditation scheme, but we must resist our looked after children also becoming commodities under this government.

  5. Andrew February 20, 2018 at 1:57 pm #

    Let’s be honest – this random suggestion, made without evidence except for a very few comments form unnamed DCS and ADCs, appears to be one of Martin Narey’s hobbyhorses and he has taken the opportunity of the Stocktake to ride it.

    He suggests it will save £70m – there was no suggestion that the Stocktake’s brief was to suggest savings.

    We shouldn’t lose sight of the regionalisation of adoption plan which he came up with. Running way behind time, the VAAs who were set to be at the very centre have opted out of it, and most adoption social workers I know say that it won’t improve adoption services just reduce their links with the child’s social workers.

  6. Social Worker February 20, 2018 at 7:52 pm #

    IRO’s role in theory could be helpful, however, in practice it has added to the already bureaucratic systems in place. As a Social Worker I have hardly benefitted from the checks or reviews. I have already been doing what the IROs make decisions about.
    Interestingly enough, in numerous cases the IROs rely on me to tell them about important issues and what needs to be added to the decisions. I therefore believe the absence of the review services wouldn’t affect the care children receive negatively.

  7. Anita Singh February 21, 2018 at 12:34 am #

    Having got rid of the IRO role I would welcome some proposals from the government to address the following issues:

    1. Who is going to provide independent oversight and Statutory Reviews?

    2. How will government ensure that children are being represented independently?

    3. Many children are experiencing numerous changes in social worker, so how is government going to independently support children with these issues?

    4. Who is going to follow up any Complaints by children in care and their birth families?

    5. Who is going to independently challenge and/or report the LA when it is failing in its duties?

    6. Who is going to ensure LAs funding of children leaving care?

    7. How will the government ensure children are safe in LA care?


    • Paul February 21, 2018 at 10:32 pm #

      1) This could vary depending on the child. In some cases the child / ypung person themselves could do it. In other cases research done propr to iros suggested that team managers were best placed to do this on lkng term care. Iros could focus on a niche group where the level of independence they can bring would benefit the most.

      2) Iros do not represent children – they have an advocacy role but in most cases advocacy is already provided through a seevice agreement of some sort with a vol agency.

      3). Social work practices are one way of encouraging greater stability of social workers for looked after children. It was a shame and short sighted of local authorities to ignore this way of delivering services – the research showed it was no worse or better than in house provision. Such practices would also have improved sw automomy in their practice.

      4) in my experience the child’s carers are much netter at doing this than IROs. I have seen Instances for example of carers seeking a jusicial review for a child when the iro is clearly impotent and an irrelevance. The asmwer is delegate more to carers.

      5) Foster carers – as above

      6). Iros don’t have a statutory role for care leavers. This comes to personal advisors and the chair of pathway planning meetings – which in most local authorities I know is the team leader!

      7). Er – thats the allocated social workers job isnt it! Clearly in partenership with other rofessipnals involved bit acting as the lead professipnal.

      8). If there was a real commitment to reinvest the mpney from iro savings into additional front line posts then caseloads would resuce and social workers would have more time. If you also delegate more decisoom making to carers this would give social wprlers more te to focus om the things they do better than carers.

      • Anita Singh February 22, 2018 at 1:45 pm #

        Tony thanks for your response. I would note as follows:

        1. Regardless of the age and level of understanding of the child, the overwhelming historical evidence of serious abuse of children in the care system clearly indicates that vulnerable children would be unable to provide independent oversight of their experiences in care. History shows that the children who tried to inform social workers about the abuse in care were ignored, had their disclosures brushed under the carpet or covered up by Senior Managers concerned with their reputation.

        Team managers are not best placed to ensure that the LA meets its duties in respect of children in long term care, as they are more concerned with managing their budgets according to the diktat of Senior Managers than they are with ensuring the proper funding of children leaving the care system.

        2. In my experience, the very good IROs that I have had experience of will see the child independently/individually without any other professional present and if the child has any complaints or is upset about anything, IROs do address the issues, whether the child’s social worker likes it or not! In many years of frontline experience, I have seen very few children receiving the independent advocacy that you are asserting children in care receive (and I have worked for a number of different LAs). I am now witnessing scenarios where many children have had at least three to four social workers in one year. The responsibility for this state of affairs has to be placed firmly with central government who have set out to destroy the profession, with a hidden agenda of large-scale contracting out and privatising of services.

        3. Before you can stabilise practice, you need to stabilise the work-force, as there are now serious recruitment and retention problems of social workers, which has never existed historically on the scale it does now. LAs have never been the one’s to ignore good social work practices. There is more of a case where SW autonomy has been seriously undermined by a government who has been heavily focussed on increasing bureaucracy and form filling, largely brought about by major scandals where the blame is always placed on the individual social worker. In my experience, social work practice was very stable when we were allowed to get on with the job and there was plenty of creativity and thinking out of the box rather the current culture of diktat’s from central government and regulatory bodies who are doing their bidding.

        4. So what happens when a child has a complaint about their Carer’s and is on their fourth or fifth social worker? Who is likely to be the person who is a consistent figure in the child’s life and why has a well-experienced social worker decided they would rather be an IRO?

        5. Ditto – as above.

        6. IROs do have a statutory role in creating the plans in preparation for a child getting ready to the leave the care system. The IRO’s role does not cease until that child has in fact reached 18 years of age and is no longer in LA care. They can at the planning stage BEFORE the child has left care, address the need for adequate provision and create a clear plan to ensure that the child has a copy of that record an d plan about what is going to happen for the young person when they leave care. This would also set the agenda for the YP about what they can expect. In my experience, many LAs do not inform a YP of their rights. The IRO can and often do. In my experience, this happens more often than not.

        7. I will bring you back to the numerous major enquiries where clearly SWs have not ensured children have been safe in care. We need to strengthen the position of the IRO not get rid of it, for this reason alone.

        8. Why should be constantly seeking to shift resources from one much needed service in order to fund the woefully inadequate provision in another? We should be arguing for more resources for the areas that are clearly failure and address the systemic failures to address the reasons that the profession is hemorrhaging it’s workforce. We already have delegated responsibility for carers and that is an area that is evolving in any case. Foster Carers cannot be expected to Bridge the Gap of the IRO and it would be woefully inadequate.

        • Anita Singh February 22, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

          Sorry Paul, I meant you (not Tony!!) –

        • Jack March 9, 2018 at 8:47 pm #

          Well said. National inquiry into historical abuse. 3 % of children out of the third of 100000 placed in care in 70s and early 80’s subject to sexual abuse. Majority males placed in residential institutions with education on site – ‘total institutions’ cut off with no outside/ independent scrunity. We do not want another Frank Beck or Peter Righton repeating itself. IRO’s provide one of the necessary safeguards for children and young people. Note the report does not even mention consulting young people. Assumption they are mere passive recipients of a system or perhaps more accurately commodities.

    • Denise Robins February 27, 2018 at 12:16 pm #

      Absolutely agree with all of the above points. Well said!

  8. TONIMARIE BENATON February 21, 2018 at 11:56 am #

    The role of the IRO needs to be further strengthened not reduced or diluted which would provide greater capacity to challenge. A robust IRO service is a essential for the child’s voice to be heard.

    The quoted savings… the real world these would simply disappear never to be seen again…

    The IRO can and does actually make a difference and when working well can save the LA time and money. As a previous IRO I often made decisions which increased the child’s voice while reducing costs for the LA……

    The reported views are dangerous.

    • Kath Davis February 22, 2018 at 8:42 pm #

      Whole heartedly agree with your statement TonieMarie Benaton, if Children in FC are to be properly heard, monitored & have successful outcomes but most importantly properly safeguarded, the role of an IRO needs to remane in place & adequately funded, it would be an utter disaster for children in care to lose such an advocate for them.

  9. Smacker February 21, 2018 at 4:31 pm #

    Unfortunately, I think many local authorities would welcome an opportunity to ditch the role of the IRO from their departments. Some in social services see IRO’s as an outdated nuisance and only tolerated when they can conveniently use them to suit their own purpose – usually to lay off the blame in Court when something goes wrong. Some social workers will studiously avoid telling IROs anything to avoid the challenge and escalation. Reports like the one quoted provide good oxygen for this. It would be the children in care that would miss them most as in many cases they are the IRO is the only consistent professional in their lives.

  10. Bee February 21, 2018 at 6:37 pm #

    Sadly Narey does not seem to have managed to raise his poor standards of analysis and understanding as seen in his recent publications.

    A few thoughts:

    1)There is a reason why the IRO role was brought in……
    2) For many children, the IRO is a consistent in the life of young people while social workers come and go.
    3) LA need ‘critical friends’ – the stronger, the better as this will help the children they seek to serve.
    4) IROs should identify good practice as well as poor – social workers need this too!
    5) SW often ask IROs for practice advice, use them to bounce ideas and use them to avoid group think.

  11. JP February 22, 2018 at 10:33 am #

    NAIRO have 32 members… IN TOTAL.

    Why are you giving them the credibility of responding to this?

  12. londonboy February 23, 2018 at 9:38 am #

    The Care system copes very badly with challenge of any kind for lots of reasons in my experience. SWs and funding panels are left to make decisions about what is expedient not what is right.The does not always happen is a credit to the values of those that manage to do the right thing for children within this system somehow.

    The IRO is often the only person who will really listen to a parent advocating for their child and knock heads together. Unless light is shone, and lots of it on what is happening for children in Care then the IRO’s role is essential.

    Personally I want families to get power to provide scrutiny and challenge unless there are very clear reasons why they cannot. Narey et al seems to think we are not even worth a mention, so busy is he streamlining the system for processing children at least cost to the state. DfE and Treasury call the shots. Narey et al just delivers the message.

  13. londonboy February 23, 2018 at 10:22 am #

    The Care system as it is its exists here and now could be summed up as – ‘Farm the kids out, lock the teens up, Magic therapy ( not healthcare ) for all.’ Narey just wants more at least cost. Any challenge to that view must be crushed.