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.
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”.
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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