Herefordshire council’s independent reviewing officer (IRO) service is being externally assessed in the wake of two blistering judgments published in late 2018, which described it as “utterly failing” to safeguard children’s best interests.
At an extraordinary full council meeting on Friday, children and families cabinet member Elissa Swinglehurst told councillors a review of the service by Doncaster Children’s Services Trust was underway.
The trust’s IRO service was commended by Ofsted a year ago in an inspection report that saw the organisation, which took over services from Doncaster council in 2014, achieve a ‘good’ rating.
Its officers are expected to complete an initial evaluation during January 2019 before working with Herefordshire council to implement improvements, a Herefordshire council spokesperson said.
‘Independence can be an issue’
The two judgments by Justice Keehan – who had exposed section 20 care order abuse by the West Midlands authority earlier in 2018 – both highlighted serious failings by IROs around challenging decisions, in a context of wider poor practice that included social workers misrepresenting and failing to disclose evidence.
A number of senior officers have left the council – rated ‘requires improvement’ overall but ‘inadequate’ for leadership in its latest Ofsted inspection last spring – over the past two years.
One of the judgments also mentioned an IRO raising concerns regarding a separate case with Herefordshire’s then senior lawyers and an assistant director – and allegedly being threatened with disciplinary action if she sought legal advice.
Community Care has in the past reported on IROs feeling intimidated when they try to challenge local authority care plans.
Jon Fayle, co-chair of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO), which represents and trains IROs, said such concerns were still commonplace.
“IROs in most local authorities would say independence is an issue,” he said. “There are some where it works well, where IRO management is sufficiently separate from main operational management, and some where it’s a real problem. The objective should be to raise the standard of the worst to that of the best.”
‘Checks and balances not functioning’
Councillors at last week’s meeting repeatedly raised concerns about the strength and independence of Herefordshire’s IRO service, with several suggesting officers should be commissioned from outside the council.
One said she was “horrified” by the bullying allegation, which is subject to a whistleblowing investigation that – despite attempts by councillors – was not up for debate at Friday’s meeting.
Swinglehurst told the meeting it was “important to understand how the system had failed”, adding staff had faced heavy fluctuating caseloads and that in her opinion checks and balances were “in place but not functioning”.
She said afterwards that Herefordshire, in conjunction with Doncaster Children’s Services Trust would be “working to strengthen and increase the robustness of [IROs’] challenge, and to refresh training”.
Areas of focus include taking into account children and young people’s views and rights, supporting and challenging high quality social work practice and decision making, and preventing drift and delay.
“[We want] to do all we can to give them confidence that we want them to be effective advocates at all times,” Swinglehurst said, adding that IROs’ caseloads were now within national guidelines.
She described situating IROs within children’s service as “normal practice” (Fayle confirmed it was still “almost universal”).
“We already struggle to recruit the social workers we need, so it’d be unlikely you’d want to recruit externally another set of people,” Swinglehurst added.
No applicants in 18 months
During Friday’s meeting it was revealed that, despite falling numbers of unfilled posts since 2015, the largely rural council had not received an external application for a permanent social work role in 18 months. A number of councillors said they were worried about staff resourcing holding back improvements to children’s services.
Herefordshire’s spokesperson told Community Care the council’s principal IRO post was being filled on a secondment basis while the other 7.6 positions on the team included one agency worker and two vacancies.
The director of children’s services Chris Baird, who replaced Jo Davidson after she left in 2017, informed councillors at the meeting that during spring and summer 2018 the authority had struggled even to appoint agency workers.
Other rural councils have faced similar challenges because of the changing agency market and general shortage of staff.
Baird added that locums still made up around 40% of staff in Herefordshire’s assessment and court teams.
He replied to a question after the council meeting from the journalist Louise Tickle – the only one he answered – by claiming that fears the section 20 judgment would hurt recruitment were the reason he attempted to get the local authority’s name omitted from it.
In response to its recruitment and retention problems Herefordshire council has been given leave to offer higher daily rates to agency workers than normally allowed under the West Midlands memorandum of understanding. This is on the proviso that it sources locums from outside the region to avoid destabilising the local market.
It is also offering permanent social workers a £5,000 annual salary supplement and £10,000 relocation allowance, and offering £1,000 to those who convert from agency to staff.
Swinglehurst, who said she was not aware of further negative judgments in the pipeline but that “only a fool” would promise they could never happen again, added that the council’s legal team had also been bolstered.
In response to questions from councillors about wider issues of transparency at Herefordshire, she endorsed the setting up of a task and finish group by the council’s children’s services scrutiny committee to further investigate issues raised.
Ofsted was also continuing to monitor improvements monthly, Swinglehurst added.