Social worker pay ‘becoming uncompetitive’ at Cafcass, warns chief

    Family courts body seeks more freedom from government to set salaries to stem tide of practitioners leaving, in wake of pay freeze for social workers

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    Social worker pay at Cafcass will be “uncompetitive” in many places unless the government gives the family courts body more freedom to set salaries, its chief executive has warned.

    Jacky Tiotto made the comments at Cafcass’s latest board meeting last week, where she said staff losses could double from 20 to 40 a month without action to improve its offer to social workers, relative to councils’.

    It plans to ask its sponsoring government department, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), to allow it greater autonomy over staff pay after Cafcass offered no increase to family court advisers (FCAs) and managers this year.

    Pay freeze

    As a non-departmental public body, Cafcass is covered by government pay policies, meaning it had to follow the public sector pay freeze for 2021-22 for all bar those earning less than £24,000, well below its starting rate for FCAs. Unions had asked for a 3% rise.

    By comparison, most council social workers in England are expected to get a 1.75% pay increase for 2021-22, though unions are still in dispute with the National Employers for local government services over their pay offer.

    At last week’s meeting, Cafcass board members said the organisation had offered a lower pay rise than local government employers in five of the past six years.

    “Over the six-year period we’ve become 6% unfavourable in terms of our pay review against local authorities,” said Adam Bowles, Cafcass’s head of HR.

    “And that puts a pressure on both recruiting staff and retaining staff in the organisation.”

    Exodus of 40 staff a month feared

    Board member Mandy Jones said Cafcass could not “overemphasise the challenge” of losing around 20 members of staff each month, as it currently does.

    Tiotto warned staff could leave the organisation at double the current rate if it was unable to agree greater freedom on pay policies with government.

    “If we don’t succeed in fairly short order to convince ministers at the MoJ that we need to compete in the same marketplace as local authorities, it won’t be 20 social workers a month, it will be 40,” she said.

    “Because our pay rates are becoming, in they’re not already, in many places uncompetitive. Whilst we are doing work on that, there really is a short timescale.”

    Tiotto said she would meet the MoJ this month to “impress upon [them] this point”.

    In slides presented at the meeting, Cafcass said it was considering “formally seeking greater autonomy on pay which reflects the arms-length nature of our relationship and recognition that our appropriate pay benchmarks are not with the civil service”.

    It is also considering introducing an option for staff to buy and sell annual leave, greater flexibility around ways of working and continuing to allow workers to claim up to £100 to purchase equipment to work from home.

    Risk of losing ‘valuable and highly trained social workers’

    Nagalro, which represents children’s guardians, FCAs and independent social workers, said Cafcass staff pay had fallen behind their local government counterparts since the organisation transferred to the MoJ’s sponsorship in 2014.

    “Unless Cafcass can be independent in their pay reviews, and link scales to social worker equals in local authorities, they will continue to face staff retention and recruitment difficulties and lose valuable and highly trained social work staff back to local authority workplaces,” said Nagalro vice chair, Fiona Wallace.

    FCAs are paid around £38,974 on commencing their roles, with a target to earn a salary of £43,459; those based in London get an extra £4,582 a year. Social workers need at least three years’ post-qualifying experience to join Cafcass as an FCA.

    According to a Community Care survey of 36 local authorities in October to December last year, children’s social workers earned on average between £32,524 and £37,423 a year, while advanced practitioners received around £39,229 to £43,369, similar to Cafcass’s rates

    Most Nagalro members are self-employed social workers contracted by Cafcass, some of which are known as Cafcass associates and for whom a pay review is due to be held in February.

    Wallace said associates and other independent social workers at Cafcass had not had a pay increase for around 10 years and called for them to be “properly remunerated” following the review.

    Funding increase

    Cafcass board members said at the meeting that the MoJ has sent it provisional funding allocations for 2022-23 to 2024-25 including a £4.7m increase compared to its baseline settlement for the current financial year.

    This would set Cafcass’s funding at £140.4m for 2022-23, compared to a final settlement of £138m (up from an initial award of £135.7m) for the current financial year, with further increases in 2023-24 and 2024-25

    “All in all this is a positive settlement, reflective of the MoJ’s continuing support of Cafcass, especially enabling us to maintain higher staffing levels to support the ongoing elevated level of open children’s cases,” the organisation said in its presentation at the meeting.

    An MoJ spokesperson said: “Cafcass plays a vital role ensuring children’s voices are at the heart of the family court which is why we have provided them with additional funding this financial year so they can hire staff to ease the impact of the pandemic.”

    Plan to stop case prioritisation in some areas

    Wallace said the pay freeze for staff had come “within the context of a severe workload crisis” in which “staff are coping with unprecedented caseload numbers during this extended pandemic period”.

    At the meeting, Cafcass said it had 34,958 active cases as of December 2021, 4,822 more involving around 8,000 more children than in March 2020. It said investment in additional staff had helped reduce FCA caseloads but these still remained high in some areas. Over half of FCAs are carrying caseloads above recommended levels (40 cases) in early intervention teams, and over a quarter in other teams (25).

    In recent months, Cafcass has expanded the use of its ‘prioritisation protocol’ to 14 court areas to try and manage FCAs’ high caseloads.

    Under the system, a practice supervisor manages cases that Cafcass and the courts assess as lower risk in an “allocation hub”, where they are reviewed at least every fortnight and held for a maximum of 20 weeks before being allocated to an FCA.

    At last week’s board meeting, Cafcass director of operations Jack Cordery said some of the areas were likely to stop using the protocol by March, including West Yorkshire, Birmingham, Northampton and Coventry.

    “The reason why they have been able to deactivate is because the measures that they put in place have managed those demand pressures better […] but also we’ve put additional effort in, drawing on the MoJ funding that we’ve had to just boost capacity in those areas as well,” said Cordery.

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