Should the IRO role be abolished?

The care review's proposal to replace independent reviewing officers has generated widespread opposition. So what is at stake as the government mulls the future of the role?

Female social worker writing notes on clipboard
Photo posed by model (credit: Valerii Honcharuk/Adobe Stock)

What should happen to the IRO role?

  • It should be retained but with IROs employed outside local authorities (49%, 594 Votes)
  • It should be retained and invested in to lower caseloads (24%, 297 Votes)
  • It should be abolished, with its functions split between advocates, social workers and team managers (18%, 215 Votes)
  • It should be retained as it is (10%, 118 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,224

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Of all the 80 recommendations in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’s final report last month, the one that has met with the greatest opposition is its proposed abolition of the independent reviewing officer role.

At a webinar held by the review last week, 32 delegates submitting questions in advance (around 7% of the total) asked about the proposal, while it was also the most popular question posed online during the session with review lead Josh MacAlister. Many questioned the rationale for the idea or rejected it.

At the same time, a host of social work professional bodies and children’s charities have raised serious concerns about the impact of the proposal on the scrutiny of decision making for looked-after children.

More on the children’s social care review

So why did the review make the recommendation? Broadly, the proposal has three roots.

The first is its ambition to strengthen independent advocacy for children in care, as well as other children and parents involved in the social care system.

Children in care, as well as care leavers, are entitled to an advocate, arranged by their local authority, if they want to make a complaint or representations about the service they are receiving.

Advocacy ‘an afterthought’

However, the review found that, while it was “paramount that children in care have access to an adult that is unequivocally on their side…particularly when things go wrong “, advocacy was an “afterthought” in the current system.

In a report providing the bases for its recommendations, the review cited a past study from the Children’s Commissioner for England showing that council spending on advocacy per eligible child ranged from £2 to £668 in 2016, and said many children were unaware of their entitlement.

The review said advocacy needed to be comprehensive, and proposed that all children in care should receive it unless they opt out.

As well as attending care planning meetings – and ensuring no decision is made without the child or their advocate’s input – the advocate should be able to comment on the quality of care the child is receiving.

‘Completely independent’

To make this work, advocacy would need to be “completely independent” from councils and providers, to ensure that “young people have trust that their views are being heard and are likely to be acted upon”.

So, in future, the review said, advocacy services should be overseen by the Children’s Commissioner for England, to provide this independence, though local authorities would still pick up the bill. Advocates would also take on the functions currently carried out by regulation 44 visitors, who are appointed by children’s homes to carry out monthly inspections and report on how well children are safeguarded and their wellbeing promoted.

So what does this have to do with IROs?

The IRO role and its history

In 2002, a House of Lords judgment identified a gap in the law which meant young children in care could not challenge possible human rights violations by their local authority because there was no adult willing and able to initiate proceedings on their behalf. It urged the government and Parliament to address this. Two years later, the government introduced a statutory requirement for local authorities to appoint IROs for every child in their care.

Since 2011, when the role was enhanced, IROs’ functions have been to:

  • Monitor local authorities’ performance in delivering the child’s care plan.
  • Participate in reviews, chair those they attend, speak to the child in private beforehand (unless inappropriate or the child refuses and is of sufficient maturity to do so) and ensure the child’s views are listened to.
  • Refer a child’s case to Cafcass to consider whether court proceedings to secure the child’s rights are called for, when failures brought to the local authority’s attention have not been satisfactorily addressed.
  • Advise the child on their rights under the Children Act 1989.

Regulations require that the IRO must be independent of the management and resourcing of the child’s case, and that all postholders are registered social workers with sufficient experience to perform the role independently and in the child’s best interests.

Statutory guidance on the role specifies the need for an “effective IRO service” under a manager who safeguards the independence of the role and ensures caseloads are manageable, with 50-70 set as a benchmark for good practice for a full-time officer.

The review’s view is that the IRO is one of a number of professionals who come into contact with children in care with a remit to consider their voice as part of determining what is in their best interests.

Through their best interests focus, IROs cannot purely represent the child’s views as an advocate can, the review argued.

‘Unnecessary bureaucracy’

The second reason for the recommendation was the review’s view that too much social work resource is tied up in “unnecessary bureaucracy” and this should be cut back to maximise the amount of direct work with children and families practitioners can carry out.

It said the proportion of local authority staff in caseholding roles that involve direct work should be increased from two-thirds to three-quarters – including through abolishing the IRO and child protection conference chair roles.

In addition, the review said that its proposals to improve social work training and development – principally through a five-year early career framework – would equip practitioners to take decisions in children’s best interests without the oversight of the IRO role.

“The system does not currently trust social workers, or even the managers of social workers, enough to make a best interests assessment on behalf of children they are working with every day and so, instead, local authorities are legally required to employ another social worker, an IRO, to oversee the care planning process,” it said.

Three-quarters of IRO role ‘could be absorbed elsewhere’

The review felt that three-quarters of the IRO role was duplicative and could be absorbed into either its proposed advocacy function or the work of existing children in care social workers.

It envisaged the remaining 25% falling to team managers, whose additional tasks would involve chairing looked-after children reviews, ensuring advocates were present at significant meetings to amplify the child’s voice and providing extra guidance and challenge to the social worker.

Thirdly, the review was critical of how the IRO role was being carried out.

As well as citing two court judgments – one in 2012, the other 2018 – that were highly critical of the relevant IRO services, the review said officers’ caseloads were often too high, at over 70.

“It is unlikely that effective support can ever be provided by one person to so many children,” it said.

‘Not acting as independent champions’

The role could also be “taken up with providing casework support to social work teams” which, while important, meant they were not “acting as an independent champion focused only on children’s best interests”.

Finally, it said that, “as local authority employees, IROs lack the independence to challenge poor social work practice”.

This critique draws on previous publications. A 2013 Ofsted report, looking at how IROs were implementing new responsibilities acquired in 2011, said excessive caseloads were reducing officers’ capacity to do their roles effectively.

It also found IROs did not sufficiently challenge drift and delay and that children’s veiws were not sufficiently taken into account.

In 2018, Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers’ stocktake of fostering services for the Department for Education concluded that there was “little to recommend the IRO role” and that local authorities should be allowed to dispense with it, re-investing savings in front line staffing”. At the time, this was backed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

The DfE rejected Narey and Owers’ call, saying it would “work with organisations representing independent reviewing officers and [local authorities] to consider how the role of IROs can be put to best effect in the current system and under existing legislation”.

Commissioner supportive of review advocacy proposals

With the review in the process of winding up its work, it will fall again to the DfE to determine the fate of IROs.

A strong voice in its ear will be that of Children’s Commissioner for England Rachel de Souza, who is supportive of the review’s proposals on advocacy.

“We absolutely agree with the review that every child should have an advocate, and we believe it should be someone local with whom they can forge a trusting relationship,” she said.

“Overwhelmingly, the message we have heard from children over many years, is that they do not have sufficient relationship with their IRO, and they do not trust them to act independently from the system. This is why we need a new model.

“I am currently asking children what they need, and how my advice service can better support them. We will be talking to the department about the care review recommendations, informed by what children have told me they want.”

Sector lines up against IRO abolition 

However, social work professional bodies and children’s charities have lined up in their droves against the proposal to remove IROs.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW), guardians’ body Nagalro and children’s rights organisation Article 39 have all voiced their opposition.

Looked-after children and care leavers’ charity Become has also raised concerns, warning that checks and balances designed to keep children safe “should not be abandoned lightly”. And while welcoming the review’s advocacy proposals, the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) warned that removing IROs and regulation 44 visitors “presents the danger of diluting opportunities for safeguarding children and young people. 

While it said it would be analysing the review’s report over the coming weeks, the National IRO Managers Partnership (NIROMP), which represents IROs and their managers, also raised significant concerns.

Chair Sharon Martin said: “The withdrawal of the IRO relationship for some children could result in their voices being less heard in the decisions that affect them, and an important relationship lost,” said chair Sharon Martin. “Children in care can have too many different professionals moving in and out of their lives. IROs are consistently there for them, unequivocally on their side and able to amplify their voice. It is vital that children have a powerful voice.”

The strongest response has come from the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO). In a statement, it said: “If accepted by government, this recommendation would remove vital independent oversight and protection from children who are looked after by local authorities.

“Parliament passed the legislation requiring IROs as a means of ensuring the human rights of children in care were safeguarded, following the Human Rights Act 1998. There is nothing in the review’s report to suggest that this human rights protection is no longer required; indeed, the reverse is true.”

‘Fundamental mistake’

It said that it was a “fundamental mistake” to think that advocates could replace the IRO role.

While advocates were focused on giving as much power as possible to the child’s views, IROs “come from a holistic position, considering the child’s best interests in the round”, through consulting with families and professionals, said NAIRO.

“They provide essential continuing protection for children’s rights and children’s welfare,” it added.

“We believe it would be a dangerous erosion of children’s rights and a threat to their welfare to remove the protection of the IRO service and we urge the government to reject this unwise recommendation (as it has rejected similar proposals in the recent past).”

 

Additional reporting by Charlotte Goddard

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28 Responses to Should the IRO role be abolished?

  1. Karen June 17, 2022 at 7:18 pm #

    Big mistake. Some IRO’s are useless, but a good one can really make a difference. People making these recommendations have absolutely no idea.

  2. Anon Anon June 17, 2022 at 7:47 pm #

    This would be tragic to remove the IRO role. In the main, they are a great resource and will actively challenge poor practice and any unmet need for young people . I was one and really enjoyed the role and have been an IRO in two LA’s now and all colleagues would challenge poor practice .
    I think it would be better if IRO’s were independent of the LA to really be able to tackle the issues and what is going on and be a real voice and advocate for young people and improve their circumstances.

  3. Anon June 17, 2022 at 8:06 pm #

    Unfortunately many IROs are just burnt out social workers who can no longer hack frontline practice. They don’t actually do anything, never meet the children they are supposed to be reviewing and make judgements based on their own whims rather than actually contribute to an effective plan.

    • Anne Edwards June 19, 2022 at 1:00 pm #

      Agreed..

    • Rebecca Katherine Buss June 20, 2022 at 10:53 pm #

      Um, IRO role is frontline practice! IROs speak directly to children, parents, schools, police, social workers, mental health professionals, lawyers …..they write assessments, court reports and more. If they are not meeting the children they are allocated to, there is something wrong with the LA they work for….

    • Satvinder Chatha June 21, 2022 at 11:56 am #

      What a sweeping statement to make. IRO s in majority of the cases are one professional that knows the child best as social workers come and go. IROs provide vital oversight and challenge to the LAs. I shudder to think what would happen if this role was abolished. If anything the role of the IROs ought to strengthened and I do think that perhaps being completely independent of the LA would make the IROs more effective. IRO’s role is absolutely vital in ensuring the child’s best interest and the child’s voice is at the centre of all care planning.

  4. Captain Fog June 17, 2022 at 9:43 pm #

    The research on this that came out in the mid 90s had recommended a generic approach – with IROs focussing on children in section 20 short term care and residential care team managers working in partnership with carers for children in long term care.

    The problem with the current set up is its not designed to focus the IROs on those children who need independent scrutiny and challenge the most. That also includes children returning home to ensure rehab plans are in place and being achieved to stop them yo yoing back into care.

    The other problem I have with IROs is that for too many its a life long career when it should be something a practitioner does for a while on a secondment before returning back into practice or moving in to management.

    The quality of IROs and their understanding and ability (and motivation to challenge) is also another area where I think on balance the role has failed.

    I have seen some situations where its the children’s foster carer who has taken an issue to judicial review leaving the child’s IRO frankly a pointless bystander.

    Overall – my view is don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Iros are needed but not for all children in care and also as much to help keep children returning home at home and not return back into care. .

  5. Bee June 17, 2022 at 11:24 pm #

    How can advocates, there to enable a child’s voice to be heard, then comment on the quality of the care plan? Sounds like an IRO but probably less qualified and less expensive…

    Also, why is it that the reports mentioned are the ones who want to remove IROs? What about the pieces of research that identify that children are more likely to have relationships with IROs as they are more consistent and have often known the child much longer than the social worker etc.
    Some research suggests that the IRO role should be ‘beefed up’ rather than abolished.

    I’m old enough to remember managers chairing reviews – basically they just waved care plans through. It wasn’t good! Not because the managers were bad people, but they were agreeing their own decisions.

    • Ada Vocate June 23, 2022 at 11:39 am #

      Exactly my own thoughts too. Advocates are an excellent and necessary support service for young (and older) people, but are paid less than social workers so therefore a cheaper addition. Whilst Advocates often come from social work backgrounds (myself included) others are not qualified in social work, and the Advocacy role is not well paid. This is primarily a money-saving exercise designed to yet again limit the funding allocated to public sector social care, and consequently to the most vulnerable of service users.

  6. Anon June 18, 2022 at 1:35 am #

    I think IRO should br totally independent. I have been a sw and sp for 16 years and i havr dreaded having a y meetings with the IRO. The power goes to their head and sw are bullied i front of everyone. It may be worth slimming them down and let the TM and SM take on the role. Thgat way they can keep track of the cases in the LA.

  7. Sal Randall June 18, 2022 at 5:51 am #

    In my experience good IROs challenge poor practice, challenge decisions that are made of finance rather than best interests, act independently and develop a good relationship with a child. However, capacity issues and a lack of independence with local authorities being broke puts strain on the role and makes it less effective. That said the lack of funding for good quality advocacy services is also an issue. Many of these services have been stripped back to a tokenistic offer and consist of a couple of staff who again have the same issues, high caseloads and spending a lot of time travelling to see young people out of borough. In my experience both roles are important and have a different remit but can compliment one another and ensure a young persons rights are upheld and their voice is heard in the system, where they live and decisions that impact them on a day to day basis. Which ever way you look at it, a lack of funding has diluted both roles and staff just end up doing the best they can with a lack of resources. IROs and independent advocacy were brought in for a reason. Keeping children safe and ensuring that their views, wishes and feelings are heard are crucial for children in the ‘care system’, they are some of our most vulnerable children. Both roles would massively benefit from independent funding and realistic caseloads. I don’t think we needed a review to tell us that though.

  8. Anon June 18, 2022 at 10:06 am #

    As a IRO this has been tried before and failed. I agree there are some poor IROs but then in every walk of life there are poor social workers, poor teachers, poor painters and decorators ; it does not mean they should be removed. I can only speak for the children’s service I work for but we have all made considerable challenge and have made impact on a child’s life for the better – it can be as simple as getting orthodontics paid for as the NHS will not. I will always ensure an advocate is brough on board should I think it is necessary. It can be difficult to challenge a children’s service who pay your wages but regardless we do! I do not see how a team manager will have the time to chair review meetings on top of their already heavy work load – things are going to get missed and children’s voices not heard. Big mistake if this comes into being!

  9. Anne Edwards June 18, 2022 at 10:56 am #

    Also, the IRO may be the only consistent person for many children in care. Changes of social worker, placement, school etc may result in professionals and carers who haven’t had any long term involvement. Yes, advocates play an important role but IROs are qualified social workers ( at least in my experience) and an IRO post is a career choice often for someone with wide experience of Childrens Services. There are improvements which could be made- eg more independence and training opportunities but please don’t destroy something which, when working well, is in the interests of the child or young person.

  10. Anon321 June 18, 2022 at 11:39 am #

    IROs are extreme well able to be effective advocates for young people and to challenge poor practice, where it exists.

    But placing IROs within Local Authorities means that IROs need to have significant IRO management clout to properly challenge at Head of Service and Director levels, which I would suspect, is as rare as hens teeth.

    The IRO will be far more effective as an independent functioning role, when placed outside the Local Authority control.

  11. Kitty June 18, 2022 at 12:24 pm #

    Whilst it is good to have the debate , the poll attached to the article is very disappointing and unnecessary. I wonder how many people voting will truly understand the role after reading the underwhelming article. No real analysis of what the removal of the role will mean or even any attempt to seek the views of IROs many of whom are the only people who are truly holding the LA to account about the child’s care plan. That is often being done against a backdrop of stonewalling , deliberate attempts to by-pass their oversight, and at times intimidation from senior management. Taking IROs out of LAs however would be disastrous for children. IROs would lose access to information systems. IROs should be informed when a child is moved. They would not know about the sudden changes to a placement and a lot more changes to the Care Plan without being able to look at the electronic records.

  12. Andi June 18, 2022 at 5:11 pm #

    Karen – agree.
    Anon Anon – problem is we don’t need yet another opinion/voice who are ultimately not held responsible for the impact of deciosions – they can be over involved ands forget who actually makes and are held responsible for decisions.
    It’s the usual, some workers (in any area) are good, some are dreadful – for me, the latter is the issue not the post, but as usual instead of dealing with the cause a whole rearrangement is considered.
    Exhausting ………

  13. Andi June 19, 2022 at 3:16 am #

    Anon, contrary to your assertion that many IROs are burnt out social workers- in fact, many have not actually worked as social workers. I know 2 such, they are qualified, have self belief beyond knowledge, experience snd thus ability , but are good at interviews – FACT! Snd the system is creaking such that it’s too desperate to set expectations, another issue is promoting in order to maintain staff, I.r. to Assistant Team Manager 2 years post qualification- a nonsense!

  14. Shirley June 19, 2022 at 12:43 pm #

    IRO should be remain independent from LA but with access to systems/child’s file. Independence would allow better scrutiny and challenge, without the fear of loosing ones job. IRO Service needs further investment with lower caseloads. IRO ‘sprofessionalism needs to be recognised

  15. Friendly Neighbourhood Social worker June 20, 2022 at 8:49 am #

    As a Social worker within an Adult Social care team that supports under 18’s in the transition between Children’s and care act service I have a different opinion of the IRO from my case experiences
    From my personal case experience the Role of the IRO creates an additional layer of bureaucracy.
    I find that there is a massive blurring of roles I have known IRO’s to try and actively give line management to allocated Children’s social workers.
    From the experience of the IRO’s I have worked with they have little understanding of how the Mental capacity Act and Care Act apply to under 18’s. However I do reflect that knowledge base of Social workers will vary
    I have absolute confidence in my peers in Children’s services ability to advocate on the behalf of under 18’s. I am in general agreement that there are situations where intendant advocacy is required which I feel should not be within the Local Authority.

  16. Michelle Macallum June 20, 2022 at 11:18 am #

    Almost impossible to be truly independent if line management leads to same AED or DCS. Caseloads too high for good scrutiny and to have time to visit and build relationships. The rhetoric of senior managers influences Social Workers and Team Managers to identify the IRO as an irritating level of regulation they have to find their way around. To be truly independent should be employed outside the LA but with same powers to be able to escalate. Most advocacy services rely on support of the IRO to progress their activity for the child. Advoacy often poorly resourced area in most LA’s with tokenistic approach at times to their funding commissioned based on cost not need.

  17. Deborah Jane Jarman June 20, 2022 at 11:28 am #

    Maybe its time to revamp the role but get rid of it .. absolutely not… Since 2011 the IRO role has changed so much and I feel the review has not taken this into account or the fact that each LA ‘use’ the role in terms of QA and other areas of work differently and this has not been considered.

    I am an IRO and Conference/ Chair for Liverpool and the wealth of knowledge you have to have to be able to advise and support Managers and SW is immense. The IRO just doesn’t support the child or young person, but all the professionals around the child. They have a responsibility to ensure that there is a contribution from all agencies and their challenge is not just to the LA but also Education, Health, Adult mental health, etc..

    The title has always been misleading from the day it was formed – maybe its as simple as dropping the ‘Independent’ and the title be Reviewing Officers but having all the same powers / expectations of escalation and challenge – the independence I read as being ‘independent’ to the care planning and decisions being made for the child. It shouldn’t matter who employs you really yet it has become such an issue and I consider it a red herring in the debate today.

    The IRO role was developed on the back of significant legislation the Children Act 1989 – which is still influencing thinking today some 33 years later. People need to understand the history both in practice and legislation to understand the role and why it exists today – a time when all LA are struggling and we are facing economical crisis.

    The report does not relate any of its finding to demographics and how they vary across England and it would be interesting to know where the children the Commissioner has spoken to are from – the difference in the North is very different to the South of England in terms of employment, economy and opportunities for children and young people generally.

    I would suggest that a cost cutting exercise, as this is what its about really, should not be based on a small handful of what could be seen as a ‘limited number’ of voices of children and young people. I find it both insulting and offensive being defined as a professional by others who have had not had real experience working in social care and facing the daily challenges that can occur for our children and young people, in care or being subject to a child protection plan.

    Thank you for the opportunity to state my views and I respectfully ask that people broaden their thinking rather than focusing on individual experiences as I feel this is not helpful – the broader issues are much more complex than that.

  18. Jeanette Dobson June 21, 2022 at 7:00 am #

    I have been a Health Visitor for ten years and have seen many IROs in practice in both LAC and working with vulnerable families on child protection plans.
    I have never met one who has not been an advocate for child or the family.
    They do an amazing job
    I do hope this is not yet another cost cutting exercise
    They also support all members of the multi disciplinary team working with these families
    In my experience they constantly challenge poor practice and always have the child at the centre of the plan

    • Satvinder Chatha June 21, 2022 at 12:08 pm #

      Thanks Jeanette for your positive comments!!

  19. Debra Gibbs June 21, 2022 at 7:42 am #

    In an ideal world, of course there would be both, Advocates and IRO’s. When I was a foster carer I was struck by the comment from one of the young women in my care that everyone gets paid to look after her, I was the only one who did it for love. Clearly this statement merits debate, however it is an opinion clearly echoed in the Review, which was after-all informed by voices from care, with the same emphasis on love. With Fostering in particular we bridge the gap between family life and National Minimum Standards hoping to achieve both, often succeeding, and ultimately supported by a realistic care plan. In achieving this, IRO’s, draw together views from Parents, Carers, School, Social Workers etc, and more importantly, the child or young person. Seen from that independent distance IROs are vital in taking a wide lens view.

  20. Helen Love June 23, 2022 at 3:12 pm #

    I think it is unlikely that if the IRO role were to be deleted that there would be a flood of social workers returning to CIN / CP roles in statutory social work – we would just lose the great experience and skills many of these workers poses.

    Although employed by the LA, in my 20yrs+ experience, IROs are very able to advocate and challenge.

    Also, I don’t know of any social workers / team managers who have the capacity to take on a share of the IRO role workload.

    My hope is that this recommendation doesn’t get taken forward.

  21. Chris Sterry June 25, 2022 at 5:12 pm #

    As is the case in Social care everyone is so overworked, due to caseloads and to some extent complexities.

    Everyone on social care should be providing good quality input and be there for the child, but we all know that is not so, for numerous reasons some being too large workloads, ineffectual supervision, management pressures to get results causing at times for shortcuts to be made leading to poor quality outputs, pressures to support the team at the expense of the child (Loyalty to the team, so that mistakes are ‘put under the carpet’)

    So, Independence from Local Authorities is a must, but Quality of IROs is a priority as it should be for anyone in Social Care.

    But much is down to funding, which is a government problem for Social care for it should never be done on the ‘cheap’, but unfortunately sufficient funding has been a problem for as long as I can remember, perhaps since social care has been around, for no Government wants to accept accountability and responsibility and there is no transparency.

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