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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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