Most social workers favour retaining the independent reviewing officer (IRO) role, but there is strong support for removing it from councils.
That was the key finding from a Community Care reader poll on the future of the role following the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’s call for it to be axed, in its final report in May.
The review argued that three-quarters of the role was duplicative and could be absorbed by children in care social workers and independent advocates – whose roles should be strengthened under the auspices of the Children’s Commissioner for England, to amplify children’s voice in their care planning, it argued.
The remainder of the IRO role – encompassing chairing looked-after children’s reviews and providing challenge to social workers – could be picked up by team managers, it said.
The recommendation attracted powerful opposition from professional bodies and children’s charities, and our poll shows that it is generally opposed by social workers.
Just 18% of respondents to our poll agreed with the care review’s proposal with all others saying it should be retained. While 10% backed the status quo and a quarter called for officers’ caseloads to be cut, the most popular response was removing the position from councils – supported by 49% of readers.
The IRO role involves monitoring local authorities’ performance in delivering looked-after children’s care plans and, if necessary, referring cases to family courts body Cafcass to consider whether court proceedings are needed to secure children’s rights.
However, there have though been longstanding concerns about the capacity of IROs to adequately challenge practice by the local authorities that pay their wages.
The care review cited two notable court judgments, concerning Lancashire council in 2012 and Herefordshire six years later, which found IROs had failed to push back on poor practice that left children adrift in the care system. The Herefordshire judgment was one of two that year that criticised the challenge provided by the council’s IRO service.
Also, there were just 20 referrals by IROs to Cafcass from 2004-17, with none of these leading to the case being returned to court, reported National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO) co-chair Jon Fayle, in a piece for Community Care in 2019. Fayle also said several Ofsted had identified shortcomings, and that NAIRO wanted to see significant action to strengthen the role, including in relation to its independence from councils, to tackle these.
What the latest Ofsted inspections say about IROs
“Independent reviewing officers (IROs) usually meet with children prior to their review and appropriately complete mid-point reviews to check for progress, although some reviews do not offer sufficient challenge in relation to drift. Meetings are not always planned to accommodate the attendance of children, which means that some children do not have a chance to talk about their plans with the people who are responsible for reviewing them.” (Wigan, requires improvement to be good)
“Independent reviewing officers (IROs) know their children well and provide effective oversight of children’s care plans. They visit children in their homes to gain their views. Parents, carers and children are encouraged to participate in their review meetings. This helps to ensure that children and their families are held at the centre of decision-making and planning.” (Durham, good)
“Independent reviewing officers (IROs) also maintain effective oversight of children out of area and monitor their progress, in addition to chairing their reviews.” (Kent, outstanding)
“While management oversight is stronger in some children in care teams, the quality of supervision and management decision-making is not consistently effective in progressing children’s plans. This includes insufficient oversight and escalation by independent reviewing officers (IROs) to senior managers when issues or delays arise.” (Sandwell, requires improvement)
“Independent reviewing officers advocate and challenge effectively on behalf of children.” (Camden, outstanding)
A spokesperson for NAIRO reiterated those views in response to our poll. They said that NAIRO was “pleased” that 82% of poll respondents disagreed with abolition of the IRO role.
“NAIRO agrees the IRO role needs to be strengthened, and we have made some proposals around that [including] exploring the pros and cons of independence from local authorities,” the spokesperson added.
However, the National IRO Managers Partnership, which represents both IROs and their managers, voiced opposition to removing the role from councils.
Role ‘should be strengthened within local authorities’
Its leadership network said: “It is our collective view that reforms can and should be made within the existing legislative infrastructure that underpins our combined duties and responsibilities for the universal safeguarding and wellbeing of every child.
“The independent reviewing officer role for children in care is valued by children and families and should remain within the local authority. If there is genuine commitment to raising standards for children in local authority care, then the role of the IRO, a role that was specifically introduced as a safeguard for children in care, should be supported, strengthened, and developed.”
Leadership network member Paul Nash said that placing IROs beyond local authority control could “bring with it more of a sense of an ‘outsider’ relationship”, and would confuse the IROs’ scrutiny role with the function of a regulator.
“To work alongside and be part of the solution for children and young people, IROs would be best placed within, not outside of local authority children’s service,” he added. “Working within the local authority, independent reviewing officers use their expertise to shape better planning and outcomes for children, but we recognise we have more to do.”
Charmayne Hartye and Amanda Ankers, co-chairs of NIROMP’s IRO advisory group, added: “IROs are often the most consistent professionals in a child’s life. Their role enables them to take a step back from the day-to-day work and provide an independent lens on how the child’s needs are being met and will be met.
“By IROs being placed within the local authority, they support individual and collective social work practice through their quality assurance function and support the development of social workers.”
NIROMP chair Sharon Martin said that IROs’ position in local authorities also enabled them to “understand, interpret and support the implementation of new policy, changes in expectations, structural change, and even changes in context in the local area”.
She added: “Change brings uncertainty on what it may mean for practice. IROs, in their oversight and leadership role, are in a pivotal position to scrutinise and support transformational change.”
Care review abolition proposal roundly rejected
NIROMP and NAIRO were at one in rejecting the care review’s proposals to abolish IROs and distribute their functions to social workers, team managers and advocates – with the latter made available to children unless they opted out.
In a briefing responding to the review, NAIRO said: “NAIRO agrees that the current service is capable of improvement. There is sometimes a problem of insufficient independence and being too close and involved with social work teams. There is certainly a resource issue with many IROs carrying unmanageable caseloads much larger than envisaged in the original guidance. These concerns are, of course, an argument for strengthening and improving the IRO role, not abolishing it.”
The association rejected the idea that the role was replaceable by advocates – both because IROs took a holistic view of children and young people’s best interests, rather than just articulating their wishes and feelings, and become some children would be unable or unwilling to instruct an advocate.
“The proposal to abolish the IRO service is dangerous unwise and based on no significant evidence or research,” it added. “To abolish the service would fundamentally threaten the welfare and rights of children and young people in care.”
For NIROMP, Paul Nash rejected the care review’s call for team managers to take on IROs’ oversight function.
“Absorbing the independent scrutiny of care plans to team manager roles is a contradiction, in that managers will be called to scrutinise their own work,” Nash added. “The very independence of the independent reviewing officer allows for rigorous, transparent scrutiny, and this must be better for children and young people.”
More on independent reviewing officers
‘Huge step backwards’
The British Association of Social Workers has also come out strongly against the care review’s plans. In response to our poll, BASW England professional officer Rebekah Pierre said: “To abolish the role not only threatens children, families and good social work practice, but also risks the profession losing out on skilled professionals who may leave altogether when their value base and knowledge is undermined. The role was established in direct response to children being harmed when care plans fail to be implemented. To remove their impartial advocacy, scrutiny and challenge would be a huge step backwards.”
Steve Crocker, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said the care review had been “right to look at the role [of IROs]”.
“I think there are lots of really skilled people in there,” Crocker said. “The question is whether we’re deploying them to get the best value for children – I’m not sure we are.”
The ADCS was previously supportive of proposals from the Department for Education-commissioned fostering stocktake in 2018 to remove councils’ duty to appoint IROs for every child in care, to free up social work capacity.
However, Crocker stopped short of agreeing with the care review’s proposals.
“I’m not sure the solution around [advocates reporting to] the Children’s Commissioner is the right one,” Crocker added. “I think this is another area of testing and trying – let’s deploy that workforce in a way that provides the best value for children.”
The DfE will give its response to the care review’s proposal in its full response, which is due later this year.