The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
“Cafcass was ill-prepared for the very large increase in care cases in 2009-10 which followed the Baby Peter tragedy and caused chaos in the family justice system.
This lack of readiness was a direct result of the organisation’s continued failure to get to get to grips with the fundamental weaknesses in its culture, management and performance.
It is still dealing with a legacy of low morale, unacceptably high levels of sickness absence and under-performance by some staff.
While judges are satisfied with the quality of the reports produced by Cafcass staff, it is a serious matter that an organisation whose role is to look after the interests of vulnerable children in family court proceedings is still not providing a timely service.
This Committee does not share the Department for Education’s confidence that all will be well by 2011.
The failure to provide an effective service cannot be blamed solely on the rise in public care cases since 2008.
Top management must demonstrate and exercise strong and vigorous leadership if Cafcass is to meet the challenges it faces, not least the OFSTED judgements that 8 out of 10 of the areas inspected failed their inspections and the relentless rise in open cases which is putting pressure on the family justice system".
Cafcass has a vital responsibility to vulnerable children suffering huge disruption in their lives. Following the publicity around the Baby Peter tragedy in 2008, Cafcass experienced a significant and sustained increase in demand for its services, receiving around 34 per cent more care cases in 2009–10 than the previous year.
This led to chaos across the family justice system, and exposed Cafcass as an organisation that was not fit for purpose in dealing with the increased number of cases.
Cafcass has undergone major changes since it was established nine years ago. Although judges in the family court are satisfied with the quality of the advice and reports that Cafcass’s family court advisers provide, Cafcass has failed to get to grips with fundamental weaknesses in its culture, management and performance.
These problems have been to the detriment of children: eight out of ten Cafcass areas failed Ofsted inspections, which in 2009 gave overwhelming evidence that the service it provided for children and families was inadequate.
In the period from September 2009 to June 2010, Cafcass took up to 40 days on average to fully allocate a care case to a family court adviser. In private law, around a third of section 7 reports to the courts are more than 10 days late. The data which Cafcass holds on cases centrally contain inaccuracies.
Sickness absence is unacceptably high (in 2009-10 sickness absence averaged 11.6 days per staff member, and was 16.1 days on average for family court advisers; by comparison, the public sector average was 8.3 days in 2009) and staff morale is low, reflected in the difficulty management has in achieving staff compliance with requirements of the organisation.
Cafcass was only able to respond to the increase in demand following the Baby Peter tragedy through the use of measures which allowed it to do less work or to delay work on cases. The President of the Family Division (the judge who is head of Family Justice) issued Interim Guidance that allowed ‘duty allocation’ of care cases as a temporary measure so that Cafcass could get on top of its unallocated workload.
From 1 October 2010, the President and Cafcass have made a joint agreement introducing transitional arrangements for another year, pending the outcome of the Family Justice Review. The agreement aims to continue reducing delays in allocating cases, while minimising the use of duty allocations.
The Committee's conclusions
While there may have been some improvements in Cafcass’s performance, the Committee does not share the Department’s confidence that the substantial organisational problems will be overcome by 2011.
Cafcass also faces the challenge of dealing with the relentless rise in open cases that is putting pressure on all organisations working in the family justice system. Strong leadership, renewed energy and focused committed are needed to sort this situation out if Cafcass is to become the world-class organisation it aspires to be.