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Commons Public Accounts Committee brands Cafcass ‘not fit for purpose’

Committee does not share DfE’s confidence that ‘all will be well by 2011’

The Commons Public Accounts Committee has published a report on the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service's response to increased demand for its services.

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, 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.'

Committee's conclusions

Committee's recommendations

Nagalro's response
Ann Haigh, Chair of Nagalro, said:

'We agree with the Public Accounts Committee that Cafcass is unfit for purpose. Cafcass has consistently failed to deliver the service the law requires for children. Its very expensive management has failed over a long period to provide the timely service that vulnerable children need.

'But we do not think the PAC has got the solution quite right. Cafcass does not need more management – it is top-heavy with extremely expensive managers who do not understand the service's responsibilities to children. What we need is a much less bureaucratic service that allows experienced professionals to do the job they are trained for without having one hand tied behind their back.

'Nagalro has told the Family Justice Review and the Children's Minister Tim Loughton that it would be more effective and cost effective for family court services to be commissioned at local level with stronger links to courts and a range of specialist services.

'Children's Guardians say Cafcass's incompetence is destroying the effectiveness of the children's guardian role - a vital safety net for children. The service has been on an emergency footing since August 2009 and the situation is not sustainable. The new 'watching brief' model means that the children's guardian dips in and out of a case. It prevents the continuity of professional oversight which is a key factor in keeping children safe during a crisis period in their lives.

'It is the best interests of children that is the paramount consideration here, not the best interests of Cafcass the organisation. Children's voices are being silenced by the very agency that should be listening to them and ensuring that the court knows what is happening to them. Above all we must preserve the important role that protects children, even if we have to create a new way of delivering it.'