National IRO Managers Partnership / NIROMP
Our mission is to help bring about improvements in practice and policy. Holding children at the centre of what we do through our work with and for them, we aim to lead and promote excellent care and services.
Official Briefing – Children & Social Work Bill / CSWB
About this briefing – Children and Social Work Bill / CSWB
Recently I met by invitation from the shadow children’s minister Emma Lewell-Buck. The meeting was requested for the purpose of clarifying NIROMP’s position on the CSWB, with particular reference to the powers to innovate and test changes to the legislative framework.
This official briefing confirms NIROMP’s position and sets out some of the background and context to points made at that meeting.
Background to the CSWB and NIROMP’s position
In 2010, the Department for Education considered that the child protection system in England was not working as well as it should. It commissioned the Munro Review of child protection. Munro’s report recommended major reform of children’s social work.
In October 2016 the National Audit Office published Children in need of help or protection and concluded that ‘Nationally the quality of help and protection for children is unsatisfactory and inconsistent, suggesting systemic rather than just local failure’.
Various government departments, including IRO services, have recognised that help and protection for children needs improvement.
In July 2016, Putting children First was published – setting out the governments vision for children’s social care by 2020 and set out the case for change:
The best children’s social care services in England deliver excellent help and support to children and families. But whilst there is much impressive social work in the system, evidence from frontline delivery organisations, multiple Serious Case Reviews and from Ofsted inspections points to continued inconsistency in the quality of work with children and families. Ofsted’s recent Annual Report on children’s social care states that, of those local authorities inspected under the current framework, a quarter have been found to be inadequate. In addition, almost half require improvement to be good. The majority of local authorities still struggle to provide consistently effective core social work practice. Similarly, fewer than half of Local Safeguarding Children Boards, which coordinate and challenge multi-agency working locally, do so in a way which is ‘good’.
Some points about the outcome of the Munro Review of child protection
Munro was unequivocal in pointing out the State’s responsibility to protect children and young people. She was equally clear that the state ‘must continue to provide a clear legal framework, setting out what vulnerable children, young people and their families should expect from the collective efforts of local agencies’ and on the importance of ‘stripping away much of the top-down bureaucracy that previous reforms have put in the way of frontline services’.
Munro also cautioned:
‘it is equally important that some prescriptions remain in respect of unparalleled life-changing decisions about children’s safety and the potential to remove them from their birth families’.
About the CSWB ‘exemption’ clauses
The ‘exemption’ clauses give the education secretary powers to exempt councils from certain statutory duties for up to six years. They were removed from the CSWB in November 2016 when the government was defeated in the House of Lords and opponents included the shadow children’s minister. An amended version which emphasised an increase to the number of safeguards embedded into the process of the exemption proposals, was voted in when the clauses went to the House of Commons in January 2017.
A number of local authorities have raised ideas for how the exemption powers could be used. A policy statement published ahead of report stage gives some case studies from Hampshire and North Yorkshire about where local authorities think there is scope to trial changes to legislation. Examples include the trialling of new approaches to the Independent Reviewing Officer role.
NIROMP’s position on the CSWB exemption clauses and powers to Innovate
In principle NIROMP is supportive of and has welcomed the ‘freedom to innovate’ – to try different and new ways of doing things. We have tried to avoid any binary position, particularly related to the IRO role. To be clear though, NIROMP does not support the re-structuring of children’s entitlements and rights.
In our view, any potential freedoms and innovations should continue to be available to all children as part of the existing legislative infrastructure that establishes our combined duties and responsibilities for the universal safeguarding and wellbeing of children.
NIROMP believes that the power to allow some and not others exemption from legislation would be an unnecessary step; complicating the preservation of children’s rights and entitlements to equality under the law. Our concern is that the legal duties affected by the bill relate to nearly all of children and young people’s statutory rights.
NIROMP welcomes innovation, and creating the right environment to drive practice excellence, and we are seeing positive signs that this is happening.
The children’s social care innovation programme has encouraged increasing numbers of authorities to be bold and creative in testing new approaches and developing new practice; potential to transform services across the country has perhaps never been greater. While it is early days to test effectiveness, those close to the programme have commented that they are ‘seeing strong early indicators of both innovation and effectiveness’.
NIROMP believes that the success or failure of change depends largely on the quality of the political and social climate; partnership working; organisational culture and our combined skills and abilities as leaders (at all levels) to champion genuine and trusting relationships. To that end we have also been encouraged by the work of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) to drive up sector-led improvement. We see local authorities routinely taking part in a range of improvement activities and an increasing evidence of services working together to share best practice in the design and delivery of children’s services. NIROMP is proud of its part in this movement.
Public services are faced with increasingly short-term, unstable and temporary funding sources and what has been described as ‘a perfect storm of increased need, expectations and reduced resources’. Children’s wellbeing and life chances are conditional of the local and national political context and this is why NIROMP believes that a solid, universally available, legislative infrastructure is so necessary.
NIROMP continue to work hard to minimise the impact of austerity measures on the quality of help and protection afforded to our most vulnerable children and young people, but local differences in the way IROs are used and employed contributes to differences in the quality of service provided to children in different parts of the country. Our worry is that the pattern of increasing demand on councils and the impact of fiscal pressures could result in the most vulnerable children being left at risk; a relaxation of duties could result in an increase in vulnerability for the most vulnerable children and families.
End note – CSWB exemption clauses and powers to Innovate
- NIROMP’s ambition simply put is to help achieve the best possible outcomes for the vulnerable children, young people and families who need it most. This can be done locally by strong services working collaboratively to agree the means to deliver the right kind of targeted help to meet identified need. Collaboration needs to focus on who is best able to deliver help more children and families to thrive. NIROMP’s view is that this could be done within the existing legislative framework.
- NIROMP has requested involvement and opportunities to consult on any proposed innovations so that we can share our national, regional and local specialist knowledge, experience and skills to make sure that children’s rights and wellbeing are never compromised and that resources can be used to have the most impact.
- Bettering the life chances and experiences of children in care and care leavers demands that our sights remain firmly focused on what is right for them, making collaborative efforts to ensure children’s rights and entitlements are preserved.
- If there is genuine commitment to raising standards for children in local authority care, then a role that was introduced as a safeguard for children in the guise of an IRO should be supported, strengthened and developed. The concern remains that children in care should be afforded equality and continuity, regardless of where they are placed in the country.
- The standards and legal frameworks that we currently have, go some way to ensuring those rights are preserved.
- We now have an opportunity to further improvements made so far, by remedying the concerns levied that IRO services do not act quickly enough or robustly enough. This indicates more IRO activity is needed, not less if children’s rights are truly to be upheld and robustly delivered.
- We should not forget why legislation was introduced to protect our Looked After Children. Nor the value those children place on their IRO.