MPs deliver scathing verdict on Cafcass

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) has been branded as “not fit for purpose” by MPs for its handling of a surge in demand following the Baby Peter scandal.

The organisation saw a 34 per cent increase in its caseload in 2009/10 following the scandal. But the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report has said Cafcass was ill-prepared to deal with this.

Committee chair Margaret Hodge said: “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.”

The report found that Cafcass failed to address low staff morale and was blighted by high levels of sick absence and “under-performance by some staff”.

While the quality of reports by court advisers were of a high standard these were beset with delays, the committee found.

The Department for Education expects Cafcass to have dramatically improved its service by next year. But Hodge said the committee does not share this confidence.

This is one of the most scathing reports into Cafcass’s service since the Baby Peter scandal. Ofsted has already delivered critical reports into its service in eight out of 10 areas inspected.

Hodge said that Cafcass’s most senior managers need to “demonstrate and exercise strong and vigorous leadership if Cafcass is to meet the challenges it faces”.

Nagalro, the professional association for children’s guardians, has described the committee’s findings as a “wake-up call” but added that the solution doesn’t lie in more management at Cafcass.

Ann Haigh, Nagalro chair, said: “[Cafcass] 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.”

However, a Cafcass spokeswoman said that many of the figures were “historic” and that the “service is already improving”.

The report details how Cafcass took up to 40 days on average to fully allocate a care case to a family court adviser. The spokeswoman said the current average is 25 days and that last month 99.7 per cent of its care cases and 97 per cent of its private law cases were allocated.

Staff sick leave has also reduced, from 16 days on average for each family court adviser to the current level of 12 days, she said.

The spokeswoman added: “The increase in cases took everyone by surprise, not just Cafcass.”

Cafcass’s quality of service has also been backed by High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley.

He told the committee: “The service that is actually delivered on the ground for most of us is certainly fit for purpose.”