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Child welfare body not fit for purpose, say MPs

The body responsible for looking after the interests of vulnerable children in the family courts was exposed as "not fit for purpose" in the wake of a large rise in cases following the Baby P tragedy, MPs said today.

Children suffered as the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) "failed to get to grips with fundamental weaknesses in its culture, management and performance" following a 34% increase in its caseload, leading to "chaos across the family justice system".

"These problems have been to the detriment of children", the report by the Commons' Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found.

Margaret Hodge, the committee's chairwoman, 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 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."

Baby P, now named as Peter Connelly, was 17 months old when he died in Tottenham, north London, at the hands of his mother Tracey Connelly, her violent partner Steven Barker and his brother, Jason Owen, in August 2007.

He suffered more than 50 injuries despite receiving 60 visits from social workers, doctors and police over an eight-month period.

The case prompted a 34% rise in cases for Cafcass in 2009/10, the MPs found, and the body was only able to respond to the demand through the use of measures "which allowed it to do less work or to delay work on cases".

"Cafcass, as an organisation, is not fit for purpose", the committee said.

While the specific impact of the Baby Peter tragedy was "hard to predict", the possibility of a sustained increase in cases "was a scenario that Cafcass should have planned for".

But "Cafcass did not see the crisis coming, nor did it have a contingency plan in the event of a significant increase in demand", the committee said.

Cafcass has also taken "too long to secure essential changes, and much of the responsibility lies with top management".

"It is shocking that Cafcass has not previously collected all the information it needs to manage its workload more effectively," the committee said.

Low compliance by staff with important requirements was "a persistent problem" which undermined the body's efforts to improve, the MPs added.

There was also a risk that the number of unallocated cases could return to the "unacceptable levels seen in summer 2009".

Cafcass was still not providing a timely service, eight out of 10 Cafcass areas failed Ofsted inspections, and the committee "does not share the Department for Education's confidence that all will be well by 2011", Mrs Hodge said.

"The failure to provide an effective service cannot be blamed solely on the rise in public care cases since 2008," she said.

"Top management must demonstrate and exercise strong and vigorous leadership if Cafcass is to meet the challenges it faces."

The report added: "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.

"Renewed energy and vigour are needed to sort this situation out if Cafcass is to become the world-class organisation it aspires to be."

Cafcass took an average of 27 days to fully allocate a care case to a family court adviser, down from up to 40 days between September 2009 and June 2010, but "still well above what it should be", the report found.

It added that data which Cafcass holds on cases centrally "contains inaccuracies".

And sickness absence was "unacceptably high", with an average of 11.6 days per staff member in 2009-10 and 16.1 days for family court advisers, compared with the public sector average of 8.3 days in 2009.

Cafcass said it had taken "robust action" to improve the service.

Chief executive Anthony Douglas said: "We will take heed of the PAC findings, and we will continue to defend the interests of the 140,000 children who we work with each year, each of whose cases is unique and many of whose lives we improve as a direct result of our involvement."

He went on: "Cafcass is fit for purpose because we have absorbed a massive number of new cases in the last 12 months and have improved our productivity by 17%, which is a performance any organisation would be proud of.

"We have improved on every measure considered by the PAC and the National Audit Office, including falling staff sickness, faster filing times of court reports and quicker allocation of cases."