IRO service needs radical improvement to promote effective challenge
Many independent reviewing officers have a positive impact on children's lives, but recent court judgments show the system must enable them to do their jobs properly
The role of the independent reviewing officer (IRO), a social worker who scrutinises local authority care plans to ensure they serve children’s best interests, came into existence back in 2004.
But it has recently found itself under fresh scrutiny following controversial recommendations from last year’s fostering stocktake, and a pair of judgments concerning Herefordshire council.
Research findings about the effectiveness of the role have been mixed. There is evidence of much effective practice in local authorities where the role is working well.
The National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO) has put together a dossier of cases, which makes clear that the intervention of IROs has significantly improved the lives of many children in care.
But some serious issues have also been identified. Practice among IROs has been found to be extremely patchy across local authorities, and there are some problems that emerge routinely, which have been identified by Ofsted and the judiciary.
Challenge not strong enough
The most common shortcoming – identified in a whole range of Ofsted reports – relates to the effectiveness of IRO challenge in the face of what may be seen as poor planning or practice. Some sample comments by inspectors are set out below:
- “IROs have not used escalation processes sufficiently when positive change for children is not achieved within acceptable timescales.”
- “IROs do not consistently provide effective challenge to ensure that care plans are progressed without delay.”
- “[The IRO service] lacks sufficient or effective challenge to poor practice.”
- “There are too few formal escalations recorded, with little evidence of the difference that this has made for the child or young person.”
It is also of concern that only a very small number of referrals by IROs to Cafcass (the method of returning matters to court) have been made. There were just 20 formal referrals between 2004 and March 2017. None of these had actually been taken back to court.
It seems hard to believe that over 13 years, and with the care population currently at about 75,000, such a tiny number of cases merited referral to Cafcass.
There have also been a number of criticisms made of IRO practice in court judgments.
In a 2012 Lancashire case the IRO service was seriously criticised for failing to challenge poor practice that left two children drifting in the care system for years. The IRO concerned had an unmanageable caseload – three times the statutory advice – inadequate training and support, and no access to legal advice, as is required by the IRO Handbook.
More recently, in the two 2018 judgments concerning Herefordshire council, the local IRO service was similarly severely censured.
One, in an echo of the 2012 Lancashire case, concerned two children allowed to drift for years without challenge.
This judgment also recorded an IRO manager claiming (with reference to a different case) to have been bullied and threatened by senior managers and a senior local authority solicitor not to seek independent legal advice, nor to refer to Cafcass. If she did not comply with this ‘advice’, she said, disciplinary procedures would be invoked. It was this “advice” that inhibited her from escalating the case in question.
Herefordshire council’s IRO service is now being externally evaluated by Doncaster Children’s Services Trust.
It is evident from such cases that the location of the IRO service within local authorities sometimes inhibits the capacity of IROs to make independent and effective challenge. NAIRO has other examples of IROs being bullied or intimidated in order to discourage challenge.
A role under threat
Over the last two years, moreover, there have been attempts to undermine and even abolish the IRO function.
Early proposals for the Children and Social Work Act 2017 sought to water down and emasculate the role. Following a successful campaign supported by NAIRO and other children’s charities, these measures were dropped and do not appear in the Act.
In February 2018, meanwhile, the Narey/Owers Foster Care in England report found “little to recommend” in the IRO function and encouraged its abolition.
Fortunately the government did not accept this recommendation. Children’s Minister Nadhim Zahawi has subsequently expressed his strong belief in the value of the role and expressed his intention to introduce measures to improve IRO effectiveness.
In its response to the Foster Care in England report, the DfE stated: “We will work with organisations representing IROs and local authorities to consider how the role of IROs can be put to best effect in the current system and under existing legislation.”
Blueprint for change
NAIRO is committed to helping in all ways that we can in this process, and following extensive consultation with our members, we have formulated an IRO effectiveness improvement plan. Our main recommendations include:
- Reviewing the IRO Handbook (the main statutory guidance for IROs) to strengthen the independence of IROs, their status and influence within local authorities and their capacity to challenge.
- Facilitating closer relationships between IRO services and elected members.
- Requiring local management arrangements to support and facilitate effective challenge.
- Enabling closer links with Children in Care Councils.
- Making it a duty of IRO services to assess local authorities’ looked-after children services as a whole.
The organisation has also developed a training programme, a key component of which relates to effective challenge.
With regards to that crucial element, the wider IRO community remains divided on the question of the best location for the service. Some firmly believe that siting the service within local authority structures gives IROs essential access to managers and senior leaders, granting them more effective influence in resolving disputes. Others argue that being part of the local local authority can only fatally compromise independence.
There is, however, widespread agreement that wherever the service is located, action must be taken to protect IROs’ autonomy from local authority operational management. It is abundantly clear the problems some areas face must be addressed.
NAIRO believes IROs already make a strong contribution to improving outcomes for children in care. We are confident that measures can be put in place to radically improve the IRO service, and achieve consistent high standards in every local authority. But this needs to happen sooner rather than later, for the sake of the children we seek to serve.