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Children’s leaders back plans to scrap IRO

Plans to allow local authorities to scrap the role of Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) have been welcomed by children’s services leaders.

The recently published Fostering Stocktake suggested that councils should be able to do away with the IRO role, reinvesting any savings in frontline children’s services.

While the proposals have been met with criticism from the children’s commissioner, a coalition of social work organisations and experts, the National Association of independent Reviewing Officers and Nagalro, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has welcomed the plan.

The ADCS response to the Fostering Stocktake said: “The report identifies three possible areas where increased flexibility could be introduced in relation to the oversight of fostering placements, these are: independent reviewing officers, dual oversight of stable placements by social workers; and fostering panels.

However the ADCS added a note of caution: “While we welcome the proposals ADCS members would want to ensure that a child’s right to request his/her own social worker remains in place.”

Since 2004, all local authorities have been required to employ IROs who are expected to ensure that care plans for children and young people fully reflect their needs and that each child’s wishes and feelings are given full and due consideration. They also have a duty to monitor the local authority’s performance as a corporate parent and raise areas of poor practice with senior managers.

However, the Fostering Stocktake, published in February this year by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers, found “despite the commendable commitment of some individuals, we saw little to recommend the IRO role and believe local authorities should be allowed to dispense with it, re-investing savings in front line staffing”.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said that while she supported many of the recommendations, she did not support the recommendations to remove Independent Reviewing Officers. “We know from cases referred to our advice service Help at Hand that IROs often raise the alarm about a child’s situation that needs help to resolve,” she said.

A letter to children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi from the co-chairs of NAIRO Paul Smart and Jon Fayle said: “It is surprising that this recommendation should emerge from a report about fostering and not about care planning. It appears to come from nowhere and is beyond the scope of the report.”

Meanwhile Nagalro said that the proposals are based on a five-year-old Ofsted report and ignores a later study by the National Children’s Bureau, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, which concluded that the scrutiny of council plans for children in care was ‘crucial to ensure that the quality of care plans is not compromised’.

However, welcoming the proposals, the ADCS said that not every council would want to rid of the IRO role. “While some of the recommendations may require legislative change, in principle it is right that local authorities are given the flexibility to put in place arrangements that best suit local children, recognising that not all local authorities would use such flexibilities.”

“Many local authorities would welcome the opportunity to reinvest potential savings from these areas into other parts of the business according to local needs and priorities,” said the statement.

However, the ADCS did not welcome all proposals the stocktake made, including the plan for a national register of prospective foster parents. The statement said members were “not convinced”.

Acknowledging that there are capacity issues within the system, the statement said that “a national register would not address this”.

“Where pressures do exist, local authorities and local independent fostering agencies must work together to ensure that, wherever possible, a child is placed locally so there is as little disruption to their wider networks, including their education placements and any involvement with health professionals. The concept of a national register does nothing to acknowledge the importance of maintaining the connections and relationships that are meaningful to children in care, including contact with birth parents and wider family members where that is appropriate, nor would it address the underlying supply shortage of suitable foster parents,” added the ADCS.

Indeed the statement nodded towards larger agencies profiting from fostering, an issue the ADCS members remain concerned about.

“It is even more disappointing to learn that two of the larger charities are also guilty of charging inflated prices for foster care placements. Such practices, whether for private profit or to increase surpluses to prop up other aspects of an organisation’s business, are immoral and cannot be justified at a time of reduced budgets across the public sector.”

ADCS concluded that the recommendation to establish a Permanence Board is welcome although ADCS would urge the department for Education to consider the role and function of other boards such as the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board, Residential Care Leadership Board and the proposed high needs national leadership board.

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