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Review of children’s care ‘fails to understand’ IRO role

The independent review of children’s social care has “failed to fully understand the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer,” critics have warned.

The proposal in the review to scrap the IRO role and ‘reset the role of children’s advocacy’ risks “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, Nagalro has warned.

“Nagalro would welcome children in care having access to dedicated advocates who can act as advisers, facilitators and a spokesperson for their views.  What advocates cannot do, however, is to keep the plans and timetable for the child on track and prevent drift.  Because of their statutory position within the local authority, they are able to do this and this was the initial reason why the role of IROs was first created,” said a statement from Nagalro.

“The social worker and their manager may well think that the plan is working well but a good IRO, who has spent time listening to the child, can not only point out where the plan is not working for the child but, because of their statutory role and authority, can make the necessary changes,” it added.

IROs are experienced social workers and their primary focus is to quality assure the care planning process for each child or young person, and to ensure that his/her current wishes and feelings are given full consideration.

Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) were introduced in 2004 (Adoption and Children Act 2002). But the independent care review said it had become clear that the role as originally designed has not solved the problems facing overstretched services.

“As local authority employees, IROs lack the independence to challenge poor social work practice, whilst also not having enough meaningful contact with children to champion their wishes and interests effectively. The review has heard from too many children in care who do not even know the name of their own reviewing officer,” said the care review.

The review said the team has seen direct evidence of individual IROs working hard to support children in care but at the same time, IROs frequently report supporting more than 70 children at any one time.

The independent care review recommends that legislation should be amended to remove the role of IROs and Regulation 44 Visitors, to be replaced with an independent opt-out advocacy service made available to all children going through family group decision making processes, court proceedings and in care.

Nagalro’s Chair Carole Littlechild said: “There was a proposal to give local authorities power to dispense with IROs in the Bill which subsequently became the Children and Social Work Act 2017.  Parliament rejected this.  In 2018, the proposal was revived in the review of foster care conducted by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers.  Josh MacAlister now proposes that the IRO should be removed and replaced with an advocacy service for looked after children.”

“The report suggests that a reason for dismantling the IRO service is to provide the necessary experienced social workers to fill the need for Expert Child Protection Practitioners.  Nagalro deprecates any attempt to remove the ongoing and authoritative monitoring and oversight of the looked after child’s care to simply meet a staff shortfall,” she added.

Nagalro is not the only organisation to have raised concerns about scrapping the IRO role.

Article 39 director Carolyne Willow said: “This is the third serious attempt at getting rid of the IRO role in six years (alongside other moves to weaken the role). The government sought to trial the removal of IROs via the controversial exemption clauses in the Children and Social Work Bill in 2016/17 but couldn’t get the provisions through Parliament. Then a review conducted by Martin Narey and Mark Owers recommended their abolition in 2018; this was rejected by the then Children’s Minister Nadhim Zahawi (now Education Secretary) who went on to publicly affirm the importance of the role.”

“Removing independent reviewing officers (IROs) from all children in care is a drastic and dangerous move. IROs are experienced social workers who scrutinise local authorities’ care and decision-making in respect of individual children. They were introduced to make sure there is an experienced social worker not connected to the child’s care who holds the local authority to account,” she concluded.

Josh MacAlister defends recommendation to scrap IROs and ‘reset’ advocacy

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