Measures in the Children and Social Work Bill, currently going through parliament, threaten the existence of the Independent Reviewing Officer Service, it has been claimed.
The National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers has warned that Clauses 29 – 33 of the Bill would enable local authorities to apply for exemptions from their duties to provide services and support to children which are enshrined in law.
Jacki Rothwell, Chair of NAIRO said “We are passionate about improving outcomes for children in care. We believe this measure in the Children and Social Work Bill, if it became law, would have a disastrous impact on the rights of children in care, and on their lives.”
Six monthly reviews of children in foster care were introduced in 1946 following the death of 12 year old Dennis O’Neill who was killed by his foster carers. The coroner criticised the lack of local authority supervision and reviews were later extended to those living in children’s homes.
In 2002 Parliament passed legislation to make local authorities appoint Independent Reviewing Officers to lead the review process. They must be qualified and experienced social workers and their statutory role includes checking the local authority has informed young people of their rights to make a complaint, access support from an advocate and helping the child obtain legal advice.
However, NAIRO fear the measures in the Children and Social Work Bill, designed to encourage innovation, would erode this role.
When Lord Nash spoke for the Government in the House of Lords in the 2nd reading debate, the IRO service was one of his 2 examples of a service ripe for dismantling.
He said: “Secondly, there is strong consensus in the sector that in low risk cases, the role of the independent reviewing officer brings no additional benefit. Exemptions will enable local authorities to trial redirecting IRO resource differently – for example, to more complex cases - while reducing the number of additional people a young person does not know at their review, which is a known concern in more straightforward cases.”
Two local authorities are reported to be requesting an exemption from legislation. Lord Nash informed the House of Lords that in North Yorkshire there are just over 400 children in care but there are only 20 children on average who would require regular in depth reviews if the authority was granted exemption from the law in relation to reviews and IROs. It is thought that Hampshire County Council would ask for two exemptions from the current legislation to a) reduce the frequency of children’s reviews below the current minimum and b) for the role of the IRO to be carried out by individuals who are not qualified social workers.
However, NAIRO has warned that the role of the IRO is to scrutinise the local authority’s care plan for the child and listen carefully to the views of the child and others about the plan. “They must challenge the local authority if they believe the plan is not in the best interests of the child. The loss of the rights of children in care to the protection of this service would be a disastrous backward step,” said the Association.
NAIRO is part of a campaign called 'Together for Children – Defending Children’s Social Care Rights' and is urging all people concerned about the lives of children in care to join the campaign against these “potentially disastrous measures”.
Jacki Rothwell added: “This measure is not about “innovation,” it is about dismantling children’s rights. I have not met an IRO in the country who thinks these measures would help children in care."
"We encourage all IROs, social workers, children’s rights workers, and all those who care about the lives of children in care, to do all they can to resist these clauses in the Bill and to join the ‘Together for Children’ campaign."
“We call on the government to withdraw the clauses from the Bill, and enter discussions with NAIRO and others about how the IRO service could really be improved for the benefit of looked after children,” she concluded.