Thank you for inviting me to speak today. It is a particular pleasure to do so because this is an area in which we are starting to make real progress. The Family Justice Review was an essential first step towards improving the family justice system; making it more efficient, less bureaucratic, and, most importantly, better for children.
‘He would say that’ I hear you cry - and that may be true. But I hope the many experts in this room feel equally positive about the proposals put forward in the review and the Government’s response. I look forward to hearing your views during the course of this session.
Personally, I was delighted with the work of David Norgrove and his panel. The changes they proposed are not just a sticking plaster for the short term. They are radical reforms for long term improvements.
Once the reforms have taken effect, the system should be more streamlined, more robust, and better able to cope with fluctuations in public or private law demand.
But I know that what matters most to you, to me and to all our colleagues, is getting the best result for every single child going through the system.
We share that aim, which is why the Government has lost no time in setting out its priorities for change. These are:
- Speeding up the system - it is simply not acceptable that it takes over a year on average to resolve a family public law case;
- Supporting parents to resolve their own disputes out of court; and
- Building greater coherence and better partnership working.
These changes are just one part of a broad and ambitious programme of reform. Right across the care system, we want to strengthen the focus on children’s needs. We want more freedom for hard-working professionals to make decisions based on evidence, experience and their own judgement. And we want to reduce intrusive micromanagement, unnecessary delays and excessive bureaucracy.
One point on private law
I know the focus today is on public law, but there is one issue I would like to address on a matter of private law. There were very few points of difference between the government and the Family Justice Review panel. There was one, however, on the issue of shared parenting. As this attracted widespread coverage in the media I wanted to make my position clear today.
Most children benefit from having both parents involved in their lives. In the great majority of cases - and hopefully an increasing number - parents will make their own childcare arrangements without having to go to court.
For the cases that do come to court, however, the starting position must be that both parents will help to care for their children, unless there is a good reason why one should not be involved. As a Government we are committed to reinforcing this through law, while upholding the principle that the child’s welfare is paramount. A Ministerial working group is considering how best to do this, and there will be a consultation later this year.
Public law: the context
In the area of public law, we have already committed to implementing many of the review’s recommendations. Let me set out some of the thinking around these reforms.
We know that if we want to improve the lives of the most vulnerable children we must look at the care system as a whole. That is why the Family Justice Review took place alongside Professor Eileen Munro’s work on child protection and the development of our Adoption Action Plan.
Adoption has grabbed a lot of press attention recently, and rightly so. But let’s be clear: there is no hierarchy here. While the government believes strongly that more children should benefit from adoption, we cannot look at this one element of the system in isolation. Adoption is only ever going to be the right option for a minority of children.
However, some of the issues we have highlighted with regard to adoption flag up problems right across the system.
On the wall of my office I have a flow chart drawn on a piece of brown paper - we’re very high-tech at the Department. On it are two lines. One traces the journey of a child, from being taken into care to finding a new adoptive home. The other does the same for adoptive parents, from taking the decision to adopt right through to the moment they open the door to their new daughter or son.
I have made big red marks on the chart to show where obstacles and hold-ups are occurring. These marks are not confined to any one spot - they look like a rash of measles, right across the page. From local authorities to family courts, delays are systemic.
The red marks explain why, of 65,000 looked-after children in England, only 3,050 found new homes through adoption last year - the lowest number since 2001. They explain how, as the review so shockingly found, the average duration of a public law care case is now over a year - 55 weeks. 17 per cent of cases take a staggering 80 weeks or more.
Let’s remind ourselves what this means for the children involved. Harriet Ward’s research into at-risk infants last year documented:
- a baby whose parents so persistently forgot to feed her that she ceased to cry;
- a two-year-old left to forage in the waste bin for food;
- a three-year-old who could accurately demonstrate how heroin is prepared.
All these children remained with their birth parents for many months without being taken into care. Who knows how much damage they suffered, and how many children like them all over the country are suffering still?
For too long, vulnerable children have been held in limbo by a dysfunctional system. It’s not good enough. And we are going to change it.
Why delay matters
Reducing delay is our main purpose in reforming public family law. The system is there to protect the most vulnerable children - not to add to their difficulties. We must avoid these prolonged periods of uncertainty which are so damaging - particularly to those children who do need to be adopted. The more time a child spends in care, the less likely they are to find a stable home.
We know that reducing delay will not be easy. Many attempts have been made over the years, to little avail.
Meanwhile, pressure on the system has grown. Throughout 2011-12 there were record levels of applications for care. There are 20,000 children currently waiting for a decision in public law, compared to 11,000 at the end of 2008.
In such a context, how can we begin to get these figures down? Well, the first step is to understand where and why delays are happening, as the review has helped us to do. We know that there are problems with poor or late social work assessments submitted to the courts. We know there can be blurred lines of accountability, with nobody fully responsible for ensuring a case runs on time. We know that there could be better collaboration between the various legal and other professionals involved.
I sometimes go to sit in on family courts, and I try to talk to as many of the people involved as I can. I can’t help noticing that different professionals offer very different explanations for delay: judges complain about the tardiness of social workers; social workers roll their eyes as the judge commissions yet another expert review. We need to create a situation in which all these eminently capable and well-intentioned people can pull together and support one another.
We also need a culture change. Removing a child from his or her parents is a grave decision, among the gravest. Naturally, everybody involved wants to feel sure that they are doing the right thing. But the benefits of commissioning another assessment, or allowing the parents another chance, must always be weighed against the irretrievable damage to the child which may be caused by further delay. In the past there has, perhaps, been a tendency to underestimate this.
As Becky Hope, for twenty years a child protection social worker, wrote in her book published last year, “All in a Day’s Work”:
Children can’t wait whilst we adults play at getting it right. If we insist on them waiting then the children will pay a very high price, and so, in time, will society.
Because delay is such a critical issue, the Government is sending out a very clear message. We intend to introduce a 6 month time limit for all bar exceptional cases. This is a limit, not a goal; where cases can be completed more quickly, they should be. We will introduce legislation to this effect at the earliest opportunity.
A number of new measures will help us to get there. First, we wish to see a stronger, clearer role for judges in setting a timetable for the case and ensuring cases are completed in a timely and efficient way. We will be working closely with judges to secure this, with full regard to their judicial independence.
Second, we need to cut down on the number of expert reports commissioned by the courts. Such reports take up precious time. They should only be used where they are really necessary, they should be high quality, and they should be delivered promptly.
Third, we must improve the quality of the submissions made to courts by local authorities. In many areas, poor quality or late submissions have added to a lack of trust between the courts and social services. In turn, this leads to a growing reliance on time consuming expert reports. The Munro reforms, which I have mentioned, should help to address this.
Fourth, we will strip out duplication, making sure, for example, that courts do not waste time scrutinising every detail of a child’s care plan, and that the court’s work is not being done all over again by an adoption panel.
Finally, we need to build up the skills of the professionals in the system. We plan to introduce a programme of interdisciplinary training, which will promote better understanding of child development and in particular on the impact of delays.
We know this is not going to happen overnight. But we have already made a start, by establishing the Family Justice Board - several members of which are speaking this afternoon. The Board brings together senior figures in the core organisations within the family justice system, and is charged with driving progress. I believe they met for the first time last Thursday, and I wish them all the best as they set about this vital work. A key task - not to say challenge - for them will be to prepare the ground for the 6-month time limit.
What else are we doing?
I hope the Board will provide the family justice system with the leadership and coherence that the Family Justice Review found was so lacking. One key part of its job will be creating the environment where local issues can be resolved locally, through new local family justice boards. Its remit will also include private law, and particularly how we can help separating parents to resolve their issues out of court where possible.
Importantly, I think, the Board will work with a panel of young people who have direct experience of the family justice system, to ensure that their views are heard.
We hope that this programme of change will empower you, the professionals in the family justice system, and give you the space and support you need to do your work. It will strip out unnecessary bureaucracy and duplication, and put children back at the very centre of all decision-making.
There was an observation in the Munro review which rang very true for me, as I imagine it will for many of you: “helping children is a human process. When the bureaucratic aspects of work become too dominant, the heart of the work is lost.”
In public and private law, I want to help every front line worker in the family justice system, at every stage of the process, to achieve the heart of the work - put the child first.
That’s why we’re all here. And that’s what we will work together to achieve. Thank you.