Get me out of here… I’m an independent social worker

Over the past few weeks or so, there have been more than a few grumblings from the world of independent social work. ISWs are not best pleased with the implications from a draft order published by the LSC (Legal Services Commission) in February 2011. The basis of the concern relates to only one paragraph right at the end of what is a rather lengthy document. Under the title “independent social work”, it reads:

Where independent social work services are provided within England and Wales, the costs and expenses of such services are payable as a disbursement at rates not exceeding the rates routinely paid for such services by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service or the Children and Family Court Advisory Service Wales.

This is in essence pegging the rate of ISW fees to that paid by CAFCASS, who have historically used the services of ISWs to undertake work as Children’s Guardians and the like. So that would seem quite a reasonable thing for the LSC to do wouldn’t it? Well let’s look at that little more closely.

Prior to this order being published, and it was certainly not the easiest document to obtain, the LSC had talked about a consultation process in respect of expert fees, of which ISW fees are allegedly part of. However no real consultation took place and it was relatively well know, certainly amongst ISWs, that the CAFCASS cap was on its way. Bearing in mind this draft order came to the attention of ISWs at the end of February at the earliest and its implementation is indicated at the beginning of May, there appears to be a negligible amount of time to “consult”. In reality it presents as a done deal. A like it or lump it proposal.

There has been murmuring from the LSC about expert fees for some time. An examination of whether public monies are being well spent cannot be argued with as long as that process is both transparent and open. What does appear rather strange is the singling out of ISWs. No other experts have been capped in this way. Only ISWs have been targeted as wasteful and overpaid [my words not the LSCs].

Certainly I am aware that the LSC has been making ad hoc decisions on expert fees for some time. Often these interventions appear both random and incomprehensible, as well as not contained only to ISWs. The recent evidence given to a parliamentary select committee on family justice noted that a wide range of experts in family proceedings have had fees reduced sometimes significantly. These are done even though judges have signed them off as a reasonable expense and the parties in the proceedings, who are very aware of the public purse, see the expert as the both necessary and reasonable. I take this slight side step to show that the LSC appear to have little recognition of the legitimacy of the courts as well as the impact of this kind of decision making on expert availability to family proceedings.

The impact of these ad hoc interventions by the LSC will not only undermine the availability of experts to the courts but will certainly reduce the quality of such expert assessments. By reducing fees for significantly qualified and experienced people, no matter what their expertise is, there is highly likely to be a haemorrhage of experienced experts, which cannot be either be in the best interests of justice nor serve the often vulnerable people, both adults and children, who are part of such difficult proceedings.

In many ways fees for all expert work varies wildly. There are certainly people who overcharge and people who perhaps do not charge enough. However payments to experts should reflect levels of expertise, experience and quality, not just a whim of an officer or manager at the LSC.

Notwithstanding this and returning to ISWs, social workers are often paid, and the research confirms this, the least of any expert witnesses. Certainly ISWs do not charge the significant hourly rates that other experts charge. Often medical experts charge 3, 4 or 5 times that of an ISW. They may very well be worth those fees but it seems somewhat strange to pick out for capping the fees of those paid the least. It would seem that the cap would almost half what was seen as a reasonable ISW fee. So this is not a slight reduction. It is a 50% reduction. Could you imagine anyone accepting that kind of pay cut in the real world? However this is not the real world, it is the LSC universe where quality, independence and experience court for zero and cost counts for everything.

So why peg ISWs to a CAFCASS rate? They are both ISW tasks aren’t they? Indeed they are, but there are significant differences in the roles. The CAFCASS ISW historically has taken on long pieces of work, certainly months and sometimes years, and generally not the ad hoc work done as an expert in court proceedings. As with all contract work, one can charge less where there is a sense of security and longevity of work. Finances can be planned and hence rates can reflect this. Indeed with any contractor, a mix of long term and short term work is reflected in the charging rates. This is not only the case with LSC work but any contractor work in any sector. It is clear that the LSC draft order does not reflect this reality. Instead it seeks to peg a rate that suits its means rather than one that fairly reflects what would be a real and fair market rate. In fact there has been a serious concern about the CAFCASS rate for some time bearing mind the ISW must pay all his or her on costs. In fact CAFCASS has employed agency staff at a higher cost than ISWs. So one could perhaps assume a more political motive to the cries of “too expressive” and that is I suggest one to do with that lack of control and influence on ISWs. The system’s mistrust of independence in social work appears to be a growing theme.

In addition, the reality of the CAFCASS rate is that it has not moved to any significant degree for years. CAFCASS has continued to rely on the good will and dedication of ISWs to keep its experience workers. However over recent years this has dissipated as CAFCASS has sought to marginalise workers it has little control over, which has led to an exodus of ISWs from CAFCASS to be replaced by relatively inexperienced in-house social workers. Anyone well versed with family law at the moment will know of the almost complete destruction of that was seen as a truly independent, knowledgable and dedicated staff group. Therefore comparisons of work and remuneration cannot sit closely between a CAFCASS ISW and court based ISW work.

So social work has yet again been picked out as the poor relation. The capping of rates at such a low level combined with no such exercise for any other expert shows an astonishing disregard for the importance of social work. In the end long standing and well regarded workers will just end up leaving as they already have. This will be to the significant detriment to the vulnerable, particularly in care proceedings, who need and deserve that independent voice in court. With the dismantling of CAFCASS as an independent voice in court ISWs had taken that role in many complex cases. However yet another independent voice has been taken away and the family justice system will certainly be less informed and therefore less just than it should be.

With family lawyers being squeezed to the point of bursting, judges overwhelmed and Children’s Guardians moving away from independently ensuring fair play and justice for the child, the treatment of the ISW is just another nail in the coffin of what had been a relatively fair, enlightened and thoughtful family law system, as family justice systems go anyway. Although there are certainly areas that need overhauling, the surreptitious undermining of this system from different directions will have a significantly negative impact on the future and I’m already putting my money on social workers getting the blame.

Social work continues to be a relatively week group of workers in terms of influence and voice but try, where possible, to serve the interests of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society and particularly of children. The LSC’s view of social work just reflects the ongoing view of social work as the whipping boy and scapegoat of institutional and societal disfunction.

As Noam Chomsky says, I cannot be held accountable and morally responsible for the outcome of the actions or inactions of others. However I certainly can for my own. So I for one cannot stand by and watch the continued degrading of the social worker and the ongoing undermining of systems designed to protect and give a voice to the most vulnerable in our society. In the end, those with a moral conscience, and social workers should inherently have this, must do something to stop the slide or be complicit in the outcomes. The signs are that the outcomes are not good for social work nor for a society that does not best protect all of its members.


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