Baroness Tyler: How Cafcass went from ‘not fit for purpose’ to ‘outstanding’

Posted On: 
1st May 2018

When Baroness Tyler took over as chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in 2012, the organisation had recently been condemned as ‘not fit for purpose’ by MPs. Six years later, as she steps down, it boasts an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted. The Lib Dem peer talks to James Millar about cuts, criticism and keeping the faith

"Everyone at Cafcass understands our basic raison d’être is to make sure the voice of the child is heard in the family courts," Claire Tyler says
Credit: 
UK Parliament

Now into its 18th year, Cafcass, the body that represents children in the courts system, is approaching adulthood. Like a parent sending their offspring into the world with good A-level results, Liberal Democrat Baroness Claire Tyler can take some satisfaction in stepping down as chair of the organisation just as it is granted an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted.

That’s no small achievement, given Cafcass – the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, to give it its full name – had a difficult birth and a torrid early life. In 2010 it was condemned as ‘not fit for purpose’ by MPs.

There have been growing pains and not everyone shares Ofsted’s opinion of Cafcass still, but it’s clear that Baroness Tyler leaves the operation in a better state than she found it. “It’s great to have left on such a high, without a doubt,” she smiles.

But she’s keen to stress that it was not a one-woman rescue job. “I like to think I’ve made a contribution to the organisation’s continuous improvement, but the really hard work has been done by the chief executive, the senior management team and particularly the frontline practitioners. I think what a board does, and what a chair does, is to create a culture, set the tone in which that hard work happens.

“We have worked incredibly hard on improving quality, improving outcomes for children, and ensuring everyone in the organisation understands our basic raison d’être is to make sure the voice of the child is heard in the family courts.”

At its inception, Cafcass was that rare thing, a policy that achieved wide consensus – agreement that it was a good idea to bring together the various quangos and services for children in one place, and agreement, too, that the implementation was entirely cack-handed.

Cases like that of Toni Ann Byfield – shot in 2002 while staying with her gangster father – brought its failings into sharp and serious relief. The Chief executive, Anthony Douglas, took over a chaotic organisation in 2004 and has been there ever since, despite continued criticism that was crowned by the Commons Public Accounts Committee report that damned Cafcass as ‘not fit for purpose’ and accused it of failing children.

Yet here we are in 2018 with Douglas still in post and the organisation receiving praise from Ofsted. Is there a lesson for other under-fire organisations that patience is a virtue? “I think there is,” Tyler says. “Because if you look at what’s happened in children’s services generally, perhaps after Ofsted have come in and given a poor report, usually immediately heads roll. We didn’t go through that. What we did was invest in the people that were making a difference and what was working.”

One of Tyler’s first tasks as chair was to get Cafcass to actually do its work on time, so that reports were delivered to courts and cases could go ahead, rather than allowing proceedings to drag unnecessarily.

Next came investment in the employees – Cafcass is the biggest employer of social workers in the country. “Staff had lost their confidence, and sometimes other professionals in the courts treated them in a pretty poor way and their views were often overridden or people didn’t take much notice of them,” she says.

Training, flexible working practices, support for those with huge and difficult caseloads, and even just new IT so social workers could file reports on a tablet from the court, speeded things up and led to an improvement in the organisation’s culture. Tyler adds: “I always made sure I met members of staff and I felt, over the years, I could hear the confidence growing. They told me they are now seen as the experts.”

There are still challenges, of course, not least an increased workload. Public law cases, typically when a local authority applies to take a child into care, jumped by nearly a third between 2015 and 2017 and private law cases involving warring parents hit 42,000 last year.

Baroness Tyler explains: “It’s absolutely clear to me that austerity has taken its toll, with early intervention services falling off and things like children’s centres closing down.” She cites recent research by the Sutton Trust which found that around 1,000 children’s centres have closed in recent years.

“That was where the early intervention work happened, that might have helped families to sort themselves out, maybe turn their lives around. I think that is one of the reasons that led to rising demand. There are other reasons as well, but it is a significant reason.”

So, given the impact of austerity, isn’t she concerned about handing over to a Conservative? Edward Timpson, the children’s minister in the cost-cutting coalition administration, is the new chair of Cafcass. “I think Edward Timpson had a very good record as minister for children and families. He was widely respected across the party divide because he was a family lawyer for 10 years, and because of his personal experience. His parents fostered many children, so he really, really does get it,” she says. “I think, like me, he’s passionately committed to improving outcomes for children.”

Critics claim there is still some way to go when it comes to improving those outcomes. The APPG on Domestic Violence is chaired by Labour MP Jess Phillips. Its 2016 inquiry into the family courts found that “children’s safety is being compromised”. In the same year, Women’s Aid, which supports the APPG, published a hard-hitting report entitled 19 Child Homicides, which focused on cases involving 12 families where the children had been killed by abusive fathers given access by the family court.

“Cafcass did not come off well from our inquiry,” Phillips tells The House. “Every year, hundreds of women get in touch with me and very few are complimentary about Cafcass.

“Cafcass doesn’t understand the nature of domestic abuse and how the courts are used as a way of continuing that abuse. They need to seek out action to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse and they ought to take a stronger line – a person who perpetrates domestic violence is not a good parent.”

But Baroness Tyler claims that criticism is out of date. “I would refute that. As soon as that report came out from Women’s Aid we worked very, very closely with them to develop a whole new set of domestic violence toolkits and pathways. Women’s Aid is now much more complimentary about us, the work we do and the training we’ve done.”

As a former chief executive of Relate and part of the Kids in the Middle coalition of family charities and agony aunts, Baroness Tyler insists she has years of experience in dealing with cases where domestic abuse was a feature. That work also gives her a certain perspective. “My view is when it goes wrong in one case and it results in a homicide, that’s one too many,” she says.

“If you’re asking me whether, given the complexity of the cases that come before the family courts, is it a surprise that something as awful as that happens occasionally, I’m afraid my answer is no, it’s not.”

And she insists Cafcass has a positive story to tell, too. “The formal complaints, which we take extremely seriously, have gone down substantially over the years. We also get a lot of very nice compliments about our work as well. You’ve got to look at it in the round.”

That may not convince Jess Phillips, who has a separate inbox to deal with all the Cafcass correspondence she gets, or other MPs overwhelmed by emails on the topic. But Tyler points out that only a tiny minority of break-ups end up in the courts and MPs’ view of Cafcass may be coloured by the fact they only hear from folk when things have gone wrong.

And she’s not walking away from the issues. With a range of roles including involvement with the APPGs on children, social mobility and wellbeing economics, as well as continuing work with Relate and the National Children’s Bureau, she’ll remain busy. And she intends to bring her experience to bear in the Lords.

She’s keen to flag up how her outside appointments will make her a better peer, able to amend legislation in an informed way.

Tyler’s Lib Dems retain a weighty representation in the Lords from their years in coalition. But there’s no disputing the party has fallen on hard times politically. “We’ve had our challenges as a party,” admits Baroness Tyler. But she’s confident about the upcoming local elections and dismisses any talk of a challenge to Vince Cable should results prove disappointing on 3 May. “I think Vince is a really good leader and exactly what the party needs right now.”

With Cafcass, she has experience of taking a much-criticised and troubled organisation and turning it into something she can be proud of. Perhaps, in fact, Baroness Tyler is what the Lib Dems need right now.