Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg

Children, Young People and Education Committee

20/03/2024

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Buffy Williams
Heledd Fychan
James Evans
Jayne Bryant Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Ken Skates
Laura Anne Jones

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Gillian Baranski Prif Arolygydd, Arolygiaeth Gofal Cymru
Chief Inspector, Care Inspectorate Wales
Jane McConnell Llywydd Tribiwnlys Addysg Cymru
President of the Education Tribunal for Wales
Rhian Davies-Rees Pennaeth Uned Tribiwnlysoedd Cymru
Head of Welsh Tribunals Unit
Sarah McCarty Cyfarwyddwr Gweithredol Gwella a Datblygu, Gofal Cymdeithasol Cymru
Executive Director Improvement and Development, Social Care Wales
Sue Evans Prif Weithredwr, Gofal Cymdeithasol Cymru
Chief Executive, Social Care Wales
Vicky Poole Dirprwy Brif Arolygydd, Arolygiaeth Gofal Cymru
Deputy Chief Inspector, Care Inspectorate Wales

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Jennifer Cottle Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Michael Dauncey Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk
Sarah Bartlett Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Sian Thomas Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Tom Lewis-White Ail Glerc
Second Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:15.

The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:15.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Croeso i gyfarfod y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg heddiw. 

Welcome to this meeting of the Children, Young People and Education Committee. 

I'd like to welcome Members to the meeting of the Children, Young People and Education Committee today. The public items of this meeting are being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, and a record of proceedings will be published as usual. The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. We'll be joined by Ken Skates and Laura Jones a little bit later today, and I know that James needs to leave slightly earlier, at 11 o'clock. Are there any declarations of interest from Members? I see no declarations of interest. 

2. Arolygiaeth Gofal Cymru: Craffu blynyddol
2. Care Inspectorate Wales: Annual Scrutiny

So, we'll move on to the first item on our agenda this morning, which is Care Inspectorate Wales: annual scrutiny. I'd like to welcome our witnesses who have joined us this morning. We have Gillian Baranski, chief inspector, Care Inspectorate Wales; and we have Vicky Poole, deputy chief inspector, Care Inspectorate Wales. So, you're very welcome with us this morning. We've got a number of questions to get through this morning, so I'd just like to remind Members to be as concise as they can through the questions, and also to witnesses as well, because I realise there's a lot, as I said, to get through. Just to say as well, as a committee, we have been doing quite a bit of work in the areas that are being discussed today, so there are things that we're quite familiar with and have an understanding, but it really helps us to have you in to discuss this work a little bit further.

So, I'll make a start with just some general questions. One of your strategic priorities is to be a trusted voice that influences and drives improvement. How would you rate Care Inspectorate Wales's performance in driving service improvement for children and young people in 2022-23? And what do you think the main achievements in delivering change for children in that time has been? 

Thank you. So, we are not an improvement organisation, but clearly for a regulator and inspector, there is huge value in whatever we do in terms of our regulatory and inspection framework—that it should bring improvement with it. And one of the things we did during that period is we clarified what our role in this area was. And so we devised an improvement statement, which looked at the work we did and talked about how we could mirror that to the public so that they would understand what happens as a result of engagement with us. And one of the key areas around it is the voice of people in our work. It's one of our cardinal principles, it's a feature of every inspection, it's part of our work with our national advisory board, which is made up of statutory partners, the children's commissioner's office, the older people's commissioner, but, as importantly, service users. So, with all the work we do with our strategic plans, with any changes to our inspection frameworks, we look to our partners to feed in their voices as to what would make the most difference. 

And, clearly, we start our improvement journey when we register services. And so part of our aim is that we only register services that are appropriate and fit to be run. So, in 2022-23 we registered 31 new children's homes; up to the middle of February, we registered a further 33 children's homes. And it's making sure that, right at the beginning of the journey of a provider, they have the right systems in place, they have the right structure in place, they have the right staff in place. If that works well, then hopefully the service they provide to children in their care is a good one. And in terms of our work with local authorities, there's a range of work. We've done actual field work in 15, 16 of the local authorities this year, which is quite unprecedented, because we've done a number of system reviews. There is huge improvement benefit in individual service inspection—you go into a service, you see how it's functioning, there will be sometimes areas for improvement and sometimes there will be areas of things they have to do immediately. But the big change comes to the system with the work that we can do with our partners across structures. So, during the last year, we've done work on the rapid review of child protection arrangements. That was not an inspection; we were very clear that was working with partners to see how the system worked, to see where the gaps were, to see what we could add value to. And the other major piece was a joint inspection of child protection arrangements, which we did with Estyn, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services.

And so, in the inspection framework, we now have silent ratings in children's care homes. The reason they're silent is this is a change, and we learnt from our childcare and play work, if you can spend a period where providers get used to the new structure and understand what the inspectorate regards as 'excellent', 'good', 'requires improvement', 'poor', you get much more buy-in with the work. And it's fair to say, of the inspections we've done of children's care homes this year, the main finding we give is 'good'. And what's clear is, despite sometimes the media picture of social care and childcare and play, most care in Wales is good care. Across local authorities, there is no one individual local authority that we have significant concerns about.

So, a combination of our work with partners, our individual inspection work, the fact that we return to services when we are concerned about them, helps improve the quality and safety of services across Wales. But it is important that we recognise that care in Wales is generally good, and it's because of the incredible commitment of the social care workforce that we have the service levels that we do. And so, it's an evolving framework in terms of our improvement journey. I think those are probably some of the main things that we've done this year, Vicky—

09:20

I don't think there's anything—.

We can come on to some of those other issues in a little bit more detail, I'm sure, through this session. Following that, really, in the annual report, you say that readers

'will no doubt be struck by a sense of déjà vu'.

Saying that many of the issue set out in your previous annual report remained as acute 12 months on.

So, you've talked about some of that improvement, but do you see—? Perhaps you could sort of expand a little bit on that statement that you made.

So, there are several issues that lead to that statement. One is the workforce issue, the recruitment and retention issue in social care. People who work in social care enjoy it, find it valuable, and it's excellent news that the real living wage is now paid, but in comparison to people who work in healthcare, the payment and, almost as importantly, the parity of esteem just does not exist. So, much work is going on—and I'm sure you'll be speaking to our colleagues in Social Care Wales, who are the workforce regulators and would have more in-depth knowledge of this—to try and encourage people to think of it as a career, to develop structured career pathways, to improve the finance, to improve the profile, but I suspect there are very few schools where careers advice is, 'Have you ever thought of a career in social care?' And I think because it's an area where until you've actually experienced it for yourself, until it's your mother or your child that needs social care, I think for the public generally in Wales, they don't recognise the enormous value of social care in society. And often headlines will be, 'Social care costs an enormous amount of money', rather than, 'Local authorities are giving a service to vulnerable people in their local communities that helps them to lead full and active lives.'

So, the workforce issue is a significant one. I think the other one that I think will be particularly difficult this year is the prevention and early intervention agenda. When we do inspections, we do find pockets of really excellent work around early intervention and prevention, but the financial position of the last few years—. Social care was fragile before COVID, and the combination of COVID and the cost-of-living crisis has, I think, exacerbated the fragility of social care. And although the Act gives a statutory function and foundation for early intervention and prevention, when you have pressure of increased contacts, increased number of children, increased complexity of children's needs, to look after the people at that end means that often it's the early intervention and prevention work that gets pushed to the back. That would be the real game changer for social care if, instead of it being seen as an 'either/or', it was seen as a 'must be done together'. Those are probably the two big issues that have come from last year's report, which I suspect will be a feature very much of this year's report as well.

09:25

And I think the sense of déjà vu is that these are intractable problems. There are no quick fixes and short-term wins, which is why, as Gillian said, they probably will be reflected again when we do the next annual report.

And I think it's important to say these are not issues that one part of the system can fix. These aren't just issues for local authorities' social services departments; these are issues for system focus—health, education, housing—hence the importance of the joint work we've been doing with other inspectorate partners, to try and shine a light on some of these really important areas.

And you touched on some of, perhaps, the complexity, and again your report refers to the unprecedented demands in the numbers of people needing care and support. You also say that it's creating an unsustainable pressure on social care services. How realistic, then, is it to expect the planned national office for social care to facilitate the scale of change needed to move on from this position of crisis management?

I guess you have to start somewhere, and I think what's important is that social care has a national voice. We see a huge importance in that office. Health has a chief medical officer, it has a chief nursing officer. To have a chief social care officer with the ability to pull together the various strands of what we know about social care, what Social Care Wales knows about social care, what the regional partnership boards and the regional safeguarding boards—. I think this issue of the profile of social care can't be underestimated, because until it's seen as not just an add-on to other services but a vital service with its own national office, with its own voice, I'm not sure how anything changes, unless we start making these incremental steps.

We've done quite a bit of work around this area generally, children's social care, but just looking at when we've spoken to people on the ground who work in this field and who are impacted—young people who are impacted—there's just sort of a difference, sometimes, between what the aims are and what we'd all like to see between what, actually, are their experiences. Do you think the new national practice framework for children's social care will have any impact?

I think anything that brings national consistency is to be welcomed. I think the recognition that there's good practice that already exists—I know that's highlighted in the framework but it needs to be referenced in the framework as well. The opportunity that it is not just seen as one agency, but it has a multi-agency focus, is so important, because when we travel around we do see some excellent work, some outstanding work, but we don't see it universally, and so the framework gives us a platform to start taking some of that forward.

Okay, thank you. We've got some questions now from Heledd Fychan. Heledd.

09:30

Thank you very much. 

Os dŷn ni'n edrych ar rai o'r marwolaethau trasig ymhlith plant sydd wedi bod, gan gynnwys, wrth gwrs, achos trist eithriadol Logan Mwangi, mi ofynnodd Llywodraeth Cymru i chi, neu Arolygiaeth Gofal Cymru, i arwain yr adolygiad cyflym amlasiantaethol o'r broses o wneud penderfyniadau amddiffyn plant. Ac fel y gwyddoch chi, edrychodd ar sut mae'r gwasanaethau yn sicrhau bod enwau plant yn cael eu gosod yn briodol ar y gofrestr amddiffyn plant, a'u tynnu oddi arni. A allwch chi ddweud wrthym ni heddiw pwy fydd yn monitro'r broses o weithredu'r 20 o argymhellion yn yr adroddiad terfynol gennych chi, jest fel man cychwyn efallai, os byddech chi'n gallu amlinellu hynny?

If we look at some of the tragic child deaths that we've seen, including, of course, the very sad case of Logan Mwangi, the Welsh Government asked you, or Care Inspectorate Wales, to lead a multi-agency rapid review to look at decision making in terms of child protection. And, as you know, it looked at how children are placed appropriately on the child protection register, and how, subsequently, their names are removed. Can you tell us who will monitor the implementation of the 20 recommendations in the final report, just as a starting point, if you could outline that?

So, the rapid review that we did in partnership with regional safeguarding boards and others, I think, was a really good example of cross-sector working. And what we found, of course, is that most children's names were appropriately placed on and taken off the register. And this was a piece of work, whilst important, that was part of a schedule of work in children's safeguarding.

So, in addition to that, we did a review of the public law outline, and we also did a joint inspection of child protection arrangements. And I guess what we found is some really good practice, and some key themes, I think, recognising that safeguarding is a collective responsibility. So, we welcomed the corporate parenting charter. We saw this increased complexity in children’s needs. We saw an increase in the number of children at risk, we saw workforce challenges, and we also saw this impact of austerity on early intervention. But we found lots of strengths as well. We found the voice of the child very well reflected. We found good multi-agency working. And, with the areas for improvement, well, the areas that relate to social care, we will be looking at as part of our work. But there are some issues there that come up time and time again—so, information sharing, in this day and age, with modern technology, and the need to invest in systems that make it easy for the doctor’s notes to be captured on a screen, and not in handwritten notes, to be part of the file system which everyone can access. It seems quite sad that we’ve got to refer to that again. We also saw the impact of agency and inexperienced social workers in this area. And that causes some issues, and one of those is around the need for greater professional curiosity—

Sorry to cut across, but we’ve had a debate on the 20 recommendations, and, obviously, one of the things that was picked up, as you rightly said, is the fact that it’s not the first time—they weren’t new recommendations. So, I think my question was: how are you monitoring progress, or who’s responsible for monitoring that progress? So, unfortunately, we’re not in this situation that we don't know what the problems are; it’s how we find solutions.

No, I understand. 

I think there’s a range of ways we’ll do it. So, where some of the recommendations are about education, Estyn will build that into its inspection framework, so its activity. The same for HIW, where it’s about the NHS. We also work really closely with the National Independent Safeguarding Board Wales, and you’ll be aware of the thematic review that it did of child practice reviews. And we’ve got some very similar recommendations, so the national independent safeguarding board are going to be doing some follow-up work with regional safeguarding boards, and we’re looking at how we can integrate what we need to do with what they’re doing, because we don’t want to duplicate, and we don’t want to be going to individual local authorities or individual regional safeguarding boards—them going and us going. So, where we can integrate how we’re monitoring, we will do that. We have no formal powers around regional safeguarding boards, but we do meet and we do have discussions with them. And, obviously, we are part of the transformation of children’s services. We sit on a range of groups around transformation of children’s services, so we will make sure that the areas we’ve highlighted feed into that whole range of work, but we will follow up as well. Every year, we meet with every local authority, and that’s part of our discussion with those individual local authorities as well. So, there’s a range of ways, I suppose, is what I’m saying.

09:35

I guess, for us, in terms of our scrutiny, it's to understand how you return to those 20 recommendations and how any progress is monitored, obviously, if different people are responsible for different elements. Obviously, all 20 recommendations are important. So, I guess I'm trying to better understand is it an annual check-in, looking overall at those? I think the greatest concern for all of us is ensuring that no child that's known to authorities is ever killed again. That has to be our aim. We've seen report after report where some of the same recommendations or issues come up. So, I guess our question, really, is: what needs to happen to be able to monitor or track so that we try and avoid that situation as far as possible?

Well, we will be tracking what happens, and we also have Inspection Wales, which is where HIW, Estyn and Audit Wales sit together, and we can look at that. We would never to be able to give a guarantee that that would never happen again. All we can do is try and make sure that the systems that are in place are as good as they possibly can be, and that we, as inspectorates together, jointly scrutinise and encourage and cajole and make sure that people are doing the things that they've signed up and committed to doing.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. If I can return to Welsh now.

Gaf i ofyn beth yw'r prif bryder ar draws yr holl adroddiadau o arolygiadau ar y cyd o drefniadau amddiffyn plant rydych wedi eu cyhoeddi hyd yma? Ac os caf i ofyn, i ba raddau, os o gwbl, y mae pwysau ariannol ar awdurdodau lleol yn cael effaith ar amddiffyn plant?

Can I ask what's the primary concern across all the joint inspection of child protection arrangements that you've published to date? And if I can ask also to what extent, if any, are funding pressures on local authorities having an impact on child protection?

That's a really good question. I think the key things are some of the issues that come up time and time again. Information sharing is one. It's quite a feature, and what we found is that some settings just do not have the technical infrastructure to allow them to do what we would think would be an easy transfer of information. That's clearly a funding issue because paper systems, by very definition, are not going to be as effective.

We think access to advocacy for children is patchy and inconsistent. It can often be very good, and sometimes it's not very good. I think the whole issue of inexperienced and agency social workers means that children and families have multiple social workers involved, and that impacts on the quality of their relationships. It can often mean that the voice of the child is not really heard in settings. There's a whole plethora of things in, actually, all the inspections on this—some of them are definitely to do with funding, but some of them are around professional curiosity, and not accepting at face value that a child can't be seen because whatever, I think, is one that comes with experience.

But I think the threshold of consistent decision making as well is another issue that came out, and that's sometimes not just between partners—it can sometimes exist within the same agency, and hopefully one of the things that a national framework would bring is that consistency of understanding and the use of threshold tests that are clear across the whole system and don't vary.

Then it's suitable care homes to meet the needs of some of these children. Sorry, Vicky.

I was just going to say I think one of the key things that's come out of all of the joint inspections is just the volume of work is increasing, and that's for all partners—so, the volume of referrals into children services. Every time a strategy meeting is held around child protection, that requires police presence, often we need a GP to be there or somebody representing healthcare and somebody from education. So, there are the pressures in terms of the increasing complexity of children's needs, and the impact, as Gillian's already said, about austerity and cost of living, is increasing the volume of referrals. But what we're not seeing is funding in order to employ more social workers or more police officers to be able to deal with this. So, those pressures are huge, and that is a consistent theme we're seeing not just in children services, but in all those agencies that are working with children who are at risk.

09:40

Absolutely. Yes.

Thank you. I think we'll be probably delving into workforce a little later as well. I'll be changing to Welsh. Diolch.

Dwi'n siŵr byddwch chi'n ymwybodol bod ein pwyllgor ni wedi lansio ymchwiliad i blant a phobl ifanc sydd ar yr ymylon, gyda ffocws cychwynnol ar blant coll a phlant a phobl ifanc sy'n agored i gam-fanteisio troseddol. Wrth edrych ar y cyntaf o'r materion yma, beth ydy'ch prif pryderon ynglŷn â'r systemau presennol sydd ar waith o ran diogelu plant coll?

I'm sure you will be aware that our committee has launched an inquiry into children and young people on the margins, with an initial focus on missing children and criminally exploited children and young people. Looking at the first of those issues, what are your main concerns about the existing systems in place to safeguard missing children?

We don't hold data for all missing children. Care home providers who are registered have to notify us when a child goes missing, but fostering agencies are not required to do that. And so, from April last year to February of this, we had 2,238 notifications of children going missing. Now, that sounds very difficult, but there are very different interpretations out there of what constitutes missing, despite the fact there's guidance on it. And so, we did a piece of work looking at high numbers of missing notifications by service—so, any service with over 50 we did some work on—because every notification that comes in to us we give consideration to. And what we found was quite interesting. Sometimes, social workers will ask a provider to notify the police and, therefore, they've then got to notify us. When a child has been missing, in the sense of it's school holiday, their curfew is 9 o'clock, they've phoned up and they've said they're not coming back but they're at x location, we found, looking at the piece of work we did, there are multiple occasions—. There was one home with 51 notifications, and it was mainly that they leave staff on an activity and they fail to turn back. Another was they were at a friend's. Another was one child, but, in fact, it was 54 notifications about two children. But police instigated procedure around those children because they were regarded as at serious risk. So, the problem is the notifications in and of themselves don't tell the full story. What they say is the providers are telling us, but sometimes they're telling us when a child is at a different location. But we have seen a steady increase in the number of children who go missing. In 2019, when we did our review then, we found it a problem. We did a summit with the police back then—that must've been 2019—

In 2017 I think the summit was.

Was it 2017? The years just blur with COVID.

We have another piece of joint work coming up at the moment with South Wales Police, to look at this, because I think there are a couple of things. We need to get the guidance right, because if there were 2,232 children who had gone missing, in the sense that they were out overnight, no-one knew where they were, that would be very concerning. There's practice guidance out there, and we know there's some good practice in the field. So, some local authorities use Barnardo's and the National Youth Advocacy Service to do a return-to-home interview. There's been research on this, and clearly what's important is when the child comes back, it should be seen as encouragement and not punishment. And our experience, looking back through notifications, is where there are children who've gone missing in circumstances that we would all be concerned about, the providers have put wraparound round it to try and help that. It's just a worry, and I guess it's an increasing worry, as the age of children in care tends to increase as well. We need to find a way of defining it in the sense of, 'These are the children we really need to be notifying them of.' But you can understand, with social workers, with the pressure on them, it can lead to some very risk-averse behaviour and, therefore, you end up with notifications that you don't have—

May I ask if you know, from the 2,232, how many children that equates to, because you gave the example of one being 54—?

We don't. I don't have the numbers here, and I don't think we'd have the numbers.

No, we don't, because we try not to collect personal information on children, so then that makes it difficult for us to say, 'Is this about the same child?' But we will phone up the provider and have those discussions, and we do follow it up on inspection, to make sure that the provider is doing what they need to be doing in terms of their responsibilities.

09:45

But what's interesting here is: 70 notifications, one child; 54 notifications, two children; 69, one child. So, there are a lot of children that account for a lot of this, and with some of them—. There was one that was a person at risk of child sexual exploitation, but wraparound was put around that child. But we only have those global numbers, and, any service over 50, we've done a piece of work to look at each of those, to satisfy ourselves as to what's happening and to make sure that the home is putting the right arrangements in place for those children.

So, you have the detail on how many of those 2,232 are over 50 then?

And then we did some exploratory work with the homes, to dig back beneath them, and say, 'How many children? What were the issues? Where were the children?', to satisfy ourselves that the provider knew, as you'd expect a parent to know, where is this child.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Os caf i droi felly at ffocws ein hymchwiliad ar gam-fanteisio troseddol ar blant a phobl ifanc—roeddech chi'n cyfeirio at hynna yn eich ymateb diwethaf hefyd—beth ydy eich dealltwriaeth chi o'r natur a'r raddfa ledled Cymru, gan gynnwys o ran yr amrywiadau rhanbarthol ac efallai oedran y plant?

Thank you very much. If I can turn, therefore, to our inquiry's focus on criminally exploited children and young people—you referred to that in your previous response—what is your understanding of the nature and scale across Wales, including the regional variations and perhaps the ages of children?

So, one of the reasons that we started the joint inspection of child protection arrangements, known as JICPAs, was to focus on how well local organisations responded to child exploitation. So, the first two of these that we did—one was in Neath Port Talbot and one was in Newport—were focusing around that. And what we found, actually, was that staff demonstrated a really good understanding of the nature of the work in relation to children and families who are at risk and experiencing exploitation. And in one of the areas, we found there were very prompt referrals to child and adolescent mental health services, but we were told that there were significant delays in receiving assessment for some of these children.

We've developed guidance recently for providers in this area. We're also working on guidance for new providers about children's care homes, and that explicitly signposts to guidance on protecting children at risk of exploitation. So, we had hoped to return to some of this work, but, unfortunately, some of the pressures on the inspectorates involved means that we won't be able to do that. But the two that we did—and, of course, we shared the findings of those with local authorities across Wales—were very positive in terms of their understanding of and work with children subject to exploitation.

Diolch. Ydych chi'n gweld tensiwn o gwbl rhwng cyfraith droseddol a diogelu ar gyfer y grŵp hwn o blant?

Thank you. Do you see that there's any tension between criminal law and safeguarding for this group of children?

I think that the work that's gone on about reducing the criminalisation of care proceedings has been very successful. And in fact, some of the pressures in other parts of the system are because a lot less children end up in youth custody now. And so children tend to come through a welfare route more than the previous traditional routes of into the criminal process. And so, the toolkit was created, it's got funding, there have been regional events about its use. And I think the Welsh Government has been very focused on trying to reduce the stigma and not to criminalise children unnecessarily, with all the problems that that creates.

I think the other thing that we're seeing is an increasing interest in contextual safeguarding. So, it isn't just about the children and their family, it's about their wider community—are there hotspots in playgrounds where children gather? And I think that—. It's very early days for that being rolled out in Wales, but that's something that we're watching with interest, in terms of the impact of having that broader view of safeguarding and protecting children.

Diolch. Diolch, Gadeirydd.

Thank you. Thank you, Chair.

Diolch, Heledd. I'm sure we'll be writing to you perhaps on the specifics of our inquiry on children on the margins. Perhaps that would be helpful to get a bit more depth about some of the things you've raised today, actually. So, that will be really helpful. We will write to you on that. We've got some questions now from Buffy Williams. Buffy. 

09:50

Thank you, Chair, and thank you for joining us this morning. We can see that the rates of looked-after children vary between local authorities, from 52 per 10,000 of the population aged under 18 in Carmarthenshire to 200 per 10,000 in Torfaen, and this committee has been told been told that there are stark differences in the way local authorities operate. What is the main reason there is such huge variation in the rates of children going into care in different Welsh local authorities, even when rates of deprivation are accounted for?

So, one of the reasons that we did one of our joint inspections of child protection—or rather the PLO work that we did, which is the public law outline, which looks at whether children are appropriately in the system, we deliberately did one of those in Torfaen, because that's one of the areas that has one of the highest rates. And we did not find that children were being taken inappropriately into care. In our conversations with CAFCASS Cymru as well, we did not find that either.

It's a very difficult question as to whether there's a right rate of children being taken into care, which is one of the reasons we really appreciated the work around the public law outline, which was very clear that local authorities across Wales were using it appropriately. We did not find instances where parents and families were not being well supported to have their children remain with them where it was safe to do so. 

I think the problem is the context. You can have a couple of families move into an area with a large number of children with some very complex problems that can skew figures very quickly. We've also been looking at the numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Wales, and I think there are now over 350 of those children. That can skew the numbers, because they would count as looked-after children, quite considerably. 

And so we've—. This has exercised us, because we're conscious that there are different rates, but the research work we've done has not shown us that there's a silver bullet that says, 'Ah, if only a local authority did this.' What we are aware of is families with increasing complex needs. The impact of domestic violence, the impact of substance misuse, the impact of the pandemic—it's created a very complicated world for children. But there's nothing that we've seen that we can point to. 

It's a question we ask, but what we haven't seen is that those local authorities that have high rates of numbers of looked-after children are doing something wrong and those that have lower rates are doing something better. I know local authorities are very focused on this and talk to each other a lot about what's happening. I think where there's investment in early intervention and prevention—. I know we keep coming back to this, but it is really important, because what we see is that, at the point at which children are taken into care, that is the right decision for that child and that family, but, actually, could more have been done earlier? Had there been the right edge of care and early intervention and prevention services, the right mental health support—the right mental health support for mothers, for example—then possibly that would have resulted in children not needing to be taken into care. But we haven't identified any one single thing that we can say, 'They're doing that right and they're doing that wrong', and we do constantly look at it. 

Thank you. Your annual report is very explicit that there is already a lack of suitable placements for children who are looked after. We also know that, in the 12 months to March 2023, 17 per cent of children looked after had two placements, and 9 per cent of children had three or more placements. How big is the risk that Welsh Government’s plans to eliminate profit from children’s care will exacerbate this?

I think this is an issue that predates the eliminate agenda. What we're finding is, with the level of complexity of need—. And we started focusing on settings, for example, that were operating without registration several years ago, and what tends to happen is these are very complex issues facing some of these children. It’s usually that there’s a placement breakdown, it’s on a weekend, and, because of the nature of the child’s needs, there’s not an obvious setting that they can go to.

So, what we’ve tried to encourage is regional partnership boards to look at developing facilities that can service and look after children from an area with these particular complex needs. They are not just social care needs. It’s very often that there are health issues, particularly mental health issues, they need specialist educational support, they need therapeutic support, and I guess, with the children’s homes we have—there are 33 new this year, 31 new the year before—if a provider has four places, the temptation to take a child without those level of complex needs must be enormous. And so the only solution to this is joint work across agencies, and we’re aware that some—. I think Gwent have developed a very interesting setting, where they’ve brought all these therapeutics together.

These are a small number of children that end up without an obvious home, and it must be possible across Wales for partners to come together and develop the sort of support that these children need. The numbers are not in their hundreds, and therefore the onus is to develop settings that will give them the support that they need for these very important formative years. 

09:55

I think it's also fair to say that, in the inspections we've been doing of fostering services, we are struggling in Wales to recruit and retain foster carers, and I think if there aren't foster care placements then more children are then looking for residential care placements. So, that might be children whose needs could have been met in a foster care placement, which means that that care home placement is not available for children with higher level needs, because the places are full. So, on paper we’ve got sufficient placements in registered care homes, but, if it’s a home for four children, but the nature of the needs of that child mean that they can’t be accommodated with other children, then there are three vacancies that can’t be filled. But I think the issue about foster care sufficiency—. I don’t know, and I’m sure the national foster care network will have better answers on this, but actually encouraging people to be foster carers at a time of a cost-of-living crisis is very difficult. 

Sorry, Buffy, I should bring Laura in. Laura Jones. 

I think you're very right—just from my own area, I know there's a massive problem in recruiting foster carers, bringing them in and attracting them. As you say, in a cost-of-living crisis, that's one of the problems. But with the new changes making it very rigorous, which obviously we want to see, and the safeguarding elements of that, of course, do you think it's too hard, almost, to become a fosterer? With the changes of how to become a foster carer, it seems very difficult to get in there and to be able to become one. That's what's putting a lot of people I've spoken to off, who would be fantastic foster carers. 

We probably wouldn't have the evidence base to answer that. You would expect a regulator to be in favour of regulations and rules that make sure that only the people we absolutely want to be doing these important roles—

But have you—? What I mean is, have you looked at it, and do you have any thoughts on it, how better we can make it, in terms of to make it easier to become—with the safeguarding still there, obviously?

We've seen really creative ways of trying to encourage foster carers, and there's a lot of national publicity in trying to encourage people to be foster carers, and foster carers talking positively about their experiences. There have been accolades and awards for foster carers. So, all of those things are trying to promote it, but I think it is just a sign of the times, I think. 

And cost.

10:00

Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to touch on the coverage of the Tŷ Cariad children's home and the report that was laid last September. I was just wondering if you have any comment on that report.

We have a lot of children's homes that we deal with. Can you give us some more specifics of what you're relating to?

There was a report done by—well, there was an investigation through WalesOnline, I believe, into the Tŷ Cariad children's home. It was hit by a damning inspection and fears of safety for children. I was just wondering if you had any knowledge of this, or if you have comment on that.

We could go back and look at the reports, but I don't have that to hand. But I'm very happy to reply to you separately on that.

All right. That would be great. Thank you. If you could send that information to the committee, we'd be really grateful.

Yes, we will.

Thank you, Buffy. We've now got some questions from James Evans.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. My first question to you is: how many care-experienced children in Wales are currently living in unregistered placements?

We currently have 30 settings unregistered. Normally, they would be single settings, but they're not always. But we have 30 current settings operating without registration.

What do you think the implications of that are, within your most recent report, where you stated:

'In Wales, unlike England, the majority of services operating without registration are being directly provided by local authorities themselves, not by independent sector providers'?

Do you think that having unregistered placements has an impact on what your report's findings are?

We are obviously very concerned about any child that's placed in an unregistered setting, because it doesn't have the benefit of having gone through a rigorous registration programme. The registration exists to protect the child and to provide safeguards, but we absolutely understand the tension for the local authority, because they have dual legal responsibilities. They have a legal duty to accommodate a child. And the problem comes when a placement breaks down—and often it's Friday night—and there's not an obvious place to place this child, because usually the children who are placed in unregistered settings have very complex needs. The local authority doesn't lightly place a child in an unregistered setting. We know that directors of social services and heads of children's services are very concerned and worried about this issue. But without the setting necessary—. The safeguard comes if they apply to us for registration, or they stop operating in that capacity. Clearly, many of the children who are placed in unregistered settings—it's a single setting, and we know that, from our work with children around the guidance we're developing on good children's care homes, children don't want to be placed in a setting of their own.

So, local authorities have done some work about tracking how a child ends up in an unregistered setting. We haven't seen the results of that yet, but we think that will provide some interesting insight into how we get into this position. It's a problem that's not unique, as you've said, to Wales. The difference, as you've alluded to, is, in England, Ofsted tells us it's generally private providers who run unregistered settings. In Wales it's local authorities who will either rent a building or use one of their existing buildings, and either put in their own staff to look after the child or use agency staff. It's clearly not ideal for the child.

It's not ideal for the child, and it shouldn't be done, I don't think, anywhere, but what I'm interested in is: you are the regulator here, what are you doing to try and stop local authorities from doing this? You're the ones supposed to be regulating this area, and it would be interesting for us to know what you're doing to try and stop local authorities doing this.

Local authorities tell us when they place a child in an unregistered setting. Some jurisdictions—I think Ireland is one of them—have a period of grace, accepting that sometimes emergencies happen, there's no obvious place for a child to go, the local authority has to accommodate that child and, so often, children end up in bed and breakfasts or other local authority accommodation. And it's fair to say that some of these children do very well in these settings. The problem that comes is this cannot be a permanent arrangement, because a child cannot stay there. We know that a move for a child is not always in its best interests. So, we monitor every unregistered placement there is, we write to the local authority and ask them to provide us with their assurance that they are satisfied of several things. The first is they've done everything they can to find a registered setting for a child, and the other questions are around how the child is being looked after in those settings. We meet with the Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru on a regular basis, we meet with the Welsh Local Government Association and others, and this is a subject that certainly a lot of interest and attention has been focused on it over this last year. But, again, to get the type of settings that we need is a cross-agency piece of work. The numbers have fallen in Wales, but it's too soon to see if that's a trend or if that's just a trough and a wave.

So, yes, registration exists for a reason. Our view is that every child should be in a registered setting, and we work with local authorities to encourage them to register the settings or to move the child elsewhere. But we do accept that there are several children who it's difficult to see where else they would be placed at the current time.

10:05

I'll just come to a question, James, from Laura Jones. Laura.

Yes, of course, I think it concerns us all that children are being placed in B&B settings. Even if you say it's okay for some people, there are a lot of concerns around that that I get just from my own constituency work. We know, obviously, of the housing stock problems at the moment. But there are also significant concerns about the increasing use of deprivation of liberty orders because of insufficient secure placements for children with complex and high needs, as you touched on earlier. You have recently published deprivation of liberty notification requirements for children's care homes. You're responsible for monitoring the implementation. But in your annual report you say that you cannot provide assurance

'that people’s human rights were not being breached by being deprived of their liberty unlawfully'.

So, how many children in care have been subject to a deprivation of liberty order in 2022-23 and what do these placements look like and what are the implications of the revised practice guidance on the court's approach to unregistered placements on CIW's work? Thank you.

Can I just answer? The statement in our annual report is actually in relation to deprivation of liberty safeguards under the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which don't apply to children. It's really confusing because the two things—. Deprivation of liberty orders through the High Court for children are a different thing. So, that statement in our annual report is about adults who lack capacity, and we do have significant concerns about that because of delays in authorisation.

In terms of deprivation of liberty orders for children, we don't have an overview of every child that's on a deprivation of liberty order, which is why we are now asking—. In the same way that for deprivation of liberty—DoLs—for safeguards, providers have to notify us, we now are asking providers to notify us where a child is living in a children's home who has a deprivation of liberty order in place. That's very recent, so until that beds in we won't be able to report on it, but we hope we will be able to in future.

So, whenever we're on an inspection, inspectors will ask, 'Is there any child living in this care home who's on a deprivation of liberty order?' If there are, we will look at their care and support plan and their personal plan from the provider. We will make sure that restrictions are at the least level of restriction possible. It's also really important because it will have an impact on the other children living in that home. Because if, for example, a front door is locked to stop one child going missing, who may be at risk of criminal exploitation, and they've got a DoL in place because of that, that has an impact on the liberty of other children living in the care home as well. So, every inspection that we do, we are very sighted on that.

10:10

I want to talk about infrastructure—other services and the workforce now. So, Care Inspectorate Wales has recently launched a joint review with Health Inspectorate Wales and Estyn examining how healthcare, education and children’s services in Wales are supporting the mental health needs of children and young people across our country, which will report in the autumn of 2024. Given the wide range of reports detailing concerns on this issue from Senedd committees, the audit office, the Youth Parliament and the children’s commissioner, how realistic is it that this report is going to tell us anything new or drive any improvement to the services across Wales? 

I think that's the value of three inspectorates doing the same piece of work. We know there are problems, we've seen the problems, but there must be value in the healthcare inspectorate, Estyn and the care inspectorate coming together with a single piece of research that says, 'This is what it's like for children between 11 and 16 and their access to get support for mental health.' We can do single inspections, and we've done single inspections, but we have found that working together and having the three inspectorates reach the same conclusions, that we can each take forward in our separate ways, has got to be something that you would hope would help system change. One of the most significant issues that, I think, children are facing at the moment is their mental health needs and the support that's necessary, and if there's any area that deserves a multi-inspection focus, it has to be this one.

That's right. Just on that, what input are you having with the Welsh Government on this, because obviously they're probably going to take a keen interest in this piece of work as well? Obviously, things might change in the coming weeks, with new Ministers, but I'm interested in what engagement you've probably had with Julie Morgan, Lynne Neagle and Jeremy Miles on this matter. 

I meet Julie Morgan on a regular basis. Until the report is published—. As you know, we operate in this space where we are a division of Welsh Government, but we have a memorandum of understanding that protects our independence. At this stage, we wouldn't be discussing this report with them until the work was done and we were publishing, at which stage we will then be writing to Ministers about our findings. We will also be engaging with our policy colleagues about our findings and they would be aware that our concerns are around mental health and support for children—certainly our Minister, the Deputy Minister for Social Services, Julie Morgan, would be, and we have advised her we're doing this piece of work. 

Okay. That's good. It will be interesting to see what the response will be when the report comes out. One of the most fundamental things we have heard about, from reports that we have done since the inception of this committee in this Senedd term, is the huge disruption and upset that children and young people and families experience when they have frequent changes of social workers, and how they're affected also by vacancies and the use of agency staff within local authorities. We know there's a theme of what's going on across Wales, but I'm just interested in what your view on this is, and, actually, how we can try and address this problem, because we don't want to see young people having a consistent change of social workers, because it does undermine their trust in the system as well?

I think I refer to it in my annual report that one of the most significant impacts for children and young people is continuity in social workers, and I think I allude to a child that we spoke to who couldn't remember how many social workers they'd had. Sometimes they'd had them for a day, sometimes they'd had them for a week, and they were so excited that they'd had a social worker for a considerable period of time, but they feared that that social worker would leave them soon. Clearly, to build up trust, a relationship and the whole level of support to have one social worker through the lifetime of a child would be the dream. We know that local authorities are working to increase the number of social workers that they've got, we know there are lots of schemes out there, and I can't imagine that any local authority lightly changes a social worker, but we do think there's a fundamental impact on a child if they have several changes of social worker. Because these are children who must feel quite let down by the system generally, and once they come into the care system, it's so important that the support we give is consistent, is regular, and that they can build the relationships that are so important to their development. And children have told us frequently of the disruption that's caused to them by changes in social workers.

10:15

I couldn't disagree with what you're saying at all—we need to make sure this is right—but one organisation somewhere has got to be ultimately responsible, surely, for turning this situation around. We're letting young people and young children down across Wales by doing that. So, who do you think is ultimately responsible for turning this situation around? Is it Social Care Wales? Is it the Welsh Government? Is it local authorities? Or is it a combination of everybody? Because Ministers talk about this being a problem, you're talking about it being a problem, but no-one seems to be saying, 'Right, we need to grasp this and actually address it'. So, I'm interested in who you think can actually drive and turn this situation around, because this has gone on long enough, I think. 

It's a combination of all of the above. Everyone recognises that there are shortages of social care workers, social workers, and there's a huge amount of work that's going on to address this. I know some has been successful. I'm sure you'll hear from colleagues in Social Care Wales, who we work very closely with, about this this afternoon: some of the work that's being looked at about national terms and conditions, because what you don't want is local authorities in competition with each other, the 'grow your own' schemes that are happening, the bursary developments that are happening. If you don't have the workforce, then you can't deliver the type of support that children deserve across Wales, and I think it's a combination of all of the above. 

Vicky is going to come in, and then I'll bring you back in, James. 

I was just going to say it's about retention as well. Social Care Wales, with local authorities, are doing a lot of work about compassionate leadership, and it is about looking after the well-being of social workers so that social workers don't feel burnt out and feel that they can't continue to work in children's social care. And it is also about the media as well. One of the calls for action in the chief inspector's report is about celebrating the successes of social care, because often what we hear is the tragic circumstances of a child death and who's to blame for that, whereas, actually, day in and day out, children's social workers and childcare support workers are doing a fantastic job. We need to do more to encourage people to come and to stay in the profession.   

I'll come on to that in a second, but there's one thing I did want to pick up on there. You said it was all of the above coming around the table to make it work. I don't dispute that, but I've seen from my time in local government, my time here in the Senedd, that somebody has to lead on this work, because if you get everybody around the table it'll just be a quagmire of someone just trying to do one thing and actually nothing being delivered at all. So, who do you think needs to lead this work? Someone needs to take ownership and grasp the nettle here and run with it. I don't disagree that they all need to play a part, but somebody has to be in the driving seat of this, and I'm interested in who you think that should be. 

I'm sure that later today the regulator of the social care workforce, Social Care Wales, will have a firm view on it. From our perspective, we see this as an important area for all of those—for Welsh Government in terms of policy setting, for local authorities in terms of terms and conditions, for the environment that we create. But I think Vicky's point is a really important one. To become a social care worker in the current climate, where the media is very quick to blame and very slow to praise, is very difficult, and the more that we can do as an organisation to make sure that the tremendous work that's done across Wales, day in, day out—. Because it's a point I made at the beginning: most care in Wales is good care. And sadly, what tends to occupy the media and therefore the public perception is those instances of terrible things that should never happen. But that's not the experience of most people who receive care services across Wales.  

Sorry, Chair, but I'm going to keep pushing this, because I'd like to get a definitive answer. Do you think the Welsh Government need to be taking the lead role in this?

I think it's a partnership approach—I'm sorry, but you're going to get the same answer. I think everyone recognises the need to have more social workers and more social care workers, but there are issues that need to be addressed around terms and conditions, around retention and the workforce, and no one person is going to be able to deliver that. It will only be delivered in partnership across those. But Social Care Wales this afternoon may have a different approach for you on that.

10:20

Okay. I'll leave it there, then, Cadeirydd. I don't think I'm going to get the answer I want.

Thank you, James. And that's the end of our evidence session this morning. Thank you again for joining us and for coming in today. You will receive a copy of the transcript to check for factual accuracy in due course. Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you for your time. We appreciate it. 

3. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitem 4 ac eitem 8
3. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to resolve to exclude the public from items 4 and 8 of the meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitemau 4 ac 8 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from items 4 and 8 of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

We'll now move on to the next item. I propose in accordance with Standing Order 17.42 that the committee resolves to meet in private for items 4 and 8 of the meeting. Does everybody agree with that? Yes, I can see everybody agrees, so we'll now proceed to meet in private. 

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:21.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 10:21.

10:30

Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 10:32.

The committee reconvened in public at 10:32. 

5. Gweithredu diwygiadau addysg - sesiwn dystiolaeth
5. Implementation of education reforms - evidence session

Croeso nôl—welcome back. It's nice to see our next set of witnesses here this morning. We're moving on to item 5 on our agenda, which is an evidence session on the implementation of education reforms. We have with us this morning—and you're both very welcome—Judge Jane McConnell, president of the Education Tribunal for Wales, and we have Rhian Davies-Rees, head of the Welsh Tribunals unit. Thank you very much for joining us for this inquiry this morning. Members have a number of questions to put to you. I'll make a start with quite a general scene-setting question. Perhaps you could begin by telling us briefly about your background and experience of working within the additional learning needs and special educational needs systems in Wales and England, and outline the role and the remit of the Education Tribunal for Wales, and how it operates, for example, in the dual role it has regarding the ALN system and the SEN system.

Bore da. My name is Jane McConnell, and I have been a full-time judge in England since 2025—no, sorry, 2015. [Laughter.] And I am the lead judge for the—

I'm looking forward to where I'm going to be. And I've been the lead judge there since that time. I took the role as president of the education tribunal in Wales last year, in June, so it's a relatively new appointment for me. Previously to that, I had been—[Interruption.] Sorry, that's my computer making a noise. I had been qualified as a barrister—I did that quite late, actually, in my career. So, I didn't actually touch a lawyer book, I suppose, until I was about 34. I went through the process of qualifying as a barrister. But before I had a judicial appointment, I was chief executive of a charity that provided pro bono legal advice and support to families with children with SEN. At that time, it was across England and Wales as well. Obviously, when the new legislation came in in England in 2014, we then started to move more to advising families in England, rather than Wales, because the two systems went in different directions, although we did have some support services. That has been my background, in effect. So, it's always been law based. It had in the past been about advising on the law for families, but then I moved into the judiciary back in 2015. 

You wanted to know a bit more about the tribunal's remit.

Yes, just outlining the role and remit of the Education Tribunal for Wales and how it operates.

10:35

Obviously, the Education Tribunal for Wales is across education, so it's not just ALN or SEN, so that's a slightly different remit. At the moment, we're running two parallel systems in as much as we're hearing appeals against decisions made by local authorities concerning SEN, but increasingly we are moving towards looking at appeals that are against questions raised by the ALN system. We also have a third jurisdiction, which is claims of disability discrimination that are brought against individual schools. Our remit in that arena is only in relation to schools and their disability discrimination, working under the Equality Act 2010. However, I would say the main focus of the work at the moment should be on the whole process of either the SEN system that's running, or the ALN system that you've introduced and is being transitioned to at the moment.

Brilliant. Thank you. We've got some questions now from James Evans on the screen.

Bore da. Sorry I can't be with you this morning. Diolch, Cadeirydd. I wish I was there in person, but unfortunately I can't be with you today. You say in your foreword to the tribunal's 2022-23 annual report that the Welsh Government has been clear that any child that has previously been found to have SEN will also have ALN unless there is specific evidence that their needs have changed. In light of this, what do you believe are the reasons why the numbers of learners recognised as having SEN/ALN have fallen by a third since the new system began being introduced? Is implementation taking place as foreseen by the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018 and the Welsh Government's intentions? I'm just interested in why you think there's been a fall. 

There are a couple of contextual points to make first. Firstly, obviously, as a judge, I can only give evidence to you or speak to you about what we see coming to us in the tribunal. So, I can't comment on the success of policy. That's something as a judge I can't do publicly. Obviously, I may have my own views, but that's not what I'm here to do; I'm here to talk to you about what I see—

I could. I'm not inclined to do that. I'm just saying that anything I tell you is obviously based on the evidence that we have seen in cases coming through. I think the other thing to say is, remember, nobody comes to the tribunal because it's all going well. We've never yet had somebody ring us up to say, 'Hello, tribunal, we just want to tell you it's all gone well.' The cases that we see are always where there is a conflict between parents or a young person and their local authority—I'm talking in the context of ALN for that.

I think the other thing to say is that, for us, at all times, the most important person in the process is the child or young person. It's not actually the parent, it's not the school, it's not the local authority, it's not even the Welsh Government. It's certainly not the tribunal. So, that's the focus, and when I'm answering my questions, I'm answering in that context, because the most important person is the child or young person. 

To answer your question directly now, any process of going from one system to another—and I'm basing this on my experience of what happened in England—is always going to be bumpy. There's always going to be a transition process that doesn't necessarily go as smoothly as people would expect. You've sat in the room, you've been talking and listening about this legislation for many, many years; other people have had it since 2021. We are three to four years into this transition. I think I am concerned, based on the cases that are coming to us, that there are still some very basic concepts that are not being understood uniformly across Wales. And when I say across Wales, I'm talking about not just local authorities, but schools, FE colleges. Therefore, the information given to parents, children and young people is not uniform. 

For instance, one of the biggest issues that's coming to us is about the definition of who has ALN. I said in the foreword to my annual report this year that, when you look at the legislation under the Education Act 1996 and you look at the definitions under the ALN Act—when I'm talking about the Act, I'm talking about the 2018 Act, obviously—they're the same. That is not what is happening in interpretation terms, and there's confusion out there, although not uniformly. I need to be really clear. I don't think there's anybody sitting in a local authority or a school who's purposefully sitting there and doing this wrong, but there is misinterpretation out there. And there may well be some very clear reasons why this has happened. For instance, we are having cases brought to us where there is a fundamental dispute whether the child has ALN or not, when the child has previously had a statement of SEN. Now, legally—and, remember, I can only apply, or we can only apply, the law to the evidence we've got—there'd be absolutely no reason why that child shouldn't have not only an IDP, but an IDP that's actually a local authority-based IDP. There are some concepts out there and some misunderstanding that is permeating from local authorities to schools and, therefore, to parents, which I find quite concerning in the context of the tribunals we have.

10:40

I'll follow on from that. So, from what you observe and the tribunal observes, do you consider that all local authority policies and practices are fully compliant with the law, then?

On the cases that are coming to us, obviously not, because if they were compliant with the law, our job would be to sit back and just roll our thumbs and say, 'Hey, everything's going fine', and that's not what's happening. So, I think the fact that the latest statistics reflect that a third fewer children have been identified as having ALN from SEN is a concern—it's a real concern. And our case load, where we have cases registered where children have had statements—. Remember, statements are legally binding documents on a local authority. You don't get a statement lightly, you have to have gone, necessarily, through school action, school action plus—you don't have to have gone through those, but those are the normal stages. We've got cases that have come to us where children are placed in special schools, but they don't have an IDP that's maintained by the local authority. That just doesn't stack up as far as the law is concerned, and we can only apply the law.

The policy of a local authority, a school, is not what we're interested in, and this is a phrase that I've used many times in many different areas: the law will always top-trump the policy. So, you can have a policy about something, for instance, we're hearing a lot about universal provision, but there's no such thing as universal provision in the law. It's not in the ALN Act, it's not in the regulations, it's not mentioned in the code. But there's a lot of conversation about children not having ALN because there's provision that's provided for them under universal provision. Welsh Government hasn't set out what a universal provision is. It's not there in the law. The legal tests are a child compared with the ordinary developing child, or provision that's provided in mainstream schools across Wales, so it's not specific to a particular local authority area, or a particular school even, and that's causing confusion.

So, do you believe that the challenges facing the introduction of the new system are solely about the implementation, or do you think there are deeper difficulties that have origins in the design and wording of the Act and then the code?

There are two parts to that question. There are always going to be issues around transition and, obviously, I think there are some key messages that are confused out there, about what local authorities' duties are and where school duties begin and local authorities' duties end. And we've not even mentioned further education and, at the moment, that is an area where, even though this new system goes from 0 to 25, really, nobody is even focusing on that. So, that's one thing.

If I were to look for a phrase that would summarise the legislation, I think I would call it 'intellectually challenging'. Now, I'm somebody who's been in education for 20-odd years, I find that legislation intellectually challenging, and so, therefore, for a parent of a child or young person, an ALNCo at a school, a local authority officer, they are going to find that intellectually challenging as well. I think that's the best I can say.

I think that's a very fair reflection, then, because ALN is essentially the same definition as SEN, isn't it, and what you've just said, there are going to be discrepancies in everyone's school policies and practices, if they can't understand it themselves. Do you agree with that?

10:45

Yes. Things that are coming up in the evidence from the cases before us are that there's a confusion around who has ALN and who doesn't have ALN, which surprises me because the definitions are no different. There's a confusion around who needs a school-based IDP and who needs a local authority-based IDP. And again, I'm surprised, because that threshold about when it's necessary is not wildly different, if at all different, from the definition under the SEN legislation.

I think one area that's worrying is how local authorities make decisions about when an IDP names a school or an FE college, and there is lots of interpretation about when that is. I'm very aware that it's very much the purpose of this legislation to make sure that we have transformation, and that the experiences and expectations and outcomes for children and young people in Wales with ALN are more than they have been in the past. Having a school or an educational placement is obviously something very central to that process, but if we're not clear about how a school or an educational placement is to be named in a plan, and when it's to be named, I think there's some potential for some issues there.

Thank you for coming in today—we really appreciate it. It's really interesting what you say. That's what we all recognise, that the problems across Wales are the 22 different interpretations of the ALN Act. And however welcome it is, and however much the purpose, as you've just said, is trying to be a positive one, there are children being left out, aren't there, and that is a real problem. Do you think that the only way to get around this is to go back to the drawing board, and make sure that there's clear guidance or that it's more set in law? What's the answer?

I don't think ever that more law is the answer; less law is often the answer, and clear law is really the answer. If you ask me to wave a magic wand, I don't have one, and it's certainly not my place to have that magic wand. But I think, to be clear about who has to do what, when—and by being clear, I mean not just local authorities being clear, but schools, FE colleges, parents, children—you need a transparency and an accountability there, so that everybody understands what they have to do, when they have to do it, and why they need to do it. And, ideally, my role would be to sit back and go, 'Oh, I've got no appeals', and that's because everybody knows they have a right of appeal and everybody knows that, actually, they can sort it out with coming to us. We should be the last port of call.

Diolch. Dyma fy nghwestiwn olaf, Gadeirydd.

Thank you. This is my last question, Chair.

You say in your foreword to the 2022-23 annual report that the rise in claims of disability discrimination being brought forward to the tribunal may be a consequence of parents seeking alternative ways of securing provision for their child, because they're unclear about the new ALN system. Can you expand on that at all? And that's it—diolch, Gadeirydd.

Okay. So, the reason why I've said that is twofold. One is, first off, we are having a lot of inquiries from families where they are wanting to appeal to the tribunal, but they've not been told that they have a right of appeal. So, unless you're told you have a right of appeal to the tribunal, you don't know that you can, so you don't make an application, and you don't even pick up the phone. So, there is, I think, an issue at the moment that this right of appeal is not being given, and that's for many different reasons. Sometimes, it's as simple as the fact that decisions are given online, through an online system, and it doesn't say, 'This is a decision of the local authority, and therefore a right of appeal is triggered.' So, the reason for me saying about the rise in DD claims is because we know that parents—and when I say parents, I also mean children and young people as well—are just not having access to that right of appeal, because they're not being told about it.

But the other part of the equation is the fact that, looking at the disability discrimination claims that are being registered with us, or the applications being made, they are often around things such as schools deciding that a child no longer has ALN, when they've had SEN in the past, because, for instance—. There's one local authority that has really been clear to their schools. The message to schools has been that any child who had a statement previously will now have an IDP maintained by the school. Anybody on school action or school action plus will have nothing, and the only children that will have an IDP that is to be maintained by the local authority are those who are in the categories under the code for looked-after children, children who require EOTAS, their education otherwise than at school, et cetera, et cetera.

So, claims are really not about the things that we had in the past. So, disability discrimination claims were often around things like swimming trips or—. I always say that if you got rid of swimming, that might be the end of most claims in England, but in Wales it was also similar that those were about instances, things that had happened where there was discrimination. We're getting claims now that are very much more based on confusion about what support a child should have in school, whether it's a reasonable adjustment because of their disability, or—. And when you explore the fact, actually what the issue is is that they've not got an IDP, they don't have an IDP maintained by their local authority.

Certainly, we've had feedback from schools, because part of the process for me coming into this role was to go out and talk to users and stakeholders, and that included schools and colleges, and ask them, 'How's it going for you?' And actually, we had some very clear feedback that for some schools, they are being told that they have to now provide a level of ALP—so, additional learning provision—that they've never had to do before. So, therefore, they're struggling to find the one-to-one support. And that is, obviously, provision that's different from what's usually available to a child in a mainstream school in Wales, and that, for me, throws up questions.

So, that's why I said the claims are going up, based on those two areas of evidence.

10:50

Thank you. Thanks, Jane. I'll just bring Buffy Williams in. Buffy. 

Thank you, Chair, and thank you for joining us this morning. According to the data in your 2022-23 annual report, the number of appeals to the tribunal has reduced from 139 in 2020-21, which was the last year before implementation of the new ALN system began, to 96 in 2021-22 and 66 in 2022-23. Is this a temporary position to be expected as things bed in, or does it indicate a likely new pattern under the new ALN system, whether this be due to a lack of parental awareness of their rights or genuinely fewer conflicts under the new arrangements?

So, the honest answer is obviously, 'I don't know'. I don't have a crystal ball. However, when in England we went from one set of law to the other, we did, for a couple of years, have a dip. Your ALN law that Welsh Government have put together has been transitioning now for a number of years. And it would be nice to say that, actually, the reason we have so few appeals, or we have fewer appeals, is because of the fact that it's going well. I'm afraid that I suspect that the numbers are down because people are just confused, and people don't know they've got a right of appeal. 

I think this is an important point that, increasingly, we're having to register appeals and then ask local authorities for confirmation of their decision-making process. So, parents are sending us screenshots of things that have happened online where they've been informed that the local authority have made a decision, and that's not a decision letter, but it is a decision, and it doesn't tell them about their right of appeal. And it's going back to what I said earlier. Therefore, we're having to check that out with them.

Okay, thank you for that answer; that's very interesting. What are the most common types of ALN appeals that come before the tribunal? Are issues mainly about decisions as to whether the learner has ALN in the first place, or about the provision that is put in place following an identification of ALN? And how, if at all, have the types of appeals changed under the ALN system?

10:55

Okay. So, I think the two main appeals we're seeing at the moment are whether a child has ALN or not. Now, that wasn't a right of appeal under the SEN system. There was a right of appeal about refusal to assess for SEN, which was a different thing. I’m very surprised we have such a high level, given that the definition of ALN is no different from the definition of SEN. So, I think that’s a surprise.

But the second one is really around placement, educational placement. So, it’s about the contents of the individual development plan and then, as I have already referred to, the legislation is intellectually challenging, but especially on the whole process of naming a placement—and, remember, the consequence of naming a placement is that the local authority would then need to fund that placement. I think that’s why we’re having that as a right of appeal that’s come before us more than we have done, potentially, in the past.

Thank you. A significant number of appeals to the tribunal are either conceded by local authorities or withdrawn by applicants because of agreement being reached prior to the hearing. Does this suggest in any way that it is only the threat of being taken to tribunal that is causing local authorities to act? If so, what does this say about the intended use of the tribunal as a last resort? I've had a number of parents contacting myself with exactly this—this is what has happened to them. 

Okay. I think, first, let’s clarify what we’re talking about. So, once an appeal is registered with the tribunal, the way it can be concluded is quite limited. So, a local authority can concede an appeal before their case statement. So, four weeks after the appeal has been registered, ordinarily, they would be asked to make a response, and they could concede an appeal at that point, and that means they basically agree with whatever the appeal is. So, that’s a concede.

A parent can ask—and, remember, when I say ‘parent’, it could be parent, child, young person—to withdraw an appeal, and I think there has been a culture in the tribunal to allow withdrawals of an appeal. I personally don’t think that is necessarily the best way to conclude an appeal when agreement has been reached, and we are moving towards asking parties to request a consent order. Now, a consent order is a decision of the tribunal that confirms the agreement that’s reached between the parties, and that means that it has legal force, so that people then have to take the action that they are required to take. So, a withdrawal—. If somebody’s allowed to withdraw an appeal and then people don’t follow through on what they’ve agreed, there’s no legal recourse to make sure that they do that. So, I think, just to put in context what you’re asking, we are trying to issue more consent orders, which are decisions of the tribunal that should confirm; we will review what the agreement is in the light of the evidence that’s given to us, especially where parents are unrepresented or unsupported, which they still are in the majority of cases, and that ensures that everybody’s clear that that agreement is an agreement that can be reached, based on the evidence we have.

So, the question you’ve asked is about whether this is an indication that things could have been done differently, and, yes, in some cases that is what’s happened. However, in other cases, I think the tribunal appeal process has required new, additional evidence that has come through, which, once reviewed by the local authority, has allowed them to remake the decision and understand exactly that things have changed.

I have to just add that we have started a new process in the tribunal, when we register an appeal, of giving a timetable in that appeal to make sure that it’s done in a timely manner—remember, our overriding objective is fair, just, proportionate and timely. So that means that we are now registering appeals on what we call a 16-week timetable, ordinarily, and that’s from registration to decision, and judges have 10 working days after a hearing to issue that decision. And we also are giving much clearer directions at the beginning of the tribunal process to parties as to when they should provide evidence and what evidence they should provide, because there has been a tendency to let these appeals drift and for things to happen. And remember, 16 weeks in the life of any child is a very long period of time. So, I think you can't say full stop that the reason why we're getting more consent orders or withdrawals is an indication that people are purposefully using the tribunal for a different purpose, but what we do know is that process, and especially the changes we've made, is helping to focus people earlier on getting the law right and applying the evidence to the law, and, if you don't have the evidence, you're not going to win.

11:00

Thank you for that answer; it clarified a lot. Only five of the 24 ALN appeals that reached outcome in 2022-23 were dismissed or struck out. Does this suggest that appeals to the tribunal generally have a strong case, and what do you believe are the reasons local authorities are fighting these cases only to either drop their opposition relatively late in the process, or be otherwise unsuccessful in their defence? I know you've just touched on that in the last question.

I think that this goes back to transition at some level of understanding of the law and the fact you have to have evidence to support what you are deciding. I think there may be a question about how local authorities make their decisions and the transparency around decision making, and it goes back to the point I made right at the beginning that there's a difference between the law and a policy. If your local authority policy on ALN doesn't actually comply with the law, you could—and I'm not saying definitely in all local authorities, but you could—have a situation where you have a panel, maybe, which is not transparent, or doesn't understand the legal basis of making decisions, and makes decisions based on policy, and then, obviously, when they come to the tribunal themselves, we can only apply the law, we can't say that, 'This local authority has a different way of doing things and, therefore, we're going to apply the law in a different way.' We have to apply it the same for all children and young people across Wales, to make sure there's uniformity in what they get. We don't want a postcode lottery.

Can I just pick up on that, then? Obviously, we've mentioned, in terms of that, 22 local authorities and different approaches. Do you find that, in those cases where you've challenged or stated that the local authority isn't complying with the law, that then leads to a change in policy, or do you see repeat offenders? I'm just curious.

A little bit of both. I have to say that I think that most local authorities in Wales are very receptive, and so they are, as far as we understand, going back with the learning and going, 'Ah, okay, I see now.' That is certainly happening in some local authorities. I've been doing some other work talking about the law, talking about how it should be applied, in wider forums, and I think that's helping. I think people are getting the message.

But there are some local authorities who are doggedly determined that their policy is the way to go, and we have seen them, on a number of times, coming to us with the same issue. Now, it's not a huge issue at this moment; we are not getting a volume of appeals. Remember, we can only look in the singular case. So, we could, at the moment, sit there and hear the same case about the same issue time and time again, and there's no mechanism for reporting back the fact that a particular local authority, or a part of a local authority even, is consistently applying the law incorrectly, which would indicate, potentially, a policy is not understood or it's not legally compliant.

Yes. So, obviously, one of the things that we're looking at is recommendations, in that sense. I just wondered: do you think, therefore, there is merit in some kind of piece of work, or that overview, of ensuring that the policies all comply with the legislation? Because, obviously, it's one thing how they're applied, but, if the policy is fundamentally flawed in the first place, it seems like a waste of your time and of everyone that goes through that process.

11:05

Yes. There could be merit in that type of work. That's for you to decide, that's not for me. Accountability and transparency is something that I think needs some focus.

Thank you, Chair. I just have one last question. To what extent should it be a surprise that only five of the 41 ALN appeals submitted in 2022-23 were from pupils in secondary schools, compared to 26 in primary schools?

I think that reflects the transition process at the moment. I think there's been a real emphasis on certain groups, primary and then transition, and there may well be people in secondary who have a statement still that haven't yet moved on to the new system. Interesting will be what happens when they transition out of secondary, potentially into FE, and whether they're moved on to an IDP, a local authority based IDP, and that whole issue. But I think that's more to do with the priorities of transition rather than anything that's telling us that something fundamental is different in the system.

Thanks, Buffy. Just before I move on to questions from Heledd Fychan, I'd just like to welcome the young people who have joined us in the public gallery. Nice to see you. Thank you for joining us. Wonderful. So, we'll just move on to questions from Heledd Fychan.

Thank you. It's always great to see democracy in action.

If I may, you've mentioned quite a few times in terms of people not being aware or being told of the appeal process. Can I ask, therefore, how do they become aware of you, if that's the case? Is it by luck, or are you finding pathways?

I think, obviously, there are very strong parent networks out in Wales. So, I think people are learning from each other. And you know, I need to disclose that I'm the parent of a child with severe learning disabilities. That's part of my motivation for coming into this work. Parents, when you're in that situation, you have a strong bond with other parents and you find information out from them, because you're not in the world of the ordinary parent. My personal understanding of how you find information is that you find it from your contemporaries, other parents, groups such as, perhaps, condition-specific groups like the Down's Syndrome Association or Autism Cymru or whatever it is. There's obviously SNAP as well, which has been an organisation that's been in operation for many years. But I think it hasn't been made clear to me how local authorities comply with their duty to make sure that independent advocacy is available. Now, some of them have said, 'Things are so good in our area we don't have to do it. Our local authority officers are advising parents.' But, in some of the applications we've had, that advice has been incorrect, because it's been based on a policy rather than the law. So, I think if you ask me how people are finding their way to us, it's through forums—and, remember, with social media now, there are lots of chat groups and there are lots of various other groups that people find out information from.

It is by chance.

Yes. If I may as well, you've mentioned in terms of the independent advocacy, obviously, one of the issues sometimes is when a parent themselves or carer may have an additional learning need themselves. Therefore, in terms of the cases that come through to you—obviously, we've met a number of parents in the same situation as you that have actually upskilled or become experts in this field because of having to, because that support isn't there—can I ask, in terms of that independent advocacy, perhaps it's difficult for you to comment on policy, but do you think that would make a significant difference, then, or do you foresee that perhaps more cases would come to you if that was there? It's difficult to predict, I know.

It's difficult to predict. I think there are two separate things. There's, first, how you know about the tribunal and know that you have a right of appeal, a valid right of appeal. That's one thing. The second thing is, once you're in that situation, how do you go forward and don't find the whole process so overwhelming that you give up. And that's where the advocacy and the access to independent advice and support is very, very vital. So, if we're talking about access to justice, both of those elements need to be addressed. Now, every parent, when they have a decision that's made by a local authority that can be appealed to the tribunal, should be notified in that decision letter, or e-mail, or whatever it is, that they have a right of appeal to the tribunal. Now, if they choose to not take that up, that's entirely up to them, but they need to know that it's there. So, I think that's one thing that needs to be addressed. But then, once they're in the appeals system, the overwhelming majority of parents coming to us are unrepresented and unsupported; they're doing it on their own. And a percentage of those have their own additional needs, as well.

11:10

So, in terms of that independent advocacy, you're not seeing, then, an increase in that kind of level coming through to support parents.

No, I think the other point to make clear is that legal help, which is the form of legal aid, is not readily available in Wales at any level, especially not for this particular cohort. So, we're also missing those parents who have got children with ALN, but also come from an area of deprivation or circumstances that mean they cannot go forward. So, we've got almost like a double whammy in that situation.

Thank you. Are you able to comment at all on how the disagreement avoidance and reduction arrangements, which local authorities are required to have in place, are working in practice?

No, only because, absolutely, we don't have any connection with that at all. There's nothing there at all that we deal with. Even if they had been through that process, I think that we wouldn't know about it, because, obviously, they don't give that information to us.

Thanks, Chair. I'm going to ask about the involvement of health bodies, if I may. Do you have any observations on how well health bodies work in collaboration with education systems in regard to supporting learners with ALN?

At the moment, we've had no case that's brought that issue to us yet. I think one of the things that is going to be difficult is that, obviously, some therapies that happen to be delivered by NHS services, such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy—they're the typical three that we see—are actually delivered by the NHS but they are additional learning provision, because they educate or train a child. So, I think, in the most part, that whole duty that you've developed wouldn't necessarily kick in unless that health provision is not something that's related to education or training and is not, therefore, additional learning provision. In the instance that a child required speech and language therapy, shall we say, because that's one of the most typical ones, that's very essential for their access to education and, therefore, that would be additional learning provision; it wouldn't be health provision. And it may well be that the local authority have an agreement with their local health body to make that provision, but if the health provision couldn't make that therapeutic provision, then it would be the local authority's duty still to make it. So, I think that whole area hasn't been explored yet, because we haven't got over the hurdle of whether there's something that's additional health provision that's not already ALP. Does that make sense?

So, in terms of the appeals, have you had any that have related to non-action or inadequate action by health bodies?

No. Nothing yet.

We're waiting. I mean, it would be really good to see one, but we haven't had one yet.

If you do come across any in the near future, it would be really helpful, I think, for the committee to have a briefing.

Okay. I'm not sure how we do that, but I'm sure there is a way, and it would be anonymised.

Remember, all of our decisions that we issue in the tribunal are anonymised and put onto our website.

Thank you. You've told us a lot about—. Compliance with orders is what I want to ask you about. You've told us about the consent order, which I think is a brilliant way forward in terms of ensuring that those things are carried out, and that you've come to agreement that that's the way forward. But, in the system itself, although the tribunal cannot enforce orders, do you monitor compliance at all?

11:15

No. When you say 'order', you mean decision, do you? The final decision. So, just to be clear, in the tribunal, we make orders all the time, and that's ordering people to take a certain action, and if they don't comply with them within the tribunal process, we can do something about that. Ultimately, we can bar them. But, if you're talking about final decisions, we don't have any jurisdiction. So, once a final decision is issued, unless there is an application to review it because of a change of circumstances or there is an error of law—at which point we will consider whether there is an error of law, and that's a very specific thing, so we might set it aside and get it reheard—there is a right of appeal to the Upper Tribunal in the Administrative Court in England at the moment, which covers England and Wales. That's the process to go through. But once it's left our shores, as long as the decision is a good decision, it's not for us to monitor or even consider what's going on.

We just needed clarity on that. And in the event of non-compliance, what other options are available for families other than, of course, the expensive one that you've outlined and the far from ideal option?

Right. Obviously, it's not for me to advise you, but the options are—. There is the ombudsman, and the ombudsman can, if they find an issue there, my understanding is, order compliance and potentially look at compensation. There is appealing to the Upper Tribunal. There's no fee for appealing to our tribunal or the Upper Tribunal, and many parents do successfully take Upper Tribunal appeals onwards. There's a permission stage and then there's the actual decision itself, and you can go down that route, but it's long and arduous. That's about the decision itself. But if it's that there is non-compliance, I'm afraid, then, you're looking at judicial review. That's potentially an expensive and laborious process.

Yes, absolutely. Okay, so you think the consent order is the way forward in terms of, hopefully, stopping that.

Well, I think where people are in agreement, and the tribunal can only conclude by issuing a decision unless we allow withdrawal, for me, it's the most pragmatic and proportionate way of ensuring, whatever that agreement is, that it's (a) correct, based on the evidence, and (b) actually will ensure that whatever is decided and agreed between the parties is legally enforceable.

I understand. Thank you very much. Those are my questions. They've all been answered.

Thank you, Laura. Just finally from me, just around the fact that the Welsh Government consulted last year on proposals for a Bill to reform the tribunal system for Wales, how might that proposed legislation impact on the tribunal's work on the ALN system? 

I don't think it would fundamentally change us as far as ALN is concerned. What it would potentially do is include exclusions and admissions, and I can think that would only be a good thing, because then there is an independent body with specialist expertise—remember we sit as a panel of a judge and specialist members, and our specialist members are very, very important in this. They come from an education background, they might have a social care background, they might have some health background, but they come from a background, and so we can make decisions in assessing the evidence, and actually make sure that we make a fair and just decision not just based on what the judge alone thinks. So, I think we would be a very good forum under those reforms to start looking at exclusion appeals and also admission appeals over time, as well.

Okay, that's really helpful. I said 'finally', but I've got another one. This is the 'finally' bit.

Just going back to the fairer and more transparent system, do you know if parents are being routinely informed that the availability of the disagreement avoidance and reduction arrangements does not affect their rights of appeal to the tribunal—for example, that they don't have to use these arrangements before going on to the tribunal, and, if they do use them, they will still have that full eight-week period to submit an appeal before participation?

I don't know that. That's obviously a process that happens before they come to us. We haven't had any cases where people have said, 'I've been through this process and therefore I haven't been able to register my appeal.' That's not happened. Like I said, we have a fundamental issue in as much as we see that parents are not being told that they have a decision that's appealable. If they're not getting the evidence about whether a decision is appealable, I don't know if they're getting the evidence about, or the information about, whether they can actually go through dispute resolution or not.

11:20

Okay, that's great. I am going to just, if you're okay, bring Heledd back in—the 'finally, finally'. [Laughter.]

I just have one question, going back to the nature of the appeals. Obviously, you've been very clear in your report that you offer services in both English and Welsh.

Are you finding language as an issue that features in some of the cases that come before you? We've heard evidence of people not being able to access ALN provision, but they may choose the Welsh Language Commissioner route, so I'm just trying to understand what's happening.

I think we haven't had a fundamental problem. We did have an incident where the translation services didn't work as they should have done, and that's an issue, but it was more of a technical issue rather than an actual issue.

I think it's interesting. So, two things: first off, if people come to the tribunal, we are proactively wanting them to use whatever language they feel is the best medium for them to have their hearing. And I think we are trying to be not just black or white, saying, 'English or Welsh', we are saying, 'Actually, this is something that we can do as a flexible arrangement. You can come and you can speak in whatever language you want.'

Apologies, I may have not been clear—in terms of the actual cases that come before you, if lack of access to provision is one of the things when people come to you.

So, we have had a couple of cases, for instance, where people have not been able to access speech and language therapy through the medium of Welsh. So, obviously, we are ordering, if the evidence is there, speech and language therapy, and we're ordering it should be in Welsh. That's to do with delivery, and that's outside of our remit, but, certainly, I'm aware of at least two cases where I've heard that that's an issue.

I'd just like to thank you very much for taking the time to come in to give evidence. It's been incredibly helpful to the work that we're doing. We really do appreciate it, and you've given us a lot of food for thought and some really good evidence, so thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr. You will receive a copy of the transcript just to check for factual accuracy in due course. Once again, thank you so much for coming in and, hopefully, you'll follow this committee's work on this as well.

Diolch, everyone. Thank you very much.

Thank you. And just to Members, we'll now take a short break just to bring the next witnesses in.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:22 a 11:34.

The meeting adjourned between 11:22 and 11:34.

11:30
6. Sesiwn graffu gyda Gofal Cymdeithasol Cymru
6. Scrutiny session with Social Care Wales

Croeso nôl—welcome back. We'll move on to the sixth item on our agenda today, and that is our scrutiny session with Social Care Wales. I'd like to welcome our witnesses who've joined us here today. We have Sue Evans, chief executive of Social Care Wales, and Sarah McCarty, executive director for improvement and development, Social Care Wales. You're very welcome here this morning. Members have a number of questions to put to you, and I will pass over first of all to Buffy Williams. 

Thank you, Chair, and thank you for joining us this morning. How important is a robust children’s social care workforce to deliver high standards in children’s protection and care? 

11:35

Do you want me to kick off?

Thank you. Do the microphones work automatically?

Thank you for the question. Obviously, it's critical that you have a professional, well-educated and competent workforce. Child protection is a significant part of the remit of social services departments, and having that consistent approach to strengths-based practice that enables families to stay together for as long as they can. But, where necessary, child protection procedures need to be taken forward, working with multi-agency practitioners in trying to see what we can do to wrap around support for families where children are vulnerable or in need of extra support, and, ultimately, working with the courts if a child does need to be taken into the care of the state. And that is a very difficult decision for local authority social workers to make, but the needs of the child are always put first. So, it's very important that we have a good cadre of social workers qualified in childcare practice.

Thank you. Based on your evidence and your work, what is the biggest challenge facing the children’s services workforce in Wales today? Is there a risk that the big challenges facing the adult social care workforce are overshadowing the significant issues of the children’s workforce?

I would say that the challenges for both adult and children's social care are equal, if you like, but may be slightly different. There are challenges in terms of the complexity of needs of children, but also the complexity of needs of adults, particularly when you look at the demographic profile of Wales. We have many people living with long-term conditions who wouldn't have survived 40 years ago; the age profile is growing larger, so the demands on adult services are there; and then the demand on children's services is related, again, to the complexity of need within Welsh society. Poverty plays its part, but it's not the only issue. But I certainly don't see any evidence of one overshadowing the other. They are both very much parts of the system that needs to support vulnerable children and adults.

Thanks, Chair. What do you think are the biggest challenge facing the children’s services workforce in Wales right now?

I think it is attraction, recruitment and retention. We know that negative perceptions, often, of children's social care don't help. There's a real focus in the media when something, unfortunately, goes wrong. That makes it very difficult to retain a workforce that feels under pressure. There's also a relative difference in parity of esteem with other professionals. If you think of teachers, doctors, nurses—social workers don't get the same positive recommendation and view from the public that they deserve. They do an incredible job every day, protecting very vulnerable people. So, there's something about the esteem, the parity with other professionals. And, obviously, with demand increasing and the workforce reducing in real terms, because of financial challenges, every social worker is carrying a larger caseload, which puts that additional pressure on the workforce. 

It would be difficult to define what a maximum workload would be, because the complexities of different cases mean that you could have 10 children, who you're providing an excellent service for, because they're well managed and in a safe place; in another circumstance, in a different team, that social worker may be able to handle 20 children on their caseload. So, it would be difficult to define a number. We're not robots, are we? I think there's something about the complexity of a child and the family that might make that a challenge.

Do you think that the pressures facing adult social care workers are overshadowing the challenges and the pressures faced by the children’s workforce?

I don't think so, no. I don't think there's much evidence of that.

Yes. They're different functions and they support different parts of the community, but they have similar challenges.

11:40

But do you sense that the focus is more on the challenges being faced by the adult social care workforce?