I beg to move,
That this House notes the Second Report from the Education Committee, Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options, HC 259, and the Government’s response, HC 647; welcomes the progress made and the commitment to improve the care provided to these vulnerable young people shown in the Government’s response; regrets that the Government has not gone further by exploring with local authorities how to ban the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for this age group and by moving to inspect and regulate all accommodation provided to children in care; and calls on the Government to do all it can to improve the accommodation and care given to these young people.
The motion stands in my name and those of other members of the Education Committee, many of whom I see across the Chamber.
I am pleased to lead this debate and to have the opportunity to discuss our report, “Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options”. The reason we are here is that the issues considered in our report will have far-reaching consequences for some of the most vulnerable young people in our society. We were moved to inquire into this subject by our concern, raised during previous work on child protection, that the needs of older children in the care system were not being properly met. The horror stories we heard about children being placed in unsuitable and unsafe accommodation, often far from home, made it a matter of crucial importance for us to explore what could be done to improve the situation.
During the inquiry, we took evidence from charities and experts, from the Minister, whom it is a pleasure to see on the Front Bench, and from those closely involved in providing care services to young people but, as I think my colleagues will attest when they speak during the debate, the most important and powerful evidence we heard was from young people themselves who were in care or had previously been in care. We were grateful to those who were brave enough to come and speak to a bunch of MPs and speak about often troubling periods of their lives and about their experiences.
Our inquiry looked at the kinds of accommodation that are provided for young people aged 16 and 17 who are looked after by local authorities—young people still in care; the suitability, safety and regulatory nature of alternative accommodation; whether the “Staying Put” principle whereby young people are allowed to stay in their accommodation for a longer period should apply to those in residential children’s homes; and whether the provision of alternative accommodation should be extended to the age of 21. We made a series of recommendations in each of these areas, all of which are important and many of which were picked up by the Government response, which was published in October 2014. Others may wish to touch on some of those issues, such as “Staying Put” or ensuring that young people’s voices are heard in planning their care.
I hope the Minister will forgive me if I concentrate on two areas where we think the Government should have gone further towards making the changes that we want to see in order to deliver a vision which I know we share with the Government of improving care for these young people. In doing so, I stress the fact that as a Committee we do not doubt the Minister’s commitment to addressing the problems faced by older children in care, nor do I think that progress has not been made: it has.
For example, the new pupil premium plus has seen funding to support children in care at school increase by £1,000 per pupil. Children are covered as soon as they enter care and 10,000 more children in care now benefit, bringing the total to 50,000. The care leavers strategy that the Minister launched in late 2013, which encompasses action across a range of Departments, from the Department for Work and Pensions to housing to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is giving care leavers a helping hand as they enter adult life. The Ofsted single inspection framework is doing a better job of drawing together data and insight into the lives of older young people and making sure that local authorities can be held to account for the provision that they give them. That is all good news.
Our disagreement today is over how fast we should now move towards tackling what my Committee sees as matters needing urgent attention: the regulation of accommodation provided to children in care, and the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for that age group. I shall start with bed and breakfasts. The Department for Education guidance says that bed-and-breakfast accommodation is not suitable.
One young person told us of being placed in a B and B as an emergency placement—I repeat, emergency placement—for three weeks. She was the only young person in the building and older residents would come knocking on her door asking her to join them in their rooms, which was an incredibly frightening experience. Imagine being that child, sitting behind the door, waiting for the next knock. For vulnerable young people, many of whom have self-esteem issues and who are desperate for love and attention, such an environment leaves them at the mercy of people who are keen to exploit their situation and weakness.
So why, we asked, is bed and breakfast still being used? We found that it is used mainly as emergency accommodation in cases where a young person needs shelter urgently and nothing else is available. At least, that is the reason we were given, although when we met young people as we travelled around the country we heard about people being kept there for a long time, such as the young lady I mentioned. It was argued that if the local authority did not have the option of using bed and breakfasts, then young people could be even worse off. In our report, we recommended that the Department consult local authorities in order to determine a reasonable time frame to allow them to build up capacity so that there could be a total ban on using B and Bs and they could follow the example of Wiltshire, for instance, which has built up a resource such that it does not need to use them. We also say that there should be a strengthened requirement for local authorities to commission sufficient emergency facilities.
In its response, the Department accepted our recommendation on temporary measures and asserted that there should be a limit of two working days on the time that a young person could spend in a B and B. That is welcome, but it still falls short of an outright ban. Many children enter B and B accommodation in an emergency on a Friday night, so the limit of two working days means that they could still be there on the Tuesday evening. The Government response said:
“We want to test further the arguments for and against the flexibility for local authorities to use B&B where it is the best way of meeting a young person’s needs. Over the coming months, the Department for Education will undertake work with stakeholders to better understand these issues.”
We welcome the seriousness with which the Government have taken this, but we do not think that is good enough. Young people are being failed now—as we speak—and no amount of stakeholder consultation will disguise that reality. I urge the Minister to set out what the DFE has learned from the consultation to date and when we can expect further action on this issue, with a view, in the opinion of my Committee, of moving towards an outright ban.
The other issue I want to raise is the regulation of “other arrangements” for looked-after 16 and 17-year-olds. Some Members unfamiliar with this area of policy many wonder what “other arrangements” are. They include placements in a family or domestic setting where the adults responsible for their care are not approved as foster carers; foyers, which are meant to offer integrated housing, learning and personal development services, and other kinds of supported accommodation; and placements in independent accommodation with “floating support” where housing support workers make regular visits—or are supposed to. Ofsted’s single inspection framework assesses the experiences and progress of care leavers through scrutinising a representative sample of 25 tracked cases. Individual properties or settings are not inspected. That would not be an acceptable approach towards other settings, and it should not be acceptable for the accommodation in which some of the most vulnerable, abused young people in our society are placed.
We therefore recommended that the DFE consult on a framework of individual regulatory oversight for all accommodation that falls within “other arrangements” to ensure suitability, while allowing for diversity of provision. Many will ask why, as a Conservative, I am so keen on regulation. I, and my Committee, think that children who are as vulnerable as these young people—they may have learned to have a very tough exterior, or a streetwise front, but are in fact deeply vulnerable—deserve to have their accommodation individually inspected to ensure that the injustice they have suffered so far in their lives is not compounded further by a failure of oversight by those in loco parentis, namely us.
Ministers said that they wanted to maintain what they described as the “flexibility” of current arrangements, emphasising that they will hold under-performing local authorities to account when poor practice is uncovered. However, that logic is not applied to the quality and safety of settings for children and young people across the rest of the DFE’s remit. If there were a consistent approach in saying that a sample approach delivers better outcomes, one would expect that to be found across the piece, but it is not. Childminders, foster carers, residential children’s homes, secure training centres, schools, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges—each of those is individually inspected. It cannot be right that we do not do the same for the accommodation of 16 and 17-year-olds who have had an extremely tough start in life. As a society, we owe them that.
I ask the Minister to think again, or at least to explain why he believes that a new regulatory framework will not lead to the improvements in quality that we have seen in other settings that are individually regulated by Ofsted. I know that he cares deeply in both a personal and a professional capacity about making improvements. I hope that I have fairly stated that I recognise that the Government and the Minister have made significant strides in improving outcomes for such young people. He has done a lot of great work, and I sincerely hope that he will now take further steps to ensure that young people on the cusp of leaving the care system get a fairer, safer start in life.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who provided a very good summary and analysis of our report.
Like other Committee members, the hon. Gentleman will have heard from or met those from the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers. They have given me a copy of their requests for inclusion in the manifestos of all parties. One of their points is that the average age at which young people leave home is 24; yet young people leave care at 18 and, sadly, it is often earlier—at 16 or 17—for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children or young people in our society. As the Chairman of the Committee said very well, they are the group most in need of support, but we expect them to fend for themselves and to go into independent living.
The point about the difference in treatment at different ages and the way in which we, as supposed corporate parents, allow that to happen, says everything we need to know in summary, and the detail has now been published in our report. The life chances of children in care—whether in education, employment, relationships or housing—are all significantly lower than for other people in society. For example, many of the prison population were in care as children, and 60% of children in care have some kind of mental health problem.
The young people we met told us their stories, as do those who have met other Members at other times. Our report shows that leaving care is one of the key stages in their lives. It is very often a harsh cut-off date, whereas other young people usually have no arbitrary leaving date. Many young people go away and come back, so they leave home over a period; some parents would say that their young people never leave, as is sometimes their experience. However, that is not the case for this group of particularly vulnerable young people, so our recommendations are important.
Our chapter on “Staying Put” gives the figures for those who leave care as 16 and 17-year-olds, and for those who leave on their 18th birthday. A remarkably high number—in the thousands—leave care before they are 18, and many more do so on their 18th birthday, when they are no longer regarded as looked-after children. The questions we want to pose to Ministers and, for that matter, potential Ministers are: is everything being done to ensure that children do not have to leave care if they do not want to, and do local authorities and others apply pressure to get young people to leave? I have heard such a point more than once, and we refer to the financial pressures in our report’s conclusion, where we recognise the resource constraints in relation to the difficulty of extending “Staying Put” arrangements in residential homes.
One of the witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee was Ben Ashcroft, the author of “51 Moves”. He is involved in a campaign to extend residential care to the age of 21, which is as it should be. If as a society we have accepted that it is right for young people to stay in foster care until they are 21, it should be the same for those in residential care. As our report says:
“the young people in question have already experienced troubled and disrupted childhoods and are far too important for their welfare not to be prioritised.”
If we are serious about ensuring that support is available, we need to ensure that local authorities have the money. My council has lost more than 40% of its funding since 2010 and many other local authorities find themselves in that situation. If this Government or any future Government are serious about making a difference for these vulnerable young people and children, they, as well as local authorities, need to ensure that the resources are available. If that does not happen, we will continue to spend far more in later years on looking after the adults that the children and young people become, whether through the high cost of prison, the benefits system or mental health care.
If we are talking about finding extra money to fund the long-term solutions that our report suggests, has the time come to consider which Departments or budgets it will come from? The justice budget and the health budget are two possibilities, but the housing budget, the Department for Work and Pensions budget and the education budget also spring readily to mind.
As we heard from the young people we met and as other young people have told me, when young people leave care, they are often leaving a situation where everything is done for them, with little preparation for having to look after themselves. All too often, they have no concept of how to pay the rent or other bills, how to shop or cook, or how to get education or work. It is no wonder that so many of them end up struggling. A third of young people who leave care end up homeless between six and 24 months afterwards. That is a staggeringly high proportion.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a percentage of young people leave care homes not because they are forced to do so, but because of difficulties that they experience in their lives? Such young people become vulnerable and can then be trafficked and cannot be found again.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He is talking about people who leave residential care. The Committee came across evidence of that during our inquiry on residential care and I suggest that he reads the report. It is worrying that society loses track of such a high number of young people.
In this inquiry, we found a clear need for action, whether by doing better with existing resources, providing extra resources or both.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), we recommended in this report that there should be greater awareness of the right of young people who leave care and get into difficulty to come back into care. The Government said that they would look into that more closely. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on that in his remarks and let us all know what progress has been made.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. He is absolutely right.
We made recommendations about better preparation for young people who are leaving care, including through the development of life skills. We highlighted a number of areas where support was crucial, based on the evidence that was presented to us.
The concept of instant adulthood has been raised with me. It describes the sudden change in the lives of people who have been very much looked after and who have had everything done for them and everything provided for them. It describes how corporate parenting is not working in the way we would expect for this group of young people. The concept of corporate parenting had been used as a way of identifying how we should look after such young people.
A point that has been made to me is that young people must value the support that they receive. It is not good enough for the authorities to describe what type of support should be available and who should provide it. Young people often have relationships with those they do not necessarily want supporting them, whether a social worker or somebody else they come across while they are in care. It is really important to listen to young people in deciding who is best placed to provide support for them. It is a matter of trust—I have heard that word mentioned a number of times.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the “Maintaining positive relationships” part of the Select Committee’s report, which I thought was interesting. It mentions how we can do better with personal advisers, but it also refers to sibling groups. Does he share my concern that a report issued today by the Family Rights Group shows that half of all sibling groups are split up in foster care? Does he think that more could be done, as those children leave care, to re-establish relationships with other family members that have been denied them in the care system? That could prove important in anchoring them and giving them stability, so that they can move into adulthood with trusted relatives.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. As an adoptive parent of a sibling group, some of whom are still in care, I know from experience that that is incredibly important to my own children. He hits the nail on the head—sibling groups should be kept together wherever possible, and every effort should be made to keep siblings in touch while they are in care and into adulthood. As he says, we touch on that in the report. Such relationships can really help young people as they leave care and move into adulthood. What came out strongly in the evidence that we took, and in the evidence that I got from elsewhere, was the importance of a young person having someone to advise and support them, whether it is a sibling group, a friend, a trusted professional adviser or the parent of a friend.
I have had some good information provided to me by Barnardo’s, with examples of what goes on. It says that there are a number of examples of good practice around the country. The Chairman of the Education Committee mentioned what goes on in Wiltshire, and I am aware of good practice by Barnardo’s in Merseyside, for example, where it provides support not just for care leavers but for other young people in the same age group.
Barnardo’s also gave me examples of nightstop, crash pads, supported lodgings and supported housing projects. Crash pads are short-term emergency supported lodgings. They are temporary forms of family-based accommodation, with placements lasting up to eight weeks. They provide specialist support to young people who need somewhere to live on a short-term basis.
Supported lodgings provide family-based support to vulnerable young people aged 16 to 25 who cannot live with their own family and are not yet ready for independent living. Young people are provided with places to live in the homes of local people, from whom they receive varying levels of practical and emotional support, enabling them to develop the confidence and capability to live independently. Young people normally stay in supported lodgings for up to two years, but they can also be used to provide shorter-term emergency housing.
Supported housing projects offer high levels of support to young people for up to two years, although some have a small number of emergency beds available at short notice for a few days at a time. They tend to house a group of young people with more complex needs, and they usually have 24/7 on-site support from staff.
I give those examples to address the point made by the Chairman of the Committee about emergency accommodation—what is sometimes called bed and breakfast. Some of those examples are from Barnardo’s and other providers. I hope that the Minister and shadow Minister will look at what is out there already, because if we are to provide the range of alternatives that our report calls for, we should learn from good practice and share and apply it, so that—in the shortest possible time—better opportunities are available for this group of young people. I hope that the Minister will take my comments on board and perhaps respond when he winds up the debate.
As has already been said, our report made recommendations on bed-and-breakfast accommodation, on staying closer and on the regulation of all external accommodation—to name but a few. The recommendation I wish to discuss today is on the lack of “Staying Put” arrangements for the 9% of our young people—some would argue that they are the most vulnerable 9%—in residential care homes.
First, let me remind the House of some of statistics about these vulnerable young people, our nation’s 70,000 looked-after children. Everybody will surely agree that this country’s record in helping that most vulnerable group when they leave care has been nothing short of appalling in the past. Of the 7,000 19-year-olds who were in care at 16, 36% were not in education, employment or training and only 6% of all care leavers are in higher education, compared with 43% of their peers. Less than 26% of children in care obtain five good grades at GCSE, compared with more than 70% of their peers, and 23% of the adult population in our jails have had experience of the care system. Around a quarter of those living on the streets have a care background and care leavers are four or five times more likely to commit suicide. About 47% of looked-after children aged between five and 17 show signs of psychosocial adversity and psychiatric disorders, which is higher than the most disadvantaged children living in private households. Physical and mental problems also increase at the time of leaving care.
As we know—the Chairman of the Committee mentioned it in his speech—and to the Government’s huge credit, they have allowed young people who are fostered to remain with their carers until they are 21, if they wish, if their carers agree and if it is considered to be in their best interests. That is in an attempt to address the many serious challenges care leavers face. All young people in foster care are offered enhanced support up to the age of 21. For young people in foster care, that is one of the biggest and most fundamental changes to their support when they leave care, and it has been widely applauded as a significant change in the right direction for that group of young people.
The big scandal, however, is that the extension to foster placements excludes the 9% of young people in care who are in children’s homes. Those young people have a wide range of needs and challenges. What most have in common is that they are vulnerable. That vulnerability is exacerbated by the stigma attached to residential care among politicians, the public and, sadly, some in the social work profession. Ministers appear to see living in a family as the best option for children in care and the only setting in which children will thrive. That is not reflected by some social workers, who see children’s homes as the last resort, as a place for children who have failed family placements and as somewhere the more challenging young people can be placed. Many of the public see children’s homes as places where naughty children are sent. Historically that view was compounded by some local authorities who used children’s homes to accommodate their more challenging young people.
The Education Committee’s recommendation was that young people living in residential children’s homes should have the right to remain there beyond the age of 18, just as young people in foster care now have the right of staying put until the age of 21. We recommend that the Department for Education extends “Staying Put” to residential children’s homes.
Despite the evidence taken in our inquiry, the Government do not agree. They said that too many children’s homes are not of sufficient quality and that the immediate priority is to improve significantly the quality of residential care. To be fair to the Government, they are doing that. They said that the evidence for placing such a duty on supporting the “Staying Put” arrangements for young people in foster care is robust. We do not have the evidence for children’s homes, as they were not covered by the plans.
The Government said that there are a number of practical and legal issues we would need to consider and test out. There would be vulnerable adults living in homes with much younger vulnerable children—despite the fact that that happens in many households throughout Britain. In addition, a children’s home accommodating three care leaders and one child would technically no longer be a children’s home. The Government also mentioned money, and that has to be taken into consideration, particularly in these economic times.
None the less, the Department recognised that those challenges should not be viewed as insurmountable barriers. It said it was working in collaboration with charities to consider some of the issues associated with “Staying Put” and residential children’s homes. Natasha Finlayson, from the Who Cares? Trust, confirmed that that work was in progress. The Minister confirmed all that nearly a year ago, when I secured an Adjournment debate on this very issue.
In fact, a scoping report was requested from the Minister from a collaboration between the National Children’s Bureau, the Who Cares? Trust, Action for Children, Barnardo’s, Together Trust, the Centre for Child and Family Research, and Loughborough university. Their work was published only yesterday, after a year of working on the scoping exercise. A stakeholder workshop identified four different options for residential care “Staying Put” arrangements, which formed the basis of a consultation with young people. Overall, the scoping exercise showed that care leavers from residential homes would prefer to have options, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
My hon. Friend is making a good case for what is a very difficult solution for kids in residential care homes, but does he not recognise that the “Staying Put” exercise is largely staying put with carers, which is more easily achieved through foster care, for example? In residential homes, workers tend to move on. Indeed, the average stay in residential homes is rather short, so there is not that attachment. Would it therefore not be better to try to establish options, which he is now describing, that form links with foster carers and others to give a proper bonding and link with advice and support, which one does not get from an attachment to a building that is a residential care home? That is rather different to a foster care relationship, which the young person will have been in for many years in many cases.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He raises some valuable points, particularly on the turnover of staff in residential homes. The point is that a lot of young people in residential homes have a stigma attached to them. Not only that, quite often a foster placement has broken down. One could argue quite easily that they are the more vulnerable of our children in care. That being the case, to turf them out by themselves at the age of 18, often with very little support, is not the way forward. That will not be the case for all young people in residential homes—of course not. Some will be robust enough to take that step. For those who choose to stay, we feel strongly that that option should be open.
One challenge in residential and in foster care of “Staying Put” is that it leaves fewer places for other children to enter the care system. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the very big challenges in foster care is to find more foster carers, and in residential care, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) pointed out, it is to find staff who will stay long-term so that we have a more experienced, quality work force?
Of course the hon. Gentleman has a point, but it does not make sense to allow young people in foster care to stay on until the age of 21, but exclude the 9% in residential care homes—the most vulnerable young people—particularly given that the 91% are arguably the ones clogging up the system.
The scoping exercise discussed four options, and the results were interesting: 25% of the young people preferred option 1—care leavers live in the same children’s home until they are 21; 13% preferred option 2—care leavers live in a separate building but in the same grounds as the children’s home; another 13% preferred option 3, which was like supported lodgings—care leavers live in a different house and need to be at least 16; and 25% preferred option 4, the staying close agenda—care leavers live independently in their own flat down the road or close to the children’s centre, and they have a key worker. It was clear from the scoping exercise that young children in residential homes would prefer those types of options.
The cost of extending those four options to all children—if we do it for one group, surely we must do it for all young people in care—would be about £75 million a year. It is not a small sum by any stretch of the imagination, but the cost of not giving any such option, particularly to residential care leavers, is many times that amount, and let us not forget the 23% who end up in our penal system, the cost of NEETs, drugs, crime, mental ill health, homelessness—to name just a few aspects.
The scoping exercise made several recommendations, and here are three of them: that the Department for Education develop plans for a new overarching duty of continuing wide-ranging support up to the age of 21 for all young people leaving care and, in doing so, draw on the learning of the Scottish reforms; that Ofsted work with stakeholders to clarify the ability of children’s homes to maintain registration when they routinely cater for young people over 18 and how children’s homes’ provision of accommodation and support for young people over 18 will impact on the inspections process; and that the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government review the option of extending regulation to a wider range of support and accommodation options for young people.
To summarise, may I ask the Minister when young people in residential homes can expect the Government to remove the discrimination and unfairness in the system and provide a range of options to all young people leaving care, as recommended by the scoping activity, and when he is likely to respond to that exercise?
There could not be a more important subject for us to debate in relation to some of the most vulnerable young people in our society. Many will have found themselves homeless as a result of abuse, family breakdown, bereavement or other catastrophes in their lives, and, at a relatively young age, at the end of their childhood, they are cast into an adult world they are not necessarily prepared for.
The vast majority of professionals in local authorities do their best to meet the needs of this group of young people, but still far too many—some at just 16 years of age—are simply dumped somewhere, perhaps on a Friday night, and left to fend for themselves all weekend in a bed-and-breakfast establishment or unsuitable hostel because there is nowhere else for them to go. It is not good enough. I challenge Ministers, fellow Members, councillors and the professionals responsible for these young people to tell me whether they would be happy for their child, grandchild, niece or nephew to be treated as we treat many young people who need us to care for them—young people who feel abandoned and in great distress.
The presence in the Chamber of fellow members of the Select Committee on Education is testament to the importance of this subject, which was reflected in our report. The Committee identified a series of steps that we feel are needed to ensure that improvements occur, both in the preparation of young people as they move through to greater independence and in the stability and support available. As others have said, one of the core concerns, both of myself and other Committee members, relates specifically to the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for vulnerable young people at times of need. As the Chairman has said, statutory guidance makes it clear that care leavers should be placed only in suitable accommodation, meaning that it is safe, secure and located so as to allow them to take part in education, employment or training. However, the series of visits we undertook and the discussions we had with young people did little to confirm that that was happening universally and shone a light on the continued use of B and Bs for 16 and 17-year-olds, all too often for protracted periods—for instance, one person spoke of living in a B and B for two years. Little wonder that so many of them feel abandoned.
The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) talked about one young woman, and I am going to repeat the story, because what she told us that day in Ipswich really haunts me. When she spoke to members of the Committee, she told us about being placed in emergency accommodation—a B and B—for several weeks. It was a placement primarily for adults. She was the only young person, yet while taking refuge in the care of the state, she was subjected to older men braying on her door late at night and asking her to join them. That is not a situation I would wish on anybody, let alone a vulnerable young person. I hope that the young person hears that her story has been told at least twice tonight—who knows, maybe it will be told more times before this evening is over.
The statutory guidance that states that care leavers should be placed only in suitable accommodation also makes it clear that B and Bs are inappropriate for young people in care and should be used only in very particular circumstances. To be certain, those circumstances should amount to nothing short of an emergency situation; yet, troublingly, the use of B and Bs continues, with as many as 800 care leavers in England being placed in such accommodation in 2013-14 by their local authority. Far from being merely unsuitable, B and Bs often present an environment that feels unsafe and threatening to a young person. I would love to know how many of our directors of children’s services know for certain that the bed-and-breakfast establishments they use for 16 or 17-year-olds are as safe and secure as they would demand for a member of their own family.
Statistics from Barnardo’s, compiled following a series of freedom of information requests, reveal the extent to which many local authorities are failing to observe Government guidance to avoid the use of inappropriate emergency accommodation for young people leaving care. Despite guidance to the contrary, almost three quarters of local authorities in England continued to place care leavers in B and B accommodation during the last year, with 43% doing so repeatedly and an unacceptable 51% doing so for 28 days or more, despite B and Bs being described as emergency accommodation. We can and must work towards a future where their use is abolished altogether.
Accommodation of this sort, whether designed for short-term use or otherwise, fails to offer support to young people and does not allow them to move on and make progress with their lives. Worse still, placing vulnerable young people in such accommodation risks exposing them to a range of dangers and negative influences. I am clear that the use of B and Bs is avoidable, but if we are to achieve the right result for all our young people needing emergency care, more needs to be done, with authorities working co-operatively in their areas to ensure that suitable and safe accommodation is available. Government, too, have a role to play. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said, funding to local authorities has suffered huge cuts in recent years. I hope Ministers will look again at how they can guarantee every young care leaver a safe place to live when they need it.
The north-east highlights perfectly what can be achieved. Local authorities across the area have demonstrated that sensible policies in this area can produce positive results. Both Hartlepool council and Redcar and Cleveland council succeeded in placing 100% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 into suitable accommodation in 2014, while many other councils across the region achieved such outcomes in over 90% of cases. But there is still more to do, and we need to act to make sure that this progress is made sooner rather than later.
The local authority serving my own constituency, Stockton borough council, is a case in point. Last year, it achieved a success rate of 96% in placing leavers aged 19 to 21 into suitable accommodation, putting it in the top 10 of local authorities nationwide. That was not the case for a few, but that small number at least indicates that there were cases of genuine emergency. That said, I am pleased that those in charge of young people’s services are working alongside colleagues from housing to develop an initiative that will allow care leavers to be re-housed in close proximity to their former children’s homes—often on the same street, so that they can continue to benefit from the local support network that is available, preventing any sense of abandonment.
It is thinking like this that will see us making real improvements in this area. I remain in no doubt, and neither does our Select Committee, that bed-and-breakfast accommodation should be banned as soon as practically possible for young people, with proper inspection and regulatory oversight introduced to end the practice once and for all. I know it cannot be done overnight, but I would love the Minister to be bold and to fix a date for a ban to be introduced. Sadly, I already know that I will be disappointed, as the Minister has previously indicated that he has no intention of doing so.
I mentioned the effect of cuts and co-operative working, and emphasise that again. If we are to succeed in taking this step and bringing an end to a practice that so often puts young people at risk, national standards for proper emergency provisions need to be established, while local authorities need to have access to the necessary resources—whether it be through improved communication and working within local authorities, enhanced collaborative working between local authorities and organisations, or increased central funding. Indeed, we too often hear that local authority departments do not work closely enough together when providing accommodation options for vulnerable young people, and I am clear that that needs to be addressed.
Making the transition from care to independence is one of the most challenging periods for young people leaving care, especially for those who have had the most chaotic journeys through the care system. They need support and guidance in many aspects of their lives. It is therefore common sense that service providers communicate with each another, and it would be very interesting to see further consideration given to the sharing of budgets or joint commissioning of services in a similar way to that being examined in Stockton.
Often as a result of the lack of joined-up working, Barnardo’s has reported alarming findings, indicating that young people’s accommodation problems often get worse after their 18th birthday. In its “The cost of not caring” report, examples are given of councils placing care leavers in appropriate accommodation, fully funded by their children’s services, only for that to be withdrawn when they turn 18 and cease to be eligible for support.
Unprepared for the responsibility of paying their own rent and bills, and frequently lacking those all-important independent living skills, young people can find that their accommodation quickly becomes unaffordable as they no longer have the support they had previously relied on. Some on housing benefit find that they can no longer afford their rent, which children’s services departments had previously funded while they were still in care. That forces them into more affordable accommodation in alternative locations—invariably of lower quality. The new benefits regime introduced by the Government only adds to the challenges and misery these young people face.
All of that adds up to care leavers having an increased risk of homelessness, not only during the transition out of care, but over the longer term. Studies have highlighted worrying figures that over a fifth of homeless people have been in care as a child, while 16% of those facing additional complications on top of homelessness, such as mental health problems or substance issues, have previously been in local authority care and had, on average, left care aged just 17.
I often reflect on the fact that my two sons left home in their mid-20s after a life of support and stability, but that is seven or eight years older than the age at which we expect many young people leaving care to fend for themselves. They do not have the luxury of a family to fall back on. It is our responsibility as a nation to ensure that we do not abandon them. We hope to hear from the Minister how he is going to ensure that that is the case.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time for this important debate. As the Chairman of the Education Committee said, the report came out of an earlier inquiry in which we found that older children are neglected in the care system. I pay tribute to the Minister for the real interest he has taken in these areas and for the way in which he has tried—and often succeeded, I think—in bringing about improvements for this group of vulnerable children. There is no doubt that he cares about these young people, and it is in that spirit that I make my speech.
In my former life, I managed many areas of education that are closely linked to social care, child protection and safeguarding, but I was always careful to stay removed from managing those areas directly, arguing to myself that I did not have the necessary expertise, and that issues such as safeguarding and child protection were better left to those who had been trained to manage them. In reality, however, there was always a healthy dollop of fear in there as well: fear that some actions that I had caused to be taken, or had recommended, would result in further harm to a child who had already been harmed by those who should have cared for them the most.
Even as an MP, when I first entered Parliament, I tried not to become too closely involved in children’s social care, but, in practice, that has proved to be impossible. Along with my fellow members of the Education Committee, I felt that, given what appeared to be a lack of interest in the Department for Education, I had a duty to ensure that 50% of our time was spent on scrutinising and challenging Government policy on children’s social care. I recognise the Minister’s input, but it often seemed that he was a lone voice in a Department that is focused almost entirely on education.
When we discuss these matters, I like to put them in context. The United Kingdom probably has one of the best records in the western world when it comes to safeguarding and child protection: we are much better at it than most—not all, but most—European countries, and we have a far better record than the United States. Even in that context, however, we still do very poorly in some areas and in respect of some children.
I think that what shocked me the most during the Committee’s investigation of areas of social care and child protection were the findings of our short inquiry into 16-plus care options. We saw placements that we considered to be unsafe. Close as I am to this subject, I did not quite realise how difficult life is for these children, and how little support they are given by us—by, for instance, the Government, Parliament and local authorities. Like others, I listened in horror to the stories of young people leaving the care system about what had been done to them and how little support they had had. That comes on top of what we are now learning about what was done to young people— many of whom were living in the care system at the time—in places such as Rochdale, Oxford and Rotherham; and we know that many other cases have yet to become public.
One of my lasting worries following the inquiry is that, while the public are shocked and morally outraged when they hear stories about such places as Rotherham, the bottom line is that we—the Government, Parliament, MPs, local authority officers, the press and the public—simply do not care enough about the children involved. If we did, these things would not happen. It is easy to blame hapless, overworked officials who often work without structures, support or adequate resources, but we are all responsible for those children, and we do not, as a society, take our responsibilities for them seriously enough.
One child, a care leaver, said to me that not only should we be providing additional funding for the education of such children, but if every child who went into care at the age of 10 was given the vote, people like us would take what happened to them seriously. Because they do not have that leverage, I doubt whether things will change very much for them—even given the recent press coverage and the moral outrage—but I always try, at least, to travel in hope.
Two facts motivated our inquiry into 16-plus care options: the fact that “other arrangements” are unsuitable, and the fact that the current “Staying Put” policy is inequitable. My fellow Committee members and I call on the Minister to address three issues as a matter of urgency. First, we ask him to outlaw the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for 16-plus care leavers. We have heard all the arguments from the local authority officers, and even from the Minister himself, about the need for it as a provision of last resort and for emergency use only, but we believe that, while it remains an option, it will become the default provision in far too many cases. Local authorities can plan not to use bed and breakfast for this purpose. Some of them have put real effort and resources into doing something else, something better and, in the long run, something more cost-effective for those young people.
I remember exactly the same arguments being used when the Government of the day were pushing local authorities to provide full-time education for young people who had been excluded from school. At the time, local authorities were saying, “We can’t possibly do this, we need to be able to provide part-time education in emergencies,” but the fact is that the default position then was that most children who were excluded got less than 10 hours of education and many got none. It took a Secretary of State really to lose patience with local authorities and to make it illegal, and I am glad that he did. I am a great believer in the saying that we are never as swift as when we are chased, and I am absolutely sure that some local authorities still provide hours that are below the legal limit, but the vast majority got their act together and did some proper planning, and the situation is much better as a result. Now that the situation is very clear and we have outlawed providing less than full-time education for excluded children, those children have redress. If bad local authorities are not providing that education, there is redress, and there is also a role for Ofsted.
Secondly, we are calling on the Minister to regulate 16-plus care provision. I find it unbelievable that we have stronger regulations to cover the provision of dogs homes than we do for homes for children leaving care at 16. The Minister has argued that he does not want to drive the best providers out of the market with regulation, but that is simply not going to happen, because this is lucrative. It is so lucrative that hedge funds are getting into it, but I think it is fair to say that the bottom of this market, as the Committee has seen, is not merely inadequate—that is a huge understatement—but dangerous, and it is unsafe. It puts children who are at risk—the most vulnerable of our children—at greater risk and we simply cannot allow that to continue.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she share my concern that in a market of supported accommodation, where there is no real and effective regulation, entirely unqualified people can sit there supposedly supporting some of the most vulnerable young people? When we were doing our inquiry, we heard of such people sitting boarded up in their office while the young people were rioting outside. That is the situation we are putting some young people in by failing to regulate these individuals.
I absolutely agree and we did see some of that when we went on visits across the country.
Finally, we are calling on the Minister to extend “Staying Put” to all young people in care. It is great—and I again have to pay tribute to the Minister—that young people in foster care can remain beyond the age of 18, but in many respects those young people are the ones who are the least vulnerable and who arguably have the best outcomes, and it is now time to do the same for the others.
We are talking about a surprisingly small number of children each year. It has been said that £75 million is the sum required to deliver this. We should contrast that with the £2 billion overspend on the academies and free schools programme. If the Department can spend that virtually without comment, surely it can find the money to provide this desperately needed safety and security for this group of young people, if those young people want it—I am not saying they have to have it.
We are pleased that the Government have taken forward many of our recommendations and we ask the Minister to look again at the rest, as they are necessary steps to ensure that there are improvements in providing stability and support for young people as they move to greater independence.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and the members of the Select Committee on Education on their excellent report into care provision for young people over 16, and I particularly welcome the opportunity they gave to young people to speak to them directly. It is also a great privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), who made a powerful speech. It was very moving to listen to her acknowledgment of the importance of social care in giving educational opportunities to young people. The two are not separate; one is very dependent on the other. If a child or young person is emotionally damaged, it is very difficult to educate that child.
Children in care are three times more likely to run away than other young people, with an estimated 10,000 going missing every year. The Missing Persons Bureau reports that running-away incidents of children aged between 15 and 17 make up the biggest number in the missing persons statistics. Some 45,000 incidents relating to this group were recorded in 36 police forces in 2012-13. The vulnerability of such children because of their age and the nature of the accommodation in which they are placed may offer an explanation for that high incidence. I have no breakdown of the number of over-16s in this statistic. However, the Children’s Society reports that a significant percentage of its advocacy cases with care leavers focus on the accommodation needs of the young person, because children feel that they are forced to leave too early or that they are not offered the right type of accommodation, or because they are placed outside the boundaries of their authorities and there are disputes about who should provide support.
As the Education Committee highlighted, not all accommodation for care leavers is of good quality or suitable for young people. Examples provided to me by the Children’s Society include young people living in fear of being robbed by other tenants, young women at risk of suicide living in an all-male house with other young people who are known to be involved in drug dealing, young vulnerable women who are regularly being placed in accommodation targeted by individuals seeking to exploit vulnerable young people, and accommodation provided in areas with high crime rates.
We know that 22% of looked-after 16 and 17-year-olds live in neither residential homes nor foster care, but in what is termed “other arrangements”. Unlike foster and residential care, these places are not regulated under the Care Standards Act 2000 and as a result will not be inspected by Ofsted. Accommodation provided is often of poor quality and not safe for young people, and yet it is not inspected. The examples the Education Committee gave provide strong evidence that these are common, not isolated, situations. The Committee rightly said that such accommodation needs to be regulated and inspected properly. Care provision for 16 to 17-year-olds should be registered and inspected. The Government said it would be very expensive to introduce a regulatory framework—both for Government and for providers—and that it was better to maintain the flexibility of the current arrangements.
Last year, the Government introduced new regulations requiring a safety check to be carried out before a children’s home could be registered. The June 2012 inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group for looked after children and care leavers, and the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, identified the high proportion of children being placed away from their local area—sometimes hundreds of miles away—in locations where there was also a high number of registered sex offenders. The new safety checks will ensure that the home is in a safe environment that will not increase the risk of sexual exploitation for already vulnerable children.
However, children’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation does not stop when they reach 16, and nor does our responsibility to ensure that they are in a safe environment. As the Education Committee report shows, children over 16 are being placed in a variety of provision. That is all the more reason to require a safety check, just as one is required of children’s homes, to ensure that the accommodation that such children are being placed in is safe. If the Government are not willing to consider regulating to require accommodation for over 16-year-olds to be registered and inspected in the same way as that for children under 16, I hope the Minister will consider introducing a requirement for a basic safety check. That would ensure that consultation takes place with the police, and that young people are not placed in environments where they are exposed to harm.
Where vulnerable children are placed in supported accommodation, they are often not reported missing and are not always offered the return home interviews that all missing children are entitled to when they go missing. That means that we do not know what is happening to them and what harm they have been exposed to. Sometimes, those children do not return and nobody knows what happens to them. One reason is that those employed to provide them with support do not have relevant training on their vulnerabilities, or do not know what help they are entitled to advocate on their behalf, as the Chairman of the Education Committee pointed out. Although the law states that someone is a child until they are 18, we often treat children aged 16 to 17 as adults and force them to fend for themselves. We then often blame them if they do not take care of themselves properly and fall prey to sexual predators.
Recently, I visited a girl living in a secure unit who had been sexually abused from an early age and had started to take drugs regularly. This was the fourth time she had been placed in a secure unit because of going missing and the sexual exploitation she has suffered while missing. As the head of the unit said to me, the secure unit could offer only temporary refuge. She strongly expressed her concern about what would happen to the girl—and others like her—when she turned 16 because of the lack of quality provision available. It could be argued that 16 to 17-year-olds are the most unprotected of all children in Britain. We are asking many of them to fend for themselves; we would not ask our own children to do that.
I congratulate the Minister on introducing the “Staying Put” scheme, recognising that young people in care often need extra support beyond 18. However, as has been said, it throws into stark contrast the poor level of provision for other children in the care system after 16 who have not been placed in foster homes. The Minister has demonstrated his huge commitment to improving the lives of children in care, and has brought in new regulations and guidance to drive up standards.
The all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults is holding a round table meeting next week, on 2 February, to discuss with practitioners and experts how support can be improved for 16 and 17-year-olds, including those in care. We are particularly looking at the position of children and young people who go missing, because we are concerned that the risk to them is not fully recognised. We will be exploring what 16 and 17-year-olds are running away from and what they are running to, the factors that lead to them going missing and the risks to which they are being exposed when they go missing. I hope this will add to our understanding of how we can better support the most vulnerable of those 16 and 17-year-olds.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) for introducing the debate and the report. I also thank all those involved in producing it, because it contains many good and helpful points. It has been a pleasure to listen to all the Members who have spoken so far. They have all spoken with passion, interest and a real, earnest endeavour on behalf of young people, and it is good to hear the House united in that.
Ensuring that our young people, particularly those who are vulnerable, have somewhere to call home—somewhere that is important to them—is vital. I have no doubt in my mind that every child is entitled to a hot meal, a warm home and, most importantly, a loving home—that seems natural and fair. In fact, to me it is a basic human right. As the report states, not every child has that, and we need to work extra hard to give those children who, for whatever reason, do not have a permanent home with their parents a home they can call their own. That is why I am pleased to make a contribution here. A number of charities actively help to do just that, including Action for Children, Citizens Advice and Bridging the Gap, to name just a few.
Young people leaving care are among the most vulnerable groups in society, so it is little wonder that there needs to be adequate provision in place, not just for when young people are in care, but to help them when they leave. Each Member who has spoken, particularly the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), has made that point clearly.
Some of the statistics about young people in care are truly worrying. They are three times more likely to be cautioned or convicted of an offence; they are four times more likely to have a mental health disorder; they are five times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs; they are eight times more likely to be excluded from school and less likely to go to university; and finally, one in five homeless people are care leavers. Those horrifying statistics make us think about those in society whom we have a responsibility to assist.
The fact that one in five care leavers end up living on the streets is undoubtedly a direct result of academic underachievement, criminal records and/or mental health conditions, all of which stem from a disrupted upbringing. That is why we need to do more to create stable home environments as quickly as possible after problems arise. Our main aim is to ensure that young people have a roof over their head. We do not want them to be continually moving around as if they were playing a game of musical chairs or as if they were just a piece of the furniture. We must promote stability, although I do understand that that is not always possible. We must also do our absolute best to work with the charities and other organisations to get young people into care and long-term homes. When the Minister responds to this debate, perhaps he could tell me what discussions he has had with the charities that work at the coalface, as they understand the issues involved.
The options available to young people in care include fostering, adoption, family short breaks and residential care, all of which ensure that young people have some form of accommodation. The greatest issue facing young people is not necessarily while they are in care, but after they leave care. That concern has been expressed in every contribution so far.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and to the Education Committee for producing this important report. It is more than a decade since I worked with Hammersmith and Fulham council to phase out the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds, including care leavers. Given our special and unique responsibility to these young people who rely on the state to keep them safe, and the fact that councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham showed over a decade ago that it could be done, surely the time has come to outlaw the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for these young people. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such accommodation is entirely unsuitable?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. Earlier, I said that I was surprised that she was not here at the start of the debate, because I know that she has a real, deep interest in this subject. I am pleased to see her here now, and I agree wholeheartedly with what she said, and I am sure that that applies to everyone else in the Chamber. It is always good to exchange ideas.
In Northern Ireland, a public consultation was held in 2012 to decipher the best way forward for young adults living in supported accommodation. Ten key principles were developed and they are now used by charities and organisations in Northern Ireland for those in care and those leaving care. They are dignity and respect, independence, rights, equality and diversity, choice, fulfilment, safeguarding, privacy, confidentiality and partnership. A variety of options are available for those who leave care, and they include supported lodgings and private rented or social housing.
Young people may wish to remain with foster families or return to their birth parents, but the options available to those over 18 who want to move on can be limited. Has the Minister had any discussion with John O’Dowd, the Minister for Education in the Northern Ireland Assembly, about the report we compiled in Northern Ireland? The figures for young people in care working and having adequate academic achievements need to be better. Supported lodgings are an option for young people but, depending on where they live, they may not be available to them. The option that is used the most in Northern Ireland is social housing, but that young person can fall between two stools. No one seems to grasp the problem, and it becomes very frustrating.
Although charities such as Action for Children do fantastic work and try to give young people in care and those who leave care the best opportunities and homes available, we need to do more. We must do all we can to reduce the number of people living on the streets, and to help young people in care to reach their academic potential. That means that they would be in a better position to get jobs and set up homes in the future. We should consider setting up some sort of support system in schools and further education colleges aimed specifically at helping young people in care to get the skills and qualifications that they need for the future.
I strongly believe that family is the cornerstone of society. I am not necessarily talking about birth family. Family means providing care, support and love. It comes in many forms and it is up to us to ensure that young people in care, our most vulnerable young people, get the support and stability they need at home, which will give them the best possible chance to reach their academic potential.
Finally, I say well done to the Education Committee for producing this report, which highlights all the issues. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Education Committee, many of whom have spoken today, on the report, which is a model of the well-argued, thought-provoking body of work that we have come to rely on from the Select Committee system. It has proved helpful in focusing attention on the types of accommodation available to young people aged 16 and over who are cared for by local authorities—a population of about 14,000, representing about 20% of the total population of looked-after children,
The Children Act 1989 requires that young people aged 16 and over should be given a personal adviser to help them to progress to independence. That involves helping them to make choices, and ensuring that their pathway plan and review actually happen, and that the plan includes the skills needed for independent living. The Select Committee cites the children’s rights director as saying that almost half—49%—of care leavers thought that they had been badly or very badly prepared for independent life. Key deficiencies include a lack of basic skills such as cooking and financial management.
The report made me wonder whether there is too much focus on the post of personal adviser, and not enough on the task. Foster carers and other significant adults should principally perform those tasks, as they are the people with whom the young person already has an important relationship. I know that the Minister, too, has reflected on that. I was struck during a recent visit to Hackney’s fostering unit by the impressive work that it does, and its use of social pedagogy as a tool for development. The Minister is on the record as saying that the personal adviser is a function, rather than a specifically appointed person, and that there is nothing in the regulations or guidance to stop local authorities using resources such as foster carers or people who work in children’s homes as personal advisers.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way, especially as I could not be here for the start of the debate. I was interested in his use of the word “relationship”. Does he agree that a key point about the system that we have constructed for children in care is that often it does not see or value those crucial relationships in young people’s lives? At the time when they most need them the system often drives a coach and horses through them. Does he agree that if we were serious about helping children, sustaining them through the hardest period in their life, we would restructure the system so that it could see, support and value those relationships with key trusted adults, whoever they are?
That is exactly the point. We should concentrate on continuity and relationships. At times we are sidetracked by posts and appointments.
I want to move on to local authorities, whose responsibilities change when a young person turns 18. Too many people think that local authorities interpret that change as meaning that their responsibilities diminish, despite the fact that they have a continuing obligation to those young people until the age of 21, or 25 for those still in education and training. As we have heard several times, the Minister has recently extended the previous Government’s pilots to create a new obligation or arrangement for staying put in foster care until the age of 21. Like others, I think that that is a welcome measure, although I urge him to look at authorities that are trying to avoid paying foster rates, arguing that such arrangements are in fact board and lodging provision. I have recently been made aware that that is happening in one or two places, and the Minister will agree that that is certainly not what he had in mind.
I welcome the part of the Government’s response to the report which says that they believe that fewer young people should leave care before the age of 18 unless there are exceptional circumstances. In his reply, can the Minister say a little more about what practical steps the Government will take to translate this belief into reality? Despite personal advisers and strengthened guidance, the Committee found that young people are often given neither a choice of placement nor the opportunity to voice a preference. The Coram Group, an excellent organisation, said in its evidence:
“The young person’s views are frequently not adequately considered and advocacy support is vital to ensure this happens”.
An independent advocate is a statutory requirement, yet it is not a service that is always offered or that enough young people are made aware of.
The Government say in their response that they have given the Children’s Commissioner a new power to provide advice and assistance to individual children in receipt of social care services and to make representations on behalf of care leavers. Am I right in thinking that the commissioner has no real new powers? Is the Minister satisfied that the power to make representations is a sufficient new power for the Children’s Commissioner? The Government argue that they have strengthened the guidance on pathway planning and point to the fact that directors of children’s services are now required to sign off the arrangements for any 16 or 17-year-old leaving care. However, as we have heard from a number of speakers today, the evidence suggests that the pathway plans are weak, and one glaring omission is the failure to consider maintaining positive relationships with siblings and other people thought to be important in the young person’s life.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Stockport (Ann Coffey) both drew attention to the impact that this can have, particularly when it is almost ignored in the planning arrangements. Like others, I wonder how we can expect young people to develop into normal, well-adjusted adults if we deny them the opportunities that we take for granted for our own children and many others. I welcome the addition to the guidance on the pathway plans in this respect and I trust that the Minister will continue to focus on this area in the months ahead.
One of the inevitable results of the “Staying Put” initiative is that, as we heard, it has raised the question of those in residential care and the related issue of staying close. There appears to be a perception in some local authorities that their responsibilities decrease when a child reaches 16. That is certainly the sense among young people who feel that 16 is the cut-off point when they are required to leave care. This came across in the evidence that the Committee took. I am not sure about the equality aspect of “Staying Put” for non-foster care. I do not know whether it would withstand a legal challenge. From his previous incarnation the Minister might be much more familiar with how the law would deal with that. Aside from that, my own view is that 16 is the age for most young people to set out on their own. Like the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) I attended a recent meeting of the all-party group for looked-after children, where many of those said that even at the age of 18 they did not feel that they were ready to move on.
I know that this is a difficult matter for many people. I have some doubts about whether it is realistic for someone to continue in a children’s home to the age of 21 or beyond, although I am rather sceptical of the validity of some of the counter-arguments. Particularly on safeguarding, I tend to agree with the Every Child Leaving Care Matters group, which said that it is difficult
“to see how a young person who is settled in a children’s home and enjoys positive relationships with staff and peers should suddenly become a safeguarding risk at 18 when they never were before.”
I am keen that the Government set to work as soon as possible on addressing this matter. We have heard about some of the work involving the National Children’s Bureau, the Who Cares? Trust, Barnardo’s and others. Will the Minister tell us how much money from the innovation programme has gone into that work to date, and what time scale he is considering for further proposals indicating his plans for staying close and “Staying Put”?
The hon. Gentleman says that he has misgivings about the extension and that some of the arguments are bogus or weak. What are his concerns? As a Committee, we made these proposals in a cross-party spirit in the hope that parties such as his would adopt them and put them in their manifestos. Why will he not be making that recommendation to his party’s manifesto group?
I said that I had some doubts. The hon. Member for Calder Valley said that the difference is that there is not necessarily the same stability with regard to children’s homes. The situation is not guaranteed in the same way. Fostering arrangements, by definition, tend to be stable. The turnover of staff and other children at a children’s home means that the situation may not be the same. That is my major reservation.
The idea of staying put, wherever it is, is that it is suitable for all concerned. The aim is not to impose it on anybody. Like our recommendation on extending care services to the age of 25 for those who are not looking for a job or training, it is there if people want it, and if it is not appropriate, there is no suggestion that it should have to happen.
I entirely accept the point that the Committee Chairman is making. The hon. Member for Calder Valley said that there may well be options. My point is simply that the situation is not directly comparable. I am minded that we look at this carefully. We cannot say that children in foster care get the benefit of “Staying Put” until the age of 21 and children in children’s homes are completely disregarded. That would not be acceptable, and I do not think that anyone is saying that. I am simply suggesting that the situation may be slightly different.
I want to take up the Committee’s point about the problems of making full-time education and training central to continuing support until the age of 25. We were all rather encouraged when the Minister said in Committee that he intended to rewrite the guidance so that it would be sufficiently clear that he was concerned about those who were in danger of falling through the net. So far, the rewritten guidance does not appear to have achieved that. Surely the real issue is that it is too easy for those we refer to as NEETs— not in education, employment or training—to disappear. Unless directors of children’s services and others are under a specific obligation to track and monitor these young people, there is every danger that they will fall by the wayside.
I want to turn to “other arrangements”. As we have heard, the Committee was very concerned about accommodation that it felt was not of an acceptable standard and might fail the statutory guidance tests of being suitable for the child in the light of his or her needs, including health needs, and of the responsible authority having satisfied itself as to the character and suitability of the landlord. I acknowledge that the YMCA said in evidence to the Committee that some local authorities provide a decent variety of accommodation, and I do not dismiss the fact that there are examples of success out there. However, Ofsted found significant variations in the quality and sufficiency of accommodation for care leavers. The Who Cares? Trust has also reported examples of unsafe and unsuitable accommodation. I will not go over them all, as they have been mentioned by other speakers, but they include people being threatened or assaulted; living with those with drink and drugs problems; and having dirty accommodation infested with bedbugs and cockroaches. The British Association of Social Workers has said that it is
“firmly of the view that the government needs to apply regulatory duties to all accommodation providers who accommodate looked after children in order that they are appropriately safeguarded and the provision meets acceptable standards.”
I noticed that the report highlights an interesting dilemma on regulation. It is fair to point out that one witness warned of the risk that if regulation is too onerous it will stifle creativity in support arrangements and inhibit independence projects. I was interested in Catch22’s suggestion for a national standards framework, which, if I have read the report accurately, the Committee appears to have liked. I am not sure that the Government’s proposals go anything like far enough, and I urge the Minister to reflect again on that point. About 3,000 young people are covered by other arrangements, and that is an awful lot of lives at risk.
I would welcome that, and I urge the Minister to think again.
Finally, there is general consensus that bed-and-breakfast accommodation is unacceptable and that a deadline must be set for phasing it out altogether, although I acknowledge that that cannot happen until more work has been done on developing alternatives. I welcome the fact that the Minister has set a maximum of two days for the time a child can spend in a bed and breakfast. How will that guideline be monitored, because that will be the first test of whether it is having any impact?
I must say that I am disappointed that the Minister does not seem to have accepted the need to set a date by which the use of bed and breakfasts must be phased out. I welcome the decision to collect more data on the use of this arrangement, although I am not clear why he did not accept the suggestion that the Department simply mirror the current arrangement for housing authorities to report to the Department for Communities and Local Government. It seems to me that that is a tried and tested system, so it would make sense and be quite helpful to repeat it.
Will the Minister say when the Department will commence work with stakeholders to understand the issues better, as was mentioned in the Government response? When can we expect to see substantial progress? The use of bed and breakfasts for vulnerable young people who need care must rank alongside other great housing scandals of the past, such as those highlighted by the drama “Cathy Come Home”. I do not accept that it has a continuing place in the plans to care for vulnerable young people.
I again thank the Committee for its excellent report and the Minister for the Government response, but I feel that there is more to do before we can be satisfied that the arrangements for children over the age of 16—for whom we, the state, are responsible—are adequately cared for.
I thank the Chairman of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who secured this important debate. I also reiterate my gratitude to his Committee and its members for their continued interest in our collective efforts to improve the lives of children in and leaving care—a group of young people who are among the most vulnerable in our society and who have not always received the support that they need to overcome the difficulties they often face in making a successful transition to adulthood.
Before dealing with the specific points that have been raised by hon. Members in the Select Committee report and in the thoughtful contributions today, I will take a few moments to set out the wider work of the Government on our commitment to improve the lives of care leavers. As the Chairman of the Select Committee fairly set out, since 2010, we have put in place a series of measures that mean that young people who leave care receive more help than ever before. In 2013, we published the first cross-Government care leavers strategy, which illustrates the priority that the Government give to improving the lives of care leavers. It includes measures to improve care leavers’ access to education, training and employment; help to access appropriate benefits and health support; and extra support for care leavers who have unfortunately ended up in the criminal justice system. Many of those measures cut across departmental budgets.
The strategy was preceded by a number of important changes that were designed to improve the level of support that care leavers receive from their local council. We have made it clear in statutory guidance that all care leavers should receive support from a personal adviser up to the age of 21, or 25 if they are in education or returning to education, or if they have a desire to do so. We have introduced bursaries for those who are participating in further or higher education. We have pushed all local authorities to provide a setting up home allowance of at least £2,000. We have been responsible for the introduction of more than 54,000 junior individual savings accounts for children in care. We have made it easier for care leavers to access their social care records. I am pleased to report that the vast majority of local authorities have signed up to delivering the care leavers charter.
Since launching the care leavers strategy, we have continued to look at further ways to support care leavers. Most notably, we have introduced the “Staying Put” duty, which will allow thousands of children in foster placements to remain with their foster carers until the age of 21. We are providing local councils with more than £40 million over three years to implement the new duty. I will return to that later.
We have strengthened the Ofsted inspection framework so that it includes a specific judgment on the quality of care leavers’ services. As Ofsted told the Education Committee:
“The quality and suitability of accommodation for care leavers contributes significantly to the judgement that inspectors make on the experiences and outcomes of care leavers.”
As the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) said, care leavers often have difficulties accessing mental health support when they need it. We are determined to address that problem and have announced the creation of the children and young people’s mental health and well-being taskforce to consider what changes are needed to improve outcomes for children and young people with mental health difficulties. Crucially, that work will include a focus on the needs of vulnerable groups, including those who have been in the care system.
I know that the Minister is aware of the shortage of CAMHS workers. He will appreciate that unless that is addressed, it will be difficult for him to live up to what he has just pledged. What work is he doing with colleagues at the Department of Health to ensure that there is an increase in the number of staff who are available to deliver what he has promised?
As is often the case, the strange dissection of responsibilities across Government means that ministerial responsibility for CAMHS resides elsewhere in the Department, but the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) works directly with the Department of Health, through the taskforce, to look at what resources are required. In recent weeks, it has been announced that further money has been made available to improve the services that are available to children who have mental health problems.
Every party in the House recognises that the mental health services that are on offer to children, particularly those who are in care, on the edge of care or leaving care, are simply not good enough. That is why we need a fundamental review of how we commission, deliver and review the progress of children and young people who should have access to those services. We have made some significant changes to how we approach special educational needs—there is joint commissioning, and we are looking at a system that can be used from birth to 25—and we can learn a lot of lessons from that in how we deal with mental health services, particularly for children in care and care leavers.
As part of our commitment to improving services for care leavers, we have funded a number of projects designed to stimulate new and innovative approaches. For example, we have given funding to the Care Leavers Foundation to run the New Belongings project, in which care leavers play a central role by helping to identify barriers and find solutions to improve services in nine local authorities. I am pleased to tell the House that we will provide further funding to extend the New Belongings project. The second phase will be rolled out shortly and will involve embedding progress in those nine councils. It will also extend the project to more local authorities. We will also continue to fund the From Care2Work programme, which helps care leavers to get a foot in the door with some of our major employers, providing work experience, apprenticeships and employment opportunities. It is only right that we record the progress that has been made in recent years, but as the debate has shown, we clearly still have some way to go before every care leaver will be getting the support they need.
I turn to the specific issues that have been raised in the Education Committee report and by hon. Members today, beginning with the difficult but important issue of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I agree with all Members, led by the Chair of the Education Committee, who have said that bed-and-breakfast accommodation is not suitable for care leavers. That is, of course, what the law says. However, as I said in our response to the Committee’s report, we do not think an outright ban is the right approach. We are not a lone voice—the chief social worker for children and families has said:
“A total ban on bed and breakfast restricts the ability of professionals to exercise their judgement in making best interest decisions about young people’s safety and welfare.”
The charity Catch22 has said:
“The reality is that there is a need for emergency, crash-pad accommodation for a very distressed young person who is in an urgent situation and needs accommodation. An outright ban could deny them access to much needed support in an emergency.”
That position is supported by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and by the Local Government Association. The Care Leavers Foundation has said that it
“reluctantly concedes that permitting use of B&B in emergency situations is probably a necessary caveat, as there may be circumstances where in the absence of a B&B option a care leaver could potentially be at risk of street homelessness or being warehoused in a hostel.”
As I indicated to the Education Committee, in light of those concerns we want to test further the practical implications for local authorities if a total ban were introduced. We have started that process and are continuing to talk to relevant parties such as the independent reviewing officers group, Barnardo’s, Catch22, the Care Leavers Foundation, homelessness charities and others to better understand the issue. I know that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised that point.
We know that there are some excellent examples, which hon. Members have noted today. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned Hartlepool and other parts of the north-east, and Wiltshire has also managed to find ways to provide suitable accommodation without needing to resort to bed and breakfast, so it can be done. I should add that the Department for Communities and Local Government has provided £1.9 million to support local authorities in developing sustainable solutions to stop the unlawful use of bed and breakfast for families and children. The seven funded councils have achieved and sustained a 96% reduction in the number of households with children in bed and breakfast for longer than six weeks.
Of course we want every local authority to do it, and the more that we can help them achieve that the better, but we have to consider the practicalities of a ban, bearing in mind the mixed views about how it could be implemented and the emergency situations in which bed and breakfast might be required. We must also ensure that local authorities that are falling short understand how ending the use of bed and breakfast can be achieved, and that is one purpose of the innovation programme—to spread good practice so that places such as Wiltshire and Hartlepool do not hold a secret but can impart their knowledge successfully across the country.
I can confirm that, following the Committee’s report, we have further strengthened our statutory guidance to make it clear that for 16 and 17-year-olds emergency placements in B and B should be used only in exceptional circumstances and be limited to no more than two working days. I will write to all directors of children’s services shortly on a range of matters relating to children in care and care leavers, and I will bring to their attention in that correspondence the amended guidance on bed and breakfast. It may be a good opportunity to let them know about the good practice in other parts of the country.
On 31 March, we will receive data collected on the accommodation of 19, 20 and 21-year-olds and whether it was deemed suitable, including a breakdown on bed and breakfast. For the first time next year we will collect data on 17 and 18-year-olds too, and that will help us to establish the impact of the strengthened statutory guidance on bed and breakfast. I return to the arguments made by the chief social worker and the central premise that if we have a high-quality professional body making sound decisions and backed by tailored support, no care leaver need be put in unsuitable accommodation.
I anticipated that I might be asked that question and, in his usual manner, the Chairman of the Committee has established my exact thoughts. I am told that, for technical reasons, we cannot collect data until after the age of 16 as young people are still in care before that point, but we intend to refine the data when we receive them to establish whether any 16-year-olds are in bed and breakfast. The data are collected on the young person’s birthday as opposed to at financial year end. They cannot be collected on their 16th birthday so we have to wait until their 17th birthday. We will look at how we can retrospectively analyse the data and establish how many 16-year-olds have been in bed-and-breakfast accommodation during that year. If we can refine the data in the future, we will look to do so.
Several hon. Members raised the issue of alternative accommodation. It is right that all forms of alternative accommodation—bed and breakfast, supported lodgings, foyers and so on—should provide care leavers with a safe and secure place to live. Clear legal duties require that children are placed only in accommodation that meets their needs. Ofsted, through its new single inspection framework, monitors local authorities’ performance in supporting care leavers in the round, including the quality of accommodation provided. Care leavers have access to a personal adviser who can advocate on their behalf and challenge decisions by the local authority if, for example, they believe that the accommodation provided is unsuitable.
We are considering whether further external oversight is needed of the decisions that local authorities make. I am not persuaded, having listened carefully to hon. Members, that we need to establish a new inspection regime in order to achieve our aims, and others share that view. The chief social worker, Isabelle Trowler, has said that regulating all alternative accommodation would severely limit placement choice and the ability of professionals to use their discretion. Social workers should be visiting placements on a regular basis to ensure that the accommodation remains suitable for the individual. Most critically, we already have checks and balances in place.
As I have said, Ofsted inspects the quality of support provided to care leavers as part of the single inspection framework, and independent reviewing officers consider the decisions made about a child and would, of course, be expected to raise any concerns about unsuitable accommodation placements. We need to trust and support professionals to make sound judgments in the best interests of the child, rather than creating further bureaucratic processes. Local areas already have a clear duty to ensure that children are placed only in accommodation that meets their needs and, as mentioned, we already have checks and balances in the system to ensure that the best interests of the child are met.
The Minister will recollect the story that the Chair and I shared about the young woman in extremely unsuitable accommodation. She was there for some time, with men braying at the door trying to gain entry. If the current inspection regime is not stopping that sort of thing, what will the Minister do to ensure that it does not happen again in future?
Clearly the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes is totally unacceptable, and we would not wish it on any young person. The statutory guidance makes it clear what checks local authorities have to make before they commission any alternative accommodation place.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) referred to the view of Catch22 that any universal approach to regulation on quality assurance would face considerable challenges. It may also stifle the creativity and support arrangements needed to allow young people to practise their independence skills. Ofsted was not convinced that stronger regulation of a complex and varied sector would address the uneven quality of care and support for young children. I take very seriously the point raised by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) about safety checks and ensuring that those charged with the care and protection of children and young children make every effort to place them where they are safe and secure. The DFE statutory guidance could not be clearer:
“Young people should only be placed in accommodation where they receive high quality support which meets the needs set out in their care plan. Where local authorities use unregulated supported accommodation for young people aged 16 and 17, they should ensure that all providers are vetted and approved to the standards they require.”
That is being achieved by local authorities such as Hertfordshire, which uses a clear framework of quality assurance to assess provision before placement.
I understand the desire of hon. Members to be confident that all possible avenues have been explored fully to help to improve placement decisions on alternative accommodation for care leavers, as well as the accountability and oversight surrounding those decisions. To that end, I intend to commission a piece of work in the Department to look carefully at other arrangements to establish in more detail the veracity and likely consequences of taking a different approach, as proposed by the Committee, together with other potential options.
“Staying Put” was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker). The “Staying Put” duty, which we introduced last year, is giving more young people the opportunity to remain in a stable and secure family setting beyond the age of 18. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak wanted to know how the implementation was going. I will happily write to him with the details, as time prevents me from going into detail at this stage.
Some Members would like to see the extension of the Staying Put principle to those in residential care settings. As they may be aware, we are continuing to work with the NCB, the Who Cares? Trust and others to explore how that might work, and providing funding from the innovation programme to test a model of “Staying Put” for those in residential care. That is with North Yorkshire county council, to the tune of £2 million, under its No Wrong Door project. That will work with about 700 young people and, importantly, ensure that if young care leavers up to the age of 21 need it, they will be able to use that intensive period of extra support through the hub linked to their independent living.
Early feedback from children in care suggests that, while the majority of young people in residential care would like to have some kind of “Staying Put” arrangement, a single model of “Staying Put” would not be suitable—a view I think endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I will of course consider carefully the scoping study and its recommendations. I have only just received that advice and cannot comment further at this stage. We commissioned that important work and I look forward to considering it in the next few weeks.
I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness will want to say a few words at the end of the debate, so in conclusion, I once again thank hon. Members for demonstrating that they, like me, care deeply about what happens to children who have been in the care of the state. It would be good if we could widen the field of Members at these debates beyond those present, so they too could demonstrate their commitment. The Government have worked hard to put children in care and care leavers at the heart of our efforts to improve the lives of some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society. We have taken a series of important steps to achieve just that, but I accept there is still more to do. I, and the Government, remain fully committed to giving children in and leaving care the support and future they deserve.
The Minister should not have feared my words so much that he needed to limit them quite so strictly.
One thing we should say at the end of this Parliament is that there has been a significant advance in this Parliament, against a pretty tough economic backdrop, to improve material outcomes for some of the most vulnerable children in care. That is something we should be proud of. Casting aside my impartial Select Committee hat, as a Conservative politician I have to say that, as part of this coalition Government, that is significant. Regardless of who wins the election in May, I hope we can take that forward and that we have a Minister in place as committed as this one to ensuring that we do more to look after young people whose life chances we know are horribly stunted by their time in care. We have a duty to act as their parents. We should give them the care, consideration and extended support that we would give to our own children, because the children in care are our children. We have the same responsibility to them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the Second Report from the Education Committee, Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options, HC 259, and the Government’s response, HC 647; welcomes the progress made and the commitment to improve the care provided to these vulnerable young people shown in the Government’s response; regrets that the Government has not gone further by exploring with local authorities how to ban the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for this age group and by moving to inspect and regulate all accommodation provided to children in care; and calls on the Government to do all it can to improve the accommodation and care given to these young people.