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Children’s Homes

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 19 April 2016

[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered children’s homes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. In October last year, the Prime Minister announced a review of children’s homes led by Sir Martin Narey. The final report is due this spring. The review

“will look at which children should be in residential care, how it can be improved and how government can achieve the very best for every single child in their care.”

It is a huge and complex task, and an important review. The area that interests me in the review is the commissioning of residential care homes and distant placements.

By way of context, Ofsted figures show that in 2015, 69% of children’s homes were in the private sector, 8% were in the voluntary sector and 23% were run by local authorities. The number of children’s homes run by local authorities has decreased and the number run by the private sector has increased. Seventy-one per cent of private providers own one to two homes. The largest private companies provide just over a quarter of all placements. Owners range from families to private equity and venture capital companies.

I first initiated a debate on children’s homes in March 1995, on the issue of the registration of children’s homes. At the time, homes providing care to fewer than four children did not have to register and were not inspected. Social workers were responsible for fire inspections—the situation was completely astonishing. Clearly, we have come a long way since then in regulation and inspection, but in that debate, I expressed concern about the most vulnerable children being placed hundreds of miles away from home. Twenty-one years later, I am still expressing the same concern, and we still have a long way to go.

It is staggering that despite successive Governments calling for a clampdown on distant placements, the latest figures show that the number of children being sent away has increased. The 2014 Department for Education data pack shows that in 2013, 31% of children in children’s homes were placed 20 miles or more from their local area—an increase of 2% from 2011. In fact, 35% of new placements in 2014 were distant placements. It is clear that one reason is the unequal distribution of children’s homes in England. Until we sort that out, we will never be able to solve the problem of vulnerable children being placed miles away from home, with all the horrendous problems and risks that can flow from that. The present situation in the continuing unequal distribution of children’s homes demonstrates a continuing catastrophic failure of the care market for some children. It seems to be working for the providers but not for the children themselves.

In 2012, a joint inquiry into children missing from care was conducted by the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, of which I am the chair, and the all-party group for looked-after children and care leavers. It was supported by the Children’s Society. One of the main conclusions was that the unequal geographical distribution of children’s homes meant that large numbers of vulnerable children were placed at a distance from their home area. We found that many placement decisions were last minute, driven by what was available at the time rather than by the needs of the child. This meant that the child was often not involved in planning. Children told the APPG inquiry that they felt dumped in children’s homes many miles away from home. That increased their propensity to go missing and to come to harm from, for example, sexual exploitation.

The recommendations of the APPG report, including a call for urgent action on reducing the number of out-of-borough placements, were accepted in full by the Government and changes were made to regulations. An expert group on the quality of children’s homes was set up and reported to the Department for Education in 2012. A key finding in the expert group’s report was that local authorities could not overcome the uneven pattern of supply of children’s homes across England through their commissioning arrangements. In other words, the locations of children’s homes were determined, and continue to be determined, by providers.

According to Ofsted, a third of all local authorities— 54 in total, when excluding short-break provision—run no children’s homes. With local authority and voluntary sector provision decreasing, this means greater dependency on the private sector for places in children’s homes. That makes it even more essential that we address urgently the underlying issues that result in the unequal distribution of private children’s homes and the resulting distant placements.

In 2012, the DFE data pack showed that homes were concentrated in the north-west, the west midlands and the south-east. As of March 2015, that situation is unchanged—Ofsted stats show that Lancashire, Kent and the west midlands have the highest number of places, and London the fewest. The local supply of children’s homes places does not reflect the needs of local looked-after children. The situation is most extreme in London, which has 17% of the children’s homes population but only 6% of children’s homes. The north-west has 15% of the children’s homes population but has 25% of the children’s homes. In Greater Manchester, 71% of the children living in children’s homes in Rochdale came from outside the borough, and in Stockport, the number was 63%. Some authorities in England have no children’s homes at all and all their children are placed outside the borough.

Why are distant placements a problem? Children placed in care homes face huge challenges compared with other children in care. They are typically older and more likely to have emotional and behavioural difficulties. They are more likely to have substance misuse issues, more likely to have engaged in criminal activity, and more likely to be excluded from school and achieve worse GCSE results. They are also more likely to go missing from their placement, and those who go missing are more likely to go missing multiple times. Again, however, that was not the fate of all children in children’s homes: stability of placement is a critical factor in improving outcomes, but distant placements can make it more difficult to secure that stability for a child.

Ofsted’s 2014 thematic review, “From a distance”, highlighted a number of serious continuing problems in this area. Its research showed that in far too many cases, the local authorities in its sample were failing to pay appropriate attention to the quality of care provided, leaving too many children without the support and help that they needed. It is not difficult to understand why: with pressure on social work time, it is easier to make time to visit a child in a near placement than a distant one. Last year, 520 London children were placed an average distance of 52 miles and an average journey time of 69 minutes from their home area. That makes it very difficult for children to keep in contact with their family.

It is not clear to what extent the situation has improved since Ofsted’s “From a distance” report. If we look at the single inspection framework reports published by Ofsted in the last year, we see that although in many authorities work with children in distant placements was generally good, in just under half the reports, the work with children living far from home did not come up to standard. The most common shortfall was that decisions to place children out of the area were driven by a shortage of placements close to home rather than by individual need.

The last Labour Government placed a duty on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation for looked-after children in the local authority area, so far as is “reasonably practicable”. The intention was to ensure local provision for looked-after children so that they could be placed nearer home, with access to friends, family and support services. Local authorities are required to publish a local sufficiency plan detailing how they are meeting that duty. However, the numbers of children sent away from their home area remains stubbornly high, despite the existence of those plans.

Why are so many children still being placed in distant placements? A major reason, as the expert group said in 2012, may be that although individual local authorities can recruit foster carers to meet local needs, they are not able similarly to influence the supply of children’s home places in their areas. It is also not clear if and to what extent the experiences and choices of children are influencing care provision. In preparing the “Real Voices” report on child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester, I talked to children who had been in children’s homes. What was important for them was being listened to; they thought decisions about where they lived should be made with them rather than imposed on them, so it is important that there is choice in placements, including local choice.

The reasons for the geographical distribution may be that property costs are lower in some areas, that health and education support services are better in some areas, that the planning process is easier in some local authorities, that there are existing good relationships or that having a cluster of homes is easier. However, even in those areas that have a sufficient supply of children’s home places to meet local demand in principle, it may not be possible for the local authority to guarantee placements to providers in advance, and providers will not hold places, meaning that in the event children may still be placed out of their home area although there is actually a sufficiency of local places.

That is the situation in Greater Manchester. In February 2014, Greater Manchester had 192 regulated children’s homes. In 2013, 390 children were placed in children’s homes by the 10 local authorities; 185 of those children were placed in another local authority area. Rochdale, which has a high number of children’s homes, placed 41% of its children inside the local authority area and 18% of children more than 20 miles away, while in the children’s homes in the borough, 71% of the places went to children from outside the area, and of those 45% were from outside Greater Manchester. By contrast, in Stockport, which also has a high number of homes, 88% of the children were placed within the local authority boundary, but again they accounted for only 36% of the local children’s home places; 64% were from other local authority areas and, of those, 28% came from outside the Greater Manchester Police area.

Private and independent providers dominate in both boroughs. In Rochdale, the majority of the private providers are homes containing just one or two placements, while in Stockport the homes are larger and there has been a long relationship with the Together Trust, a voluntary sector organisation. That may go some way towards explaining the different figures.

In terms of distance and familiarity with an area, a child from Bury placed in Stockport will feel a long way from home in a place that is unfamiliar, and they may well respond by going missing. Greater Manchester Police calculate that missing children in Greater Manchester cost the police up to £30.9 million a year, and there are additional difficulties in keeping children safe when information needs to be passed across police boundaries.

Given all that, it is ludicrous that we have an oversupply of children’s homes in some areas that do not guarantee a place for local children, while children from areas many miles away that have few children’s homes are placed in Greater Manchester. That chaotic situation sometimes has long-lasting consequences for the children concerned.

I am delighted that the hon. Lady has secured this very important debate. Will she join me in welcoming Sir Martin Narey’s review of residential children’s homes, and does she agree that sometimes children can have incredibly positive experiences in the residential care system?

I will of course agree with the hon. Lady: children’s homes are an important part of the care system. It is equally important that children’s homes offer the highest-quality care, and it is very important that children’s homes are where they need to be, which is the point I am making.

The situation is just as difficult where there is an undersupply of places. A local authority struggles to attract new providers when it cannot guarantee bed occupancy.

What is the answer? In 2014, the Select Committee on Education said:

“We can see the attraction of adopting a rule which prohibits the placement of children more than 20 miles from home unless there is a proven need to do so.”

That would work only if it were part of a wider strategy to tackle the unequal distribution of children’s homes. Local authorities could increase the number of homes that they run, especially in areas that have little or no private provision. They could do that by using available capital borrowing powers or, if they do not want to manage the homes directly, they could provide the capital and a provider could manage the home.

Alternatively, the answer might be the co-commissioning of private providers by a consortium of local authorities. At present, there are regional or sub-regional frameworks in place to purchase places from providers, but in practice those can amount to little more than “catalogues” giving information about homes. Co-commissioning is a challenge, but one that recent devolution facilitates. For the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester, it offers not only an opportunity for all children’s services to look at how they can use their individual resources such as fostering services in a more co-operative way, but an opportunity to commission from the private sector the provision that will meet the needs of children in Greater Manchester. The DFE could helpfully publish a toolkit for consortiums of local authorities showing them how legally and financially they could structure regional and sub-regional commissioning of children’s home places to meet projected need, instead of merely relying on spot purchasing.

There is a large sum of unspent capital allocated for free schools. Perhaps providers could work with consortiums of local authorities to bid for that funding. Local authorities can currently access basic need funding from the DFE to provide sufficient school places, and capital funding for the childcare offer for two-year-olds. Why should that not be the case for residential placements for looked-after children?

Greater Manchester could provide the perfect test bed for any new approach, as could any other group of local authorities willing to work together, as the problems differ from area to area, depending on the number of children’s homes, local policies and the needs of the looked-after children.

Structural problems with the children’s homes market have no easy solutions. That said, if we mean what we say about seeking to

“achieve the very best for every single child in…care”,

we must overcome them. We cannot allow this situation to continue. I hope that Sir Martin Narey’s review will recognise that reducing distant placements should be at the heart of reforms to the children’s homes market and that therefore action must be taken by the Government, by local authorities and by providers to tackle the unequal geographical distribution of children’s homes.

I would like to express my delight at serving under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan, and to extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this important debate. I come to the debate with a career of more than 20 years as an English teacher, and the subject of the debate is close to my heart. I have had the experience of teaching young people who have had the misfortune, the upset, of being caught up in adverse family circumstances and have become what we now call looked-after children and sometimes residents of children’s homes.

Putting a child in a children’s home must be a last resort, for reasons that I will go on to explain. It is no great surprise that children who find themselves in children’s homes are often very angry. Despite the best efforts of the well-meaning staff in homes, those young people become angry and disengaged from the world. That is because, regardless of how challenging the home circumstances might be, it is, as we can imagine, extremely traumatic for a young person to be removed from their loved ones and placed with strangers. However much attention, affection or concern is expressed by those people, they are strangers to the young person, and it is a very difficult transition for them to make, even if it is only on a temporary basis.

We know that some homes for children do an excellent job. I have examples from my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran. But for the young person that is not necessarily the point. It is the strangeness, the unfamiliarity, the confusion and very often the social stigma in their peer group of being removed to a children’s home that cause so much distress, and it is very important to be mindful of that.

Of course, not every looked-after child ends up in a children’s home. There are other options. They may be looked after at home under a supervision requirement. They may be in foster care, a residential unit or school, a secure unit or a kinship placement.

In Scotland we have made some progress, with a 1% reduction in the number of looked-after children from 2014—the third consecutive year in which the numbers have decreased. The numbers leaving care each year are lower than the numbers entering care. The number of looked-after children in England is rising. If the situation were reversed and the numbers were rising in Scotland, I would be taking a great interest in what was happening in England to see what we could learn from that. I would be urging the Scottish Government, of whatever political make-up, to look at the work being done in England to see whether we could apply the same lessons in Scotland, because this is not a party political issue. We all seek the best outcomes for our children, wherever they come from in the United Kingdom. The beauty of devolution is that it allows component parts of the United Kingdom to seek the best solutions, which provides excellent opportunities for us to learn from each other and to look at the different experiences as those solutions are applied. Such opportunities should be seized with enthusiasm and curiosity.

I applaud kinship care. The number of looked-after children in Scotland benefiting from kinship care exceeds the number of children looked after at home. For all the good work undertaken in children’s homes, there is little doubt that kinship care is the most effective way of providing care for vulnerable young people. As a society, we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who assume kinship care roles. Kinship care is a challenging role that does not receive the recognition it deserves, and I am proud to say that the SNP Government in Scotland have provided kinship carers with additional support so that their care allowances are the same as those provided to foster carers.

There is no reason why children living with kinship carers should not be treated in the same way as children in foster care. Their stories are no less traumatic and no less distressing, and their vulnerability is no less real. Supporting families is vital, and it has been the entire approach in Scotland. Action is increasingly being taken earlier in children’s lives to address any concerns before they escalate, which has reduced the number of children on child protection registers by 4%. The way forward must be stable, secure placements either at home with their parents or in a different home environment where the child can benefit from the security and stability upon which child development thrives.

At the end of last year, I was involved in a Backbench Business Committee debate on the sexual exploitation of young people. The Chamber was urged by various speakers to consider examples from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Name any country in Europe, and good examples of best practice were being held up for the Chamber to consider. Although it is important to learn from other nations, I said that we had some excellent examples in Scotland, where a child in foster, kinship or residential care can continue their residency up to the age of 21 and where support can also be provided to care leavers up to the age of 26 if it is considered necessary and desirable. Although I held up such examples of good practice, I am afraid that my contribution was covered over by the chatter in the Chamber. Of course there are excellent examples in mainland Europe, but we must learn from each other in the United Kingdom because the whole point is to have the best outcomes for all the children of the United Kingdom, wherever they live.

We all agree that we need to ensure that all children who need extra support are able to access it. We need to learn from each other, and we need to keep on learning from each other, about the best way of ensuring that such support is in place. That is the least that our children deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this important debate. She has done excellent work on such matters, for which she should be commended.

I also pay tribute to an outstanding constituent, Jonathan Rigg, whose company, Meadows Care, is responsible for the safe running of a number of children’s homes in Rochdale. I have witnessed the standard of service and the facilities that the company’s premises provide, and it is a credit to the childcare sector. The standard of the homes is second to none. The social care sector has faced a wave of pressures, but those homes have remained a stable and integral service to many vulnerable children. The private sector receives a lot of negative press on health and social care provision, but Jonathan and Meadows Care are evidence that individuals who are wholly passionate about the provision of care, whether public or private, can have a positive impact on the care industry. Indeed, I do not take the general view that seems to be in fashion in some places that all private is bad and all public is good; the situation is obviously much more complex.

My hon. Friend touched on the distance of children’s placements from their original home. Although it may be a concern that some children are moved many miles from their original area, I have spoken to a number of professionals in the sector, and many looked-after children require specialist care. Some have suffered severe mental or physical trauma and abuse, and they have sometimes missed many years of education. Such children are likely to require bespoke treatment, which is the important point. In such situations, geography is likely to fall way down the list of priorities. It sometimes is not appropriate to place children close to their family, or close to where they originally came from, if they have suffered abuse or trauma. We need a flexible approach to placing children in care homes that puts their needs and requirements first. We must not allow ourselves to substitute quality for locality.

The gap between referrals and placements is a growing concern, as discussed in the “State of the Market” report by the Independent Children’s Homes Association. The report states that the number of referrals received by homes is going up. Some 66% of providers report higher referral rates, but only 32% report growth in occupancy rates. What appears to be happening is that local authorities are just blanket emailing and bombarding providers with possible referrals. They are not checking whether the provider is appropriate for an individual child or sifting to find the most appropriate provider to make a referral to, which shows the disregard within local authorities of trying to get a bespoke service for each individual child. Just bombarding providers wastes their time and does not get the best deal for the young person—local authorities need to look at that.

Another concern in the “State of the Market” report is the lack of market confidence within the children’s homes sector. There is still significant uncertainty in the sector, with 60% remaining unsure, or worse, about their current outlook. Although that is down on the previous year’s figure of 78%, it is still worrying that the majority of respondents in the sector remain uncertain about how they will operate. There are a number of reasons for that. As I have outlined, there is the complexity of cases and the occupancy rates, but there is also the lack of funding for children’s homes. Unless we begin to address those problems, confidence and service delivery will begin to be negatively impacted. We must do more to relieve the pressures on the sector, which needs proper funding.

Those who run children’s homes provide a vital service to people who have fallen on the toughest of times. We should be doing everything we can to make life easier for such service providers and to allow them to provide the care that they want to provide. The points that they have raised are a warning sign that we cannot ignore. If we do, we will be failing some of the most vulnerable people in our society by not allowing them to grow and develop the opportunities that so many of us have been fortunate enough to enjoy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to participate in this debate, Mrs Gillan. I also commend the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this debate on an important topic. It has been interesting to listen to the contributions so far. A number of important points have been made.

So far—I am sure this will continue—there has been clear agreement that it is vital to ensure that care is provided in the most effective and appropriate way for all of our looked-after children. I appreciate that this debate has an English perspective, and I will focus to some extent on what I have heard today and on what differences there are between how things work here and how they work in Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, it is useful that we can all listen to one another, because it is vital that lessons are learned and that best practice is shared in all corners of the United Kingdom, and more widely, on such an important issue. Of course there are no easy answers, but we must appreciate that much can be done.

This topic should concern everyone. The hon. Members who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Stockport, have noted the vulnerability of many of the children who find themselves being looked after. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran pointed out, all those children are particularly vulnerable. They all deserve our care and concern, and we have a collective responsibility, particularly in this place, to be as aware as possible of the issues facing them in order to facilitate the best possible outcomes and safeguards, as the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) said, for these most vulnerable children.

Local authorities have a responsibility to provide support to our looked-after children and vulnerable young people. We know that a young person might be looked after for a number of reasons, including neglect, abuse, complex disability requiring specialist care or involvement in the youth justice system. Those are all challenging situations for young people and merit our support. I was heartened to hear my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran and the hon. Member for Rochdale refer to the positive intentions and hard work of many who work in and with the sector. It is vital.

Looked-after children have often had to deal with myriad challenges in their lives, so we should take seriously our obligation to minimise those challenges rather than add to them. Where possible, for instance, avenues other than children’s home accommodation might be more suitable to the needs of the children concerned. For instance, as we have heard, kinship care might be possible. Kinship care is not always fully understood and can be far more challenging than many people realise. For that reason, the SNP Scottish Government have provided additional support to kinship carers and were the first to introduce kinship care payments to ensure that children looked after by relatives, which I acknowledge is not always possible, are entitled, as they should be, to the same support as those placed with foster care families.

As my hon. Friend said, I am enthusiastic about the £10.1 million in support that the SNP Government provided to councils last year to increase kinship care allowances. Importantly, we have also extended support to eligible children on the edge of care, who are subject to what will be known from this month as a kinship care order. Because vulnerable children come in all varieties, we must consider their needs as a whole in deciding how best to deal with them.

As we have heard from a number of speakers, the circumstances leading to a child or young person being looked after or taken into the home of a relative can be heartbreaking, confusing and complex for the family as well as the child. If we can encourage a family relationship that provides some stability and support, we must do so, but like moving into care, such situations are significant and involve huge upheaval, and we need proper frameworks in place. The additional investment in Scotland recognises that we need to make practical provision for people who have had to struggle more than they should, in order to provide the stability that such children need and that some of the most vulnerable people in our society deserve.

Anne Swartz, chair of the Scottish Kinship Care Alliance, has applauded that way forward and rightly commended kinship carers’ tireless efforts to raise the bar. I applaud them as well as her for their efforts. It is important that such work continues. I look forward to hearing more about the work between the Scottish Kinship Care Alliance and the Scottish Government on that issue.

However, kinship care often might not be possible. Due to the variety of situations involved, some children might have to be looked after in children’s homes, and additional considerations need to be taken into account there. The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) rightly pointed out that in some cases, the experience of children looked after in children’s homes can be very positive, and I agree. It is absolutely true, and we must not lose sight of it, but we must also acknowledge and work on the genuine issues and decide the best way forward.

Any action that we can take to minimise additional complication in the lives of children in such situations and maximise stability and support is vital, especially if we do so at the earliest stage possible, as it can have a profound impact on children’s lives. On the basis that a significant number of children in Scotland and the UK are affected by this debate, we must consider the matter as a whole and where the issues might be, so that we can move forward.

In England, the number of children being looked after is rising, which is not what any of us want. In the year ending 31 March 2015, nearly 70,000 children were looked after by local authorities in England, and the absolute number of looked-after children has increased by 6% since 2011. That number has increased steadily over the past seven years, and is now higher than at any point since 1985.

I am always anxious to learn from Scotland’s experience, because I am a Scot, but I have been waiting to hear the hon. Lady share experiences of accommodating children in children’s homes in Scotland. What observations does she have about the children being placed in those homes, and how far those children’s homes are from their home authority? What are the Scottish Government overcoming, and how do they work with the private sector? That is the focus of the debate.

I will come to some of the points raised by the hon. Lady, particularly the issue of distance, which I know is a concern of hers.

Most looked-after children in England are between 10 and 15 years old. More boys than girls are looked after, and the gender distribution seems relatively unchanging. Although the majority of the looked-after population is white, children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds appear to be over-represented in the looked-after population. Those figures are concerning. Those are our children, and we must be conscious of the impact on their lives.

As the hon. Member for Stockport and my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, things in Scotland might be different—useful progress has been made in recent years—but we must all consider what needs to be done and can be done at any time, because there is always progress to be made. I am pleased that under the Scottish Government, the number of children in the care system has dropped for the third consecutive year. It means that there is a possibility that we are taking action earlier in children’s lives to address some concerns before they escalate.

Between August 2014 and July 2015, the number of looked-after children in Scotland decreased by 1%, and the number of children on the child protection register decreased by 4%. We recently introduced a successful programme to help find permanent homes for vulnerable youngsters, and the Centre for Excellence for Looked-After Children in Scotland will receive around £580,000 a year to support improvements in helping looked-after children find a permanent home, because we have seen the positive outcomes of doing so.

The permanence and care excellence programme aims to find permanent homes for children in care. It has been piloted by Aberdeen city and Renfrewshire councils, and importantly, it brings together multi-agency staff teams to build capacity so that we can continue to improve service and outcomes, which the hon. Member for Stockport was rightly concerned about, for some of our most vulnerable young people. I think we agree that it is vital that, wherever possible, children should be able to achieve a permanent home, including through family rehabilitation where appropriate, at the earliest opportunity.

Of course, there are still children and young people who spend too long being looked after or on the child protection register. Sometimes it is appropriate to consider children’s homes and how we might provide better support, and sometimes we must acknowledge that that support needs to extend beyond what it might have been traditionally. I echo my hon. Friend’s sentiments about the positive impact of extending the right to stay in foster, kinship or residential care settings up to the age of 21, and supporting care leavers up to the age of 26 to help them move to independent living. When children cannot live at home, we owe it to them to help them find a stable, loving environment where possible and move forward in their lives as they get older.

Perhaps one of the defining differences between England and Scotland is that in Scotland there has been far greater emphasis in the past five to 10 years than ever before on supporting families, using kinship care where appropriate or foster care, and moving away from children’s homes wherever another solution can be found.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I agree with her. The hon. Member for Rochdale also emphasised that it is very important that the whole range of options for each child is fully considered. I acknowledge the great eloquence of the hon. Member for Stockport on the topic of authority placements. I sympathise with her concerns about the potential for increased difficulties for some children who may find themselves in such situations. I think she is correct that children accommodated far from home may be particularly vulnerable. I am concerned about some of the pull factors that may lead them into potentially damaging and dangerous situations. She made the point very well—she was passionate about this—that there is the potential for a significant impact on these children.

However, I acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale that on occasion there may be sound reasons for distant placements. The Education Committee was very thoughtful in its assessment of the situation, and I look forward to hearing more when the report that was referred to earlier comes out.

In contrast with England, I think there has been some progress in Scotland in recent years, which it is useful to look at. The number of children in the care system has dropped for the third consecutive year. However, in our aspirations, I think we are all of one mind here. I hope that our shared desire to see the best possible outcomes for all of our children can lead to further progress and lead us to listen carefully to one another. We must always remember that children who need to be looked after, in care or in the situations we have discussed today, face challenges that we, their peers, and wider society often struggle to understand. We need to make sure that our systems are in place to give them the best help possible at the earliest possible stage to lay the trust and foundation for a successful and happy life.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. First, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this important debate this afternoon. She is probably the most knowledgeable MP in the House on this issue. As she said, she spoke on this issue in the House more than 21 years ago, and it could be quite frustrating for her that 21 years later she is still raising some of those same issues. It shows her tenacity that she has not given up and, hopefully, we might see some movement this afternoon. We live in hope.

We have heard thoughtful contributions this afternoon from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), and from the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) who is a Front-Bench spokesperson for the Scottish National party. We have had very thoughtful contributions. Debates are sometimes disappointing. I was in the debate on brain tumours yesterday and there was standing room only. I would not like to think that this debate is any less important than one that needs to have large numbers of people contributing, but let us hope that in our contributions today the quality will outweigh the quantity. I also thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for her interventions.

What comes across very clearly is that we are sending a message to Sir Martin Narey—the hon. Member for Telford mentioned him—before the publication of his review that we hope to see reforms that will support and improve the lives of looked-after children in residential care. This debate has been on the wider aspects of the Narey review, but there are two areas that I wish to touch on this afternoon: out-of-area placements, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, and the criminalisation of looked-after children.

Ever since the passing of the Children Act 1989, there has been a strong statutory duty on local authorities to place a child who enters the care system in the local authority area and ensure that their needs are met. However, guidance released by the Department last summer stated:

“There will be circumstances where a distant placement will be the most suitable for a child”.

Since then, there has been a clear trajectory in Government thinking that has raised the many concerns eloquently highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport. It is important that children receive the best care possible and, in certain circumstances, that may mean that an out-of-area placement is necessary to meet their needs. However, there is no conclusive evidence to support that strategy becoming wider practice. That is why the evidence that was used to come to the Government’s conclusion must be clarified.

Until out-of-area placements’ effectiveness is made clearer, it is important that they do not become the norm, yet when we see more and more children living more than 20 miles away from what they define as their home—their local area—it is not hard to believe that this is now becoming common practice. Recent Department for Education figures show that since 2010 we have seen an increase of over 20% in the number of children placed out of area, which now totals 17.9% of looked-after children. We need to unpick why that is happening, and I hope that the Minister will clarify what is going on in his response to this debate.

We know it is not the case that all local authorities have a children’s home within their boundaries. Many are based, as we have heard, in the west midlands, the south-east and north-west. This is an issue of infrastructure, and I hope that that will be addressed in Sir Martin Narey’s review.

One example of how care homes work, which I believe should be considered by the Government, is the Scandinavian and Germanic model of residential care, with smaller children’s homes with highly educated social pedagogues in charge. This idea of social pedagogy was backed by the “Care Matters” White Paper in 2007, which finally took it out of the confines of academic discourse and brought it into practical policy development. It included a recommendation to pilot a model in England to gather more evidence. A pilot was commissioned by the Social Education Trust and managed by the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, a specialist unit under the watchful eye of the National Children’s Bureau.

Reviews of the pilots found that residential care staff welcomed the holistic and child-centred approach that social pedagogy could have on real change to the lives of children in residential care. The idea was backed as a valuable way to work in our residential care homes by the then Department for Children, Schools and Families in its looked-after children report in 2009. However, we have unfortunately seen this important step forward put on the back burner since the Government came to office in 2010. I am therefore interested to hear what assessment the DFE has made of how much this would cost and whether it is feasible for the UK. It is clear that the model is working in other countries, and it was welcomed here during the pilots, so an assurance by the Minister to look into this further, as the previous Labour Government had done, would be welcome.

For some children, residential care is the best option to meet their needs, but what is best for children is being in an environment that they know. To rip them away from some of the only constants in their life, including their school place and links to positive support from family—let us remember that not all family members of a looked-after child are irresponsible—can be damaging. In addition, reduced access to social workers and other support services that they have grown accustomed to can be damaging.

It is also concerning when the private sector gets involved and fails to market the services correctly. In a recent case, a looked-after child was moved from Oxfordshire to an expensive placement in Wales, and sadly committed suicide shortly after arriving. The serious case review investigation identified the fact that the quality of the provision on offer was not what had been marketed at all.

Although removing a child from influences such as gang violence or sexual exploitation is honourable and necessary, there is a need to support a child to manage risks and build personal resilience in their home area, especially when many of them return there once they have left a children’s home. Can we blame them? It is the place they know best, where friends and family are, and we all have that homing instinct within us, after all. The Challenging Behaviour Foundation recently came out strongly against out-of-area placements, and it has lobbied for more investment in local communities and areas. That included making the case for renting a home in a child’s local area and supplying staff for children on a one-to-one basis, which is not dissimilar to the Scandinavian model that I mentioned earlier.

Many serious questions about out-of-area placements arise, including the involvement of private companies in the system, which must be addressed urgently by the Government. There is no better time, especially with the review pending, for the Government to take the bull by the horns and make significant strides in reforming the provision on offer to looked-after children. I hope that the Government anticipate that all the issues I have mentioned will be addressed in Sir Martin’s review. However, I hope that another area, which has recently been brought into the public debate, will be considered: the criminalisation of children in residential care.

Recently, the Howard League for Penal Reform released data that showed there had been more than 10,000 police call-outs to residential settings. That is more than two for every child in residential care, and many of the call-outs concerned the most minor of incidents. An excellent report from the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, by Claire Sands, entitled “Growing Up, Moving On”, deals with the long-term effect of even minor offences becoming a criminal record that is never wiped clean. The criminalising of children in residential care is deeply concerning for children who are negatively labelled in many ways before they reach adulthood. If we add “criminal” to that list, we are burdening them further with a label that will impede any life chances that may come their way as they move into adulthood. There are some pertinent examples in “Growing Up, Moving On”, which I encourage hon. Members and the Minister to refer to. I hope that the Government are considering that issue seriously and that they will provide strong guidance to residential care homes to prevent further damage to the lives of children and young people by the very system that is trying to help and care for them.

We all want children, no matter what their background, to have the best start in life. That belief should be central to any reforms that affect the lives of children, and I hope that the Government will not squander the opportunity presented by Sir Martin’s review to take significant steps towards achieving that. I look forward to reading the review when it is published, and will continue to press the Government to keep the improvement of looked-after children’s lives at the heart of everything they do, ensuring that they are protected and nurtured and live a happy childhood, just like their peers.

It is a pleasure to have you overseeing proceedings today, Mrs Gillan. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this valuable debate. As she reminded us in her typically humble way she has pursued the issue with unstinting commitment and authority for many years. I know she shares my determination that we should do all we can to protect vulnerable children across England and beyond, whether they are in residential care or any other form of placement. Her commitment has been demonstrated in her work as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, and as a member of my Department’s quality expert group on children’s homes in 2012. She was an important contributor to that work.

Although we await the impending Narey review of residential care, the debate is a welcome opportunity to consider the action that has already been taken, and the further important work now under way to improve quality, transparency, oversight and decision making in children’s residential care. I acknowledge the speeches by the hon. Members for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). I always accept an invitation from SNP Members to look at what they are doing north of the border, and it is one that I would extend in the opposite direction, particularly because of the work that we are doing to try to inject greater innovation into children’s services.

Although I want to keep my remarks to the discrete and important issue of residential care in England, there is one issue that I cannot allow to pass without challenge, and that is the care population in England. It is important not to oversimplify the reasons why a care population may fall or rise, and why there may be variations across the country. It is not always right to say that a rising care population is bad and a falling one is good. What matters is whether the right decisions are being made for each individual child. For example, in a high-performing practice-based social work area, staff can spot where children may be in a situation of neglect, and take them into care. If they are not performing well they may miss the opportunity, so that the child remains outside state care. That is not good for the child, but it would not necessarily be reflected in the statistics, if we look at them in a simplistic way.

Children’s homes are a vital part of the care landscape, particularly for older children and children for whom a family setting might not be the right placement. In England the law is very clear: where a child cannot live with their birth parents, the first port of call should be to look at the immediate family and see whether there is anyone who can support them, as an individual or as a group of relations or friends. That happens for many children in this country. Three quarters of young people in children’s homes are between 14 and 17 years old and two thirds are likely to have a significant mental health difficulty. There are some excellent examples of good practice in supporting them, with homes providing superb care. I know from personal experience, and from visiting children’s homes around the country, that that excellent care makes a real and lasting difference to children’s lives. Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the dedicated care staff who do all they can to help change lives for the better.

I am the first to acknowledge, however, that despite the concerted efforts of consecutive Governments not all children’s homes deliver as they should. As the hon. Member for Stockport set out, challenges remain. That is why, as we have heard, the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education asked Sir Martin Narey to undertake an independent review of children’s residential care. Sir Martin, as hon. Members know, worked in the Prison Service and was the chief executive of Barnardo’s. He is much respected in the field, and we look forward to receiving his report, whose purpose is to set out the role of residential care in the wider care system, and to make recommendations about how outcomes for children can be improved. It is a complex undertaking, but I expect the review to look at some key issues such as commissioning and the geographical distribution of children’s homes, which the hon. Member for Stockport rightly concentrated on in her speech.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West raised the issue of criminalisation, and I have seen the report by the Howard League for Penal Reform. Sir Martin Narey has also seen it, and I hope that he will be able to address the issue in his review. We will wait to see what he has to say. The review’s call for evidence has received a strong response and Sir Martin will report later this spring. Understandably, I do not want to pre-empt the independent review’s findings, but I am determined to use it as a catalyst to help to drive further improvements in residential care and I hope that all, including hon. Members present for the debate, will continue to lend their support and expertise to the process.

It is right to acknowledge, as the hon. Member for Stockport does, that we have made significant progress in improving the quality and safety of residential care. We have introduced an enhanced legislative framework and a new set of quality standards for children’s homes. We brought those standards in to move away from the de minimis approach and to focus much more on outcomes and what is being achieved for those young people. The standards are backed up by rigorous Ofsted inspection and they challenge managers and staff to apply their skills and professional judgment—that, to me, is important —to ensure that there is properly tailored, high-quality care for each and every child in their home, and to make it possible for children to reach their potential in a safe and secure environment. There is a protection of children standard, which requires homes to have the skills to identify and take effective action on concerns about a child’s welfare.

A £500,000 programme of training and support has been made available to help homes to embed those new standards, and to make that crucial shift to a more aspirational and outcome-focused way of working. Although it is too early to assess the full impact of the changes through the quality standards, the independent small-scale research that has been carried out on implementing the standards indicates that they have resulted in a greater focus on evidencing outcomes for young people, which is exactly what we wanted to see, and on the need to consult young people about improvements, so that they feel that they are part of their journey through care, rather than feeling that it is being “done” to them.

To that end, it is positive that 12% of the children’s homes in England inspected between 1 April 2015 and 30 September 2015 were rated outstanding for their overall effectiveness, which is an increase of five percentage points from the same period in the previous year. In addition, because 62% of those in residential care have clinically significant mental health difficulties, which is something we should never overlook, I am pleased that the Department of Health has commissioned its own expert group to develop new care pathways, so that children living in children’s homes can better access mental healthcare.

The NHS England five-year forward view for mental health, which was recently published, and local transformation plans bring focus and resources to meet the mental health needs of children, including those in children’s homes. I also welcome the forthcoming publication of the quality standard from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on attachment difficulties in children and young people who are looked after, adopted from care, in special guardianship, or on the edge of care. If professionals and others working with and caring for children in care, including in residential care, really understand how to address the presentation of attachment problems, significant progress can be made.

I will address the specific point made by the hon. Member for Stockport and other hon. Members about out-of-area placements. As the hon. Lady mentioned, in order to address that issue we have sought to strengthen protection for children placed out of area by ensuring that it is now the directors of children’s services who have oversight of all decisions to place a child in a distant placement, and local authorities should now consult the authority where they intend to place a child to ensure that the placement meets the child’s needs.

We should be clear that for some children a placement at distance may be right, due to risks associated with their own home area or, as the hon. Member for Rochdale pointed out, because of the need for a very specialised placement but, as has been highlighted, we should ensure that Ofsted and local authorities make sure the right placement is made for the right reason. Therefore, as the hon. Member for Stockport said, it is a concern that there are still instances where the supply of places distorts too many decisions.

That is why we have improved the transparency and quality of data regarding children missing from care, to ensure that Government and local authorities have much more reliable data when they try to tackle this issue. Local authorities are now required to tell us about all instances of children going missing from their placements, even those that last less than 24 hours, because those 24 hours could be crucial.

Turning specifically to children’s homes, in January 2014, we strengthened children’s home regulations regarding children going missing from a home. All children’s homes must have clear policies to prevent children from going missing and they must respond when children go missing. It is no good their simply acknowledging that fact on a piece of paper; there needs to be follow-up action. We have also beefed up arrangements for monthly independent monitoring visits to children’s homes, to make sure that such action happens. Those visits scrutinise standards of safeguarding and care, and reports on visits are now sent to Ofsted. Those reports are valuable to identify concerns, and also patterns, as Ofsted continues its inspection of every children’s home.

We have strengthened regulation to ensure that local agencies, including the police, are more aware of vulnerable children in their area and therefore are more able to protect them. Ofsted can now share information on the location of children’s homes with the police. That practice was established by the expert group and many of us were extremely surprised to find that it was not happening before. However, it is now in place. In addition, children’s homes must notify their local authority of all admissions and leavers.

In this debate, it is important to acknowledge that for a very small number of children a secure home is the best option to address the reasons why they go missing from care. That is why we are improving the availability of this specialised provision, in partnership with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Local Government Association, the Youth Justice Board and the Secure Accommodation Network.

By the summer, we will have determined the best long-term commissioning arrangements for secure homes. In the interim, we have funded secure homes to raise their capacity and improve the skills of their staff. With Hampshire County Council we have established for the first time a central point of contact and source of support for all local authorities seeking secure placements. On top of that, a further £10 million-worth of funding, alongside action from NHS England, will strengthen the quality of the mental health support available to children in secure children’s homes. I know that is an area that the hon. Member for Stockport has a deep interest in, and I am happy to keep her informed of developments as they occur.

All of this work will help, but I share the hon. Lady’s interest in the uneven distribution of children’s homes. Local authorities remain responsible for ensuring a sufficient range of placements for looked-after children and for managing local markets, which includes managing children’s homes. However, as has been identified, in 2013-14, 60% of children’s homes were concentrated in just three regions, including what for many of us participating in this debate is the shared region of the north-west, which accounts for a quarter of all children’s homes.

I should add that before 2012 there was no comprehensive overview of the location, status, quality, ownership and track record of children’s homes in England. That is why, as the hon. Lady alluded to, we set about pulling together all that data for the first time ever in the children’s homes data pack, which is a hugely valuable resource that enables patterns, trends, gaps and the like to be more easily spotted and acted on. Those who are in the role of commissioning places should use that information to be much smarter and savvier about how they commission them, so that they are not always the ones who have to acquiesce; the providers should try to ensure that they shape their homes to meet the demand from every local authority.

In tackling the issue of uneven distribution, I agree very much with the hon. Lady about the value of joint work between local authorities in ensuring adequate provision of homes. Research commissioned by the Department for Education from the Institute of Public Care showed that in May 2015 most local authorities were taking part in a wide variety of commissioning consortia and partnership arrangements. For instance, there are 14 regional or sub-regional commissioning consortia for residential care, and typically authorities were able to achieve 4% to 5% in savings for placement costs as a result of those arrangements. However, I believe that they can go much further.

The Minister is quite right—in the north-west, Placements Northwest provides that information. The difficulty is getting local authorities into a more proactive commissioning role, so that their staff sit down together not only to exchange information but to say, “In five years’ time, we will need this number of children’s homes and this number of places.” Without support, it is very difficult for local authorities to work with each other to do that.

Before I call the Minister, just for the information of Members here in Westminster Hall I will point out that I have had a report that we may have a vote shortly in the main Chamber. I leave it to the Minister and Ann Coffey to decide how long they speak, but I thought that it would be helpful to bring that information to your attention. I call the Minister to speak.

That is extremely helpful, Mrs Gillan, and I will take heed of that information as I continue.

As ever, the hon. Member for Stockport is right, and that is why we need to establish a much more coherent way for every local authority to carry out forward planning, not only about their residential care population but about their whole care population, including where people need to be placed and in what type of arrangements. There has to be some flexibility in the system—no one can predict exactly what the system will look like—but we can certainly have a far better and more cohesive approach than the one that currently exists.

There are some models out there, including in the north-east, where regional arrangements are much more solidified, but there is a lot more that we need to do. Sir Martin Narey is looking very carefully at this issue as part of his independent review. That is because the research that I referred to showed that consortia are confident that working together brings non-cash savings, primarily through sharing commissioning costs, procurement costs and other elements of working with providers, such as monitoring.

The devolution deals, including in Greater Manchester, where children’s services form part of those new regional arrangements, provide a real opportunity to shift that relationship between the purchaser and the provider in a much smarter way when it comes to commissioning. As we look through every devolution deal, I am keeping a close eye to ensure that there is serious thinking on how the new children’s services can benefit from the new organisations. However, the new arrangements continue to develop, and we look forward to Sir Martin Narey’s recommendations on what more might be done.

Where there is good and innovative practice, I want to be able to share it more widely across the system. The way it is set up at the moment means that pockets of excellence are the preserve of those people. We need to open up the system so that those who are in a position to make good, strong decisions on behalf of vulnerable children are at the forefront not only of great practice, but of cleverer commissioning. Where there are ways of putting the purchaser in a stronger position, we should explore them carefully.

I listened with interest to the remarks that the hon. Member for Stockport made on the need for innovation and new models in residential care, and I absolutely agree with her. I am pleased to say that as part of the Government’s children’s social care innovation programme, which is £310 million over phases 1 and 2, we are testing two new models of residential care for children who are at risk or are victims of sexual exploitation. “Step Down”, based in the Aycliffe secure children’s home, targets the trauma experienced by victims of sexual exploitation and includes an extensive step-down service for children preparing to leave secure care. In addition, “Safe Steps”, a high-supervision children’s home model run by St Christopher’s Fellowship, is designed to protect girls at risk of sexual exploitation.

The learning that the innovation programme continues to give us and the many other associated projects will help generate further evidence of impact in the next six to 12 months that we can take forward. The innovation programme learning network will share those key findings through a series of publications and resources and through the new What Works Centre focusing on children’s social care. It will include a focus on residential care and will be launched at the end of the year.

The innovation programme provides a fantastic opportunity for front-line services and practitioners to show creativity and collaboration, and to explore new models of practice, including in residential care, as has been demonstrated. I would warmly welcome a range of high-quality bids focused on residential care for the current round of the programme, which was launched earlier this month. In that endeavour, I encourage the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West to look at where a bid based on the Scandinavian model that champions social pedagogy may add to the innovative practice we want to unleash.

The work I have outlined is only a small part of the work being undertaken in my Department. In January this year, we published “Children’s social care reform: a vision for change”, which outlined our ambitious programme of work in the key areas of people and leadership; practice and systems; and governance and accountability. The programme aims to achieve our vision of every child in the country, whatever their age, background, ethnicity or gender being able to fulfil their potential. The Narey review will sit alongside those wider reforms once it is published.

I am enormously grateful for the support that the hon. Member for Stockport has given to this issue yet again today. She has expressed some important, well-argued concerns, which I will consider carefully in light of this debate and the work of Sir Martin Narey. I hope that this debate reassures her that the Government echo many of the concerns she has expressed. The steps we have taken underline the importance of ensuring that residential care provides the high-quality care that vulnerable children deserve. We cannot be satisfied until we have achieved a system that consistently delivers excellent care. We should expect nothing less for our most vulnerable children than the care we would want for our own children.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He has demonstrated yet again his complete and continuing commitment to improving the lives of looked-after children. He is a very experienced Minister—I think he has been in the role for four years—and he reflects the value of having a Minister in place for that length of time. It is an idea that should be considered for other positions.

I thank all other Members for their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) has also taken a long interest in this area, and he is right to remind everyone that residential children’s homes offer a very good-quality and much-needed provision. They are not a last resort; for some children, they should be a first resort. I thank the SNP Members for their observations on the situation in Scotland, which are always welcome. I also thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). She is also incredibly committed to this area, and has also been in post for quite a long time. It just shows the value of people being in post for a long time.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered children’s homes.