I beg to move,
That this House has considered cared-for children educated out of area.
It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I should first explain, for those who may know them by another name, that cared-for children are the same as looked-after children—so if I refer to looked-after children in my speech, people will understand who I am referring to.
The use of children as drug mules by “county lines” gangs seems to make the news almost daily. Some might think that this is a new problem, but it is not. A year ago, almost to the day, there was an article in The Times about thousands of children being groomed as drug mules. A couple of days later there were two letters in the same newspaper from headteachers in east Kent, complaining about the number of looked-after children being placed in children’s homes and foster homes in Kent by local authorities from outside Kent, particularly London boroughs. It is outrageous that the most vulnerable children should be sent to one of the most deprived and challenging parts of the country, and of course those vulnerable children are most at risk of falling prey to criminals. There is an acknowledged link between the growth of drug-related gang crime in Kent and the number of looked-after children being sent to the county from London.
Protocols are in place that are supposed to prevent local authorities sending looked-after children farther than 20 miles from their home, and local authorities are not allowed to place a child in foster care without first securing a school place, but the protocols are repeatedly ignored, which means the problem is getting worse. Increasing numbers of looked-after children are being placed in Kent, not only by London boroughs but by counties as far away as Hampshire and Wiltshire. Indeed, only last week Buckinghamshire sent three children to a school in Thanet. That not only places many of the children in danger, but puts pressure on already hard-pressed schools and on Kent’s social services. The problem is made worse because the children are, in the main, placed in areas where there are already pockets of deep social deprivation, such as my constituency, which currently has the largest number of looked-after children from outside the area in Kent.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the matter to the House. Sometimes it may not be of the utmost importance to many people, but it is an issue of importance to us across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I will give an example of how this is happening not just in the hon. Gentleman’s area. The number of children per capita in Northern Ireland is the lowest in the UK, but there is still a lack of available foster carers, which means that children are fostered, and therefore educated, out of their home area. Moving school is incredibly difficult for children. Does he agree that there must be a better way of ensuring that there is as little upheaval as possible, and that kinship fostering should be encouraged?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend—he is my friend—that that is a problem. He is right that there are other solutions, one of which is to increase the funds available to local authorities so that they can pay more to keep children in their own areas.
As I was saying, pressure is put not only on our local schools but on social services, and the problem is exacerbated by children often being put in areas of deep social deprivation. The chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers, Alan Brookes, who also happens to be the headteacher of one of the best secondary schools in my constituency, told me:
“The fact that there are currently 353 out-of-county looked-after children in Swale and Thanet, but only 42 in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, clearly demonstrates that market forces, rather than morality, are driving this practice.”
Alan gave me that information over a year ago, a month before The Times published its article, and I shared, and still share, his concerns. I wrote to the Minister for Children and Families, who acknowledged our joint concerns regarding
“areas being chosen for out-of-authority placements and the relationships of placing authorities with school.”
I hoped that such an acknowledgment would prompt at least some sort of action. However, we are a year on and nothing has happened, other than that the situation has worsened. There are now 1,329 out-of-county looked-after children in Kent, 467 of whom live in Swale and Thanet—Swale is the local authority covering my constituency. That is 40% of the total in the whole of Kent, and 30% more than 12 months ago. Those 1,329 children have been moved away from their home areas, their friends and the surroundings in which they were born. Being moved so far from home is not good for vulnerable youngsters, for the Kent schools that are expected to educate them, or for Kent social services, which are expected to look after them.
In conclusion, I will read out one of the letters I spoke about at the beginning of my speech, because it expresses in stark terms the frustration felt by many headteachers in Kent. It reads:
“Sir, as a head teacher in Margate the terminology of cuckoo houses and county lines is all too familiar to me. Local authorities have shown irresponsibility and an utter lack of morality by sending their most vulnerable young people to Margate in order to secure cheap foster care. This is a national disgrace of the magnitude we have seen in Rotherham, yet head teachers are threatened with ‘secretary of state direction’ when they make a stand and refuse. It is time the Government prevented this obscene dumping of children.”
I could not have put it better myself.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing this important debate. I know that the education of children in care placed in Kent from other authorities is a long-standing concern for him and a number of his colleagues in neighbouring constituencies. In September, I met my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and representatives of the Coastal Academies Trust, and I and my officials have discussed the issue with the National Association of Virtual School Heads. The issue is clearly engaging many Kent Members of Parliament.
Children in care are some of our most vulnerable children, and we know that their educational and other outcomes are nowhere near as good as they should be, even when their pre-care experience and high levels of special educational needs are taken into account. That is something that I, as the Children’s Minister, am absolutely determined to address. I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure that children in care have the opportunities I want for my own children, which is why I stress that the language I sometimes hear and read, of children in care being “dumped” in other areas, is particularly unhelpful. It is in many ways an oversimplification of a complex issue, which fails to recognise the crucial role that out-of-area placements can play in, for example, disrupting gang violence, trafficking and sexual exploitation. Of equal concern is the stigma and narrative it attaches to this vulnerable group of children and young people in the communities in which they are placed.
That is not to underplay the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, including his desire, which I absolutely share, to ensure children’s safety. Safeguarding children and tackling county lines is a priority for the Government. In August, I announced that we intended to contract a new service to tackle a range of threats involving child exploitation, including county lines, gangs, modern slavery, child sexual exploitation and child trafficking. The service will operate from April 2019, with funding of up to £2 million.
Through the recently published serious violence strategy, we have provided £3.6 million for the establishment of the new national county lines co-ordination centre, to enhance the intelligence picture and support cross- border efforts to tackle county lines. In Kent specifically, £300,000 was awarded for a support services pilot, run by the St Giles Trust, for exploited young victims caught up in county lines drugrunning between London and Kent. The pilot offered one-to-one support to exploited victims caught up in county lines, as well as specialist return-home interviews with those returning from exploitation.
I welcome that initiative—it is very good—but the problem with it is that it only relates to people who are known to be in that category, and ignores the hidden youngsters who never reach that stage.
I agree with my hon. Friend: it is not a panacea. It does not solve the whole problem, but I wanted to reassure him that we are taking the issue very seriously. I fully appreciate that placing a child far away from home can break family ties and make it difficult for social workers and other services to provide the support that young person needs. However, some children may need to be placed further from home—so that they can access specialist provision, for example. We are clear that out-of-area placements should be made when it is the right thing to do for that child, not because there is no alternative. I think that is the point that my hon. Friend is making in his very good speech.
If it is the case that there are children who should be placed further from home, why is there a protocol that says local authorities should not be sending them further than 20 miles away?
As I say, my hon. Friend raises an important point. I hope that when he has heard the rest of my speech, he will at least recognise that this Minister recognises the issue, and that the Government are beginning to tackle it. However, what I can provide him with is a long-term strategy, rather than short-term fixes.
It is our duty to ensure that looked-after children have the best possible care and education placements, and that the decisions made on those topics are not taken in isolation from each other. As of March this year, 19% of looked-after children were placed more than 20 miles from their home. We recognise that this is often a result of insufficient capacity in the home area—especially in London—rather than underlying care need or poor practice, which is another point that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has made. My hon. Friend has also explained some of the issues that local authorities in Hampshire and Buckinghamshire are having, which we know have a direct impact on other areas, including his own constituency and Kent overall.
Some local areas can host significant and disproportionate numbers of children who are looked after by other local authorities. As of 31 March this year, 45% of the children placed within Kent’s boundaries were the responsibility of an external—meaning another—local authority, a figure that is slightly higher than the national average of 40%. However, the overall number of children placed in Kent who are the responsibility of an external local authority has remained stable since 2013, despite the overall increase in the number of children in care over that same period. That supports the sector’s claim that it is doing everything possible to avoid such placements unless there is no alternative.
That does not explain why the number of out-of-area looked-after children in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies increased by 30% over the past year. That simply does not equate with what the Minister is saying.
The overall number in Kent has remained relatively flat since 2013. I suspect that particular wards or parts of Kent are taking a greater number of looked-after children, hence the rise in the number of those children in my hon. Friend’s constituency and neighbouring constituencies.
I accept that: that is the point that I am making. Those children are being placed by other authorities way outside their areas, not for the children’s benefit, but to save money by getting the cheapest possible foster care. That is immoral.
I take on board my hon. Friend’s forceful remarks about how local authorities are behaving, but I remind the House that out-of-area placements will always be part of the landscape. I think my hon. Friend shares that conviction, but he is challenging us—urging us—to do more to make sure children are placed nearer to their home, which we are doing. We are doing a range of things to address issues of sufficiency, including investing part of our £200 million children’s social care innovation programme in projects in London, where demand for placements far outstrips supply. That investment will increase councils’ capacity, so that fewer children are placed far away from home, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in Kent overall. We are setting up the residential care leadership board to drive practice improvement and share learning across the sector. We are providing funding to three local authorities where out-of-area placements are far too common, in order to set up new secure provision. My hon. Friend rightly identified fostering as a concern; earlier this year, I committed to providing seed funding to fostering partnerships, which will increase the sufficiency of foster parents and improve commissioning, so that we do not end up in the sorry situation that he articulated.
I will touch on educational placements and support for schools. Schools play a vital role in supporting looked-after children: children in care often tell us that school is the only stable thing in their life, and the evidence supports that. The greater the stability and permanence that we can deliver for those kids, both in care and in educational placements, the better their educational outcomes will be. That is why our guidance is clear that not only should care placements ideally be in, or near, the home area, but that everything should be done to minimise disruption to education and, where appropriate, maintain the child’s current school placements when considering care options. Far too often we hear of delays in securing school places for children when, for whatever reason, a change is needed. Children being placed out of their own area in-year are most subject to delays, which is unacceptable.
Once again, I agree with the Minister. However, he has re-emphasised the problem: secondary schools in my constituency are already overflowing. There are not enough places for all the home-grown children, so we have a problem when out-of-county looked-after children are moved into our area. There are no places, but because I have some excellent headteachers in my constituency who refuse to turn those children away, they are put at a disadvantage.
I commend and thank those excellent headteachers, who go above and beyond. From the evidence I have seen, they do a fantastic job. Sometimes—dare I say it?—they are victims of their own success, because they do such a great job with these most vulnerable children. Schools can draw on the expertise and resources of the local authority virtual school heads, including, of course, the pupil premium plus funding of £2,300 per looked-after child.
However, we need to ensure that schools receive all the information and support they need to both understand and meet the needs of children who are placed with them. We have heard that such information and support can be lacking, or too late in coming, when children are placed out of area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has articulated, that adds to the pressure felt by teachers and school heads, and risks placing schools in an extremely difficult position. At worst, it sets up the child and their placement to fail, which none of us wants to happen. We recognise the challenges of school admissions for looked-after children. I want to work with the sector to ensure that provision of information and support happens in a timely manner, and that school placement is given proper consideration during the care planning process, rather than being an afterthought once care planning has taken place.
We are carefully considering what we can do to ensure that all children in care can secure high-quality school places without delay. I am clear that the lengthy delays that have been reported to me and in the media in getting schools to admit these vulnerable children are not acceptable. I do not think that a child’s future life should be part of the political machinations of local government and this place. The future of that looked-after child must be paramount. Looked-after children are placed in schools for good reason. It is important to remember that instead of turning away these children, schools can and sometimes will be directed to admit them.
Finally, I again thank my hon. Friend. He is a passionate advocate for the right outcomes for vulnerable children, not only in his constituency but in the whole of our country. I thank him for securing this debate on such an important issue; it holds our feet to the fire and reminds local authorities of their responsibilities. He and others have raised a number of important issues with me. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for making time to be here for this important debate. I reassure Members that we are doing all the things that I outlined in my comments earlier.
I have been reassured by the Minister’s words, but I hope I do not have to come back next year with exactly the same complaints.
I thank my hon. Friend for that further intervention and the challenge he sets us in government. It is incumbent on all of us responsible for the upbringing of these children—through no fault of their own, other than the accident of birth, they have been dealt the worst hand possible, and the baton of parenting is held in our hand, and I include myself and my officials in this, as well as my hon. Friend—to ensure that children in care have the same support and opportunities behind them as our own children. I again thank my hon. Friend, and I thank you, Mr Hollobone.
Question put and agreed to.