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Looked-after Children: Out-of-area Placements

Volume 670: debated on Monday 20 January 2020

2. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of looked-after children in out-of-area placements as a result of the unavailability of a place in their home local authority. (900239)

13. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of looked-after children in out-of-area placements as a result of the unavailability of a place in their home local authority. (900251)

We know the challenges that local authorities face when making placements. The child’s best interests should always come first, so safety and suitability of a child’s care placement is our priority. Moving a child out of placement is a last resort, unless it is in the child’s best interests.

The Minister clearly does not understand the reasons for the increasing use of out-of-area placements. It is because of a lack of resources to meet the needs, and these children are going into out-of-area placements in unregulated care that is not registered with Ofsted, without the support they need. It is also because of a lack of available places in their area. It is a massive problem. The Minister clearly does not understand that the increasing use of out-of-area placements, and particularly unregulated supported living, has left more children at risk of not receiving the appropriate health and social care and support from Government and the police, and at risk of exploitation by criminals. This is happening—not just in my constituency, but in Conservative Members’ constituencies.

I will do my best to answer that comprehensive question. I can assure the hon. Member that both I and the Government take this matter seriously. However, out-of-area placements can be in the child’s best interests if they are at risk of exploitation or if they need specialist provision. We have been addressing the supply of the care sector. In fact, we have invested over £200 million in innovation funding and over £500,000 to try to bolster the number of foster carers. I draw her attention to the care review that we pledged to do in our manifesto, which will look at the entire care system.

Three years ago, instead of increasing children’s care home capacity in England, the Government introduced legislation that forced vulnerable children from England to be placed in Scotland. In 2018, over 70 children were moved, some over 300 miles away from their home, their family and their support networks. Can the Minister tell us exactly how the local authorities with caring responsibility for those children living miles away are discharging even their most basic statutory obligations, and is she entirely content to preside over this deliberately cruel and harmful legislation?

I believe the hon. Member is referring to a case where a number of out-of-area placements were made in Scotland. We have recently put £40 million extra into capital funding for secure homes, but the whole point is that this is a very complex issue that needs a comprehensive care review—that was part of our manifesto—and I have already begun to work on that.

There is an increasing number of children in care, with the latest figures showing nearly 80,000 children in care in England alone. What steps is my hon. Friend’s Department taking to reverse this trend?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The number of children in the care sector is a worry both to me and the Government. That is why we have a number of initiatives to support families to stay together. We have spent £70 million on supporting families and £84 million on strengthening families for this very reason[Official Report, 3 February 2020, Vol. 671, c. 2MC.].

May I welcome my neighbour to I think her second outing at the Dispatch Box? She graces it. I agree with the two hon. Ladies who asked the question that of course it is important that looked-after children should be kept within the local authority—as close to home as possible. But does my hon. Friend not agree that, on some occasions, actually it might be beneficial for the children to be moved to a neighbouring local authority that is close by still, but none the less rather better than the one they are being brought up in?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is quite right: sometimes, it is in the best interests of the child to be placed out of the area. The important thing is that we have a child-centred policy that is always placing their best interests first. They could be at risk of sexual exploitation and gangs, or need specialist provision.

One of the most important responsibilities of Government is to protect and support children in care. However, we now know that, over a decade ago, there was a terrible failure to do so in Manchester: at least 57 children, almost all girls, were victims of child sexual exploitation. I welcome the report from the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, on Operation Augusta and the work of Jennifer Williams from the Manchester Evening News. We must learn the lessons from these terrible events and ensure they never happen again. So can the Minister tell me what the Government are doing in the wake of these revelations and, most importantly, what support is being offered to the victims and survivors?

The great tragedy and announcements that have come out of Greater Manchester are awful, and my heartfelt thoughts go to anybody affected and their friends and family. Things have moved on since then. As the hon. Member pointed out, this is over 10 years ago. Since then, the most important reform that we have made is to link up agencies, including health, police and local authorities, so that we can have a combined approach to deal with these issues.

I thank the Minister for her response and I am sure she agrees that we should ensure that such a scandal cannot happen again. At the last election, as she mentioned, both parties agreed to a review of the care system, so can she tell the House when that review will begin and what will be included in its terms of reference?

The wholesale care review was a central part of the Conservative party manifesto and we are committed to ensuring that we get this right. It will be comprehensive, but at the moment I am working on the scope and setting it up. I think that the important thing is ensuring that it delivers for all children within the system, and preventing more from becoming part of the system.