Today, the independent child safeguarding practice review panel published phase 1 findings from its national review into safeguarding children with disabilities and complex health needs in residential settings. I want to thank the panel for their work to date and for their continued commitment as they move into phase 2, which will make recommendations to improve practice and policy in spring 2023. I also want to extend my thanks to Doncaster Safeguarding Partnership and South Yorkshire police for their co-operation and contribution to the review.
The report outlines the shocking abuse and safeguarding failures in three dual-registered children’s homes/residential special schools for disabled children in Doncaster, owned by the private provider the Hesley Group. I am horrified about what has happened and I want to assure the House that this is something that I, and the Department, take with the utmost seriousness.
The children living in such homes are some of the most vulnerable in our society and it is imperative that we protect them from harm. We expect all children’s homes and residential schools to provide the right support, care and protection for children who live there.
Following whistleblowing referrals in February 2021, Ofsted undertook emergency inspections. The provision’s registration was suspended and the 60 children and young adults who resided in the settings were moved to alternative settings by May. I understand that the families and the children themselves found the urgency of moving a very unsettling and disturbing process, and my heart goes out to the children, young people and their families who went through this. Doncaster Safeguarding Partnership took the lead on investigating these incidents and on working with all other relevant local authorities to ensure that the children and families affected have received support and care and been able to participate in this investigation. I am grateful to them for their action.
Given the seriousness of the concerns and the vulnerability of the children, it has been important to learn lessons as soon as possible on how to improve practice and policy to protect children better in future. That is why the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), agreed the panel should undertake a national child safeguarding practice review at the same time as the ongoing live criminal investigation. This is the first time that the panel has carried out a review while a live police investigation is ongoing, and I am unable to provide any further comments on specifics of the case as we need to respect that process.
The safety and wellbeing of all children and young people in the settings has been at the heart of all the decisions we have made. In January, my officials sought and received assurances from 55 local authorities (LAs) about the wellbeing of all of the children that had been placed in the provision operated by Hesley in scope of the investigation. In February my officials wrote out to remind all LAs of the importance of checks for all children placed out of area and the importance of ensuring that disclosure barring service and pre-employment checks are always undertaken prior to anyone’s employment in residential establishments.
We also asked LAs to review their commissioning processes for children and young people with complex needs and ensure that they acted on any concerns. The panel has asked all LAs in England to review urgently the quality and safety of individual placements of children in specialist residential provision, and they will report to the Department by the end of the year.
Phase one of the review has set out the complex interactions between special educational needs and disability (SEND) and children’s social care services, and the challenges regarding placement quality, commissioning and oversight. Phase 2 of the review will commence shortly and will ask some important questions about how children with SEND are safeguarded and cared for in residential settings. Most importantly, it will seek to identify ways in which practice, policy and the system might need to change to protect children better in the future.
The independent review of children’s social care and the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper provide an opportunity to reset children’s social care and SEND services and provide better outcomes for the most vulnerable children. Recent reports by the Competition and Markets Authority, the national child safeguarding panel and the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse will also be reflected in our response. Our plans for children’s social care and SEND reform are being drawn up in parallel so that reforms resulting from these reviews lead to a coherent system that works for all vulnerable children. We are rapidly working up an ambitious and comprehensive implementation strategy in response to the reviews.
However, I am committed to taking urgent action to change and improve the system as soon as possible. The Department will bring forward work to:
Strengthen the standards and regulations governing the care of children who are looked after to ensure consistently high-quality provision and inspection, with a high level of ambition for all children;
Strengthen the national minimum standards for residential special schools; and
Work with Ofsted to strengthen its inspection and regulatory powers to hold private providers of children’s homes to account.
We will work closely with other Government Departments and partner organisations, particularly local authorities, to review the role of the local authority designated officer (LADO) and consult on developing a LADO handbook that includes improving handling whistleblowing concerns and complaints in circumstances such as these.
In addition, I will convene a roundtable discussion with providers of residential special schools and children’s homes, to ensure they are holding themselves and their staff to the highest quality standards and are confident that the vulnerable children in their care are safe and having their needs met. While the majority of children’s homes are rated good or outstanding, I want to work with providers to tackle issues which have been highlighted in phase 1 of the panel report and act on the recommendations which will follow on completion of phase 2 of the panel’s work.
I also expect Ofsted, as the inspector and regulator of residential children’s homes, to take urgent action wherever safeguarding concerns are identified. I have written to His Majesty’s chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills to ask what lessons Ofsted has learned and the changes they have made as a result.