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Children in Public Care: Unregistered Accommodation

Volume 800: debated on Monday 4 November 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action is to be taken in response to the report of children in public care being placed in unregistered accommodation often long distant from the local authority responsible for their safety and well-being.

My Lords, the Government take unregistered and unregulated provision extremely seriously. I cannot imagine a situation where it is acceptable for a child under the age of 16 to be in an unregistered setting. We are working with Ofsted, local authorities, the Children’s Commissioner and others to tackle this. Ofsted has conducted 150 investigations into unregistered providers this year. Ministers have reminded local authorities of their duty to keep children safe, particularly if they are placed away from their area.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for that encouraging response. I am sure he will agree that, when a local authority takes a vulnerable child into public care, it has a duty in law to be a good parent to that child. Surely it is little short of outrageous for a child who has not had the best start in life to be placed in a caravan or a narrowboat without proper support. Even worse, these children will have been separated from their wider family, friends and school, as they are often placed miles away from their homes. Surely in this day and age this is unacceptable. Will the Minister do all he can to stop it happening?

I completely agree with the noble Lord. Any cases such as those he has just cited are tragedies. We are doing a great deal to try to help local authorities. We are funding a programme called “staying put”, where a young person continues to live with a former foster carer, and are providing funding for “staying close” to be piloted in eight areas. To date, we have provided over £110 million to local authorities to support them in implementing “staying put”, which has helped thousands of care leavers to transition more smoothly from care to independent living.

My Lords, there have recently been reports in the media that cared-for children of 16 and over are being placed into accommodation with young offenders. This cannot be right. Can my noble friend say exactly what numbers we are talking about and whether this is accurate?

My Lords, I cannot give a specific answer to the noble Baroness, but I will write to her if the numbers are available. I certainly agree that it is a tragic error to place a vulnerable 16 year-old in accommodation where they can be subject to any harm. The idea of the post-16 provision is to try to provide a pathway to more independent living. That is why we have a slightly different arrangement for those children or young people.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of a recent UNICEF report on developed countries which places the UK 16th out of 21 in relation to the well-being of children? Children in care are part of this. Will the Government take account of the UNICEF report and do something about all children so that their welfare is protected?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is entirely right that looked-after children are some of the most vulnerable in our society. I mentioned in my Answer to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Laming, some of the things we are doing, but there are also a number of other initiatives under way: we are providing £5 million from the £200 million children’s social care innovation programme to develop new approaches for care placements and making seed funding available for seven partnerships to test new approaches for sufficiency planning and commissioning in foster care.

My Lords, it is quite clear that, despite the Minister saying that he did not like young people being unsupported when going into care, it is happening. It is quite clear that the Government will need a cross-departmental approach to deal with this. Can the Minister give us some idea of how this approach has been structured across the Home Office and the Department for Education and when we can expect this practice to be removed?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct that this will need a great deal of inter- departmental co-operation and discussion. It involves departments such as the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as well as the Department for Education. We are all working closely on a number of initiatives to try to improve the situation, as I outlined in my previous answer to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, this month marks the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. If the Government could finally incorporate that convention, would that not make such cases less likely?

I am afraid that I did not hear the beginning of the noble Baroness’s question because of the interruptions. We have a number of initiatives; this is a matter of great concern to us. At the moment, for example, the Secretary of State is considering changing the guidance to local authorities on the placing of children under the age of 16 in unregulated settings.

My Lords, I applaud the Government’s “staying put” programme, but I press them on the issue of children being placed way away from their local authority. The incidence of children being placed outside their local authority has increased by 77% since 2012, which is the highest level on record. Will the Minister look at an emergency action plan to address this matter, carried out by the Department for Education and local authorities, to ensure that there are sufficient, appropriate, good-quality local placements for young people in care, as Ann Coffey MP strongly recommended in the other place recently?

The noble Earl is correct that the “staying put” programme is having a positive impact: around 35% of 18 to 20 year-olds are still living with their former foster carers, and 55% of children in a foster placement are now still with them on their 18th birthday, which is an improvement. On “staying close”, again, I agree with the noble Earl that there are one or two situations when moving a child out of the area is important—for example, to get away from gangs or from county lines drug-trafficking— but we are trying to help in this area. We are initiating a move-on accommodation offer in suitable and sustainable accommodation, located as close as possible to their former children’s home, as well as a package of practical and emotional support provided by member of staff from the young person’s previous children’s home, who are providing some continuity in support during the transition to adulthood.

My Lords, over 75,000 children are currently in the care of local authorities, and 88 children are taken into care each and every day. That is the highest number in the last 10 years, yet in that same period funding for looking after children has dropped dramatically. The Local Government Association —I declare my interest as a vice-president—has shown that there will be over a £3 billion gap in funding by 2025. The small addition of funding that the Government have provided will not close that gap. We can all complain and be concerned about care for children, but funding is essential. What will the Government do about it?

My Lords, as I said in answer to earlier questions, we are very aware of this sensitive area, but we are providing additional support. For example, we have a £40 million capital grant programme to increase the number of beds in secure children’s homes, and we have a number of initiatives on a regional basis. We are supporting: Havering to create a sub-regional approach to commissioning residential placements; Croydon for sub-regional commissioning for looked-after children across eight south London boroughs to increase patient choice: and in Essex, there is an initiative to set up alternatives to residential care by providing targeted support to those on the edge of secure care.

My Lords, I have some experience of the situation in which a child is sent from one local authority to another and there is a gap in information. Is the noble Lord aware of that, and can he do something about the situation in which the local authority from where the child came loses interest and the new local authority does not know sufficient about the child?

As the noble and learned Baroness will know, all local authorities are subject to Ofsted inspections on the level of social care that they provide, and these are the sorts of issues that are addressed. Indeed, officials from my department met the Ofsted National Director for Social Care only today to discuss issues of this kind.

My Lords, in his earlier answers my noble friend referred to the Secretary of State “revising the guidelines”. I put it to him that that is urgent and must not wait until 12 December. Can he give an undertaking that those guidelines will be looked at forthwith?

I commit to my noble friend to go back to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State today to seek clarification.

My Lords, for how long have Ministers known that these children were being placed with minimum cover in these caravans, and what action are they now taking to ensure that the practice is stopped?

As I said in answer to an earlier question, the quality of social care provision is inspected by Ofsted—

If noble Lords are asking me personally, I am not the Minister for this area; I was given the Question an hour ago.