My Lords, where local authorities place children in independent and semi-independent settings, they must ensure that these are suitable and meet the needs of young people. Ministers have also reminded local authorities of their duty to keep children safe. This is even more important if they are placed out of area. The Secretary of State made this expectation clear in his letter to local authorities last year. We continue to consider where further action is needed.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. I know that he shares my concern about the increased number of children who are being taken into public care, and the effect that that is having on their well-being and development. It is especially worrying that an increased number of these children are being placed in unregistered accommodation, often many miles from the local authority that is responsible for them, simply to put a roof over their head. Will the Minister assure the House that this new Government will give priority to the well-being, safety, care and education of these very vulnerable children?
My Lords, I assure the House that this is a priority area for the Government. We committed in our manifesto to a review of the care system, which will cover key issues facing vulnerable children and young people. The Government have invested £5 million from our innovation programme to develop new approaches to care placements. This includes supporting local authorities to increase their capacity in residential care and to improve their commissioning practices.
My Lords, it is always a priority to ensure that children are placed as near to their home as possible. However, there are certain circumstances where this is not wise, such as getting them away from the impact of gangs or where there are deep disputes in their family—but the emphasis is very much on keeping them locally. We have two initiatives, Staying Put and Staying Close, which are both aimed at keeping children locally. Staying Close encourages foster parents to keep the children in care beyond the statutory age, and that is starting to work.
My Lords, I commend my noble friend and the Government for their continuing efforts to enable more looked-after children suited to boarding education to obtain places in our state and independent boarding schools. How does the cost of a place in a boarding school compare with other types of provision for looked-after children?
My Lords, this is an area of particular focus for me. I have made a lot of effort over the last two years to encourage local authorities to be more open-minded about the possibility of boarding school places for children who are being—or who are at risk of being—looked after. The independent sector has offered 40% bursaries for children in these categories. If that is taken into account, it is substantially less expensive than the normal routes that a local authority might take. We have also seen indicative evidence that the educational outcomes are far stronger for many of the children who go down that route.
My Lords, half of England’s £8.6 billion children’s services budget is spent on the 73,000 children in care. Surely the two key questions are: why are there so many youngsters in care; and why are cash-strapped local authorities and hard-pressed social workers being driven to take this course of action, which, in my experience, none of them wants to do?
On the noble Baroness’s issue about funding, we have made the tremendous commitment of an extra £1 billion a year to adult and children’s social care for every year of this Parliament. We have also invested a further £84 million in targeted and evidence-based interventions to improve the support provided to vulnerable children. The decision on when to take a child from his or her birth parents and put them into the care system is enormously difficult and complex, but it often has to be the case because of disintegrating family circumstances. I assure the House that the decision is never taken lightly.
My Lords, the mental health of these children is extremely important. One recent initiative we have introduced is the role of virtual school heads, who become the overseeing official for a child who is looked after in his or her school setting. We are seeing that that is starting to work. They have control over the enhanced pupil premium, which allows funds to be spent on such things as additional tutoring and mentoring, summer and weekend schools and additional support to schools for these vulnerable children.
My Lords, I am not sure that the Minister has grasped the seriousness of this issue. He referred euphemistically to independent or semi-independent homes. These are homes that are unregistered, in some cases illegal, and beyond the purview of Ofsted. It cannot be right that thousands of children are sent there each year, with minimal checks on who is providing the accommodation. Ofsted reported two weeks ago that it had discovered organisations that were, in its words, “gaming the system” by setting up short-term arrangements to avoid registering as a children’s home. That cannot be right. I have a simple question that the Minister will not have to refer to his trusty ring-binder for: how can it ever be acceptable for a vulnerable child to be placed in an unregistered home?
My Lords, I am afraid it is not quite as simple as the noble Lord would like to suggest. He is quite correct that Ofsted has carried out 150 investigations in the last year, and alongside this it has tightened up requirements under its inspection regime for local authorities to share how they monitor children in unregulated provision. However, the reality is that we have an increasing number of older children in the care system who do not want to be in a traditional fostering situation and want semi-independent living. That is one of the reasons for the increase in this category.