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Children in Care: Unregulated Accommodation

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 17 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they plan to respond to the report by the Children’s Commissioner for England Unregulated: children in care living in semi-independent accommodation, published on 10 September.

My Lords, we are clear that unregulated provision for children in care and care leavers needs to be reformed. We have consulted on new measures, including banning the placement of children under the age of 16 in unregulated accommodation and introducing national standards to drive up the quality of provision for older children. We will set out our plans for reform in the Government’s response to the consultation in due course.

My Lords, the commissioner’s report is a harrowing catalogue of information from police about providers of unregulated accommodation who are affiliated with major organised crime organisations and are using staff members with criminal records to work with children. What action have the Government taken to deal with these very serious issues since they came to light?

My Lords, obviously, if criminal activity is taking place, that is a matter for the police. Unfortunately, due to Covid, the response to the consultation has been delayed, but we see that there is a need to reform this area. There are circumstances in which, according to their needs, it is best for a young person of 16 or 17 to be in this type of semi-independent or independent living accommodation. However, we recognise that it needs to be regulated, and I will take back the noble Baroness’s concerns, looking in particular at where DBS and those kinds of barring checks will sit with any response to the consultation on regulation.

My Lords, it is sad to hear that the situation is getting worse for vulnerable children placed in homes. Does the Minister agree that all forms of care should be monitored for quality standards and that all young people under the age of 18 should be classified as children under international agreements without any differentiation in being guaranteed a placement?

My Lords, the local authority has the primary statutory duty to safeguard all young people in their area up until the age of 18, or beyond under certain initiatives. I pay tribute to the enormous amount of work that goes on in our children’s homes and by many foster carers, who work to improve the outcomes for these young people. We are clear that those under the age of 16 who need care, not just accommodation, should not be placed in these kinds of settings.

My Lords, only 12% of care leavers end up going to university compared with 42% of their peers. What are the Government doing to improve this situation?

My Lords, last year we published the higher education principles for care leavers. We are delighted that 60 higher education institutions have signed the care leaver covenant and published their offer to care leavers. Local authorities give a £2,000 bursary to care leavers who go on to university. We are supporting the Fostering Network’s Tick the Box campaign so that any care leaver who applies through UCAS will be identified as such and the support they are entitled to will be signposted by that service. However, we agree with my noble friend: we want to see many more care leavers going into higher education.

My Lords, the Children’s Commissioner report outlines cases where young people are being housed in barges, caravans and even tents. One reported accommodation had one shower between 14 residents. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable in this day and age? What steps will the Government take to work with local authorities to make sure that this does not happen?

My Lords, the circumstances that the noble Baroness has outlined are precisely why we recognise that this sector needs regulation. However, that does not bypass local authorities’ other duties in relation to the fitness of housing in their area. We want to see good-quality accommodation, which is offered by many providers—it is not a case of one approach across the entire sector—and we want to regulate the sector so that these young people can transition into adult life with the support that they need.

Can my noble friend indicate what discussions her department is having with judges in relation to cases coming before them where care is necessary?

My Lords, I am happy to tell my noble friend that the Minister for Children and Families meets regularly with the President of the Family Division. Secure schools, which provide education for those within the criminal justice system, have recently been introduced into the criminal justice estate. We have also just put £40 million of capital investment into secure children’s homes, where, as well as accommodating those in the criminal justice system, children are placed for welfare reasons. Therefore, there is a close working relationship where institutions serve both education and the criminal justice system.

My Lords, I declare my interests. The report highlights that, in 2018-19, 651 vulnerable children were put in unregulated placements before they were aged 16. Most were placed there at 14 or 15 years of age. Can the Minister explain what urgent changes the Government plan to ensure that this situation is discontinued immediately?

My Lords, all these placements are for children looked after by local authorities, which, when they commission any placement, also have a duty to look at the safeguarding and at the provision in general. We have been clear that for under-16s this is not appropriate, because they need care and not only support. We will act to ban that practice so that it will no longer be able to take place. However, we need to recognise that we have more older children coming into the care system with complex needs. For certain children and young people over the age of 16, that is the appropriate placement to meet their needs, which should be paramount in any decision to place them.

My Lords, the report by the Children’s Commissioner—a government appointee, it should be remembered—is a shocking indictment of the neglect found in the unregulated sector. Last year, the Office for National Statistics reported that 88% of 18 year-olds live with their parents, yet in February the Government issued a consultation on reforms to unregulated provision for children in care and care leavers, which, astonishingly, proposed that only children aged 15 and under should be offered placements that provide them with care. Why do the Government alone assume that 16 to 18 year-olds without parents are better able to look after themselves than their peers who have parents?

My Lords, the Government do not make such an assumption, and the placement of looked-after children is primarily and statutorily the responsibility of the local authority. The Government recognise that children should be placed where their needs are met, and some young people after the age of 18 want to stay with their former foster parents. That is why we have the Staying Put scheme, with £33 million available to local authorities, enabling young people who want to stay with their foster carers to stay until they are 21 years old. However, there are young people who wish to transition at age 16—that is the point when you can choose to become a care leaver. We are trying to have a system that puts the needs of children first and has placements that suit them.

My Lords, would the Minister tell us what support there actually is for children choosing what education and training they should do at about age 16 if they are in this sort of environment? It is very apparent that parents or carers usually provide a lot of guidance and support here. How is this being provided to people in this situation?

My Lords, every child or young person looked after by the local authority should have an education plan which outlines their future education. If they are in 16 to 19 provision, they are a priority for bursary support, and there is now a £1,000 grant as well for care leavers who take on apprenticeships. I welcome the noble Lord’s comments; there will be a care review in relation to children’s social care, and I would welcome his input into that review, particularly on children with special educational needs.

My Lords, what do the Government propose to do about the link between the number of children in care living in semi-independent accommodation and the number of children in care who end up in the hands of the criminal justice system?

My Lords, obviously, avoiding the criminal justice system is a priority for these young people. Over the past decade, it is astonishing that the youth justice population has actually fallen by 73%. The Government are clear that the criminal justice system is a last resort. We are going to regulate this sector precisely to provide the protection for these young people so that they can go into education or training and not end up—even though it is welcome we now have secure schools—in that kind of provision.