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Covid-19: Care System

Volume 810: debated on Monday 8 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the quality of provision for teenagers in the care system.

My Lords, throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the Government have worked closely with local authorities to help ensure that they continue to meet their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people in care, with particular regard to their education, health and well-being. Some £4.6 billion of funding has been made available to support councils, with a further £1.55 billion announced as part of the spending review.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer and for the good work that has been done. However, I am concerned that Barnardo’s declared a state of emergency in June last year as a result of a 44% increase in the number of children needing foster care referred to it. According to one investigation, more than 8,300 children were placed in unregulated, semi-independent accommodation last year. Many of those—more than one-third—were outside their local authority area. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that teenagers and older children in care are offered family-based provision, where they are more likely to thrive?

My Lords, the Government have announced that the use of unregulated accommodation for under-16s will be banned as of September this year. However, there are examples of those aged 16 and over for whom a semi-supported or independent living arrangement is the best placement. Local authorities make individual decisions but, for instance, many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who come to this country at age 16 may state a preference—which is taken into account—to be in semi-supported or independent accommodation.

My Lords, years ago the Government published a Green Paper in response to the worrying surge of mental health issues in children and young people and those in care. Today, a year after lockdown, that surge shows no sign of abating: quite the opposite. On this International Women’s Day, I draw attention to the very worrying rise of anorexia nervosa. Those who need help are often languishing on waiting lists. Has progress been made on establishing a new national waiting time and, if so, what is it?

My Lords, the Government are indeed concerned about the reported rise in eating disorders during the lockdown period. Only last Friday, we announced a further £79 million of funding to expand mental health support for children and young people. We have announced an early intervention service in 18 sites for those aged 16 to 25, meaning that people coming forward should be contacted within 48 hours and treated within two weeks.

My Lords, bearing in mind the number of young people in the care system who end up in the criminal justice system, can the Minister please tell the House whether the Government are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their education and training?

My Lords, the Government are indeed concerned about those who end up in the youth justice system and their education. The noble Lord will be aware of the provision in secure children’s homes, where young people are placed by the local authority or through the criminal justice system. He will be pleased to hear that when Ofsted recently inspected some of those homes, it commented positively about the provision of education for that cohort of vulnerable young people.

My Lords, the Children’s Commissioner reported in 2019 that teenagers in care are significantly more vulnerable than younger children to issues such as child sexual exploitation, gangs and trafficking. She also called for a ban on any child under the age of 18 being placed in an unregulated setting. Last week, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House expressed concern about older teenagers being left exposed in such settings. Teenagers in care are more likely to have complex needs and therefore require care rather than just support. Can the Minister say why unregulated accommodation is unregulated? Why do the Government believe that it can ever be appropriate for vulnerable young people to be placed in such accommodation?

My Lords, forgive me if I stated this incorrectly: it is going to be banned for those aged 16 and under but still used, when assessed as appropriate by the local authority, for those aged over 16. There will, however, be national minimum standards for that provision, which is currently unregulated, to ensure that the standard is appropriate. Those with complex needs were, as vulnerable children and young people, offered a school place throughout the pandemic. We are looking to increase Ofsted’s enforcement powers in relation to unregistered children’s homes.

My Lords, teenagers with learning disabilities in residential care homes have not had as much focus as older people. It was months before these homes received enough PPE, and testing was very slow. There was no comprehensive programme for their care and education. What measures are now in place to ensure equality of care and resources between younger people and older people in care homes?

My Lords, the children’s homes that young people are placed in have now been encouraged to register for the national portal for Covid testing, so they should have that available. As I said, those young people have been offered a school place during this time and have also had access to the remote educational provision of laptops, so that they can keep in touch with social workers.

My Lords, it is good that schools have returned today, but can HMG make certain that more—preferably outdoor—sports are part of the £6 billion which she mentioned is being provided for teenagers in the care system? This is vital, especially after the impact of Covid-19.

My Lords, it was indeed a wonderful sight this morning to come into work and see children walking down the road to go to school. I can assure noble Lords that all the activities outside of school, such as sport and PE, are back for our young people, and all those children who are looked after have an education plan which includes out-of-school setting sport and other enrichment activities.

Does the Minister recognise that teenagers in care need appropriate help at key stages of transition and yet, all too often, children and young people are experiencing barriers to learning, especially as we emerge from Covid? This is particularly true if they do not receive opportunities to participate in art, sport and cultural activities, thereby falling behind and becoming increasingly disaffected. Does my noble friend agree that we should be prioritising these activities so that young people in care can be provided with the necessary tools for as happy and healthy a lifestyle as possible?

I cannot but agree with my noble friend that the return to school enables all those activities, within certain PHE guidance, to be continued. Many of the specific outreach programmes, such as the music hubs, are weighted towards disadvantaged students. The Government have thought about transition points and are trying to avoid them; my noble friend will be aware of the Staying Put programme which allows 18-year-olds in foster care to stay where they are, and the foster care placements are funded to provide that ongoing provision. That has been a growing success year on year.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will agree that teenagers in unregulated care are very vulnerable, and proper placement, with regular contact and management of care provision, is crucial. Has the lockdown had any effect on this? She will also be aware of county lines gangs deliberately targeting young people in care, so is she satisfied that supervision and contact with the youngsters in such accommodation is sufficient in all cases?

My Lords, I am not able to give that kind of guarantee, but from the information I have, around seven in 10 of looked-after children were in regular touch—meaning every four weeks—with their social workers. As the noble Lord will be aware, there are specific programmes, including an investment of £70 million by the Home Office in violence reduction units. We are aware that all children are vulnerable, but that is why this particular cohort has always had a school place offered to them—that is their biggest protective factor.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to ensure that teenagers in the care system have supportive relationships during this time of restriction, especially if they are in unregulated accommodation? What is being done to ensure that they are staying in good health, by eating well and getting exercise, which are so vital for well-being? In other words, what is being done to ensure that these young people have a sense that someone actually cares for them?

My Lords, for young people in children’s homes and similar accommodation, keeping in touch with a social worker is important, but they are expected to attend school, because that continuity of relationship is very important. I am pleased to say the holiday activities funds, which are important to that cohort of children and young people, will be available in every local authority area now.