My Lords, we have recently announced vital reforms for the use of unregulated provision to ensure that children in care and care leavers have access to high-quality accommodation and support that meets their needs and keeps them safe. This includes banning the practice of placing under-16s in this provision from September. We are now consulting on national standards and Ofsted regulation for unregulated provision for looked-after children and care leavers aged 16 and 17.
I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know that there were 1,860 reports of abuse against children living in unregistered care homes. This included physical abuse, sexual abuse, trafficking, grooming and the exploitation of young people with learning difficulties and mental health problems. Does the Minister agree that this is a disgrace? Will she take immediate steps to ensure that every child is safeguarded? We also see that, increasingly, these children are not attending school. Will she work with local authorities to ensure that every child goes to school?
My Lords, it is clear that the local authority has the primary statutory duty to safeguard children. More than 80% of our children’s homes are good or outstanding in Ofsted terms, but the noble Lord is correct. Schools are a vital part of the system and are the second largest reporter to children’s social care, and of course they should be keeping clear attendance figures to know where those children are.
My Lords, can the Minister say a little more about the decision for the new system not to proceed with formal police liaison with local authorities for out-of-area care? There are so many people involved in care, and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, along with the College of Policing, quite clearly recommends that local authorities notify the relevant police force in an out-of-area placement. I just do not understand it. The explanation that the Government give in their document about removing the formal liaison with the police is not very satisfactory. Will she say a little more about that government decision?
My Lords, there is guidance for local authorities when they are going to place a child in out-of-area care. A placement should always be governed by what is the most appropriate provision for the young person. Many of the facilities in which children are placed, such as Centrepoint and St Basils, are high-quality provision. I will write to the noble Lord in regard to the more specific question he asked about notifying the police authority to which the young person has been moved.
My Lords, the government proposals for a new regulatory and inspection regime using national minimum standards for 16 and 17 year-olds in unregulated settings intentionally omit any guarantee of care, causing many in the sector to express concern that the proposals establish a dangerous precedent, whereby older children notionally in care receive only a lower level of support. It seems to go against other recent welcome policy developments to extend aspects of care, such as “staying put” and “staying close”. Will the Minister explain this seeming contradiction in policy?
My Lords, there is no contradiction in policy here. The local authority’s duty is to place young people of 16 and 17 in the most appropriate accommodation, obviously taking into account their best interests. There are certain individual circumstances that mean that the best placement for a young person—such as a 16 or 17 year-old unaccompanied asylum-seeking child who has perhaps been out of any home or family environment for years—might be in semi-supported accommodation. It is important that there are national standards that Ofsted will inspect against for that type of provision.
My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association. What progress has been made by the excellent schemes to provide places in both state and independent boarding schools for children in care who would be suited to them and benefit from them—which not all children in care would? Should not local authorities consider this option for their children in care with a completely open mind? How does the average annual cost of a place in a children’s home compare with that in a boarding school?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. Through the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation charity, the Government are currently running regional pilots in the south-west, the north-east and London, to try to ensure that, where it is in the best interests of the child and the most appropriate placement is in one of those boarding schools, that is the placement. That is being done with a view to, after looking at the regional pilots, making it national.
My Lords, do the Government now regret the pressure that they placed on local authorities to outsource their services, as they call it, thereby placing into the hands of independent providers the powers both to choose the children to be offered a service and to set the charges that they demand? Does the Minister accept that placements in unregulated accommodation have been just one result of this policy?
My Lords, as I have outlined, there are many excellent providers in this sector, and it is not fair to tar everybody with the same brush when there are a minority of situations in which, of course, we need to act. The noble Lord is correct: a review is currently under way by the Competition and Markets Authority to look at the market in this space, but many of those providers provide a good or outstanding service.
Is my noble friend aware that Ofsted stopped doing routine inspections in March 2020? Therefore, only 29 homes were inspected in the next nearly six months. Are discussions being held with Ofsted to ensure that all those unregulated homes are inspected regularly?
My Lords, the consultation closes on 19 July. Once we have national standards, it is envisaged that Ofsted will inspect this provision as well. As the noble Lord outlined, Ofsted has still been inspecting on a risk base, when it is alerted to problems in children’s homes—but it is getting back to all its routine inspections now.
I welcome my noble friend’s announcement that there will be no future referrals to unregulated providers. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the National Association of Child Contact Centres and the co-chair of the APPG on Child Contact Centres. Will my noble friend ensure that all child contact centres and organisations that offer child contact services are accredited in accordance with national standards for safeguarding to ensure that no child can be referred to an unregulated and unprovided-for child contact centre in future?
I appreciate my noble friend’s concern, but I will have to write to her as I believe that might be a matter for the Home Office or the MoJ, if there is any regulatory regime around child contact centres, which I believe will be for separated parents.
My Lords, it was deeply disappointing to see that the first report, published last week, of the MacAlister review of children’s social care, did not champion 16 and 17 year-olds in care, instead following the position of Ministers on unregistered homes. With the Government attempting to defend the indefensible by citing the fact that children aged 16 can marry or enter civil partnerships with parental consent, the Ministry of Justice has announced that it is going to raise the legal minimum age for marriage because, as it says, of the need to protect vulnerable children. Will the Minister finally accept the need to ensure that all under 18s receive care where they live, because all children in care are by definition extremely vulnerable?
My Lords, the Department for Education has liaised closely with the Ministry of Justice on this policy. A number of 16 and 17 year-olds are remanded with very strict bail conditions pending trial. In those circumstances, there can be difficulties in placing those 16 and 17 year-olds in a family environment. So it is very clear that in that small number of cases, for those reasons—and also taking into account the best interests of that alleged offender—they may be placed in that type of accommodation. The Government are not defending the indefensible, but in certain circumstances, particularly with the risks that those young people may, unfortunately, pose to other children if placed in a children’s home or a family, we need to make sure that that type of accommodation meets national standards and is inspected but is available for that type of situation.