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Children and Young People in Care: Accommodation

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that children and young people in care are placed in safe and appropriate accommodation.

My Lords, all children in care deserve to live in homes that meet their needs and keep them safe; that is why we are reforming unregulated provision for children aged 16 and 17 and have banned the placement of under-16s. This week, we have announced that we will invest over £140 million to introduce mandatory national standards and Ofsted registration. We are also investing £259 million to maintain and build more places in open and secure children’s homes.

My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to the Minister for that helpful Answer. As the House knows, no child is taken into care without there being clear evidence of the child’s safety being severely at risk. Indeed, some of us, or I guess all of us, wish that some local authorities had acted more quickly in respect of recent terrible cases. The Minister knows that the Competition and Markets Authority recently highlighted in its report the number of children who are still being placed in unregulated and inappropriate accommodation. Can the Minister kindly expand on what steps are being taken to rectify this worrying situation?

I thank the noble Lord for his question, and echo his sentiment, and the sentiment of the House, in relation to the two recent cases to which I think he was referring.

In relation to the CMA report, the department is extremely grateful to the CMA, which is addressing fundamental and important issues. We believe that the steps that we have announced this week will make an important difference in securing the safety of 16 and 17 year-olds in particular. The investment that we are making in open and secure children’s homes will also help to boost supply—but we are waiting for the full report to give our official response.

My Lords, my noble friend will know that this year a record number of unaccompanied minors have arrived in this country seeking asylum, and many have been placed in hotels, with minimal supervision, making them vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. What arrangements are the Government making to make sure that these vulnerable children get the support that they need?

Earlier this week, the national transfer scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, to whom my noble friend refers, was made mandatory for local authorities. As a result of that change, the majority of local authorities will be required to accept transfers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children into their care. We believe that this will provide those very vulnerable children with the care and support that my noble friend rightly says they need.

My Lords, on this day 30 years ago, the Government made a pledge to the United Nations that they would honour the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which contains comprehensive state obligations towards children. Yesterday’s announcement, referred to by the Minister, on national standards for unregulated supported accommodation for 16 and 17 year-olds was, sadly, a further sign that this Government have reneged on that pledge. Instead of making those establishments follow the quality standards for children’s homes, Ministers are pressing ahead with an alternative, rudimentary set of standards, which are devoid of any requirement to provide care to children. How can it possibly be acceptable for children to be in the care of the state and not receive any care where they live?

I understand why the noble Lord asks the question, and I am grateful for the opportunity to try to clarify the point. There are children with a foster placement or a placement in a children’s home, which cater for the vast majority of children in care, whose placements have broken down multiple times or who have come very late age-wise into the care system, who live in semi-independent living, which aims to give them the skills that they will need later in life. I hope that the noble Lord will acknowledge the important step that is being made with the introduction of these standards and the powers that it will give Ofsted to make sure that we give children that care.

My Lords, 75% of children’s residential care homes are run by private firms, making huge profits, and the average placement now is around £4,000 a week. In spite of this, many London boroughs are having to place vulnerable children hundreds of miles away, outside the city and away from their homes and friends. I came across a case just recently in which a north London borough has to pay hundreds and hundreds of pounds in taxi fares to bring children and young people back into the borough to receive appropriate educational support. These are children who have severe mental health problems. What is being done to mitigate this? Surely it cannot be right to send vulnerable children out of the borough—hundreds of miles away—and then to have to bus them back again for them to get the support that they need. Surely that is a terrible waste of funding.

The noble Baroness will be aware that the majority of looked-after children, 74% as at March 2021, were located 20 miles or less from their home, which is a slight increase on 2020. Only 6% of children are placed more than 20 miles away from their home.

My Lords, is it not clear from the questions to the Minister that we are dealing with a broken system that is letting children down? Will the Government think really deeply about this and seek ways to make sure that care is not the only alternative for children who are vulnerable? If more families get the right support at the right time, fewer children will end up at the risk they are at today—we know this from those places where effective early intervention is taking place across the age ranges, where they have been able to hold stable the number of such children or even reduce them. When will the Government switch their perspective and go for early intervention?

With respect to the noble Baroness and to the House, these children were originally let down within their own homes, sadly. That is the tragedy, which I know she knows very well. She will also be aware that the Government have announced a really ambitious plan, in terms of family hubs, with a great focus on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life—she and I have discussed the importance of that in previous conversations. It is not an either/or choice: there will be children who need support and intervention earlier on, and we are committed to doing both well.

Is this the place to talk about a very big issue—pardon the pun—which is the fact that the flow of children out of care into homelessness and on into the prison system is still carrying on to such an extent that probably 25% of the people I work with in and around homelessness and 25% of people in prison have come from a care background?

I thank the noble Lord for the unique perspective and experience that he brings to this question. He is right, and that is why, together with the Department for Levelling Up, the Department for Education published guidance last year to make sure there are common standards for supported accommodation for young people aged 18 and over. That is an important basis, as the noble Lord understands well, but we are committed to providing additional support also.

Do the Government remain committed to helping those children in care who would benefit from a boarding education to obtain places in our excellent state and independent boarding schools, through their boarding school partnerships unit at the DfE? Is it not clear that children in care suited to a boarding education obtain good results in our national examinations? Are the Government supporting charities, such as the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation, which are working with boarding schools and local authorities to increase the number of places for children in care, mindful always that many children will not benefit from or be suited to a boarding school education?

The Government recognise the opportunity offered by both the state boarding and the independent sector to provide good outcomes for children in care. I am extremely pleased to report to my noble friend that the first cohort of 28 children commenced boarding placements this September as a result of the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation’s work on creating a national network of schools.