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Children in Care: Gone Too Far Report

Volume 830: debated on Tuesday 23 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the findings of the report Gone Too Far, published in April 2023 by the charity Become, that the number of children in care moved more than 20 miles from home increased each year between 2012 and 2021, and that more than 800 children under the care of local authorities in England were moved to Scotland or Wales during 2022.

My Lords, the Government recognise the importance of most looked-after children being placed near to their homes. Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure sufficient provision for those children within their boundary. We are aware that, particularly in more complex cases, an increasing number of children are being placed over 20 miles from their home. Through our implementation strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love, we are driving forward improvements to increase efficiency and reduce out-of-area placements.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but the Become report highlights some of the effects on children of being moved away from home, such as isolation and stigma. The Government’s children’s social care strategy, to which the Minister just referred, emphasises rightly the need to put strong, loving relationships at the heart of being a child in care. How does that square with the inevitable negative effects of children being sent far away from home on their relationships with the people who matter most to them—their family and friends?

The noble Lord is right. I acknowledged some of those impacts that he has eloquently described about isolation, stigma and resilience. That is why we are investing in a number of major initiatives, including £259 million to support local authorities with capital funding to expand both open and secure children’s homes and, crucially, £27 million over the next two years to deliver a fostering recruitment and retention programme so that children can live close to their roots.

My Lords, the Minister has already mentioned the importance of retaining some stability in the lives of these children. Things that are familiar are all the more important for children who have the least, and these children have had very disturbed upbringings. These numbers are disturbing, to say the least, and while it is understandable that children might be sent to a specialist facility that is better placed to meet their needs, sending them to Scotland does not fit into that arrangement. Does she agree that the time has come to put pressure on local authorities to provide proper provision in their area? They have parental responsibility for these children, and this must be done, and quickly.

I agree with the noble Lord, although I add that the number of children going to Scotland is, happily, very small. He is right that we need to put pressure on local authorities, but I think he would also agree that it is not just about pressure: it is about reforming the way in which we approach provision. We are doing that through the foster care strategy, and the support we are giving to kinship carers but also, crucially, the establishment of regional care co-operatives, which will really change the way that we commission and deliver these placements in future.

My Lords, as reported by the Become charity, there is a substantial lack of data on children from ethnic backgrounds who are placed in care facilities miles from home. Compared to 1% of white children, there is a lack of data on the placement of one-third of Asian children, more than 20% of black African-Caribbean children, and 72% of children from other ethnic backgrounds. We also do not know how these figures interplay with other exacerbating factors, such as the number of placement changes. What provisions will the Government make to improve the quality and availability of data on the placement of children from ethnic minorities?

We need accurate data on the placement of all children, whatever their ethnicity. Indeed, I thought the noble Baroness might have referred also to special educational needs. She will remember that, both in our children’s social care strategy and in our SEND delivery plans, we have talked about much better data dashboards, the prototypes of which are being developed at the moment.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that, during the period in question, several dozen children from Wales with critical needs were transferred to England to find the necessary help? Does she appreciate that there is a particular need for those children to be closer to home, for educational as well as social and family reasons? In these circumstances, is there any way of developing a co-ordinatory mechanism that can ensure a placement close to home in the appropriate type of support for all such children, both in England and in Wales?

As I said in my initial response, it is the responsibility of local authorities to provide sufficiency within their boundaries. Of course there are exceptional cases, and I have touched, for example, on children who are gang-involved and need to be moved further from home for their safety, but the kind of co-ordination the noble Lord talked about is exactly what we want in practice.

My Lords, as we have heard, because these children are disturbed and many of them have suffered trauma, which is why they have been taken into care, there seems to be some urgency in this matter. They should be put, where possible, reasonably close to home. Can this not be speeded up?

We are going as fast as possible in this. Obviously, our foster caring strategy has had a very significant investment, and there is the additional £9 million we are putting into kinship care. The latter is building on some very successful pilots, so we want to speed up the things that work but make sure that we understand that they work first of all.

My Lords, the report Gone Too Far highlights that almost four out of five children’s home places in England were provided by the private sector. Children’s homes are not proportionately spread out over the country, due to the homes often being built where it costs less to build them. This means that almost a quarter of children’s homes are in the north-west and just 6% in London. It is not enough to blame local authorities; what more are the Government going to do to address the scale of the problem and what more support will they give to local authorities to address this?

I really hope I did not sound to the House as if I was blaming local authorities. There needs to be reform of the system and we need to provide additional funding. We are providing funding through the £250 million capital funding and securing reform through the commissioning structure of the regional care co-operatives. Specifically on the noble Baroness’s question, I say that we are anticipating two new builds to complete by the end of 2026, one in London for 24 secure places and four step-down placements, and 18 secure placements and two step-downs in the West Midlands, areas where there has been none of that provision recently.

My Lords, good-quality in-patient provision for autistic people and those with learning disabilities is very hard to come by, so it is often far from home. Both the long-term plan and the autism strategy set out long overdue commitments to provide more support for those people in the community. There has been some progress since January and in-patient numbers have fallen by 30% since 2015, but this is much lower than the 50% commitment and there is as yet no funded autism strategy implementation plan for this year. Can the Minister please say how she plans to work with colleagues in the DHSC and DfE to deliver on this really important objective?

Some of our aspirations in relation to children with autism—I think my noble friend’s question might have been a little broader than just children—is set out in our new SEND strategy, both looking at how we can support children with autism where it is appropriate for them to remain in mainstream schooling, but also making sure that there is enough specialist provision. We are making a very significant investment in that area at the moment.

My Lords, I declare my governorship of Coram, the children’s charity. The Minister said earlier that not very many children were being sent to Wales and Scotland. In 2022, more than 800 were sent. I think that is rather a lot; I do not know whether she would agree. Will she also focus on the fact that the cost of sending a child so far away is roughly double the cost of placing them in a home much nearer? At a time when local government is starved of funds, it seems particularly stupid that this should be the practice, so please will she and her department focus on trying to stop that as soon as possible?

I have tried to set out what the department is doing to address those points. A number of the most distant placements are for very specialist provision, and I appreciate that there can be some additional costs but, overall, those residential care placements are broadly similar in cost when looking both at local authority and at private and voluntary provision.