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House of Commons Hansard
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Children Missing from Care Homes
08 May 2018
Volume 640

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered children missing from care homes.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. One of the first Adjournment debates I initiated in this House in 1995 was on the subject of children’s homes. I am pleased to say that since that time, there have been many improvements in regulation and inspection. In 2012, the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, which I chair, held an inquiry into the risks faced by children missing from care homes. The inquiry expressed serious concerns about the high numbers of vulnerable children living away from their home town, some at a considerable distance. We heard evidence that children living in distant placements in children’s homes were more likely to go missing and therefore at higher risk of physical and sexual abuse, criminality and homelessness. I must make it clear that I of course accept that placing a child in another area can sometimes be in that child’s interest. My concern is that children are being placed in children’s homes out of their local area because there is no choice in provision.

Ministers responded positively to our report and introduced a number of changes in 2013 to try to reduce the number of out-of-area placements, but despite repeated pledges the latest Department for Education figures show that the numbers in placements subject to children’s homes regulations have soared from 2,250 in March 2012 to 3,680 in March 2017—a rise of 64%. They now account for 61% of all children in children’s homes.

At the same time, the number of children going missing from children’s homes out of their area increased by 110% between 2015 and 2017. That compares with a 68% increase in children going missing from children’s homes in their own area. Some 10,700 children went missing from all care placements last year, initiating 60,720 reports, of which 12,200 missing episodes, or one in five, were from placements 20 miles or more from their home address.

On average, children go missing from all care placements six times per year. About 40% of all missing incidents involved a child from a children’s home, despite the fact that they only account for 8% of all looked-after children. It is extremely concerning that nationally about 500 children were missing for more than one month in 2017, and 4,770 were missing for between three and seven days. Children who go missing are at risk of coming to harm and falling prey to grooming by paedophiles for sexual exploitation and by organised crime gangs exploiting them to carry and supply illegal drugs in county lines operations.

Figures for my own area of Stockport show that 53% of children reported as missing in April this year were at risk of child sexual exploitation and 65% of children who went missing from Stockport care homes were placed from other authorities. The report of the expert group on the quality of children’s homes set up by the Department for Education in 2012 said that,

“being placed a long way from family and friends is often a factor in causing children to run away.”

Those children are also more likely to be targeted for sexual exploitation, as has been highlighted in cases in Rotherham, Derby, Torbay, Rochdale and Oxfordshire.

The last Labour Government placed a duty on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation for looked-after children in the local authority area, so far as is “reasonably practicable”. The intention was to ensure local provision for looked-after children, so that they could be placed nearer to home, with access to friends, family and support services. Local authorities are required to publish a local sufficiency plan detailing how they are meeting that duty. However, despite the existence of these plans, the number of children being sent to live away from their home area remains stubbornly high.

One of the main conclusions of our 2012 inquiry into children missing from care was that the unequal geographical distribution of children’s homes meant that large numbers of vulnerable children were placed away from their home area. We found that many placement decisions were made at the last minute, driven by what was available at the time, and in some cases by cost, rather than by the needs of the child. Children told our inquiry that they felt dumped in children’s homes many miles away from home, which increases their propensity to go missing.

One of the expert group’s conclusions was that local authorities must improve the planning, management and monitoring of placements for looked-after children. Introducing the Children and Families Bill in February 2013, the then Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, called for an end to the out of sight, out of mind culture, which he asserted had led to the high number of children being placed many miles from their home communities.

In January 2014, new statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care stated:

“Any decision to place a child at distance should be based on an assessment of the child’s needs including their need to be effectively safeguarded. Evidence suggests that distance from home, family and friends is a key factor for looked after children running away.”

An April 2014 Ofsted report, “From a distance: Looked after children living away from their home area”, said these children were more likely to go missing and to submit to the serious risks associated with going missing. The research showed that, in far too many cases, local authorities failed to pay appropriate attention to the quality of care provided, leaving too many children without the support and help that they needed. The most common shortfall was that decisions to place children out of area were driven by a shortage of placements close to home, rather than by individual need.

In 2016, the all-party group produced a report on safeguarding absent children. The inquiry obtained data from local authorities that suggested that—in the areas that responded to information requests—an average of 50% of missing looked-after children were children who went missing from placements outside their home area.

The National Crime Agency’s 2017 report into county lines drug operations said that gangs were deliberately targeting vulnerable children and young people in care. It said:

“Children assessed as vulnerable due to missing episodes do appear to be more regularly linked directly or through association to drug networks operating in the areas they reside.”

I recently surveyed all 45 police forces about the use of vulnerable children by drug gangs with county lines operations. Many forces, including Humberside and Essex, cited evidence of the targeting of vulnerable children in care—especially those living away from their home areas.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady both on the great work she has done in this area over many years and on securing the debate. Does she agree that the one thing that children in care need most is stability? In instances in which children have to be removed from their parents, we should attempt to preserve stability in as many other facets of their life as possible. If we leave them isolated, they can fall prey to exactly the sort of malign influences that she describes.

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I absolutely agree. The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on it: children need stability. They need it when they live in families and also when we take them into our care. We should remember that and plan a care a system that responds to that need for stability, taking into account what children say they need as well.

The other aspect I am concerned about, which I highlighted during a previous Adjournment debate on children’s homes in April 2016, is the continuing unequal distribution of children’s homes. Some 54% of all children’s homes are concentrated in just three regions. Nearly a quarter of all care homes, but only 18% of the children’s home population, are in the north-west of England. Conversely, London has only 5% of children’s homes, but 14% of the children’s home population.

The choice of placements for children is constrained by the uneven distribution of children’s homes. Children can be placed only where there are children’s homes. The care market does not seem to be working for children: an increasing number are being placed outside their home area, and consequently an increasing number are going missing and are at risk of harm from those who seek to exploit their vulnerability.

The unequal distribution of children’s homes demonstrates a continuing catastrophic failure of the care market for some children. The system seems to work for the providers, but not for the children. The failure of the care market can be demonstrated vividly by the 2017 north-west placements census. Placements Northwest is a regional children’s service that assists the 22 local authorities in the north-west that make out-of-authority placements. It said in its recent report:

“There remain many young people from the North West placed outside the region, in part because of the 693 beds located here taken up by young people from the rest of the country.”

There has been a significant and unprecedented increase in the number of externally purchased residential placements, which have risen to 836 active placements, up from 646 in 2016. This has resulted in an estimated increase in spend of £45 million between 2016 and 2017, from £95.5 million to £145 million—

“a very significant and unsustainable increase in the spend on residential services driven by increased consumption and increased unit cost of individual placements”.

For the first time, the cost of some homes has hit £5,000 per week per child, which now applies in 9% of placements. Placements Northwest maintains that the increased mismatch between demand and supply is a driver in the increased costs. It adds that the costs of residential placements seem inconsistent between providers and purchasing decisions, and that they are often led by available capacity rather than clinical social work decisions about what is best for the young person.

In his independent review of children’s residential care in England, which was published in 2016, Sir Martin Narey said:

“Certainly, too much of what I saw and heard was really about buying places in children’s homes, not about commissioning them.”

That is an important statement, because commissioning is about ensuring that there are places where they are needed, not simply placing children randomly where there happens to be a place.

Edward Timpson, the former Minister for Children and Families, said in his response to the debate on children’s homes in 2016 that he shared concerns about uneven distribution of children’s homes and that he wanted to see more regional commissioning. He said:

“there are still instances where the supply of places distorts too many decisions.”—[Official Report, 19 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 131WH.]

I welcome the setting up of the new residential care leadership board under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Wood. Sir Martin Narey said that it could improve commissioning and obtain better value for money for local authorities, and will look into out-of-borough placements. I hope the Minister will give the House some information about its progress.

We also need a better understanding of the relationship between out-of-borough placements and children going missing. For example, a child could be placed more than 20 miles away from their home but could still be inside their local authority’s boundary, whereas a child could be placed five miles away but be in another local authority’s area. Is the problem distance, or the fact that it is more difficult to support a child who lives in another council’s area? What matters to children? Is the quality of placement a mitigating factor? I do not know the answer, but it is alarming that nobody else seems to, either.

This is a complex area. Each child’s needs are unique. Of course, it is not always possible to find the perfect placement, but if the evidence collected over the years is correct that distance and being placed away from home are factors in children’s going missing from care homes, it cannot be right that in spite of that evidence, concerns about such placements and an increasing understanding of the risks of harm to children when they go missing, more children are being placed out of their home area than in 2012.

The Department for Education collects data about the number of children’s homes, children placed in them, and out-of-borough and distance placements, and it collects a lot of comprehensive data about children going missing from children’s homes. The situation is much improved, compared with 2012. However, it would be helpful if the Department could bring that data together in a more accessible form—perhaps in a yearly datapack.

Ofsted also collects data about children missing from children’s homes at each full inspection to inform its lines of inquiry for that specific inspection, which include whether the child was living out of borough. Although that information is not published, it is a potential source for understanding the patterns of children going missing.

It is very difficult for individual local authorities to be commissioners of children’s homes because they simply do not have the financial clout. Of course, they can be direct providers, which would give them much more ability to provide the care needed by their looked-after children. Devolution offers Greater Manchester combined authority an opportunity to commission on a regional basis. However, the DFE needs to offer support to regional commissioners to help them to develop a framework for commissioning the provision of children’s home places where they work best for children. Perhaps the Minister could tell us more about that work.

The innovative “Achieving Change Together” project in Rochdale and Wigan, which was funded by the Department for Education, demonstrated a successful alternative approach. It invested in social workers and worked with young people on the edge of care to keep them in their communities and families, which is much better than placing them in distant children’s homes and secure units. Perhaps that is a way forward—there has to be one.

If we take on responsibility for the care of the most vulnerable children and young people, we have a responsibility to keep them safe. The evidence suggests that that is not happening: an increasing number are being placed in children’s homes outside their home area, and an increasing number are going missing from those homes and coming to harm. Children’s homes need to meet the needs of children. If locality is an issue for children, local authorities and Government need to respond to that need proactively to ensure that change happens and their needs are met.

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I commend the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this important debate. The Government share her commitment to protecting all looked-after children by giving them a stable, loving environment where they can succeed and achieve the outcomes we would all want for our own children. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on his previous work and on his ongoing work, now as a parliamentarian. His is a committed and serious expert voice.

I share the hon. Lady’s concerns about placing children far away from home. However, we recognise that, for very specialist provision, a child may sometimes need to be further away from home. In addition, as she rightly points out, sometimes circumstances make it the right decision for a local authority to identify a placement outside of the child’s local area, such as when a child is at risk from sexual exploitation, trafficking or gang violence, which she spoke about eloquently.

I fully recognise that placing a child far away from home can break family ties and make it difficult for social workers and other services to provide the support a young person needs. I have first-hand experience of speaking to a child about his personal problems when he was placed too far away from his mother, who is clearly very loving but was unable to provide the safety he needed, which meant he had to run away. It is also in many ways unsettling for children—the hon. Lady is right that it increases the likelihood of them going missing from care.

The needs of the child must be paramount when we make decisions about the right care placement. As the hon. Lady rightly described, local authorities have a duty to consider the right placements for the child and take into consideration a number of factors, one of which is placement area. However, there must be effective planning and oversight of the decision. The hon. Lady will be aware from earlier discussions that my Department has worked closely with local authorities through the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to strengthen legislative safeguards relating to children being placed out of area. Directors of children’s services must approve all decisions to place a child in a distant placement. That directive encompasses all placements that are more than 20 miles away from the child’s home address. Ofsted will also challenge local authorities where they believe poor decisions on out-of-area placements are being made.

As the hon. Lady rightly points out, far too often local authorities are unable to find the right care placement in the right location to meet a child’s needs. Local authorities remain responsible for ensuring a sufficient range of placements for looked-after children and for working with their local providers to make sure that provision meets the needs of the young people living in that area. Sir Martin Narey pointed out in his review of residential care that there is value in local authorities coming together to fulfil those responsibilities so that they can jointly commission and address gaps in provision. That is why we are providing almost £5 million in innovation programme funding to test new commissioning arrangements that bring local authorities and providers together to achieve better outcomes and improve the experiences of looked-after children. The projects being funded are in and around London, where demand for places far outstrips supply.

To deliver the degree of change needed, all those involved in the commissioning and provision of care in children’s homes will need to work together. Only by working in partnership will we be able to tackle the trickiest issues and deliver a sustained improvement in the quality of care for the country’s most vulnerable children. That is why we are also setting up a residential care leadership board, chaired by Sir Alan Wood, so that sector leaders and practitioners can come and work together to drive improvements in commissioning and address gaps in provision. The board will engage with the wider sector to support the development of new approaches and ensure that best practice is shared and implemented.

For a small number of very vulnerable children, a secure home is the best environment and can address why they go missing from care. We are improving the availability of this provision in partnership with ADCS, the Local Government Association, the Youth Custody Service and the Secure Accommodation Network. That work is also being driven by Sir Alan Wood, the chair of the residential care leadership board. We are considering the best long-term commissioning arrangements for secure homes and looking at options to build local capacity. In the interim, we continue to fund Hampshire County Council’s secure welfare co-ordination unit. Through that unit, we have established a central point of contact and source of support for all local authorities seeking secure placements. We continue to invest in the secure estate with our £40 million capital programme over this spending review period.

We have made it a requirement of all children’s homes to have clear procedures in place to prevent children from going missing. The statutory guidance empowers homes to challenge local authorities where they are not providing the input and services a child needs, which include offering an independent return-home interview to a child after a missing episode, which could help to inform care planning and reduce the risk of repeat missing episodes.

In addition to Ofsted’s inspection of individual children’s homes, Ofsted’s local authority inspections always report on the responses of local authorities and their partners to missing incidents, highlighting good practice and identifying specific areas for improvement. Since 2013 the Department has published guidance on protocols regarding how and when Ofsted can share information on the location of children’s homes with the police—a positive development, I believe, that is pivotal to ensuring that children in care are robustly protected.

When children go missing they can be vulnerable to threats that include criminal exploitation and sexual abuse, and no child should have their life blighted by that abhorrent crime. That is why the Government’s “Tackling child sexual exploitation” report, and the follow-up progress report of February 2017, set out a national response to child sexual exploitation. We have boosted capacity and expertise in local areas that experience high volumes of child sexual exploitation by funding a CSE response unit, and we have introduced a new definition of child sexual exploitation, and practice guidance for professionals. We have also funded projects through the children’s social care innovation programme, such as the St Christopher’s Fellowship Safe Steps project, which is targeted specifically at children in care who are at risk of sexual exploitation. In addition, the £7.5 million centre of expertise on CSA, which is funded by the Home Office, is introducing evidence of what works to prevent and tackle child sexual abuse and exploitation.

We are working collaboratively to ensure that key partners in health professions and children’s social care are trained to identify and refer young people who are involved in criminal exploitation, such as the county lines mentioned by the hon. Lady. We are undertaking a nationwide awareness raising communication activity about the threat of county lines targeted at young and vulnerable people, including advice on how to avoid becoming involved with and exploited by gangs. I sit on the Home Secretary’s taskforce that seeks to tackle this scourge.

Again, I thank the hon. Member for Stockport for securing this debate, and I express my immense gratitude for the relentless passion and commitment that she has demonstrated over many years in her capacity as chair of the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults, and for her wider advocacy for the wellbeing of children in care. Although I recognise the ongoing challenges, I am keen that we do not let them detract from the fact that children’s homes do a sterling job of caring for some of the most vulnerable children and young people. Residential care continues to remain a vital part of the children’s social care landscape.

The hon. Lady raised important issues, and the steps we are taking will support local authorities in addressing gaps in provision and ensure that the needs of young people are met in the right care placement. Our underpinning principle, as set out in the Children Act 1989, remains that the interests of the child are paramount, and that must be reflected in all decisions about individual children’s care.

The hon. Lady mentioned data. Since 2014, local authorities have collected data on every incident of a child going missing, not only those missing for more than 24 hours, which has been a massive improvement. I remind Members, however, that those data continue to be experimental, and in 2018 we will seek to ensure that the data are robust and can be presented in a form that will allow the hon. Lady and her colleagues rightly to challenge us all the time, and to challenge local authorities to do better. I will soon visit Manchester—I hoped that it would be this week, but alas departmental duties mean that I have had slightly to postpone the trip. I want to see the opportunities for Greater Manchester, where 10 local authorities can work together to have a commissioning strategy that works properly for children in that area.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming

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As the Member in charge of the next debate has been caught in traffic and is not here, we are unable to start it. I am afraid I shall have to suspend the sitting, without the debate, until 1 o’clock.

Sitting suspended.