Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/161).
Relevant document: 47th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)
My Lords, these regulations are the subject of a take-note Motion today for two reasons: first, due to the concerns expressed by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee in drawing the regulations to the special attention of the House over the need for the Government to introduce the additional protections for older children, to which they have committed, at the earliest opportunity; secondly, because we are extremely concerned by the decision contained in the regulations to prohibit the use of unregulated accommodation only for looked-after children aged 15 and younger, and not for children aged 16 and 17.
The regulations follow a DfE public consultation, begun in February last year, on regulating semi-independent and independent accommodation for children in care and care leavers. It appears to have been stimulated by the shocking revelations contained in the BBC “Newsnight” report, “Britain’s Hidden Children’s Homes”, in 2019.
Children’s homes should be a safe haven, but a decade of Conservative local authority cuts and poor regulation have left far too many children at risk of neglect and exploitation. The Government should have acted to protect children from increased threats during lockdown, but instead Ministers used the pandemic as an excuse to water down their rights—action which the courts subsequently found unlawful.
Now the DfE is about to consult on national standards for unregulated accommodation for 16 and 17 year-olds in care, intending that it should become regulated via an Ofsted-led registration and inspection scheme, though there has as yet been no indication what that might look like. The consultation did not mention that these standards would have to omit any requirement to provide care to 16 and 17 year-olds. However, that is what will happen, because establishments which provide children with care and accommodation must register as children’s homes and be inspected by Ofsted.
These regulations formally create a two-tier care system, which could lead to a situation where provision to children is based on age rather than need. In effect, it will reduce the leaving care age to 16. It might be imagined that the meaning of the legal term “in care” was beyond doubt, yet these regulations will legitimise the absence of care for 16 and 17 year-olds who are, I repeat, in care.
Six months ago, the Children’s Commissioner published a report on children in care living in unregulated accommodation that reiterated concerns about vulnerable children being exploited and abused. The commissioner recommended that the use of semi-independent and independent provision should be made unlawful for all children in care, stating unequivocally:
“No child under the age of 18 should be placed in an unregulated setting. All children aged under 18 should receive care, rather than support. As such, there should be a requirement that any setting they are placed in is regulated as a children’s home.”
Those are words that we fully and enthusiastically endorse. It would be instructive if the Minister would reveal the DfE’s view on which looked-after children it believes are able to manage without care; does it consider that an absence of care is legitimate for those children for whom a family court has made a care order? Further, in relation to the department’s assessment of how the under-16 ban may affect children aged 16 and 17, has the department undertaken equality and/or child rights impact assessments?
There is also the vital question of the safety of these young people, not an issue of which the DfE is unaware. Two months ago, in response to a freedom of information request by the children’s rights charity, Article 39, the department published data on children who have died or been seriously harmed following abuse or neglect within the family or other settings in what are termed “serious incident notifications”. These numbers may seem small in relation to the 6,480 16 and 17 year-olds recorded in March 2020 as living independently or semi-independently, but even one such case, be it harm, far less a death, is one too many. It is important to stress that under international law, a person under the age of 18 is regarded as a child. The same law pertains in this country.
As the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee report points out, 73% of unregulated settings are privately run; that is to say, for profit. They are private companies doing very well out of vulnerable children without the checks and balances that are seen in other care settings. The financial opportunities available can attract entrants to the market with little or no knowledge of children’s care, with the result that in some settings, children are not kept safe. A number of children’s charities are capable of delivering, perhaps in conjunction with local authorities, proper care to 16 and 17 year-olds, were they not priced out of the market. I am not alone in believing that the care we are considering today is too important to be left to the vagaries of the market, but I know that the office of the new Children’s Commissioner is keen to explore that possibility with children’s charities. Will the Minister say whether the DfE will offer encouragement to them in such an approach?
The DfE maintains that there is a place for independent and semi-independent provision where it is of high quality and that such a placement is desired by the older child and would be consistent with their welfare. However, the evidence shows that these conditions are rarely met. As the Children’s Commissioner commented in the report to which I referred earlier, even the very few 16 and 17 year-olds who feel that they are ready to start becoming more independent are likely at some point to require assistance that meets the threshold for care rather than support, as the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated.
Anne Longfield also registered her particular concerns about the lack of resources available to many local authorities, which has caused a lack of sufficient places across the whole system. These issues were highlighted by the committee in its report, which said
“there is a risk of low-quality provision given the significant financial pressures on many local authorities and the considerable costs of high-quality support for children.”
The Government have just launched an independent review of the children’s social care system. It is essential that the review understands and addresses why increasing numbers of children are being placed in unregulated settings. I hope that it will conclude that every looked-after child should have the legal right to receive care until at least their 18th birthday.
Two weeks ago, it was announced that the Competition and Markets Authority is to undertake an inquiry into the supply, price, commissioning and regulation of children’s homes, fostering and unregulated accommodation placements, along with the environment for investing in services. Apparently, one of the questions it will consider is whether profits for private providers are at the expense of quality of care in the children’s social care market. That certainly is a question worth asking, although it does seem rather strange that the inquiry will take place in parallel with the independent review of children’s social care that has just begun. Can the Minister say how, if at all, the two might support each other?
In closing, I want to ask what the Minister and her department intend to do in respect of the five recommendations made by the Children’s Commissioner in her report last year. I have mentioned the questions of independent care for those aged under 18 being made illegal and the need to ensure quality for young people in unregulated settings. In addition, Anne Longfield called for urgent action to increase the capacity of care across the system, which is a fundamental issue. However, it comes down to an increase in resources, and for the Minister to point out, as I suspect she might, what has already been spent or committed is not enough. Considerably more resources must be made available to ensure adequate care and it is to be hoped that the independent review will not be constrained in its recommendations by an expectation that it can bring about substantial change within existing resources. That is not just a pipe dream—it would be a major failing of young people in care, whether they are above or below the age of 16. The committee’s report said
“we urge the House to seek assurance from the Minister that any legislation needed to introduce the additional protections for older children to which the Government have committed is introduced at the earliest opportunity.”
I now invite the Minister to do that and I look forward to her response. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for initiating the debate on this statutory instrument. I am afraid that I will probably stray across some of the same ground that he has, but the theme to which I draw attention is one that I raise with monotonous regularity with the Minister’s colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in the Home Office. It is the need for accurate, timely and informative data, so that one knows what on earth one is doing. You need data to understand the past and present and, above all, to inform decisions you will make about the future.
In that spirit, I have forwarded every single briefing document that I have received to the Minister’s office. I suspect and fear that, in many cases, some of the data and testimonies that come from the front line, from some of the voluntary organisations that have briefed us, are far more incisive, accurate and up to date than the department’s data. That theme tends to recur in this area.
As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, we are indebted to Anne Longfield for her report of last September, a lot of which is shocking. It is shocking partly because she had to go and collect the data to inform her report, because it was not readily available. On page 4, she said that
“The Department for Education commissioned a research report looking at some issues, based on data analysis and interviews with 22 local authorities.”
The point I make is not that that was a bad thing, but that the department did not already know that information, which is why it was done. That is part of the problem. She found that the number of children living in unregulated accommodation has been increasing, year on year, since 2015. That is not a great surprise; the surprise is why the department was not on top of that data and tracking it year by year, or even month by month. I do not understand that.
Anne Longfield’s report lifts the lid on the unregulated accommodation sector, estimated to be worth about £1.6 billion per annum. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, almost three-quarters of it is privately owned, up from two-thirds in 2013. So it has gone up from 66% to 73% privately owned in just six years, and the possible profit margins are extraordinary. There were some cases listed where local authorities were being charged £9,000 a week for a 16 or 17 year-old child.
I do not know whether the Minister was watching television on Saturday evening, but Sky had a documentary called “Lost in Care”, about what we are discussing. It is totally congruent with Anne Longfield’s findings. As I was watching the documentary, which in particular has the detailed testimony of three young people who went through unregulated care—it is quite shocking—I thought of my naive 16 or 17 year-old self and how I would have coped an awful lot worse than those three children did at the time. It was rather shocking. Towards the end of the documentary, the new Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, was shown the evidence by the reporter and asked what she thought about it. She was clearly genuinely shocked and basically said that this is unacceptable; something has to be done. That is what we are discussing here.
As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, has done, I want to recollect the five very clear recommendations that Anne Longfield made in her report. I have given notice that I would do that, and I am hoping and expecting that we will have a comprehensive answer from the Minister to each of them. After all, the report did come out six months ago.
The first recommendation is that no child under the age of 18 should be placed in any setting not regulated to children’s home standards, whether they are in care, homeless or unaccompanied asylum seekers. The second recommendation is to increase capacity in the care system, which is a key problem that local authorities are constantly faced with. One of the unintended consequences of this statutory instrument is that it has effectively—quite unintentionally, I am sure—sabotaged the Children’s Commissioner’s attempts to work with a variety of the major children’s charities, such as Barnardo’s, and with some of the more enlightened best-practice local authorities, which are very keen to get into the market themselves and to supply really good accommodation to the best possible standards.
Unfortunately, that work has ground to a halt. Why? First, local authorities and charities cannot compete with the private sector on the basis that it is currently unregulated and because of the fairly minimal regulations that the Government are proposing to put on to the statute book. Quite frankly, unless the Government come up with higher minimum standards—namely, ones that those local authorities and charities such as Barnardo’s could live with, with a clear conscience—they are not going to be able to compete with the private sector on cost. Secondly, as I said, under the current regulatory framework they will not in all conscience set up these homes that they would like to, because they cannot do it and would fail their own standards of care. Lastly, because of those two interlinking points, it is impossible to go to the market to raise finance to try to build expansion in this sector, because of the uncertainty created by what the Government have decided in the statutory instrument.
The third recommendation is:
“Clarification of what care looks like for children”.
Anne Longfield recommended that the Department for Education shape a comprehensive illustration—a description—of what care should look like right the way through to age 18. I would like to know whether that is in hand, about to be in hand, or if it is on the back burner, and when and if we can expect any action.
The fourth recommendation is to do with the “Regulation of unregulated settings”. The worry is that if the statutory instrument is carried out and its standards applied, they will become de facto the norm for many local authorities that are strapped for cash—that will be the automatic decision taken when they are trying to place a child, which they have a statutory duty to do. I do not think that this is what the Government intend, but that is what the sector fears will happen.
The fifth recommendation is to strengthen the role of independent reviewing officers. These individuals are between a rock and hard place: they work for the local authority—they are employed by it—but they are there to act in the best interests of each and every child in a situation such as being in care and needing to be placed. You have a cash-strapped employer basically saying, “Go for the easiest and cheapest option that ticks the box in terms of our statutory requirements, and don’t get prissy about it”, which puts any independent reviewing officer who has a conscience, and is putting the interests of the child first, in a really impossible situation. The recommendation from Anne Longfield was to look at this and what the Government can do to strengthen the autonomy and independence of these vital people to act in the best interests of the child.
What is common across all those five recommendations is that a lot of this is informed by insufficient data; a lot of it is unknown. We know there is a problem but we do not know the real nitty-gritty and detail because we do not have the data. The department is about to navigate its way through the spending review, it has the CMA investigation into children’s residential care, as well as the social care review, so there is a huge temptation to say, “There is lots to be done; let’s wait and see what comes out of it and then we’ll decide”—remarkably like the Domestic Abuse Bill which we have just been through. Please can we not use that excuse, and try to plan strategically what we can do? I am coming to an end. What are the options to increase supply of accommodation? How can we develop new commissioning models, present targeted capital funding applications, and identify and disseminate best practice models?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for securing this debate. I declare an interest as a board member of Social Work England and I thank the various children’s charities for their helpful briefings.
I welcome the decision to ban unregulated placements for all children under the age of 16 but I agree with the vast majority of the sentiments expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Russell. The regulations represent the absolute bare minimum of what is needed and in that respect are deeply disappointing, most particularly the decision not to include 16 and 17 year-olds.
Since 2013, there has been an 83% increase in the number of teenagers in care living in unregulated accommodation. Media stories have highlighted shocking cases where children as young as 12 were placed in tents, caravans and canal boats due to a shortage of suitable provision. However, the majority of media investigations and serious concerns expressed about looked-after children in unregulated accommodation relate to those aged 16 and 17.
Shockingly, as we have heard, the 2019 investigation by BBC “Newsnight” into “Britain’s Hidden Children’s Homes” revealed a 17 year-old young man killed in supported accommodation in 2016. His death exposed the lack of information-sharing between local authorities and the paucity of provision for very vulnerable young people. A young woman reported having to use her coat and blanket as a duvet and being “freezing cold” in supported accommodation. She was moved from a foster home, where she was happy, to accommodation late at night. Her bedroom was downstairs; there were no curtains and no bedsheets. She felt desperate and very alone. Another young woman felt “dumped and alone” in supported accommodation; she became depressed and anxious for the first time. Other young people in her accommodation used drugs and drank alcohol in their rooms; this young woman had never experienced this before and found it all “a massive shock”.
What additional funding, if any, has been made available to local authorities since 2019 in the light of these revelations to help them fulfil their duties under the Children Act 1989 to provide looked-after children with accommodation in their area which meets their needs?
To do the bare minimum is not good enough when making provision for some of the most damaged and vulnerable children in our society, for whom the state has taken on the role of corporate parent. A good corporate parent should act as in the same way as a loving parent would do and should have the same aspirations for that child or young person. The critical question to be asked is therefore: “Would that be good enough for my child?” When looking at these regulations, the short answer is no.
As we have heard, the Children’s Commissioner’s report from Anne Longfield in 2020 was both powerful and truly shocking, exposing children in unregulated accommodation as some of the most forgotten and vulnerable children within the entire care system. Anne Longfield found that a “significant proportion” of unregulated accommodation was of “very poor quality”, and reported children suffering violence and hunger, accommodation which lacked basic facilities—such as cutlery, pans and duvet covers—and children being exposed to criminal and sexual exploitation. Children aged 16 and 17 frequently lived alongside vulnerable young adults, often up to age 25, battling with their own difficulties—including those struggling with homelessness, mental ill-health, addiction or even transitioning from prison back to the community. For too long children have been placed in this inappropriate accommodation as the sector has gone unchecked, with some providers making large profits on running substandard accommodation with little to no support.
My starting point is that the Government should ensure that no child under 16 is placed in unregulated accommodation, regardless of which piece of legislation they are housed under. All settings that house under-18s should be regulated, provide age-appropriate care as well as support, and be inspected by Ofsted. This includes independent and semi-independent settings. I can see no room for half-measures or compromises here.
As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in January 2021 the DfE published data on children who have died or been seriously harmed following abuse or neglect within the family or other settings, called serious incident notifications. A freedom of information request revealed that four children aged 16 and 17 died and three children aged 16 and 17 were harmed in semi-independent accommodation between April and September 2020. Will the Minister write to me to provide information on the circumstances in which those four children died and three were harmed? How many serious incident notifications have there been over the last five years in respect of looked-after children in independent and semi-independent provision?
All children, including unaccompanied children seeking asylum and homeless 16 and 17 year-olds, deserve and need both care and support. This should be based not on arbitrary age thresholds, but rather on children’s needs and wishes, including a recognition that children’s needs evolve and change over time. Teenagers in care are six times more likely compared to children under 13 to be living in residential or secure children’s homes, and while residential care is right for some children, it is surely critical that the Government commit to investing in family-based options for teenagers. With the continuing rise of older children coming into care, more options are needed—including foster care—as demand is far outstripping supply, which has resulted in the increased use of unregulated accommodation in past years.
What are the Government doing to ensure that placement decisions, whether foster care or supported accommodation, are based on an assessment of a young person’s needs and wishes, and not solely on the basis of their age? What are the Government doing to ensure that, in outsourcing accommodation provision to the unregulated sector, private providers are aware of and local authorities remain committed to upholding the welfare of all the children they accommodate?
I was very pleased to read last week that the new Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, expressed in unambiguous terms her support for banning unregulated care for 16 and 17 year-olds, adding:
“We have to make sure that all children and young people in care are in a situation where they can flourish, and they can be supported. It’s our absolute top priority.”
I am sure that the new commissioner will be a fearless campaigner on this issue, and I wish her every success.
We know that local authorities are trying to increase capacity in the 16 to 18 sector, and children’s charities are looking to enter or expand in this market. But they cannot compete with the private sector on a cost basis without a proper understanding of the quality standards or the funds to finance it.
We clearly need more voluntary sector and good-quality private sector provision in the market, and the Government need to take action to stimulate the market and ensure that providers adhere to quality standards. Surely the Government need to consider this afresh. There are opportunities to do so over coming months, with the spending review coming up, the Competition and Markets Authority’s investigation into children’s residential care, and the children’s social care review. The care review will need to address the funding available to local authorities to meet the growing numbers of children entering care, the reasons for the increase and whether care is the most appropriate response to some older children’s needs. The critical backdrop to this review is that councils have experienced major budget cuts since 2010, and in 2018-19 they overspent their budget for children’s social care by some £770 million. A significant programme of investment is urgently needed and could be announced in the spending review.
As things stand, some of the country’s most vulnerable teenagers are being housed in accommodation that is barely fit for human habitation, without the protection, care and support they need to lead happy lives. It is a scandal, and one that should not be allowed to continue for a minute longer.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for tabling this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 and the use of unregulated independent and semi-independent provision for children in care and care leavers. As someone who lived independently at the age of 16, it is something that I have personal experience of. I also thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its detailed examination of the regulations. I will deal with the five points raised by the former Children’s Commissioner during my speech, but there will be points at which noble Lords will recognise that the Government digress from her recommendations.
I am sure that noble Lords who have spoken know that every child deserves a place to live, where they feel safe and secure and receive the care and support that they need to thrive, enabling them to achieve the best possible outcomes in life. This is equally important for children in the care system, who have often had a difficult start to life. The statutory duties are very clear on local authorities. They must make individual placement decisions in relation to children based on their best interests, while considering their stated wishes. Having dedicated foster carers, excellent children’s homes and high-quality independent and semi-independent settings for older children who are ready for it is critical to this endeavour. We need a range of options for care placements and support that reflects the diverse needs of children in care and care leavers. There is no intention to change the position that children can leave care, or voluntarily come into care, at the age of 16, and make it a default provision for children over the age of 16.
Noble Lords have highlighted the former Children’s Commissioner’s call to increase the number of placements for children. As the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, stated, we are investing capital of £24 million in the estate for secure children’s homes, which is a tiny part of this provision but a very important one. We are also developing plans to support local authorities to create more children’s home placements through additional investment.
Noble Lords have also rightly highlighted the need for local authorities to have a range of placement options to meet the needs of children that they look after. We have also invested part of the £200 million children’s social care innovation programme on improving commissioning and capacity of residential care, as well as funding seven fostering partnerships to improve local commissioning. These projects will boost the development of best practice, as outlined by the noble Lord, in commissioning and sufficiency planning to be shared nationwide. This will be critical in ensuring that local authorities can learn from the best to deliver their statutory duties that I have outlined.
While a placement in independent or semi-independent provision can be the right option for some older children, where it is high-quality and meets their needs, it is never right for those under the age of 16. These settings are simply not equipped to meet their needs or keep them safe. Children of this age should be placed in children’s homes or foster care, which is why we have laid these regulations that will ban the practice of placing children under the age of 16 in unregulated independent and semi-independent settings from September. The department will be working closely over the coming months with those local authorities most impacted by the introduction of the ban.
However, on the recommendation by the former Children’s Commissioner to ban this for under 18s, this is where the Government do not agree. We have more older children in the care system and coming into the care system at an older age. We must ensure that there is an option to facilitate development of their independence as they prepare for adult life and leaving care, something that she highlighted in her report. We know that there is good independent and semi-independent provision where local authorities are making careful decisions in meeting the needs of the children that they look after. We have also seen good examples, such as where young people are placed in shared housing with 24/7 support, or supportive lodgings where they live with a family and receive support and advice but are afforded freedoms such as cooking and cleaning for themselves and getting themselves to work, education or training, all of which are important skills to learn. Of course, 16 year-olds can be care leavers and opt into those kinds of arrangements if that is assessed to be best for their needs.
We know that these settings are often used for young people who are, for instance, remanded into local authority accommodation when a placement back with their family, or in a children’s home with other children, or foster care, would not be appropriate. This is in the best interests of the young people in a small number of difficult cases, and we obviously do not want to curtail the ability of the courts to make such an order for children, which means they are on bail rather than on remand. They can also be the best option to meet the needs of older children who have come into care much later and do not want to live in a family-based environment any more. This is sometimes the case, particularly for unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children who have come independently to this country and do not want to be placed in a family environment. We also have a certain number of voluntary care leavers aged 16 who have voluntarily left their family situation and do not want to be accommodated in a family situation again. That is a very sad situation to have to deal with.
Local authorities must take the views of these older children into account. It is crucial that local authorities can facilitate this type of placement for older children when they are ready for it. If they have not reached the stage in their lives—whether they are 16 or 17—where this type of setting could meet all their care needs, they should be placed in a children’s home or in foster care. The decision is about what is in the best interests of the children.
The Government recognise the concerns, outlined by all three noble Lords who have spoken and also raised by the committee, that some independent and semi-independent accommodation is low-quality, as highlighted by various media reports. We agree that we must do more to improve this, and that is why we will introduce national standards. These will not be minimal. This is the same type of regime that regulates schools, boarding schools et cetera. It will be an Ofsted-led registration and inspection regime for settings that accommodate 16 and 17 year-olds; we are doing something about this. We will consult on this shortly, and I hope that noble Lords will respond to that consultation. This will not be symbolic; it will introduce proper standards for this accommodation group and will, hopefully, assist with wider provision.
We welcome the valuable information that we will get from the Competition and Markets Authority report that noble Lords also mentioned. I will write the detailed letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that she asked for.
It is important that all these decisions are based on the best data. We have issued two further datasets in relation to this type of accommodation, as well as the qualitative research we released earlier.
I reassure noble Lords that we have received strong support for these reforms, including from the young people whom we have consulted. Over 70% of respondents to the consultation agreed that an Ofsted-led quality and inspection regime would best support this. The Government look forward to working closely with the sector, and care-experienced young people, to design the new regime of national standards and Ofsted regulation. This will no longer be properly described as an unregulated sector; it will be regulated. We will also legislate to give Ofsted additional powers in relation to illegal, unregistered children’s homes.
As highlighted by noble Lords, the former Children’s Commissioner also called for the strengthening of the role of independent reviewing officers and for the Government to better define what care looks like for older children, both of which we consulted on last year. We believe that the banning of placements for under-16s and the system which I have outlined will be an appropriate way to regulate this sector. We do not believe that an extended role for the IROs would be necessary to achieve this.
Local authorities must continue to make care placement decisions that meet the needs of children, putting in place the care and support that they need. The new national standards for this sector will make clear what we expect of these settings, and standards are obviously already in place for children’s homes.
Noble Lords mentioned the independent care review. There is a call for evidence at the moment in relation to that, which we hope this sector and others will respond to.
Finally, nothing we have done changes the individual decisions local authorities should be taking in the best interests of children. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, outlined the needs and wishes of these children, and at an older age, their stated needs and wishes are obviously a key factor in the decision. However, there is no default or automatic position for these children; it is clear to local authorities that they must make individual decisions. A placement in this type of environment and accommodation in certain cases is not a second best but is made in their best interests, and it is often their stated wish.
I hope I have reassured noble Lords that we will introduce the necessary reforms to this sector without delay, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and the Minister for their contributions to this debate, which has been one of quality, if not quantity. I think that is due to the relatively short notice given. Others would have wanted to participate, and I hope they read the report of the debate with interest.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, made an important point about data not being readily available. He mentioned the research carried out by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner to find information that was not to hand. However, many children’s charities are also assiduous in collecting information that, I think it reasonable to say, we might have expected the Department for Education to have collected and made available.
I would like to echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, in paying tribute to those organisations that have prepared briefings for this debate, namely Article 39, Home for Good, Just for Kids Law and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. Given that none of us, apart from Ministers, has personal support staff, the contribution of those and many other organisations in this and other debates in enabling the Government to be more effectively held to account should not be underestimated.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, also mentioned the previous Children’s Commissioner’s recommendations and touched on one I was unable to mention because of the time limit. I am referring to the role of the independent reviewing officers, who oversee and scrutinise the care plans of children in care. The recommendation by the commissioner that independent reviewing officers should visit placements before children are placed there to assess their suitability is important, and I hope it will be adopted by the department.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, I have been encouraged by the remarks of the new Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, since she took up her post a few weeks ago, not least in relation to the children remaining in care until the age of 18. I have to say, in passing, that her predecessor set a high standard; I am hopeful that she will do the same, and I wish her well.
It was humbling to hear the Minister recount her personal experience of living independently at the age of 16. I cannot imagine what that must have been like. Clearly, it has not held her back. I would like to think that every other young person in that situation would emerge with such distinction. However, that is rarely the case, although, for many young people, remaining in care between the ages of 16 and 18 is often the crucial difference in enhancing their life chances.
The Minister’s response to the questions that I and others put to her were encouraging in some respects, but the regulations are another example of the Government managing a crisis and not finding a solution to it. I would like to think that we will look at a long-term plan whereby the children’s care sector is not just better resourced but better organised. I am hopeful the review that is under way will point in that direction, because these young people deserve better, and we can do better on their behalf.