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Children in Care

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the quality of life of children in care.

My Lords, we want to improve children and young people’s lives and outcomes, to strengthen families and to realise the benefits of establishing firm and loving foundations early in life. It was for this reason that we asked Josh MacAlister to review the children’s social care system, engaging directly with those with experience of care. This, with other reviews, has provided a comprehensive assessment, and we are committed to publishing an ambitious and detailed implementation strategy later this year.

My Lords, I am grateful. The noble Baroness has vast experience and well understands that children do not come into care unless they have had an awful start to their young lives. It is for that reason that the state has to intervene and be a good parent to these children. Recent reports indicate that some of these children are having numerous placements in their young lives, which often entails a change to a different school, therefore reinforcing the instability in their lives. Are the Government willing to look at why these children are having these multiple placements and what can be done to improve the quality of their lives in care?

The Government absolutely agree with the noble Lord about the importance of stability. There is clear evidence of a link between changes in care placements and a decrease in outcomes at key stage 4. Seven out of 10 children in care have one placement a year, although the noble Lord is right to focus on the three in 10 who have multiple placements. We are using data to inform our policy, and next month will publish our stability index. I would be delighted to meet with the noble Lord and other noble Lords who are interested in this important issue, to go through that data.

My Lords, the latest Department for Education figures indicate that only 13% of care leavers actually go on to higher education. That figure has not changed in five years. Many universities are already improving their offers to care leavers, but the figures have remained stubbornly low. Can the Minister tell us what the main barriers are, and what the Government are doing to improve these vital opportunities for care leavers?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point, and she will be aware that, sadly, some of those figures are mirrored during a child in care’s educational experience. We are working very hard with virtual school heads to support children in the care system throughout their education, and we have support for them beyond. The noble Baroness will be aware that over half of these children have a SEND diagnosis, which also has an impact, obviously, on higher education.

What support are the Government giving to charities like the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation in their efforts to secure places in both state and independent boarding schools for looked-after children who would benefit from such places? Is it not the case that these places cost less than local authority childcare and greatly enhance the academic prospects of the pupils concerned?

The department is grateful for the work that the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation does and works closely with it. My noble friend makes a good point. A child in care obviously faces a wide range of challenges starting from their early childhood, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, pointed out. Therefore, the role of the local authority in supporting children in all those aspects is critical.

My Lords, the quality of life of children in care is clearly a matter of grave concern, but I wonder whether the Minister is aware of the Children’s Society latest The Good Childhood Report, which suggests deep concern about the continuing decline in the well-being of children generally. As expected, the current cost of living crisis is having a significant effect on families: 85% of parents and carers, the report suggests, are very concerned about the future. The Children’s Society report suggests ways forward. Is the Minister aware of them? Faster rollout of mental health support, a permanent boost to social security lifelines and extended help with school lunches are among them. Will the Minister comment on that?

As a department, we look at all those options, but on the one hand we need to recognise the extraordinary challenges children faced particularly through Covid—particularly teenagers while their schools were closed—but we also need to acknowledge that we are in an economy with more opportunity and more job opportunities than ever before. I think we need to be empathetic to their experience but also optimistic for their futures.

The Minister will be aware that, over the past decade, an increasing number of children and young people have been put in placements outside their home area—there has been something like a 28% increase. Just imagine the trauma and mental anguish that that causes. We find that very vulnerable children often go missing. It is important that children relate to their area. Rather than more words, what can we practically do to ensure that this practice ceases?

I think more money rather than more words. We have supported local authorities to meet their statutory duties through capital investment totalling £259 million, which will allow them to maintain and expand capacity in their areas.

My Lords, most children in the care system live with foster parents, to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude for their dedication, but many foster parents report that they are not given sufficient information about the background of these children, many of whom have had traumatic experiences, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, pointed out. Confidentiality is often given as the reason for this, but does the Minister agree that, if foster parents are going to deal adequately with the behavioural problems that may arise, they need to be as fully informed as possible about the background of these children?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. If it would help to meet some foster parents to understand those issues better, I would be delighted to do so.

My Lords, the Welsh Government have opened a consultation on eliminating profit-making residential and fostering provision for children in care. The Welsh Minister responsible said that

“Children … have told us that they do not want to be cared for by privately owned organisations that make a profit from their experience”.

Are the Government considering something similar for England, and have they asked children in care how they feel about profit being made from their experience?

The Government share the concerns that the noble Baroness raises about some providers making excessive profits, but I am sure she is aware that neither the care review nor the Competition and Markets Authority report has recommended banning for-profit provision.

My Lords, taking up the point made by the right reverend Prelate, what steps are the Government taking to reduce child poverty to prevent children having to be looked after?

I think we have to be careful about too much of a causal link between poverty and a child being taken into care, although I accept that poverty puts a great deal of strain on a family. The Government have taken a wide range of measures, from support with household energy bills and others that the noble Baroness will be aware of, to support families under pressure.

Just this week, it has been reported that a vulnerable young person in crisis with multiple complex needs was held in a hospital for months on end instead of an appropriate secure children’s home because there simply are not enough secure places. Do the Government believe they are doing enough for looked-after children with complex needs?

I think that we are doing as much as we can, but we absolutely acknowledge the issue. Following the different independent reviews that have been commissioned, we are considering the issues in the round at the moment and will come back, I am confident, with a very strong response.

My Lords, I am a patron of a secure unit down in Exeter. One of its main concerns is a lack of funding to get sufficient staff and sufficient training. What will the strategy do about that?

I cannot anticipate exactly what the strategy will do, as the noble and learned Baroness is aware. The cost of a child or young person being in a secure unit is extremely high, and we will be looking at the detail of how we can make sure that recruitment needs are addressed.