Government plans to tighten safeguarding arrangements for children in care

13 Apr

I         Consultation on new regulations

On 12 February 2020, the government launched an eight-week consultation period to strengthen the regulations related to children in care to ensure that they are placed in suitable accommodation. Placing these children under the age of 16 in unregulated accommodation will become illegal. Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, announced these measures to drive up the quality of children’s social care.  Also, minimum standards will be introduced for unregulated accommodation, which provides accommodation but not care for young people aged 16 and over.

As part of the consultation, the Government introduced national standards for unregulated accommodation to improve the quality and security of the placements. This will mean that where this is used appropriately for young people aged 16 and over, safety and quality are prioritised.

Ofsted, the inspectorate, will be given powers to crack down on illegal, unregistered providers – those providing care for children without being registered to do so. Councils and local police forces will be required to work together before placements in unregulated settings are made.  The interests of young people will be at the heart of decisions and of paramount importance.

The Education Secretary confirmed that an independent review would look widely across children’s social care with the aim of better supporting, protecting and improving the outcomes of these children and young people making sure that it reflected the experiences of those who needed social workers or been in care.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“There are no circumstances where a child under 16 should be placed in accommodation that does not keep them safe. That is unacceptable and I am taking urgent action to end this practice and drive up the quality of care provided to all vulnerable children.

“Social workers and council chiefs have to make difficult decisions about the children in their care, so it’s important that we agree an ambitious approach to these important reforms to bring about lasting change in children’s social care.

“While unregulated accommodation can be the right option for some older children, acting as a stepping-stone for young people towards living as an independent adult, the Education Secretary is taking action due to concerns that some of this provision is not good enough, and is particularly concerned about the number of younger children being placed in this provision.”

The introduction of new national standards will set a benchmark for unregulated provision, rooting out poor quality. The consultation includes the following elements:

  • banning the use of independent and semi-independent placements for children and young people under the age of 16;
  • driving up the quality of support offered in independent and semi-independent provision, through the introduction of national standards;
  • ensuring young people’s interests are appropriately represented by their Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO);
  • introducing new measures so that local authorities and local police forces liaise before placements in this provision are made; and
  • giving Ofsted new legal powers to crack down on illegal providers.

More than 6,000 looked-after children and young people in England are living in unregulated accommodation, with up to 100 under 16s living in unregulated provision at any one time.

Legislation will be amended so that Ofsted can take legal action before prosecution and issue enforcement notices, which will result in illegal providers either being forced to close, register or face penalties.

Williamson sent a letter to all councils in November 2019, setting out his concerns about under 16s being placed in this provision and asking them to make sure that all children in their areas are in safe and suitable accommodation.

Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s National Director for Social Care, said:

“We welcome this consultation and await the outcome with interest. Ofsted has long-held concerns about the rise of unregistered children’s homes. Some of our most vulnerable children are living in places where we don’t know if the people caring for them are suitable or skilled enough to meet their needs.  This isn’t acceptable. We’ve also called for better assurance about the quality of unregulated provision for older children. We need a system where children are getting high quality care and support, with the right level of oversight. Ofsted stands ready to play its full part in achieving this.”

Mark Russell, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, said, “The number of children being placed in unregulated accommodation is on the rise, making this consultation both, timely and essential. We are pleased the government is looking carefully at this issue and recognising the wider issues at play, such as the shortage of places where they’re most needed.

“Children are often placed in these settings in an emergency and out of their home area, where they may not get the support they need and can be at particular risk of going missing and being criminally or sexually exploited. All accommodation for children in care has to be suitable for their needs and no child should be placed in accommodation where they are not safe. It’s vital that quality standards are introduced across the board. This consultation should lead to tangible changes which address these issues and ensure all children get the help they deserve.”

 

II       Investigation and findings

Meanwhile, an investigation made the following findings.

  • The number of times children were housed in unregulated accommodation – which means they faced no checks by Ofsted, which typically inspects homes – rose by 22% between 2016-17 and 2018-19. The number increased from 4,814 to 5,874, according to data obtained from 112 councils through freedom of information requests.
  • The number of times children were placed in unregistered homes rose from 129 to 212 in the same period.
  • The average annual cost of placements was between £9,714 a year and £364,980, meaning the total bill across all authorities is likely to run into the millions.
  • In Northamptonshire, a recent Ofsted reportfound the Conservative-run county council was failing to keep children safe.  Altogether, 360 young people were placed in semi-independent-living accommodation not subject to children’s homes regulations in 2018-19, up from 348 two years previously. Of the 360, 36 placements were outside of the local authority area.

The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, remarked that placing children in unregulated homes was “simply unacceptable”. She said despite some providers having good intentions, all “unregistered provision is … not acceptable as a care package for vulnerable children. I understand that there is a serious shortage of accommodation for older children in care but on their behalf, we should never accept anything less than genuinely high-quality caring places that would pass appropriate levels of scrutiny. This is another example of managing a crisis without finding a solution to a crisis. These children deserve better from us all.”

Ann Coffey, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for runaway and missing children, echoed these sentiments when she added: “The government must act and make it unlawful for local authorities to place children in these illegal settings and Ofsted should take immediate action to close down these homes.

“It cannot be right that they are being placed in care settings with minimum checks on who is providing the accommodation. It’s a national scandal.”

III      What is unregulated provision?

Unregulated provision is essentially when children, usually over the age of 16, need support to live independently rather than needing full-time care. It is often called “semi-independent placements”, which are allowed in law, and Ofsted does not regulate them.  However, unregistered provision which claims to offer “care” as opposed to just support is illegal. But there is no legal definition of what care means. This is a loophole that is being exploited.  Sometimes, children have been placed by councils in accommodation including on boats or in caravans. A parliamentary inquiry discovered that these children were being used to traffic drugs. Four out of five – i.e. 41 – police forces in England and Wales expressed concern about unregulated accommodation. Isolated children are targeted by those wishing to exploit them for sex or to sell drugs. A girl who had been sexually exploited was housed with a perpetrator of child sexual exploitation.

Iryna Pona, the policy manager of the Children’s Society, said: “And there is an increasing number of children with complex needs being taken into care. Vulnerable teenagers placed in unregulated accommodation are at risk of being groomed for sexual and criminal exploitation. Our research has shown that teenagers may be housed with vulnerable adults and be exposed to or groomed with drugs and alcohol.  They may also go missing and be subject to physical violence and verbal abuse.

“The quality of accommodation and support provided in these types of placements vary greatly from one place to another and from one area to another. Staff members often aren’t sufficiently trained in protecting young people from criminal and sexual exploitation.”

Katharine Sacks-Jones, the chief executive of Become, the national charity for children in care and young care leavers, observed: “The rise in children being placed in these homes is deeply concerning … They can be magnets for criminals, leaving vulnerable children at heightened risk of sexual and criminal exploitation such as county lines.”

Of the 109 councils that responded to The Guardian’s freedom of information requests, Kent County Council said it used unregulated accommodation the most frequently. It recorded 452 placements in 2016-17, 312 the following year and 326 in 2018-19.

In Northamptonshire, where the number of unregulated placements was similarly high, the council said the figures could include those aged 18 waiting for permanent housing.

Yvette Stanley said: “Over the last 12 months we’ve investigated 150 places that were not registered with us and when we went out and looked, only 30 need not register with us – the rest should have done.

She added that councils were less likely to run thorough checks on provisions when children needed to be urgently placed elsewhere but emphasised that Ofsted had recently improved its system for notifying them about unregistered homes.  She also noted that there had been an increase in the use of supported accommodation because of progressive policies – including ones where fewer child criminals were being placed in secure units and those who were previously inpatients in mental health hospitals were being cared for in the community.

“The strategic issue at the heart of this very challenging problem is with the lack of supply; some people with good intentions and some with bad intentions are opening provision to meet that need,” she said.

“We don’t see councils doing this to save money; we see councils doing this because they have tried. They are really caught between a rock and a hard place. But children’s homes should be registered, and supported lodgings should be of a standard that we would expect for young people moving to independence.”

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