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Mike Watson on the need to better protect vulnerable older children in unregulated settings

Today, the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 come before the House of Lords. They are subject to a take note motion in my name, due to concerns expressed by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee over the need for the government to legislate to provide protection for looked after children aged 16 or 17 in unregulated settings.

The regulations follow a consultation on un regulated provision, to which the government published its response last month – announcing a ban only on unregulated accommodation for children in care aged 15 and under (to be brought into force in September). Further consultation will begin shortly on national standards for unregulated accommodation for 16- and 17-year-olds in care, with the intention of regulating this via an undefined ‘Ofsted-led registration and inspection scheme’.

These new national standards will omit care because establishments which provide children with care and accommodation must register as children’s homes and be inspected by Ofsted. The government’s position therefore formally creates a two-tier system, legitimising the absence of care for 16- and 17-year-olds who legally remain ‘in care’ – effectively reducing the leaving age to 16.  

These unregulated homes – also known as supported accommodation – are permitted by law because they are qualified to offer support, not care and young people housed there live semi-independently. But Ofsted does not regulate the system and many professionals in the social care sector say these homes are unsuitable due to the lack of monitoring checks. 

Children in these kind of placements – often beyond the local authority area where they are from – have been placed there by councils lacking suitable accommodation of their own. Yet, some are under 16 when initially placed in these settings and become more at risk to exploitation from abusers or gangs.

Many unregulated providers are private companies making a sizeable profit out of the vulnerable, without the checks and balances of other care settings. The financial opportunities available can attract entrants to the market with little or no knowledge of the care of children, resulting in some not being kept safe. There are also recorded instances of young people being placed on boats or in caravans.

The Department for Education maintains there is a place for independent and semi-independent provision where it is of high quality and such a placement is desired by the (older) child – and would also be consistent with their welfare. The evidence shows such conditions are rarely met.

Last year the Children’s Commissioner raised serious concerns about unregulated accommodation and called for the government to ban under-18s in care from being placed in such settings. She also highlighted the risk of low-quality provision being a consequence of significant financial pressures on many local authorities.

These issues were highlighted by the Secondary Legislation Committee in its report, and the concerns were not assuaged by ministers’ commitment to introduce Ofsted-regulated, national standards. Lacking a timescale, the Committee has urged peers to seek assurances that any legislation needed to introduce the additional protections should be introduced at the earliest opportunity.

With the government having just launched an independent review of the children’s social care system, it is essential that this addresses why increasing numbers of young people are being placed in these homes. And it should also recommend that every looked after child should have the legal right to receive care until at least their 18th birthday.

This whole situation feels like yet another example of the government managing a crisis rather than finding a solution, and these young people deserve a much better response.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 22nd March 2021

Duty of care

Mike Watson on the need to better protect vulnerable older children in unregulated settings

Maggie Jones on the government's missed opportunity to harness the power of restored and protected peatlands

The challenge to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is often seen through the lens of large-scale energy and transport projects. While such schemes are crucial, we are sometimes guilty of overlooking the vital role of nature itself.

In the UK, for example, we have particularly rich levels of peatlands which store some 3.2bn tonnes of carbon. Acting as a huge carbon sink, these peatlands could offset our carbon emissions and make a crucial contribution to achieving our net zero target.

Sadly, this important natural resource is currently being eroded by habitat encroachment; by the excavation of peat for horticulture and, most damagingly, by the burning of upland peat heather – primarily to create better conditions for rearing grouse for the shooting industry. Burning has the effect of reversing its carbon status by releasing around 260,000 tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere each year rather than soaking it up.

Action to control peatland burning in the UK is urgent and necessary – and this is a widely accepted view. In a damning report last year, the Committee on Climate Change criticised the government’s attempts at reducing land-based greenhouse gases; and advocated a new approach via the legislative opportunities already available. Highlighting how the existing voluntary ban had not worked, they called for rotational peat burning to be outlawed with immediate effect.

Ministers, however, have been less than enthusiastic in their responses. In January 2018, as part of the 25 Year Environment Plan, they committed to publishing an England Peat Strategy later that year. More than three years on, we still await that strategy.

They have published secondary legislation introducing a partial ban, based on the outcome of consultations with landowners and land managers. An ineffective and unenforceable proposal, in response to which I have tabled a Regret Motion to be debated in the Lords later this week.

Our concerns are echoed by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which has flagged up the lack of detail in how the scheme to licence burning will work, and the limited area of peatland covered. And the RSPB, the Wildlife and Countryside Link and others have also raised concerns, pointing out that the ban will only apply to upland conservation areas (for example, Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and as such only covers about 109,000 hectares of the total area of 355,000 –about 30%.

Added to this is a long list of exemptions to a ban on peatland burning, including claims that the practice will aid conservation of the natural environment; or because the land is rocky or on a slope, and therefore difficult to manage by other means. Inevitably, landowners and grouse shoot managers will use such loopholes and upland blanket bog burning will carry on much as before.

The government’s proposal in its current form is a missed opportunity to harness the power of restored and protected peatlands. Not only to provide long term carbon sequestration, but also to deliver a haven for rare wildlife, to mitigate flood risk, and to prevent the spread of wildfires. A golden moment to put nature centre stage in the fight to achieve our climate change targets.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 16th March 2021


For peat's sake

Maggie Jones on the government's missed opportunity to harness the power of restored and protected peatlands

Debbie Wilcox on ensuring women’s voices are core to post-Covid policy development and decision-making

In January, the Commons Women and Equalities Committee published its report Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact, and in doing so raised concerns that the government’s priorities for the post-Covid recovery are heavily gendered in nature.

Investment plans are skewed towards male-dominated sectors, with the potential to create unequal outcomes for men and women. All on top of the fact that the pandemic has intensified existing inequalities in almost all areas of life, negating the hard-won achievements of past decades – both here in the UK and beyond. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has noted: “COVID-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women's rights”.

This week in the Lords, we have begun Report stage of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. During the debates, speaker after speaker has noted the significant increase in domestic violence during the pandemic, referring to the multiple reports from charities and campaigners of a surge in calls to helplines and online services since the first lockdown.

A sobering insight into the levels of abuse that some people live with all the time, the pandemic and its related restrictions has clearly closed off access to support or escape. It may also have curtailed measures that some abusers take to keep their violence under control. Giving evidence to Parliament last April, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales Dame Vera Baird gave MPs details of a pioneering project recording how many women are killed by men in the UK. Before lockdown, the average number of deaths was a two a week. It is now five – and if that’s not a crisis in abuse and violence, I don’t know what is.

When it comes to the workplace, much of the UK’s frontline response to tackling Covid has fallen upon women – including 76% of those employed in health and social care, and 86% delivering personal care. And these sectors have, of course, seen an unprecedented rise in workload, health risks, and challenges for work-life balance.

It is well-documented that women earn less and are more likely to work in insecure jobs – often in the informal sector, with less access to social protections. They also run most single-parent households, which further limits their capacity to absorb economic shocks. Prolonged lockdowns and school closures have not only seen women’s access to paid work diminish, but an increase in unpaid labour. Domestic duties, including preparing food for home schooled children and looking after ill family members, have all fallen disproportionately on women.

It is important therefore that women’s voices are at the core of policy development and decision-making on how the UK – and the wider world – move beyond Covid. The participation of women and girls is both necessary and vital at every level and in every arena: whether central, devolved, and local government, or within the community, and indeed business. Without equal participation, pandemic responses will be less effective at meeting their needs, and lead to negative consequences in both the short and long-term.

Research published last summer suggested that around the world, women leaders had been more successful than their male counterparts at reducing Covid transmission in their countries. No surprise really, when you have inspirational individuals like Jacinda Ardern outlining her approach to dealing with the pandemic: “The worst case scenario is simply intolerable. It would represent the greatest loss of New Zealander’s lives in our country’s history. I will not take that chance. The government will do all it can to protect you. None of us can do this alone.”

A lesson for others maybe, at least in retrospect, that macho posturing doesn’t get you very far.

Baroness Debbie Wilcox of Newport is Shadow Equalities Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @TheLadyWilcox

Published 9th March 2021


Hard times and beyond

Debbie Wilcox on ensuring women’s voices are core to post-Covid policy development and decision-making

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