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