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“This cannot be right.” Those were the words of Dr Jackie Sebire, the assistant chief constable of Bedfordshire police, after her officers had spent four to five days trying to find a 16-year-old boy who had gone missing from his unregulated accommodation in Bedfordshire. Her officers had spent an enormous amount of time and effort to return the child to a provision that was inadequate, in which no local Bedfordshire authority would place one of their own children and for which there was no regulatory oversight.
The standards in the accommodation in which the 16-year-old was placed were so poor that this young man regularly went missing, and shortly afterwards he became involved in organised crime and went on to recruit other young people into organised crime. So we have, in effect a multiplier of misfortune as a result. The Local Government Association and the police are concerned that children are being drawn into organised crime, including county lines, from unregulated homes. About 2,000 16 and 17-year-olds are placed outside their home local authorities in this type of unregulated provision. That is a doubling over the last five years. Around 5,000 children in total are in this type of unregulated provision—a 70% increase in the last decade.
Let me provide some further illustrations of why regulatory oversight is needed urgently. We know from the brilliant investigation undertaken by Sally Chesworth and her team at “Newsnight” that a 16-year-old girl was brought to a room in one of these homes late at night. It was freezing cold and had no bed sheets and no curtains, even though it was a ground-floor room looking straight out on to a road. We know that staff regularly enter rooms without knocking. We know that a 17-year-old girl was hit in the face by a 6-feet male staff member who would not let her speak to the police about the incident. We know that staff members are being abusive. One child was told, “It wouldn’t matter if anyone kills you. No one cares about kids in care.” Members of opposing gangs were sent by one London borough to the same home in Bedfordshire, where one duly stabbed the other.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate to the House. I sought his permission beforehand to make a comment. The Social Care Inspection blog on the gov.uk website states that unregulated care homes
“should be used as a stepping stone to independence, and only ever when it’s in a child’s best interests”.
Given what we now know from the BBC investigation, which concluded that young people were at risk of organised abuse, is it not time for the Government to at least examine the ways in which the regulatory regime governing such accommodation is structured?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I will go on to call for exactly what he has just highlighted to the House.
Many of these homes also have adults up to the age of 25 in them, and we know that drug taking is prevalent in many of them. We know that a young man on bail for knifepoint robbery was placed in a home with 16-year-old girls. We know that two girls were placed alongside a male sex offender, and that one 17-year-old boy was murdered by another resident. The home had not told either sending local authority about an earlier fight between the two boys.
The impact on police forces of the number of missing person incidents from unregulated homes is significant. Police officer availability is an extremely precious resource to local communities. Quite rightly, a missing child is always a high priority for any police force. If there is a significant increase in the episodes of missing children in a police force area, that means that other vulnerable children and adults in the population area of that police force are left much more unprotected than they should be.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important issue to the House for consideration. Does he agree that one of the major concerns is how 16 and 17-year-olds in care regularly go missing? Does he also agree that local authorities and the Department for Education should reform how data on the number of young children is collected, and that the figures should be made available and published on a quarterly basis?
More data is always good. I will come on to suggestions about what local authorities need to do.
In 2018, the top six locations for episodes of missing persons accounted for one quarter of the overall number of missing episodes in Bedfordshire. Of those 1,049 episodes, 779—three-quarters of the total—came from these unregulated settings. The Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth estimates the average cost of investigating a missing person at £2,400. That is a financial cost to Bedfordshire Police of around £1.9 million caused by these unregulated homes. It means that the officers involved cannot respond to other serious incidents. What makes the situation worse is that most of those children are being placed in this substandard provision in Bedfordshire by local authorities outside the county.
Has my hon. Friend come across Home for Good, a fostering and adoption charity, and its five-star campaign, which is looking not for five-star accommodation for young people, but for five-star care? If he has not come across it, perhaps he will look into it and encourage the Minister to do likewise?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; like him, I am a huge admirer of Dr Krish Kandiah, and I will say a little bit about that charity and what it can do later in my remarks.
In three of the unregulated homes that I visited in September with the police, only three out of the 17 children there came from Bedfordshire. All the other children were from other local authorities. They had all gone missing on multiple occasions; one child, indeed, had gone missing 41 times. Local authorities sending 16 and 17-year-olds to Bedfordshire include Stockton-on-Tees, Peterborough, Sandwell, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, Swindon, Windsor and Maidenhead, Manchester, Birmingham, Essex, Nottinghamshire, Devon, Enfield, Barnet, Hillingdon, Redbridge, Waltham Forest, Haringey, Ealing, Merton and Croydon. Some of those have lamentable due diligence in their placing decisions.
I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is generous in taking interventions. It is not just a case of the quality of the accommodation that many of these vulnerable young people are put into, or indeed the services available to them, but the locations they are placed in. Is he aware that some years ago in the Department for Education we produced “heat maps”, which showed areas where children should just not be placed? Children were being placed in homes on the same street as sex offender hostels, for example. There is a duty on directors of children’s services to ensure that the areas in which these children are being placed are appropriate and safe.
I completely agree; that is another reason for more regulatory oversight, which I will call for. Perhaps this issue needs to come up in planning policy as well.
Central Bedfordshire sends very few of its own children out of the area. As a Bedfordshire Member of Parliament, I am simply not prepared to accept this wholly unacceptable diversion of police resources caused by other local authorities acting irresponsibly and using provision that no local authority in Bedfordshire would put its own children in.
It is not as if this provision is cheap, either. A typical cost per child in these unregulated homes is around £800 per week, which is £42,000 per child per year. Some unregulated provision will cost considerably more than that, and it is completely unacceptable that taxpayers are paying such enormous amounts of money to private businesses, some of which do an appalling job and are more interested in making money than in looking after vulnerable children.
Given that several members of staff that I spoke to when I visited some of these homes told me that they needed no training whatsoever to undertake this work, I suspect that rates of pay are low and significant profits are being generated for the directors of these companies. Who is overseeing value for money for taxpayers, who are having to fork out these enormous amounts per child for such poor quality provision, which in turn is placing a huge burden on other parts of the public sector such as the police?
The hon. Gentleman is making an important speech on an important subject. In my own constituency, we have a high number of homes—often regulated ones, which is good—but because we are in the wilds the children who tend to be sent there are the runners, who have run away from other homes. That means that when they go missing, as they often do because they have a history of it, they can be missing for a very long time and take not just police but mountain rescue out looking for them. Does he agree that it does not help that the care homes themselves are still charging fees when children are missing, so they have no incentive at all to go and look for them, and it is left to the police?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Why should the duty of care fall only on the police and not on the sending local authority or on the home itself? She makes a pertinent point.
It is also completely unacceptable how little information is shared between sending and receiving local authorities, and between sending and receiving police forces. All local authorities have a statutory duty to check the standard of provision in which they are placing their vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds.
Thirty-four locations in Bedfordshire are providing unregulated supported living for 16 and 17-year-olds. Central Bedfordshire Council has a quality assurance manager, Sharon Deacon, who will not place the council’s own children in many of those homes, and her role has been commended by the Howard League for Penal Reform.
It is extraordinary that other local authorities continue to use much of this provision when Central Bedfordshire Council will not place its own children in these unregulated homes. Those sending local authorities, in many cases, do not even bother to check whether the provision is suitable, which is vital. Sharon Deacon has conferred with her counterparts at Bedford Borough Council and Luton Borough Council, and sending authorities do not always notify the hosting local authority in Bedfordshire about the children they are sending to the county, as required by the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010, so the current law is not being adhered to and there are no checks or enforcement actions in respect of those breaches.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way, and he raises some important points. For some time I have been pushing for a regulator of supported housing for people with addictions and the homeless. I have a high-profile property in my constituency where, again, the local council does not send people but outside local authorities do.
I look forward to working with Members of good will on both sides of the House to get this right. This is not a party political issue, and we just have to get it right for children, for police forces and, frankly, for the taxpayer.
Sending police forces do not notify Bedfordshire police of the criminal records of the children concerned. One young arsonist was sent to my constituency without any prior notification to Bedfordshire police, which is simply unacceptable. There should be a full exchange of information between both local authorities and police forces on the quality of provision and the children concerned.
The Select Committee on Education published a report on 16-plus care options in July 2014, and it made the following recommendation:
“There are measures to ensure the quality and safety of settings for children and young people right across provisions: childminders, foster carers, residential children’s homes, secure training centres, schools, sixth form colleges and further education colleges are all inspected. Yet accommodation that falls within the category of ‘other arrangements’
is not subject to individual regulatory oversight. What makes this distinction all the more illogical is that the 22% of looked after 16 and 17 year olds who live in such accommodation are among the most vulnerable young people in society. It is unacceptable for these young people, still legally defined as ‘children’
and in the care of their local authority, to be housed in unregulated settings.
We recommend that the DfE consult on a framework of individual regulatory oversight for all accommodation provision that falls within the category ‘other arrangements’
to ensure suitability while allowing for continuing diversity of provision.”
The Government of the time did not accept that recommendation, but I am hopeful that the current Government will because members of the Select Committee who wrote that report include the Foreign Secretary, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation and the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, my hon. Friend Graham Stuart.
Five and a half years later, progress on this issue has been too slow. The Department for Education met Ofsted and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers on
Many providers of unregulated accommodation have been allowed to get away with unacceptably low standards, which have horrific consequences for some of the country’s most vulnerable children, because of a lack of scrutiny. Given that the current attempts to ensure standards have failed, it is now time for Ofsted to provide proper regulatory oversight. We also urgently need a fit and proper person test, so that the directors of the businesses that run these homes can be held to account personally. We need a duty on sending local authorities and police forces to notify receiving local authorities and police forces.
Of course, we need to work on providing more good quality provision, especially for those with complex needs. The Local Government Association reports that the number of looked-after children reached a new high of 75,420 in 2017-18. That is an average of 88 children entering local authority care every day. A rising proportion are over 16—the figure was 23% in 2018, which was 17,330 children. The LGA also points out that only 28% of accommodation is local-authority-run, with 5% being run by the voluntary sector and two thirds provided by the private sector. This means that as the scale of need grows, it becomes even more urgent to rapidly improve the quality and quantity of provision.
We should mandate the implementation of the Philomena protocol brought in by Durham police to provide police forces with the very best information to help them quickly locate missing children. I am also grateful to Home for Good for its suggestions as to how we could encourage more fostering for these children, as exemplified by its own work, and to the Shared Lives movement for the example it provides. Of course, as always in these difficult matters of social policy, we need to think about what more we can do to slow down the demand and to provide greater support for families so that they can continue to be able to look after challenging children.
In that regard, I wish to single out the work of Wigan Council, which no longer places any of its children outside its own area. I am very grateful as well to the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults for its report last month on children who go missing from out-of-area placements. The Children’s Society provided very valuable support for that inquiry, and I am grateful to it for its help with my preparation for this debate.
As a nation we need to do far more to support and strengthen families to help them keep children safely at home, and I am pleased that this Government have now appointed the Chief Secretary to the Treasury as the family champion across government. It is now high time to take decisive action to improve the standard of accommodation for 16 and 17-year-olds, as the Select Committee called for more than five years ago.
Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Andrew Selous on securing this important debate. I know that he is working particularly hard to highlight the concerns of his constituents and his local police force that some children and young people placed in independent and semi-independent provision are being put at risk.
I share his concerns and fears about the current state of affairs. As a recently appointed Minister, this is one of my key priorities, and I want to reassure my hon Friend that this Government are clear: it is completely unacceptable for a child to be in placed in a setting that does not meet their needs and keep them safe, and I am considering the checks and inspections needed.
First, I wish to join the Minister in saying what a brilliant speech we heard from my hon. Friend Andrew Selous. He talked about a wide range of local authorities putting these youngsters into such unregulated and unsatisfactory dwellings. Is the Minister able to tell us why we think that is happening? He came up with some brilliant solutions, but, as someone new to this debate, I want to know why this is going on, as it is completely unacceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. This is a complex problem and we have a rising number of children in care, which we need to get to grips with. Those children are predominantly at an older age, which is resulting in such outcomes. So there are strains on the supply of accommodation. I will get on to the rest of what he raised within my speech, if he will just be patient with me.
As I said, a rising number of children are in care, and most of them live in registered children’s homes or foster care. However, the age of those children is rising; the demand on the system is increasing; and it is a somewhat unprecedented situation. We are not only taking steps to help local areas to manage the situation, but supporting local authorities to improve the work that they do with families to safely reduce the number of children who enter care in the first place—something I am particularly passionate about. Last week, I announced the investment of £84 million over five years to support 18 local authorities to do exactly that, as part of the strengthening families programme. We have already provided funding through our £200 million children’s social care innovation programme, and £5 million of that funding is specifically targeted at residential care.
For the most vulnerable children who need secure provision, we are working to increase the number of beds in secure homes through our £40 million capital grants programme. We are funding local authorities, with £110 million to date to implement “staying put” arrangements, under which care leavers remain with their foster carers while they are under 21. We are working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to help local authorities to develop more effective accommodation pathways for care leavers.
Currently, a small but growing number of children are placed in settings that are not registered with Ofsted. Some of these settings are not registered because they provide only accommodation and not care, although they may provide some support. They offer semi-independent living for older children and care leavers who are ready to live with some independence, and they can act as a stepping stone to adult life. Let me be clear, though: we set a high bar for the level of care that must be provided by registered children’s homes, and children who need this care should not be placed anywhere else.
I have visited some excellent examples of semi-independent living, even in my own constituency. There is a place for this type of provision when local authorities have taken the required steps to ensure that it is of high quality and is used appropriately.
Time is really tight and I have a lot of ground to cover. If I have time in a moment, I will give way.
Not all the provision of the type I have described is being used correctly, and the quality across the board is simply not good enough. I am determined to tackle that. Just as worrying is the placement of children in settings that are offering care but have not been registered with Ofsted. Such settings are illegal, and Ofsted has the power to prosecute such providers. I invite my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire to meet me to flag up any homes that he believes fit the criteria, and I invite any other Member to do the same, because they must be stopped. Permanent settings that deliver both accommodation and care must be registered with and inspected by Ofsted.
Another policy area on which the Department is focused is the age of those in unregulated provision, as referred to by my hon. Friend. I have received reports from Ofsted, local authorities and police forces about some younger children living in unregulated, semi-independent provision. Let me be clear again that I do not want children under the age of 16 to be living in an environment without care. Today, I call on all local authorities to put their houses in order on this issue and to ensure that further action is taken. My hon. Friend will know that if a child is placed in a semi-independent, unregulated setting, the local authority is required by law to ensure that the provision is suitable. My predecessor wrote to all directors of children’s services earlier this year to remind them of this duty. As I stressed earlier, such providers should be registered, and those that choose not to be are acting illegally.
Ofsted is taking a lead and has, over the past few months, already ramped up its focus. Ofsted has conducted more than 150 investigations in the past year alone. I will continue to apply pressure in this policy area. Alongside that, Ofsted has tightened up the requirements, under its inspection regime, for local authorities to share how they monitor children in unregulated provision, by increasing the data that they request from local authorities and issuing further advice to inspectors. However, recent research commissioned by the Department suggests that, despite our guidelines, some local authorities are genuinely unclear about what is permissible in relation to the use of unregulated and unregistered provision. I want to ensure that there is no confusion at all, so I am working with my Department to ensure that there is new statutory guidance so that everyone involved in providing care to looked-after children and care leavers is absolutely clear about what is required of them.
My hon. Friend and Ruth George highlighted the number of children who go missing in unregulated provision. Not only is that a threat to a young person’s safety, it can also be a serious flag to other things that are going on in their lives. Some local areas are already developing effective responses, but we need to ensure that all local areas recognise the threats to vulnerable children and young people and respond appropriately.
I want to take this opportunity again to thank my hon. Friend for South West Bedfordshire for securing this debate to highlight this crucial issue here today. It is clear to me that the current system leaves far too much room for variability and inconsistency across the whole sector. Although we have tried to address that, I recognise that there is still so much more to do and so much more that can be done. Alongside the Education Secretary, I have been meeting members of Ofsted and others in the sector to determine where further action should be taken and the broader landscape of checks and inspections on the types of provision that we want to see. I know that local authorities do not take decisions lightly. These complex issues should not be underestimated, but children must be placed in settings that are suitable for their needs.
I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate. I am aware that this is not a new issue and it is right that, as a newly appointed Minister, it is at the top of my agenda. Both the Secretary of State and I are clear that the current system is completely untenable. We must get this right, and I will ensure that we do.
Question put and agreed to.