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Unregulated Accommodation: 16 to 17-year-olds

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:32 pm on 15th October 2019.

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Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:32 pm, 15th October 2019

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.

On 9 May, the Department for Education announced a £2 million tackling child exploitation support programme to provide dedicated advice and practical support. This programme will help areas to develop effective multi-agency responses to deal with things that will affect vulnerable children, including county lines.

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.

House adjourned.