Moved by Lord German
90A: Clause 140, page 130, line 22, at end insert—“(8) A local authority may establish and maintain a secure 16 to 19 Academy.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would enable local authorities to run secure 16 to 19 Academies, either alone or in consortia.
My Lords, the purpose of Amendment 90A in my name is to put beyond any doubt that an application to run a secure school by a local authority or local authorities, either working as an entity or acting in a consortium with others, will be treated on its merit, on the quality of the provision it proposes and can provide. In other words, there will be a level playing field for applications of this kind as for those from other, non-local government bodies. This amendment brings local authorities into the tent. It simply allows them to compete alongside other non-local authority organisations in order that the best provision will prevail, from whichever quarter it comes.
Since the debate on this matter, there have been discussions between the Minister, myself and other noble Lords from around the House and it is now clear that there is a legal route open to local authorities to make a bid for running a secure academy, but such a bid would run counter to the Government’s policy. I will return to this matter shortly, as it is fundamental to the rationale for this amendment.
I want to make it absolutely clear that we on these Benches support the proposal to create secure schools and academies. Youth custody, by its very nature, means that those within them are the most vulnerable and challenging young people. That is why Charlie Taylor, in his review, proposed secure schools as a major way of dealing with the problems of the youth custody system. It is worth remembering two points from his 2016 report. First:
“Children who are incarcerated must receive the highest quality education from outstanding professionals to repair the damage caused by a lack of engagement and patchy attendance.”
“Rather than seeking to import education into youth prisons, schools must be created for detained children which bring together other essential services, and in which are then overlaid the necessary security arrangements.”
These two points reinforce the need for the highest quality provision possible.
Further to that second point in the Taylor point report, the absolute importance of integration was emphasised, not only of education but of a wide variety of services within the work of these schools—health, social care and services providing reintegration following custody are required within the school and not external to it. These are services that local authorities currently provide. Following the logic of local authority statutory provisions, particularly those of the duty of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of their children and the need for a new form of integration, there is much that local authorities can offer.
What is clear is that the skills and abilities of the heads and staff of these secure schools are fundamental. They need the best, and only the best will do. That is why this amendment is so important, because it ensures that local authorities are not excluded from providing secure schools, simply because of their nomenclature as academies.
The letter from the noble Lord the Minister to my noble friend Lord Marks makes two fundamental points: first,
“it would be legally possible for a local authority to set up an entity capable of entering into academy arrangements” with the Government; but, secondly,
“it is the policy of the Government that … no academy in England is operated by a local authority.”
The key issue here, then, is the use of the words “secure academy” rather than “secure school”. It is not a matter of who would be the best provider offering the very best and highest quality of education and integrated services outlined in the Taylor review and accepted by government. It is worth recalling that, when the Taylor review was published, the Government in a Ministerial Statement two days before the publication—which is quite interesting—referred to the setting up of two secure schools, one in the north and one in the south, and used the words “secure schools”. It is only in recent months that the word “academy” has moved into the nomenclature used for what was initially designed to be secure schools and was recognised by the Government as being secure schools.
Local authorities certainly have expertise in the provision required, but this amendment does not seek to favour them. It simply says that if they can produce the best provision needed, they should do the job. In doing so, they would have to follow all the frameworks set out by government, for example, on the devolution of decision making to the head, staff and governors. There would be no difference in the tender requirements, but these secure academies require the very best. To exclude a group of well-placed potential providers is a mistake.
As the noble Lord the Minister says in his letter to my noble friend Lord Marks, it is not a matter of the law but of the Government’s policy. That is why this amendment puts the matter beyond doubt. I and, I am sure, all noble Lords here will want the very best provision, from wherever it comes. I am not arguing that local authorities should win these bids, merely that they are given the chance to try. This legislation should provide the certainty that those who may be able to provide the best will not be left out. That is why I believe this amendment is important to put beyond doubt that all will be available and everyone can make a bid to run these services. I beg to move.
My Lords, I start by reminding the House that I sit as a magistrate in youth and family courts and, as such, send youths to secure accommodation for welfare reasons and as a result of offences they may have been convicted of in the youth court. To make it clear, the Labour Party supports Amendment 90A, which the noble Lord, Lord German, has just spoken to. My Amendments 90B to 90F look at a different aspect of secure accommodation.
The amendments in my name seek to address national shortage in secure accommodation by placing a duty on local authorities to assess the local need and create a strategy to deal with that need. In Committee, Peers from across the House highlighted the significant lack of secure beds in certain areas that leaves children being dispersed across the country, sent to unsuitable establishments or unnecessarily remanded in custody. The Government responded by saying that they are taking steps to support local authorities to maintain existing capacity and to expand welfare provision in secure children’s homes.
There are currently no secure children’s homes in London, with London children being placed in justice and welfare placements in secure accommodation an average 124 miles from home. This is disruptive for the children, their families and the services supporting them. There are other significant geographical gaps across the country. Currently there are only 15 secure children’s homes in England and Wales. This amendment places a statutory duty—a requirement—on relevant local authorities to address this issue.
Following the Government’s response to the amendment in Committee, the Mayor of London’s office stated that the reality of the £259 million referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, is that it will take some time to translate this into available secure beds. This is especially true given that there is no indication of how that funding will be apportioned across the country to address the geographical gaps to which I have referred. There is also no commitment to ensuring that both welfare and justice placements are provided for within this funding. This is also a gap in the answer given by the noble Lord. Therefore, the additional funding does not remove the need for relevant local authorities to assess the need for secure accommodation and to develop a strategy for any shortfall.
In conclusion, I will repeat a statement given by Lord Justice Baker. This is the ruling on an appeal brought in July 2021 by Just for Kids Law against Waltham Forest Borough Council which successfully argued that the failure by local authorities in London to provide appropriate alternative accommodation for children was unlawful. He said:
“The absence of sufficient resources in such cases means that local authorities are frequently prevented from complying with their statutory obligations to meet the welfare needs of a cohort of vulnerable young people who are at the greatest risk of harm. The provision of such resources is, of course, expensive but the long-term costs of failing to make provision are invariably much greater. This is a problem which needs urgent attention by those responsible for the provision of resources in this area.”
If the noble Lord, Lord German, chooses to put his amendment to a vote, we shall support it. Nevertheless, I have raised other issues which I hope the Minister will respond to in his reply to this group of amendments.
My Lords, the aim of this exercise is to ensure that children who enter custody leave it better educated, better able to become part of normal working society and better able to function in a family environment. When Charlie Taylor produced his advice, which has already been mentioned, on the education of children in custody, his aims were exactly those: to ensure that the quality of education in custodial institutions, which currently is extremely variable, from the excellent to the terrible, should reach a good standard, comparable with that provided by decent schools around the country.
There is an issue about numbers. I would not like it to be taken that every local authority will be required to provide an educational provision for those children who come from that local authority. I know that is not what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, with all his knowledge of this issue, is aiming at. There are well under 1,000 children in custody—significantly fewer than there used to be—which, after all, is the roll of a typical London comprehensive school as we speak. It would not be in the public interest to have a large number of academies for children in custody around the country because it would not be possible to supply the quality of education. However, as Charlie Taylor emphasised, we need the balance between having good schools or academies—whatever one calls them—for children in custody and local authority provision of the kind envisioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, which ensures that they are kept in touch with their communities and their families and where they will probably go back to live after they leave custody.
It seems to me that, if all that is right, it is beyond argument that local authorities should be able to participate in this process without hindrance and establish educational institutions for those in custody, and that there should be as few obstacles in their way as possible. Once that is achieved, they will have to compete with everyone else who is in the area—that is perfectly sensible—but it would be wrong, for policy reasons that are, in my view, poorly conceived, to obstruct a legitimate role for local authorities.
In quoting the Taylor review, the noble Lord, Lord German, made the case for his Amendment 90A. It would be singularly inappropriate—I think this was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile—to debar all local authorities from setting up appropriate provision simply because of the use of the word “academy”. This is wrapped up with other aspects of educational policy. If the local authority is capable of providing what would manifestly be the best institution and provision for this group of young people, who need absolutely the best quality of education that can be afforded to them, it should do so. I take the view that the provision in Amendment 90A should categorically be in the Bill to ensure that we do not debar any local authority from engaging in the process to set up an institution. As has already been said, this does not require that local authorities should do it but it does not debar them; debarring them would be unreasonable.
My Lords, this group of amendments covers Part 9 of the Bill. I will cover the group in two parts, if I may.
Amendment 90A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord German, would allow local authorities to establish and maintain secure academies either alone or in consortia. The noble Lord kindly mentioned the sustained engagement that he has had with me and others on this matter; in turn, I acknowledge my gratitude to him for his time and commitment. As he mentioned, I wrote to him and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, outlining that, in our view, it would be legally possible for a local authority to set up an entity capable of entering into academy arrangements directly with the Secretary of State, and that this is not prevented by the Academies Act. Therefore, as I set out in that letter, there is no legal bar to what the noble Lord wants to happen. I understand that, as he said, he wants to put the matter “beyond any doubt”, but I have explained in writing that there is no legal doubt on this point at all; indeed, I think I heard him accept this afternoon that it is “clear” there is no legal bar. I therefore say to him and the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, that there is no issue of being debarred here. I suggest that the amendment is therefore unnecessary.
I accept that the Government’s policy remains that academy trusts are not local authority-influenced companies and that our position on secure schools is to mirror academies’ procedures. However, I can confirm that, when considering the market of providers of future secure schools, my department will assess in detail the potential role of local authorities in running this new form of provision. We of course recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, noted, that local authorities have a long-established role in children’s social care and the provision of secure accommodation for children and young people. In particular, the secure children’s homes legal framework may present a more straightforward route than the 16-19 academies framework for the expansion of local authority involvement in the provision of secure accommodation. However, I reiterate that there is no legal bar here. I therefore suggest that the amendment must necessarily be unnecessary.
I now turn to Amendments 90B to 90F, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. Local authorities have a duty, under the Children Act 1989, to ensure sufficient, appropriate accommodation for all the children they look after and to ensure sufficient children’s homes for other children whose welfare requires it, whether or not they are looked-after children. I recognise that some local authorities have sometimes found it difficult to access the most appropriate accommodation, particularly for children with the most complex needs. It is right to say, both from the judgment of Lord Justice Baker, which was mentioned, and indeed from other judgments, that some of these children have extremely challenging and very complex needs. It is also the case that, sometimes, children are placed in locations away from home when they may be better served by a placement in their local area if one were available. We are looking carefully at that, not only in my department but in others as well.
We are taking significant steps to support local authorities to fulfil their statutory duty. We have started a programme of work this year to support local authorities to maintain existing capacity and to expand provision in secure children’s homes to ensure that children can live closer to home and in provision that best meets their needs. In the spending review we announced £259 million to continue this programme to maintain and expand capacity in both secure and open residential children’s homes. We acknowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said, that it may take—I will use the same phrase—some time to see all the benefits of that capital investment, particularly when you are talking about new builds, but it is the case that the capital programme will also result in increased capacity in the secure children’s home estate in the shorter term as we seek to create more beds through investment in a range of projects, including extensions of current buildings, refurbishments and rebuilds. I know that in the judgment referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Justice Baker used the phrase “urgent attention”, and that is what we are giving this problem.
Ofsted has also taken steps to support local authorities in this area. It has an amended process to make it easier for local authorities or other providers to apply for registration of children’s homes in emergency situations. It is also now easier to open and run a single-bed children’s home, which can be one of the most commonly needed types of accommodation when the child has very complex needs. It can be almost impossible, sometimes, to have more than one child in that location. Ofsted has now published guidance on these changes, and I hope that will help as well.
Before I sit down, I should also remind the House of two other relevant pieces of work ongoing in this area. First, the independent review of children’s social care, which commenced in March last year, is looking at this whole area in a fundamental way. Secondly, also in March last year, the Competition and Markets Authority launched a market study examining the lack of availability and increasing costs in children’s social care provision, including children’s homes and fostering. It has proposed a number of changes, of which I will not go into detail now, but they are important. We will look at the full reports when they come out. I expect both of those pieces of work to be serious and substantial reports.
I recognise the aims of all noble Lords who have supported these amendments; we all share the same aims here, but I suggest that we have existing statutory requirements and significant, wide-ranging and independent reviews under way, looking at the whole care system, alongside that CMA market study. For those reasons, I hope the noble Lord, Lord German, will withdraw his amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, will not press his. I urge them to do so.
My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all who have contributed and to the Minister, who has not been able to go beyond the text of the letter that he sent to my noble friend Lord Marks. Although I understand that, it just reinforces the position that I outlined at the beginning.
To reiterate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, we are seeking the best, and to not leave out a potential bidder who could be one of the best is all that this amendment is about. It is simply to make sure beyond doubt. We understand that there is a legal route through this. I did not read out the exact words that the Minister repeated, but there is a route through—although he does say that it would place burdens on local authorities. Interestingly, and moreover, he said earlier that it also conflicts with the policy of academies.
The one thing the Minister did say, both in replying and in his letter, was that they will keep this issue under review. The problem with keeping something under review is that the process will already have started, and keeping it under review does not mean that there will necessarily be any changes or any scrutiny in this House.
The noble Lord said that there are two routes: the academy route, which local authorities will be excluded from, and secure family accommodation, which they want to encourage local government to do. Charlie Taylor’s review and report seek integration, not silos. It would be sensible to make sure that, at this point, there is absolutely no doubt. For the simple reason that we have to be able to search for the best and get the best, this amendment should be part of the Bill and not part of some future discussion—which may or may not produce a sensible outcome, as far as I am concerned. I am therefore minded to seek the view of the House on this matter.
Ayes 198, Noes 163.