With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 37—Duty to collect and provide information for inspections—
‘In section 22(7) of the 2000 Act (regulation of establishments and agencies) after paragraph (1) insert—
“(m) make provision requiring the person who carries on, or manages, a children’s home to collect statistics on—
(i) instances of children going missing from the home;
(ii) instances of anti-social or violent behaviour by children accommodated at the home of a serious nature; and
(iii) acts of criminal damage perpetrated by such children, and to provide such information, upon request, to any person authorised by the registration authority to inspect the premises.”’.
New clause 38—Consultation prior to preparation of inspection reports—
‘In section 32 of the 2000 Act (inspections: supplementary) after subsection (5) insert—
“(5A) Before preparing a report in relation to the inspection of a children’s home under subsection (5)(a) the registration authority must—
(a) inform the local authorities which have placed children in the children’s home and, if different, the authorities in which children have been placed; and
(b) seek views on the performance of that home from—
(ii) the person designated under section 20 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 at any school attended by children in the home inspected.”’.
New clause 39—Provision of inspection reports—
‘In section 32 of the 2000 Act (inspections: supplementary) after subsection (6) insert—
“(6A) The registration authority shall provide copies of any report prepared in relation to a children’s home under subsection (5) to every children’s services authority within the meaning of the Children Act 2004 which has placed a child in the home and to each Local Safeguarding Children Board established by each of those authorities.”’.
I was motivated to table the new clauses because of concerns among a number of colleagues about evidence on the outcomes for some young people in care in children’s homes, and the difference between those outcomes and the inspection reports for those homes. We were motivated particularly by the concept, which is becoming commonly held, that parents share responsibility with their children for much of the children’s behaviour, and that parents should be held accountable to a degree when children engage in antisocial or criminal activities. That is because parents have a responsibility to guide and support their children and to ensure that they are aware of different ways of behaving and given chances to learn new and better ways of behaving. Most of all, children should be supported by their parents so that they do not travel down the paths that, unfortunately, far too many children have taken, which lead to criminal records and custodial sentences.
The purpose of the three new clauses is to get a virtuous circle, rather than a downward spiral, so that the different participants who support a child or young person in a children’s home work together effectively to ensure that the young person gets the support and intervention they need to achieve the sorts of successes that meet their potential.
New clause 37 would require children’s homes to keep records of specific activities that any good and responsible parent would notice, such as incidents of children going missing from the home. The current system of recording the reporting of a child going missing resulted in 23 children’s services departments being unable to tell the parliamentary all-party group for children who run away or go missing how many children in their own care had been reported missing to the police in 2005. Also, a significant number of children’s services departments that could give a response to that question gave a radically different response when asked the same question by their local police force. In many instances, the police forces had recorded a different number of young people who had been reported missing while in the care of the local authority than that local authority had.
When one looks at the pattern of who is responsible within a children’s services department, one will see that it is eminently possible for that sort of information not to be recorded effectively and passed to those who could do something about it. Indeed, one might say that some people have a vested interest in not recording it effectively, because it can draw attention to the fact that they are not parenting particularly effectively.
We need a proper, rigorous system for ensuring that those who are responsible for caring for children, ensuring that they have a safe and comfortable place to go and supporting them in that process are required to record instances when their children are reported missing to the police and make that information available on inspection so that they can be held accountable for it.
Does my hon. Friend take the view that, in order to have the full picture, it should be a requirement to record young persons absconding or committing an offence? Is she aware that it used to be best practice for inspectors to ask for that information and that Ofsted, now that it is responsible, has told inspectors that they do not need to ask for it and that the home does not need to record it because that is no longer required by regulation? Does that not show the importance of what she is putting forward today?
Absolutely. We have had a number of discussions with the Commission for Social Care Inspection, when it was responsible, and with Ofsted, because in 2002 the Department of Health’s guidance made that an indicator. However, reports have consistently not used it when inspections of the home have been made. In fact, a degree of frustration has been expressed by inspectors because, although they have a duty to do that, they could not do so because people were not required to keep that information and make it available to them.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying and I am very supportive of it. She will know that most children who find themselves in care have experienced feckless parenting or disorganised households. They will not have learned all of the standards that we would expect children to experience during their childhood. Is it not quite shocking that on going into care they do not experience a far greater level of care and have greater values put in front of them? If they are absconding from the home, it indicates that things are failing very badly. That nobody is even recording their disappearance is quite shocking and is something that we must act on.
The hon. Lady raises something that has caused me a great deal of concern, especially when I tabled new clause 37. I felt that it was an unambitious new clause. I would have been far happier tabling a new clause requiring children’s homes to record and make available for inspection occasions of positive achievement by young people. It could have included how many young people are achieving high-quality GCSEs and A-levels and how many children are participating in school theatres of bands.
I found it very disappointing to put forward a requirement to record instances of children going missing, instances of antisocial or violent behaviour by children and acts of criminal damage perpetrated by children. That should not be what we are talking about. That is not what we expect for our children and these are our children. However, there comes a time when a baseline must be put down. We must say that these children have the right to expect minimum standards. These things should be included in those minimum standards.
The all-party group on runaway and missing children held evidence sessions towards the end of last year. Some very effective evidence was given to us by the police forces for Lancashire and Leicester, which had been doing intensive work in tracking why reports of missing children had been made to them. They looked at what had happened to the children and what the outcomes were. They used a very child-centred approach which was very effective.
Lancashire identified more than 300 children who went missing on at least three occasions in one year. Between them, they accounted for almost 3,200 of Lancashire’s missing persons investigations. The majority of those cases involved children in care, particularly those in residential care. Many of those children were prolific runaways. One child had been the subject of 78 missing person investigations in a single year. The police worked out that the cost of police services in investigating those reports was on average £1,000 each time. In one year, £78,000 was spent in addressing the problems of that young person.
That information is quite shocking when we consider our ambitions for supporting young people going into higher education and whether we can extend that to children who are going into apprenticeships or further education. Through failure, we can spend £78,000 in police time on not supporting effectively a young person in a local authority home. Local authority care homes should have to record these things and be accountable for the management of them. They must be open to intervention and support so that they can be more effective parents, rather than wait until the young people face the negative outcomes of being out on the street where they are subject to certain predators and likely to get involved in certain activities.
Leicester police said that the top 10 missing people for 2005 were responsible for 6 per cent. of the missing person reports for their police force. All of them were missing more than 10 times up to a maximum of 53. The top 10 had been the victims of 20 offences that were reported to the police and a total of 82 offences were linked to them, including 28 assaults and a variety of offences including burglary, theft and damage. They also commented that 70 per cent. of those offences were committed in the care home. They speculated whether, if those children had been in their homes rather than care homes, the police would have been involved, or whether proper intervention and decent parenting would have ensured that the children understood their actions and did not offend again. The purpose of new clause 37 is to ensure not that we record a downward spiral for young people but that we identify where early interventions are necessary in children’s homes to ensure effective support to give children in care a better outcome, not a worse one.
The virtuous circle involved in new clause 38 would ensure that the stakeholders responsible for the best interest of the child or young person placed in a children’s home are consulted and involved when an inspection report is being prepared. The designated teacher in the young person’s school, for example, would be able to give input on whether the relevant person from the home was attending parent-teacher meetings, whether the young person was getting help with their homework and bringing it in on time and whether they were attending school and participating effectively in school activities. Those are the kinds of thing that depend on parental support, or, in this case, the support of the person acting in loco parentis. Children and young people should not be expected to manage their own schooling, homework and environment.
The purpose of new clause 39 is to ensure that inspection reports return to the person with the most interest in ensuring that the child or young person has positive outcomes from their experience as a looked-after child. At the moment, Ofsted has no duty to provide reports to key stakeholders such as schools and agencies responsible for tackling crime and disorder. Reports are always sent to the registered individual as well as the registered manager, but that is it.
A placing authority, particularly if it is out of area, will not have the information that it needs to know whether a child or young person is having a positive experience in the home or whether they have absconded or run away—whatever word one wants to use; I do not like “absconding” very much—78 times in a year. That is absolutely essential information. None of us would allow our children to leave home if we did not know where they were going, what the reputation of the place was or how it was performing. We need to ensure that those reports are made available to the one person with that young person’s best interest at heart and the determining power over whether that young person remains in the placement or is given something more effective.
I agree with all that my hon. Friend has said, but I want to ask her a question. In Staffordshire, the county council, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service have an inter-agency protocol designed to reduce the number of looked-after children who become involved in the criminal justice system. The partners have said to me that they are concerned that when children arrive in Staffordshire from another authority and are placed in the independent sector, the partners do not necessarily receive sufficient information to be able to work their protocol and give the same level of service to those children. Would anything in the new clause help those partners in the work that they want to do?
There are two things that I can say to that. One is that my own children’s services department has said something similar to me: “We don’t know what we don’t know.” That is crucial. We must ensure that they have the necessary information to carry out their roles, particularly when they are trying to do so effectively.
One of the problems that has been mentioned consistently by some of the excellent social workers and voluntary organisations working in this field, and by the police, are the push and pull factors. Young people can leave something that that they do not like, but they can also be enticed away by people with a vested interested. Young people in residential homes are particularly subject to such enticement. That is one of the reasons why there are so many young people coming into the criminal justice system, and there are some shocking examples of young women involved in prostitution—through people who have sought them out and groomed them—who have not had effective support in the residential homes.
The purpose of the new clauses is clear. It is to ensure that there is an underpinning framework that enables the purpose of the main clause—clause 26—to be achieved. Enforcement can then happen, but on an evidence base that is drawn from all the stakeholders involved in the young person’s well-being.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South for sparking an interesting debate, and I pay tribute—as I have done before—to her diligence in and around this subject. I also thank other hon. Members who participated. The debate has been useful for teasing out some of the issues on inspection—of children’s homes in particular—and what should and should not be reported. I replied not so long ago to an Adjournment debate on the subject, and I am aware of many of the issues that my hon. Friend raised.
On new clause 39, the Government agree very much that it is important that reports from Her Majesty’s chief inspector are available. We entirely agree that local authorities considering placing a child should consider all the available information in making such a decision, including recent inspection reports. As the hon. Lady said, the law currently provides that such reports should be made available. The chief inspector must send a copy of the report to each person who has registered in respect of the establishment, make copies of the report available for inspection at its offices by any person at any reasonable time and take other steps that she considers appropriate for publicising a report. Any person who asks Ofsted for a copy of a report is entitled to one. I know that hon. Members have encountered teething problems with that.
Ofsted is currently consulting on whether to publish its reports. That consultation, which runs until 16 September, seeks the views of the children and young people who live in children’s homes. That is important. Of course, it should also seek the views of hon. Members and I hope that they will give their views to it. The publication of inspection reports on children’s homes is sensitive, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South will acknowledge. Ofsted has not to date published such reports on its website for that reason. While reports do not name individual children, a significant number of homes care only for a small number of children and, in those circumstances, it may be harder to protect children if the reports are widely publicised.
It is essential that in seeking to improve communication between providers and commissioners, which I think is the purpose of her amendment, we do not place children at risk. While I strongly sympathise with my hon. Friend’s point and believe that should be taken onboard in the Ofsted’s consultation, we are not convinced that the requirement for Her Majesty’s chief inspector to circulate copies of inspections of children’s homes to every local authority placing children at such homes is the best way forward. Inspection reports on children’s homes are currently available on request by local authorities and local safeguarding children boards, and it would be inefficient to require Ofsted to create and maintain a new register of individual children at children’s homes or to collect that information on each individual inspection of a children’s home.
The Government are committed to ensuring that inspection is a fully rounded process, which takes account of all the relevant evidence, including the views of children and others with an interest, such as local authorities placing children in the home and the designated teacher at a school attended by children from the home. Primary legislation is too unwieldy to make that happen. It is essential that the inspectorate is able to tailor its approach within a broad framework to take account of individual and changing circumstances.
Ofsted’s current guidance on inspecting children’s homes is set out in its April 2007 document “Are you ready for your inspection? A guide to inspections of children’s services conducted by Ofsted.” That guidance explains to managers of establishments that they may sometimes be asked to help distribute surveys to stakeholders of their service, for example, to parents, teachers, social workers or health professionals. That is to ensure that as many people as possible linked to the service have the opportunity to express their views and to let Ofsted know what the service does well or could improve.
In practice, of course, Ofsted plans each inspection individually according to the circumstances in each children’s home using, among other sources, the children’s homes self-assessment and the inspection of children’s homes questionnaire, both of which the children’s home complete. They help the Ofsted inspectors to decide which partners should be consulted.
Regarding, for example, the designated teacher at the school attended by the children, we fully agree that it is vital that children’s homes support the education of children in their care effectively. Building strong links with the child’s school is an important part of that. Standard 14 of the “National Minimum Standards for children’s homes” says that the home should have
“an education policy that shows how the home intends to promote and support the education of children throughout the time that they live there” and, as part of this, the child or young person’s personal education plan should
“set out which staff in the children's home have responsibility for liaising with schools.”
Ofsted’s practice means that a questionnaire on the children’s home may be sent to the designated person at the school, which would be taken into account when preparing an inspection report on the home. In addition, section 32(5) of the Care Standards Act provides that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector must send a copy of the report to the registered person for an establishment without delay. Prompt reporting of inspection findings is of vital importance to maximise their value and impact.
New clause 38 may, by placing other formal duties on Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector before preparing every inspection report, inadvertently cause delay in reporting. In practice, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector would need to request contact details from the children’s home, request views from the specified organisation and person or persons, and take reasonable steps to seek such views. The current law allows for the seeking of views, and this is Ofsted’s general practice, but it also allows flexibility to balance seeking such views with the need for urgency.
New clause 38 would require Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector to inform local authorities placing children at a children’s home that she was preparing a report, but would not require her to seek their views. We are not persuaded of the value of such a provision. It would require Ofsted either to create and maintain a list of the placing authority for every child in every children’s home, or to seek this information in respect of each individual inspection, either of which would be administratively cumbersome. Every children’s home is inspected twice a year. Notifying local authorities twice a year before this happens would not serve any clear purpose.
The Government agree that inspections of children’s homes should seek and take account of the views of those with an interest in the effectiveness of the home, and believe that Ofsted takes steps to achieve this. Ofsted has made significant progress in terms of consulting children, parents, local authorities, providers and other key stakeholders. However, the details of how this is done in practice should not be for primary legislation. Within the broad framework set by the legislation, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector is best placed to ensure a flexible and appropriate balance between seeking views and reporting promptly.
New clause 37 requires children’s home providers to collate their statistics on the number of children who go missing from children’s homes and incidences of antisocial and criminal behaviour, and to make that information available on request to the inspectorate. I entirely understand the point that my hon. Friend is making because she raises an important issue. Notwithstanding her point about reporting positive things as well in relation to young people in children’s homes, I am very sympathetic to her reasons for tabling this amendment.
In making placement decisions, local authorities should take all necessary steps to satisfy themselves that the placement is appropriate and is able to meet the assessed needs of the individual child. At an earlier sitting we discussed the factors that may give rise to antisocial and even criminal behaviour by a small minority of children placed in children’s homes. We considered, for example, the effects of inappropriate placements, a long distance from home, and of children feeling “dumped”, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham put it. Clearly, we hope that these sorts of placements will become increasingly rare as a direct result of the Bill. While it is of course important for placing authorities to take account of a wide range of information in making placement decisions, that information must be meaningful and useful. It must obviously help local authorities to make the right placement decisions.
What matters most is that children’s homes take appropriate action to address the behaviour of the children placed there through well trained staff providing the right support and care. As we have discussed, there are steps that should be taken, and the Government are taking them to ensure that that happens.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South will be aware that provisions are in place to enable the chief inspector to consider the information sought by the amendment. The Care Standards Act 2000, which provides the legislative framework for the registration and regulation of children’s homes, includes a general power to make regulations requiring the keeping of records and the notification of events occurring in establishments and agencies. The Act also contains the power for the registration authority to require an establishment or agency to provide any information that it considers necessary when carrying out an inspection.
Regulations provide that the procedure for dealing with any unauthorised absence of a child from a children’s home must be supplied to Ofsted as part of the initial application to register the home. The national minimum standards for children’s homes also refer specifically to the need for the registered person to have such a procedure in place. In addition, there is a regulatory requirement that all incidents of absconding—or whatever term we use—must be noted on the child’s record, and the placing authority must be notified of the incident.
Where there are instances of criminal behaviour, the regulations and national minimum standards are also clear about procedures for making the consequences of unacceptable behaviour clear to staff and children. Any disciplinary measures taken must be appropriate to the incident. The home is required to notify specific serious incidents to Ofsted and to the placing authority.
My hon. Friend has raised some important issues relating to statistics, but for the reasons that I have given, I think that requiring collation from individual records in the way that she suggests is not the best solution. Those are matters for professional judgment in light of the regulatory requirements, the national minimum standards and guidance, rather than for primary legislation. The national minimum standards for children’s homes are to be reviewed this year as part of a review of all sets of national minimum standards for children, and I assure my hon. Friend that the review will consider how to strengthen existing requirements and expectations in the areas that she outlined.
On that basis, I ask my hon. Friend not to press her new clauses, with the assurance that as part of the review of national minimum standards, we will consider closely how we can strengthen existing requirements through those standards.
I am of course disappointed in some ways by the Minister’s response, but I hope that it is only a temporary disappointment and that the review of minimum standards and the various regulations attached to the Bill will relieve my concerns and those of other Members. I am sure that both he and Ofsted have taken note of the fact that there is considerable interest in the House in the performance of inspectors, the transparency of inspection reports and, accepting absolutely what he said about respecting young people’s privacy in the process, the need to ensure that people making a decision about those young people have the evidence that they need to make a full and proper decision.