Placing children in secure accommodation elsewhere in Great Britain

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 10 January 2017.

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“Schedule (

(a) the placement by local authorities in England and Wales of children in secure accommodation in Scotland, and

(b) the placement by local authorities in Scotland of children in secure accommodation in England and Wales.”—

This new clause would introduce NS1, which amends legislation to allow local authorities in England and Wales to place children in secure accommodation in Scotland, and makes provision relating to the placement by local authorities in Scotland of children in secure accommodation in England and Wales.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 9 to 15.

New clause 27—Placing children in secure accommodation elsewhere in Great Britain—

“(1) Schedule (Placing children in secure accommodation elsewhere in Great Britain) ends at the end of the period of two years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”

This new clause would revoke provisions in the Bill that enable local authorities in England and Wales to place children in secure accommodation in Scotland, and vice versa, two years after the Act comes into force.

Government new schedule 1—Placing children in secure accommodation elsewhere in Great Britain.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

Happy new year to you, Mrs Main, and the rest of the Committee. It is wonderful to be back and to see everyone looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready for what we hope will be a constructive last few days in Committee.

The Government amendments in this group, introduced via new clause 1 and new schedule 1, are necessary to fill a legislative gap relating to looked-after children being placed in secure children’s homes in Scotland by English and Welsh local authorities. The new clause and new schedule make various amendments, some of them technical, to various pieces of primary and secondary legislation, with the aim of making clear the ability of local authorities in England and Wales to place looked-after children in secure accommodation in Scotland.

Reciprocal provisions already exist that allow Scottish local authorities to place children in England or Wales under compulsory supervision orders, so this is not a new or even emerging position. Placements in Scottish secure homes have happened commonly over time, with the option to place children in Scotland increasing the diversity of specialist secure provision available to local authorities in England and Wales, which is in the best interests of our most vulnerable children.

Government amendments 9 to 15 will make the relevant changes to the Bill’s extent provisions to reflect new clause 1 and new schedule 1 and provide for them to come into effect when the Bill is passed.

It is right to say that extensive discussions have taken place with officials in the Scottish and Welsh Governments, and Ministers from both those Administrations have indicated their support for the Government amendments as drafted. Scotland is currently progressing its own legislative consent motion to that effect.

The hon. Member for South Shields will want to speak to her new clause, and I will no doubt want to respond to the points that she makes, but I urge the Committee to see the Government amendments for what they are: a technical solution to a gap in the law to allow the continuation of a well-established practice.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

It is a pleasure to be back in Committee, Mrs Main. I, too, wish everyone a happy new year.

I rise to speak to new clause 27, which is in my name. It was with a mix of anger and sadness that I tabled the new clause, which would give Ministers two years to sort out a situation that has arisen on their watch: the intolerable lack of secure places for our country’s most vulnerable children. Those are children who are looked after by the state and who the courts have found to be at risk of significant harm and injury or a risk to others by their being looked after by local authorities. They are our responsibility.

I will briefly share with the Committee a small example from the Department for Education’s own research of a child who was placed in secure accommodation:

“Marie was referred as a very young child because of sexual abuse and severe neglect. She was removed and placed for adoption aged four with two younger siblings but went on to experience three adoption breakdowns. This was partly due to the children’s sexualised behaviour but also events that couldn’t have been predicted—including the death of two adoptive parents. She returned to the care system for the last time aged nine with a severe attachment disorder.”

We owe it to children like her to ensure that when they are in crisis, the best possible support is available to meet their needs.

Two years is enough time for the Government to fix this problem if there is sufficient political will. New clause 27 is a pragmatic response to a situation that should never have been allowed to happen. I have decided reluctantly that seeking to block the Minister’s amendments would not be in the immediate interests of children who are desperately in need of secure care. Children have been sent from England to Scotland because of a lack of provision close to their families, local services and communities. The legal cases that I understand led to the Minister tabling his amendments concern children from Blackpool, Cumbria and Stockport being detained in Scotland. Those are looked-after children who are attempting suicide and self-harm, and who are in acute states of distress. Courts have made orders for them to be detained because they are not safe in ordinary children’s homes or in foster care.

We should not routinely send those children to another country, where they will have to adapt to a different education system and risk disruption to their mental healthcare. We are talking about placing children hundreds of miles away from their families, social workers, independent reviewing officers, independent advocates, visitors and lawyers. Will the Minister explain how we can be sure that their detention will be effectively monitored—particularly as he has not extended the duty on local authorities to establish secure accommodation reviews with independent input?

The legal situation of children looked after by English councils but detained in Scotland must be remedied as a matter of urgency—I totally accept that—but I do not support the Minister’s new clause because I do not believe it is a good policy decision. Let us be clear: the new clause, which will allow for the lawful detention in Scotland of looked-after children from our country, has not come about because social workers, researchers and young people have told the Department for Education that authorising the use of secure units in Scotland for looked-after children from England and Wales would be in their best interests, or that sending those children hundreds of miles from home would make them feel safer and more secure.

The changes are the result of the courts being put in the invidious position of deciding that a looked-after child fits the criteria for a secure accommodation order, but being then informed by the local authority applying for such an order that there is no secure place for that child in England. Orders have been made by the High Court that have bypassed the Children Act 1989, because that legislation does not allow for looked-after children to be detained on welfare grounds in Scotland. The Act does not allow any looked-after child to be placed outside England and Wales without the consent of the child or his or her parent—although that can be overruled in certain circumstances. That provision has been law since, I believe, 1980. Without any consultation with young people or professionals who work with them, the Minister’s new clause strikes out the need for the child’s consent and for parental consent. We are talking about vulnerable teenagers whose lives have spiralled out of control. How can we expect to help them to regain and build up their self-esteem and show they are valued if we send them to another country without asking for their permission?

The research I mentioned earlier found that local authorities viewed detaining a child on welfare grounds as necessary for a small number of children, but all of those authorities agree that that is often a draconian step—and that it is more draconian to send a child to a different country to be locked up. It is a well-established social work principle that looked-after children fare better when they are close to their families, friends, schools and the health professionals supporting them. That principle is well-enshrined in the Children Act 1989.

Since 2011, the number of children placed in secure accommodation for welfare reasons has increased. In March 2011, 62 children in England and Wales were placed in secure accommodation on welfare grounds, while in March 2016, 105 looked-after children in England and Wales were detained in secure accommodation on welfare grounds.

The Government have clearly not been paying attention. This situation needs a national strategy and national leadership—especially when we take into account that The Scotsman reported just last year that children from Scotland may have to be placed south of the border owing to a lack of spaces there. I took a quick look at the availability of secure places in Scotland, and the latest information, as of 6 and 8 January, is that only one of the five secure homes in Scotland has any vacancies; the rest are entirely full. St Mary’s Kenmure centre, on the outskirts of Glasgow, has only three places available, yet serves the whole of Scotland. What assurances can the Minister give that Scotland’s secure centres have room for children from England and Wales? What research has his Department done to establish the capacity of Scotland’s secure care provision? If there has been any research, will he please share it with the Committee?

I fear that if we leave the Minister’s amendments as they are, and do not exert any pressure on the Government to sort out this mess, children may suffer greatly. I am not aware of any consultation, policy document or impact assessment published by the Department about these legislative changes. The amendments are not minor formalities; they fundamentally alter the legal protection given to our most vulnerable looked-after children. The Minister’s exemption clauses could lead to the removal of even more safeguards from that cohort of children; we are talking about legal protections that have been in place for decades. I hope that Members will support my pragmatic new clause.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

It is a pleasure to return to the Committee, Mrs Main. I wish all Committee members a happy new year. I strongly support what my hon. Friend says. I am dismayed that our response to an absence of suitable secure accommodation close to children’s families and homes is leading us to reach for the solution of sending them, effectively, to another country—certainly to another jurisdiction in relation to law and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, education. I particularly want to press the Minister on that point.

The education system in Scotland is different from that of England and Wales, and it is not clear to me what, if any, thinking the Government have done about the impact on young people’s education of moving them to a different country with a different school system. Many young people in secure accommodation will be teenagers approaching the age of 16 when they should be taking examinations, planning their futures, and receiving careers advice and support. It would be helpful to the Committee to understand what thinking the Minister has done and what planning there has been to address those children’s educational needs.

Is the arrangement really seen as some kind of stopgap in which the children would be moved back as quickly as possible to secure accommodation closer to home; or does the Minister believe its purpose is for a child posted to secure accommodation in Scotland to spend the entire period there? I can understand the wish, having found suitable accommodation for a child, not to disrupt it; but equally it seems to me that if we are dealing with a shortage of suitable spaces in England it would be helpful to know whether the Minister intends children placed for a period in Scotland to be brought back home as quickly as possible.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main; I also wish you a happy new year.

I want to put three or four quick points to the Minister in relation to the measure. Could he give us an idea of how many children he thinks will be transferred north of the border, or, indeed, the other way? It would be interesting to have some context, and to know the scale of the problem and perhaps when he first became aware that there was a problem in need of such a resolution. I am particularly interested in how many children from England are likely to move to Scotland, and would like an indication of which local authorities are under the most severe pressure, so that they must look north of the border.

Whether or not the Minister accepts new clause 27, does he accept that if there is not some kind of time limit on the proposal the danger is that we will be legislating to export a problem? That seems a strange way to deal with children who are often very damaged and difficult. I am not sure that in the long run it is in the best interest of the care system in this country that we should end up simply exporting the problem.

Finally, I have on previous occasions heard the Minister say he does not support the idea that children should be moved far from home; I think that particularly in relation to Rotherham he had some strong opinions on that, which I agree with. While I accept that awareness of an impending problem or crisis may have brought him to introduce legislation, I wonder how he would reconcile the notion of sending children north of the border with his strongly held view that it is not in children’s best interests to move them too far from their home base for care provision.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I begin by thanking hon. Members for their contributions to this debate and for raising important issues about not only this new clause but, more widely, the secure children’s homes available to our most vulnerable children and young people in England, Wales and Scotland.

I will address some of the specific points raised. The latest information I have is that there are currently 17 children who have moved from England to secure children’s homes in Scotland. We first became aware of the issue that the new clause tries to fix on the back of a judgment of the family division of the High Court on 12 September last year that children could not be placed by English or Welsh authorities in secure accommodation in Scotland under section 25 of the Children Act 1989. This is a long-established practice, hence the legislative issue we are seeking to resolve was a surprise to everybody.

No child has been placed by an English or Welsh local authority in secure accommodation in Scotland without the authority of the courts in England and Wales. That is an important point. Every case where a child is moved to a different part of the United Kingdom on the basis of a request to place them in a secure children’s home outside their original area will be subject to court approval. The court has to decide on the usual basis under the Children Act of it being in the child’s best interest.

I will write to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak about which local authorities currently have children placed north of the border. The hon. Member for South Shields alluded to some of those, but I will endeavour to provide the hon. Gentleman with a comprehensive list.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

In writing, will the Minister also tell us how long those children have spent in children’s homes north of the border? As there are only 17 children, I hope he will be able to give us that information for each child.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I will endeavour to provide as much detail as possible.

This is not about exporting a problem. It is a two-way street, because of course, children from Scotland and Wales are placed in England, and vice versa. This is about trying to improve the diversity of choice for very specialist placements, which starts to address the other point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak rightly raised about the presumption that children, where possible, should be placed as close to home as they can. I agree with that.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have done a lot of work on residential care, looking at how we can improve the commissioning of places and the decision making, so that it is higher up the process when making a choice about the most appropriate placement for children, where residential care is the right type of placement. However, I think we all agree that for very specialist placements—particularly knowing the numbers in secure children’s homes—it would be impossible to have that type of specialist provision on the doorstep of every local authority, so we need to look in the round at what is available in the wider area, to try to meet those specific needs.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for South Shields that there is more work to do on ensuring we have a functioning secure children’s home system that meets the demands placed on it. We have not been sitting idle, waiting for a problem to bubble to the surface. We have been working hard to establish, for the first time, a co-ordinated approach, to understand where the pressures on the system are, the availability of particular types of provision and how we can better match children and young people with the right placement for them as quickly as possible. That is why we set up the National Secure Welfare Commissioning Unit in May last year.

I wrote to the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services with a strong commitment to work with them to find the long-term system change we need, so that we can address some of the issues that the hon. Member for South Shields raised. I am not saying that we have the perfect system—we are not at that point by any stretch of the imagination—but we are working hard to ensure that we have a better way of providing the right sort of care for the children who need it, whether on welfare grounds or on other grounds that form part of the background of some children who need secure placements.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 9:45, 10 January 2017

The Minister is telling me that he is proposing a reciprocal arrangement and that there will be a transfer of children from Scotland to secure accommodation in England as well. If he has the numbers will he give them to us now? If not, perhaps he will write to us. I am curious to know how many children from Scotland are in secure accommodation in England. I am also curious to know how a country with such a small population compared with England can have an excess of secure accommodation. Can he say more about the particulars, without identifying individuals, although I realise that 17 is a small number? Is there something special about the accommodation available in Scotland which differs from accommodation in England, making it necessary to have that transfer? I am curious to understand what that is. If it is not simply a question of numbers, I am curious to know the particular circumstances that necessitate that sort of shift.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I may come back to the hon. Gentleman with further information, but I can tell him that in Scotland there are 89 welfare places in secure children’s homes. They are available to children both in Scotland and in England and Wales, as has been the case for a considerable time. On the range of provision in Scotland, every decision made for each individual child is based on what is in their best interests. Clearly, therefore, some specialist provision in Scotland is deemed suitable as the best for a child in England with their particular needs.

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman chapter and verse on exactly what each secure children’s home offers, but I undertake to provide further detail, so that he is reassured that the decisions made by the courts are such that those very vulnerable children and young people are getting the best possible care and support. Furthermore, all those children and young people who have been placed in Scotland will still have placement visits from their social worker and regular reviews of the quality of that placement, even when they have been placed in Scotland or Wales.

Part of the care plan for a child or young person is about how their educational needs will be met. It will have to be set out and approved by the court before the placement is allowed to go ahead. However, I will look carefully at what the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston said, because I wholeheartedly agree with her that, wherever a young person is placed, it is important that they need to have opportunity—to advance themselves as an individual and in what they are capable of achieving academically and in getting into the workplace—and some stability in their life. That placement must meet all those requirements. I will look carefully at what she says and perhaps have a further conversation with her about how we ensure that children and young people in those circumstances are not missing out on the benefits of the education that is vital to their life chances.

Although I understand the points that have been made—I hope I have shown that I appreciate what hon. Members have said—I go back to where I started: the amendments do not seek to change existing policy or the practical circumstances in the system of secure children’s homes. They provide a technical fix to clarify the legal position of a long-standing and mutually beneficial arrangement that works for and should continue to work for our children.

We need to look carefully at how to continue to co-ordinate across England, Scotland and Wales and at how to improve provision in England. That is what the co-ordination unit is trying to do and why we are working hard with the LGA and the ADCS to see how we can make sure that the provision meets the future needs of this small but important and group of vulnerable children and young people who deserve the best possible support. I hope that on that basis the Committee will support the Government’s amendments and that the hon. Member for South Shields will be sufficiently reassured not to press her new clause.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I am concerned that without acceptance of the new clause the practice the Minister is proposing may become the norm. I have not heard anything from him today about whether the Government are working to increase capacity throughout England, Scotland and Wales. What will happen when Scotland runs out of capacity, if it is being used as the overspill, for want of a better word, for children from England and Wales? I highlighted in my opening comments the fact that Scotland is running out of capacity. What will then happen to these children? The Minister has not given any assurances on where we are going with this. He has agreed that my new clause needs to be looked at and to have conversations with me, but ultimately, if my new clause is agreed, it will holds the Minister to account and will make sure that within two years he has found a solution. I would like to push my new clause to a vote at the appropriate time.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 2