Following BBC Newsnight’s investigations into the plight of children in care being placed in unsafe and unsuitable accommodation, in February 2020 the Department for Education launched a public consultation about semi-independent and independent accommodation. At the same time, it published information about the children in care who live in unregulated accommodation.
- There were 6,190 children in care living in unregulated accommodation on 31 March 2019. Of these, 90 were aged under 16 years.
- More than half of children in unregulated accommodation were from black and minority ethnic communities.
- 40% of children were unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (compared to 6% of children in care overall living in unregulated accommodation).
- Most children in unregulated accommodation were boys.
Below we set out the Government’s proposals and our responses in bold:
Government proposal: That local authorities are banned from placing children under the age of 16 in semi-independent and independent accommodation.
16 and 17 year-olds in care will continue to be put into this form of accommodation, which legally is not permitted to provide care.
We reject this cut-off point of 16. All children in care should live in families or residential settings where they receive care.
By its own published statistics, this government move will help fewer than 100 children in care.
Moreover, the government data shows that 29% – nearly 1 in 3 – of children who were in unregulated accommodation on 31 March 2019 were the subject of a care order. This is where a family court has given the local authority parental responsibility (to the child’s 18th birthday) because the child has suffered, or may suffer, significant harm. Other children unable to live with their families and brought into the care system will, by definition, be in need of care.
The measures below follow the Government’s proposal to continue to allow 16 and 17 year-olds in care to live in accommodation where staff are not allowed to provide care.
Government proposal: It will come up with a new legal definition of ‘care’ (no details are provided).
There is already a legal definition of care. Regulations require children’s homes to follow 9 quality standards, including one on ‘the purpose and quality of care’.
Furthermore, every child in care must have a care plan and regulations set out what must be included.
The Government’s own definition of neglect points to the fundamental needs of children (0-18 years), and what constitutes a failure to meet those needs:
“The persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development…[Neglect] may involve a parent or carer failing to:
a. provide adequate food, clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment)
b. protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger
c. ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers)
d. ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment.
It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs”.
Government proposal: A new requirement on local authorities to liaise with local police forces when they place children in care in semi-independent or independent accommodation outside the child’s home area. This is to help councils make a “considered judgement” over whether to place children in these settings, or whether extra support or monitoring are required.
Regulations already require local authorities to check the safety and the location of unregulated accommodation before they put a child there.
There are already legal duties around visiting children and checking their welfare.
Government proposal: New national standards for semi-independent and independent accommodation, with each setting “making it clear that it cannot provide ‘care and accommodation wholly or mainly for children’ as it is not a registered children’s home”.
Four standards are proposed:
1. The purpose and intent standard
2. The quality of accommodation standard
3. The support standard
4. The protection of children and young people standard.
We strongly reject the development of standards which deny care to 16 and 17 year-olds in care.
Nine quality standards already exist for children’s homes, where children can live up to and beyond their 18th birthday. These are:
1. The quality and purpose of care standard
2. The children’s views, wishes and feelings standard
3. The education standard
4. The enjoyment and achievement standard
5. The health and well-being standard
6. The positive relationships standard
7. The protection of children standard
8. The leadership and management standard
9. The care planning standard.
Modifications already exist in the children’s homes standards for two types of care – short breaks (for disabled children) and secure (where children are detained for their own welfare or following remand or sentencing by a criminal court). Following this precedent, modifications could be made for children’s homes specifically looking after teenagers aged 16+ – recognising their need for growing autonomy while still providing care and support. As with short breaks and secure care, there is no reason why this type of children’s home couldn’t have a more appropriate name / description which would be more appealing, and carry less stigma, for teenagers.
Government proposal: Two options are given for putting the new standards into practice – a requirement on local authorities to only place children in care in accommodation which meet the new standards (to be checked when Ofsted inspects councils) or a requirement for providers to register with Ofsted, and to be inspected against the standards.
Local authorities already have an overarching duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of each child in care. In addition, they already have duties to ensure the accommodation in which they place children is suitable – this includes safety and location.
BBC Newsnight’s investigation, and other inquiries and investigations, have shown that current arrangements are not working, so clearly the independent scrutiny of Ofsted is required.
Government proposal: A new requirement on independent reviewing officers to visit children in care to assess whether their placement is meeting their needs.
This is a very positive step forward so long as independent reviewing officers, who are meant to operate independently of local authorities, are not handed sole responsibility for making decisions about the suitability of accommodation for individual children in care.
Government proposal: A new power for Ofsted to issue enforcement notices to providers of semi-independent and independent accommodation who illegally provide care to children (or act unlawfully in other ways).
We support Ofsted having enforcement powers though we fundamentally disagree with the premise that children under the age of 18 can (or should be able to) manage without day-to-day care.
Care leavers – just like young adults living at home – have the right to be cared for. The Government should consult care leavers specifically about supported accommodation.
LATEST: On 2 March 2020, Children and Young People Now magazine reported that a group has been set up by the Department for Education to work on the proposed new standards. It will work in secret and is chaired by Sir Alan Wood. We are trying to find out more, since clearly if the group is helping to draft the proposed new standards this would seriously undermine the public consultation, which is already shorter than usual (just under two months). We understand that the group is largely made up of statutory agencies and providers.