An MP has warned that the children’s home market in England is “run in the interests of the providers” rather than for the benefit of children and young people.
Ann Coffey, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on missing children, told MPs during a debate about children in care last week that a third of children were placed 20 miles or more from their home areas, and suggested the problem was because homes are being set up in low-cost areas to suit business purposes, rather than what’s best for children.
“In 2012, children’s homes were concentrated in the north-west, the west midlands and the south-east. For example, the north-west has 15% of the children’s homes population, but 25% of the children’s homes,” Coffey explained.
She added: “One reason for that could be that property prices were so much lower in some areas than others, leading companies to set up in low-cost areas to suit business plans rather than what is best for the children.”
Private equity firms
In a statement, Coffey said that 79% of children’s homes are in the private or voluntary sector, and said there were concerns about larger private equity firms entering the market.
She said: “Clearly these big private equity firms do not invest in children’s homes for altruistic purposes. It is therefore important that their profits should not be at the expense of the needs of the children.”
A failure of commissioning could be causing an unequal distribution of homes, Coffey said, and she added: “After all, local authorities are the only buyers of these places, and commissioning cannot simply be the sum total of decisions made according to available capacity. It must be proactive, having regard to the longer-term needs of the children whom local authorities look after, now and in the future.”
She highlighted that a model used in Denmark, in which residential care is likely to be more local and allows professionals to work with families, could be a better alternative.
Coffey welcomed recent changes to regulations, which included a change that means service directors have to approve a “distant” placement, but asked for clarity on how the effect of these regulations is being monitored.
Jonathan Stanley, chief executive of the Independent Children’s Home Association, said that providers had been seeking “mutual, collaborative co-production of child-centred solutions”.
“The future of children’s homes needs to be very different. First, we need an audit of needs and to aggregate results. Then we can plan together what is needed and where locally, regionally and nationally. This sort of relational working together requires a new ethic and practice for commissioning and that it should not be seen as a role for local authorities alone but jointly held with providers,” he said.
Stanley added that a Department for Education study of the location of homes found there “is no correlation between cost of property and location”.