By Ed Nixon
The issues surrounding unregulated and unregistered children’s homes have dominated news headlines recently. These homes have always existed, but there is mounting concern over their accelerating growth, especially because they often care for the most vulnerable.
Part of the problem is that these homes are being regarded as children’s homes, when they are not. Children’s homes are registered with Ofsted and inspected regularly. Unregulated homes are allowed in law, but the legislation does not set out minimum standards for this accommodation, which is usually used to support children over 16 to live independently.
Meanwhile, an unregistered home is illegal if a child living there is receiving some form of care.
Data collected by some agencies, including the police in most constabulary areas, is not recognising these differences and this is leading to concerns over the veracity of published figures. We’ve also received questions from our members about the differences between the provision.
There will almost certainly be some excellent unregulated provision available, but equally there may be some in which vulnerable children and young adults are unsafe.
We simply don’t know at this stage, and we don’t know how many of these homes exist because there is no requirement to register their existence, but here’s what we do know:
- It’s not always been the case that children’s homes were required to be registered.
- Institutional abuse or neglect is not confined to unregistered and unregulated homes, but all of the available evidence suggests that it was far more prevalent before there was a requirement for children’s homes to be independently inspected.
- Most bodies and organisations in the children’s residential care sector are opposed to the growth in unregulated provision.
- Most members of the public would, understandably, not recognise the difference between a regulated and an unregulated children’s home and are therefore likely to describe any house that accommodates a number of young people and has staff as a children’s home.
- Ofsted has made it clear that if a home is found to be offering unregulated placements and cannot meet the regulatory requirements to be registered, then the home will be closed and the owner or provider will be liable to prosecution.
- There is no legal sanction for councils making placements in unregulated provision.
What difference does this make?
We know that the number of children coming into care is rising year on year and at the same time there is a shortage of suitable and available placements in England, so it would appear that some of the shortfall is being made up by using unregulated provision.
This is, for those who choose to provide such provision, undoubtedly a business opportunity. It is estimated that the cost of setting up a registered children’s home in England is approximately £1,000,000. A large chunk of this cost is made up of requirements associated with compliance with the Children’s Homes Regulations and Quality Standards 2015.
These include, but are not limited to, minimum levels of suitably qualified staff on duty at all times of the day and night, meeting the standards against each of the areas Ofsted will inspect, and the standards in relation to the fabric and structure of the premises.
Why does it matter?
There has been a considerable noise from organisations like the Howard League for Penal Reform about the criminalisation of looked after children in children’s homes. However, this view is not supported by ICHA’s own research into criminalisation, by Ofsted’s inspection data, or by Sir Martin Narey’s 2016 review of children’s homes in England, all of which found precious little evidence of children living in registered children’s homes being frequently, let alone ‘routinely’ criminalised.
Could it be that those children being criminalised are living in unregulated provision? Given what we already know about how data is being recorded, this is entirely possible. It is, however, impossible to prove this with the hard evidence that is currently available.
It could also be the case that other debates, such as those relating to ‘county lines’, child sexual exploitation and indeed other forms of child exploitation are similarly skewed by the existence of regulated, unregulated and unregistered children’s residential care provision.
ICHA takes the view that there should simply be no unregulated provision for children. This provision is, naturally, not subject to the same level of scrutiny as a children’s home and it is therefore entirely possible for vulnerable children to be placed with unvetted adults on a routine basis.
What’s more, because there is no independent inspection or regulation, children can be placed with those who would exploit them, and in a situation where there is not even a requirement for staff presence or oversight.
Ed Nixon is deputy CEO of the Independent Children’s Homes Association