The government has proposed making it illegal to place under-16s in unregulated accommodation, the education secretary will announce today.
Under the plans unveiled by Gavin Williamson, consultation on which will be open for eight weeks, councils would be banned from using placements that offer accommodation but not care for children below the age of 16.
Such placements typically involve the provision of support – but not care – to older looked-after children, helping them to make the transition to independent living.
But there have been growing concerns over the use of unregulated accommodation for younger children as councils struggle with often extreme shortages of suitable provision. In one example, a judgment published last autumn revealed how a 15-year-old at high risk of sexual exploitation was shuttled by Dorset council round a series of unregulated placements, including on caravan parks.
“Social workers and council chiefs have to make difficult decisions about the children in their care,” Williamson said. “So it’s important we agree an ambitious approach to these important reforms to bring about lasting change in children’s social care.”
New Ofsted powers
The proposals announced today would also grant new powers to Ofsted to crack down on providers of unregistered children’s homes –who are illegally providing care without having signed up with the regulator.
Ofsted’s national report, published last month, had called for an expansion of its toolkit for tackling rogue providers, with national director for social care Yvette Stanley commenting that the watchdog was in advanced discussions with the DfE.
The proposals would enable Ofsted to take legal action before prosecution and issue enforcement notices, which would result in illegal providers being forced to close, register or face a penalty.
The consultation announced today will also seek views on:
- Introducing minimum standards for unregulated independent and semi-independent accommodation.
- Ensuring the interests of young people in care are appropriately represented by their independent reviewing officer (IRO).
- Introducing new measures so that local authorities and local police forces liaise before an unregulated placement is made.
‘Opportunity to recognise sector pressures’
Responding to Williamson’s announcement, Stanley said Ofsted welcomed the proposals and would await the outcome of the consultation with interest.
“Some of our most vulnerable children are living in places where we don’t know if the people caring for them are suitable or skilled enough to meet their needs – this isn’t acceptable,” she said. “We’ve also called for better assurance about the quality of unregulated provision for older children. We need a system where children are getting high quality care and support, with the right level of oversight.”
But elsewhere in the sector, reaction was mixed.
Rachel Dickinson, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said the consultation was “an opportunity for the government to truly recognise the pressures local authorities face when trying to find the right placement in the right place for a growing number of children and young people in our care”.
Unregulated placements are typically used by councils to accommodate younger children after other arrangements have broken down or where complex needs mean no other option is available, Dickinson added.
“If the proposal to ban the use of unregulated settings for under 16s is implemented, we would be interested to hear about what plans are in place to ensure this does not exacerbate capacity issues the sector is already facing, particularly in relation to finding placements for our most complex children and young people,” she said.
‘Regulation the only credible remedy’
Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said unregulated providers “must work with councils, the police and other partners to ensure the safety and wellbeing of young people”.
“We want to work with the government to make sure this happens,” Butler added. Echoing Dickinson’s comments, she said it was vital the government use the consultation to better understand the national squeeze on accommodation for children in care.
The government must provide “appropriate funding and support to ensure the right homes are available for all children in the right place whatever their needs,” Butler said.
Meanwhile Jonathan Stanley, principal partner at the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC), called on the sector to use the consultation to “significantly strengthen” the government’s proposals.
“The current proposals seem to be trying to regularise the current inadequate situation rather than a robust redrawing of a gap in the provision for vulnerable children,” Stanley said. “After an extensive evaluation of factors, which has been provided to DfE, NCERCC sees that it is only regulation that can be a credible remedy.”
National minimum standards would give “entirely the wrong message” to young people, providers and local authorities, Stanley added.
“Imagine asking a young person describing where they lived as ‘minimum’,” he said. “The question that young people may want to ask of the minister and consultation is, ‘Is what would be expected of your own children, Gavin Williamson?'”
Stanley said it was also misleading to try to draw lines separating care and support.
“There cannot be support without care… as many children looked after are still socially and emotionally vulnerable [at 16],” he said. “Support alone is not OK at any age or stage.”