Unregulated accommodation banned for vulnerable children under 16

New ban will come into force from September as campaigners warn it will create a “two-tier” care system.

19/02/21

Unregulated accommodation banned for vulnerable children under 16

A ban on placing vulnerable children under the age of 16 in unregulated accommodation will come into force in September 2021, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced today (19 February).

Children in care under 16 will no longer be allowed to be accommodated in unregulated independent or semi-independent placements, the Government has decided after a consultation last year on the practice of placing children in these settings.

The Government says that while independent and semi-independent provision can be the right option for some older children, children aged under 16 are too young for this type of accommodation – which it says is intended to facilitate supported living for older children developing their independence before they leave the care system.

Department for Education (DfE) statistics show that across the year 2018-19 there were 660 looked after children placed in independent or in semi-independent living accommodation who were under the age of 16 when their placement started – 5% of looked after children in these settings during the time period.

“Vulnerable children under 16 are too young for the type of accommodation that provides a place to stay but not the care and support that they need,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said, announcing today’s reforms.

The issue of unregulated provision was brought to wider attention after a series of “scathing” BBC Newsnight investigations in 2019, which said that thousands of teenagers in care were living in unregulated homes and being "abandoned to organised crime gangs".

In its annual spending review, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services recommended more funding to local authorities so they could “re-enter or further develop” their own children’s homes instead of relying on the “costly independent sector”.

However, no new funding has been announced today to help local authorities develop children’s homes or other forms of care.

Announcing the measures today, the Education Secretary said that “plans will be developed” to support local authorities to create more places in children’s homes and suggested “additional investment” would be made available for this, but did not specify how much and when that investment would come.

The Secretary of State also announced plans to introduce new legislation “at the earliest opportunity” to give Oftsed fresh powers to take enforcement action against illegal unregistered providers, who he says should be registered as children’s homes but are operating without the correct registration in place.

This will enable Ofsted to take quicker action to register or close down these homes, the Government says.

The reforms also include the introduction of new national standards for independent and semi-independent provision to be overseen by an Ofsted-led registration and inspection regime, a view which the Government says was supported by over three quarters of respondents to the consultation.

The Government says these national standards and the approach to regulation will be developed through “further consultation with the sector” in 2021.

“We know that for some older young people, independent or semi-independent accommodation can be right in helping them transition to adult life,” Williamson said, “but these settings need to be consistently high quality. We cannot be complacent about the standards we expect to be met for children in our care.”

“Our consultation response sets out the urgent steps we are taking to raise the bar for these children, which alongside the independent review of children’s social care, will level up outcomes for those most in need.”

The consultation response states young people were “overwhelmingly positive” about the need for standards to be applied to unregulated settings.

However, children’s rights charity Article 39 says the first consultation summary document for young people did not inform them that quality standards already exist for children’s homes, or that the proposed new standards would “leave out care”.

“When the Education Secretary committed a year ago to ban unregulated accommodation for children in care, he should have known that all establishments that were providing care and accommodation to children had to, by law, register as children’s homes and follow quality standards,” said Carolyne Willow, Director of Article 39, adding: “It’s only establishments that don’t provide care which can avoid having to register as children’s homes.”

“The Minister had a choice of whether to build up the care system by ensuring every child receives care or give the green light to a new, inferior set of standards which seek to legitimise the absence of care for teenagers.”

Campaigners also say that the new measures will create a “two-tier” system where children who live with foster carers are entitled to remain part of these families until they are 21, but those who don’t live with their own family or a foster family could be denied care from their 16th birthday.

“Children aged 16 and 17 also need care. Why would they be in the care of the state otherwise? Even the inspection framework for child prisons demands that children receive care,” said Willow.

“Today’s shameful policy announcement entrenches a two-tier care system.”

Mike Thiedke, Chief Executive Officer of Depaul UK, a charity which provides independent and semi-independent accommodation, said he supported the announcement of new national standards.

“We already have close local authority oversight and extensive internal policies and procedures to ensure we provide safe, supportive accommodation, and we believe other providers should operate with these controls in place to protect young people.”

In addition to the new measures outlined today, the Government also announced it was scrapping a number of measures proposed in the original consultation.

One such proposal was a possible requirement for local authorities to liaise with police forces when making out of area placements.

The Government said that although there was broad support for this measure from all parties, the benefits of the measure could be built into the national standards and registration and inspection regime it is developing.

Also dropped was a measure to define ‘care’ to clarify the distinction between ‘unregulated’ and ‘unregistered’ provision, as well as a measure requiring for Independent Reviewing Officers (IRO) to visit young people in unregulated placements.

The Government admits that both proposals had “a lot of support” in the consultation, but says its plans to introduce new national standards and Ofsted registration and inspection “supercede (sic) the need for this”.

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