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Department for Education to ban placing of vulnerable under 16s in unregulated accommodation from September 2021

A ban on placing vulnerable children under the age of 16 in unregulated accommodation or semi-independent placements will come into force in September this year, the Education Secretary has said.

According to the 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. This was 5% of looked after children in these settings during 2018-19.

Gavin Williamson also announced that plans would be developed to support local authorities in creating more places in children’s homes, “backed by additional investment, building on the £24m announced at the Spending Review and recognising that there are pressures on some local authorities to find the right placement for a child”;

The Government's formal response to consultation separately acknowledged that many respondents had raised specific issues around the lack of placements available in secure children’s homes and specialist children’s homes placements for children with complex needs.

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"The Government recognises that local authorities sometimes find themselves in positions where the most appropriate placement is difficult to access," it said, adding that further detail on the programme of investment would be given "in due course".

A series of senior judges have sent copies of judgments to the Secretary of State and others over the last two years amid talk of a crisis in the provision of secure accommodation. Earlier this month Mr Justice MacDonald sent a fourth judgment in ongoing proceedings concerning the continuing unavailability of a regulated placement for a vulnerable 16 year old with multifaceted difficulties and at a high risk of serious self-harm or suicide.

The Education Secretary meanwhile also said that:

  • plans will be moved forward for legislating at the earliest opportunity to give Ofsted new powers to take enforcement action against illegal unregistered providers, who 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, building on their existing powers to prosecute providers operating without the correct registration and strengthening the options available to them.”
  • national standards will be introduced for unregulated settings that are accommodating 16 and 17-year-old children in care and care leavers. A consultation will shortly be launched on these new national standards.

Mr Williamson said: “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. The action taken today – supported by the sector and in response to their views - is an important step in making sure children in care are placed in settings that give them the highest chances of success.

“We know that for some older young people, independent or semi-independent accommodation can be right in helping them transition to adult life – 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.”

Responding to the DfE’s announcement, Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England, said the Government’s ban on unregulated provision for under-16s in care was very welcome, but needed to go further and include all under-18s.

She said: “There are too many teenage children in care living in completely unsuitable and sometimes dangerous accommodation, including hostels or caravan parks. Vulnerable 17-year-olds are sometimes placed in accommodation where they are easy prey for those who abuse or exploit children, and this change to the law will still leave them at risk.”

Longfield added: “The proposals for Ofsted inspections of settings are also welcome, and it is right that the new standards are developed in consultation with experts and children with care experience. However this must be done quickly. The national standards must closely reflect the existing regulation for children’s homes so that we don’t fall into the trap of treating vulnerable older teens as adults rather than the children they still are.

“At the heart of these problems is a chronic shortage of residential provision for children in care and this must be something that both the current independent care review and forthcoming government spending review rectifies.”

Jenny Coles, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said: “No child should live in unsafe, unsuitable accommodation and we should be working collectively to maintain a sharp focus on improving standards for all children in care. This announcement on unregulated independent and semi-independent settings adds to the local arrangements already in place as local authorities have a responsibility to make sure the unregulated provision they are using is suitable and they will take their own steps to locally regulate and quality assure these settings. 

“The ban on under-16s being placed in unregulated provision will have wider implications in terms of placement sufficiency which local authorities have long been grappling with. Finding the right placement at the right time for the growing number of children in our care is a priority for all local authorities. However, we face a national shortage of foster carers and a lack of suitable regulated homes.”

Ms Coles added: “The government’s commitment to additional funding to increase children’s homes provision is welcome but we need immediate up-front investment to address some of the sufficiency issues. We await further clarity as to how the proposals set out in this announcement will be funded. 

“Banning unregulated provision for under 16’s is a simple solution to a complex set of problems. ADCS believes regulatory reform is essential in addressing these issues. There is also a need for joint working across government to improve access to mental health provision for vulnerable children and young people, investment in the workforce, and to address profit making by private equity firms. The recently launched Care Review presents a clear opportunity to address these issues so that all children can have the best possible outcomes in life.”

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board, meanwhile said the announcements were “positive steps towards ensuring that all children in care live in good quality homes that meet their needs and help them to thrive.

“A key driver for the increasing use of unregulated placements for children under 16 is a lack of suitable regulated homes. The government’s commitment to funding to increase children’s homes provision, which we have previously called for, is therefore a helpful recognition of the pressures on placements.”

But she warned that this funding would not be available immediately, and councils were keen to work with government to quickly develop the places they will need to meet these requirements. 

“We remain convinced of the need for wider regulatory reform to deliver the homes children need, alongside investment in workforce and support services, and urge the Chair of the independent review of children’s social care to look closely at these issues,” she said.

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