Government needs to back its ban on looked-after children being placed into unregulated, semi-independent accommodation with investment in a new generation of children’s homes, Lib-Dem education spokesperson Layla Moran MP has said.
At their Spring Conference in York next month, Lib-Dems are due to debate and vote on a set of policies to “rescue” the children’s social care system – including help for councils to build and run more children’s homes themselves as an alternative to unregulated accommodation.
“Unregulated accommodation is a useful stepping stone for young people aged 16 and 17 to learn how to live independently. But it’s not where children under 16, or young people with complex needs, should be living.
“The Government is right to take tough action, but these proposals don’t address why children are being placed there – the shortage of children’s homes,” said Moran.
“Councils are desperate for the cash to ensure that every child who needs a place in residential care has one – but the Conservatives haven’t provided it.
“Meanwhile, funding for services to stop children entering care in the first place, like children’s centres and youth services, have been squeezed,” she said.
The LGA has warned that unregulated accommodation is increasingly being used as a stop-gap to look after children who need a place in a registered children’s home -when no places are available.
An LGA briefing prepared for The Commons in October outlined key issues as:
- A 26% increase in the number of children aged 16 or over in the care system since 2016. These children are more likely to require residential care than younger children, who are more likely to be fostered
- A shortfall in specialist inpatient mental health facilities for young people
- A lack of spaces in secure children’s homes
- Children’s homes being reluctant to take children with complex needs in fear that it could negatively impact their Ofsted ratings
- Councils being unable to create more residential children’s home places in their local authority area
Year-on-year increases in the number of children entering the care system is recognised as making it increasingly difficult for councils to find appropriate placements for children, particularly within residential care and in their own areas.
The total number of looked after children reached a new high of 75,420 in 2017/18, representing the biggest annual rise of children in care in eight years.
An average of 88 children are now entering the care of councils every day.
Councils are particularly seeing this rise amongst older children with 20% (13,730) aged 16 or over in 2016, compared to 23% (17,330) in 2018.
Older children are more likely to be placed in children’s homes, with just over three quarters of children in children’s homes aged between 14 and 17.
his rise in the proportion of older children may be one driver of rising need for residential accommodation.
The proportion of looked-after children overall in residential accommodation rose from 9% -11% between 2013 and 2018.
A majority of children’s homes are now run by private sector providers, and while the number of children’s homes in England has increased by 135 over the last three years, the number of local authority-run homes decreased by 50 over the same period.
Only around 28% of children living in children’s homes now live in council accommodation, with 67% in private sector homes and 5% in voluntary sector accommodation.
These private sector homes tend to be clustered in areas of cheaper accommodation.
For example, London has only 6% of all homes, while almost a quarter (24%) are in the North East.
Some councils are attempting to address the disproportionate distribution of children’s homes by re-establishing their own provision within their boundaries.
However, funding pressures, along with high property prices and housing shortages in many areas, make this very difficult.
Councils report particular difficulties placing young people with complex needs, which can result in unregulated accommodation being used in emergencies until a suitable registered placement is found.
This is partially due to a significant shortfall in specialist inpatient mental health facilities for young people, and a lack of spaces in secure children’s homes.
In addition, some registered providers report concerns that supporting young people with complex needs could impact upon their Ofsted ratings, leading to them refusing to offer places, though we understand that Ofsted is working to tackle this.
In the Commons last month, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick was challenged by Labour’s Stephen Morgan to “agree that responsibility for this injustice lies at the feet of his Government”.
Jenrick fell back on “the most generous settlement for local government for a decade” that provided a 4.4% real- terms increase in funding for local government – and included a £1bn grant for social care.
But he acknowledged “important issues that we need to take forward” including issues with supported housing that were being taken forward.