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Criminal Care? · 13 Feb 2020

Government launches consultation on unregulated accommodation for children

This week (12 February) the government launched a consultation into the use of unregulated provision for children in care and care leavers. We welcome this much-needed and long-overdue action by the government following media coverage driven by the series of Newsnight reports last summer and the rapid increase in children being placed in this type of accommodation.

The use of and issues with unregulated accommodation highlight the crisis in the current children’s care system with the number of children in care aged 16 or 17 placed in unregulated settings having risen from 2,900 in 2009 to 6,100 in 2019. The increased use of this type of accommodation is not, in far too many cases, due to local authorities believing these are the best placements for vulnerable children to be placed in; it is due to a dearth of beds in a care system that is struggling to cope amid a lack of government interest in and oversight of a system that is now largely run and controlled by private companies (see our blog on the privatisation of children’s services).

In its January 2019 report Pressures on children’s social care, the National Audit Office reported that the increase in the use of residential care had “exposed the lack of suitable placement capacity available to local authorities: only 32% of local authorities report that they have access to enough residential homes for children aged 14 to 15 years, and 41% for those aged 16 to 17”. The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts has said that this lack of availability was placing local authorities under extreme financial pressure. It said, “There is a lack of residential capacity for children’s social care and its use is often unplanned, leading to ‘bidding wars’ between local authorities for places for children”.

“More than three-quarters of the 41 police forces who submitted evidence to the inquiry expressed concern about the increasing numbers of children being sent to live in these placements out of area and the risks that they face.”  APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults

This lack of capacity is creating a huge strain on public finances and there are questions about how long this creaking system can keep going. It is a tragedy for the often extremely vulnerable children who are being further damaged by unsuitable, sometimes unsafe placements, within a system that is supposed to be helping them. At a forum for unregulated owners in Bedfordshire that we blogged about last year, we heard from a young person who had been forced to visit a food bank whilst living in unregulated accommodation only to find there was no tin-opener when she got home; we heard also from the local authority that they visited homes where there were no curtains. One young person we spoke to told us how she had arrived at an unregulated placement to find only a mattress on the floor and of how she was forced to sleep under her coat for several days. The police and social workers have told us of children criminally and sexually exploited whilst living in this type of accommodation. We could go on. The stories are plentiful.

Clearly it is high time that the government took action. It is right that this consultation has been launched without delay ahead of the promised care review. However, it is essential that the government considers the factors that have led to this reliance on, and the issues with, unregulated accommodation when they undertake the full review.

We will be responding to the consultation and will blog further once we have submitted our proposals.

Claire Sands

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