The government has set out proposals which would ban the practice of placing under-16's in unregulated accommodation.
Proposals to stop children in care from being placed in inappropriate accommodation will be published as part of a consultation, in a bid to tackle growing concerns about the number of children left at risk of exploitation.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "There are no circumstances where a child under 16 should be placed in accommodation that does not keep them safe. That is unacceptable and I am taking urgent action to end this practice and drive up the quality of care provided to all vulnerable children.
"Social workers and council chiefs have to make difficult decisions about the children in their care, so it’s important that we agree an ambitious approach to these important reforms to bring about lasting change in children’s social care," he added.
More than 6,000 looked-after children and young people in England are living in unregulated accommodation, while there are up to 100 under 16s living in unregulated provision at any one time.
Under the strict new proposals, the government will introduce national standards for unregulated accommodation to improve the quality and security of the placements. This will mean that when the placements are used appropriately for young people over 16 that safety and quality is prioritised.
Ofsted will also be given legal powers to crack down on illegal unregistered providers
– those providing care for children without being registered to do so – and new measures requiring local authorities and police forces to work together before placements in unregulated settings are made out of area, ensuring the interests of young people are at the heart of decisions.
The Education Secretary believes that unregulated accommodation can be the right option for some older children, acting as a stepping-stone for young people towards living as an independent adult. However, some of this provision is not good enough, and he is particularly concerned about the number of younger children being placed in this provision, which has led to this move. The introduction of new national standards will set a benchmark for unregulated provision, unearthing poor quality.
The consultation, which will run for eight weeks, includes the following proposals:
- banning the use of independent and semi-independent placements for children and young people under 16
- driving up the quality of support offered in independent and semi-independent provision, through national standards
- ensuring young people’s interests are appropriately represented by their Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO)
- introducing measures to ensure local authorities and police forces liaise before a placement in this provision is made
- giving Ofsted new legal powers to crack down on illegal providers.
Legislation will be amended so that Ofsted can take legal action before prosecution and issue enforcement notices, which will result in illegal providers either being forced to close, register or face a penalty.
The consultation comes after the Education Secretary sent a letter to all local authorities in November, outlining his concerns about under 16s being placed in this provision and asking them to make sure that all children in their area are in safe and suitable accommodation.
It has been launched as a matter of urgency ahead of the wider upcoming care review outlined in the government’s manifesto. The Education Secretary confirmed that the review will be independently led, and look across children’s social care with the aim of better supporting, protecting and improving the outcomes of vulnerable children and young people.
Last autumn the government announced an extra £1 billion for child and adult social services, and the Conservative party manifesto committed to continue this funding for every year of this parliament to make sure vulnerable young people get the support they need.
Mark Russell, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, said "The numbers of children being placed in unregulated accommodation is on the rise, making this consultation both timely and essential. We are pleased the government is looking carefully at this issue and recognising the wider issues at play, such as the shortage of places where they’re most needed."
"Children are often placed in these settings in an emergency and out of their home area, where they may not get the support they need and can be at particular risk of going missing and being criminally or sexually exploited. All accommodation for children in care has to be suitable for their needs and no child should be placed in accommodation where they are not safe. It’s vital that quality standards are introduced across the board. This consultation should lead to tangible changes which address these issues and ensure all children get the help they deserve," he concluded.