On disadvantaged students, this is precisely why we have made free school meals available in those settings. There is also a bursary fund that FE college staff distribute. Even in the first lockdown, FE colleges showed themselves to be some of the most adept at adjusting to remote learning. We have made it clear to colleges and schools that they need remote provision for the next academic year.
My Lords, there is guidance for local authorities when they are going to place a child in out-of-area care. A placement should always be governed by what is the most appropriate provision for the young person. Many of the facilities in which children are placed, such as Centrepoint and St Basils, are high-quality provision. I will write to the noble Lord in regard to the more specific question he asked about notifying the police authority to which the young person has been moved.
My Lords, there is no contradiction in policy here. The local authority’s duty is to place young people of 16 and 17 in the most appropriate accommodation, obviously taking into account their best interests. There are certain individual circumstances that mean that the best placement for a young person—such as a 16 or 17 year-old unaccompanied asylum-seeking child who has perhaps been out of any home or family environment for years—might be in semi-supported accommodation. It is important that there are national standards that Ofsted will inspect against for that type of provision.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct: what has now been renamed the Supporting Families programme has been successful at supporting families with some of the most complex needs. It has shown that they can avoid the need for further statutory services and for some of their children to go into care or the criminal justice system, as a result. There are various cross-government issues which are dealt with and led partly by the Secretary of State for Education, such as the care leavers board, which he chairs jointly with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
My Lords, as I have outlined, the family justice system currently has a review into these matters, looking at a potentially more investigative approach to family justice. We also hope that the family hubs will give local authorities the option to bring together not just statutory services but the charitable and voluntary sector, which often provides support in the circumstances that the noble Baroness outlines.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for tabling this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 and the use of unregulated independent and semi-independent provision for children in care and care leavers. As someone who lived independently at the age of 16, it is something that I have personal experience of. I also thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its detailed examination of the regulations. I will deal with the five points raised by the former Children’s Commissioner during my speech, but there will be points at which noble Lords will recognise that the Government digress from her recommendations.
I am sure that noble Lords who have spoken know that every child deserves a place to live, where they feel safe and secure and receive the care and support that they need to thrive, enabling them to achieve the best possible outcomes in life. This is equally important for children in the care system, who have often had a difficult start to life. The statutory duties are very clear on local authorities. They must make individual placement decisions in relation to children based on their best interests, while considering their stated wishes. Having dedicated foster carers, excellent children’s homes and high-quality independent and semi-independent settings for older children who are ready for it is critical to this endeavour. We need a range of options for care placements and support that reflects the diverse needs of children in care and care leavers. There is no intention to change the position that children can leave care, or voluntarily come into care, at the age of 16, and make it a default provision for children over the age of 16.
Noble Lords have highlighted the former Children’s Commissioner’s call to increase the number of placements for children. As the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, stated, we are investing capital of £24 million in the estate for secure children’s homes, which is a tiny part of this provision but a very important one. We are also developing plans to support local authorities to create more children’s home placements through additional investment.
Noble Lords have also rightly highlighted the need for local authorities to have a range of placement options to meet the needs of children that they look after. We have also invested part of the £200 million children’s social care innovation programme on improving commissioning and capacity of residential care, as well as funding seven fostering partnerships to improve local commissioning. These projects will boost the development of best practice, as outlined by the noble Lord, in commissioning and sufficiency planning to be shared nationwide. This will be critical in ensuring that local authorities can learn from the best to deliver their statutory duties that I have outlined.
While a placement in independent or semi-independent provision can be the right option for some older children, where it is high-quality and meets their needs, it is never right for those under the age of 16. These settings are simply not equipped to meet their needs or keep them safe. Children of this age should be placed in children’s homes or foster care, which is why we have laid these regulations that will ban the practice of placing children under the age of 16 in unregulated independent and semi-independent settings from September. The department will be working closely over the coming months with those local authorities most impacted by the introduction of the ban.
However, on the recommendation by the former Children’s Commissioner to ban this for under 18s, this is where the Government do not agree. We have more older children in the care system and coming into the care system at an older age. We must ensure that there is an option to facilitate development of their independence as they prepare for adult life and leaving care, something that she highlighted in her report. We know that there is good independent and semi-independent provision where local authorities are making careful decisions in meeting the needs of the children that they look after. We have also seen good examples, such as where young people are placed in shared housing with 24/7 support, or supportive lodgings where they live with a family and receive support and advice but are afforded freedoms such as cooking and cleaning for themselves and getting themselves to work, education or training, all of which are important skills to learn. Of course, 16 year-olds can be care leavers and opt into those kinds of arrangements if that is assessed to be best for their needs.
We know that these settings are often used for young people who are, for instance, remanded into local authority accommodation when a placement back with their family, or in a children’s home with other children, or foster care, would not be appropriate. This is in the best interests of the young people in a small number of difficult cases, and we obviously do not want to curtail the ability of the courts to make such an order for children, which means they are on bail rather than on remand. They can also be the best option to meet the needs of older children who have come into care much later and do not want to live in a family-based environment any more. This is sometimes the case, particularly for unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children who have come independently to this country and do not want to be placed in a family environment. We also have a certain number of voluntary care leavers aged 16 who have voluntarily left their family situation and do not want to be accommodated in a family situation again. That is a very sad situation to have to deal with.
Local authorities must take the views of these older children into account. It is crucial that local authorities can facilitate this type of placement for older children when they are ready for it. If they have not reached the stage in their lives—whether they are 16 or 17—where this type of setting could meet all their care needs, they should be placed in a children’s home or in foster care. The decision is about what is in the best interests of the children.
The Government recognise the concerns, outlined by all three noble Lords who have spoken and also raised by the committee, that some independent and semi-independent accommodation is low-quality, as highlighted by various media reports. We agree that we must do more to improve this, and that is why we will introduce national standards. These will not be minimal. This is the same type of regime that regulates schools, boarding schools et cetera. It will be an Ofsted-led registration and inspection regime for settings that accommodate 16 and 17 year-olds; we are doing something about this. We will consult on this shortly, and I hope that noble Lords will respond to that consultation. This will not be symbolic; it will introduce proper standards for this accommodation group and will, hopefully, assist with wider provision.
We welcome the valuable information that we will get from the Competition and Markets Authority report that noble Lords also mentioned. I will write the detailed letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that she asked for.
It is important that all these decisions are based on the best data. We have issued two further datasets in relation to this type of accommodation, as well as the qualitative research we released earlier.
I reassure noble Lords that we have received strong support for these reforms, including from the young people whom we have consulted. Over 70% of respondents to the consultation agreed that an Ofsted-led quality and inspection regime would best support this. The Government look forward to working closely with the sector, and care-experienced young people, to design the new regime of national standards and Ofsted regulation. This will no longer be properly described as an unregulated sector; it will be regulated. We will also legislate to give Ofsted additional powers in relation to illegal, unregistered children’s homes.
As highlighted by noble Lords, the former Children’s Commissioner also called for the strengthening of the role of independent reviewing officers and for the Government to better define what care looks like for older children, both of which we consulted on last year. We believe that the banning of placements for under-16s and the system which I have outlined will be an appropriate way to regulate this sector. We do not believe that an extended role for the IROs would be necessary to achieve this.
Local authorities must continue to make care placement decisions that meet the needs of children, putting in place the care and support that they need. The new national standards for this sector will make clear what we expect of these settings, and standards are obviously already in place for children’s homes.
Noble Lords mentioned the independent care review. There is a call for evidence at the moment in relation to that, which we hope this sector and others will respond to.
Finally, nothing we have done changes the individual decisions local authorities should be taking in the best interests of children. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, outlined the needs and wishes of these children, and at an older age, their stated needs and wishes are obviously a key factor in the decision. However, there is no default or automatic position for these children; it is clear to local authorities that they must make individual decisions. A placement in this type of environment and accommodation in certain cases is not a second best but is made in their best interests, and it is often their stated wish.
I hope I have reassured noble Lords that we will introduce the necessary reforms to this sector without delay, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate.
My Lords, as I outlined, the UK Government take seriously the input from the United Nations. Children’s rights impact assessments have been devised in accordance with the recommendation in 2016 and are valuable in enabling civil servants—who have also undergone training—to consider children’s rights in policy and legislation. So the recommendation has been enacted, but it will not be put on a statutory basis. We have taken other measures that were advised, such as updating in 2018 the statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children.
My Lords, the quality of employment for young people has been a priority for this Government. That is why we have seen the development of high-quality apprenticeships and £2,000 additional funding, of which the noble Baroness will be aware, for each young person who is taken on to an apprenticeship after 1 August this year, for a limited period of time. I referenced the attainment gap, which is more of an academic measure. However, there are improvements in social mobility when one looks at, for instance, the number of disadvantaged students going on to university. However, we strive for greater and more dynamic social mobility in this country.
My Lords, the education sector is made up of a number of different types of providers, and early years providers are businesses, except for the maintained nursery sector. I am delighted to tell the noble Baroness that, yesterday evening, the Government announced that the early years entitlement of £3.6 billion a year will be paid in the autumn term, regardless of the number of disadvantaged 2 year-olds, or 3 and 4 year-olds, who are attending. That is a massive plank of financial support for the sector going forward in what are, unfortunately, uncertain times.
My Lords, as I have outlined, there will be a plan before the end of term in relation to curriculum expectations going forward. The Government have made available free expert help and have had over 2,000 applications offering free expert help to make Google Classroom or Microsoft Education available to schools. The department has brokered deals with internet providers and has a specific arrangement with BT such that 10,000 children can have access to BT wi-fi hotspots. The department is incredibly concerned and we are working as best as we can within the scientific advice. We want to see all children back in school in September, subject to that scientific advice.
My Lords, the Government have also made available school-to-school support through the EdTech innovation programme to help schools that are not necessarily on those platforms. As of 14 June, more than 114,000 devices have been delivered to local authorities and trusts to be distributed to vulnerable children, including care leavers. The Government are concerned, particularly about disadvantaged children, and we are looking at, potentially, a targeted online national tutoring service.