Ban on placing under-16s in unregulated housing risks creating ‘two-tier’ system | Society

The government’s ban on the use of unregulated accommodation for under-16s risks creating a “two-tier” care system where older teenagers are shamefully neglected and unprotected, experts warn.

On Friday the education secretary Gavin Williamson said it would be illegal from September for councils to put children under the age of 16 in accommodation that was not regulated by Ofsted.

It comes after the Guardian revealed at the beginning of the year that thousands of young people have been sent to unregulated care homes during the pandemic at a cost of millions to the taxpayer.

Unregulated homes, often known as supported accommodation for those over 16, are not inspected by a regulator in England or Wales. They are allowed within the law because they are qualified to offer support not care, and young people housed there live semi-independently. But critics say they are unsuitable due to the lack of monitoring. Children, who are in some cases under 16 when placed in these settings, are more at risk of exploitation from abusers or drugs gangs.

Ofsted will be given extra powers to take enforcement action against illegal unregistered children’s homes under reforms unveiled by Williamson.

But critics argue that vulnerable teenagers, who may be slightly older, also need to be protected from exploitation. The children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said that some teenage children in care lived in “dangerous accommodation”, including hostels or caravan parks, and 17-year-olds could be “easy prey” for people who abused or exploit children.

Carolyne Willow, the director of the charity Article 39, said: “Children aged 16 and 17 also need care. Why would they be in the care of the state otherwise? Even the inspection framework for child prisons demands that children receive care.

“Today’s shameful policy announcement entrenches a two-tier care system. Children who live with foster carers are already entitled to remain part of these families until they are 21. Yet the government is saying today that it is entirely legitimate for children who don’t live with their own family or a foster family to be denied care from their 16th birthday.”

Article 39 published a blog saying it was “incredibly disappointed to read that we were in a minority in calling for all children in care to receive care”.

It read: “Today’s consultation outcome document states that only ‘a small group of respondents’ urged a complete ban on what is currently unregulated accommodation. Our consultation response had argued that all children need and have the right to be cared for, and that families adapt as children enter their teenage years but we don’t stop caring.”

Victoria Langer, the interim chief executive for Become, the national charity for children in care and young care leavers, said the government had “failed to listen to young care-experienced people who have spoken out about the lack of security, stability and support they have experienced living in unregulated accommodation”.

“There are more than 6,000 children living in unregulated settings who will continue to be denied the care they deserve under the government’s plans,” she added.

Langer said creating a set of separate national standards would further formalise a two-tier care system for those aged 16 and 17, “guaranteeing ‘care’ to those in foster care or children’s homes but not to their peers in semi-independent and independent settings”.

The Department for Education has said independent or semi-independent provision can be the right option for some older children where it is high quality and meets their needs.

But Langer said evidence suggested that these settings for older children were not appropriate and it was often where children who needed more support were placed.

Judith Blake, the chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said the government’s announcement was a positive step and more funding to increase children home provision was welcome. “However, this funding will not be available immediately, and councils are keen to work with the government to quickly develop the places they will need to meet these requirements,” she said.

Ministers will also introduce national standards for unregulated accommodation for older children in care or care leavers, those who are aged 16 and over, to ensure the settings are consistently high quality.

In February last year, the government launched a consultation on banning under-16s from being placed in unregulated accommodation. Regulations will be laid in parliament on Friday for the ban to come into force in September, as part of the government’s response to its consultation.

A Guardian investigation in January based on data from 114 councils showed that last year, at least 8,373 children were placed in semi-independent accommodation during the pandemic. More than a third of these placements – 2,844 – were out of the local authority area, meaning children were sent miles away in an unregulated setting.

Williamson has also announced that plans would be developed to support local authorities in creating more places in children’s homes amid pressures on some councils to find the right placement for a child.

He 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.”

Longfield said the ban needed to include under-18s.“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.”

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