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‘Residential care provision must be part of greater care strategy based on meeting children’s needs’

Education Select Committee publishes report into residential children’s homes

The House of Commons Education Select Committee has published its report into residential children's homes.

The committee states that the government needs to consider residential care in the context of the wider care system, rather than in isolation. The report calls for a national strategy for care provision based on better assessments of need. This, it says, would benefit children in care and the sector more generally, as well as making the most efficient use of resources.

Whilst the committee notes that the current package of reforms focuses on amending the rules and guidance governing children's residential care, it believes that the government needs to ensure that the regulations and guidance that exist are properly implemented and enforced. The wellbeing of looked after children also depends on less tangible factors like the attitudes of care staff and the leadership and culture in children's homes.

Joined-up working between different organisations has an important role to play in improving outcomes for looked after children, the report says. It quotes one example where local authorities work together collaboratively in consortia to bring distant out-of-authority placements closer to home, where that meets the child's needs. Another is collaborative working between children's homes, local authorities and services in the areas where homes are located. Only a minority of respondents to the consultation thought that the Government's proposals would improve collaboration between these organisations.

It is a matter of great concern to the committee that there are children's homes situated in areas where the risk to the safety of young people is increased considerably. The new area risk assessments are intended to assist in identifying where homes are in unsuitable or dangerous locations and preventing children being placed in such homes. Given the importance of this issue, it is recommended that the government closely monitors the impact of the new risk assessments and how they are used and reports back to the committee within a year. The committee considers that the government should be prepared to bring forward further reforms if the evidence indicates that current measures are not adequately addressing the problem.

The committee strongly endorses the view that, except where it is clearly in the interests of that individual child to move out of the area, local authorities should provide a placement as close as possible to the child's home and that they should have sufficient placements within their own area or that of their neighbouring authorities to fulfil this requirement. The committee will closely scrutinise the next DfE data pack for an indication of whether the current reforms are having the desired effect in reducing the numbers of children given distant placements. The report also recommends that the government commissions a study of the impact of a rule prohibiting local authorities from placing a child more than 20 miles from home, unless there is a proven need to do so.

The reforms covering children's homes and the care planning and placement process could be strengthened in a number of ways. These include making provision for the welfare of the children affected when a children's home goes bankrupt and assessing the role that the planning system might play in ensuring that homes are located in safe areas. We also suggest further changes to help avoid the unnecessary criminalisation of looked after children and to provide children with a greater say on the selection of the care staff who look after them.

Iryna Pona, Policy Advisor at The Children's Society, who gave evidence to the Committee, said:

"The changes announced by the government – including making it harder for councils to place children in unsuitable and dangerous areas miles away from home – are a significant step forward and we look forward to working with councils to implement them.

"But they need to be part of a more comprehensive, wider-ranging reform. Care homes should be the right choice for the right children, not the option of last resort.

"This reform needs to take in everything from how placement decisions are made and quality of care, right through to helping children leaving care." 

The report is here.

13/3/14