It has been an eventful year for Ann Coffey. The MP for Stockport has moved party - in February, she left Labour over the leadership's stance on a number of policies to join the Independent Group for Change; and through the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for runaway and missing children, which she chairs, has published reports into children going missing from residential care and the use by councils of unregulated children's homes. Her interest in the care system has been shaped by her 20-year social work career before politics.
You have raised concerns about the number of children placed in out-of-area care placements. Why do you think this is a major problem?
People will say children need to be placed in a home that best meets their needs, which is true, and that it is best to remove them from their local area if they are at risk. Yet there's no evidence for better outcomes. That's what bothers me.
Local authorities have fewer children's homes and it may be that there are no places in their own borough or nearby. For example, London has the biggest care population but the fewest children's home places.
Children are being placed where there are places available. Yet children have a problem with these homes because they keep running away. If you ask children what matters to them, they will say being in control of the choices they make. Staying in a familiar place offers them roots; moving them out makes little sense.
What do you think is the solution to the shortage of residential child care places?
I used to think it was about better commissioning and local authorities getting together to develop co-operative commissioning arrangements. I now think that's a hard ask of councils because their responsibility is to serve the local electorate.
I was impressed by the approach taken by a project in Wigan and Rochdale - funded through the Children's Social Care Innovation programme - that identified 26 girls at risk of exploitation who would likely be placed out of area. The money was used to set up a new response, co-designed with young people, that resulted in the girls remaining in their home environment and in contact with their families.
We are always going to need specialist [residential] provision, but for children whose needs don't arise because of serious disabilities, then I think investment should be put into different kinds of care - local solutions and more flexible homes that work with families and schools more closely. This requires government to make funding available to councils to do that.
Why are you so opposed to councils using unregistered children's homes for some young people?
I don't think this is an issue about whether a home is regulated or not - they should be appropriate to the purpose of that provision. Post-16 residential provision is often described as "support" and so doesn't need to be regulated.
We don't say "who is living in this accommodation and what are the minimum standards we expect so that they are safe?" We can't seriously be saying we're willing to place 16- and 17-year-olds in accommodation where adult offenders may also be placed?
We should ensure they are in an environment in which they are safe, and providers that have good accommodation are not against that. As part of the APPG's ongoing inquiry, we may make recommendations on that.
The APPG has raised concerns about the scale of children running away from care placements. What needs to be done to address this?
We need to do a lot more work on trying to understand why children run away - it's not good enough to say "that's just what they do". There may be a consistent failure and then perhaps we can do something about that.
Return interviews are an important source of information, but they are very patchy [in quality] and it's difficult to understand who the information is shared with - the police complain that it is not passed onto them to provide a knowledge base.
At the moment, the statutory guidance is from the Department for Education, but as there is increased awareness of children's vulnerability to criminal gangs, I think there's an argument to make it joint statutory guidance for children's services and the police.
Do you agree that there needs to be more money put into children's services?
We need more money in the system where it will do the most good - we don't want more money for increased spending on children's homes.
I'd like to see more money spent on supporting children at key times in education, particularly during the transition from primary to secondary school. That's when children start having problems, dropping out and getting excluded. They are the ones who are identified to be groomed by exploitative people.
Every council has a sufficiency plan that they could use to develop a two- to three-year plan to move children back [from out-of-area care placements]. The government should provide transition money to do that - for councils that have committed to making the changes needed in how they deliver care.
Authorities can be good at that, but they need extra funding as doing it [while coping with rising demand] is very difficult.
ANN COFFEY MP CV
- 1992 onwards - Member of Parliament for Stockport
- 1988-92 - fostering team leader, Oldham Council
- 1973-88 - social work roles at various councils
- 1972 - became a social worker at Birmingham City Council
- 1971 - completed a MSc in psychiatric social work, University of Manchester
- 1967 - awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology, Institute of London