Unregulated supported accommodation: Sector split over key consultation proposals
Tuesday, June 2, 2020
The government consultation into unregulated supported accommodation has split views across the sector as charities, organisations and children's services leaders submit responses ahead of its closure tomorrow (3 June).
Proposals set out by the Department for Education suggest banning the use of such provision for under-16s and laying out a new set of national minimum standards by which accommodation would be monitored.
Under the new plans Ofsted and local police forces would have more power to enforce rules and safeguards.
The consultation has split views among organisations supporting looked-after children, with many claiming the proposals do not go far enough to protect 16- to 18-year-olds.
The proposals fuelled a ‘Keep Caring to 18’ campaign, set up by a coalition of organisations, who believe the government should introduce a blanket ban on unregulated supported accommodation.
A consultation response submitted by children’s rights charity Article 39 states: “While a very positive move for children aged 15 and under, this partial ban risks continuing the serious neglect of 16- and 17 year-olds. It is deeply regrettable that the DfE has identified more than 6,000 children in independent and semi-independent accommodation but is only proposing to guarantee care to fewer than 100.”
The Child and Adolescent Trust (Tact) said: “All of the 16- to 18 year olds we look after in foster families are looked after under strict regulations and inspection. There is no reason why all 16-18 years olds should not receive the same protection, so all provision for under-18s should be regulated and inspected.”
Andrew Fellowes, associate head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, added: “The vast majority of young people in this accommodation are 16 or over so these proposals will formalise a system based on the assumption that older children do not deserve the standard of care and safety that stable, regulated accommodation should offer.
“The upcoming review of children’s social care must listen to young people and build a system that provides compassionately for every child. There should be no place in our care system for unregulated homes for children of any age.”
However, children’s services leaders question the alternative claiming “demand for registered places is outstripping supply”.
In its response to the consultation, the Association of Director’s of Children’s Services states: “A blanket ban on placing those under the age of 16 in independent and semi-independent provision could result in a series of unintended consequences. Without the flexibility to use unregulated provision, what will local authorities be expected to do if they are unable to find a placement for a young person who is not yet 16? There is a danger that the proposed reforms will replicate the current situation in relation to secure children’s homes; there is a waiting list but nowhere to wait. It is unclear what support will be available to local authorities and what the government will expect authorities to do if no other placement can be found.”
It adds that “at times, the use of unregulated provision allows for a crisis situation to be managed while alternative arrangements can be put in place. If this flexibility is removed, the result will be even more risk within a system that is already under pressure”.
The Local Government Association (LGA) has also backed plans to allow the over-16s to continue to be placed in unregulated supported accommodation.
The association’s response states: “We believe that for some young people, a level of independence with appropriate support is the best way of ensuring that they can make a positive transition to adulthood.”
However, it added that “unregulated provision for under-18s should only be used as part of a planned transition and where it is in the best interests of the young person” and notes a current “lack of suitable accommodation”.
Others have questioned the need for the introduction of national minimum standards. Article 39 claims their introduction would “deliberately omit care” and “give legitimacy to a leaving care age of 16 for this very vulnerable group of teenagers”.
The charity’s response adds: “One unintended consequence of a second set of residential standards could be to discourage potential providers from establishing new children’s homes, at a time when increased capacity is desperately required.”
Instead, it called for a modification of existing children’s home regulations.
However, the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA) said setting national standards was “vital” in ensuring that “all young people have access to a good level of support”.
A joint response from Bedfordshire Police, Bedford Borough Council, Central Bedfordshire Council and Luton Council, as well as the Bedfordshire Violence and Exploitation Reduction Unit, said authorities in the area already worked hard “to ensure we apply rigorous quality standards to the provision we commission in which to place our care leavers”.
It added that the proposals “could make a significant difference to cared-for children”.
“They focus on improving the quality of support provided to some of the most vulnerable young people in our society who should be getting the best of care,” the response states.
Young person’s homelessness charity Centrepoint has called on the government to use the implementation of new national standards to create a cross-departmental approach to include the housing pathway.
A response from the charity states: “It must work across the housing pathway too, given that 16- and 17 year olds accommodated under the Children Act and the Housing Act may be placed in the same accommodation.”
The proposals also suggest giving Ofsted powers to monitor unregulated supported accommodation and hold providers not meeting standards to account.
Organisations responding to the consultation are largely in agreement with handing the inspectorate increased powers but some question whether it would work in practice.
Centrepoint added: “While we agree that Ofsted inspections would be most likely to drive up standards, we do feel there are some issues that may mean that system is not feasible.
“There will likely be a substantial increase in work for Ofsted which could mean they are inspecting services which are rarely used to accommodate looked-after 16/17 year olds but the inspections need to happen just in case.”
This view is mirrored by the LGA which states in its response: “Registration with and inspection by Ofsted would remove some of the flexibility that is needed for some unregulated accommodation, and we are concerned about capacity to carry out such inspections.”
However, the ICHA that regulation by Ofsted "will be integral in maintaining and pushing up standards across this sector”.
Opinion is further split over plans to increase police involvement with children’s services when placing children outside their local area.
The LGA says the need for police liaison is “vital to keep children and young people safe” but it, again, questions whether the resources are available to meet demand.
The association also raises questions over the need to differentiate between children in unregulated and regulated placements in terms of police liaison.
It states: “We know that young people can be vulnerable in all out-of-area settings, therefore we would not encourage ‘two tier’ arrangements that differentiate between different settings for young people.”
The joint statement coordinated by Bedfordshire Police states that “many of the youngsters placed in Bedfordshire’s semi-independent accommodation come from different areas.
“We are also pressing for better regulation of out-of-area placements so that young people keep in contact with friends and family and the accountability of the placing authorities is better defined.”
However, Article 39 states that increased involvement of police is “unnecessary”, adding: “Responsible local authorities should already be gathering as much information as possible about prospective placements, including from the police.”
The consultation into the use of unregulated supported accommodation will close on 3 June following an eight-week extension to the original timeframe due to Covid-19.
Following widespread criticism over a lack of involvement of care experienced people a collaboration was formed between DfE and the ‘Keep Caring to 18’ campaign which will accept the views of those aged 14 and over with care experience until 23 June.
Outcomes are set to be published next month, however, DfE has warned this may be delayed due to the pandemic.
With opinion divided, it is unclear what the outcomes will be, however, a vast majority of respondents have used the consultation as a vehicle to push the government to launch a full care review promised in the Conservative party’s 2019 election manifesto.