DfE failure to ban unregulated provision for under-18s will leave teenagers at risk, warn sector heads

The Department for Education’s (DfE) decision to ban unregulated accommodation for under-16s from September 2021 will leave many teenagers at risk in unsuitable placements, sector bodies have warned.

The Children’s Commissioner for England and the British Association of Social Workers England were among organisations to say the DfE should have extended the ban to under-18s, as many more 16- and 17-year-olds are placed in independent or semi-independent settings – including provision such as hostels and caravan parks, than younger children. Government statistics show that, as of March 2019, 90 out of 6,160 looked-after children in unregulated settings were under 16.

Sector bodies rejected the government’s argument that unregulated settings – which provide accommodation and support, but not care – providd a stepping stone to independence for looked-after children. Some also warned that the DfE’s proposed option for improving support for 16- and 17-year-olds – setting national standards for currently unregulated settings and requiring them to register with Ofsted – would not be sufficient and create a two-tier system.

Minority backing for under-18s ban in consultation

Despite the strong reaction from sector bodies, only a minority of respondents to a consultation on the government’s plans supported extending the ban to under-18s. Of 215 respondents, over three-quarters supported a ban for under-16s, with only about one-fifth saying it should be extended to all under-18s.

Similarly, three-quarters backed the introduction of national standards for unregulated accommodation, with most of those who opposed it being those who felt that the ban on unregulated provision should be extended to under-18s.

Speaking to Community Care after the announcement, children’s minister Vicky Ford said the government had consulted with a number of children and young people and “there are some 16- and 17-years-olds who believe that moving into an independent or semi-independent setting has been the right decision for them. It’s helped to give them that transition into independence. And they wouldn’t wanted to have stayed in their later teens in a children’s home. So this is why we are still giving the flexibility that 16- and 17-year-olds could remain in independent and semi-independent placements.”

She added: “However, we do also think that if we’ve got 16- and 17-year-olds in independent or semi-independent placements they should be of high quality and many of them are, but we would like to see that high quality across the country. So that’s why we’re also announcing that we will be consulting on new standards for those independent and semi-independent placements for 16 and 17 year olds as well.”

Teenagers ‘easy prey’ for abuse or exploitation

Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said that, though the ban was “very welcome”, it needed to include all under-18s.

Longfield said that too many teenagers in care were living in “completely unsuitable and sometimes dangerous accommodation” such as hostels or caravan parks and that “this change to the law will still leave some at risk”.

“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,” she added.

Longfield backed the plan to introduce national standards and Ofsted registration for currently unregulated provision, but said the standards needed to “closely reflect the existing regulation for children’s homes so that we don’t fall into the trap of treating vulnerable older teens as adults rather than the children they still are”. With the government planning to consult on this later this year, she said this needed to be done quickly.

‘Troubling and discriminatory’

Others went further in their criticisms. BASW England professional officer Rebekah Pierre, said:The lack of extension of this ban to 16- to 18-year-olds is deeply troubling, discriminatory and has no rationale grounded in young people’s interests. The wide-ranging problems unregulated housing causes older teenagers are backed up by a range of first-hand accounts from looked after young people and care leavers, some that even contributed to the education secretary’s consultation.

“Speaking from personal experience, having lived in an unregulated bedsit between 16-18 which felt more like a prison than a home,  I know the negative impact unsafe accommodation can have on a teenager’s mental health, access to basic needs such as food and electricity, and sense of self-worth.”

Carolyne Willow, director of children’s rights charity Article 39, said: “[This] 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.” 

The charity pointed out that national standards for currently unregulated accommodation would not include the provision of care, as any provider that delivered care, including for children aged up to 18, would be covered by existing children’s homes regulations.

Failure to listen to young people

Contrary to Ford’s view, Victoria Langer, chief executive of looked-after children and care leavers charity Become, said that 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”.

“Creating a set of separate national standards will 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,” she added. “The government claims that the use of this sort of accommodation for 16- and 17-year-olds is a helpful step towards independence, but the evidence suggests this isn’t how it’s being used for many people including those seeking asylum and those who have only recently come into care, who typically need more, not less support.”

Longfield said the root cause of the problem was a “chronic shortage of residential provision for children in care”.

The DfE said it would be “developing plans supported by additional investment to support local authorities to create more places in children’s homes”, including through £24m allocated for 2021-22 in the government’s latest spending review for secure children’s homes.

‘Need to invest in provision now’

Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Jenny Coles “The ban on under-16s being placed in unregulated provision will have wider implications in terms of placement sufficiency which local authorities have long been grappling with. Finding the right placement at the right time for the growing number of children in our care is a priority for all local authorities. However, we face a national shortage of foster carers and a lack of suitable regulated homes.

“The government’s commitment to additional funding to increase children’s homes provision is welcome but we need immediate up-front investment to address some of the sufficiency issues. We await further clarity as to how the proposals set out in today’s announcement will be funded.”

Like Longfield, Coles said she hoped the independent review of children’s social care, chaired by Frontline chief executive Josh MacAlister and due to start work next month, would address the issues of placement sufficiency, alongside related issues such as improving access to mental health care, investing in the workforce and addressing “profit making by private equity firms”.