‘Government must ban councils placing vulnerable under-18s in unregulated homes’
The Government must ban councils from placing all vulnerable children in unregulated accommodation amid concerns over sexual and criminal exploitation, the Children’s Commissioner for England has said.
Anne Longfield called for a change in the law to stop local authorities placing under-18s in care in bedsits, hostels and caravans, as she warned that young people can become victims of abuse in these settings.
The plea came as a report from the Children’s Commissioner’s Office suggested that thousands of children in care – around 12,800 a year – live in unregulated independent or semi-independent accommodation.
One in eight children in care in England spent some time living in unregulated accommodation in 2018-19, the analysis suggested, ranging from a flat to a tent – and in one case even a barge.
The Children’s Commissioner’s Office heard from youngsters with mental health, self-harm or drug issues who had become victims of exploitation and abuse while living in unregulated accommodation.
For too long children have been placed in this inappropriate accommodation as the sector has gone unchecked
“These children are often left in extremely vulnerable situations, putting them at increased risk of exploitation by organised criminal gangs or abusers,” said Ms Longfield.
“This is about the basic standards of care we provide to children looked after by the state: a safe and secure place to live and proper support to help with the challenges they face.
“This is the minimum we would expect for every child, yet there are 12,000 children in England looked after by the state for whom these standards do not apply.”
In February, the Government launched a consultation on banning under-16s from being placed in unregulated accommodation.
It also proposed drawing up national standards for unregulated accommodation for young people – which would still be legal for young people aged 16 and over – to ensure it is safe and of good quality.
But the Children’s Commissioner said the plans do not address “the real problem” of allowing older teenagers in care to be placed in such accommodation.
She said: “For too long children have been placed in this inappropriate accommodation as the sector has gone unchecked, with some providers making large profits from substandard and unsafe accommodation while offering little to no support.”
The report said “desperate councils” often pay thousands to private providers of unregulated accommodation to take on young people due to a “severe” shortage of places in regulated children’s homes.
It added that some of these private providers are known to have “criminal links” and are avoiding routine procedures designed to keep children safe, such as a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check.
Last year, an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Missing Children and Adults found that the “sent away generation” can become magnets for paedophiles and county lines gangs.
Children’s Minister Vicky Ford said: “There are no circumstances where a child under 16 should be in accommodation that does not keep them safe – that’s why we have consulted on ambitious proposals to ban them from being placed in unregulated accommodation.
“We have also consulted on how to enforce new national standards for providers to drive up quality, keeping young people safer and delivering better outcomes.”
She added: “In some circumstances, semi-independent accommodation can be the right choice for 16 and 17-year-olds as they move towards adult life, but only when it is of high quality and meets their needs.”
Judith Blake, chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People’s Board, said: “Ensuring that young people in care and care leavers are able to live in good-quality homes that meet their needs is a key priority for councils.
“However, as the number of children in care has increased year on year, it has become increasingly difficult to find suitable children’s home accommodation for all of the children who need it. This is undoubtedly driving the increasing use of unregulated and unregistered accommodation.
“It is vital that the Government urgently takes action to increase the availability of homes for young people with complex or challenging needs and provides funding and support to councils to ensure that they are able to give these young people the safe, nurturing homes they deserve.”