Nadhim Zahawi responds to a debate in Westminster Hall on children who go missing from care homes.
I commend the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this important debate. The Government share her commitment to protecting all looked-after children by giving them a stable, loving environment where they can succeed and achieve the outcomes we would all want for our own children. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on his previous work and on his ongoing work, now as a parliamentarian. His is a committed and serious expert voice.
I share the hon. Lady’s concerns about placing children far away from home. However, we recognise that, for very specialist provision, a child may sometimes need to be further away from home. In addition, as she rightly points out, sometimes circumstances make it the right decision for a local authority to identify a placement outside of the child’s local area, such as when a child is at risk from sexual exploitation, trafficking or gang violence, which she spoke about eloquently.
I fully recognise that placing a child far away from home can break family ties and make it difficult for social workers and other services to provide the support a young person needs. I have first-hand experience of speaking to a child about his personal problems when he was placed too far away from his mother, who is clearly very loving but was unable to provide the safety he needed, which meant he had to run away. It is also in many ways unsettling for children—the hon. Lady is right that it increases the likelihood of them going missing from care.
The needs of the child must be paramount when we make decisions about the right care placement. As the hon. Lady rightly described, local authorities have a duty to consider the right placements for the child and take into consideration a number of factors, one of which is placement area. However, there must be effective planning and oversight of the decision. The hon. Lady will be aware from earlier discussions that my Department has worked closely with local authorities through the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to strengthen legislative safeguards relating to children being placed out of area. Directors of children’s services must approve all decisions to place a child in a distant placement. That directive encompasses all placements that are more than 20 miles away from the child’s home address. Ofsted will also challenge local authorities where they believe poor decisions on out-of-area placements are being made.
As the hon. Lady rightly points out, far too often local authorities are unable to find the right care placement in the right location to meet a child’s needs. Local authorities remain responsible for ensuring a sufficient range of placements for looked-after children and for working with their local providers to make sure that provision meets the needs of the young people living in that area. Sir Martin Narey pointed out in his review of residential care that there is value in local authorities coming together to fulfil those responsibilities so that they can jointly commission and address gaps in provision. That is why we are providing almost £5 million in innovation programme funding to test new commissioning arrangements that bring local authorities and providers together to achieve better outcomes and improve the experiences of looked-after children. The projects being funded are in and around London, where demand for places far outstrips supply.
To deliver the degree of change needed, all those involved in the commissioning and provision of care in children’s homes will need to work together. Only by working in partnership will we be able to tackle the trickiest issues and deliver a sustained improvement in the quality of care for the country’s most vulnerable children. That is why we are also setting up a residential care leadership board, chaired by Sir Alan Wood, so that sector leaders and practitioners can come and work together to drive improvements in commissioning and address gaps in provision. The board will engage with the wider sector to support the development of new approaches and ensure that best practice is shared and implemented.
For a small number of very vulnerable children, a secure home is the best environment and can address why they go missing from care. We are improving the availability of this provision in partnership with ADCS, the Local Government Association, the Youth Custody Service and the Secure Accommodation Network. That work is also being driven by Sir Alan Wood, the chair of the residential care leadership board. We are considering the best long-term commissioning arrangements for secure homes and looking at options to build local capacity. In the interim, we continue to fund Hampshire County Council’s secure welfare co-ordination unit. Through that unit, we have established a central point of contact and source of support for all local authorities seeking secure placements. We continue to invest in the secure estate with our £40 million capital programme over this spending review period.
We have made it a requirement of all children’s homes to have clear procedures in place to prevent children from going missing. The statutory guidance empowers homes to challenge local authorities where they are not providing the input and services a child needs, which include offering an independent return-home interview to a child after a missing episode, which could help to inform care planning and reduce the risk of repeat missing episodes.
In addition to Ofsted’s inspection of individual children’s homes, Ofsted’s local authority inspections always report on the responses of local authorities and their partners to missing incidents, highlighting good practice and identifying specific areas for improvement. Since 2013 the Department has published guidance on protocols regarding how and when Ofsted can share information on the location of children’s homes with the police—a positive development, I believe, that is pivotal to ensuring that children in care are robustly protected.
When children go missing they can be vulnerable to threats that include criminal exploitation and sexual abuse, and no child should have their life blighted by that abhorrent crime. That is why the Government’s “Tackling child sexual exploitation” report, and the follow-up progress report of February 2017, set out a national response to child sexual exploitation. We have boosted capacity and expertise in local areas that experience high volumes of child sexual exploitation by funding a CSE response unit, and we have introduced a new definition of child sexual exploitation, and practice guidance for professionals. We have also funded projects through the children’s social care innovation programme, such as the St Christopher’s Fellowship Safe Steps project, which is targeted specifically at children in care who are at risk of sexual exploitation. In addition, the £7.5 million centre of expertise on CSA, which is funded by the Home Office, is introducing evidence of what works to prevent and tackle child sexual abuse and exploitation.
We are working collaboratively to ensure that key partners in health professions and children’s social care are trained to identify and refer young people who are involved in criminal exploitation, such as the county lines mentioned by the hon. Lady. We are undertaking a nationwide awareness raising communication activity about the threat of county lines targeted at young and vulnerable people, including advice on how to avoid becoming involved with and exploited by gangs. I sit on the Home Secretary’s taskforce that seeks to tackle this scourge.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Stockport for securing this debate, and I express my immense gratitude for the relentless passion and commitment that she has demonstrated over many years in her capacity as chair of the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults, and for her wider advocacy for the wellbeing of children in care. Although I recognise the ongoing challenges, I am keen that we do not let them detract from the fact that children’s homes do a sterling job of caring for some of the most vulnerable children and young people. Residential care continues to remain a vital part of the children’s social care landscape.
The hon. Lady raised important issues, and the steps we are taking will support local authorities in addressing gaps in provision and ensure that the needs of young people are met in the right care placement. Our underpinning principle, as set out in the Children Act 1989, remains that the interests of the child are paramount, and that must be reflected in all decisions about individual children’s care.
The hon. Lady mentioned data. Since 2014, local authorities have collected data on every incident of a child going missing, not only those missing for more than 24 hours, which has been a massive improvement. I remind Members, however, that those data continue to be experimental, and in 2018 we will seek to ensure that the data are robust and can be presented in a form that will allow the hon. Lady and her colleagues rightly to challenge us all the time, and to challenge local authorities to do better. I will soon visit Manchester—I hoped that it would be this week, but alas departmental duties mean that I have had slightly to postpone the trip. I want to see the opportunities for Greater Manchester, where 10 local authorities can work together to have a commissioning strategy that works properly for children in that area.