Action needed against 'rogue' homes for teenagers, says minister

By Katie Razzall
UK editor, BBC Newsnight

Image caption,
Nadhim Zahawi said full regulation of some 16+ accommodation would be a "knee-jerk reaction" to criticism

Unregulated accommodation for 16 and 17-year-olds may be subject to licensing and registration after claims children were being put at risk.

Children's minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Newsnight he wanted to eliminate a "rogue element" in some 16+ supported and semi-supported accommodation.

His words follow calls to regulate these homes. Standard children's homes are regulated by Ofsted.

But Mr Zahawi said full regulation would be a "knee-jerk reaction".

He said full regulation of what Newsnight has termed "hidden children's homes" could end up "throwing the baby out with the bathwater".

But he added he was "looking at licensing and registering".

The government is holding a roundtable meeting of care experts to discuss "best practice" later.

Meanwhile, Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has - for the first time publicly - called for regulation of this type of 16+ accommodation.

"This is a sector that needs to be regulated," she told Newsnight. "These are the most vulnerable teenagers."

The number of teenagers sent to unregulated care homes outside their home borough has doubled since 2014 and data seen by Newsnight indicates they are set to rise further this year.

Missing children cases

Police have raised concerns to Newsnight about the number of teenagers reported missing from these homes - in one case a child had gone missing more than 100 times.

In the first of a series of special reports, Britain's Hidden Children's Homes, Newsnight learned that - according to figures from the Department for Education - about 5,000 looked-after children in England are in so-called 16+ supported or semi-supported accommodation.

This is a 70% rise in a decade.

This type of accommodation is not inspected or registered by Ofsted, even though residents are in the care of the state.

Because the teenagers are deemed to be receiving support, rather than care, the accommodation is not subject to the same checks and inspections as registered children's homes.

Unregulated homes can often be simply a house on a residential street, with staff on site or visiting for as little as a few hours a week.

Bedfordshire Police is one of the forces that has called for greater regulation of these homes. It has given Newsnight access to film the impact that cases of missing children from care are having on the force.

Officers say many missing persons cases involve teenagers from unregulated homes. And of these, many teenagers have been re-housed from other areas of the country.

Newsnight has surveyed every local authority children's services department in the UK to find out how many teenagers in care were being moved outside of their home area.

In 2018, more than 2,000 16 and 17-year-olds were placed out of borough in this kind of care, data for England from the Department for Education shows. Four years earlier, the figure was 1,020. New data Newsnight has seen suggests that the figure is still rising.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Police have raised concerns to about the number of teenagers reported missing from unregulated accommodation

Oxfordshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Peterborough, Swindon, Sandwell, Stockton on Tees and Cambridgeshire councils - as well as the London Boroughs of Enfield, Newham and Kensington and Chelsea - had all sent looked after children to unregulated homes in Bedfordshire.

This is information that Bedfordshire itself did not hold. Bedfordshire Police has shared with Newsnight examples of out of borough placements that have caused concern.

These include:

  • A child from a local authority in the Midlands on bail for knife point robberies and sexual offences, placed in an unregulated home in Bedfordshire with young female residents
  • A child in the care of a council in the south west placed in 16+ accommodation with a known drug dealer and street robber, after starting a fire in his previous placement
  • Two children from rival London gangs placed together in an unregulated home. One boy ended up stabbing the other

DCI Steve Ashdown from Bedfordshire Police criticised the practice of placing teenagers in unregulated care homes, saying the "lack of scrutiny just exposes a significant amount of children to risk".

The Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) said local authorities do "many things" - including unannounced checks and DBS checks - to monitor provision.

Bedfordshire is not the only hotspot for unregulated children's homes. A survey by the BBC's FOI researchers indicated that at least 14 councils - ranging from Manchester and Peterborough to Croydon and Ealing - are all home to more out of borough placements than Bedfordshire.

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