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Out of area placements

Under the Children Act 1989, accommodation provided by local authorities for looked after children must be “within the local authority’s area” unless this is “not reasonably practicable.”

There is, however, no provision in legislation that prohibits a local authority from placing a child out of its area (an “out of area” placement) and guidance published by the Department for Education (DfE) states that an out of area placement may sometimes be most appropriate for the child.

The number of looked after children placed outside their home local authority increased by around 28% between 2010 and 2020, rising from 37% of all placements to 41% over the period. When questioned about the increase, the Government has stated that out of area placements should be “a last resort, unless it is in the child’s best interests”. This can be the case, the Government has said, if the child is at risk of exploitation or needs specialist provision.

In his independent review of residential care, published in July 2016, Sir Martin Narey argued that the issue of out of area placements is not “remotely as straightforward as often suggested” and local authorities should “be cautious about following any hard and fast rule about placement distance.”

Reports by Ofsted, the Children’s Commissioner for England, and the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults have raised concerns about the increase in the number of out of area placements. The concerns raised include:

  • Children are being placed out of area because of a lack of suitable provision closer to home.
  • That being placed so far away can be traumatic for children who already have had difficult upbringings.
  • The vulnerability of children living far away from home means that they are at greater risk of going missing.
  • Children can feel isolated and often do not see loved ones often enough when placed out of area.

Unregulated and unregistered accommodation

A local authority can place a looked after child in one of a number of settings, including a residential children’s home.

The Care Standards Act 2000, as amended, states that “an establishment in England is a children’s home [subject to some additional provisions] if it provides care and accommodation wholly or mainly for children” (children are defined as people aged under 18). Unless they meet criteria for an exemption, all children’s homes in England must register with Ofsted and meet quality standards set in regulations.

Some establishments which provide accommodation to looked after children do not meet the criteria of a children’s home and are thus not required to register with Ofsted. These are referred to as “unregulated settings” or “other arrangements.” They may include, for example, accommodation where children (usually aged 16 or 17) are provided with support to live independently rather than full-time care.

It is the responsibility of local authorities to make sure any placements in unregulated accommodation suitable for the child concerned.

An establishment which meets the definition of a children’s home under the Care Standards Act 2000 (and does not meet the criteria for an exemption) but is not registered with Ofsted is referred to as unregistered provision. This is illegal – it is an offence to operate a children’s home without the appropriate registration.

The number of looked-after children living in unregulated accommodation increased by 89% between the end of March 2010 and the end of March 2020, from 3,430 to 6,480.

Concerns have been raised by some stakeholders about the increasing number of children, including some under the age of 16, being placed in unregulated accommodation. In September 2020, a report published by the then Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, called for a ban on the use of unregulated settings for all children aged under 18.

Government reforms

In February 2020, the Government published a consultation on unregulated provision. Its response to the consultation was published in February 2021. The response stated that the Government would ban the placement of children under-16 in independent and semi-independent settings. Regulations providing for this ban come into force on 9 September 2021.

The consultation response additionally stated that:

  • The Government would seek to introduce new national standards for independent and semi-independent provision which will be overseen by an Ofsted-led registration and inspection regime. Further consultation with the sector will be conducted in 2021.
  • The Government would seek to legislate “at the earliest opportunity” to give Ofsted new powers to take enforcement action against illegal unregistered providers.

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