This Commons Library Briefing Paper provides information on out of area placements for looked after children in England. It also provides information on placements for looked after children in unregulated and unregistered accommodation.
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Current position on out of area placements
Under the Children Act 1989, as amended, accommodation provided by local authorities for children in their care must be “within the local authority’s area” unless this is “not reasonably practicable.” The Act additionally requires local authorities to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that accommodation for looked after children is “within the authority’s area.”
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).
The general duties of local authorities towards looked-after children apply to all placements, including those that are out of the responsible authority’s area. Guidance published by the Department for Education also sets out some additional requirements for out of area placements.
Increase in the number of out of area placements
The number and proportion of looked after children placed outside their home local authority has increased in recent years. The number and proportion of looked after children living in residential homes more than 20 miles from their home has also increased.
When questioned about the increase in out of area placements the Government has stated that they 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.
Independent review of children’s residential care
In the report of his review of independent 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.” Local authorities should, he said, “be cautious about following any hard and fast rule about placement distance and…recognise that the right placement for a child is more important than location.” The goal, Sir Martin said, should be “to have the right home and situated reasonably close to a child’s home.”
Noting the disparity in the location of homes, the report stated that there seemed to little evidence of market management and recommended that more should be done to “to influence the development of the market for children’s homes.”
Recent concerns about out of area placements
Recent 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.
- When children placed out of area do go missing they are at risk of criminal and sexual exploitation, including by criminal gangs who are expanding drugs markets through ‘county lines’.
- Children are not being consulted before being placed out of area.
- Children can feel isolated and often do not see loved ones often enough when placed out of area.
Unregulated and unregistered accommodation
In order to meet their responsibilities to provide accommodation for a looked after child, a local authority can place them 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.
Some types of residential accommodation for looked after children are not classed as children’s homes and are 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 are safe and suitable for the child concerned.
Unregistered provision is when an establishment is providing some form of care to a child as well as accommodation but they are not registered with Ofsted as a children’s home. This is illegal – it is an offence to run a children’s home without the appropriate registration.
Concerns have been expressed about an apparent increase in the number of children, including some under the age of 16, being placed in unregulated, and unregistered accommodation.
In February 2020, the Government published a consultation on unregulated provision, which made a number of proposals for change, including:
- Banning the use of independent and semi-independent placements for children under the age of 16.
- Introducing a new requirement on local authorities to consult with local police forces when they place a child out of area in unregulated provision.
- Amending legislation to define ‘care’ in order to provide clarity on the distinction between unregulated and unregistered provision.
- Introducing new national standards for providers of unregulated provision. The consultation seeks views on how the standards should be introduced and enforced.
- Legislate to increase Ofsted’s enforcement powers “so that robust action can be taken quickly where providers are found to be acting illegally.”
The consultation closes on 8 April 2020, following which the Government will publish a response that will include “a timetable for any reforms that will be taken forward.”