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I became interested in inspections after I was recently alerted by my local community safety team in Stockport to concerns that it had about what it saw as the inadequacies of Ofsted inspection reports on some children’s homes in my constituency. The team had catalogued numerous instances of problems involving children at the homes, and felt that the inspection reports did not reflect the true picture of what was actually going on there. The team provided me with evidence of large numbers of children running away, going missing, repeat offending and committing assaults and criminal damage, which was not reflected in the reports under any of the general inspection headings. That antisocial behaviour was causing problems for local residents living near the homes, and the team was worried that if the incidents were not being highlighted, other agencies could not provide the interventions needed to help the young people involved to correct their behaviour.

Stockport has a very high number of children and young people placed in our children’s homes from other local authority areas. Indeed, 53 per cent. of all looked-after children in Stockport are from out of the borough, compared with a national average of 35 per cent. Many of the young people who were causing problems and had attracted the attention of the community safety team had been exported into Stockport from outside the borough. I am pleased that the new Children and Young Persons Bill addresses that problem and is intended to limit out-of-authority placements.

I decided to apply for reports of 10 children’s homes in Stockport from Ofsted, to check for myself the quality of inspections. The first problem that I encountered was getting hold of a copy of the reports, which were not available on the Ofsted website. I applied for them and received a letter saying that my request was being dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I objected, and of course I was immediately supplied with the reports, but my point is that they are not easily accessible.

As I have said, I had detailed statistics about the many incidents of children going missing and about assaults and criminal damage in and around those homes, committed by the residents, yet those statistics were not reflected in the reports. Even without that important information, four of the homes were officially classed as “inadequate”, three as “satisfactory” and only three as “good”. My point is that the reports contained no context or overview about how often children were getting into trouble or going missing. Without that, we cannot truly assess whether the care provided by the homes helps to manage or stabilise the behaviour of young people, or whether the homes are meeting the standards for safeguarding children under the Every Child Matters criteria. It cannot be right, for example, that the inspection report into one Stockport home failed to mention that one young person had run away 89 times. Another report did not mention that there had been 69 cases of residents going missing, six assaults and 31 incidents of criminal damage nearby.

Under the regulations, the home should promote and make proper provision for the welfare of children, as well as for the care, education and supervision and, where appropriate, the treatment of children accommodated there. The national minimum standards call for written
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records of all incidents of absconding and the reasons given by the child for running away. However, there is no requirement for those incidents to be included in the inspection reports and so they are not being reflected under the staying safe criterion. I think that they should be.

I am particularly concerned that three of the homes in Stockport—all managed by the same organisation—were given notice to improve last year and were classed as “inadequate”. Since then, two of those three homes have been inspected again and have now been classed as “satisfactory”. However, it is not clear to me what level of improvements have been made to warrant moving from a rating of “inadequate” to “satisfactory”. Again, the problem is that the inspection categories are too general.

Another children's home in Stockport, which has a different owner and charges up to £4,250 a week per child, has sent out advertising flyers trying to attract placements for prolific and priority offenders from areas outside Stockport. The flyers say:

However, the community safety team has given me detailed times and dates of incidents involving two clients that reveal that the home is failing dramatically in this stated aim.

In the case of one young person, who was already electronically tagged, there were more than 35 incidents over nine months. The incidents ranged from assault, burglary, missing from home, criminal damage, punching and biting care workers, and throwing a knife at another resident to stealing a vehicle. The other young person had 15 similar incidents. The relevant Ofsted inspection report did not reflect any of the above cited behaviour.

After reading the reports on the 10 children’s homes in Stockport, I wrote to Ofsted to express my concerns about the lack of thoroughness of the inspection reports. Since then, I have had a very helpful meeting with Michael Hart, Ofsted’s children’s director, and Andrew Mercer, an assistant divisional manager in the children's directorate. They assured me they had taken on board my concerns and would feed them into the on-going review of national minimum standards for children’s homes.

I am also grateful to the Minister for allowing me the opportunity to raise some of those concerns at a recent meeting. I want, through this debate, to put my concerns on the record, together with what I hope will be his positive response to them.

I believe that a number of steps can be taken to improve inspections. The first point that I raised was the importance of the reports being made more freely available. I would like to see them published as a matter of course on the Ofsted website, and I understand that Ofsted is now consulting on that. At the moment, the inspection reports only go as a matter of course to the owner of the home, whether local authority or private. I believe that they should go as a matter of course to the placing authority, to the authority in which the home operates, and also to the schools and agencies responsible for tackling crime and disorder in the area. If a home is deemed to be inadequate, the placing authority should put its reasons for continuing the placements on the child’s record.

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I would also like statistics to be published that show the number of homes and their inspection categories, so that we can see the impact of inspections in improving standards—just as happens with the school league tables. If local agencies have a responsibility for dealing with the behaviour and education of all looked-after children in their area, they should also be aware of the quality of care being provided.

I want the reports to be better informed, with inspectors seeking the views of local agencies such as crime reduction partnerships, community safety teams and schools in advance of their visits. I accept the usefulness of random visits but I also feel that, if the police and schools were consulted on their views about the homes and the activities of residents before the visits, the reports would be better informed and consequently more useful. Also, it would encourage homes to work more co-operatively with local agencies if they knew that those agencies would be asked for their views in inspection reports.

Does the Minister agree that as part of the inspection process, it would be a good idea to invite comments from local crime reduction partnerships, community safety teams and other agencies about antisocial behaviour, offending and running away by young people in such homes to help inform the inspection reports? Does he also agree that it would be useful if schools were consulted about the level of support that care homes provide to pupils, the amount of communication between teachers and care home staff, and the performance of pupils in care?

I suggest that the national minimum care standards be updated so that inspection reports contain a summary and proper evaluation of all incidents of running away, assaults and criminal damage. That would enable placing authorities better to evaluate the control mechanisms in place in the home, so that they can manage behaviour and assess whether the home properly met the staying safe criterion.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) for all her hard work on the all-party group on runaway and missing children. As secretary of that group, I know that many of the 100,000 children who go missing every year come to some harm. One in six is forced to sleep rough or with strangers, and one in 12 is harmed. I would therefore argue that incidents in which children go missing from children’s homes should be recorded under the staying safe criterion of the inspection reports. I know that when some children go missing, they are just staying out late at a friend’s house, but for others the result is more serious. We must find a way of assessing the seriousness of “missing” incidents and why they happened.

I am concerned that, owing to the way in which inspection reports are structured, they are not effective tools for achieving minimum standards or improving standards. If we are to improve outcomes for looked-after children, we must not only enforce minimum standards but use inspection reports to drive up standards. Ofsted inspections have been a vital tool in doing that in our schools, but if care standards are to be effective in improving standards in our children’s homes, they need to be more prescriptive in what is taken into account in the inspection, need to include other agencies’ observations, and must be widely published and available.

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10.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this debate, and thank her for the great interest that she takes in the subject. It is a long-standing interest, as she pointed out; she first introduced a Bill on the subject in the House in 1984. As she said, she recently met representatives from Ofsted to discuss her concerns. I am glad that that was a positive meeting. I, too, met her recently to discuss what can be done to improve outcomes for young people in care. I also thank her for her welcome for the Children and Young Persons Bill, which will come before the Commons shortly, having had its journey through the House of Lords, and having been broadly welcomed across the sector for the improvements that it tries to make.

Of course, for a child to succeed in life, they need a stable home life, a safe place to go, significant adults taking a real interest in their life, and a strong sense of family. In short, they need to be cared about, and not just cared for. It is imperative that we focus all our efforts on trying to create that environment for children who do not live with their birth families. My hon. Friend raised a number of important points on the inspection of care homes, both tonight and in her meetings with me and with Ofsted. She mentioned that she has received information relating to specific care homes in her area and has concerns about them. I cannot refer to the specifics of her concerns about those homes, for obvious reasons, but she also raised some wider points that result from those concerns, and I hope that I can address those points.

I will first try to answer some of the questions that my hon. Friend asked towards the end of her speech. First, on the involvement of other agencies in the inspection process, I understand her concerns about the fact that where the behaviour of children in children’s homes is unacceptable and affects the surrounding community, inspection reports should reflect that, and should, as far as possible, take account of information that is available locally. Obviously, that has to be balanced with the need to take a proportionate approach to inspections. Most importantly, those commissioning places in residential provision must have the right information on which to base placement decisions, and must make sure that the placements are right for the children and young people in question.

To achieve that, the Department is currently supporting the development of standardised contracts for local authorities to use when commissioning services, including in relation to provision in children’s homes. The national framework contract for the placement of children in children’s homes is underpinned by a number of performance indicators, including some relating to crime and offending behaviour among children placed in the home. The majority of local authorities are already using these contracts and over time they will start to provide the invaluable information that my hon. Friend is looking for, helping to drive up the quality of care.

My hon. Friend asked about consultation with schools about the support provided to pupils living in care homes. That is a well-made point. In their role as corporate parents, local authorities and the services that they use have a vital part to play in supporting the education of looked-after children. The national minimum
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standards that she mentioned highlight that point and set out clearly the steps that providers should be taking to make it a reality. For example, children should have a personal education plan setting out a record of their achievements, needs and aspirations, and they should be given access to appropriate educational facilities. The plan should include the names of staff responsible for liaising with schools and other appropriate bodies.

The national contract for children’s homes that I mentioned covers education and includes detailed indicators designed to provide commissioning authorities with information about a home’s performance with regard to the education of the children placed there. I would be happy to consider what more could be done to address my hon. Friend’s concerns.

My hon. Friend suggested a pilot to collate information from other agencies in advance of inspection. That is an interesting and innovative suggestion, and I see no reason why that could not happen. I know that she has been in touch with Ofsted to explore the benefits of collating information in advance of inspection.

My hon. Friend also asked about recording incidents of young people missing from care as part of the inspection process. In her role as part of the all-party group in Parliament, she will know that a cross-departmental working group is looking into the issue of missing children. As part of a programme of work to deliver the “Care Matters” agenda and improve young people’s quality of care, we will be revising the existing guidance on children missing from care, and including its requirements as part of our plan to update and re-issue guidance to the Children Act 1989 and subsequent legislation. That will provide us with the opportunity to integrate the guidance on children missing from care homes into this important new revised guidance and at the same time consider whether we need to provide more detail about managing support for especially vulnerable groups, such as potentially trafficked children, to minimise the likelihood of their going missing from their care placement.

For young people in care, selecting their provision will probably be one of the most important decisions affecting their lives, so when those decisions are made, they must reflect the young person’s best interests, be conducted in a timely manner and assure a high level of quality in the provision that will be received. All those commitments were highlighted in the “Care Matters” White Paper.

Clear planning processes for local authorities, rigorous inspection and enforcement processes, to which my hon. Friend referred, and a world-class care system will be the keys to success. We have already announced a number of measures to support care planning, including drawing together the care planning requirements into a single set of regulations. We will also issue accompanying guidance as part of the revision of the Children Act 1989 statutory guidance. Furthermore, we are piloting regional commissioning arrangements, to support local authorities.

To ensure that care placements are of a consistently high quality and not just the luck of the draw, the
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national minimum standards are being revised as part of a wider review. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, those standards must be adhered to and maintained, with swift and decisive action if a service is underperforming. It is important that those processes are transparent.

In that context, I turn to my hon. Friend’s concerns about the accessibility of children’s homes inspection reports. Although social care inspection reports are available on the website of the chief inspector and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, reports relating to children’s homes are excluded. The reason given for that is preventing the identification of young people in residential care and ensuring that people accessing the internet with malign intentions are prevented from acquiring their address or any other personal details. While the existing legislative framework does not prevent the publication of children’s homes reports, certain information is excluded, such as the address of the children’s home. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, the chief inspector will shortly launch a consultation to seek the views of children, service providers and local authorities on whether children’s homes reports should be published on the Ofsted website. It is important that the views of the Members of Parliament, such as my hon. Friend, are taken into account in that consultation.

Finally, we must support care staff in their roles. When I speak to young people in my role, they tell me time and again that what really makes a difference is the people who work with them and the quality of their relationships with significant adults. My Department is working closely with the Children’s Workforce Development Council to develop a clear set of standards for residential care staff, which will set out the core skills that they should attain within an agreed and appropriate time scale. That will build on the CWDC’s successful work, which has been funded by my Department, to develop standards for foster carers, with the expectation that those standards are met within a year of their being approved. Not only will that model help to ensure consistently high standards across the residential care system, but it will delineate clear progression paths and career development for residential care staff.

To strengthen the quality of relationships between care staff and young people, we will test the effectiveness of social pedagogy as a method of giving professionals extra skills to improve the quality of care they provide to children—an approach with which my hon. Friend is familiar and which has worked well on the continent. The pilot will run over the next three years, and we will look closely at the results to see whether we should encourage the approach more widely.

I am confident that, through clear direction from central and local government, rigorous and transparent inspection processes and a world class children’s work force, we will achieve excellence for all children in care, which we are all aiming for. I thank my hon. Friend for her commitment on the subject, and I know that she will hold us to account in that important task.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o’clock.

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