“there was no organised escape. If leadership occurred in these escapes, it arose by individuals joining those who seemed to know their way around.”

Those actions probably saved the lives of the 28 men who escaped the accommodation block, but, as we know, many more did not make it out and when the block was salvaged later in 1988, 81 bodies were found inside. Just three hours after the first explosion, the centre of the platform had collapsed into the North sea and the few survivors who remained were picked up in the hours that followed.

The full horror of what happened on Piper Alpha can be seen from the many photographs that were taken that night. They show the platform engulfed in flames, fuelled by a constant stream of gas from the risers that did not properly shut down. The effect, according to one eyewitness, was like a giant “bunsen burner”.

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The scale of the disaster called for a radical rethink of the safety measures in place in the North sea and that is what Lord Cullen provided. His 106 recommendations covered the safety regime, design of platforms, procedures for evacuations and the involvement of the work force. The safety case regime meant a rigorous system that elevated responsibility for safety on the platforms to board level. The move of the regulator from the Department of Energy to the Health and Safety Executive removed the conflict of interest caused by the Department being both regulator and beneficiary of the oil and gas extracted from the North sea.

Those wide-ranging changes in the oil and gas industry were absolutely necessary, but Members should be in no doubt that they could not have happened without the pressure brought to bear by the families of victims, their supporters and their trade unions.

Since then the industry has done much to mitigate risk and, as has been said, we have seen a significant reduction in the number of fatalities in the industry in recent years, but we must not be complacent. Concerns remain, particularly around the regulatory environment and the Government’s proposed changes to the Health and Safety Executive.

One of the linchpins of the Cullen report was the establishment of the regulator in a separate part of the HSE. After the Government’s proposed reorganisation of the HSE, the regulator for oil and gas will become part of a new energy division inside the organisation, ending the dedicated division for the first time since Lord Cullen’s recommendations were implemented. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) said, that was done with a lack of proper consultation with trade unions and with oil and gas companies.

In conclusion, will the Secretary of State assure the House that those changes will not affect the UK’s safety case regime and that that world-leading safety regime will not be affected? The increased risk that comes with operating ageing platforms and drilling in more hazardous environments and the events in the last year on the Cormorant Alpha platform, as well as the major gas leak from Total’s installation in the Elgin field in March 2012, mean that it is more important than ever that we do not forget the lessons of Piper Alpha. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he is satisfied with the inspection regime? What action has been taken on the issues identified in the interim report on key programme 4 and when will we find out when that report is to be published?

In particular, will the Secretary of State tell the House what discussions he has had with the oil and gas industry regarding the HSE’s observation that when it comes to ageing infrastructure,

“more innovative work is required…to involve the workforce”

in health and safety issues.

Twenty-five years ago Piper Alpha took 167 lives. The youngest victim was just 19—Mark Ashton from Inverurie. The oldest was David Wiser at 65. They were all men with lives left to live. Speeches in honour of them in this place are a fitting memorial, but today we should rededicate ourselves to taking continued action to ensure that such a disaster never happens again. In that way, we pay due respect to the victims and their families.

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4.44 pm

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Michael Moore): As the speech from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) has just underlined, the events on Piper Alpha 25 years ago this week remain deeply shocking. The legacy of the tragedy has been profound. It is right that in this House we remember those who died and focus on what we must do to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this important debate through the Backbench Business Committee, supported by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and others across the House. They have all made hugely important contributions to the debate and I hope that in the brief period available I will be able to respond to a number of the points that have been raised.

As many have observed here this afternoon, the events of 25 years ago on the Piper Alpha platform were truly horrific—unimaginable, indeed. But the loss of 167 lives is something that families and communities across Scotland, the rest of the UK and overseas have to deal with every day, to this day. We must never forget those who lost their lives. On Saturday, like so many others, I had the honour of attending the service to mark the 25th anniversary of Piper Alpha at the memorial in Aberdeen’s Hazlehead park. Along with the First Minister, the Provost of Aberdeen, the shadow Scottish Secretary, local MPs and MSPs, and many industry representatives, I was privileged to join hundreds of family members and others in the act of remembrance.

The service led by Chaplain Gordon Craig was a moving and fitting tribute to those who lost their lives on 6 July 1988. The floral tributes from the families were many and varied. All were beautiful and all were a powerful reminder of the pain and loss so many have suffered. The flypast by the RAF Sea King helicopter reminded us of the work of the emergency services. The roll-call of those who lost their lives was a haunting reminder of the human cost of the disaster. The garden of remembrance, fully restored in time for the anniversary, provided a beautiful setting for the service. The restoration work in the gardens now allows the memorial to be set off appropriately.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene. May I ask him a question in relation to the emergency services? The Royal Air Force played a very important part in responding to the tragedy, including the loitering of a Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, which performed vital tasks. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the UK is now the only North sea country not to have a maritime aircraft capability, and could he explain how the tasks that were performed by the Nimrod 25 years ago could be matched, should there ever be a tragic accident again?

Michael Moore: I join the hon. Gentleman in the tribute that I pay to the RAF of that time and since for the work that it does to maintain our maritime safety and in so many different guises. If he does not mind, I will not revisit the debate, which I appreciate he has sought to have on many occasions about maritime safety, other than to say that we remain thoroughly committed to the highest possible standards of maritime safety, as I hope the rest of my remarks will underline.

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Before and after the service on Saturday we all had the chance to speak to some of the survivors and families and those, such as the social workers, who have been by their side all these years. That was a humbling part of the proceedings—the quiet dignity of the survivors; the shared stories of the families; the determination that the legacy of Piper Alpha will be an endless quest for the highest possible safety standards.

The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) underlined that with her speech, highlighting the tireless efforts of Gavin Cleland and other family members over the years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) rightly focused on the safety culture that needs to run right the way through all organisations. The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) stressed the importance of ensuring that new and young entrants understand the safety culture. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) focused on the industry’s efforts, particularly at the recent Piper 25 conference, to ensure that serious impetus is given to structural safety and that many other aspects are not forgotten.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) rightly underlined the importance of the memorial in her constituency, which looks fantastic. By the time the roses are out, it will be a truly special place. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), like the hon. Member for Waveney, highlighted the fact that this is not just about Scotland; it is a broader tragedy. He rightly made some challenging comments about the Health and Safety Executive, to which I will return shortly. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), repeating some of the earlier themes, highlighted the extreme complexity of the series of problems that occurred that tragic night. The hon. Member for Glasgow East gave a graphic reminder of the disaster and its legacy. I hope to deal with the points she raised in the remaining time available.

As well as focusing on the families, as was right, every contribution we heard today also focused on safety. In my role as Secretary of State, I have seen at first hand over the past three years the work of many companies in north-east Scotland that are at the forefront of the industry. The people who work for them are at the front line, and all the way back through the supply chain it matters that safety counts at every turn. The industry employs over 29,000 people offshore at any one time and supports hundreds of thousands more jobs onshore, and £11.2 billion was paid in tax on production in 2011-12, so it is really important to the country.

The industry faces challenges in the years ahead as we seek to access reserves that are becoming ever harder to reach. We are rightly focused on ensuring that the correct fiscal regime is in place to drive the necessary investment to maximise the returns from the UK continental shelf and underpin future decommissioning, but that will count for nothing unless we maintain the strongest possible safety regime for those working offshore. We need to ensure the viability and security of that key sector of the UK economy, but every bit as important is the protection of the individuals who work in it.

We have heard many observations this afternoon about the Cullen inquiry. We still owe Lord Cullen a huge debt for his recommendations, which have been implemented in full. A revolution took place in North sea safety as a result of the lessons learnt from the Piper

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Alpha catastrophe. We have a duty to maintain the highest possible standards. Only recently the European Commission published its directive on oil and gas safety and environmental measures. It borrows heavily from the United Kingdom’s regime, which we welcome. We are committed to meeting the implementation deadline in July 2015 and will immediately be working with the industry, the work force and other interested parties to develop the necessary legislation. We envisage the formal consultation taking place from the spring of 2014.

Piper Alpha might have revolutionised North sea safety, but Deepwater Horizon, the Cormorant oilfield and the Elgin leaks remind us that there is never any room for complacency, and that must begin in government. We recognise that this is not just about action from the industry; it is also about the role we must play at every turn. Regulators must share lessons and evolve to meet current and future challenges.

A number of Members mentioned the Health and Safety Executive and the creation of a new energy division that will bring together its offshore division, its gas and pipeline specialists, both onshore and offshore, and its mines inspectorate. At the heart of these changes is our desire to enable the HSE to meet the wider challenges of emerging and new energy technologies but also to underpin the core efforts that we must continue to make in the North sea and the offshore sector.

Our approach to inspections will not change. We will still have the proactive programme, as in the past, and that is important. The HSE has also been given ministerial approval to recruit additional offshore staff and to widen the range of recruitment methods to maximise the chances of identifying suitable recruits. Hon. Members have made detailed points and broader points about health and safety, and I will ask the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), to address them after this debate.

Another issue that has been raised is the impact of asset life extension on safety in the North sea, and it is right that we should turn our attention to that. In the 2008 debate mentioned by the right hon. Member for Stirling, there was a commitment to review the key programme 3 report on asset integrity, which had shown some less than satisfactory outcomes. The review found that the industry had allocated considerable new resource and effort to improve offshore assets, supported by evidence of good progress in addressing more general issues identified by the KP3 work. The findings of the review show that we all need to recognise the ongoing need to keep our focus on the assets that we have. That is why it is so essential that the HSE-initiated KP4, the ageing and life extension inspection programme, also comes to fruition. That programme will run until December this year before finalising its findings. An interim report was published last autumn and we aim to publish the final report as soon as possible after it has concluded.

Throughout the debate, Members have rightly focused on the role of the work force in the North sea. We continue to seek the highest level of engagement with the work force at every turn, particularly in relation to safety. Nobody is closer to those hazards or understands them better than those who work on the different platforms and installations, and we have to ensure that we work closely with them in designing and maintaining our safety regime. However, as Members have highlighted, safety culture cannot be achieved simply through legislation. It is a combination of many factors, including leadership

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and basic competence that translates into a set of behaviours at all levels in an organisation. That is why it is so important that the industry keeps working with all its different stakeholders to ensure that safety is at the heart of every regime.

I pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee and to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North for bringing forward this debate in this particular week. It is so important that we remember the tragedy of 25 years ago. Above all, we must not forget the lessons of the past. We must not forget those who lost their lives on Piper Alpha. We must continue to take the action necessary to ensure that safety is at the heart of everything in the North sea.

4.57 pm

Mr Doran: First, I thank all colleagues who have contributed to the debate. It is an important debate not only, as has been said, for those of us in the north-east who are in direct contact with the industry, but for those whose constituents work in the industry. Those workers come from all over the country and from many other countries. As everyone has recognised, it is a significant industry that makes a huge contribution to the Exchequer.

Two thoughts occur to me. First, it is always helpful to have a debate about the reality of health and safety and the consequences for those who work in any industry of poor safety systems, a lack of safety systems, or poor management of safety systems. We have been talking about the awful reality in, yes, an admittedly extreme case. Away from the cauldron of party and ideological differences, we have made the important point that health and safety is fundamental, as Bob Keiller said and as many others involved in the North sea are recognising, as are, I hope, people throughout the country.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) reminded me of Gavin Cleland, whose son tragically died in the incident. I first met Gavin in the Shadow Cabinet Room after it happened. He was part of a group I had brought down to London because they wanted to meet the various politicians involved, including the then Secretary of State for Energy. One of Gavin’s ambitions was to campaign for a prosecution, because that is one of the key things that is missing from the case. Despite all the evidence in the Cullen report and everywhere else, there was no prosecution. I am not calling for a prosecution at this stage, but at a time when many historical cases are being looked at in retrospect, such as Hillsborough and events in Northern Ireland, re-examining the Piper Alpha case is worth considering. What holds me back, however, is the fact that that might be difficult for a lot of those who were involved, especially the survivors and the families—

5 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Business without Debate

Business of the House (15 July)


That, at the sitting on Monday 15 July, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Secretary Theresa May relating to:

(1) the 2014 JHA opt-out decision not later than 8.30pm;

11 July 2013 : Column 651

(2) the opt-in decision on the proposed Europol Regulation not later than the moment of interruption;

and such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved.—(Mr Swayne.)


Franchising of Stockton Crown Post Office

5 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I rise to present a petition on behalf of the people of Stockton-on-Tees and surrounding areas in opposition to the Post Office’s proposal to downgrade our local Crown post office. It was signed by many hundreds of people over only a few days.

The petition states:

The Petition of the people of Stockton-on-Tees and surrounding areas,

Declares that the Petitioners totally oppose the franchising of Stockton Crown Post Office and believe the proposal will severely damage the provision of services.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to call upon the Post Office to withdraw their plans and retain Stockton Crown Post Office.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Planning Guidance (Children's Homes)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Swayne.)

5.1 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Over the past couple of years, there has been an increase in public awareness and understanding of the myriad problems facing children and young people who live in children’s homes. I welcome the Government’s recent initiatives to improve the quality of care in children’s homes and the clampdown on the high number of children placed miles away from home, as well as the improved collection of data on missing children. I am also pleased that the suitability of an area is to be taken into account before a children’s home is allowed to register because that will stop clusters of children’s homes springing up in run-down hot spots where there might be drugs problems or a bail hostel housing released sexual offenders.

A joint parliamentary inquiry by the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, and the all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers, which I chaired last year, revealed that a significant minority of vulnerable young people living in children’s homes are targeted for sexual exploitation. Recent high-profile court cases, such as the Oxford case, have also highlighted that problem.

I shall focus on planning legislation in my speech because it is the final piece of the jigsaw on children’s homes and tackling child sexual exploitation. I also want to explore how we can marry the Department for Education’s new and admirable proposals to stop children’s homes springing up in the wrong areas with the fact that existing planning laws do not specify that that is a material planning consideration.

The national minimum care standards for children’s homes, on which Ofsted bases its inspections, state that children’s homes should be located in safe areas. The inspection should assess whether the

“home’s location and design promotes children’s health, safety and wellbeing and avoids factors such as excessive isolation and areas that present significant risks to children”.

The Department for Education’s new proposals, which are currently subject to consultation, take that further by including a requirement for the providers of children’s homes to carry out a risk assessment of the area in partnership with the police and the local authority. Registration will be refused or suspended if the area is deemed unsafe. In the light of those new proposals, I argue that we need fresh planning guidance to reflect the fact that a home deemed by the police and Ofsted to be in an unsafe area will not get registration and to state that that needs to be a material consideration at the planning stage.

It is crucial that planning guidance is re-examined; otherwise we will have a crazy situation similar to that recently brought to my attention in Birmingham, where the planning committee is considering a planning application to open a children’s home in an area renowned for prostitution, drug dealing and serious crime—a red light area. I find this staggering. The papers for the planning committee reveal that there has been a history of young girls in this area being groomed for prostitution, and that it even led to the closure of another children’s home on a nearby road. The concern is that opening a new children’s home in the same area would result in the

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same risks of vulnerable children in care being targeted by sexual predators. There have been an enormous number of objections, including from the police and the cabinet member for families and children, yet the council officers recommended that permission be granted because there are no planning grounds to refuse consent.

The decision clearly flies in the face of the Department for Education’s new proposals and illustrates my point exactly that the planning guidance from the Government needs changing. Of course, I accept that the planning system is separate from the child protection system, but it is hard for the public to understand how planning permission can be granted for a children’s home when there are so many objections on child protection grounds. I also understand that planning authorities have a lot of discretion and are able to turn down planning applications on any grounds that they think are appropriate and that are linked to local and regional planning policy.

I have been aware of planning problems for a number of years. On 1 February 2010, I held an Adjournment debate on planning applications for children’s homes. When I first worked as a social worker in Stockport in the 1980s, small, family-type care homes provided a family environment for quite young children, and the carers were often a resident couple. Now, younger children are placed with foster families and the young people placed in children’s homes are older with difficult and challenging behaviour. They often come into care with multiple problems and complex needs.

Stockport has 34 privately owned children’s homes—one of the highest numbers in the country. There are 241 children living in children’s homes in Stockport, but only 26 of them actually come from Stockport.

Stockport council recently held a scrutiny review of the relationship between its agencies, private children’s homes and the police. The review highlights concerns about current planning regulations and the proliferation of children’s homes in residential areas. It recommends changes to planning policy so that the number of existing homes in an area can be a material consideration at the planning stage of a new application for a children’s home. That arises out of concerns for the implications on local resources of children with complex needs being placed in the area from out of the borough.

When I first raised the matter of planning guidance for children’s homes in 2010, I was primarily concerned that certificates of lawful development were being issued for children’s homes opening in family homes where I felt if would have been more appropriate for planning permission to have been sought as a class C2 use rather than class C3.

The current rules relating to when a change of use for a building does and does not require planning permission are set out in The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987. Use class 3 is a dwelling house occupied by a single person or people living together as a family. It can also include not more than six residents living together as a single household, including a household where care is provided for residents. Use class 2 is for residential institutions and applies when there are more than six occupants, or when the occupants are not considered to be living together as a single household. The issue of when planning permission is required for a children’s home is still a matter to be determined depending on the circumstances of each individual case, which will turn on whether a “material change of use” has occurred from class C3 use to class C2.

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In 2010, an appeal was made to the Planning Inspectorate because of a failure to secure a certificate of lawful use for a children’s home in Stockport. The planning inspector refused the appeal and concluded that the residents could not be said to be living together as a single household. It said that there was a lockable office and other rooms and that this was more akin to institutional, rather than normal family home life. He also said that the residential use of the property by troubled children could bring more disturbance than most family homes. That, among other factors, led him to conclude that there had been a material change of use.

A paper issued by the planning services department at Leeds city council in December 2012 entitled, “Guidance Note—Planning Permission for Children’s Homes C2 or C3”, said that the problem of whether a children’s home would fall into category C3 could turn on the definition of a single household. It quoted a North Devon judgment on the definition of a single household. Justice Collins said that it was unrealistic to expect children to look after themselves in a single household. It clarified that carers who provided 24-hour care but were not resident could not be regarded as living together in a household. The paper concluded:

“A children’s home run on shift patterns could not be considered to fall within Class C3…because clearly, this is not occupation of a dwelling house by a single person or people living together as a family.”

The judge said, however:

“Although it may sound somewhat illogical, it is accepted…that, notwithstanding that this may fall within Class C2, rather than Class C3, nonetheless planning permission may not be required if the change of use was not a material change of use.”

The courts have held that whether a change of use is material or not is a matter of fact and degree for the local planning authority to determine, having considered the individual facts of the case.

On children’s homes, the present use categories, C3 and C2, create confusion, and as the judge said, it seems illogical that having established that a proposed children’s home is in use class 2, which one would think would require a planning application for a change of use from class 3, it would then have to be established that the change of use was material and therefore needed a planning application. This adds further confusion. I accept that planning is a judicial procedure based on case law, but I think there is a lack of clarity from Parliament. I think the Minister will appreciate that my constituents also find it extremely confusing.

The confusion about material change of use could be sorted out by having a different use category for children’s homes, spelling out how a children’s home is defined, including, for example, rotating shift workers, visits by therapeutic staff and lockable offices. I understand, however, that the Government are reluctant to introduce new use classes, so my other suggestion would be the issuing of new planning guidance saying what constitutes a children’s home. However, the other issue is about when planning permission for a children’s home should be refused. I hope he agrees that it cannot be right that a children’s home can be recommended for planning permission in an area that is clearly unsuitable for vulnerable young people.

I would like to see planning guidance on when it would be appropriate to refuse planning permission—for example, when there are concerns about the safety of

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children because of activities in the area, such as prostitution or drugs, or where there is already a proliferation of children’s homes, which has implications for local resources. As I said, Stockport has one of the highest numbers of private children’s homes in the country. There is concern that the geographic distribution of children’s homes—more than 25% of all such homes are located in the north-west—means that children are being placed many hundreds of miles from their own areas. A change in planning guidance would also help to ensure a better distribution of children’s home to meet children’s needs.

Guidance would be extremely useful, because as the Minister knows, Government planning guidance is regarded as a material consideration in planning decisions. It is right, in the interests of the welfare of young people in children’s homes, as well as the wider community, that the suitability of the location be considered. In effect, I am calling for the kind of planning guidance issued for development on green-belt land, where the Government state what they would consider to be an inappropriate development, which is used as a material consideration in planning applications. If it can be done to protect our countryside, it can be done to protect our children.

That would also mean that the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government would be singing from the same hymn sheet. Under the new Department for Education proposals, which say that children’s homes should not be allowed to open in an unsafe area, it seems unlikely that the children’s home I mentioned would get registration. We therefore have the ludicrous situation where planning permission is recommended for a children’s home near roads that have been closed by the council to stop kerb crawling. New Government planning guidance that spelt out that the safety of an area to vulnerable children is a material factor to be considered would ensure that such a situation does not arise.

I hope the Minister will agree that it is time to clear up the confusion and issue new planning guidance on children’s homes to bring clarity to this unsatisfactory situation. The Government have—quite rightly—given priority to tackling child sexual exploitation and improving protection for children in our care, and I hope the Minister will respond positively to my suggestions, which are aimed at engaging his Department in achieving that admirable objective.

5.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster): I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this important debate on planning guidance for children’s homes. As she said, providing safe accommodation for looked-after children must be a priority for all local authorities. Sadly, we are all too well aware of the outcomes for young people who have been let down by the care services. She has been a real champion for children in care, and I know she speaks with authority on these issues.

The hon. Lady raised a number of issues about the provision of children’s homes, some of which I know are based on specific cases. I hope she will understand that as such cases are subject to further consideration and planning decisions, I will not be able to discuss

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those particular issues, and I apologise in advance that my comments will cover such matters in their generality. I hope to show, however, that her proposed solution to these issues, and particularly the creation of a new class, is not the most appropriate way forward, and I believe that the issues and concerns she raises can be dealt with outside the planning system.

On the location of children’s homes, although we must give priority to the needs of vulnerable children, we must also consider the needs of the community in which they live. Government policy on looked-after children seeks to ensure that all children’s homes are properly run and situated in locations that take into account the safety and protection of the children living there.

The hon. Lady eloquently outlined the planning arrangements, and I hope she will forgive me if I go through them to make things absolutely clear. Use classes orders operate by grouping together land uses that have similar impact into “classes”. The order—this is the specific point—allows changes between certain land uses where the impact would be minimal, without the need for planning permission. Change of use is allowed within the same class, and there are cases, as the hon. Lady rightly says, where movement between classes is permitted. For example, premises currently used as a restaurant, which is class A3, could be converted to a shop—class A1—without seeking planning permission. That is because the impact of a shop on the surrounding area is likely to be the same or less than that of a restaurant.

The hon. Lady suggested the creation of a new use class category for children’s homes. The use classes order is intended to be deregulatory, however, allowing changes of use with minimal impact on land use and amenity. That removes the time and expense of making planning applications, and allows local authorities to concentrate their planning resources where they are most needed.

Under the use classes order, children’s homes—depending on their particular type—can either be in an ordinary family home, which as the hon. Lady rightly says is classed as C3, or in a dedicated residential institution, classed as C2. It is for local planning authorities to decide on a case-by-case basis into which class a particular use falls. I would expect most children’s homes to fall into the C2 category, which is the same class as other residential institutions such as nursing homes or training centres. Some smaller children’s homes could fall into family house class C3, which provides for small groups of people living together as a single household, including cases where there is an element of care.

When a change of use happens, the local planning authority must consider whether a material change has occurred that would require planning permission. It is an important principle that the test for planning permission being required is whether a material change of use occurs.

The hon. Lady has drawn attention to the need to consider carefully the location of a home for looked-after children in relation to the needs of those children and young people, and the host community. I absolutely agree that such considerations should be carefully applied, but I do not accept that such consideration can take place only in the context of a planning application, because planning is concerned primarily with the use of land and the effect on amenity of an alteration or

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change to the use of land. Planning is not intended to deal with problems such as antisocial behaviour by occupants or the location of a home in respect of other children’s homes.

The national planning policy framework clearly sets out that local authorities should work with public health leads and health organisations to understand and take account of the health status and needs of the local population, including expected future changes. It sets out the Government’s key priorities for the planning system, but we have given local authorities the freedom and flexibilities to make decisions locally about how best to meet their development needs. Therefore, we do not believe it would be right to set out specific planning guidance on this issue.

However, I agree with the hon. Lady that we must do more to ensure that all looked-after children in children’s homes are given the best possible support. In particular, they must be kept safe from exploitation and abuse. We have seen in the recent court cases involving children in Rochdale and Oxford that we have not always been able to do that. She mentioned the recent changes announced by the Government to improve the quality of children’s homes. I thank her for all the work she has done, through the all-party group and the Department for Education’s expert working group, which have greatly influenced the proposals.

The proposed reforms announced last month by the children’s Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson)—will lead to a much sharper focus on the quality of children’s homes and stricter measures to hold local authorities and care homes to account for their decisions, which is the critical point. We are therefore introducing rules so that Ofsted will allow new homes to be opened only in safe areas where they are run by competent providers. We will also ensure that homes already open in less safe areas demonstrate that they can protect children; otherwise, Ofsted will close them. As the hon. Lady said, the Department for Education is seeking views on various changes to the regulatory framework, including requiring the registered manager of a children’s home to complete an annual risk assessment of the area where the home is located. That work would require liaison with the local police and the local authority children’s services responsible for safeguarding.

The Department is also consulting on a parallel change to the Care Standards Act 2000 (Registration) (England) Regulations 2010—known as the registration regulations 2010—to require the potential provider of a children’s home to complete a risk assessment of the area in which they plan to operate and a list of safeguards regarding how they will mitigate any identified risks. That would include the sort of issues raised by the hon. Lady about prostitution, drug dealing and serious crime. The potential provider would be required to liaise with the police and the local authority about any concerns that might impact on the welfare of children, relating to the area where it is proposed to open a children’s home.

There will be a further requirement that the risk assessment and a list of safeguards are forwarded to

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Ofsted, so that it can consider whether the home has carried out an appropriate risk assessment and put in place adequate standards and safeguards. If Ofsted considers that a children’s home has not complied with those duties, registration could be refused or suspended. I hope that will reassure the hon. Lady that we are putting in place the necessary measures to ensure that the location of children’s homes and the safety of children will become a much more important consideration in the registration of homes than it has been in the past. We also want to reduce the risk of exploitation and harm by reducing the number of children placed a long way from their home—a point she rightly raised—and by addressing the quality of support provided in all homes.

Our changes will therefore include strengthening the current regulatory framework in respect of local authorities placing very vulnerable children at significant distance from their home. We know that such children are more likely to go missing from care and be at risk of exploitation. Proposals include a requirement for a senior local authority official to sign off all placements that are at a significant distance from the child’s home. They also require the placing authority to consult with the area authority prior to placement to ensure that it can meet the full range of the child’s needs.

The proposals set out that all homes should have an environment and culture to support positive behaviour that all staff understand and implement; and that homes should meet children’s emotional and behavioural needs as set out in their care plan. Such support can prevent vulnerable children from being exploited or getting involved in crime. We are consulting on plans so that children’s homes work much more closely with police and local authorities to prevent children going missing. We are strengthening the rules so that local authorities take decisive action where children are at risk of going missing, especially when they are placed away from home.

In conclusion, we fully agree with the hon. Lady’s aims, but do not believe that changing planning law is the best way to achieve them. The changes we are introducing to the statutory framework for children’s homes will, we believe, achieve the required outcomes that she is seeking. My Department receives numerous requests to change use classes orders. Some want to make it easier to change use, while others want to see greater restrictions. I think that we probably have the balance right at the moment, but I give the hon. Lady the assurance that we will continue to keep under review the use classes order in general, and we will continue to keep under review the issue of planning guidance, particularly in relation to the point she raised.

I end by saying a huge thank you to the hon. Lady for securing the debate and for the work she has done to help influence significantly important changes in Government policy. She should be congratulated and thanked.

Question put and agreed to.

5.26 pm

House adjourned.