Closing the gaps to protect society’s most vulnerable – are you affected by proposed changes to regulation of Children’s Homes?

England and Wales

A new chapter of children's social care is pending. Until now, an increasing number of vulnerable children have been reliant on poor quality and unsafe unregulated care accommodation. This is because the provision of independent and semi-independent accommodation only, as opposed to providing care to children under 18 years of age, currently falls outside of regulatory oversight. We last wrote about the issue of unregulated children’s services in England in our article dated July 2020, when the Department for Education’s (‘DfE’) report following consultation on the matter was still awaited. The aim of the consultation was to ensure that all vulnerable children are accommodated in safe and appropriate settings.

Since the DfE consultation took place between February and June 2020, the DfE has taken the first steps to address these issues by introducing a ban on placing under-16s in unregulated provision, effective from September 2021. On 15 December 2021, further reformative measures were announced, including significant funding to increase the number of available children's home placements and a requirement for providers of accommodation to 16 and 17-year-olds to register with and be inspected by Ofsted. 

The introduction of new mandatory national standards was also announced for accommodation housing 16- and 17-year-olds who identify as looked after children and care leavers, which will be known as ‘supported accommodation for young people’.  The national standards consultation ran from May to July 2021, where the overwhelming response was that it is necessary to regulate supported accommodation.  Key areas of focus were identifying risk, providing young people with more say in their own care and harbouring healthy relationships in care. The standards are in the process of being finalised and are expected to be published in 2022, later becoming mandatory from Autumn 2023. 

With regards to Ofsted regulation, the landscape of supported accommodation is set to radically change. Ofsted will begin registering such providers in April 2023. Piloting inspections are due to begin during 2023, and we expect the framework for inspections of supported accommodation to be rolled out in April 2024. There is to be a £142 million injection of funding over three years specifically to support Ofsted, local authorities and providers in delivering the reforms and enhancing the outcomes for young people in or leaving care. Ofsted will receive £17.5 million in funding to develop and consult on the registration and inspection framework, build appropriate administrative systems, and recruit and train a new workforce to deliver the initiative. Although Ofsted will create the new accountability framework, local authorities will still be held to account where providers do not meet their duty to provide safe and secure accommodation.

In the face of vast capital investment and planned reforms, it remains to be seen whether this will result in positive tangible change and, if so, how quickly change will occur. Only time will tell how successful the new regulatory framework will be and whether Ofsted will be able to provide enough flexibility to operate across the broad spectrum of provision in the sector while ensuring a solid response to poor quality provision.

If you are a provider of accommodation for young people, work with any such providers or are considering venturing into this area, it is vital that you protect your interests in the face of any changes in the law which would affect your business. Lawyers within CMS' regulatory team regularly advise on compliance with health and social care regulatory frameworks and can assist you as to any changes you will need to make to ensure compliance with any new legislative provisions.

Co-authored by Heather Flaherty, Solicitor Apprentice at CMS.