Last month, when the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said 16- and 17 year-olds in care should not be put in danger by their accommodation, you’d be hard pressed to find someone that disagreed. Too many of these young people are living in substandard accommodation where they receive little or no support and, in some instances, are left open to exploitation and abuse.
But to follow the Commissioner’s suggestion and ban unregulated accommodation would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Centrepoint has provided services to homeless young people and care leavers for over five decades. We agree the situation is completely unacceptable but it’s important to look at how we got here and think practically about the solutions.
Reductions in funding for local authorities and an absence of regulation has shrunk the number of high quality providers of accommodation and meant that too often young people are placed with the lowest cost providers who are unaccountable and place profit over the needs of a young person.
Vulnerable young people need support with their mental and physical wellbeing, help to find training and employment and encouragement to develop the life skills, such as cooking and budgeting, they need to live independently.
That is what unregulated but quality providers like Centrepoint currently offer.
And, while these accommodation services are currently unregulated by Ofsted, they are regulated by Homes England and other agencies, including the local councils with whom they work. If a blanket ban on providers unregulated by Ofsted was brought in then many reputable providers like us would find ourselves unable to support 16- and 17 year-olds.
There’s much at stake here. If the government gets the new regulatory regime wrong it could risk shrinking rather than growing the number of providers who are fit to provide accommodation to 16- and 17 year-olds as they transition to independence.
We can all agree that we need to drive out providers who don’t keep young people safe.
To do that, we need new minimum standards, and we need new regulation – be it by Ofsted or another body. But we should also be looking to expand the number of bed spaces in the sector, ensure sustainable long-term funding, and link minimum, regulated standards to other outcomes connected to employment and wellbeing.
This debate provides a rare opportunity to rethink how we provide accommodation for vulnerable 16- and 17 year-olds, both those who are looked after and those who are accommodated via a housing duty.
More effective regulation will be key but it must be done in such a way that ensures a range of fully funded accommodation which works for young people, including those who want to leave traditional care settings. Yes, we must drive out the rogue providers but let’s make sure we don’t lose providers at the other end of the scale in the process.