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Gove: 'Absurd' secrecy left care children at mercy of paedophiles
Some of Britain’s most vulnerable young people have effectively been handed over to paedophile gangs because of “absurd” and “bewildering” secrecy rules surrounding children’s homes, Michael
Gove warns on Friday.
By John Bingham, Social Affairs Editor 12 Sep 2013
In a withering assessment of the child protection system, the Education Secretary says officialdom and red tape have prevented the authorities from stepping in to protect children and have helped grooming rings to operate.
He also condemns social services departments across the country for the “indefensible” practice of “decanting” problem children to far-flung homes, away from friends and family, and routinely located in some of the country’s worst crime hot spots. And he voices dismay at how children’s homes have failed to provide basic protection while costing taxpayers on average six and a half times as much to care for a single child as it would cost to send them to Eton.
Mr Gove makes the comments, in an article for The Daily Telegraph, as his department publishes the most comprehensive information ever compiled about children’s homes in England.
The report, seen by The Daily Telegraph, exposes how councils in England are spending more than a £1billion a year to care for fewer than 4,900 children. It calculates that councils now spend an average of £4,000 a week — or £208,000 a year — to place one child in a home, several times what it could cost to educate them at some of Britain’s top public schools.
In some cases the total amount spent is running at several times that level. According to the figures, one council — Bexley in Kent — spent more than £58,000 a week per child — £3?million each — on specialist privately run homes last year.
The 52-page dossier, compiled in the wake of the Rochdale grooming scandal, establishes statistically for the first time that the majority of children’s homes are situated in neighbourhoods blighted by crime. Three out of 10 are located in the worst crime hot spots in the country. It also reveals the locations of the 1,718 children’s homes in England, showing how they are heavily concentrated in just two areas: the North West and the West Midlands, both of which have been at the centre of grooming scandals.
The report discloses that more than half of children in homes have been sent to areas far from family and friends and other support networks, potentially making them more vulnerable to abusers.
Among the details being published are comprehensive lists of the social services departments that place the highest proportion of children outside their area or more than 20 miles from home. It includes the names of 14 councils that place all of the children under their responsibility outside the immediate area — while having homes on their doorstep filled entirely with children from other regions.
It also shows that, when inspected, almost 30 per cent of children’s care homes fell below the Government’s preferred minimum standard.
The Rochdale case, in which nine men, predominantly of Pakistani origin, were last year jailed for grooming and raping a group of girls as young as 13, shone a light on the practice of councils sending vulnerable children to homes hundreds of miles away from friends and family.
The dossier gives the most complete picture ever published of the children’s home system, which has changed rapidly in the past decade, with small, privately run settings, usually housing just one or two residents, almost completely replacing traditional council-run institutions.But Mr Gove admits that until the scandal his department lacked even basic information about where children’s homes were located, who was responsible for them and whether they passed even basic standards. “To my astonishment, when I tried to find out more, I met a wall of silence,” he writes.
Explaining how Ofsted was barred from sharing basic information even with the police because of data protection rules, and “other bewildering regulations”, he adds: “There was one group of people, however, who did seem to possess all the information: the gangs intent on exploiting these vulnerable children.
“They knew where the homes were; they knew how to contact the children: at the fish and chip shop, the amusement arcade, in the local park, or just by hanging around outside the houses.
“In the name of 'protecting children’ by officially 'protecting’ their information, we had ended up helping the very people we were supposed to be protecting them from. We shielded the children from the authorities who needed to be looking out for them.”
As well as changing the “absurd” secrecy rules, he said officials had finally begun compiling detailed information.
“One figure stands out: almost half of children are placed in homes outside their local authority areas, and over a third are sent more than 20 miles from home,” he writes. “That is indefensible. So, too, is the fact that more than half of children’s homes are in areas with above-average crime levels.”
David Simmonds, of the Local Government Association, said children could be placed outside their home area for their own safety, to break gang affiliation, to place them near other family members or to access specialist services. But he added: “The historic problem of the clustering of lots of children’s homes in a small number of areas that may suffer from higher deprivation is something we agree needs to be addressed.”
A change would be in the best interests of children.