4.1 Rob England, Acting Assistant Director for Integrated Commissioning (Children, Young People & Families), gave an overview of this report. He explained that there had been a rise in the numbers of children in care nationally and that this had meant that in Gloucestershire, demand had outstripped supply. He also explained that 80% of the accommodation provided in Gloucestershire for children in care was delivered by private for-profit companies. He explained that these private providers were not giving the quality of care that had been hoped for and these providers typically accepted children with the least complex needs, charging significantly higher prices if they took on children with more complex needs. These providers were also operating at high levels of debt which raised concerns around the potential for disorganised exits. He added that research was showing that in-house provision was consistently higher quality than private provision and expressed concern that private providers would prioritise profit over care provision. He explained that 102 Gloucestershire County Council children in care were in commissioned residential settings with 51 providers and that this was a considerable rise over the last decade. GCC were slightly above the national average for providers that were rated good or outstanding, but highlighted that it was still preferable for children to stay in county and close to home and ideally in a foster family arrangement. The officer highlighted upcoming changes to recommendations and standards following the results of the Care Management Matters care review 2022 as well as Department for Education (DfE) pilot programmes. He also highlighted that GCC’s Sufficiency Strategy was the planned local solution to the challenges faced nationally in provision for children in care.
4.2 In response to a question about statistics across neighbouring authorities, it was explained that as providers were not regulated, it was not always easy to access data for children from other counties. He explained that it was difficult to have the oversight and governance that GCC would like.
4.3 In response to a question about the changes coming in October 2023 around unregulated provision it was explained that officers were engaging with providers and working to ensure all providers were registered in the correct way in time for the deadline. However, he was aware that there was still a risk of homes not being properly registered in time. It was also explained that unregistered homes would become unlawful after the deadline and that could have repercussions for GCC. It was also explained that where necessary, cease and desist letters and prosecution could be resorted to for providers that were non-compliant. It was highlighted that through this process, officers would prioritise what was best for the children and would not move children unless absolutely necessary.
4.4 A member asked if complication in the legislative landscape for providing care provision was contributing to a shortage of placements and a lack of diversity in the options available in the market. The officer explained that legislation could be discouraging. He highlighted that legislation in Scotland and Wales had made it harder for for-profit companies to operate in those areas and England not having that legislation meant that more children from England were being placed in Wales or Scotland. He also explained that GCC was working with the NCB (National Children’s Bureau) provided tools that GCC were using to support working with local providers.
4.5 In response to a question about models elsewhere for market disruption, Ann James, Director of Children’s Services, explained that there were other local authorities that were exploring providing their own provision. She was aware of Surrey, Sussex and Somerset that were at different stages of providing and running their own provision. She explained that GCC were taking an incremental approach to ensure this was being approached as safely as possible.
4.6 A member asked whether conversations had been had with independent schools in Gloucestershire about accommodation provision. The Director explained that conversations with those schools typically occurred in an academic sense. She agreed that those schools did have experience providing accommodation for children but she was not sure that it was suitable for GCC’s children in care.
4.7 In response to a question about the upcoming registration process, it was explained that the Children Act was very clear that responsibility for children would remain with their original local authority. She also explained that it was the original local authority’s responsibility to update the local authority of residence whether the child was moving within or out of the County. Checks were made regularly to ensure all children were accounted for.