Council chiefs have been accused of complacency over their role in a culture of secrecy around children’s homes that, according to Michael Gove, left vulnerable children exposed to paedophiles.
Councils insisted they had at times been powerless to protect children in homes in their areas because they often did not even know they were there because of the rules, which have recently been changed.
Ann Coffey, the chairman of a parliamentary inquiry into the issue, rejected the councils’ claims, insisting that they “should have known” before then and that officials had been routinely failing to comply with long-standing rules about sharing information on children in care.
Tim Loughton, the former children’s minister, said there was “no doubt” councils had been complacent about their duties to protect children they were placing in care in other areas. Mr Gove made his comments in a highly critical article in The Daily Telegraph as his department published the most comprehensive information yet about the cost, location, and standards of children’s homes in England.
He ordered it to be compiled and published after the Rochdale sexual grooming scandal exposed serious flaws in the child protection system in England. Nine men were jailed last year for grooming and sexually abusing vulnerable teenage girls, including those who were in care.
The case exposed how councils had been routinely sending vulnerable children to homes in distant parts of the country under a system increasingly reliant on small, privately-run care homes.
The figures Mr Gove released showed that half of children in homes are living outside their local area, away from friends and family support networks, in some cases hundreds of miles away.
David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association’s children’s board, said councils were “not necessarily routinely notified” if a children’s home opens in their area.
“One of our frustrations … is making sure we know when children are placed in our local area and when new children’s homes open,” he said.
Ms Coffey said: “Councils should have known about this because the regulations say that if you place a child in another local authority area you have to notify the other local authority that that child is placed there. That is not the responsibility of Ofsted. It is a systematic failure.”
“Children are being placed many, many miles away, not because the home that they are being placed in is able to meet their specialist needs but because that is where the homes are.”
Mr Loughton added: “There is no doubt local authorities were complacent in their duty of care towards the children who were living out of their area. There was a bit of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and that has got to change.”
Lily Caprani, of the Children’s Society, who worked on the parliamentary inquiry said: “What we uncovered … was children going missing and people not realising – that no one had noticed.
“When it is my child I want to know where he is at any time of day. If you are a corporate parent you ought to have exactly the same attitude to a child in your care.”