Figures released to the Times reveal that 450 of the UK’s most vulnerable have died over the past decade

The government has refused to ban care placements for 16 to 17-year-olds in “unregulated” settings.

The government has revealed that 450 of the UK’s most vulnerable children have died in care over the last decade, including 50 that were housed in controversial unregulated accommodation.

Figures released to The Times through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests show that 400 “looked after” under-18s died in regulated care placements between 2011 and 2021 — a figure that amounts to 130 deaths per 100,000 children in care.

That is more than 16 times higher than the overall UK child mortality figure produced by the Office for National Statistics in 2021. Those numbers reveal eight deaths per 100,000 children nationally, although that only measured the deaths of those aged between one and 15.

Some 306,620 children had been in care between 2011 and 2021.

The figures also showed that 50 “looked after” children aged 16 and 17 had died while in unregulated accommodation in the ten years to 2021. Such accomodation can include bedsits, shared houses, hostels, caravans, boats or barges.

The government has faced pressure to ban the placing of children in unregulated accommodation, where they do not receive consistent adult supervision. The practice is banned for under-16s, but critics say that 16 and 17-year-olds are left at risk of exploitation.

Carolyne Willow, whose Article 39 charity campaigns for children in care and has challenged the government in court over the issue, said the figures were “shocking”.

“Nearly two years ago, the government introduced secondary legislation to prevent local authorities from placing children aged 15 and under in unregulated accommodation which lacks adult supervision, protection and care,” she said.

“Ministers insisted that children in care aged 16 and 17 didn’t need the same care and protection, so they were left out of the legislation. Our small charity took them to court, and lost.

“Now we hear that 50 children in care aged 16 and 17 had died while living in unregulated accommodation in the decade preceding that disgraceful policy decision.”

Children in care, also known as “looked after” children, are those that have been in the care of their local authority for more than 24 hours.

Willow said that the figure of 50 deaths in unregulated accommodation had not been disclosed by the government during Article 39’s legal challenge. She also questioned whether ministers were aware of it when they made those aged 16 and 17 exempt from the ban in 2021.

There are fears that new rules for dealing with “unregulated” placements will not be sufficient to prevent abuse

There are more than 82,000 children in the care system. About 7,000 are thought to live in unregulated accommodation in England.

Children in these placements — also called independent or semi-independent accommodation — can be forced to mix with adult strangers and run the rise of falling prey to criminal gangs and exploitation.

In March this year the government claimed it had in-effect banned unregulated accommodation by introducing new measures, including Ofsted inspections, to come into force from October. But the regulator will only have to carry out selective inspections every three years at these placements, while children’s homes are inspected every year.

Willow added: “The government must take immediate steps to amend the law so that all homes for children in care have to abide by the same child care standards.

“Families don’t stop providing care to children from their 16th birthday. It’s absurd and dangerous for the government to allow this to happen within the children’s care system.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “The death of any child is tragic and every child deserves to grow up in a safe and loving home. Our care strategy will strengthen multi-agency support to ensure experts intervene swiftly to protect children at risk of harm, and this year we are ending the use of unregulated provision for 16 and 17-year olds.

“Our reforms to supported accommodation are backed by £142 million, and include introducing mandatory national standards, along with a robust Ofsted registration and inspection regime that will raise the bar for this type of provision.

“We are also focused on providing more early support for families, reducing the need for crisis response at a later stage.”

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