Blair Targets Failing Care Homes in Social Exclusion Strategy

{mosimage} Failing local authority childcare homes may be taken over by the voluntary sector under plans considered by Tony Blair at a Chequers seminar yesterday. Mr Blair and his social exclusion minister, Hilary Armstrong, have also been looking at German approaches to helping children in care, including giving them one care worker to take them through education and act as their champion. The ideas are part of a government plan designed to help the bottom 2% in society, termed in Whitehall “high-risk, high-harm and high-cost families”. The focus on the Labour heartlands issue of social exclusion may do something to shore up the prime minister’s political position inside the party before what is likely to be a turbulent party conference. In a speech next week Mr Blair will concentrate on children in care, teenage mothers and mentally ill people on benefit – people who have been “difficult to reach” in previous government programmes.

Mr Blair yesterday met ministers involved in social exclusion issues along with leading agencies such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Turning Point. Papers from experts on social exclusion will be published on the day of his speech.

Ministers are looking at shaking up provision for children in care, investment in “talking therapies” for mentally ill people on benefits, new strategies to curb teenage pregnancy and compulsory 12-week programmes to improve parenting.

The leader of the government’s Respect taskforce, Louise Casey, is a strong advocate of parenting classes for people whose children behave antisocially.

The government is looking at new incentives or penalties for care homes that fail to do better, as well as handing more contracts to run them to volunteer groups. Staff ratios and turnover are much higher in British care homes than in Germany or Denmark. Ms Armstrong is also interested in care homes having a single worker or mentor responsible for a child.

Ministers are also concerned that out of 60,000 children in care at any time, less than one in 10 get five good GCSEs, compared with more than half of other teenagers. A previous exclusion unit report committed the government to ensuring that 15% of young people in care homes in every local authority secure five good GCSEs by 2006, but the target is not likely to be met.

Government figures show that the 5% most disadvantaged are 100 times more likely to have multiple problems than the most advantaged 50%, including conduct disorders, police contact, cannabis use, mood disorders and alcohol abuse. Only 0.2% from the “most advantaged and engaged families” are likely to have multiple problems by the age of 15.

Ministers are concerned many services are failing to reach the most disadvantaged young people. In a recent note to the prime minister, Ms Armstrong said: “The major barrier is the sheer number of services involved in the complex needs of our most at-risk individuals and families, who are the responsibility of no single agency.”

The action plan is likely to look at cognitive therapy for mentally ill people on benefits, including for the increasing proportion on incapacity benefit.

Ministers also want to improve sex education in schools. The number of teenage pregnancies in the UK has fallen, but remains higher than in the rest of Europe.

Four challenges

  • Cutting teenage pregnancies

The government has pledged to halve teenage pregnancies by 2010, but they have fallen by only 11% for under-18s and 15% for under-16s since 1998 and remain the highest in western Europe; almost 40,000 girls became pregnant before they reached 18 in 2004.

  • Supporting children in care

Autumn will see an education green paper on helping this disadvantaged group, who are disproportionately likely to fail at school and to end up unemployed, homeless or in prison as adults. Ministers have already promised looked-after children will be able to go to their first-choice school even if it is full and are supporting a pilot scheme allowing some to attend boarding school.

  • Tackling chaotic parenting

January’s Respect action plan proposed a national parenting academy, the extension of parenting orders – involving obligatory guidance sessions – and a network of family support schemes. Under the most controversial proposals, families deemed a nuisance to neighbours could be moved to secure council homes with round-the-clock supervision and support.

  • Helping benefit claimants with mental illnesses

Depression and anxiety have become the main basis of incapacity benefit claims, but opinion is divided over plans to speed claimants’ return to work. Some fear that rehabilitation will not be funded adequately.