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Red tape 'leaving children at risk'
The location of all children's homes in the UK has been revealed for the first time, showing that three in every 10 youngsters in care are more than 20 miles away from where they come from.
Local authorities are revealed to be spending £4,135 per child per week on care places in data released by the Department for Education (DfE). Homes are also "disproportionately" located in certain areas, the DfE claims, with more than half found in the North West (25%), the West Midlands (17%) and the South East (13%).
Michael Gove lashed out at "absurd" secrecy rules which may have left vulnerable children exposed to the threat posed by paedophile groups. Writing in the Telegraph, the Education Secretary said red tape surrounding children's homes prevented police being given basic information about youngsters, leaving them at risk of "gangs intent on exploiting these vulnerable children".
He told the paper he had been met with a "wall of silence" when he tried to find out about children's homes, with his department lacking basic information about their locations and who was responsible for them. The regulator Ofsted was barred from giving information to the police by data protection rules and other "bewildering regulations", he said.
But he added: "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."
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham is writing to Mr Gove and Ofsted to "set straight any misunderstandings" about data protection law, which contains nothing that would prevent the protection of vulnerable children, his office said.
A spokesman said: "This law covers information about people so it has no bearing on the disclosure of non-personal information like the location of care homes. If anyone has serious concerns about an individual either as a potential victim or perpetrator then this can be passed on to the police without breaching data protection law."
Plans to allow Ofsted to veto new homes opening in "unsafe" areas near red light districts and high crime areas were announced in June. The schools' inspector would also be allowed to close schools in areas if they could not prove they were protecting children under plans opened for consultation.
Labour MP Ann Coffey, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children, said: "Too many children are placed miles away from their home towns. They are left isolated and very vulnerable to sexual exploitation by abusers who target them. Many of the children are so desperately unhappy that they frequently run away and go missing and are at very high risk of being harmed.... It is an outrage that three out of 10 children's homes are located in the worst crime hot spots in the country."
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said publishing the data may help guide action against abuse against children "placed many miles away from home, which can leave them isolated and at risk of harm". He said: "We also need to improve the quality of practice in our children's homes. It's not right that there is such variation with some children being exposed to serious harm when they have already come from a very troubled background."