Campaigners to take Surrey County Council to court over children placed far from home

Hannah Mornement Jolyon Maugham QC
By Julie Armstrong, Local Democracy Reporter, 6 August

A campaign organisation who took on the Government and won has launched a legal challenge against Surrey County Council for placing hundreds of children in its care away from home.

Half of Surrey’s 985 looked after children are placed outside of the county because of a lack of accommodation in-house, and Good Law Project (GLP) is concerned about the impact this may have on the children.

GLP – who earlier this year won a High Court challenge against the Cabinet Office over a £560,000 Covid-19 contract awarded with no competitive tenders – is now bringing a judicial review against SCC.

The county council said it could not comment until legal proceedings had been finalised.

Their founder Jolyon Maugham QC said: “The most vulnerable children in our society are increasingly disconnected from their support networks, often without advance warning or preparation.”

County councillor Fiona White, who sits on the SCC committee that scrutinises children’s services, said: “It’s traumatic enough to be taken away from your family without isolating them completely from everything they know.”

Of the five councils in total the GLP are taking action against, including Essex, Cambridgeshire, West Sussex and Derby City, Surrey’s has the highest proportion of children sent elsewhere.

The group is also bringing action against Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who they claim has failed in his duty by not “intervening”.

Mr Maugham says the authority is “not actively seeking to manage the market to secure in-area provision”. The county council said it is doing all it reasonably can to secure local provision.

Cllr White said: “It is a timely reminder that the council’s children’s services have only recently been taken out of special measures.”

Following a 2018 children’s services inspection, one of the things Ofsted criticised was “there are not enough foster carers in the county”, meaning 46 per cent of fostered children had to be sent to live elsewhere.

The situation was worse for those in a care home, with 57 per cent of them housed outside of Surrey.

Data presented to the children and families select committee in March 2021 showed that as of the end of March 2020, the proportion of overall children placed outside the council’s boundaries had not improved and was still 49 per cent – worse than the national average of 41 per cent.

And more than one in three Surrey children (35 per cent) were being placed over 20 miles away from home, compared with one in five nationally.

Cllr White said: “It’s not as though they’re just over the border in Hampshire or Sussex, it’s a long distance we’re talking about.

“If children are taken into care for whatever good reason, unless it’s a safety issue, you need to keep them as close as you can to their existing relationships, grandparents, aunt and uncle and so on.

“They’re being housed so far away it’s really difficult for those relationships to continue, that’s what worries me, that relationships break down.”

A GLP petition asking the council to “Stop sending children in care to live miles away from everything they know” has been signed by nearly 800 people.

In the council’s Sufficiency Strategy 2020-2025 SCC says it has a “Focus on increasing the numbers of our looked after children who are able to live within the county and close to their communities”.

A report from SCC’s Corporate Parenting Board in February 2021 said capital funding had been secured for two new children’s homes, due for completion by June 2022.

The LDRS asked the council about their budget and plan to achieve their focus, what progress had been made so far, and whereabouts in the country children were currently placed.

We also asked if the council was concerned that a 2014 Ofsted report on the sexual exploitation of children concluded distant placements meant it was more likely for children to go missing and made safeguarding more difficult.

A spokesman said: “We always strive, as far as reasonably possible, to place children in accommodation within Surrey and, more importantly, in a family or setting that is appropriate for their safety and wellbeing.

“We are working to provide and source local provision that delivers the best possible outcomes for Surrey’s children and families.”

GLP has so far raised nearly £43,500 of the £50,000 court costs it needs. Donations can be made to the the not-for-profit organisation here. A court date has not yet been set.

In February GLP took Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove to court, as the minister in charge of the Cabinet Office. The judge ruled it was unlawful for them to have given a contract to carry out focus groups to Dominic Cummings’ friends at Public First without letting other companies bid.