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The Government must take action to stop data gaps from putting our children at risk

Lord Watson of Invergowrie

Lord Watson of Invergowrie

4 min read

Mental health is one of the most significant health policy challenges facing decision makers today, yet the solutions – and the funding – are too often found to be wanting.

Real action is needed on key issues such as the prevalence of self-harm amongst young people, yet our understanding of this issue is nowhere near what it needs to be.

For example, there is no way of knowing if a child who has been admitted to hospital for self-harming is one of the 80,850 – and growing – children living in care in England. This is because, as the Government confirmed to me recently, whether a child is care-experienced is not recorded in hospital data.

This isn’t the only area where the government’s data capture is woefully inadequate. On referrals to mental health services and admissions to A&E, the government is failing to provide leadership and set up processes that capture this vitally important data on extremely vulnerable people. This may sound like a relatively dry or esoteric issue, but this worrying data gap means we cannot accurately understand how many children living in the UK’s care system experience or are impacted by self-harm. Without this understanding, we cannot meaningfully address the problem, nor drive improvements for children across the whole care system.

Care-experienced children may be at an increased risk of self-harming as a result of distress and mental ill health linked to adverse childhood experiences and trauma. When a child is admitted to hospital for self-harming, this is one of the few opportunities to understand more about what led the child to self-harm in the first place. This is essential for providing the right support and responding appropriately to the needs of the child. These needs can be very different and in many ways more complex for care-experienced children.

As the Hope instead of Handcuffs campaign found in its recent report, this reflects a wider attitude, particularly in Government, that children living in or on the edge of care in England are a problem to be dealt with, rather than a human being that needs to be understood, helped and supported.

Data gaps like this are a common obstacle when it comes to addressing the challenges facing children in England’s care system. Not only is no data collected on self-harm in the system, but no data is also collected on other harmful practices, such as restraint.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the secure transportation of care-experienced children. If a child living in or on the edge of care needs to be transported between care homes or other secure settings, or taken to school, hospital or other appointments, local authorities regularly hire private secure transportation providers to carry out these journeys.

Many of these providers place these children – who have not committed nor been suspected of committing a crime – in handcuffs or subject them to other forms of restraint, including chemical, despite the long-term impact this can have on a child’s health, wellbeing and development.

But like other harmful practices in England’s care system, we do not know the scale of the problem. Secure transportation providers are not currently required to report any instances of handcuffing or other forms of restraint to the appropriate authority. Their restraint practices remain unregulated and unmonitored, and this data gap puts vulnerable children at risk.

Without this data, we cannot properly scrutinise the practice and hold to account any secure transportation providers found to be violating the rights of the children in their care.

From restraint during transportation to recording hospital admissions of our society’s most vulnerable children, we should be doing all that we can to plug serious data gaps in England’s care system. But the government refuses to take this issue seriously. This must change. We cannot meaningfully address the challenges facing care-experienced children without such basic understanding.

We must develop a wider, child-centred approach across the system to ensure vulnerable children’s needs are met appropriately and they are offered the support they deserve.

Lord (Mike) Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords.

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