I was privileged to recently lead a Westminster Hall debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee about the allowances and tax arrangements for foster carers.
I commend foster carers. They are remarkable and compassionate people who undertake the challenging and ever evolving role of providing children and young people with a stable family life, filled with love and support.
Foster carers undertake this work on behalf of the state; and the responding Government Minister acknowledged “Foster carers provide transformational support for children in care.” Surely then, the very least we can do, as a society, is give them the support that enables them to continue their work.
For too long the work of foster carers has gone unrecognised. Sadly, the full costs of caring for a child in foster care so that they can thrive – not just survive – is not uniformly being met across the UK. The cost-of-living crisis has shone a light on existing disparities within the foster care system.
A survey carried out by Foster Talk revealed that, due to financial pressures, 43% of carers may leave fostering in the next 2 years. This is borne out by statistics published in November 2023 by Ofsted that relate to fostering in England, which revealed significantly more foster carers had left the role last year compared to the number who joined.
Simultaneously, against the backdrop of the number of carers declining, the number of children is increasing. This is an extremely worrying trend that begs the question: Why is this happening?
A defining factor has to be the financial pressures, which have undoubtably been heightened by the cost-of-living crisis, and that these financial pressures are impacted by the significant variance in allowances paid across the UK; even varying for the same age-group of children in the same nation.
Foster care allowances are two-fold: the National Minimum, or Scottish Recommended, Allowances that are set by individual UK Governments; and Additional Allowances that can be provided for things like birthdays or an initial stock of clothing.
However, the disparities in the National Minimum, or Scottish Recommended, Allowances, emerge because local authorities administer them. Therefore, they vary depending on where the foster carer lives, and the age of the child being cared for.
Additionally, a considerable number of local authorities across the UK do not pay any Additional Allowances, saying that everything is included in its National Minimum Allowance.
Other inconsistencies are that different local authorities offer different discounts on rates of council tax to foster carers, ranging from zero to 100%; and that there is no National Minimum Allowance for young people aged eighteen years and over to remain living in their foster family environment until they are ready to live independently.
Indeed, the difference in allowances paid to the 18-plus group across the UK nations is the most extreme, amounting to a staggering sum of £12,044 annually. What madness suggests that as soon as young people turn eighteen their needs just suddenly stop?
This whole foster care system is a classic example of an extremely unfair postcode lottery.
I join experts in the field who are calling for urgent action to recruit and retain foster carers across the UK. The only way we can do this is to address the current situation, which is utterly unfair.
The Fostering Network has proposed a fairer funding framework for foster carers that is simplified, as well as consistent. I urge UK Governments to consider the Fostering Network’s recommended rates so that the full cost of caring for a child is covered and the needs of young people who turn eighteen are addressed.
All our children and young people deserve a loving and supported environment in which they are respected. So I also urge governments to regulate the foster care system so that the best outcomes for all children in care – no matter where they live – are enabled.
This would enact a real Levelling Up policy.