Standardisation of Local Arrangements for safeguarding and promoting welfare of children

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 12 January 2017.

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‘The safeguarding partners for a local authority area in England must make arrangements for—

(a) safeguarding partners and relevant agencies, where appropriate, to work across and with multiple local authorities, and

(b) a minimum local standard setting out allowances, support, training and terms and conditions for foster carers.”.—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause seeks to set out a minimum standard of allowances, support, training and terms and conditions for foster carers. The current crisis in foster care is the result not only of chronic underfunding but of a fatally broken system. The phrase “postcode lottery” is often overused, but in fostering it is all too true whether someone is a child in care or a foster parent giving that care. The levels of support, allowances, services and terms and conditions differ greatly from local authority to local authority and that is before we even factor independent agencies into the mix.

Too many foster carers receive no, or below the minimum, allowance. Some local authorities fail to offer any financial support through sickness. Entitlement to annual leave varies greatly between local authorities—some offer 28 days per year, some carers have less and others have no entitlement at all—and whatever currently exists is being ever eroded as local authorities face continued cuts to their budgets. Nobody in this room would accept employment terms that meant our pay, leave or levels of support depended solely on where in the country we worked. We should not expect that of foster carers who provide such a valuable contribution to society in caring for our most vulnerable children.

The new clause addresses the lottery for foster carers, while making the most of resources and providing a more stable system for looked-after children. If the Government seriously want to address the fostering crisis, they need to offer stability and consistency. If councils were able to offer standardised terms, foster carers could then move freely between councils, which would make the most of all spare beds available and therefore reduce the need for expensive independent agencies. If all council foster carers were treated the same, they would have the security to stay in the profession long-term, cutting recruitment costs and, more importantly, offering greater stability for children.

We all agree that foster carers truly are a great asset doing a very difficult job, but it is no good paying lip service to them—we need to recognise that officially. As one foster carer told the GMB trade union:

“We are always on duty, it is a profession in which we work 365 days, and 24 hours a day. It is nowhere near the government minimum wage in fact at my rate it is £1.65 per hour so no one can say we do it for the money.”

Foster carers are doing a job and should be classified as professionals. The first step towards that is access to standardised terms and conditions with pensions, sick pay, skills payments and access to trade union representation.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

Again, I thank the hon. Member for South Shields. I agree with the new clause in its entirety that, where it is appropriate, safeguarding partners and relevant agencies should work together across more than one authority area. That is provided for in clause 21 of the Bill. I suspect that the fact the hon. Lady did not refer to elements of that in her speech suggests that she is not pushing that issue.

Cross-area working relationships can also be beneficial in respect to arrangements made to support foster carers. We recognise the challenging but valuable and rewarding role that foster carers have, and the positive impact that they make to the lives of many vulnerable children and young people. My own parents fostered for more than 30 years, so I am fully versed in not only the demands of foster care but the huge benefits that it can bring not only to the children being looked after but to the foster family themselves.

I have no doubt that all such foster carers, some of whom were recognised in the new year’s honours list only a few weeks ago, are among the most impressive people. They give up not only their time, but their homes and often their lives in order to look after children who have no blood connection to them. Whether through altruistic tendencies or a need to reach out, they feel a strong urge to be there for those children, often in difficult circumstances. We recognise the challenge, and it is important that all foster carers are seen as a key part of the team working with a child. They should receive the right support and training to meet the emotional and physical needs of the children in their care.

Regulations, statutory guidance and the national minimum standards apply across England. They make it clear that fostering service providers should make available the training, advice, information and support that foster carers need to look after the children placed with them. That includes practical, financial and emotional support. Fostering services are, however, given some flexibility to deliver in a way to best meet local need. The Government also recommend a national minimum allowance for foster carers. It is for the fostering service to decide the payment systems, but we expect all foster carers to receive at least that allowance, and many receive more.

We recognise, however, the need to keep the fostering system under review. That is why we have committed to undertake a national fostering stocktake. As the hon. Member for South Shields is aware, the stocktake will be a fundamental review of the whole fostering system. It will consider, among other issues, the allowances, support and training that foster carers receive.

The stocktake will be an opportunity to examine many of the issues that the hon. Lady has raised, as well as local variations in practice, and to identify good practice—for example, in how local authorities work with other agencies to recruit and support foster carers. The movement is national and needs a national response. Crucially, the stocktake will help us better understand what changes are needed, and identify practical next steps to bring about sustained improvement to the foster care system. We will work closely with all partners to understand how best to improve outcomes for children in foster care.

We have already begun work on the stocktake. We have started a thorough analysis of available data and statistics. Alongside that, we have commissioned a literature review of all the available evidence on foster care. Both those pieces of work will be completed in the first quarter of 2017. Further information, including the launch of a call for evidence, will also be published in the next few months.

I share the hon. Lady’s commitment to ensure that foster carers are valued, for both personal and professional reasons, and that the right support is in place. We now have an opportunity for her and other colleagues to contribute to the stocktake, to ensure that we continue to support what I think is one of the most precious roles in our society, and one that we should help to nurture for the future of vulnerable children in our care.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Given the Minister’s comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Syms.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.