6. Statement by the Minister for Social Care: Our vision for foster care in Wales

– in the Senedd at 5:16 pm on 14 May 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:16, 14 May 2024

(Translated)

Item 6 is a statement by the Minister for Social Care: our vision for foster care in Wales. I call on the Minister for Social Care, Dawn Bowden.

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, a phrynhawn da. I very much welcome the opportunity to make my first statement as Minister for Social Care about our vision for foster care in Wales. As we enter Foster Care Fortnight, this is a real opportunity to celebrate the progress that we're making to improve fostering services and to highlight the important work foster carers do to give children and young people a loving home.

There are more than 7,000 children in the care of local authorities in Wales, and many have experienced abuse and neglect. These children are among the most vulnerable in our society, and they deserve the best possible future. It's our policy to try to keep families together wherever we can, but sometimes it's not possible for children to remain with their families, so foster care is a way of offering children and young people a safe and nurturing home when their birth families are unable to do so.

Our vision is for all children in foster care in Wales to have stable lives, to have trusted relationships, to feel cared for, and to benefit from high-quality foster care for as long as they need it, allowing them to make a successful transition to adulthood and independence. 

In the short time that I've been the Minister for Social Care, I've been impressed by what I've learned about the work that's been done to improve the fostering sector, and I want to pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of my predecessor, Julie Morgan, who has done much to promote and improve fostering. This work has been done in the face of pressures on public sector finances and the cost-of-living crisis, which has had such a huge impact on families all over Wales.

Dirprwy Lywydd, at the heart of these improvements has been Foster Wales. Launched in July 2021, Foster Wales is a collaborative national network of the 22 local authority fostering teams across Wales. Its main aim is to improve the ability of local authority fostering services to recruit and retain foster carers so that we can rebalance service provision, address demands, and ultimately improve the quality of placement choice for children.

But it also offers so much more. Foster Wales provides an opportunity to ensure local authority fostering services in Wales continue to develop and adapt to improve outcomes for children. Supporting Foster Wales is one of our key programme for government commitments, and we have provided £3.7 million towards its development. This funding has supported a range of new initiatives to raise the public profile and awareness of fostering, and to improve the offer for our existing foster carers.

We know that we need to continually recruit more foster carers, especially if children are to be looked after in the right place, by the right people, with the right skills to meet their needs. Foster Wales is key to this and is working towards the ambitious target of recruiting an extra 800 foster families by 2026.

To help raise awareness of foster care and encourage people to consider fostering, it has undertaken several campaigns, all of which represent the voice of children and young people in care. Our efforts are having a positive effect. The awareness of the Foster Wales brand has significantly increased, and local authorities are receiving more enquiries from potential foster carers.

But retention of foster carers is just as important, and we have directed significant investment towards this. Offering consistent support to our foster carers is key to retaining their expertise. Foster Wales has launched the national commitment, which is an agreed package of training, support and rewards enjoyed by every one of our foster carers in Wales. And I know that our local authorities are continuing to work hard to ensure the components outlined within this commitment are delivered on a consistent basis.

In response to feedback from foster carers, we’ve also developed a learning and development framework, which offers a consistent approach across Wales. And I'm pleased that foster carers are able to access these opportunities that meet their professional and personal needs, alongside supporting them to provide high-quality care for children and young people.

At the heart of our retention policy is the need to treat foster carers as equal and valued members of the team around the child. We're continuing to fund the foster well-being programme, which is delivered by the Fostering Network and promotes equality of status by bringing together all the professional networks involved in supporting children who are looked after, including foster carers.

Income is often an important consideration for families thinking about or continuing fostering, and I believe that those who care for our children should be adequately resourced to cover the costs of the children in their care.  We are in the process of undertaking a comprehensive piece of work to identify the costs of introducing a new approach to fostering allowances that focuses on the actual costs of caring for a child.

I understand and recognise how ambitious our programme of work has been, and the progress we've made to date has been considerable. It's thanks to the energy and the commitment of dedicated staff from across our fostering regions, our third sector partners and our foster carers that we've been able to achieve so much. 

However, there's more we can and should be doing to ensure our fostering services in Wales are as effective and efficient as they can be. We've seen the beginnings of a transformation in foster care, and I'm committed to continuing to review our policies and practices in Wales, to ensure that our foster families and fostering services have the support they need to guarantee the best outcomes for the children in their care.

I'm very much looking forward to continuing our journey to develop an effective, co-ordinated Wales-wide approach to transforming our foster care services, and ultimately building better futures for our children here in Wales. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Altaf Hussain Altaf Hussain Conservative 5:23, 14 May 2024

Thank you for your statement, Minister. I welcome you to your new role, and I'm looking forward to working with you. I'm delighted to help highlight Foster Care Fortnight and celebrate the role of foster carers in Wales. Foster carers transform the lives of children and young people who, through no fault of their own, enter the care system. It is right that we put on record our sincere thanks to everyone involved in fostering.

Sadly, in the past decade, we have seen the number of looked-after children increase by over a third. Yet, at the same time, we have seen a decrease in the number of foster carers. While I welcome the Minister's commitment to recruit an extra 800 foster families by 2026, we need action now. According to the Fostering Network, we need around 400 more fostering families today in order to provide care for children and young people across Wales.

We also have an issue with the high turnover in children's social care work teams. Only half of all foster carers have had the same supervised social worker over the past two years, with some families having a staggering four or more. This lack of continuity has a dramatic effect on the child and the foster family. We have to ensure that not only do we have sufficient foster carers, but also a sufficient social care workforce to support them. Minister, what steps are you taking to ensure that Wales recruits enough social workers to meet case loads? We know that, according to Social Care Wales, 42 per cent of all children's services social workers work primarily for an agency. What assessment have you made of the impact providing agency staff is having on children's services budgets across Wales?

I welcome your commitment to the retention of foster carers. One of the biggest asks for foster families is official recognition. The Fostering Network has long called for a national register of foster carers, which would improve their status, both within the sector and in the public eye. Minister, can you provide an update on the Welsh Government's position on such a register? Will you support its urgent introduction? I also welcome the commitment to looking at the fostering allowances. Minister, can you confirm whether or not you are looking at the harmonised rates suggested by Pro Bono Economics and the Fostering Network? Can you also confirm whether allowances are to be harmonised across Wales or left to the individual children's services departments?

Finally, Minister, we have had two successful pilots of a scheme that uses foster carers to support families to safely keep their children at home with them. This edge-of-care prevention programme has proven successful at keeping children out of care. Children's services are under tremendous pressure, and we have seen large delays in section 47 assessments in some parts of the country. The Step Up Step Down programme could help alleviate some of that pressure. Minister, do you have any plans to roll out this programme across Wales? Thank you again for your statement, and I look forward to working with you to improve fostering services in Wales. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour 5:27, 14 May 2024

Thank you, Altaf, for those comments, and the number of very important points that you've made. Can I start by joining you in thanking all of those foster carers who provide that invaluable service, as you say, to some of the most vulnerable children in our society?

It is a concern to all of us, isn't it, to see the number of children in care in Wales. Per head of the children's population, we have more children in care in Wales than in any other part of the UK. I don't believe for one moment that that is because the children in Wales are any different to the rest of the UK. But we have to take a very different approach to the way in which we look after those children on the edge of care and coming into care. And that's why the recruitment campaigns that we've been doing around foster carers are so important. There has been a significant number of those recruitment campaigns, and we are seeing some results from that, as I said in my statement. We're seeing an increased number of expressions of interest to come into foster care, but we need to translate those expressions of interest into people actually coming forward and taking up that responsibility.

But just as important to that is retaining those foster carers in the system. And I say that's important because we have a transformation of children's services programme in Wales, which comprises lots of radical reform about the way that we deal with children's services up to and including children who are looked after. And part of that transformation programme is that we try to keep as many of those children out of residential care as we possibly can. In order to do that, we have to do a number of things, one of which you've already touched on, and that's keeping children at home. That's working with families and carers to enable those children to stay safely in the families that they were either born into or that they live with. If we can do that, then obviously that takes the pressure off the children's residential service, which we know is a major problem for us in terms of the number of places available. We need to keep children in their own communities, and we know that that is problematic. So many children, when they go into care, are placed into residential care that is a long way from where they live, is out of county; sometimes it's even in England. So, all of that we have to look at within the transformation of children's services programme that we have.

We're in the early stages of that programme, but it can be transformational if it works. And all of that is leading to various pieces of legislation that we're going to introduce. I will be introducing the social care Bill next week, which will move towards the elimination of profit in children's services. We think that that is hugely important, because we think that any income and any fees associated with children's care should be reinvested into children's care and not given out as dividends to shareholders. And I'm afraid we're seeing too many hedge companies and so on moving into that space at the moment, seeing the children's care sector as a place to make a quick buck. 

So, the national register, Altaf, that you talked about, that's really important. It's something that the sector has called for for a long time, and I just want to reaffirm that I'm committed to considering introducing a national register. We need to work with the sector on that and take all of those views into account. We've had initial discussions with the fostering network around that. We've got to do it in consultation with the sector, because it isn't straightforward. It is quite complex, but it is something that needs to be undertaken in a timely and controlled way, ensuring that it's going to be properly resourced. But I'm very committed to working towards that. 

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 5:32, 14 May 2024

(Translated)

Thank you for your statement, Minister. I'm pleased to note on behalf of Plaid Cymru the importance of Foster Care Fortnight and, of course, the invaluable contribution made by foster carers. Plaid Cymru is also proud of the progress that has been made through the co-operation agreement, progress that was very much needed to take steps towards removing profit from care. And it's important that the voices of children and young people are at the heart of efforts to improve the care that they receive in Wales. 

It's almost exactly a year since the Children, Young People and Education Committee published its report on radical reform in the care system. I was a member of the committee at the time, and we heard directly from children and young people about their experiences of care, and a number were firmly of the view that some foster carers were overly motivated by profit. And this was clearly expressed by the contribution of a member of the Welsh Youth Parliament, Rosemary Squires, one of my constituents from Swansea, who emphasised, in her simple but powerful words:

'We are people, not profit.'

You said in your statement, Minister, that the children in our care as a corporate parent are among the most vulnerable members of society and that they, in your words, deserve the best possible future. Therefore, bearing in mind that the committee undertook detailed work on what would improve their experiences of care in a genuinely radical way, and bearing in mind, too, that the Government rejected every recommendation that we made regarding those radical reforms that we wanted to see, excepting one, are you confident that the work currently under way is sufficient to respond to the challenge set by the young people who steered the committee's work? And can you tell us how that report has guided your vision in terms of fostering in particular? 

Altaf Hussain referred to the register, and you said that that work is under way. Well, as part of the Government's response to the committee report, the Government agreed to develop a national register because it would be something that would raise the status and recognition for foster carers, whilst also improving safeguards for children and provide an enhanced picture of the provision and support available across Wales. So, it's a year since we received that commitment, so can we have an update on exactly what is happening, because it sounds as if not much has happened in that regard? And in terms of the plans afoot that you listed today and the investment that has been made, how will progress be measured and how will you evaluate the effectiveness of these plans?

Your predecessor, Julie Morgan, was strongly in favour of the corporate parenting charter. Could you give us examples of how that charter has improved the services that care-experienced children and young people receive from public services? And bearing in mind that it is a voluntary charter, is there consistency now across Wales?

You also mentioned in your statement about this target that Foster Wales has in terms of recruiting 800 foster families by 2026. The Fostering Network states that Wales is short of 400 foster carers at the moment. You said that there has been progress made in this direction, but we didn’t have a great deal of clarity about how much progress has been made. So, bearing in mind that Foster Wales has been in place now for some years, can you give us an idea of how close we are to reaching that target of recruiting 800 foster families?

You also mentioned this process that is currently under way in terms of a new focus for fostering allowances, as those who care should receive sufficient funds to provide the best possible care. Well ,again, we heard those exact same words from your predecessor two years ago in response to a question from Heledd Fychan, so what work has been done already on this? I’d like to know a little bit more in terms of the details on that. And also, when will the work be completed, do you think?

And finally, I’d like to know how you are ensuring that the views of children and young people in care are heard in terms of the development and effectiveness of these new plans. Does the scale of their ambition in these plans meet the aspirations of those young people, and our duties as corporate parents to ensure that those young people receive the fairness and the better future that they deserve? Thank you.

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour 5:36, 14 May 2024

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Sioned, for those very important points and questions and can I say how appreciative I am of the work that we have done with Plaid Cymru to deliver the programme for government commitments around the transforming children’s services programme? Because that will be transformational, in my view, when we are able to deliver all of the policies that are contained therein. These things don’t happen overnight and I know you understand that. These are long-term programmes with a particular aim. In terms of the eliminating profit from child residential childcare, we’re talking about a 10-year programme to move from where we are now to where we want to be. We know that that will take some time in terms of the transition from where we are now to getting profit out of the sector. All of those organisations that are in the sector for profit, we want as many of those to transfer into the third sector or to the not-for-profit model. Some of them may be prepared to do that, a number of them won't. We’re working on the basis that a number of them won’t, and so, therefore, we have to have alternatives in place, and as I said in my response to Altaf Hussain, foster carers will be critical and crucial in that, in delivering the kind of care that we would want to see that keeps them out of residential services.

I know that my predecessor, Julie Morgan, was very grateful to the children and young people’s committee, as am I, in terms of the work that was done. And I’ve had conversations with Jayne Bryant, who was the previous Chair of that committee, so we’ve been able to catch up on a number of pieces of work that you did on radical reform, and the evidence from that inquiry was hugely important, and I don’t want anybody to think that we haven’t taken any notice of what those children said in that committee in public, because that was very, very important evidence for us. And the fact that we didn’t accept all of the recommendations—we actually accepted in part or in whole around 20 of the recommendations—[Interruption.] Yes, albeit what we didn’t accept was that there was the need to do a lot of that through legislation. So, I think it’s important to say that what we were looking at in the evidence that the committee had was that our programme, that radical programme that we’re trying to transform children services in, and which Plaid Cymru have been very much part of—a lot of those areas of work that we’re doing there is informed by the evidence that those young people gave to that committee. The fact that it’s not necessarily in legislation doesn’t mean that it isn’t being utilised and it’s not going to form part of our work.

You’ve asked particularly about the national fostering register, and I briefly responded to Altaf, and as I say, I’ll repeat what I said then. We do know, and we are aware, that stakeholders have been asking for this for some time, and although there are a lot of benefits to introducing a national register, we do have to take a balanced view in terms of whether or not we adopt that. As I said, although I'm committed to considering the introduction of such a register, we do have to work with the sector and take all those views into account when deciding whether or not that is the right way forward. We are in discussions with the Fostering Network around that, and we're undertaking a scoping exercise to establish what a national register could actually look like, whether there are any legislative requirements attached to that and what the operational feasibility of that might be. So, we'll continue down that road, it's something that I'm keen to continue looking at, and we'll report back in due course.

The other thing—sorry, Altaf, you did raise it and I didn't specifically answer it, but I'll answer it from Sioned instead—is around the financial support for foster carers. It's important to say, isn't it, that foster carers come into foster caring for the right reasons. They don't come into it for the money, but when they do come into it, we have to make sure that they are properly remunerated for what they're doing and that the level of allowance that they get is commensurate with the type of child that they're looking after. There are differences in how much a child costs. You know if you've had children yourself that at different stages of their life—mine are adults now and they cost me more than they did when they were babies. This is how it is. And so we have to take all of that into account.

The payments for foster carers, as you will know, are diverse, right the way across Wales. So, although we have the national minimum allowance, which is the same in every local authority, we do see differences in each local authority. Some local authorities introduce additional benefits to go alongside the national minimum allowance, so we do see some authorities that reduce council tax, that give free access to leisure services, provide free car parking. They give birthday allowances and Christmas allowances and so on. But it's not consistent across the 22 local authorities, and that's part of the work that we are looking at. We commissioned a report to have a look at that, we also asked Foster Wales to undertake a comprehensive piece of work to identify the costs of introducing a new approach to fostering allowances, and at the moment we are in the process of analysing those reports. That isn't going to come without a cost, and there's no point in me standing here and just saying that we can deliver huge increases in those allowances, but we do want to make them more equitable—[Interruption.]—and we do want to—. Yes, we absolutely do want to make sure that there's a fair allowance and that there's an equitable allowance and that it's consistent across the 22 authorities. So, that's a piece of work that is ongoing.

I'm trying to think what else you asked me. Measures—how we'd measure that. So, as part of the standard grant monitoring arrangements, we've got regular meetings with Foster Wales and members of its governance board to discuss performance and metrics. Foster Wales is also a member of the transformation delivery group, which has been established to lead and drive forward the delivery of our transformation programme. That group has established two work streams to look at data metrics to drive and monitor progress, as well as early intervention and prevention to ensure join-up and effective delivery. But, ultimately, what I would say is we will know that our programme has been delivered successfully if we see fewer children in care, we see fewer children being placed in care far away from home or out of county and we see that we have more foster carers coming into our networks so that children can have a more acceptable looked-after life, if you like, in a family setting. So, that's how I would like to see all of that happening, and I think that was everything that you asked. I think I covered everything, anyway, but thank you, Sioned.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour 5:44, 14 May 2024

Thank you very much to the Minister for making this very important statement today during Foster Care Fortnight. I'd also like to start off by putting on record my thanks to all the foster carers, whose impact on children can be transformational.

So, I'll just very briefly touch on a couple of matters. One of the big issues that care-experienced young people have said to me, during the lots of contacts that I've had with them, about foster care is they consistently bring up the issue of not having enough flexibility in their day-to-day life. They raise the issue of not being able to stay away overnight without getting permission from the social worker, which I don't think is actually necessary, but they still have this perception and that's what's happened, and the ability to go to after-school clubs and going out for tea. I wondered if there was anything you could think of that would help make that more flexible. That was one of the issues that the young people brought up. The other issue was the importance of being placed with sisters and brothers and how crucial that was and, again, that is very important to the young people. That was one of their big, important issues. And then, finally—I think Altaf Hussain did raise this—the Step Up Step Down programme piloted in Pembrokeshire. I know that the Welsh Government's ambition is to keep children at home and I wondered if you had any measure of how successful that was and whether you are going to be able to extend it.

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour 5:46, 14 May 2024

Can I thank you, Julie, for those questions? And again, thank you so much for the work that you've done already in this field; I feel like I'm coming in on the back of somebody who is making my job an awful lot easier, because of everything that you did in the lead up to me being appointed as a Minister. So, diolch yn fawr for that.

The first thing I would say is that, this morning, actually, I was at the national fostering network round-table and, having that opportunity to sit down and talk directly with foster carers, I don't think there's anything that can substitute for that. You can have briefings from officials and you can talk to people, but actually being sat around a table in the same room, with people who are giving you their lived experience of the kind of things that they have to deal with—. It was interesting that somebody actually raised that very point this morning about—. If you can believe this, they had a child in their care who needed an emergency dental appointment and they took them to the hospital, but, because they weren't the parent or the legal guardian of the child, the hospital couldn't perform the procedure. Now, it was sorted out, but it was an unnecessary delay when this child needed some treatment, because the foster carer didn't have that authority to do it. So, there's all this stuff around that delegated authority, isn't there, and making sure that local authorities, really, are aware of the importance of reducing the unnecessary bureaucracy around that. We know that we've got legislation and supporting guidance that ensures that foster carers are authorised to make those kinds of everyday decisions about their foster child, wherever it is possible. The key to this is about social workers liaising more closely with the foster parents, and, again, I heard stories this morning of where that doesn't always work very effectively.

We are in the process of delivering a national framework that you'll be familiar with and that has got to be—if it does nothing else, it has got to be—about having a consistency of approach across all 22 authorities, much like in my response to Sioned Williams around the foster carer allowances. The way in which social services interact with foster carers and the support that they give needs to be consistent as well. So, I think that's another key piece of work that we need to make sure that we develop, and deliver the kinds of outcomes that you're talking about, particularly when we're talking about—. You know, children are children and they need to play with other children and they shouldn't have things like that put as a barrier in the way, to stop them doing that, going and having interaction with friends and so on.

You talked about the Step Up Step Down pilot—and sorry, Altaf, you did raise this as well—but, again, as part of our transformation of children's services programme, we take the view that, no matter where children live, we want to support them to remain with their families, where possible, with fewer children and young people entering into care. So, we did work alongside the Fostering Network and our statutory sector, as you say, to launch this pilot in Pembrokeshire to support vulnerable families. That pilot offers a very innovative approach to supporting families on the edge of care by providing specialist, highly trained family support to foster carers, who can provide time-limited and preventative support to those families in need, helping them to stay together.

Now, I understand that the pilot is going very well, but it was only launched in November last year. So, it’s still early days and too soon to have done any significant evaluation yet. However, I do plan to visit Northern Ireland soon to learn more about the success of the programme there, as we're looking to the future roll-out across Wales. So, hopefully, I'll be in a position to come back to the Senedd and report on progress on that roll-out in the not-too-distant future.

(Translated)

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. Thank you so much for your statement on this really important issue, and I would also like to record my thanks to all foster carers. They are awesome. I, myself, have been responsible for placing children with foster carers at any time of the day or night. They receive children that they often know very, very little about. These are, sadly, traumatised and vulnerable children, who we leave with them, and they do an amazing job.

I’m pleased to hear that you have in your view the Step Up Step Down programme, because that will be transformational to keep children at home, but to make sure that our foster carers feel part of a child’s life. Having taken them on at their most vulnerable point, it’s so rewarding then to see, hopefully, them returning home, and being part of that.

I would just like to ask you this one specific question. Given all that we've said about foster carers, they need to be paid. They need to be salaried. They should not have to not be paid when they don’t have children with them, which is the current situation. It’s unacceptable. We would not accept that people, when they have holidays, are not getting paid. So, I would like you, in your consideration—I don’t expect an answer now, because I know we've overrun—to please look at salaried foster carer schemes. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.  

Photo of Dawn Bowden Dawn Bowden Labour 5:52, 14 May 2024

Thank you, Jane Dodds, for that. Just on that very specific question, I'm certainly happy to look at that. We are looking at the whole process of payment for foster carers. We are looking at the harmonisation of formal foster carers with kinship carers, because we know that there are differentials between those as well. I don't know that we have a specific piece of work on salaried foster carers just yet, but I will certainly take that back and discuss that with officials and come back to you and let you know. Thank you.