The government is pushing foster carers towards poverty by underfunding the Staying Put policy, the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers has said.
In a pre-election briefing, the association said underfunding the policy that supports young people to stay with their former foster carers after they turn 18 had left carers “unable to afford to pay basic bills and continue to care for young people”.
When the policy was introduced in 2014 the government backed it with £40m in funding from 2014-15 to 2016-17. However, there were warnings from campaigners shortly after its introduction that this would not be enough to support the numbers of young people taking it up, though the funding provided was later increased to £44m over that period.
In October last year, children’s minister Edward Timpson said 54% of eligible 18-year-olds had entered Staying Put arrangements.
In July 2016, the government said it would extend funding, starting at £22m a year, over the lifetime of the parliament, but this has been thrown into doubt by the snap election.
Neither the Conservative or Labour party have made a funding pledge on existing Staying Put arrangements in their manifestos, although Labour has pledged to extend the scheme to residential placements.
In its briefing, the NAFP raised further concerns over the system’s viability, and said local authorities were using other sources of funding to put a support package together.
“Most local authorities are using housing benefit to support part of the Staying Put arrangement,” said Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the NAFP.
“Straight away you get into a young person having to claim housing benefit, and then their former foster carer becomes a landlord or landlady. Straight away they are using that funding and creating complications of bureaucracy and changing the nature of the relationship,” Gallagher said.
He added that after using housing benefit, an authority might top up what a foster carer is receiving, but without the same support they received in a foster placement, which is not available to children after they turn 18.
For foster carers who don’t have space to foster other children, Staying Put can create additional financial problems.
The Staying Put policy was introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014, and places a duty on local authorities to support children in foster care to stay in a placement past their 18th birthday if they wish to. Support should be provided up until the age of 21. A similar option is not available for children in residential care, but the government is trialling a ‘Staying Close’ option.
“Often this is their only source of income, so in order to pay the bills they need to be taking the amount they had before. Oddly it’s pointing them in the direction of poverty really. It’s putting an additional pressure on the household just when you want it to go smoothly,” Gallagher said.
The association called on a future government to review the impact of Staying Put and introduce a minimum allowance to “bring up the lowest levels of support to something more manageable”. A Staying Put allowance is also backed by The Fostering Network.
Concerns over funding were also raised by different agencies in the recent fostering inquiry before the dissolution of parliament. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services said there was a £13m shortfall in the burdens placed on local authorities by the duty. It said the government must meet the shortfall, and warned about the impact Staying Put placements were having on the availability of foster carers.
The Local Government Association also said there is an “urgent case for more funding” in Staying Put arrangements.
The NAFP also called for legal guidance around ‘most appropriate placement’ to be strengthened to prevent ‘in-house first’ commissioning that prioritises local authority placements over those from other providers. It said the definition of ‘most appropriate placement’ as set out in the Children Act 1989 should be strengthened to not just mean a category of care, but a placement that meets a child’s needs.
It added that independent reviewing officers should be placed under the jurisdiction of the children’s commissioner to ensure their independence from local authorities, who employ most IROs.