“This is absolutely a consultation. This is not about charging any family in crisis.” Elizabeth Eyre, the cabinet member for children and families at Worcestershire County Council, is in a defensive mood.
At the end of July, the council launched a consultation setting out its controversial plan to start charging some families who receive support under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, or have a child in foster or residential care due to a voluntary care arrangement or a court order.
The proposal has sparked howls of protest. The NSPCC has warned it could deter parents from seeking the help they need, while the fostering and adoption charity Tact described the policy as a “poorly thought-out cost-cutting exercise”.
Plans more nuanced than reported, council says
The reality is more nuanced, Eyre insists. “I don’t think people [realised] this was not about charging families in crisis, and that means-testing was part of the arrangement,” says the Conservative councillor. “They went: ‘Oh, you want to save money, this must be a way of saving money’. They didn’t look at it from the looked-after children perspective of seeing them in the right place.”
Under the plans, the council will have the option of carrying out financial assessments of families with a view to requiring them to contribute to the cost of supporting their child. However, parents in receipt of benefits or tax credits are exempt and the charges do not apply to families receiving services due to child protection concerns.
The policy seeks to achieve two things, Eyre says. “The first is that there are family members wishing to support children who are in care and this will facilitate them doing that,” she says.
“You get families who wish to make a contribution and we have to say no because there is no mechanism to charge them, we have no policy or arrangement around that.”
Encouraging families to take responsibility
The second goal is to encourage families to take responsibility for their children. “I understand there are one or two parents who can well afford to pay and they are making the choice of absolving their responsibilities totally when they have the means and could support their family but want someone else to do it,” she says.
“Wanting somebody else to do it is one thing, having the means and not supporting their child is another,” Eyre continues.
“That conversation around charging could be what helps them to get their head around how we can support them so that their child can live with them, which is better long-term for the child. These are very, very few cases. This is not about making money. It is about doing what is right for the child.”
The council estimates that the charges would be applied to around a sixth of the families whose children enter its care each year. “We have calculated that of those children who become looked-after in any given year the policy might apply to about a third, which is about 100 children,” a council spokesperson says.
Charges allowed under 1989 Children Act
“There are a number of exemptions that might be applied so this is an approximate figure. Also, many of these children do not remain looked-after and we won’t charge families in crisis, but only when there is a longer-term plan. So, the actual number may be about half this.”
While Worcestershire’s proposal has sparked debate, it is not the first council to go down this route. The Children Act 1989 does allow these charges to be applied and several councils in England and Wales have used the option before, including Norfolk, Merton and Conwy.
Windsor & Maidenhead considered introducing a similar charging policy in 2011 on the grounds that it would give families a bigger stake in their child’s care and be a disincentive to parents, “considering abandoning their children to public care”.
But there may have been some financial gain too. The council meeting papers setting out Windsor & Maidenhead’s policy state that, “it will be possible to generate some revenue to off-set the cost of providing placements for children looked after”. However, the documents also noted that, “there is a risk that the cost of recovering charges will exceed the charges themselves”.
Charging policies may become more common
Such policies may become more common in future. Eyre says other children’s lead members in the West Midlands have expressed interest in seeing how Worcestershire’s plan works out.
In October 2011 Matt Dunkley, then the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, told Community Care financial pressure may well result in more local authorities starting to explore this option.
“As resources become tighter, local authorities will be seeking new ways of ensuring that funding is spent on the most vulnerable children and not wasted,” Dunkley said. “This may result in more local authorities deciding that using this power is the right thing to do in particular circumstances.”
Yet not all the authorities that have applied charges in the past have continued to do so. Norfolk council used to have a similar system to that proposed by Worcestershire, but a spokeswoman for the authority says it is no longer in use. Community Care is waiting for details of why the policy was abandoned.
For Worcestershire the next step depends on the results of the consultation, which ends on 11 October. “No decision has been made, there’s an awful lot more to consider,” says Eyre. “I’m feeling pretty relaxed about it because it is not something we are going to do without a huge amount of scrutiny.”
Council wants to charge parents who put children into care