A council’s plans for “drastic” cuts to foster carer allowances risk negatively affecting children, according to fostering experts.
The Fostering Network issued the warning as Bradford council’s cabinet unanimously backed proposals to reduce fostering rates to the government’s recommended minimum allowances. Foster carers stand to lose up to £35 a week under the plans. The council wants to phase in the changes from next April, saving £227,000 in each of the first two years rising to £454,000 annually.
The council defended the cuts as necessary, saying the reduced rates would bring fostering in line with adoption, special guardianship and residence allowances. It said failing to align the payments would leave the council exposed to a judicial review, a claim questioned by a lawyer who told Community Care there was no “sudden legal emergency” demanding action (see box below).
Fostering campaigners, unions and individual carers, dozens of whom attended this week’s cabinet meeting, all recognised the pressure on council budgets but voiced concerns over the impact Bradford’s decision will have on children and carers.
Kevin Williams, the Fostering Network’s chief executive, said many authorities had frozen their rates in response to tightening funding from central government but cutting them was highly unusual.
He said: “The cost of looking after children is not reducing, therefore cutting allowances is a drastic step with knock-on effects for foster carers and the children in their care. Foster carers across the UK are increasingly being forced to subsidise the care of the children they are looking after – or the children will go without – and this is truly shocking.”
He added. “We are in danger of foster carer finances becoming a race to the bottom, with the wellbeing of thousands of children under threat.”
The charity reported last year that councils were cutting back on additional payments made to foster carers; for example to cover school uniforms or mileage. Two-thirds of carers said they had been hit in some way by reduced allowances.
Bradford council saved £415,000 last year by ending add-on payments such as retainers and a holiday scheme.
Local representatives from the GMB union, which counts foster carers among its members, said the council’s decision to cut back base fostering fees was “grossly naïve”.
Pete Davies, the GMB’s senior organiser for West Yorkshire, said: “We get that the local authority faces massive cuts and difficult decisions, but the priority is supposed to be the most vulnerable people.
“If 50 foster carers leave, the problem doesn’t leave with them and the cost [of residential care] is enormous.”
The report presented to Bradford council’s executive acknowledges that the cuts risk carers leaving its service. But it argues that top-up fees paid to carers based on their skills and experience mean that its offer is still competitive.
But one local foster carer who said they stand to lose thousands of pounds under the changes, told Community Care they had looked in detail into fees in other authorities. When long-service bonuses, complex health fees and second-placement payments had been factored in, the advantages of Bradford’s offer were far less clear cut, they said.
“People actually started giving notice [of their intent to stop fostering] after the decision,” the carer said. “Everyone knows inflation is rising; you already spend your own money to meet expenses. This is taking money and opportunities away from kids.”
Bradford council said the decision to phase in the changes will help minimise the impact. Val Slater, the council’s executive member for health and wellbeing, said: “At Bradford we have 450 foster carers who are extremely dedicated to providing safe, supportive and loving homes to children and young people who have had a difficult start to their lives.
“We want to continue to support these much-needed individuals and families, but at the same time have to balance our books. We hope that these proposals manage to achieve both these things.”
The threat of judicial review?
Bradford council officers based their decision to suggest cuts to fostering rates on a legal imperative to align them with adoption, special guardianship and residence allowances. Not doing so, their report claims, would place Bradford at risk of judicial review.
In 2010, one such judicial review found Kirklees council had behaved unlawfully in paying a woman looking after her grandson under a special guardianship order two-thirds of the allowance she would have received as a foster carer.
Some councils have since been uplifting adoption, special guardianship and residence allowances to bring them into line with foster carers. This option was not recommended to Bradford councillors, on the grounds of it being too costly.
Nigel Priestley, the solicitor who brought the case against Kirklees in 2010, said that Bradford aligning its rates now “simply doesn’t make sense” and may still leave the council liable for action relating to the intervening six years. “This isn’t a sudden legal emergency but a calculated decision [based on cost-cutting],” he said.
John Simmonds, director of policy at CoramBAAF, described the challenge facing local authorities across the country as a “minefield of contradiction”.
“Cuts inevitably mean budgets are continually being explored for savings,” he said. “At the same time, it’s critical foster carers receive what they and children they care for need. Foster care must not be compromised by a financial struggle or financial uncertainty.”