When a child is in care, or is a care leaver aged under 25, the local council is their ‘corporate parent’. This means that they should act towards these children and young people as any good parent would to their own child. And just as other parents continue to love, support, care for and be ambitious for their children after they turn 18, so too must the state.
Care leavers often lack their own family support networks, and have to deal with managing bills, getting a first job and moving into their own home without the safety net of family to fall back on if things get too much. This came into stark relief during the Covid-19 pandemic, when care leavers often found themselves isolated, and unsure who to turn to. So many care leavers show remarkable resilience in the face of these challenging circumstances, especially considering how many have faced trauma and instability in their lives. But there is so much more Government could do to make their lives that bit easier, and to help them on their way towards adulthood.
Councils have a range of specific legal duties towards care leavers, such as providing personal advisors and ‘pathway’ plans, and some already go above and beyond these duties. But central Government must step up and be a more ambitious parent, and to provide the extra help that so many parents do for their children.
1. Pay care leavers the higher rate of Jobseekers Allowance or Universal Credit, from their 18th birthday:
What: There is a lower rate of Job Seekers Allowance and Universal Credit for under 25s – they get over £45 less a month than over 25s*. We are calling for care leavers to be entitled to the over 25 rate. They should also be able to start their claim before their 18th birthday, so that their first payment comes when they turn 18.
Why: Care leavers under 25 are less likely than other children to have support networks of family who can help them with every-day living costs or one-off essentials.
2. Stop benefit sanctions for care leavers
What: Care leavers are five times more likely to be sanctioned than other claimants, and less likely to appeal their sanction. We are calling for care leavers to not have their benefits sanctioned, and if they regularly break their claimant agreement any sanctions should only be applied with their personal advisor’s agreement. This would require Universal Credit systems to be able to flag care leavers, which they currently do not.
Why: Care leavers have fewer support networks around them to help them with job applications, cover childcare for job interviews and so on, whilst also having much more responsibility for managing bills and benefits than other young people. If they are sanctioned they are less likely to have the financial safety net of family to fall back on, so the effects are likely to be more serious.
3. Exempt all care leavers from council tax
What: Students, diplomats, the armed forces, carers and those with a severe mental impairment are currently exempted from paying council tax. Care leavers aged up to 25 should be included in the list of those exempted, as they are in Scotland and Wales.
Why: Many Local Authorities already exempt care leavers from their own LA from Council Tax, as they appreciate the high financial burdens on these vulnerable young people. However, our Help at Hand advice service still receives many calls from care leavers who are either unaware of this or who end up having to pay council tax if they move into a different area, as well as those who do not live in an area with this exemption.
A care leaver called our Help at Hand service to ask for advice. The bailiffs had started knocking on her door just before Christmas. She had council tax debt from when placed in semi-independent accommodation out of area. Her responsible Local Authority was paying the rent and she said her PA never told her she would be liable for council tax.
4. Exempt care leavers from the shared accommodation rate of Housing Benefit/Universal Credit until 25:
What: Under benefit rules single people under 35 are only entitled to a ‘shared accommodation’ rate, meaning that benefits will only take into account costs for a single room in a shared house, rather than a self-contained one-bedroom home. Care leavers are entitled to the higher self-contained home rate until the age of 22. The government has said that this will be extended to 25 from 2023; we are calling for this to happen more quickly.
Why: If care leavers have managed to find stable accommodation, we do not want them to have to move out when they turn 22 because they are no longer able to afford that accommodation, or fall into rent arrears due to the loss of housing benefit income.
5. All care leavers to have a decent home
What: Care leavers under 21 are counted as ‘priority need’ for housing, meaning that the Local Authority is more likely to have a duty to provide them with temporary and long-term housing. All care leavers up to the age of 25 to be automatically classed as priority need. In addition, Local Authorities should not be able to refuse their housing duty because a care leaver has become ‘intentionally’ homeless, for example if they don’t manage to pay their rent. The rules around ‘local connection’ should also change so that care leavers are entitled to housing in either the Local Authority that placed them in care, or the Local Authority in which they lived (currently this only applies if they lived there for more than two years). Finally, the Setting Up Home Allowance should be increased from £2,000 to £4,000.
Why: It is positive that the Government has acknowledged the vulnerability of care leavers extends at least to the age of 25, by extending personal advisor support to this age. This acknowledgement should be reflected across all policy areas, including housing need. Removing the test around becoming ‘intentionally’ homeless for care leavers would acknowledge that they should have been getting the right support to manage their finances before this point. Access to housing is one of the things that care leavers most frequently call our Help at Hand service about.
6. Enable all care leavers to continue to live with carers
What: Staying Put is a policy which enables care leavers to carry on living with their foster carers once they turn 18, and 20% of 18 year-old care leavers do so. However, only 44% of children who are in care at 17 are living with foster carers. The government is also piloting Staying Close arrangements for children in children’s homes. However, 40% of 17-year-olds in care are in unregulated or independent accommodation, so neither of these options are available to them. All care leavers should have the right to get support from a ‘Staying Close’ style scheme or live with foster carers over the age of 18, regardless of their final care placement. This should not have to be with their existing foster carers if they would prefer to move. During lockdown, care leavers living in independent accommodation are likely to have been most at risk of loneliness and isolation. The Government must ensure adequate funding for this, as there is already a significant shortfall in funding for Staying Put arrangements.
Why: Children living in unregulated or independent accommodation are particularly vulnerable to isolation or exploitation. Just because they have missed out living with a carer at the ages of 16 or 17, doesn’t mean they should have to forego that when they turn 18 if they want it. Likewise, if a child does not have a good relationship with their foster carers, or if their foster carers are not able to offer a Staying Put place, they should have the option of moving to a different foster home, or getting continued support but in a more independent setting. Additionally, we find carers telling us that they cannot afford to offer a Staying Put place with the levels of funding currently provided.
“Although I’ve moved to university, I still have a bedroom at home and in the holidays I’ll be able to go back, to my bed. I think it’s rare for people to be able to stay put, but it’s something that should be encouraged more because I think it really has made a difference. It’s just knowing that they [foster carers] are there.”
Education, training and employment
7. University entry requirements should be lowered for care leavers, with appropriate accommodation and financial support for all those pursuing higher education
What: Some universities already have admissions policies which take into account children’s backgrounds, usually referred to as ‘contextual offers’. This should be built upon by requiring universities to set out a minimum set of entry requirements for care leavers, and offer automatic places to all those who meet them. Scotland have already introduced a similar system.
When care leavers arrive at University care leavers should be offered free 52 week a year accommodation, while Local Authorities should allow students to ‘Stay Put’ during the holidays if that is their preference. Tuition fees should be scrapped for care leavers going into higher or further education. Post graduate courses should be eligible for an automatic bursary for care leavers from the Local Authority. Care leavers should be eligible for bursaries when starting further education even if they are over 19 – currently the bursary fund only extends up until 19. The bursary offer from Local Authorities should be increased to £2,000 a year.
Why: Only 6% of care leavers go to University. However, research shows that disadvantaged children with lower A-level results go on to do just as well as others at University. We therefore need to address the barriers that stop care leavers going on to succeed at University. Scotland have made the guaranteed offer to acknowledge the importance of a child’s context in shaping their exam results.
For care leavers who go to University the holidays can be a very difficult time, as they might be kicked out of their University accommodation and have to find somewhere new to live. Our Help at Hand service has heard from a child who wanted to ‘Stay Put’ during their holidays but couldn’t as it wasn’t financially feasible for their carer. Any potential financial barriers to care leavers taking up education should be removed to encourage increased participation.
“There’s no support whatsoever for care leavers who want to study at postgraduate level. If I had a parent, they could help me, and there would be some sort of support there. But I don’t have a parent to back me up, so I can’t go and do a masters if I wanted to. I think there needs to be more awareness that care leavers might want to go on further than just their undergrad.”
8. Apprenticeships for care leavers
What: All public bodies offering apprenticeships should be required to interview any care leavers who apply for apprenticeships and meet the basic criteria, and all Local Authorities should provide support with applications and routinely provide information about apprenticeship opportunities to personal advisors.
Why: Many care leavers are not in education, employment or training – 39% of 19 to 21 year old care leavers are ‘NEET’ compared to 13% of all 18-24 year olds. Some Local Authorities such as Islington are already guaranteeing care leavers an interview, and this could help to overcome one barrier to employment.
“I managed to find work [after I left school] but it wasn’t the best of jobs. I had to do full-time in cafes, closing and opening, and cleaning, it wasn’t something I enjoyed.”
Mental health and wellbeing
9. Improved mental health support
What: All personal advisors should be required to have mental health training, and a knowledge of mental health issues should be added to statutory guidance on ‘Knowledge and Skills of Personal Advisors’.. All Local Authority leaving care teams should have a dedicated mental health worker with their Leaving Care Team; this is already the case in some Local Authorities such as Middlesborough. Care leavers should be allowed to access CAMHS until they are 25 if it is necessary.
Why: Care leavers are likely to have experienced trauma and adversity in their lives, which can have a long-lasting impact on their mental health. A personal advisor is the key point of contact for a care leaver, and those care leavers who had reduced contact with personal advisors during lockdown felt particularly isolated. Although guidance is clear that personal advisors should know about mental health services in their area, there should be increased emphasis on, and training for, them to be able to identify emerging mental health difficulties. If a mental health concern is identified, care leavers must then be able to access professional help. Many of the calls to our Help at Hand advice service are from care leavers struggling to get this help. These young people who have already been let down and experienced harm in their childhoods should get all the support they need to recover.
“Chances are, you’ve had one traumatic encounter at a minimum. A common reality for care experienced people is that we live with all of these mental health issues; depression, anxiety, PTSD, attachment disorders… you name it. Day to day life is hard enough but when you’re completely isolated from all that keeps things normal? Ka-boom. Too many of us are struggling with traumas resurfacing due to the emptiness of our brains. It has to be filled with something. We may not consciously realise this is going on but, on the surface at least, depression and anxiety begin to rise. Lack of routine starts to send us crazy. I have been close to falling back into old negative habits just to fill the time.”
10. Improved local offers for care leavers
In addition to changes that we believe need to be made centrally and apply to all care leavers, we would like to see all Local Authorities sign up to a minimum local offer for all care leavers. This should include:
- Free local travel, which is not just limited to off-peak travel
- Free laptop and mobile phone
- Gym membership for them and a friend
- ‘Starter Kit’ of essentials for setting up at home or University
- Local Authority acting as a guarantor for accommodation
- Paid for driving license and driving lessons
- Discounts with local businesses for care leavers
- A mentoring or buddying scheme
* The rates are £57.90 per week for JSA or £251.77 per month for UC compared to £73.10 or £317.82 per month for over-25s