First of all thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
Foster carers do an incredible job, providing stability and care to the children who need it most, in the most difficult of circumstances. More than anyone, they can help children recover from the experiences which have brought them into care, and give them an opportunity to make a fresh start.
But I want to do more than simply celebrate foster carers. I want to recruit more, and more varied, people to the role. I want to ensure that they all get the practical support they need. And I want to empower foster carers to provide the best possible care to children, free from unnecessary and harmful bureaucracy.
So while Foster Care Fortnight is about celebration, it should also be about action. And I would like to tell you tonight about what the Government is doing to help recruit more foster carers, and to better support and value those we have.
It would be wrong to pretend that we do not have challenges before us. The Fostering Network’s campaign rightly highlights the fact that a child comes into care every 22 minutes. Of all the children who come into care, 75 per cent are looked after by foster carers. To cope with demand, an estimated 8750 new foster carers are needed across the UK in 2012 alone.
A wide range of children need fostering, and we need to attract a wider range of carers. We know that we need to attract more foster carers in their 30s, as the majority of carers are currently aged 46-55. We also need more carers from ethnic minority backgrounds, and particularly more people with the skills and experience to care for teenagers, sibling groups and disabled children.
There has recently been much publicity around the Government’s Action Plan for Adoption. We have made it clear that we believe more children should benefit from the stability and permanence of an adoptive family. We have outlined our plans to speed up and streamline the adoption process.
But there is no hierarchy here. No matter how much we improve processes around adoption, it is only ever going to be an option for a small minority of the 65,000 children in the care system. We have therefore been working very hard to improve the lives of children in care across the board, be they in residential care or in foster homes.
In fact, we launched our Foster Carer’s Charter in March last year, long before the Adoption Action Plan. I am very pleased that to date 86 local authorities have signed up to the Charter. An additional 37 local authorities are in the process of developing their Charter and I know that many independent fostering agencies have also signed up.
I would like to congratulate those areas where officials and foster carers have come together to develop a Charter that is ambitious for local improvement. And I want to urge those few areas that have not yet started developing their Charter to do so - there is advice on the fostering pages of the Department’s website about how to do this.
Our provision for children in care is much broader than the Charter, however. We have embedded positive discrimination towards children who have been in care all the way through the system, running from the Early Years, in which disadvantaged two-year-olds will now have access to free early education, to the pupil premium for children in schools, the further education bursary which has replaced the Education Maintenance Allowance and the higher education bursary for those at university.
With all these measures we are determined to narrow the “attainment gap” between looked after children and their peers - currently only 12.8 per cent of those in care achieve five GCSEs including English and mathematics compared to 58.3 per cent of all children. We must do better for vulnerable children, and securing a better deal for foster carers is an integral part of that.
What are we doing?
In recent years we have seen the beginnings of a transformation in foster care - in the range of fostering that is available, the training and support available to foster carers and in the range of people coming forward to foster.
However, we are still facing two big challenges. First, we need to remove the obstacles which prevent suitable people from becoming foster carers. Second, we need to tackle the problems which make good foster carers leave.
In terms of removing obstacles, one of our key objectives is to make fostering more compatible with the reality of life for modern, working families.
In this respect there are a number of measures already in progress. I am encouraging organisations to implement foster-friendly employment policies, starting with my own Department. The DfE intends to introduce a foster family-friendly HR policy, and I will be urging my ministerial colleagues to do the same in their departments.
I am delighted that two major businesses, Tesco and O2, are setting an excellent example with policies designed specifically for foster carers. Both offer up to five days’ paid leave for those who wish to apply to become foster carers so they can attend related meetings and training. At Tesco, foster carers are also entitled to emergency leave if the need arises.
Now we need to encourage more businesses to support their employees who foster. To this end, we have developed guidance for business about how to support employees who foster, which is now available on the fostering pages of the DfE website.
But it’s not just about working with employers. We need to make sure that fostering services are employment-friendly. I know that some services require all their fostering families to have at least one person at home full time. Of course, this may be necessary in some cases - where a family is caring for a baby or a child with very challenging needs, for example. But I do not believe a blanket ban on foster carers having paid work is necessary, and I intend to change the rules to make this clear.
I also propose to amend the statutory guidance for fostering services to make it even clearer that they should respect the other commitments of foster carers, including those who work, when they plan meetings and other activities that the foster carer needs to attend.
We must also encourage local areas to make more use of people who have a contribution to make, but who aren’t able to foster full time. I want to work with a number of areas across the country to explore new models of part-time fostering and voluntary support for foster families.
Another important area in terms of boosting recruitment is the assessment process. We are already working with the sector to streamline the fostering assessment and approval process, to minimise unnecessary delay. Foster carers have told me that the rigid rules around assessment have delayed them being able to take in children that it makes absolute sense for them to care for, such as a sibling of a child already in their care. This is nonsense, and we will be looking to introduce greater flexibility into the process over coming months.
Better support for carers
These measures are geared towards attracting more people with the right skills and qualities into foster care. But another priority area for us as a Government is ensuring fostering services provide better support to the carers they already have, who are doing a fantastic job.
This means making sure that foster carers can carry out their work without being impeded by unnecessary and harmful bureaucracy. Primarily, they should be fully empowered to make day-to-day decisions about their foster children.
Let me take one example from a good number of letters I have received on this topic. One foster carer wrote to me saying that her five-year-old foster child was refused permission to stay overnight with her mother-in law. No particular reason for this refusal was given. Clearly, it made the foster child feel different from the foster carer’s own children. She missed out on a fun sleepover, and responded, quite understandably, with tears and tantrums.
Now there may have been a good reason for the refusal, but the carer wasn’t told what it was. I am absolutely clear that decisions like this - attending a sleepover, having a hair cut, or going on a school trip - should be delegated to the foster carer unless there is a very good reason why this cannot be the case.
There is already statutory backing for this, which came into force in April last year. But many authorities still aren’t putting it into practice. This risk-averse culture must change, and I am urging senior managers and local politicians to take responsibility for leading change in their area.
We need everyone involved - foster carers, social workers and their managers - to be clear about the areas of decision-making that have been delegated. We also need a sensible approach to the extent of social workers’ involvement where children are in a long-term foster placement. I am consulting on measures to make this happen.
I am also launching today a 10 point, easy-to-use checklist setting out the Government’s expectations around delegation, and I have brought together in one place all the statutory requirements around delegation. These can, again, be found in the fostering pages of the DfE’s website.
Other measures to support existing foster carers include a new national framework for their training and support, and the development of training modules on foster care for social workers.
We have also engaged with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure foster carers are not disadvantaged by changes to the welfare system. Foster care payments are not currently taken into account when means testing benefits, and this will continue to be the case under the new Universal Credit.
In addition, lone foster carers, and one member of a fostering couple, will not have to be available for work while a child under-16 is in placement, and for up to eight weeks between placements. There will be the discretion to extend this to those fostering children aged-16 and over, and to both members of a fostering couple, in exceptional circumstances where the child’s care needs require it.
Measures have been taken to enable local authorities to compensate foster carers in social housing who see a reduction in housing benefit because of spare rooms they have for foster children. To this end the government has announced an additional £5 million for the discretionary housing payment budget from 2013/14 which is aimed at foster carers, including those who need to keep an extra room when they are in between foster placements.
So as you can see there is a great deal of work going on. I am confident that, together, we can ensure that foster carers are better supported and valued, and that more people come forward to enter this most rewarding and important of professions.
All that remains is for me to say enjoy the rest of the evening, I know you’ve got some great entertainment in store. And keep up the good work in the full knowledge that the government supports the work of foster carers every step of the way.