The speech made by Kate Osborne, the Labour MP for Jarrow, in the House of Commons on 21 April 2022.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the recruitment and retention of foster carers.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the Backbench Business Committee and the supporting Members who made it possible to secure this debate. I also thank the Fostering Network, Home for Good and one of my local authorities, South Tyneside, for organising meetings and relevant briefings for me and my team, which were very useful for this debate. I put on record my thanks to those bodies for their work in championing the overlooked and neglected fostering sector. I am sure all Members present will want to join me in welcoming the Fostering Network and foster carers to the Public Gallery. It is great to see them here.
One cannot overestimate the important role fostering plays across child protection and safeguarding. In a climate where, over the last 12 years, local authorities have been forced to adapt their operations through cuts to local expenditure, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for foster carers has never been greater, with many children needing emergency support. That is why I will focus my opening remarks on why the fostering sector and carers need increased recognition and wraparound support from local authorities and independent fostering agencies.
While the debate is centred on the recruitment and retention of foster carers, we also need to look at the challenges faced by the sector more broadly, and at where we can share experiences of local authorities and constituents to not only platform the sector, but raise its profile and actively encourage people to enter into fostering.
Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
The Welsh Government’s initiative Foster Wales has created a network of local authority fostering services across Wales, showing a clear national commitment to the cause. Does the hon. Lady agree that England and Scotland would benefit from a similar national call to action?
Yes, I agree, and I will refer to a similar point in my speech.
As I was preparing for this debate and looking at the statistics, two particular facts on recruitment stood out to me. First, the number of initial inquiries to foster is at an all-time high. There were 160,635 initial inquiries from prospective fostering households in the year ending 31 March 2021. In contrast, only 10,145 applications—a mere 6% of initial inquiries—were actually received. Secondly, according to the annual fostering statistics published by Ofsted, the number of foster carers in England has increased by only 4% since 2014, while the number of children in foster care has increased by 11%.
Those statistics show a crisis in recruitment and retention. Members on both sides must ask why those significant shortfalls in the fostering sector are occurring and what we in this place can do to help to alleviate this recruitment and retention crisis. I believe that we need to champion foster carers, but central to that must be deeds, not just words: we need to make sure that foster carers are fairly paid and respected as workers.
Set out in its 2021 “State of the Nation’s Foster Care” report, the Fostering Network’s findings on pay are damning:
“Over a third of foster carers said that their allowances do not meet the full cost of looking after a child.”
That is certainly something I can give personal testimony of, from my experience as a foster carer before entering this place; it has also been said to me today by some of the foster carers present.
Secondly, the report notes:
“Fourteen local authorities reported that their foster care allowances were below the NMA for at least one age group across England. Of these, two were in London, four were in the South East and ten were in the area of the rest of England.”
While I thank the Children’s Minister for writing to 13 local authorities on the specific issue of the national minimum allowance, that has to be weighted against this Government’s political decision to put the burden of inflation and the cost of living crisis on the backs of ordinary people.
Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
My hon. Friend is making a meaningful speech, including about her own experiences as a foster carer. She may or may not know that I used to be a manager in fostering, and for as long as I can remember there was an issue with the retention of foster carers and with those carers not being valued enough. Does my hon. Friend agree that the severe cuts to local government funding have had an indirect impact on the support that social workers can offer foster carers, which in turn has an impact on their ability to continue fostering and how they can look after, or manage the welfare of, a child?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we cannot keep taking money out of local authorities and expect them to still deliver the same level of services. The impact, unfortunately, is felt by the children and young people who are in the fostering system or child services.
The financial pressures and stresses felt by carers, highlighted by the Fostering Network’s research, are only set to get worse. The Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers believes that the Government should urgently make a pay award to foster carers, both within local authorities and independent fostering agencies, to preserve and protect this precious resource for children and young people in need. This would be an important signal to foster carers that the Government really do value their contribution.
Another critical issue that we have to be aware of is the responsibility local authorities and IFAs have in providing vital—often emergency—wraparound support for foster carers and their families. I put on record my thanks to South Tyneside Council, one of my local authorities, for its progressive outlook in prioritising this area. First and foremost, we have to recognise that each child currently being supported through fostering services has different and complex needs, which must be met from the first moment that child comes under the care of their carer. That is why South Tyneside’s model of training carers to degrees, whereby they can be matched with the child best suited to their level of training—a model that is in the best interests of all parties and, most importantly, those of the child or young person—is highly commendable. In this, it is vital that children are kept as close to the local authority as possible. This approach means that at crisis point there is no delay in support, and any crisis has a better chance of being mitigated, as tailored, traumatic and therapeutic support can be accessed quickly.
Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on this important issue. Regarding the role of local authorities and the point about funding, does she agree that the crisis with children’s social workers and the shortage that we have is exacerbating the problems, and will impact on the very commendable operating model she is talking about?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. As has been said, the funding that is being taken out of the system means that, unfortunately, we are not continuing to provide the support that is needed, in terms of both social workers and the many other people who are involved in children’s care.
The system South Tyneside Council has in place means that if a breakdown occurs between the child and foster family, the local authority is accountable, thus upholding the fostering standards to improve outcomes. With such support mechanisms in place, more people will be encouraged to become foster carers.
However, we must recognise that South Tyneside’s model relies on factors for which the responsibility lies truly at the feet of Government Ministers. The cuts to local authorities over the past 12 years, along with the present day record levels of children needing emergency foster care mean that my local authority, like most others, must turn to independent fostering agencies to plug the gap. The money local authorities have to spend from Government grants, council tax and business rates has fallen by 16% since 2010. That means that local authorities have an increasingly limited capacity to respond to significant inflationary pressures.
While I respect the work that members of IFAs do to alleviate the pressure felt by local authorities, those agencies have the ability to add another complex, unnecessary layer between the child and the local authority, meaning that when crisis hits, unnecessary delays, which are detrimental to all involved, are often hard to avoid. In South Tyneside Council, 50% of children are placed into IFAs.
We also need to break down the popular perceptions of fostering, which undermine the diverse and varying shapes that it can take. Fostering should not be compared with adoption, although it often is. We need to break through the perception that fostering is a means, whereas adoption is the end, because one size does not fit all. We also need to recognise that circumstances in the lives of carers can change. The value of a carer fostering one child needs to be recognised as the same as a carer who may foster many children.
Finally, we need to appreciate that, more often than not, foster carers can be thrust into a situation at extreme short notice. Their presence in the safeguarding process can often be to provide emergency care.
Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. The House is always at its best when Members draw on their personal experience and my hon. Friend’s speech shows that she knows what she is talking about. I add my thanks to Fostering Network, who I have worked with a lot in the past and who I have found to be incredibly helpful.
I want to pick up on black, Asian and minority ethnic foster carers and children from BAME communities. BBC analysis shows that two thirds of councils in England have a shortage of BAME foster carers, but 23% of children on the waiting list are from BAME backgrounds. Black boys are left longest on the waiting lists. I wondered whether my hon. Friend might comment, and I hope the Minister will also pick up on that point.
That point came up in my meeting with the head of children’s services in my local authority. As my hon. Friend says, we are desperately short of BAME foster carers.
Often children arrive into foster care with nothing apart from the clothes they are wearing. The responsibility lies firmly with the fostering family to pick up from there, otherwise the child would have nothing.
What do we need from the Government? I would like the Minister to look at and seriously consider the Mockingbird strategy as adopted by South Tyneside and many others, and to listen to best practice from my and other local authorities. I hope we will hear more on that today from other Members.
The Mockingbird model is based on the idea of an extended family. The strategy focuses on a fostering hub, where satellite carers work in sync to provide specialist and centralised care to children along with real-time support for those satellite carers. Mockingbird means intervention can take place without the need to necessarily remove children completely from their support network, should an emergency occur. Depending on circumstances, the programme can be adjusted to include birth families and adoptive families, and to provide support for independent living, while giving assurance to foster carers and those in care that a secure and close support network is at hand.
I also want the Minister to listen to the recommendations set out by the Fostering Network, which with others is calling for a fully funded national fostering strategy, a national fostering leadership board and a national register of foster carers. In addition, the Government need to carry out a comprehensive review of the minimum levels of fostering allowance, using up-to-date evidence to ensure foster carers are given sufficient payment to cover the full cost of looking after a child.
There is no one quick fix to address the issues relating to the retention of foster carers. The themes of carers feeling unsupported, making a financial loss and not being treated as workers would lead to a high turnover rate and chronic difficulties in recruitment in any workforce. I hope that today’s debate acts as an opportunity to address Members’ concerns from their constituencies and encourages the Minister to put recommendations in place.