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Education Committee

Volume 634: debated on Thursday 11 January 2018

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. The Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which time no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, the occupant of the Chair will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and will call the right hon. Gentleman to respond to those questions in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Those on the Front Bench may take part in questioning.

I am delighted to make this short statement about our Committee’s report. Social justice is one of the primary objectives of the Education Committee. It is vital that young people in foster care are able to climb the educational ladder of opportunity like anybody else. I begin by paying tribute to the previous Committee of the 2015 Parliament and particularly to its Chair, the former Member for Stroud. I also thank the officers of the Education Committee, who have done a huge amount of work on this report.

In our final evidence session, we heard moving testimony from young people with experience of foster care. Members present had dry throats and some had tears in their eyes. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), the former Minister for Children and Families, for whom I have huge respect; he was willing to share his evidence session with the young people, which created an important and unique session.

In our report, we wrote of the importance of valuing the three pillars of fostering: valuing young people, valuing foster carers and valuing the care system itself. The fact is that the foster care system in England is under significant pressure. That must be of national concern, given that it is often the most vulnerable young people in our society who are being failed by a care system that does not meet their needs.

The number of looked-after children has risen by 7% since 2013. I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that pressure and commissioned their own review of fostering by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers. I understand that that review is with Ministers at the moment and will be considered alongside the recommendations made by our Committee.

Let us begin with valuing young people. Foster children face a lottery of care, frequent placements, and the possibility of being separated from their siblings. We heard moving evidence from young people who spoke about the number of placements they experienced. One young person in foster care had been through eight placements in four years. Another spoke about having

“moved six times in less than no time”,

while another had lived in thirteen different foster placements and two children’s homes in five years. Such frequency of placement change can only be damaging to the children’s wellbeing, development and future prospects. The Government must redouble every effort to ensure that young people and children do not face the prospect of such a dizzying number of placements.

What truly shocked every member of the Committee was that some foster children move placements with very short notice, little to no information, and often without any advocacy rights at all. It is clear that the guidelines intended to tackle these issues are being applied inconsistently at best and inhumanely at worst.

To give another example, we heard about young people in foster care being separated from their siblings. Figures suggest that 70% of siblings are not placed together when one is already in care. A 17-year-old, who had been moved away from her siblings, told us that

“to lose a bond with your own siblings is sad, because you’re by yourself in the world and your siblings are practically your best friends and now you’re losing them—you’ve lost your parents and then your siblings, and it’s like your whole world has crashed down really quite quickly.”

Young people must be placed with siblings wherever it is possible and appropriate. If it is not, social workers and others have to make a greater effort to facilitate regular and meaningful contact. I urge the new Minister with responsibility for children to ensure consistency and guarantees of advocacy for all foster children. Ofsted says that one in three children do not even receive any information on their placement, which is unacceptable.

The second chapter of our report focuses on valuing foster carers. They play an important role in our society—they provide remarkable care in difficult circumstances—but are often under-appreciated, undermined and undervalued. The Fostering Network estimates that there is a deficit of 7,600 foster carers. The foster carer population is disproportionately female and ever ageing. Too often they have to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, and they are not adequately supported financially or professionally in the vital work they do. Their status is unclear in terms of employment—but not, sadly, with the Inland Revenue, which treats them as if they were employed.

In our report, we press the Government to ensure that all foster carers are paid the national minimum allowance. The Fostering Network found that 12% of local authority fostering services were paying below the national minimum allowance for at least one age bracket, that 47% had frozen allowances and that five had reduced rates compared with 2016-17. Ministers need to make sure that the allowance matches rises in living costs and allows carers to meet the needs of those they are caring for. Carers must also benefit from legal protection against the increasing number of malicious and unfounded allegations.

The final section of the report concerns valuing care. We recommend that the Department for Education establish a national college to work towards improving working conditions for carers, provide a resource for their training and support and give them a national voice and representation. Initially, we envisage not a building but a virtual college on the internet. We believe there is value in a mechanism for greater sharing of best practice and increasing professionalism and for creating a proper identity for all foster carers across our country. We believe that a national recruitment and awareness campaign, initiated by the Department, could help to improve capacity in the system.

For too many children and young people, the experience of care is of something done to them, not with them. There has to be greater involvement of foster children and better information for them on their placements, and a consistency of practice to ensure that all young people can benefit from an appropriate and positive experience of foster care. The Government listened to the strong representations from Committee members on extending the extra 15 hours a week childcare entitlement to children in foster care, and I welcome the moves that have been made on that. In this new year, the Committee hopes that Ministers will consider the recommendations in our report and show that we truly value foster children and foster care.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for ensuring that the fostering report was finished in this Parliament. I was a member of the Select Committee in the previous Parliament, and am a member in this one, and I am glad he shares my views on the importance of making sure that children in care have a voice. Does he agree that one of the most powerful points made to the Committee during the inquiry was on the importance of stability and permanence in a child’s life, especially for children who have experienced so much instability and disruption? Will he work with me to ensure that both their voices and that issue continue to be heard in the House?

May I put on the record my huge thanks to my hon. Friend for her support and hard work on the Committee in getting the report to the House and for her remarkable knowledge about and passion for children in care? She is absolutely right that stability is one of the most important things. It is incredible to me that children are moved from pillar to post, often without any knowledge of what is going to happen, any choice or any access to advocacy. That has to change.

I warmly commend the right hon. Gentleman and the whole Committee for the report. I know from my next-door neighbours, who have been foster carers and have now adopted, of the phenomenal love, tenderness, care, dedication and commitment of foster carers, often in the face of phenomenal bureaucratic obstacles.

The right hon. Gentleman will probably know of the statistics that show that the proportion of girls in care who go on to become teenage mums or to be raped is much higher than the proportion among other girls. What can we do to ensure that these people—the most vulnerable people in our society—are properly protected?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful question and for raising that wider point. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) talks about this issue quite a bit. The crucial thing is early intervention and prevention to avoid the problems the hon. Gentleman raises. My view is that we need a wider review of the whole issue of vulnerable children and children in care. He touches on points that will no doubt be further discussed in the House and in the Committee.

May I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?

I welcome the report and very much hope that it will be taken seriously by the Department for Education, in tandem with the Narey report, which has been submitted. I entirely recognise the problems that my right hon. Friend’s Committee has flagged up in respect of the shortage of supply of foster carers, too many foster children being moved around too often, too many of them being moved well out of the area of their placing authority, and too many sibling groups—that vital anchor—bring broken up.

On foster carers, what examples of good practice by local authorities in recruitment and retention did the Committee see? What lessons does my right hon. Friend think can be learned from the work that some of us did in the Department for Education on adoption through centralised recruitment to encourage adopters to come forward and, crucially, on offering adoption support services to make the job of the wonderful adopters so much easier and placements much more sustainable? That is still not happening to the same extent for foster children.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and welcome his new-look Gandalf-type beard. He raises some important issues. The previous Committee and the current Committee received evidence from different local authorities and fostering providers. There is good practice, and we need to learn from it. That is why the report suggests that we have a national college for foster carers that shares best practice, whether it comes from adoption or from good local authorities. I do think we need a national recruitment campaign for foster carers. They need much more of an identity and should be seen much more as the professionals that they are. We have to learn from best practice.