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Care Leavers: Universal Credit

Volume 838: debated on Monday 13 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential benefits of bringing the rate of Universal Credit for care leavers under 25 in line with the rate for over-25s.

My Lords, the Government have assessed the impact of raising the rate of universal credit for care leavers under 25 in line with the rate for the over-25s. While we are not currently planning on changing the rate, we understand the challenges that care leavers face. That is why we continue to provide additional, dedicated support to simplify and improve their interaction with the benefits system and help them into sustained employment and rewarding careers.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Care leavers are those for whom the state has been the corporate parent. Parenting does not stop at the age of 18; indeed, the rationale for the lower level of benefits for under-25s was always that they should continue to be supported by family until they achieve that full independence to which the Minister referred. I have to say that my own local branch bank of Mum and Dad is still very much taking on new business even though my kids are in their 30s. Will the Minister commit to looking again at the evidence, including that in the recent YMCA report on young people in supported accommodation, something that care leavers disproportionately need to access? Will he consider how we can be a better parent to the many wonderful but vulnerable young people who leave our care system each year?

This is an important subject. As I said earlier, we recognise the challenges that care leavers face as they move out of the care system. We look forward to continuing our very close partnership with the Department for Education, to ensure that care leavers can access the right skills, opportunities and wider support to move towards sustained employment and career progression. It might be helpful to the right reverend Prelate to know that we are providing over £250 million across this spending review to support care leavers on a whole range of issues, including housing, improving access to education, employment and training, and to help them develop social connections and networks, which can be very helpful to them as they set out in life.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the acquisitive crime rates among care leavers under 25 are significantly higher than the acquisitive crime rates for care leavers over 25? We know that these care leavers are exceptionally vulnerable. If there is this discrepancy between the acquisitive crime rates, can he say clearly that we need to increase the universal credit rates for under-25 care leavers?

The noble Baroness’s first point is correct: there is an element in the crime rate. I have the statistics somewhere here. We are well aware of it and are working very closely with the MoJ on it. Putting that aside, it is ever more important that care leavers have the best possible help to move on from the pretty challenging start that they have had in life, to show them the light—the way forward into work or education—and see them into a better life.

My Lords, we have been talking about universal credit, but international research shows that stable relationships are essential to care leavers’ resilience. They enable them to hold down jobs and live independently, hence support to form and maintain relationships is mandated in councils’ local offers for care leavers. Guidance refers to helping them to keep in touch with people who were important to them when they entered care. This is what the Lifelong Links approach achieves. It was very positively evaluated by the Department for Education, so are councils using it?

The subject of relationships is very important indeed for care leavers. Judgments on the quality and breadth of a local authority’s so-called local offer for care leavers forms part of Ofsted’s inspection framework for local authority children’s services, hence the link with the Department for Education. The reports published following an inspection include a judgment on the experiences and progress of care leavers and a supporting commentary on the local offer. The Department for Education is providing £99.8 million to local authorities through the Staying Put programme to increase the number of care leavers who stay living with their foster families in a family home up to the age of 21. Again, this links into the relationship angle.

My Lords, further to the excellent Question from the right reverend Prelate, I say that young parents are one group particularly disadvantaged by the differential rates. As many of us probably know, having a child is very expensive, and is not made cheaper for the parent by their being under the age of 25. This was reflected under legacy benefits, where the higher rate was paid to young parents. Last year, the price of nappies—that well-used product—went up by about 30%. Will the Government review the rate paid to young parents to help them to do the vital work of caring for children? I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some assurance that this disparity in allowances is under review.

The noble Lord makes a good point. The Government and local authorities should work in tandem, particularly in relation to care leavers who may have married young; I think that is the implication of his question. Local authority children’s and housing services should and do work together to ensure a range of suitable, move-on options, including for accommodation, because housing is often one of the key factors. Personal advisers should help young people to plan—particularly those who might be married—and agree which option is best to see them forward. This includes paying for items such as nappies.

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that the price of rent and food was similar for those aged 25 and those aged 24? Will the Government review this policy, which is not fair to young people?

In my opening Answer, I already alluded to what we might or might not do about that. In addition to the £250 million help that we give to care leavers, there is much cross-government support. For example, the Second Chance Learning scheme supports care leavers between the ages of 18 and 21 who wish to catch up on their education, particularly secondary education. I have already mentioned housing. There is an exemption from the shared accommodation rate—the SAR. Importantly, we are improving the transition from local authority support to DWP benefits, so that those who are not able to find a job immediately can be transitioned quickly on to the universal credit system; that was alluded to in a previous question. I do not think that the noble Baroness should be shaking her head; these are genuine issues.

My Lords, the savings threshold to qualify for universal credit is £16,000, and that has been the case for years. Do the Government have any plans to increase it?

We do not have any such plans, although the noble Lord will know that we keep all these matters under review. I have already outlined a number of initiatives that we have taken to help this important sector and to be sure that care leavers are given a better start in life, where they might have had a challenging and troubling start.

My Lords, the Minister will well understand that, sad to say, the vast majority of care leavers leave care much younger than 25. It must be really rather frightening to find themselves in that situation at a young age, often with few educational qualifications and little to rely on in terms of future employment prospects. Does he agree that we as a state have a responsibility for those children who have been in public care, and therefore that we need to do everything we can to support them at a critical stage in their lives?

That is absolutely right and I could not have put it better myself. That is why it is so important that at particular stages of life—that is, from the age of 14, and particularly 16, until the age of 25—initiatives are taken forward to look after this often very vulnerable group. I have outlined a number of those, and the initiatives are kept under review. I do not think I have yet mentioned the DWP Youth Offer, which is designed to help work coaches to support young people aged 16 to 24 and to encourage them to get into work as soon as possible.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that in 2017 the Children’s Society did some research into care leavers and benefits. It reported that care leavers were five times as likely as anyone else to be sanctioned by the benefits system, and that they were less likely to challenge that. Since then, the DWP now has a care leaver covenant saying that there should be a special point of contact who has to be notified before such a sanction can be applied. Can the Minister tell us how that is going and whether it has reduced the numbers?

I cannot tell the noble Baroness whether it has reduced the numbers, but it has been a considerable success. It is all part of what I was saying about our joined-up thinking in working with local authorities, as well as across government. She will be aware that we have a cross-government support group for care leavers, covering in particular the DfE, the DWP, DLUHC and, as mentioned earlier, local authorities.