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Support for Care Leavers

Volume 631: debated on Thursday 16 November 2017

[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Department for Work and Pensions’ support for care leavers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I am extremely glad to have the opportunity to debate this important subject in Parliament. I have been interested in the care system, and the young people who grow up in it and move out of it into adult life, for the past 10 years. When I first came to Westminster, my main interest was in education, but I quickly became aware of the large number of young people in our society—approximately 70,000 of them—who are in care because life at home has gone wrong. Without a stable foundation, so many opportunities are diminished and hindered.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that I believe that the most important work with young people in care, which is ultimately for the benefit of care leavers, is done in other Departments. Perhaps some of the most significant spends that are required are on matters that she can address with her colleagues and that fall within their budgets, such as early intervention for parents or children suffering from poor mental health or addiction problems. I am sure she has such conversations with her colleagues in the Department for Education, the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Too often, we give the impression that the care system in our country is irretrievably broken. I do not believe it is. Some 60% of care leavers do not become NEET—not in education, employment or training—on leaving school, which is a sign that the care system has worked for them and has provided them with opportunities they might not have received if they had stayed at home. However, that is not to say that the system cannot be improved; it can be, and I believe it has been over the past 10 years. The Munro review of child protection and Martin Narey’s reviews of residential care and fostering for the DFE have contributed to the quality of care that young people in our country receive.

Obviously, the care system is extraordinarily varied. It is often said that England has not one care system, but 150—one for each of the local authorities that take in children. Those systems and the legal framework in which they operate remind us that young people in care are our children. Because the state has decided to take them away from their families and try to create a new family environment for them, the responsibility for their wellbeing, opportunities and success lies strongly with central and local government. We should always remember that when we consider the policy interventions we can make to improve their lives.

With that in mind, what can the Department for Work and Pensions do to help young people as they embark on adult life and look for the opportunities that everyone wants, such as a stable family, a job, a chance to prosper and decent accommodation? On work and training, one wonderful initiative in the past few years has been a bursary of about £2,000 for young care leavers to go to university. I know from having spoken to care leavers that it has created opportunity where there was none before. Young people also get help with accommodation and on-site help at their universities.

That is a great start, but relatively few care leavers go to university; the majority go straight into the world of work. Modern apprenticeships, which provide a new route into employment for our young people, have been a very successful Government initiative that is growing year on year, but they do not offer care leavers the same advantages as young people living at home with their families. Indeed, the system rather assumes that apprentices have a family home to live in. Having talked to care leavers who have to manage their household bills and finances on the very low initial income that new apprentices receive—about £3.50 an hour—I ask the Government to look again at the issue.

I know that the apprenticeships programme falls within the DFE’s purview, but it is also in the DWP’s interest to ensure that young people do not become unemployed. We know that young people who become long-term unemployed when they leave school are much more likely to be long-term unemployed later in life, so it is crucial for the system to help them to avoid that pitfall. I suggest to the Minister that a little upstream investment could save a lot of money in subsequent benefit payments. A few years ago, the DWP part-funded ThinkForward, a very interesting initiative to identify young people at risk of becoming NEET and support them with long-term mentoring in the years before they left school. It dramatically reduced the number of NEETs in the target group. The DWP has a good track record with this work, and I encourage it to do more.

Many care leavers start adult life on welfare, receiving help with their bills and the necessary support to have somewhere to live. It is important that we ensure that our welfare system is adapted to their needs, especially with respect to up-front accommodation costs. As hon. Members know, the shared accommodation rate gives young people in the benefits system money for a room rather than a flat, under the assumption that they live with others, but care leavers are subject to an exemption until the age of 22. That exemption is a good Government policy, but charities I have spoken to—including the Children’s Society, which gave me some very good advice before the debate—point out that it would be better to extend it to the age of 25, when a different benefit payment rate kicks in. I strongly encourage the Minister to consider such an extension, which would ensure that care leavers have no hiatus in pay to overcome. The Children’s Society estimates that it would cost about £5 million—a small cost that would be far outweighed by the good it would do.

When I was director of strategy at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, I spent a lot of my time going around the country to talk to local authorities that had excellent care-leaving units. Some areas, particularly Trafford, had a very detailed local strategy to ensure that the personal advisers who helped care leavers worked with their colleagues in the local jobcentre. That is important for various reasons. First, a decent personal adviser will be there to give advice on how the complexities of all the new systems work. However, it should also be a two-way conversation. If a young person has left care and falls into trouble—and is perhaps trying to get their head around meeting appointments or making sure that they do the right things to be able to claim their benefits—their personal adviser will be there to walk them through the system. We have a good generation of new work coaches who are extremely helpful when someone gets into the jobcentre, but it is important for some care leavers to have advice outside of the jobcentre to make sure that they can follow the system without falling into difficulties and becoming sanctioned. They need to know what they are entitled to.

I know there is good practice going on in the country, but I also know it is not standardised. I welcome any attempt by DWP and DFE to bring together directors of children’s services and regional heads of jobcentres so that conversations can be held at a high managerial level and cascaded down to other parts of the country.

The Centre for Social Justice, for which I used to work, contacted me before this debate about a little glitch in the welfare system for care leavers taking apprenticeships. They have to wait a month for their first payment, and the CSJ suggested that those care leavers be enabled to retain their benefits for that month. Again, that bridges a gap so as to prevent young people from falling into debt when they have made the correct decision to get an apprenticeship, build their skills and move into work. Similarly, we should allow care leavers to retain housing benefit at the existing level when they move into an apprenticeship, again reducing the risk of their acquiring arrears and getting into debt.

As I wrap up, I want us to think about data. DWP, DFE and the Ministry of Justice have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, plugging their different enormous datasets together. That means it is increasingly possible to see how children from certain backgrounds and with certain experiences go on to achieve certain outcomes. The value of that is obviously enormous. This country has very good national datasets, which means we will be able to identify which young people become long-term unemployed and what their experiences have been at school, in the care system and in childhood before that. Similarly, it will enable us to identify the young people who had poor experiences and who then went on to be successful. If we do that, we can dig down into what made the crucial difference for those people: what children’s services department, what charity, and what intervention helped change their lives. Then we can seek to extend that good practice to other areas, truly creating a wonderful learning environment.

Finally, I encourage the Minister to let her data analysts roam free over the extraordinary wealth of knowledge that is sitting in Government Departments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on securing this important debate. As I listened to him, I was pleased to note that he and I have quite a common view on many of the issues. He was very clear in his opening remarks; there is a danger that we might forget that when we use the term “care leavers” we are talking about young people who have already encountered more than their fair share of troubles. They have not usually enjoyed the benefits of a stable family life that are available to others. They may have had little or no contact with their natural parents and family members, or those relationships may have been abusive and traumatising, so we are talking about people who have not had the best of starts. They are significantly more likely to be classed as NEETs—not in education, employment or training—if we compare them with their non-care counterparts, which is an important point to bear in mind, and of course they are much more likely to be subject to benefit sanctions. I suspect that is because sufficient account is not taken of the other things happening in their lives in the way in which the benefits system sometimes processes those transactions.

Our starting point should be to say that these young people are full of potential, but they need something extra by way of support and encouragement from the welfare state, which needs to pick up some of the corporate parenting role every bit as much as the local authority to ensure that those young folk get the assistance necessary to achieve their full potential.

The Government, to their credit, have sought to identify their corporate parenting responsibilities. In 2016 they published “Keep on caring”, a cross-departmental strategy paper designed to provide better support to care leavers. It identified five key outcomes, two of which are particularly relevant to this debate. One was improved access to education, employment and training: encouraging supported internships, meeting training costs and providing employment opportunities for care leavers in Government Departments and their agencies. Another was to ensure that care leavers achieve financial stability. That involved a promise to exempt care leavers from cuts in housing support due to be applied to all other 18 to 21-year-olds. The strategy also promised a review of the case for extending the exemption to shared accommodation rates within universal credit up to the age of 25, which is something that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar asked the Minister to pursue. It also promised a further review of the personal adviser role to ensure that care leavers can get support to help them manage their finances.

As I have said, the Government deserve credit for the approach that “Keep on caring” set out. I do not doubt the sincerity of Ministers on these issues, but there are doubts about implementation, especially against the backdrop of cash-strapped local authorities, worries over the roll-out of universal credit, and large funding cuts to other services. I am advised that care leavers not in education or training do not have access to a personal advisor until the age of 25, but I believe there is provision within the universal credit arrangements for work coaches to suspend work requirements during periods of particular hardship or difficulty, for example, if someone is homeless. Are such measures available to care leavers who find themselves in similar difficult, confused circumstances? If not, will the Minister consider adopting that approach?

Does the Minister have any information on how many care leavers are claiming universal credit and how many of them are currently in rent arrears? As I understand it, there is a DWP marker for care leavers, but only if they self-identify as a care leaver, and I am not clear that that arrangement will necessarily continue under universal credit. I should say that I do not think that what I am talking about is part of some grand conspiracy. I am merely asking whether it has been thought about; are things joined up? I say that because I recognise that “Keep on Caring” was a cross-departmental document, and I am kind of keen to know what work is going on to reduce the bureaucracy that care leavers experience as they try to negotiate local authorities and jobcentres in pursuit of such things as housing, housing benefit, training, job opportunities and other financial support. I recently visited a London jobcentre to look at the roll-out of universal credit, and I was impressed by the work coaches I met, but I was particularly interested to know whether there is any specific training for them on the issue of corporate parenting principles: how are we going to take that bit of “Keep on Caring” and translate it into the work that is done on the ground? It would be helpful to know that.

As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar was saying, on the issue of apprenticeships, £3.50 per hour may be fairly meagre, but I suppose it is conceived on the basis that an 18-year-old living at home with one or both parents could get by on that sort of money. My question is how it incentivises a young care leaver to take up an apprenticeship, and, if we are being honest, how on earth we expect them to manage on that kind of money. I know that the Minister will not be able to help me too much, because as far as I understand it the Government freely admit that they have no idea how many care leavers start or complete apprenticeships; nor do they know how many employers receive the additional apprenticeship payment for taking on a care leaver. The hon. Gentleman concluded his remarks by discussing how much use we could make of data. If only the Government collected some of it. I was surprised when I tabled parliamentary questions to discover that that information was not collected. I should have thought it was a good opportunity for the Government to measure the progress they were trying to make.

I certainly endorse the suggestion of an apprenticeship bursary—I presume that that is what the hon. Gentleman was suggesting—to mirror the higher education bursary; it would be a good idea. From the figures that I have seen it does not look in any sense cost-prohibitive. If it is part of the aim of “Keep on Caring”—something that the Department for Work and Pensions can play a major role in delivering—to make it possible to get a job and a stable life, it seems that we should strive to provide good-quality apprenticeships.

I note that the 2016 care leavers strategy states that the DWP is willing to explore what more can be done in the benefits system to support those wishing to return to education between the ages of 21 and 25. Is the Minister in a position to update us on any progress being made in that area? A lot might be learned from organisations such as Become, whose Propel project supports care leavers into further and higher education.

Finally, as the chair of the all-party group on looked after children and care leavers, I am in the privileged position of getting to hear the views and experiences of quite a lot of young people who have been part of the care system. I note that there is a promise, in the corporate parenting consultation by the Department for Education, to incorporate young peoples’ understanding of corporate parenting responsibilities into the work that it is doing on the local offer. It would be a good idea if the DWP could say it was going to adopt the same approach. Perhaps I may conclude by inviting the Minister to attend a future meeting of the group, where she could listen first-hand to what some young care leavers say. It would make a real difference to them.

I have had a request to accommodate a colleague, and will therefore call Patricia Gibson and then Will Quince.

Thank you, Mrs Gillan; I appreciate your calling me at this time. To clarify things for colleagues, I have made a request to leave a little early. I am thankful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, as I would have been sad to miss it. I thank the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) for securing it, as the young people in question need as much support as we can provide for them.

Young people leaving care are in the unique position of having the state as their corporate parent, and their educational, health and employment outcomes, sadly, are significantly poorer than those of their peers. The support to which they have access should be monitored and reviewed periodically; it should be shaped by the lived experience of care leavers, to ensure that it is effective and responsive to their particular needs.

The facts in relation to DWP support for care leavers make uncomfortable reading. A disproportionate number of care leavers have support removed, or live with punitive sanctions that are imposed on them by the welfare system. Care leavers have reported problems such as having financial support removed. That affects them acutely—perhaps more acutely than it affects those in many other sections of the population—because often they do not have family support, or even social support, when financial support is withdrawn.

According to recent information uncovered by the Children’s Society, in England between 2013 and 2015 nearly 4,000 sanctions were applied to care leavers, representing one sanction for every 13 of them. Indeed, care leavers in England are three times more likely to have had a benefit sanction than members of the general working-age population, where the rate is one sanction for every 39 people. As has already been pointed out, we can be pretty sure that the true number of care leavers facing a sanction is likely to be far higher than the figures suggest.

The DWP currently collects information on self-reported care leavers, which means that if a care leaver does not identify their status, they are not included in the figures. Such practice has encouraged the First Minister of Scotland to announce a root-and-branch review of the care system in Scotland, which will be driven by the experience of those in care, taking into account the views of 1,000 young people who have experienced care.

Outcomes for care leavers trail quite badly behind those for their peers, so doing more to help them to achieve positive destinations will have a significant impact on their future, despite the many and varied challenges that they may have faced in the past. The past cannot be changed, but we can change what their future may look like.

The care experienced employability programme is a one-year pilot project in Scotland to help 270 young care leavers between the ages of 16 and 29 to move into appropriate work, training or educational opportunities. It will be led by the third sector Young People’s Consortium, which consists of Barnardo’s Scotland, Action for Children and the Prince’s Trust. It will enhance and add value to existing youth employment provision for those young people who are often excluded from attaining their full potential through education and employment. By supporting more young care leavers to access employment, training and educational opportunities, and by working to close the attainment gap with their peers, we can send a clear signal that improvement in supporting that group of young people is necessary.

I hope that the Minister will set out some clear actions to tackle the fact that in England 40% of care leavers are not in education, training or employment, compared with 14% of their peers. That is a very poor comparison. In Scotland 78% of care leavers reach positive destinations within three months of leaving secondary education, but that is still not good enough, given that the figure for their peers is 93%.

I also hope that the Minister will indicate how the Government will address the fact that their own figures show that nearly one in five care leavers between the ages of 19 and 21 were either in accommodation that is considered unsuitable or in accommodation whose suitability was not known.

The reoffending rates of care leavers in England are now four times higher than those of all other young people. A recent study by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons found that 27% of young people in the young offenders institutions it surveyed had previously been in care, but the figure for female young offenders was 45%. This situation represents a huge swathe of wasted opportunities and potential, but it is hoped that the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which came into force in April, will help to turn around the tragedies that lie behind those figures.

I ask the Minister to look carefully at some of the Children’s Society recommendations to help our care leavers to reach their true potential. The introduction of an apprenticeship bursary, which has been mentioned and which would support care leavers during the first year of their apprenticeship, would provide better financial support and ensure better long-term employment prospects for care leavers. The early warning system for care leavers at risk of sanction must be explored further by the DWP, to see whether it reduces the level of sanctioning. DWP staff should also ensure that universal credit is tailored to meet the particular circumstances of care leavers. Communication between Jobcentre Plus staff and care leavers should be more flexible. For example, if it is appropriate and will simplify communication, texting should be used.

A whole raft of measures have been proposed. Some of them would not cost very much at all, but they could have a significant and lasting impact on the lives and long-term prospects of care leavers. I ask the Minister to ensure that all of those measures are fully and carefully considered and explored by the Government, so that we can ensure that fewer of our care leavers fall through the cracks when they are young and consequently never catch up and reach their full potential. If they do not reach their full potential, that is bad not only for care leavers but for our society.

The DWP should always seek to make its support for care leavers more creative and innovative, and more responsive to the lived experience of our young care leavers, who are too important to be left behind.

Thank you, Mrs Gillan, for calling me to speak; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on securing this important debate.

This debate is ultimately about improving life chances, and the stats on care leavers are concerning. They are five times more likely to have been excluded from school and five times more likely to be convicted of a criminal offence or subject to a final warning or reprimand, and, as my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, only about 6% of care leavers end up going to university. However, the most troubling statistic for me is that care leavers are at considerably higher risk of homelessness, which is an issue that I care passionately about and that is the perspective from which I want to contribute to the debate.

I serve as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, alongside the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle). In July we produced a report that examined homelessness among three specific cohorts: victims of domestic violence, prison leavers and care leavers. Everyone in this Chamber would agree that care leavers, given that often they will have grown up in challenging circumstances, should have all aspects of their wellbeing taken care of, and yet their housing needs are sometimes overlooked, as my hon. Friend mentioned earlier. When our APPG held its inquiry, we were told that a third of care leavers become homeless in the first two years after leaving care.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I apologise for not being here earlier; I was at a suicide prevention conference in Belfast. I very much share his concerns. In Norfolk, when children being cared for by foster carers reach the age of 18, in many cases the carers’ payments go down significantly. Does he agree that we need to avoid creating perverse incentives that might end up with children having to leave home and therefore being at risk of homelessness?

Broadly, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I am pleased that the Minister has heard that point. I hope she will take it on board.

We also found that 25% of homeless people have been in care at some point in their lives. The Government’s care leavers’ charter states:

“We promise…To find you a home”.

We have to make sure that the benefits system supports that aim.

The APPG’s report recommends that care leavers should be exempt from the shared accommodation rate up to the age of 25. To provide some background, in 2012 the Government extended the shared accommodation rate to everyone under 35. The rate is the maximum amount that an individual can claim in housing benefit for a private rented property, and it is based on the cost of a room in a shared property rather than the cost of self-contained accommodation.

The rationale for that change, which incidentally I agree with, was to

“ensure that Housing Benefit rules reflect the housing expectations of people of a similar age”,

meaning a similar cohort who are not on benefits. Yet it is often the case that care leavers have had a really challenging upbringing; they might have suffered traumas that other people of their age might never experience.

We already recognise that we should have different expectations of care leavers compared with those we have of their peers. We currently exempt care leavers from the shared accommodation rate up to the age of 22. Nevertheless, most young people have the option of staying at home if they are unable to move out, but that choice is not available to care leavers. Furthermore, in our evidence sessions we heard from care leavers who said that they would feel unsafe in a shared home.

Exempting care leavers from the shared accommodation rate up to the age of 25 would give them the space and security of their own home, which would make a tremendous difference to their transition into adulthood. That suggestion has actually been recognised by the Government. The 2016 “Keep on Caring” strategy stated that the Government would be

“reviewing the case to extend the exemption to the Shared Accommodation Rate…for care leavers to age 25”.

Obviously, such an extension would have a financial cost, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar pointed out earlier. Currently, we do not know the number of care leavers who are affected by the move to the shared accommodation rate. I found that out—or, rather, tried to find it out and failed—when I submitted a written parliamentary question. However, the Children’s Society estimates that the potential case load is about 3,300. With an average difference between the shared accommodation rate and the one-bedroom rate of about £1,600, the cost of exempting care leavers would be about £5.3 million. Given the potential difference that change could make to the lives of care leavers, that is not an unreasonable figure.

The state has a responsibility for care leavers, young adults who are often among the most vulnerable in our society. We need to ensure that their housing needs are looked after just as well as their other needs. By exempting them from the shared accommodation rate, we can give them safe and secure accommodation, and help them in that all-important transition to adulthood.

I know that the Minister is as passionate as I am about improving the life chances of care leavers and ensuring that we address and minimise the risk of homelessness. I hope that the Government will take that recommendation on board and look at it. I will send the Minister a copy of the APPG’s very good report and hope that the Government will also look at its other recommendations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Gillan.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on securing this debate. I am pleased that we are united in recognising that we can all do more to give care leavers the best possible start to their adult lives. If the hon. Gentleman never says anything important again in this House, he said something important today: “Young people in care are our children”. That is a very important statement. I find it quite difficult to find much to disagree with in his speech, although the Government’s success is perhaps not quite as rosy as he thinks. In fact, his speech offered real challenges to the Government and I will go on to offer some of my own.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green—

It says “Hall Green” here. I looked it up specially. I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct and I am wrong. He has spent a lot of his time championing looked-after children in this place, and I congratulate him on and thank him for that. He mentioned that these young people are full of potential. All young people are full of potential; we just need to give them the extra support they need to achieve that.

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) talked about services being developed with the knowledge of the young people involved. I agree with that, and it is something we tried to do when I was a councillor in Stockton. She went on to give shocking statistics on the number of former care leavers in the criminal justice system. That is all the more reason for us to do much better.

I thank the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for his work with the all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness. The study it did focused on care leavers. I have spent a lot of my life trying to get people to focus more on care leavers, and it is great that we see that happening across the piece. He talked about the importance of them having the security of their own home, and I agree with that.

This subject is close to my heart. Although it is not my particular brief, I am pleased to be here today. I was the lead member for children’s services in Stockton. I very much enjoyed the time I spent with care leavers, even if I was left wondering how as a corporate parent I could do more for the likes of them, bearing in mind that they would be cast out into the wider world much younger than my own two sons, John and Andrew, who opted to leave home in their mid-20s. John and Andrew returned home, and I am always pleased to see them, but that is not an option for care leavers.

The situation that stuck out the most for me in recent years was not a young person from Stockton—it was when I met a young woman during a visit by the then Education Select Committee to deepest Kent. She was a care leaver and told of being all but abandoned in her room at a hostel and having to regularly put up with men braying at her door asking her to party with them. She was frightened. She felt at a loss as to what to do next, and she lacked the necessary support to get on with her life. As MPs, we are not formally corporate parents, but that does not mean we cannot recognise that, even though care leavers at 18 may be legally adults, there are many ways in which they need much more support than an average 18-year-old, who most likely has the support of a family. We can play our part in giving them that. We can start with the opportunity to move into high-quality training and employment opportunities—something we want for our own children and grandchildren. The rates of young people not in education, employment or training are too high, with care leavers almost three times less likely to be in education, employment or training at the age of 19. That figure can no doubt be associated with an often unstable journey through the care system. Other Members have described that.

Progress has been made over the past 20 years, and that is worth reflecting on. The Labour Government took the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 through Parliament, which created the role of the personal adviser. While it is fair to say that the provision is not perfect—local authorities still struggle to maintain this level of service with shrinking budgets—in its day it was a real innovation. In 2009, the Labour Government introduced a requirement for all care leavers at university to receive a £2,000 bursary from their local authority.

It is not just Labour that has improved provision. In 2014, the coalition Government created the role of the virtual school head, whose job it is to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children in each area. I welcomed that. It was something we had been doing in Stockton. I welcomed the decision by the last Government to extend the provision of local authority support from 21 to 25 through the Children and Social Work Act 2017.

My own borough council, Stockton, has an excellent reputation for delivering for vulnerable people. It has removed the requirement for care leavers to pay council tax for a period of time while they are adjusting to their new independent life. Others have followed suit, and I wonder whether the Minister could encourage more to do likewise.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Children’s Society. Members have spoken about it and other organisations, such as Barnardo’s, and thanked them for their work with care leavers and the briefings and statistics they provide us all with. Statistics have been in evidence in the debate. We know that 40% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 are not in education, employment or training, compared with 14% of all other 19 to 21-year-olds. Outcomes under the Work programme for care leavers were significantly worse than for others. They were around half as likely to spend the minimum amount of time doing work experience within a 12-month period than peers aged 18 to 24 claiming jobseeker’s allowance.

The Department for Work and Pensions could do a lot more to improve the way the social security system works for care leavers. That cohort is five times more likely to face benefit sanctions than their peer group. The system of personal advisers introduced by Labour was a positive step, but the Children’s Society has highlighted that there is often a lack of co-ordination between personal advisers and work coaches. It has called for early warnings to be used when considering a sanction for a care leaver and for no sanction to be imposed without the personal adviser being notified. Will the Government look at that, and innovative schemes such as the one in Trafford, where there is a protocol between the DWP and the local council that allows for two-way communication between a care leaver’s personal adviser and work coach on their claim?

The Children’s Society also argues that sanctions should be at a lower rate, as for 16 and 17-year-olds, and be for no more than four weeks. What is the Minister’s view on that? Another idea is that the DWP could send reminders of jobcentre appointments to young people by text or WhatsApp. The NHS does that already because of the cost of missed appointments. Care leavers do not have parents to prompt them to attend, so that might be something they could benefit from in particular.

For many who have recently left care, and those about to do so, their first experience of applying for benefits will be with universal credit. If the Government do not do something to help, they could face the same severe negative impact that universal credit is having on people and their wellbeing. In August 2017, the Children’s Society report on care leavers and the benefits system highlighted that the DWP introduced a marker to identify care leavers on the labour market system used by DWP staff to ensure that they received more tailored support. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) spoke about that. There does not appear to be any such marker for universal credit, so will the Minister tell us what plans there are to change that?

Universal credit has also had implications for 18 to 21-year-old care leavers who are subject to the youth obligation, which effectively means increased conditionality compared with legacy benefits. They receive intensive work-focused support from the start of their claim. That may be positive, as it is not a good thing for young people to start their adult life with a prolonged period of unemployment. However, care leavers may face more challenges at that stage in their lives than the vast majority of their peers, so will the Government look at how they can pause that intensive search for work if the young person needs more time to attend to the other issues in their lives?

Under universal credit, the leaving care team cannot begin to set up the claim until the young person has turned 18, so payment will not be received for at least five to six weeks. This afternoon in the main Chamber we have been talking about universal credit, and Conservative Members themselves were saying that the period needed to be much shorter. The Minister could help to support local authority leaving care teams carrying out the administrative work to set up a claim four to six weeks before the young person leaves care, so that they will receive payment without delay. Will the DWP also provide more training for jobcentre staff to support care leavers, and work with local authorities to provide training for personal advisers so that they can understand universal credit better and make care leavers in their charge aware that alternative arrangements are possible?

In its briefing, the Children’s Society also highlighted that care leavers might lose up to £45 from housing benefit when they turn 22 as a result of the existing rules on the shared accommodation rate of local housing allowance. Other Members covered that in detail. Finding affordable housing is already a severe problem for young people, so it is important that the impediments are addressed. A Centrepoint survey found that 26% of care leavers have sofa-surfed and 14% have slept rough. Stability in housing has to be one of the most fundamental needs in ensuring stability in people’s lives.

The cross-departmental leaving care strategy stated that the Government would look into extending the age at which young people switch from the single bedroom rate of local housing allowance to the shared accommodation rate when living in private rented accommodation, which is a reality for many, given the shortage of social rented properties. Local housing allowance rates have been frozen until 2020, so a delay to the age at which care leavers begin to receive the shared accommodation rate—which can be £30 less per week—is particularly urgent. That move to a lower rate of support does not occur in a vacuum. It happens at a time when young people are only entitled to a lower rate national living wage, and at an age when their entitlement under universal credit is noticeably lower. That cut in monthly housing support eats into already stretched budgets, putting tenancies at risk and causing stress and anxiety.

Can the Minister share with us her assessment of the case for delaying the cut in the move to the shared accommodation rate from 22 to 25? I also ask her how the DWP could ensure that care leavers get the meaningful financial education they need. Many of us want it to be universal for all young people, but I would suggest that care leavers could do with a bit of extra help to ensure that they do not get into debt. If they do get into debt, they need even more robust support. I would be interested in her view on the breathing space being proposed in the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill for care leavers. That would halt creditors imposing interest charges and extra fees, which only worsen the debt.

I hope, and am sure, that the Government will listen to all the points made today, and act to show that we are all on the side of care leavers and want them to realise their full potential. I just hope that the Minister, like every individual who has spoken this afternoon, will become that real champion for care leavers.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) and congratulate him on securing this important debate on the support given by the Department for Work and Pensions to care leavers. I also thank hon. Members across the House for their valuable input to this important discussion. They have raised a number of really important issues on how the Government and, indeed, my Department support care leavers. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address all—or at least most of—the questions that have been raised, and to set out some of the actions that we are taking.

Let me start by reassuring my hon. Friend, and indeed all Members, that the Government are committed to improving the lives of, and outcomes for, care leavers. We recognise that care leavers are among the most vulnerable groups of young people. We of course understand that sadly many were taken into care because of neglect or abuse as children. We understand that as they leave care, they often have to make the transition to adulthood and independent living at a younger age than their peers, and usually without the support of a family network, as other Members have said.

The exceptionally difficult challenges that care leavers face mean that their educational, health and employment outcomes can be significantly worse than those of their peers. That is why we introduced the first ever cross-government care-leaver strategy in 2013, and updated that strategy in 2016. The strategy sets out the steps that the Government are taking—from housing to health services; from the justice system to educational institutions; and from financial support to work—to support care leavers to live happy, healthy and independent lives. The Department for Work and Pensions was proud to play a full and active role in supporting the Department for Education in developing that strategy. In the time available today, Members will forgive me if I focus as specifically as I can on the actions that the Department for Work and Pensions has taken, but it is important to remember, of course, that they are part of a cross-Government approach, which needs to be joined up as far as possible.

My Department has put in place a comprehensive package of support and protections for care leavers who need to claim benefits to make the transition from local authority care to independent living. That support ensures that they are offered the help that they need to take that important step, including the necessary assistance to find employment. That is where universal credit is an enormous benefit. The new work coach model means that each claimant stays with the same work coach throughout their claim, giving continuity of support for claimants. It also means that work coaches are able to identify very early a claim by someone who has complex needs—someone who may require individualised, tailored support. That, of course, includes care leavers.

A couple of hon. Friends and hon. Members mentioned that very important data collection exercise. My Department is working very hard to try to collect better data on claimants with complex needs, including care leavers. Information that someone is a care leaver is held on the claimant profile as part of the universal credit system. We are at the very early stages of the process, and we are still working through what data is being collected and what the data is telling us. We will, of course, keep a very close eye on that, and see if further markers are needed. That is why we have built into the universal credit system a pause-and-learn approach, which means that we can incorporate the benefits of our learning as we go. The Department for Education continues to publish valuable care leaver outcome data for 17 to 21-year-old care leavers. A data-share agreement is in place between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to explore the link between educational achievement and labour-market outcomes. They will also explore the quality of outcome information that the data-sharing provides for specific groups, such as care leavers.

In universal credit, work coaches can tailor interventions to the needs of the individual, and the support that they can offer is incredibly wide-ranging. It can address a variety of barriers to work, and might include improving job-search skills, referral to skills and other work-related training, and other types of support. The work-related training can include traineeships, apprenticeship places, and work experience. I will speak a little more about apprenticeship places later on.

Jobcentre Plus districts work closely with their local authority care leaving teams to put in place protocols and processes to support care leavers who need to claim benefits. There are some great examples across the country of effective working protocols between job centres and local leaving care teams. Barnet care leaver hub, for example, involves a Jobcentre Plus work coach, co-located in the local authority leaving care premises with the Drive Forward foundation, the care leaver charity that delivers intensive one-to-one work support. Jobcentre Plus partnership managers are working with their local authority leaving care teams to facilitate contracts and joint working protocols. We are working with the Department for Education to encourage local authority leaving care teams to contact Jobcentre Plus.

A key element of that is the facility to prepare a claim in advance of the claimant’s 18th birthday. With the support of their local authority leaving care adviser or a Jobcentre Plus work coach, a care leaver can begin preparing to make that benefit claim four weeks before their 18th birthday. That ensures that all the identification and evidence checks are completed before they leave care and prevents any unnecessary delays in benefit payments. It also provides the opportunity to arrange advances and to direct rent payments to landlords where appropriate.

The Minister is describing lots of good practice, but I wonder how we can get to the stage where a young person can be asked at their first point of contact with the DWP whether they are a care leaver, so that identification can follow them through the system?

That is something that we have discussed at length, and we are looking in detail to see whether that proposal could be incorporated. I would like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar and other hon. Members across the House that we have worked hard, and are continuing to work hard, to ensure that universal credit works and is beneficial, not only for the majority of straightforward cases but for care leavers and those with complex needs too. That is why we have introduced a series of measures aimed at safeguarding and supporting care leavers.

I would like to go through a few examples, which people may or may not be aware of. We have exempted care leavers from waiting days in universal credit. Those who are under the age of 22 do not serve the seven waiting days and are entitled to universal credit from the very first day that they make their claim.

We have introduced the second chance learning initiative to enable care leavers up to the age of 22 to catch up on the education they may have missed out on when they were younger. That means income support or universal credit are available to care leavers who take up full-time study in non-advanced education. We have exempted care leavers from the removal of automatic housing support for 18 to 21-year-olds in universal credit.

The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) talked about exempting care leavers from council tax. The Government have given councils the flexibility to support vulnerable groups, including care leavers, to manage their council tax bills. The Department for Communities and Local Government wrote to all councils in 2016 to remind them of the powers they have under the Local Government Finance Act 1992 to support vulnerable groups. A number of councils have already taken the decision to support care leavers through an exemption or discount in their council tax bills, as I think he said his local council was doing.

I do not get that many opportunities to praise Birmingham City Council, but it is one of the authorities that apply the exemption. Will the Minister consider writing to her colleagues at DCLG to ask them to publish a full list of the councils that exempt care leavers from council tax? Quite rightly, that is not something the Government can do, but it is a practice that almost all councils should follow unless there is a very good reason why they are not doing it.

The hon. Gentleman represents Birmingham beautifully—Selly Oak and also other parts of Birmingham, as we have learned today. He makes a good point.

He is clearly very talented. We would be very happy to do that, and I pay tribute to him for his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for looked after children and care leavers. I would like very much to accept his offer to come and join that APPG for at least one of its meetings.

The Minister talked about councils being written to, to remind them of their flexibility and how they can implement the council tax exemption. Is she willing to give some money from central Government to help local authorities absorb the exemption that they are willing to give? That has happened in Scotland, where between 6,000 and 7,000 care leavers will be exempted from council tax, up to the age of 26. Will any money from central Government be given to help local authorities, including those in Scotland and other parts of the UK, to fund that?

The hon. Lady tempts me to make spending commitments on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government. While I would, of course, be absolutely delighted to do so, it is a little bit beyond my job description. I am sure the Department will read with great interest her comments in Hansard.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; she is being very generous. The former Minister Edward Timpson introduced a very good reform to enable payments to continue to children in foster care beyond their 18th birthday, which was widely welcomed. However, if the rate paid for the most complex children being looked after by very experienced foster carers goes down at their 18th birthday, it creates an incentive for the foster carer to encourage them to leave, which is the very last thing we should be doing. Does she agree that we should seek to find ways of ensuring we provide incentives for them to stay at home, as happens in every other family?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to my former colleague, Edward Timpson, who was a most fantastic Minister in the Department for Education and a great advocate for care leavers. We are supporting the Staying Put arrangements that the right hon. Gentleman alluded to, which mean that care leavers who remain with their ex-foster carer can claim means-tested benefit from their 18th birthday up to the age of 21, but I will look at everything he has said.

In addition, we have exempted care leavers from the shared accommodation rate until they are 22. The shared accommodation rate is normally paid to single people aged under 35. That means that care leavers can claim the higher local housing allowance one-bedroom rate of housing benefit until their 22nd birthday.

I have listened to the arguments made by hon. Members about the issue today. I particularly welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince); he gave an eloquent description. I also thank him for the significant contribution he has made as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on homelessness, where he does a sterling and very valuable job.

We have always said that this is something we would like to achieve, but at the moment we do not have plans to extend the exemption for care leavers from the shared accommodation rate to age 25. I assure my hon. Friend and other Members who have raised the issue today that we will continue to keep it under review and will consider evidence from stakeholders on the impact that the shared accommodation rate has on care leavers.

We have given care leavers priority access to personal budgeting support in universal credit. That includes benefit advances, rent paid direct to landlords, payments more frequent than monthly and budgeting advice, including debt advice, which was raised by the hon. Member for Stockton North.

We have a fantastic “See Potential” campaign—I say fantastic as it falls under my ministerial portfolio. It encourages employers to recognise the benefits of recruiting people from all kinds of backgrounds, including care leavers. I was so pleased to celebrate the inspiring workplace and training achievements of young people, including care leavers and others, at the Land Securities Community Employment Awards recently—we saw the incredible growth, development and achievement of some very inspiring young people.

I am pleased that the Government are leading by example by setting up a cross-Government scheme to provide employment to care leavers. My Department’s own care leaver team includes a quite brilliant care leaver intern, who I have had the pleasure of meeting, and who is providing us with very valuable insights into issues that care leavers face and helping us improve our services for care leavers. She is very cool as well—she is in the room, which is why I am saying that!

In developing our support for care leavers, we have worked closely with stakeholders. I am particularly grateful for the input from the Children’s Society, representatives of which I met shortly after being appointed to the Department. When I met with them, I was made aware of the fact that in some cases care leavers have difficulty taking up apprenticeships and a number of hon. Members have raised that today. We know that without the support of a family, they struggle economically. Having had that meeting, I hotfooted it straight over to the Department for Education and met the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills to discuss the idea of an apprenticeship bursary, which would ensure that apprenticeships were an affordable option for care leavers, who do not have the family support that most apprentices can rely on.

The Department for Education are reviewing how the new apprenticeship funding approach is supporting all those who are disadvantaged, including care leavers, with the intention of improving how the system supports those individuals from 18 to 19, so that apprenticeships offer a more attractive opportunity to them and a greater chance of success. It has agreed to explore the proposal for an apprenticeship bursary.

The debate has raised some really important issues, and I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for the points they have made, which will continue to inform our work to support care leavers, alongside our discussions with our valuable stakeholders.

Just before the Minister sits down, there were two further points raised during the debate—first, the imposition of sanctions at a lower rate and, secondly, the opportunity to develop a way in which local authorities can work with care leavers applying for universal credit ahead of reaching their 18th birthday.

The hon. Gentleman is right to remind me about the sanctions—I pulled that little bit of paper out, but had forgotten to pick it up—but I think that I covered applications in advance of the 18th birthday earlier in my speech.

With regard to sanctions, I would like to stress that the Department for Work and Pensions recognises the unique set of circumstances faced by care leavers. Therefore, we allow care leavers to apply for hardship payments of 60% of their normal benefit payment from day one of the sanctions. Sanctions are used in a very small minority of cases, when people fail to meet each of the requirements that they agreed in their claimant commitment without good reason. That said, conditionality and sanctions are part of a fair and effective system that supports and encourages claimants to move into work, towards work or to improve their earnings. Work coaches are very well trained to deal with vulnerable claimants, and have the flexibility to tailor the requirements according to each individual’s circumstances, and that includes the needs of care leavers.

We do not impose sanctions lightly. Claimants are given every opportunity to explain why they failed to meet their agreed conditionality requirements before a decision is made. A well-established system of hardship payments is available as a safeguard if a claimant demonstrates that they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs, including accommodation, heating, food and hygiene, as a result of their sanction. UC claimants are able to apply for a hardship payment from the first accounting period in which the sanction reduction is applied.

I have spoken to care leavers, and we do not do them any favours by insulating them from the challenges of the day-to-day reality and responsibilities that their peers face. The care leavers I have spoken to tell me that they do not want to be wrapped in cotton wool. They want a little extra support and help, but they do not want to be entirely insulated from the challenges and responsibilities that their peers face.

I am pleased to have been able to put on the record our commitment to supporting care leavers and the action we are taking, but I hope I have made it clear that we are not complacent. I am passionate about improving the lives of care leavers. We are determined to ensure that the welfare system in general and universal credit in particular help care leavers make a successful transition to independent living and working life, and that we support them as best as we can.

I thank the Minister for her very interesting statement, and I thank all hon. Members who took the time to participate in this important debate. It is a real pleasure to speak in a debate in which there is a lot of cross-party agreement both about the challenges that young people face and about some of the solutions. I welcome that.

To our friends in the Public Gallery who are listening, I want to say that there are a lot of other Members who wanted to be part of this debate, but a debate in the main Chamber on welfare ran over. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for coming. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham in general—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe)—and the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for joining in.

I am particularly thankful to the hon. Member for Stockton North for acknowledging that Governments of all stripes have helped to improve the system as the years have gone by. He did not mention—neither did I—the important reform that Edward Timpson introduced, Staying Put, but we were put right by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I am also grateful to the Minister for detailing some more of the exemptions, opportunities and reforms that DWP has introduced to improve outcomes for care leavers.

There is, of course, more to do. I was very interested to hear the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) about how we can help to prevent homelessness. I urge the Minister to look at the shared accommodation rate. I was pleased that she said that it is now possible for young people to set up their claim before they leave the care system. I hope that support is being given to work coaches and personal advisers to ensure that young people are aware of that opportunity and that they can get through it.

We have also had an interesting debate about how we help people in jobcentres to identify young people’s needs early on. One of the ways of doing that may be to ensure better engagement by personal advisers and to set up meetings between the people who run the jobcentres and those who run the local children’s services. As a number of Members said, that is being done well in Trafford.

I very much like the idea suggested by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that councils should publish whether they are offering council tax exemptions for care leavers. That would be a good way of nudging some councils into doing the right thing, and it would also give councils that have already made the change the credit they deserve.

Lastly, I am delighted to hear that the DFE and the DWP are looking together at the issue of apprenticeships, with which we started the debate. I know not only that they are a great route into employment but, as the hon. Member for Stockton North said, that there is enormous potential in our care leavers. The care leavers I meet are fizzing with ideas. I see in them future businesspeople, entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers and the like, but we must ensure that they fulfil that potential. I hope that this debate has brought to the fore a number of the ways in which DWP can play its part in ensuring that those young people get the best out of life.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Department for Work and Pensions’ support for care leavers.

Sitting adjourned.