Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)|
21 APRIL 2008
Q140 Paul Holmes: Some of the evidence
that we took earlier from people who had been in care, along with
other reports, shows that one thing that children in care would
very much like is more choice about the placement they go intoa
more gradual introduction and more chance to feel their way in
and to back out before they are fully committed. How do we achieve
that? Why do we not do that? What are the barriers?
Robert Tapsfield: The main barrier
is the shortage of foster carers. That is not the only barrier,
but it would be impossible to improve practice with the current
supply. One of the standards in the report was about matching,
and the fostering services that generally did pretty well on inspections
did not do very well on that. You are right: we know from what
children and young people in care have said that they do not often
get any choice, and we also know that from what foster carers
say. There is insufficient choice, and insufficient effort, before
a placement is made, to engage foster carers and young people
in the decision about whether the placement is right. Such involvement
would help to make the right placement more often. It would not
make things perfect, but it would help in the process. There is
absolutely no doubt that we should be doing much more, but there
is a shortage of foster carers. That increases the pressure on
local authorities to find a placement. They may be reluctant to
go to the independent sector, so look to squeeze placements into
their own resources to avoid doing so. However, the independent
sector may have a better match than is in their own resources.
The failure is in securing sufficient foster carers but also in
commissioning. One of the issues at the moment is that most placements
in the independent sector are spot-purchased. By that I mean that
a local authority finds that it needs a placementit has
done everything that it can to place the child within its own
resources but cannotso at the end of the process it sends
information around to the independent sector and then gets offers
of placement from which it chooses. That gets one-off placements
from the independent sector, but it has not necessarily worked
in a more proactive way to secure in advance the placements that
are needed from the independent sector. The failure better to
commission the placements that people want and the shortage of
foster carers, particularly among local authorities, are the biggest
factors leading to the matching process not being anything like
Kevin Williams: A couple of issues
come out. First, I agree with Robert, particularly around commissioning.
We often find that young people are placed inappropriately through
in-house provision within the local authority, which leads to
breakdown and further disruption. Actually, that adds to the difficulty
of the child in placement, so that a cycle develops. The independent
sector looks after children who are likely to have had a greater
number of breakdowns than perhaps they need to have had on those
issues. Also, I think that commissioning is improving. Where there
are good commissioning relationships with the independent sector
through preferred provider relationships, there is a greater understanding
about the particular local authority's needs in commissioning
placements from the independent sector. Working much more in partnership
leads to improvement of foster carers and placements with them.
I was surprised by the figure in our study that indicates that
58% of our carers are new to caring. I think that there is an
assumption in the independent sector that we are recycling local
authority foster carers, whereas the evidence is that we are bringing
new people into the system, and that because of the way that we
support, train and remunerate them, we are bringing in people
who have qualifications in child care from elsewhere. They may
be teachers, youth workers, residential social workersa
range of people are now moving into foster care and seeing it
as a profession. At any one point, there is a vacancy rate of
between 20% and 25% in the independent sector. Therefore, if commissioning
were improved, there would be a greater ability to match children.
However, even with that vacancy rate, we still have a shortage
of foster carers. We need to promote foster care and the work
that it does, and see it much more as a professional role.
Q141 Chairman: Let us get this straight.
That is the vacancy rate in the independent sector.
Kevin Williams: Yes. We formed
Fostering through Social Enterprise, which is a group of all of
the medium and small not-for-profit sector organisations. On our
benchmarking, at any one point, the vacancy rate was between 20%
and 25%. Some of that is because a foster carer might be approved
for two or three children, but because they have a difficult placement,
two places are blocked. Another reason is that local authorities
might be unwilling to commission from the independent sector because
they believe that it is more expensive.
Q142 Chairman: You are talking about
the independent and third sector, but what about the independent
Kevin Williams: I do not have
the figures for the commercial sector, but my guesstimate is that
there are similar vacancies.
Professor Ian Sinclair: You need
to distinguish choice at the point at which it is made. Often,
the initial placement needs to be made quickly. However, because
of the number of factors on which social workers ideally like
to matchethnicity, age, the skills and location of the
foster carer, how many children will go in, and so onit
is mathematically extraordinarily difficult to have enough vacancies
to cope with the variety. Also, you have to cope with how long
a child is going to be placed for. To some extent, social workers
tend to accept a less-than-perfect match for the first placementthat
is the force majeure. After that, they tend to hang around and
wait until they get something that fits, which consequently puts
pressure on the first placement. Having been told that the child
will only be with them for three or six months, for example, a
foster carer still has them after a year because the social worker
is waiting to find the right placement. Like Robert, I think that
more foster carers are needed, and that the second placement needs
to be really carefully matched. It is probably impossible to ensure
that you can do that at the beginning, because of the variety.
You must probably accept first that a certain level of vacancies
will be necessary, and you must pay foster carers with vacancies
if you are to have choice, but you must also have some flexibility
initially, so that you have highly professional foster carers
who are able to take a wide variety of children for a length of
time. Otherwise, you will need an infinite quantity of vacancies
and an awful lot of foster carers hanging around with nothing
to do. That way, costs will go up and you will not be able to
pay them more, which you would want to do. There is a major logistical
problem that must be tackled.
Q143 Paul Holmes: Both Robert and
Kevin talked about a reluctance on the part of some local authorities
to use the voluntary or commercial sectors. Why is that? Is the
barrier inertia, loyaltyauthorities might say, "We've
recruited our foster carers and we must use them"cost
Chairman: I shall give you a brief time
to answer that because we are lagging behind my timetable.
Robert Tapsfield: It is a variety
of factors. If you have your own fostering services, you must
make use of them. It is very inefficient to do otherwise, so you
are bound to use your own services first. Actually, the cost assumptions
mean that local authorities believe that the independent sector
is far more expensive than their own services. They may or may
not be slightly more expensive, but the disparity is nothing like
authorities believe because of how costs are accounted. However,
from the point of view of the manager on the ground, it is much
more expensive, so they try to avoid it. There is also an ideological
reluctance. However, the number of children in foster care in
the past few years has risen progressively, by small numbers,
year on year. Until a year ago, the number of children whom local
authorities placed with their own foster carers had fallen year
on year on year. Last year, it showed a very slight rise, but
it was smaller than the increase of the number of children placed
in foster care. That increase has been achieved because of the
independent sector, which are here whether local authorities like
it or not. That is part of the world that we now live in. The
challenge is for local authorities to adopt commissioning strategies
that ensure that children receive the foster care that they need,
and that local authorities do not end up having to make use of
the foster carers that happen to be available on the day that
they are needed.
Kevin Williams: Through that commissioning,
notions of best value are used, because spot purchase and using
the independent sector as a last resort is probably more expensive.
One of the new targets, which we generally supportthe 20-mile
radiuscan also mitigate against finding the right placement,
particularly for younger children, when a permanent option is
looked for and contact with the family may be minimal. There may
be a disincentive for local authorities to look externally because
of the 20-mile radius.
Chairman: I am sorry that I am always
the spoilsport in moving us on, but we must cover as many matters
as possible. We shall now consider professionalisation of foster
care support and payments to carers. Dawn will lead us.
Q144 Ms Butler: I want to talk about
payments for a moment. I understand regional variations in terms
of payments for foster carersthe London weighting element
and so onbut different payments seem to be administered
by local authorities without rhyme or reason. Can you explain
that to us?
Robert Tapsfield: All foster carers
receive an allowance that is designed to cover the cost to them
of caring. We recommend an allowance and the DCSF has now set
a national minimum allowance in guidance. There is reasonable
consistency in the allowances that are paid, although in our view
they are still not high enough, but there is enormous variation
in payments, and there is no national guidance on those payments,
so local authorities are entirely free to develop payment systems
that meet their own needs or are affordable within their own budgets.
That has led to the growth of different payment systems in different
authorities. The other key matter is that we are in a process
of change and, 15 or 20 years ago, few foster carers would have
received a payment on top of their allowance. However, demography,
changing requirements on foster carers and women in the marketplace
have all led to changes, which mean that it is simply not possible
now to recruit foster carers and it is not possible for people
to be foster carers unless we pay them. They would not do it for
the money, but they would not be able to do it unless they received
some remuneration. That shift has placed a big demand on local
authorities to find systems and ways of paying foster carers within
limited budgets, and has led to a plethora of different arrangements.
Q145 Ms Butler: In 2006, the Government
set guidance on allowances. Do you think that they need to set
guidance on payments?
Robert Tapsfield: I would like
the Government to issue guidance on payments. That would be a
good thing. It would also be a good thing if there were some standardisation.
Having said that, my understanding is that it goes against many
Government policies to start instructing local authorities about
what they should pay foster carers. There are some real complications,
because foster care is so extraordinarily varied that you need
a complex system to take account of all the different types of
foster care. Certainly, a more standardised approach to payments
would be helpful, because that would help people who are considering
becoming foster carers to make sense of what is on offer and what
they are being told. The picture today is confusing.
Q146 Ms Butler: For clarity, what
factors should be considered when determining payments?
Robert Tapsfield: We are also
in a process of change, and many local authorities offer a payment-for-skills
model, which brings foster carers in either with no pay or with
low levels of pay, and as they are trained and gain NVQ qualifications
and so on, their level of pay increases. The independent sector
tends to offer a different model, which is more about paying for
the job that it recruits people to do. It tends to be a simpler
payment system. More local authorities are moving towards a payment
system in which foster carers are effectively paid for the particular
fostering task that they are doing. Therefore, they may have a
range of models, depending on what they expect from their foster
carers. If they expect one of the foster carers to be at home,
for example, and to attend a lot of meetings and they expect to
place a range of children with them, they will be paying those
carers differently from those who are on a different contractfor
want of a better wordwith the local authority. We are moving
towards a system in which foster carers are being paid for what
they are being asked to do. We have moved away from paying for
the difficulty of the child that you place with them. In that
situation, if you do well and the child's difficulty reduces,
you can suddenly find yourself being paid less money because the
task is much easier. You are paid for the job that you are being
asked to do at the moment you are asked to do it. We are still
in a system in which only 60% of foster carers receive any fee
at all, and fee levels are often quite low. Only 23% of foster
carers receive a fee of £200 or more a week, which is not
Q147 Chairman: What percentage are
Robert Tapsfield: In our survey
in 2006, we found that 61% of foster carers were receiving a fee
on top of their allowance. While that is worryingly low, that
was up from 49% in 2004. That indicates that the percentage of
foster carers who are being paid a fee is changing quite rapidly.
If you ask local authorities in England today whether they are
paying a fee to their foster carers, almost all will tell you
that, with the exception of family and friends carers, they are
generally paying fees to all the foster carers that they are recruiting
with one or two exceptions.
Q148 Ms Butler: I have one last question
because we are running out of time. How can we ensure compliance
with any guidelines that we write?
Robert Tapsfield: Simply, the
2004 Act gave the Government the power to introduce guidance for
payments and allowances. By asking the Government to enact that,
it will be possible to get them to issue statutory guidance. That
would be a way of addressing the issue of foster carers who have
allegations made against them. Currently, we ask a lot of foster
carers. Unlike teachers or social workers, if they have an allegation
made against them and are suspended from working as a foster carer
until the allegation is resolved, they will often receive no fee
and no allowance. The children are removed, as are all their fees
and allowances. In effect, we are asking foster carers to put
their lives, and the lives of their families, on the line for
these children and when an allegation happens, we are often leaving
them completely unsupported until the allegation is resolved.
That is in marked contrast to how we generally treat teachers,
social workers or residential workers who are suspended on full
pay until the issue is resolved. If the Government were to introduce
guidance on payments, they could specify that the payment of fees
and allowances should continue for foster carers who are effectively
suspended while an allegation is investigated. That would improve
how people feel about becoming foster carers and should improve
the way that we look after them when they fall victim to an allegation.
Kevin Williams: I have a couple
of points to add quickly. While it is right to pay foster carers
both the allowance and the fees, we make one of the highest payments
to foster carers. That really helps our recruitment and our attempts
to diversify the type of people that we want to become foster
carers. We want to attract people from current paid employment
to become foster carers. We also have a high expectation that
those foster carers are available to the child all of the time.
Therefore, because of the needs of particular children, they cannot
work as well as being foster carers. It is also important to stress
that that is not the key issue for foster carers. Foster carers
want to be paid and have a payment that is suitable for them,
but before that, they want a level of support, and ongoing training.
They want to feel valued and respected, that they are treated
well and that when they make requests they are acted upon. Payment
falls within that at a later stage. So people do not come into
foster care for the payments, but payments are essential if we
are going to recruit people to foster care. Foster carers want
a high level of support alongside those payments. The Government
have introduced a positive tax benefit in relation to foster care.
The tax benefit was set three years ago and it is probably time
for a review of the amount of allowance, but it is a good system
in terms of trying to ensure that payments that are made to foster
carers are not lost through tax.
Q149 Mrs Hodgson: What level of support
is given to private fostering arrangements and kinship fostering?
Chairman: We are doing kinship at the
Mrs Hodgson: Well, what about private
Robert Tapsfield: Private fostering
is very different. The expectations on local authorities are different
for that. They are supposed to provide services for private foster
carers but they are at nothing like the level that they are supposed
to be for foster carers who are looking after children in the
care of the state. So it is a very different arrangement.
Q150 Chairman: What is private fostering
then? What are the essential ingredients of a private fostering
Robert Tapsfield: An unrelated
child who is living with a family for six weeks or more is technically
a private fostering arrangement. The concern is that there are
numbers of young children in private foster care arrangements.
Those private foster carers are supposed to notify the local authority
and are then supposed to be registered as private foster carers
and have Criminal Records Bureau checks and one or two other checks
done on them. The concern is that not enough is done to ensure
that we find, register and then provide support for private foster
carers: too often, it is an undercover service and so there is
potential for abuse and ill treatment.
Q151 Mrs Hodgson: Are there large
numbers of these arrangements?
Robert Tapsfield: Part of the
problem is that the numbers, by definition, are unknown. Certainly
the numbers that are known are only a small proportion of the
number of children who are living with private foster carers.
Q152 Chairman: Do you all agree that
you want a registration scheme for private fosterers?
Kevin Williams: Yes.
Robert Tapsfield: Yes.
Chairman: Ian, you did not nod.
Professor Ian Sinclair: I do not
know anything about private fostering.
Q153 Chairman: Does it sound like
a good idea to have a registration scheme for private fosterers?
Professor Ian Sinclair: Yes, because
two people whom I respect have just said so.
Q154 Ms Butler: Should foster carers
be registered with the General Social Care Council?
Robert Tapsfield: Yes. Registration
with the General Social Care Council has been seen by the Government
as a key element in the strategy to both drive up standards and
reassure the public about the social care work force. Foster carers
provide an incredibly personal service to some of the most vulnerable
children and fit the criteria of people to be registered. Registration
would reinforce and emphasise the status of foster care and the
high regard in which we hold it and the general public should
hold it too. It would set continuing professional development
expectations and requirements. It would incorporate a code of
practice for foster carers. It would also assist in the transfer
of foster carers between one agency and another. If you were an
approved foster carer with one local authority and moved, you
would probably be surprised to know that you had to go back to
the beginning and be completely re-approved by the new authority.
You are not allowed to transfer your approval with you. A national
registration scheme would deal with that.
Chairman: I knew that because I heard
it on "Woman's Hour" on Saturday.
Robert Tapsfield: Good.
Kevin Williams: I agree with everything
that Robert has said. If you are to have registration you need
to have pre-qualifying accreditation. Most foster carers do a
pre-qualifying training, but that is not accredited anywhere to
ensure that the standards of that training are consistent across
all agencies. We think that there should be accreditation on that
Q155 Chairman: I want to go on to
skills and training. Sharon is going to take us through thatoh,
it will be Paul. I am sorry, but members of the Committee are
in short supply today because they are on other Committees. Please
forgive us for being a small bandit does not mean that
we undervalue you, it is that there are other Committees today
involving our members. As you were talking in that last section,
something that came through very clearly in the literature was
about what kind of people are attracted to do this. Do people
like you, Ian, evaluate that? What sort of people do it? Do they
do it because they are religious and think it their Christian
duty, or that of whatever religion they belong to? There must
be a profile of people who become carers.
Professor Ian Sinclair: There
is in the sense that if we compare them with ordinary families
in the United Kingdom, the women would be less likely to be under
the age of 30they tend to be between 30 and 50, so there
is a demographic profile to that. Research asking people why they
do it typically says that it is because they want to help. That
arises from a variety of reasons: it can be religious or because
someone has been in care themselves and wants to repair it. Carers
are more likely to come from religious backgrounds. It is certainly
said that they are less likely to come from ethnic minority backgrounds,
but if you set out your stall and determinedly go to recruit ethnic
minority carers, you can do it. People vary, and in my viewthis
is very soft evidencethere are varying immediate motivations.
Some people like a challenge; they like to look at a teenager
and think, "I've got a right one here", and that is
what they want, whereas other people want a sort of waif and stray
to whom their heart can go out. Those people tend to be good with
different kinds of people. I have not given you any detail about
the demographic profile because I cannot remember it, but a lot
is known and you can get that information. We know a certain amount
about what people say if you ask them about recruiting, and they
also differ among themselves in some of their more subtle motivations.
Kevin Williams: In our study,
75% of the respondents said that their motivation to foster had
a faith base. That is significantly higher and we are a non-denominational
organisation, so we were quite surprised by that finding. Other
demographics range completely. Our youngest foster carers in this
study were 32, although we have some who are much younger than
that, and they go up to the age of 64. Foster carers come in different
ethnicities, we have same-sex carers, single carers, male and
female carers who have previously looked after their own children
who then moved on from home into independence. Some people have
chosen to foster rather than to have children, so it is a very
mixed group of people.
Robert Tapsfield: One of the key
characteristics is that they are families who are prepared to
devote their lives, or a big part of their lives, around the needs
of the foster child or children. That is an important characteristic.
The only other thing to emphasise has been said already and is
that the sort of characteristics and motivations that lead people
to want to foster a troubled 15 or 16-year-old, will be very different
from those of a family that wants to foster babies or that wants
to take a disabled child. Families that want to take one or two
very long-term children will be different from families that will
take numbers of children one after another. We are talking about
a wide group but a big study in Scotland showed that a high proportion
of people had previously had some work in one of the caring professionsit
might have been with adults, not necessarily with children, but
with some previous involvement.
Q156 Paul Holmes: Is there any obvious
difference in class or educational background across the range
of foster carers?
Professor Ian Sinclair: Yes. Certainly
in our study one of the things was that there is an extreme difference
between different local authorities. In the posher parts of Derbyshireeven
within the same local authorityyou will recruit a very
different sort of foster carer than you do in mining villages
in other bits of Derbyshire, say. In our study, I think it was
40% estimated by the social workers not to have GCSE or equivalent,
which is quite low. The numbers said to be managerial and above
were quite low. That was not a good measure, but it seemed to
me to be in keeping with what the other research says. One thing
that I should have said earlier was that a common theme in this
sort of research, way back into the 1950s, is that they tend to
be a bit more traditional. Although you do get same-sex couples
and so on, you are more likely to get couples who are together
and so on, rather than others. They have different ideas about
how a child fits into their family. Some of them would say, "Well,
I will foster up until my children go to school", or the
children have fled the nest and that is why they will foster.
That is another sort of arrangement.
Q157 Paul Holmes: Does the educational
background have implications for the sort of skills and training
that you should be providing? Is there a danger that you try to
turn foster carers into middle-class clones? Would that deter
people from becoming foster carers?
Robert Tapsfield: Knowing as many
foster carers as I do, I think it unlikely that you would turn
them into middle-class clones. But there is substantial evidence
that, with the training that many foster carers do, you need to
deliver it in different ways that acknowledge the fact that you
have very different sorts of people and educational backgrounds
who are becoming foster carers. How you deliver that training
needs to vary and to take account of that. So, where you are recruiting
foster carers whose own educational background is very poorthey
may make very good foster carersthen that determines the
level of support that you may need to put in to help them get
the qualifications and training that they need. They certainly
need that training to be foster carers and good foster carers,
but delivering that training is a complex business. We have for
the first time standard training, support and development induction
standards for foster carers, who, from 1 April, are required to
reach a common set of standards within their first year. That
will be the first time that that has happened. But one of the
challenges for that programme is to ensure that it is delivered
in ways that respect and take account of the different background
of foster carers.
Kevin Williams: And it is about
how agencies can support those foster carers through practical
measures and support. For example, there is an expectation that
a foster carer keeps a diary, but it does not necessarily have
to be a written diaryyou can use voice and other ways to
keep a diary. It is about supporting foster carers to be innovative
and creative in making sure that they meet the standards.
Q158 Paul Holmes: Like the Chairman,
I also listen to Woman's Hour. Once or twice a year, different
bits of the media will go on a crusade about how we are short
of foster carers, but that all these middle-class professionals
are just deterring people who want to do the job, through the
demands they make or the training and their requirements. Is there
any truth at all in that?
Robert Tapsfield: I do not think
that there is. Yes, being assessed as a foster carer is tough,
and I am certain that we could be doing it better than we are.
I would be very happy to look at how we assess. But for all of
us, if any of our children were going to live with someone we
did not knowhad never metand the local authority
or the independent fostering service was saying that they were
an approved foster carer, then we would want to know that they
had been very properly and thoroughly assessed, and that people
were absolutely satisfied that they were going to care for our
child properly and well. We would probably have not been invited
to make a choice about that ourselves. I think we absolutely have
to put people through a very thorough fostering assessment. I
do not think that there is evidence that people are being put
off by having to go through an assessment. They may be put off
by other things, but I do not think that that is one. Certainly,
there are foster carers who are attracted by the training and
support that they are offered as foster carers. For them, that
is a key part of what they are becoming a part of.
Kevin Williams: We have been part
of a planning study that has helped our foster carers to improve
their own literature and BAAF's. That has had a huge knock-on
effect on their ability to support children in placements. It
is for people who have come back to education after a long period
without it. We recruit carers from a range of different backgrounds,
classes and economic situations. It is about them finding the
level of support that each individual needs. It may be more about
educational support for some carers than for others.
Q159 Paul Holmes: Finally, what are
the key bits of training that should be providedinterpersonal
skills, the law, awareness of child abuse or the literacy to support
children at school? Does it differ depending on what group we
are talking about?
Robert Tapsfield: There are some
basic core skills that are common to all foster carers, but then
it varies very much according to the nature of the fostering task.
People fostering adolescents will almost inevitably need training
in managing difficult behaviour, in its challenges and in understanding
some of the issues that adolescents bring to placements, but that
will not be needed by all foster carers, some of whom are doing
a very different task. The training, after the initial common
core, must then be specific to the type of fostering undertaken.
Kevin Williams: It is training
in its widest sensetraining and personal development. There
are lots of ways to get knowledge that is not just training.