Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

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 into—a 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 placement—it has done everything that it can to place the child within its own resources but cannot—so 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 good enough.

  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 workers—a 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 commercial sector?

  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 match—ethnicity, age, the skills and location of the foster carer, how many children will go in, and so on—it 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 placement—that 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, loyalty—authorities might say, "We've recruited our foster carers and we must use them"—cost or ideology?

  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 support—the 20-mile radius—can 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 carers—the London weighting element and so on—but 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 contract—for want of a better word—with 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 very much.

  Q147  Chairman: What percentage are you seeking?

  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 end.

  Mrs Hodgson: Well, what about private fostering?

  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 arrangement?

  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 level.

  Q155  Chairman: I want to go on to skills and training. Sharon is going to take us through that—oh, 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 band—it 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 30—they 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 view—this is very soft evidence—there 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 professions—it 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 Derbyshire—even within the same local authority—you 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 poor—they may make very good foster carers—then 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 diary—you 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 know—had never met—and 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 provided—interpersonal 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 sense—training and personal development. There are lots of ways to get knowledge that is not just training.

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