20 September 2016
FOSTER CARE pay was touched on only briefly last week, despite being central to the discussion on recruiting good quality foster carers (TWiF 13 September). It deserves a fuller examination and thanks to the BBC reporting that foster carers yesterday voted to form the first ever foster carers’ union today seems a good day to do this.
LACK OF employment rights was the overriding motivation for the new union so let’s go through the facts for those that don’t know them: foster carers do get paid but they are not employed as such. The fees they are paid vary according to the fostering service you work for but often payments are divided into a fee that pays the foster carer for their “professional” status and an allowance which should be used to cover normal costs associated with a particular child – everything from clothes, household costs to pocket money and treats. Foster carers are classed as self employed by the HMRC and are responsible for registering their self employment status, paying tax and national insurance contributions. You do not need to pay tax on the first £10,000 you earn as a foster carer plus the first £200 / £250 paid to you for each child (depending on their age) and your own personal tax allowance can also be used to offset additional income tax burden. Depending on how much they earn, a foster carer can register to be exempt from payment of National Insurance contributions.
So far so uncontroversial? Not so much. Being self-employed means you have to manage your own accounts, sort out a pension and have cash aside to help pay the bills on the weeks when you are not earning. And in the world of foster care having no child to look after usually means having no income. But wait there is more.
Ask the government’s website what counts as self-employment and it tells you among other you are probably self-employed if (among other things) you have several customers at the same time and charge an agreed fixed price for your work. But foster carers are only permitted to work for a single agency or service at any one time so cannot have multiple customers, and as far as I know no carer has ever had a say in the fee they are paid individually for the service they provide. Many agencies stipulate the cannot also do other work while you are fostering in certain situations. From my crude understanding, in the world of self-employment anyone who only works for one organisation at a time for a fixed pay is at risk (or benefit) of being reclassified by HMRC as an employee and to receive all the rights and protection that an employee has.
I had always assumed that foster carers were classed as self-employed because the nature of foster caring meant that any pay they got was always going to be below that of the minimum wage while their working conditions were outside the working time regulations covering statutory holiday and rest breaks. A recent news item on the below-minimum wage payments made to live-in care workers prompted some carers to calculate their hourly wage – £1.71 was suggested by one, a figure that looks realistic if you take the amount you receive for looking after one child and divide it by 24 hours – without even taking into account that much of that £1.71 is needed to cover the costs of feeding and clothing that child.
Ask a member of the public what a foster carer gets paid and they simply have no idea as the presenter of BBC Woman’s Hour made clear to the Fostering Network’s chief executive Kevin Williams on the programme last week. The Fostering Network has long campaigned on the issue of pay and when he responded that payments started at around £120 a week for looking after a baby made me choke on my coffee. But checking the minimum allowances set by the Government this is indeed the case. Pro rate this out for a day rate of under £18: my niece gets paid more for four hours’ babysitting. And she doesn’t have to pay for food, clothing etc or undergo a four month assessment process.
But foster care pay varies wildly because not all foster care is considered equal. In recent years specialist schemes have seen carers paid upwards of £30,000 a year for looking after a child considered particularly “challenging” and such schemes can come with the enticements of guaranteed respite/ time off and a retainer between placements – assuming you take the next challenging child that comes along. Often though carers for these schemes are recruited from sectors that already have experience of working with “challenging” children, youth workers, teaching staff and so on. This can overlook the fact existing carers have a wealth of experience of dealing with challenging children. Some might even have come from those professions. Pretty well every foster carer in the country is expected to have a basic knowledge of attachment theory and all carers are expected to attend regular training to help improve their practice. Yet largely this training means that a carer will simply be permitted to continue fostering on their current pay rate (allowing for the odd inflation increase). It rarely recognises professional development by rewarding it with higher pay (you don’t get senior foster carers in the same way as you get senior social workers).
Sometimes general recruitment drives don’t help – by focussing as they do on often on the idea that “anyone can foster” (providing you have a spare room and no criminal record) and exhorting you to find love in your heart and space in your life for a child there is a risk of undervaluing the professional approach of carers. The way that we value and pay for foster care is in a bit of a mess and the issues to solve are complex. They go beyond well beyond employment rights and into the realms of the value that we place on care provided to some of the most vulnerable young people in our society and the assumptions made about the young people and also the type of people that foster carers are expected to be. We will return to this issue.