Spotlight on the Fostering Inquiry: Just before Christmas the Education Select Committee published its final report from its inquiry into fostering. We look at what the report said – and some of the responses.
A national college and centralised register of foster carers, a national fostering recruitment and awareness campaign and the extension of the Public Interest Disclosure Act to cover whistle-blowing foster carers. These were among the recommendations from the education select committee’s report on fostering, published just before Christmas.
In a wide-ranging document that focussed on the treatment of carers as well as of children in care, the committee stopped short of calling for foster carers to be officially classified as ‘professionals’. But it added that carers “must be afforded the same respect and professional courtesies as would be extended to a birth parent or any other care professional involved in the care of looked-after children”. It also called into question the employment status of carers noting that, “We consider it unsatisfactory that foster carers are subject to the responsibilities of self-employed status without the benefits.” Instead, the committee suggested that a ‘worker by default’ definition, “may have relevance for foster carers”.
The committee’s report concludes its inquiry into fostering launched in autumn 2016 under the committee’s previous incarnation, until the committee was dissolved ahead of June’s General Election. Following the election, Harlow MP Robert Halfon took over the chairing of the committee from Neil Carmichael and pushed the fostering inquiry to its conclusion. The final session featured care experienced young people whose evidence had a profound effect on the committee. “The Education Committee received moving testimony from foster children who spoke about the number of placements they experienced,” chair Robert Halfon wrote in The Telegraph after the committee report was published. “It is a sad fact that foster children face a lottery of care, of frequent placements, and of the chance of separation from their siblings,” he added.
“What is a truly shocking is that foster children are moving placement with very short notice, with very little information, and without any advocacy rights,” he continued. “It’s clear that the guidelines intended to tackle these issues are being inconsistently applied.”
On top of a host of improvements for children in care including improved access to advocacy services and more effort being made to keep sibling groups together, the committee called on the government to conduct a fundamental review of the whole care system. Such a review would take into account the relationships between different types of care, and ensure that the care system is fulfilling its purpose, it said. The proposal of a whole system reform was welcomed by Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers, “Whilst the reviews on adoption and children’s homes have been helpful, we cannot hope to improve the journey of all children in and on the edge of care until we take an overview of the whole care system,” he said.
Moving on to the way placements are funded and allocated the select committee expressed its concern over “the extent to which commissioning and placement decisions are made on the basis of cost”. “There is concern over the “growing trend” of price-led commissioning by local authorities,” it said. “We were told of several examples of procurement exercises ‘where the emphasis is on price over quality or outcomes’, with contracts regularly weighting up to 70% on price and 30% on quality.
“Several witnesses suggested that one of the causes for this prioritisation of cost over need may be the fact that local authorities are both purchasers and providers of fostering services, thereby questioning the objectivity of current commissioning arrangements.”
The committee nevertheless acknowledged evidence from some witnesses which alluded to excessive profit making by some independent fostering agencies. It called on the government to require standardised cost analyses of local authority and IFA (independent fostering agency) placements, adding however that, “The quality of foster care provision must always be paramount.”
The committee report was met with huge enthusiasm from the Foster Care Workers Union, whose chair, Sarah Anderson, described it as “an absolute game changer for foster care workers”. Rachel Harrison, GMB lead organiser for foster carers, who appeared before the committee in the Spring, described the report as “a welcome step forward for the professional recognition of foster care”. “It’s high time that fostering arrangements were reviewed, including employment status, taxation rules and a boost to minimum allowances to make sure they keep pace with the spiralling cost of living,” she said.
The Fostering Network said it welcomed the call for consultation on a national college for foster carers but added, “we feel there is some inconsistency around pushing for this professional body while stating that foster carers should not be classified as professionals”.
However, some were negative about the timing of the report, including fostering agency TACT whose chief executive Andy Elvin appeared before the committee in two separate evidence sessions. “It is [sic] legitimate to ask if the @CommonsEd Fostering Report was a good use of public resources given @educationgovuk had already commissioned a review?” the organisation asked in a Tweet.
According to the Parliament website the government has 60 days to respond to recommendations outlined in the select committee’s report.