Christine Johnson and her husband David have been fostering for 17 years, and have looked after more than 140 children, mostly teenagers with severe behavioural and mental health issues. Most did not attend school or college, or work. But in April 2016, the pay they received for caring for these troubled young people was slashed by a third, after Solihull council introduced a new fee structure.
Previously, the couple received £169 a week in basic fees for each child they fostered. This was topped up by an additional £56 each during placements, because they both possess NVQ level 3 qualifications. But Johnson says that under the new fee scheme, their extra payments were scrapped and they were only given a total of £186 a week per placement, because they were deemed not to have done enough to support and develop the fostering service. “We protested, pointing out the fact that we already represented enormous value for money, taking into account all that we do and cope with 24/7, but it was to no avail. We are among the most experienced and qualified foster carers in the area, but we were not being valued as such,” says Johnson who is one of just under 45,000 foster families in England.
A number of councils have also reduced fees, while others have cut training budgets and some allowances. In Bradford, changes introduced last year mean that if foster families go more than six weeks without a placement, their retainer fee is halved – and scrapped altogether after 12 weeks.
This might seem sensible, but Nathan Williams, an experienced foster carer, points out that “carers do not allocate the children, so [cutting these retainer fees means] there is an incentive to take any child regardless of whether they would fit in with your family”. In addition, foster carers in the city can no longer specialise in a particular age group. “They make families take children from 0-18, regardless of our wishes,” he says. Holiday allowances that used to pay £10 per child per day have also been scrapped. “This is even though I earn around £2 an hour for looking after a child 24/7. New carers fare worse with just £1.50 being paid for the same level of care.”
But unlike caring professions such as nursing, foster carers can’t challenge decisions to cut fees or change working conditions because they have no employment status. “We see foster carers as part of the workforce,” says Kevin Williams, chief executive of theFostering Network charity. “They are self-employed, but by statute can only work for one provider. It’s not a normal employment situation.”
When Johnson heard about bicycle couriers fighting to get proper pay and employment status, it struck a chord. “Foster carers too are told that we are self-employed, but while we have all of the disadvantages that go with this status: no sick pay, no holiday pay and no pension rights, we have none of the usual advantages,” she says. “We can’t offer our services where we might see fit to. Instead, we’re tied to one local authority or independent fostering agency.” She got in touch with the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which successfully fought to get bicycle couriers working for City Sprint, eCourier and Mach1 higher pay. The couriers are still fighting for employment rights, such as entitlement to the minimum wage and holiday pay.
Johnson is not alone in feeling isolated and angry. On Monday, at a meeting in parliament supported by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, around 60 foster carers voted to unionise and join the IWGB in a bid to improve their working conditions. “Foster carer workers have shown that enough is enough,” says the IWGB general secretary, Jason Moyer-Lee. “They take care of some of the most vulnerable people in society. The terms and conditions and pay they receive should reflect the importance of the work they do, and the IWGB will support them in their quest for better rights.”
Meanwhile, nearly 500 foster carers in Yorkshire and north Derbyshire are members of the GMB union, which is also campaigning in Manchester, Stockport and Torbay. In addition to anger over cuts, foster carers are increasingly fed up at their precarious legal status. Many feel that any attempt to challenge a decision or make a complaint will be ignored and could lead to them being deregistered by the local authority because they are not protected by whistleblowing legislation.
In Norfolk, the Norfolk Foster Care Association is taking legal action against the county council on behalf of its members. “It’s absolutely outrageous, the way foster carers are treated,” says Raymond Bewry, chair of the Norfolk Foster Carers’ Association. “Children are being routinely removed from foster homes without due process. We’re talking child protection here.”
Foster carers are rarely, if ever, informed about why a child is removed from their care and it can happen out of the blue, says Diego Soto-Miranda, a barrister who has been instructed in a number of high court cases brought by foster carers, including the Norfolk case. “No explanations are given. The council then subjects the foster carer to another ‘official’ review whereby the council carries out, in effect, a secret trial known as a “Lado”. The foster carer cannot be accompanied by a legal representative, to speak up for him or her, and is not allowed to see any evidence presented at that hearing. The foster carer can then be deregistered and banned from working with children or vulnerable people again. It ruins their lives.”
And because they have no employment rights, they cannot claim unfair dismissal, Soto-Miranda adds. He has successfully brought a number of cases under human rights law, arguing that foster carers have a right to a fair process. That means having the right to put your case forward. “You can’t answer any allegations if you don’t know what’s been alleged and by whom,” he says. He also successfully argued that foster carers have a right under human rights law to a private family life, an effective remedy and to protect their reputation. “Suddenly, removing a child breaches their right to those fundamental rights.”
This lack of protection has so alarmed local MP Norman Lamb that he has written this week to Edward Timpson, the children’s minister, to request a meeting. “The current legal position leaves foster carers highly vulnerable and therefore there is little doubt in my mind that children are put at risk because of fear of the consequences of speaking out,” the letter states.
Lamb explains on the phone: “If there’s anything that stands in the way of foster carers raising concerns, that is wrong and we have to address it. They have absolutely no protection. It’s a child protection issue.”
The Department for Education says it takes whistleblowing very seriously. “Fostering services must have procedures in place for handling complaints and responding to whistleblowers’ concerns,” a spokeswoman says. “We are launching the National Fostering Stocktake – a fundamental review of fostering across the country – which will look at the issues affecting foster carers, including accountability and complaints.”
Lamb favours amending the Public Interest Disclosure Act so that foster carers who blow the whistle are protected. But the DfE says that as they are not employed, it does not consider the whistleblowing legislation to be a “suitable vehicle” for foster carers to resolve their complaints.
Solihull, Bradford and Norfolk councils all have whistleblowing policies. A spokeswoman for Norfolk county council says: “We would entirely dispute the claim that children in Norfolk are removed from foster carers without due process – this happens extremely rarely and only when the safety of the child is in question. There have been no cases where this has happened in the last year.”
Ken Meeson, cabinet member for children’s services at Solihull council, says: “Most carers were not affected or were slightly better off under the revised scheme. A small number would receive less payment; however, there are options to increase this, through offering greater flexibility, providing more placements, or demonstrating skills that qualify for a higher fee.”
A spokeswoman for Bradford council says: “Bradford council puts the child’s needs at the centre of these decisions and would certainly not be interested in putting a child in a family that would not want them there. Carers’ skills are considered carefully before they are asked to look after a child, to ensure that they … are able to care for the child and meet their needs.”
Back in Solihull, the Johnsons have stopped fostering with the council. “Foster carers should not have to continue working without any rights or protections,” Christine says. “Carrying out the vital, often difficult, work we do on behalf of the state, and the communities in which we live, all foster carers deserve to be working under fair terms and conditions, with fair remuneration and support.”
Some names have been changed
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