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Monday 15th January 2024

(5 months ago)

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Monday 15 January 2024
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]

Foster Carers: Allowances and Tax Arrangements

Monday 15th January 2024

(5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 625515 relating to allowances and tax arrangements for foster carers.

This e-petition asks the UK Government to review and increase both the allowances paid to foster carers and foster carers’ tax exemption levels, so that they can reflect the true cost of caring for a child. I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Sir Graham. I appreciate that we are a little light on numbers attending, because of the seriousness of events in the main Chamber, but I hope that I can do justice to this case.

I am also delighted to be leading this most important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee, because the work of foster carers, and the full costs of caring for a child in foster care so that they can thrive—not just survive—have for too long been given neither enough attention nor the deserved recognition. I must admit that this is the kind of profession that I personally would be terrified to even begin to enter into, and my gratitude goes out to the people who take it on.

The issues raised in the petition have several complex aspects that I will come on to, but let us start at the beginning. The petition came about because of the results of the 2022 cost of living survey carried out by FosterTalk, which is

“the Centre of Excellence UK for the Martin James Foundation”

and has for two decades been supporting those who care. The response to the survey was the largest for all surveys launched by FosterTalk to date, and its findings were stark.

The headline figures were that because of financial pressures, 43% of carers may leave fostering in the next two years; 56% of carers had not received an uplift in allowances over the previous six to 12 months; 90% of those who had felt that it did not cover the cost of caring for a child under the rising cost of living; 38% of carers had experienced mental health issues due to the cost of living crisis; and 92% of carers felt financially worse off compared with the previous year. Those are stark findings.

Of course, behind the headline figures are people—dedicated, compassionate and vulnerable people who care and are cared for—and their individual stories. The headline figures do not demonstrate the main consequential impacts, which are that more foster carers are leaving the role than joining and that the numbers are declining against a backdrop of record numbers of children who need foster carers. That is borne out by statistics published in November last year by Ofsted in relation to fostering in England, which revealed that significantly more foster carers had chosen to leave the role in 2023 compared with the number joining.

Sarah Thomas, chief executive of the Fostering Network, the leading organisation for foster care, has said that

“the Ofsted data shows the immense pressure the fostering system is under—and there simply aren’t enough foster carers to meet the rising number of children coming into care.

For the second year in a row we are seeing a net decrease in the number of foster carers available…Recruitment of foster carers is the most crucial issue facing fostering services across”

the UK. The Fostering Network is

“calling for a UK-wide strategy to address…the urgent need to”


“recruit and retain foster carers”,

because the indication is that

“these annual losses will continue unless urgent action of a much greater scale is taken.”

The Fostering Network is not alone in that opinion. The vice-chair of the Martin James Foundation, Daniel Croft, who was recently awarded an MBE for his services to fostering, has said that

“current financial pressures on our foster carers have never been greater and if we do not act, we are at risk of losing the largest dedicated workforce for children in the U.K.”

We simply cannot allow that to happen, so let us examine the hurdles that must be overcome—and how they can be overcome—to prevent a worsening of the existential crisis in fostering by effecting urgent action on a much greater scale.

As a lay person to the foster care debate, ahead of this debate I met experts from FosterTalk, the Fostering Network and CoramBAAF, the UK’s leading membership organisation for professionals working across adoption, fostering and kinship care. Those experts repeatedly highlighted similar complex aspects, and I want to raise the allowances paid to foster carers—foremost, the inconsistency of how national minimum allowances are applied.

The national minimum allowances for foster carers are set by each of the UK Governments. They vary depending on where the foster carer lives and the age of the child they care for. Notably, Scotland was late to the table and introduced national minimum allowances only in August last year—I will say more about that shortly. I can understand that the different age bands of children is relevant. Babies, for example, have different needs from teenagers. Historically, social security allowances for children recognised that and the Fostering Network continues to broadly follow that model. However, varying amounts according to where someone lives is something that I cannot understand. It is a classic example of an extremely unfair postcode lottery.

According to the most recent weekly fostering allowances report for the financial year 2023-24 that the Fostering Network published last September, children’s experiences of the application of allowances, even within the same nation and for the same age bracket, is far from consistent. For example, allowances paid in respect of children four years and under in Wales varies between local authorities by up to £43.96 per week; and in England, it varies by up to £92.34 per week, equating to an astonishing maximum difference of £4,801.68 each year.

In Scotland, the same allowance varied by up to £89.24 a week. However, as I have mentioned, I am pleased that the Scottish Government recognised this inequality and introduced, for the first time, a set rate that all local authorities must pay for foster and kinship carers. I hope that that move will reduce the future level of variance in Scotland. The new Scottish-recommended allowance was backdated to 1 April 2023 and has benefited more than 9,000 children. If local authorities in Scotland happened to be paying above the recommended allowance, the higher amount stayed in payment so that no one was worse off because of that commitment.

The Fostering Network welcomed that positive move. None the less, it has calculated that the allowance levels across all four nations still fall short of the true cost of caring for a child in foster care. The example I gave of allowances paid in respect of children who are four years and under is by no means the worst. The difference in allowances paid in respect of children between the ages of 11 and 15 in England amounts to a whopping £8,470.80 over the 2023-24 financial year. Additionally, in England, there are different minimum weekly allowances set, depending on whether someone lives in London, the south-east or the rest of England.

Notably, Northern Ireland is the only nation where all trust foster carers, including kinship carers, receive the same rate of allowances to cover the cost of caring for a child in foster care. I commend Northern Ireland for its consistent approach, which is administered by a central service, not local authorities. Unfortunately, however, Northern Ireland’s national minimum allowance is the lowest paid across all the UK nations.

On top of the inconsistency of how national minimum allowances are applied, there is also the disparity of whether additional allowances are paid to foster carers. These can be provided for things such as holidays, religious festivals, birthdays, school uniforms, an initial stock of clothing and mileage to fuel mum or dad’s taxi. We all know that those things can have an added pressure on household finances at the best of times, let alone during a cost of living crisis. Indeed, one carer who voiced concerns in FosterTalk’s cost of living survey said:

“I worry that energy, fuel and food prices will keep going up and we get more strike action, more disruption and it all impacts negatively on our foster children who already have had too much worry and negativity in their lives.”

That strikes at the heart of the problem. The inequality created by the current system for children in foster care means that some are not being given the opportunities to recover from the upheavals that they have experienced, to enable them to go on to achieve their aspirations.

A significant number of the local authorities that completed freedom of information requests that informed the Fostering Network’s most recent report on weekly fostering allowances stated that everything is included in the national minimum allowance. How can it be fair that a child can benefit from an additional allowance in one local authority when another child in exactly the same circumstances in a neighbouring local authority cannot? I have even heard anecdotal evidence of foster carers moving between local authorities so that children in their care can benefit from more generous allowances.

Additionally, different local authorities offer different discounts on rates of council tax to foster carers, ranging from zero to 100%. It is utterly unjust. On what level is it acceptable that 3% of those who responded to FosterTalk’s cost of living survey had used a food bank to support their family? Now, 3% might not seem like a lot, but that amounts to 130 families who took the survey and who have taken on the responsibilities that lie with their local authority to care for and nurture those children. Remember, too, that the 3% is from the 4,349 foster carer respondents, which does not account for the wider expanse of fostering households, of which there are 43,405 in England alone, as at the end of March 2023. A reasonable appraisal is therefore that the number of families having to use a food bank could be increased, perhaps tenfold. No wonder the number of foster carers is declining.

The Fostering Network has proposed a fairer funding framework for foster carers that is simplified as well as consistent. Taking account of Loughborough University’s minimum income standard for the UK and of Nina Oldfield’s “The Adequacy of Foster Carer Allowances”, which identifies the additional costs of caring for a child in foster care, the Fostering Network collaborated with Pro Bono Economics to calculate suggested rates of foster care allowances that

“include funds to enable foster families to save for birthdays, holidays and cultural or religious festival payments with the intention that foster carers can control and spend these additional funds as they see fit.”

That is a sensible proposal to eradicate the inequality that the system creates.

Another inequality in the system is that there is no national minimum allowance for young people aged 18 years and over to remain living in their foster family environment until they are ready to live independently. According to the most recent fostering allowances report, the difference in allowances paid to the 18-plus group across the UK nations is the most extreme, amounting to a staggering sum of £12,044 annually. That deficiency must be addressed, as young people’s needs do not stop because they turn 18.

The Fostering Network’s suggested rates of foster care allowances were underpinned by the principles of being child-centred, efficient—as well as sufficient—trusting, aspirational and, last but not least, consistent. Those seem to me to be quality principles. Will the Minister consider the Fostering Network’s recommended rates so that the full cost of caring for a child is covered? Will he look at addressing the needs of young people who turn 18 so that the best outcomes for care leavers are enabled? Will he also advise if the routine uplift to the national minimum allowances is ringfenced?

I must make one final and important point: the disparities that have been highlighted today would not have come to light without the monitoring that is carried out by the Fostering Network every year, and I thank it and FosterTalk for making today’s debate possible. I also thank both organisations for taking time away from their important work to meet me.

The Fostering Network, however, can only obtain information through freedom of information requests to local authorities because they are public bodies. Information from independent fostering agencies, which are not obliged to respond to freedom of information requests, is missing. Will the Minister therefore examine the possibility of the monitoring of all foster care providers being undertaken by a Department? Such a move could also address further disparities in the rules and regulations that exist in the foster care system, such as carers receiving payments between placements or how carers can receive support when an allegation has been made against them—statistics show that a majority of people against whom allegations have been made are completely exonerated.

Andrew Western Portrait Andrew Western (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation that he has set out with the handling of complaints is a symptom of the fact that, because they are not employees, foster carers cannot be members of trade unions and, as a result, cannot seek support by a route that would be available to most typical employees?

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day
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The hon. Member makes a very good point. Foster carers are all self-employed and have to deal with all the complexities of that, including tax returns, as well as with the vital role of caring.

At the very least, a review of how allowances are applied to foster carers is urgently needed. Foster carers must receive a payment that takes account of the full cost of caring for a child, now and into future years. Foster carers need to be recognised for the work they do, and children deserve better.

Andrew Western Portrait Andrew Western (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this debate, and I pay tribute to everybody who took the time to sign the petition, including 48 residents in my constituency of Stretford and Urmston. Like those people, I care passionately about ensuring that foster carers are recognised and supported.

In preparing for the debate, I was fortunate that a member of my office staff, Emma Hirst, had been a foster carer for over 20 years, up until very recently. In that time, Emma provided a loving and supportive home to countless children, including refugee children, many of whom had been through immense hardship. I place on record my thanks to Emma, and to all the foster carers in Stretford and Urmston and more widely, for the life-changing impact that they have had on some of the most vulnerable people in my community and across the country. My comments will be shaped by Emma’s experience.

Emma told me that, during her 20-year spell as a foster carer, the role became increasingly challenging. When she started, the children who came into her care were often traumatised, but back then they were able to access mental health support, pastoral care at school and youth services, all of which were vital for their education and wellbeing. A decade of Conservative austerity has eroded those services, and the children who came into her care in later years faced increasingly lengthy waits for any kind of support.

The focus of today’s debate is financial support for foster carers, but inadequate financial support must be seen in the broader context of the decline of the public services that foster carers once relied on to make their jobs easier, which is a key reason for the recruitment and retention crisis in fostering.

Despite the pressure she was under, Emma, like foster carers across the country, was registered as self-employed and was therefore unable to access sick pay, payment for time off or any real employment rights. As I mentioned, like other foster carers, she also was not able to be represented by a trade union. Ultimately, it all became too much; Emma was burned out, and she recently took the decision to stop fostering. Like any true foster carer, however, she made time over Christmas to take a baby on an emergency basis, because foster carers are always there to look after children in desperate need.

Although Emma’s decision is understandable, it is a huge loss to fostering services in my community. Her example shows the importance of putting the right support in place for foster carers. Naturally, there is a financial element to that. The altruistic nature of fostering means that conversations about money are often shied away from, and our admiration for foster carers does not pay the bills, so it is right to discuss these allowances, tax arrangements and fees. That is not least because, as the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned, the fostering allowance does not cover the full cost of providing foster care to a child.

I will give credit where it is due: in December, the Government announced a 6.88% uplift to the foster care national minimum allowance. I also welcome the changes made last year that mean that most foster carers will no longer pay tax on that income. But I wish to focus the majority of my comments on those fostering allowances, because I note that the increases to the minimum allowance still fall short of the recommendations made by the Fostering Network.

I would be grateful if the Minister could set out what assessment his Department has made of the affordability of the national allowances called for by the Fostering Network. Moreover, I would be grateful if he would clarify where the funding for the 6.88% uplift will come from. I am unclear whether local authorities will have to find that money from existing budgets. Given the perilous state of local government finance, that may prove unmanageable for councils across the country. I am sure the Minister intends to fund the uplift from an alternative source, but I would be grateful for his reassurance on that point.

Another crucial point is that the fostering allowances are a postcode lottery for many people. In England, only 26% of local authorities pay the national minimum allowance at all the age bands. That results in discrepancies: for example, the maximum difference in allowance rates payable for 11 to 15-year-olds in England is as great as more than £8,000 per year. When we all agree that all children’s lives are of equal importance, that cannot be acceptable. Will the Department consider monitoring compliance with the national minimum allowance and look into reviewing fee payments so that there is more consistent compensation for the time, skills and experience of foster carers?

If we needed a reminder of the importance of getting this right, it came with Ofsted’s data on foster care for 2023, which showed a 6% fall to 35,000 over the past two years in the number of mainstream households in England who are fostering. The data also showed that the number of applications to become foster carers fell by over 3,000 between 2021 and 2023. This recruitment and retention crisis comes at a time when the care population continues to grow; it now stands at over 83,000.

The value of foster carers is in allowing children to be placed in environments that feel more like a real home, rather than in the less natural environment of a care home. It is also in the financial savings to local authorities, because many placements in care homes and other settings can be incredibly expensive. These trends are simply unsustainable; for the good of vulnerable children and the foster carers who are so dedicated to them, we must address them. I look forward to hearing more about how the Government intend to do that when the Minister responds.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Graham, to debate this important petition on foster care allowances and support for foster families. I am standing in for my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who is travelling back from a memorial service abroad and is very sorry to miss the debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening the debate so powerfully on behalf of the Petitions Committee, and the more than 13,000 people, including those from my constituency, Feltham and Heston, who signed the petition. I also thank all our foster carers across the country, including in my borough of Hounslow.

Foster families provide a loving home for 68% of looked-after children in England. Foster caring can be challenging but also very rewarding, and it can be absolutely transformative for vulnerable children. Fostering relationships can last long beyond the duration of a placement, giving some of our country’s most vulnerable children lifelong, stable and loving relationships too. I am grateful to FosterTalk and the Fostering Network for their tireless support and campaigning on the impacts of the cost of living on foster families and the children they care for.

We have heard today about the enormous challenges facing foster carers. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western) for his speech, in which we heard the story of Emma from his office and the change in support that she has experienced over the last decade. He also referred to the ongoing recruitment and retention challenges, which I will comment on further.

Fourteen years of Conservative government has stripped away vital family support, shifting the focus of children’s services to providing an emergency service rather than early intervention to help families stay together. The cost of living crisis has pushed so many families into hardship, but foster families, who have been undervalued for many years, have been impacted particularly hard. FosterTalk’s 2022 survey, which the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk referred to extensively, found that 92% of foster carers feel financially worse off, and 18% have been pushed into debt in recent years. Reference was also made to the use of food banks. Some 66% of carers have been forced to cut down on their heating to cope with soaring energy costs, and 38% feel that their mental health has been affected due to the increase in the cost of living.

The Government set the national minimum allowance for foster carers annually in April. The increases in April 2023 and the planned above-inflation increases from April 2024 are very welcome, but it is essential that the funding actually reaches foster families. Across the country there is a postcode lottery, with some fostering services paying families significantly below the national minimum allowance. The Fostering Network has found that some services significantly underfund the allowance for an 11 to 15-year-old, for example, by as much as £2,333 per year. I hope that the Minister can update us on what he is doing to ensure that all services offer at least the national minimum allowance, and to ensure proper monitoring of that allowance across the country.

It is important that support for foster families reflects the impact of the last two years on family finances. Although the headline rate of inflation may have fallen, let us remember that food inflation remains high, at more than 9%, while the Government’s mismanagement of the economy has hammered households with rising mortgage and rent costs. The Labour party will always put children and families first. We have already set out plans to help address the cost of living for families. Just some of the costed measures we have announced include acting now to ensure that every family caring for a primary-aged pupil has access to a free breakfast club, and limiting the number of costly branded school uniform items to save families hundreds of pounds through a child’s time at school. What assessment has the Department made of the specific impacts of rising costs on foster families?

The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk talked powerfully about the urgent crisis in recruitment and retention of foster families. Worryingly, more than four in 10 foster carers are thinking of leaving fostering. At the same time, fewer and fewer households are registering to become foster carers, and the conversion rate of people who express interest in fostering to actual foster carers is vanishingly small.

We also need diversity in our foster carer network so that families have options for closer matches to their cultures, foods or faiths, which helps a child to feel settled at an anxious time. The Department’s own figures show a 26% decrease in newly registered households since 2019. The same figures show more households leaving fostering during the year than joining, at a time when the number of children in care continues to increase. Without the right placements, more children will end up being placed in homes that do not meet their needs. In 2021, all but six local fostering services reported a shortage in the number of carers they need for their local population.

There is an urgent need for more foster carers who can look after teenagers, large sibling groups, children with complex needs, and children with special educational needs and disabilities. Foster caring is more than simply opening a home to an additional child; it requires skill and dedication. Looked-after children are more likely than other children to have experienced a severe trauma in their lives, such as bereavement, abuse or neglect, and foster carers need to have a good understanding of a wide range of needs.

In response to the independent review of children’s social care led by Josh MacAlister, the Government committed to a nationwide recruitment and retention programme for foster carers. When does the Minister expect to be able to update the House on the progress of pathfinder areas and plans for any wider roll-out across the country?

The challenges facing foster carers and the children they look after must be placed in the context of the wider crisis in children’s social care. The number of children entering the care system continues to rise, but the Government have eroded the support that they need. More than 1,300 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010, while the funding offer to local councils for children’s services has fallen by an estimated 24% since 2010.

Perhaps the Minister will point towards his Department’s family hub programme, but he cannot escape the fact that that programme is funded in only half of all local authority areas. The high turnover in children’s social workers and the loss of experienced staff are creating uncertainty for foster families and those applying to foster. At the same time, the 10 biggest providers of children’s homes and private foster care placements are raking in huge profits from public money, more of which should be spent on the wellbeing of vulnerable children.

Foster carers are a vital part of our children’s social care system. They provide a loving and safe home to tens of thousands of children across the country, but they urgently need better support and recognition for their wider role. I hope that the Minister will set out how the Government will act quickly to ensure that all foster carers are better supported, so that more people who are able to offer a stable and loving home to vulnerable children can be urgently encouraged to take up the very important role of being a foster carer.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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It is a pleasure, Sir Graham, to serve under your chairmanship.

I start by thanking all those who have signed the petition on this important issue; I also thank the Petitions Committee for scheduling this debate; and I specifically thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for leading it. I also pay tribute to Fostertalk and the Fostering Network; I think that every Member who has spoken in the debate has cited at least some of their work and we in the Department very much value it too.

Foster carers provide transformational support for children in care. They build relationships, even in a very short period of time, that are loving, long-standing and deeply valued by the children they look after. Without foster carers opening up their homes and lives, we would not have a care system.

Although fostering can be hugely rewarding, it takes hard work, skill and dedication. Anyone who is familiar with the care system deeply values and respects what foster families do every day for our most vulnerable children. That was set out very clearly by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western), who talked about Emma and the fantastic work that she has done for children in her care.

The petition underpinning this debate called on the Government to review and increase the allowances paid to foster carers and to consider tax exemption levels. I should note that at this point that children’s social care is a devolved issue, meaning that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments are responsible for their own policies.

Financial support for foster carers continues to be a particularly important issue as household expenses are still much higher than we would like them to be; indeed, those expenses were especially high when the petition was created in October 2022. Help with the cost of living was cited in helpful research from the Fostering Network, Fostertalk and FosterWiki. Although inflation is now down to 3.9% from 11.1% in October 2022, we are committed to supporting foster carers to deal with rising costs.

In March, we set out our response to the petition. We have increased the minimum fostering allowance by 12.43% and raised qualifying care relief for foster carers, with the latter change representing an average tax cut of £450 per year. Fostertalk, which launched the petition, described our announcement as “fantastic news” and said it was a

“positive development for the foster care community”.

As has been touched on, in order to support foster carers further, from April 2024 we will raise allowances by a further 6.88%, marking two consecutive years of above-inflation increases to foster carer allowances. That means a foster carer in the tax year 2024-25 will earn between £28 and £49 more per week, per child, than they did in the 2022-23 tax year. Over a full year, this will equate to between £1,456 and £2,548 more in allowances. We have also committed to ensuring that qualifying care relief will rise with inflation each year, so foster carers will have more left in their pocket to support the children in their care.

More broadly, there are three key categories of financial support for foster carers. First, there is the national minimum allowance to cover the additional cost of the child, which, as I have mentioned, we have increased at an above-inflation rate for two years running. Secondly, there are fee payments, set locally by councils and fostering agencies to recognise and compensate foster carers for their expertise, skills and development. Thirdly, there are any expenses that have been agreed by the foster service provider.

The national minimum allowance was introduced in 2007 to try and ensure that foster carers are not financially disadvantaged by looking after a child or young person. It is meant to cover the cost of raising an extra child in the home. It should pay for the child’s food, clothing, transport and additional costs, and support children to take up hobbies and have pocket money, as other children would. The rates are set centrally by Government, and we expect all fostering service providers to pay at least the national minimum. Indeed, many local authorities or agencies choose to pay more. As the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk touched on, a similar allowance was introduced in Scotland earlier this year.

Every year, the Department for Education works with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to review the allowance and consider any changes in inflation and affordability for local government. The allowance operates on a sliding scale, with levels rising as children become older, and with higher rates in parts of the country where costs are typically higher. On the discussion about variation, most of the variation cited by the Fostering Network is the result of councils choosing to pay significantly above the national minimum, as well as the flexibility we give to local authorities to set rates. I will return in a moment to the monitoring that we might do on whether they are paying that.

The 12.43% increase was a record uplift, which represented an increase of between £17 and £30 in allowances per child, per week. The further allowance from April will be an additional £11 to £19 in allowance per child, per week. Beyond the allowance, councils and fostering agencies have the flexibility to provide fee payments for foster carers that reflect their experience, skills and development, as was touched on, or to provide extra support for children with more complex needs. Many fostering service providers supplement that with local offers, including council tax deductions, and discounts for local child-friendly attractions and services. Fostering service providers often provide extra money for taking children on holiday, or to celebrate a birthday or religious festival. Finally, fostering service providers also agree expenses with their foster carers. For example, foster carers may receive travel expenses or be reimbursed for the cost of a school trip.

Moving on to tax arrangements in the second part of the petition, we review tax arrangements for foster carers, ensuring that tax relief is appropriate over time, supporting carers now and in future. Foster carers benefit from qualifying care relief, which means that they do not pay tax on any income below an earnings threshold. In March, we raised that household earnings threshold, as well as the weekly threshold for each looked-after child. For each household, the first £18,140 of income is now tax-free, up from the previous level of £10,000. Additionally, foster carers pay no tax on £375 of income for each child under the age of 11, and no tax on £450 of income for each child over the age of 11. This means that the vast majority of fostering households will now pay no tax on their fostering income, and it simplifies the tax return process that foster carers have to complete. For a fostering household with one fostered child, the first £37,640 of fostering income is tax-free for a child under 11, with the tax-free amount rising to £41,540 for a child over 11. Our recent increase represents a tax cut of £450 a year for fostering households, and we have committed to raising qualifying care relief by the consumer price index measure of inflation every year.

Foster carers can access a range of benefits, and the money that carers receive from fostering is disregarded when calculating means-tested benefits. Fees and allowances are not taken into account as earnings or income, so do not affect the amount of universal credit to which a foster carer may be entitled. Child benefit, or the child element of universal credit, is included in the allowance paid to foster carers from the local authority, but foster carers can claim child benefit for their own birth children. Birth children of foster parents are entitled to the additional 15 hours of funded childcare, as well as being entitled to an extra bedroom for the purposes of housing benefit and universal credit, meaning that they do not lose out following the removal of the spare bedroom subsidy. Foster carers who combine fostering with other employment can get extra funded childcare hours for their foster children, as long as that childcare is consistent with the child’s care plan and agreed with their social worker.

I will briefly touch on the questions raised; if I miss any, I am happy to write to Members with the answers. The allowance is not ringfenced. In December, I wrote to local authorities to remind them of the duty and our expectation that they pay at least the minimum allowance. I share Members’ frustrations where local authorities are not doing that, since we are giving them the money to be able to do so. We will certainly consider collecting more data to ensure that the minimum is being paid. As I say, I wrote to all local authorities in December to reiterate our expectations in this matter.

The 6.88% increase is additional money through the local government finance settlement and the increase in core spending. We are investing £36 million—again, a record amount—to improve recruitment and retention, which a number of hon. Members touched on, and to improve approvals and help more people to undertake this vital role. We are working with more than 60% of local authorities in order to do that.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), asked for an update on fostering. It will shortly be the anniversary of the publication of “Stable Homes, Built on Love”, our strategy for transforming social care as a whole, and we will provide an update on what has been happening with our fostering work, the north-east pathfinder, Mockingbird and so on, alongside everything else.

In conclusion, I once again thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, and the Petitions Committee generally, for tabling this debate. I am committed to our programme of reform and proud of the Government’s record levels of investment and support for foster carers. I know that all Members present, as well as those not present—as the hon. Gentleman touched on, there is an important statement in the Chamber; otherwise, I feel sure more Members would be present—admire the work that foster carers do for their communities and, most importantly, for the children in their care. It is important we give them all the support we can.

Graham Brady Portrait Sir Graham Brady (in the Chair)
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With time for a brief wind-up, I call Mr Day.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day
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Thank you very much, Sir Graham. On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western) for coming along today, and to the Minister and shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), for their comments. I think we speak as one when we send our gratitude to foster carers for their hard work and determination to give all our young people a loving and supported environment in which they can be respected. Equally, I do not think there can be any doubt that cost of living pressures are putting a much greater burden on those foster carers, and I hope that we can look again in the future at doing more to support them.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 625515 relating to allowances and tax arrangements for foster carers.

Siting adjourned.