The national fostering stocktake will be reporting in the near future. There have been a wealth of submissions to this important government sponsored inquiry. These have come from a whole range of organisations and individuals concerned with the provision of Foster care services. What is certain is there will be a great body of opinion. What is perhaps less certain is the action(s) that will result. Had the stocktake been being conducted a year ago, there may have well been less pressure on government to respond. Fact finding exercises, after all, provide a concerned public with the reassurance something is being done. And the public can be relied upon to have a relatively short attention span since they are deluged with information on all sorts of issues every day. We live in an information blizzard, with one controversy always hard on the heels of the next. There is also always the suspicion that bad news is buried by being released when there is something even more distracting on the news agenda. What may be different now; and make things far harder for the government, is that foster carers are themselves becoming more vocal. And now they have figure head: Sarah Anderson, a foster carer, is launching a legal claim to argue foster carers deserve workers’ rights.
Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, she made some points that are rather hard to resist. Starting with the premise that foster care can often be a 24 hour a day job – and frequently is – campaigning for the kind of rights many others enjoy will be bound to resonate. The interviewer on Radio 4; without realising, reinforced the kind of stereotypical views that have left fostering languishing in the mind of the public for so long. He seemed to suggest that foster carers were providing some kind of voluntary service: this was either sloppy briefing, or just the proof that fostering is something that seems not to warrant serious journalistic consideration. That is until some appalling tragedy occurs, and then the media – true to form – interests itself, then both cultivates and guides the prurient interest it has stoked. Just why is it that bad news travels so much faster and sustains itself so much longer? We should all consider this, since such slavering interest really speaks to an enduring public appetite for controversy that is so questionable.
Back to the facts of the current case: an employment tribunal claim has been lodged on behalf of foster carer Sarah Anderson, it argues that she is a worker and as such is entitled to rights such as holiday pay. It is a trade union – the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), that has filed the claim on her behalf against Hampshire County Council. The union believes that, if successful, the case could well ‘open the doors’ resulting in thousands of similar claims being made by foster carers.
“Many foster care workers are highly qualified, put in very long hours, are rigidly supervised and have foster care as their main source of income,” was the view of Dr Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary of the IWGB. The IWGB’s foster care workers’ branch is actually chaired by Sarah Anderson who commented –
“As foster care workers we are exploited, have no rights whatsoever and are treated as a disposable workforce, when society needs carers more than ever. We can’t advocate or look after our children properly if our rights aren’t recognised and protected.”
There has been a lot more focus on foster care in recent months with the legal aspect of employment coming under increasing scrutiny. The Court of Appeal has already heard a previous case and decided that foster carers could not now be classified as workers. This was because the relationship between foster carers and who they work for is not currently based upon a legal contract. Foster carers are currently paid by local authorities, independent fostering agencies or charities to look after children and young people. At the present time, they are not classed either as workers or employees. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain is now making the argument that the details of Sarah Anderson’s particular case are very different, and as such – under European law, such a contract is not required to establish an employment relationship.
The union has already brought and won a case on behalf of two foster carers James and Christine Johnstone. This was brought under Scottish law. In August of this year, the Glasgow Employment Tribunal determined that the carers were employees. The ruling focused on the level of control that the authority had over the two foster carers – along with the ‘mutuality of obligation’ between them and the authority.
A foster carer speaks…
Sarah Anderson has been a foster carer for ten years and during this period she, along with her husband, have fostered ten children. She has been engaged as a foster carer by Hampshire Council for four of those ten years. Sarah Anderson stated –
“Our lack of rights extends beyond any proper holiday entitlement – we have no employment rights whatsoever and we can lose our jobs on a whim overnight.” and in addition – “I can be on call 24 hours a day – evenings, weekends, Christmas, bank holidays – and all we are afforded is two weeks’ respite a year,”
Hampshire Council has so far responded by highlighting case law which has established that foster carers are not deemed “workers.”
Resolving the issue of foster carer status
This situation is unlikely to continue on into the future: Last year, Edward Timpson, the then Minister of State for Vulnerable Children and Families, said a national fostering stocktake for England would be undertaken. The Secretary of State for Education then appointed Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers to carry out the stocktake. The first stage has already been accomplished with Sir Martin and Mark calling for evidence from all working in fostering provision – this has included care experienced young people. Their opinions have been sought on the state of foster care in England, and how the experience and prospects of looked after children might be improved by changes to the system. The goal is to establish just what is needed to achieve better outcomes for children – as well as to identify areas where further research is needed. What is definite is that because there is a shortage of 7,000 foster families this year, their status and nature of engagement will have to be addressed. Without enough foster carers, all other considerations to some extent become secondary. The government will need to act as the publicity swirling around this issue does not present a positive picture. And this can only have a negative influence on future recruitment – as well as the retention of foster carers. There has now to be some joined up thinking because the current financial costs impacting on other areas of government responsibility are huge – and rising. In simple terms, we have now reached a watershed. A piecemeal approach to fostering provision will no longer be sustainable. The underlying problems now have to be addressed. There is no possibility of ‘wriggle room’ for the government as it instigated the stocktake. And this is a term that rather implies significant and far reaching remedial action will be taken as a consequence of the exercise. Could the government have anticipated such a focus and interest in the employment status of foster carers in the very year of its stocktake? Almost certainly not, but as Harold Macmillan, when asked what it was he most feared in politics, replied, “Events, dear boy, events”. Perhaps, so to speak, the government has to some extent been ‘hoist by a particular political petard’. But it is likely now that there will be no going back. This should be celebrated because reform is overdue. The call for input to the stocktake will have garnered a huge response. There will be no shortage of opinion and argument. What cannot now be argued against; even before the findings and recommendations are released later this year, is that the system cannot be judged to be working effectively. And there is one simple fact, which, when addressed, will mean we have been successful in dealing with all the elements that go to make up the complexity of fostering provision. And this certainly includes the status, morale, and remuneration of the nation’s foster carers – as well as carers; sorely needed and yet to be recruited:
“Only 6% of looked after children and care leavers in England are in higher education (2013)* compared to approximately 40% of the general population. At a time when competition for jobs is still very tough, it doesn’t look as though these young people are achieving their full potential or accessing a range of opportunities in the same way as their non-looked after peers.”
*UCAS, ‘Looked after Children & Care Leavers: Raising aspirations to Higher Education.”
And the good news at the end of this rainbow…we are have chosen the theme for our forthcoming Foster Carer Awards at the end of the year…it promises much potential!
Make sure you investigate our ‘Rainbow Rewards’
Refer someone to us to become a foster carer and you could be eligible for a bonus of £500: this will be paid, once your referral has been approved – and the first placement made. If existing foster carers are reading this and are thinking of transferring, you can also qualify for a special bonus: please note, payment will only be made for foster carers who are already caring for young people on a long-term basis.
Foster care ‘Round – Up’: current figures for England.
• 53,420 children were placed in foster care on 31 March 2017.
• This is around four-fifths of the 68,300 children in care currently being looked after away from home.
• There are approximately 44,625 foster families currently caring for young people in England.
• The Fostering Network is now estimating there will be a need to recruit an additional 5,900 foster families over the next 12 month period.
As there is such an urgent need for more foster carers, we regularly detail the figures so that people have an accurate picture of the situation. Across the UK, there is a current shortage of 7,000 carers. England’s situation is detailed above – if you are currently giving thought to being a foster carer, we would love to hear from you. Our applicants always have many questions and we are always delighted to answer them. Here are some of the more frequently asked questions we get: how to foster a child? What checks will be made on myself and family? I am probably moving home soon, can I still apply to be a foster carer? How long does it take to become a carer? We have a dedicated recruitment team who are always happy to answer these, or perhaps any other thoughts you might have. We are now urgently looking for people keen to make a difference by providing stable homes for our vulnerable young people. So, if you are interested in fostering babies, fostering children or teenagers – call us on 020 8427 3355.
If you are fostering, keep informed about the issues that matter
Foster Carer brings claim over workers’ rights
October 11th, 2017
The trade union the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), has filed a claim on behalf of foster carer Sarah Anderson against Hampshire County Council. Sarah Anderson is arguing that she is a worker and as such is entitled to rights – holiday pay being an example. Currently, foster carers are paid by independent agencies or local authorities to care for ‘looked after’ children (more)
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