Accessing and understanding the benefits system can be difficult for foster carers and the young people they look after. Information from Jobcentre Plus does not always take into account their unique circumstances. For example, the under-occupancy charge (the bedroom tax) which can affect their fostering. There can also be complications when young people are required to claim benefits to fund a post-18 arrangement.
For foster families who rely on benefits, it is important that the process of claiming them is transparent, fair and does not hamper their fostering. During Foster Care FortnightTM, the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Will Quince, met with The Fostering Network and foster carers to discuss how we can make claiming benefits fairer and easier.
Since the meeting, we have run a survey of foster carers in which we heard from those who have experience of claiming benefits and Universal Credit. They describe a system that is not equipped to understand and accommodate foster carers’ needs.
Foster carers face inconsistencies, as one carer reported: ‘Within the application process there wasn't an option to explain I was a foster carer, […] answering the questions regarding self-employment was confusing, as for tax [purposes] we are [self-employed] but apparently for Universal Credit we are not.’
The Fostering Network was concerned that the under-occupancy charge (bedroom tax), introduced in 2013, would adversely affect foster carers living in social housing. We campaigned for an exemption, which was approved for the first fostered child’s bedroom. However, we are worried that this is still acting as a penalty to those willing to foster more than one child, including sibling groups.
One foster carer told us that when she could not afford the under-occupancy charge, she received funding from the Discretionary Housing Fund. However, she was given no long-term agreement on this, so she remains anxious that they will withdraw that support. Foster carers and the children in their care should not face housing insecurity because of the under-occupancy charge. Bedrooms for fostered children should not be considered as ‘spare’ and should be excluded from the under-occupancy charge.
When I started claiming, every person I spoke to [at Jobcentre Plus] was confused as to what a foster carer should go under. I was put in the category to look for a job and training. I attended interviews I shouldn't have gone to and my payments changed. […] It's been all very confusing and I still don't think I'm on the right money.
The Fostering Network is also alarmed by the way benefits are being used to subsidise post-18 arrangements, such as Staying Put, When I am Ready, Going the Extra Mile and Continuing Care.
Some young people who choose to remain with their former foster carer are having to claim housing benefit as soon as they turn 18 to contribute towards the household costs. When a young person is asked to hand over money to their foster carer, it risks undermining the strong relational benefits of staying on in the same family environment. As one foster carer told us:
We had a MASSIVE issue trying to get housing element paid after moving from housing benefit to Universal Credit, that's before we can start to ask for direct payments. It is a bureaucratic and cumbersome system dependant on compliance by young people with behavioural difficulties. Frustrated beyond belief.
We would like to see a reallocation of funds, so the housing element is paid directly to the former foster carer via children’s services. This will be beneficial to foster carers as it will not impact on their tax and benefits, and to young people who will not be instructed and encouraged to claim benefits as soon as they turn 18.
More research is needed to determine the scale of these issues. If you have had experience with fostering while on benefits or supporting a post-18 placement to access benefits, please take five minutes to complete our benefits and post-18 arrangements survey.