Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 287)



Ann Coffey

  280. Earlier on when we were listening to the Adoption Forum they were talking about how you safeguard the likes of children to be listened to about what their wishes were for the future and, you know, obviously the point has been made about some kind of independent advocate for the children. Obviously, it is important to have a number of options, for some children staying with their foster family may be the best option for them. Do you have anything to say about the comments they made? Do you think the voice of the child can be listened to in the care system?
  (Ms McAndrew) We think the system is bureaucratic enough without introducing another person. The regulations around reviews are actually quite robust. In practice they should safeguard children's interests. The most important point is the collation of information for that review from all parties involved and I am not sure that any independent additional person could actually make that any better than those already involved in the system at the moment.

  281. You must have contact with quite a lot of local authorities and local authorities organise their children's services in different ways, some have permanent teams, some do not; some have separate adoption and family placement schemes, some do not. Do you think that the way that the services are organised structurally does make an impact or do you think that the main problem is really improving training amongst social workers?
  (Ms McAndrew) Personally when I was in a local authority, and since, I felt the structure did mitigate against good communication, particularly between the field social worker, the child social worker and the foster and adoption section of the organisation. Some authorities that have developed what they call "looked after children teams", where they are bringing those together, actually have been quite successful in speeding up the processes around placement. I think the children's services generally also could maybe take a look at how the community care legislation influenced the structure of adult services and whether there are some tips around that that we could actually take over into children's services in terms of the care management process, for instance, that might benefit earlier and better planning and bringing things more together. Certainly at the moment the relationship between the child social worker and the family placement worker is generally quite difficult in terms of communication.

  282. One final area. As you said, the majority of the children in care are placed with foster parents. Is there a recruitment problem with foster parents? Do you tend to lose a lot of the foster parents? Is there anything we should know about what is happening which might impact on the implementation of this Bill?
  (Ms McAndrew) There is a major recruitment problem around foster care. We did a base line survey in the earlier part of the year for the national recruitment campaign and local authorities in England told us that they needed 7,000 more carers just to keep the system going. That was to try and help them to meet the Government's target around placement choice. The campaign itself has not drawn the interest within the public to actually meet that number at all. It has been about 1,500 potential carers who have been passed through to local authorities, which is far short of the 7,000 they were saying that they need. I think what was difficult about that campaign, and may have influenced the uptake, was the fact that as an organisation we could never be clear about if you wanted to come forward what package would you be offered if you were a carer. There is an inconsistency across the whole of the UK in terms of how the foster care service is organised, delivered, what package a carer might get. What would really help the whole thing, we believe, would be if the Government would consider thinking about national rates of pay similar to carers for adults, for instance there has been some work done on that. We think that might help, to be honest, as long as they are not the lowest levels, of course.

Mr Shaw

  283. Absolutely.
  (Ms McAndrew) We felt it was really hard to say to a member of the public "Do come and foster because if you do you will get this amount of training. You will get 24 hour support. You will get this amount of money". We cannot say that because it is so inconsistent and different.

  Ann Coffey: Were boarding out allowances not a national benchmark? What then happened was local authorities got into competition and simply reorganised their allowances so they paid more than the neighbouring authority. Whatever you put down as a national scale in a market situation, where foster parents are difficult to recruit, there will always be that problem of inconsistency because basically some local authorities decide to up the allowances or pay special benefits or whatever.

Mr Shaw

  284. Private fostering agencies.
  (Ms Verity) Independent fostering agencies.

  285. Okay, thank you for that correction. We have seen growth in that area, particularly over the last eight or nine years. I think in my neck of the woods, North Kent, there has been a large expansion in it and it was referred to by Sir William Utting's report. Now they are coming under the framework of the National Care Standards Commission which I think we would generally welcome. Are you seeing in your membership there is a continued growth there? Are you seeing a difference in terms of foster carers preferring to go to independent fostering agencies rather than local authorities? Can you give us some indication of how much in terms of recruitment the independent agencies are outstripping the local authorities? Would you give us some reasons why?
  (Ms Verity) Can I do that? When the independent sector first started we saw an enormous move of foster carers who worked for local authorities to the independent sector because the agencies were able to advertise that they would pay people at a higher rate than any local authority at that time. They were also able to offer things like 24 hour support, training packages, etc. We have seen some move back from some of the agencies because they are too small or for whatever reason they have not been able to sustain that. However, those agencies that are good, that have set themselves very clear boundaries about what they are wanting to provide and very clear services in terms of what they can give to their foster carers that they recruit, are actually seeing that they can recruit people who would not have gone to local authorities at all, who would not have even envisaged fostering probably, but they do have a background of working with children in a whole variety of areas: ex residential social workers, teachers, nurses, even field social workers who now can see that if they go and work for an independent fostering agency they will get paid at a proper rate that they can rely on each week and can see it as a job whereas for most local authority foster carers that is not an option. So whereas at the beginning we were seeing independent agencies draining local authority foster carers away from them, now we are beginning to see the opening up of the market elsewhere. I was actually in an agency in the Midlands recently that has no foster carers on its books who had previously fostered for local authorities. Everybody that has come forward has come afresh. We have other agencies where they have 70 to 90 per cent of their carers who are fresh and coming in from that direction.
  (Mr McAndrew) They certainly see themselves as having expanded the pool of carers.

Mrs Spelman

  286. Just one brief point. You said there was a shortage of 7,000, by your estimate. In the light of the problem that social services up and down the country are seriously over spent, this is not a new trend, it is something happening predictably and very worryingly, would you be comfortable that that kind of figure reflects demand for the provision of foster care given that what is causing the social services' budget to explode like that is provision of children's services?
  (Ms Verity) I think what has happened is that because local authorities have been unable to provide from their own resources they have had to look outside and place children with independent fostering agencies. Although they can offer very good services, they can be much more expensive for those local authorities than providing the services in-house. Their budgets have become overspent as a result of that because they have not been able to take a step back at any point, certainly in the past, and say "Why? What is going on? Why can we not recruit foster carers? What can we put in place across the board?". Not just for teenagers, because that was where a lot of local authorities set out to recruit carers, for teenagers, and found that they could if they paid money but then found they could not recruit carers for younger age children and as a result it is those children who have quite often now gone to the independent sector because the local authority itself has not put the funding in at that level in order to make the local placement. It is about putting your money really where you want your children to be. If it is local placements that you want then as a local authority you have to find some prime pump money at this stage and really invest in the fostering services locally.


  287. Can I ask a brief question. In relation to the appeals procedure that is posed in the Bill, presumably you will have members who have fostered a child, or children, long-term and have applied to adopt and then been turned down, even though they have been approved as foster carers for many, many years. Do you believe that the appeals mechanism as it stands, the review mechanism, will be advantageous to your members who may be in those circumstances?
  (Ms Verity) I think you need a really independent review mechanism. Certainly I think the provision that is there will probably help those foster carers. My worry is that the way in which it is currently written would not help people who were coming new into the adoptive scene. What I think would happen would be that local authorities probably would not turn anybody down because they are going to have to fund on appeal elsewhere.

  Chairman: We have picked up that point. Any further quick questions? If not, can I thank you for your very helpful contribution, we are very grateful to you. Thank you.

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