Leo Plumb – 21 April 2022
In Glasgow foster carers and their families have been drawing continued support for a campaign to increase their rights.
In February 2022, foster carers in Glasgow secured a raise in the child allowance and fee wage for some foster carers. This represents some of the support that should make it feasible for foster carers to raise children in their homes. This financial support had been frozen for 10 years. It includes a weekly stipend intended to cover the costs of clothes, transport, educational materials, any leisure activities; basically any and all of the fun, play and learning that all children should have access to no matter their family background.
The partial win on wages was achieved in a remarkably short time since the start of the campaign last year. However, as this article goes on to explain, the precarity of foster carers’ situations remains dire. Often bankrupted and exhausted, they continue in their roles because they care deeply for these children. In exposing this ten-year pay freeze the campaign has highlighted the lack of scrutiny and accountability that is supposed to fund and deliver the care system for vulnerable children. Therefore their demands remain far from met, and the campaign remains far from over.
On Wednesday this week, I listened in at a hustings in Glasgow for local council candidates. Held in a small church in the Govanhill neighbourhood, this hustings was organised by foster carers who are part of of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), though importantly they have not been given recognition as workers themselves (yet). The commitments made by party candidates at this event won’t be detailed fully in this article, as candidates represented different positions of influence in regard to health and social care provision in Glasgow. We will have to watch out for any firmer party commitments made following the event. The very fact that foster carers brought their concerns to a hustings as an organised group, shows a level of visibility that should encourage other campaigners for a just care system in Scotland.
From a Scottish society point of view, there is a great deal of myth surrounding foster care. This is despite 4,697 young people living in foster care in Scotland. Common Weal’s recent Caring for All report, highlights foster care as part of a range of services desperately in need of overhaul and to be brought in under plans for a National Care Service. The people who organised this husting were in unanimous agreement that they have no regrets about being foster carers, despite many of the hardships (including financial) which have not been recognised by our government. They say this because from their experience of watching children grow up, creating close bonds and nurturing children, they understand that foster care works. Unfortunately as Common Weal has said “currently in Scotland care is driven not by what works but by what politicians think works”.
For the last decade a pay freeze for foster carers has squeezed family budgets to breaking point. The stark truth is that 10 years of no increase in financial support has resulted in a 24% pay cut in real terms.
So it is little surprise that many have been experiencing poverty for the first time. Stories at the hustings told of foster carers cutting back on all their extra leisure activities. They mentioned cancelling holidays, staying in on the nights then they would usually go see a movie with their children. On other occasions they have had to withdraw their own pensions to pay for weekly costs of shopping and bills. Several admitted that despite decades of being a foster carer, this year they are driven to end their services entirely, “Ive never known so many carers ready to quit- we are on our knees”. When one man said that social work were concerned he would need to use the local food bank to support their family, there was a shock in the hustings hall. It was pointed out that the social worker must implicitly understand the pressures facing all foster carers, to have made that assumption in the first place.
This is not unique to Glasgow. In fact, a year ago 60% of foster carers in Scotland reported that the child allowances do not cover the full cost of raising them.
Last month marked a turning point in this dynamic campaign, as foster carers convinced Glasgow Councillors to agree to a 10% pay rise for all foster and kinship carers in the most recent February budget. But far from a promise granted, the final decision was a compromise. It granted only partial rises to Foster carers of children under 10 years old.
It was emphasised at the hustings that because of this age cap, pay increase will improve income for only around 40% of Glasgow’s foster carers. And equates to only a 6-8% rise not the 10% fought for and nowhere near the real terms pay cut. 60% of Glasgow foster carers, those looking after children aged over 10 years will be significantly disadvantaged.
This decision was made by the Integration Joint Board – IJB (A decision making body made up of council and NHS representatives.) This was despite the recommendations of the councillors, and in part caused by the lack of accountability when such decisions are brought to unelected bodies. Bodies which despite their oversight of the facts, never themselves took the steps to action the issue of frozen pay. They instead waited until councillors brought the issue to them.
The council candidates at the hustings all apologised for the treatment of foster carers through the process. With the onset of fuel price and general living cost increases, they know full well that financial pressures will get worse. There were significant other gaps in provision, which council candidates partly agreed could be considered.
These included consideration of council tax reductions (as has been achieved in Liverpool) and Christmas holiday financial support could be assigned. It was incredible to learn that a standard £100 is given to a foster carer when a child is brought into care for the first time. This is the total amount given to clothe a child, who arrives often without any possessions whatsoever (this amount hasn’t changed for 23 years!) An important issue raised included: when a child moves on from their care, a debt of around £500 is then passed to the foster carer, often deducted from the support for the next child who enters their household. There were many of these further aspects of support needed to be set right in Glasgow.
What is crucial to make this happen is for the foster carers to remain organised. In order for that, they are pursuing the right to be classed as ‘workers’, something they are currently excluded from.This raises fundamental questions about the need to class Care as work and recognise the commitments made by a whole variety of informal and statutory care arrangements.
Next the campaign group will begin the process of seeking formal recognition to belong to a Trade Union and have their rights made clear. At this event they sought the Council commitment to support this move. The next few weeks will reveal whether this is going to succeed.
I want to again take the chance to celebrate the diverse set of tactics taken by the foster carer campaign group in Glasgow. In their videos and images, on demonstrations and out delivering leaflets, we see foster carers being prominent and speaking loudly and passionately. Their obligation to their role, linked in many cases to the belief that being a ‘Local Authority’ foster carer role is one of integrity. You see, the devastating impact of ‘poverty pay’ has clearly resulted in local authority foster carers losing faith in the sector and in some cases moving to ‘independent’ agencies where often a higher rate of pay is available. Or as one carer put it at the event: “We are the ones showing loyalty to Glasgow and we are getting nothing back”
Local Authorities are then in turn are overly reliant on these private agencies. A freedom of information request uncovered that: ‘Glasgow spends nearly half of its foster care budget on privatised foster care agencies that make up only a quarter of total children in the council’s care.’
Taking steps to enhance the rights of foster carers could start by encouraging them to be brought ‘In-house’ or under local authority management . Where a foster care household is linked to a local authority, we may begin to see the benefits of a public care system which can “promote awareness among the public and advise government on the societal factors which affect our ability to care” (Quote from the Need for Public Care in the Common Weal Caring for All Report)
The role of private interest in a system designed to house vulnerable children is not a system we want in a future Scotland. Our Caring For All report makes clear that the foster care sector has paved the way for the possibility of removing profit from other parts of the care service. And indeed certain rules are supposed to prohibit profit being made from the system, we also note that there are disturbing cases where this is not enforced under current regulation. Instead it seems clear we must first seek a balancing of a system where equity should be a given from the start. We need more regulation of private sector and to force that sector to contribute to a more caring society by ensuring it doesn’t drive down terms and conditions of care and work elsewhere.
To finish let’s re-emphasise the demands of the Glasgow Foster Carers Branch of the IWGB. For more details follow the final link above. These are the demands as of late 2021:
- Uplift of the fostering allowances by 23.12% to bring it in line with inflation since 2012/13, and provide an annual increase to the fostering allowance in line with inflation going forward;
- The implementation of the Mockingbird programme which prioritises the needs of looked after children through creating a network of consistent and trusted carers who can provide respite and support for foster care workers.
- Access to 5 paid (carer’s fees only) compassionate leave days;
- Over-payments only be recouped via foster carers’ fees and not child allowance;
- Trade union recognition so foster carers can collectively advocate for their own pay and conditions in the future. A 2021 legal ruling won by the IWGB means that foster carers now have the right to unionise.