Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A conversation with an MP

A conversation with a Member of Parliament
I was just reflecting on a discussion that sprang from nowhere between members of our Every Child Leaving Care Matters (ECLCM) team and an MP seeking to defend this government’s record in supporting care leavers. The ECLCM team have some regard for this MP, for unlike most MPs of all parties, he has openly shown an interest and some sympathy for the cause of equal support for all children leaving care, wherever they happen to be placed. He has our respect because he will debate and doesn’t hide or offer excuses not to meet like the ministers he so stoutly defends.

The ECLCM position is clear. The implementation and enshrining in law of ‘Staying Put’ arrangements that offer enhanced aftercare support to young people who are fostered, (including the opportunity to stay on with their carers until they are 21 by mutual agreement,) but deliberately exclude young people from other residential settings is immoral and discriminatory.  As we have said, which one of us would look after one of our children into adulthood and tell another they were not going to get the same support? Nobody – but this government is doing precisely that with young people leaving care. We want the same for ALL care leavers irrespective of where they are placed.

Our MP said we were unfair saying ministers did not care, because they had implemented the reforms of the Children & Families Act 2014 in March this year. Now young people from foster care were receiving support to 21. Er yes, this is where we came in – is it caring to discriminate against one section of vulnerable children who happen to be placed in children’s homes? We at ECLCM say “No, it isn’t”.

Our MP told us we were unfair because it is too soon for the impact of the changes introduced by the new Act and changes in March this year to be felt. We at ECLCM argue there are no significant changes for young people leaving residential care. That’s why we are campaigning.

Our MP reminded us that if a local authority wanted to discharge a 16 year old now, they would need the expressed consent of the Director of Children’s Services. This, he implied, will stop such young children being discharged from care without adequate support. That gives rise to a sobering thought; is he suggesting that the thousands of young people under 18 discharged from care since 1948 were all discharged by social workers acting on their own authority, without the knowledge or consent of senior managers or members?  Patent nonsense? We thought so too. With all due respect to DCS’s everywhere, this is not enough and nowhere near what we regard as supporting children leaving care adequately. Funding and legislative backing might help a little too?

We then have the Care Leavers’ Charter.  An inspirational document that many care leavers helped prepare and in which they invested great hope. Of course, this government has not made it mandatory to meet its recommendations, and we know of signatory councils across England who are not complying. Can we rely on the Charter to support young people leaving care? I’m afraid not! We would support any proposal to make it mandatory for councils to implement it in full, but that won’t happen under this administration.

We have asked repeatedly to meet directly with ministers responsible and put our questions to them directly. They declined due to ‘diary commitments’. Our MP said that we had been listened to because our Chair Ben had been invited to give evidence at the Select Committee (which appears to have gone unheeded). 
By what stretch of imagination does speaking to a select committee equate with meeting a responsible minister and challenging them face to face on behalf of the care leavers we believe they have abandoned?

We are prepared to meet the Minister at a time and place of his choosing and put our questions to him. For example, in claiming that children’s homes nationally were in too parlous a state to allow young care leavers to stay on up to 21 in the rare cases when that may be appropriate (as in ‘Staying Put’ for fostered children,) why did he choose to ignore the judgements on children’s homes of his own watchdog Ofsted which do not support such a statement? We have other difficult questions to ask too.

Our MP said that ECLCM had failed to work with government to gain equality of aftercare for all care leavers because we refused to become directly involved in one of the expensive pilots they have introduced. We profoundly disagree; the pilots are looking at alternatives to support young people leaving children’s homes but are not looking at implementing the ‘Staying Put’ arrangements now being offered to children leaving foster care. That is not equality.

If we may be clear - the suggestion is that children in foster care can stay with their existing foster carers. Of course, this is what they should do. At best children in residential homes can move to a different resource. Would anyone support a plan for children in foster homes being made to transfer to a different foster home at eighteen? 

It will be years before the pilots report back. How many young care leavers will have struggled to cope without adequate support before anyone gets round to listening to the outcomes of the pilots. Mr Timpson said that he would allow ‘Staying Put’ arrangements for children leaving children’s homes ‘in a flash’ if he believed children would be safe and better off there. Yet he never responded when asked if he would support such arrangements being introduced if the pilots suggested so?

We at ECLCM are concerned that the pilots are simply this government ‘kicking the ball into the long grass’ until a few years hence after the next General Election. That’s why we don’t support the pilots. We don’t want to get involved with the pilots because we believe they are a bad idea, but we are happy to talk to them and share any expertise our group may have. We did write and offer a local pilot scheme. We still await the reply.

ECLCM want all young people leaving care to have the same rights and support up to the age of 21. We won’t support or justify any differential support or what we consider discrimination against any group. Do we consider such discriminatory policy to be uncaring? Yes, I’m afraid we do. Actually let me re-phrase that – We’re proud that we do.

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