Lisa Nandy MP: Our most vulnerable children are being denied free childcare
Labour's Lisa Nandy asks why foster children are excluded from the Government's extended free childcare provision for 3 and 4-year-olds.
This September, when the Government extended free childcare entitlement for 3 and 4-year-old children by an extra 15 hours, it was hailed as a big step forward for parents and families. The aim was to encourage more parents into work and it was hoped it would help to alleviate family poverty and have wider economic benefits.
But buried in the small print, beyond the headlines, it turned out that all children are eligible, except for one group: foster children. Despite many foster children accessing and benefiting from nursery provision, they were the only group of children excluded from the scheme.
That's why today I’ve called a debate in the House of Commons to put pressure on Ministers to right this wrong. It is supported by charities, trade unions, and politicians of all parties who believe, as the former Conservative education Minister Edward Timpson wrote recently, that foster carers who need it should be “offered flexibility and support to enable them to combine fostering with other work”.
As Timpson, whose family were foster carers knows well, children in foster care are one of the most vulnerable groups of children, unable to live with their birth families, and often dealing with the pain of separation. Over a decade working with children in care before I was elected to Parliament I learned that for them, continuity, where it can be preserved, is essential.
But already charities like the Fostering Network have found examples of children who have to give up their nursery place when they become fostered, because they are no longer entitled to the same funding as they were when they lived with their birth families. The result is that children lose more of the relationships that sustain them – with staff, other children and in a familiar setting – at the very time they most need them.
In other cases, foster carers have been able to claim under the scheme for their own children, but not for the child they foster, leaving two children growing up in the same household, one able to go to nursery school while the other is not. A common thread that runs through the stories children tell about the pain of being in care is the feeling they are marked out from other children as different, often expressing a desperate desire to fit in. This exclusion of foster children from the scheme enshrines that difference and discrimination into government policy.
For children who have experienced trauma and upheaval, these early years are critical. For some children, their interests will best be served by being at home with their foster carer. But others will have had limited social interaction and will thrive around other children their age. The children act is clear that the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all decisions affecting them. This policy does not meet that test.
Foster carers already suffer immense financial pressure with barely 10% earning the equivalent of the national living wage. While the Government is right that foster carers receive a national minimum fostering allowance, it does not contain an element to cover childcare, and around 1 in 7 councils pay a rate below the national minimum. The proportion of foster carers who believe their allowance is sufficient to cover the costs of fostering has halved in recent years. Family and friends carers often have to face the heart-breaking decision to accept hardship or see a much loved grandchild, niece or nephew go into care. With record numbers of children in care, the Fostering Network estimates we need to recruit more than 7,000 additional foster carers to meet children's needs. Instead the Government is actively pursuing a policy that will make this worse, leaving more children stranded in unsuitable placements, or forced to leave siblings or grandparents behind because no local placements are available.
The human cost of this oversight for some of the most vulnerable children in the country is beyond measure. What is even more disappointing is that the state is their corporate parent, holding parental responsibility for them because their parents cannot or will not. No parent would allow their children to be an afterthought in critical decisions, unresponsive to their needs, and we shouldn't either. That is why today, MPs will be calling on Ministers to think again.