Care leavers and the welfare system

Nicola Aylward, head of learning for young people


23 06 2022


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Through no fault of their own, around 85,000 children and young people find themselves in the care system at any one time, and around 10,000 leave care each year. Whilst some young people have good experiences, far too many do not. It’s not unusual for young people to have over five placements in a year, often moving home and school at short notice. A young man that I spoke to recently told me that he was removed from his foster home and taken to another home, in a different part of the country, with no warning. His personal adviser arrived, he was asked to pack up his belongings in a bin bag, and they left. He had no opportunity to say goodbye to his friends and classmates. Experiences such as this are hugely disruptive to a young person’s development and education, and it’s one of a number of reasons why many care leavers become NEET (not in education, employment or training).

At Learning and Work Institute we believe that care leavers’ chances and achievements should be determined by their interests, talents and hard work – not by their difficult start in life. In 2021, around 41% of care experienced young people aged 19-21 were NEET –around three times higher than for all young people. Ideally all care leavers should be able to gain qualifications, skills and secure good jobs that enable them to build positive futures for themselves and their families. However, the reality is often different. Far too many care leavers find themselves out of education and employment, and in need of support from the welfare system.

Working with young people from Leicestershire Cares, Drive Forward Foundation and Homes2Inspire, we’ve been exploring how effective the welfare system is at supporting care leavers. Hard data is difficult to come by, as, at national level, there’s no marker in the Universal Credit (UC) system to identify care leavers and track their outcomes. However, care leavers’ accounts of their experiences, alongside wider research, paints a bleak picture. The young people we worked with described feeling overwhelmed and confused when they first seek support. They talked about a lack of information about their rights and entitlements, lack of empathy and understanding from professionals, having to tell their story over and over again, not understanding what’s expected of them and having no-one to turn to when things go wrong. One young woman recounted missing a job interview because she got on the wrong bus. She was so worried about the reaction of the employer and her Jobcentre Plus work coach that she didn’t contact them for two days. When she did, a sanction had already been applied, which the work coach said was impossible to remove. This was the first breach of her UC claimant commitment and her benefit payment was reduced. Wider research shows that care leavers are three times more likely to be sanctioned compared to others – and the consequences can be devastating.

We’ve been supporting the young people we worked with to contact their local MPs and councillors and raise awareness of the challenges they face in the welfare system. We’ve also worked together to identify six policy changes that would really make a difference in enabling care leavers to overcome previous negative experiences, get the support they need and set them on a positive path to independent and active adult lives.

  1. Firstly, there should be a designated lead or champion at every Jobcentre Plus or local Youth Hub, focused on care leavers, to provide empathetic and joined up support that’s integrated with wider local services and leaving care teams.
  2. Next, we need better identification of care leavers through the introduction of a UC ‘marker’ in the welfare system, improved data and clear information for care leavers, to enable them to understand their rights and the support available.
  3. Alongside this there’s also a strong case for increasing the UC rate for all claimants, particularly given the current cost of living crisis. In addition, many of the care leavers we spoke to advocate they should be entitled to the over 25s rate, reflecting their unique and independent circumstances.
  4. Care leavers often aren’t aware of options for advance payments, alternative payment arrangements and frequently find budgeting on a low income very difficult. This can lead to re-payment problems and debt and can push them into negative activity and behaviour simply to survive. Increased access to advance and more regular Universal Credit payments where needed and budgeting support would help to address this.
  5. Sanctioning can have a devastating impact on a care leaver and should always be the last resort. Work coaches should aim to prevent sanctions and ensure that care leavers are clear about their claimant commitment.
  6. Finally, all local authorities should exempt care leavers from paying council tax or provide alternative support, up to the age of 25.

Care leavers’ life chances are restricted by their backgrounds, and they’re being held back by circumstances they did not chose. Young people often refer to leaving the care system as being a ‘cliff edge’ – they suddenly find themselves living independently, navigating a complex and disjointed system.  The young people we worked with are eloquent and passionate about making a difference for other children and young people who find themselves in that situation. The six policy changes they identified need to be acted upon to help to overcome some of the challenges they face.