THE BLOG

Call for a U-Turn on 'Bedroom Tax' for Foster Carers

06/03/2013 13:37 GMT | Updated 05/05/2013 10:12 BST

Housing benefit reform, better known to the lay person as "bedroom tax", is about to become part of life for foster carers who live in social housing and claim housing benefit.

The Government's reforms to the current benefit system will mean that some foster carers will effectively have to start paying to care for some of the UKs most vulnerable children. This is because fostered children will not be counted as part of a household when occupancy is assessed, meaning that their bedroom will considered to be empty. Their foster family will therefore be deemed to be under occupying, and their housing benefit reduced.

And yet by law fostered children must have their own bedroom. This is a prerequisite to becoming a foster carer and you will not be approved as a foster carer if you do not have at least one spare room.

From 1 April 2013, children who are fostered by foster carers in social housing will become invisible to the Government, and subsequently to housing departments in local authorities - their corporate parents - as a result.

The campaign to stop the so-called bedroom tax has been hitting the headlines of late but the campaign has been running for a long time. The children's charity, the Fostering Network, campaigned widely on the issue and helped to secure a five million pound Discretionary Housing Fund to support foster carers but this Government insists that this is not to be ring-fenced to help foster carers, and as such many housing departments within local authorities are using the money elsewhere.

This is why 11 children's charities, including the Fostering Network, TACT, The Who Cares? Trust and Barnardo's have this week written to Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan-Smith MP and Chancellor George Osborne MP to ask for foster carers to be exempt from under-occupancy penalties.

The letter highlights alarming stories from foster carers around the UK, including some foster carers are being told that they will not have access to the discretionary fund to compensate them for the loss of housing benefit. Some have been told that they will receive only a contribution to the loss of housing benefit, rather than covering the full amount.

Foster carers have also reported receiving visits and letters from their local authority housing department saying they will have to move into smaller accommodation. Some foster carers have been told they will have access to the discretionary fund, but will have to reapply every 4-6 weeks, even though they may have children placed with them on a long-term or permanent basis.

During a Parliamentary debate last week, the Government finally looked like they were trying to understand the concerns of Britain's foster carers on this issue. Steve Webb MP, from the Department for Work and Pensions who are implementing housing benefit reform, said they could look again at the rules for foster carers: "My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are entirely open to discussing whether that (i.e. the discretionary fund for foster carers) is the most effective way of delivering that support.

"Our judgement was that discretionary housing payments gave local authorities the discretion we would want them to have. If for any reason that message is not getting through and is causing anxieties to foster families who do not know about DHPs, for example, or if local authorities have not communicated well enough, we would be happy to look at whether this is the most effective way of supporting families."

This limbo isn't good enough though. Foster carers across the country are numb with fear at the prospect of having to leave their homes and having to stop being the foster carers. At a time when more children than ever are coming into care, foster carers need the support to continue to do their job.