An employment tribunal in Scotland has ruled that two foster carers must be recognised as employees. James and Christine Johnstone argued they were entitled to benefits as employees of Glasgow City Council, and the tribunal ruled in their favour.
Judge Ian McFatridge noted that his ruling was based on the particular type of fostering work that the Johnstones undertake, and stressed that it was not a wider judgment on the status of all foster carers.
Nonetheless, the outcome has been hailed as a landmark ruling, which other fostering providers will need to consider, and there is no question that the status of foster carers is an issue that must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
There are different types of foster carers, and financial arrangements vary from provider to provider. But, as a rule, foster carers are usually self-employed. They receive an allowance for looking after children and young people in their own homes. But because they are not employees they are not entitled to benefits such as holiday pay and sick leave, and must make their own pension arrangements. They also have limited legal protection when things go wrong. A placement can end suddenly, without notice, and the allowance is discontinued immediately.
If this arrangement seems precarious, that is because it is. Despite this, there are more than 50,000 families in the UK willing to welcome children and young people into their homes, often for an unlimited time and usually at a moment's notice.
It is an arrangement that is coming under strain. There are many reasons for this, but a key issue is that fostering allowances have fallen in real terms, and often no longer cover the cost of providing homes to children. Other support for fostering families has been curtailed, as austerity has taken its toll. In addition, placements are becoming more complex and taking longer to resolve.
Will employment status address these concerns? My view is that it will not. Personally, I would not want to become an employee of our local authority, for whom we provide fostering services. Our allowances are paid by them, but the reality is that we work for the children in our care. We protect their interests, and nobody else's. We are free to challenge decisions that we believe are against their best interests, as we often do. We refuse placements that are not appropriate. In between placements we can take a break when we need it, and for as long as it takes to be ready to foster again.
Our role as advocates would certainly be compromised as employees. The relationship with children would undoubtedly suffer, particularly with those old enough to understand the difference between a host family and just another council employee. We have never taken a holiday without our foster children (apart from the occasional overnight break). And like many foster carers, we came to this later in our lives, and the pension benefits we might accrue will be limited. There are better ways to save for our eventual retirement.
This does not mean that foster carers should be put at a disadvantage over other workers. There are steps that fostering providers can take to support carers in other ways, particularly local authorities. One would be to allow carers to 'bank' days based on the duration of a placement, so that when it ends they continue to receive an allowance for a number of days, in lieu of holiday pay. Another would be for all foster carers to be entitled to credits on payments they make to the local authority, such as council tax. Better access to respite care is essential.
Local authorities can do much more to secure discounts from local businesses from foster carers. After all, we spend taxpayer's money on everything from school uniforms to trips to the cinema. I feel no shame in asking corporate citizens to help bear some of the cost.
These are small but significant changes to help improve the narrative around foster care, sharing the financial burden while also integrating foster care, and foster carers, more closely into the community, instead of leaving us at the margin.
More importantly, change needs to come from the top. Directors of children's services can lead by example, giving foster carers an equal voice in their fostering and adoption teams, instead of treating us like providers of bed and breakfast, as is the case too often. Respect for foster carers, no less than we deserve, is what most of us really want.