14/08/2017 12:33 BST | Updated 14/08/2017 12:33 BST

It Should Be A Lifeline - But Too Often, Our Benefits System Is Failing Care Leavers

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Many children in care will have experienced a really difficult start in life.

They may have faced abuse, neglect or family breakdown and when they leave care for the first time they face new challenges adjusting to independent living without the family support enjoyed by other young people.

At The Children's Society, we know from our work supporting children in care and care leavers that they can find managing their finances particularly difficult, as they may be having to pay for essentials like food, rent, council tax and utilities for the first time.

Benefits provide a vital lifeline for many of the estimated 53,000 care leavers aged 19-25 across the country, including those who are in work or education.

Yet our latest report Claiming After Care, which draws upon conversations with care leavers and Job Centre Plus staff, highlights how the system is leaving many starting their life after care in debt and even at risk of being made homeless.

Alarmingly, the new system of Universal Credit does not seem to be improving the lot of many care leavers - particularly those with disabilities or children of their own. For example, a 21-year-old whose disability limits their capability for work and who rents a one-bed flat from a housing association, could lose half of their disposal income making a new claim under Universal Credit compared to the old system.

Many care leavers make their first claim for support from benefits when they turn 18, already a very turbulent time in their lives. But the way Universal Credit is paid - at least one month in arrears - and because there are often delays in administration of payments, care leavers tell us that those first few weeks can be very stressful as they wait in limbo between the care system and their first benefit payment.

Small changes to the system would go a long way to putting care leavers in a stronger financial position. We would urge the Government to pay younger care leavers the same rate of Universal Credit as over-25 year olds, instead of the £15 per week less that they are currently entitled to. Similarly, we believe that all care leavers should be given the housing support that they need to rent a one bedroom flat (rather than a room in shared accommodation), so that they don't have the rug pulled out from under them when they turn 22. Finally, the Severe Disability Premium, which has been cut under Universal Credit, should be reinstated for disabled care leavers.

Benefit sanctions are also hitting care leavers in the pocket. Our Freedom of Information requests revealed that from April-September 2016 nearly one-third of Job Seeker's Allowance claimants known to be care leavers had some or all of their benefits stopped for failing to meet conditions. We found that care leavers are five times more likely to be sanctioned than other claimants.

The actual number may be higher because only those who identify themselves as having previously been looked after, are recorded as care leavers - and there is no way to identify claimants as such under Universal Credit. This needs to change.

Although care leavers were less likely to appeal sanctions, they were more likely to succeed with appeals, with nearly 9 out of 10 proving successful. We heard from care leavers who had been sanctioned because their job centre appointment clashed with college commitments, for example.

We are calling on the Government to ensure that care leavers benefit from the early warning system already in place for other vulnerable claimants. This would mean that care leavers would have extra opportunities to avoid a sanction.

When sanctions are applied we believe they should be at the lower levels set for 16-17-year-olds, and that care leavers' benefits should be reinstated as soon as they comply with the necessary requirements.

It is also crucial that professionals working with care leavers improve their communication. Personal advisors - professionals allocated to support care leavers by councils - often hold information which could assist in resolving a problem with a care leaver's claim. That is why The Children's Society is urging the Government to enable care leavers to designate their personal adviser as assisting in their claims.

Finally, we are concerned that the Government risks replicating the worst aspects of the benefit sanctions regime and the Work Programme, in the new Youth Obligation scheme, which aims to support 16-21-year-old claimants into work. Under the Work Programme, we found care leavers were half as likely as other 18-24 year olds to secure a job.

The new scheme starts with an Intensive Activity Period, which includes workshops aimed at improving job search skills. After six months there is a requirement to gain an apprenticeship, work-based skills, or a mandatory work placement. We are concerned that this accelerated move into work could cause particular difficulties for care leavers and lead to more sanctions being imposed. The Government should give care leavers the option of delaying or pausing the Intensive Activity Period if they need time to deal with other issues in their lives.

Care leavers' vulnerabilities, which can include challenges with mental health and other issues, should mean they get extra support and understanding from job centres and personal advisors. Instead, these vulnerabilities can make it more likely that they fall foul of strict benefits conditions, face administrative issues and struggle financially.

Introducing our suggested changes need not be hugely expensive, but they could make a big difference to care leavers: creating a benefits system which is easier to navigate and offers them greater understanding, stability and financial support at a challenging time in their lives which will shape their whole future.