Care leavers campaign for better support: 'We don't have a great start in life when we turn 18'
The system isn’t set up to provide the essential support that care leavers need in their adult life. So a group of campaigners decided to come up with the policy reforms urgently required themselves
by: Eve Livingston
20 Jun 2022
Care leavers and campaigners
Darren Moore, Tash Deacon and
Casey Armstrong with Charlotte from Leicestershire Cares
Photo: THE LEARNING AND WORK INSTITUTE/LEICESTERSHIRE CARES
Casey Armstrong was 14 when she first entered foster care, and 18 when she left and became independent. At 19, she suffered problems with her physical and mental health which left her unable to work. “That’s when I started to experience how bad the Universal Credit system really is,” says Armstrong, now 22 and living in Loughborough, where she studies at college. “It’s a bad system in general, but there are layers upon layers of how it can particularly affect care-experienced people.”
Now, alongside a group of other care-experienced young people and supported by Lloyds Foundation and the Learning and Work Institute, Armstrong is calling for changes to the system so it can better serve young people like her. For the past nine months the group have worked together to identify specific policy asks which they believe would improve experiences of the welfare system and access to education and employment for care-experienced young people. Their six demands range from an increase to Universal Credit to the introduction of care-leaver champions in Job Centres.
“We don’t have a great start in life when we turn 18 and leave care – there’s very limited access to support when it comes to finances,” Armstrong points out. “Universal Credit just doesn’t acknowledge that and actually accentuates those difficulties.”
Care-experienced young people aged 19-21 are around three times more likely than their peers to be out of employment, education or training, and the Learning and Work Institute estimates that there are currently around 35,000 care leavers aged 19-24 accessing support from the welfare system. On top of this, research by the Children’s Society in 2017 found that care leavers were three times more likely to be sanctioned than other Universal Credit claimants.
This was the experience of Darren Moore, 19, who also worked to develop the proposals which include aiming to prevent sanctions and providing more clarity to care leavers about the sanction process and the requirements they must meet. Moore’s sanction was ultimately overturned, but he also faced issues when the built-in delay to accessing Universal Credit tipped him into debt. “It was very difficult to receive all eligible support I was entitled to as a care leaver,” he says. “I was on Universal Credit due to my age and care system complications, and I had no income at the time.”
In Armstrong’s case, she was threatened with sanctions multiple times despite providing doctors’ notes proving she was unable to work. When she returned to college two years ago, her work coach gave her incorrect information about her entitlement to Universal Credit, which meant she was almost left with no income when starting her course.
Alongside an overall increase to rates and the establishment of care-leaver champions, the group are also calling for more regular payments, support with budgeting, and the introduction of a ‘marker’ for care leavers within the Universal Credit system so that work coaches can automatically see that a young person has been in care even when they move areas and Job Centres. This existed within the welfare system prior to Universal Credit but is no longer the case, meaning that care leavers often miss out on specific support they are entitled to, such as the apprenticeships care leavers’ bursary.
And, say the group, care leavers under 25 should be exempt from paying council tax. Around 130 local authorities already voluntarily exempt care leavers or offer a substantial discount, but the remaining 20 do not, meaning that two care leavers living one street apart can be expected to pay substantially different rates.
One of the group’s key proposals is for the raising of Universal Credit overall. But, they say, in the absence of that reform, care leavers under 25 should be able to claim the full adult Universal Credit entitlement.
“A lot of the system operates on the belief that if you’re under 25 you have parental support there,” Armstrong says. “Care leavers under 25 who are completely independent still get the lower rate despite their cost of living being exactly the same.”
Armstrong, Moore and the others involved in the project were supported by Leicestershire Cares, Drive Forward and Homes2Inspire to develop their policy asks, which they now hope will be taken forward by MPs and other decision-makers and campaigners. As part of the process, the group contacted their own local representatives and received encouraging responses.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour MP for Leicestershire South and Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, says he agrees that the current Universal Credit system “fails care leavers”.
“This report makes crucial recommendations that ministers should engage with,” he tells The Big Issue. “We need a system that provides security and I’m committed to working with care leavers to ensure they receive the support they need and deserve.”
Dr Luke Evans, Conservative MP for Bosworth, echoed Ashworth’s sentiments, and says he has been interested to read the proposals following a discussion with one of the group during the project.
“I’m pleased to see this policy paper being launched nationally,” he tells The Big Issue. “I’m keen to work with Leicestershire Cares and constituents who have left the care system to ensure their voices are heard by the government.”
Nicola Aylward, Head of Learning for Young People at the Learning and Work Institute, says the changes proposed by the group would help ensure young people leaving care “have the practical, financial and emotional support to live independently and fulfil their potential”.
“Like all young people, the life chances of a young person leaving care should depend on their talent and hard work, not their background,” she says. “Too often, young people leaving care say the welfare system is letting them down.”
For Armstrong, the experience of putting together the proposals was “really motivating,” she says. “But we need to get this to the national level for the policy to change and that’s where it can slow down – so I’m keeping my fingers crossed it keeps the same momentum.”
The recommendations matter, she adds, “because it shouldn’t have to be like this”.
“It doesn’t take that much for the system to improve; lots of this doesn’t need billions of pounds, just improved communication,” she says. “We just need to reach the right people to sort that out and it would make such a difference to the lives of so many care leavers.”
The group’s recommendations in full
1. There should be a designated lead or champion for care leavers in every Jobcentre Plus or local Youth Hub.
2. Transparency within the system should be improved with the establishment of a ‘marker’ for care leavers, alongside corresponding online information.
3. Universal Credit should be increased and extending the over-25s rate to care leavers should be considered.
4. Access to more regular Universal Credit payments should be available where appropriate, and budgeting support should be provided.
5. Sanctions should be prevented and care leavers should be given clear information about the sanction process and their responsibilities as claimants.
6. All local authorities should exempt care leavers under 25 from paying council tax, or provide alternative support.