In December 2016 I blogged about how Hammersmith and Fulham had become the first London council to make care leavers exempt from council tax until the age of 25. I argued that this was a welcome move (of course), and one which should be followed by other local authorities, but that we shouldn't overstate the significance of this. The truth is that substantial changes to the legal rights of care leavers and the legal duties owed to them by local authorities over almost two decades have done little to dent the depressing statistics about their life chances and outcomes. Far more radical change is needed, at a national level, if we want to change the picture.
Call for Local Authorities to Exempt Care Leavers from Council Tax
Today, Tom Redfearn, senior public affairs officer at The Children’s Society, has had a powerful blog published in LocalGov, available here, emphasising how important it is to make life easier for care leavers given the extra challenges they face, and urging local authorities across England to recognise this and exempt them from council tax to age 25. So far, The Children's Society has worked with almost 30 local authorities across England to make this change. Tom Redfearn points out, though, that:
"Almost 30 councils doing this is great, but there are 152 upper tier councils in England. We’re keen to work with other councils and would encourage them all to take this small step which could make a big difference to the lives of vulnerable young people."
He is right to call for other councils to make this change. Care leavers include many extremely vulnerable young people, who may have experienced abuse or neglect prior to their move into care in the first place. As Baroness Hale pointed out in R (G) v Southwark LBC  1 WLR 1299, at , care leavers do not have the support network available to other young people entering adulthood, and this is precisely why the 'Leaving Care regime' was introduced in 2000 and 2001 (through the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and the Children (Leaving Care) (England) Regulations 2001). The aim of those Leaving Care duties is, as Baroness Hale put it in that case, to "provide a child or young person with the sort of parental guidance and support which most young people growing up in their own families can take for granted but which those who are separated or estranged from their families cannot." Local authorities are the 'corporate parents' for those in their care, and they are supposed to support care leavers in the way that any reasonable parent would - for example, by assisting with budgeting, or helping to buy furniture for a first flat. Critically, financial education should be provided to care leavers, but research suggests that most councils are failing to provide financial education and debt advice to care leavers. Council tax exacerbates the pressures on this vulnerable group. The Children's Society's brilliant analysis in its 2015 report, The Wolf at the Door: How Council Tax Debt Collection is Harming Children, found that care leavers are a particularly vulnerable group for council tax debt (see page 33):
"Often, when care leavers move into independent accommodation they begin to manage their own budget fully for the first time. Evidence from our own services shows how challenging care leavers can find managing their own budgets and how scary they found falling behind on their council tax."
Council tax debts mounting up can cause great distress to care leavers, often resulting in them cutting back on essentials such as food or heating; and there are many horror stories of struggling care leavers receiving threatening letters and even court summonses (from their supposed 'corporate parents') when they fall behind on council tax payments.
Let's hope other local authorities heed The Children's Society's call for policy change, and join those who have already exempted care leavers from council tax to the age of 25. Tom Redfearn quite rightly describes it as a "cheap and straightforward policy": the cost is about £20,000 - £30,000 per year for local authorities, a relative drop in the ocean of their annual budgets of £200m+ (although we must bear in mind the swingeing cuts to local authority budgets and the competing financial pressures). It is a relatively small change but one which can make a huge difference to this very vulnerable group of young people.
The Children's Society has prepared a list of the 30 local authorities who have agreed to exempt care leavers from council tax. It will take you under 1 minute to check if your area is one of these, and, if not, to ask your councillors for change. See here for details.
Change Needed at National Level
But we must also remember that such local changes, whilst important, are not enough. The Children's Society's Wolf at the Door report called for a care leaver exemption to be decided "at a national level, as is the case for the student exemption" (p. 38; note at that time the call was for this to apply to age 21 rather than 25). A national decision on this issue would avoid the current postcode lottery, whereby care leavers who happen to live in one borough get the benefit of the exemption but a few miles down the road a care leaver does not.
And if we truly want to change the picture for care leavers, far more radical changes at national level are vital. Take a look at the wish list of mine from December 2016, here. It includes:
(a) funding for local authorities to improve the support provided to children when in care or s. 20 accommodated (including securing more stability and minimising the number of moves) and to care leavers; and
(b) strengthening and extending the 'staying put' provisions, introduced on a limited and weak basis in 2014, stopping the automatic cut-off which sees many 18-year-olds abruptly moved from care and into independent living on their 18th birthdays. This issue is currently being highlighted by campaigner and author Ben Ashcroft, who is one of the founder members of the 'Every Child Leaving Care Matters' campaign. In September and October 2017 he is undertaking a 300 mile walk from his home town of Halifax to Parliament to raise awareness about this campaign - you can find out more and support him here. We should add our voices to his campaign and keep pressing for national change.
That is why The Children’s Society has been campaigning for councils to exempt care leavers from council tax until the age of 25. We have already worked with almost 30 local authorities across England to do just that. It’s a cheap and straightforward policy; the typical cost has been around £20-30,000 per year for councils with annual budgets of upwards of £200m. ... Almost 30 councils doing this is great, but there are 152 upper tier councils in England. We’re keen to work with other councils and would encourage them all to take this small step which could make a big difference to the lives of vulnerable young people.