Posted: 10 August 2017

The benefits system is letting down care leavers

Children in care are some of the most vulnerable in our society, with many having experienced abuse or neglect. When they leave care at 18, they face new challenges as they start living on their own for the first time without the family support that many of us take for granted.

We know from our work supporting children in care and care leavers, that managing money can be really hard. All of a sudden, they have to start paying for things like food, rent, council tax and utility bills, for the first time.

Benefits are a lifeline for many care leavers, including those who are working or studying, giving them a safety net to help them when they don’t have parental support.

Our report, Claiming after Care, shows how the benefits system is particularly tough for care leavers and is leaving many in debt, rather than helping them out.


A fairer start for care leavers

Ask your council to ensure that care leavers in your area get a fairer start at adulthood

A lifeline for care leavers

Children leaving care can’t apply for Universal Credit, a monthly benefit payment, until they have turned 18. This can leave them without any money for at least five weeks, as the application is processed and paid in arrears.

They can apply for a loan (‘advance payment’) to see them through this period, but this means starting out their adult life in debt. Giving care leavers an ‘advance grant’ of their first month’s benefit instead of a loan would help solve this problem.

Benefit sanctions are hitting vulnerable young people hardest

Our research shows that young people leaving care are experiencing particularly harsh punishments in the form of benefit sanctions, meaning their benefits are stopped.

Benefits are a lifeline for many care leavers, including those who are working or studying

Care leavers are five times more likely to be sanctioned than other people. Sanctions can leave care leavers without money for weeks, making it impossible for them to pay their bills and make ends meet.

We heard from care leavers who had been sanctioned because they missed their job centre appointment – but it had clashed with their college class.

Helping care leavers into work

The new scheme designed to help young people get a job or apprenticeship, known as the 'Youth Obligation', risks replicating the worst aspects of the sanctions regime and the previous scheme, the Work Programme.

Under the Work Programme, we found that care leavers were half as likely as other 18-24 year olds to achieve a positive job outcome.

We need a more helpful approach for care leavers

The Youth Obligation scheme requires care leavers to undertake an ‘intensive activity period’ and obtain certain skills or an apprenticeship or job after six months, or be sanctioned. We’re concerned that this could cause particular difficulties and more sanctions for care leavers, who may have complicated issues going on in their lives and may need more time.

Three simple things the Government can do

We need a more helpful approach for care leavers. The system shouldn’t needlessly add yet more hurdles and anxiety for care leavers often dealing with complex issues at a time of huge change in their lives.

Here are some simple things that would help:

  1. Give care leavers an Advance Grant of their first benefit payment so they can survive the initial five week wait without going into debt
  2. The early warning system for sanctions should always be used for care leavers so that they can take action to prevent sanctions
  3. Care leaver sanctions should be set at the lower levels used for 16/17 year olds, making sanctions less costly and shorter in duration

Local councils have a role too

It’s also important that local authorities work more closely with Job Centres. Getting professionals talking to each other and working together to support care leavers is one of the quickest fixes for this big problem.

Councils also need to think carefully about the financial support they can offer. We’ve been campaigning hard to make sure care leavers are exempt from council tax until the age of 25. This change can make a huge difference to young people leaving care, giving them valuable time to learn how to manage their finances without the worry of falling into council tax debt.

So far almost 30 councils have made the change, but there are many more. You can help to give care leavers in your local area the space they need to begin adult life debt-free.

Ask your council to give care leavers a fairer start

By Iain Porter

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