21 Dec 2016

Hundreds of the most vulnerable young people in London have been exempted from paying council tax following a campaign by The Children’s Society.

Hammersmith & Fulham Council has become the first local authority in the capital to scrap the payments for care leavers under the age of 25 – in a move aimed at helping to reduce youth homelessness and problem debt.

Now The Children’s Society is calling on the rest of the capital’s councils to follow Hammersmith & Fulham’s positive lead and take action to support London’s estimated 10,000 young care leavers, who have previously lived within the care system – often following neglect, abuse or family breakdown.

The emotional and psychological scars they have suffered can take years to heal. Yet, when they leave care, they are confronted with a mountain of challenges that would surely overwhelm any young person, never mind one who has experienced trauma.

Research by The Children’s Society has shown that many of these young people –often through no fault of their own – can struggle to manage their money, to make sure that they pay bills on time, and plan financially for the longer-term. This leaves them unprepared for the realities of adult life and puts them at risk of falling into debt and becoming homeless.

Care leavers can be a particularly vulnerable group when it comes to council tax. When they fall behind on their payments the pace of escalation of debt by local authorities – from warning letters through to court summonses and enforcement actions – can be frightening. One care leaver told The Children’s Society that they did not know what council tax was or that they needed to pay it when they began living more independently.

A care leaver in South London, who has struggled to pay his council tax on time from his apprentice salary, said: “[The Council Tax payment] is not a lot but it is when you’re on a small wage… It’s like you’re in a black hole, you don’t know what to do, you don’t know what to think.”

Another said: “I’ve got about £4,000 overdraft… I just push it to the back of my head.”

The Children’s Society has argued that making care leavers eligible for 100% council tax support until they turn 25 could have a dramatic impact in reducing their risk of falling into problem debt – and by doing so prevent additional costs to taxpayers further down the line.

Sam Royston, Policy Director at The Children’s Society, said: “To expect some of the country’s most vulnerable young people to start paying council tax just days after leaving care is setting them up to fail.

“Without the family safety net that most children benefit from as they become adults, many new care leavers struggle to open a bank account, juggle their household bills and plan financially for the long-term.

“We know that the life chances and outcomes for care leavers are significantly worse than for those who have not grown up in care. That is why, where appropriate, our most vulnerable young people must be given the special treatment that their special status demands.

“For these reasons The Children’s Society has been calling on local authorities – who take on parental responsibilities for children in care – to exempt those leaving care from paying council tax until they turn 25. We would urge other councils across the capital to follow Hammersmith and Fulham’s lead and give care leavers a better chance of a fair start in life.”

Cllr Sue Fennimore, Hammersmith & Fulham Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion, said: “Young people in care have often had traumatic experiences and find it more difficult than most to adjust to living by themselves. Exempting them from council tax will give them the vital breathing space they need as they establish their new, independent adult lives.”

Case study

One care leaver from East London, who left foster care to live on her own at 16, initially struggled with managing her money and juggling bills. When she turned 18 and faced paying council tax for the first time she got behind with her payments and found herself owing her local authority £400. Instead of helping her the council took her to court.

She said: “I spoke to them when I couldn’t pay it but they didn’t want to know and just sent me notices. If you know a young person can’t pay it for some reasons they should show a bit of sympathy. I was trying to get used to bills and living by myself and having my independence but on top of that I was already paying all these bills. It was overwhelming. The local authority is my parent, my legal guardian, and they are taking me to court.”

The 19-year-old, who now works in mental health support, said scrapping council tax payments for care leavers would give a welcome boost to vulnerable young people when they needed help most. She said: “It would make a huge difference to my life [if I didn’t have to pay council tax]. You wouldn’t have this constant worry at the back of your mind and you wouldn’t be pinching the pennies like I did. I couldn’t spend money on personal stuff like clothes and I had to cut down on my heating and food. I didn’t have the money. People don’t understand the other side of being in care. We have never had any bills ourselves and have never done anything by ourselves. As soon as you come out of care you have lots of bills but it doesn’t make a difference to how they treat you.”

Table: Young care leavers in London

Area                                     Approx no. of care leavers aged under 25
Camden                               310
City Of London                     0
Hackney                               260
Hammersmith & Fulham       270
Haringey                              460
Islington                               350
Kensington and Chelsea       200
Lambeth                               550
Lewisham                             460
Newham                               460
Southwark                            580
Tower Hamlets                     310
Wandsworth                         180
Westminster                         210
Barking and Dagenham        330
Barnet                                  290
Bexley                                  250
Brent                                    410
Bromley                               300
Croydon                              1,240
Ealing                                  420
Enfield                                 270
Greenwich                           450
Harrow                                230
Havering                             140
Hillingdon                           490
Hounslow                            320
Kingston Upon Thames       150
Merton                                160
Redbridge                           220
Richmond Upon Thames     90
Sutton                                170
Waltham Forest                   330
London (total)                    10,900

Media enquiries
For more information or an interview, please call The Children’s Society media team on 020 7841 4422 or email media@childrenssociety.org.uk. For out-of-hours enquiries please call 07810 796 508.

Notes to Editors
• The Children’s Society’s report, The Cost of Being Care-Free, found that over 4,000 young people who left care missed out on crucial financial education, as almost half of the local authorities in England are failing to offer care leavers financial education and debt advice.
• The Children’s Society is a national charity that runs local services, helping children and young people when they are at their most vulnerable, and have nowhere left to turn. We also campaign for changes to laws affecting children and young people, to stop the mistakes of the past being repeated in the future. Our supporters around the country fund our services and join our campaigns to show children and young people they are on their side.