In the final part of his two-part series, Cllr Craig Wright discusses the need for urgent policy change to significantly enhance the life chances of our care leavers and help them overcome challenges unique to them.
The 2019 Labour Party Manifesto made only one reference to care leavers in which we promised to target bursaries to encourage take up of climate apprenticeship as part of the green new deal. We need to do better. I would propose there are three policy areas, as well as extending the definition of care leaver to include those up to the age of 25, which will significantly enhance the life chances of our care leavers and help them beat the odds.
- Beef up the Care Leaver Covenant
Despite its best intentions, the current covenant falls short. It does not go far enough to ensure all care leavers are given opportunities they need to access work and additional support. The beefed up covenant should first of all require all multinational companies and large organisations such as Multi-Academy Trusts and Councils, to sign up for the covenant. Care leavers should then be carefully matched to an industry or sector they are interested in and given expanded opportunities through funded work experience, apprenticeships and access courses. As part of the Care Leaver Covenant, care leavers should be given additional bursary, accommodation and academic support to access universities. This will go some way to addressing the issue of NEETs.
Equally, improved access to mental health services will ensure our care leavers receive the emotional support they need to succeed. As well as this, high quality housing, council tax exemption, free public transport and discounted access to leisure facilities such as gyms should be a part of the package of support offered to all care leavers as standard. Ensuring this is part of the covenant allows our care leavers access to vital services.
This care leaver covenant will ensure no care leavers are left behind as they transition to independence.
- Corporate Parenting
One of the most important duties of every councillor is their function as a corporate parent to children who are looked after. Yet, this role is rarely supported through training nor is it given the attention it deserves. Corporate Parenting boards in some authorities are poor, Middlesbrough’s children services Ofsted report found it to be “under-developed” and where the councillor with executive responsibility “not had the time to understand the issues for children and young people in Middlesbrough.” It is this poor scrutiny which leads to systematic failures for care leavers such as criminalising and over-surveillance.
Therefore, we need to ensure that the role of the corporate parent becomes law and councillors are required to ensure the needs of care leavers are met, reported on and scrutinised in the same way a budget is. There should be secretary of state approval for annual strategies for care leavers. This will allow central government greater oversight of local authority strategies for supporting care leavers, otherwise we leave it to chance – this is unacceptable.
- Enshrine the ‘care leaver voice’ at the heart of policy making
Too often, care leavers are simply receivers of policy and are not integral partners in crafting the policy. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was drafted 1989 and rapidly ratified by member states, yet its implementation into policy decision making is sadly lagging. Article 12 of the UNCRC makes it clear that young people should be involved in decision making. Care leavers experiences are unique and they deserve to have their voice heard in shaping policies which directly affect them. We should therefore establish a policy which fully realises Article 12 of the UNCRC as well as ensuring that changes in process and policy which affect care leavers are directly consulted with them.
In Middlesbrough, The Voice of the Child team are doing extensive work to build connections and forums where children in care and care leavers can share their views on their care, what is working and crucially, what needs to be better. It gives care leavers direct access to the decision makers and more importantly, allows them to craft policy rather than have it simply done to them.
Simply, we should ensure that policies which apply to care leavers, include care leavers and we should make this law.
Overall, it is an undeniable truth that our care leavers face an uphill battle to begin their life as young adults. The policy response to this has been much too slow and still falls far short of what our care leavers deserve. It is therefore for the Labour Party to pick up this mantle and give our care leavers the life they deserve.
Craig Wright is an Assistant Principal in the North East of England and Labour Councillor for Ladgate Ward, Middlesbrough. He is the Education & Skills spokesperson for Middlesbrough Labour Group.
Follow him on Twitter @CllrCraigWright