Gwenda Thomas Deputy Minister for Social Services
In my Written Statement of 21 March 2013, I announced my intention to introduce a scheme to enable more young people to remain with their foster carers after the age of 18. The ‘When I am Ready’ Scheme has been implemented in three pioneer local authority areas – Rhondda Cynon Taff, Merthyr and Gwynedd – since June last year. The pioneer phase is progressing successfully, and regular reports have been provided to the Monitoring Group which is considering the operation and impact of this Scheme. The purpose of this pioneer phase is to test and refine the operational guidance for post-18 arrangements, for publication later in the year, and to scrutinise and clarify the resource implications of such arrangements for local authorities, young people and their foster carers. I decided to take a phased approach to implementation in response to calls from key stakeholders (including third sector organisations which support children) that we should test out the impact and implications of such arrangements before they are rolled out nationally. It remains my intention that the ‘When I am Ready’ Scheme will be implemented across Wales later this year.
I have received a number of representations over recent months asking me to include specific provision for the ‘When I am Ready’ scheme within the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill. I have listened to the views that have been expressed, including both those of young people who have been looked after and those of looked after children who are approaching the age of 16; and on 15 January I tabled amendments to ensure that post-18 arrangements are included on the face of the Bill.
My intention in introducing these amendments is to clarify the duties on local authorities, as part of their corporate parenting responsibilities, to promote continuity and stability for care leavers in their transition from looked after status to adulthood and independence. The amendments place a clear duty on local authorities to determine whether it would be appropriate for the young person to remain with their foster parents beyond the age of 18, and where appropriate to take steps to facilitate and monitor them. Where, following dialogue with the young person as part of the ongoing assessment process, the local authority determines that such a living arrangement would be appropriate for the young person, and the young person and his or her foster parents wish the arrangement to continue, the authority will be under a duty to provide advice and support, including financial support to facilitate the arrangement.
I welcome the amendment tabled by William Graham AM, proposing a duty on local authorities to publicise their post-18 arrangements. I will ask my “When I am Ready” Monitoring Group to consider and bring forward ideas of how put this into practical effect ahead of our commencement timetable for the Bill. I am also grateful for the amendments tabled by William Graham AM and Lindsay Whittle AM which seek to clarify and reinforce the importance of ensuring that local authority foster parents are supported financially by local authorities in delivering post-18 arrangements. I fully support the intention behind these amendments in recognising the principal role that local authority financial support will have in enabling local authority foster parents and the young people that they care for, to take a considered view about participating in a post-18 living arrangement. I would like to re-assure Members, children and young people, and wider stakeholders, that the provisions of the Bill coupled with amendments that have been tabled will require local authorities to provide such financial support to both the young person and the local authority foster parent.
I have ensured we are able to respond in the long term to the needs of looked after children by including through section 78, a power to make further provision for looked after children under Part 6.
Additionally, my own amendments will help ensure that discussions and planning about post-18 living arrangements begin at an early stage, rather than waiting until the looked after young person turns 16. Planning for transition, including whether a ‘When I am Ready’ arrangement is appropriate, is an issue that stakeholders will wish to influence as part of our comprehensive engagement and consultation strategy during 2014 and 2015 to deliver implementation of the regulations and Code of Practice under the Bill. Early discussion and planning will give the local authority time to consider changing the placement should the foster carers not wish to consider proceeding with the placement beyond the age of 18, or if the child is in other accommodation such as a community home and thinks that he or she might want a ‘When I am Ready’ placement when they cease to be looked after.
Although the evidence shows that many young people who are in foster care will have better outcomes if they are able to stay with their foster carers past the age of 18, such arrangements will not be right for every care leaver. Where such arrangements are not appropriate, local authorities have clear duties under sections 100(1) and (2) of the Bill to provide care leavers with financial and other support in respect of their well-being and educational and training needs.
I would like to reinforce the fact that these are all duties upon local authorities, and also to reiterate what I said in my last Written Statement, that local authorities do not need to wait until these amendments have been implemented to put these arrangements in place. Many local authorities already operate post-18 schemes as part of their corporate parent responsibilities, and the ‘When I am Ready’ Scheme builds upon existing good practice. These amendments clarify and strengthen the rights and entitlements owed to those who are in care, and the continuing responsibilities local authorities owe to these children and young people.
They will consolidate and extend this good practice by placing it on a firmer statutory footing, and together with the results of the pioneer scheme and the resulting guidance, they should ensure that more young people are able to benefit from such arrangements.
I am grateful to all those organisations from local government and the third sector which are working with us in the Monitoring Group to help ensure that the guidance for ‘When I Am Ready’ is fit for purpose and will deliver the goals we all share.
I am also grateful to my fellow Assembly Members, including Ken Skates AM who worked to design the ‘When I am Ready’ Scheme, for their unwavering support for children and young people in care, and for their commitment to ensuring that all care leavers in Wales receive the best possible support so that they can reach their full potential. This has been particularly evident during scrutiny of the Bill, and I look forward to the Stage 3 proceedings on the 4th and 11th of February.