Young people are leaving home later and later in life. Often, Mum and Dad are only a phone call away if they want to know whether that chicken is still safe to eat; if they can borrow £30; or how to set up a direct debit.
Things are different, however, for children in care. These young people are some of the most vulnerable in our society, with many having experienced abuse or neglect. Yet they are expected to leave care aged 18 and strike out on their own for the first time without the family support many of us take for granted. This includes budgeting for themselves, including for food, clothes, and of course, bills – often at a time when many are relying on benefits to top up low incomes, whether or not they are in employment or education.
In the absence of family, councils legally become these children’s ‘corporate parents’ and are encouraged to support them in the way that ‘any reasonable parent’ would. These responsibilities extend to the 53,000 young people up to the age of 25 we estimate are care leavers - recently increased from the age of 21 by the Children and Social Work Act 2017. They should include financial education. But The Children’s Society found that in 2014/15 almost half of councils failed to offer care leavers financial education and debt advice. This was a situation exacerbated by a lack of proper financial education at school.
It’s unsurprising, then, that while in many cases care leavers were aware of bills, we found they often did not know how to pay them and ended up accruing debts.
The Children’s Society has studied the impact council tax debt has on families and vulnerable groups. We found that spiralling council tax debts can have a real impact on care leavers, causing worry and stress, and leading to them cutting back on essentials like food and heating.
In 2015, our Wolf at the Door report showed that the pace at which debt is escalated by local authorities can be frightening for care leavers. What can start out for many as falling slightly behind with bills can quickly escalate to a court summons and enforcement action. Sending bailiffs round to a care leaver’s modest flat to remove furniture in order to recoup a £200 debt doesn’t sit comfortably with councils’ corporate parenting responsibilities.
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.
Furthermore, it is targeted at a vulnerable group which councils have a special responsibility towards. Care leavers in council areas which have introduced a council tax exemption tell us it has been a huge help in enabling them to find their feet and get their finances in order.
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.
Tom Redfearn is senior public affairs officer at The Children’s Society