The “secrecy and variation” in prices paid by councils for commissioning foster carers benefit providers rather than local authorities and the “extraordinary” absence of collective planning is pushing up costs, according to a government-commissioned review.
A report for the Department of Education by Sir Martin Nary and Mark Owers, published yesterday, said improvements could be made to commissioning if councils shared their framework contracts.
Fostering review calls for end to commissioning ‘secrecy’
The review concluded many of the 152 top-tier councils are too small to plan commissioning effectively and recommends they form consortia of about 10 local authorities “with critical mass”.
The report adds: “[In these circumstances, councils] would be better able to understand commissioning requirements; concentrate expertise; discourage local authority versus local authority competition; and negotiate with independent fostering agencies to provide placements at a significantly reduced cost, almost certainly through guaranteeing particular IFAs [independent fostering agencies] a certain level of business.
“The routine absence of such arrangements is extraordinary. There is the potential to significantly reduce spend on fostering.”
The report recommends that consortia of councils should appoint national account managers for larger independent providers to reduce the likelihood of consortia competing against each other, as some councils do now.
The report also suggests larger councils or consortia should attempt to become self-sufficient in carer recruitment or consider setting up a partnership with one or more IFAs to provide their complete service.
It adds: “Either of these options is likely to be cheaper and provide greater assurance of quality than the prevailing and generally unplanned practice of part recruiting and part purchasing foster care.”
The review recommends that the statutory guidance should be reinforced to ensure councils measure children’s experience of fostering, relative to other local authorities, and children understand their rights to advocacy.
The report also concludes that a national register of foster carers should be created to improve recruitment.
It said the database could hold information such as where carers live, the number of bedrooms in their home and personal characteristics such as age, gender and ethnicity.
It added: “Such a register could act as a vacancy management system and radically improve matching.”
The Local Government Association has called for a ban on independent agencies using so-called “golden hellos” to entice carers away from local authorities.
But the report found there is evidence of more poaching from independent foster agencies by local authorities, “but relatively little of either”.
Responding to the report, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said it would not support the creation of a national fostering register.
ADCS president Alison Michalska said: “Maintaining a national register would be a huge logistical task and require significant ongoing funding.
“It is also unclear how a register would improve the recruitment of foster carers who are willing to care for the cohort of children in care.”
Ms Michalska added funding would be better invested in supporting children and carers directly.
She said the report raises questions for government about the role of the care system and councils’ capacity to support families to stay together.
She added: “There has been a lack of focus and investment from government in this area to date. We need the right support services in place to support families, both early help and edge of care services, to stop problems from escalating and to prevent children from coming into and returning to care.”
The government is expected to respond to the review in due course.