Foster carers should not be deterred by changes to housing benefit, the children's minister, Edward Timpson, has said.
Speaking at the Fostering Network's annual conference in London on Tuesday, Timpson pledged to "keep knocking on the door of the DWP" to ensure that money allocated to support carers with housing costs is ringfenced by local authorities.
Under welfare reform changes that will come into affect in April, housing benefit claimants will receive less money if they are deemed to have an empty room in their house – the so called 'bedroom tax – including bedrooms in foster carers' homes for children they are caring for. Instead, foster carers will have to apply for discretionary housing funding from their council.
Timpson told foster carers and social workers the conference that he wanted to ensure that welfare reforms continued to recognise the contribution of carers. "I ensured that when the [welfare reform] bill was going through that foster carers were not forgotten," he said. "As a result £5m ensued to support them".
But delegates told Timpson that councils have instead been using the money for other areas for housing and called for funds to be ringfenced.
The children's minister – whose own family fostered when he was younger – tried to offer reassurance that the money would be used to ensure that no one was pushed out of caring for financial reasons.
He responded: "I took this issue to Lord Freud and the Department for Work and Pensions so they understand how it's being played out in local authorities.
"I've already made that enquiry and I will continue to have discussions with Lord Freud. It's important that foster carers are not put off and I'm going to keep knocking on the door of the DWP to make some progress."
However, shadow children's minister Lisa Nandy said she was "appalled" that "foster children do not seem to count".
She told the conference that even if the money was ringfenced, it would not be enough. "It seems wrong in principle," she said. "We need to make sure that finances are never a barrier."
The Fostering Network's campaigns manager, Vicki Swain, said that although the DWP has the power to ask councils to ringfence the money for foster carers in its discretional housing funds, she thinks it is "unlikely" they would.
"The coalition has shown since its first comprehensive spending review that it is doing everything it can to remove ringfencing," she explained.
"We think the children's minister should be writing to directors of children's services across the country telling them that this money does exist, and that they need to be placing pressure on their housing departments so that it is fairly spent on foster carers. Otherwise the money is just going to be spent to make up shortfalls elsewhere," she said.