When a major piece of legislation passes through parliament, amid the usual partisan differences there is sometimes an opportunity for a cross-party group of backbench MPs to suggest a small additional change that can make a big difference.
That is why some of us are supporting an amendment to the children and families bill that would make provision for continuing support for former foster children. We are doing this because foster children should be given the same chances as all children.
The average age for leaving home is 24, yet only one in twenty foster children stay with their foster carers beyond their 18th birthday. Our proposal would guarantee payments to foster carers until the young person in their care reaches 21.
Everyone is different. I have three adult children: two left home in their mid-twenties; the other lives in London but still – at 28 – has his own bedroom at the family home in Manchester. Even when they have grown up and started to develop their own friendships and careers our children sometimes need a safe place to retreat to and people who will always be there for them. Every young adult should leave home at the time that suits them. Foster children shouldn't be any different.
Before I became an MP I spent fifteen years as a social worker, working with troubled young people who needed stability in their lives. When their own families were unable to give them the love and security they needed we tried to find another family who could. It is pure madness to disrupt arrangements that are working well just because someone has reached the age of 18. Yet unless foster carers are prepared to let them stay for free that is what happens in most cases. It isn't only heartless, it puts at risk all the time, effort, care and money that has been spent on the children in the years before.
Of course there are consequences and they must be faced. There will be costs, but the government's own study suggests that this would be around £2.6m a year for the whole country. That would enable an extra 500 young people who wanted their foster placement to continue beyond 18 to stay put. The money would still have to be found, but surely we should be prioritising those people who are the most vulnerable and for whom we all have a responsibility.
If foster children stayed longer with their carers we would also need to recruit more foster families for younger children. In 2013, 7,350 new foster families will be needed, but we should be confident about the challenge of finding more given the excellent job that fostering services across England do in finding new recruits.
The minister in charge of the children and families bill, Edward Timpson, has demonstrated a strong personal commitment to improving the prospects for children in care. He has urged local authorities to do more but many are already struggling to meet their statutory obligations. The fact that staying on is voluntary means that last year only 320 young people remained with their foster carers after they reached 18.
So we need to amend the bill and put the obligation beyond question – making sure at the same time that the government provides the additional resources. I hope that on Tuesday MPs from all sides of the house will make it clear to the government that what we are proposing is affordable, fair and a practical way to show some of the most vulnerable young people in society that we care.
Paul Goggins is a Labour MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East