Charities welcome council tax breaks for care leavers

council tax billImage copyright PA

Care organisations have welcomed the council tax exemption for care leavers after it was announced by the first minister.

Nicola Sturgeon revealed the plan at the SNP conference on Tuesday, which will target people under the age of 26.

The Scottish government expects about 6-7,000 people to qualify for the exemption.

Charity Who Cares Scotland? said the plan was an incremental step towards an overhaul of the care system in Scotland

Chief executive Duncan Dunlop said: “Immediate action to fix current inequalities is a great leap forward.”

At least 21% of care leavers become homeless within five years, according to Scottish government statistics, while they are three times more likely to be unemployed than their peers.

‘Managing risk’

Mr Dunlop said the announcement was an important step forward but there was much more work to be done.

He said: “The average age of leaving care is 16-18 according to the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland but the law says young people have the right to remain in care until they are 21.

“So, the question arises, what can we do to encourage young people to receive the care they are entitled to.

“Our members feel like they live in a system that takes care of everything for them as a means of managing risk. A system which doesn’t reflect the process of growing up in a traditional family home.”

Image copyright Who Cares Scotland
Image caption Callum believes the current system of care needs updating

Callum’s story – from care to Harvard

Callum Lynch has spent half his life inside Scotland’s care system. His “violent and neglected” background in Glasgow’s east end led to him being kicked out of two primary schools for disruptive, attention-seeking behaviour.

He said: “I just wanted someone to acknowledge that what was going on in my background was quite saddening.

“It was easier to exclude me from primary school instead of acknowledging what the real issue was.”

When he was 11, Callum and his brother were taken into residential care. Here, natural sibling rivalry and bickering led to attempts to split them up and and send them to separate homes. An advocate from Who Cares Scotland intervened and it didn’t happen – but Callum believes it is a common problem.

“It’s detrimental on mental health and can change the dynamic of a sibling relationship. People end up even falling out of contact with their sibling because of the separation,” he said.

Fearful of “becoming a statistic” of those who find themselves in care, Callum applied himself to his academic studies in high school. He eventually earned himself a scholarship on a Harvard education system, spending two months at the Ivy League college before returning to complete a degree at Strathclyde University.

He will graduate from the prestigious business school in November.

The 22-year-old believes the new government tax exemption will help those in similar situations, but is just the first step in changing the outdated care system.

He said: “It’s absolutely phenomenal but its an incremental change and in order for there to be something really successful it needs to be quite a radical change to the care system.

“Young people [in care] are eight times more likely to be dead by 25. You are living in a care system where, I think there was a quote from Glasgow City Council that said they were giving emotional nurturing rather than love, but I don’t think people would use that expression to their own children.

“The system doesn’t reflect the process of growing up in a normal family home at all. You’re in an institution.”

While he has managed to successfully navigate many of the troubles that young people leaving care face, he admits that he struggles with mental health issues.

“I’m not going to lie to you, the transition is really difficult. With all that I’ve achieved, I’ve still got terrible mental health, and 45% of kids who leave care have diagnosed mental health conditions.

“We don’t have a fall back net. If I can’t afford to pay my rent this month, I’m going to end up in homeless accommodation or on the street. If one of my peers couldn’t pay their rent and moved out, they’d move back in with their mum or something but I don’t have that luxury unfortunately.”

While for many coming out of care, there is not enough emotional support, he argued.

“I’ve graduated from Strathclyde University and worked hard to put myself in this position but there’s thousands of kids who are leaving care in debt and underprepared mentally, emotionally and financially.

“These are kids who are leaving care at 16 and being placed into flats with no narrative or structure of how their life could go. They’ve never had parents there to help them or show them the ropes.

“It’s about being placed into something supportive and nurturing in the first place. We can help them by teaching them to budget, but I think we need to put them in a setting which is more nurturing as opposed to systematic. That’s what’s going to make the real difference here.”

Last year, the first minister announced a “root and branch” review of the care system in Scotland, which she said would “be driven by the experience of those in care”.

She has accepted a challenge over the next two years to listen to the views of 1,000 young people who have experienced care.

Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said the transition to independent living was a often a major challenge for young people who have been in care.

“Many of these young people have had a really difficult start in life, sometimes involving abuse, neglect, or family breakdown,” he said.

“Adjusting to living independently without the family support many of their peers enjoy can be really tough, and managing their finances and juggling bills for the first time is just one of a number of new challenges they face.

“Many either cut back on essentials like food and heating or end up in debt with all the worry and stress that causes.

“Exempting care leavers from council tax doesn’t cost a huge amount but it can make an enormous difference to care leavers, giving them one less bill to worry about as they find their feet and begin to budget for themselves.”

The Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland said care leavers were particularly vulnerable to financial pressures.

“The impact of poverty on care leavers is well documented. One of our main concerns is how council tax debt can escalate quickly, increasing the pressure on care leavers,” a spokesperson said.

“This is a huge step in reducing the financial burden on young care leavers in Scotland.”

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