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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 15 May 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Treatment Time Guarantee, Education, Point of Order, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Foster Care Fortnight


Contents


Foster Care Fortnight

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-17102, in the name of Kezia Dugdale, on foster care fortnight 2019. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes Foster Care Fortnight 2019, which takes place from 13 to 26 May; understands that this will be the UK’s biggest foster care awareness raising campaign and will showcase the commitment, passion and dedication of foster carers; notes that it will also seek to highlight that more foster carers are needed; understands that, in Scotland, although there are approximately 4,000 foster families, the Fostering Network estimates that this represents a shortfall of 550; believes that Action for Children, which supports 54 foster carers in Scotland, has stated that “becoming a foster carer can be one of the most rewarding things a person could ever do, as that person provides a loving and stable home for a child who can no longer live with their family”; acknowledges that people who have considered becoming a foster carer should know that, if they want to take the next step, organisations such as Action for Children, as well as local authorities, can provide support and information to assist their journey towards this; hopes the organisers of the fortnight enjoy every success with this celebration of fostering, and commends this work that aims to inspire more people to become foster carers.

17:13  

Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

I thank members for signing the motion and for staying to hear the debate.

Let me say at the outset that although this will not be my final speech in the chamber, it will be my final members’ business debate. Throughout my eight years here, I have tried to use these slots for a purpose. On matters from payday loans to mesothelioma, the living wage to rape prosecution rates, I have sought to push ministers hard for answers and I intend to do so again today.

Of course, we should take a moment to celebrate foster carers and thank them for the job that they do. There is a debate to be had about the degree to which we consider fostering to be employment in the traditional sense, but we know that, first and foremost, a foster carer’s job is to provide a loving home for children and young people who need it, for whatever reason.

I am grateful to Shirley, Alex and the others who travelled from Lanarkshire and Loanhead this morning to share their direct experiences with me. Equally, thanks should go to my constituents who have allowed me to share their stories with members.

The best way that we can show our gratitude is to listen hard and choose to act upon what we hear. Scotland needs at least 580 more foster families as things stand. It could be closer to 900 if we factor in what would happen if every young person who is entitled to continuing care took it up. Recruitment is tricky, and numerous local authorities are reporting difficulties. While there is no national minimum standard on pay and allowances, local authorities are supplementing those to attract families. That is creating a market economy in what should clearly be a state responsibility. These are our children.

What is more, when a foster placement comes to an end, a foster carer goes from a full income to zero income in the space of four weeks. They get paid only when they have a placement, despite having given up work to be foster carers. The money starts only when the next placement begins, and the foster carers have no control over when a match will be made. It is the equivalent of a zero-hours contract for something as important as caring for a vulnerable child.

I know that the care review is looking into that, as it is looking into many fundamental changes, but some solutions are so screamingly obvious that they should be used now. An example of that is keeping brothers and sisters together. Earlier this year, I was delighted to hear the Scottish Government announce plans to keep siblings together. When I started to look for details of how it would be done, however, precious little was available. From parliamentary questions answered by the minister, I know that there is a plan, in the forthcoming family law bill, to place legal requirements on local authorities to keep siblings together. That is welcome, but as we have seen so many times in this Parliament, legislating for something and it becoming a reality are two different things.

I led for Labour on education through the passage of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which entitled looked-after young people to continuing care and aftercare. However, five years after its passage, precious few young people actually realise those rights. One way we can fix that is by ensuring that the fostering allowance is available for everyone in continuing care. If fostering is how someone pays their mortgage, how can we expect those carers to live off half the money they used to receive simply because the person they love and care for and continue to house is past their 18th birthday?

I will make a few broader points about housing. Today’s Daily Record carries a story about Jamie Kinlochan, who many members will know as one of the leading advocates for looked-after young people in this country. Outside his day job, he has now made the commitment to become a foster carer himself, but immediately upon applying, he hit a blockade because he does not have a spare room. That ruled him out completely. The first question he was asked was not, “What do you know about trauma, or attachment theory?”, or even something as simple as, “What makes for a loving home?”; it was, “How many bedrooms do you have?”.

If we are to break down the barriers to people putting their names forward to foster, it has to start here. I understand that, this afternoon, the Fostering Network warned about abandoning the requirement for foster children to have their own room, but that is not what I am calling for at all. The change I am looking for is that people who apply to be foster carers, a process that can take 18 months, should be asked to make a commitment to live in a suitable house before they take on their first placement. Jamie does not have a spare room today, but he is committed to getting one in three months or six months, well ahead of when the first young person will be placed with him. We, the state—the corporate parent—should be helping him and many other loving families like him to do that. I would go so far as to give them extra cash to move. Look at what we are spending on the alternative. It can cost up to £6,000 a week to house a child in secure care. A fraction of that would help a foster carer suitably house a young person.

That is the financial cost. We have not even considered the human cost, which is where I get really angry—when rules and bureaucracy, competing priorities and the culture of “it’s aye been” get in the way of providing safe, loving, stable homes; when algorithms compound trauma; and when young people again become a number in system that we know is broken.

I have a constituent who lives in a three-bedroom house 2 miles from this building. She has one birth child and, around a parent’s cancer treatment, intermittently fosters a baby who can stay in her bedroom. However, she also fosters a set of mixed-sex twins. They have lived with her since they were one year old and are seven now, going on eight. When they turn eight, they will not be allowed to share a room any more, because of their different genders, and one of them will have to move out unless a more suitable home can be found.

That woman has lived in the same council house for 15 years and in the same street in Craigmillar for 22 years, but she is prepared to move to keep her family together. She came to me because the council told her that she would not get priority or extra points for being a foster carer. How incredibly, stupidly shortsighted is that! The computer says no, and we are on the cusp of breaking up a family and separating siblings while knowing all the damage that that will do.

When I checked the rules with the Scottish Parliament information centre, it told me that provisions that the Scottish Parliament passed in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014 came into effect just two weeks ago, on 1 May. Guidance states that

“Landlords should also give serious consideration to giving an additional priority based on adoption, fostering or being a kinship carer.”

Five years on, to seriously consider it! That is just not good enough. Warm words are great, but they are meaningless in the face of the demand for meaningful change.

I will conclude by presenting to the minister a mini manifesto: pay foster carers the same rate for continuing care; do not rule out families on the basis of the size of their house at stage 1; keep siblings together by prioritising looked-after children in the housing system; incentivise suitable housing options for people taking their first step; stop local authorities competing with each other for foster carers and end zero-hours contracts for foster carers. Perhaps if those things happen, we will have more to celebrate than the work of a community of foster carers whose lives are devoted to the simple act of providing a safe and loving home.

17:22  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I am grateful to Kezia Dugdale for bringing this important debate to the chamber and I thank her for her powerful opening speech on behalf of so many children looking for a home.

Foster care fortnight is the perfect opportunity to highlight the fantastic work that foster carers do. I am not sure that the word “work” is really appropriate here, as I am sure that it is much more than that for them. People I know who have fostered talk of how their lives have been enriched by the young addition to their family, whether their stay is temporary or more long term. I am a former children’s panel member, and I was constantly in awe of the foster parents who attended hearings and who clearly had the best interests of their foster child or children at heart.

However, as we know and have heard, there are issues that must be addressed now. In Scotland, there are approximately 4,000 foster families, who do an amazing job. However, that still leaves a foster carer shortfall of 580 who are needed in the next 12 months. That is 580 more families who could give a child a safe, loving home, something that most of us might take for granted but they have never had.

A helpful briefing from Action for Children, which supports foster carers every day of the year, reports that one in 10 people said that nothing would put them off becoming a foster carer, which is encouraging. So, why the shortfall in foster carers? Is it lack of knowledge? Is it the many issues that Kezia Dugdale highlighted? Is it fear of taking on such a responsibility? Or is it down to family finances? Understanding what allowances and fees a foster carer is entitled to is a minefield due to differences throughout the United Kingdom and different policies adopted by fostering services. Scotland does not currently have recommended minimum allowances for foster carers and payments vary depending on where people live.

Fostering can be an enriching, positive way to help children who are sometimes the most vulnerable in society. It should not be a stressful experience and money worries should not be a feature. What price can we put on giving children a warm, loving home? The Scottish Government has committed to making national recommendations in the near future. I believe that that must be resolved now and I look forward to the minister updating us on that in her closing speech.

I also want to mention concurrent planning. Quite simply, that means that a foster carer would look after a child while it is decided whether the child can go back to live with their birth family. If it is decided that the child cannot go back to their family, the foster carers can then apply to adopt the child.

When the decision to put the child forward for adoption happens, all the hard work is done and approval can happen much quicker than having to wait a year or so. That is much better for the child and relieves the stress on the adoptive parents.

The Fostering Network is the UK’s leading fostering charity. It, along with excellent third sector organisations, works to ensure that all fostered children experience stable family life. It is passionate about the difference that foster care makes, not just to children, but to the foster families and carers whom it also supports.

I look forward to hosting an event in the Parliament for the Fostering Network next Wednesday, 22 May, when I expect that we will continue to discuss many of the issues that we have today.

Foster carers come from all walks of life and a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnic groups. There is no upper age limit; their sexuality, marital status or whether they own a home do not matter, although Kezia Dugdale has raised issues in that regard. The only thing that matters is that they give a child the most important thing in the world: a caring, loving home and an equal chance to thrive and grow.

17:25  

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

Every 20 minutes in the UK, a child comes into care needing a foster family. In Scotland, of the 14,738 looked-after children in 2017, 35 per cent were in foster care. Although that is not enough, it represents an increase of 66 per cent since 2002. We have to do more. Having worked with children in care, I am in no doubt about just how important the right placement is for a child. These are the words of a child who was moved into foster care:

“The first night I fell asleep with the biggest smile on my face. I felt at home.”

The independent care review, which is chaired by Fiona Duncan, is working with and listening to those who provide and experience care. I thank those who are involved for the work that they are doing, because I believe that it will change how we think about the delivery of care for some of our most vulnerable children—that is, those who are dependent on the state to make the right decisions.

It is that issue of the dependence on the state that brings this debate to the chamber today. Life throws issues at everyone. Building resilience to cope with those issues is essential for every child. Babies are not born resilient to stress, but they are born with the ability to become resilient if they are provided with the right environment.

If a child or young person has to go into care, making the right decisions early is key. It is essential to identify the right placement and ensure that foster carers and those who are involved in the decision making have the right training and development, particularly when it comes to the effect of trauma on children.

Children and young people in care often feel that they have no control over the decisions that impact on their lives. I am concerned that too many children have their placements moved, often without consultation and often when the foster carers themselves are not happy about it. That, in turn, undermines the relationships that have been built not just with carers but with others in care settings. Children build relationships with others in care settings that are akin to those between siblings. The emotional impact of being moved can be felt as heavily as being separated from blood relatives. In that regard, one young person said:

“my foster siblings were there, that was my security, that was my safety.”

Concern has also been expressed by foster carers and practitioners who perceive a lack of emphasis in the current system on helping a child maintain links with their siblings and their original community and friends. Instabilities in relationships, place and school all militate against the stability that is crucial to any child. It is vital for a child’s emotional health to recognise their key attachments and to maintain birth family links wherever possible, if they are not detrimental to the child. That requires good, solid support for foster carers. They need not just financial aid but support networks and training.

We cannot treat foster caring lightly. I echo all of Kezia Dugdale’s sentiments. At the end of the day, when a child comes into state care and the local authority becomes the corporate parent, the responsibility of that local authority extends even further than that of an ordinary parent, because its decisions affect that child for the rest of their life. We see that when their attainment is not as good; we see that when they get into more trouble; we see that when they fail to know the love and security that a child has a right to expect.

I will end my contribution to tonight’s debate by paying tribute to the 4,000 foster families in Scotland. Foster carers really matter in the lives of infants, children, young people and their families. By providing consistent support, care and love, they give children and young people the chance to thrive. This is what one foster carer said, which echoes the words of Kezia Dugdale:

“We have made a lifelong commitment to these children and we think this needs to be recognised in a more formal way. We don’t forget children when they become young adults and we have a lifetime with them, as they are part of the family.”

17:30  

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank my colleague Kezia Dugdale, who has been a champion of care-experienced young people throughout her time in the Parliament, for bringing this evening’s important debate before Parliament.

We can be in no doubt of the irreplaceable role that foster carers play in our society. Our approach to care in Scotland depends on thousands of foster parents and families, who are committed, highly skilled and able to provide loving and secure homes for our young people.

During this campaign, we must not just acknowledge but celebrate the vital contribution that those carers make. We must also listen to organisations such as Action for Children, which has been mentioned, and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain foster carers network, which is working to improve the circumstances of foster carers and those who are looking to foster.

To do all this properly, we must understand the issues that foster carers face and the reason why we have a significant shortfall. Only then can we get around to finding solutions to improve things for foster families and our young people.

The truth is that fostering in Scotland is becoming more difficult, not least due to the significant financial pressures that exist for individual foster carers. Between 2015 and 2017, in the system as a whole, the number of households that were approved for foster care for longer than exclusively short breaks dropped by 591. In the same period, fostering services reported an increase of 8 per cent in staff vacancies. Those increased vacancies are also becoming harder to fill as the number of fostering services that report difficulty recruiting rose from 10 to 17. In 2017, 45 per cent of fostering services experienced a net loss of households.

As Kezia Dugdale said, we hear from potential foster carers who have been dissuaded from applying, due to criteria such as needing a spare room during the 18 months of their assessment. As Kezia said, that is not what should be the priority; the priority should be what potential foster carers can offer young people.

I was shocked to hear from my council’s fostering team that it needs to identify 100 interested families for every one that completes the journey to fostering. That is how hard it is. A significant problem exists with the fragmentation of the regulation of foster carers across 32 local authorities, which leads to disruptive irregularities in the placement of children, and with councils being both the assessor and employer of foster carers. That is one aspect of the disruptive market that Kezia spoke about in her introductory speech.

The IWGB is currently working on proposals for a nationally co-ordinated approach towards assessment, registration and deregistration. Such an approach would also allow for a more fluid and flexible network of foster carers who would be independently assessed on their fitness to foster, which would better serve young people. Such a change has merit and deserves scrutiny and consideration. I look forward to working with and hearing more from the IWGB about those proposals and how we can progress them.

We have heard tonight that we know what many of the problems are and we know what some of the possible solutions are. Several colleagues have mentioned the on-going independent care review, which is, of course, vital to transforming the lives of care-experienced young people in this country. However, the truth is that we need not wait until the conclusion of the review to start making the changes that we know we need.

17:34  

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I congratulate Kezia Dugdale on securing today’s debate to mark foster care fortnight 2019 and on her impassioned opening speech. Fostering is one of the greatest things that a person can do, shaping the future of both the fostered child or young person and the family that cares for them. Regardless of why a child or young person can no longer live with their family, being welcomed into a loving and stable home through fostering can be an enriching and life-changing experience. Foster care fortnight, organised by the Fostering Network, runs from 13 to 26 May and is focused on that idea of changing a future.

The most recent figures show that, as of 31 July 2018, 5,058 children and young people in Scotland are being fostered in families through their local council, an independent fostering agency or a charity such as Action for Children, which provided an excellent briefing for today’s debate. That figure is an incredible demonstration of the generosity of families across Scotland, and yet, as Kezia Dugdale and Rona Mackay pointed out, there remains an estimated shortfall of 580 foster carers. That gap must be closed to ensure that we do right by Scotland’s children and young people, providing the love, care, and safety that they need and deserve.

In a survey of 1,000 Scots that was commissioned by Action for Children, a heartening 11 per cent said that nothing was stopping them from becoming a foster carer. However, something clearly is stopping them, because we need to translate that attitude into increased numbers of people fostering. Awareness-raising events such as foster care fortnight play a big part, presenting an invaluable platform for sharing information about how to become a foster parent, eligibility, allowances, the effect on the host family and the transformative impact that fostering has on a child or young person’s life.

The same survey found that one of the biggest obstacles to people becoming foster carers was the feeling that it did not fit in with their lifestyle. Therefore, it is important to dispel some persistent myths about fostering: you cannot be too old to become a foster carer and you do not need to be heterosexual or married or to own your home. What makes fostering so valuable is the wide range of backgrounds and life experience that fosterers bring to the table. As long as you are over 21, have a spare bedroom—an issue that has been discussed a lot already—and can provide the time and energy and a loving home, you could be a valued foster carer. With the right support, many more people can be empowered to become foster carers.

In my Cunninghame North constituency, the North Ayrshire family placement team offers a confidential and extremely informative service to help people to decide whether now is the time to foster. The team is there for foster carers every step of the way, from an in-depth and personalised induction to regular training and support sessions. It even offers the opportunity to study for a Scottish vocational qualification level 3 in caring for children and young people at no cost to the foster carer.

Evidence demonstrates that sibling relationships are incredibly important in nurturing continuity, security and stability for children, so it is vital to place siblings together as much as possible, provided that that is in their best interests. Unfortunately, it is particularly challenging to recruit households to foster sibling groups, largely because of accommodation constraints. We have to be more flexible about how local authorities allocate housing to households with growing foster families.

At 31 December 2017, there were 1,012 sibling groups in foster care. Sadly, 23 per cent of them were separated on placement. Therefore, I am pleased that, in March this year, the Scottish Government outlined plans to strengthen the law so that placing brothers and sisters together when in care is given higher priority than at present. I was also pleased to see recognition of the importance for brothers and sisters who are not able to live together of maintaining contact, as those relationships are critical to a child’s wellbeing.

There are many ways other than fostering to support looked-after children in what can be a challenging period in their lives. For example, the Comfort U Bags—or CUBs—initiative provides a backpack filled with items to help to ease the transition into first-time foster care. From a soft toy or blanket to pens, books, or craft supplies and essentials such as toothpaste and shower gel, each CUB is carefully put together to support the wellbeing of each individual child. The value of a seemingly small gesture cannot be overstated, and I commend the initiative and all its volunteers.

Foster carers change lives for the better. Whether that happens immediately, by their providing a place of safety at a time of need, or is part of a longer journey towards a brighter future, one thing is certain: the caring and supportive actions of foster carers will be felt throughout a foster child’s life.

17:38  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I, too, thank Kezia for bringing the debate to the chamber. I come to the issue with a very personal perspective. As some members will know, last autumn, my wife and I started fostering a little boy, with the hope of adopting him. For a variety of reasons, that arrangement broke down earlier this year and he had to leave our household. As I have been on that journey with my wife, I have spoken to many other individuals and couples who want to foster or adopt, and a number of things have struck me that I would like to share with members.

First, we must acknowledge that it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to want to foster in the first place, because the recruitment process puts them off. For me and my wife, it took more than 18 months from the day that we started it. Such delays are largely due to pressure on social work departments, but authorities almost have the mentality of trying to put people off fostering and adopting.

I was also struck by Kezia Dugdale’s remark about the first question that a potential foster carer was asked being about how many rooms they had. In recent years, that is not the only time that I have heard about people who want to foster being put off at the first stage. We need to look at the process of how we recruit individuals to come forward and foster. It is right that the correct checks are done and that the right people are found to help the most vulnerable children in our society, but we must encourage potential foster carers and adopters, not discourage them.

Picking up on comments that were made earlier, my second concern is about the money that people receive for fostering. We could have another debate—it would be worthwhile to do so—on whether fostering should be seen as a form of career. In Scotland, which is a fairly small country, differing amounts of money are paid depending on the local authority area in which a child is fostered. For example, the minister’s region pays less than Angus, which I consider to be a region of a similar geographical type. As I am a lowlander, I am happy to be corrected on that, but the two regions feel similar to me. What is the justification for the Highland region paying less than Angus? Also, although I am all for localism, I think that there is a role for Government and Parliament in ensuring that the payments that people get are more reflective across the whole of Scotland.

Social workers in our 32 local authorities and the third sector are under immense pressure. I have been amazed by the dedication of the various social workers with whom I have come into contact in recent years, the hours that they put in and the kindness that they demonstrate towards the children whom they are trying to place. As well as being under pressure, they face financial difficulties, so some of the decisions that they are forced to make are not necessarily driven by best practice but are worked out simply according to financial cost. Therefore, we must look at the resources that we give our social work departments. The third sector, which is already involved, could play a greater role, and organisations such as Home for Good, which try to encourage people into fostering, must be given a higher profile.

I welcome the debate, but there is a danger that, although we might hear lots of warm words from each of our parties, unless all of us are willing to change and to introduce policies that will radically alter things for the most vulnerable in our society, such words will change nothing.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before we hear the minister’s concluding remarks, I gently remind members that it would be helpful if they would always refer to other members by their full names. Much as we all like each other, using two names is better for the purposes of the Official Report and for anyone who is listening. You were not the only one not to do so, Mr Balfour, so please do not look so guilty.

17:44  

The Minister for Children and Young People (Maree Todd)

I am pleased that the debate has offered an opportunity to highlight the Fostering Network’s annual foster care fortnight as a valuable awareness-raising campaign. It is reassuring to see such interest and to hear the strength of views of all those members who have participated today. I take the opportunity to add my thanks to the Fostering Network—especially Sara Lurie and her team in Scotland—who provide such valuable pre-approval and post-approval foster carer training and much-needed support to foster carers through the fosterline helpline.

I also thank Kezia Dugdale for bringing the subject to the chamber and for championing the interests of care-experienced children and young people over her many years in Parliament. She raised a number of issues, and I would certainly appreciate more detail, which would allow me to look into some of the specific cases that she raised.

With regard to the spare bedroom issue that a number of members raised, I note that the regulations and guidance on looked-after children do not specifically stipulate that foster carers must have a spare room. They do, however, specify that fostering panels have a duty to ensure that the needs and wellbeing of looked-after children and the potential impact on prospective foster families are taken into account. Given that many children coming into care might be recovering from the effects of neglect, abuse or trauma, those and many other factors must be taken into consideration to ensure the safety, protection and privacy of the looked-after child. I agree that a spare room does not necessarily need to be in place at the start of the process, but it certainly needs to be in place at the end of it.

I share many of the frustrations that members have expressed about the bureaucratic barriers and the “computer says no” attitudes that people come upon when they are attempting to enter the foster system. I thought that Jeremy Balfour’s personal contribution was very powerful, and I am grateful to him for it. I agree that we need to tackle many of the issues now, but the purpose of the independent care review was to do with a recognition of the many and complex issues that interact, some of which are easy to fix and some of which are much harder to fix. There is a recognition that we really do need a root-and-branch review. We need to be thinking about doing things differently, and we need to go on and do things differently.

There can be absolutely no doubt that foster caring is challenging at times. The crucial encouragement that foster carers provide every day to the children and young people in their care helps, in many ways, to restore self-belief where it has been eroded and to instil a sense of security and confidence. For children and young people who can no longer live with their families for whatever reason, our foster carers provide a safe, secure and loving family environment—a place to call home.

Our national outcomes challenge us to ensure that children and young people grow up with equal opportunities and feel loved, safe and respected at home and by society. Maintaining the relationships that matter to them the most is important, so how do we preserve those important relationships? I will touch on that in addressing some of the issues that were raised in the debate.

The recent Care Inspectorate bulletin on local authority and independent fostering and adoption service providers includes important data on the reality of foster care in Scotland. It acknowledges the complexities and it highlights a number of positive trends, with 93 per cent of our 60 local authority and independent foster care providers achieving grades of “good” or better across all quality themes. However, 45 per cent of foster care services had experienced a net loss in the number of foster carers.

Kezia Dugdale raised the issue of keeping brothers and sisters together. The importance of ensuring that the best interests of the child are at the heart of all decisions is evident, but the bulletin also highlighted that local authority foster carers and independent service providers found it a challenge to recruit foster carers to care for sibling groups. I announced recently that we are going to strengthen the law so that staying in touch with brothers and sisters will become a much greater priority when we are making plans for children and young people in care.

Most members will be aware by now that the national review of care allowances made 12 recommendations on the theme of improving consistency and transparency in allowances and in the information that is available for families and carers. This is a complex area, particularly in the current financial climate, but we are committed to working in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to respond in a way that best meets the needs of our fostered children and carers.

Jeremy Balfour compared the situation in Highland with the situation in other local authority areas with similar topography and geography and similar challenges with sparse populations. It is difficult to understand the differences in foster care allowances there, but that is why we need to improve the transparency in allowances and explain what is included in the basic allowance and what is included in the myriad extra allowances that people can claim.

A central register of foster carers was considered as part of a previous national review of foster care. At the time, it was not considered to be a viable option, but the potential benefits of a central registration body have been presented to the independent care review and the Government is interested to hear what conclusions are reached as areas for improvement in the care system are explored.

I am also aware of some of the difficulties regarding continuing care. We have been working with, and listening to, key partners on those issues, and we are exploring what more we can do to support a smoother implementation. We want to do what we can to help eligible young people to stay with their foster carers and benefit from a much more supported transition into independent living.

The Government looks forward to hearing about the further improvements that we can all make to ensure that the care experiences of vulnerable children and young people are as valuable and rewarding as possible.

In my portfolio, I have the opportunity to meet lots of young people, and I have heard of some heartbreaking experiences. I have also heard many inspirational stories of the extraordinary people, including foster carers, who have been there to help a child to achieve his or her ambitions. I ask that we all do what we can to support the foster care fortnight campaign and to raise awareness of foster caring in Scotland.

People write to me regularly about their experiences of foster care, and it is important to conclude by handing the microphone to a foster carer, who explains what drew him to foster caring. He says:

“We care about children. We want to help them and we’ve developed skills through work and parenting that can benefit children in need. We feel that we’ve done well out of society and perhaps we can give something back”.

I want everyone who is listening to consider that. Can you give something back? The foster carer captures beautifully both the joy and the heartbreak that come with foster caring. He and his wife fostered very young babies, and he says:

“When their time with us comes to an end, there is a delight and a heartbreak in seeing each child move on, either back home, or, more often, to a permanent placement with adopters. We still think about all of the different little characters who have lived with us over the years. As my wife says, every time a child leaves, they take a little piece of our heart with them.”

I thank Scotland’s foster carers for their commitment. There is absolutely no doubt that they improve the lives of children and young people in their care and make our collective vision for them a reality.

Meeting closed at 17:53.