The cost of the implementation gap for young people
Megan Sutherland is Vice Chair of Who Cares? Scotland. She recently moved home and found it wasn’t easy to register as exempt from paying Council Tax as a care leaver. Here she discusses what she feels needs to change for care experienced young people in Scotland.
When Scotland’s First Minister commissioned an Independent Review of Care, now recognised as The Promise, we were assured radical transformation for future generations. This takes time, so the Scottish Government also promised immediate action for those in their care today.
For young adults aged 16 to 25, the opportunities available, goals we develop, resilience we build and our sense of who we are rapidly advances. This period will shape our adult lives, our communities, and what we give back to the world in future. It is vital that young adults have supportive social networks, safe spaces to try, fail and try again, and are free of structural barriers like marginalisation and poverty, which reinforce inequalities and risks for poor outcomes.
Despite this, young adults earn a lower minimum wage, are likely unable to earn a full-time wage or access social security benefits if they continue with education, and typically need to rely on family should they run into crisis with paying bills to safeguard against homelessness.
We should not need to worry about Council Tax
Young adults leaving care on average at 17 compared to the general population leaving home at 26, face many practical, emotional, and financial challenges their peers are not required to worry about, especially when it comes to paying bills for utilities.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies Council Tax is a regressive levy which disproportionately impacts poorer households, younger households and renters as the outdated tax bands do not reflect the rise in property prices over the past thirty years.
Disappointingly, four years after the Scottish Government made Care Leavers under 26 exempt from Council Tax to ease the financial pressures Care Leavers face, many local authorities are still failing in their duty to implement this.
When I recently moved house to live with my sister and tried to update the local council, and I was exasperated to see that even after having ‘Care Leavers’ listed on the exemption page, there was no care leaver box to tick in the list of exempt categories in the online form. I still haven’t found a solution to this. It’s wrong if I don’t register; if I register and can’t explain that I’m exempt, my sister will lose her single person discount and be pushed further into poverty.
Policies don’t matter if they’re still a widely inaccessible reality after four years.
Issues and possible solutions
Curious, I looked at other local authorities to see what was happening across the country. Largely, there were some barriers that simple changes could fix:
Issue 1: information about the exemption is often hidden from the main page - you would only discover it if you were specifically looking to see if you happened to be exempt.
Solution 1: clearly display all exempt groups to anyone viewing information about Council Tax on every local authority website.
Issue 2: forms do not consistently include ‘care leaver’ as an exemption category. If you don’t know about it you would scroll past, completely unaware you were about to pay a bill you shouldn’t.
Solution 2: local authorities should ensure ‘care leaver’ is included in their exemption’s information, and in the paper and electronic forms, to make claiming simple. Include a description of what this means to make it accessible.
Issue 3: there doesn’t seem to be any monitoring or accountability for local authorities to implement this policy.
Solution 3: local government reporting mechanisms to Scottish Government should include a direct ask about the uptake of the exemption by care leavers and by their own care leavers who have moved into other regions. Check this by consulting with frontline organisations and Care Experienced people.
Issue 4: nearly all local authorities only provide the exemption to those who meet the narrow legal definition of care leaver. Care Experienced people not qualifying as ‘care leavers’ face the same challenges and are already excluded from throughcare and aftercare support.
Solution 4: in the spirit of The Promise, and later Scottish Government policy initiatives such as the Care Experienced Student’s Bursary available to students of any age, I encourage local authorities to use their discretion to offer support to more young people who have previously been in their care and protect them from future disadvantage.
Remove the burden from young people
The fundamental issue with this policy implementation is that responsibility to realise it lies with the young person to know and be able to claim their rights, not on the institution to uphold them. The Scottish Human Rights Consortium defines a human-rights based approach as one which is participatory, accountable, non-discriminatory, empowering, and legal. In my opinion, this policy rollout has none of these qualities nationally. Like many of the physical, emotional and financial challenges care leavers come up against, the accountability is apportioned to the individual who should be supported, rather than the bodies whose structural failures are widening the inequalities this group experience.
The Promise intends to change this, and the implementation team are set up to be around for the next ten years to do this. In that time, according to Scottish Government figures, an estimated 42,070 young people will leave the care system. It is the professional and moral responsibility of the workforce to ensure that whether it is our rights, the best possible support, or welfare policies that give us an equal chance, the burden is removed from young people and local authorities step up to provide what we need.
For more information about council tax exemptions for care leavers in Scotland, click here.
The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.
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