Council decision to stop student's university funding unless they stayed with foster family ruled unlawful

A council that refused funding for a care leaver’s university accommodation unless they remained living with their estranged foster family did not fulfil its lawful duties, an investigation has found.

The council must pay for the student's university accommodation, the ombudsman said. Picture: Adobe Stock
The council must pay for the student's university accommodation, the ombudsman said. Picture: Adobe Stock

A report from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman describes the “distress” and “injustice” caused by West Sussex County Council to the care leaver, known as Ms C, by informing her payment would be withdrawn for her accommodation after her Staying Put arrangement broke down.

It details how Ms C, who arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied minor in 2002, brought the complaint against the council after claiming it had gone back on its agreement to fund her accommodation for the duration of her time at university.

The student said she was told by the council in 2018, two years into her six-year medicine degree course, that payment would be withdrawn for her accommodation within 28 days after she made it clear she no longer wanted to live at her former foster family’s home.

The investigation found after Ms C turned 18 in 2014 she entered into a Staying Put arrangement and continued to live with her former foster carers.

However, by August 2018, when she was 21, her relationship with them had worsened and she told the council she was unhappy with her living arrangements.

The ombudsman said the council was wrong to insist that Ms C continue to live with the foster family against her will.

“This is an injustice. The council has a duty to provide accommodation while she is studying. It should fund alternative accommodation for her,” the report states.

It highlights records of care planning meetings held in 2013 and 2014 for Ms C that showed the council’s intentions to fund her through a university degree.

A 2016 document seen by the ombudsman outlined plans by the council to continue support after she was accepted on to the course due to end in June 2022.

The ombudsman said the council’s decision to withdraw funding unless Ms C lived with her former foster carers did not “accord with the intentions of the Staying Put programme or its duties under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000”.

Entering into a Staying Put agreement, introduced to support care leavers transitioning into adulthood, did not oblige formerly fostered children to reside with their former foster parents against their wishes, the report adds.

“The council has suggested in its complaint responses that Ms C’s reasons for wanting to live elsewhere are trivial. This is not a relevant consideration. Neither is it relevant who is to blame for any disagreements between them. 

“The only important factor is whether she wishes to live there or not. And she does not,” the report concludes.

The ombudsman ordered the council to apologise to Ms C and to find and fund accommodation to allow her to continue her degree course.

It was accepted the council had continued to pay for Ms C’s accommodation in halls during the 2018/19 academic year, despite doing so “under protest”, which had “reduced the injustice Ms C has suffered due to council fault”.

The council was also ordered to pay Ms C £200 in recognition for the distress caused and the time taken in bringing the complaint.

A spokesperson for West Sussex County Council said: “We have accepted the Local Government Ombudsman’s report and have implemented all the recommendations that were identified.”

Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of care leavers charity Become, said: “Care leavers already face barriers to accessing higher education and are less likely to go to university than their peers. 

“Local authorities should be supporting them in their ambitions not putting further obstacles in their way. Unfortunately we regularly hear from young people who are not getting the help they’re entitled to. This is not good enough. Local authorities must meet their existing obligations.”

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