Young people who have lived in the care system will be guarded against discrimination as if it were a protected characteristic, Hertfordshire County Council has decided.

On Thursday (April 18), the council’s executive committee discussed its plans to sign up to the government’s Care Leavers Covenant.

The scheme is billed as a promise made by the private, public, and voluntary sectors to provide support for care leavers aged 16 to 25 to help them to live successful independent lives.

Crucially, organisations who sign up will treat care leavers as a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act – guarding them from discrimination alongside the nine legal protections of age, race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, pregnancy, religion or belief and gender reassignment.

Cllr Fiona Thomson, portfolio holder for children and young people, said she was “delighted” to bring a report to the executive committee.

She said: “The support is around helping (young people) to live independently, ensuring they have improved access to employment, education and training, supporting care leavers to feel safe and secure… and most importantly, to achieve financial stability.

“Becoming a signatory will enhance our commitment at Hertfordshire County Council to challenge this disadvantage and to improve the lives of our care leavers.”

The report included testimony from campaigner Claire Wilden, from care rights group Coram Voice, who said her intelligence had been underestimated at school and she had been turned down for jobs because of her background.

She said: “I didn’t choose to be born when I was, making me this particular age. I didn’t choose to be on the autistic spectrum, providing me with this label and stigma about my disability.

“Similarly, I’ve had no choice about being in care. If the government can prevent me from being discriminated against due to my age and disability, why not my experience in care?”

The report noted: “There is growing recognition that care leavers face poorer outcomes in physical and mental health, education, employment, and housing, as well as an increased risk of premature death and contact with the criminal justice system.

“Crucially, many care-experienced people themselves say that discrimination has contributed to negative outcomes in their lives.

“The current number of local authorities treating care experience as if it were a protected characteristic has been growing steadily across the UK and as of 29 January 2024, 76 local authorities have introduced this. It has now been agreed that this approach will also be adopted in the council.”

Leader of the council, Cllr Richard Roberts said: “I think this will be an important day when we sign this covenant, which we’re going to do in May I believe. I really look forward to being at that event.

“In a sense it almost feels like the final piece of the jigsaw in terms of recognising the value and worth of our corporate responsibility here in Hertfordshire.

“Yesterday we were quoted in the national news as having some of the lowest numbers of children in care, and much of that is due to the preventative work in safeguarding, which supports families.

“We should do all we can to ensure that those leaving our care can live the full and thriving independent lives that we’d wish as they move on in their journey through life.”

Members supported the proposal to sign the covenant.