The payments to carers, which can vary from pounds 50 to pounds 200 a week, are purely to cover the costs of looking after the children. There is no element of reward. This means the local authority does not employ them and does not pay any National Insurance contributions. Neither are they self-employed.
Mothers who stay at home caring for their own children after spending some time working receive Home Responsibility Protection. This reduces the number of years they need to clock up paying National Insurance to qualify for a pension.
But this protection, which recognises the domestic responsibility of parents, does not stretch to foster parents because it is tied to child benefit. Foster carers do not receive child benefit.
Pat Crinnion has been a foster carer for 25 years. She currently fosters adolescents for Camden Council in London and specialises in young mothers and babies. Like many carers, she began fostering when she was at home looking after her own children. She has three offspring - the youngest is now 21 - and has fostered three or four children at a time.
While her own children were at home she received Home Responsibility Protection, but this has now ceased.
'I constantly talk about financial independence to the young people. I tell them that even though they have babies, they should still go to college. I offer support so that they can continue their education, so they can get better jobs.
'But I have been left high and dry with no independence. My work has been unrecognised. I'm 54 and my husband is on an invalidity pension; it's a difficult set-up.'
The only option for people in Mrs Crinnion's position is to pay the voluntary Class III National Insurance contribution, which is currently pounds 5.45 a week. This brings entitlement to pension benefits, though not sickness or unemployment pay. However, carers first have to be able to find the money to pay it.
Married women have to work out very carefully whether it is worth making these voluntary contributions. If they remain with their husbands, they will be entitled to 60 per cent of the single person's pension based on his contribution. Only if her own pension entitlement is higher will she get a higher sum. So a married woman might spend money bringing her pension entitlement up from, say, 30 to 59 per cent and those contributions would be completely wasted.
If the woman relies on her own contributions, the calculation is based on how many years during the 44-year span from 16 to 60 she has made contributions. Home responsibility allowance brings down the number of years needed to qualify for a pension.
Anyone can call an information line (0800 666555) and request Form BR 19 for a free pensions forecast to assess whether making voluntary payments will be worth while.
Iris Burgoyne from North Wales is 62 and has fostered for 26 years. She has three daughters and a son of her own. ''I didn't think about the money aspect. If I did not have a husband, I would have to rely on income support because I did not go out to work for long enough to earn a pension. I didn't work when I was fostering. You have to be available all the time. You don't do it for the money.
'I would like to see a basic allowance for each child plus an allowance which could be taxed. Then it would be pensionable.'
Sylvia Holt from Birmingham said: 'When we are working for the community looking after children, we should be credited for it. I'm lucky I still have a husband at work.'
Another carer who fostered as a single parent after her divorce said: 'I think all foster parents should be paid, and until they are, I think local authorities should at least pay their stamp.'
Westminster Council has started a scheme that pays foster carers an allowance.
The National Foster Care Association is mounting a campaign to persuade local authorities either to pay foster carers so they can make private pension arrangements, or pay the voluntary contributions for them.
Pat Verity, the association's policy manager, said: 'We believe that women foster carers should have the same rights as other women to appropriate pension entitlement and recognition of the valuable job of work they undertake.'
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