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Social Security Support for Kinship Carers

Volume 629: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered social security support for kinship carers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. There are about 200,000 kinship carers in the UK, three quarters of whom live in poverty. By taking in their relatives’ children they save the state tens of thousands of pounds in care costs and keep families together, often in tragic circumstances. Research suggests that children living in kinship care also have better outcomes than children fostered by non-relatives.

According to a report by the University of Bristol,

“Children in kinship care are more likely to have better mental health and behavioural outcomes due to the stability of placements and they are also more likely to preserve their identities through family and community ties.”

Yet although foster carers receive extra support from the state for their efforts, kinship carers are often denied even the bare minimum. According to the Family Rights Group, the majority have to give up work completely or temporarily to look after the children they take in. As a consequence, kinship carers have been disproportionately affected by the benefit cap. They are more likely to be unfairly sanctioned, because of the lack of joined-up working in the state system. For example, their appointments at the jobcentre might be scheduled at the same time as their meetings with a social worker—if they are lucky enough to get a social worker—none of which they are allowed to miss or move.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on this important issue. She makes an excellent case for the needs of kinship carers. Does she agree that we need to look more generally at the extraordinary contribution that carers make every single day to our society and our economy?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Indeed, this morning I was contacted by a constituent who has previously been to my office for assistance and who wanted to raise the issue of carers more generally. Her daughter had a brain injury at birth, and 24 years later she is still caring for her. She was keen to ensure that I understood the financial, social and emotional impact of taking on the responsibility of caring for another family member. We must always remember that many people around the country do excellent work in caring for their relatives, and their friends and neighbours in some instances. Too often we forget them and they are an overlooked group in our communities.

Due to reductions in funding to local councils, local authority allowances for carers have been cut. Although foster carers can receive fast-tracked support from social workers or child mental health services, kinship carers usually are left to get with on with it themselves. With regards to the support that does exist for kinship carers, a survey by the Family Rights Group and the Kinship Care Alliance found that 80% of carers do not know enough about the legal options and support that are available to them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She talks about kinship carers not understanding some of the benefits available to them. One of the difficulties that kinship carers face is that often they are grandparents, who would never not take in their grandchildren. However, lots of them have retired so they are not financially ready to take on young children again. I have cases in my constituency where grandparents face having to take equity from their properties to support the grandchildren who are now, in effect, their children. Does she agree that the Government lack understanding of what kinship caring is about? There is a real lack of understanding and support, particularly for older generations of people—grandparents—who are looking after children.

Certainly, there is a huge amount of expectation on families to ensure that children are cared for in a family setting. The state should be aware of those people and the support that they deserve should be available. Too often, kinship care arrangements are informal, unofficial and under the radar. Sometimes parents are in a crisis situation, some simply cannot cope and in more extreme cases there may be death in the family, and that burden falls on the wider family circle.

Older people who perhaps have retired are caring for members of their family for a second time—in my experience, it is often not the first time that they have done so. They may have looked after their children or other family members in their time, and then face doing that again in their retirement years, which they may have been looking forward to enjoying, free from the responsibility of the school run. Children are incredibly tiring and we tend to forget too easily the burden that is placed on people.

There is a huge amount that I would like the Government to do, not least to address the points that my hon. Friends highlighted in their interventions, to recognise the enormous value of kinship carers and to provide them with the support that they need. However, I want to focus on two measures that the Chancellor could adopt in his Budget next month at very little cost that would have a huge effect on younger carers today. The Minister may already have read the recommendations in the October 2015 Family Rights Group and Kinship Care Alliance report, but if she has not, will she do so? If she feels that my two measures do not go far enough and she would like to do even more, those recommendations would be well worth a read.

In September, I raised the case of my constituent Alyssa at Prime Minister’s questions. Alyssa took responsibility for raising her three younger siblings when their mother passed away four years ago. She was only 18 when she took on the care of her sisters and brother, which is an enormous responsibility for someone of such tender years who is just about to start out on their life journey themselves. She did an absolutely brilliant job, despite the numerous daunting challenges that she faced. She had to work to clear her mum’s debts while looking after her family. Her eldest sister is now in her second year of university, and Alyssa has just started a family of her own with her partner, which is wonderful news.

However, because Alyssa cared for her siblings, she is being denied the Sure Start maternity grant and child tax credits. She is missing out on up to about £3,000 a year in total. When the Government restricted the Sure Start maternity grant to a family’s first child, they reasoned that families could reuse the equipment that the grant helps to purchase, such as prams, toys and clothes. I do not think that Ministers really considered that some carers take children into their care after infancy, so they never had clothes, prams or bottles to begin with.

It seems to me that Alyssa’s case is an anomaly in policy—an unintended consequence of the one-child limit on Sure Start and the two-child limit on child tax credits—but she is not a one-off. Another constituent contacted me recently to say that his wife had taken on her sister’s two children a few years ago after she passed away. He and his wife are now expecting their first child, and they, too, will not be entitled to tax credits for their own child. If they had already claimed tax credits for a child of their own and had later put in a claim for her nieces, that would have been accepted and all the children would have been eligible for tax credits. The Government included an exemption for kinship carers in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, but I just do not think that they realised that the exemption did not cover all cases.

Lisa from Grimsby took care of her 18-month-old nephew five years ago. He was diagnosed with global developmental delay—autism—and has an extra Y chromosome. His mother’s mental health issues meant that she was unable to meet his care needs, which only increased as he got older, so Lisa and her husband eventually both gave up work to look after him. That is another example of the financial hardship that kinship carers often face. When they had a child of their own this year, they were denied the the Sure Start maternity grant. Unfortunately, it is all too tempting for Governments to take kinship carers for granted, allowing them to make enormous sacrifices and raise children who are not their own, without offering them the support they need and deserve.

It is unknown how many carers are or will be affected by these policies, because the Government do not measure that. However, a survey by the Family Rights Group suggests that 25% of kinship carers have both their birth children and kin children living with them, and about one in five—up to 40,000—carers has three or more children living with them. As the two-child and one-child limits are not applied retrospectively, a small fraction of that number will be affected by this issue.

The number will be growing every year, but we are talking about a small amount in cost terms to extend the exemptions for kinship carers to those who have children of their own after taking kin children into their care. That small cost would be of huge benefit to kinship carers, like those in my constituency who are sacrificing a massive amount to do the right thing and give children a loving home within their family.

I am calling on the Government to ensure that kinship carers are eligible for child tax credits and the Sure Start maternity grant when they have children of their own. I asked the Prime Minister about Alyssa’s case on 13 September and she asked me to write to her about it. I sent her a letter that day, and I sent another letter with more information on 3 October after Alyssa’s appeal for the maternity grant was rejected, but as I mentioned before, I still have not received a reply. I hope the Minister will be much more forthcoming in how she plans to deal with these anomalies in the law so that kinship carers are no longer penalised for the amazing work they do.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing this important debate on social security support for kinship carers. She has raised a number of important issues and I am glad that she has taken the opportunity to highlight the invaluable work that kinship carers do. They truly are the unsung heroes, stepping in and offering care to children when they most need it.

Let me start by assuring the hon. Lady that the Government acknowledge the immense value of care given by kinship carers, be they family or friends looking after children whose parents are unable to provide the necessary care themselves, or non-parent carers supporting children who would otherwise be in local authority care. As she said, they save the public purse an awful lot of money; but more than that, the value of the stability and care that they give is probably immeasurable. A number of the issues she raised in passing, as well as the Family Rights Group and Kinship Care Alliance report that she referred to, cover a multitude of Departments. I will take a closer look at that report and recommend it to my colleagues from across different Departments.

I am grateful that the hon. Lady raised the specific issues of some of her constituents and others. Those individuals, through the selfless gesture that they make, play such a vital role in ensuring that children are raised in a caring family: an environment that gives them the stability they need to grow and develop. As a society, we owe them a massive debt of gratitude. In particular, she raised the story of her constituent, Alyssa, who raised three of her siblings from a very young age, and I understand that she gave up her own studies to do that. She has clearly done a remarkable job, given that one is now making her own way through university. She should be the subject of all our praise and thanks for that enormous act of self-sacrifice at such a young age—it must have been terrifying for her.

The Government work to ensure that the role of kinship carers is recognised and supported by ensuring access to the same support as parents within the benefits system in relation to child benefit, universal credit, child tax credits and other means-tested benefits. I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that the benefits administered by the Department for Work and Pensions are designed to try to suit the majority of claimants and cannot always be tailored to every individual circumstance, as that would introduce difficult and often subjective decisions into what are intended to be simple, streamlined schemes. However, I assure her that the Government recognise that there are times when the rules may not seem to have the flexibility that one would want, and this is clearly one of those times.

The hon. Lady has raised a number of important issues. This is something I will look more closely at and, as with all our policies, the Department will continue to keep the policy under review.

With regard to the Sure Start maternity grant, payment is restricted to just the one child under 16 in the family. We believe it is important to focus support where it is needed most. That is why we took that decision. The expenses related to the first child—buying all the necessary paraphernalia that come with a baby—are usually greater than those for subsequent children. That means that kinship carers of children under the age of 16 who then have their first baby are usually not eligible for the grant for that baby. However, as the hon. Lady rightly said, the circumstances of kinship carers vary, and it is not possible to legislate for every specific circumstance. As she highlighted, sometimes children taken into kinship care are not infants and did not come with all the necessary baby bits and bobs. That is why I take on board very much what she said and am happy to look at the issues she raised to do with that specific circumstance.

The hon. Lady also raised the Government’s policy to limit tax credits to two children. I would like quickly to touch on the rationale for the policy to provide support for a maximum of two children, as that might help to explain its impact on kinship carers as well as other claimants. As we know, a benefits structure that adjusts automatically to family size is not fair on families supporting themselves solely through work, who do not usually see their incomes rise when they have more children. We know that households need to think carefully about whether they are financially prepared to support an additional child without relying on income-related benefits. The Government’s view is that providing support to a maximum of two children or qualifying young persons in universal credit and child tax credit will ensure fairness between claimants on the one hand and, on the other, those taxpayers who support themselves solely through work. We believe that all children should be treated equally, and the decision to have more children should be taken based on whether the claimant can afford to support additional children.

However, I must stress that the Government recognise that some parents and carers are not able to make choices about the number of children in their family, and kinship carers often step up to the plate unexpectedly. That is why we have developed a number of exceptions for third and subsequent children to the maximum support on entitlement. One of those exceptions applies to parents who already have two children in their household and make the selfless decision to take on the responsibility of kinship care for children who would otherwise be at risk of entering the care system.

Claimants will still be entitled to an additional amount for any disabled children, regardless of the total number of children in the household. It is also worth noting that tax-free childcare is available to households where all parents are earning at least the equivalent of 16 hours at the national minimum wage per week. Households can receive support for any number of eligible children from age zero to 12, or to age 17 where the child is disabled. Child benefit will continue to be paid regardless of family size, as that is the basis of the Government’s contribution towards the cost of bringing up a child.

I reassure the hon. Lady that the Government recognise the pivotal role played by kinship carers. Our welfare policies are designed to ensure fairness between families supporting themselves solely through work and those on income-related benefits and to support those most in need. She has raised a number of important issues and the Department will give the policies discussed today and their impact on kinship carers every consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.