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Vulnerable Children: Kinship Care

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of kinship care as a means of support for vulnerable children.

My Lords, I welcome and appreciate the opportunity to have this debate. I thank all noble Lords who are interested in this issue and have indicated that they want to speak tonight. During our deliberations on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill last night, we had a useful debate on the challenges for kinship care that will arise from some of that legislation. I hope that the Minister has had the opportunity to read the comments in that debate, because I am not sure that tonight we will manage to get in all the points that we want to make.

I am very grateful to the Kinship Care Alliance for its briefings and, in particular, to the Family Rights Group, which I know and have worked with for several years and for whose knowledge and commitment in this area I have immense respect and regard.

There are an estimated 200,000 kinship carers across the United Kingdom. They are grandparents, older siblings, other relatives and friends who step in to care for children when usually the only alternative is the care system or for them to become what we now call looked-after children. In England, kinship care remains the most prevalent form of non-parental care for children who are unable to live with their parents—and that may well be the case for the whole of the United Kingdom. The most recent figures that we have come from a report from Bristol University published earlier this year.

Despite kinship care still being the predominant option for children in England who are unable to live with their parents, and despite research evidence that children living in kinship care have better outcomes—certainly than those fostered by non-relatives and, it seems from the evidence, than any other form of looked-after child—the results of the University of Bristol study show that a large number of children in kinship care are affected by poverty and deprivation. More than three-quarters of the children in the study lived in a deprived household. As I said last night, we may have arguments across the Floor about what deprivation is and what levels of poverty are and so on, but from this work we know that many of these children are in families that do not have the resources, or access to the resources, that many of us take for granted.

Compared with children growing up with at least one parent, children in kinship care were nearly twice as likely to have a long-term health problem or a disability that limited their day-to-day activities. We know that a kinship carer often takes on far greater challenges than they would if they were simply about to give birth to their own child. Someone else’s child is likely to be older and will bring with him or her much of the trauma of whatever has gone wrong or whatever has happened in their early life.

So we know that the outcomes for children are better than the alternatives in the looked-after system, but we also know that life is still very tough for the vast majority of families where kinship care is the reality. The challenge to the Government is to see what they can do to encourage kinship carers to come forward when children in their family need care for whatever reason. The challenge is also to ensure that they are properly supported so that they can improve even more the outcomes for the children they are caring for.

Earlier this year, the Family Rights Group, along with others in the Kinship Care Alliance, carried out the largest survey of kinship carers that has ever been done. The survey showed that almost half of kinship carers had to give up work in order to fulfil their caring responsibilities, and a further 18% had to give up work temporarily. Sometimes the social worker would demand that they gave up work because the needs of the children were so great. I do not criticise anyone for that; it is simply the reality. Twenty-two per cent of kinship carer households had three or more children aged 18 or under, which is particularly relevant to what we were discussing last night regarding the proposed two-child limit for child tax credits and the reduction in the benefit cap. That is an issue that I know the House will return to.

In the recent survey, 80% of kinship carers felt that when they took on the child they did not know enough about the legal options and the consequences for getting support to make an informed decision. In the light of this survey, what can the Government do to improve the situation and meet the objectives that I earlier suggested should be the Government’s objectives? How could the Government respond?

First, they could move to a presumption of kinship care. That would involve exploring the wider family as a first port of call. I understand and appreciate that that would mean a new duty on local authorities to ensure that potential kinship placements are explored and assessed for suitability before a child becomes looked-after—except, I accept, in emergencies. It may also mean a new duty on local authorities to offer all families the opportunity of a family group conference prior to a child entering the looked-after system, except in emergencies. That would allow kinship carers to come forward and family members themselves to work together in the best interests of the children.

I know that this is something that kinship carers feel very strongly about. They do not want to come in at a stage where the rest of the family think that they are pre-empting breakdown, but, on the other hand, if they hang back for too long, they are not considered and another placement for the child will be made and the opportunity for them to become kinship carers will have gone. It also means that there must be minimum standards for viability assessments with which local authorities would need to comply in order to fairly assess whether a family member is potentially a realistic option to care for the child.

The second thing that needs to change and that the Government need to be concerned about is how to recognise and meet the needs of children in kinship care. To put this briefly, kinship carers need to be viewed in exactly the same way as adopters are viewed. Kinship carers do not, for example, get what adopters get, including maternity and paternity leave. It is that sort of thing that the Government need to think about. There are various other suggestions that the Government could look to, and these are referred to by the Family Rights Group. Like adopters, kinship carers need to know that they will get access to support services, if necessary. As I have said, very many of these children have long-term health problems or a disability. Certainly, mental health issues are often very prevalent because of the trauma that the children have suffered. They really do need access to services.

But kinship carers also need access to information and advice. Of those who responded to the survey, 80% said that they did not have sufficient information about their options and the implications of these when taking on the child. They thought that independent advice was vital. The advice line that the Government and the Minister’s department have supported so far for the Family Rights Group is where kinship carers get the very best legal advice. Indeed, Justice Munby told me that he had great confidence in the quality of legal advice given by the Family Rights Group. It needs that in order to continue to give independent advice.

I can see that the Whip is getting anxious because my time is up. All I want to say is that I have enormous admiration for kinship carers. There are some really inspirational stories, which we do not have time to go through tonight. But this is an opportunity for the Government to recognise the value of kinship carers and make sure that they get the support they need.

My Lords, let me congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing this very important topic. I share her endorsement of the excellent work done by the Kinship Care Alliance and the Family Rights Group.

I do not want to cover again many of the areas that the noble Baroness has addressed, except to say that the framework within which we are debating this subject goes back to that landmark piece of social legislation, the Children Act 1989. It was a quite remarkable piece of legislation, to which reference is made around the world. It clarified the paramount interests of the child. In the words of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, the child is always to be treated as a person, not just as an object of concern. It clarified the role of the local authority and the rights and the role of the parents. Having myself been chairman of a juvenile court for several years before I entered this House, primarily in Lambeth but also in other parts of London, as well as working with the CPAG, for Frank Field, in a child guidance unit and as a trustee of the Children’s Society, I was only too aware, as I know the noble Baroness was, of the chaotic and fragmented nature of the legislation concerning children. Local authorities then had a new duty to promote the upbringing of such children in need by their families, in so far as this can fit in with their welfare and the duty to the child themselves. That was a very new statement, and is very compatible with what we are discussing this evening. Local authorities had an absolute duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of any child looked after by them, for reviews promoting contact between the child and his family, and to consult the family on decisions. There was also specific mention of grandparents. At that time, as the noble Baroness will remember, there was a great deal of discussion of how grandparents were overlooked.

I want to make a particular comment about the debate around the Children Act 1989. I remember the wonderful work of the then Lord Chancellor, James Mackay—now my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern —and the remarkable work of a very talented and dedicated civil servant Rupert Hughes, who died this year. He worked with all political parties and all interests, including the law, the voluntary sector and local authorities, not only to take the consultation and legislation through but then—so unusual in legislation—to oversee its implementation. I arrived in the Department of Health three weeks before the Act received Royal Assent, so my job was its implementation. It was a component of our framework for protecting children, of which we should justly proud. The briefing goes back, time and again, to that 1989 Act. However, in that debate, there was a particularly impressive speech by the leader of the Opposition in another place, who gave a very strong endorsement of the impossible decisions made by social workers: if they intervene too much, they get it wrong; if they intervene too little, they get it wrong. I commend to noble Lords the words of the leader of the Opposition during that debate.

Recently, I talked to a very talented woman I know who has taken on responsibility for her nephew as a kinship carer. She is like many others: she is quite affluent, but her problems are no different from anybody else’s. The sister has mental health problems and the whole family has become involved in the turmoil, the complications, the ambiguity, the anger, the loss and the mourning. I touched base with her today and she said that she has had help of an unimpeachable standard from social workers in Essex, one working with the child, who is 13, and one working with her. As the noble Baroness said, nobody expects adoptions to be easy, and neither are kinship care arrangements easy. There may be a complicated relationship; there may be gratitude from the mother but there may also be resentment. Many people suffer from mental illness or addiction problems, and this makes for great complications and tension within families.

There is one particular group I want to mention, and which this House discusses fairly frequently: the 4,000 women in prison, three-quarters of them mothers of dependent children. These families have a double punishment. The women go to prison—about half of them for theft or handling stolen goods and hardly any for violent offences. Over half have or had emotional, physical and abuse problems, either currently or in childhood. Of their children, only 9% are cared for by the father and the vast majority of the others go to kinship carers. Some 4,000 move in with their grandmothers each year because their mothers have been sent to jail, 5,000 are taken in by other family members or friends, and 2,000 others are adopted or fostered. These children are then likely to suffer greatly and repeat the problems of anti-social or delinquent behaviour. In our work supporting kinship carers, I have particularly identified this group of children who are all too easily overlooked.

In the 1960s, a remarkable woman called Mary Webster started a charity called the National Council for the Single Woman and Her Dependants. I became involved in the early 1970s and about eight years later, the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, became chief executive of what is now Carers UK. During those early years, nobody knew what a carer was. They used to say, “This is Mrs Bottomley from the careers organisation”. It was not a familiar term. It is the same with kinship carers. The work of recent years, since the Children Act, has begun to give kinship carers the priority and the recognition that they rightly deserve.

It cannot be said that simply because a child is with another member of the family that it is fine—it is the natural model and has happened for ever and a day. These are individuals and families with special needs. I commend the Minister for Children and Families for recently reporting back on the number of local authorities which have put in place guidance on what they are prepared to do for kinship carers dating back to Family and Friends Care: Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities. That number is up to 83% now—maybe the Minister will have further information for us. I congratulate the noble Baroness and look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about how we can all work harder to make this an even better service for children.

My Lords, in previous debates in this House, the Government have recognised the contribution that kinship carers make to the well-being of some 200,000 children. The reasons are indeed compelling and my noble friend Lady Armstrong and the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, have set them out persuasively. Kinship care is the most common permanency option for children who cannot live with birth parents. The carers provide vital support for vulnerable children when parents are unable to care for them, often in urgent circumstances such as domestic violence, drug abuse and parental illness. The only notice that they may have is when the social worker arrives on the doorstep with the children late at night. The children frequently have emotional difficulties, often because they have been living with parents who are drug-dependent or who have abused them. The kinship carers save the taxpayer considerable expenditure and a number of studies demonstrate that most children in kinship care are doing significantly better than children in the care system.

However, kinship carers who voluntarily embrace vulnerable children continue to face many barriers. I cannot list them all, but they certainly include that, unlike birth parents and adopters, the vast majority of kinship carers raising children are not entitled to even one day of statutory paid leave from employment when they take on the care of the child. They care at their own cost. Some 49% give up work permanently and others reduce their earnings because they need to take that time to settle the child. As my noble friend said, a requirement is often imposed by the social worker that they do that—for good reason, because the children can be traumatised and insecure.

Kinship carers do not receive the financial support that foster parents receive. Many still get little help from their local authority, but face a considerable increase in costs. A recent Family Rights Group survey revealed that only 13% of local authorities have a dedicated worker or team supporting kinship carers. The Family Rights Group has identified areas of improvement in both the assessment of and support for kinship carers, recognising that many kinship care placements will be under huge financial strain due to inadequate support. Some may well now break down as a result of the benefit cuts, to the detriment of both the child and the taxpayer.

The Family Rights Group advice service advises more than 2,000 kinship carers a year. My noble friend Lady Armstrong gave a compelling explanation of the Rolls-Royce service that it gives. But funding constraints mean that it can answer only four in 10 of its callers, so the needs of six in 10 remain unmet. Funding has been cut two years in succession and there is no commitment to fund beyond March 2016. That cannot be right.

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Armstrong on securing this debate, particularly at this time, because we now see, in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, direct withdrawal of support for kinship carers by the Government, with no coherent reasoning for that withdrawal of support. It is unfair to kinship-caring families, directly undermines the interest of vulnerable children and does not stack up in public expenditure terms. The Bill removes eligibility to the child element of child tax credits for the third and subsequent children born and introduces a two-child limit for receipt of the child element of universal credit for families making a new claim. Kinship care families with three or more children could lose up to £2,780 per year for each additional child, yet some 29,000 kinship carer families have three or more children in their households. The impact of the two-child limit on their family income will be further compounded by the biting of the benefit cap as it is set at an ever-lower level, precisely when these carers are voluntarily taking on vulnerable children and bearing the additional cost. It will be particularly harsh in its impact on kinship carers who already have their own children living with them.

I repeat the figures that I deployed in Committee yesterday because they are worthy of endless repetition. Exempting kinship carers from the two-child limit would cost £30 million. But these carers already save the taxpayer the considerable cost of placing these children in care. The cost of a child in care for a year is £40,000. The cost of care proceedings is £25,000. The savings that these 132,000 kinship families deliver by voluntarily caring for these 200,000 children runs into billions of pounds. The two-child limit needs to deter only 200 kinship carers from caring for three or more children, and that £30 million saving would be wiped out. That is without taking into consideration the human cost to the child or additional pressure on the local authorities when these children need to go into care. No reasoning has been given in any policy document for the withdrawal of support from kinship carers in these reforms.

The noble Lord, Lord Freud, for whom I have the greatest respect and who has previously shown a sensitive and considered understanding of the contribution of kinship carers, had considerable difficulty yesterday in persuading the House that there was a coherent line of reasoning in this withdrawal of support. The impact assessments gave no assessment of the disincentive effect, no assessment of the cost to the other areas of public expenditure from this effect and no assessment of the outcomes for the children. The withdrawal of this support will impact on some of the most vulnerable children. It is not explained, it is not defended and it is not assessed.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for again giving us an opportunity to discuss and examine the issue of kinship care. I hope that, as the Minister for education is answering the debate, it is an indication that education will work alongside other government departments to consider and make recommendations on kinship care and vulnerable children. Their health, education and welfare is a cross-government matter.

Of course, children being taken into care of any kind are vulnerable. They are all suffering loss. Those being looked after by relatives or friends have often lost a parent or parents through death, imprisonment, drug or alcohol misuse, domestic violence, mental health issues or other trauma. Kinship carers accept these children, some of whom may be very young, because they do not want the child or children to be fostered or adopted outside the family. It is worth remembering that many such carers also become vulnerable at the same time as the child, for reasons I shall discuss.

For about 10 years, I was the chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. In that time, I became aware of the issues facing kinship carers, and I met many of them. They were mainly women and they were mainly grandparents. Some of them had had to give up work to become carers and all had financial difficulties, or were grieving for a son or a daughter who had been lost to them for one reason or another. One grandparent I met, or “midnight granny” as they call themselves, suddenly had to take on three children aged between one and seven when her daughter died of a drug overdose—and yes, it did happen at midnight. This woman, who was widowed, lived in a one-bedroom flat and worked. Her life was turned upside down. She gave up her job and fought to be rehoused. The rehousing from that one-bedroom flat took two years, although there were three children. She reported having no help from social services and spent hours every week filling in forms. This is not an untypical case. The woman became vulnerable as her health suffered, and she became poor. She struggled to pay for food, clothing and toys for the children. She unselfishly cared for those vulnerable children lovingly, as so many kinship carers do.

It is perhaps not so astonishing to learn that children in kinship care often do better socially, emotionally and academically than children in other forms of care. I, too, was pleased to become acquainted with Grandparents Plus and the Family Rights Group, which are both part of the Kinship Care Alliance. These organisations have been stalwart in seeking a good deal for kinship carers and the children they look after. Much has been achieved, but there is much to do, and I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to this cause.

A report from the Family Rights Group and Kinship Care Alliance, which has already been mentioned, points out, interestingly, that 40% of children living in care in England live in the 20% most income-deprived areas, while 95% of children being raised in kinship care are not “looked after” by the local authority. Local authority support to kinship carers is largely at the council’s discretion. Only 5% of children in kinship care are “looked after”, so that they qualify for financial support; the rest suffer. Surely there is an anomaly here. Kinship carers save the Government billions of pounds a year in care costs, but are often treated appallingly by local authorities. When I was working in the substance misuse field, I came across only two local authorities which had dedicated support for family and friends carers, and only around 40% of kinship carers receive regular support from a social worker.

So, along with the Kinship Care Alliance, I would plead with the Government to do three or four things. They should require local authorities to publish a kinship policy, set up a dedicated post to oversee it, particularly in terms of monitoring the progression of children in such care. Kinship carers should be given the same support that is available to adopters, as my noble friend mentioned. Kinship carers should be entitled to free childcare, the pupil premium and priority school admissions. They should be exempt from the limiting of child tax credit to two children, the benefit cap, and the work conditionality rules that have been extended to the carers of under-five year-olds.

In answer to an Oral Question in the House of Commons on 26 October, Edward Timpson, the Minister of State for Children and Families, for whom I have enormous respect, stated that a special guardianship review and social work reform is under way to better support children. He also stated that parental leave, providing greater choice for families trying to balance childcare and work, will help. I am not sure how this latter provision would benefit the kinships carers that I am talking about, so I will need to examine that. But I would like to know when the guardianship review will be finished. Perhaps the Minister could let me know about that later. I look forward to his reply and to his comments on the issues raised in the debate today. Again, I thank my noble friend for introducing it.

Perhaps I, too, may start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for initiating the debate, the Kinship Care Alliance for providing briefing by my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield, and indeed the House of Lords Library. I said at Question Time earlier today that it is vital that every child is in a loving and stable family or environment. We have made huge progress over the past few years and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, we should congratulate the Government on what has been achieved. However, we heard during the Question on adoption about the fall in the number of children being adopted, and we saw from DfE figures for up to March of this year that some 6,000 children have gone missing from care. We still have quite a lot of work to do and we need to understand why these things happen. We need to understand the impact that family courts can have on local authorities and how they respond to adoption. So there is always work that needs to be done.

We know that kinship children have often been maltreated so they have greater challenges for us to deal with, yet they have better outcomes, as we heard, than those who are looked-after children. The noble Baronesses, Lady Armstrong and Lady Massey, have already mentioned the figures—200,000 children raised by kinship carers across the UK and 49% of carers had to give up work permanently to do so.

I shall preface my remarks by saying that it is important that children do not just drift into kinship care that might be wholly unsuitable for them. In my professional life, I know of children who have been brought up by a family relative who at best is well-meaning but unsuitable, and at worst a real danger to that child. I agree with the Kinship Care Alliance that the wider family should be explored as the first port of call for a child entering care, taking into account the child’s wishes and feelings, and also placing a duty on local authorities to ensure that potential places are explored and assessed for suitability before a child becomes looked after.

There is a long history in the UK of children being cared for by relatives and friends when their parents, for whatever reason, are unable to care for the children themselves. Research and knowledge about kinship care is mostly limited to formal kinship care—commonly meaning placements that are made by child welfare agencies where carers have been approved as kinship foster carers. Much less is known about children who live informally with kin where the arrangements are made outside the responsibility of the child welfare agencies. There is considerable concern, since many more children are likely to live in informal arrangements than formal ones.

The policy on kinship care is developing in the UK but perhaps not in a joined-up way. In 2007, for example, the Scottish Government published a strategy for children living in kinship and foster care. Similarly, the Welsh Government agreed that grandparents and other kinship carers should be included in the delivery of parenting programmes in Wales. In Northern Ireland, minimum kinship standards which were introduced in 2012, specifying the requirements which health and social care trusts have to meet when placing looked-after children in kinship care arrangements, and clarifying the level of service that children and families can expect to receive. These relate only to looked-after children in kinship care.

While the rate of change in our four UK countries is variable, it is important to note that the message from children and kinship carers in each country was the same. For all the carers the greatest difficulty was lack of financial support. This added to their burden and made all aspects of their lives much more difficult. The way in which we deal with kinship care and how it has developed is fragmented and piecemeal. We have a complex and wholly unjust situation. Providing kinship care must be a crucial service to the community—a society caring for its own—but it sometimes pushes carers into poverty. Chance dictates whether kinship carers are supported financially or otherwise. As a result, whether kinship carers receive help financially or in kind is not related to the children’s needs or to the financial situation of the carer. Do we not need to ensure that assistance is related to need?

If we look at other countries, for example, we can learn a lot. In Spain, an allowance is paid to carers on the basis that they have enough money to bring up the child or children in care. This would be a much more equitable way of providing financial support than exists at present and would enable more relatives and friends to take on this role. It would also help in the overall problem. At present, there is considerable variation in whether allowances are paid when private law orders are made. The current discretionary system for providing financial allowances to private law orders needs to be completely overhauled and support for flexible working might enable kinship carers of working age to retain their jobs when children come to live with them. Change is needed to replace the current unjust arrangements for kinship care. We should move towards a national kinship allowance to cover the costs of bringing up the children. We need to support flexible working in the hope that it will enable more kinship carers of working age to retain their jobs when children come to live with them

A duty should be placed on local authorities to conduct a children’s need assessment. Would it not be good if we had a cultural shift in attitude for the major contribution of informal and formal kinship care as a good option for children? We know that kinship carers are under huge pressures and yet, despite taking on a huge burden from the state by looking after children who would otherwise end up in the care system, kinship carers and the children they look after are still an overlooked group who experience high levels of poverty with little or no statutory support.

I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Armstrong on securing this debate on a most important topic.

Kinship carers include every kind of relative, as well as friends who are raising children unable to live with their parents. They provide a crucial web of support for children who have often suffered in ways that most of us, I suspect, could not imagine. Yet it seems they are undervalued by the organisation that ought to be most indebted to them—the Government.

We know that 95% of children living under kinship care arrangements are not “looked after” by the local authority. Therefore, by keeping vulnerable children out of the care system, these kinship carers save the taxpayer billions of pounds each year in care costs, as noble Lords have already said. The financial cost of raising the child typically falls directly on the kinship carers themselves, yet they are treated as the poor relation in terms of parents looking after children who are not their own.

Kinship carers get less support than those who undertake straight fostering, so it may be in a local authority’s financial interest to place a child under a special guardianship order rather than to remove them from that environment and place them into a foster placement or a children’s home. As my noble friend Lady Armstrong outlined, taking on someone else’s child is much more demanding than just adding a child to your family. The Government should acknowledge this important fact.

By contrast, adoption has been the main focus for the Government recently. The Education and Adoption Bill makes provision for regional adoption agencies, which are a welcome development, and recently we heard from no less an authority than the Prime Minister that further legislation on adoption is apparently in the pipeline. The question that has to be asked is why the same attention has not been given to the 95% of children who are in other forms of care, including those who cannot live with their parents and who are being raised by kinship carers. We might also ask why the same rationale for supporting adoption—not least in terms of post-adoption support—has not been applied to kinship care. Unfortunately, the Education and Adoption Bill was drafted so tightly that the adoption provisions could not be amended in favour of kinship care—or, indeed, any other form of care.

Various noble Lords referred to the survey carried out by the charity Family Rights Group. I will not repeat the figures here, but I pay tribute to the group and to the Kinship Care Alliance for the very thorough briefing that it kindly provided.

We know that a review of special guardianship orders is under way and will report next year. It would be hugely encouraging for the estimated 130,000 families raising children in kinship care across the country—often, as we have heard, at cost to themselves and their own children —if a similar review was announced into kinship care.

My noble friend Lady Drake referred to last night’s refusal by the Government during the welfare reform Bill to exempt parents of adopted children from the two-plus children tax credits limit. That point bears repeating because it makes no sense at all. I know that the Minister will say, “It’s not my department”. Of course, as far as that Bill is concerned he is correct, but it is his responsibility. That mean-spirited decision by his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, will impact on his department to a considerable extent. At a time when more parents are needed for all looked-after children, the cost of taking a child under a family’s wing is considerable. Parents who already have their own children will now be deterred for financial reasons from becoming involved, which means it will become even more difficult to find sufficient parents for looked-after children. For kinship care, the decision will make it even more difficult to place sibling groups.

I hope that the Minister is fully aware of the implications of the denial of exemption to parents prepared to take on the care of children from troubled backgrounds and that, as a result, he will speak to his colleague and even echo the case made so eloquently by many noble Lords in this Chamber 24 hours ago. It is not too late to have that important exemption inserted in the welfare reform Bill. The Minister would be failing in his duty of service to the Department for Education and many of the children who rely on it for their care if he does not highlight the damage that will be done to children in kinship care and others as a result of the Government’s, at least current, intransigence.

Finally, why should kinship carers be valued less highly than adoptive parents? My noble friend Lady Massey and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, outlined changes that they advocated to the support that could be supplied to kinship carers. I would add to that a positive step the Government could take: to extend the adoption support fund and the adoption passport to children subject to a special guardianship order. If a child is in the care system the parents looking after them are entitled to foster parent or adoptive parent payments. It is fair to ask why those should not be available to and apply to kinship carers.

Often, an older sibling or grandparent steps in to prevent a child being formally taken into care, but if they do that the support given to them is much less. In effect, they are punished financially for relieving the system of the need to look after that child, which means that both the family and the child lose out. That is surely neither logical nor fair. Typically they are the same children with the same range of needs. The legal route taken on how the child gets the care they need should not matter; it is surely first and foremost about meeting the needs of the child and properly supporting those who take on the role of carer.

I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for anyone willing to look after a child who is not their own and provide them with something they may never have known—a loving home in which the child can flourish and reach their potential. I believe that the Minister shares that view, but he needs to use the influence that comes with his office to demonstrate that kinship carers are valued as highly as any other person acting in loco parentis. I hope he will indicate that that is indeed what he intends to do.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for calling a debate on this important subject. I am sure that the whole House would agree that kinship carers, many of whom are grandparents, play a pivotal role in caring for children who cannot live with their parents. I welcome the opportunity to answer for the Government in this short debate.

First, I make it clear that the Government do not see a hierarchy between adoption, fostering, residential care or kinship care. We are interested not in favouring one type of care over another, but in what is right for each individual child. Over the last five years we have made significant strides in this regard. I am grateful for the supportive remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, my noble friend Lady Bottomley and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey.

For a majority of children, kinship care will be the first and best option. This is not just because it is what the law requires, but because we know kinship care offers children a vitally important bond of familial love and belonging. That is why we applaud kinship carers who step in, often in a crisis or emergency, to take on the care of a child, as my noble friend Lady Bottomley and the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, said. There will, of course, be many children being looked after by relatives where care proceedings are not an issue but where the primary carers are ill or in distress and cannot easily care for the child. However, the Government recognise that kinship carers take on a role that might otherwise have to be performed by the state. Kinship carers enable vulnerable children and young people to remain with their families, with people they know and trust who can provide the right commitment, security and stability they need to thrive.

We know, through voluntary sector research, that children benefit from living with their extended family and that placement stability is a factor in children’s later achievement. Children in placements with relatives are likely to be more stable than ones in unrelated fostering or residential care. In particular, research indicates that children in these arrangements have fewer emotional and behaviour problems and achieve more academically. As the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, said, an analysis carried out by researchers at the universities of Oxford and Bristol and published only last week found that, among the cohort of looked-after children who were eligible for GCSEs in 2013, children in kinship care had higher GCSE point scores on average than children in other types of care. That is why, through the discretionary housing fund and through funding the advice line provided by the Family Rights Group, we are trying to help kinship carers to safeguard children’s futures by keeping them within the wider family and community.

I welcome the chance, through this debate, to consider the support available to kinship carers and what we are doing to improve this. We know they need better information and support. That is why, during the previous Parliament, we issued family and friends care statutory guidance for local authorities. This makes clear that every council should publish a family and friends care policy, setting out how it will support the needs of children living with kinship carers, whether or not they are looked after. In particular, we made a commitment to increase the number of local authorities that have published their policies for supporting family and friend carers. Following national sector learning days organised by the DfE with local authorities, 83% of English local authorities have now published a policy, compared with 42% in 2012. We intend to write again to councils on this issue.

We recognise that kinship carers are not always accessing the support they should have. Although most authorities have policies in place, we now have to focus on the quality of the support they offer to family and friends carers. To this end, the department has been funding the voluntary sector organisation Grandparents Plus to develop models of best practice in early help and to identify how to overcome the barriers to providing good, well-structured services and early support for kinship carers. Also, we have seen the use of special guardianship orders increase year on year since their inception in 2005. Special guardians are mainly family members, often grandparents, who provide loving, permanent homes for children. This has largely been a positive development and we welcome it. My department has recently completed a review of special guardianship. Evidence from this suggests that special guardianships are, in the main, positive relationships which protect children’s welfare and improve their outcomes into adulthood. We are currently considering the results of the review, including looking at how we might improve appropriate support to special guardians.

We have been working closely with the key voluntary sector organisations, the Family Rights Group and the Kinship Care Alliance. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, I can say that we plan to publish the report of the review before Christmas. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, referred to the important work done by the Family Rights Group, and we are providing financial support to it for its work with kinship carers through, for instance, its helpline and promoting the use of family group conferences. My department has been funding them for more than seven years. That clearly demonstrates our commitment to the valuable work that they do for kinship carers.

We are currently reviewing our grant payments to voluntary and community-based organisations beyond the end of this financial year in the light of the spending review. We will have more information on this in the new year. In the mean time, I express my thanks to the Family Rights Group for its support to families and emphasise that the Government recognise the important work that it does.

The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, mentioned the concept of a presumption of kinship care. The law already states that children should be looked after by their families wherever possible. She also mentioned mental health. Improving access to CAMHS for vulnerable children is a priority of this Government. We have committed £1.4 billion to improve mental health services for children and young people over the next five years and we are working closely with the DoH and NHS England. The transformation to services we expect is set out in the Future in Mind report, which makes suggestions about what more can be done to improve access, develop better partnership working with parents and carers and provide the right support for children who have suffered trauma.

Many family members make great sacrifices in order to care for children. Local authorities have a legal duty to support children who leave care under other legal orders, and carers should discuss any needs with their local authorities. Children who have left care for a friends and family placement underpinned by a special guardianship or relevant child arrangement order have access to priority school admissions, pupil premium and free early education for two year-olds.

In relation to support for adopters and whether this should be extended, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, the Adoption Support Fund has been set up to address the serious gaps in specialist services for adopted children. It is still in its infancy. If it proves successful, we will look to apply the learning in other areas. We are considering how to improve support for special guardianship as part of the special guardianship review, which, as I said, will be published before Christmas. However, given the wide range of needs and circumstances of family carers, it would be inappropriate as well as complex to provide a national allowance which is both equitable and simple to administer. Children placed in a kinship care arrangement by a local authority are looked-after children, in which case their carer must be approved as a foster carer. In these circumstances, kinship carers must receive the same support as all other foster carers, including financial support. However, the majority of kinship carers will be caring for children who are not looked after. Relatives caring for a child in these circumstances are entitled to support such as child benefit and other benefits available to parents, subject to the usual eligibility criteria. It would be difficult to require local authorities to provide a dedicated support service solely for relative carers, as most of the services required will be the same as those needed by other families.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned that our recent focus had been on adoption; our recent focus has indeed been on improving one area in relation to it. As we have mentioned in other debates, we have done a great deal of work over the last five years on improving the provision for all children in care. The Children and Families Act was a substantial piece of legislation which has substantially improved the fostering arrangements and introduced early placements. Long-term foster care has been recognised as a distinct placement. We have invested £100 million in Pupil Premium Plus. We have virtual school heads and we are currently conducting a review of children’s homes.

The Minister mentioned other pieces of legislation that have recently gone on to the statute book. I do not expect him to comment specifically on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, but I wonder if he and his department are considering the impact of the decision not to exempt adoptive parents from the two-plus children tax credit limit, because there will undoubtedly be an effect on his department, and indeed on the ability of the number of adopters and kinship carers to be extended in the future.

Noble Lords will be aware that this was discussed last night. I know that my noble friend Lord Freud will have listened carefully to those arguments and will be considering the response. I will discuss it with him.

Finally, I know that the House recognises the crucial role that working grandparents play in providing childcare and supporting working families, as my noble friend Lady Bottomley mentioned. That is why we have announced plans to extend the current system of shared parental pay and leave to cover working grandparents, thereby providing much greater choice for families trying to balance childcare and work. We will bring forward legislation to enable the change to be implemented by 2018.

I am sure the whole House agrees that kinship carers —grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and friends—fulfil a vital role in the care system and deserve the continued support of the Government. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate.

Sitting suspended.