To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kinship Care Lost in the legal labyrinth, published on 16 May; and in particular, the findings that there is a lack of both advice and legal aid for current and prospective kinship carers of children in crisis.
My Lords, the Government are grateful to the APPG for its work and its recent report on kinship care and the legal labyrinth. The noble Baroness will be aware that the Ministry of Justice recently laid a statutory instrument widening access to legal aid to private special guardianship order proceedings. We will monitor and assess its impact.
The noble Baroness will also be aware that a series of recommendations was made by the independent review of children’s social care, including on expanding access to legal aid for kinship carers. We are considering each of those in detail.
I thank the Minister for her reply. The extension of legal aid to protect special guardians of children in private law cases is clearly a step in the right direction. However, it is not matched in public law proceedings, where the majority of guardianship orders are pursued. Here, children are in a crisis situation, and it is imperative that those who step forward as kinship carers, who are often left to navigate the justice system alone, get the legal support they need. Without it, the risk is that more children will end up in care, away from friends and families. May I push the Minister: when will the Government ensure that the extension to legal aid in private law provision is mirrored in public law?
I understand and respect the noble Baroness’s point. The Government are committed to making the means and merits testing the same, be it private or public law proceedings. She will also be aware that legal aid funding has been extended so that prospective special guardianship proceedings will also get means and merits-tested legal aid funding.
My Lords, the Minister will well understand that the state services do not exactly have an unblemished record in taking over the parenting of other people’s children. That being so, will the Minister do all she can to ensure that the extended family is considered more in cases of this kind, and that members of the extended family are recognised as having something really personal and important for children who have had the worst start in life?
The noble Lord is absolutely right. In the Question we debated last week about the protective effect of family, as picked up by the Children’s Commissioner, the same points were raised. The noble Lord will be aware that extensive recommendations were made in Josh MacAlister’s review about the role of family. The Government absolutely recognise, value and are grateful to those families who care for an estimated 150,000 children.
My Lords, as we have heard, the legal framework for kinship care is very complicated: there is no single definition in legislation, which can lead to kinship carers missing out on the support they need. Will the Government consider introducing a single legislative definition of kinship care to help ensure that carers can access the right support?
My noble friend will be aware that that was also one of the key recommendations in Josh MacAlister’s review, so the Government will be responding as part of our implementation plan. More broadly, as my noble friend says, the awareness and value of kinship care could definitely be improved, not just for wider family but for social workers, so that they are always confident in taking it into consideration.
My Lords, I am grateful that the Minister is paying attention to this, but she, like me, must be aware since the publication of the MacAlister review that many kinship carers now suffer real harm because of the cost of living crisis and their vulnerability in these legal issues. This is becoming a crisis for some kinship carers, but we all know, as the noble Lord said in his question, that kinship carers end up being far more effective in their care than the state is. We need to encourage and support kinship carers if we care about those vulnerable children. Will the Minister make sure that the Government respond promptly, because the more time passes the more vulnerable these kinship carers become?
The Government take this very seriously. My honourable friend in the other place, the Minister for Children, met recently with a group of kinship carers. She listened hard to what they said and was impressed by the case they made.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that kinship care is a cost-effective way of dealing with the problems of children in need and that this is therefore a moment when it should be expanded? There will obviously be constraints on public spending, and kinship care is a cost-effective way forward.
I agree that it is cost effective, but I know that the noble Lord agrees that it is also really important because of the stability it offers children. It substantially outperforms other forms of care in educational and employment outcomes.
My Lords, noble Lords can go on to the charity Kinship’s website and look at each parliamentary constituency to see how many children are in care and how many are in kinship arrangements. In Liverpool Wavertree, there are 601 children in kinship care and 330 in local authority care. Does the Minister not think we need to ensure that all those children have the possibility of kinship care? One way to do that is to make sure that financial and other support is available for them; it should not be left to discretionary arrangements by local authorities that may or may not pay. Will the Minister and the Government give real consideration to making sure there is that support for these parents and relatives?
At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, the Government are considering all the review’s recommendations. More broadly on the noble Lord’s point, the variability in the use of kinship care across different local authorities is also very striking. For some local authorities it is as low as 2%; for others it is over a quarter.
My Lords, I know the Minister has a firm grasp of issues across her portfolio, so she will be aware that the charity Kinship’s annual report found that over a third of kinship carers have stated that they are unlikely to be able to continue in that role in the next year. I echo the points that other noble Lords have made and I hear what the Minister said about cracked records, but even cracked records have good music at their centre. Will she accept the need for kinship carers to be provided with the same support as foster carers to enable them to continue to provide that role? As other noble Lords have said, the cost of not doing so will be much greater, should those children have to be taken into local authority care.
The Government are considering all these issues. I have made it clear that we see kinship care as an incredibly valuable part of the fabric of support for children who, for whatever reason, can no longer live with their birth parents. We are looking at all aspects—not just financial but the information, support and guidance that prospective carers and local authorities receive.
Do the Government recognise that that support has to start urgently? Often, these children are traumatised and may be suddenly bereaved. Kinship leave, similar to adoption leave, may help kinship carers and the child or children adapt to the new situation and come to terms with what has happened.
That is definitely one of the issues under consideration.
My Lords, the Minister has said many times that she is considering this, and I trust she is doing so. Will she convey to the department the interest and sense of urgency in the Chamber today, specifically on a legal definition that would unlock so much for kinship carers?
I absolutely undertake to do that.