I beg to move,
That this House has considered childcare for fostered children.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Hollobone. In September, the Government extended free childcare for three and four-year-olds. The policy, which was widely welcomed, applies to all children whose parents work more than 16 hours a week and earn less than £100,000 a year—all, that is, except foster children, who are the only group of children excluded in this way.
When we ask any child what matters most to them, they tell us that it is their family and friends. A decade of working with children in care before I was elected to Parliament taught me that protecting and nurturing relationships is everything for them. The Fostering Network has already learned of children who have lost their nursery places as a result of the policy, because when they went into care they were no longer entitled to the additional funding. For so many children, their wider relationships with trusted adults and friends in a familiar setting are what sustains them most at the most difficult time in their lives. It is unthinkable that we should allow a policy that destroys those relationships to continue.
At the risk of being a spoiler, may I let the hon. Lady know that she will hear what she wants to hear when I make my speech?
It is not very often that I am speechless, but I am extremely pleased to hear that. My hon. Friends and I will await the Minister’s speech with great interest.
The Government’s policy has created a terrible disparity. Under the scheme, foster carers have been able to claim for their birth children but not for the foster children in their care, meaning that of two children growing up in the same household, one can attend nursery and one cannot. A common thread running through the stories that children tell about the pain of growing up in care is the feeling of being marked out as different from other children. The exclusion of foster children from the scheme enshrines that difference and discrimination in Government policy. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), has rightly said, that is indefensible.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent argument. Does she agree that one of the serious problems with the exclusion of foster children from the scheme is the impact on relationships within a family, between the foster child and the other children? The foster child may get to spend more time with the parent, which can exacerbate tensions with the other children.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point about the problem with treating foster children as different from other children in a family unit. I know she is very aware of the issue as a result of her previous experience and her constituency work.
For children who have experienced trauma and upheaval, the early years are critical. Some children’s best interests are served by being at home with their foster carer, but others—particularly those who have had limited social interaction—absolutely thrive around other children of the same age. The Children Act 1989 makes it very clear that a child’s best interests must be the primary consideration in all decisions affecting them. At the moment, the policy simply does not meet that test.
One foster carer from Norwich expressed it very well when he said that
“we currently foster the youngest two siblings from a large family. They came from a chaotic background where their only examples of behaviour and relationships with peers were those experienced in a very poor home environment. The youngest is now attending Pre-School, but anything over 15 hours has to be funded by ourselves, whereas a child from any other home would have 30 hours free. It is essential that he experience as much contact with his peers as he can comfortably manage, to enable him to learn how to behave appropriately before he starts school in September next year. To this end we are increasing his hours at our expense over the next few months which eats into the allowance we receive to feed, clothe and generally look after him.”
Such hardship is a common story among foster carers, as the GMB has highlighted. Foster carers are under immense financial pressure; barely 10% earn the equivalent of the national living wage.
Given that only 10% of foster carers earn the national living wage, does my hon. Friend agree that excluding them from the 30 hours of free childcare seems only to reinforce the spiral of poverty that many of them face?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. As my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) pointed out, we need to think about the impact not just on the foster child, but on the other children in the family. When the Earl of Listowel, a great champion for children, raised the issue in the other place, the then Minister Lord Nash said:
“The local authority must provide a fostering allowance which covers the full cost of caring for the child. For this reason, foster carers are not eligible for additional support through tax-free childcare or child tax credits for children who have been placed with them.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2015; Vol. 762, c. 2124.]
The Government are right that foster carers are eligible for a national minimum fostering allowance that covers food, transport, clothing, toiletries and other items such as furniture. However, having been among those who lobbied the last Labour Government for the introduction of that allowance, I can tell the Government that it does not contain any element that covers childcare.
In any case, as the Fostering Network points out, around one council in seven pays a rate that is below the national minimum. Its report, “State of the Nation’s Foster Care 2016”, found that the proportion of foster carers who believe that their allowance is sufficient to cover the costs of fostering has halved in recent years. It told me that
“when we asked this question two years ago 80 per cent of respondents felt their allowances did cover the costs of fostering. In 2016 this figure has fallen sharply to only 42 per cent.”
That starkly illustrates the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker).
The situation for “family and friends” carers, particularly grandparents, is very stark. Hardship is a real issue for many families. One family in my constituency recently faced a heartbreaking choice when their sister died: they had to choose between experiencing real hardship or seeing their two children taken into care and probably placed quite far away from their school, losing all the relationships that matter.
Has my hon. Friend considered the effect of the policy on the nearly 9,000 children who are in kinship foster care of the kind that she has described? Kinship foster carers do not have the luxury of assessing their finances before they decide to foster; keeping the child in the family is not a choice, but a necessity. Childcare is really important to them. Does she agree that the policy is particularly unfair on the children?
I could not agree more. The policy is particularly difficult for the family I have been supporting back in Wigan, because all the other siblings who might take care of the children face exactly the choice she describes.
As Edward Timpson—the former Conservative Minister for Children, Schools and Family, who I rated very highly—wrote recently, foster carers who need it should be
“offered flexibility and support to enable them to combine fostering with other work.”
There is a precedent for foster carers to receive additional support, although the Minister has previously suggested that they were not eligible for it. For example, foster carers in receipt of universal credit can claim free school meals for the children they foster, so it is wrong to suggest that there is no way round the problem. With record numbers of children in care—The Fostering Network estimates that we need to recruit more than 7,000 additional foster carers to meet children’s need—the Government are instead pursuing a policy that will make the situation worse, leaving more children stranded in unsuitable placements or forced to leave their siblings or grandparents behind because no local placements are available.
For some of the most vulnerable children in this country, the human cost of that oversight is beyond measure. What makes it even more difficult to accept is that the state is their corporate parent; we hold collective corporate responsibility for them because their parents cannot or will not be responsible. No parent would allow their children to become an afterthought in critical decisions that affect them or to remain unresponsive to their needs or best interests, and quite simply we should not do so either. For that reason I warmly welcome—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I was saying, for that reason I warmly welcome the Education Secretary’s statement that Ministers are “actively looking at” the issue, and I particularly welcome the Minister’s intriguing intervention during my opening remarks. In his response to my written questions, the Minister rightly reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to promoting the best interests of the child and told me that he will
“work with local councils, fostering service providers and others in the sector to ensure we get the balance right.”
When he responds, will he tell us whether he still intends to consult on the policy and, if he does, whether it will be a formal consultation that includes The Fostering Network and other fostering organisations?
If the Minister does intend to consult before making a further announcement, will he commit to beginning the process in January and to ensuring that it is not delayed by the foster care stocktake? Will he also give us a commitment that it will have concluded with a view to implementation at least by September, so that foster children do not have to face another year of exclusion from the policy? Does he intend to amend the legislation and, if not, will he commit to putting in additional funding now? Suggestions for how that might be achieved have been proposed by a number of different organisations and Members of Parliament, so will he commit to considering those? Given the problems that the overall scheme has faced, will he heed the concerns of the National Day Nurseries Association and ensure that the funding provided is sufficient to meet the true costs of the scheme?
Finally, the Minister in the other place said in a written answer in November:
“As of March 2017, there were 3,030 three and four year olds looked after in foster care and subsequently excluded from receiving the 15 additional hours of free childcare.”
Given the relatively small number of children and the fact that not all of them would take up the offer, does the Minister accept that the cost of righting this wrong is relatively low but that the cost of not doing so for foster children is far, far too high?
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate and on enabling us all to make a contribution if we so wish—I clearly wish to do just that.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his place and to have heard his early concession—if that is what it was—to the hon. Member for Wigan. We will wait to hear what he has to say at the end of the debate, but I am sure, as is always the case, that he will be most helpful to us, the Members of this House.
This is a worthy debate, and one to which I certainly wish to contribute. I am the proud grandparent of the most beautiful little girls in the world—Katie who is eight and Mia who is three. Thankfully, they do not look anything like me; they are lovely young girls and will have probably all the boys in my part of the country chasing them when the time comes. When I look at those feisty little girls, who take no nonsense from anyone and are so wise for their age, I am thankful for the home life they have, which sees them so well adjusted. That is something we are very thankful for; indeed, all of us, as parents, would be thankful for that. I am so very aware that not all children have that stability, and I believe it is our duty to do the best we can to intervene here, which is why the hon. Member for Wigan has introduced the debate.
I want to place on record, if I may, Mr Hollobone, some remarks about Northern Ireland. I understand very well that this is an England-based debate, but I want to have on the record where we are on foster care in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), sitting here on my left, made representations to the Backbench Business Committee to ask for a debate on foster issues, and we look forward to contributing to that debate in the new year.
While I understand that this is clearly an England-based debate, as the childcare hours apply only in England, I want to set the scene in terms of need in our society. In Northern Ireland 2,212 children were living with foster families on 31 March 2016. That is nearly nine tenths—some 88%—of the 2,500 children looked after away from home. There are approximately 2,095 foster families in Northern Ireland. The Fostering Network estimates that fostering services need to recruit a further 200 foster families in the next 12 months. That could be dealt with in answer to the hon. Lady’s debate, and we look forward to that.
In England, 53,420 children were living with foster families on 31 March 2017. That is nearly four fifths of the 68,300 children looked after away from home. There are 44,625 foster families in England. The Fostering Network estimates that fostering services need to recruit a further 5,900 foster families in the next 12 months. The hon. Member for Wigan mentioned a figure of 7,000. The figures I looked at were slightly different, but whether it is 5,900 or 7,000, it clearly tells us one thing: there are not enough foster families.
You may wonder why I am raising the issue of foster care places and need, Mr Hollobone. If good hard-working people who worked two jobs and had love in their hearts but not necessarily the time to be there straight after school and so on could access childcare places, we may well find more people were able to foster. They could do their day’s work like so many other families and offer support and help to children who need it. That is how I see it, and it is what my contribution will focus on. I hope it will support what the hon. Member for Wigan said, what every one of us will say in our contributions and what the Minister will say in his response.
Many of these children crave the routine that living in a busy functioning household entails. While some people may believe that their normal working hours may preclude them from providing a loving home for a child, that is not the case. When my two grandchildren come to our house—I am not there all the time to see them—it is great because at 7 o’clock we can give them back. It is fantastic. It is one of the wonders of being a grandparent. We get all the fun, but when they get a bit rowdy or tempestuous at night when it is time to go to bed we can return them to their mum and dad with great pleasure. When my wee girls come, they love the busyness of the house. They love the fact that their grandmother and perhaps their grandfather are busy around the place. Whatever we are doing, they want to help. If I am doing repairs in the workshop, they want the hammer. That is not a good thing, but sometimes they want to have a hammer in their hands. I am always very careful with what they are doing. It is that busyness that they want. I believe in my heart that young people want to be part of a busy functioning household.
The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) asked the Secretary of State for Education about the extension of additional child care hours to foster carers—I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand and told him I was going to mention this—and I was heartened to learn that the Department is minded to consider that extension. I hope that the Minister will tell us that, too. I add my voice to the calls of my colleagues and ask for consideration of the benefit that the extension could produce, with more people willing to add a foster child into their family while being able to work part-time and keep their career in place.
In 2015, only one in 10 mothers was able to be a stay-at-home mum and only one in 100 fathers was able to stay at home. The family has changed and more people need to work, but we need to ensure that those who have the ability and desire to foster children in a warm and loving home are not put off by worrying about needing to put the child into some form of day care. That does not mean they are unable to meet the needs of the child. As long as there is a routine for children, I believe that the scheme and change to childcare that the hon. Member for Wigan clearly outlined could encourage more people to realise that they can have it all.
I call Thelma Walker.
The hon. Lady’s name is on my list, but you do not have to speak. It is not obligatory.
We now come to the Front Benchers. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, but we are well ahead of time. As long as those guidelines are not hugely abused, I think the Front Benchers can speak for as long as they are comfortable speaking.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, especially when time limits have been removed. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this important debate, but also on the tireless work she has done in this House in highlighting the need for foster parents and the needs of foster parents. We are now eagerly awaiting the Minister’s comments, because it appears that he may have an early Christmas present for her—that is something we would all enjoy.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about his role as a grandparent, but he also spoke about his grandchildren growing up in a nurtured and loving household, and that is what we would wish for every child, whether they are in the care system or live in their own home. Fostering makes up an important part of the care system. When families are in crisis, fostering can offer the stability needed to keep a child’s life on track. At present, the system puts very little investment into foster families and depends on people being willing to make financial sacrifices to take a child into their home. It can also require career sacrifices, as many children who go into care often have high needs that mean a foster parent must reduce their hours of employment to cater for them, but this form of care is far more cost-effective than other types of care. Foster parents in a loving foster home can provide many great benefits to the young person as they go through life, but they require some help to carry on with their vital duties.
As the hon. Gentleman said, this debate is about childcare in England. The situation is different in Scotland, but I will keep my comments to England. Many have concerns that foster children are exempt from the extra 15 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds. That childcare can make a vast difference to their life chances and in reducing educational inequalities. The CEOs and directors of 13 child welfare charities have written to the children’s Minister to ask for the policy to be reconsidered. The charities also say that grandparents and others who foster members of their own families would particularly benefit from access to the additional 15 hours a week of childcare, as would long-term carers.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) is no longer in her place, but she mentioned the importance of kinship carers. That is recognised, but it is often overlooked. We also have people fostering on extremely tight budgets, and they need all the help they can get. There is no reason for foster families not to receive the same level of support as any other family.
A survey by The Fostering Network this year found that the majority of foster carers across England are unpaid or underpaid. The hon. Member for Wigan has already mentioned that only one in 10 was reported to receive the equivalent of the national living wage for a 40-hour week, and we know that fostering takes far more time than those 40 hours. On top of that, fees charged by nurseries have risen in recent years. That makes it extremely difficult for people to consider fostering as an option. There are people who would make excellent foster parents who cannot take in children in need. That has a great impact on young people’s life chances.
I want to talk a little about the bedroom tax and its impact. In Scotland, all social housing tenants are exempt from the bedroom tax due to mitigation by the Scottish Government, but it must still be paid across England. It disproportionately affects foster carers because, by nature, those planning to foster a child must have a spare bedroom in which to house them.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that outstanding issue, which many foster families face. In my view, the problems with the bedroom tax were created because too often looked after children are simply invisible when it comes to policymaking; they are an afterthought. Would the hon. Lady welcome hearing the Minister’s views on how we can make sure that when decisions are taken that may affect this group of children, by not just the Department for Education but other Government Departments, they are considered first, so that we do not have to constantly keep trying to put the situation right afterwards?
The hon. Lady speaks with great experience and insight on this matter. We see here how a policy area can have a great impact, sometimes unintended, in another area. The issue for these young children is that potential foster carers—people who desperately want to play a part and certainly have the skills and experience that would make them ideal—simply are not able to consider it. It has put many eligible people off the idea of fostering, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that aspect.
The other area where this policy does not work in reality is where children requiring foster care have brothers and sisters in the same situation. Exemptions for single spare rooms mean that siblings are needlessly split up across the care system. That is in nobody’s interest, least of all the child’s.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to offer today. It is an opportunity to right something that was—I will be generous since it is Christmas—unintentionally written into policy. The Minister now has the opportunity to right that and do the best he possibly can for the children who need the best out of the care system.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for securing this debate, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), and thank them for their contributions. I wait with bated breath for the expansion of the Minister’s initial comments; without confirmation, I will proceed as planned.
The discriminatory exclusion of fostered children from 30-hours childcare is something I and colleagues have been working on for a number of months. I am very grateful that we have the chance to raise the issue with the Minister. The 30-hours childcare policy is a flagship one for this Government, proudly spoken about by Members from Back Benchers to Prime Minister. Although my concerns regarding funding and other elements of the policy are known, it has always been clear to me that excluding fostered children from a flagship policy is cruel and unfair.
Back in September, when I first brought this discrimination to the attention of the Minister, he was clear that 30 hours should not be made available to fostered children. In fact, he told me by way of a written answer that there were existing policies in place for foster parents that should cover the full cost of caring for a child.
I am pleased that through political pressure from colleagues, as well as from the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and others, we have seen the Minister’s stance soften, and he has pledged to look into it—a commitment reaffirmed by the Secretary of State for Education only last week. We are looking forward to his upcoming statement.
We cannot bank on the promises of this Government. Let us take the long-awaited consultation into the future of children’s centres. Announced in July 2015, it has recently been revealed that work never started and it has been kicked into the long grass, probably cancelled for good. Mr Hollobone, I am aware that I have made a slight digression, but I use it to emphasise the point that a promise from this Government is not enough.
Recently, I held a roundtable to hear directly from foster parents how the situation affects them. Keith, a foster carer, puts it much better than I can. He said, “If I had a birth child and foster child of the same age, it would be like telling them they can both go to school, but the foster child can only go for half the day.” That eloquently sums up why the exclusion must be rectified.
More than 500 new child protection orders are being issued every day in England. We have more children in care since the 1980s. Some of them have experienced things we could not wish on anyone, let alone a child under the age of four. Fostered children often have complex needs and have all experienced some element of trauma in their lives. Good-quality childcare can be transformative. Sadly, of those children, 3,030 fostered three to four-year-olds are not eligible for the 30 hours of free childcare. Of course I am not saying that more hours will be the very best for every child. I am simply advocating putting the choice into the hands of those who know best and have the interests of the child at heart—the foster parents.
I have been shadowing the Minister for some months and he seems to be a great believer in decision making by others. If someone were to look through our exchanges, they would see him advocating and deferring to the decision-making powers of local authorities, nurseries and parents. Oddly, on this one, he thinks the Government know best, not our incredible foster parents. They are people who give so much: a stable home and the opportunity to thrive to children who might not otherwise have that chance. As we know, foster parents do not give so much for financial reward. Only one in 10 receive the equivalent of the minimum wage and, for many, paying for extra hours at nursery is simply not an option. Children, often the most vulnerable, being looked after by hard-working foster carers, should not be discriminated against.
My message to the Government is a simple one. This exclusion of fostered children is not fair on foster parents, it is not fair on children and it is not fair to delay any longer. I know the Minister is a proud, straight-talking Yorkshireman. As a proud, straight-talking Yorkshirewoman, I say to him to please think again. I really look forward to his closing remarks and ask him to end the exclusion today.
The moment we have all been waiting for. I call the Minister.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this debate on the vital issue of ensuring that foster carers and families with small children have access to high-quality, affordable care. I expect there will be time for her to make some closing remarks when I conclude.
First, let me be clear that children in foster care should have access to the same support and opportunities that all children have. Our ambitions for children and young people during and after being looked after are the same as for any other child: that they have access to good health and wellbeing, fulfil their educational potential, build and maintain lasting relationships and participate positively in society. The role of the foster carer is central to achieving those high ambitions for the children in their care.
Around three quarters of looked-after children are in foster care. Fostering provides stability, a home and an alternative family. I have heard first hand how children and young people in foster care want to feel part of a family and have a normal family life. We need to support foster carers and local authorities in a way that achieves that.
To meet the diverse needs of all looked-after children, we need to ensure that there is a wide pool of high-quality foster placements. Foster carers play a vital role in supporting some of our most vulnerable children, as we have heard, and this Conservative Government are committed to ensuring foster carers get the appropriate recognition and support to ensure every looked-after child receives the high-quality care that they need. That includes foster carers being able to work outside their caring responsibilities if it has no impact on the child.
We have introduced the foster family-friendly employer policy, with the Department for Education leading by example in ensuring support and flexibility for its employees who foster. We have also commissioned the national fostering stocktake, a comprehensive review of the fostering system, which is now nearing completion. The stocktake is looking at a wide range of issues, including the recruitment and retention of foster carers and the support they receive, and the reviewers will report to me with recommendations this week.
Since the current exclusion from the 30-hours policy for children in foster care was brought to my attention, I have been looking at it carefully. I have instructed my officials to work up plans to allow children in foster care to take up the additional hours when it is right for the child to do so. We will work with local authorities, fostering service providers and others in the sector to ensure we implement this change in a way that promotes the best interests of the child. I will set out more detail about how we will deliver that shortly.
Many hon. Members referred to the 30 hours of free childcare, so it might be useful to give the House a short update about where we are on that. We are looking at January for the next intake.
Before the Minister moves on to that very important issue, may I ask him about the timescales for this work? One of the great concerns that foster carers have is that if this is not begun immediately and implemented quickly, foster children may face another year of being excluded.
We have already begun to engage with councils and The Fostering Network, and we will continue to do further work on the detail in January. We will involve fostering organisations and foster carers.
Does the Minister have a date in mind for when all excluded fostered children will be able to use the 30 hours?
I was just coming to that. We were planning to announce this in January, which would have given us a bit more time to do some of the preliminary work. The Secretary of State and I made the decision a couple of weeks ago that we should do this. We need to look at whether we need secondary legislation—I hope not. We also need to look very carefully at the role of social workers, because in some instances it may not be appropriate for the child to go to a nursery or a child minder. As we have heard, some children are deeply damaged, so it is important that we look at how we involve the social workers working with those children when we make that decision. There may be a small number of children for whom it is not the best possible way forward. September is a realistic opportunity. If there are no glitches along the way, I would like to think that we will have this in place by September.
I am grateful to the Minister for being forthcoming with that information and for giving way so generously. May I urge some caution in relation to the role of social workers? Foster carers are under great pressure at the moment because of the financial constraints on local authorities, and I am extremely worried that the Government will inadvertently create a system in which there is financial pressure on social workers and an incentive to ration access to a scheme to help foster children. I worked with social workers in my career before coming to Parliament, and I say that in the knowledge that the vast majority of social workers have the best interests of the child in mind. Obviously, when they have a limited pot of funding, they have to be mindful of all the children they are trying to help. It is really important that the funding for this scheme is allocated according to the best interests of the child, not on the basis of rationing at a time when resources are scarce.
I hope what I said was not ambiguous. I was certainly not talking about rationing access to the 30 hours in any way. The way we fund it is to do a headcount of children in January, so social workers will not see it impact on their budgets. There may be—or there may not, depending on how the consultation and conversation turn out—some specific situations where it is not appropriate because of the child’s experiences. It is important that we involve everybody, including the foster carers and the social workers, to check that it is in the best interest of the child in every case. In a small number of cases it may not be appropriate, particularly if the children have disabilities, unless the fosterers have been upskilled.
I talked to staff at a children’s services department in south London last week, and they are talking about upskilling some of their foster carers to look after children with particular difficulties or disabilities. In those cases, it may be appropriate, given that those foster carers are paid over and above the allowance they are normally paid. It is a limited number of situations. This is not about excluding children from access to the 30 hours; it is about including as many children as possible and ensuring the best interests of the child are always respected.
As expected, 30 hours has been popular with parents across the country since being rolled out nationally in September. I am pleased to be able to update the House that we have published new statistics for 30 hours, which show that about 202,800 children are in a 30-hours place. That is great news, and means that tens of thousands of families are benefiting from the additional hours of childcare we have made available to them. Demand remains high as we approach the next school term. I can also update the House that, as of last week, more than 305,000 codes have been generated for the spring term, and that 74% of them have already been checked by a provider. As with the autumn term, I expect those figures to continue to rise over the next few weeks. I ask hon. Members to encourage their constituents to take their code to their provider as soon as possible to secure a 30-hours place in the spring term.
I appreciate the Minister’s generosity in giving way. I, too, have just seen the data that was released today. What has been put in place to encourage parents to register and get their code by 31 December in readiness for the spring term? One of the problems we encountered was that parents were missing the deadline. With Christmas and new year coming up, it is not always going to be the priority for parents, given that it is so far in advance. Will the Minister elucidate that situation?
I am happy to. There are two situations here. There are the parents whose child is already in a nursery and who need to update and renew their code. We have engaged in communication, including by sending text messages to parents, to encourage them to do that. The nurseries themselves have been on the frontline of getting this to happen. Many of the children starting in January are already in paid-for places at the moment. It is very important that we continue to stress to parents that this is available to them. I am pleased that the uptake is in line with—and, indeed, exceeds—our expectations.
Hon. Members raised the issue of whether foster carers will fall foul of the spare room subsidy, as we like to call it on this side of the House. Foster carers are permitted to have a spare bedroom for the year following their approval or where they have a foster child within a year. That is not something that foster carers should worry about. I hope that allays the fears of anyone who has heard that.
It is useful to hear that from the Minister, but I talked about when there are siblings involved. There are sometimes two, three or four children. How will that impact foster carers if they are allowed to have one spare room?
Some foster carers specifically specialise in taking sibling groups. That is taken account of, in terms of the bedrooms that are available, to allow that person to take up their fostering places.
The hon. Member for Wigan, who instigated the debate, made a point about the cost of delivery and how many would benefit. I agree that the number of children who may be eligible is likely to be relatively small, given that we are talking about three-year-olds only. It would not be appropriate in every case and we want to ensure that our discussions with local authorities, The Fostering Network and others help us understand that further. We want to move as quickly as possible to delivery, which is why we will be continuing engagement in the new year.
A very important point was made about foster carer recruitment. It is right that foster carers get the support they need to meet the needs of the children they look after, including flexibility to work when that is right for the child. As I mentioned earlier, we have introduced a foster family-friendly employer policy, and the national fostering stocktake will look at recruitment and retention and will report at the end of the year. The message I get from social workers up and down the country is that when we look at the numbers of foster carers, we appear to be in a reasonably good position, but for certain specialisms—large sibling groups, children with particular needs or disabilities—we need to ensure that we have the foster carers in the right place with the right skills.
I will talk a little about the kinship care children, who were mentioned by one contributor to the debate. We want children in foster care to be able to take up the additional hours when it is in their best interest to do so. That may well be appropriate in kinship care arrangements with approved foster carers. However, it would not be appropriate in every case, which is why we have said that we need to do further work on how we deliver this, as in the other cases.
Just to be clear, is the Minister saying that some children with kinship carers will not be eligible for the expansion from 15 to 30 hours?
The point I am trying to make is that in some cases with kinship carers, as with children in foster care, it may not be appropriate for the place to be taken up. That might be as a result of particular needs or a trauma that the child has gone through, so it is important that we ensure that if the best interests of the child are served by not taking up the place, we can deal with that in different ways. Indeed, tremendous support is given to foster carers in cases where they have to deal with such specific problems—I pay tribute to the dedication of foster carers dealing with some of those very damaged and difficult-to-help children.
I am pleased to see the real impact that 30 hours is having on families’ lives. For example, a parent from Bolton who is starting 30 hours from January told us:
“I applied through the online system to get my code, it was really easy to apply…I got my code straightaway. If I wasn’t getting 30 hours, it wouldn’t be worth me going back to work—most of my wage would’ve been spent on childcare.”
Building on the positive findings from the early delivery area evaluations, published in July and August, I am looking forward to next summer, when the evaluation of the first year of delivery will be published to understand further the impact of 30 hours across the country.
In conclusion, as can be seen, the Government are investing in the early years to ensure that our country’s children are given every opportunity to fulfil their whole potential. I am proud of how the 30 hours is transforming families’ lives. Parents up and down the country are enjoying more time with their children, more money in their pockets and less stress because the 30-hours programme is cutting the cost of their childcare. I am also delighted with our ongoing work to improve the support available to foster carers. As I have said, my officials are actively working with local authorities, fostering service providers and others to ensure children in foster care are able to take up the additional hours where it is in their best interests to do so.
I am very grateful to the Minister for what he has just said and in particular for the child-centred nature of his approach, which will reassure many people outside this place that he has the best interests of the child at heart. In particular, I welcome the commitment to get the matter resolved by September, the willingness to engage with The Fostering Network, social workers, local authorities and others, and his very strong statement about the intention not to ration the care, but to include as many children as possible. I was also interested in what he said about kinship care.
We will of course watch what happens next with interest. My hon. Friends and I will hold the Minister to his promises today, as I am sure he knows. Finally, I place on the record my sincere thanks for his constructive and thoroughly decent approach to this issue and to today’s debate, which shows clearly that there are many of us in this House who are capable of working across party lines in the best interests of children.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered childcare for fostered children.