Thursday 21 April 2022
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
Working Tax Credit and Universal Credit: Two-Child Limit
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the two child limit of working tax credits and universal credit.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. You are quite right to point out that, while other debates might be happening, this debate is actually quite important. It has been six years, nine months and 13 days since the Budget in 2015, when the two-child limit appeared in the Red Book, and just over five years since it came into force. Some might be wondering why I am bothering to come here today to complain about this policy; it is because, for me, it is a fundamental injustice and deserves to be looked at seriously.
The Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England estimate that 1.4 million children in 400,000 families are now affected by the two-child-limit policy. Unless it is abolished, the number of children affected will reach 3 million, as more children are born under the rules.
The two-child limit for child tax credits and universal credits broke the long-standing link between need and entitlement, on the basis that families in receipt of state support ought to face the same choices as those supporting themselves solely through work. This is a false narrative; it is the myth of the benefit queen. This policy has never been about fairness.
The majority of families affected by the policy are in work—low-paid jobs, working to support their families. In mentioning that fact, I do not seek to stigmatise those not able to work—many have caring responsibilities, disabilities or other reasons that prevent them from working. They ought to have the protection of the social security system, too.
In many cases, it is all but impossible for those who are working to take on more hours to make up the drop in income created by the two-child limit. The Work and Pensions Committee pointed out that the cost of childcare can also mean that families will not be able to make up the loss by working more hours. The two-child limit is a poverty trap.
Many people are just not aware of the policy, which is a significant issue. They do not know that it will apply to them. The Government intended to influence people’s choices to have children, but they have certainly not been influenced in any meaningful way by a piece of Department for Work and Pensions legislation.
The latest research by Mary Reader, Jonathan Portes and Ruth Patrick on whether cutting child benefits reduces fertility in larger families establishes that the two-child limit is not leading to any major reductions in fertility among those likely to claim benefits. All the policy does is punish people for their circumstances and drive up child poverty rates.
I thank the hon. Member for bringing a very important debate to this Chamber. The reality is that this Government’s ideological, intentional austerity agenda, more than a decade long, has led to the biggest cost of living crisis in our generation and rampant poverty on our streets. Does the hon. Member agree that it is policies such as this that lead to children going hungry in our constituencies, and that is why it needs to be scrapped immediately?
I absolutely agree. That poverty is deep and enduring, and prevents those children from reaching their full potential. We cannot forget the choices that many families are having to make because they just do not have enough money coming in.
No one can predict the course of their lives, certainly not the course of their children’s lives, and nobody can plan for absolutely every eventuality—it is just not the reality of life. CPAG estimates that, during the pandemic, an additional 15,000 families, who never envisaged losing their jobs and incomes in a global health crisis, were affected by the two-child limit, as they claimed universal credit for the first time. That includes people who worked in sectors that shut down and have yet to recover, people who tragically lost their partners to covid and people who still suffer the effects of long covid. Domestic abuse rates increased during the pandemic, which resulted in some families separating for good. In each of those scenarios, families with more than two children were not afforded the dignity of the support they required, because the Conservatives made a judgment back in 2015 about the appropriate size of a family for benefit claimants.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate, which I agree is very important. In Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, families are having to go to food banks more often. I have spoken to Wandsworth Foodbank and Little Village, which helps local families, and they have said that the thing that would make the most difference in stopping poverty in my area is scrapping the two-child benefit cap. Does she agree that the Minister should look into this, assess the impact and scrap it as soon as possible?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member, and she makes a good point about food banks. Essentially, the Government are saying that they will pay to feed and clothe only two children, and not provide for the rest of those families. Either that money gets very stretched or families cannot stretch any further and they end up going to food banks. In a country as wealthy as this one, families should not have to go to food banks just to put food on the table for their children.
I bring the debate today to highlight the enduring flaws in this UK Tory Government’s two-child limit and to ask them to end it before things get even worse for families struggling today.
An exception to the two-child limit is where the child was conceived in non-consensual circumstances, but to be eligible for this exception the parent must be able to point to either a conviction or a criminal injuries compensation claim. Does the hon. Member agree that as rape conviction rates are so low, because the bar for evidence is so high, this requirement further victimises claimants?
That is absolutely correct. I will go on to talk about some of the exemptions to the policy and how ludicrous they are, but for a crime such as rape to have some place within Government policy on benefits is quite abhorrent.
The first difficulty with this policy is that it gives an arbitrary cut-off date, resulting in two classes of families: those with children born prior to 6 April 2017 and those with children born after that. For the arbitrary quirk of fate of bringing a baby into this world a minute after midnight, a family will find itself £2,935 worse off per year. I give some credit to the former Secretary of State, Amber Rudd, for not making the policy retrospective, as was originally intended. However, having recognised the inherent unfairness of the policy, she ought to have abolished it altogether.
The hon. Member is making a powerful speech, and she talked about changes before and after this policy was introduced. Has she seen the figure that since covid started, 27% more families now fall under the two-child-limit policy? Does she agree with the Bishop of Manchester, who said last year that the policy “defies moral justification”? When it was first introduced, 60 bishops, as well as Muslim and Jewish leaders, wrote a joint letter to The Times saying:
“Children are a private joy and a public good. They are all equally deserving of subsistence support.”
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member on that point and with those religious leaders who wrote that letter then and who continue to campaign on the issue now. I will touch on some of that a little later.
The effect of the two-tier policy that has been created is that a family with three children, the youngest being six, will receive support. However, a family with three children, the youngest being four, will not. The needs of these families are exactly the same, but this Government have decided that they are not entitled to the same support. Previous research on the issue has found that in some cases older siblings can come to resent the new baby in the family, because they have lost out on their activities, their sports clubs and the things they used to do because the family no longer has the money to get by. It is desperately unfair that children are already losing out on wider life experiences because of this discriminatory policy, as well as now on the very basics because of the cost of living crisis.
I will describe some of the other inconsistencies in the policy in some detail, because every time I explain them to people they are absolutely baffled; I would like to hear the Minister’s answer to the mad exemptions that exist. On the exemption policy for multiple births, if someone happens to have twins after having a single birth, there is an exemption to the policy, which is fine. If they have twins first and then go on to have another baby, they are not entitled to support, presumably because they should have known better. There are three children in each scenario, but different support.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned, the rape clause is even more pernicious. For this exemption, a woman has to fill in a form and have her traumatic experience verified by an official to say that her third child was conceived through rape or a coercive relationship. This form exists and has to be signed off by a professional to verify that someone has had a child in that circumstance. However, it can be claimed only if the person is not living with the parent of that child.
We know that forcing a woman to leave a relationship can put her and her children in danger, but that reality does not appear to trouble the Department for Work and Pensions. Some 1,330 women claimed under the exemption in 2021. The really perverse part of this pernicious and stigmatising policy is that it applies only to third and subsequent children. If someone’s first child was conceived as the result of rape and they went on to have two more children, that is just unlucky for them as far as the DWP is concerned.
The exemptions around adoption are also perverse. There is no additional support for an adopted child if they are adopted from abroad, or if a person and their partner were that child’s parent or step-parent immediately before they adopted them. Why on earth would this Government want to disincentivise adoption? The exemption for kinship carers, who were losing out on support for their own children because they had been so good as to care for others, was only granted after the Government were taken to court. It should not take legal action for this Government to recognise and fix their mistakes, but we know the DWP repeats this pattern again and again.
The effect of this policy is well documented and well assessed, and I pay tribute to the Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England and other faith groups including the Interlink Foundation, which represents the orthodox Jewish community. As my hon. Friend mentioned, there is a discrimination at the heart of this policy that affects people of faith. It sticks in my craw to see Easter greetings from Members of this place—the Holy Willies of this place—when their faith does not extend to supporting children, who they are instead actively pushing into poverty through the policies they advocate. How does the Minister believe this policy affects people of differing backgrounds and faiths, and how can he say the policy is fair in this context?
I am normally pleased to hear the hon. Lady speak on any issue, but particularly so on this issue, given her knowledge and expertise. On her point about faith, does the hon. Lady feel that a human rights issue could well be at stake here? While that is not a direct responsibility of the Minister, it is a part of this debate that must be considered. By enforcing this rule, the Government are creating a human rights issue for people who do not want to be under that law.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to point that out. There are particular issues with this policy for women in Northern Ireland, related to the rape clause and issues of abortion. When this policy was brought in and was being implemented, Northern Ireland particularly was an afterthought to this Government, just as faith groups have been. Children are regarded as a blessing—not just by people of faith, but particularly by them. Therefore, the policy of this Government to limit support to the first two children in a family has a disproportionate effect on people of orthodox Jewish, Muslim or Catholic faith, for whom abortion and contraception just are not options. We already know that this policy is forcing some of those families into significant poverty.
We all know that contraception is not infallible, even for those who actively choose it. In one of its reports, CPAG has quoted a parent who said:
“I got pregnant despite having an implant. When I found out it was too late for [an] abortion. I’m struggling since then as I had to give up my work”.
I very much support a woman’s right to choose, but a Government welfare policy should not be forcing people into abortions. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has carried out its own research on this issue and found that it was a factor in the decision making of women who were aware of the policy. BPAS has said:
“We have warned the government that the two-child limit is forcing some women to end what would otherwise be wanted pregnancies. Since 2016, the number of abortions performed to women with two or more existing children has risen by 24%, compared with an increase of 11% performed to women with one existing child.”
I would like the Minister to comment specifically on how he is monitoring the impact of this policy on women’s decisions, and why he considers this to be an appropriate part of social security policy.
We are in a cost of living crisis, and the impact of that crisis on larger families is particularly acute. Energy and food prices are soaring, and this Government did little in the spring statement to hand out a lifeline to people who are struggling right now. Can the Minister outline what, five years in, is the ongoing monitoring of this policy? What consideration has been given to removing it altogether? What conversations has he had with the Chancellor about this policy? When the modelling of its impact on child poverty is so clear—I almost wish we were in one of those American Senate hearings where I could show the graph, because it is absolutely crystal clear—why are this Government, dystopian as they are, continuing to pursue a policy that they know has failed in its objectives? It is simply causing more hardship in every passing year. Almost half of all children living in families with more than two children are in poverty, and the Government must know that. I want to know why they refuse to act.
The Scottish Government have done their best to support families with the Scottish child payment, which we brought in and are increasing, and on which there is no two-child limit, under the social security powers we have. With 85% of social security powers still held in this place, the UK Government bear a responsibility to do what they can. In the face of the UK Government cutting giant holes in the safety net, tackling poverty and making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in is a challenge. Our devolved powers go only so far. We need all the powers of a normal nation to ensure that we can support all our people and value every child, and not just the first two.
I very much welcome the time allocated to this debate today. It is vital we have this discussion, because the two-child-limit policy is yet another legacy of the low-pay, low-income experience that is the stamp of the Conservative Government. We have already discussed in recent weeks in this building the impact of the real-terms cuts in social security benefits and the minimum wage, and what we all anticipate will be a real-terms public sector pay cut. The debate today has reflected on the first of those: the appalling offer of a 3% increase in social security while inflation is increasing at 7% and could well go up to 10%. That is a real-terms cut in people’s incomes. How people will survive I have no idea.
Some households do not even receive a 3% rise because, under the two-child limit, parents are not entitled to any extra support through universal credit or child tax credit to help with raising a third or subsequent child born after 6 April 2017.
Does the hon. Lady agree that following the Government’s decision to cut universal credit payments, with inflation rates rising astronomically and a real cost of living crisis, a decision to keep the two-child limit is actively pushing children below the poverty line, which will undoubtedly impact on the UK’s levels of social mobility?
I totally agree. Action needs to be taken on all those policies, including reinstating the £20 universal credit uplift and extending it to those on legacy benefits. We need a whole raft of policies to prevent, reduce and tackle the extreme levels of child poverty that currently exist in this country.
I refer briefly to the Child Poverty Action Group and Church of England report commissioned for the fifth anniversary of the two-child-limit policy. It is very clear in saying that the two-child limit breaks the historic link between need and entitlement. The benefit should be an entitlement, but that link, which was the founding principle of our social security system, has been broken. The report is clear that our social security system should support families and give children the best start in life, regardless of how many siblings they have. They are our future and we should invest in our future generations. The report concluded that the Government must remove the two-child limit to allow all children to thrive.
April’s below-inflation benefits rise means that affected families with three children face a further £938 a year shortfall in benefits to cover the basic costs of raising them, on top of the pre-existing £6,205 shortfall from 2021, with larger families facing an even bigger hole in their income. That is absolutely appalling and devastating for millions of families throughout the UK.
The two-child limit restricts child allowances in universal credit and tax credits worth £2,953 per year to the first two children in a family unless the children were born before 6 April 2017, when the policy came into force. As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) has already outlined, the disparities, inconsistencies and discriminatory practices in terms of who is and is not entitled are completely unfair.
Unless this two-child limit is abolished, the number of children affected will reach 3 million, as more are born under the policy. We currently have 4.3 million children across the UK living in relative poverty. That equates to around nine in every 30 children in a UK classroom.
As the two-child limit is the biggest driver of this rising level of child poverty, CPAG has estimated that it will push another 300,000 children into poverty, and 1 million more into deeper poverty, by 2023-24. By 2026-27, over 50% of children in families with more than two children will be living in poverty—half of the population in poverty.
We already knew in 2019, from the Work and Pensions Select Committee report on the two-child limit, of concerns that it breached not only the Government’s wider responsibility and international commitments to equality but human rights, including the European convention on human rights and the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Breaching such human rights commitments appears to come easily to this Government, however; we only need to look at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ comments on yesterday’s Nationality and Borders Bill for another example of that.
One of the core authors of the Child Poverty Action Group report, Dr Ruth Patrick, says:
“the two-child limit is a poverty-producing policy and one which should be removed”,
but what about the voices of the parents who have contributed to those pieces of research? I will quote just one, who says:
“We wear extra layers of clothes as I cannot afford to put the heating on. We shower on a Wednesday and Saturday to reduce energy bills but we shouldn’t have to live like this.”
Nobody should have to live like that, and I am sure the Minister would agree on that point.
As in Scotland, the Welsh Government have tried to take action to counter some of the worst aspects of this policy, the cost of living crisis, and child poverty in Wales, for example through the commitment to extend free school meals to all primary school pupils from September 2022. However, unfortunately, the main problems causing child poverty lie here in Westminster. The Welsh Affairs Committee, on which I sit, recently looked at the benefits system in Wales.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on making a very powerful case during her speech. However, ultimately, has she come to the position that I have, in my political life, that a just and fair economy and society for Wales will never be created by Westminster? The only solution for us is to take control of those powers ourselves. As the hon. Lady outlined in her speech, where we have those levers, we are making a positive difference, but ultimately, we need all of those levers. Surely, that should be the normal position for her to take now.
I was just coming on to that. The Welsh Affairs Committee quite strongly recommended that we should be exploring the possibilities of devolving the administration—at the very least—of social security and benefits to Wales. We are still awaiting the Minister’s response to the report.
The Committee also recommended an urgent review on ending the £20 universal credit uplift, and on the five-week wait for universal credit, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax, and—crucially, for the purposes of this debate—the two-child limit. We would be very interested to hear the Government’s response to that report.
This policy is having a devastating impact on a large number of my constituents in Cynon Valley, where wages and household incomes are already well below the UK and Welsh averages. The two-child limit therefore has an even deeper impact on my neighbourhood. I recently commissioned some research from the Bevan Foundation on the economy in my constituency. There were some alarming findings on people’s incomes and the levels of benefit-dependent families. They are being impacted drastically by this pernicious policy, and we all know that it will get worse—and already has—with the cost of living crisis, which is having a devastating impact on so many people.
A fortnight ago, I launched in my constituency a survey on the cost of living crisis. Within 48 hours, I had received in excess of 400 responses. I am in the process of collating and analysing those responses to produce a report, but at first glance, the stories coming through from local people are absolutely harrowing—the way people have to live, not having food on the table for their children, not having the heating on. It is absolutely appalling and needs to be addressed urgently. A lot of those people are affected by the two-child limit. I will share that report with the Minister when it is completed—within the next month, I hope.
I very much look forward to the Minister’s response outlining why the Government remain determined to pursue their low-pay, low-income agenda, despite the misery that it imposes on millions of people and their children across the country. Diolch yn fawr.
I am very glad to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).
Ahead of the debate, I asked people what they thought of the two-child limit, and the responses were interesting, revealing and quite varied. People thought that it had been a short-term measure; that it had been withdrawn; that it had had little effect; and, most revealingly, some said, “I had just forgotten about it.” The point is that it had become supposedly normal; it had disappeared from public debates.
The two-child rule has indeed disappeared as a matter of public concern. It has become the unquestioned common sense of the system, but it remains an excruciating burden on families, particularly innocent children, who are subject to its evil effects and sometimes suffer as a consequence of the voluntary or involuntary actions of parents driven by religious or social beliefs on polygamy, contraception or abortion, for example; as a consequence of contraceptive failure or accidents; more sinisterly, as a consequence of patriarchal attitudes and oppression; or, even worse, as a consequence of the rules around rape, as we have heard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central on securing the debate and for shining a light on a cruel and oppressive measure, bringing it into the light, if not the comfort, of truth’s flame—as the poet R. S. Thomas said in another case. I join her, the hon. Member for Cynon Valley and others in calling for the two-child rule to be withdrawn forthwith.
I hope hon. Members will forgive me, but this matter has a particular resonance for me as one of seven children, one of whom died in infancy. We were brought up in a council house—a very good council house built to high post-war standards—and we were fortunate in many ways, three of which I will refer to. First, my parents were extremely hardworking at a time of full employment, so we lacked for nothing. Secondly, we lived at a time of consensus on wide-ranging social provisions, so we had the health service, vitamins, glasses, free school milk and all the rest of it. We all went on to further and higher education, initial and higher degrees, professional qualifications, and professional careers, all of which was grant aided.
The third point about my family is that we were not subject to the two-child limit. Otherwise, I would scarcely be standing here today. There is always a danger of idealising the past in comparison with the wretched present. In Welsh, we say, “Teg edrych tuag adra”—it is a fine thing to look back at one’s home—meaning to look at the past with rose-tinted glasses.
The evidence shows a change in the provision, and it is very much a change for the worse. The two-child limit is a particularly bad case. The real point of my speech is that there has been a change in attitudes since 1979, I suppose—I referred to school milk a moment ago, and I do not have to emphasise the significance of that debate. There has been a change in the accepted common sense that we all owe a duty to each other—that a provision for one is a provision for all. That is, with very few exceptions, a common provision. The exceptions in earlier times would have been made on the basis of the violation of legal requirements, social and religious norms or on the judgment of moral turpitude. That was the accepted common sense, and there has been a change.
I will digress for a moment to mention part of my earlier career. Years ago I was a mental health social worker and would visit the psychiatric hospital at Denbigh, which served all of north Wales. In the back ward of that mental hospital there lived a dozen or so older women, mainly in their late 70s. They had been there since the 1930s; they were totally institutionalised and unable to leave. They were initially detained on the basis of “moral imbecility”; that is why they were locked up. They had had illegitimate children. Supposedly we do not make those sorts of moral judgments these days. However, I have to say that some of the arguments for the two-child rule—which will be familiar to many of us and I will not rehearse—have that flavour of moral condemnation. Those arguments are based supposedly on the common sense that they—that is, the generalised other—should take responsibility for the exceptions that prove the rule here. Well, those exceptions are surely irrelevant, and hence, so are the children who suffer—they are irrelevant as well.
I could make many further points about this general argument and I could talk about the practicalities. As we have already heard, Wales has the highest rates of child poverty of any part of the UK, at 31%. In 2021 14,800 households were affected by the two-child limit; 570 of those households were in Gwynedd, the county where my constituency is located. The Welsh Affairs Committee has published its report on the benefits system in Wales, which raised concerns about the two-child limit. It said that devolving powers to Wales—equivalent to those in Scotland—would mean that we could take real measures to tackle child poverty, such as the additional child payments for low-income families introduced in Scotland. I concede that that affects only a small part of the social security system, but it is much better than the situation that we face in Wales.
I could refer to the rationale behind the policy of ensuring that families receiving means-tested benefits should face the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves through work. However, we know that the majority of claimants—that is 56%—are actually employed. The arguments around people working or not, and having lots of children, are entirely bogus to my mind. My request to the Minister today is fairly simple. I ask him to signal a desire to move away from the supposed common sense of this policy and from the rationale that underpins it—the cruel rationale of less eligibility.
It is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall, but it is a special pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). The hon. Lady and I have many things in common—apart from the independence of Scotland, of course. However, when it comes to social issues we are on the same page on just about everything; I can comfortably support her on those issues. I thank her for setting the scene, and I thank all other Members who have contributed.
I love accents. I love the accent of the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter). I hope I have pronounced that correctly—I probably have not. I think the Welsh accent adds to this Chamber; there are a number of Welsh Members who, through their voice and accent, add to the Chamber. I hope that my Ulster Scots accent from Northern Ireland also adds in some way to the Chamber, bringing the cultural values of all four nations together. It is always a pleasure to do that.
I fully support the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, and indeed those of everyone who has spoken and will speak afterwards. Hopefully, the Minister will give us some succour and support. Opposition Members’ comments are clear, and we look to the Minister in hope of a response. I am going to take a slightly different angle. I think the hon. Lady probably knows this, because she is always well versed in the subject matter, but the London School of Economics has been very clear. Its research set out to explore how the policy, in operation since April 2017, has affected fertility of third and subsequent births, and it said:
“Using quantitative methods, we find the policy led to only a small decline in fertility among those households directly affected. This implies that the main impact of the policy has been to reduce incomes”—
this hits on the issue that the hon. Lady referred to—
“among larger families who are already living on a low income”.
There are therefore two issues to this debate. It continued:
“and hence to increase child poverty.”
Those are the things that this debate and my short contribution will address. That is why I am very much opposed to the two-child policy and its effect on tax credits and universal credit.
Research from the New Field Foundation found that the limit does not discourage families from having more children, and has only worsened their financial difficulties. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ministers must actively engage with charities and organisations with expertise in policy impact to understand the real-terms impact of such policies?
I wholeheartedly support the hon. Lady’s comments.
I am going to say something fairly harsh. I am not a harsh person, or I try not to be, but I always had a fear about the two-child limit—perhaps others agree with me—which is why I opposed what I dubbed at that time the “Chinese limit”. We do not have an authoritarian state just yet, but in China they have—I know they are going to change the two-child rule, or at least they are hoping to change it—and in a way that is the authoritarianism of this DWP directive, which inadvertently or directly has put in place the Chinese limit.
I was talking to the hon. Lady before the debate, and I said that if there had been a two-child limit when our parents were born, I would not be here because my mother would not be here; she was the fourth child out of five. The hon. Lady and others—perhaps even the Minister—would not be here either. If the two-child limit were enforced here with the regularity that it is in China, but with an income base that makes it almost authoritarian, there would be children who are not born—people who would not be here. I want to highlight that dark perspective, because that is where I see this draconian, dictatorial and very authoritarian directive from the DWP going.
The hon. Gentleman mentions China, and he knows that it is having huge problems now because there is an expectation of low numbers of children. It is having difficulties with its birth rate. It is interesting that since 2012—since austerity kicked in—the birth rate in the UK has dropped by 12%. That is significant, and it has huge implications for pension contributions and for many jobs.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. It is about not just the two-child limit on its own, which means that a person cannot have a third child because there will not be the same structures in place to help them. It is also about issues such as the impact on income and pensions. She is absolutely right. The Minister in his place is the man who is placed to answer all these questions. I hope he will give us his thoughts on how this situation can be corrected. I go back to my point of a few moments ago about the Chinese Government. The policy does not simply impact the third child—it impacts every child in that home.
I have three sons. The first two each have two children and made a decision themselves not to have a third one. The third boy has one child and another one on the way. That is not because China’s limits are impacting upon the Shannon family, because they are not—it is a decision made by families themselves. If a family was to have a third child, why should they not be allowed to? Why should we not look at the issue of income of all the other families, and maybe say to those who said that the policy would cause there to be fewer births and cause people to use birth control, that that is proving not to be the case? We are simply taking money from households.
I referred to the fertility aspect of the two-child limit in the research summary, and want to quote further from the research:
“This raises the question of whether the two-child limit reduced the overall fertility of third and subsequent births in the UK. Survey evidence from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service found that 57 percent of women who were likely to be affected by the two-child limit said it was a relevant factor in their decision to have an abortion”.
I know some may not agree with me—I know others who do—but I am very clear in my mind. We have a duty. That is how I have always voted in this House, though others may have a different opinion. I believe in the sanctity of life—the life of the mother and the life of the child—and this policy has done something that I think is morally wrong. I think it is wrong that people should have an abortion because they cannot afford to keep the child that they carry. It is as simple as that. I very much disagree with the policy.
The researchers say that the 57% is a random sample, but also that it is bigger than that. They took it a wee stage further on income and divided
“adult women of childbearing age into those who are on benefits (or are likely, given their socio-economic status, to be on benefits) or not; and those who already have two or more children or not.”
The stats provide an evidential base for the Minister; I am happy to make them available to him, if he thinks they would be helpful. I think they would be, including for civil servants, when it comes to looking at the bigger picture.
Data published in April 2021 shows that 1.1 million children were affected by the two-child limit—237,000 more than the previous year. Updates for 2022 are not yet available. The number of children affected will continue to grow as nearly all low-income families with three or more children eventually become subject to the limit. What we are doing—I say “we”, but it is not the people here; it is the Government—is imposing an income limit on those who already have three children or more.
I have already discussed in this place on several occasions the need for the child benefit limit, set in 2013, to be uplifted, because working families are affected. Someone who earned, for example, £49,000 in 2013 was on a good wage that would allow their partner to work part-time hours to take care of their children. They are in a completely different scenario today, with energy costs. The hon. Member for Cynon Valley spoke at some length about energy costs and the impact on income. It is no different in Cynon Valley from Strangford or Glasgow Central, or anywhere else.
With gas, electric and fuel at treble the price of 2013, now more than ever we need to do the right thing by families—review, change and abolish this rule. We need to give some decency, compassion and understanding back to families, who are under incredible pressure. A review of the policy and then its abolition are essential.
The data also suggests that the probability of having a third or subsequent child declined by some 5% after the reform, which suggests that the two-child limit has led to a decline in the number of third and subsequent births of approximately 1%. The evidential base is there. This measure has a success rate of only 1%, while children in our homes are suffering. If it has only achieved a change of 1%, why pursue it? Some might say that if a party wins an election by 51% to 49% they have still won it, but as I understand it, the whole idea behind this policy was to focus on saving money. The savings are not there, so it comes down to the critical question of what this policy is really all about. Five years on from its implementation, research has found that the policy has a very marginal impact on families having more than two children but has deprived low-income families of approximately £3,000 per year—the hon. Member for Cynon Valley referred to that at some length, and the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) spoke about it as well. They both did surveys in their constituencies, so they have done their homework. They have got the evidential base; they have got the proof.
I am conscious of time, so I will conclude with this: given the pressure that families are under, we in this place must take appropriate steps to alleviate that pressure. The Minister is an honourable man and is always incredibly friendly; it is his nature, and he does take on board the issues that we bring to his attention. However, today we are not just looking for the decent side of the Minister—which we will always get—but for concrete evidence that some of the changes that we on the Opposition side of the Chamber seek, which we feel are important, will be made. I can foresee a time when working families will be unable to make ends meet, and we in this place have a duty to the vulnerable and to the children who are suffering as a result of policies that do not reflect the issues that people have but are outdated and based on wrong assumptions. In my opinion, that 1% figure means that a wrong assumption has been made, so it must change. The time is right to make those changes, so again I look to the Minister, not just for reassurances but for a change in the law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for having secured this debate. More importantly, I thank her for the tireless campaigning she has done on this two-child policy, which victimises and stigmatises families and children. It is worth putting on the record that my hon. Friend was the first Member to identify the pernicious rape clause, on Budget day in July 2015, and her speech shows just how much she has immersed herself in highlighting the unfairness of this policy and the ludicrous exemptions that go with it. As she has said, it is a poverty trap. The fact that children born beyond the midnight deadline are not deemed worthy of support, and that we now have two tiers of families—two families might be the same size, but by virtue of when one child was born, one family gets more support than the other—is absurd.
I also pay tribute to all other hon. Members who have contributed or made interventions. As the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) said, this is about the need to support all children and ensure basic fairness; why do this UK Tory Government find it all too easy to breach human rights? The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) made a powerful speech, talking about his own circumstances and how political attitudes have changed. The example he gave about the moral condemnation in the past of people stuck in mental institutions, and how we are returning to moral judgments of people having children, should make the Minister sit up, because it certainly made me sit up.
Then, of course, we had a fantastic contribution from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It did start with his “better together” comparison, but apart from that, I agreed with every word he said. When the hon. Member for Strangford uses such strong language and condemns a policy so much—I genuinely think that was the best speech I have heard from the hon. Gentleman; that says a lot, but it was a really powerful speech—if the Minister does not take note, something is far wrong. The hon. Gentleman gave the example of the Chinese limit, and how it would have impacted families and people here had such a policy been implemented, but he also spoke about the dark perspective of this policy. It is morally wrong, and not just that: it has been an abject failure in its aims. That really summed it up, so I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his speech.
It is disappointing that there are no Tory Back Benchers here to back up the policy. Maybe that says how bad the policy is, or maybe they are just choosing to back the corrupt Prime Minister in the “other place.” The point is that agreeing to provide welfare support for only two children is a horrible policy, backed up by dog-whistle politics. The concept clearly was that people should be able to afford children, just like those who rely solely on work for their income and therefore do not need additional welfare support. That is language designed to imply that anyone on benefits is a scrounger, and that people have children just to screw the welfare system. It is truly awful, and it actually puts a price on children.
As we have heard, in affected families, who suffers the most? The children. Hungry kids cannot learn in school. They will be disadvantaged and less likely to have a positive outcome, so whatever circle the Tories think they are breaking, they might be condemning more people to underachieve and have a higher chance of unemployment, and to be less likely to participate in higher and further education and more likely to end up in lower-paid, semi-skilled work. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, if some children suffer, others do. It is not just the ones directly affected.
Worst of all, the entire concept is based on politics and prejudice and not evidence. What we now have, clear as day, is evidence of how the policy works for those affected by the two-child policy. The Library briefing confirmed that of the 317,500 families affected in April 2021, 56% had somebody in the household working. The majority, also 56%, were in dual-parent households, so the majority of families affected are dual-parent households with somebody in employment. That is proof that the policy is based on falsehoods and proof that the bigger issue is that too many people are in low-paid, insecure jobs, and that is the issue that should be tackled.
What about the people who have lost jobs or faced reduced income due to covid? They now find that the so-called safety net of the welfare state is a lot smaller than they would have anticipated. The Tory Brexit has also impacted jobs, too. The Tories deny that, but I have a meeting tomorrow with somebody who runs a haulage company, and he is close to going under, which will take other jobs with him, because of the ludicrous cabotage rules that the Tory Government signed up to.
Covid unfortunately gave us fire and rehire—another policy that the Tories have done nothing to eliminate, but a policy that is vastly reducing the incomes of thousands of workers or seeing them sacked. Workers that the Tories might otherwise have seen as model families who were able to afford their children without welfare support will now need that support, and it might not be there for them. Families and people who have lost jobs are now having to readjust their outgoings accordingly, and now find that they have been categorised as scroungers by the Tory Government.
Another key issue of the two-child policy is that, as others have said, it disproportionately affects orthodox Jewish and Muslim families who may have religious or ethical views on family size. I agree with the intervention by the hon. Member for Strangford that the religious aspect in terms of discrimination has possible human rights implications as well.
We have heard that some women have considered abortion because they worry about not being able to afford a child. There are debates about how many women have actually undertaken an abortion because of that, but the reality is that women are having to face that choice, and they should not have to. Again, that is something the Minister needs to look at and review.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I will not disagree. The hon. Member for Strangford also referred to evidential work done by the LSE. This is evidence that the Government should look at. We are discussing a Government who talk about family values. How can they talk about family values when they are forcing women to consider abortion?
That takes us to other evidence of the impact of this policy. Since 2013-14, child poverty among larger families has risen dramatically; almost half of all children living in families that have more than two children live in poverty. Also, recent research for the report “Benefit changes and larger families” by largerfamilies.study shows that most of the recent rise in child poverty overall has been driven by rising poverty among those larger families.
Sara Ogilvie of the Child Poverty Action Group has said:
“The two child limit is a brutal policy that punishes children simply for having brothers and sisters. It forces families to survive on less than they need, and with soaring living costs the hardship and hunger these families face will only intensify.”
Also, according to CPAG:
“Removing the policy would lift 250,000 children out of poverty”,
doing so immediately. So, surely the Minister must review the evidence, act accordingly and take that action to
“lift…children out of poverty”.
Then, if we look at the rape exemption clause, it is apparent that it was thought up on the hoof at the time. It was probably some loose nod by the Government towards thinking that they were adding a moral, even noble, exemption to support children born after their mother’s traumatic experience of being raped. However, it is no wonder that Ministers at the time could not even explain how the policy would be implemented, because it was so absurd. No thought was given to the traumatic psychological effects of a woman having to relive such an experience and being asked to fill in forms to justify financial support for her child. Also, the bizarre logic of the exemption only applies for subsequent children, beyond the two-child limit, born of rape. So, as if the clause in itself is not abhorrent enough, it is somehow seen as being morally okay to decide which child born from rape is worthy of support, which is truly disgusting.
The other big thing aligned with this policy and other policies at the time was the whole “balancing the books” mantra. This debate made me revisit the 2015 summer Budget Red Book. I looked back at that and honestly it is truly horrifying to see how evil that Budget was. The two-child clause was estimated to save £3.4 billion by 2021; freezing benefits, £11.3 billion; benefit cap reduction, £1.7 billion, clawed back from the poor; and increasing the tax credits taper to 48% while reducing income thresholds for tax credits and work allowance was estimated to save—astonishingly—nearly £20 billion by 2021. So, there was a complete and utter hatchet job on the welfare state, and there were also incoherent policies, given the attack on some of the job-related welfare support—so much for “making work pay”. That was an awful Budget and I have to point out that it was shameful that Labour abstained on it.
However, what about the “balancing the books” mantra? Clearly, as I have just illustrated, it is “balancing the books” on the poorest, the most infirm and the lowest-paid in society. But what it also allowed in subsequent Budgets was tax giveaways to those who the Tories deemed worthy of benefiting from them.
Previously, I had the Library conduct analysis on some of the key Budget decisions that were implemented from 2016 to 2018. The Library extrapolated those figures, which were based on figures that were presented in the Budget books, up to 2025, and it estimated that, up to 2025, the Treasury was giving away £80 billion. Increasing the higher rate threshold was estimated to be a giveaway worth £5 billion; changes to individual savings accounts, or ISAs, £7 billion; inheritance tax changes, a £6 billion giveaway; and the personal allowance increase and further raising of the higher threshold to £50,000 of income was estimated to be an £11 billion giveaway by the Tories. There was also a £50 billion giveaway in corporation tax, although at least they realised the error of their ways on that one. All of that shows that plenty of money was found for giveaways, rather than for continuing to balance the books properly. And those figures show that the Tories could easily afford to reverse this two-child policy, if the political will to do so was there.
Returning to the here and now, another issue with universal tax overall is of course the removal of the uplift, or—more appropriately—a cut of £1,040 a year. As the hon. Member for Cynon Valley said, if the pandemic merited an uplift to allow people a more dignified life, then surely—with inflation running at 7% to 8%, the energy cap up 75% compared to April 2021 and petrol at record prices—there is a clear need for a permanent increase in universal credit.
I cannot finish without comparing this with what is happening in Scotland with the Scottish Government, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central did. The Scottish Government introduced the game-changing child payment, doubling it to £20 a week, and it will increase to £25 a week when the benefit is extended to under-16s at the end of this year. As that has been done on a fixed budget in the Scottish Parliament, it cannot have the positive impact it otherwise would have had because we are still living with the impact of Tory austerity. That is proof that whatever the Scottish Government do is undertaken with one hand behind their back. It is interesting that there was a strong theme earlier in the debate about the Welsh Government needing more powers too, so Tory policies are clearly having an impact on the Union, which should make the Minister take note.
Will the Minister pledge to review the effects of the impact of the Scottish Government’s child payment policy and the support it has received from charitable organisations? The Scottish Government have shown that they are treating all children equally. That should not be too much to ask of any Government, and surely it is time for the UK Government to think again.
It is a pleasure to respond to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on introducing it. We have heard some very strong contributions from Members, both speeches and interventions, outlining the community impact of this policy and drawing on personal life experiences, which should inform debates such as this.
Tackling child poverty should be a moral imperative. This policy and others introduced by the Government over the last 12 years are major impediments to our moral imperative to end child poverty. Five years on from the introduction of the two-child limit, we are finally beginning to see the results of that social policy experiment and to be in a position to evaluate whether the policy achieved the purposes set out for it, and whether it had impacts that were foreseeable but were not what the Government explicitly sought to achieve.
As we have heard, as of April last year, 317,500 families and over a million children were affected by the policy. We are now able to understand just what a damaging impact it is having. For a few minutes, I will focus on what the Government sought to achieve and the arguments that were set out when the policy was introduced in the 2015 legislation, and how it has measured up.
Let us look at the Government’s attempt to define the problem. The former DWP Minister, Lord Freud, speaking in the other place, said:
“Currently, the benefit system adjusts automatically to family size, while many families supporting themselves solely through work do not see their budgets rise in the same way when they have more children.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 December 2015; Vol. 767, c. 1328.]
The 2015 Budget said:
“The government believes that those in receipt of tax credits should face the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves in work.”
The fact that benefits adjust “automatically to family size”, as Lord Freud said, might be seen as a positive feature of the system rather than a bug, but the phrase that keeps recurring is
“supporting themselves solely through work”,
in contrast with being
“in receipt of tax credits”.
What is meant by supporting oneself “solely through work”? It tells us a great deal about this Government’s attitude towards our society and our welfare state, and their lack of interest in or concern about them. At the time those statements were made, two thirds of families in receipt of tax credits were in work—yes, that goes for families with three or more children as well. It is clear that the Government were predominantly referring to working families when they contrasted them with those
“supporting themselves solely through work”.
The word “solely” is carrying awful lot of weight in that sentence.
I have three points. First, the group that is, in the Government’s view, not supporting itself “solely through work” now comprises 42% of all families with children. That is the share of all families with children that are receiving tax credits or universal credit. How plausible does the Government’s problem definition sound when we are talking about nearly half of all families, rather than an unspecified minority?
Secondly, the Government’s idea of what it means to support oneself solely through work needs examination. Why are tax credits and universal credit the only parts of the welfare state that are singled out? The Office for National Statistics publication “Effects of taxes and benefits on UK household income” shows that most families with children—60%—receive more from the welfare state in cash benefits and the value of services than they pay in taxes. Even after taxes, the value of benefits and services received by families with children in the fifth decile is equivalent to 23% of their market incomes.
Our welfare state redistributes resources towards families with children on a large scale, and that is exactly how it should be. However, it means that most families with children cannot be said to be supporting themselves solely through work, but through a combination of work and state support, because we believe that the state has a role in supporting children. That is absolutely the purpose of the welfare state. This is not a permanent situation for most families. Over the life cycle, most of us move between being net beneficiaries—not supporting ourselves only through work—and net contributors at different points. That is also exactly how the system is supposed to work. That brings me to my third comment on the purported problem that the two-child policy was supposed to address: the Government simply ignored the fact that people move on and off tax credits and universal credit all the time. Instead, they want to treat recipients as an immobile group of benefit recipients, as if it was a permanent characteristic of some people.
Surely, after the huge rise in universal credit claims during the pandemic, even the Government must realise that whether a family will have to rely on social security benefits is something they cannot predict. The most charitable view possible is that the Government got themselves in a muddle by trying to impose a disastrously over-simplified vision on to a reality that it did not fit. A less charitable view is that they decided on a policy for whatever reason—austerity, they would say, although I might be more inclined to believe that it was political opportunism—and then set themselves to manufacturing a rationale for it.
Even if we suspend our disbelief and take the Government’s rationale seriously, we now have evidence against which it can be assessed. If tax credits incentivised people to have large families, the policy should have led, by now, to measurable changes in the number of births to families that already have two or more children. That has not happened, as the thorough and fair-minded research by Mary Reader, Jonathan Portes and colleagues has shown.
If any good has come out of this awful policy experiment, it is that the hypothesis on which it was based can be firmly rejected. Meanwhile, the situation for families with three or more children continues to worsen. As Ruth Patrick and her colleagues at the LSE have shown, those families are particularly vulnerable to changes in social security policy. The record over recent years shows just how severe the impact of austerity has been.
As the Government do not like the standard relative poverty measures that everyone else talks about, I will refer to their favourite measure: so-called absolute poverty, where the poverty line is fixed in real terms at 2010-11 values. The reason this Government like that measure so much is that it tends to show a downward trend over time as real incomes rise—although the downward trend since 2010 has been remarkably weak. For families with three or more children, the trend in absolute poverty after housing costs was in the opposite direction, with 300,000 more children in absolute poverty between 2016-17 and 2019-20. Some 38% of all children in those families are in poverty, measured against a threshold that was set 12 years ago. Measured against a contemporary poverty threshold, 47% are in poverty after housing costs, up from 41% in 2016-17. It is not solely due to the two-child policy; the whole raft of austerity measures since 2016-17 has particularly impacted these families.
However, the two-child policy can only drive child poverty higher, as more children born since 2017 come within scope of the policy. As we have heard, the Resolution Foundation’s modelling shows poverty for children in these families rising precipitously, with half of those children already in poverty in 2021-22. The Government should respond to that by ditching the two-child policy now. That would be the correct response to the evidence and would remove from our social security system the obscene requirement for rape victims to provide evidence to the Department for Work and Pensions of what the Government term “non-consensual conception.” It would remove the perverse incentive for couples with separate families to maintain two separate households and it would help to address the rise in child poverty, restoring the principle that our welfare state treats all children equally.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe; we have seen a fair bit of each other this week. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing this debate, on a subject on which I know she has campaigned at length. In fact, we have sparred on a few different issues, because this is not the only subject she has concerns about.
The Department for Work and Pensions is committed to supporting families and helping parents into work. Since this has come up in the debate, it is worth reminding colleagues of the 1.3 million vacancies available for people to find work. We want there to be strong work incentives to help people to fill the opportunities that are available, while providing support for those who need it. We also need to ensure that there is a sense of fairness for the taxpayer; many working families who do not receive benefits do not see their incomes rise when they have more children. That is why we judge that the policy to support a maximum of two children, whether that is with universal credit or child tax credit, is a proportionate way to achieve those aims. Our overall approach is working, as evidenced by the fact that between 2016 and 2021, the number of couples who are in employment and have children increased by 460,000; that is a 2.3 percentage point increase in the employment rate for that group.
The two-child policy was introduced five years ago. Since April 2017, families have been able to claim support for up to two children. There may be further entitlement for other children if they were born before 6 April 2017 or if an exception applies—I will come back to that in a minute. The child element of universal credit is worth £290 for the first child born before 6 April 2017. It is worth a standard rate of £244.58 per child for the second and any other eligible children. Child benefit continues to be paid for all children, plus the additional element in child tax credit or universal credit for any disabled children. The 2021-22 rates for the disabled child addition in universal credit are £128.89 per month for the lower rate and £402.41 per month for the higher rate. Additional help for eligible childcare costs through working tax credit and universal credit are also available, regardless of the total number of children in the household. We discussed that at length in the Work and Pensions Committee yesterday—although that feels like quite a long time ago.
We recognise that some claimants are not able to make the same choices about the number of children in their family. That is why exceptions have been put in place to protect certain groups. Exceptions apply to third and subsequent children who are additional children in a multiple birth; an extra amount is payable for all children in a multiple birth other than the first child. Exceptions also apply where the child is likely to have been born as a result of non-consensual conception, which for this purpose includes rape or where the claimant was in a controlling or coercive relationship with the child’s other biological parent at the time of conception. A further exception applies to any children in a household who are adopted when they would otherwise be in local authority care, or who are living long term with friends or family and would otherwise be at risk of entering the care system. Another exemption is where a child under the age of 16 who is living with their parents or carers has a child of their own—until they make a separate claim upon turning 16.
Statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2020, 85% of all families with dependent children had a maximum of two in their family. For lone parent families, the figure was 83%. Based on the latest figures, 62% of households with a third or subsequent child who are in receipt of universal credit or child tax credit are not affected by the two-child policy.
The Minister has given a long list of the benefits available to people and some of the ameliorative procedures that have been put in place, but what is the actual effect of the two-child limit? Is he saying that it has no effect at all or that its effects have been ameliorated? What is the effect on the kids in those families?
The point that I am trying to make is that the benefits system is important—it provides support—but it is not the only thing that we are trying to do for people and for claimants.
As the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has highlighted, many of those people are working while on benefits. We want them to get into work and, when they are in employment, to progress. As has been debated long and hard in this Chamber, we have recently introduced work coaches who focus on in-work progression; we have 37 champions across the country who are helping to push that agenda forward. That is vital so that people can progress. People do not depend just on the benefits system; we want them to see more in their wage packet, and we have provided work incentives to do that, be it through the UC taper rate changes that have been put in place or through the increased work allowances. Those are vital incentives.
As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, the national minimum wage has gone up to £9.50—[Interruption.] There is a bit of head-shaking going on; it is very disturbing. The national minimum wage is now £9.50 and is projected by many to reach £10. The £9.50 figure is a 6.6% increase, which is very welcome. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming that significant increase.
A few things have been said about the non-consensual conception exemption. We recognise that it is a difficult and sensitive issue, and we have put in place procedures that are mindful of the sensitivities involved. Third-party professionals include healthcare professionals, registered social workers and relevant specialist charities, which can also signpost claimants to further support, so claimants will get the support that they need and be assisted through the light-touch processes in challenging circumstances. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central made a point about rape conviction rates. I reassure her—I think she knows this, but let me put it on the record—that the criteria for the non-consensual conception exemption is much wider than just conviction. The third-party professionals can assist in those circumstances as well.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I think everybody in this Chamber loves, highlighted many situations—nearly all of them, actually. I agree with him that there are a few exceptions, but clearly, we will have differences of opinion on this point. He and I share a love of ensuring that people can express their faith freely—that is a fundamental part of our democracy—and the policy does not seek to get in the way of that vital democratic right and freedom that we all cherish. The Government have published an impact assessment noting that ethnic minority households may be more likely to be impacted by the policy because they are, on average, more likely to be in receipt of child tax credit or universal credit, or to have larger families. That could also be the case for households of a particular religion, but the DWP has insufficient data to confirm that. I highlight that the Supreme Court found that the two-child policy was lawful and not in breach of the European convention on human rights.
Points have been made about abortion and fertility rates. The Nuffield Foundation’s research consortium on larger families has this month published a report outlining that fertility rates for those claiming, or eligible to claim, benefits have changed very little since the introduction of the policy. That would seem to refute the evidence from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service that was discussed earlier. The policy was never designed to affect fertility rates; it is fundamentally about seeking to provide fairness with those who are unable to access benefits, when it comes to the choices that they have to make.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central also asked the question—
I do not think that the hon. Member was here for the whole debate. I will take interventions from others, who have had the courtesy to be here for the whole debate, but I will carry on for now.
On the point about monitoring, we are keeping all our policies under review, but this policy seeks to strike the right balance between supporting those in need and fairness for taxpayers and those who support themselves primarily through work, who do not see their incomes rise when they have more children.
The hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) made some points about poverty and whether this policy is impacting it. I am sure they are assiduously following the latest households below average income statistics, which show that the support we put in place around benefits and incentives for people to get into work—creating a vibrant labour market so that people can get into work and progress—means that 1.2 million fewer people were in absolute low income, before housing costs, in 2020-21, compared with 2009-10. That included 200,000 fewer children and 500,000 fewer working-age adults. Furthermore, there are now nearly 1 million fewer workless households and, very importantly, almost 540,000 fewer children living in such households than in 2010.
Our policy is to seek to ensure that we get more children out of workless households, which we are succeeding in doing, and that there are more employment opportunities for people. We are moving that agenda forward very successfully in the current labour market, and we need to continue to move it forward.
The most sustainable way to lift children out of poverty is by supporting parents to get into, and progress in, work wherever possible. The Government have consistently said that the best way to support people’s living standards is through good work, better skills and higher wages. We have provided significant work incentives, which I have already highlighted, through universal credit, but also through our plan for jobs and the kickstart and restart schemes, which demonstrated the Department’s commitment to supporting families to get into, or to progress in, work. We have a range of policies that support people and families across the tax and benefits systems, and the household support fund for those who are particularly vulnerable.
I would highlight, one final time, that on 9 July 2021, the Supreme Court handed down the judicial review judgment on the two-child policy. The court found that the policy was lawful and not in breach of the European convention on human rights. The policy to support a maximum of two children strikes a balance between providing support for those who need it and ensuring a sense of fairness to taxpayers.
I thank all hon. Members who came to today’s debate. I am grateful to them for their support and to those who came to speak or make interventions, because this issue has not gone away. It will continue to get worse as more families move into the scope of the two-child limit. I give particular thanks to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), because he has been at my side through all of this debate, right from the very beginning, and I am particularly grateful to him for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) made the point that at a stroke—by getting rid of this policy—we could lift 250,000 children out of poverty tomorrow. If the Government had the power to lift 250,000 bairns out of poverty, why would they not do it? Why would you deny those children the dignity and fairness of having a warm meal in their tummy and having the heating on at night? Why would you do that? I do not understand.
I will continue to campaign on this policy. I will not let it be forgotten, because there are constituents in Glasgow Central, as there are in every constituency up and down these islands, who are being affected by this, and there are more and more of them every single year. I will be there until this policy is gone. I will keep campaigning on it, because it remains an injustice—it was always an injustice. To value some children more than others cannot be allowed to stand in a moral society. I thank everybody who has come to contribute to this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the two child limit of working tax credits and universal credit.
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the recruitment and retention of foster carers.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the Backbench Business Committee and the supporting Members who made it possible to secure this debate. I also thank the Fostering Network, Home for Good and one of my local authorities, South Tyneside, for organising meetings and relevant briefings for me and my team, which were very useful for this debate. I put on record my thanks to those bodies for their work in championing the overlooked and neglected fostering sector. I am sure all Members present will want to join me in welcoming the Fostering Network and foster carers to the Public Gallery. It is great to see them here.
One cannot overestimate the important role fostering plays across child protection and safeguarding. In a climate where, over the last 12 years, local authorities have been forced to adapt their operations through cuts to local expenditure, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for foster carers has never been greater, with many children needing emergency support. That is why I will focus my opening remarks on why the fostering sector and carers need increased recognition and wraparound support from local authorities and independent fostering agencies.
While the debate is centred on the recruitment and retention of foster carers, we also need to look at the challenges faced by the sector more broadly, and at where we can share experiences of local authorities and constituents to not only platform the sector, but raise its profile and actively encourage people to enter into fostering.
The Welsh Government’s initiative Foster Wales has created a network of local authority fostering services across Wales, showing a clear national commitment to the cause. Does the hon. Lady agree that England and Scotland would benefit from a similar national call to action?
Yes, I agree, and I will refer to a similar point in my speech.
As I was preparing for this debate and looking at the statistics, two particular facts on recruitment stood out to me. First, the number of initial inquiries to foster is at an all-time high. There were 160,635 initial inquiries from prospective fostering households in the year ending 31 March 2021. In contrast, only 10,145 applications—a mere 6% of initial inquiries—were actually received. Secondly, according to the annual fostering statistics published by Ofsted, the number of foster carers in England has increased by only 4% since 2014, while the number of children in foster care has increased by 11%.
Those statistics show a crisis in recruitment and retention. Members on both sides must ask why those significant shortfalls in the fostering sector are occurring and what we in this place can do to help to alleviate this recruitment and retention crisis. I believe that we need to champion foster carers, but central to that must be deeds, not just words: we need to make sure that foster carers are fairly paid and respected as workers.
Set out in its 2021 “State of the Nation’s Foster Care” report, the Fostering Network’s findings on pay are damning:
“Over a third of foster carers said that their allowances do not meet the full cost of looking after a child.”
That is certainly something I can give personal testimony of, from my experience as a foster carer before entering this place; it has also been said to me today by some of the foster carers present.
Secondly, the report notes:
“Fourteen local authorities reported that their foster care allowances were below the NMA for at least one age group across England. Of these, two were in London, four were in the South East and ten were in the area of the rest of England.”
While I thank the Children’s Minister for writing to 13 local authorities on the specific issue of the national minimum allowance, that has to be weighted against this Government’s political decision to put the burden of inflation and the cost of living crisis on the backs of ordinary people.
My hon. Friend is making a meaningful speech, including about her own experiences as a foster carer. She may or may not know that I used to be a manager in fostering, and for as long as I can remember there was an issue with the retention of foster carers and with those carers not being valued enough. Does my hon. Friend agree that the severe cuts to local government funding have had an indirect impact on the support that social workers can offer foster carers, which in turn has an impact on their ability to continue fostering and how they can look after, or manage the welfare of, a child?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we cannot keep taking money out of local authorities and expect them to still deliver the same level of services. The impact, unfortunately, is felt by the children and young people who are in the fostering system or child services.
The financial pressures and stresses felt by carers, highlighted by the Fostering Network’s research, are only set to get worse. The Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers believes that the Government should urgently make a pay award to foster carers, both within local authorities and independent fostering agencies, to preserve and protect this precious resource for children and young people in need. This would be an important signal to foster carers that the Government really do value their contribution.
Another critical issue that we have to be aware of is the responsibility local authorities and IFAs have in providing vital—often emergency—wraparound support for foster carers and their families. I put on record my thanks to South Tyneside Council, one of my local authorities, for its progressive outlook in prioritising this area. First and foremost, we have to recognise that each child currently being supported through fostering services has different and complex needs, which must be met from the first moment that child comes under the care of their carer. That is why South Tyneside’s model of training carers to degrees, whereby they can be matched with the child best suited to their level of training—a model that is in the best interests of all parties and, most importantly, those of the child or young person—is highly commendable. In this, it is vital that children are kept as close to the local authority as possible. This approach means that at crisis point there is no delay in support, and any crisis has a better chance of being mitigated, as tailored, traumatic and therapeutic support can be accessed quickly.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on this important issue. Regarding the role of local authorities and the point about funding, does she agree that the crisis with children’s social workers and the shortage that we have is exacerbating the problems, and will impact on the very commendable operating model she is talking about?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. As has been said, the funding that is being taken out of the system means that, unfortunately, we are not continuing to provide the support that is needed, in terms of both social workers and the many other people who are involved in children’s care.
The system South Tyneside Council has in place means that if a breakdown occurs between the child and foster family, the local authority is accountable, thus upholding the fostering standards to improve outcomes. With such support mechanisms in place, more people will be encouraged to become foster carers.
However, we must recognise that South Tyneside’s model relies on factors for which the responsibility lies truly at the feet of Government Ministers. The cuts to local authorities over the past 12 years, along with the present day record levels of children needing emergency foster care mean that my local authority, like most others, must turn to independent fostering agencies to plug the gap. The money local authorities have to spend from Government grants, council tax and business rates has fallen by 16% since 2010. That means that local authorities have an increasingly limited capacity to respond to significant inflationary pressures.
While I respect the work that members of IFAs do to alleviate the pressure felt by local authorities, those agencies have the ability to add another complex, unnecessary layer between the child and the local authority, meaning that when crisis hits, unnecessary delays, which are detrimental to all involved, are often hard to avoid. In South Tyneside Council, 50% of children are placed into IFAs.
We also need to break down the popular perceptions of fostering, which undermine the diverse and varying shapes that it can take. Fostering should not be compared with adoption, although it often is. We need to break through the perception that fostering is a means, whereas adoption is the end, because one size does not fit all. We also need to recognise that circumstances in the lives of carers can change. The value of a carer fostering one child needs to be recognised as the same as a carer who may foster many children.
Finally, we need to appreciate that, more often than not, foster carers can be thrust into a situation at extreme short notice. Their presence in the safeguarding process can often be to provide emergency care.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. The House is always at its best when Members draw on their personal experience and my hon. Friend’s speech shows that she knows what she is talking about. I add my thanks to Fostering Network, who I have worked with a lot in the past and who I have found to be incredibly helpful.
I want to pick up on black, Asian and minority ethnic foster carers and children from BAME communities. BBC analysis shows that two thirds of councils in England have a shortage of BAME foster carers, but 23% of children on the waiting list are from BAME backgrounds. Black boys are left longest on the waiting lists. I wondered whether my hon. Friend might comment, and I hope the Minister will also pick up on that point.
That point came up in my meeting with the head of children’s services in my local authority. As my hon. Friend says, we are desperately short of BAME foster carers.
Often children arrive into foster care with nothing apart from the clothes they are wearing. The responsibility lies firmly with the fostering family to pick up from there, otherwise the child would have nothing.
What do we need from the Government? I would like the Minister to look at and seriously consider the Mockingbird strategy as adopted by South Tyneside and many others, and to listen to best practice from my and other local authorities. I hope we will hear more on that today from other Members.
The Mockingbird model is based on the idea of an extended family. The strategy focuses on a fostering hub, where satellite carers work in sync to provide specialist and centralised care to children along with real-time support for those satellite carers. Mockingbird means intervention can take place without the need to necessarily remove children completely from their support network, should an emergency occur. Depending on circumstances, the programme can be adjusted to include birth families and adoptive families, and to provide support for independent living, while giving assurance to foster carers and those in care that a secure and close support network is at hand.
I also want the Minister to listen to the recommendations set out by the Fostering Network, which with others is calling for a fully funded national fostering strategy, a national fostering leadership board and a national register of foster carers. In addition, the Government need to carry out a comprehensive review of the minimum levels of fostering allowance, using up-to-date evidence to ensure foster carers are given sufficient payment to cover the full cost of looking after a child.
There is no one quick fix to address the issues relating to the retention of foster carers. The themes of carers feeling unsupported, making a financial loss and not being treated as workers would lead to a high turnover rate and chronic difficulties in recruitment in any workforce. I hope that today’s debate acts as an opportunity to address Members’ concerns from their constituencies and encourages the Minister to put recommendations in place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in Westminster Hall once again, Mr Robertson. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this important debate and sharing her personal experience. As Members from across the House have said, it is truly inspiring.
My partner and I hope one day, when our children are slightly older, to offer a home and an opportunity to young people. For eight and a half years before entering this place, I worked as a head of year, dealing with behavioural and pastoral issues in the secondary education sector, and I had direct contact with some of the fantastic foster carers of the children I was proud to look after. It was an enlightening and warming story. Looking at how to spend money from the budget to invest in those young people and give them exciting opportunities outside the school gates, as well as pushing their learning and educational outcomes, was something that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I want to focus on the great work that is being done in the constituency I am proud to serve, Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, and across the wider city of Stoke-on-Trent. Since 2019, Stoke-on-Trent City Council has made it very clear that children and young people need to be its No. 1 priority. A complete overhaul is needed, as the challenge in 2019 was, quite frankly, immense. Children’s services in Stoke-on-Trent have never been rated good or outstanding. An Ofsted inspection in early 2019 showed that the situation was dire—that is the only word I can use to describe the quality of services available to more than 1,000 of the most vulnerable young children in our city, who required us to look after them. Children’s services received the worst possible rating of inadequate from Ofsted, and inspectors uncovered multiple failings, which left youngsters at risk of harm.
Since May 2019, Councillor Dave Evans, who was appointed to the children and young people portfolio, has been working with Councillor Abi Brown, the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and has made big strides to improve fostering services across the Potteries. Ably assisted by team manager Kate Bailey and recruitment officer Marie Plant, Councillor Evans and his team have radically changed the council’s approach. The council has been pushing hard to get as many organisations signed up to the fostering friendly scheme, the Fostering Network’s programme to encourage employers to support fostering and, in particular, foster carers. Stoke City Football Club, Bet365, Staffordshire police, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and health groups are all now signed up to the scheme. That effort is part of the team’s new approach to running family services.
To be recognised as a fostering friendly employer, the council has had to demonstrate support for employees, make the workplace friendlier for foster carers to benefit the children in their care, and also make it easier for people to consider fostering. In 2020, the council launched a new fostering friendly policy for all its employees, setting out benefits for any staff member who decides to come forward to become a foster carer. They include flexible working arrangements and paid time off for those going through the foster care approval process. Councillor Evans and his team are urging organisations and businesses across Stoke-on-Trent to become fostering friendly, as part of the push to become recognised as the first fostering friendly city in the United Kingdom.
Part of the new approach that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is taking is making fostering more visible and spreading the word. Social workers now go to events across the city such as Stoke-on-Trent Pride and the Better World Festival, and they hold coffee shop drop-in sessions. I am pleased to say that the new approach that the council has taken is paying off. Recruitment of foster carers is up, with 33 recruited last year compared to 30 the year before, and the council is now the fifth biggest recruiter of social workers in the country.
As well as getting more organisations signed up to the fostering friendly scheme and boosting recruitment, Councillor Evans and the team have worked to improve retention of foster carers, which is important as there are more than 1,000 cared-for children in the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Fosterers have been given a stronger voice, with increased representation on the corporate parenting panel to give them a say on key decisions across children’s services in the city. All of this progress has been reflected in Ofsted’s latest monitoring report
Even the Stoke Sentinel has had to be positive about the turnaround. As Councillor Evans has said, the clearest sign of improvement is that Ofsted has found that children in Stoke-on-Trent are now safe—Ofsted had previously found that they were not. Of course, there is still a long way to go. As I said earlier, the council has never been ranked as good or outstanding for children’s services, but that is the goal, and I am 100% confident that thanks to the new approach adopted by Councillor Evans and his team, when Ofsted carries out its next full inspection this autumn, that goal will be achieved.
Before I close I want to give the fostering team a shout-out for running the Potters ‘Arf marathon last year, and again this year. This is something I know my hon. Friend the Minister will be proud to hear. Having seen and walked the hills of Stoke-on-Trent, I will not be anywhere near that race, apart from standing on the sidelines and cheering with a cheesy oatcake in my hand. I warmly congratulate all those taking part to raise awareness and money for good causes, and I look forward to cheering the team on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this enormously important debate, which is a personal debate for me. My contribution will not be about policy. I have a responsibility and a privilege to give a fraternal address from Scotland.
The route into care in Scotland is very different, but the needs and complexities of the children are similar, and they always must come first. I will talk a little bit about my route into foster care as a carer. I will not talk about our family because I am fiercely protective of my children.
My partner and I have been together for nearly 30 years. We lived in London for many years and we spoke often about our options to have a family. We had three protracted and ultimately failed surrogacy attempts, but it was always clear to me that the genetics of the child were not important. What was important was the provision of a loving home and providing a role model or someone who would believe in the child. I do not know whether there is evidence for this principle, but I believe it. Just one person believing in a young person who has experienced trauma or difficulty in their early years can lift them out of that dreadful dark hole and give them a bright future.
I have been involved, in one form or another, in the care of children and young people since being a volunteer with the then Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped when I was at school. I have been a nurse for most of my career, specialising in adolescent cancer. When we returned to Scotland, as a gay couple we discovered that we could foster and adopt, so we threw ourselves into that process and ultimately chose to foster. There are two principal reasons why we made that choice: the support that would be available to us directly through Barnardo’s, which is now a partner organisation, and the support that would be available, because no one can know what will happen with a placement, to the young people that came to us. I would be lying, which is not in vogue at the moment, if I did not say it was an enormous challenge. The first two years really stretched us. I am not talking from personal experience with our kids, but children who have been through multiple placements, suffered abuse and neglect, lived in deprivation and been traumatised come with complex needs. Foster carers have to surrender themselves to that, because if they expect a child to come into their home and surrender themselves to the carers, but they are not prepared to make that commitment themselves, then ultimately the placement could fail.
There is lots of support to help foster carers through that, and we have been incredibly fortunate with the team around the child, the relationship with our social workers and the tremendous gift that having a family has been. The rewards are immeasurable. We participate in three principal areas of care: short-term care, respite care and ultimately long-term permanent care. I could not have had a better experience. It has been the most humbling and enriching experience of my life, without any question or equivocation.
Young people who come into care arrive with difficult challenges to face, whether developmental delay or academic deficits. It is grounded in evidence that young people who are care-experienced can struggle academically, but what will surprise many people who make assumptions is that in reality if people invest their time, energy and commitment in that young person, they can turn that right around. Achieving that depends on more people coming forward, because without good-quality foster carers, there is no placement. The main focus of my comments is to support that drive from the Fostering Network.
I just want to tell a little story. Co-incidentally, yesterday morning on Radio 4 there was a piece featuring Sinéad Browne, a care-experienced person who studied law and threw herself into her education to find solace from her experience. She has formed a fantastic organisation called Compliments of The House. I can only precis what a wonderful story it is, and I thoroughly recommend anybody who is interested to catch up on that piece by listening to it on the BBC Sounds app.
To go back to what I said at the beginning of my speech, it takes only one person to believe in a young person in order to make a difference, but the biggest and most important challenge is getting that young person to believe in themselves, that they matter and that their future matters. For me, that is the essence of what it has meant to be that person. It is not about providing a physical space. It is about providing a home where there is parenting, love, safety and care. The policy parts around that are obvious—funding, training, recruitment and stability—but the journey can be exceptional, and I just want to share that with everyone. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I commend the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) who introduced the debate and who set the scene for us with her knowledge, interests and life story. I thank the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) for his personal story. It was good to hear those personal stories from the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman because they help us all to enjoy, endorse and support the theme under discussion. I am not leaving out the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), by the way. He brought his own experiences as a teacher, which I thank him for.
The covid-19 pandemic has had many side effects. I will give the Northern Ireland perspective; I know that is not the responsibility of the Minister, but it adds to the debate and it complements what has been said and what will be said. Increasing numbers of children and young people in Northern Ireland are urgently in need of a loving and safe home. For many families on the brink, covid was the final straw, and familial relationships bore the strain of it all—I noticed that over the past couple of years, and others probably did too. I am aware that there are many foster parents in Ards and in my constituency of Strangford who already give a home to children and young people. I know from discussions with them that some of those young people come from very difficult homes, and just being part of a family unit is very important to them. They receive the warmth that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath referred to—the love that is so vital for them—in abundance in their foster homes.
I have a very good friend, whose name I am not going to mention. He and his wife have three of their own children and foster five or six. That is a massive family, by the way; whenever they go on holiday, it takes a minibus to take them away, and whenever they jump on the plane, they take up a large section of that plane. The point I am making is that that couple in Portavogie in my constituency give love, affection, assurance and confidence to vulnerable young children who are quite challenging. They have told me some stories; I am not going to repeat them, because they are very personal, but there are people who have the capacity, the understanding, and perhaps the patience that is needed to make that happen.
The number of foster carers is low at the moment, and the need for them is great. I welcome the news that Robin Swann, the Northern Ireland Minister responsible, is prepared to recognise that and to provide greater support. More than 3,000 children and young people are currently living with foster carers or supported lodging hosts in Northern Ireland, and the funding package will provide an additional £25 a week for each child or young person who is being looked after in those settings during the term of the Assembly. Obviously, that will be reviewed again whenever the Assembly is up and running—in May, all being well.
Northern Ireland is also due to carry out a review of children’s services, ostensibly to further highlight the challenges in foster care and to work collaboratively to achieve change for the benefit of all cared-for children. We have a policy and strategy, which I am sure is very similar to what the Minister will speak about shortly; it may even be better. I know that the Minister has a real interest in this matter and that his response will be very helpful.
We have difficulties with care homes, especially in my constituency at present. Local shops are being tormented by children shoplifting alcohol and taunting the shopkeepers and staff on the way out, saying that they cannot touch them. The workers in the care homes feel that their hands are tied, as they cannot restrain those children unless they are in danger, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland—our police force—does not have the manpower to station bouncers or have a full-time presence at local shops. We have derelict buildings that are known to be used by kids for drinking and doing drugs, with their care workers standing outside and begging them to come back.
Let me be very clear and straight: I have ultimate compassion for those children, because they are sometimes from very difficult homes, and the difficulties in their wee lives have brought them to this point. I cannot, in all conscience, place the blame entirely at their feet; they have been let down by many people and bodies, of which we are one—by “we”, I mean that the Government and our regional Administrations have let them down. We all understand the benefits of foster care compared with children’s homes. Underfunding and a lack of support for foster carers means that many people are simply unwilling to take on that mammoth task. In every case, the losers are these lost children who want to be independent and make their own choices but simply are not old enough to understand the consequences of their independence.
We ask for all the things that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath referred to—for funding, for training, and for foster caring to be built up and for more foster carers to be encouraged to come forward, because we need them, both in Northern Ireland and here on the UK mainland. When I was a young fella—that was not yesterday, Mr Robertson—my mum used to say to me, “You need three things. You need a lot of potatoes”—usually, they were Comber potatoes—“you need water, and you need a loving, firm hand.” We have provided for these kids’ physical needs, but the loving, firm hand that is as vital here as in any other area is missing, and they are desperately unhappy, lashing out and hurting their community. How do we help them? We help them by giving them opportunities for foster care. We help them by making sure that the funding, the opportunities, and the love and affection that the hon. Members for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and for Jarrow have referred to—both of them from their experiential knowledge—are there.
I believe that a strong foster care system with early intervention is the way forward, but that can only come if we encourage kinship care with support. I have heard of so many grannies who do not get a break and cannot cope. We need options available to allow for respite in the short term to keep a good placement in the long term. I ask the Minister: can we get that short-term respite to keep a good placement in the long term? I think that is something that we can do UK-wide. We are trying to do it in Northern Ireland; the Minister will probably come back and say that he is doing it here. I am sure that will encourage us. A review of foster care support is also urgently needed.
For the sake of our most vulnerable children, we have to do something differently; we have to look at this differently, and we have to understand what it is that children want and what we need to give them. We need to give them the love, the affection and the future that the hon. Members for Jarrow and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath did. That is what we are trying to do—to get a different outcome, or to add to the outcome that we have at the moment.
Mr Robertson, as Chair, you have a very privileged position, because you hear in Westminster Hall debates some truly remarkable stories. We have heard some today. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for the work that she has done on this issue and for securing the debate, but that is trite—there is no merit in securing a debate. The merit lies in what she said and in the experience that she brought to it. Similarly, I was hugely moved by the words of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey). That is what is remarkable: sometimes, we learn so much more about our colleagues in this Chamber than we ever expected to. We also heard from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who spoke of his own experience in secondary school.
We have heard today about the power of love and how it can transform lives. It can change a child’s life and set it on a new path. I pay tribute to all those from the Fostering Network who are here in the Public Gallery for the work that they do. I salute them. That service often is not in the vanguard of the public’s imagination, but clearly, what we have heard today means that it should be. It is extraordinary work and it takes extraordinary strength, resilience and compassion to do it. That is what this debate has brought out.
Let me turn to the debate itself and look at the annual fostering statistics. Ofsted has told us that the number of children in care is at its highest ever level in England. I know what the Minister will say. He will no doubt tell us that the number of carers is also at an all-time high, but he knows that the number of children in need of care is at an all-time high. The question that he must answer is not a technical one of provision and so on; it is this: why are so many children in need of fostering care? What is breaking down in our society that means that we have an all-time high and we need even more places than we have? What stress are families are experiencing and what pain—social and economic—are they going through that means we need so many more fostering places because families cannot cope on their own?
I contacted my own local authority and asked for its experience. It told me about the ageing profile of the foster care workforce. In Brent, we are finding it difficult to recruit newer and younger foster carers. Of course, in a city context, that is a function of the demand for housing. If someone wants to be a foster carer, they need a room for the child. The cost of living pressures in London, where both adults in a household need to work simply to maintain a property, are reducing the availability of people who would otherwise desperately wish to become foster parents, as we have heard. For our more vulnerable and needy children in care, having a carer at home for most of the time makes a huge difference to the stability of the placement. That is very difficult if both potential parents have to go out to work simply to maintain their rent or mortgage commitments. In Brent, we are actually turning away people who want to foster and have good skills because they simply do not have the physical space in their homes to accommodate a child.
The Competition and Markets Authority carried out a study of children in social care. I have to say that I found it difficult to read about the final report of its study of the “children’s social care market”. “Market” is not a word I want to use about children or the care of children—“service”, yes, but not “market”. However, on recruitment, the CMA said:
“The difficulty…is greatest for carers needed to look after children with more challenging needs… The degree of challenge also varies geographically.”
The study considered not only areas such as my own in London, but rural areas and the challenges faced by parents there. It is clear that not everyone who wants to be a foster carer has the resources—whether that is a spare room, the spare time or the financial stability—to be able to do so.
The Social Market Foundation has said that, in the next five years, we need 63,000 new families to make their homes available to children, yet it predicts that at current rates there will be 40,000—23,000 short of what is required. I hope that the Minister will say how the Government are preparing to meet the problems of recruitment and retention. How is he ensuring that his Department will assist local authorities with the pressures that they face, and how will it assist potential foster families with the pressures that they face in taking on that responsibility?
I hope that the Minister will also turn his attention and that of his Department to why this is happening—why there is an ever-increasing need. There has been, I think, an 11% increase over the past seven years in the number of children needing foster care. We are seeing an economic crisis and a cost of living crisis, and that will put increasing pressure on families. Over the next 18 months, I think the projected need for 63,000 families will be blown out of the water, because so many families will be in crisis and will not be able to cope, and the result will be increasing pressure on fostering services.
My hon. Friend asks why the numbers coming into care are so great. For four years running, Barnardo’s and the other children’s charities came together and argued the case for additional resources for local authorities for early intervention to support families. They say that the withdrawal of that intervention has resulted in record numbers of children coming into care.
I have another point to make. Like me, my hon. Friend is a London MP. The CMA report states that 20% of children in foster care—the percentage is higher for residential care—are in placements more than 20 miles away from where they live. That is exacerbated in London by the housing crisis, with many local authorities in London having to go as far as Kent and elsewhere to find foster placements. That problem is identified as part of the housing crisis in which local people are prevented from having a spare room available to assist in fostering.
I am so glad that my right hon. Friend makes that point. I wrote on a piece of paper comments about geographic dislocation, but I have been unable to find it. It is important because this debate is about connectivity with the child’s environment—with his or her roots—and making sure that there is stability and continuity, which are undermined in exactly the way he describes.
The funding of local authorities is absolutely central to this question. My local authority has lost £180 million in Government support over the past 10 years. That is the scale of the crisis local authorities are facing. I am not saying this to make a plea for my local authority; I am saying it because we have an increasing crisis in caring for our children. The Government have to have a co-ordinated response that covers more than recruitment and retention, because that is just patching up the problem afterward; they must have a proper response to why so many children and so many families need this support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Robertson.
A wide range of issues to do with children’s services have been raised in the debate, but for me an important starting point is to recognise that the UK care system is among the highest performing in the world. In all the debate that goes on, especially when a distressing case hits the headlines, it is often easy to forget that our foster carers, our adoptive parents and our children’s social workers are all part of something that research demonstrates is among the safest care systems in which to grow up anywhere in the developed world.
We know that the drivers of children coming into that care system are many and complex, with neglect continuing to be the No. 1 driver, but as we have seen over the years, the crises of confidence that follow cases like that of Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter Connelly and the consequent toughening of Ofsted criteria result in a consistent pattern of local authorities becoming more risk averse and taking more children than before into the care system; and in due course, the Government begin to look at whether those criteria are correct. As we consider the system as a whole, we must recognise that foster carers are a crucial part of it, and that they, child protection investigations and organisations such as the police and schools, where my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) spent many years, are all part a system through which the state has eyes on children and seeks to keep them safe.
In my contribution, I will draw on my experience with the Local Government Association and with a variety of local authorities, both as a lead member and as one who has done a good deal of work in this space over the years. It is clear that recruitment and retention of foster carers throw up different sets of issues that the Government need to consider. I have met many, many foster carers over the years. I have met people who have been fostering for 30 or 40 years and who have fostered dozens of children. Some talk of specialising in children who are violent and who have been through difficult times, or children who may be sexual abusers of other children and require very intensive and specialist support.
It is clear to me that they are owed a huge amount of respect by our society for the work that they do. I acknowledge that foster carers are paid for that work, but they provide support not just by fostering a child but, in some cases, by fostering a parent as well, so that a parent who is struggling can learn from a foster family how to nurture and support a child, preventing that child going elsewhere in the care system or even into adoption. The job should rightly command a huge amount of respect.
Pretty much every local authority that I have come across tends to have regular opportunities to celebrate the contribution that foster carers make and to thank them for that work, and it is important that we do so here at a national level. There is a national leadership board for adoption, but we have not seen the same focus on fostering by central Government over many decades, despite the fact that a much greater population of our children are in foster care.
From conversations with foster carers, it is clear that their experiences of being foster carers vary enormously. Some are engaged by local authorities; some are engaged by agencies; and some will change between those two types of engagement during their time as foster carers. A number of Members have highlighted reasonable concerns about the role that agencies have played over the years.
Most local authorities use independent fostering agencies to a significant degree, and many agencies provide a high-quality service to vulnerable children in the system, but it is striking that, as a recent report highlighted, the 10 largest children’s services providers have made £300 million in profits from that market in the last year. As a Tory who likes taxpayer’s money, I am concerned that taxpayers are paying £300 million in profits for something that is part of the care market.
I thank BBC journalist Sanchia Berg for the work that she has done over the years to bring to wider attention the role that private equity has played both in foster care specifically and in the children’s care market generally. We need to ensure that, as we develop the quality, we are able to have an effective handle on how good that market is at providing support for children. It is important not to criticise independent fostering agencies, or IFAs, as simply profit-seeking providers. We need to ensure that a limited resource is being spent as effectively as possible, with a real eye on quality of experience for the children who are fostered.
When it comes to recruitment, foster carers have told me many times that the key thing for them has been word of mouth. Although most local authorities have stands in shopping centres, put out leaflets and put things on their websites, hearing what the system is like from somebody who has been through it is crucial. The more central Government promote the stories of foster carers at a national level—so that other people can hear what an attractive opportunity it can be—the better. Those who go to local authorities as potential adopters but are perhaps not ready to take that step are often people who might consider fostering and perhaps go on to do it for a long time.
Fostering is one of those unusual roles. I am aware that there has been legal action in Scotland about whether foster carers should have the status of employees. They are paid to do it, but at the same time, it is flexible and, depending on the circumstances of the child being fostered, some foster carers are able to hold down a full-time job. For others, fostering the child is absolutely a full-time job because of the child’s complex needs. It is crucial to recognise that complexity and what it means to a family and a household to become foster carers, without putting people off.
On retention, I pay particular tribute to my soon-to-be-former Hillingdon Council colleague Councillor Alan Deville, who has fostered many children, some of whom are from very difficult backgrounds. He also been active in creating a foster carers’ association; it is independent of the local authority, but it is there to support foster carers in that local authority area by organising events for the children and opportunities for foster parents and families to get together and share their experiences, and by providing really effective feedback to the local authority and IFAs about the things that make a real difference.
Often, those things were quite simple things. They were about making the “job” part of being a foster carer more straightforward, including knowing that there was someone there who could help them if they had an emergency situation with a fostered child in their household, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. It was also about a foster carer knowing very quickly how they could get consent if a child brought home a form from school to go on a school trip, or if the child needed a haircut or some expenditure over and above the costs that would normally be incurred, or how to get a bank account set up, so that the child’s savings element contained within the fostering allowance could be secured for their future. It was about making sure that those basics were taken care of really well. We hear stories, both from foster carers who have been engaged by local authorities and from IFAs, about how that aspect of fostering could be improved to make the role so much more straightforward.
In conclusion, I have several asks of the Minister and of Government. As we know, the care review is looking at our care system and will come forward with some recommendations. However, the comments that a number of other Members have made certainly resonate with the experience I had during my time in local government and it seems to me that it would be helpful for us to have a more strategic approach to the way we support foster carers, rather in the way that we support those who adopt.
The issues include things such as access to appropriate housing. Local authorities are quite tightly controlled under local government finance rules in terms of what can be done for people who want social housing and assessing their level of need versus the cost of supporting children. We have to make sure that that resource can be deployed as flexibly as possible, so that foster carers who need an extra room, for example, are able to have larger accommodation within the local authority area, thereby removing the need for a high-cost care placement.
Council tax is another example of where the need for flexibility comes to mind. Again, complexities may arise where a local authority offers to pay the council tax for a foster carer; the foster carer may be resident in another local authority area. So how does it pay out?
Of course we must also recognise that sometimes young people are placed 20 miles or more from home, which I appreciate is an issue that the Department keeps a very close eye on. That situation may well arise because the child is being taken away from risks proximate to their local area—from their family, from a drug dealer or from somebody else who is targeting them. So there may be good reasons for such a move.
I hope that a strategic approach will come from the care review. If it does, it will make a transformational difference in the next few years to the quality of the experience that our foster carers have.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this vital debate on the foster care system. I reiterate much of what she said. Although Members in the main Chamber have rightly been debating the very serious issue of whether the Prime Minister is fit for office, it is equally important that other serious issues of the day are not forgotten, and there are few matters more important than the impending foster care crisis.
As a councillor, I served on Gateshead Council’s adoption panel, which is closely linked to the foster care panel, so I have some knowledge of the foster care system. First of all, I must say that I have an enormous amount of respect for foster carers and, having been a carer myself, of a daughter with severe disabilities, I particularly thank those foster carers who look after and care for children with additional needs.
Like all carers, foster carers fulfil a role on behalf of the state, offering children a safe home, and often providing them with a nurturing environment and a surrogate family. At times it can be challenging, but when it is supported properly, it is a role that is deeply rewarding, giving foster carers the knowledge that they have made a real difference in the lives of the children they welcome into their home.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this debate today. I also thank and pay tribute to all the wonderful foster families in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby, and indeed beyond.
Does my hon. Friend agree that fostering can bring much fulfilment to the lives of all involved? I say that with total confidence after speaking to my good friend Kevin, who has become a foster carer, with his family. He said that it was indeed positively life-changing.
I could not agree more, and I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in thanking Kevin and the foster carers here today, and indeed the Members here who have been foster carers themselves, as well as foster carers up and down the country. Given the importance of foster carers and the difference they make to society, the data on the number of foster carers makes for difficult reading and lays bare the scale of the impending crisis. Simply put, there are not enough foster carers to meet the demand.
There are two main reasons behind the shortage. The first is the rising number of children entering care. We have touched on some of the reasons for that today. A 2021 report by the Social Market Foundation found that, based on an average of 2.9% year-on-year growth in the number of children requiring foster care over the last five years, the number of children in need of care could rise by 33% by 2030. Combined with that is the equally pressing issue of the number of foster carers leaving the system, with 30% of deregistrations taking place within the first two years of approval for foster care. Those issues are as significant in County Durham as they are in local authorities across England, and we now face a huge deficit in foster carers.
Research by the Social Market Foundation suggests that more than 63,000 new foster carers need to be recruited in England by 2026 to meet the demand of the rising numbers of children entering care and to replace the foster carers leaving the system. Estimates suggest that fewer than 40,000 new foster families will be recruited in that time, leaving a recruitment deficit of around 25,000 foster care families. I truly worry that we are sleepwalking towards a foster care crisis.
With those issues in mind, it is clear to me that much more needs to be done to improve the recruitment of new foster carers as well as retain existing ones. Although there is much that can realistically be done, I want to state my support for two measures in particular. On the issue of recruitment, it is worth noting that there is not necessarily a lack of interest. In 2021, 160,000 individuals inquired about fostering, yet only around 2,200 were approved as foster carers. It is important that we recognise that not everyone who withdraws from the fostering process does so because they are disqualified. Many do so because personal circumstances make them temporarily unsuited to the role, yet they remain open to foster caring. We cannot allow those people to believe that they are unwanted by the system. We should make it clear to them that the door is not closed to them. It would therefore be useful if the Government could work to develop mechanisms for keeping in touch, with the permission of those involved, with those who inquire about becoming foster carers.
On the issue of retention, we should all be concerned by the fact that a third of former foster carers aged 18 to 54 cited a lack of training and support as the reason they stopped fostering. At the minute, the quality of the training provided to foster carers lacks consistency, and often fails to prepare people for the specific challenges of the children who will be placed in their care. It is therefore important that the existing training process is improved, both during the assessment period and throughout people’s time as foster carers. The training and support must be tailored to the needs of the children in their care so that foster carers feel valued and supported by the system and not forgotten about.
To finish, I want to reiterate my concern that the Government are sleepwalking into a crisis in foster care. People get into foster care for many reasons, but chief among them is a desire to provide a safe and nurturing environment for vulnerable children. Yet instead of that desire being nurtured by the authorities, foster carers are too often met with a lack of support and are weighed down by the challenges of the role. If we do not treat this problem with the severity it deserves and take steps to tackle the issues now, it is the most vulnerable children in society who will suffer the most.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this important and timely debate, and for speaking powerfully about her experience. This debate is a welcome opportunity to pay tribute to foster carers across the country for all they do to provide safety, stability, kindness, love and care to looked-after children.
Foster carers are the bedrock of the care system and provide more than 70% of care placements. Fostering is challenging and demanding, but it is also deeply rewarding and can quite literally change the course of a child’s life. Foster carers are both hugely generous and highly skilled, and fostering relationships can last a lifetime—well beyond the duration of a placement, with all the benefits that a stable, long-term relationship of trust can provide.
I am grateful to the Fostering Network for all it does to support foster carers, and for bringing a group of experienced foster carers to Parliament today. It was a great pleasure to meet them earlier, and very moving to hear about their experiences. I thank them for all they do.
We have heard today about some of the benefits and rewards of fostering, but also about the challenges. This has been an excellent debate, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part. I do not have time to mention everybody’s contribution, but the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) spoke movingly about his experience as a foster carer. I thank him for mentioning Sinéad Browne, my constituent, whose organisation, Compliments of the House, is also based in my constituency. She is an absolutely remarkable and inspirational young woman.
There are some very significant challenges with the recruitment and retention of foster carers. The Fostering Network estimates that fostering services need to recruit at least a further 8,100 foster families in England in the next 12 months alone. Nine in 10 fostering services report a shortage of foster carers to meet the needs of children in the local population, with particularly acute shortages for teenagers, large sibling groups, children with disabilities and parent and child placements. More than a third of foster carers said that their allowances did not meet the full cost of looking after a child, and only 53% described the support they received from their fostering service as excellent or good.
Although the interest in fostering has been growing in recent years, the current recruitment process for foster carers has an astonishingly low success rate and the number of applications has been decreasing. In the year ending 31 March 2021, there were 160,635 enquiries from prospective fostering families, but only 10,145 foster carer applications were received. Thirty-two per cent. of those applications were approved, so just 2% of expressions of interest resulted in an approved foster family. The Education Committee has highlighted a lack of diversity among foster carers and the urgent need to recruit new foster carers from a more diverse range of backgrounds to meet the needs of looked-after children.
Those challenges must be considered in the context of a wider children’s social care system that, after 12 years of Conservative government, is in a state of crisis. Almost 50% of children’s services departments are rated by Ofsted as inadequate or requiring improvement. That is a national, not just a local, issue and it requires the Government to show leadership to sort it out.
The Competition and Markets Authority has revealed the scale of the scandal of profiteering among some providers of residential placements for children, with the 10 biggest providers of children’s homes and private fostering placements making profits totalling £300 million. Across the country, social workers are raising concerns about workload and burnout, and councils are struggling to fill vacancies.
All those issues have an impact on the recruitment and retention of foster carers. Poor-performing and under-resourced children’s services departments will struggle to provide the level or continuity of social work support that foster families need. Millions of pounds of public money is being siphoned off in profit by private organisations and is not being spent on the wellbeing of vulnerable children.
Foster carers are clear about the things that make a difference. It is absolutely essential, and indeed acknowledged by the Government, that all the costs to foster carers of providing a placement should be covered in full. With that in mind, I ask the Minister how he calculated the new fostering allowance rates, which took effect at the beginning of this month. The allowance for looking after a two-year-old has gone up by £1 a week in London and not at all in the rest of England. The allowance for looking after a child aged 11 to 15 has gone up by just £5 a week. There is a cost of living crisis bearing down on families across the country, with food, fuel and energy costs all increasing rapidly, and inflation set to reach 9%. Can the Minister explain how he thinks such a paltry increase will help with the recruitment and retention of foster carers?
In addition to financial support, foster carers need to be able to access support in many other ways. Foster carers have told me that the continuity of relationships with social workers is vital, both for them and the children in their care. However, all too often they face a constant churn of new social workers, making it really hard to build relationships and trust and for practical support to be provided when needed.
Peer support is also vital. I would like to pay tribute to the Mockingbird constellation model developed by the Fostering Network, which builds networks of foster families in a local area who provide support for one another, replicating the benefits of a large, extended family for children and foster carers alike. Mental health support is also vital. Looked-after children have often suffered significant trauma and need to access therapeutic support. However, across the country, children are waiting months and even years for children and adolescent mental health services. The Government must fix CAMHS so that foster families can access mental health support as soon as their child needs it.
It is no exaggeration to say that we could not do without foster carers. They are absolutely critical to the role of the state as a corporate parent and to the tens of thousands of children for whom they provide a loving home. Foster carers urgently need more recognition for their vital role. Most importantly, the Government must urgently fix the crisis in children’s social care, so that foster care takes place within a system that can readily deliver the wider network of support that children and foster carers should be able to rely on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. First, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing a debate on this very important subject. I thank her for the constructive and collegiate way in which she presented the debate and for sharing her own personal experience—one I may call on in the future, if she will permit me.
Fosterers play a tremendously important role in the lives of so many looked-after children up and down our country. The hon. Member for Jarrow made a point about championing foster carers. We all have a responsibility to do that. Across the country, too few people know what foster caring actually involves. We all have a part to play in celebrating them and ensuring that those throughout our country understand the important role that they play.
It is the dedication and compassion of foster carers that ensures those children who are unable to live with their birth parents for a variety of reasons can find permanent and loving homes that will support them to reach their potential. I use the word “loving” intentionally. Only a handful of weeks ago I was in Cumbria, where I met with a foster carer who had provided a loving home for six or seven babies. She had pictures of every one on the wall. She keeps in contact with as many as want to. There was no question that in that household there was a huge amount of love for every single child she had fostered.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) for his incredibly powerful contribution—I apologise if I mispronounced his constituency. His message was clear: it is often about love. In too many cases, these children have not experienced that prior to the fostering placements.
I very much recognise the skill, patience and resilience that fostering requires. I pay tribute to all those who take on this hugely vital role. I am also clear that, in order to carry out that role, foster carers must be supported, valued and respected. The Government’s ambition is to have enough foster carers from a broad range of backgrounds and with the right potential to enable children to be placed with a carer who can meet their needs. It is vital that as many people as possible from every walk of life are encouraged to think about fostering. We must ensure that existing, experienced foster carers are valued and supported to continue providing the care that we know can make such a difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children up and down our country.
There have been so many brilliant contributions today. I will try to answer as many of the points as possible. The hon. Member for Jarrow made a very powerful opening contribution. I very much welcome a cross-party approach on this issue, where we are talking about some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in our country. I welcome all voices to this debate on how we can improve the system, not just for foster carers but also for the children in their care.
The hon. Lady made three asks of me. The first was about the Mockingbird strategy, which she rightly references—it is a hugely important peer-to-peer support programme. It is now in 36 local authorities and in development in a further 26, but of course I want to go further and faster on that, and I will touch on that point later.
The second point is the Fostering Network recommendation. I met the Fostering Network a little bit early on and I committed to meet its representatives again and hold a roundtable. I would be very happy for hon. Members who clearly have an interest in this area to join it, if the Fostering Network would be happy with that.
The third ask is on funding and allowances. I will look very closely at the recommendations of the independent review of children’s social care that is being led by Josh MacAlister and will report in the coming months.
I will turn briefly to the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). I visited his constituency recently, and we discussed this and other issues. Just in passing, I will, given that he is often one to issue challenges to others, challenge him back. If he does choose to enter the Potters half-marathon next year for the Fostering Network, I will join him in doing so. He has a year to prepare for that.
My ambition is for all children to experience safe, stable, loving and happy homes, so I want to help more people to understand fostering and to encourage more people from all backgrounds and communities to come forward to foster. At the heart of that is improving the number and diversity of foster carers. That will help to provide those strong, long-lasting placements that meet the needs of each and every individual child.
We have heard the Scottish perspective and the Northern Irish perspective. I will, if the House permits, focus on the English perspective, because we do have the independent review of children’s social care being led by Josh MacAlister; I meet Josh regularly. It recognises the need for change—the points that hon. Members across the Chamber have made today. I want us to be more ambitious. We have to encourage more people to step up to be foster carers—people who have not previously considered doing so. This is a once-in-a-generation review. It will be published in late spring. I know that Josh MacAlister has met and spoken with a number of people who have huge experience, both as foster carers and as care-experienced people, and I very much look forward to the recommendations. This is a very timely debate in that respect.
The role of foster carers is a unique one, as the hon. Member for Jarrow pointed out. We have to change the perception of foster carers that is out there. Foster care can be an emergency placement. It can be short; it can be long; it can be pretty much for the whole life of a child and young person. It can be for babies, teenagers or sibling groups. Every single instance of foster care is unique and different. Foster care offers children the opportunity to be part of a family when they cannot be with their birth parents for a multitude of reasons. Foster carers are not employees or workers. It is very much a loving family home that they provide—that support and nurturing in an environment that is as close as possible to a child’s own family.
In that respect, foster carers should be respected as critical members of the team and the support network for a child. They often know what is best for that child. Too often—not just in children’s social care, but more broadly—we do not adequately listen to the voices of children and young people. I say this as a parent myself, not that the children would always agree with me, but quite often I do know best, because I spend the most time with them and I spend that time listening to them. In that respect, we have to listen to the voices of foster carers and ensure that they are a very important part of the child’s life and that, when it comes to case reviews and meetings with social workers and others, their voice is heard loudly around that table. They are the experts and we should ensure that they are valued and supported.
The hon. Members for Jarrow and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) touched on the shortage of foster carers. Although data nationally shows that we have enough foster families to look after the children who need a home now, it does not give the full picture, as has rightly been pointed out. We have to ensure that there is the right foster place at the right time and in the right area, where it is actually needed. We do not want people to be travelling many miles away from their school, their wider family and their support networks.
There are other challenges, as has rightly been pointed out. The situation is difficult for some groups and cohorts of children, be they teenagers, sibling groups, children with special educational needs and disabilities, children with more complex needs, or, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who is no longer in her place, children from BAME communities. We therefore have to ensure a diversity of backgrounds. We also know that more children are entering the care system later, as teenagers, and those can be more challenging placements to find. I want local authorities and fostering services up and down our country to have a choice—to have a number of potential foster families—so that they can get the right placement for the right child that will best suit their needs.
The hon. Members for Jarrow and for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) rightly pointed to recruitment and retention. It is important to recruit the right people with the right skills, motivation and passion, and with the resilience needed to meet the often complex needs of those children. It can be challenging, there is no question about that.
To assist local authorities, we have put more than £1 million into seven local authority-led partnerships. That is to test new approaches to models of commissioning. We have invested in behavioural insight studies and distributed toolkits. However, there is no question that it is an ongoing challenge and that we need to engage. We will continue to engage closely with the sector to look at what more we need to do.
On applications and approvals, we know that the process can take six to eight months. That is too long—it feels long, instinctively—but we must also get it right. That is hugely important, not only for safeguarding, but to ensure there are high-quality placements that meet the needs of each and every individual child. Yes, there are regulations around checking accommodation and experience of care, having the children speaking with other household members and so on, and I would love to speed up the process, but it is more important to get it right.
Members have rightly referenced the difference in the number of expressions of interest and the actual number of successful applications. The figure of 160,000 was referenced, with 10,000 actual applications. However, we must be a little careful with that figure, because I understand that the 160,000 includes multiple applications and expressions of interest to multiple organisations. Nevertheless, this is clearly an area we need to look at very closely. The conversion rate certainly suggests there is much more that we can do.
Importantly, we must ensure that people are provided with support through the process so that where they are the right people, with the right skills and experience to be brilliant foster carers, they are not put off by delays and process, and, where necessary, their hands are held through that process. In that respect, I very much welcome today’s debate, so that, alongside the outcome of the independent care review, we can work together to identify some of the solutions to ensure that foster carers up and down the country feel prepared and supported as they start that fostering journey.
Support for foster carers was raised by a number of Members across the Chamber, and it is crucial that foster carers receive the support they need. That is underpinned by legislation and guidance in the Children Act 1989 in relation to local authorities. There is clear statutory guidance, whether that is through Fosterline, which is funded by the Department for Education, or Mockingbird, which we have discussed.
I have had conversations with Josh MacAlister, and there is no question that we must do more and go further, given the extent of the challenge we face in the coming months and years. We know there is a challenge and that we will need to step up to that. I look forward to the recommendations of the review.
I noticed that the Minister was coming to the last couple of pages of his notes, and I just wanted to ensure that he addressed the point about the independent fostering agencies that was put to him by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). Indeed, his colleague, the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), also made the very same point. That point is crucial, because those agencies are offering higher rates to a diminishing number of foster carers. That is putting an inflationary pressure on the whole system, which is feeding through to local authorities and making it extremely difficult for them to find the number of carers required. Can the Minister say specifically what he and the Department are doing to address that issue?
I was going to come on to that point, I promise, because it was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds). I am alive to the CMA report. It is something that Josh MacAlister and I have discussed at great length.
Like my hon. Friend, I am a Conservative; I have no issue with profit, as long as good quality services are being provided, leading to good outcomes—in fact, great outcomes—for children up and down our country. What I am not happy with is profiteering. What I see in areas of the children’s social care market sector is profiteering, and I am looking very closely at that. There are lots of reasons for it, with charities that exited the sector just a handful of years ago for all sorts of reasons—we are where we are, but we need a plan to address that, looking at it closely as part of the independent review of children’s social care. I will come to a close shortly, Mr Robertson; I am conscious that we ought to leave some time for the hon. Member for Jarrow to conclude.
On financial support, foster carers have a unique role. They are not employees, and I very much believe that no foster carer should be out of pocket due to their fostering role. There are clear national minimum standards, which is an allowance that covers the full cost of caring for a child. We set that, but most local authorities go considerably beyond it. It is uprated annually in line with inflation. Again, we are looking at that closely as part of the independent review of children’s social care, because we know that we need more social carers. I will look carefully at the outcome and the recommendations.
I thank the hon. Member for Jarrow for tabling this important debate. Being a foster carer can be hugely rewarding, but it is not easy, and we recognise that. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that those who want to offer a loving and stable foster home are encouraged and properly supported to do so. I will do all I can while in this role to raise the important role of foster carers, and I look forward to considering the outcomes of the recommendations that come from the independent review of children’s social care.
Foster carers often do not get the recognition they deserve. I want to put on record that they are hugely valued. They are incredible people. They make an enormous contribution to our society, and they should never underestimate the impact they have on some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in our country. I conclude by thanking every single one of them.
I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions. I also thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and the Minister for their comments. He rightly acknowledged the important role that foster carers play, and I welcome his intention to work with the Fostering Network and to look at the allowances. To allow foster carers from all backgrounds—as is necessary and has already been stated—to continue in their role, we have to have the correct support in place. I reiterate how much there needs to be a fully funded national fostering strategy. We have one in place for adoption, and we need one for fostering.
There is an urgent need to support fostering at a local level, with the appropriate funding and right structures regionally and nationally. We need to determine where different functions should sit depending on where they are most accountable and effective and bring the most innovation to children’s social care. There is also a need for a national fostering leadership board. The establishment of a fully funded national leadership board would provide visible leadership, drive forward the national strategy and provide oversight for the sector to ensure a co-ordinated, collaborative and strategic approach to support and drive improvements.
Fostering services and foster carers have long been under-supported, under-financed and undervalued. We now need to address these issues to make a real difference to foster carers, the many people who support them and, most importantly, the children and young people who desperately need and deserve the best from us all.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the recruitment and retention of foster carers.