[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for kinship carers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali, and introduce this important debate. I am grateful to have this opportunity to acknowledge and champion the thousands of grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and family friends who step up to support a child in crisis. With the Government due to respond to the independent review of children’s social care by the end of the year, this feels like a pivotal moment to recognise and unlock the role that family and friends can play in raising children who would otherwise be brought up in care.
I want to use this debate to commend to the Department for Education the proposals contained in my Kinship Care Bill, which I presented to Parliament earlier this year. Sadly, the day after I presented my Bill, the then Children’s Minister, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), resigned. I hope that today’s debate does not have the same impact on the new Minister, whom I welcome to her place. As the then Minister could not respond when I introduced my Bill, I look forward to hearing what the Minister present has to say today. I will touch on a range of issues that I brought up when my Bill was introduced and go a bit beyond that, too.
This is a big week for kinship care. Today, we have this debate. Tomorrow, I am hosting a reception to champion kinship carers and Kinship Week, which was earlier this month; I look forward to the Minister and the shadow Education Secretary, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), joining us. On Thursday, ITV will broadcast a documentary highlighting the struggles faced by grandparents who look after children whose parents are not able to care for them.
Members might wonder why I decided to champion this particular issue. The reason is plain and simple: it is because of the stories that some of my constituents have brought to me. I want to tell the story of Kim, who lives around the corner from me in my constituency and who was one of the first constituents to approach me during the first covid lockdown to highlight just how little support the family had.
Kim is a kinship carer to her grandchild, who sadly had a difficult start in life with her parents and maternal grandparents—Kim is her paternal grandmother. At one point, Kim and her husband found themselves literally holding the baby. When the family courts were considering the case, the judge very unusually took aside Kim’s husband and asked if they would be willing to apply for a special guardianship order for the child. The story of how their situation came about from the sidelines in a not particularly routine way is representative of how many kinship carers find themselves looking after children who have either lost a parent or whose parent is going through a difficult situation, meaning that they can no longer care for them.
Kim, who is self-employed, reduced her working hours to manage her childcare commitments. She was initially given an allowance, but it was means-tested. When her allowance was withdrawn, Kim and her husband challenged it, but it is now half of what she used to get, despite the fact that her costs have increased as her granddaughter grows older and her work income reduced through the pandemic.
Raising children is expensive. Over the past year, 89% of kinship carers reported that they were worried about their financial circumstances. Does the hon. Lady share my concerns that this kind of widespread financial stress will inevitably lead to negative impacts on the mental wellbeing of both carers and the children they are looking after?
Absolutely. There was a recent survey by the charity Kinship that showed the financial stress that many kinship carers found themselves under. The cost of living pressures that everyone faces are felt particularly acutely by kinship carers, who often find themselves looking after an additional member of their family without additional financial support. That survey showed that some kinship carers are struggling to pay their mortgage and even to put food on the table.
As I was saying, Kim had to remortgage her house, and accept financial help from friends and family, to afford the legal costs of applying for a special guardianship order. That was despite the fact that, as I have already mentioned, it was the family court judge who had made the suggestion of applying for the order. Kim’s granddaughter had a lot of mental health needs, and needed a lot of emotional and development support, but social services were very slow to provide that support. It was only after about a year that Kim was finally granted funding for some attachment therapy for her granddaughter through the adoption support fund. When I have talked to Kim about her situation, she described at length the damage that her granddaughter would sometimes cause to possessions in the house and to the house itself, and she would physically attack Kim and her husband, because of this attachment disorder. However, Kim had to fight to get support for therapy for that child. Kim says:
“On a personal level, we’ve had to give up our roles as grandparents and become her parents. We have done so gladly, but there are moments when we do grieve for those lost roles that we will never get back. Our grand-daughter is in our care until she turns 18 and we will be in our early and mid-seventies—not what we expected as we headed towards our older years.”
The sad irony is that Kim is actually one of the lucky ones, because her granddaughter was classified as “previously looked after”, so she was eligible for far more support, such as the adoption support fund money that funded the therapy, and pupil premium plus. That is much more than many other kinship carers receive.
Kim’s grandchild is one of perhaps more than 160,000 children across England and Wales who are cared for by someone who already knows and loves them. The numbers are quite sketchy. That is partly to do with the poor definitions, which I will touch on later, and the fact that we do not count how many people are in these sorts of arrangements.
We know that those who end up being looked after by somebody they know and love, as opposed to going into foster care or being cared for by someone they do not know, have equal or better mental health, education or employment chances than those children looked after by unrelated foster carers. Indeed, a child is over two and a half times more likely to live in three or more placement settings if they are in foster care than if they are in kinship care. The What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care found that kinship care placements are 2.6 times more likely to be permanent than unrelated foster care arrangements. Additionally, most people prefer kinship care to living with unrelated foster carers.
Despite the fact that we hear all of those statistics, which show better outcomes for children looked after by people who know them, kinship care is the Cinderella service of our social care system. It is less well understood than foster care, despite there being double the number of children in kinship care than there are in foster care. Kinship carers also receive only a fraction of the support received by foster carers or adoptive parents. That is why I introduced my Kinship Care Bill in July, which calls for kinship carers to be provided with three types of support, to put them on a par with the support that foster carers and adoptive carers receive. It proposes that kinship carers are provided with a weekly allowance, at the same level as the allowance for foster carers; it would give kinship carers the right to paid leave when a child starts living with them; and it would provide extra educational support for children in kinship care, by giving them pupil premium funding, and priority for their first choice of school, as which looked-after receive.
Earlier this year, I had an encouraging but brief discussion with the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Colchester, when he was Children’s Minister. During that brief conversation, he suggested that while the Government were broadly supportive of providing greater support to kinship carers, Ministers had two main concerns. The first was who should be regarded as a kinship carer—the definition issue that I pointed out—and the second was how the Department for Education could possibly persuade the Treasury to make the extra money available to pay for it. Sadly, the events of the past few weeks will probably ensure that that second part is a lot harder for the Minister to achieve.
The independent review of children’s social care recommends making weekly allowances and paid employment leave available to carers with either a special guardianship order or a child arrangements order where the child would otherwise be in care. That would begin to provide a definition of who should get some additional support; it would be a huge step forward, and I understand the logic of that approach. Kinship care arrangements with a legal order are less likely to deteriorate, with just one in 20 special guardianship orders dissolving before the child turns 18.
However, that narrow definition ignores the realities of most kinship care arrangements, where a close relative is phoned at short notice by the council warning that if they do not take the child now, they will go into local authority care. Those people do not have a legal order—at least initially—despite the council proposing the arrangement, yet they are then expected to cough up thousands of pounds of their own money to secure a special guardianship arrangement, as we heard in Kim’s story. The independent review of children’s social care noted that four in 10 families receive no help with the legal costs associated with becoming a kinship carer, spending on average more than £5,000. Moreover, denying support to close relatives using informal arrangements punishes families who have sorted out their situation themselves without getting the local authority involved at all.
The Government already have systems in place for identifying informal carers, which could be adapted. The Children Act 1989 provides a definition of privately fostered children: a person other than a close family member caring for a child for at least 28 days. Informal kinship carers are also exempt from the two-child limit on benefits if their social worker signs form IC1, so I encourage the Minister to reconsider the eligibility criteria for schemes such as pupil premium plus or the adoption support fund where support is only available to kinship children who were previously looked after by the local authority. Why is it that if a grandparent steps up when asked by the council to look after a child to prevent them going into care, they are then punished by the state for making that decision, whereas that child would have been entitled to extra support had they gone into care? It is a totally perverse incentive to allow the child to go into care in order to receive additional support.
Turning to the issue of financing support for kinship carers, my message to the Minister is this: the question is not whether her Department can afford to support kinship carers, but whether it can afford not to. The numbers speak for themselves. The independent review of children’s social care warns that on the current trajectory, more than 100,000 children will be in local authority care by 2032—a record high—and it will cost local authorities £5 billion more than it does now. On average, it costs £72,500 a year for a local authority to look after a child; by contrast, in 2021, it would have cost on average just shy of £37,000 to provide a child in kinship care with a social worker and a weekly allowance for their carers. Well-supported kinship care could therefore save the taxpayer over £35,000 per child a year. The Minister’s Department will be speaking to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the efficiency savings—otherwise known as cuts—that it will have to make, and I suggest that preventing children who could otherwise be looked after by a kinship carer from going into care is a very good efficiency saving.
Tomorrow, Kinship is launching its national campaign, “The value of our love”, to highlight how it makes sense to invest in kinship care. It delivers better outcomes and experiences for children by keeping them within their loving families, and is good value for the public purse. During the cost of living emergency, that support is needed more than ever. As has already been pointed out, Kinship’s 2022 financial allowances survey found that four in 10 kinship carers could not afford household bills, and one in four were struggling to afford food for their family.
I thank the hon. Member for all the outstanding work that she has done on this issue with her Bill. It is important that the issue of support for kinship carers, including many in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby, is discussed in the House today. Many families say that they feel invisible, undervalued, unimportant and ignored by the Government. Some 75% of kinship carers entered the cost of living crisis in severe financial hardship.
Important work is happening in Liverpool, with the kinship charter, which was developed with kinship families and has been finalised with local authorities so that they can adopt it. However, families urgently need change at a national Government level, so does the hon. Member agree that the Minister must make changes in law about the statutory duty, and provide the vital funding and support that kinship families need, so that we achieve the best possible outcome for families?
I congratulate Liverpool on the work that it is doing on this. I agree with the point that the hon. Member made on recognising kinship carers and providing them with additional support.
Returning to the Kinship financial allowances survey, it found that while seven in 10 special guardians received allowances, those were means tested, and fewer than one in 10 carers with no legal order received support. However, in more than two thirds of cases, those allowances were means tested and subject to regular reviews, unlike the allowances that foster carers receive. Kim’s story shows us that that really is precarious and depends on what the local authority is willing and able to fund. Given that local authority budgets have been cut to the bone, we need those national regulations and legislation in place to ensure that kinship carers get an equal amount of support, regardless of where they live.
Almost any kinship carer will say that it is a decision that they do not regret. One carer told the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care:
“The decision to become a kinship carer has cost me £180,000 plus in terms of pension benefits etc. I would do it again, my grandson is worth every penny.”
The independent review of children’s social care is due to receive a response by the end of this year. While I do not agree with everything in that review, its recommendations around kinship care could mark a step change in the support that we provide for kinship carers, and would recognise the value of the love and support that they give to children.
I urge the Minister not to miss this important opportunity to step up for the kinship carers who step up for children, sometimes in the most dire circumstances, at zero notice. The Government talk a lot about levelling up; it is about not just geography but different groups of people in society. They also talk about the importance of the family; there is no better example of how families really step up than when the chips are down and a child desperately needs that help.
Kinship carers have been overlooked for far too long, so I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to provide us not just with words of encouragement but with some actions to follow, by responding to those recommendations from the independent review and indeed going beyond that. Every child, no matter their background, deserves the opportunity to flourish, and we know that those who had a troubled start in life are much more likely to flourish in kinship care than those who end up looked after by a foster carer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. It is also a pleasure to see the new Minister in her place. I wish her well.
I start by sincerely thanking the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), not only for securing today’s important Westminster Hall debate, but for her tireless work on this subject. I know that kinship carers across the country are very grateful for the voice she gives to this cause. I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care and as a kinship carer myself. As many hon. Members will know, my wife Allison and I care for our extraordinary three-and-a-half-year-old grandson Lyle. Soon after Lyle was born, it became clear that his birth parents would be unable to care for him, and Allison and I went through the family court before securing a special guardianship order. That is a heavily truncated version of the story, which spares listeners the seemingly endless legal wranglings, anxiety, confusion, fear and frustration that the vast majority of kinship carers will understand. At the end of the process to become a kinship carer, provided there is a positive outcome, those carers will be left caring for a child that they will love unconditionally, but the process itself is nothing short of traumatising.
I could spend hours talking about my experience, and many more hours sharing the experiences of people I have spoken to in my capacity as APPG chair. Instead, I will reiterate some key figures, which speak to the current state of the child welfare system. The independent review of children’s social care in England projects that there will be nearly 100,000 children in care in England by 2032. Unless we implement the systematic change that families are crying out for, the system will be overwhelmed. Personally, I think that ship has sailed. Provision for looked-after children living with unrelated foster carers or in residential homes is already extremely stretched.
Local authorities routinely place children in accommodation far away from their families and their support networks. I am sure many hon. Members will have read the recent BBC story about the shocking decision to place one 12-year-old boy 100 miles away from his siblings and school. That is just not acceptable. We need to utilise family support networks, and to incentivise kinship care. We are not doing either of those things, and children and families are suffering as a result.
As many hon. Members know, poverty is an enormous issue for kinship carers. Research by the Family Rights Group points to the fact that 75% of kinship carers experience severe financial hardship. Almost half of them—49%—are forced to leave their jobs to provide adequate care for children, many of whom have complex needs arising from trauma, as the hon. Member for Twickenham set out in her opening speech. It is worth noting that, because of the cost of living crisis, those figures will only get worse unless more is done to support kinship carers. I would be grateful if the Minister recognised in her response the dire financial situation that many kinship carers find themselves in, and outlined what the Government plan to do to reverse that worrying trend.
Another issue is the legal system. A scarcity of legal aid, combined with a system that can generously be described as convoluted, means that many kinship carers literally do not know where to turn for help. There is also little regard for how the process can further split families that are already under enormous emotional and financial pressure. That was highlighted in the all-party parliamentary group’s recent legal aid inquiry, which I was proud to chair.
We need to see better access to information, support networks and support services for kinship carers. Make no mistake: empowering kinship care has benefits far beyond improving the lives of children and those who care for them. The charity Kinship estimates that for every reduction of 1,000 in the number of children looked after in local authority care, up to £40 million is saved. Put simply, the moral benefits of supporting kinship care are matched by the economic case for supporting kinship care.
Allison and I were lucky enough to be in a financial position to seek the requisite legal support. It was costly. Even with that support, the experience was totally overwhelming. It impacted our work and caused immense emotional strain. As an aside, it would be nice to see the Houses of Parliament—this House of Commons—take a lead. When the social services stork dropped a baby at our front door, there was no provision for me to take paternity leave, because I was not the father. I was the grandfather—the kinship carer. That is crazy, and it shows how much the system has to change. My wife, a local councillor, literally had to arrange her entire diary around the care of a new baby for whom we had not planned. It caused enormous problems with her work, and enormous strain for both of us.
But I would do it all again, of course. That is just the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham. She is my friend: out goes the etiquette in this debate. All kinship carers do it because they love their families. They love their grandchildren, nephews or nieces. They want to support the family, and to support that young child. Should people have to go through all that we went through just to care for a child whom they love so dearly? I do not think anyone in this Chamber would say that they should. We need comprehensive change.
The Minister will no doubt be aware that the independent review of children’s social care made a number of far-reaching proposals, including an extension of legal aid to more kinship carers, an entitlement to kinship employment leave and a single legal definition of kinship care to improve recognition and access to support. The Department for Education indicated that it is considering those recommendations, and will publish an implementation strategy later this year—there is not much of this year left.
In her response, will the Minister provide more information about the strategy? When will it be published? Are all the recommendations relating to kinship care being considered? Is there any way she can expedite the response, to provide clarity to kinship carers? There needs to be a sense of urgency. Every day that passes without action from Government is another day when carers try to navigate an emotional and legal labyrinth. That hurts families. It hurts the childcare system. It hurts children, who deserve to be looked after in a caring, safe and supportive environment. Minister, it is time for that change.
What a pleasure it is to speak in this debate, Ms Ali. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) put forward a very concrete case, not that she had to do that for me—I was already on her side. I think we all are. She outlined the detail of kinship care and how important it is. It is something in which I have a particular interest. This is an opportunity to express the views that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) put forward. I thank him for sharing his story. He and his wife gave that young child a chance in life; without their love and affection, who knows where that young child would be today?
I am pleased to see the Minister in her place; we have had many engagements in the past. When she was responsible for high streets, we had her over to Newtownards and she was most responsive to our enquiries. Even now, that visit is still talked about very favourably by the people the Minister met. I look forward to her response to this debate because, looking at her past responses, I am certain that she will be every bit as positive as she was when she came to Newtownards.
I am well known as an advocate for kinship care. I believe that knowing they are part of a family means something to a child, even if circumstances sometimes mean they cannot be with their mummy and daddy. Having a familial bond with a loving care family is helpful. I am shocked by what the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said—that one 12-year-old boy was located 100 miles away from his siblings. My goodness! The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and I were just saying that we could hardly believe that. Why would they do that? Surely the sibling bond is important to keep going, and siblings should be kept together.
Over the years, I have had some good friends who have fostered and given kinship care. One lady in Newtownards, whom I know very well, fostered all her life; I was always amazed because she gave young boys and girls an opportunity to have a loving family relationship. Sometimes those young people came from very challenging circumstances. It is not always a bed of roses being a foster or kinship carer.
I also have an extremely good friend who has been my friend for all of my life—he is younger than me, so I should say all of his life—and who fosters five children. He tells me now and again some of the things that happen. Some of those children come from very disturbed homes; they come from a background where love was never there. When they come to a new home, they find a mum and dad, and also a number of siblings from different families who love and care for each other. Kinship care provides an incredible chance to give an opportunity to young people.
I always give a Northern Ireland perspective—the Minister and others will know that—and we have a very high rate of kinship care there. On 30 March 2021, 81% of children who were being looked after—2,857 children—were living with foster carers. Of that number, 1,400 were in non-kinship foster care; 1,457 were in kinship foster care—an even break in the numbers. In Northern Ireland, we are still eagerly trying to encourage others to take up the opportunity of foster and kinship care, because there are still many children who do not have a parent to look after them, or a mummy and daddy—be that biological or not—to give them the love that they need.
Those numbers show a high level of families who want to help out in the short term, and even in the long term. The 81% represents children who are in kinship foster care and non-kinship foster care, but it leaves 19% who do not have anybody. An interesting statistic that I came across, which poses a challenge in a factual but hopefully compassionate way, is that 25% of children of compulsory school age who were looked after continuously for 12 months or more had a statement of special educational needs. That compares with only 6% of the general school population.
As the hon. Gentleman has just said, many children in those arrangements do have additional support needs. That can be difficult for carers if both the carer and the child do not have access to the right support. Health services are under a massive strain across the UK at the moment with long wait times, but formal diagnosis can often be the key to accessing the right services for ongoing support. Does he agree that this is an area that must be reviewed urgently?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward something very pertinent to the debate, as she so often does in Westminster Hall and the Chamber. I wholeheartedly agree with everything she said. It is really important that these issues are addressed.
The figure of 25% of children in kinship and foster care having special educational needs compares to the figure among the general population of just 6%. That tells us—or should tell us, as the hon. Lady has just said—that something needs to be done. When she sums up, can the Minister give us some indication of how the extra help that is clearly needed can be given?
People can give love—mums and dads do that, foster carers and kinship carers do that—but sometimes, no matter how hard people want to love, it can be challenging. It is important that the extra help is given. It is not always an easy decision to bring a new family member into the home. It can be a disruption to one’s own family and children. In life, I try never to judge anybody, so I never judge a grandparent, aunt or uncle who simply cannot make it work, because it sometimes does not work, and sometimes the reason for that is that they are on their own.
People who are able to foster should be encouraged and should know that they are not alone—in other words, there is somebody there who they can talk to. There are support networks and social workers, and there is financial help to make it work if at all possible. I am ever mindful of that. Sometimes a problem shared is a problem halved. Quite often it helps just being able to bounce off somebody and talk about what something means. The hon. Members for Twickenham and for Denton and Reddish referred to how important it is to have someone just to share things with. I think it is probably the same with all of life. It is always good to share something with someone. I think it always helps to talk issues through if at all possible.
In this cost of living crisis, I would like to think that carers will be given a bit more to help, so that additional strain is not placed on the family unit’s finances. We are here to underline these issues. I would ask the Minister in a kind way, not to be negative, for a response that can encourage us. Will there be a cost of living payment to kinship families to help with the additional pressure of groceries and petrol increases? All these things are a substantial part of fostering and kinship care. Bringing other people into the family unit adds pressure, and we need to ensure that financial stress is not part of the equation. How often in life do financial bills seem to overwhelm us all? Our constituents tell us that they place such a burden that they are unable to focus on the love, care and affection they want to give.
As of April 2022, foster carers receive £141 a week for a child aged nought to four, £156 for a child aged five to 10, £177 for a child aged 11 to 15, and £207 for those aged 16 and over. That does not seem to take into account the additional cost of living increase. Some may say that the house needs to be heated whether there are one or five people in the house, but anyone who has a teenager knows that heating the water for a daily shower can require a mortgage itself. I say that jokingly. I had three young boys, and they were always showering. They were always chasing the ladies—I suppose that was the reason. They always wanted to look well, and their hair had to be in place. They are lucky; my hair disappeared 20-odd years ago and it has never come back, but that is by the bye.
I am asking that more help be temporarily allocated to the kinship allowance in the light of the crisis we are all in. It is easy for us to always ask for something, but we are asking on behalf of the kinship and foster carers who do such fantastic work. We have all heard the statistics on the outcomes for children who are looked after, who are not always as well placed as children who are in their own family units, and I understand that, but what carers try to do is make the home and its surroundings easier for those children to settle into.
Through no fault of their own the odds are stacked against these children, and we have a duty to do all we can to place them with family members in their own communities. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said, we should not send one sibling 100 miles away; that should never happen, and it annoys me to think that it did—I am sure the trauma that all the siblings went through as a result was quite substantial. Kinship fostering is absolutely vital to enable their little lives to continue, including their schooling and the friendship groups and friends that they have made and that the might suddenly lose.
I conclude with this: the debate has given us an opportunity to highlight the issue, to raise awareness of where we are and to bring together all the detail, information and evidence, while hearing about the personal involvement of the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish and for Twickenham, who set the scene so well. I look forward to hearing the SNP shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is a dear friend of mine and who knows this subject well—we will certainly hear some important words from him shortly. I also look forward to hearing the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). Then it is over to the Minister, who will have to answer all those questions in a way that will encourage us. I am pretty sure I will not be disappointed, but it is important that we do all we can to offer more help and better outcomes to vulnerable children. It is worth any investment that it takes to provide additional support for those who take on children to make their lives just that wee bit more settled.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. It is also a great pleasure to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I have often raised eyebrows back home in my constituency when I have explained that one of my best friends in this place is a Democratic Unionist party MP from Northern Ireland—but less on that, I suspect.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate. It will come as no surprise that this is not one that my party would normally have sent a speaker along to; I do not think it was planning to do so this time, because of the devolved nature of the issue, but I intimated to our Whips Office that I was keen to come along and support the debate, for reasons I will explain in a moment. The hon. Lady was right to talk about some of the support that perhaps was not offered during covid-19. Clearly, arrangements for kinship carers will vary in different parts of the UK, but it would be churlish for any of us to think we managed to support kinship carers properly during the pandemic, in particular. I have seen quite a lot of casework coming through my constituency that shows that the legacy and the impact are still there.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). I have known about the situation with his grandson for quite a while now. I remember when I came to this place in 2017 having been a fresh-faced researcher—I am certainly not fresh-faced anymore, after five years here—and how surprised I was that he was actually a grandfather, because I did not think he was old enough. Hearing him recount some of his story was not only genuinely moving, but a reminder of that.
The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to talk about the link to poverty. In my constituency, which lazy newspapers such as The Guardian characterise based on things they saw 20 years ago, there is no doubt that there are still challenges, particularly around poverty. Again, it is no coincidence that there is a relationship between poverty and a high number of kinship carers, particularly in the Easterhouse area of my constituency—there is a clear correlation there. He was also spot on to talk about some of the challenges that he and his wife Allison faced, particularly in juggling their work.
One of the immense frustrations I have had, particularly in this Session of Parliament, has been the lack of an employment Bill. We have done some really good stuff through private Members’ Bills—whether on neonatal leave or the allocation of tips—but we are doing a lot of piecemeal stuff in legislation when it comes to supporting people in employment, and particularly those who have different responsibilities. We have not done enough on maternity leave and miscarriage leave, or on the point raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. I appreciate that employment rights are no longer in the Minister’s domain, although they were at one point, but it would be good if she could take back to her colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy some of the points about caring responsibilities and how they are juggled.
The main reason I wanted to come to the debate today is based on my five years as a constituency MP, and I have mentioned the high number of kinship carers in my constituency. I am not here to do a sales pitch on behalf of the Scottish Government—according to my colleagues, they get everything right and nothing wrong, which is clearly daft—but I do want to pay tribute to the local organisations in my constituency. I had the pleasure about five years ago of running the marathon to raise money for East End Community Carers, which is in the same building as my constituency office. As my staff and I go in and out doing our surgeries, I never cease to be amazed by a lot of the families that come in—grandparents, aunties and uncles. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish is absolutely right: these people never expected to be in that position.
When we leave this place and go back to our constituencies, we often say what a hard week it has been, but kinship carers do not have that luxury or the ability to just switch off. There is a much wider conversation that we should have about the provision of respite. Far too often, local authorities think, “That person is a kinship carer. They’re sorted now.” If we reframe how we look at this, we realise that kinship carers, foster carers and many other people are saving the state a hell of a lot of money by stepping in and providing support. That must be recognised by Governments as well.
North of the border, kinship carers get the same allowance as foster carers. The kinship care allowance recognises the importance of kinship care. It is a really difficult thing to do, especially when money is tight, so we need to look at the financial support there.
I want to round off by mentioning another couple of charities. Glasgow North East Carers is led by Jean McInaw up in Easterhouse, an area where there is quite a high number of kinship carers. The final organisation that I want to commend in this place is Geeza Break. For those not well versed in the vernacular of Glaswegian, that is “Give us a break.” Geeza Break has been working for 30 years—this year is its 30th anniversary. It is led by Doreen Paterson, the chief executive, who I am privileged to count not just as a key stakeholder in my constituency but as a real friend. The work that Doreen and her team do all year round supporting kinship carers—last year they supported 428 families—is amazing.
I am sick, tired and fed up with having to write funding support letters for such organisations, when many of them should be a commissioned service. That will not please some of my colleagues back home, but those organisations are doing a tremendous job to support kinship carers, who do an invaluable job. We need to stop putting them up for funding once every year and to perhaps look at using them as a commissioned service.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate and on the work she does to raise the profile of kinship carers and the issues they face.
I want to put on record that, until late last year, I was an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). In the work of that group I met kinship carers regularly and was involved in the parliamentary taskforce on kinship, which made recommendations on the ways in which Government policy and practice should be changed to support kinship carers. I am grateful to all the hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate.
I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, who spoke so movingly about his own experience as a kinship carer and on behalf of the APPG and kinship carers across the country about the poverty and intensely stressful processes that kinship carers have to endure. I have said it before in this Chamber and I will say it again today: little Lyle is very lucky to have such a wonderful grandad.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke of the willingness of families to step up and care for children who need support if only they can be supported better to do so, and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who paid tribute to voluntary sector organisations in his community that work to support kinship carers. I am sure all of us would want to recognise the work of such organisations across the country, which—as he rightly said—often step into the breach and into the spaces where public services really ought to be. I pay tribute to kinship carers across the country, who step in to look after a child when a family member or friend is unable to do so, and to the Family Rights Group, the charity Kinship and the Kinship Care Alliance, who work to support kinship carers and advocate on their behalf.
Recently, during Kinship Care Week, I was glad to have the opportunity to meet an amazing group of kinship carers, and I am grateful to Kinship for arranging that meeting. It is always humbling to meet kinship carers. Everyone in the group I met wanted, first and foremost, to convey their unconditional love for the children they look after and the joy and pride they receive from being able to play a part in their lives, but they wanted to talk about the challenges too. Every single person in that group had had to give up work or reduce their hours to look after the children in their care. One had taken retirement and used her pension lump sum to provide for the everyday needs of her grandchildren. She spoke about her commitment to ensure that one grandson could keep on doing football, which he loved and which helped him to deal with some of the other challenges he faced, but football comes at a cost that simply cannot be covered from her regular income.
Another carer told me that contact arrangements had been really challenging, but when she approached her local authority for support, she was told that it regarded them as private and that it had no role to play. One told me how difficult it had been for her grandchild when they were making the transition to secondary school, but no additional support had been available. A fourth spoke movingly of the trauma the children she cares for have been through and of her fears for the long-term impacts it will have.
All those women were doing what the vast majority of us would do if a cherished niece, nephew, grandchild or child of a close friend was at risk of being taken into care; they were doing it gladly, but they really needed more help and support. Some 180,000 families across the country are in the same situation: they have stepped in to care for the children of a family member or close friend, but they find that enormous personal sacrifice and considerable extra cost are involved, with little meaningful support.
In thinking about the needs of kinship carers, we must also look at the reasons why the number of children who are unable to be cared for by their birth families is increasing. The Family Rights Group has highlighted the erosion in early help and support for vulnerable families. More than 1,300 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010, a loss that is not nearly matched by the paltry commitment to open family hubs in just 75 locations. The National Children’s Bureau estimates that Government the funding available to councils for children’s services fell by 24% between 2010 and 2020, and the pandemic is likely to have made it even harder for councils to offer early intervention for families. Now we are once again faced with the spectre of public sector cuts, which will most likely fall on local authorities up and down the country. The failure of this Government to ensure that early help is always available to the most vulnerable families, wherever in the country they live, has a direct bearing on the extent to which families are able to overcome challenges and avoid a crisis in which it becomes unsafe or impossible for children to remain with their parents.
Kinship carers are an essential part of the way in which our society looks after children. They deliver outcomes for children that are as good as, and often better than, foster care or children’s homes, and for a fraction of the cost. This Government have been failing children and their families for 12 long years now. It is absolutely right that the independent review of children’s social care included a focus on kinship care and set out recommendations for ways in which the system can be improved to provide more support to kinship carers. However, nothing will change until the Government set out their response to the independent review and their implementation plan for reform of children’s social care. I welcome the Minister to her place, but it is very hard to see how a Government so mired in a crisis of their own making will be able to find the space and time to prioritise the needs of vulnerable children. However, I hope they do.
During her first Prime Minister’s Question Time, responding to my question, the Prime Minister committed to publish a response to the independent review and an implementation plan before the end of the year. I hope the Minister will set out today how that will be brought forward for full scrutiny by the House, so that the reform that is so urgently needed to support vulnerable children and their families, including kinship carers, can be delivered with urgency. Labour put children first when we were in government. I can assure the House that we will do so again. In this place, the very least we owe kinship carers up and down the country for the job they do on our behalf of caring for the most vulnerable children is not to leave it a moment longer to deliver the reform they need.
It is a great honour to be here today responding on behalf of the Government in my new role. I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing what is an important debate. I agree 100%. Also, I have never had the opportunity to say this directly to him, but let me say in my role here that what the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and his wife Allison have done for their grandchild is just fantastic and to be commended. He is a fine example of how kinship can work, so well done.
All hon. Members who have joined today’s debate will agree that kinship carers are an untapped and undervalued asset. Their value to the children’s social care system and the lives of children up and down the country cannot be overstated. A fortnight ago, we celebrated national Kinship Care Week, which recognised the important role that such carers play in children’s lives. As part of those celebrations, we invited a group of kinship carers into the Department to hear their stories and inform the work we are doing to produce a children’s social care implementation strategy by the end of the year. I also wish to thank the APPG for the work it has done in this area, as well as charities such as Kinship and other organisations in the sector, which have been doing so much for this cohort of carers.
Hon. Members may be aware that I have a deep personal connection to this issue. My own sister is a social worker, and I have been an independent visitor for a looked-after child for many years. I have seen many children thrive in the care system but then face significant challenges when they reach the age of 18 and are often left with few loving relationships to sustain them throughout adulthood. Kinship care can be the antidote to a lifetime of isolation and loneliness. It allows young people to remain safely rooted within family networks and local communities, which provide us with the mental, emotional and physical support we all need. The need for family and community was acutely demonstrated during the recent covid-19 pandemic.
I am passionate about improving the lives of children. That is why I was honoured to become the Minister for Schools and Childhood last month. Supporting kinship care is a route to ensuring that all children have the opportunity to grow up in a loving, safe and stable environment and to maximise their potential. I welcome the opportunity to set out what we are doing as a Government to make that vision a reality.
This year, we have seen the publication of three reviews that, in their own way, call for a reset of the children’s social care system. As we know, they were the independent review of children’s social care, the national child safeguarding practice review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson and a report by the Competition and Markets Authority into the children’s social care market. In Prime Minister’s questions on 7 September, in response to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), the Prime Minister told the House that the Government would publish a response to those landmark reviews before the end of the year. We are still committed to that timeline, and that has been a major part of my work since being appointed to the Department. Hon. Members will understand that I cannot give full details of the response today, but I am glad to be able to update the House on the progress so far.
First, we have established a national implementation board, which will include people with lived experience of the care system and leaders who have experience of implementing transformational change. The board will oversee a programme to reform children’s social care. Secondly, we have made early progress on commitments that the Government made when the independent review of children’s social care was published earlier this year. On Thursday 6 October, we launched the data and digital solutions fund, to help local authorities to unlock progress for children and families through the better use of technology. That includes a project to better understand data on kinship care, and to scope options for improving its use.
Perhaps most importantly in the context of this debate, the independent review of children’s social care shone a spotlight on successive Governments’ lack of focus on kinship care and the children who live with kinship carers. The review made seven specific recommendations, which sought to prioritise and improve support for kinship carers and children, and we will respond to those in the upcoming children’s social care implementation strategy. Although I cannot announce the detail of the response today, I can commit that kinship care will be front and centre. It will get the focus and backing from Government that it deserves in the years to come. Our response will address many of the issues raised by hon. Members today, including the hon. Member for Twickenham—hopefully including financial support, entitlements for kinship carers and the creation of a new definition of kinship care, which was a specific recommendation made by the review.
Kinship carers play a vital role in looking after children who cannot be cared for by their birth parents. There are over 150,000 children in England living in kinship care, many of whom would be in local authority care if those families had not stepped in. It is clear that more needs to be done to build a system in which every child’s right to a family is safeguarded. We must give all children an opportunity to grow up in a loving kinship home when that is in their best interests and when they cannot be safely looked after by their parents.
Some local authorities already make greater use of kinship care placements than others. The proportion of children in care placed in kinship foster care ranges from 4% in some local authorities to 39% in others. It cannot be right that children’s opportunities to live with their families are based on their postcode, and I will use the response to the care review to begin to address that disparity.
Children growing up in kinship care achieve better outcomes than their peers who grow up in care. That includes achieving better GCSE results on average, and having a greater chance of being in employment than children who grow up in foster or residential care.
In my contribution, I referred to two figures. Some 28% of those in kinship care are educationally challenged—to use that terminology—as against a national average of 6%, which is a real anomaly. The figures to which the Minister referred are greatly encouraging, but can she confirm what extra assistance is available for kinship carers who are looking after young children who are educationally challenged?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We need also to look at this through the lens of our work in the Green Paper on special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision. In my experience, this issue affects not just children in kinship arrangements but looked-after children. My focus throughout this whole process is achieving better outcomes for children. That will always be front and centre of all decisions and all information that I receive.
Despite the good outcomes for children in kinship care, they still lag behind those children who have never had involvement with children’s services. There is much more to do, with greater Government focus and close collaborative working with local authorities, schools and colleges. I am convinced that we can reduce that gap.
As hon. Members will no doubt recognise, the theme underpinning many of my points today is that we have made progress but far more remains to do. Last year we announced £1 million of new funding to deliver high-quality peer support groups for kinship carers across the country. We know that becoming a kinship carer for the first time is often a frightening and bewildering experience, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish illustrated.
The support of peers can act as a beacon to help people through. Those support groups are already building powerful communities and enabling kinship carers to connect with those in similar situations. The Government recently confirmed that we will invest a further £1 million next year to ensure that more than 100 peer support groups are established across the country by January 2024.
Hon. Members have raised with me, including in this debate, the issue of educational entitlement for children in kinship care. That area is important to me, and I recognise how much has been done, but there is more to do. Since 2018, virtual school heads and designated teachers have had a responsibility to promote the educational achievement of pupils who leave state care to live with an adopter or special guardian. Children who live with special guardians and were previously looked after by the state are eligible for the pupil premium, as the hon. Member for Twickenham outlined.
Kinship children who were not previously looked after but had been entitled to free school meals, at any point over the past six years, attract the pupil premium funding. We constantly review that and assess the effectiveness of the pupil premium, to ensure that it supports pupils facing the most disadvantage. Last year we consulted on changes to school admission codes to improve in-year admissions. Children in formal kinship care were in scope of those changes, which mean that kinship carers can secure an in-year school place for their child when they are unable to do so via other means. Those new measures came into force on 1 September 2021.
Finally, children living with special guardians who have previously been in state care can access therapeutic support via the adoption support fund, which has already been outlined. This year, we have also made that support available to those children who live with relatives under child arrangements orders. We are looking to improve local authorities’ engagement with the adoption support fund, to increase the proportion of eligible kinship carers who apply.
As hon. Members have eloquently outlined, I recognise the strain that kinship families are under, and will continue to work collaboratively with local areas to ensure that children, young people and families have access to the support they need to respond to the cost of living pressures. I am committed to supporting kinship carers. The independent review of children’s social care recommended a financial allowance for carers looking after children under a child arrangements order and those looking after children under a special guardianship order. My Department is considering each recommendation, and will respond by the end of the year.
I wanted to be part of this debate, but I had two meetings about my private Member’s Bill next week, so I could not be here at the beginning, for which I apologise. I wanted to implore the Minister, in considering the financial issues, to reflect on a situation in my constituency, where the grandmother ended up having to look after the grandchildren while the parents were having issues. The problem was that she had to spend her own money, and she did not have a lot of it. When we asked social services, they said, “Only if we place the children in her care will she get some financial funding, but not until then.” For weeks and weeks, nothing happened. This issue may have been discussed, but I wanted to raise it.
I know that the hon. Lady is passionate about this area, and I recognise what she has illustrated. The stories that Members have told in this debate have alluded to similar pressures that they have come across in their constituency casework, and it is something that I have seen at first hand, prior to becoming a Member of Parliament. Given that we recognise the value of kinship carers, we are taking the recommendations very seriously, and I am doing my best to show that the Government are committed to looking at this area and taking reasonable decisions.
Kinship carers often develop strong bonds with children who have just entered their homes, and taking leave from work could play a role by giving those carers time to do so. There is currently a range of Government support for such carers and employers, and some employers provide significant support to employees without a legal requirement to do so. We would encourage employers to continue to respond with this flexibility, but we will be considering the case for extending parental leave to kinship carers as part of our response to the independent review of children’s social care later this year and—I hear the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—when I speak to my successors in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on this topic.
I also recognise the importance of making informed choices about the legal status of children entering the homes of kinship carers. The Ministry of Justice laid a statutory instrument yesterday to make legal aid available for special guardianship orders in private family proceedings, which will help prospective special guardians to get advice and assistance on the order before processing. My Department is working closely with colleagues in the MOJ on implementing the recommendations from the social care review, and on giving access to legal aid to some kinship carers.
Today’s debate has rightly focused on some real issues that we know kinship carers face. My hope is that we will be able to respond to the concerns and recommendations with the implementation strategy by the end of the year. I am absolutely committed to that, and to listening to and learning from kinship carers, who make the selfless decision to care for a child who cannot safely remain with their parents. I look forward to working with them and all hon. Members on this important issue, because it is important not only for many of us across this Chamber, but for our country and for how young people develop and thrive in the United Kingdom.
I thank everybody who has participated in the debate. Like everybody else, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). He and his wife’s story is inspirational, and Lyle is a very lucky little boy. I thank the hon. Member for what he is doing, and I thank kinship carers up and down this country. As has been pointed out, they are doing an amazing job and helping so many children to have life chances that they would not otherwise have, as well as saving the taxpayer a huge amount of money.
Although I set out the short-term economic case in terms of the cost savings that could be achieved, the hon. Member talked about the moral benefits and the long-term economic case. We hear this so often about children and young people. It depresses me that Government policy so often does not think long-term enough. Under the “invest to save” argument, we invest early in our children and young people. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), talked about early intervention and ensuring that we are really investing in those vulnerable families so that we prevent a lot of the challenges further down the line.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is always in every single debate—I do not know how he does it—in particular for shining a light on the additional needs of many of those in kinship care, and indeed in all types of care, as the Minister pointed out. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for pointing out the important work of charities working on the ground and for stressing the connection between poverty and kinship care. The data shows us that kinship carers are disproportionately those from the most disadvantaged families and from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, so there is all the more reason for us to provide them with the right financial support. As the shadow Minister said, we must not lose sight of these issues amidst this political turmoil.
I was encouraged to hear some of the things the Minister said today. I thank her for her work and for her sister’s work in supporting children in care. I know that the Minister cannot make any firm commitments today; clearly, she cannot announce anything. However, I was encouraged that she referenced the fact that the Government’s response will talk about financial support and definitions of kinship carers, and the fact that extending parental leave is on the table. A lot of the language was clearly very hedged—she said that these things will be considered and there will be a response. I hope that the response is positive, in terms of both the money and the leave available to those carers. I welcome the news that an SI was laid yesterday for legal aid for those seeking a special guardianship order. We are slowly edging in the right direction.
I thank the Minister for the work she is doing, but I urge her to continue to be a champion for children and young people. They are often the ones who suffer the most when we are in economic and financial turmoil. They have suffered the most through the pandemic, and they suffer the most when there is an economic downturn. It is incumbent on all of us as elected Members to be their voice here. Children and young people have neither a vote nor a voice, so it is up to us to be their voice.
My Bill had cross-party support, so I am really disappointed that there are no Back-Bench Conservative Members present. However, I know there is support across the House for these measures, and I look forward to working with all Members and the Minister to make some of those recommendations a reality.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for kinship carers.