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Support for Kinship Carers

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of support for kinship carers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate and by welcoming the many kinship carers who are here listening. The last two times that I led a debate on kinship care, the Children’s Minister resigned shortly after—literally within days—but in an exciting plot twist, this time the Children’s Minister got a promotion the week before, so perhaps things are looking up for the new Minister. I welcome him to his place.

On a serious note, I launched this campaign in Parliament in July last year and the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) is the fourth Children’s Minister I have engaged with on this issue since then. I know that his brief covers so many important areas. I really hope, for the sake of our country’s children, that we will get some stability now and that we will be able to progress—on opposite sides of the Chamber, and also by working together on some of the critical issues facing children up and down the country. I know that the Minister has an extensive and long-standing interest in children’s policy, so I look forward to seeing him hit the ground running. We are all looking to him to ensure that the upcoming kinship care strategy will be delivered before the end of the year, as his Department has promised.

The last debate that I led on this issue was in this Chamber 11 months ago. I set out many of the themes and issues that are in my ten-minute rule Bill from July last year, so I want to focus on the upcoming strategy as well as revisiting some of the themes that we have talked about consistently.

I acknowledge some of the progress that has been made over the last year in getting the Government to acknowledge kinship. In their response to Josh MacAlister’s independent review of children’s social care—the Government document was called “Stable Homes, Built on Love”—we finally saw an acknowledgement by Government of kinship and kinship carers. In the document, there was recognition that

“kinship care has received little national policy attention”

and that

“too little support is given to extended family members who play a caring role for their young relatives.”

When the previous Children’s Minister made the statement in the House of Commons, I was really heartened by the number of Members on both sides of the House who spoke about kinship care. It was the first time that I had heard so much attention given to this important issue, which has too often been overlooked.

The MacAlister review was the crucial moment in putting kinship carers on the map, kick-starting what has happened. It recognised that, with the right help, housing a child in crisis with family or friends they know and love will often be the best outcome for them. We know that, every year, thousands of grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and family friends step up in this way, and they do so instinctively, out of love, despite the huge personal sacrifice involved. We know that children in kinship care have equal or better mental health, education and employment chances than looked-after children. With my Bill, I sought to press the Government to implement several of the MacAlister review’s recommendations.

I am delighted that, since then, kinship carers have shared their stories numerous times on breakfast TV and local radio. An ITV documentary highlighted their plight. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) shared, on Sky News, his moving story of growing up in kinship care, and I am really proud that in March this year, at the Liberal Democrat spring conference, Lib Dem members approved as party policy a lot of what was in my Bill about allowances, leave, pupil premium plus and having a statutory definition of kinship care.

Kinship care is on the Government’s lips and in the media spotlight in a way that it rarely has been. It has been a pleasure to work alongside these carers, the Family Rights Group, Kinship and other MPs in making the case that kinship care is worth investing in—saving the taxpayer in the long run. It would be remiss of me if I did not also acknowledge and thank, from the bottom of my heart, Andrew Burrell from my team, who is here today and has been the driving force in my office behind this work. He is leaving my office in a couple of weeks, and a lot of what I have done would not have been possible without his expertise and dedication, so I am very grateful to him.

Ministers are finally beginning to listen, and the attention given to kinship care in “Stable Homes, Built on Love” is hugely welcome. I am sad to say, however, that the document was policy-lite, with commitments to merely “explore the case” for greater financial support for kinship carers, and to pilot new “family first” decision making in just seven council areas. Other announcements were kicked down the road into the kinship care strategy promised by the end of the year, but, as the cost of living crisis bites, too many children in kinship care cannot afford to wait. There is a serious risk to children’s outcomes and the public finances if kinship care does not get the investment that it needs. The MacAlister review warned that, with no action, almost 20,000 more children will be in local authority care by 2032, costing the Treasury an extra £5 billion.

In recent months, Kinship has seen a significant increase in the complexity and severity of cases to its advice and support line. In its 2022 “The Cost of Loving” survey of more than 1,000 kinship carers, out of the three quarters who said that they were not getting the support they needed, one third said that they may not be able to continue caring for their children as a result.

The need for change is becoming increasingly urgent. We need the Government not just to acknowledge the love that kinship carers provide, but to value it, invest in it and step up for those who are struggling.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate and the very eloquent way in which she is putting the case. Does she agree that if what she described were to happen to that one third, it would be a disaster not just for those families and the care system, but for the taxpayer, because it would require a very expensive solution to a problem that we could resolve by other means?

Absolutely, and I am grateful for that intervention, because the right hon. Member makes a case that I have made throughout, whenever I have talked about kinship carers: the Government cannot afford not to provide this support. The analysis shows that if we paid kinship carers a similar allowance to foster carers, for every child that we prevent from going into care, the Government would save £35,000 a year. It is a no-brainer because of both the short-term savings to the Treasury and the long-term savings, in terms of the more positive outcomes that we achieve for those children.

So what opportunity stands before us with the national kinship care strategy? It provides a key opportunity for the Government to deliver financial and educational support to children in kinship care that will be truly transformative. Kinship carers cannot wait for another spending review or a different colour of Government.

My Kinship Care Bill, introduced last year, had four main asks, and I hope that the strategy will make significant progress towards implementing each one. First, all kinship carers should have a weekly allowance at the same level as the national minimum fostering allowance. Many experience severe financial hardship. Kinship’s survey last year found that two in five kinship carers had avoided putting the heating on, one in five skipped meals and more than one in eight used food banks. A national, non-means-tested allowance would end the system of patchy, means-tested allowances that reflect a postcode lottery in the support that councils can afford to provide.

I apologise for missing the beginning of the hon. Lady’s speech, but I know that she has campaigned very effectively on this issue. Does she not agree, though, that the particular challenge with means testing in this space is that so many kinship carers are grandparents? They are retired and they have savings, but they need those savings for themselves and their retirement. It is vital that we have a system of support that recognises that particular challenge.

Absolutely, and that is why we need a consistent system applied across the board that is not dependent on the political persuasion of a local authority or what means it has to support kinship carers. I have come across many grandparents who are using up their life savings and people who might be about to retire and are having to quit the workforce sooner than they wanted. Kinship carers come in so many different shapes and sizes. That is why a proper means-tested allowance and national rules governing that is so important. The critical thing is that money should not be a barrier to a family or a friend taking in a child who is part of the wider family, because such barriers can lead to a child being forced into local authority care.

Secondly, kinship carers should be entitled to paid employment leave on a par with adoptive parents. Kinship’s “Forced Out” survey found that four in 10 kinship carers had to leave work permanently and a further 45% reduced their hours after becoming a kinship carer. Those carers are disproportionately women and are over-represented in healthcare, education and social care, which simply exacerbates our workforce crisis in public services.

Thirdly, the Bill proposes extending greater educational support to children in kinship care such as pupil premium plus, virtual school heads and a higher priority in school admissions.

Fourthly, there should be a definition of kinship care in statute that will help carers and councils to better understand who a kinship carer is and what support they are entitled to.

The Government’s response so far on the first of the three core asks has been disappointing, and “Stable Homes, Built on Love” has provided little hope. The Government have simply said they will “explore the case” for a mandatory financial allowance for kinship carers who possess a legal order. I am intrigued to understand more from the Minister about what “explore the case” means. Perhaps he will shed some light on it today. Will we see a cost-benefit analysis and an impact assessment? Are civil servants working actively on the issue, or are we talking about a couple of emails and phone calls?

I am pleased that the Government have adopted wholesale the definition of kinship care that was proposed by the Family Rights Group and have put it out for consultation—it was the same definition that I used in my Bill. However, the definition will have clout only if it is put into legislation and has statutory rights or entitlements attached to it. Simply putting it into guidance will likely not resolve the poor recognition and understanding of the term.

We cannot have another strategy that ducks the big decisions and kicks them into the long grass. Even if the plan has no spending commitments, which would be an absolute disaster, there are some steps that the Government could take to significantly improve the lives of kinship carers.

On data, our ability to make the case for greater investment in kinship care is greatly hampered by confusion over how many children live in kinship care and where kinship carers work. The latest estimate that 152,000 children in England live in kinship care comes from a University of Bristol analysis of the 2011 census.

In April, I wrote to the UK Statistics Authority to ask whether the Office for National Statistics intended to publish figures from the 2021 census. It replied that the Department for Education formally requested data on kinship carers earlier that month and that it would provide an update on that later in the year. I understand that that data might be published later this month. Will the Minister confirm that? Will it include information on the demographic make-up of kinship carers and their labour market patterns?

Meanwhile, parliamentary questions that I tabled reveal that, although the Ministry of Justice publishes how many special guardianship orders and child arrangement orders are granted each year, it does not know how many children are currently subject to one. What more will the Minister do to ensure that his Department, the Ministry of Justice, and local authorities have accurate information on the number of children in kinship care?

On therapeutic care, I know how important the adoption support fund was to my constituent, Kim, who used it for her granddaughter’s attachment therapy. However, Kim was in the uncommon position that her granddaughter was previously looked after before she went into kinship care. That meant she was entitled to ASF and also to pupil premium plus. As I told the House during my debate in October, that creates a totally perverse incentive for families to allow children to go into care so that they can receive additional support. Will the Minister review the eligibility criteria for the schemes so that more children in kinship care can qualify? Could the name of the adoption support fund be changed to acknowledge that kinship carers can also apply?

On legal aid, the Department has committed to

“work across government to explore…options for an extension of legal aid with kinship carers with SGOs and CAOs.”

Again, I would be grateful if the Minister explained what “explore” means as we seek to plug the gaps in legal aid provisions, particularly when children’s services first reach out to prospective kinship carers.

The Government must remember that one in three kinship carer households is non-white. Ethnic minority children in kinship care are less likely to have a legal order. I recognise that a legal order may signify that the caring arrangement will be stable and permanent. However, if the Government restrict all their support to children in formal kinship arrangements, they risk widening ethnic disparities. Will the Minister confirm that the strategy will be accompanied by an equalities impact assessment, so that the risk can be mitigated?

This debate comes in the context of increasing anxiety about the financial stability of many local authorities across England. As we have seen in the press lately, some are in a catastrophic position with their finances. The strategy must not impose on local authorities various well-intentioned duties, pilots and instructions to change their culture without giving them the resources to implement them effectively.

I will end with a reminder of why we are all here and of the families whose lives we are trying to improve. Kim was one of the first kinship carers in my constituency to contact me. She is the special guardian of her granddaughter. She says of her experience:

“We are fortunate to have an understanding of the system now and can advocate for our granddaughter. However, the emotional, financial and physical price has taken its toll! Even 5 years into our Special Guardianship Order and with the help that we have been able to access, my granddaughter really struggles with any change…On a personal level, we have 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.”

April, which is not her real name, spoke to me about caring for her nephew after his mother passed away. She says:

“Little did I know that [by] giving my sister peace of mind as she faced leaving her small children, and [by] giving my nephew the security and care he desperately needed, I was unwittingly stepping into a ‘private arrangement’ with zero support.

We want to focus on the positives. It is a positive [that] we’ve got a new family member. But if we have to worry about financial things or [other] support…We don’t want to have to do that. I want to give him the very best childhood.”

Many of the kinship carers who are watching the debate from the Gallery will have similar testimonies. Indeed, last year I hosted an event in Parliament for kinship carers and heard many moving stories. I also met kinship carers in Sutton a few months ago. Although every story and every family is unique, the themes I have set out today, including the barriers and challenges kinship carers face in the system, are often a common thread. People are so exhausted from fighting against them.

I invite right hon. and hon. Members to come to tea in the café after the debate with me and the kinship carers here today to hear at first hand about their experiences. They and I now look to the Minister to make sure that the upcoming kinship care strategy will be truly transformational. By stepping up for kinship carers, we support every child to get the very best start in life, no matter what their background.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate and bringing to the attention of the House all the costs of being a kinship carer, as well as illuminating the tremendous value they represent and the real difference they make to the children they bring into their immediate family and circle. I also congratulate her on her speech. I join her in paying tribute to the new Minister, who has a strong background that touches on all the issues we may consider today, most notably performance in school, outcomes and achievement. He will also be looking to ensure that the children in our care have every opportunity to thrive.

I pay tribute to the Government for bringing forward the kinship care strategy, with the tremendous potential therein to bring the sector into a much more sustainable and fair place. They have acknowledged that historically the sector has not had the focus and recognition it deserves, merits and needs, so I really welcome the sea change that we all hope to see. I praise East Sussex County Council for the work it does in this space—indeed, its support was recognised by the kinship carers I met most recently—and I pay tribute to the council’s team as they endeavour to meet the challenges and support kinship carers across East Sussex, and Eastbourne in particular.

The hon. Lady is right to recognise that across the House there is not just increasing recognition of this kinship care but an earnest desire to see change and reform. Ultimately, this place is all about creating the environment in which this youngish generation can rise up and take their place. We are all about the business of making the world a better place, and enabling children who, for all sorts of reasons, cannot and should not stay with their parents to move to the security, love and continuity offered often by their grandparents, but also by their wider family, is surely a really important policy objective for us to try to achieve. As she said, we must ensure that finances are never the barrier, because in my estimation, if a child can remain within the love of their family, it is the very best place for them, in many instances, to recover, and then thrive.

We know that, over and above almost every other circumstance or opportunity, the support of family is defining. We know that applies to every child from every background and every socio-economic setting. It is a defining factor in physical health, mental health, educational outcomes and life chances, so every effort should be made to try to secure the wider family stepping up to welcome in children who, for all sorts of reasons, cannot and should not stay with their parents.

In that light, the urgency that the hon. Lady described is the question of the day. We are agreed that family represents the best opportunity for children, and that kinship carers have been overlooked for too long. That urgency and pace is before us, so we await the strategy and for a number of recommendations to find form. The scale of the challenge is deep and wide, with 162,000 children cared for by their kin across England and Wales. To give a measure of the scale and scope of this sector in the shadows, that is more than double the number in foster care.

As we have heard, grandparents are of course the most common kinship carers, but grandparents increasingly have to work until later in life. The tension and the pressure of working is one very real barrier and obstacle to their being able to reach out and provide a full-time home to a child. There are perhaps more children in private arrangements that are not included in the official figures, and in such cases finance and support do not find their way to them. The census has really important information, which I hope will soon come to light, to help us to understand the scale and scope of the challenge before us.

On the financial issue, one of my constituents who attended the meeting that I arranged with kinship carers told me that she fears losing her job; she cannot get the parental leave she needs to care for her granddaughter, but without her job she cannot provide for the granddaughter she wants to offer a full-time home to. That is an excruciating tension. And another constituent described the mental anguish caused by years of court battles.

In my constituency, there is a really strong support group led by Wendy Turner, who is here with us in the Public Gallery today, so in addition to recognising the hon. Member for Twickenham, the Minister, the Government and MPs from across the House, I most particularly recognise kinship carers themselves in this really important debate, because it is their stories, their testimonies, that will really and truly land the change that we all desire. I commend them for that.

I could not resist the opportunity to pay tribute to the local kinship care group in my Worcester constituency. Kinship Carers UK, which is led by Enza Smith, has campaigned hard on this issue and first drew my attention to some of the concerns. One of the issues that the group has raised is the status of kinship carers and recognition of that status, which I think is addressed in the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Twickenham. There is a concern that when kinship carers take a child they look after for NHS care, they may not be able to take decisions in the way that a parent could. They can find it very difficult to work with the health service and other public services because of the distinction between parents and kinship carers. Is it not very important that we come up with a very clear definition of kinship carers and a clear way for them to identify themselves and their relationship to their charge, so that they can access all public services effectively?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; he makes an excellent point. Some means of recognition is needed, not only in healthcare but in all the different arms and institutions of public services, not least in schools, because recognition enables far swifter decision making, which is surely in the best interests of the child and those caring for them. There must be a way to achieve that recognition of status, and I look forward to the Minister telling us how such an innovation could help to rationalise the whole experience of kinship care, so that we can better address the challenges.

Interestingly, one of the members of the group of kinship carers that I met talked about guidance on how to navigate the quite complex bureaucratic situation in which they found themselves: they are responsible for a child, yet are not in a decision-making role. As an example, we spoke about a guide that had been established for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, interestingly enough, in which there was a step-by-step and issue-by-issue walkthrough to help people who were bringing Ukrainians into their home, showing them how they could navigate some of the complex systems that exist and where they could find support. The point was made to me that there is no handbook for kinship carers. There was simply a call, sometimes in the middle of the night, and then sometimes there was a social worker on the doorstep at any hour of the day, saying, “Over to you.”

Regarding some of the issues around passports and access to medical records, we can surely bring some sanity to bear on the bureaucracy, which just provides another layer of challenge and adds nothing to safeguarding or child protection. When we have put a child in the care of a family member, we should most certainly empower that family member to make decisions on behalf of the child. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester made in his intervention is very well made.

While their costs are no different and their challenges certainly of similar order, unlike foster carers the vast majority of kinship carers find themselves without a minimum financial allowance to assist with the covering of expenses. The current state of financial support for kinship carers is both insufficient and marked by significant variations, not always hinging on the specific needs of the kinship families, but rather being subject to legal and geographical disparities. If we bring a new understanding to bear, surely we can create something much fairer. The current system unintentionally—perversely even—encourages kinship carers to transition into foster carers, as this is often the sole path by which they can access reliable financial and other forms of support. That does not align with the best interests of the child. The repercussions, beyond the emotional and psychological, of this lack of financial support are profound and affect both families and the state. According to the 2022 annual survey report “The Cost of Loving”, six out of 10 kinship carers reported resorting to borrowing money, taking out short-term loans, or relying on credit cards for everyday expenses in the past year.

For every 1,000 children raised in kinship families rather than placed in local authority care, the state saves £40 million and enhances the lifetime earnings of the children by £20 million, so the statistics say. I know that there are very serious pressures on children’s social care, even in my own county. A mark of this is that, just this last financial year, for the first time the cost of children’s social services outweighed the cost of adult social care. This is a very significant development: not only has that cost now overtaken that of adult social care, but its trajectory is set to escalate exponentially. We know through our work on the Education Committee that the care sector is under massive pressure, to the point where providers in the marketplace are able to charge what they will, leaving county councils competing for places. Kinship care is, in part, an answer to that very real, sustained pressure on services. Surely it merits significant investment.

Before I came to this place, my career was in education, so I know the impact that family support can have on children and young people. It was too often the very parents I needed to speak to who did not come to parents evenings. Children who have been taken from mum or dad and out of the family setting for very good reasons have experienced trauma. The fact that that is not more recognised in school is, to my mind, a burning injustice. They experience challenges with their focus and stamina, and their ability to concentrate is affected because they come from a place of trauma. It is really that clear. They need additional support as urgently as possible, because with every year of lost learning, it is exponentially harder to recover and recapture that learning.

The effects of those early years can last a lifetime if we do not rush in with more support. Schools are the strongest partners for kinship carers when it comes to rescuing these children. I am hoping the Minister, perhaps today, but ultimately as we approach the strategy, will have some encouraging words around what new provision and recognition we might see in schools, because they are important partners too.

In addition to the financial support I have spoken of—the pupil premium plus—I long to see employment leave to facilitate kinship care, particularly at the start of the placement, legal aid to take the sting out of court battles, and recognition of the work of local authorities and a just settlement, so that they can more ably meet the needs of families in their areas. I look forward to seeing progress, recognition and investment for all of those things.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), who made some important points that I whole- heartedly support. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing the debate and all the cross-party work that she does on the issue. She works incredibly hard in this area. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time.

It would be remiss of me not to welcome the new Children’s Minister to his post. I hope that he enjoys his time in the Department for Education, dealing with some important issues. Today it is kinship care, but there is also the wider issue of how we improve children’s services across England, because in too many parts of our country, children’s services are not just underperforming but letting children down. I hope that the Government take a close look at those local authorities that could and should be doing better for our children and young people.

I wanted to speak in this debate because not only am I the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care, but, as many Members know, my wife Allison and I are kinship carers to our grandson Lyle. We never planned on becoming kinship carers, but life can be unpredictable. Sadly, Lyle’s mum and dad were unable to care for him, and social services knocked on our door. We did not think twice—of course we would take him in; of course we would care for him. It was, and it is, one of the best decisions that I—that both of us—have ever made, probably apart from getting married, as otherwise the rest would not have happened.

We love Lyle to pieces. He is a little ball of energy and joy. He is four now, and has just started primary school. He is kind, caring, incredibly funny and just the right level of mischievous. That is why being a kinship carer is such a strange conundrum: on the one hand, you are given this gift, whom you love more than anything in the world. Every Thursday evening I race home from this place back to Manchester, because spending time with Lyle is the thing above all else that I look forward to.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because in my contribution I focused on the issues, challenges, setbacks and disasters, but I should also say that all the kinship carers I met spoke about love. That is how the conversations started: they spoke about their motivation to reach out and to protect the child, and how they would do anything and everything in their power to look after them.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I can speak from experience. Mondays and Fridays have now got even better for me because I get to take Lyle to the local primary school. He is loving his time there, especially now he has worked out that he gets fed—last week was the first week he was there all the time, and it came as a revelation to him that they fed him at lunchtime.

On the other hand, as we have heard in the previous two contributions, kinship care is also exceptionally hard. Kinship carers are essentially picked up and dropped into a legal and emotional labyrinth, with precious little support from anyone. Like many carers, Allison and I had to go through the family courts to obtain a special guardianship order, which gives us parental responsibilities so that we can make active decisions about Lyle’s upbringing and about precisely the things the hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned—healthcare, school and passports. We have parental rights and can make those decisions for Lyle. We had to undergo hours and hours of assessment —really intrusive police assessment of not just me and Allison, but my children and my friends. It is a gruelling system that demands an extraordinary amount from all those involved.

There are also wider family implications. Children are raised in kinship care for a variety of complex reasons, including parental mental health problems, substance misuse or illness. A kinship carer often has to manage a sensitive family situation while fiercely protecting the health and wellbeing of the child they are caring for. They are given absolutely no formal emotional support. It is only thanks to organisations such as Kinship and the Family Rights Group that Allison and I have been able to speak with other kinship carers, build support networks and access advice. It is amazing, because you find that you are not alone and that virtually every other person in the system has, to a lesser or greater extent, gone through the things you are going through, which you think are incredibly traumatic and a massive upheaval.

Then there are the financial implications. Allison and I have spent thousands of pounds in legal fees since we became kinship carers, and we continue to do so. There is always the threat of being taken back to court umpteen times. That puts a carer under such stress, trauma and emotional and financial pressure while they are trying to care for and protect their loved one. Allison and I are lucky because we are in a financial position to be able to pay these fees, but over the years I have found myself asking pretty basic questions: What if we did not have that money? What if I lost my job? What if I did not have a platform? What then?

The answers to those questions are as depressing as they are concerning. Last year, the APPG on kinship care found that 38% of kinship carers surveyed had received no legal advice about their rights and options in relation to their kinship child. Where carers had received legal advice, just 16% had received part or full payment through legal aid. Of the kinship carers who ended up in court, almost a third had to represent themselves. Some 53% of carers have made personal contributions of above £1,000, with 9% accruing costs of £10,000 or more. To be frank, the system treats kinship carers as an afterthought. They are a convenient solution in a time of crisis, and then they are left to drift in a buckling system that does not seem to recognise their existence, let alone the love they have for the children they care for.

Studies consistently show that kinship care, where possible, is in the best interests of the child. It certainly is for Lyle, and it is for hundreds of thousands of children across the country. Research from the parliamentary taskforce on kinship care shows that behavioural, educational and emotional outcomes for children in kinship care are, on the whole, better than for children living with unrelated foster carers. Kinship care allows children to develop a strong sense of their own identity and a feeling of belonging that comes from the stability of living within their wider network of family and friends. Kinship care placements are 2.6 times more likely to be permanent than unrelated foster care arrangements. It is essential that we embrace the opportunities that kinship care offers and that we make it easier for families who want to be kinship carers to do so.

It is estimated that around 100,000 children will be in care by 2032, and we must prioritise things such as kinship care if we want to avoid that reality. However, without even a legal, inclusive definition of kinship care in legislation, there is a long way to go. I am glad the Government have committed to publishing a national kinship care strategy by the end of the year. I sincerely hope Ministers will listen to the voices of kinship carers and organisations such as the Family Rights Group and Kinship and develop a system that gives kinship carers not only the support they need but the recognition they deserve.

I get uncharacteristically nervous when this subject is debated in Parliament. It sometimes feels a bit too exposing and personal to speak publicly about it. The reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of kinship carers in the same position as Allison and me. We owe it to them to get this right. Above all, we owe it to the children being cared for—children such as Lyle, who deserve all the love, care and stability the world can give. Kinship care makes that possible, so let’s make it happen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate, and I welcome everyone with an interest in kinship care who has made the journey to Westminster to hear it. Anybody who has done so or who is watching cannot fail to be moved by the powerful speeches that have been made by all the Members who have contributed substantively or made interventions to share their perspective.

I dare say I could fill a speech 10 times over with stories of the love, care and benefit that kinship carers bring to relationships. The only time I have had to consider this issue in my own context was in a discussion with my then partner about who, in an ideal world, we would like to look after our children if we ever found ourselves, for whatever reason, unable to do so. That was a challenging enough discussion, so I cannot adequately express my gratitude and admiration for those who step up when they are called on to do so, as we have just heard.

The UK Government are set to publish their strategy for kinship carers later in the year. The Scottish Government have published a number of strategies, which they are in the process of implementing. This is not a matter of geography, because the best place for a child to be brought up is not about geography. The best place for a child to live when they need to leave their birth parents is, wherever possible, in that wider family setting, if it is safe and in the child’s best interests to do so. Kinship care helps a child retain that sense of identity, family, heritage and background and can help them—in ways that other settings, with the best will in the world, simply cannot—to feel safe, protected and valued.

We have already heard about some of the challenges that kinship carers face—the number of legal processes as well as the financial expenses associated with taking on these important responsibilities—and often they did not plan to spend their future years fulfilling those responsibilities. All too often, despite the best efforts of Governments and agencies, the available support is not —and can never be—commensurate with the responsibilities that kinship carers are asked to fulfil.

The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) gave an honourable mention to an organisation in his constituency. My good and hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) specifically asked me to mention Airdrie Kinship Carers, and the vital network it provides across north Lanarkshire to support kinship carers. It is important that Governments do all they can to ensure not only that individual kinship carers and wider family units are supported, but that the support networks out there are well funded and can operate within a framework of best practice.

Back in 2020, the Scottish Government committed to something that has been called “The Promise”. That was the report of the independent care review, which had the aim of ensuring that Scotland could be one of the best places in the world for care-experienced children and young people to grow up. That is an extremely high ambition, but it starts from a place of knowing that improvement was needed. In the seven preceding years, there had been six reviews of how Scotland cared for children, yet the recommendations—even though they were based on a range of evidence, knowledge and understanding—did not lead to the kind of wholesale change that was necessary.

In publishing “The Promise”, Fiona Duncan—the chair of the independent care review—spoke to the chairs of those previous reviews to take on their perspective on what had stalled things. The answers that came back are probably depressingly familiar: a lack of buy-in for change; insufficient resources invested in enabling the necessary change; in some cases, restrictive rules preventing change; people simply not knowing how to make the change; and much more.

That care review had to be different, and it started with an unwavering commitment to making sure that the care experience community would be at the very heart of its considerations, to ensure as full and proper an understanding as possible of not only how the care system operates, but how it feels to those in it and what children and their families truly need to flourish. On concluding its deliberations, the care review had listened to over 5,500 experiences. Over half of the voices were those of children and young people with experience of the care system. The review took into account the experiences of adults who had lived in care and lots of different types of families. The remaining voices came from the paid and unpaid workforce, whose stories guided the review and whose experiences shaped all its conclusions. As the UK Government set off down their own path of considering similar issues, I commend the work encapsulated by that document, and the resulting action plan, which might inform their work in taking forward the areas for which they are responsible.

As the chair, Fiona Duncan, said:

“It is clear that Scotland must not aim to fix a broken system but set a higher collective ambition that enables loving, supportive and nurturing relationships as a basis on which to thrive.”

Last year, the implementation plan was published. The Scottish Government’s approach reflected “The Fundamentals” set out in “The Promise”, which were:

“To do what matters to children and families

To listen and embed what we have heard from children and families

To tackle poverty and the forces that push families into it

To respect children’s rights

To improve our language”

when we are talking about the care settings.

Some key policy commitments have come out of this plan, including to invest £500 million in preventive spend over the course of the parliamentary Session through the whole family wellbeing fund. That is designed to deliver transformational change and service redesign in the totality of family support, with the aim of reducing the crisis intervention that needs to take place and contributing to the improvement of lives across a wide range of areas, including, but not limited to, child and adolescent mental health, child poverty, alcohol and drug use, and educational attainment.

There are also measures to support local areas to implement the national guidance on child protection, with £10 million invested per annum through the care experience grant—a new £200 annual grant for young people aged 16 to 25 who have care experience. The grant is intended to provide additional financial security for those young people and to help reduce some of the barriers they face in their transition to adulthood and more independent living.

As much as we would like to, it is not always possible for SNP spokespersons to stand up and say how much better we think we are doing, because we know that that is sometimes simply not the case. One area where we have been playing catch-up is in having a standard national allowance. Prior to its introduction, Scotland was the only part of the UK with no national minimum allowance for care support grants for kinship carers—allowances were provided by local authorities, but there was variability. That floor has now been set, which does not mean that local authorities cannot continue to pay more, but there is now a baseline in place. These payments can help people to meet the costs of clothing, hobbies and funding activities and school trips—all the things that help young people to feel included, and not excluded or in any way different. There is also the expansion of the legal definition of “kinship carer”, which has allowed more carers to benefit from the Scottish child payment. We can already see the difference that that is making to the lives of many, whether they are in kinship care or not.

I am acutely aware of the time; nevertheless, it would be remiss of me not to conclude with the words of Scotland’s then Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, in responding on behalf of the Scottish Government to the independent report. He gave this message to the children of Scotland:

“We want you to be safe with the people that you know and love. We want you to be healthy. We want to give you a good education. We want you to know and feel that you are loved.”

As we have heard, the role that kinship carers play in helping to secure those outcomes cannot be overestimated. I very much look forward to listening to the rest of this debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. 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. We have had a high level of consensus in the debate. I welcome the kinship carers to the Gallery today. It is great to have them with us.

I also welcome the Minister to his place. I looked back at our previous debate on this topic about a year ago and I noted that I was welcoming the Minister’s predecessor’s predecessor, so I wish him luck as he hangs on to the revolving door that seems to be the Department for Education. I have no doubt that he will bring commitment to his role, and particularly to this topic, as we think about the needs of kinship carers.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) spoke of the pressures on grandparents and older kinship carers, who not only have to bear the costs of looking after children, but are required to expend all that energy in a role that they were perhaps not expecting to perform later in their lives. I was glad to hear her acknowledge the pressures in her area, the pressures on children’s social care more widely, and the grotesque profiteering by private providers of children’s homes and foster placements. I hope the Minister was listening to a colleague on his own side of the House speaking about those pressures, which affect the children’s social care system across the whole country. The pressures bear down on families, which results in increasing numbers of children having to enter the care system.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and thank him for all the work he does through the APPG on kinship care, of which I was a member until I took up my current role. It is not easy to speak about one’s own personal circumstances It is not easy to speak about one’s own personal circumstances, but he speaks so movingly about his role as a kinship carer for his grandson, Lyle. In doing so, he gives voice to kinship carers across the country, and he is a powerful and important advocate. As I have said before in this Chamber, Lyle is a very lucky little boy to have such fantastic grandparents as my hon. Friend and his wife.

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, which work to support kinship carers and to advocate on their behalf. Stepping in to care for a child when a close friend or family member cannot is an extraordinary and very special thing to do. Yet most kinship carers I have met do not describe it as a choice; they love the children in their care and stepping in to care for them when there was a need to do so was a natural consequence of that love. They would not have thought of doing anything else. It is always humbling to meet kinship carers and hear their stories. The 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 is always clear to see—but so are the challenges.

Over half of kinship carers give up work to look after the children in their care. Some 75% of kinship carers experience severe financial hardship. The children have often gone through significantly adverse experiences such as bereavement, abuse or neglect. Looking after children in those circumstances requires support and access to professional help. Kinship carers themselves may also have suffered trauma: the loss of their own child, supporting their child on a journey of addiction, or other challenges that have led to a grandchild, niece or nephew being in their care in the first place. They are sometimes left to manage complex contact arrangements with birth parents. While kinship carers may be in suitable housing, in areas where there is a crisis in the availability of genuinely affordable housing, many will not be, and taking on kinship care may result in overcrowding in a family home that had previously been big enough to meet the family’s needs.

I have met kinship carers who are using their savings to care for children. I remember one grandmother in particular who was so committed to her grandson continuing to play football—it was the one thing he loved that helped with the trauma he had experienced—that she was dipping into her pension lump sum to pay for it, and to meet other costs as well. Support for kinship carers is inconsistent across the country. I recall another kinship carer who had taken on the care of her friend’s children. Contact arrangements with her friend were really fraught, but her local authority told her that because the arrangement was private, they had no role to play and could not support that process. These issues are widespread across the country. Some 180,000 families 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, often with little meaningful support.

In thinking about the needs of kinship carers, we must also look at why the number of children who cannot be cared for by their birth families is increasing. We cannot escape the Government’s record on this matter: 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; and the National Children’s Bureau estimates that Government funding available to councils for children’s services fell by 24% between 2010 and 2020. The pandemic is likely to have made it even harder for councils to offer early intervention services for families. I have certainly been told by local authorities across the country that early help and support that was available more than a decade ago has all but disappeared in many places. The failure of the 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.

I too am most concerned about support for vulnerable families, particularly to help families stay together. I have some experience of Sure Start centres, and they are focused on those first few, very important, years. The family hub model, which the Government have brought in, looks to extend support from the early years of nought to five all the way through to 18. I know many parents struggle particularly in the teenage years, rather than with tinies. Does the hon. Lady recognise the work of family hubs, and does she have experience with them?

Certainly, the hon. Lady is right to say that the challenges facing children and young people have changed over the last decade, particularly those facing teenagers and the need for help and support. I absolutely recognise that point, but I would say to the hon. Lady that we had Sure Start centres in every community up and down the country at a very local level. In many places, they have all but disappeared. So far, the family hubs model funds a family hub in only half of all local authority areas, which does not meet the scale of the challenge. If Sure Start centres had been protected and allowed to evolve to meet the changing needs of families and children, we would be in an altogether different position than the one that affects far too many families up and down the country. We have never been committed to an entirely static model of delivery, but the infrastructure of Sure Start centres is a very grave and serious loss, in all those areas where they have not been protected and have closed.

Kinship carers are an essential part of the way in which our society looks after children. They deliver outcomes for children which are as good as, and often better than, foster care or children’s homes, for a fraction of the cost. The Government have been failing children and families for 12 long years. The focus on kinship care in the independent review of children’s social care was very welcome, with a large degree of consensus around many of its recommendations. We are still, however, seeing only piecemeal measures from the Government. It is vitally important that the kinship care strategy is published by the end of the year, as the Government have promised. I hope that the Minister will say more today to confirm that is the case, and that he might also comment on whether that strategy will be cross-departmental, looking at all the areas where kinship carers need support and where it is not being provided.

Kinship carers have waited too long to be fully recognised as a vital part of children’s social care. Their love has not been valued sufficiently. If we are successful in winning a majority in the House of Commons at the next general election, Labour in Government will put children and their families at the heart of everything we do, as we did before. We will support the vital work of kinship carers—support which is so long overdue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I thank all the Members who have played a part in this well-informed debate today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this debate and those she has secured previously. She says it is traditional for those in my role to resign a few days after she has had her debate; I will try my best not to do so, but it probably partly depends on how this debate goes. I also commend her staff member Andrew, who is soon to depart, for all the work he has done in supporting her on this. It is such an important issue, and I too am pleased to have kinship carers in the Gallery—Wendy and others—with whom I hope I can have a little chat at the end of the debate.

I wholeheartedly share the hon. Member for Twickenham’s commitment to championing the important role of kinship carers. They play a vital role in the children’s social care system and in the lives of children up and down the country. Too often, they play that role without people knowing or appreciating it. I think we all agree that too little attention has been paid to this area of kinship carers for far too long. We are determined to change that.

About 17 years ago, I did some mentoring through an organisation that helped primary school children who were showing behavioural problems in the classroom as a result of what was going on at home. I was matched with a nine-year-old boy who had been removed from his parents due to what was going on at home and placed on the child protection register. He had been placed with his gran. In this mentoring capacity, the mentor would take the mentee out each week to do fun activities—football, ice skating, swimming and things like that—while trying to work with them on the behaviour they were exhibiting in school.

When I picked the boy up at the beginning of the day and when I took him back at the end of the day, I got a glimpse of the incredible role that his gran was playing. She was in her 60s, she had raised her children and this was not what she had expected to be doing—a number of Members have said this—and yet, through boundaries, discipline, nutritious food and stable bedtimes, she was transforming the little boy’s behaviour far more than was the weekly session I was having with him. That was my first experience of the incredible role that kinship carers play, so I am determined that we should do as much for them as we can.

I will now set out the steps that the Government are taking to improve the position of kinship carers. Towards the end, I will try to answer as many of the questions as possible; for any I do not cover, Members should feel free to intervene, or I will write to them afterwards.

When a child cannot remain with their parents, wider family and friends can offer a safe and loving alternative to being looked after and having to move in with strangers. We have discussed how many people are in kinship care, and at this moment in time about 110,000 children in England are being brought up in kinship care, many of whom would otherwise be in local authority care if members of their extended family network had not stepped in. The census data was mentioned, and our 110,000 figure comes from the 2021 census information, which was published in July. I am happy to show Members the source of that after the debate.

Living in kinship arrangements can offer a stable and permanent option for children. Maintaining connections with family and the people they love can contribute to a healthy sense of identity and belonging. Hon. Members will know that I am passionate about social mobility and closing the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, and, as has been touched on in part, children living in kinship care, on average, achieve better GCSE results, have a greater chance of being in employment and experience better long-term health outcomes than children who grow up in foster care or residential care. For example—this has been quoted already—in 2021, it was found that 69% of adults who experienced kinship care were in employment, compared with 59% or 48%, respectively, for those with a history of fostering or of residential care. The average attainment 8 score for those with a special guardianship order was 33.5, compared with 22.2 for looked-after children. The data therefore backs up the experience that Members have been sharing.

Not only does kinship care offer better outcomes for children—which is the primary concern of everyone present—but it makes better economic sense. Investing in kinship care is considerably more cost-effective for local authorities than paying for residential care homes, for example. I therefore want to create a system that not only helps kinship arrangements to take place, but actively supports kinship families to thrive. What I do not want to hear any more of is the gruelling system that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) is having to go through with Lyle.

The independent review of children’s social care highlighted the lack of focus on kinship care from successive Governments. It has been a problem for some time. The review made a number of ambitious recommendations, which we hope will increase the number of children who can remain within their family networks. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) touched exactly on the Government’s focus, which is that children should remain with their families if they can, although that will not always be possible. Where possible, that is our primary focus: we want children to be with their immediate or extended family, before they have to go into care homes or other less desirable situations.

The strategy sets out six pillars of action, including unlocking the potential of family networks. In July, we announced that we will start implementing family network support packages through the £45 million Families First for Children pathfinder and family network pilot. Family network support packages will look at how to use financial and other practical means to unlock barriers to family networks being able to provide support for children to stay safely at home. As has been touched on—this is perhaps more relevant to the debate—we have also made a commitment to implement or explore the recommendations on kinship care. I stress to Members that, as I said to my team as soon as I was appointed, we will have no slackening of the timetable. We will publish the strategy before the end of the year, whatever it takes. It will set out a long-term vision for kinship care and how we can better support carers and children. I will not be able to set out all the details of the strategy today, but I will set out some of the progress we hope to make.

I wholeheartedly agree with right hon. and hon. Members who have highlighted that kinship carers need more support than is currently available to them. We have developed a twin-track system, whereby there is much more support for foster carers than there is for kinship carers. There is no great logic to that; it is just where successive Governments have focused their attention. We are trying to bring the two together. Part of that is about helping people to connect with other kinship carers, which is why the Department has supported kinship families through our £2 million partnership with the charity Kinship, whose good work has already been commended, to deliver high-quality peer support groups for kinship carers. Those groups are already supporting kinship carers, and we hope that 100 peer support groups will be established by January 2024. Also to come will be a whole host of face-to-face and online training, and useful resources—some of the things that Members have talked about—to provide access to the type of independent guidance and support that people can get in other areas already.

The independent review of children’s social care recommended a financial allowance for special guardians and carers looking after children under a child arrangement order. I think we all recognise the strain that many kinship families are under, and we are exploring the feasibility of mandating a financial allowance for kinship carers in every local authority. I chaired the national implementation board this week, and some of the local authority representatives said that a number of local authorities are already providing such an allowance. Part of our limitation here, which I will come to, is about data, as some Members have touched on. Part of exploring the feasibility is to get a picture on exactly who is doing what already, but I agree with the hon. Member for Twickenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that finance should not be a barrier, particularly when we want children and young people to remain with their families.

We recognise that there has been a lack of a consistent, recognised definition of kinship care, which can make it difficult to know whether people are in a kinship arrangement and what help they are entitled to. In “Stable Homes, Built on Love”, we published a draft definition of kinship care and sought the views of people with lived experience, as well as those of professionals and charities, on whether the definition helps to create an accurate understanding of kinship. I am grateful to those who have responded to the consultation, and the definition has been pretty well received. I cannot commit to introducing legislation at this time, but the feedback we have had so far has been positive.

Legal support has been mentioned. Again, kinship carers sometimes have to pay extraordinary amounts of money to get the legal advice they need, even though they are doing something that society should want them to do and should enable. From May this year, the Ministry of Justice extended legal aid entitlements to prospective guardians making applications for special guardianship orders in private family law proceedings. We predict that that will benefit thousands of potential kinship carers.

On workplace entitlements, it is important to recognise the employers who are already providing paid leave and so on, and have been doing so without the Government mandating them to do so. Wherever that is possible, we welcome it. The kinship strategy will provide an update on our commitment to explore workplace entitlements for kinship carers.

On pupil premium, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne touched on, at the moment, children who live with special guardians and were previously looked after by the state are eligible for pupil premium plus, a non-means-tested, non-income-tested benefit. Kinship children who were not previously looked after but have been entitled to free school meals can get pupil premium in the usual way that other children can if they have been eligible within the last six years. We constantly review and assess the effectiveness of pupil premium to ensure that it is supporting the children most in need of it.

Briefly on admissions, in 2021 we introduced changes to the school admissions code to improve in-year admissions. That enables kinship carers to secure a school place for their child in year if they cannot do so by other means.

Finally in this area, children who are living with special guardians and have previously been in state care can access therapeutic support via the adoption support fund. Last year, we made that support available to children who live with relatives under child arrangements orders. We are looking to improve local authority engagement with the adoption support fund, to increase the proportion of eligible kinship carers—

I am grateful to the Minister for covering this point. It is not quite as simple as he is making out, because a number of local authorities—my own included—make it very difficult for people to access those services through that fund, unless they have gone through all kinds of hoops and loops with other statutory services prior to making an application. Will the Minister ensure that all local authorities understand that the message coming from him is that those services should be available to kinship carers?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that point and I will certainly do that. He made a point about assessments, which I will come to. Again, they should be simpler than they have been in his experience.

My Department is also working with Ofsted to improve the visibility of kinship care in inspection reports. Through updated guidance and inspector training, Ofsted will make it clearer that reports should refer to the quality of support being provided to kinship carers and children in kinship care arrangements.

Let me try to rattle through as many of the questions as I can. We have touched on data. I have given the 2021 census figures, but data collection is something that my officials are really working on, because there just has not been enough. Not having that data is inhibiting our ability and some of the things that we want to do in the strategy.

I was asked whether there will be an equalities impact assessment. Yes, there will be a thorough equalities impact assessment as part of the forthcoming strategy.

On the bureaucracy that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne referred to, part of the setting of the definition is to ensure that agencies are better able to provide the right support and remove some of the hurdles that kinship carers experience. We hope that the peer support groups will support that work as well.

I just touched on the point made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish about assessments. LAs have the statutory responsibility for assessing kinship carers, because they have the legal duty to safeguard vulnerable children, but those assessments should be proportionate and prioritise the best interests of the child. I encourage local authorities to think about how their assessments could be adapted to be more supportive, and we will reiterate that in our strategy.

I need to leave a little time for the hon. Member for Twickenham to wind up. I thank her again for securing the debate, as well as previous ones, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. The debate has rightly focused on the issues that all too many kinship carers face. I put on the record my thanks and admiration for every one of those kinship carers—including Members of this House—for their selfless contribution to the lives of the children they care for. It is a huge commitment, but such an important one. I am proud of the progress that we are already making to support kinship carers, but I know there is much more to do, and that is what the strategy will contain.

I am fully committed to reducing the barriers to kinship care where it is in the best interests of the child and can offer a safe, stable and loving alternative to their becoming looked after. I look forward to publishing our kinship strategy before the end of the year. As I set out, that will be an opportunity to begin to make meaningful and lasting change in the lives of kinship carers and their children.

2.55 pm

I thank the hon. Members who co-sponsored my application for the debate and all those who have participated in it. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) said that he gets nervous when this issue comes up because it is so close to home, but I urge him: please do not stop talking about it. His passion, love, devotion and dedication to Lyle makes what he says so much more powerful than anything that I or anybody else says, because it comes from the heart and personal experience, and it is always so moving.

I was heartened by the level of cross-party consensus, not least from the new Minister. I was delighted to hear his commitment to the issue and his recognition of some of the key issues we raised. I feel encouraged. I know, however, that the stumbling block for the strategy will be the Treasury; my sense is that children tend to be a much lower priority for it. I make the Minister this offer: if he needs any help lobbying the Treasury, I, and I suspect Members from all parts of the House, stand ready to work alongside him to make the case and ensure that kinship carers and children in kinship care get support.

I do not think that I heard much about employment leave. Again, if the Minister needs to work with the Department for Business and Trade on that, I will be happy to support him in any way. We can follow up the detail of some issues in correspondence, but he started to address many of the questions that I and other hon. Members raised. We look forward to seeing the strategy, and hon. Members from all parts of the House will continue to work alongside him and to champion this issue.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of support for kinship carers.