Kinship Carers (Parental Responsibility Agreements)

Oral Answers to Questions — Health – in the House of Commons at 5:08 pm on 7th June 2011.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23 )

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Treasury) 5:50 pm, 7th June 2011

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make provision to extend the system of parental responsibility agreements to enable a kinship carer to obtain parental responsibility for a child they are raising without having to bring a case to court;
and for connected purposes.

There are an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children in the United Kingdom being raised by relatives or friends because their parents cannot look after them. Those children have often experienced tragedy or trauma due to the death or imprisonment of a parent, or to a parent’s alcohol or drug misuse or mental health problems. Sometimes, the parent has simply walked out on them. The Family Rights Group describes those carers and the children they care for as

“the forgotten families of family policy—overlooked by service providers and government”.

Most of those children are being raised by grandparents, but many are also being raised by older siblings, aunts and uncles, and even friends and neighbours or their parents’ ex-partners. Those carers step in when there is a crisis—an instinctive response to a vulnerable child needing to be taken under someone’s wing. It is a decision made without pausing to think about practical matters, such as what the legal arrangements will be or what sort of support might be needed. The children benefit hugely from remaining in family units. They feel loved, they maintain contact with family members and they have some much-needed stability in their lives.

The aim of the Bill is to extend the system of parental responsibility agreements, which currently applies to step-parents under section 4 of the Children Act 1989, to allow close relatives to obtain parental responsibility for a child they are raising, with the consent of the parents who have parental responsibility, without having to go to court. It would apply only to those who are defined as a relative under section 105 of the Act: grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles or aunts, whether by full blood, half blood, marriage or civil partnership. It would therefore not apply to friends or to wider family carers such as cousins, to ensure that the arrangements remain distinct from private fostering arrangements, which require regular local authority checks set up as a result of the Victoria Climbié inquiry.

The aim is to assist with those private, temporary arrangements, which are currently completely under the radar, and to enable kinship carers to be recognised by schools to authorise school trips; to register the child with a GP and to be entitled to make medical decisions on the child’s behalf; to apply for a passport; to assist with demonstrating that they are the primary carers with regard to accessing child benefit, child care vouchers, and so on; and to qualify to apply for parental leave and the right to request flexible working arrangements. To get parental responsibility, most kinship carers currently have to go to court to apply for special guardianship or a residence order. My proposal would minimise the huge disruption to family dynamics involved in bringing a case to court, enabling families to function during periods of crisis.

I shall give the House a few examples. One grandmother told me that when her grandson needed injections at the doctors, they were turned away. With a parental responsibility agreement in place, she would have been in a position to sign for his injections there and then. Instead, they had the difficult job of trying to track down the mum and getting her consent. Grandparents who had raised their grandson from when he was a toddler told us that they would not go to court to apply for a residence or special guardianship order until the child was 10, because they feared that the court might not support their application and that they would lose him, possibly to adoption. They therefore did not have the legal authority to make key decisions—for example, to sign for him to go on school trips. Another woman has told me that she has looked after her six-year-old nephew for the past three and half years. She has been advised to go to court to apply for a legal order to get parental rights, as his birth mother is unlikely ever to be able to look after him again, but she cannot afford to pay the court costs. She is in full-time work, so she can get no help with those costs.

This week is European prisoners’ children week, which makes this a good time also to be talking about the particular difficulties faced by families with a parent in prison. Every year, 160,000 children experience the imprisonment of a parent. Family carers play an important role in helping prisoners and their children to stay in touch during a sentence, which has been shown to be critical in preventing reoffending. Children in those circumstances are also at higher risk of becoming offenders themselves, and kinship carers play a vital role in supporting those vulnerable and often traumatised children. The problem is that, in those circumstances, carers are often reluctant to seek the help that they need from children’s services. They are often scared of state involvement, and especially fearful of social workers removing the children from them or criticising their ability to parent the child, even if that fear is unwarranted, as it is in the vast majority of cases.

I would like to share with the House a couple of the many stories from carers at whom the Bill is particularly targeted. Angie has looked after her granddaughter for the past three years, since the child was just one year old. Her granddaughter’s father is in prison, and the child’s mother has just come through a home detox from heroin; she is now completely clean. Prior to Angie’s full-time involvement with her granddaughter, she looked after her most weekends and on some week nights. She says:

“I have strong views on parents and children remaining as a family unit and if my daughter had lost control of her daughter, this would have had the reverse effect on her drug recovery and the bond between mum and daughter would simply have vanished. The consequence of this would be long term for the child. I am delighted that my daughter has had regular supervised contact with her own daughter. It has meant a lot and I am sure that is why she was eventually able to detox from all drug use and see her own daughter as needing a real mum”.

Angie goes on to say:

“I think this Bill would have helped me enormously. I have considered special guardianship but the court process would be too much for my daughter who sees this as ‘taking her daughter right from under her’. People in drug abuse situations do not have the foresight to see things clearly and this Act would have been an enormous help to us if it had been in force three years ago”.

I have also been contacted by a woman who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous. Her sister has mental health problems and is an alcoholic. The children’s father did not want residence, so the grandparents went to court, gained a residence order and took on caring for the children, but the grandparents’ health declined, and the children’s aunt and her partner have unofficially taken on care of the children. They do not have the money to go back through the courts to change the residence order arrangement. Also, they want to ensure that the new living arrangements are what the children want—a decision that they are unable to make until they have given it a go for a sustained period of time. I shall quote from the aunt’s e-mail:

“My parents live 70 miles away, so sorting all the consent letters for school, activity clubs, etc., does become a pain. My nephew broke his leg recently and you can imagine the rigmarole when he had to undergo emergency medical treatment and neither my partner nor I were officially able to sign for treatment. My partner even had to lie about being official next of kin to the ward staff, in order to sleep overnight in hospital with him. We weren’t prepared to leave him alone, but if we’d been honest, that’s exactly what would have happened!”

My proposal does not involve any spending commitment. In fact, it goes a little way towards supporting the carers who save the state the estimated £12 billion that it would cost if the children involved were in independent foster care. I am pleased that the last Labour Government produced draft family and friends care statutory guidance for local authorities just before the general election. That guidance has now been finalised, and requires that local authorities must have a family and friends care policy in place by 30 September this year, addressing all children in family and friends care, not only those in the care system.

The Bill is backed by the Family Rights Group, the Fostering Network, the Grandparents’ Association, Grandparents Plus, the National Children’s Bureau, Action for Prisoners’ Families, the Who Cares? Trust, the Prison Advice and Care Trust, the Adolescent and Children’s Trust, and Mentor UK. I would particularly like to thank Cathy Ashley of the Family Rights Group for all her work on the Bill.

I would like to finish by thanking Paul, a young man who is bringing up his six younger siblings after his mother walked out, and who had to battle the system for a year and see his brothers and sisters taken into care and put into foster homes before the courts accepted that he was the best person to look after them. It was hearing Paul recently on “Woman’s Hour”, speaking so articulately and passionately about his experience, that inspired me to take up this issue. He is an excellent role model for his younger siblings, and I wish his family all the best for the future.

Question put and agreed to .

Ordered,

That Kerry McCarthy, Mr David Blunkett, Paul Goggins, Mrs Helen Grant, Kate Green, Andrew Gwynne, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Alan Johnson, Mr David Lammy, Lisa Nandy, Priti Patel and Mr Jamie Reed present the Bill.

Kerry McCarthy accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 October, and to be printed (Bill 198).