Welfare Reform Bill — Report (5th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 23rd January 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Drake Baroness Drake Labour 9:15 pm, 23rd January 2012

My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 60B, the purpose of which is to exempt from the benefit cap family and friends carers who are bringing up children whose parents cannot do so. These are children who would otherwise be in care and this community of carers is looking after a population well in excess of 200,000 children.

Family and friends carers may be disproportionately affected by the benefit cap as they are likely to be living in larger households because of taking in a sibling group, particularly if they have children of their own living at home. It is not uncommon for a kinship carer to be looking after four, five or six children. As a result these families could immediately be up against the cap. Grandparents Plus research finds that 10 per cent of kinship carer households consist of five or more people. While in most of the country carers receive benefits that are less than £500 a week, in parts of London people with larger families are already paying upwards of £400 a week in rent. The cap would leave these future kinship carers with less than £100 a week to cover all their family's, including their new family's, needs.

Around one in three kinship carers gives up work to care for children when they move in. Almost half of these children have emotional and behavioural problems or other special needs or disabilities. In about half of cases their parents are misusing drugs or alcohol. Bringing up someone else's children is enormously emotional and a big financial commitment, yet only a minority of carers-around a third-receive an allowance from the local authority. In the present financial climate, local authorities are even more reluctant to pay kinship carers allowances.

No one sets out in life to become a kinship carer. People do it because they do not want to see their grandchildren, their younger siblings or their nieces or nephews, or children who they know well, taken into care. Often, giving up work is not a choice for them. They are told by social workers or by other authorities that the children will be put in care or placed for adoption if they do not do this. Children who are cared for can be of any age, not just in their early years. Kinship carers are not entitled to an employment break when a child or children first move in and can face significant financial disadvantage as a result of having to give up work. If they are older, they may find it difficult subsequently to re-enter the labour market.

An unintended consequence of the benefit cap is that fewer family and friend carers may volunteer in difficult circumstances, increasing the number of children taken into care as a result. This would be more expensive from the point of view of the state and certainly not in the child's best interest. It costs £40,000 for one child to be in an independent foster care placement for one year and I understand that there is already a shortage of 10,000 foster carers.

The argument that imposing a benefit cap on larger families will discourage people from having more children has no resonance or behavioural leverage for family and friend carers, who are taking on other people's children. A benefit cap can have no positive incentive at all. Rather, it is a disincentive to kinship carers, who save the state significant amounts of money and provide a better solution for the child. Which of the three choices identified in the impact assessment do kinship carers take to mitigate the impact of the cap? Do they go to work, reduce their expenditure or move to cheaper accommodation?

Kinship carers may have to give up work as a condition of assuming responsibility for the child. Grandparents Plus has many examples of grandparents being told by social workers that unless they give up work, their grandchildren will be taken into care. They cannot mitigate the cap by going to work because they then hurt the child. Often, kinship carers want to stay in work, but this may not be an option if they want to take over the responsibility for the child. They may have their own children to support and moving to cheaper accommodation would seem to punish those who voluntarily embrace the responsibility for somebody else's children, often in difficult circumstances.

Children moving into kinship care because of serious family difficulties need stability, and if the carer has to move house to reduce housing costs that will be highly disruptive and mean that children have to change schools. It may mean that the local support networks, on which the kinship carers rely, will also be disrupted. This places further strain on carers, who are already under enormous stress because of the family difficulties that the children they are taking on have endured. Even more than for other parents, community links with families, neighbourhoods, friends, churches and community groups provide vital support to carers who are often bringing up children who may be traumatised.

The amendment covers only carers who are looking after children who would otherwise be in care and under a relevant order. There is no possibility that exempting these kinship carers would result in any sort of perverse incentive for people to go round sweeping up children in the hope of claiming that they are caring for them and accruing additional benefits.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will go back to what I said in Committee and quote the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith. If his words are compelling, as I said in Committee, why should I use alternatives? He said:

"The state has become ambivalent about the importance of family structure ... the role of the extended family ... in a context of growing family breakdown, it is all the more important that we continue to support ... and hold together these wider relationships".

Unless family and friends carers are exempt from the effect of the cap, the state will move from ambivalence to antipathy. In referring to exempting people from the cap, the Minister said in Committee on 23 November:

"We have ... been very careful in providing exemptions and deliberately kept the list short".-[Official Report, 23/11/11; col. GC 415.]

I simply ask that the short list includes family and friends carers. That protects the children and certainly makes fiscal sense.

I acknowledge that the Minister has recognised the valuable role that kinship carers fulfil and that he has committed to looking at a range of issues affecting this group-an important commitment that I accept and I know that he will keep to it. But it remains uncertain as to what the noble Lord intends and this may be my last chance to argue the case for this community before the Bill leaves this House. It is important that a decision on whether individual carers are exempt from the cap should not be left to local discretion. People who are thinking of taking on something as significant as the care of vulnerable children need a degree of certainty about the support that they can expect.

In response to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, the Minister used words to the effect that, "Kinship carers are a special case and we need to get it right in regulations. Families need a period to adjust to looking after troubled children". I would like to push him on that sentiment. As I said, this may be my final chance to argue the case for the valuable job that this community of carers delivers. Will he accept the amendment or agree to include an exemption from the cap for family and friends carers under regulation? Not only is the case for the carers and the children compelling, but it also makes fiscal sense to exempt them.