Kinship Care

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:01 pm on 22nd January 2004.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:01 pm, 22nd January 2004

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-792, in the name of John Swinburne, on recognition of kinship care. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises that many grandparents have become the new foster care parents of children whose mothers and fathers have become disconnected from mainstream society; acknowledges that such care arrangements are usually more stable and result in a positive impact on the young person, as a consequence of grandparents' strong sense of commitment to provide care; further acknowledges that current legislation enables local authorities to contribute to the maintenance of a young person in kinship care; recognises that not all kinship carers will wish to undergo formal scrutiny, but shares concerns about the financial consequences experienced by kinship carers who have satisfied the relevant scrutiny requirements to provide this care, and considers that the Scottish Executive should ensure that local authorities make the appropriate contribution to these carers.

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP 5:11 pm, 22nd January 2004

I thank the Presiding Officer for giving me this welcome opportunity to raise an important matter in the first members' business debate that I have secured—I hope that it will not be the last. I thank the many grandparents who have brought the issue to my attention. I also thank my colleagues who have supported the motion and who are here to speak to it. I hope that they will join me in addressing what is a very serious issue.

A recent report from the centre for drugs misuse research stated that about 50,000 children in Scotland have at least one parent who is a drug addict. Throughout Scotland, many children who are affected indirectly by addiction are looked after by grandparents who have been approached to assume the care of the children, usually in a crisis situation. However, they receive little financial or professional support. There are 3,000 such cases in Glasgow alone. Despite the increase in the reliance on kinship care as an alternative to state care, there is an ambivalence about its use and the way in which carers are assessed, supported and paid.

The term "kinship care" is used to describe various caring arrangements with relatives—predominantly grandparents—when children can no longer live with their birth parents. Such arrangements can be either formal, whereby the child is deemed to be looked after by the local authority, or informal, whereby an arrangement is made within the family. It is believed that kinship care can reduce the trauma of separation for children because it avoids the need for children to be placed with strangers in an unknown environment. I appreciate that there are circumstances in which informal kinship care may be assumed, but I am concerned about the reasons why grandparents might be unwilling to undergo the necessary scrutiny. If scrutiny is believed to be in the best interests of foster children, such scrutiny should be in the best interests of all children. Children who are related to their carer should be no less worthy of protection.

The legislation that governs this area of care is the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which sets out the local authority's duty to give effect to a supervision requirement and to implement the decision of a children's hearing. The act also allows a local authority to make discretionary payments in respect of looked-after children for whom such a decision has been made. Therefore, a grandparent who is looking after a child as a condition of a supervision order or residency order should be paid the same rate as foster parents, as the child is looked after under the terms of the act. Currently, only Highland Council recognises that care appropriately, following the Munby verdict in Manchester; other authorities should be following or they will leave themselves open to legal challenge.

Payments in respect of foster care are dealt with under the Fostering of Children (Scotland) Regulations 1996 and are also at the discretion of local authorities. However, we know of no local authority that does not pay every foster carer irrespective of their financial circumstances. Although the over-arching principle of the 1995 act is that the welfare of the child is paramount, social services have tended to allocate services on the basis of the status of the carer rather than the needs of the child. How can the Scottish Executive accept that local authorities can deny grandparents the cost of bringing up Scotland's children if they are providing the same care? If grandparents are not receiving sufficient recognition, the welfare of Scotland's children is not being met and is in jeopardy.

Grandparents are paid significantly less than foster carers are paid and therefore need to find the money to meet the children's needs from elsewhere, often jeopardising their welfare as a consequence. One case of many that I am aware of throughout Scotland involves a pensioner couple who have a court residence order that gives them the right to look after their eight-year-old granddaughter until she is 16. She has been in their care since she was 18 months old. Social services awarded the couple a one-off payment towards the cost of a school uniform when she started primary school. After intervention by their local councillor, the authority agreed to give them £400 a year, which amounts to only £7.60 a week and falls far short of the fostering allowance of at least £76 a week and as much as £115 in one local authority area. The couple are facing serious financial difficulties and continue to argue their case with the local authority.

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP

If the member does not mind, I will finish my speech. I am on a tight schedule and I do not want to leave anything out. Members will have plenty of time to drag over this can of worms when I sit down.

Allowing cash-strapped social work departments to use financial and other types of discretion over the recognition of kinship care is bringing our child care system into disrepute. In theory, the system is needs-led but, in practice, it is budget-led. How are social work managers reconciling their practice with their values?

There is, undoubtedly, fear in social work departments and Government about the extent of kinship care and what it would cost to recognise it. However, it must be recognised and I ask the Executive to take responsibility and ensure that delegated discretion does not lead to the abuse of that discretion and, ultimately, the abuse of Scotland's children. We continue to ignore this issue at our peril, as the care will be insufficient and the consequences grave.

As I near the end of my speech, I would like to read part of a letter that I received from a grandmother that sums up the current unfair and unacceptable situation. She wrote:

"We get a pat on the back and are told we are doing a great job. We are classed as parents again, but we have already brought up four children. We only receive the family allowance and tax credit. The last eight years have been very distressing for the family and us. Our health has deteriorated these last years. We are both very tired and weary, and mentally it's a terrible strain. I don't think it's a fair system that people who are looking after other people's children get allowances yet, because of the circumstances we find ourselves in we get nothing. The government knows grandparents love and cherish their grandchildren and would never dream of putting them into care."

We believe that, to rid us of this two-tier child care system, a provision should be added to the Fostering of Children (Scotland) Regulations 1996 stating that a child who is already designated as a foster child under section 2 could be placed with grandparents who are paid the same rate as foster parents. The Executive must also ensure that the law is applied as it was intended and not allow local authorities to use their discretion if that discretion goes against the welfare of Scotland's children.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

There is quite a high demand by members to speak in the debate, so members should keep speeches to a maximum of four minutes. I will entertain the possibility of a short extension to the debate later, when I am clearer about the total time that will be needed.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:20 pm, 22nd January 2004

I promise to speak for only four minutes, or for less than that.

I support the motion in principle—indeed, I signed it. I have four grandchildren, who are great. I love them to death, but the best thing about them is handing them back. I know how difficult it would be if I had to look after them all the time.

Of course we must support grandparents and family members who look after children who cannot be supported by their parents for whatever reason. However, the issue is not only about financial support. We must provide counselling and respite care support and ensure that all the health services are available. The children whom we are discussing are bewildered and unhappy and will seek an anchorage in their grandparents or other members of their family, which is right and proper.

There are significant variations throughout Scotland in local authorities' approach to assessing, supporting and paying family members and friends who provide care for children. As John Swinburne said, we are dealing with the tip of the iceberg. In my experience, many informal arrangements exist that the local authorities know nothing about. Indeed, many carers think they should not be paid because they look after members of their family. If they are asked, they say that they do not want to be paid. They are like older people who do not accept all their benefits.

It is recognised that public services alone cannot cope with the complexities of children who need care and there are concerns about the experience of children in public care. As John Swinburne said, the number of children who are placed with family members and friends appears to be increasing. That trend is associated with addiction among many young parents.

The issue of payment is far from straightforward. There are concerns about equity if rates are different for birth parents, families and foster carers and there are concerns that payments to families might be a disincentive to returning children to their parents at the correct time. On the other hand, it is clear that pensioners on fixed incomes might suffer serious poverty as a direct result of looking after their grandchildren, in which case the grandchildren will have even more disadvantaged experiences.

Some people advocate a national benefit for kinship care—for example, there could be an increase in child benefit. I do not have much doubt that a national strategy is needed, but such a strategy must be for that distinct form of care. If there is a national scheme for financial support, we must be clear that that scheme is for that distinct form of care.

There should be consultation of potential carers at the local level. Family group conferences provide all the help that they can to families so that they can propose their own care solutions. There must be information, training and a range of practical help. We must also work with families and friends to assess the support that they need, whether that is emotional or practical.

Carers must be assessed in the best interests of the child. As the motion suggests, the child's welfare is paramount. That should be the ethos of every department that deals with children. The child should absolutely have the right to have family circumstances explored before a decision is made. We should always think about the care of the child. We cannot expect grandparents to make dramatic changes in their lives without support—that in itself would be a form of abuse.

MSPs have a duty to protect and care for such kids. We should not kick local authorities around. It is up to the state to find funding through the local authorities and the new money should be ring fenced, if that is necessary.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 5:24 pm, 22nd January 2004

In my previous life as a family solicitor, I was often involved in cases where it was the grandparents, aunts or uncles who held together the children of a broken relationship—I am sad to say that it was sometimes more than one broken relationship, as the mother and father of the children went through a series of partners. That is just part of life's course these days. I also dealt with cases where grandparents came to my office because their own children were having drug or alcohol difficulties and were therefore incapable for a variety of reasons—they could not look after themselves, let alone their children.

Those grandparents, aunts or uncles did not know the terms "kinship care" or "carers"—they were just looking after the children they loved and they did so with responsibility and experience. Therefore, it comes as news to me that there is apparently such discrimination in the way in which those grandparents and other members of the extended family are reimbursed and supported by the state. I am grateful to the Glasgow advice group for providing a briefing note on the subject. I hope that, in summing up, the minister will clarify the position with regard to the various pieces of legislation that are referred to in that briefing note. For example, the Glasgow advice group is aware of

"50 cases where the child, as a result of a Supervision Requirement, imposed by a Children's Panel, resides with a relative, usually the grandparents, as a condition of that Supervision Requirement."

The briefing note does not say whether, once such an order is given, there is a financial consequence for the state to meet. I see that Scott Barrie is shaking his head to tell me that there is not and I thank him for that. If such an obligation is imposed, there must be some kind of assistance from the state.

There also appears to be a conflict between—or at least a brushing together of—several pieces of legislation. For example, there is the Fostering of Children (Scotland) Regulations 1996, under which discretionary payments are made; such discretionary payments are not usually made to people who have a blood relationship with the child. However, there is also the Children (Scotland) Act 1975, which rightly promotes the idea that the welfare of the child is always paramount. Neither parents' nor grandparents' interests should be taken into account; it should simply be the interests of the children that are considered. It appears that, under that act, there might be scope for making payments to the extended blood family.

However, the information seems to be in a bit of a mess and the position seems to depend on which local authority is involved. I would be pleased to know from the minister whether he can advise the chamber of any thoughts that the Executive has about making the situation more uniform throughout Scotland and about recognising the essential role of the blood family.

I commend all those grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbours and others who often bring up without any recognition the many children who are victims of broken marriages. Through their experience, love and kindness, they repair the lives of those children.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative 5:28 pm, 22nd January 2004

I congratulate John Swinburne on lodging the motion for debate. He, with Trish Godman, lodged a composite motion. [ Interruption. ] My apologies—I understand that it was Christine May. I remembered the composite aspect, at least, which sometimes goes against the grain for a Tory such as me. However, the motion is a particularly good one that covers issues that many of us have come across in our constituencies as MSPs and, in my case, as an MP.

I declare an interest as a grandparent with three grandchildren, but I am happy to say that there is no current need for legislation or interference to make me take over parental responsibilities. I hope that the situation stays that way, but I acknowledge some of the points that Trish Godman made. As we all get slightly older, our ability to look after children decreases. I know, as Trish Godman does, that when it comes to the end of a day of looking after grandchildren, I am relieved to see them go home or, at least, to bed. For a grandparent like me to have such responsibilities on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week basis is an onerous burden that I hope not to face at this time in my life.

That said, I have found that many grandparents are very keen to take over responsibility under the conditions that John Swinburne described. I recently wrote to a number of local authorities on the matter and have brought along responses from Glasgow City Council, North Ayrshire Council and East Ayrshire Council. I am sad to say that I also have a letter from South Ayrshire Council, which almost rejects any responsibility for paying grandparents who are keen to take on an informal fostering role. Although those grandparents cannot afford to look after their grandchildren, they are none the less prepared to do so.

Elaine Noad, the director of social work, housing and health in South Ayrshire Council, wrote to me to say that the council does

"not have a scheme and cannot provide financial assistance".

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Does the member agree that in some instances—indeed, they are not so few—we might not want to leave children with the grandparents?

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

Yes. I also feel that in many cases social workers have a responsibility in that respect. That said, in many other cases, informal arrangements are made with grandparents who are more than suitable. I accept that there should be reasonable levels of scrutiny in some circumstances.

However, my point is that South Ayrshire Council does

"not have a scheme and cannot provide financial assistance".

Elaine Noad ends her letter by saying:

"This is a national political issue which needs to be addressed at national level".

I have some reservations about that statement. When devolution was introduced in Scotland, I felt that we had to be careful that Parliament did not take on board local authorities' responsibilities. However, although this particular local authority has the ability to make such payments, it says that it "cannot" because of national policy. On that basis, I ask the minister to accept a copy of the letter from South Ayrshire Council and to respond to it in due course. I hope that he can assure me that South Ayrshire Council has the same ability as many other councils to make such payments.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 5:32 pm, 22nd January 2004

Like other members, I congratulate John Swinburne on securing this welcome debate. I also declare my interest as a grandparent.

Other members have dealt very well with many of the specific issues that are outlined in the motion. However, I want to broaden the discussion in several ways. First, I must point out that we seriously undervalue care within the family. That care goes both ways. For example, some schoolchildren devote a huge amount of time to looking after either a single parent who has a drug problem or an elderly grandparent, while some grandparents help to look after children. We have to acknowledge that and consider the whole matter, including the financial aspects and other support issues. For example, as Trish Godman said, respite care rather than regular payments might really help in some cases.

In that sense, we need a flexible system. It is true that not all grandparents are angels; indeed, some of them are quite stupid and would not be much help to a child. However, other things being equal, it is probably better for a child to be looked after by an intelligent grandparent than by some other intelligent person such as a foster parent. As a result, I suggest to the minister that we examine the whole business of care within the family. After all, it is probably the biggest industry in the country and saves public funds millions and millions of pounds. Grandparents play an important part, in that respect.

Secondly, I want to raise an issue that might not be within the minister's purview, but which is still relevant. Very often, grandparents get a raw deal from marriage break-ups and other such disputes and, in many cases, they are totally excluded from any contact with the child even though they are not the guilty party. I am sure that other members have experienced examples of such cases. Indeed, it almost makes one cry to hear about grannies who are not allowed to have even one photograph of their grandchildren.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I think that there is provision in existing law whereby any party who can show an interest in the child's welfare can apply to become a party to the litigation. In those circumstances, a grandparent could enter the process and the sheriff might very well take the view that the grandparent was better than either of the parents.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

Thank you, that was helpful. As often happens, people who are not lawyers catch up too late and matters are signed, sealed and delivered before the grandparents can get involved.

We should ensure that grandparents are properly valued and that they can make a useful contribution to the upbringing of children in whatever way. We all want our future citizens to be somewhat better than we are. That would not be difficult.

Photo of Carolyn Leckie Carolyn Leckie SSP 5:35 pm, 22nd January 2004

Like everyone else, I congratulate John Swinburne on bringing this issue for debate. I hope that our debate will move the issue forward.

Unlike previous speakers, I am not a grandparent.

Photo of Carolyn Leckie Carolyn Leckie SSP

Good. That makes two of us. However, I am a mother of two teenagers and I cannot think of a more ominous prospect than having to do it all again. We have to recognise the role of grandparents, and not only in the particular situations that we have been debating. Grandparents allow people like me to work throughout our lives—we must recognise the cheap, or unpaid, child care that grandparents provide. It is farcical that caring for children by grandparents can be a condition of supervision but that absolutely no financial support is offered.

We also have to consider the disparity of the situation for foster parents and bear it in mind that, since poverty is associated with the issues that John Swinburne raised—it is often a factor in situations of drug and alcohol misuse and family breakdown—it is unlikely that the grandparents are any better off than the parents. They, too, are likely to be on low incomes and officially poor, and are certainly likely to be unable to afford to take on a new family to bring up.

Local authorities are taking financial decisions and abusing their discretion in failing to act in the best interests of children. I suppose we need to examine why. It puzzles me how a blood relationship is somehow judged to reduce the price of bread, milk, shoes, coats, school uniforms or any of the necessities or comforts that every child should be entitled to. Such a relationship certainly does not do that. There is abuse of the good will of grandparents in such situations. Grandparents prevent children from being taken into the care of the state; we have to remember that the state is absolutely the worst parent of all, based on its record. The outcomes for children who go into care are not good.

I would like from the minister some answers to questions about costs. What commitments will the Executive make to funding payments across the board? It is clear that local authorities are making financial decisions and that they need additional funding. Payments must also be standardised: it is not acceptable to leave to the discretion of local authorities decisions about what payments should be in each local authority area. Payments need to be standardised and they need to be adequate; that will have to be funded. There is consensus that the situation is wrong and must be changed. However, we need a real commitment to implementation of support for grandparents, including funding.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour 5:39 pm, 22nd January 2004

Like everyone else in the chamber, I congratulate John Swinburne on bringing this matter to Parliament's attention. I also congratulate my colleague Christine May for the work that she did in drawing up the composite motion.

All of us in the chamber come to this debate with a previous life. For my sins, that previous life was as a principal officer in social work child care in Fife. I was the architect, if that is the right word, of the scheme that is currently used in Fife. It was one of the last things that I did before I left the employment of the council, and it was to do with related fostering.

John Swinburne was quite right when he said that we do not have a national scheme; what we have are 32 different local authorities that have chosen to interpret the existing law almost in 32 different ways. That is one of the problems that we face. John Swinburne mentioned the two principal pieces of legislation—the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 and the Fostering of Children (Scotland) Regulations 1996—but the Children Act 1989 is another important piece of legislation. It allowed related fostering in the form of the custody allowance scheme, which is now the residence allowance scheme. As Phil Gallie said, that operates in some, although not all, local authority areas.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Are you saying that, if a sheriff grants a residency order to a child's grandparents, that has no weight in providing financial assistance?

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour

No, I am saying that the granting of a residency order may have such weight, depending on how the local authority in question has chosen to interpret the laws that permit them to do such things. The relevant provisions are not mandatory. Under the Children Act 1989, related fostering is possible.

In the short time that is available to me, I want to make the point that we must be very careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water, which is perhaps a bad analogy. It is clear that youngsters who are the subject of supervision requirements and who reside with grandparents are under the state's care. Although the state allows them to live with a grandparent, they are still under the state's care and all the relevant laws and regulations must apply. I agree that local authorities should make financial contributions towards such children's upkeep, if that is permissible.

However, a large number of kinship carers are not looked after in the strictest sense of the 1995 act and they do not want to be. Given the informal nature of some of its provisions, it would not be in keeping with that act to bring them under such statutory cover. We do not want to make the hurdle to grandparents obtaining financial support too great by applying to them the panoply of fostering and boarding-out regulations.

As a former chair of the fostering and adoption panel in Fife, I can say that it was a pretty tough test to get someone approved by that panel. I think that a large number of grandparents—who have stepped in to look after their grandchildren in circumstances that, as John Swinburne said, are quite appropriate—would baulk at the prospect of being made approved foster parents so, if we are saying that we want do that, we will end up undoing what we have at the moment.

Trish Godman is right: we must consider the issue more sympathetically and we must ensure that local authorities that choose not to implement what the law permits them to do in the way we think they should—members have mentioned such authorities—are encouraged to do so. They must come up with schemes that ensure that no one is penalised financially for taking on the care of related children. At the same time, we must ensure that we do not make the process so bureaucratic that we end up with a system that undoes what we want it to do.

Photo of Eleanor Scott Eleanor Scott Green 5:43 pm, 22nd January 2004

Like everyone else, I thank John Swinburne for securing a debate on such an important topic.

Following on from what Scott Barrie said, I, too, have a past life that involved working with a social work department as a medical person; at one point, I was medical adviser to the fostering and adoption panels in the Highland Council. That is the angle from which I approach the subject, so I understand what Scott Barrie was saying.

Some of the information that I have gleaned in the meantime has come from colleagues in the Highland Council. Highland got an honourable mention as being the one authority that pays an allowance to kinship carers; as far as I am aware, it pays the same as the allowance that foster carers receive, but without the child benefit. An assessment is carried out that is somewhat less exhaustive than the foster carers' assessment—unless the child has been placed with kinship carers on a fostering basis.

One of the colleagues to whom I referred said:

"The law is pretty messy and we could do with some clarity".

Essentially, they want to be sure that they have a legal base for the payments that they make and they do not know whether that comes under the fostering regulations. That follows on from what Scott Barrie said about authorities needing to know what they can do, whether it is okay to make such payments and whether there is some sort of basis for them.

The present policy drive is to try not to make such grandparents foster carers because, as has been said, a huge assessment is involved—multiple visits from a specialist social worker are necessary and some of the process is quite intrusive.

To be quite honest, some grandparents would not meet the foster carer criteria. However, as Carolyn Leckie said, the state makes "the worst parent". All the research shows that children do best when they are brought up in their own family—however apparently unsatisfactory that family is—rather than their being looked after away from that family. A carer that would not pass a foster carer assessment might still be a perfectly good carer for a child who is a blood relative, so they should be supported in doing that.

Former colleagues have talked to me about an issue that is possibly not a devolved power. It is the issue of poorer carers on benefit. Fostering allowance is not taken into consideration by the Benefits Agency, whereas payments to others that are not paid as a fostering allowance are taken into account. For example, kinship carer payments and residence allowance are taken into account: that is an anomaly. It is nonsense that the authorities are making such payments for kinship caring or for residence allowance.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour

That is one of the points that I wanted to bring up but omitted. Does Eleanor Scott agree that that is perhaps why some local authorities do not go down that road but instead make one-off payments, which may not seem to be particularly generous, but which prevent people from ending up in the benefits trap in which they find that what they are given with one hand is taken away with the other?

Photo of Eleanor Scott Eleanor Scott Green

I am sure that that is exactly right. That is an anomaly that people must find ways round. I know that the Fostering Network has been trying to sort out the problem for some time, and it could really do with some help on that. That is an issue that the Executive could take up.

It would be nice if all authorities felt able—as Highland Council does—to make payments to ensure that kinship carers are supported and are doing the right thing. Authorities should not feel that that is outwith the scope of what they should be doing. They should feel that they can support grandparents and kinship carers. They deserve to be supported, because there is no doubt that they are doing a valuable job.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat 5:47 pm, 22nd January 2004

John Swinburne is to be congratulated on bringing the issue of kinship carers before Parliament. As we have heard, there is no doubt that there is an urgent need to address the problems that can arise in our communities when young, vulnerable children become the responsibility of social services and the local authority. The reasons why children require care are many and varied. Some children come from broken homes, are deserted by one or both parents or, as John Swinburne's motion says, are "disconnected from mainstream society". The end result, of course, is the same and is inevitable—stress and trauma for the children and serious disruption for their young lives.

We have also heard that the agencies with responsibility for those children handle the situation in a totally unacceptable and discriminating manner. They fund care through children's homes or foster parents and do little to support those relatives who, in certain circumstances, are providing care because they feel a keen sense of responsibility for the welfare of the young children. The situation becomes even more of a problem when that responsibility is taken on by the children's grandparents, who may be living on limited means and yet are obliged to encounter physical and financial difficulties in their retirement years.

It is quite absurd to suggest that, because someone is a blood relative of the children, they are not entitled to similar financial support to those who foster non-related children. Just today, I received a copy of a report from a Glasgow advice group, which states:

"An elderly woman, whose husband left her when she agreed to care for her grandchildren (3) (He was not the grandfather and saw no reason why he should pay to maintain children he was not related to) was given no financial assistance before we became involved in the case. She now receives £140 per week, in total, however, in Glasgow the Fostering Payment for one of the children, in this case, would amount to at least £160 per week if it was paid.

This woman has a serious Heart condition and other severe medical conditions so that the children are probably spending more time looking after her than she does looking after them."

That example shows the difficulties and the anomalies that can arise. The woman got £140 for three children, whereas under the foster care arrangements she should have had £160 for each child. The Scottish Executive must ensure that all foster parents have equal treatment. After all, we all accept that it costs the same amount to care for a related child as it does to care for a non-related child.

Photo of Christine May Christine May Labour 5:50 pm, 22nd January 2004

I thank John Swinburne for the considerable time that he spent with me. The debate on the resulting motion has tapped into the wealth of experience among members of issues around kinship care and the hardship and distress that it can cause to families. If nothing else, the debate is worth while in showing that the Parliament recognises the vital role that is played by grandparents and other relations, including aunts and uncles, in caring for related children.

As members have said, we should recognise that the children who are cared for in that way generally have better outcomes than children in other areas of the looked-after sector. It is also undoubtedly the case that looking after someone else's child, whether they are related or not, requires emotional and financial dedication—the expenses will almost always outstrip allowances.

Again, as members have said, we need to be careful that we do not create a situation in which it becomes more financially viable for parents not to look after their children but to get their mums or dads to do it. It is essential that when we talk about kinship care we mean the recognised situation in which the child is legally deemed to require foster care.

It has been argued that foster carers who are registered and trained do a more professional job and that the fee that they get is to compensate them for not being able to seek other work. It has also been argued that they look after older or more difficult children with complex needs. We need to recognise the significant and complex care needs of the children of addicts in particular, as those children are increasingly being looked after by their grandparents.

Other members have spoken about the training and scrutiny issues that are involved in becoming a recognised foster carer. As I do not have the benefit of Scott Barrie's experience, I checked on the present situation in Fife. I found that Fife Council pays a maintenance allowance or, if there is a residence order, a related carers allowance. In some of those cases, as only the basic registration requirements need to be taken on board, the barrier of the requirement for significant scrutiny and legal checks is not an issue. That encourages families to apply for residence orders for the children so that they can get the related carers allowance.

The issue is a national one and I am aware of the current cases. In Fife and elsewhere, people would like a national scheme with national levels of payment and national standards. I have become convinced over the past week that a national debate is required for that to happen. Work will need to be done to ensure that tax and benefit issues can be resolved.

There is an active and informed foster carers group in Fife. Trish Godman ably outlined the national scheme and special provision for kinship carers. I would like the minister to consider holding discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about drawing up a national scheme—at the moment, the local authorities have the discretion and the legal right to make payments. I look forward to hearing the minister's comments on that point.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 5:54 pm, 22nd January 2004

I start by joining other members in congratulating John Swinburne on securing the debate. I know that the subject is one in which he takes a keen interest.

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP

I was so excited about being allowed to speak in this place that I omitted to thank Christine May for her contribution towards the formulation of the motion. I thank her now.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

In the same spirit, I add my congratulations.

Members made some important points and brought their personal experiences and those of their constituents to the chamber. As to the benefits of handing back grandchildren, to which Trish Godman referred, my mother has mentioned that on one or two occasions in the past.

It is clear that the family can play a vital role in meeting the needs of what can be some of the most vulnerable children and can enable them to lead happy and successful lives. I thought it might be helpful if I gave some figures. Of 11,000 young people who were formally looked after—I stress formally—at March 2003, around 12.5 per cent, which is about 1,500 children, lived with friends or relatives. I pay tribute to the efforts of grandparents, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers and other relatives and carers in helping children and young people to thrive. That echoes the comments that have been made by members around the chamber.

As we heard, kinship care takes a variety of forms. It can be an informal family arrangement, in which social work or other agencies simply are not involved, or it can be a formal arrangement, whereby children are placed with relatives by the social work department or the children's hearing. Some relatives or friends can be approved formally as foster carers by the local authority. Others do not go through the full approval process, but are still vetted by the social work department to ensure that they can look after the child properly.

The statutory background was commented upon, but I will talk about the guidance. The Scottish Executive has issued to local authorities guidance on looked-after children, which notes that children may live with relatives in each of the different circumstances that I have just described. The guidance is designed to give help to local authorities on deciding whether a family placement is appropriate, on the approval of relatives as foster carers and on allowances. The guidance gives authorities considerable flexibility to decide what allowances to pay carers and lays out some clear principles for authorities to follow in making such decisions.

Maintenance allowances should reflect the true costs of caring for a child. Costs for fostering should not differ markedly throughout Scotland. With regard to relative carers, the guidance notes that where relatives or friends are approved foster carers for a child, it is unlikely that the cost of caring for the foster child will be much different from the costs faced by other foster carers. It also makes it clear that the local authority can provide financial support even if the child is not formally looked after.

In contrast to Carolyn Leckie, I am clear that local authorities are best placed to know the needs of families and, more important, to consider what is in the best interests of the child—based on local knowledge and circumstances—both in deciding on an appropriate placement and on whether and which allowances should be paid. By giving authorities the flexibility to treat each case individually, we ensure that they can respond to the circumstances of each family on a case-by-case basis.

Phil Gallie gave me a copy of the letter to which he referred. I will be happy to take it with me and to write to him about it.

Little is known nationally about the issues that arise from family placements for children, their carers, parents and social work departments. Research in the United States shows the benefits of such placements, which include the fact that children maintain a sense of identity and have a sense of belonging and feeling settled, because they are placed with people they know. They have more stable placements than children who are placed with non-relative carers and they are less likely to be subject to placement moves. Some disadvantages have been identified in the US research, which include problems for carers in coping with behaviour difficulties, lack of support from child welfare agencies and lower rates of reunification with parents.

The lack of knowledge around the issue is of great concern to me, the Executive and, doubtless, the Parliament. The importance of understanding what makes a child feel secure and confident at an extremely distressing and difficult time cannot be underestimated. Therefore, I have asked for two pieces of work to be undertaken, both of which will report to me towards the end of the year.

A research project on kinship care will be undertaken by the social work services inspectorate. It will examine the issues around kinship care and will identify the characteristics and experiences of kinship carers. The research will focus on the child, and we hope to get information about experiences of kinship care from young people as well as from carers. It will provide information on the benefits and disadvantages of kinship care placements—up to now, that information has been lacking.

The other piece of work will consider fostering services in Scotland, particularly the characteristics of foster carers and the arrangements for the delivery of fostering. I have invited the Fostering Network to undertake that work and it will begin soon.

The results of the two projects will give us a clear picture of both kinship care and foster care in general. The findings will allow us to see whether there are gaps and, if so, what can be done to address them most effectively for the good of the children who are involved. In thinking about the issue, the best interests of the child must be the key. For some children, kinship care is, indeed, the best option, and it promotes a stable and loving family life. For other children, or for some relatives, it might not be the best option. Our research will examine the matter.

When children are in kinship care, local authorities must be flexible in their response and must take into account the needs of both the child and their carers. We plan to share the findings of the two projects to ensure that they are reflected in planning future services and to improve life for the carers and the children. I will ensure that we share the findings with members who have expressed an interest tonight.

A lot of concern has been raised this evening about allowances. In view of members' comments, I will go away and consider whether the guidance that I have mentioned extensively in my response should be reissued to local authorities. I will respond to Phil Gallie and also to Eleanor Scott, who raised a point that I am not competent to respond to now. I do not want to give her a misleading answer, so I will reply in writing.

In conclusion, this has been a useful and important debate. I am grateful to members for their contributions and I repeat my appreciation of the combined efforts of John Swinburne and Christine May in bringing the matter to the chamber this evening.

Meeting closed at 18:02.