I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring a very important issue to the Parliament today. Kinship carers deserve our sincere thanks for the work that they do for children who, for a variety of reasons, are no longer able to live with their parents and for whom living with members of their extended family will often be the best option.
Indeed, Parliament agreed unanimously with that sentiment last December. As a grandparent, I can testify to the work that is involved in looking after my grandson for an evening, let alone 24/7. The kinship carers network estimates that kinship carers save taxpayers in Scotland more than £1 million a year compared with the cost of accommodating children in local authority care. We believe that the whole nation owes kinship carers a big debt. I welcome to the public gallery today the many kinship carers who have travelled from all over Scotland to listen to our debate. [Applause.] We believe that they are unsung heroes and I am pleased that they are able to be with us today as we discuss kinship care. However, I am disappointed that the cabinet secretary is once again posted missing when there are serious issues to discuss.
As the motion reminds members, last September the First Minister backed Labour's plans to fast-track £10 million to deliver better support for kinship carers. When Mr Salmond was asked to fast-track £10 million for kinship care allowances to enable kinship carers to be supported immediately, he said:
"Wendy Alexander should take 'Yes' for an answer."—[Official Report, 27 September 2007; c 2222.]
I am sorry that that "yes" appears to be a "no". [Interruption.] I hear the Minister for Children and Early Years saying, "No, he didn't," but if he cares to check the Official Report, he will find that I quoted Mr Salmond word for word.
Almost exactly a year ago, the minister told Parliament that kinship care allowances of at least £119 a week would start to be paid in April 2008.
Oh my goodness me—well, it will be very interesting to hear what the minister
More than a year on from Alex Salmond's warm words and Adam Ingram's commitment, all we have is a litany of broken promises, backtracking and buck-passing. As the kinship carers who are here today will tell us, the promised payments simply have not materialised in many cases.
We made a commitment to kinship carers in our manifesto, exactly as the Scottish National Party did. The difference is that if Labour had been in power, we would have delivered on that commitment.
I submitted freedom of information requests to Scotland's local authorities to get a detailed breakdown of the support that is being provided around the country for kinship carers, as Adam Ingram has repeatedly stated in written answers that the information is not available centrally. I will be helpful to the minister and provide him and the Parliament with the information that the entire machinery of the Scottish Government apparently does not have. The results expose the hollowness of the commitments that he and the First Minister gave in the chamber. Of the 24 local authorities that have responded so far, 14—a clear majority—are not paying kinship care allowance and, of the other 10, only two are paying it at the recommended rate to which the Scottish Government committed itself a year ago.
Ever keen to rally round beleaguered ministers, Bob Doris lodged a motion the other week seeking to apportion blame to Westminster for the SNP's unfunded and broken promise. Mr Doris's motion is a red herring as, in his area, Glasgow City Council has made it clear that it will make payments to kinship carers in a way that will not prejudice other benefits. I congratulate Glasgow City Council on that.
From recent ministerial replies from Adam Ingram, it seems that he and the Government are still backsliding on their commitment. The press release of 4 December 2007 was quite unequivocal. If Mr Ingram would like to listen, I will read it to him:
"The Scottish Government and COSLA are working to deliver allowances based on The Fostering Network's recommended rate of between £119 and £198 per week for all foster carers and approved kinship carers of looked after young people."
Recent replies from Mr Ingram make it clear that the commitment is now to pay kinship carers the same as is paid to foster carers, which in virtually every council in the land is far below £119. Will he
The FOI responses highlight a postcode lottery of support for looked-after children in Scotland. The motion that the Parliament passed last year committed the Government to
"the provision of equitable and appropriate support for all carers of looked-after children".
That is not happening. A kinship carer of a looked-after child in Clackmannanshire receives £121 per week, but a kinship carer in neighbouring Stirling receives no allowance whatsoever. Such massive local variations make a mockery of any claims that Mr Ingram might make about "equitable and appropriate support".
I ask the minister to outline in his opening speech how he plans to address such widespread discrepancies. Is his message to those kinship carers in Stirling and elsewhere who are not in receipt of the allowance that they are beneficiaries of the historic concordat with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities? That is simply not good enough and it is simply not good enough to blame Westminster.
The minister promised that kinship care allowance would be paid from April 2008, yet he now hides behind the concordat, which is a fig leaf for his broken promises. A commitment to pay the allowance starting in April is now an open-ended aspiration on working towards paying kinship carers at some point in the next three years at the discretion of local authorities. I say to the minister that that is not a coherent strategy for kinship carers; it is a shameful abdication of responsibility.
I make it clear that Labour is not blaming local councils. We believe that the concordat is simply not working. I have here a confidential document that makes it clear that only £4 million has been made available to councils instead of the £10 million that was promised by the First Minister. The minister might shake his head, but I will be very interested to hear what is happening.
I have made it perfectly plain in the public domain to kinship carers and others that the funding for that commitment was to be phased in over three years: £4 million this year; £8 million next year; and £12 million—not £10 million, as Rhona Brankin said—to fully fund the commitment. I would like Rhona Brankin to acknowledge that and the fact that her figures severely underfund the commitment to kinship carers.
That is all very interesting, but the minister should get out more. I suggest that he talk to more kinship carers because what he
"Kinship care was not initially discussed but has now been added."
It speaks of £4 million each year. Alex Salmond promised that £10 million would be made available immediately. That has simply not happened and it is not good enough. The £12 million is to be phased in over three years, but £10 million was promised immediately. It has not been delivered and the kinship carers know that.
We on this side of the chamber give our support to the kinship carers in the public gallery and the thousands of others throughout the country. We believe that they are unsung heroes. I hope that colleagues in other parties will join us today in supporting kinship carers by backing the motion in my name and rejecting the SNP amendment, which is merely an apology for broken promises.
That the Parliament notes the commitment given by the First Minister on 27 September 2007 to provide allowances for kinship carers and ensure that funding would be brought forward to ensure that all kinship carers of looked-after children in Scotland were paid the recommended allowance for foster carers; further notes the commitment contained in the Scottish Government's strategy, Getting it right for every child in kinship and foster care, to introduce a minimum national allowance of between £119 and £198 per week for kinship carers and the comments of the Minister for Children and Early Years in the subsequent debate on 5 December 2007 that he anticipated that payment of this allowance would begin in April 2008; is concerned that this has not materialised and that the vast majority of kinship carers are not in receipt of an allowance consistent with the promises made by both the Minister for Children and Early Years and the First Minister, and therefore calls on the Scottish Government to honour in full its pledge to Scotland's kinship carers and to properly recognise the vital role that kinship carers play in looking after some of Scotland's most vulnerable children.
In speaking to our amendment, I acknowledge at the start that it is right that we debate the support that kinship carers and the children who live with them should receive in Scotland. I know from my constituency cases and from having met many kinship carers that they and the children in their care are often marginalised. Too often, they believe that agencies consider the needs of children to be dealt with as soon as a kinship carer has agreed to care for a child—they feel abandoned. It is therefore no surprise that many kinship carers feel frustrated that their needs and concerns have been overlooked for so long.
When I became the Minister for Children and Early Years, I was determined to achieve improvements for kinship carers, but I inherited a
I ask the member to sit down.
From a position in which no central Government support was available, the Scottish Government has initiated a thorough and co-ordinated programme of action to deliver improvements for all kinship carers.
I am afraid that the member's FOI exercise is a bit out of date. I will provide the chamber with more detailed figures on that front.
The improvements that we are delivering include the production of interim guidance by our external reference group, which is made up of kinship and foster carers and local authority and third sector representatives, to ensure that every child and carer receives a co-ordinated assessment that sets out the range of support that they may need.
The Scottish Government has also been consistent in its proposals for financial support for kinship carers. Given the financial limitations, I have had to prioritise looked-after children. On 31 March 2008, there were 2,398 such children—16 per cent of all looked-after children. The number has more than doubled since 2000. That increase shows the vital and important role that kinship carers play in protecting the needs of our most vulnerable children, who would otherwise be placed in foster or residential care. It makes sense to ensure that there is equity between the support that kinship carers receive and that provided to foster carers. We think that an amount equivalent to the weekly allowance that is paid to foster carers, minus benefit entitlements, is fair. Members need not take our word for that. Professor Jane Aldgate, who is chair of Kinsfolk
"Payment of allowances to approved kinship carers of looked after children is a fantastic step forward by the Scottish Government in strengthening the range of support which kinship carers require".
We recognise the challenges that local authorities face. The progress that they have reported is that 20 authorities—the majority—are paying allowances. A further six have plans well under way, and the remainder have agreed in the concordat to implement the policy. More progress is required, but local authorities face a significant hurdle. If any sum of money, however small, is paid by an authority to a looked-after child, the carer loses entitlement to benefits, with the exception of child benefit. The reasons for that are complex, but the straightforward explanation is that United Kingdom benefits law does not support the needs of looked-after children living with kinship carers. That is why we have made a start with the kinship carers about whom we know—carers of looked-after children and those against whom UK benefits rules discriminate.
I am not at all happy with the situation. My goal is to use existing resources to support all kinship carers who are in financial need.
Not at the moment.
We should supplement the UK benefits system when kinship carers are in financial need—the Scottish Government should not have to subsidise it. However, until we have achieved the necessary changes to UK benefits laws, it is right that our focus should be on supporting those kinship carers who are disadvantaged by the system.
We need the Parliament, local authorities, third sector groups such as Children 1st and kinship care groups to work together to raise the profile of kinship care in Whitehall and to build a coalition of support for change for kinship carers. It is a pity that Labour in the Parliament is undermining that coalition with its cheap political posturing.
I move amendment S3M-3078.1, to leave out from "to provide" to end and insert:
"to kinship carers; notes the increase of over 100% of looked-after children since 2000 who live with a kinship carer; recognises the crucial role that these carers play in supporting our most vulnerable children and that they should be supported financially at an equivalent level to foster carers; welcomes work by local authorities towards providing financial support to approved kinship carers of looked-after children using resources provided by central government and further welcomes the work of COSLA and the Association of Directors of Social Work to support the efforts of all local authorities to achieve this; calls on the Scottish Government to work constructively with the UK Government to resolve issues arising out of the interface
This time last year, the Scottish Conservatives welcomed the Government's statement on fostering and kinship care and the publication of "Getting it right for every child in kinship and foster care". We welcome this opportunity to review the position one year on.
During last year's debate, the minister said that we must do better and assured us of the Government's commitment to providing much better-quality care for the most vulnerable children in Scotland. I believe that that was a genuine commitment, but I cannot find evidence to support the view that the Government has managed to move things forward since December last year. In her opening speech, Rhona Brankin provided evidence that she believes shows that there are serious discrepancies between what was promised in December 2007 and what is being delivered in December 2008—namely, 14 councils are not delivering the policy. It is also true that many people who find themselves in kinship care circumstances perceive that they have been badly let down by the Government; I am sure that members have been on the receiving end of complaints in that respect.
The current state of affairs is particularly unfortunate given the belief of all parties represented in the chamber that kinship care often offers the best option when children are unable to live with their parents, and our desire to see foster care and kinship care allowances placed on a much more equitable basis. Last year, we agreed that kinship care placements usually give children the best chance of overcoming the disruption and stressful circumstances that they have faced and of developing new confidence and self-esteem. Surely it is important that policy commitments reflect that objective.
I share the concerns of Labour and the Liberals when they criticise the minister and the First Minister for the language that they used in December 2007. It was easy to read into that language that the Government believed that it could address the discrepancies in support for kinship care in April 2008. In particular, the language that was used implied that there would be parity between kinship carers and foster carers, because the minister said clearly that the cash settlement within the concordat covered the payments due to kinship carers
"as it covers payments for foster carers."—[Official Report, 5 December 2007; c 4085-6.]
That was an unfortunate statement. The fact of the matter is that it was slightly disingenuous because it was perfectly clear then—as it is now—that there were other obstacles in the way. What the minister meant to say was that payments to kinship carers would be phased in over the period 2008 to 2011.
Just as important, the minister should have been much more up front about the issue of UK benefits. That is a genuine problem that has nothing to do with the terms of the concordat—which is not a legally binding document and, frankly, is not worth the paper it is written on. The Government should know by now that it was very dangerous to place any flagship commitment in the concordat at the same time as allowing councils to have discretion about which priorities they chose—class sizes, school meals, school buildings and teacher numbers all tell that story.
Ironically, the Government's main failing on the issue has been to put far too much emphasis on a concordat deal that becomes shakier each day. It would have been much better if the focus had been on addressing the anomalies that result from the fact that kinship carers can claim child benefit, which means that, technically, they lose that amount when they are compared with foster carers, who are unable to claim child benefit. Those are the issues that will determine whether real progress is made in the area and help to eliminate the substantial discrepancies between different local authorities in Scotland, which are one of the main reasons for complaint among kinship carers. We should not forget that the overall growth in demand for these vital services means that the problem could get worse, rather than better, if we do not address the inconsistencies in the child benefit system.
What matters most are the best interests of children and their carers and the need to achieve a workable and effective balance between family and state support. By definition, that means that we must establish greater consistency between Westminster and Holyrood legislation, especially on where the final responsibility should lie. We should tighten up the definition of "looked-after child" and the legal status that is accorded to the various categories.
No one doubts that the area is complex and that it has suffered from a lack of clarity on the part of the Scottish Government, which is acknowledged—albeit too late in the day—in the Government's amendment. Labour's motion has forced the Government's hand. The Government has had to acknowledge the extent of concern among Scotland's kinship carers, who expected more progress to have been made by now. However, it is not reasonable to put all the blame on the concordat, because even if it worked better, many issues would remain that leave kinship
The debate is undoubtedly important. In light of statements that were made in the Parliament last year, everyone who is committed and dedicated enough to take on the role of kinship carer is right to feel let down by the Government's lack of action. A couple of weeks ago, the Parliament united to acknowledge the challenges that are faced when the state takes on the role of carer and the state's relative failures in that regard. I will not rehearse the arguments that were made during that debate, but if we can acknowledge those challenges, we should be able to recognise fully the people who willingly take on the role of kinship carer.
The lack of consistent information is a challenge. Legal definitions are used as a means of avoiding costs to the state. Our overarching ambition must be to address that issue soon, because there are many casual kinship carers who, for a variety of reasons, are not in the system and who are suffering the consequences of Government indecision.
Most members who are taking part in the debate know full well that the SNP Government has let down kinship carers throughout Scotland. Notwithstanding the complicated issue of benefit clawback, the Government is failing to deliver on its promise, and is again passing the buck but not the bucks to local authorities, under the increasingly hysterical concordat. Perhaps if the SNP had been less focused on populist measures such as giving middle-class children free school meals, it would have had the money to help hard-pressed carers with more than warm words and advice that they speak to their local councillors.
Kinship care allowances were supposed to be paid on the same basis as fostering allowances are paid, but the Scottish Government has left it to local councils to decide whether, how and when to pay allowances. Now we discover that the deadline for delivery is 2011. Where does that leave the grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles who are waiting for a decision now?
Does the minister want to hear my answer or would he rather comment from a sedentary position? I was about to say that the current Government has begun to implement the strategy. There has been progress, which was initiated by the previous Administration.
Despite the promises that were made in Parliament and to kinship carers, the situation remains unclear. The wish to pick a fight with Westminster over clawback might meet the SNP's narrow agenda, but it will not address the issue. Funding for the Citizens Advice Scotland carers support service is welcome, but it is no substitute for clarity on delivering the promises that the First Minister made in Parliament.
My big worry is about how we define "looked-after children". I hope that the minister will clarify the situation. There are between 12,000 and 14,000 looked-after children in Scotland. How many more children are being looked after on an informal and casual basis and are not being supported by the state?
The Liberal Democrats will support the Labour motion. The SNP Government has given us warm words and strategies that have no—or, at best, opaque—financial underpinning. Its approach is little more that a wish list and could be characterised as a letter to Santa: "Dear Santa Swinney, We know we've not been that good this year. We've not done things we promised to do, we've wasted lots of money, we've ignored the advice of our betters and we've picked too many fights with our neighbours, but please could you give us the money that kinship carers are entitled to? Yours faithfully, The Minister for Children and Early Years".
The Parliament debated kinship care about a year ago, when the minister announced the introduction of kinship care allowance for looked-after children who are placed within their families. At the time, I welcomed the announcement but said that the Government needed to go further. I have not changed my mind. Indeed, if anything, my concerns are greater.
For a start, despite kinship care allowances being mentioned in the historic concordat, councils have been given until 2011 to introduce them. Families who qualify under the current narrow criteria are still not receiving a penny. Each year that goes by means that more children do without, and I ask the minister to have urgent discussions with COSLA to ensure that allowances are paid now.
Another concern is that kinship carers who take out guardianship or residency orders are excluded and lose their entitlement to the allowance. I have noticed that councils are encouraging carers to take out such orders. In some cases, councils that have not been paying kinship care allowances have paid for legal assistance to enable people to take out orders.
My greatest concern is that the carers of children who are not defined as "looked after" are excluded. When a family member or friend steps in immediately after a crisis to offer a young person a home, councils do not apply for looked-after status for the child, so the carers are not entitled to the allowance, despite their plight. Every story is different. There are children who have lost their parents through drug abuse or whose parents' addiction problems meant that they could not look after them properly. There are children whose parents are seriously ill and there are children who have been orphaned. Such children are already facing a catastrophic loss in their young lives. Their friends or families step in immediately because they refuse to cast vulnerable children to the mercy of local authorities and the uncertainty that that would bring.
It is unfortunate that such carers are penalised for stepping in. Many are grandparents who have retired and are living on a fixed income. One grandmother told me that she was afraid to have her grandchildren defined as looked after by the council, in case they would not be placed with her. She and her husband had chronic illnesses and were unable to work. Their income was meagre and she feared that, as the children got older, they would realise that they did not have things that other children have. The children were already different, because their parents were dead; she did not want them to feel more different because of things that they did not have.
If families and friends do not step in, councils must pay for foster care. There must surely be a way of helping such people. Could an allowance be paid that would cover the additional expense of bringing up a child but would not include the element of payment that is made to foster families? Such an approach would ease child poverty and be much cheaper than foster care.
Children 1st and other organisations have provided members with briefings in which they say that it is vital that options for placement within the family should be exhausted before a child is placed with strangers. In a pioneering approach, children's organisations have developed family group conferences as a means of identifying family support and involving young people in important decisions about their future.
With kinship care, we are debating an issue that is close to my heart. A couple of years ago, the kinship care group in north Glasgow hosted a Scotland-wide election hustings on kinship care. From that moment, I was determined to help kinship carers and their families when I could. Their commitment, hard work, dignity and passion made a real and lasting impact on me. I knew that my party—the Scottish National Party—had given commitments on kinship care, and I was keen to be elected to deliver on them. That is the context for the debate. Labour did not even send a speaker to those hustings two years ago. What is more, the Labour Party manifesto for the May 2007 elections did not mention kinship care payments at all—I hope that Rhona Brankin did not mislead the chamber earlier.
No, thank you. I have only four minutes and a lot of good news to tell.
We have before us a Labour Party motion on kinship care. For that I am truly grateful, and I genuinely congratulate the Labour Party. I welcome all politicians who are converts to the cause of supporting kinship carers; the issue does not have to involve party politics. However, I will take no lessons from the Labour Party, which in eight years of running the Scottish Executive did nothing for kinship carers. It is an SNP Government in Scotland—not the Labour Party—that is giving additional funds to councils to provide kinship care payments.
Kinship carers are rightly impatient for their money. I said in this chamber a few months ago that, until kinship carers see additional hard cash, they will not believe any commitment from any political party. However, they should not be taken in by other political parties, none of which promised to give kinship carers allowances equivalent to those for foster carers. They promised absolutely nothing, and it is clear that, if the Labour Party had been returned to power, not one additional penny would have been forthcoming.
I apologise—I do not have time.
I acknowledge the frustration that must be felt by kinship carers who care for children who were previously designated as looked after. Because of stability issues, they have sought residency orders, and they fear that they may lose out. I understand those fears, and I give a special mention to Jessie Harvey from the north Glasgow
Some councils are starting to deliver payments to kinship carers, building up to the equivalent amount that is paid to foster carers. My local authority—Glasgow City Council—is about to pay £40 per week for looked-after children in the new year. I wanted the council to work more quickly, and I wanted the sum to be larger. I met the leader of the council—a Labour council—and agreed that a working group should be set up to prepare for payments. That £40 is the first step in the SNP and Labour in Glasgow working together positively. Labour MSPs should stop whingeing and get with the kinship care agenda.
I have heard comments about the Department for Work and Pensions potentially clawing back money from kinship carers. I have lodged a parliamentary motion to say that that should not happen under any circumstances. Many SNP members have signed it, but not one member from the Opposition benches has done so. I have written to James Purnell at the DWP to ask for clarity to be given to kinship carers and for local authorities and Scottish taxpayers not to subsidise the UK Government when all that we want to do is help the most vulnerable groups in our society. I phoned yesterday and again today to ask for that clarity, but none has been given yet.
Significant amounts of money are being delivered. Kinship carers rightly want the money to be delivered as quickly as possible, and they want to see hard cash. I welcome Opposition parties now getting with the SNP agenda and converting to the cause of supporting kinship carers.
Sorry, Presiding Officer. It is not that I dropped off during that last contribution.
The Parliament welcomed the minister's announcement last December, in that at least the statement recognised, in a small way, that too many of our children in this small country can no longer safely stay at home with their parents. It recognised that they need to be rescued from dire circumstances, which are driven in the majority of cases by parental drug misuse. It recognised that we need to increase the number of places of safety for those children—places that do not exist in sufficient numbers.
The Parliament also welcomed the proposals that sought to recognise properly the work of foster carers and, for the first time, the important role of kinship carers. We gave that support not without question. The minister will recall that I shared the concerns of NCH—now called Action for Children—that, if adequate resources were not provided, we would not be able to deliver.
Like others, I asked some specific questions. How much money would be available? How many carers would benefit? Would the allowance be available in all local authorities? I suggested that those questions needed to be answered if we were to avoid a cruel deception being played out on kinship carers. We regrettably have our answer today.
The minister is in some difficulty, which was reflected in his speech. He has to ask himself whether he has done everything possible to ensure that those children stay within the wider family, as he said he would in his press release on the day of the announcement last year.
As stated in The Herald, the announcement was of a Scottish first—a national allowance scheme for kinship carers, costing the Scottish Government up to £20 million a year. The story went on to say that kinships carers who took on the parent/guardian role would be given the same status as foster carers across Scotland, and the minister proudly stated that the new programme was a joint commitment by the Scottish Government and COSLA. I presume that the media were briefed by the Scottish Government's spin doctors—spin that is now described as myth in the COSLA briefing that was sent to all MSPs yesterday.
COSLA can now—a year later—answer the questions that we asked on the day of the announcement. Its briefing helpfully outlines a number of questions and answers. First,
"Does the commitment apply to all children who are looked after by friends and family?
The answer is no.
"How much will kinship carers get?"
The answer is:
"This will vary across Local Authorities".
In response to the third question, which is "What is the timescale?" the answer is, "over the period 2008-11", and not—the minister will note—April 2008.
"Is there an issue with benefits?"
The answer is yes. Is that a surprise? Despite all the ministers, all the officials at the back of the
There is a wider point. If the Scottish Government cannot deliver on its stated policy of increasing the number of places for children at risk, how can we have any confidence in its programme of action to improve the identification of children at risk? How can we believe that the Government will be able to build on the capacity of services for children at risk, strengthen the management of immediate risk and develop an evidence base if it cannot deliver for the minority of children—the tip of the iceberg—who have been identified as being at risk? How can we be confident that the Government can or will do any better for the 60,000 children under 16 who have a parent with a drug problem or the estimated—the Government does not even know the exact figure—10,000 to 20,000 children who live with a drug-using parent? Who knows where the remaining 40,000 are?
Finally, we need to establish who is in charge. To my knowledge, at least four cabinet secretaries—none of whom is present in the chamber—and three ministers have responsibility for kinship care. An important point is that not one of them is accountable to the Parliament for the issue—safety in numbers, indeed. Only when one of those cabinet secretaries with influence in the Government and over the budget is prepared to step forward to accept that responsibility and accountability will we know that the Scottish Government is serious about the protection of children. Until then, we will continue to be disappointed, just as we are today.
Anyone who takes an interest in what the Labour Party has to say about kinship care will not take long to get through it. A wee search of Scottish Labour's website reveals only two references to kinship care.
In its manifesto for older people for last year's election, "Active Ageing—Labour's Vision for Older Scots", Labour said that it would
"consider the future of grand-parenting in fostering and kinship care".
There was no mention of any other type of parenting—involving aunts, uncles, brothers or sisters—and certainly no mention of money.
Marvellous. What a commitment—or is it a non-commitment?
The policy was further developed after the election, right enough. During her excellent period of leadership, Wendy Alexander published a paper titled, "Scottish Labour: new directions—Change is what we do". In that truly visionary document, she laid out a future for the Labour Party in Scotland. She mentioned kinship care in that document. She asked:
"Why have we not resolved the funding of kinship care"?
Why not, indeed? At that point, Labour had been in power in Westminster for 10 years and had been in Government for eight years in Edinburgh. True to form, Labour failed to take action on the issue, just as it failed to take action on any of the issues that were pressing hard in Scotland. Unfortunately, like so many other Labour members, Wendy Alexander offered no solutions to the questions that she posed. It is easier just to wail that things are not right than to put them right.
It is just as well that an SNP Government was elected to start to develop the structures around kinship care. Through the concordat, we are working with and trusting local authorities to start providing delivery on the ground and around the country.
In his own passionate style, my colleague Bob Doris has laid out the shameful position of the London Government, which wants to claw back any payment made to kinship carers in Scotland who are in receipt of benefits. That will be a matter for the consciences of Labour Party members.
Sorry, I have only four minutes.
Labour members will need to decide for themselves whether they are content to remain members of a party that would do such a thing.
The SNP Government, on the other hand, is delivering. In response to a parliamentary question in April from Elaine Murray, the Minister for Children and Early Years, Adam Ingram, made it clear that children who are subject to section 11 orders are not excluded from support from local authorities, as Elaine Murray had alleged in her usual scaremongering style.
Local authorities have discretion to provide payments to children in families in need. Dumfries and Galloway Council, which Elaine Murray asked about in another parliamentary question, has had to take steps to reassure kinship carers since then—it is shocking that it had to do so. At a coffee morning meeting at the Ruddicot Hotel on 3 June, a council officer assured carers that the discretionary payments would commence on 1
The Labour motion alleges that the payments for kinship carers have not materialised. The minister made the money available in October. The money was welcomed by groups such as Children 1st, which stated:
"today's announcement is good news for foster and kinship carers in Scotland and good news for the thousands of vulnerable children currently being looked after away from home."
Good work is being done by councils across the country in support of kinship carers. Labour members should have the decency to recognise that, especially as some of those councils are Labour controlled. There will be problems that need to be addressed, but those will not be addressed by turning the issue into a party-political football for the sake of scoring petty, party-political points.
It is only a few weeks since I took part in the debate on looked-after children. That morning, we were all in agreement on the pressing need to do more to support this group of children and young people to ensure that they have better life chances and opportunities. Often, the best chance for such children or young people is to stay with a member of their extended family—a kinship carer. Such carers are often grandparents, who take on the responsibility of looking after their grandchildren in difficult circumstances because the safety and care of their grandchildren is their prime concern.
It is regrettable that we return to the issue of looked-after children today in much more adversarial circumstances, but I am afraid that that is unavoidable, given the treatment of kinship carers by the Scottish Government. In the debate almost a year ago, we welcomed the Government's promise to deliver on a kinship carers allowance. We have initiated today's debate because, regrettably, the Government has failed to deliver on that promise.
Some complex issues need to be resolved, as Liz Smith explored. The measures that the Government has suggested are limited. Children 1st has identified 7,000 kinship carers who do not receive additional financial help because of the status of the child. Although today's debate is focused on the 2,000 kinship carers who should qualify for the suggested additional support, more must be done—including having discussions with
Last year, the Scottish Government gave false hope to carers. That was unfair. The First Minister, the Minister for Children and Early Years and the concordat all gave a commitment that is not being delivered. Once again, the ability of the concordat to deliver Government priorities has been called into question.
Within Fife, 80 carers of looked-after children, and 148 carers of non-looked-after children, currently receive a kinship carers allowance that is paid at the same rate as the foster care allowance, which ranges from £80 to more than £140 a week, depending on the child's age. Fife Council's arrangements have been in place for a number of years so they pre-date the Scottish Government, the concordat and Fife Council's current SNP-Lib Dem administration. In response to Bob Doris and Christina McKelvie, I point out that the policy was originally delivered by a Labour administration in Fife. It is nonsense to suggest that Labour took no action on the issue. On 1 April 2008, Fife Council had no delays in payments, no broken promises and no carers waiting for funding that they had been promised.
However, I have spoken to officials at Fife Council, and I am very concerned to learn that the allowance is under review. Fife Council is considering whether it can afford the current rates, whether it needs to extend means testing and whether it can continue to provide an allowance to kinship carers of non-looked-after children. The historic concordat is forcing Fife Council to look again at its kinship care arrangements. We are told that the historic concordat provides money to pay for the kinship carers allowance, but the review in Fife could lead to a cut in provision in the region.
In many ways, families in Fife are fortunate, given the continuing postcode lottery in kinship care support. The Government's commitment to
"the provision of equitable and appropriate support for all carers of looked-after children"—[Official Report, 5 December 2007; c 4089.]
is not being realised. Worryingly, kinship care is referred to in the single outcome agreements of only 11 local authorities. That is a serious omission, given that kinship care is a concordat commitment.
Kinship care is another example of the concordat not working because it is unable to deliver national priorities that were promised by a Government that is not providing enough money to enable delivery. There is a yawning gap between the promises that were made by the Government in the Parliament and local government's ability to deliver them. In its defence, COSLA has produced
"myths that have built up around the policy on kinship care" payments is a direct result of misrepresentation by the Government. Today's debate will, I hope, push the Government towards making good on the promises that it made a year ago.
Usually at this point in a debate, I stand up and say what an interesting debate we have had. In many education debates over recent weeks, we have found a degree of consensus during the debate. However, this debate has been very acrimonious, with more heat than light. Therefore, I will try to be helpful to the minister and to colleagues by trying to get back to the basic issue.
Rhoda Grant made a good speech that brought us all back to what the debate is meant to be about—kinship carers and the children who are being cared for. The consensus is that we all want to make improvements, and we need to get back to that.
The minister and others commented on the previous Government's record. Not a single member of the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party here today would say that we got it all right. We started a journey that we are still on. As the minister said, that journey requires a coalition of support for kinship carers, which must be built in this chamber and through our relationships with councils, with Westminster over the benefits system, and with kinship carers themselves. I am talking not just about the minority of kinship carers who are to be supported by the minister's proposals, but about the wider range of kinship carers who Duncan McNeil talked about. Those carers care for children, day in and day out, week in and week out, and we all rely on them for many things. Not least, they save us a great deal of money: if we paid for the services that they provide for us, we would have to find a great deal more money than the minister or anyone else has mentioned this morning.
I agree that we have to build a coalition of support. It is fair to say that, last December, the Government received cross-party support for a better deal for kinship carers. The First Minister and the minister made promises last year, and I do not doubt for a single second the minister's absolute commitment to dealing with the issue.
Elizabeth Smith and others commented on the complexity of the issue. It involves all sorts of
The language that ministers used suggested that certain payments would be made, equivalent to those made to foster parents. Those comments and commitments have raised expectations among kinship carers. Those expectations do not have to be managed or spun, but they must be dealt with. Instead of spin and myth, we need delivery.
In recent debates, we have discussed the stark differences between the life chances and experiences of looked-after children and those of children who live at home with their parents. We have talked about looked-after children in relation to health, education, housing and crime. We have all said that improving the situation is vital and that the interests of Scotland's children must be put first in policy making and decision making. The Government has said that it is committed to getting it right for every child and to supporting families that need to be supported in caring for their children. They are the most vulnerable and they need our support.
However, the reality is very different from what the minister said last year it would be. As Rhona Brankin told us, the reality is that people in one council might be paid nothing, whereas those in a neighbouring council area receive a reasonable amount of money for the care that they give. However, their need is the same—the costs of bringing up the children are the same. The reality on the ground is not what the minister said it would be, and it is not what we all hoped it would be.
Instead of squabbling, it is time for us to address the major issue of the care that is being given to children who we all want to protect and care for. The people who are in the middle and doing the job for us are the kinship carers. Instead of squabbling, we must make sure that we address the issue afresh and put in the required money. We must make sure that what Scotland's councils need to do is being done, irrespective of which council or part of the country a child lives in.
I congratulate Margaret Smith on an excellent speech. I will start, as she did, with the basic point on which we agree—the importance of kinship carers. Rhona Brankin made that point well in her opening speech.
Sadly, we live in a society in which family breakdown is a serious issue, and its consequences are most damaging for the children. The sad fact of life today is that families break
We have to move on to look at the detail of the debate. As my colleague Elizabeth Smith said, the Labour position and the criticism that Rhona Brankin set out effectively this morning go to the heart of the contradiction and confusion at the core of the SNP's approach to local government. We see that in relation to kinship care, free school meals and smaller class sizes in primary 1 to 3. The SNP Government says that it wants to deliver those things to the Scottish people, but that it is up to local councils to decide how and in what manner those policies should be delivered.
The increasingly tattered historic concordat is the delivery mechanism, and as we have heard today, delivery is patchy. It cannot be denied that we do not have uniform delivery across Scotland, which is a consequence of allowing local decision making. Let me be clear: the Conservatives support the removal of ring fencing and the empowering and trusting of local authorities, but the lesson for SNP ministers is that they should not make promises that they cannot keep, because they have given up their power to implement policies.
In the case of kinship carers, the SNP Government made a promise, so it is not surprising that people feel let down. This morning, I listened to Radio Scotland's phone-in, which other members will have heard, too. Carers from across Scotland said that when the SNP came to power, it led them to believe that it was going to give them kinship carer payments, but those payments have not been delivered and there is no sign of them being delivered. It is not surprising that people feel let down: they are entirely justified in feeling so.
The COSLA briefing that we received in advance of this debate provides little comfort. In response to the question
"Have Councils been funded to deliver kinship care payments?" it says:
"Local Government budgets are currently under pressure due to a range of factors - some of which stem from the economic downturn. Full implementation will need to be discussed in this changed context."
There is little comfort that councils believe that they have the money to fully deliver the policy.
I will talk briefly about the Westminster angle. I have some sympathy for the minister's position. There have been difficulties with the implementation of the kinship care policy that are not of the Government's making. There are difficulties around the interaction between what the Government is trying to do, which we agree with, and the benefits situation in Westminster, particularly with regard to child benefit. I know that the minister has been working proactively and constructively with the Westminster Government to deal with those problems, and I welcome the SNP amendment's wording on that point.
It is therefore a pity that all the minister's good efforts were so undermined by the contributions from the SNP back benches. Bob Doris's rant and the lesser one from Christina McKelvie let the cat out of the bag: despite the fine words in the SNP amendment and Mr Ingram's constructive approach, we see the real SNP approach, which is to blame it all on Westminster. That is deeply depressing. The minister has been very constructive and I welcome his contribution.
We all support the kinship carer policy, but it is not being properly delivered. Let us work together constructively so that Scotland's kinship carers are not left out in the cold.
I thank Murdo Fraser and Margaret Smith for bringing some reason to the debate. I agree with Margaret Smith that this debate has generated more heat than light. I find the Labour Party's fears-and-smears approach to this serious issue profoundly distasteful, not least because of its own track record. The Labour motion creates a narrative to justify its claim that the Government has broken its promise to provide kinship care allowances. That is a deception, and I caution members against taking it at face value. Let me take the motion apart.
First, the First Minister made no commitment on 27 September 2007. In fact, it was Wendy Alexander who called on the First Minister to make a statement. He expressed sympathy for the proposal, but no more. Secondly, although we support minimum payments of £119 to £198—the Fostering Network rates—those are not specified in the Government's strategy documents, as the motion alleges. I refer members to the COSLA briefing for the debate. Furthermore, although last December I expected that kinship care allowances
As the chamber knows, all 32 local authorities are committed, through the concordat, to the introduction of kinship care allowances. Of those, 20 councils have schemes in place and are currently paying allowances. I explained earlier that, given the phasing of the funding, a lot of councils are paying interim rates at the moment, which will climb over the next two years. Five councils are currently paying the full fostering rates: Aberdeen City Council, Clackmannanshire Council, Angus Council, Western Isles Council and Orkney Islands Council. I commend those councils for that. Moreover, a further six local authorities have schemes that are scheduled to start.
The mechanism for delivering the policy, as for delivering other policies, is our concordat with local authorities. I accept that we are working in a new way that has not been tried and tested. We are working in partnership with local authorities to deliver our policies and they are being delivered. That might be happening more slowly than if there had been a diktat from central Government, as there was under previous regimes, but I point to the fact that many of those diktats did not work either, so, at the very least, the chamber should allow us to work through our policy with our local government partners.
I point out to Margaret Smith that this is the first Government that has taken the initiative to introduce kinship care allowances. We should, therefore, be allowed a little leeway in ensuring that the policy is rolled out properly throughout the country.
Of course, I would like all local authorities to pay kinship care allowances that are equivalent to foster care rates sooner rather than later. However, as I have made clear to the kinship carer network, different local authorities will move at a different pace because of the way in which we are phasing in the funding over the three years to
The Government has been open and above board about the way in which we are implementing the policy, despite the difficulties that we face in doing so. Let me spell out what we are doing. We will review jointly with COSLA and the Association of Directors of Social Work the interim guidance on the assessment, approval and payment of allowances to kinship carers. We have funded Citizens Advice Scotland to advise individual kinship carers and local authorities on how to maximise benefit entitlement and the payment of the allowance. COSLA is establishing a member/officer group to discuss the detail of the policy's implementation by local authorities. Finally, Scottish ministers are seeking with our UK counterparts solutions to the problems that we have with UK benefits legislation.
We are making good progress in fulfilling our commitments to kinship carers. I realise that some people remain sceptical, even cynical. Given our predecessors' track record, that is entirely understandable. However, this Government is determined to prove its doubters wrong.
This has been a lively debate, which is to be welcomed, as this is an important issue for many families throughout Scotland. However, the comments from SNP members in suggesting that they are the only party that cares about the issue and the only party that is ever going to act on the issue are disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. They do a great disservice to the many kinship carers of all political persuasions throughout Scotland who want to know what is going to be done to support them and to help the children whom they look after.
I will not, as SNP members would not take interventions from any of the Opposition parties.
Everyone recognises that if a child must be removed from their parents, finding them a home with another family member who is capable of looking after them should be the first preference. Children need love if they are to thrive and develop, and families are always best placed to provide them with that love. However, placing vulnerable children with relatives must not be seen as a cheap option for the state.
It is vital that we provide support, advice and respite to relatives who care for children who might otherwise end up in state residential
Notwithstanding that, I welcome the investment that the Government has made in the citizens advice bureau services for kinship care. Hugh O'Donnell was right to highlight the lack of consistency in the information that is provided to kinship carers in Scotland. I recognise the value of providing proper support, information and advice to kinship carers, and firmly believe that citizens advice bureaux are in an ideal position to offer that service. I am, therefore, particularly pleased that my local CAB in Airdrie will be responsible for providing the regional support for North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, Argyll and Bute, West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire.
As you rightly say, Mr Doris, front-line staff and volunteers at CABx will help carers to understand the legal status of the child whom they care for and point out any assistance that might be available from local authorities. However, we need a scheme that operates throughout Scotland and to which every kinship carer is entitled. Although I welcome the provision of advice, we must ensure that kinship care is properly funded.
The overriding problems that kinship carers throughout Scotland face centre on how much money is available, how much has been delivered through the hysterical concordat, and whether or not the scheme is national. The Minister for Children and Early Years suggested that he was going to fund the concordat to the tune of £4 million, £8 million and £12 million over three years. However, as Rhona Brankin pointed out with reference to COSLA's own internal documents,
I am afraid that the Scottish Government has to face up to the fact that although Scottish local authorities want to deliver for kinship carers—indeed, we heard this morning that that has happened in Fife—the reality is that they simply do not have sufficient funding to provide the kinship care allowance at the recommended level. Many councils simply cannot afford it.
The SNP Government might think that it has played a very clever game with Westminster and Scottish local government but, as the Scottish people and kinship carers know, it is not good enough simply to blame Westminster and local councils. If Mr Doris's claims are correct, he should explain to the chamber how Glasgow City Council has been able to introduce a scheme that does not affect benefits entitlement.
I do not believe that kinship carers will be persuaded by the Government's claim that the lack of funding or support for the kinship care allowance has nothing to do with it and everything to do with Westminster and local councils. That is simply disingenuous.
We should examine exactly what commitments the First Minister has made to the chamber. This morning, the Minister for Children and Early Years suggested that Mr Salmond had made no commitments on money, but, according to the Official Report of 27 September 2007, the First Minister, in response to Wendy Alexander's question about whether he would "consider fast-tracking" a
"proposal to provide £10 million for kinship care allowances" said:
"Wendy Alexander should take 'Yes' for an answer." -—[Official Report, 27 September 2007; c 2222.]
Ten million pounds—[Interruption.] Ten million pounds—[Interruption.] Kinship carers were promised £10 million and had expected to receive the money by now, but they have not. Scotland's Government is letting down Scotland's kinship carers. That is unacceptable. The issue is not new, but it is one that the Government has failed to address. [Interruption.]
I am pleased that this Parliament recognises the tremendous work that grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives carry out in caring for vulnerable young people. The state can neither afford to pay for that level of care nor provide the
I urge members who care about kinship care to support Rhona Brankin's motion.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Given that this morning there was no ministerial support for the nonsense that was spoken in defence of the kinship care policy, is it in order for ministers to enter the chamber at the end of the debate and make sedentary comments when they have not taken part in the debate?
That is not a point of order. However, I point out that, in the brief time that I have been in the chair, I have noticed sedentary comments coming from all parts of the chamber, not just one.