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Social Security Support for Kinship Carers

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 18th October 2017.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing) 11:00 am, 18th October 2017

Certainly, there is a huge amount of expectation on families to ensure that children are cared for in a family setting. The state should be aware of those people and the support that they deserve should be available. Too often, kinship care arrangements are informal, unofficial and under the radar. Sometimes parents are in a crisis situation, some simply cannot cope and in more extreme cases there may be death in the family, and that burden falls on the wider family circle.

Older people who perhaps have retired are caring for members of their family for a second time—in my experience, it is often not the first time that they have done so. They may have looked after their children or other family members in their time, and then face doing that again in their retirement years, which they may have been looking forward to enjoying, free from the responsibility of the school run. Children are incredibly tiring and we tend to forget too easily the burden that is placed on people.

There is a huge amount that I would like the Government to do, not least to address the points that my hon. Friends highlighted in their interventions, to recognise the enormous value of kinship carers and to provide them with the support that they need. However, I want to focus on two measures that the Chancellor could adopt in his Budget next month at very little cost that would have a huge effect on younger carers today. The Minister may already have read the recommendations in the October 2015 Family Rights Group and Kinship Care Alliance report, but if she has not, will she do so? If she feels that my two measures do not go far enough and she would like to do even more, those recommendations would be well worth a read.

In September, I raised the case of my constituent Alyssa at Prime Minister’s questions. Alyssa took responsibility for raising her three younger siblings when their mother passed away four years ago. She was only 18 when she took on the care of her sisters and brother, which is an enormous responsibility for someone of such tender years who is just about to start out on their life journey themselves. She did an absolutely brilliant job, despite the numerous daunting challenges that she faced. She had to work to clear her mum’s debts while looking after her family. Her eldest sister is now in her second year of university, and Alyssa has just started a family of her own with her partner, which is wonderful news.

However, because Alyssa cared for her siblings, she is being denied the Sure Start maternity grant and child tax credits. She is missing out on up to about £3,000 a year in total. When the Government restricted the Sure Start maternity grant to a family’s first child, they reasoned that families could reuse the equipment that the grant helps to purchase, such as prams, toys and clothes. I do not think that Ministers really considered that some carers take children into their care after infancy, so they never had clothes, prams or bottles to begin with.

It seems to me that Alyssa’s case is an anomaly in policy—an unintended consequence of the one-child limit on Sure Start and the two-child limit on child tax credits—but she is not a one-off. Another constituent contacted me recently to say that his wife had taken on her sister’s two children a few years ago after she passed away. He and his wife are now expecting their first child, and they, too, will not be entitled to tax credits for their own child. If they had already claimed tax credits for a child of their own and had later put in a claim for her nieces, that would have been accepted and all the children would have been eligible for tax credits. The Government included an exemption for kinship carers in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, but I just do not think that they realised that the exemption did not cover all cases.

Lisa from Grimsby took care of her 18-month-old nephew five years ago. He was diagnosed with global developmental delay—autism—and has an extra Y chromosome. His mother’s mental health issues meant that she was unable to meet his care needs, which only increased as he got older, so Lisa and her husband eventually both gave up work to look after him. That is another example of the financial hardship that kinship carers often face. When they had a child of their own this year, they were denied the the Sure Start maternity grant. Unfortunately, it is all too tempting for Governments to take kinship carers for granted, allowing them to make enormous sacrifices and raise children who are not their own, without offering them the support they need and deserve.

It is unknown how many carers are or will be affected by these policies, because the Government do not measure that. However, a survey by the Family Rights Group suggests that 25% of kinship carers have both their birth children and kin children living with them, and about one in five—up to 40,000—carers has three or more children living with them. As the two-child and one-child limits are not applied retrospectively, a small fraction of that number will be affected by this issue.

The number will be growing every year, but we are talking about a small amount in cost terms to extend the exemptions for kinship carers to those who have children of their own after taking kin children into their care. That small cost would be of huge benefit to kinship carers, like those in my constituency who are sacrificing a massive amount to do the right thing and give children a loving home within their family.

I am calling on the Government to ensure that kinship carers are eligible for child tax credits and the Sure Start maternity grant when they have children of their own. I asked the Prime Minister about Alyssa’s case on 13 September and she asked me to write to her about it. I sent her a letter that day, and I sent another letter with more information on 3 October after Alyssa’s appeal for the maternity grant was rejected, but as I mentioned before, I still have not received a reply. I hope the Minister will be much more forthcoming in how she plans to deal with these anomalies in the law so that kinship carers are no longer penalised for the amazing work they do.