It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate Melanie Onn on securing this important debate on social security support for kinship carers. She has raised a number of important issues and I am glad that she has taken the opportunity to highlight the invaluable work that kinship carers do. They truly are the unsung heroes, stepping in and offering care to children when they most need it.
Let me start by assuring the hon. Lady that the Government acknowledge the immense value of care given by kinship carers, be they family or friends looking after children whose parents are unable to provide the necessary care themselves, or non-parent carers supporting children who would otherwise be in local authority care. As she said, they save the public purse an awful lot of money; but more than that, the value of the stability and care that they give is probably immeasurable. A number of the issues she raised in passing, as well as the Family Rights Group and Kinship Care Alliance report that she referred to, cover a multitude of Departments. I will take a closer look at that report and recommend it to my colleagues from across different Departments.
I am grateful that the hon. Lady raised the specific issues of some of her constituents and others. Those individuals, through the selfless gesture that they make, play such a vital role in ensuring that children are raised in a caring family: an environment that gives them the stability they need to grow and develop. As a society, we owe them a massive debt of gratitude. In particular, she raised the story of her constituent, Alyssa, who raised three of her siblings from a very young age, and I understand that she gave up her own studies to do that. She has clearly done a remarkable job, given that one is now making her own way through university. She should be the subject of all our praise and thanks for that enormous act of self-sacrifice at such a young age—it must have been terrifying for her.
The Government work to ensure that the role of kinship carers is recognised and supported by ensuring access to the same support as parents within the benefits system in relation to child benefit, universal credit, child tax credits and other means-tested benefits. I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that the benefits administered by the Department for Work and Pensions are designed to try to suit the majority of claimants and cannot always be tailored to every individual circumstance, as that would introduce difficult and often subjective decisions into what are intended to be simple, streamlined schemes. However, I assure her that the Government recognise that there are times when the rules may not seem to have the flexibility that one would want, and this is clearly one of those times.
The hon. Lady has raised a number of important issues. This is something I will look more closely at and, as with all our policies, the Department will continue to keep the policy under review.
With regard to the Sure Start maternity grant, payment is restricted to just the one child under 16 in the family. We believe it is important to focus support where it is needed most. That is why we took that decision. The expenses related to the first child—buying all the necessary paraphernalia that come with a baby—are usually greater than those for subsequent children. That means that kinship carers of children under the age of 16 who then have their first baby are usually not eligible for the grant for that baby. However, as the hon. Lady rightly said, the circumstances of kinship carers vary, and it is not possible to legislate for every specific circumstance. As she highlighted, sometimes children taken into kinship care are not infants and did not come with all the necessary baby bits and bobs. That is why I take on board very much what she said and am happy to look at the issues she raised to do with that specific circumstance.
The hon. Lady also raised the Government’s policy to limit tax credits to two children. I would like quickly to touch on the rationale for the policy to provide support for a maximum of two children, as that might help to explain its impact on kinship carers as well as other claimants. As we know, a benefits structure that adjusts automatically to family size is not fair on families supporting themselves solely through work, who do not usually see their incomes rise when they have more children. We know that households need to think carefully about whether they are financially prepared to support an additional child without relying on income-related benefits. The Government’s view is that providing support to a maximum of two children or qualifying young persons in universal credit and child tax credit will ensure fairness between claimants on the one hand and, on the other, those taxpayers who support themselves solely through work. We believe that all children should be treated equally, and the decision to have more children should be taken based on whether the claimant can afford to support additional children.
However, I must stress that the Government recognise that some parents and carers are not able to make choices about the number of children in their family, and kinship carers often step up to the plate unexpectedly. That is why we have developed a number of exceptions for third and subsequent children to the maximum support on entitlement. One of those exceptions applies to parents who already have two children in their household and make the selfless decision to take on the responsibility of kinship care for children who would otherwise be at risk of entering the care system.
Claimants will still be entitled to an additional amount for any disabled children, regardless of the total number of children in the household. It is also worth noting that tax-free childcare is available to households where all parents are earning at least the equivalent of 16 hours at the national minimum wage per week. Households can receive support for any number of eligible children from age zero to 12, or to age 17 where the child is disabled. Child benefit will continue to be paid regardless of family size, as that is the basis of the Government’s contribution towards the cost of bringing up a child.
I reassure the hon. Lady that the Government recognise the pivotal role played by kinship carers. Our welfare policies are designed to ensure fairness between families supporting themselves solely through work and those on income-related benefits and to support those most in need. She has raised a number of important issues and the Department will give the policies discussed today and their impact on kinship carers every consideration.
Question put and agreed to.