I beg to move,
That this House
has considered kinship care for babies.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Ms Fovargue. Parents come in all shapes and sizes, and today I want to touch on the role of kinship care, particularly for babies. Recently, a constituent came to my surgery to talk to me about his then eight-month-old niece. For a couple of months, she had been under the care of her grandmother, who was understandably struggling to cope with the needs of a baby, so my constituent and his wife agreed to become kinship carers.
It was clear to me that my constituents were both fully committed to raising their niece as their own daughter, but it was also apparent that the level of support they received was almost zero. In order to formalise the kinship care arrangement, they each had to take a week of paid holiday to undergo compulsory training and complete all the administrative arrangements with the local authority. Then, to enable them spend vital time with their now almost one-year-old niece to build the secure bond that is so essential to the happy upbringing of any child, my constituent and his wife were only eligible for unpaid leave from their respective businesses, both of which are significant employers in the UK.
My constituent pointed out to me that if they had been formally adopting this gorgeous baby, they would have received similar pay and leave rights to birth parents—as it happens, both their employers would have offered up to 39 weeks of parental leave at close to full pay. My constituent, who also has older children of his own to support, had to choose between earning and parenting. Even if they had been fostering this baby, they would have received an income from the local authority, as well as ongoing support. This situation seems to me to be completely unfair.
It is estimated that 200,000 children in the United Kingdom who cannot live with their birth parents are being brought up by kinship carers—grandparents, older siblings or other wider family members. In England, surveys suggest that 51% of kinship carers are grandparents. Over 40,000 children in kinship care in the UK are aged nought to four. In my work on the Government’s early years healthy development review, we demonstrated the vital importance of the earliest years of a baby’s life. It is in the period from conception to the age of two—known as the 1,001 critical days—that the building blocks for good lifelong physical and emotional health are laid down. The quality of a baby’s attachment to their principal caregivers will literally determine their lifelong potential.
In its 2021 state of the nation survey, the charity Kinship reported that 96% of kinship carers expect their children to live with them permanently. It is clear that the kinship route has a low rate of disruption, offering much greater levels of stability for children than non-kinship foster care. Additionally, there is less risk of placement instability, and the likelihood of emotional and behavioural difficulties is lower, when children are in kinship care than when they are in non-kinship foster care. Where a baby is unable to stay with his or her birth parents—perhaps for reasons of death, mental health issues, incarceration, addictions or other problems—the younger the placement into kinship care, the greater the chance of a secure future for that baby or child.
One of the key concerns raised by every parent and carer, including kinship carers, during the research phase of the early years healthy development review was that parents and carers simply do not know what kind of support they might need. Even if they do know, they struggle to get access to the help that they are looking for. The Government’s vision for the best start for life seeks to address that fundamental challenge by requiring every local authority to publish a Start for Life offer for every new family in England and to provide universal support for every new family through the family hub model.
I was delighted that the Government announced in the spending review a £500 million investment package to help every family across 75 upper tier local authority areas over the next three years. The Start for Life unit is currently looking at how those 75 local authority areas will be selected. The spending review commitment includes £82 million for transformation of existing children’s services into family hubs. It also includes £100 million for infant and perinatal mental health services, £50 million for parenting programmes and another £50 million to develop breastfeeding support services, as well as a £200 million uplift for the supporting families programme. The commitment in the spending review also includes funding for early years workforce pilots to improve the capacity and skills mix of the early years workforce, as well as funding to enable every local authority to publish their Start for Life offer.
During the research phase of the early years healthy development review, we spoke to a number of kinship carers and heard directly from them about the extent of the additional practical and emotional support that they so often require when a baby or child who is going into kinship care has experienced significant trauma and neglect before arriving in their new family. The review also heard that kinship carers, particularly grandparents, often face financial problems as a result of caring for a young baby or a child. Kinship carers often step in to help just because it is the right thing to do for their broader family, but the personal sacrifice for them can mean having to give up work and make considerable changes to how they live. Clearly, for kinship care of babies to be a success, it is critical that there are good quality joined-up services to support the parent and infant relationship, but it is also vital that employers step up to the mark and treat kinship care of babies in the same way as they would childbirth, fostering or even adopting a baby.
Before covid, when I worked on the employment rights Bill as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I pushed the idea of flexible work as standard for every employer. Flexible working can include part time, flexitime, compressed hours, staggered hours and job sharing. Since 2014, all employees have had the legal right to request flexible working, but it is still up to the employer whether to grant the request. Unfortunately, in too many cases we find that employees are afraid to request flexible work because they fear they will be seen as not committed. There is evidence that this can increase job insecurity—another reason why employees will be reluctant to request flexible working.
Flexible work as standard would involve jobs being advertised without a specific proposal for the number of hours or the days of the week to be worked. The employee would apply for the role and offer the working arrangements that suited them, and it would be for the employer to agree, to negotiate or to refuse. As we look to recover post pandemic, this policy can reflect the reality of post-covid preferences and support the needs of families, but it can also support the needs of employers. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that allowing and even encouraging people to work flexibly can boost productivity, increase diversity in the workforce and help general wellbeing. That would be a win for employers and a win for the quality of life of employees. I hope the Government will consider the role that that can play in our recovery.
Not only can more flexible work help our nation’s fiscal position and mental health, but it could encourage more families to consider kinship care or fostering. With so many families struggling and so many thousands of children already in care, a more flexible approach to work could enable many more children to benefit from the security and love of a family environment. I am aware that my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher is working on a private Member’s Bill, the Kinship Care (Parental Leave) Bill. I pay tribute to her for her work in the area, and I pay tribute to all across the House who recognise what unsung heroes kinship carers really are.
I will end my remarks with good news. My constituent has recently been back in touch and has told me that, following his story, his employer is considering reviewing its employment practices and will be setting up a working group to look at better supporting kinship care. That is great news, and I hope other employers will listen to his story and be inspired to see how they can better support families and kinship carers right across the UK.
Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank Dame Andrea Leadsom for having secured such an important debate and for the work she has done in this important area.
I start by declaring an interest, because I and my wife Allison are kinship carers to our beautiful grandson Lyle. I also sit as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care. This is not an easy debate for me to take part in. I understand the issues with kinship care in this country all too well. Allison and I have lived the uncertainty, the heartache and the sleepless nights. We have spent countless hours trying to navigate an incredibly complicated system, one that is in dire need of reform and that all too often feels devoid of compassion.
Soon after Lyle was born, it became clear that his parents would be unable to care for him. Allison and I went through the family court and eventually managed to secure a special guardianship order. An SGO gives us parental responsibilities and enables us to make important decisions about Lyle’s upbringing. However, a lack of legal aid often means that kinship carers rack up extraordinary costs during the legal process. I have heard stories, both personally and in my capacity as chair of the APPG, of families being dragged into substantial debt, all for trying to do the right thing and be there for a child in need of their support. It is not right. We are leaving families in a legal labyrinth, with precious little in the way of financial or emotional support. As the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire set out so eloquently, living with a family member is often the best course of action for a child, yet the system does not feel optimised to facilitate kinship care. People are often left at sea, scrambling to meet mounting legal costs, all while trying to hold their family together in extremely difficult circumstances.
At the centre of all this is a child. In my case, it was baby Lyle—he is now three, so he is not so much of a baby. Allison and I are often praised for choosing to look after Lyle, and while those comments are obviously well intentioned, they somewhat miss the reality of the situation many kinship carers find themselves in, because kinship care is not really a choice: it is ultimately about love. When Allison and I looked at Lyle, our baby grandson, we did not have an option. We would be there for him no matter what. When it became clear that we would need to look after Lyle, we did not think twice, and I believe that very few people would.
The fact is, though, that we are fortunate enough to be in a position to meet the legal and financial demands of kinship care, but what about the other 180,000 children in kinship care? What about the kinship carers who are not Members of Parliament? What do they do? There is massive variation in how local authorities address, assess and support potential kinship carers. Such a massive decision, which ultimately boils down to the welfare of a child, should not amount to a postcode lottery.
In my capacity as co-chair of the APPG, I work closely with the charity Family Rights Group and the Kinship Care Alliance. Their agenda for action makes a number of policy recommendations that would instigate transformational change for kinship carers across the country. That includes calling for more to be done to ensure that local authorities explore the option and suitability of kinship care in the event that a child needs to be looked after. That means working with families in a proactive way and letting the wider family take the lead in making a safe plan for the child in question. It also includes recognising the practical and financial consequences of kinship care. That means giving kinship carers the right to a period of paid employment leave as well as ensuring that there is suitable specialist advice available, irrespective of the local authority or postcode. I hope that the Minister, in his response, will recognise these calls and outline what steps the Government will take to work with kinship care and sector leaders to recognise and reform a system that has been neglected for far too long.
I would like to conclude by sharing something that defines the start of my working week. Every Monday morning, I am waved away from Stockport railway station by both Allison and Lyle as I set off for another week in Westminster. Leaving Lyle does not so much tug on my heartstrings as heave on them. However, as the train pulls away, I am always filled with an enormous sense of gratitude and love. I am very lucky to be Lyle’s grandad and kinship carer.
I started my contribution by stating that this is not an easy debate to take part in, and it is not. However, I believe that it is my responsibility as an elected representative and Lyle’s grandad to speak up for kinship carers and to use my own experience to try to effect positive change. Ultimately, that is what politics is about, and I hope that, sooner rather than later, the Government recognise that change is needed and, more importantly, proactively do something about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom on securing the debate and on her incredible campaign and passion for this subject, particularly around the first 1,001 days. Her knowledge of this subject is second to none in this place, so it is a privilege to speak in her debate today.
I will touch on the care market in general and then on kinship care and perhaps babies, as per the title of the debate. Children’s services around the country are under massive pressure and are our biggest budget pressure from a local authority perspective. People talk about social care, and I wish I could spend the money in social care, but the staff do not exist, so the biggest budget pressure is in children’s services. Every year we battle with the overspends.
At the same time, we are also tackling what are very often poor outcomes for children in the care system. Mostly, it is best for children to be with families. There were 57,000 children in the fostering system this time last year, but fostering is also a challenge in the current climate. Covid isolation—not being able to have people come and go from one’s house—has had a huge impact on fostering and the ability to recruit and retain people in the sector. The Competition and Markets Authority’s report on the children’s care sector has said that the market is broken and in need of significant work, which further highlights just how important kinship care is and will increasingly be in the future in what is otherwise a volatile market.
Living with family or friends is often the best outcome for a child. It is also cheaper from a local authority perspective, and it is outside the market pressures that mean that fostering and adoption are so difficult. It is something we could manage much more easily if we wanted to do so, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire touched on, there is inconsistent support, and much less support than for fostering or adoption, even though there are additional challenges that do not exist in those areas, such as the relationship with birth parents. More often than not, we would hope, there is a reason why families cannot look after their child, which can lead to incredibly strained relationships with whoever looks after the child. I do not want to stereotype, but my right hon. Friend touched on some reasons why that might be the case, including imprisonment and substance abuse. Clearly, if granny or grandad takes on a child in such circumstances, with perhaps a mum or dad who is on drugs or an alcoholic, it can be an incredibly difficult relationship for them to manage alongside the work pressures, financial pressures and everything else that comes along with kinship care. Sometimes it just has to go in the “too difficult” box without the support that exists.
Kinship carers also get less access to free childcare, which does not happen in other parts of the care system. Almost uniquely, kinship carers do not access the 15 or 30 hours’ support in the same way as parents who adopt, which is something very simple that we could do. In Nottinghamshire, we are investing in that in our budget this year; we are putting £400,000 into a specific kinship support scheme. When we look at how we are going to balance our budget in children’s services over the coming years, it clearly has to be by having more of that kind of support—keeping kids in their own homes or in the home of a family member or friend through kinship care—and having less expensive residential care, which we know costs a fortune and where the outcomes are typically not good.
The more that we can invest up front in those proactive services to help kinship carers to cope and look after relatives, and to mitigate those financial challenges, the better off we will be in the long term, both financially and in terms of outcomes. We want to look at how we incentivise granny and grandad, or aunt and uncle, to take on that challenge and keep their family member in a loving home environment. We will invest in that in our budget this year, and I am very proud that we are doing that for the first time.
The national review of children’s care services needs to highlight the importance of kinship care and increase the simplicity of, and access to, that support. That should be tackled alongside the well-understood and discussed challenges around fostering and the wider care market, which are really challenging. From a purely financial perspective in local government, early support and intervention to help people access kinship care are much simpler and cheaper than the challenge of providing long-term residential care and, ultimately, of having to look after people throughout most of their adult lives because outcomes are often very poor.
In her example, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire highlighted cost and the lack of comparative rights, when compared to adoption and fostering. I have touched on some of those, and there has to be more that we can do to rebalance things. The private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher sounds like a fantastic start to being able to do that, and I look forward to supporting it in the House.
My right hon. Friend also focused on babies. We know that the earliest years are absolutely vital in terms of emotional connections with family, communication and language, and social skills and the ability to meet and engage with other children. Security is very important when it comes to things like that. Going in and out of different foster homes with different people, or going in and out of the care system in different ways, cannot be a good environment, particularly for babies. All the way through the system, kinship care tends to be a much more secure and long-term placement.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight all the good work that has happened around the early years workforce and the investment in family hubs that was in the Budget last year—again, in Nottinghamshire we are very much promoting and supporting that model. All these things will boost the life chances of young people. There are many positives, but it is also clear that more could be done on kinship care, the care market and fostering.
I urge the Minister in his closing remarks, and over the coming months and years—particularly through the children’s care review—to help us support services such as the one that we are rolling out in Notts. I think that will be a fantastic start but there is much more that we could do, and I would welcome his thoughts and advice in the future about how we can boost and promote that. We should look at that support and the incentives that exist for kinship carers, to ensure that kindship care is at least comparable with fostering and adoption. It is a better outcome; it is arguably the best outcome for most children to stay with somebody whom they know, who loves them and who wants to look after them. We should support and promote that, because it is better for children, better for families and better for the taxpayer as well. It should be at the top of our list, and I am sure it is at the top of the Minister’s list.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom on securing this debate.
It is very striking, when we look at the care system in England, that the earlier a child goes into care and the longer they stay, the better their outcomes are. We also know that the cost of failure is enormously high. On average, a local authority spends in excess of £55,000 per year to support a looked-after child; for a child with a significant level of care needs, it is on average over £130,000 per year. When the local authority takes that very difficult decision to go to court to safeguard a child’s interests, it seems absolutely critical that planning and seeking the best available option for that child are an early part of the work that is done.
As my hon. Friend Ben Bradley described, a kinship care placement can be the very best option for any child, for a whole host of reasons. My ask of the Minister is to look at how local authorities can, in that initial decision-making process, when a child first comes into the care system very early in life, think about how to plan effectively. They need to be able to explore kinship care options alongside other things that may need to be considered as part of safeguarding, so that we can ensure children are placed in a safe and familial environment.
The concept of kinship care seems to have grown very much in the last two decades. That has arisen partly from a recognition that box-ticking does not ensure a quality experience for a child. We have seen Governments of all stripes seeking to improve the quality of children’s experience in care. The key thing that emerges from the feedback of children who have been through that system—as well as from relatives, social workers and professionals—is that always having a stable, enduring and loving relationship is the most important thing if a child is to thrive. We can have foster carers who are incredibly well trained and social workers who are immensely highly qualified, but if each of those is dipping in and out of a child’s life, that simply is not going to bring about the quality of outcome that a loving grandparent, aunt, uncle or other family member could provide.
I want to develop that point slightly. There are long-term, systemic issues that might arise for any new kinship carer, although there may just be a nasty shock. Does my hon. Friend agree that my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom—whom I commend for securing this debate—is right to highlight the role that employers can play, in advance of legislation or local authority care, to support family members coping with that shock event, as well as with some of the long-term structural needs that Members have spoken about?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I was going to develop next. We need to look at the practicalities and logistics of making kinship care a much more effective system and to address some of the challenges described by Andrew Gwynne.
The support of employers is clearly vital for family members to be able to take on that caring responsibility. Entitlements that exist in law for adoption and parenting are often very difficult to access for a whole host of reasons, which is something that needs to be explored. We need to consider the issue of finance and what it means to a family taking on a child with potentially very expensive needs that have to be met, when they themselves might not be in a position financially to do that directly. We need to recognise that this process saves the local authority potentially significant costs that would be incurred through a foster or residential placement, which is also an incentive to look at the way we provide support. The manifest benefits of kinship care placements, such as the sense of stability a child experiences being with a family member instead of with strangers at that stage in their life, are critical.
Yesterday, I went to the Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to visit an acquaintance of mine, Dr Jideofor Menakaya, who is a leading national expert on care of neonatal children. It was an opportunity to see how Hillingdon Hospital is working with a local authority, through a family hub model, to develop a package of different kinds of support to address the care needs of children with significant medical challenges. Some children going through the care system have suffered disruption and may have health problems arising from what happened to them before birth. It is striking that when children are in an environment with supportive and loving family members around them, it is much more straightforward to address those medical and health challenges. I know that Members present have often spoken about that, and seeing it in action is fantastic. Recognising how the placement of a child with a kinship carer can make a real difference to addressing significant medical needs right at the start of life is a good example of why this care is so important.
To conclude, it is important to recognise that a degree of moral hazard is perceived in the wider public debate. Having been in local authorities and seen kinship care developing as an option that is often explored, I am certainly aware that people ask why we would pay family members to care for a child who is a member of their own family, especially when, historically, many people would do that voluntarily. We need to recognise that, as a country, we have high expectations of the experience that children will have. In order to make sure that the outcomes we want are achieved, we need to make sure we have system that supports children. Alongside adoption, fostering and special guardianship orders, the kinship care model is an excellent way of managing the risks to a child, ensuring a nurturing environment and doing so in a way that is good value and efficient for taxpayers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom for securing this debate; I am extremely happy that she has because the subject needs debating.
Ashfield, which I represent, has the most looked-after children in Nottinghamshire. That is not a statistic I am proud of, and it is going to get worse. I work with my hon. Friend Ben Bradley to make sure that we give our young people the very best chances in life.
I have some experience of working with young people who have been through the care system. Before I came to this place, I worked for several homelessness charities in Nottinghamshire. The children who came to us at 16 had been in the care system since they were babies—they had been pushed from pillar to post through it. I saw them first-hand; they would come in at 16 years old and we would try to get them on the right path.
For two years, we would spend tens of thousands of pounds on these young people who, as I say, had been pushed from pillar to post and had a very poor start in life. They had not had that loving relationship. To be honest, the girls who left at 18 or whatever age were pregnant, to get accommodation and to be able to sustain not a reasonable standard of living, but a standard of living. If they had a child, they would be bumped to the top of the housing list and get accommodation and all the benefits. What a waste of a young person’s life that is! They had all their life chances taken away because they had been through the care system without the support and love of their family.
The young men I used to work with in the hostels would leave, and within months a lot of them were in prison because they had not knuckled down and had not been in those stable, loving relationships. They had been through the care system since they were babies and that was all they knew. At 16, they were selling 10-bags on the corner of the street just to make a few quid. They had no idea how to look forward to a career. They had no real role models in their life; they had just been in and out of care.
Given the money spent on the care system, benefits and whatever else in later life, I have always said that it would be cheaper to put some of those children—I know this sounds a bit bonkers—into private education and give them the very best, so they could get the very best outcomes in life. That has to be much better, and it would break the poverty cycle. The young children I worked with were stuck in a poverty cycle; their parents were, and probably their grandparents before them. Hey presto—20-odd years and three generations later, the same young people are going to live the same sort of life as their parents. Unfortunately, I have seen first-hand that they have children, and a few months later those children are in care.
We are really missing a trick in this country. Our best asset is young people. We have a massive pool of young people, and we have let them down over decades. I speak from experience. I want to speak about a lady called Maxine in my constituency. Maxine is a little bit older than me—58, I think. I went to school with Maxine in Ashfield, back in the day. She is approaching 60 and looking forward to retirement but, unfortunately, her daughter is a heroin addict with all sorts of mental health problems.
Her daughter has three children, the youngest being six months old. Maxine had her daughter committed to an institution and took the children in, but the hoops she had to jump through to get the children into her house were incredible. Social services raked her out and poked into her private life from 35 years ago. Yes, she had made some mistakes in her past, but she was nothing more than a loving grandparent who did not want to see her grandchildren go into care. She wanted to provide a loving home.
Eventually, she came to me as an old friend and her Member of Parliament. I rattled a few cages and we got social services involved properly; we got some legal help for her, and I am glad to say she now has her grandchildren. I spoke to her on the phone today about this debate, she said she was very proud because the middle grandson can now read and write. He is seven. That brought a lump to my throat; I could write when I was five. She has taken it upon herself to give that young man a real start in life.
The biggest problem she had, once she got the children, was money. She said to me, “I could not cope with bringing my three grandchildren up properly without proper money.” Again, I had to get involved with the benefits system and sort her child benefit, child tax credit and everything out with the local authorities, who are under a lot of strain. I know they are because, as I said, Ashfield has the most looked-after children in the county.
Maxine is very happy now, but she is a woman, at nearly 60, who has given up her retirement after working all her life, done the decent thing and given up those final years to bring up her grandchildren. I think that is an incredible thing—and Andrew Gwynne should be incredibly proud of what he did, because it is amazing.
Children need a loving home; they need to be with their parents or their family. We must remove some of the barriers to that, and the biggest barrier is financial. I hope that the Minister will look at this and see how we can move forward on it, because there are thousands of Maxines around the country who want to help their grandchildren but simply cannot afford to, so those children end up with a life in care instead.
The last time I saw Maxine was late last year; she was taking her grandchildren to Skegness. I think it was probably the first time they had been on a holiday. I went around to give them some ice cream money, because I thought that would be a nice treat for them. They were so happy and excited that they were going to Skegness for a week in a caravan. They would not have got that before, with their mother, because obviously she had her health problems. I thought, “You know what? She’s done really well, Maxine has.”
As politicians, if we cannot make it easier for people like Maxine, up and down the country, to look after those children, then we are failing society. I hope the Minister and the Government will look at this issue very seriously, and realise that young people are our best asset, and that it is actually cheaper, in the long run, to pay family members, such as grandparents, to give those children a loving home.
Thank you very much for chairing this debate, Ms Fovargue. I give massive thanks to Dame Andrea Leadsom, who I know has worked in this area, particularly on improving the life chances for babies, for a significant time, and has done a massive power of work on it. I am glad that she has brought this debate today and given us the opportunity to speak about it.
I particularly recognise the speech given by Andrew Gwynne. It was a brave speech to give, but not an easy one. Nothing compares to lived experience in these debates. We are so often talking about things that an awful lot of us do not know enough about, so it is hugely important to have that experience. I thank him very much for bringing that to us.
I wanted to make a few comments, particularly from the Scottish point of view. I do not know very much about how the care system works in England, and may use terms that are Scottish-specific, and are not as relevant in England. I begin by apologising for that.
First, kinship care is absolutely not just about grandparents. It is important to recognise that. As the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said about the family that she talked about, it was not the grandparents who were caring for the baby. Some of the people who have come to me in my constituency, who have been involved in kinship care, are concerned that everything that relates to it is set up expecting the kinship carers to be grandparents.
Sometimes it is some of those younger kinship carers, who are in work, who are struggling to get the understanding, rather than the people on pensions, for whom there are more systems in place. In one of the families that I spoke to, the adults looking after the children went along to a meeting and everybody was 30 years older than them. They felt, “Well, we’re not going to get very good help, assistance and support from our peers here, because these people don’t seem to be our peers.” There was a gap there; they felt that something was missing.
Throughout Scotland, kinship carers get the same allowance as foster carers. That is important, because we are recognising the importance of kinship care. Unfortunately, my understanding is that kinship carers are not entitled to the child element of universal credit if the child is a looked-after child. Clearly, that needs to change.
There needs to be a recognition that although the children—babies, in the case we are talking about—are looked-after children, in a lot of cases the kinship carers are going through a significant number of difficult legal processes, as well as financial expense. Those carers probably did not plan or arrange their lives for this to happen. I do not see why the child element of universal credit should be excluded just because the children have the title “looked-after children”. We have to remember that for some people involved in kinship care, the children are not classed as looked-after children, so they are in a different category.
In Scotland, people who are kinship carers of babies can get the baby box. Provided that the baby is under six months old, a family involved in a kinship-care relationship can ask their social worker to ensure that the baby box is delivered. They can get that box if the child is under six months old. That is important in levelling the playing field and ensuring that everyone gets the universal entitlement that there is in Scotland, whether or not the baby is with the birth parents or in a kinship-care arrangement.
In Scotland, children are also eligible for the best start grants, for the Scottish child payment and for the twos provision—the provision in nurseries for children under three years old. They are eligible if the young person is a looked-after child, subject to a kinship care order or something related to that.
In Scotland, we have given huge attention to ensuring that looked-after children get the best possible outcomes. The situation brought up by Lee Anderson is an illustration of how much the system has absolutely failed if that is the outcome he has seen for the young people he worked with. In Scotland, we have made a promise to young people that we plan to keep: by 2030, all those young people involved in the care system will not be faced with a care system, but will be raised with love and compassion, which is what every young person should be raised with.
Whether children are raised with either or both of their birth parents, in foster care, in placements or in kinship care, or if they have a looked-after order in place, surely what we should want for all of them is that they should be raised with love and compassion. It is incredibly important to ensure that that is front and centre.
Previously, I was the looked-after children’s champion in my local authority, when I was a councillor. The issue is therefore pretty close to my heart. We need to do a significant amount more. In talking about the benefits of kinship care, there is the comparison with the other elements of the care system. It is important to have those other elements, but it is clear that some of them have comparatively very poor outcomes for children. For example, young people in out-of-authority placements have significant problems, which make it much more difficult for them to achieve their potential in life. Kinship care is one of the elements that results in the best outcomes for young people.
Why should kinship carers get paid? That was mentioned earlier. They should get paid because what has happened is not what they planned for. The system is difficult, which is necessary—I understand why: some sort of legal system needs to be in place around how kinship care works. But navigating that system, when people did not expect to have to navigate it, is expensive and difficult. We owe the people who choose to be kinship carers or foster carers looking after young people who are in corporate care. We owe them, and therefore we need to do better than we are currently doing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate Dame Andrea Leadsom on securing this important debate.
I put on the record that, until recently, I was an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care, chaired by my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne. In the work of that group, I met kinship carers regularly, and I was involved in the parliamentary taskforce on kinship care, which made recommendations on the additional support that should be provided to kinship carers.
I am really grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate, but I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, who spoke so powerfully about his experience of caring for his grandson Lyle. He discussed the legal labyrinth that kinship carers face and the postcode lottery of support that applies across the country, but he also spoke movingly about the unconditional nature of love that characterises kinship care, and how lucky he is to be able to look after Lyle. I think we would all agree that Lyle is also very lucky to have such a lovely granddad.
Other right hon. and hon. Members have highlighted the time commitments entailed in kinship care; the disparity in entitlement to paid leave between new parents, whether by birth or adoption, and kinship carers; the disparity of access to free childcare affecting kinship carers; the importance of consistency in care and attachment for children in the care system, and how successions of people dropping in and out of a child’s life can compound the original trauma that led to them being in the care system in the first place; and about the negative consequences and costs to individuals and to society of failing to look after children in the care system properly.
I pay tribute to kinship carers across the country who care for babies and children when relatives or close friends are unable to do so. I think every one of us would find the idea of a cherished niece, nephew, grandchild or close friend being taken into care and looked after by strangers, however loving and capable, almost unbearable, particularly since such circumstances almost always result from a tragedy; addiction, domestic abuse or serious mental or physical ill health may have befallen the child’s birth parents. The 180,000 families across the country who have stepped in to care for the children of a family member or close friend know of the enormous personal sacrifice and considerable extra cost involved.
I also pay tribute to the Family Rights Group, Kinship and the Kinship Care Alliance for the work they do to support kinship carers, and also St Michael’s Fellowship, a very special organisation based in my constituency that provides support to very young parents specifically with the aim of reducing the risk of the need for care proceedings.
We know that the number of babies subject to care proceedings is increasing rapidly, from more than 2,400 in 2012-13 to more than 2,900 in 2019-20. Before we look at the support that is needed for kinship carers, it is important to ask why this increase is happening. The Family Rights Group has highlighted the erosion in early help and support for vulnerable women during pregnancy and immediately after childbirth. More than 1,000 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010, and the Government have so far committed to open family hubs in just 75 locations across the country. The National Children’s Bureau estimates that Government funding available to councils for children’s services fell by 24% between 2010-11 and 2019-20, from £9.9 billion to £7.5 billion in real terms, and the impact of the pandemic is likely to have made it even harder for councils to offer early intervention for families. There is a direct link: if support that could be given to vulnerable women who are pregnant is not being provided, the risk that their babies end up being subject to care proceedings will increase.
We know that domestic abuse is a common reason for the removal of children from their parents, yet too often mothers who have experienced domestic abuse feel that they are punished further by a child welfare system that blames them for failing to protect their child while not holding the perpetrator of their abuse to account. The failures of the Government to ensure that early help is always available to the most vulnerable families, wherever they live in the country, has a direct bearing on the increase in the number of babies who are subject to care proceedings.
It is also very concerning that when babies are subject to care proceedings, short-notice hearings are now the norm, with 86.3% of cases involving babies in 2019-20 being heard at short notice, and one in every six cases involving a newborn baby heard on the very same day. Clearly, there are emergencies in which the safety of the baby demands that immediate action is taken, but we must discuss why emergency hearings are becoming the norm rather than the exception, and understand in how many cases involving short-notice hearings there were missed opportunities to identify risks, offer support to parents, or explore kinship care options earlier. Short-notice hearings allow no time for families to prepare, to decide whether and how they can take on the care of a baby, or to ensure they are properly represented and that there are good channels of communication with children’s social services.
Since we know that kinship care delivers better outcomes for children than many other forms of non-parental care, a system that routinely fails to ensure that kinship options for care of a baby are properly explored surely lets down babies and their families. Kinship estimates that for every 1,000 children who are removed from local authorities and put into kinship care, £40 million is saved in placement costs.
The Family Rights Group introduced family group conferences to the UK from Australia in the 1990s. They bring together a child’s family and other adults who are important to the child, to create a plan for the child that addresses concerns. They can result in support being provided to parents, which removes the need for care proceedings, or they can explore care options within the wider family.
Kinship care delivers better outcomes for children and their families and saves the Government millions of pounds each year, but many studies have acknowledged that kinship carers are not well supported. That creates perverse incentives and often unbearable hardships and strain for families who want to do the right thing for the children they love.
I will finish by saying that there is an urgent need for the Government to look comprehensively at the framework of support that is offered to kinship carers in order to enable more families to take on the care and support of a child whom they love.
I will be as brief as I can, Mr Mundell. Time is short, and there are so many comments to respond to. Let me first thank my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom for securing this important debate and for all of her work on “The Best Start for Life” and her commitment to families, babies and children.
My right hon. Friend rightly said that parents and families come in all shapes and sizes. She is absolutely right, and we should celebrate every single one. She is right to raise the important role of kinship care, particularly in the context of babies. She raised her constituent’s case, and I would like to apologise for the experience that her constituent had. I assure her that I am very much alive to the experiences her constituent had. The Government are committed to ensuring that kinship carers receive the necessary support to give their children the support they need.
My right hon. Friend rightly mentions that there are many reasons why babies and older children can no longer live with their birth parents. In many cases, the reasons are sad or tragic. In others, it is for their own protection. I am full of admiration for kinship carers. Andrew Gwynne eloquently and articulately set out the role of kinship carers and the love and affection that he has for baby Lyle—though he is not so much a baby now.
It is not just grandparents who step up to offer loving homes; it is aunts, uncles and siblings. They often make considerable sacrifices, as was set out by my hon. Friend Lee Anderson, who mentioned his friend and constituent Maxine. Last year I met a support group for kinship carers, and they set out some of the challenges they experienced as kinship carers. They are all heroes and we must do more as a Government to support them. I will come on to what I want to do in this area and how I believe we can better support kinship carers and special guardians. I will not talk in very much detail, as I do not have much time, but I am happy to do so at a later date.
It is clear that there are benefits to children remaining with the wider family wherever it is possible and safe to do so and when it is with someone they know and trust. It is about a sense of belonging and maintaining family links. It is about the people and places they know. It is about permanence and the potential for future reunification. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish rightly pointed out, fundamentally it is about love.
I was fast scribbling down points raised during the debate. My right hon. Friend rightly raised—I was fast scribbling these down while she did so—access to support, access to financial support, carers leave, parental leave, employment rights, support groups and advocacy. I would love to touch on every single one of those issues, but I fear I am not going to be able to do so in the time left available to me.
Access to support, both financial and otherwise, is critical. We rightly give a lot of autonomy to local authorities, but is always about striking a balance. Yes, there is a bit of a postcode lottery, but at the same time it is about balancing local discretion and the autonomy of local authorities to make the right decision, because they are the ones that best know their residents. It is about addressing the inconsistency and patchy provision of support at a local level while at the same time making sure that the support that is available is tailored to the individual needs of the kinship carers. The support that Maxine may have needed could have been very different from the support that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and Allison need, so having local discretion is also very important.
We know that the financial impact of kinship care can be considerable, especially if it is unplanned. There is statutory guidance, and it is clear that local authorities should consider financial help for kinship carers, but as my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) set out, it is patchy and the cost of failure in children’s social care is high in terms of both the outcomes for children and the financial cost to the local authority.
There is so much that I would love to say, but I am very much alive to some of the other pressures that kinship carers can face—whether it is employment rights, housing, benefits, HMRC, universal credit or child benefit. I see my role as a cross-Government one, and although I do not have all the levers to pull, it is part of my role to ensure that other Government Departments are playing their part and ensuring better support for kinship carers.
In the minute or so I have left, I want to say how sympathetic I am to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire on the apparent disparity between the support offered to foster parents and adopters versus kinship careers. It is complex and there are considerable challenges—not least because most kinship care arrangements are informal and familial, which makes it challenging—but I want to explore what more we can do. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and others from across the House to improve the service and support that we are able to offer.
I would like to put on the record my sincere thanks to my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate, and I want to reiterate my commitment, and that of the Department, to champion across Government the needs of kinship carers. I assure my right hon. Friend, and indeed the House, that I am committed to ensuring that those who step up to take a baby or child into their care receive the support that they need to give that baby or child the best possible start in life. As I say, if I had more time, I would love to answer every single point in detail, but I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and others from across the House, as well as with charities in this sphere, to improve the support and provision for families.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is incredibly supportive of the work on early years and who has done so much to support improving services for babies. It has been such a fantastic debate, and we have heard two fabulous stories. We heard about Andrew Gwynne, his partner Allison and baby Lyle. They do fantastic work, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member—it is all about love. We also heard about Maxine and the incredible sacrifice that she made to raise three of her grandchildren.
Those are the things that people do, and it is about love. It is about trying to make sure that, in raising the next generation, we give them the capacity to have fulfilled and happy lives. We absolutely know that the best way to do that is in the bosom of the family, so we need to support the family network. I would like to leave this debate with the thought that the best place to do that is in the perinatal period. That is when the building blocks for emotional good health are laid down, so the earlier we do that, the better. It is vital to give kinship carers and other carers maternity and paternity rights in that early period. If we can get employers to recognise that kinship care is the best solution and much better than any other looked-after or adopted solution outside the bosom of the family, we should always start with that. We should always put the baby and child at the centre of everything we do, look at it through their eyes, and give the best solution for them.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her immaculate timing.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered kinship care for babies.