Kinship Care Strategy

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 6 March 2024.

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Photo of Alistair Strathern Alistair Strathern Labour, Mid Bedfordshire 4:30, 6 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the kinship care strategy.

I could not be happier or more privileged to move this motion. There are so many campaigns that I am lucky enough to work with as an MP, but since well before I was elected one group has been a constant source of inspiration for me. From the number of colleagues in Westminster Hall today, it looks like I am far from alone in being touched by the story of kinship carers across the country.

From the very start of my by-election campaign, which colleagues may remember was rather longer than expected, kinship carers were meeting with me to set out their concerns locally, and none more so than Carol and Amanda. They sat me down and talked to me about the battles they face, and how through their love and commitment to the young people in their care they had been able to fight and ensure that they could do everything to give their young charges the best possible start in life. I could not help but be inspired by those stories and their determination, and feel the need to do right by them to ensure that they have everything they need to take care of the young people they look after.

Carol and Amanda’s love and commitment was matched only by their tenacity. I found that out four days after being sworn in as an MP when, at my first constituency surgery, first through the door yet again were Carol and Amanda, asking me what I had done so far for kinship carers and how I would be championing the cause going forward. The truth is that I could not be happier to be held to account on this important issue, because it matters so much. Although I am afraid I have not quite been able to get Carol and Amanda their meeting with the Prime Minister yet—not through lack of trying—I hope that today marks the start of a continuing commitment from me to champion the issue of kinship care in Parliament and to ensure that we make progress in some of the important areas they have highlighted to me.

In the run-up to the debate, I have been truly moved by the number of kinship carers who have taken the time to write to me; I know that colleagues across the Chamber have been too. Indeed, Kinship told me that in the last week alone nearly 300 kinship carers from right across the country have written in to share their own personal, difficult and important testimonies. The fact that they have done so underlines why we are all here today.

At its heart, kinship care is all about supporting a young person who may have been through a really traumatic and difficult moment in life—far more traumatic and difficult than many of us would ever have to go through ourselves. Making sure that that young person and the people in their wider family unit have everything they need should be a matter of great importance to all of us. They step up to take on caring responsibilities at a really important time—a time of real trauma and need.

It could be a situation like that of Karen, who emailed me to tell me about the moment she had to take care of her grandson, when he arrived at the start of lockdown with only the clothes on his back after his father had cut off all communication. Angela wrote to tell me about the challenges she faced in carrying out her caring responsibilities to her grandson while his parents were battling through addiction. Those stories are all unique and important, but they share one fundamental truth: at a time of need, kinship carers across the country step up to provide love and care for a young family member at a really difficult time. They take on responsibilities, often at incredibly short notice, that they have not planned or saved for.

I fear that in the time available, and to ensure that as many colleagues as possible can speak, I will not possibly be able to do justice to the wide range of emails and stories that I have received. I hope, however, to be able to underline the passion and the urgency of their love and care, and highlight some of the clear areas where we can all work together to go further, faster for kinship carers in this country.

As a former councillor with responsibility for children’s social care, I got to see at first hand the moving and important work done by kinship carers to take on caring responsibilities and ensure that their young person could stay with a sense of place, with family and with familiar faces through difficult moments. It was as clear to me then as it is now that, where possible, kinship care provides an amazing and powerful way of ensuring that the traumatic moments in some young people’s lives have as little impact as possible on their development. It ensures that a young person’s true interests, and their need to stay with family and with a sense of identity and place, can be protected and supported.

It is no wonder that the independent review of children’s social care found that where young people across the country had been placed with kinship carers the outcomes were often far better. Those outcomes alone should be more than enough to justify the support that kinship carers need and are asking for. But if they are not enough to spur action, we should be clear: failing to support and maintain every viable kinship care relationship means propping up a broken and expensive care system that currently is all too often letting children down.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The north-east, where my constituency is, has the highest proportion of kinship care households in England, and many of my constituents have been in touch with me about the difficulties they face. Many children raised in kinship care have experienced loss and trauma; does my hon. Friend agree that we need to do more to support those children and provide spaces for them to socialise with peers?

Photo of Alistair Strathern Alistair Strathern Labour, Mid Bedfordshire

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She highlighted a really important point, on which I would be keen to hear from the Minister in his response, about how we can all work together to make sure that support is put in place and that opportunities are provided for young people right across the country.

To return to what I was saying, in looking through the outcomes the independent review of children’s social care rightly found that despite the amazing work and commitment of kinship carers, we need to do far more as a country, and we need our Government to do far more to ensure that wherever kinship carers are taking on responsibilities, and wherever possible kinship placement exists, everything is done to support, nourish and champion those situations.

The children’s social care review set out a number of areas in which we could be going further. It was welcome to see some of the review’s recommendations being taken forward in the Government’s own strategy, announced in December last year. I thank the Minister for that, and look forward hopefully to hearing more about the Government’s action on those recommendations, and on further areas. Sadly, as welcome as some of the measures were, I have spoken to kinship carers and advocacy groups and it feels like they fell far short of the comprehensive support and recognition that those groups need to ensure that many significant recommendations from the review can finally be enacted in full.

I am sure there are lots of aspects that colleagues across the Chamber will want to focus on, so I will touch on just three, the first of which is the need for a clear and consistent local authority offer. One thing that came through loud and clear in the testimony is the postcode lottery that kinship carers currently face throughout the country in terms of the support on offer from their local authority. Amanda in my consistency faces a real battle. She potentially faces a cliff edge in support when she moves between local authorities and is rightly concerned about what that might mean for her and her granddaughter.

Shockingly, researchers found that over a third of local authorities do not even have a local family and friends care policy in place—something that legislation already requires. I am keen to hear more from the Minister about how the existing requirements are enforced and how the Government will commit to making sure that we have strong requirements on local authorities, including considering whether an active, outward-facing local offer, on a par with that for care leavers, might be helpful to compel some of the support we would like to see on this issue across the country.

The second aspect is the need for fairness when it comes to care and parental leave. Kinship carers take on just the same responsibilities as other carers and parents, often at much shorter notice, but do not currently benefit from the same entitlement to parental care leave as others. As Clare, a passionate kinship carer, said powerfully at a recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care, this cannot be right, and it has a real impact on kinship carers and the child they support at a crucial moment. I am keen to hear more from the Minister about why a right to statutory pay and leave on a par with adoption pay and leave was not committed to in the national kinship care strategy, and about what barriers the Department for Business and Trade might face to working with the Department for Education on making sure that that measure can finally be introduced.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly to many kinship carers in the room today, is the issue of financial support. When it comes to financial support, the commitment to pilots is a welcome step forward, but at the same time for many kinship carers that feels like yet another delay that may mean support is never in place to reach them and their young person.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I declare my interest as chairman of the quality and safeguarding board of the National Fostering Group. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a really important subject, concerning a really undervalued cohort of people in society. I want to add a fourth point to his list. All the points about practical support are absolutely valid, but what kinship carers also need is legal clarification as to their status, and how that fits in with special guardianship orders, family fostering and so on. In the absence of primary legislation, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it needs to be made really clear what the options are to kinship carers who want to step up and do that really important job? Does he agree that they should have the full backing of the law, and the status, in place of the parents, to do that job?

Photo of Alistair Strathern Alistair Strathern Labour, Mid Bedfordshire

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I hope the Minister might be able to shed some light today on whether the Government will bring forward, with haste and urgency, some of the primary legislation needed to give that formal legal definition, clarification and certainty to kinship carers throughout the country, who often find themselves in a very uncertain place in the bureaucratic and legalistic care framework that currently exists.

On financial support, Stuart, a kinship carer of two children, powerfully highlighted to me the fact that over and over again, whichever report or study one looks at, the economic case for kinship care is overwhelming. It is clear and is the right thing to do for the young people involved. Given the wealth of evidence already available, if we are to have pilots, how will they be delivered in a manner that ensures that a national roll-out can follow as quickly as possible? If the Government are looking for partner councils to help to support this effort, I am sure that some of our Bedfordshire ones would be keen to bite off the Minister’s hand.

We should also consider whether, by limiting the scope to children who have already been in the care system, the pilots risk reinforcing some of the factors that currently push children into the system that the strategy seeks to avoid the excessive use of. The measures required are not just important, but urgent. As is repeatedly raised with me, the young people in the care of kinship carers deserve help and support, not years down the line but now, when it can still make a difference for their families and, crucially, for the young person they are doing everything they can to support.

Every day that the kinship carer lacks a minimum standard of support from their local authority is a day their young person may not be receiving every bit of support they need to get the best start in life. Every month that the kinship carer takes on responsibilities without care or parental leave is a month when some of those precious early moments in a young person’s life may be forever missed. Every time that a potential kinship carer is unable to take on caring responsibilities because of financial barriers is a moment when a better outcome for that young person, who has suffered real trauma, may forever be lost. Every day that we do not provide support to our fantastic kinship carers is a day we are letting down young people right across the country.

I pledge to carry with me not just the importance of these issues and not just the wealth of factual evidence that has been presented to me, but the clear urgency of kinship carers’ love, commitment and call for action, today and every day that I am lucky enough to serve as an MP. I know that many colleagues here share that urgency, and will share their own stories of commitment to it. I hope that the Minister will be able to share more on how the Government can show urgency too.

We may not know when the general election will be—although I am sure colleagues would welcome clarification on that from the Minister—but we do know that kinship carers deserve help, and they deserve it now. They should not have to go a day longer without the required support. It should not have to come to a general election. This should not be—and clearly is not—a party political issue, and it does not feel like one in this debate. I look forward to hearing from others and the Minister about how we can work together during every day remaining in this Parliament to deliver for kinship carers across the country.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Before I call Ben Everitt, I say to colleagues that, as this debate is oversubscribed, there will be a time limit of three minutes, which might be shortened later in the debate.

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North 4:42, 6 March 2024

I am not sure what I have done to deserve to be called first; I may have been promoted accidentally. Thank you, Mr Pritchard; it is appreciated, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my constituency neighbour, Alistair Strathern, for securing this debate on the Government’s new strategy for kinship care. He beat me to it, because I have been trying to get a debate, but it is a pleasure to give a three-minute speech as opposed to a 15-minute one, so I am grateful.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the brilliant kinship carers in Milton Keynes North. The strategy represents a huge step forward for ensuring that incredible kinship carers throughout the country receive the financial support that they need and deserve, as well as in education, through the expansion of virtual school heads, and better advice for local authorities in schools.

I welcome the Government’s strategy that will deliver for all kinship carers across England a package of training and support that they will be able to access from this spring. We are making progress, heading in the right direction and engaging with kinship carers, although there is always room for improvement. I am feeling the heat that my constituency neighbour described.

My local kinship carers are incredibly vocal, coming forward about things we can do and fine-tuning tweaks to do things better. It was clarified to me that training and information will be accessible via a supplier website, but there are still gaps to be addressed. Specifically, will there be information about where to find and how to obtain support from the virtual school heads? If so, in what form will it be made available? My constituents have also made it clear that that information needs to be integrated at the council level, so that those with special guardianship orders are better able to access support. We are talking about a better quality of life for children and the incredible sacrifices that kinship carers make every day, and nobody should fall through the net.

Continuing on the theme of education, I am aware that there has been no extension of eligibility for pupil premium plus—which schools receive to support children in care—to children under SGOs or child arrangement orders. Without such resources, extra help in schools might not reach a consistent level across the board and the strategy may not fulfil its stated aims.

Ultimately, it is in our interests to make the strategy work in the most effective way possible for our kinship carers, schools and local authorities. The upshot is that we need deeper integration between those three elements to deliver the best possible outcomes for children and their families. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. I thank you, Mr Pritchard, and I thank kinship carers for their amazing work, love and sacrifice.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Before I call Kevan Jones, I remind colleagues that there is a clock, which will help them to stick to three minutes.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 4:46, 6 March 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Alistair Strathern on securing this debate. I first became involved with kinship carers 15 years ago through a tragic case in my constituency of a young woman who was kicked to death in front of her two children, who were then left with no parent because the perpetrator was in jail. The grandparents stepped in, and that was my first experience of kinship carers. Since then, I have worked with them across County Durham along with the county council.

Kinship carers do not take on responsibility because they are looking for financial gain; they do it from love, but the state takes that for granted. While I accept the national strategy, in my opinion it is the wrong approach. We need a clear approach on the legal status, as Tim Loughton just said. When carers first find themselves with children, they are often left not knowing what to do and or what is the right approach. We need to integrate them into the benefits system so that benefits are paid automatically and we need to co-ordinate at a local level.

I congratulate Durham County Council, which has a great kinship carer unit that I have worked with for quite a few years. It provides not just practical, but financial support, but again that support is time-limited. One kinship carer turned up at county hall one day and left her kids there, because the two-year rule on their support was up.

I say to the Government that this is an investment in the future. If we get it right with these kids, they are less likely to get involved in the criminal justice system, be disruptive at school or go off the rails, because they have that bubble of care around them—usually a grandparent or sibling. If we have to look at it in monetary terms, investment early on will pay itself back. It will also allow grandparents to continue working. Some of them have had to give up work to look after individuals, and they often do not expect to be in that position at their age.

Although kinship care is on the national radar, let us have a local approach. Let us integrate carers into the benefits system, give them support and recognise that this is a long-term investment. We will not get results straight away, but over a period of time we will have better citizens, and the kinship carers themselves will be more productive if they are allowed to work and they are not under pressure.

For example, we need a national system for respite care. I have one kinship carer who is dealing with three boys under 12, one of whom has foetal alcohol syndrome. She is 67. These people are complete heroes; we need to invest in them, put money behind them and congratulate them on the work they do on everybody’s behalf.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 4:49, 6 March 2024

I congratulate Alistair Strathern on securing this important debate. The turnout in the Chamber reflects the importance that MPs across the House place on this issue.

I have some brilliant local kinship carers and I pay tribute to the work that Enza Smith has done over many years on behalf of kinship carers in Worcester. I also pay tribute to a constituent, Julie Rose, who came to see me recently to raise some of the issues and some of the concerns of the #ValueOurLove campaign.

I do not want to repeat points that other hon. Members have made, because they made them very well, but respite care is vital and I have to say that in my constituency at the moment I am concerned by cuts to respite care. I hope the additional £500 million for children’s and adult social care announced in the Budget might help local authorities to redress some of those cuts, but that issue is undoubtedly important.

I also think kinship carers need access to other forms of support—bereavement support, in many cases. Even when a parent has not actually died, children face separation issues, having moved away from their original parents and into the care of another family member. Support such as counselling, which is offered to foster families in many cases, also needs to be considered specifically for kinship carers.

Of course, I welcome the fact that we now have the first kinship care strategy and I very much welcome the pilots; indeed, I have asked for Worcestershire to be considered as one of the areas in which those pilots take place. However, given the scale of what we know kinship carers are doing for children, we should be going beyond pilots and looking to fund and support kinship care more systematically across the country. The returns from doing so are pretty obvious and pretty clear.

Regarding the outcomes, we have already heard that the Education Committee has begun an inquiry into children’s social care; I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of that inquiry, because we are in the early days of receiving evidence, but we have already heard about the much better outcomes for children in kinship care, in terms of life chances, long-term employment and life expectancy. We should celebrate all those outcomes and the contributions that families can make to them.

I know my right hon. Friend Vicky Ford wishes she could be here for this debate. On the Education Committee, she has already made the point about the need for kinship carers effectively to have parental leave and for a more systematic approach when people take on the responsibilities of kinship care, so that they can then have some time to spend with their new charges. We should make sure that businesses support that. The guidance mentioned in the kinship care strategy is a welcome first step in that direction. We will continue to work on this issue as part of our work on social care in the Select Committee. I look forward to hearing the evidence that kinship carers can bring to us, so that we can strengthen the evidence-based case for the Government to take further action.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Social Care) 4:52, 6 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Alistair Strathern on his eloquent opening speech and I thank him for his support on this important issue. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care, because I myself am a kinship carer. My wife Allison and I have the utter privilege of being the special guardians to our wonderful five-year-old grandson Lyle. Like many who find themselves as kinship carers, it was unexpected and unplanned; basically, the social services stork left a baby on our doorstep. Of course, around all the arguments that we could have about the structures and the legalities, the one thing that comes to the fore at a moment like that is love. Every kinship carer does it for love and only for love.

However, I have to say that special guardianship orders are far from a perfect device: you are often left to defend yourself in a legal maze, and if you are taken back to court for any reason, you are literally on your own. Had I known then what I know now, I would much sooner have remained as a temporary foster carer of my grandson, because at least then I would share legal responsibility—parental responsibility—with the local authority. Therefore, if I was taken back to court on a spurious argument, I would have the backing of the local authority rather than having to rely on myself. That is the predicament that far too many people find themselves in, so I would like special guardianship orders to be strengthened.

In addition, I want to get rid of the postcode lottery that, sadly, we now see in kinship services across the land. Some local authorities provide superb support for kinship carers, but some do not, and it cannot be right that where someone lives determines what support they can access. In theory, my wife and I can access support from the post-adoption fund. In practice, that is incredibly difficult because the social services computer says no. The last thing that I want to mention is parental leave, where I believe that, if the Government act, they can make a big difference. That is not just a matter for employers; it is a matter for this place, because when I effectively became a dad again five years ago, the House of Commons did not recognise that kinship parental leave was necessary.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Second Church Estates Commissioner, The Second Church Estates Commissioner 4:55, 6 March 2024

I too want to congratulate my parliamentary neighbour, Alistair Strathern, on bringing forward this very important debate, and I agree with every word said by other Members so far.

I will look briefly at New Zealand, because I understand that in New Zealand only 48 in every 10,000 children are in care, and of those 57% are in kinship care. In England, 71 in every 10,000 children are in care, and only 15% are in kinship care. I know my good friend the Minister cares deeply about this issue, so I ask him to look at New Zealand and whether there are lessons we could learn, particularly the use of family group conferences and the legal weight that those have in New Zealand. This is a wonderful country and we do a lot of things well, but we should always be humble enough to learn from other countries that may have something to teach us.

The constituents to whom I have spoken on this issue tell me that they want urgent and really accurate information. I spoke to one quite recently who did not know whether she was entitled to child tax credits. My reading of the House of Commons briefing note suggests that she is, but she did not know that and she had not been told that. I have recently been in contact with another constituent, a grandmother who had to come out of work to look after her grandson when her daughter very sadly died. She needs an urgent nursery place for her grandchild. Again, I have spoken to the specialists in the House of Commons Library about that this afternoon: my understanding is that she is entitled to that free nursery place for her grandchild and to the Government help towards it, but she has not been told that. I have sent her the Library briefing note and I will do everything I can to help, but to me that highlights an urgent information gap.

My constituents have also told me that they are concerned about the cost and the uncertainty of getting a special guardianship order—and Andrew Gwynne, who has just spoken very eloquently, told us that in any case that is not a panacea. That is a worry, because the first thing social services has said to some of my constituents is that they need a care order. If they are worried because it is expensive and involves lawyers, or because they have never been to court before, or do not know how it is it all going to work out, care is needed now.

Moving towards some form of financial parity with foster carers would clearly be sensible. We have talked about grandparents looking after grandchildren, but in my last 20 seconds I observe that, in adult social care in Germany, the most popular option for taking the money is for friends and family to look after elderly or frail loved ones. We are mainly looking downwards at children, but kinship care could work for frail family members as well.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 4:58, 6 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I congratulate Alistair Strathern on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to the fantastic work of many campaigners on this issue, several of whom are in the Public Gallery today. It is thanks to their hard work and their tireless commitment to the cause that we even have a kinship care strategy, published just before Christmas.

The publication of that strategy was a real milestone. It has finally put kinship on the map—an achievement for which I pay tribute to the campaigners. However, that strategy was a real missed opportunity and fell far short of the ambition that the Minister himself set out in his response to my debate in this Chamber back in September. Indeed, while much of the text of the strategy set out the challenges, I am afraid that many of the solutions fell far short of addressing them.

First, on allowances, the Minister said back in September that

“kinship carers need more support than is currently available to them.”

He pointed out that there is no “great logic” to foster carers’ allowances not being on a par with kinship carers, and he recognised

“the strain that many kinship families are under.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2023;
Vol. 737, c. 425WH.]

But only eight local authorities are going to be part of the pilot, and even in those local authorities it will be a tiny subset of kinship carers. We have a perverse situation in which only families of previously looked-after children will be able to claim an allowance, yet it is local authorities that, in trying to save money, go to families to prevent children from going into care in the first place.

In the September debate, even the Minister recognised that it is much more cost-effective for local authorities to put children into kinship care rather than local authority care. The savings are very realisable. in the short term as well as in the long term. Mr Jones talked about long-term savings, but about £35,000 per child can be saved by putting children into kinship care rather than local authority care. If the Minister is going to stick to just eight local authority pilots, I beg him to at least look at expanding the eligibility criteria.

Many hon. Members have already talked about the lack of movement on employment support and the lack of a commitment to statutory pay or leave, which are hugely disappointing. Kim, the constituent who first brought my attention to the issue of kinship care, had to reduce her hours significantly. So many people do. They are typically women, because kinship carers are often grandmothers, who are already suffering the gender pay gap and losing out. That is a key barrier that must be removed.

There are so many things that I do not have the time to say. In September, the Minister said that he was determined to do as much as he could. He needs to go back to the Treasury and the Department for Business and Trade and ask for more, because the strategy is just scraps. Kinship carers deserve an awful lot more.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 5:01, 6 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alistair Strathern on securing this important debate, leading it with such energy, providing an excellent introduction and championing the cause of kinship carers.

Kinship carers play an immeasurably important role in our communities. They care for children when the parents no longer can. The complexities associated with full-time care for someone else’s child, even if they are a family member, should not be underestimated. The love, care and stability that the families offer kinship children are nothing short of remarkable. Their actions enable countless young people to remain in their own families and existing support networks. It is for those reasons that we must enhance support for kinship carers.

To their credit, in December last year the Government published the first ever national kinship strategy, which provided welcome recognition of and support for kinship families. However, it falls far short of the support that the families urgently need. There are more than double the number of children in kinship than in foster care, so the Government must support kinship carers in the same way that we support foster carers.

In my region in the north-east, around one in 50 children are growing up in kinship care, with over half being looked after by grandparents. The Kinship charity runs a number of successful support groups across my constituency. As my right hon. Friend Mr Jones says, the support that Durham County Council offers is outstanding. It helps families to support one another through very challenging times. However, there is only so much that the Kinship charity can do. I support its call for the introduction of a mandatory non-means-tested allowance for all kinship carers that is at least equivalent to the national minimum fostering allowance. That was also recommended by the independent review of social care. Eight in 10 kinship carers are forced out of work or must reduce hours because of a lack of financial support.

I want to mention my old friend and constituent Elaine Duffy, who is a kinship carer. She has three grandchildren, and had to give up her full-time work because she could not sustain the commitment to her caring role while working full time. Her dedication is commendable, and fortunately she is now employed by the brilliant Kinship charity. She works very hard to support its campaigns alongside looking after her three grandchildren.

The Government must consider the successful models in New Zealand and Scotland. I urge the Government to do far more to support our kinship carers.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 5:04, 6 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alistair Strathern on championing this issue so strongly and laying out the issues so clearly. I also thank the charities Kinship, the Family Rights Group and Barnardo’s for all their work on kinship care.

I give big thanks to all the kinship carers in my constituency of Putney, who are offering all their support and love to so many young people, and to those constituents who have been to my surgery. One lady came to me recently and explained that in a time of great need, her mother took on her daughter for a time; she was able to move back in with her several years later. The problem was that in those years when she looked after her daughter, she suffered enormous financial hardship. That is what the lady wanted to raise with me, and that is what I will talk about.

Kinship carers have the responsibility of parents without the rights, and the responsibility of foster carers without the training, support or pay. That inevitably has an impact on the young person they care for. A recent survey found that 12% of kinship carers were concerned that they might have to stop caring for their kinship child in the next year if their situation did not improve. That is the last thing that they want. They are full of love, but they are also impacted financially by suddenly having to take on those commitments.

Financial support and legal costs are their main ask. The second ask is for statutory paid leave; it is very unfortunate that that has been missed out in the kinship strategy, and I would like to see that looked at as a matter of urgency. The third ask has been raised by other hon. Members today: it is about the postcode lottery among local authorities in looking round and exploring where kinship care is appropriate when a child is about to go into care. I was really surprised to find out that before a child goes into care, not every avenue is explored in looking at family members. There is a lack of consensus and understanding from different authorities. A fourth area, which has been raised by many hon. Members, is the lack of a legal definition. Kinship carers are often not recognised in their parenting role by services, schools or employers.

The #ValueOurLove campaign is to be commended. Its goals are:

“Equalise allowances between foster and kinship families…Equalise access to training and support between kinship carers and foster carers…Equalise leave between adoptive and kinship families …Equalise support between children in kinship care and those in care.”

I know that the Minister cares about the issue. I ask him to look at the gaps in the kinship care strategy. Action today will keep families together, save money and radically change the life opportunities for hundreds of thousands of children and young people in Putney and across the country.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby 5:07, 6 March 2024

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend Alistair Strathern for leading this important debate.

It is vital that support for kinship carers, including the many incredible kinship carers in Liverpool, West Derby, is being discussed in this Chamber today. Many families say that they feel invisible, undervalued, unimportant and ignored by the Government. Some 75% of kinship carers entered the cost of living crisis in severe financial hardship. We know that children growing up in kinship care have better emotional, behavioural and educational outcomes than children in unrelated foster care; I have seen that with my own eyes with the fantastic group in Liverpool. However, kinship carers do not get anywhere near the recognition that they fully deserve. The support provided to kinship carers, including financial, legal, practical and emotional support, is nowhere near what the families need.

Important work has been happening in Liverpool. The kinship charter developed by Pauline Thornley of Kinship Carers Liverpool with her magnificent team and local kinship families is the first of its kind in the country. It is a groundbreaking achievement for kinship carers and their loved ones, and we in Liverpool are rightly extremely proud of it. I place on the record my thanks to Liverpool City Council for its efforts on the charter, and to Pauline and the team.

Families urgently need more support at a national Government level. Thanks to the fierce campaigning of kinship carers and charities, the Government recently published the first ever national kinship care strategy. However, like many of my constituents and like Kinship Carers Liverpool, I share the thoughts of the charity Kinship:

“The Government’s Strategy provides welcome recognition of and new support for kinship families, but the overall investment and commitments made do not deliver the urgent help which kinship families need today nor build a kinship care system fit for the future.”

The Minister should act on the concerns of families and campaigners. Will he commit to legislating on and funding a full roll-out in all local authorities of financial support for kinship families that is equal to that for foster and adoptive families? Will he commit to a new statutory pay and leave offer for kinship carers that is on a par with pay and leave for adoption? Lastly, will he equalise access to training and support between kinship carers and foster carers, as so many hon. Members have called for today? Those changes would make a huge difference to kinship families in Liverpool, West Derby and beyond. Many of the fantastic campaigners here will attest to that.

If the current Government will not act to implement these changes, I very much hope that an incoming Labour Government will. It is the very least that we can do for these fantastic, amazing people.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Before I call Jim Shannon, I remind Front-Bench Members that there will be five minutes for the Opposition, 10 minutes for the Government and then a minute or two for the mover of the motion to wind up, if the Minister is so minded and if there is time.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:10, 6 March 2024

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship for the third time this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I commend Alistair Strathern for securing the debate. I want to give a Northern Ireland perspective on the whole thing, as I always do—it is about what we do back home. The Minister will obviously have some input into that, and I seek his assistance as to how we can make it better.

In March 2023, some 3,801 children and young people were recorded as in care in Northern Ireland, which is 177 more than in 2022. That is the highest recorded number in Northern Ireland since 1995, some 29 years ago. It tells us a wee bit about the issue, which everybody has illustrated very clearly. Some 22% of the children had been in care for less than a year, while 32%—almost 1,300—had been in care for five years or longer. There is a real issue for us back home with foster care, but today’s debate is about the kinship care strategy. The increase is certainly concerning; it highlights the issue of kinship care even more fully when we consider that more than half of those in foster care are in kinship foster care.

I have two questions for the Minister, along with the Northern Ireland perspective. First, I understand that foster carers were given an increase of some 12% in the foster care allowance. It seems that that did not go as far for kinship foster carers as it should have done. Could the Minister clarify the point and give us some indication of whether that is the case? Secondly, some £9 million will be invested in a bespoke training and support offer for all kinship carers. That is excellent news, but I am a great believer in the saying that the devil is in the detail, so I would like to know a wee bit more about how that will work.

As Mr Jones and others have pointed out, many families who take in their sibling’s child do so not for the money, but for the love of the children. That is what is all about: the motivation. It is not about the money, but the money helps them do some of what they would like to do. Love does not buy the school uniforms or clothes, so they need that extra support.

I believe that there is a real need for urgent recruitment of foster parents and kinship carers in Northern Ireland. I always ask the Minister gently, humbly and with all graciousness, knowing that he will work with the relevant Minister in Northern Ireland to ensure that we can take things forward and help.

One of my local businessmen took his children—children of his own and those he fosters—to Florida. He loves all those kids and treats them all as his own. He does not do it for the money. That kind of money would never pay the bills for the holidays or anything, but the fact is that many others cannot do this without financial support.

We must get the strategy right, not just in England or here on the mainland, but across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It begins with kinship care being recognised and supported appropriately.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) 5:13, 6 March 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alistair Strathern on securing today’s debate on such an important subject and on speaking so powerfully on behalf of kinship carers in Mid Bedfordshire.

I know that we are joined by kinship carers in the room today. I want to start by paying tribute to them for the love and support that they give to the children in their care. It is always humbling to meet kinship carers and hear about their experiences. It is an extraordinary thing to step up to care for a child when a family member or a friend is unable to do so, yet for every kinship carer I meet, it is never a choice; it is an instinct for a child they love. I also want to pay tribute to Kinship, the Family Rights Group, the Kinship Care Alliance, and the APPG on kinship care for their vital work in supporting and giving voice to the experiences and needs of kinship families.

We have heard from many hon. Members this afternoon, which is a testament to the importance of this issue across the country. I do not have time to mention every contribution individually, but I will mention some. Mr Walker, the Chair of the Education Committee, having looked at the evidence, highlighted the need to support kinship carers much more systematically across the country. My hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne spoke once again about his experience as a kinship carer for his grandson Lyle. I have to say that I look forward to these debates for the opportunity to have an update on Lyle’s progress. He is a wonderful little boy. My hon. Friend Grahame Morris spoke about the difficulties facing kinship carers who give up employment to look after children.

My right hon. Friend Mr Jones talked about how the state takes for granted the love that kinship carers give, and he is right about that. My hon. Friend Fleur Anderson spoke about how kinship carers are parents without rights and foster carers without the support or training that foster carers get, and how they fall between those two categories. My hon. Friend Ian Byrne paid tribute to the work of his local authority in supporting kinship carers.

An estimated 141,000 children across England and Wales are growing up in kinship care. Most will have experienced a traumatic event such as a bereavement, abuse or neglect. Kinship carers will often have shared in the trauma that led to the grandchild, niece, nephew or close friend coming into their care. Those are hugely challenging circumstances for every family, which makes kinship care much more than simply welcoming a family member into your home.

Often kinship carers are left without the wraparound support they need. There has been clear consensus in the debate on the need for greater support for kinship carers and we welcome the publication of the Government’s long-overdue kinship care strategy. For far too long, kinship care has been undervalued and under-recognised. It is testament to the hard work of campaigners that the strategy has finally been published. It is a step in the right direction, but sadly it falls short of what kinship carers were hoping for. Many of the measures announced will only be implemented through pilots, meaning that most kinship families will not see the benefits for several more years. In the very limited time we have this afternoon, I want to press the Minister on the question of legislating for a legal definition of kinship care. The guidance is welcome, but that statutory footing is what campaigners are asking for.

The pilot of the equivalent of the foster care allowance for kinship carers covers just eight local authority areas, and therefore a very limited number of kinship carers. They face hardship now, and we need more action from the Government. The strategy rightly discussed the need for greater advice for kinship carers and stronger guidance for local authorities. There is a huge postcode lottery in the support kinship carers receive. Statutory guidance has been in place for more than 12 years, but we know that many local authorities are not implementing it. What is the Minister doing to ensure that all local authorities are implementing the guidance and will he consider producing regulations if the situation persists?

Guidance for employers is welcome, but what is the Minister doing to ensure that the guidance is implemented? Finally, it is impossible to separate the challenges faced by kinship carers from the wider pressures on our social care system and on families. Labour in government have always put children and families first. We will do so again, working with kinship carers and those who support them to get them the support and recognition they need.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 5:18, 6 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I cannot possibly do justice to the debate and all the points that were raised, and certainly not to the fantastic role that all kinship carers play. It is great to see some of them in the Gallery today. I had the pleasure of meeting them briefly before this debate, but I know we will have a lot more opportunities to discuss the subject in more detail.

I congratulate Alistair Strathern on securing this important debate. People who have been in such debates before have heard me talk about the fact that my first experience of the subject came many years ago, when I mentored a nine-year-old boy who had to be removed from his parents and was put with his nan. She totally transformed his life, and, as everybody has said, did so out of love—certainly not for money. It was to prevent him going into care and taking other bad directions in life. That was my first experience of the issue, which is why I was so excited for us to publish the first strategy before the end of the year.

I wholeheartedly share the commitment of the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire to championing the role of kinship carers. I have spoken to many kinship carers through the Department’s reference group and during visits all over the country, and I have huge admiration for the role they play, often unseen. The conversation I always have with them is that there is a lot of attention, rightly, on those who adopt and who foster, but if we went down the street and asked what a kinship carer was, people would not know. They play an incredible role. We also know, although this is not the reason kinship carers do what they do, that children in kinship care will on average end up with better GCSE results, better employment outcomes and better long-term health outcomes. It therefore makes sense for the country as a whole, in addition to making sense for kinship carers and the children they are taking on.

Starting with the financial allowance, we know from the many conversations we have with kinship carers that nobody expects to take on the role when they do. We have announced a pathfinder programme for eight local authorities, which will provide special guardian kinship carers—

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Very briefly, because I do not have much time to get through everybody’s points.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

I am following very carefully what the Minister is saying. Can he tell us the eligibility criteria or the basis on which the eight pilot authorities have been chosen?

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We have not announced the local authorities, so let us do that bit first. Members asked why we are starting with the particular subset of children who have special guardianship orders; they are one of the easiest groups to define, they often have the highest need and they are the quickest for local authorities to make the payments to. We want to get the programme going as quickly as possible, but subject to its success we want to broaden it to the full range of people in kinship care and to the other local authorities. However, we have not chosen the eight yet.

On virtual school heads, while some children in kinship arrangements have already been able to benefit from education entitlements and support, one of the constant conversations I have with kinship carers is that at times they find it very difficult to get the school to engage with them. Even though they are acting as the parent, they do not get the same conversations and treatment that a parent would get. That is why we announced £3.8 million to expand the role of virtual school heads to children in kinship care. All children in kinship care arrangements will get that, regardless of their status. My hon. Friend Ben Everitt raised that point and mentioned making sure everybody is aware that the heads are there. The local authority grant letters are being published imminently, delivery will start in September and we will do all we can to make sure everybody knows that they exist.

My hon. Friend Mr Walker and others mentioned kinship leave, and we recognise the challenge many kinship carers face when continuing to work alongside the pressures of taking in and raising a child at an unexpected moment. We continue to explore what we can do. We have published guidance for employers, as some hon. Members have mentioned, to better support kinship carers in work. Some employers are already doing that. The Department for Education will give kinship leave to its staff who are kinship carers and we expect other Government Departments to do similarly in the coming weeks and months.

On training and support, which was raised by the hon. Members for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) as well as others, we announced a £1.6 million extension to our peer support funding, which will be delivered from July. It will mean that all kinship carers, regardless of their care order, will be able to network and learn from each other until the end of March 2026. Following the progress and positive impact that the peer-to-peer support contract has already made, we have committed to delivering a package of training and support that all kinship carers across England can access. We were pleased to confirm that the charity Kinship will be the training partner and that training is on track to be delivered from spring 2024.

We know that many kinship carers feel that a clear definition of kinship care will help to reduce barriers to them accessing services and support, creating a common understanding of what kinship care means. We are proud to have published the first Government definition of a kinship carer. This year, we will implement that in statutory guidance to improve understanding and awareness from practitioners about what kinship care is.

On a related matter raised by the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire, we have asked the Law Commission to review and simplify the framework for kinship care status. On the point made by him and Andrew Gwynne about inconsistent support from local authorities, we are publishing an updated version of the family and friends guidance this spring, and we will be monitoring compliance. I had a conversation with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish at his APPG about the fact that we have found local authorities not paying the minimum fostering allowance, which we give them the money to do. Local authority compliance is very much in my sights.

This year, we will recruit the first-ever national kinship care ambassador to advocate for kinship carers and work directly with local authorities to improve services. That should go live for recruitment this month, and I look forward to working with the appointed candidate. They will help us to ensure that local authorities provide a consistent service that complies with what we require them to do. We are creating a board of sector experts, in addition to our kinship carer reference group, to advise me on priorities for future funding and policy development.

Let me quickly respond to some of the other points that were raised. My hon. Friend Andrew Selous asked about family group conferencing and New Zealand. We are exploring using legislation to mandate the use of family group conferencing at pre-proceedings and my predecessor met colleagues from New Zealand to discuss how it works there. Mr Jones and Ian Byrne described what sounded like good local offers to support kinship carers in their areas, and I will ask officials to follow up with them to ensure that we are aware of the good work they are doing. I need to leave a couple of minutes for the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire, so if there are any points I have not addressed, I am happy to write to hon. Members.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

Would the Minister address the issue of the pupil premium plus and priority admissions for children in kinship care? We know that looked-after children get those benefits, but kinship children do not, and it was not in the strategy.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I will write to the hon. Lady about that because it is a longer answer than the 30 seconds I have before the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire winds up.

We are proud of the progress we are already making to support kinship carers through the strategy, but we know there is more to do. I am fully committed to reducing the barriers to kinship care where it is in the best interests of the child to offer a safe, stable and loving alternative to becoming looked-after. I am determined that we keep the profile of kinship carers as high as possible and that people understand the vital role they play for the children in their care and the country as a whole.

Photo of Alistair Strathern Alistair Strathern Labour, Mid Bedfordshire 5:27, 6 March 2024

It has been a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful for the wide range of contributions we have had from my right hon. Friend Mr Jones and my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist), for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), as well as the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), for Worcester (Mr Walker), for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

It will be difficult in these two minutes to do justice to the wide range of issues highlighted today, but the range and sheer number of contributions gives me two important takeaways. First, we need to go further on a number of areas to do right for our kinship carers. Secondly, and more encouragingly, the sheer range of cross-party consensus around the House should hopefully mean that we can move with the urgency the issue demands over the remaining days of this Parliament. I am grateful to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell, for her contribution, showcasing and highlighting the important areas where we need to go further and underlining our party’s commitment to ensuring that they are tackled.

I thank the Minister for the work he has done on the issue and some of the things he has pushed along through the strategy. I want to flag, though, that the fact we have not even gotten to the point where the pilots have been chosen might cause some concern to carers, who fear that we are not yet in a position to even announce that. That underlines the sense that things are not moving with the urgency the issue demands. Similarly, the fact that we have had so many representations today on parental leave makes it clear that guidance is unlikely to be enough and that we will need to go further. I urge him to reconsider that.

Finally, I thank the fantastic kinship carers and advocacy groups in the Chamber today. Their love, commitment and dedication day after day as they look after their young people, breaking through so many of the barriers and issues that have often been put in their way, is truly inspiring. The fact that they do all that and then go beyond by advocating not just for themselves, but for future and potential kinship carers right across the country so that they and their young people do not have to face those same challenges is inspiring. I hope that today they have seen that they have parliamentary allies to their cause across the House. I look forward to working with everyone in this room to continue to champion the cause between now and the time when we can finally say the support they need and deserve is in place.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the kinship care strategy.

Sitting adjourned.