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6 pm

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I support Amendment No. 37. We are all grateful to the Minister for the full letter that he wrote to us, setting out responses to some of the questions that we raised, particularly so far as I was concerned. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, the research shows how valuable kinship care can be in reining in the damage to challenging children, especially given that the children’s needs may be volatile, intermittent and flexible. There may well be a revolving-door situation for some of those families that are under strain. Foster care with, so to speak, professional strangers may not be the most appropriate way forward for those children. It can be appropriate but, where there is no history of abuse but rather a history of neglect, all the research suggests that kinship placements are much more satisfactory for the long-term health and well-being of the child.

The problem is that the grandparent needs a resource to be able to provide kinship care. Children do not come cheap. My noble friend’s letter suggested just how inappropriate central government financing structures are for such children. The grandparent may not know whether the child will be with them for two months, six months or six years. They need financial help; they will almost certainly need a lump sum immediately for beds and so on, as well as some form of income attached to the child for their maintenance.

Although in his letter my noble friend describes perfectly accurately—I would expect no less—the existing system, none of it gives me any comfort that the problem that I have identified will be addressed. It is true that the Social Fund can make grants through the community grant scheme to individuals, but very seldom, so far as I am aware, has that money gone to grandparents in these situations. The budget is cash- limited and the preference is for budgetary loans, repaid over time, in order to acquire white goods. It is not appropriate where a grant for grandparents is needed and I know from my own experience that such grants are very rare. So that does not help.

What about income? After six or eight weeks, the child benefit book may go to the grandparent, if that is not contested by the natural parents—and often in such circumstances it is contested by a parent who is reluctant to give up even the modest income that comes with that benefit book. But let us suppose that that goes across; it is still a fairly low-value benefit. It is going up to £20 and we are delighted about that, but it is still fairly low.

The two high-value benefits that are available are either the child tax credit, which is the tax credit payment for children, or the childcare tax credit, which is what allows a registered childminder to be paid while the parent goes out to work. Neither of those will be easily available to the grandparent. The child tax credit requires a new claim to be made by the grandparent, which will be at odds with the existing child tax payments to the natural parent, where the assumption is that they will run for 12 months. There will be serious delays and probable difficulties about the evidence of where the primary carer is.

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What about the childcare tax credit? Given that we are talking about a grandparent, there is no provision, even if that grandparent is an experienced foster carer, for them to look after their grandchildren solely. The tax credit would have to go to the next-door neighbour, or a stranger, who would be paid to do what the grandparent would prefer to do herself but is not, by law, allowed to. The grandparent falls right down the middle of the benefit system. Although my noble friend describes the structure fairly, not one penny of the money available will necessarily help the grandparent to finance the child maintenance that is necessary if that child is not to have the additional struggles of being deprived of financial support, as well as the stress and strain that they may suffer from the effects of some form or other of parental neglect.

If, as apparently is the case, my noble friend cannot seek to produce any central government resource to help grandparents in this situation, the only other avenue is the local authority. I am not at all confident that local authorities would manage, incidentally. As the noble Baroness said, they, too, are resource-driven and the issue would be bandied to and fro between the two tiers. Is it central or local government’s responsibility? The result would be that the grandparent would still get nothing. I know, having accompanied a delegation with my noble friend Lord McKenzie on some of these issues, how many grandparents were forced to give up kinship care because they could not get any financial support. Those children were then placed permanently in the care system, so that the possibilities to rehabilitate the children with their natural parents in years to come were lost for ever. That is very sad.

I hope—indeed, I am confident—that my noble friend is aware that there is a real lacuna of financial support with appropriate flexibility for grandparents in this situation coming from central government. It has not been identified, responded to or addressed. In that absence, local authorities must act if central government will not. It is for that reason that I support my noble friend’s amendment.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, after those three brilliant speeches, I have nothing additional to say except that, as a patron of the Grandparents’ Association and a practising grandfather, I strongly support what the three noble Baronesses have said.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, we have been strong supporters of what the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, has been seeking to achieve throughout consideration of the Bill. Like her, all other noble Lords who have spoken and the Government, we believe passionately in kinship care. The amendment would solve many of the problems that the Minister outlined in Committee and on recommitment. I get the feeling that the Government do not oppose it in principle but were dissatisfied with the legislative mechanism in the previous amendments, so I hope that these amendments will find a better reception. Our support has not wavered. I will have one more bash at this, although I know that the Minister has already said that he will take it away and look at it: if

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we want to ensure that local authorities look first to kinship care, as they should, then please can we make it a key performance indicator?

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, in the past we have supported these amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and we support them again on this occasion. They have been redrafted to meet some of the objections made by the Minister on previous occasions. We believe that they embody a good principle—that when a friend or relative takes on the responsibility of looking after the child and saves the local authority all the costs and work of trying to find foster parents and make other arrangements, it is only reasonable for them to receive help and support from the local authority. We urge the Minister to find some way of incorporating the amendments in the Bill.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we are grateful to my noble friend Lady Massey for raising the issue of family and friends carers. My officials and I have had productive conversations with her and I hope that I can put on the record some points that meet most of her concerns.

Our overarching policy is to ensure a more consistent and transparent approach by every local authority to supporting relatives who care for children, whether the children have looked-after status or not. We intend to do that through a combination of the legislative changes that we are making in the Bill and the regulations and statutory guidance that we will be issuing to local authorities once the Bill is passed.

We want to ensure, first, that placement with family and friends is considered as an option for every looked-after child. That is why we are changing the Children Act 1989 by substituting new Section 22C for Section 23. Subsection (7)(a) of new Section 22C places local authorities under a duty to give preference to placements with related carers over any other placement option. Secondly, as set out in the Care Matters White Paper, we will issue statutory guidance to local authorities that will require them to publish a transparent and accessible policy for providing support to related carers, so that carers will know precisely what support they can expect, whether or not the child for whom they are caring has looked-after status.

Going to the heart of my noble friend’s concerns is the fact that, where a local authority provides a child with accommodation by making an arrangement for them to live with an individual, that child is deemed to be looked after by the local authority and the carer with whom the child is placed must be an approved local authority foster parent, whether or not they are related to the child or otherwise connected with them.

All carers with whom the child is placed by the local authority are therefore local authority foster parents regardless of prior relationship to the child and are therefore already covered by all existing legislation and regulation relating to foster parents, including—this is a key point—provisions of Section 49 of the Children Act 2004 relating to payments for

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foster parents. Local authorities’ policies on financial payment or other support must therefore not discriminate between related carers and others simply on the ground of prior relationship to the child. We will make this crystal clear in our guidance after the passage of the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 deal with emergency placements. We recognise that, when an emergency arises, the person best placed to care for a child is often someone who is already known to them, whether it is another family member or a neighbour. However, that person is unlikely to have prior approval as a local authority foster parent. This situation is provided for at the moment in Regulation 38 of the Fostering Services Regulations 2002, which enables a child to be placed with a relative after preliminary checks to ensure the child’s safety but pending full, formal approval as a foster carer.

We intend to use the new powers that we are taking through Clause 8 to regulate the approval of local authority foster carers to replicate the effect of Regulation 38 so that related carers can be granted temporary approval after basic preliminary checks have been carried out. The checks are likely to include, as now, a requirement to interview the carer, inspect the accommodation and obtain details of others living at the address. This will improve current safeguards for children placed in emergency. The effect of current Section 23(3) is that any person with whom a child is placed is a local authority foster parent, which means that there is no immediate legal consequence if the carer is not approved within six weeks. However, under new Section 22C, a carer is a local authority foster parent only if approved as such. As I have said, we will provide for a temporary approval status, which will be time-limited. If the temporary approval expires before full approval is granted, the placement cannot continue; otherwise, a local authority will be in breach of primary legislation.

The purpose of the proposed legal change is to ensure that local authorities prioritise the need to complete approvals in time and improve the safeguarding of these vulnerable children. It is also to ensure that family carers receive all the financial allowances and support to which they are entitled as foster carers with full approval. They can receive that financial allowance and support from the moment that they are given temporary approval.

We recognise that the current six-week limit on emergency placements under Regulation 38 causes some difficulties. This has been raised with us by the regulator during informal consultations on the regulatory changes that we need to make. Before making a final decision on any change to the emergency placement period, we need to undertake a formal consultation with all stakeholders. Setting the appropriate period is a matter of detail that is more suited for regulations than for primary legislation, but we need to strike a balance between the need to keep the process for approving relative carers as quick as possible and the need to ensure that the approvals process is rigorous and safeguards children. Within that overall balance, we are open-minded on whether the current six-week limit on emergency placements is appropriate or whether we should review it.

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I hope that I have met most of the points that my noble friend set out. I reiterate that we give priority to the needs of related carers. For very many children, it is the most appropriate form of care. We want to see that proper support is available to carers in that position.

6.15 pm

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his considered reply and others who supported the amendments. Issues around benefits and deficiencies in systems have again been highlighted with great expertise and potential loopholes have been exposed.

I shall read the Minister’s speech carefully. I was glad to hear him talk about crystal clarity in guidance and temporary approval status before a person can become a fully fledged foster carer. I would have liked to hear more on a named person being available to see through the morass of terrible problems with the system that people report. I have no intention of dividing the House on this issue, but I look forward to further responses from the Minister at a later stage—perhaps in other conversations with him and his team.

The Bill has still to go to another place. I am sure that, if all is not considered well, colleagues will lobby their Member of Parliament to exert influence on the Government and local authorities to sort out the system to their own satisfaction. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 not moved.]

Lord Adonis moved Amendment No. 15:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group. These are minor amendments, intended to ensure technical clarity. Amendments Nos. 50 and 51 tidy up drafting. Amendments Nos. 42, 43, 47, 48, 52 and 63 are consequential amendments to the Children Act 1989, reflecting the effect of Clause 8 of this Bill.

I point to one amendment of significance, however. I have reflected further on points raised from all sides of the House about the requirement to ensure that determining the most appropriate placement for a looked-after child does not disrupt the child’s education, and on whether this requirement should, as noble Lords suggested in Grand Committee, also include training. I have concluded that we should be consistent with the policy underlying the Education and Skills Bill. Therefore, Amendment No. 15 inserts “or training” in the appropriate place.

The amendment will ensure that local authorities must take account of the effect of placement decisions on the activities of 16 to 18 year-olds who are not receiving formal education, but who benefit from on-the-job training, apprenticeships or similar work-based learning. This responds directly to concerns raised in the House, and I hope that it will be welcomed by noble Lords. I beg to move.

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Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, the amendment is yet another example of the Minister listening and acting. We warmly welcome its inclusion in the Bill.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, will apprenticeships be covered by “training”?

Lord Adonis: Yes, my Lords.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 16:

The noble Baroness said: I shall also speak to Amendment No. 35, which is about the same matter, and to Amendment No. 34.

Amendment No. 34 refers to the delegated responsibility of foster parents. Since our debate in Grand Committee, I have had briefings claiming that, in practice, all is not as the Government think. The fostering plans are not making it clear to foster parents on what they can and cannot decide. Simple decisions still have to go up the line. I have tabled the amendment again to give the Government another opportunity to tell us what they propose to do to ensure that practice follows what they think is happening on the ground.

Amendments Nos. 16 and 35 are about a duty to continue making fee payments to foster carers about whom allegations are being investigated until such time as the matter has been settled. Since we debated this matter in Committee, I have heard that the Government’s timescales for the resolution of allegations set out in their Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance are routinely being missed. The emotional strain from the considerable length of time it takes to resolve some of these investigations has huge impact on some foster carers, which, when combined with the withdrawal of their income, can force them out of the valuable work for which they were trained. The amendment would protect foster carers from financial hardship, put pressure on local authorities to speed up the investigations and enable more foster carers to stay in the service once their names have, one hopes, been cleared.

I have had a letter from a support group called FACT—Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers—which points out that a lot of the allegations are not made by the children and not while the child is with the carer. They are made by parents or other interested adults after the child has left care. This affects the unconnected children currently with that foster carer, since they have to be put elsewhere during the investigation. Many of these allegations are false. They come from a very chaotic population who use them to get back at society as a whole, yet it is the unfortunate accused individuals who suffer. While it is vital for the protection of children that all such allegations are properly investigated—I emphasise that—something must be done to speed things up to avoid penalising the innocent.

When doctors, police officers and teachers are accused of unprofessional behaviour, they are suspended on full pay. Foster carers, who are paid very little in the first place, are suspended without pay, which is tantamount

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to finding them guilty before any conclusion has been reached. In this country you are innocent until proved guilty. It is a principle of justice on which we pride ourselves. Let us ensure that foster carers are also treated as innocent until something other is proved. I beg to move.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I was happy to add my name to Amendment No. 35 because, for us, it is about natural justice. Allegations are a constant fear for foster carers and vexatious allegations can be used as threats, although we agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about safety. To face a false allegation is bad enough, but then to lose money—in some cases over a number of months—is no way to treat these much-needed and valuable people.

I also support Amendment No. 34. We heard at the previous All-Party Group on Children last week how, for a child just to go on a school trip, foster carers have to get permission from the social worker, who then has to get permission from the line manager—each stage more removed from the child. Children in foster care are no different from other children and often ask about these things at the last minute. If they cannot go on the trip because the permission does not come in time, that further stigmatises the child.

Baroness Meacher: My Lords, I wish to make only a single point in addition to those already made. The only possible argument against the amendment is that it might cost money. I wonder whether the Government have assessed the savings that would be had in finding more foster parents more quickly.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I support the amendments—my name is attached to Amendment No. 34. We must make foster care more attractive if we are to live up to the aspirations of the Bill. Can the Minister give us an update on the numbers of foster carers? I understand that there is a shortage of 10,000 in the UK, which means that many children are placed in inappropriate placements. Foster carers often say to me, “I said I was ready to take a child with low needs. I hadn’t had much experience of foster care or training, and I was given a child I later discovered had a dreadful history of neglect and a high level of need”. What else can a social worker do when there is nowhere else to put the child? If we wish the best for these children, we must make foster care more attractive. The amendments would effectively do that, so I hope that the Minister can give them a sympathetic response.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, the proposal is in the interests of children. There is nothing like money to speed things up, and some of these hearings take an extraordinary length of time, during which we focus on the adults—the foster parents and those who have made allegations. The children may have made allegations but we have to remember that they are children at risk. The allegations may be true or not but, just as in other situations, it is important that the children are not seen as objects in the inquiry but that the process is speedy for their sake and everyone else’s. That is another reason for supporting the amendment.

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