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27 Jan 2010 : Column GC335

27 Jan 2010 : Column GC335

Grand Committee

Wednesday, 27 January 2010.

Child Poverty Bill

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill
Explanatory Notes
3rd Report Delegated Powers Committee

Committee (4th Day)

3.45 pm

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.

Clause 8 : UK strategies

Amendment 31

Moved by Lord Freud

31: Clause 8, page 4, line 21, at end insert ", including parenting skills"

Lord Freud: My Lords, my amendment would ensure that, in the focus on further education and the training of parents, which is a very important aim, sight is not lost of a different sort of skill that would immeasurably improve the life of a child living in that household. Much of the disjunction between income and material deprivation measures relates directly to personal choices. It is a tragic but undeniable fact that many parents do not have the necessary skills to make the best choices for their children. There are, of course, terrible cases when a parent wilfully abuses or harms a child in their care. There are severe penalties for that sort of behaviour, but in many cases the harm is done through ignorance, not malice.

We have spoken a little about factors such as child obesity, which can lead to severe health problems for the rest of a child's life as well as potentially triggering bullying and self-esteem issues. In most cases, the obesity is not caused by insufficient household income, as healthy food need not be expensive. The condition could be caused simply by a lack of understanding of what a healthy diet is or of its importance. With the high rate of teenage pregnancy, it is sadly true that many parents have barely left their childhood. It is no surprise that many young parents find themselves faced with responsibilities that they never imagined taking on and with no support system to turn to for help. I hope that the Minister will agree that any strategy must involve actively seeking out and helping these parents. I beg to move.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord can explain the difference between "parenting skills" and "skills of parents", as they would both appear on the same line.

Lord Freud: Yes, I am pleased to answer that. The skills of parents are general skills; as I read it, they refer to the general level of education and skills of people who happen to be parents. Parenting skills are

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directly related to the relationship between the parent and child and the parent's ability to look after the child to the highest possible level.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: I spend a lot of time suggesting that words can mean something different; I did so several times in our debate on the Equality Bill on Monday. I share the view of the noble Baroness. Speaking perhaps as a lawyer rather than as a Member of the House, I do not see that there is any real difference between the two. I entirely support parenting skills for obvious reasons.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freud, for his amendment, which suggests that parenting skills be explicitly added to subsection (5)(a) so that they are included when considering the development of the skills of parents. I welcome the amendment's intention but, as with other amendments that we will debate today, we consider that the issue is already covered by the broad area set out in the Bill. I agree with the noble Lord that it is not encompassed specifically within subsection (5)(a), which is designed to focus on the employment and progression prospects of parents to move on and into work. Parental skills do not fall within that, but we believe that they are encompassed within the other provisions, particularly in subsection (5)(c). I say that in response in part to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. If one wants to interpret subsection (5)(a) more broadly, in a sense it does not matter, as the issue is covered.

I agree that there is a strong evidence base that demonstrates that policies aimed at increasing parenting skills could have large intergenerational effects on the well-being of children. It is for this reason that, in the past three years, thanks to government action, there has been a massive expansion of the support that families and parents can receive in their local areas.

I have two examples. The Children's Plan Two YearsOn recognises that support for parents results in a direct improvement in their children's lives. There are now more than 3,000 Sure Start children's centres, which offer integrated services to more than 2.4 million under-fives and their families. Children's centres offer health services, parenting advice and support, early education and childcare, as well as training and employment opportunities. Since the start of the year, Sure Start children's centres have been established as a legally recognised part of universal services for children, mothers, fathers and grandparents. Funding for Sure Start children's centres has been guaranteed in 2011-12 and 2012-13.

The families and relationships Green Paper, which was published last Wednesday, highlights the significant investment that has been made in parenting programmes in the past few years. In fact, more than £170 million has been provided to local authorities between 2009 and 2011 to implement Think Family reforms. These include provision for family intervention projects, the Parenting Early Intervention programme and funding for parenting experts and practitioners.

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We are aware of the need to offer parents support and the opportunities to develop their parenting skills. It is for this reason that an abundance of support is currently being offered. I see no particular benefit in accepting the amendment because what it suggests is already provided for in the Bill. There is therefore no need for this requirement to be made explicit in the Bill, although it should be considered as part of a child poverty strategy. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.

Lord Freud: My Lords, I thank the Minister for coming to my aid, somewhat to my surprise, in interpreting subsection (5)(a) against the most formidable two ladies-the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley-who rather effectively put me in my place on this one. I am therefore delighted that I had the Minister's support when he said that he shared my interpretation of subsection (5)(a), although I think that I lost the point that he was making when he said that this was already included in the subsection.

I tabled the amendment because parenting skills have been provided slightly slowly. I am conscious of some fascinating new experiments and developments in Southwark, for example, where self-help parenting structures are being built. I do not think that I need to declare an interest, but my sister has been spearheading one of those efforts, so I know a little about this area and wanted to raise the issue. The amount of provision in this country may fall short in an area that is more vital than this Government have realised. I urge us, particularly when we look at child well-being, to worry more about parenting skills. I am delighted to hear that we will do so under subsection (5)(c) and that it will be up to the Secretary of State at the time, whoever he or she is, to interpret that in the widest possible way and as the Minister has encouraged us to do. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 31 withdrawn.

Amendment 32

Moved by Baroness Massey of Darwen

32: Clause 8, page 4, line 22, at end insert "and family and friends carers who take on the care of a child for more than 28 days in the following circumstances-

(i) where the child comes to live with the carer as a result of plans made within a child protection enquiry under section 47 of the Children Act 1989,

(ii) where a child comes to live with the carer following an investigation under section 37 of the Children Act 1989,

(iii) where a carer has secured a residence order or special guardianship order to avoid a child being looked after, and there is professional evidence of the impairment of the parents' ability to care for the child,

(iv) where the carer has a residence order or special guardianship order arising out of care proceedings, or

(v) where the carer has a residence order or special guardianship order following the accommodation of a child"

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Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, the purpose of these amendments is to highlight a pocket of child poverty that is often hidden. It happens when family or friends take on the care of children when the natural parents cannot, because of death, imprisonment, substance misuse or other reasons. There are at least 250,000 such children.

My amendments take up an issue that is not new. Much good work was done on family and friends carers in the Children and Young Persons Bill two years ago. Concern was shown on all sides of the House during the passage of the Bill, and some of those involved are here today. The Minister knows these issues well. He has been involved in many discussions, particularly about grandparents, in a very helpful way. Since those discussions, we have learnt much more about the plight of family and friends carers. We have seen more action, research and reports. I am particularly grateful to the Family Rights Group and to Grandparents Plus, which have done excellent work in this area. I was delighted to see measures on family and friends carers in the Green Paper on families and relationships that was published last week. All this is good news. The numbers of children living with family and friends carers may seem small, but it is significant. We need to know precisely how many children are involved and what the problems are.

My first amendment is about financial support for family and friends carers. The second seeks to ascertain the numbers involved and the third seeks to clarify the numbers involved. The fourth aims to ensure that child poverty needs assessment includes children who are being raised by family and friends carers. I shall say more as I go through the amendments.

I will first clarify who the carers are. This is dealt with in Amendment 71. A family or friend carer is a person who is raising a child who is not living with his or her parents, while the family or friend is related or otherwise connected to the child-for example, an aunt, a grandparent, a godparent or another friend. As I said, there are at least 250,000 children living with family and friends carers. However, there are no official statistics. My amendment would require this to be improved. Many such carers are at risk of poverty and of passing on this poverty to the children for whom they care. Some care for more than one child. One grandparent whom I have met has cared for three children, aged between one and 10, since her daughter died from a drugs overdose.

Only 6,800 children are termed looked-after children, who qualify for a right to be supported. Family and friends placements for children are more stable than unrelated care placements. The outcomes for such children, both social and academic, are better. Nevertheless, three out of four family and friends carers experience financial hardship; one-third are lone carers; three out of 10 have a chronic illness or disability; and one in three lives in overcrowded conditions. Many are older-for example, grandparents who take on the child of a son or daughter because of imprisonment, substance abuse or death. The vast majority of local authorities do not have a written or even unwritten strategy to best serve family and friends carers. How much better the outcomes could be for children if more support were in place.

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The situation is confused and confusing, both for family and friends carers and for the professions who work with them. There is a range of legal options for a child living with family and friends carers: a private arrangement with no legal order; a residence or special guardianship order; or the child is looked after by the local authority. I will not go into the details and intricacies of these arrangements, as they are very complex and too confusing. We know that private arrangements and residence orders do not attract entitlement to support. The local authority has discretionary power but is not required to pay. With special guardianship, there is no support, but the carer can claim child benefit and child tax credit. Other support is entirely discretionary. If the child has been placed by the local authority with a family member or friend because of concerns about the child's welfare, the carer should be assessed, approved and paid accordingly.

Only one in six local authority foster placements is with family and friends carers. Many of those carers are paid less than a related foster carer. Grandparent carers have told me that they would not seek local authority sanction for caring, as it is a lengthy process full of hazards and risks to the child, including the fear of the child being taken into local authority care, which is something that family and friends carers want to avoid. The cost of applying for a legal order when applying for a residence or special guardianship order can be between £3,456 and a massive £38,000. This is completely beyond the means of family and friends carers and few get any financial help. I have met such carers who have had to remortgage property or borrow money, so desperate are they to see the best done for their grandchild or young relative. The Family Rights Group freedom of information survey of local authorities found that 85 per cent lack explicit eligibility criteria stating which family and friends carers of children outside the care system are eligible for financial support and at what rate. That is something that we should look at.

Noble Lords will perceive the dilemmas and risks of poverty to family and friends carers and the children in their charge. The Fostering Network found that the cost of caring for a foster child is 50 per cent higher than the cost of caring for a birth child. The cost of raising a child in residential care has been calculated at 9.5 times that of a kinship care placement. Family and friends carers are saving the state a huge amount of money, but out of love for the child they often have to make enormous financial, emotional and physical sacrifices with little or no help and support.

The Family Rights Group, on behalf of the Kinship Care Alliance, has produced recommendations for kinship care that include the collection and publication of statistics on family and friends carers, enabling more children to be raised within family networks, including the use of family group conferences as mentioned in the Green Paper; the assessment of family and friends carers where children are listened to; systems to meet the short-term and long-term needs of children and carers regardless of legal status; financial support through an allowance; assistance

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with the tax and benefit systems; legal support; and an end to financial discrimination against family and friends carers who are foster carers.

My amendments seek to clarify some of the problems associated with family and friends who care for children. They look for action that will enable children to get the best possible care without the threat of poverty. I beg to move.

4 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, it was with pleasure that I added my name to these amendments introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who has been tireless in campaigning for these carers. Most kinship carers do a very good job for the children whom they take on. As she said, such carers are the most needy. Compared with other carers, they spend more time alone and are more overcrowded; more have a disability and more face financial hardship, which is sometimes severe. However, we know that these placements are more stable and certainly at the moment are a great deal cheaper than a child going into normal care. Even if financial help were to be given to these carers, it would still be considerably cheaper than the cost of up to £40,000 a year to place a child in another kind of foster care.

What is important from the child's point of view is that he settles down more quickly because he already knows the person who is going to be caring for him. Often he can carry on at the same school and keep the same friends. What is crucial is that these carers provide the child with love and affection, which money cannot buy. Importantly, they also provide a link to family, identity and culture. Uncertainty about identity can cause an awful lot of problems, including mental health problems, and can affect self-confidence as well as general well-being.

Why should we help financially? Many kinship carers have to reduce their working hours to have the time to look after the child or even give up work altogether. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, the Fostering Network claims that it costs more to bring up a foster child than a birth child. Certainly there are initial costs that come all at once instead of being met gradually over the years, as happens with birth parents. You buy a bed and a desk for the child to do its homework; extra clothes and whatever the child needs are also bought, and it all happens gradually. But for kinship carers, the cost all comes at once. It is essential that kinship carers are given help immediately and do not have to go through the hoops of formal fostering first. As the noble Baroness said, many of them are not prepared to go through those hoops anyway, because of the fear of losing the child.

It is important that kinship carers get other support and advice, too. Just because there is a loving relative or friend willing to take care of the child, that does not mean that these children have not gone through the same range of terrible traumas that children who go into other placements have experienced. They are often just as badly damaged as any other child taken into care. The carers may need special training or mentoring. They need a shoulder to cry on or somebody to turn to for advice if the child proves to be more

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difficult than they had anticipated. This quite often happens and, indeed, is quite likely if a child has been very badly treated.

It is time that we sorted this out once and for all. The 1989 Act said that kinship care must be considered if it is in the child's best interest. The 2008 Act, which the Minister and I both worked on, said that it should be considered first. I am not convinced that this is happening. Anyway, the lack of certainty about financial help is undoubtedly discouraging potential carers from coming forward, which costs the taxpayer more in the end.

It is important that we collect the data, as proposed in this group of amendments, so that we know the extent of the problem. We then need to ensure that family group conferences, which are good for every placement situation but particularly these, are available in every area, rather than the patchwork provision that currently exists. The wider family need to be given information about what help is available, so that they are more likely to volunteer to help.

The Family Rights Group found that 85 per cent of authorities lack explicit eligibility criteria for financial support for these carers, so it is a real lottery. Sixty-two per cent of the authorities in the same survey did not even mention criteria for non-financial support. We do not know if it is happening at all, least of all whether there is a postcode lottery in any individual area. Certainly, the friends and family of parents from whom children have to be taken for one reason or another just do not know what they are letting themselves in for. You can hardly blame them, willing though they might be otherwise, for saying, "I really do not think I can do it". If we could sort this out and they could have some certainty, I am quite sure that a lot more would come forward.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I, too, was delighted to add my name to this amendment. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Massey and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on pushing at this in such a way that all the political parties now recognise that a family need not be exclusively parents and children but may be older parents or three-generational. That wider approach to the concept of family and the need for family support is very welcome, as reflected in the Government's latest Green Paper. I am sure that the parties opposite share this view.

When I was involved with the CSA, one was often trying to get feckless, young, sometimes chaotic single fathers to pay maintenance. They would often do so only if they had had contact and bonded with the child. As these were 22 year-olds who were mostly living at home, the only way to make that work was for the mother-the paternal grandmother-to support, nag and encourage her somewhat chaotic son into bonding with that child. Often, that was the way in which the young man grew up into adulthood.

Many of us were very aware of children rotating between the parental and the grandparental home, often when there was a breakdown of relationships through the mental ill health of the mother. One tried to boost and reconfigure, with the full support of DWP, the guardian's allowance, which was then designated

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only for physical orphans-children whose parents were perhaps killed in a car crash. It seemed an appropriate, flexible benefit to extend to children who were effectively moral orphans-whether because the mother was on the game or on drugs, or the dad was in jail-and as a result were dependent on the support of other members of the family. We have modified the allowance somewhat-it now applies for two years rather than five years in prison-but we still have some way to go to allow it to fill a very necessary space.

It was also clear, when working on lone parent policy, that often the only childcare that was acceptable to a lone parent, because she trusted it, was that offered by her mother. As a result, the lone parent was willing to go into work without guilt and hung on in work in a way that she might not have done if she regarded her childcare arrangements with more suspicion, so that they broke down too easily and too frequently, pulling her back out of the labour market.

Again, we could not get support-understandably perhaps-for paying the childcare tax credits to grandparents, because of the extra cost, but I was delighted when my noble friend and the Treasury agreed that grandparent carers looking after children for more than 20 hours a week were at least able to get national insurance contributions. Although they might not get payment, they none the less were not penalised through their pension. I was delighted when that happened.

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