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I am delighted that both parties understand-as I am sure my noble friend does above all-that for children whose own parents may be chaotic, fragile, incompetent, on the game, in jail, with poor mental health or addicted, the grandparents may be the only stable loving adults in their life. We have to do all that we can to allow willing grandparents to keep such a family afloat, particularly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, as that child may be troubled and difficult in the formal care system and find their foster parent relationships breaking down time after time, because of the baggage of disadvantage that is brought to that new relationship. Grandparents hang on in when foster parents may not feel able to do so. In the process, as the noble Baroness rightly said, they give those children continuity with their roots. Often those children may love their hopeless mothers deeply and feel simultaneously protective and resentful of the situation that they are in. Loving grandparents can help those children to negotiate a complicated, ambivalent relationship with their natural parents.
The advantage of grandparent care, as both my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, is that it is flexible, informal, reliable and swift. You do not have to go through the bureaucratic hurdles of taking your child into a looked-after relationship, nor is it so threatening, so definitive and so labelling. In all these ways, it avoids the stigmatising of the child and the stigmatising of the family and is, therefore, a much more welcome approach in many situations.
Obviously, as the amendments say, we need data and we need consultative conferences to get the best outcome for the children. However, we also-and above all-need cash. It is quite simple. What often
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What sort of cash do they need? Often they will need, as the noble Baroness said, instant cash. I would like to see a right, under Section 17 of the Children Act, as amended in 2008, for grandparents to go for a community care grant from the Social Fund for instant access to £200 or £250 to produce the bunk beds, the sheets and the spare clothes that that child, who may have come the day before, may need. That is the first port of call.
Secondly, I would like to see non-conflictual help in resolving the issue of the benefit book, because the child benefit book is the passport to all other child-related benefits, including childcare tax credit. Perfectly sensibly, normally you do not change it within eight weeks; otherwise you will often find estranged husbands having it after two weeks because they were looking after a child for the summer holidays. We are trying to avoid that situation. The problem is that many biological mothers, particularly if they are addicted and so on, are extremely reluctant to hand over an obvious source of cash, while the grandparent, equally understandably, is reluctant to take them through the court procedures to get the benefit book restored to them, because that would break down whatever fragile bonds of trust there may be.
Therefore, you need not only family conferences but an alternative route to give the financial support to grandparents. That, I think, could be a beefed-up guardian's allowance, which at the moment is about £14 per week. There is no reason why it should not be beefed up to something like £50 a week. Alternatively, we could use as a temporary measure the care allowance that we give to carers. That would be particularly useful in those cases not where the child is long-term with the grandparents but where there is a revolving door, as may happen when the mother is in poor mental health. The mother may break down and the grandparents take over for six weeks or 16, after which the mother is well enough and the children go back home; then, six months down the road, it happens again. In that case, a flexible guardian's allowance, without fussing about the benefit book and so on, would allow the grandparents to have a carer's or a guardian's allowance to help them to manage the additional financial costs that fall to them in such a revolving, fluctuating situation.
Finally, if grandparents are carers for the long term, we should give them proper financial support. Local authorities often find it very hard to find foster parents who will take on large sibling groups, mixed-race children or children with a disability, because they do not necessarily have the appropriate experience. Equally, the child may already be in his early teens, resentful and hard to handle, even for experienced foster carers, who may find him truculent and awkward for very obvious reasons.
We know how hard it is to find such foster parents; there is a national shortfall of something like 10,000. I was privileged to spend a couple of days with one of
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That very good organisation said that its biggest hurdle, despite recent changes in the law, was getting head teachers to accept children into schools as looked-after children ahead of other children. It told me, as have other organisations-I hope that this is not the case and that, if it is, my noble friend will resolve it-that academies are given a three-year pass on taking looked-after children in order to avoid implications for their results and the like. I very much hope that my noble friend, and perhaps other Members of your Lordships' Committee today, can run with that and correct it if that is indeed the situation.
I appreciate that all this could have some financial repercussions, but there would be savings in the direct foster care bill and huge savings in the longer-term outcomes for children. It is the right thing to do. We should not simply rely on exploiting middle-aged women to pick up the slack in the system, although they do so with grace and generosity. Rather, we should fund them, support them and help them as they should be helped.
Baroness Walmsley: Before other noble Lords intervene, I would like to pick up on a point that the noble Baroness made. I did not want to stop her flow earlier and I hope that she will forgive me. She mentioned sex workers twice. Does she agree that, although many children of sex workers are not in an ideal situation in a household where the parent is a sex worker, their parents care for them very deeply? Indeed, some of them claim to do that sort of work to provide what they would like to provide for their children and do not, for many reasons, feel that they can do so another way. I am sure that many of us wish that they could do so another way, but not all children of sex workers are abused or neglected. I am sure that she would agree with that.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I absolutely agree. Clearly some women who are on the game are admirable mothers. The trouble, as we all know, is that they may be on the game because of drug abuse and drug reliance. That, or a mental health problem associated with it, may be what produces the troubled background for children.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I support these amendments and strongly support the speeches of the previous speakers. It is quite clear that, unlike with the previous amendment, the subject of these amendments is not covered by the Bill. It should be. As has been said, research has shown that those who care in this group are significantly disadvantaged compared with those who are foster parents and that, if you were to pay them less than you pay foster parents, you would save money on foster parents, particularly with children who are difficult to place.
I will tell the Committee about one family. The godmother is a friend of mine. She took over the permanent care of a nine year-old girl, who is now 11, from the mother, who has significant difficulties with drink and drugs. She keeps in regular touch with the mother and grandmother. She has managed to keep working, but with difficulty. She was asked by the local authority to take over the care of the child. She offered to be a foster parent but was persuaded not to be. Of course, she does not get a single penny from the local authority. She has now, at my suggestion, become a special guardian, but she still gets no money from the local authority. Her situation is not exceptional.
I should have declared an interest: I am president of the Grandparents' Association. However, it is not grandparents about whom I will speak, because they have been adequately and eloquently covered. I will speak about other carers such as godparents and other friends of the family, who take over the care of these children at very short notice. We are talking not just about people in their 40s but about people in their late 50s and 60s, who have to readjust their lives for the sake of a little girl or boy to whom they are not naturally related but for whom they feel an obligation, as this friend of mine does. She is doing a wonderful job with her goddaughter.
There is no shortage of people who do not take on the task because they cannot afford to, as has been said. What is very sad is not only that the child does not have a family or friend whom he or she knows, but that they go into care. The child is then moved from place to place. One appalling thing about the care system-it is not the fault of the system but the result of children going into care-is that children move two, three, four, even 10 times. I know of one child who moved 40 times before he ended up in an institution for severely traumatised children. Just think of it.
The grandparents or other carers of these children should be able to have some financial relief. Most of them are seeking not a foster parent allowance but some lesser support. If a little work was done by government departments to see what might be satisfactory for grandparents and other genuine related or connected carers-as Amendment 71 sensibly says-they might find that the cost would not be greatly in excess of what it would be otherwise. Short-term foster parents have to be paid, as do the long-term foster parents of a child who has been through a totally unacceptable situation. I urge the Government to look again-and very sympathetically-at these amendments.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey, Lady Hollis and Lady Walmsley, on the powerful and accurate presentations of the problem that they gave. I hope that the Minister and his department will read and reread them. Perhaps I might dare to suggest that this is a subject not only for the DWP but also for the children's services. I wonder whether a joint consultation might be a possibility.
Given what everybody has said, there can be no iota of doubt that the need is there. The problem is money. The noble Baronesses have said that they can see ways in which a more enlightened view would
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Lord Freud: My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy for these amendments and I congratulate the previous speakers, the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey, Lady Walmsley and Lady Hollis, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I confess that I regret that my name is not also on the amendment, as it is smack on the nose.
Some powerful speeches have been made. I shall not go over the same ground, as I want to come at the issue from a slightly different angle. In the pursuit of individualism, we have built up the individual at the expense of extended families. The vacuum that we have created has in many cases been filled bureaucratically. Families and friends are often disempowered from helping themselves by that bureaucracy. How much better it would be to have systems that reinforce natural family networks and kinship patterns. Our party has been making the point that we have developed a system in which bureaucratic processes take control and actively disempower the natural support networks that we relied on in the past and which other societies rely on to this day-and they are the happier for it.
I would like the amendment to be accepted. Clearly a process will go on today, but I shall be interested to see what we do with it at the next stage. It is entirely likely that, if the amendment were assessed on a real cost-return basis, it would save the state money. I am interested to hear the Minister's views on the real costs, if any, or on the real savings, which I suspect that there would be.
Lord Martin of Springburn: I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness on the amendment. I am reminded of my days as a young councillor in the 1970s on Glasgow Corporation, which had a magnificent reputation for looking after its children. The children could not always be fostered with families within the boundaries of Glasgow and so were placed with families all over Scotland. Every summer, the committee, the convenor and the shadow convenor, Labour and Conservative, would be given an allocation to visit foster homes throughout Scotland to see how the children were
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I remember being greatly impressed when visiting a household in Dumfries, well outside the city of Glasgow. The lady there had fostered children all her married life. She said, "You're from Glasgow and you've turned up in a big limousine. The last time that happened, I wasn't at home and the limousine went to the school, looking for the children. The headmaster said, 'I want the Glasgow children to meet the councillors'. The following day, I marched up to that school and told the headmaster, whom I had known since he was a boy, that under no circumstances were those children ever to be described as the 'Glasgow children'. They are children living in my home and they are my children". That impressed me. On those visits I also met men and women looking after not only young children but sometimes young adult men and women with educational difficulties. Some of them were in their 30s but were still regarded as people being fostered and looked after in families.
Can I make a point to the Minister? One of my worries is that, while it is ideal if grandparents and aunts can look after these children, it should be remembered that in many cases the aunt or grandparents will be living in a different local authority area from where the child is being looked after in care. Sometimes that leads to disputes between authorities. While it is recognised that the aunt or grandparents should be given some financial support, arguments arise over whether it should be paid by, say, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh or Newcastle.
I remember a case where a child in care with a local authority south of the border had an aunt in my constituency, when I was an MP. The child said that it would be lovely if they could stay with the aunt. A phone call was made to the aunt in the middle of the night asking if she would take the child. The aunt said that of course she would, but that she had financial commitments with a mortgage and children of her own and so would need some financial support. She was told that it would be all right. However, in the end, that verbal agreement made over the phone was not adhered to. The child was being very well looked after in Glasgow and no discrimination was made between that child and the others in the family, but there was a dispute. As the local MP, I went to the Minister at the time, Paul Boateng, and the matter was resolved. My worry is that we have to be careful that we do not have local authorities that are strapped for cash arguing about who should meet these commitments.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Massey for these amendments and pay tribute to her for the enormous amount of work that I know she has done, and continues to do, in this area. I also thank all other noble Lords who have spoken on this group of amendments. It has been a very powerful session, and it is therefore with some trepidation that I have to respond to the debate.
I start by saying that we are not here this afternoon to construct the strategies that will evolve from this Bill. We are seeking, from a child poverty perspective, to see that the framework which is provided for within this legislation covers all the bases effectively and gives us the opportunities to focus on the things that we need to. I readily accept the key points that have been made. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, spoke about the importance of the stability of the arrangements that kinship carers can provide. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, herself, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, spoke about the importance of data and resources in that, and they clearly have an impact on child poverty. The task is to see whether the Bill provides the framework for us to be able to address these issues.
The amendments seek to ensure that sufficient support is given to those carers through the child poverty strategy, and that we have a good understanding of the number of such children who live in poverty. We all share a commitment to improve the support available to those who care for children, including relatives and friends, and to ensure that the needs of this group are taken into account by Government and by local authorities. The evidence points to care by family and friends being the best approach for many children who cannot be looked after by their birth parents, and we want to recognise fully the additional support needs of this group, as well as the contribution family and friends carers make to the life chances of vulnerable children. To this end, we are already taking measures to help encourage children's upbringing by their families, and help ensure that family and friends carers receive the appropriate financial and practical support they need.
We recognise in particular that grandparents are playing an ever-increasing role in family life, both in supporting parents and caring for children. They are a crucial provider of full-time kinship care for those children whose parents are unable to care for them themselves. Many grandparents also play an important role in providing flexible and affordable childcare, often in the context of wraparound care between school and more formal childcare settings. The measure announced in Budget 2009, referred to by my noble friend Lady Hollis, that grandparents and other family members with significant childcare responsibilities will be eligible for national insurance credits, firmly recognised the value that grandparents add to family life.
However, while we recognise the noble intention behind these amendments-to ensure that children raised by family and friends carers receive adequate support-I do not believe that they are necessary. Amendment 32 seeks to ensure that the child poverty strategy considers measures of financial provision for specified categories of family and friends carers, as well as for parents. Amendment 71 follows on from this by adding a definition of "family and friends carers" to Clause 19. This definition is very wide, and the term "otherwise unconnected" is not totally clear. The definition is broader than that of "relative" in the Children Act 1989, which is,
The noble and learned Baroness looks as though she is going to-
Baroness Butler-Sloss: What about the godparents though? That is why I told the godparents story and asked the Minister. The current definition would not include a godparent.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I understand that point; perhaps I can come back to it in a moment.
I was going to go on to say that the definition of "parent" in the Bill goes further than just parent, and includes any individual who has parental responsibility for a child under the Children Act 1989. This includes many of the persons described in paragraphs (i) to (v) of this amendment: they are already included as parents under the definition in the Bill. It specifically includes parents, step-parents, persons appointed as guardians, persons with residence orders and persons with special guardianship orders. Therefore, we are not convinced that it is necessary or appropriate to extend the Bill provisions to people who do not have parental responsibility within the meaning of the Children Act 1989. Using the definitions in the amendments tabled would encompass private foster carers and very distant relatives, although I acknowledge that it would also encompass godparents. However, that does not mean that their circumstances do not have to be taken into account.
Noble Lords will also wish to note that family and friends carers are already able to access a range of support under existing legislation. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 places a general duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area, through the provision of a range and level of services appropriate to fulfilling those children's needs. This includes providing services to any member of the child's family, which includes persons with whom the child has been living even if they do not have parental responsibility. The services provided can include financial support. The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 amended Section 17 of the 1989 Act to make it easier for local authorities to provide regular and long-term financial payments to families caring for children where they assess this to be appropriate.
As with any other family, family and friends carers will be entitled to a range of financial support, such as child benefit and child tax credit, both of which are unaffected by any payments made under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. They may qualify for other benefits on broadly the same terms as parents, and if they are bringing up a child on their own and are unable to work they may claim income support on the same basis as other lone parents.
In addition to the range of support available under existing legislation for family and friends carers, we recognise also the need to ensure that adequate support is provided for all children through the child poverty strategy. The Bill sets out the main policy areas that the strategy will address in broad terms: promoting the employment and skills of parents and carers; providing financial support for households with children; improving family services; and achieving a good local environment.
I reassure noble Lords that although family and friends carers are not specifically mentioned in the building blocks, except to the extent that they are covered by the definition of "parent", the measures in the strategy will have to address their needs in order to meet the 2020 income targets. One of the main objectives of the strategy, as stated in Clause 8(2)(b)-we had an interesting debate on this earlier in the week-is to ensure that, as far as possible, children in the UK do not experience socio-economic disadvantage.
In developing a strategy to meet this objective, the needs of vulnerable groups, and the specific measures required to meet these needs, we will be cross-cutting issues across all the main policy areas. The Bill avoids being too prescriptive about the strategy, both as regards the content of specific policy measures and the specific groups that need to be targeted, because it needs to respond to changing circumstances between now and 2020. However, we envisage that the analysis will consider the evidence on which groups are most at risk of poverty on all the measures. The strategy will then consider whether specific measures are needed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable groups of children, as well as of their parents and carers.
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