On Monday 7th December, the House of Lords debated the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill during its first day of Committee. The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke to amendments he had tabled to exempt kinship carers from the proposed two-child limit for new claimants. His speeches opening and closing the debate on his amendment are included below, along with an extract of the Minister’s reply. The full debate, including speeches by other Members, can be seen at: Parliament.uk
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, my concerns about this measure, along with those of other faith groups and organisations, are set out in the briefing note that my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham circulated to all Members of the House prior to the Second Reading debate. In that note we expressed our belief that children are a blessing and that anything that sends an implicit or explicit message that a child is unwanted or burdensome should be strongly resisted.
The stated rationale for the policy outlined in this measure is to ensure that people on benefits and tax credits face the same financial choices around the number of children they can afford as do those supporting themselves through work. I understand, and support, the Government’s desire to encourage responsibility through the welfare system. However, it is important that personal responsibility is not defined too narrowly or in purely financial terms, and that it encompasses our responsibilities to our families and neighbours, and to the communities to which we belong.
I turn to the amendments in this group. Kinship carers, for example grandparents, older siblings and other relatives and friends who step in to care for children, many of whom would otherwise be in the care system, are affected by these proposals. We have a responsibility towards these people and the Bill does not adequately reflect the share we all properly have in caring for and supporting them. These children are unable to live safely at home because of domestic abuse, their parents’ mental health problems, alcohol or drug misuse or the death of a parent.
In purely financial terms, becoming a kinship carer is an unwise decision. Kinship carers face significant additional costs and often a loss of income as the majority are forced to give up work temporarily or permanently to look after these children. Yet many people take on this responsibility sacrificially out of a commitment to love and care for their extended family, often at great personal expense to their own emotional and physical health. Thanks to their dedication, children in kinship care do significantly better than children in unrelated care, despite having suffered similar adverse experiences. In personal financial terms, it is an unwise decision: in social and community terms, it is a generous and good decision.
For example, Jane is a paternal grandmother and kinship carer. She and her husband are raising four grandchildren who are all under six years old. The children cannot live with their parents due to severe physical abuse. Although Jane and her husband get some special guardianship allowance support from the local authority, they are reliant on tax credits.
Jane tried to continue at first working full time when she and her husband took on the children, but it was too much. The children were suffering with their health and their well-being. They were upset, too. And she did not get any help with child care. Eventually her husband gave up his business to care for them so that Jane could work three days a week. If their tax credits are reduced, she would obviously have to go back to work full time in order for them to manage financially, at the expense of the needs of those very vulnerable children.
It has been estimated by the Family Rights Group that there are around 200,000 children being raised by kinship carers across the nation. More than one in five kinship-care families contains three or more children, and nearly two-thirds of these receive tax credits—around 18,000 families in total. The changes proposed in the Bill with the consequent reduced financial support for these families could well stop potential kinship carers from being able to take on the care of a sibling group of children, or lead to the splitting of a group of three or more siblings, or discourage carers from taking on an additional child if they already have dependent children of their own.
This is clearly not in the children’s best interests, nor in society’s—and nor is it in the Chancellor’s best interests. Exempting this group from Clauses 11 and 12, as I and others are proposing, would reduce the savings to the Exchequer by an estimated £30 million in 2020-21. That is down from £1,365 million in savings to £1,335 million. It would require only 200 kinship carers to be financially prohibited from taking on a sibling group of three or more for the extra care and court costs to outweigh any public savings. In care, the cost per year of a child is about £40,000: the one-off court costs are about £25,000.
The Government’s long-standing commitment to ensuring that families are stable is welcome. Will the Minister be able to agree with us that creating the best possible environment for children to flourish would be best enabled by reviewing this proposal? The moral case for supporting this group of amendments is sufficient, in my view, but the economic case is strong, too.
Other Peers spoke in favour of similar amendments that would also extend an exemption to adoptive parents, on the basis that the two-child limit might limit the opportunities for adoption to take place.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) (Con): [extract] I thank noble Lords for some very good speeches. To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, I have listened to those speeches very carefully, although I am not in a position today to provide much satisfaction as I stand here.
The Government do recognise the vital role that kinship carers play. For example, in universal credit, kinship carers will have to attend periodic interviews only for the first year after a child joins their household, which enables the carer to focus on helping the child through this difficult period. To pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, about the Government’s attitude to adoption, the Government take the importance of adoption very seriously. In the summer Budget, the Government provided £30 million to support the creation of regional adoption agencies to help speed the adoption process.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, mentioned the exemptions outlined at Second Reading. The Government have been consistent since the summer Budget in saying that we will exempt a third or subsequent child or young person who is one of a multiple birth where the multiple birth takes the number of children or young persons in a household above two, and that we will exempt a third or subsequent child born as the result of rape. Those are the exemptions that we have spelled out. We have also been clear that the exemptions will be dealt with in secondary legislation and we will provide more detailed information on those exemptions to noble Lords ahead of the next stage of the Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about the assessment that we have done in terms of the policy deterring adoption and the taking on of sibling groups. That was contained in the impact assessment of 20 July. We have considered the impacts, which in effect meet our obligations set out in the public sector equality duty.
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I am sure we are grateful for the very thoughtful contributions made in Committee and for the powerful case that these amendments bring to us. I am grateful to the Minister for his recognition of the vital role of kinship carers—albeit that it is a limited recognition in terms of the amendments. I was disappointed by—if I heard the Minister correctly—the inflexibility of his position but grateful for the courtesy with which he heard from us and responded to us, and offered to return with further information.
A lot of emphasis has been placed on the choice that is involved. I fear that a rational choice for many potential kinship carers, if these amendments were not passed, would be the agonising one of not really being able to accept the responsibilities that they would like to accept. I will add that the rational choice for the Government and our society would be to accept the amendments and support these people as they fulfil those responsibilities and offer that love and care.
There has been a lot of emphasis on the cost savings: the potential anticipated initial cost savings and the subsequent costs that might occur to other departments and elsewhere. The important costs are those borne by our society—by the children—which may be significant. Failing to do our best for children is always wrong. Doing less than the best for those who are in these challenging circumstances is a poor reflection on us.
I hope that the Minister may be able to give further consideration to the matters that have been raised this afternoon, to which we may wish to return on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.