On 21st December 2015 the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, spoke in favour of amendment 90B during the fourth day of committee stage of the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill. This amendment sought to exempt kinship carers from the impact of the reduced benefit cap.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I rise to express my support for the intention behind the amendment in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, which makes both sound social and economic sense. If a child can be cared for within the family network, and that is not to be parents or step-parents, that is in most cases preferable for the emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of the child. Churches have watched and participated for centuries in the patterns of such relationships and know that while they can hide dangers, they provide in the main the best setting for the formation of life. Better that than the anxiety, grief and hardship that the imposition of benefit rules not designed for such scenarios imposes, and that a proportion of such children be an economic charge on local authorities and reap the emotional deficit that will all too often occur.
We have heard that there are an estimated 200,000 children raised by kinship carers across the UK. Some 50% are grandparents and a little under a quarter are siblings bringing up younger brothers and sisters. If 95% of children living in kinship care arrangements are not looked after by the local authority, can we imagine what the cost would be if there were any sort of shift in that figure—yet we expect the carer to bear that cost? It is a cost often undertaken at short notice and in an emergency. Kinship carers face significant additional costs in terms of both equipment needed and maintenance costs. Their family size increases and can even double overnight. Unlike adopters, they are not entitled to a period of paid leave for the children to settle in. The largest survey of kinship carers in the UK, conducted by the Kinship Care Alliance, found that 49% of respondents had to give up work permanently as a result of taking on the kin children, a further 18% had to give up work temporarily, and 23% had to reduce their hours temporarily or permanently. In many cases, this plunged the household into poverty and debt. One grandmother carer responding to the survey said:
“We are struggling to buy food and pay our bills. We have to get food vouchers every three months”.
The Kinship Care Alliance survey found that 30% of kinship carers’ households were currently receiving housing benefit. The figure rose to 36% among larger kinship care households with three or more children—kinship care households such as that headed by Rachel, a grandmother in her 50s who lives near my diocese in south London. She took on the care of her three young grandchildren when her daughter died in a car accident last year. The children’s father is in prison. She has had to give up work to raise the oldest grandson, who is six years old and her two youngest granddaughters, who are three and one years old. She is also grieving the loss of her daughter, just as the children are grieving the loss of their mother.
I would be grateful to the Minister if he could tell me whether the Department for Work and Pensions has undertaken an assessment of the likely impact of this measure on kinship care households and, if so, whether he could provide the detailed figures. Furthermore, if the Government do not favour this amendment, will they bring forward their own amendment to address the points I have raised? Is the Minister not concerned—as I am—that the numbers in care may rise if action is not taken?
Many of the children arrive to live with kinship carers following a crisis and are deeply traumatised. Many have severe needs and some have suffered prior abuse. The survey to which I have referred found that kinship carers reported that a staggering 43% of the children had emotional and behavioural problems. Forcing carers into work cannot always be a just and appropriate response.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, who spoke earlier in these debates, dearly wished that he could have spoken today, and I pay tribute to his endeavours in this regard. I welcome the focus of the Government’s own family test on stable and strong family relationships and the explicit reference to kinship carers in the test. This amendment is entirely consistent with the application of the family test and I hope that the Minister will accept it.
Lord Freud: [extract] I turn to the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on kinship carers. The Government recognise the service that kinship carers and others provide, and the Bill continues the current provisions for foster carers, kinship carers, and family and friend carers. If they, or a child for whom they are caring, are in receipt of an exempt benefit the cap will not apply. In addition, any payments received from the local authority for providing care will be disregarded from the benefit cap. Finally, there is a nine-month grace period whereby the cap may not be applied to those who have recently left sustained employment. This will give time for kinship carers who may have had to leave employment to take on additional caring responsibilities to adapt to their new circumstances. Family and friend carers are treated in the same way as parents in the benefit system, so it is only fair to ensure that this principle applies to the application of the cap, too. The benefit cap is intended to promote fairness between those in and out of work, and to increase incentives for people to move into work—principles that I believe apply in the same way for family and friends carers as for parents.
By convention, this ammendment was later withdrawn.