Munira Wilson – 2022 Speech on Kinship Care

The speech made by Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, in the House of Commons on 5 July 2022.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a statutory definition of kinship care; to make provision about allowances and parental leave for kinship carers who take on responsibility for children whose parents are unable to care for them; to make provision about education in relation to children who are looked after by a kinship carer; and for connected purposes.

April—not her real name—is a constituent of mine. When her sister, who had bladder cancer, died, she left behind five children, all boys. The youngest was aged just five. His birth father was estranged and his stepfather had left the family when his mum got the terminal cancer diagnosis, leaving April’s nephew traumatised and with developmental delays. Shortly before April’s sister passed away, she asked April and her partner if they would look after her youngest son. Of course, they said yes. They would do anything to protect him. Before social services got involved, she and her partner welcomed in a new member of their family, but this decision came at a huge financial and personal cost.

April was already contending with illness and disability in her family. She needed financial and practical support for her nephew, so she asked the council to pay for his therapy. The council officer said, “You did the right thing in taking in the child before you were asked to. This is the best place for your nephew to be, and you’ve saved us a lot of time and money. But this is a private family arrangement, so we have no legal duty to help you. There’s nothing we can do.” Had April not stepped up to look after her nephew, he would have ended up in local authority care. She has saved the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds a year and likely ensured a more positive outlook for him. Yet because she did the right thing, she gets nothing in return for his living costs or to manage his mental ill health.

April is not the only one. Every year, thousands of grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and family friends step up to support a child whose parents are not able to care for them. Several kinship carers are watching in the Gallery today. They turn their lives upside down to provide children with a loving, stable home. For most of them, welcoming in a child is not a choice they make, but an instinctive reaction out of love to a dramatic, often overnight change in circumstances: a death in the family, domestic abuse or a similar situation. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne)—a kinship carer himself—described it to the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care, which he chairs, it is the “social services stork” that turns up unannounced at the door one night asking someone to take a child in.

Kinship carers do this even though their own financial situation may be unstable. Around half of kinship carers are grandparents, relying on their hard-earned pension savings. One in three kinship carers is non-white. Yet the benefits to children of living with friends and relatives they already know are immense. Compared with care leavers, they are more likely to have better mental health, to have better exam results and to hold down a job. It is why in Australia kinship care is the preferred option when a child cannot be looked after at home by their birth parents.

Kinship care is the Cinderella service of our children’s social care system—too often ignored. The Government have created a system full of unfairness and uncertainty, leaving some of the most vulnerable families without help. For carers such as Kim, another constituent of mine, who has a special guardianship order, the council has a duty to assess her financial needs. However, unlike for foster carers, any financial support is means-tested, discretionary and reviewed regularly. She told me:

“At the last review, we were told that we didn’t qualify for an allowance, even though our costs had increased and my income had reduced due to the pandemic. I challenged this and we now receive about half of what we used to get. It is a help, but it does not cover all the extra costs we need to find.”

However, others, such as April, are not legally entitled to anything. A survey published last week by the charity Kinship found that just 6% of kinship carers with an informal arrangement receive help. Those carers who do receive allowances are paid on average £40 a week less than the national minimum allowance for foster carers. That is bad enough, but the Government’s failure to tackle the cost of living crisis is only making the situation harder. Kinship’s survey this year found that 44% of kinship carers could not pay all their household bills. More than a quarter could not afford food for their families.

April’s partner, who was training to be a police officer, was told by the council that he should give up work. Studies show that between 30% and 40% of carers leave employment completely after taking on a child. Kinship carers do not get the same rights to employment leave as adoptive parents do. They must rely on the goodwill of their employers.

The unfairness is also reflected in our education system. If a child in kinship care was previously looked after by the council, their school receives pupil premium plus funding, but if a relative takes in a child to prevent them from becoming looked after in the first place, the school loses out. The relative’s generosity in stepping up at the earliest opportunity is punished by the state.

I fervently believe that every child should get the best start in life. The Bill I am introducing today includes four proposals to ensure that kinship carers get the financial and practical support their children need. First, all kinship carers should receive weekly payments equal to the national minimum weekly allowance that foster carers receive. Secondly, kinship carers should be entitled to paid employment leave when a child starts living with them, just as happens when a family adopts a child. Thirdly, children in kinship care should have the same support as looked-after children in our education system, such as pupil premium plus, virtual school heads and priority in the admissions process. Finally, those things should be underpinned by a statutory definition of kinship care that will act as a gateway for carers to access the rights I have just mentioned.

I am grateful to the Family Rights Group and to Kinship for their help with this Bill and their long-standing campaigns on these proposals. Voices from all sides of this House have recognised that the current situation is unsustainable. The Government’s own “Independent review of children’s social care” has called for change. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches will stand up for all carers in this country of all kinds. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) has spoken movingly in the past of his “amazing nana and granddad” who took him in after his mother passed away. We speak from the heart when we say that we want to be the voice of carers in this place.

I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), in his place. When I raised the issue of kinship carer allowances with him in the Chamber in May, he told me that

“it can be advantageous…to invest in that family member to avoid the child going into care”.—[Official Report, 23 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 42.]

I completely agree with him, but I know that his colleagues in the Treasury will be concerned about costs or providing a sufficiently watertight definition of who is a kinship carer. However, neither of these problems is insurmountable. On average, it costs about £72,500 a year to put a child in local authority care. If we provided every child in kinship care with a social worker and a weekly allowance, it would cost the taxpayer just over half that. We know that there are systems already in place in the Department for Work and Pensions to recognise kinship carers for the purposes of the two-child benefit cap.

For most kinship carers, welcoming in a child is an unexpected, life-changing decision, but one they would make again in a heartbeat. Ian, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), said:

“Having my granddaughter in the house gave us a new lease of life. It’s great, we love it.”

However, he also recognised how much harder it would be for those in much more difficult circumstances. Surely we owe it to these children who have been through so much, and these carers who have sacrificed so much and have saved the taxpayer so much, to give them the financial and practical support they deserve and need to flourish. Let us step up for kinship carers and support every child to get a better start in life, no matter their background.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Munira Wilson, Ed Davey, Robert Halfon, Stella Creasy, Tim Loughton, Sarah Olney, Layla Moran, Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck, Helen Morgan and Richard Foord present the Bill.

Munira Wilson accordingly presented the Bill.