What do children and families need from the Budget?
6 minute read
Ahead of the Government’s Budget announcement, Jordan and Joe from Family Rights Group’s Public Affairs & Communications Team share their thoughts.
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Just a few months after becoming Chancellor amid the fall-out from the short-lived ‘mini-budget’, Jeremy Hunt is delivering his first full Budget on Wednesday 15th March.
It comes at a tough time for families up and down the country, with the cost-of-living crisis compounding a long-term escalating crisis in the children’s social care system.
In the run up to Budget Day, we are setting out three key areas the Chancellor could take action to support children and families.
1. Early family help
Families face unique, complicated challenges, often made worse by financial hardship. Parents may struggle at times to bring up their children, due to child or adult mental ill-health, substance misuse, domestic abuse, and poverty.
The most effective way to improve long-term outcomes for children and their families is to provide help early. For example, domestic abuse support services or specialist child and adolescent health services. But too often the right help isn’t available at the right time. Problems soon escalate into crisis, leading to some children being removed from their family into the care system.
Early specialist advice is a crucial form of early help for families to understand social workers’ concerns and their rights and options. It can avert the need for care proceedings. The Government need to commit to increasing funding for free specialist advice services so parents and kinship carers can get the advice they need.
Josh MacAlister’s Independent Review on Children’s Social Care’s called for a “revolution in family help” with a £2.6 billion investment over five years. It warned that without an urgent shift, the cost of the care system would spiral to £15 billion with more than 100,000 children looked after in the next 10 years.
The Government pledged in February to launch a new ‘Family Help’ pathfinder worth £45 million in 12 local areas. We expect this funding to be confirmed in the Budget. However, this falls alarmingly short of the systemic reform that children and families involved with children’s services need in the immediate term. A pathfinder reinforces a postcode lottery and allows the crisis in children’s social care to continue. Even with the stated ambition to roll this out nationally in the longer term, children and families need support now.
Raising children can present challenges at the best of times, but the cost-of-living crisis is making these issues worse for families across the country. On a regular basis we are hearing parents and kinship carers contacting our free specialist telephone advice line who are facing desperate situations, such as homelessness or reliance on food banks. Local authorities and public services are also under financial pressure, resulting in cuts to preventative services.
For example, one family who contacted our advice line were homeless after falling into rental arrears and the local authority were proposing the child be voluntarily accommodated in foster care. We are also receiving frequent calls from kinship carers who have seen the financial and practical support they were receiving reduced or taken away completely. Some are considering whether they can continue to care for the children as a result.
In his Autumn Statement last year, the Chancellor confirmed that benefits would be uprated with inflation by 10.1%. We expect this to mentioned again in the Budget. It will be welcome for families across the country who are experiencing the biggest squeeze in living standards for many decades. However, the basic rate of Universal Credit does not cover family essentials. We support the Guarantee our Essentials campaign, led by Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust. We urge the Chancellor to take further action.
Rising energy bills are consuming an ever-greater proportion of stretched household budgets. Sense, the complex disability charity, have drawn attention to the disability premium on many essential living costs like utility bills. The chancellor is expected to extend the Energy Price Guarantee at current levels for a further three months. But the long-term future of the energy bills support scheme is uncertain. It is imperative that any system of energy price regulation targets extra support at families in poverty.
3. Support for kinship carers
Every year, thousands of relatives and friends step up to provide a safe and loving home to children who cannot stay with their parents.
Three in four kinship carers have experienced severe financial hardship, and almost half have to give up work when the child comes to live with them. Many children in kinship care have suffered tragedy and trauma and need therapeutic support. Despite the fact kinship carers step up for children in times of crisis – and save the state millions in care costs – support for carers and their children is often limited, patchy and difficult to access.
The Government pledged support for kinship care as part of their ‘Stable Homes, Built on Love’ strategy, including £9 million on information and training and a commitment to developing a national kinship care strategy. While this is a move in the right direction, there is still much further to go.
Other cost-effective steps the Government could take to encourage and support kinship arrangements include amending the rules on free childcare for 2-year-olds. All children in kinship care should be eligible for this support, addressing the inequality that means those who have not been formally looked after in the care system miss out. Introducing paid employment leave akin to adoption leave for kinship carers would help carers to stay in work and improve the financial security of kinship households.
Whether a kinship carer receives financial support from the local authority is highly variable. And our advice service often hears examples of heart-breaking, unfair and inconsistent practices. For example, when some local authorities are assessing the means of kinship households to determine whether to pay them special guardianship allowance (and at what level), they are wrongly treating some disability related benefits as income. This includes disability living allowance (DLA) payable to other children in the household, despite this being a benefit to meet the additional care needs of that disabled child. The Government has committed to exploring the case for a consistent approach across England for kinship care allowances. We are unlikely to hear anything on this in the Budget, but it is an area the Government need to urgently address.
The Ministry of Justice has also made a welcome but limited extension to legal aid for some kinship carers. Legal advice is crucial for prospective carers to be able to navigate the family justice system and Government must go further to address the remaining gaps.