The Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP, who was brought up by his sister from the age of 13 following their mother's death, has called for legislation to improve the situation of brothers and sisters who care for their siblings in the absence of a parent. In Britain it is estimated there are over 45,000 siblings raising their younger brothers and sisters. In some cases this is as a result of parental death, or because of parental imprisonment, mental illness, drug and alcohol misuse or domestic violence - or a combination of these factors.
Giving a speech at a fundraising event in support of charity Family Rights Group yesterday Alan Johnson highlighted that many young people are forced to give up work in order to take on the care of their vulnerable younger brothers and sisters. Despite the needs of these children, most are living in severe poverty and do not have a right to practical support, such as bereavement counselling. He argued that if the right support was in place, more children could be raised by their siblings or wider family, as an alternative to being in the care system. He called for legislative changes so that:
- Sibling carers have access to paid leave when they take on care of the children, similar to proposals that the Government is introducing for adopters;
- Local authority support duties that apply to children who are adopted, also apply to children raised by their older brothers and sisters;
- There is exemption from the bedroom tax and benefit cap for sibling carers, many of whom are raising more than one child;
- Children being raised by siblings get the same priority for a school place as a child who has been in the care system;
- Local authorities are required to identify and consider wider family members, including older siblings, as potential suitable carers, in order to avert a child entering the care system.
‘Today only around 5% of the 45,000 children who are being brought up by their older brothers and sisters are entitled to support because they are officially in care and their sibling carers are paid as foster carers. For the remaining 95% it is a matter of chance whether they and their carers get any help from their local authority. The truth is that this is an issue which has been overlooked for decades, by governments of all political complexions. But it's more pressing now as numbers of children in the care system have risen. Sadly, Family Rights Group's research showed that sibling carers are often at the bottom of the pile when it comes to being able to access help, particularly with housing.
Sibling care can be extraordinarily successful. There is plenty of evidence that children raised by their relatives do better than those in unrelated care, despite having suffered similar earlier tragedies and trauma. I know that from my own life. My sister Linda did so much for me. Without her we would have been separated and placed in care and our futures would have turned out very differently. Nevertheless without access to the right help we are inflicting wholly unnecessary damage on some of these children's chances of a successful upbringing.
Moreover, frequently the price for the children's wellbeing is paid by their older siblings, who are forced to give up their own chances of a degree or a job to take on the care of their younger brothers or sisters. Many are living in severe financial hardship and the situation is getting significantly worse as a result of local authority cuts and welfare reforms, with some hit by the benefit cap because they have taken on more than one child.
Sibling carers are extraordinary people. They have gone beyond what it is reasonable to expect of any young person. They are saving the state a fortune in care costs avoided. They have often had to sacrifice their own relationships, dreams and careers. There are simple steps that the Government could take that would transform this situation.'
Family Rights Group carried out detailed research in 2011 into the situation of sibling carers in the UK. An analysis of the 2001 census has shown that 38% of children living with family and friends carers were being brought up by an older sibling.