It is not for the first time since I began representing
Birkenhead in 1979 that I have witnessed significant changes in the
role of grandparents within society. More recently, the impact of
drink, drugs and even murder have resulted in a growing number of
grandparents taking up the role of parents to their own
grandchildren. My current concern is that we have not reacted to
this change and consequently are not doing enough to support
grandparents in their new role.
It is not clear how many grandparents are currently raising their
grandchildren as there is no national data. Recent estimates
suggest that, of the 13 million grandparents currently living in
Britain, 1% have grandchildren living with them.
After I had met grandparents in this situation in Birkenhead, Tommy
Hayes, a local student of Liverpool University, arranged regular
meetings for the grandparents with a local support group. Following
this we decided to conduct a survey of some of the grandparents as
it was clear that most of them were dissatisfied at the level of
support they were receiving from the local social services.
This gave grandparents the opportunity to explain how difficult
they find the task of being parents to their grandchildren
although, given the circumstances, all of them wished to play this
role. Yet many feel betrayed at the lack of support, especially as
all they want is what is best for their grandchildren.
It has been estimated by the Grandparents Association support group
that grandparents save the economy almost £4bn per year
through the provision of free child care. This figure does not
include what grandparents save local authorities on providing
Grandparents receive too little financial support in return for
raising their grandchildren, and what they do receive comes from a
myriad of different sources. The results of such a confusing
patchwork of allowances and benefits (some of which are
means-tested) is that very few grandparents claim even the little
financial support to which they are entitled.
Raising children, let alone grandchildren, can be a tiring
business. What struck me about the grandparents of Birkenhead is
their physical courage. Many grandparents have all too little time
to relax during what is, after all, supposed to be the “autumn”
years of their life. One grandfather wrote to me with deep regret
saying that he simply no longer had the physical stamina required
to kick a football with his grandson.
The government needs to act quickly in order to show its support
and recognition of the strains that face grandparents who raise
their grandchildren. The social services for my constituency have
recently reformed the allowance that is paid to grandparents into
Residence Order allowances, and this is a welcome move. However, a
great deal remains to be done and these reforms should be set in
Firstly, the Government should conduct a national survey to find
out just how many households with children are headed by
Secondly, there needs to be a flat-rate simple benefit for
grandparents who raise grandchildren. This will replace the current
patchwork of often discretionary benefits and allowances which
confuse claimants and can deter them from claiming.
This second objective also reflects the wishes of the Birkenhead
grandparents, who are reluctant to claim benefits that are
means-tested (such as Residence Order allowances) or benefits such
as Child Benefit, where often the parent of the child is still
claiming despite the child living with the grandparent.
Finally, social services, as well as having the legal obligation of
keeping an up-to-date register of grandparents raising their
grandchildren, should provide a range of services and guarantee a
minimum financial income.
Action is urgently required if the financial situation of this
forgotten stratum of society is to be successfully relieved.
Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead and a former director of Child
Poverty Action Group