Early Years Assistance Consultation – response from Families Outside

Early Years Assistance, Consultation on the Best Start Grant Regulations

Response from Families Outside

Scottish Government’s The Best Start Grant aims to provide lower-income families with financial support during the key early years of a child’s life.

Families Outside, the only national charity to support families affected by imprisonment, have responded to the Scottish Government’s Consultation request highlighting the financial impact of imprisonment on families with children, the challenges which families with young children face when a member of the household is serving a prison sentence, and ways in which financial support provided through the social security system can support families facing these challenges.

As the only national charity to support children and families affected by imprisonment in Scotland, Families Outside is uniquely placed to provide strong evidence on families’ needs and views.

In 2016-17 over 1,900 people contacted our Helpline for information and support relating to imprisonment, and we provided training and support to over 3,100 professionals working with families affected by imprisonment. We also coordinate the delivery of Prison Visitors Centres in Scotland. 12 out of 15 prisons in Scotland have a Prison Visitors Centre, and every month over 10,000 people use these services.

The financial impact of imprisonment on families

We welcome the aims of the Best Start Grant to mitigate the effects of child poverty and material deprivation and its intention to contribute to improving outcomes for children, including reducing health inequalities and closing the attainment gap.

Prisoners’ families are more likely than the average population to be in receipt of financial support through the benefits system and to rely on support from the benefits system for help with their housing costs.[1] A high proportion of these families live in deprived areas and experience financial difficulties before and after periods of imprisonment as well as any additional problems resulting from the imprisonment itself.[2]

The imprisoned population (and therefore, we can assume, the majority of their families) in Scotland comes disproportionately from the most deprived communities and that, at all levels of prosperity, the probability of imprisonment increases with increasing deprivation.[3] Therefore policies which successfully lift families out of poverty are proportionately likely to reduce the likelihood that they will be affected by imprisonment.

When someone goes to prison, this frequently places increased pressure on the already fragile economic circumstances of the immediate and wider family in the following ways:

  • The loss of the prisoner’s former contribution to the family may mean a drop in income and indirect impacts like loss of support with child care and household repairs.
  • Those left with the caring responsibility for prisoners’ children often have to leave or reduce paid work to care for children. Up to 1,700 children in Scotland are in kinship care because of imprisonment at any given time.[4]
  • The transition to revised benefits frequently results in delays to payments, which in turn leads to reliance on loans or support from extended family members (where this is available).
  • The family faces significant new costs as a direct result of the imprisonment including the costs of travel to prison visits, phone calls, and money paid in to Prisoners’ Personal Cash accounts.

[1] Dickie, D. (2013) The Financial Impact of Imprisonment on Families. https://www.familiesoutside.org.uk/content/uploads/2013/10/financial-impact-imprisonment-families.pdf

[2] Ibid.

[3] Houchin, R. (2005) Social Exclusion and Imprisonment in Scotland. Glasgow: Glasgow Caledonian University.

[4] Ibid.

Families Outside case study

In October 2016, Families Outside supported Gillian to apply for a crisis grant from a charitable foundation, as she was struggling to pay for necessities for her three children while her husband was in prison. The family was reliant on disability benefits and child tax credits for their monthly income, as Gillian suffered from back problems, for which she was due to have surgery, and was unable to work. The family had recently spent time in homeless accommodation and had only recently been re-housed. Gillian had been targeted by a group of offenders who were also targeting her husband in prison, and the family was under significant stress. Despite her very low income, Gillian was spending over £80 per month travelling to prison visits. She was also spending over £100 each month in repayments for rent arrears and pay day loans. Prison staff were encouraging her to visit as often as possible in order to support her husband, who was clearly going through a very difficult time, and the children were missing their father very much. She approached us for assistance when her pram broke, as she had no money for a new one, and without a pram she was unable to travel to the prison for visits with her youngest child – her back problems meant she was unable to carry her even for short distances. She also disclosed that she had no money to pay for winter coats or waterproof shoes for the older children.

The impact of familial imprisonment on children

Children of prisoners are particularly vulnerable to health and social inequalities, which the Best Start Grant seeks to mitigate. Therefore we believe that efforts should be made to ensure that as many children as possible who are affected by parental imprisonment benefit from the grant, whether that parent is their mother or their father, and whether or not they are in kinship care. In particular, where a child’s mother is in prison, arrangements may be necessary to ensure that this does not prevent children from benefitting from the three grant instalments at the developmental stage for which they are intended.

On 1 April 2018 there were 7,033 men and 380 women (including Young Offenders) in prison custody in Scotland. Around two-thirds of prisoners report having children.[1] Every year an estimated 20 – 27,000 children in Scotland experience the imprisonment of one of their parents. Around one in five of these children goes into kinship care.[2]

Children with a parent in prison are at a higher risk of experiencing poverty and health and mental health problems than other children. A growing body of research on trauma in childhood demonstrates that having a family member in prison is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) which can have lifelong consequences on children’s health, attainment, and relationships. Children who have four or more ACEs are more likely to experience physical and mental health problems or to be a victim of crime and are twenty times more likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives than children who do not have these experiences.[3] A quarter of prisoners report that someone in their household served a prison sentence during their childhood.[4] Poverty is a risk factor for the experience of ACEs, with higher proportions of people in the most deprived areas reporting ACEs.[5]

Children who experience their mother’s imprisonment are vulnerable to even poorer outcomes than those for children who experience their father’s (or other family member’s) imprisonment.[6] Only five per cent of children with a mother in prison remain in the family home during their mother’s imprisonment, and only nine per cent are cared for by their fathers, whereas most children with an imprisoned father remain with their mother.[7] Consideration must therefore be given to how to ensure that children whose mothers are in prison can benefit from the grant.

Response to Question 2: There are two alternative responsibility tests set out in the consultation 1) receipt of Child Benefit and, where relevant, a care order; or 2) a test based on receipt of either Universal Credit or Child Tax Credit, or Child Benefit. Which is your preferred test?

In order to ensure that as many children as possible benefit from the grant, we would support a tiered approach, with Test 1 as the primary test and parents / carers able to qualify through Test 2 if they are unable to meet Test 1.

Around one in five children with a parent in prison are in kinship care as a result, though many of these arrangements are fluid, short-term, and may not be formalised. Our Regional Family Support Coordinators report that many families are reluctant to contact social work and take steps to formalise arrangements because they fear the children may be taken into care. The rights to financial support for kinship carers can be complicated and may vary between local authorities. In some areas Child Benefit may not be paid alongside the kinship care allowance,[8] which may impact on some carers’ ability to meet the responsibility tests outlined in the consultation. In most cases, even where care arrangements are informal or short-term, the carer will bear additional costs to support the child and may lose income as they give up or reduce paid work in order to meet their caring responsibilities.

A major study found that, UK-wide, a third of imprisoned women have children under the age of 5,[9] and between 2010 and 2015, 31 babies were born to mothers serving a prison sentence in Scotland. It is very unusual in Scotland for a baby to stay in prison with their mother and, legally, children older than 18 months cannot remain with their mothers in prison. A significant proportion of women imprisoned in Scotland will, therefore, have children at an age relevant to the Best Start Grant. However in many cases these children will not be cared for by their mothers during the application windows for the grant, and in most cases they will not be in the care of their father either[10].

The Gov.uk website states that parents in custody can continue to receive Child Benefit when they’re in prison if the child is with them in prison or if the child they are claiming for is living with someone else and they pay an equivalent sum to them (though in practical terms it is extremely difficult to make regular payments to another person from prison and to evidence that you are doing so). In order to ensure that as many children as possible benefit from the Best Start Grant, it may be helpful to apply the same criteria rather than to require kinship carers to pass a test of responsibility for the child in all cases. It may also be helpful if mothers who are pregnant or give birth in prison are allowed to nominate someone to receive the Maternity and New Baby Grant on their behalf without that person having to meet eligibility criteria in their own right. While this may reduce the rigour of the test in these particular circumstances, the number of pregnancies and births to mothers in prison in Scotland is low, while the risk of these babies experiencing health and social inequalities is very high.

We welcome the commitment of the Scottish Government to work with the Scottish Prison Service to ensure those who are entitled know about and are supported to apply for the Best Start Grant, either as they go in to or come out of prison. It will be important to ensure that, where the parent is not able or entitled to claim the grant while they are in prison, the child’s carer(s) is/are identified and encouraged to apply for the grant. HMP/ YOI Cornton Vale is currently the only prison in Scotland with a Mother and Baby Unit, but in addition to Cornton Vale, women are held at HMPs Edinburgh, Grampian, Greenock, and HMP / YOI Polmont.

Imprisonment and the benefits system

Prisoners’ families frequently encounter delays to receipt of benefits they are entitled to or suffer from the consequences of over or under payment of benefits when a member of their household goes to prison. It should be made as quick and easy as possible for alternative payment arrangements to be made if the person to which the Best Start Grant payment would usually be paid is imprisoned so that their children are not disadvantaged by loss of entitlement or significant delays to payment.

The Scottish Government should work with Prison Visitors Centres and family-facing prison staff to promote awareness and support take-up of the Best Start Grant.

Response to Question 1: We have proposed that applicants must be habitually resident in Scotland to qualify. Do you agree with this approach?

While we support this approach in general, it is not clear from the consultation how a prison sentence may impact on the residency test. If a parent would otherwise meet the eligibility criteria for the grant and has been habitually resident in Scotland before going to prison, then it is our view that serving a prison sentence in another jurisdiction should not negatively impact on their entitlement to the grant. Nor should their entitlement be negatively affected if a child, who was usually living with a parent in Scotland before they went to prison, is cared for in another jurisdiction (perhaps as a consequence of the imprisonment) while their parent is in a Scottish prison.

Response to Question 3: We have proposed that qualification by UC should be an award of more than £0 in the month before or the month in which the application is made. Do you agree with this approach?

Two-thirds of prisoners in Scotland have served at least one prison sentence before their current one, and fifteen per cent have served ten or more sentences previously.[11] For families this can mean frequent and ongoing disruption to their benefits claims. Entitlement for most benefits is calculated on a household, rather than on an individual basis, which means that if one person goes to prison, this frequently has an immediate impact on other members of the household. There is often a risk of over- or under-payment of benefits and tax credits when a family member goes to prison, as most are not payable in prison, although some are only suspended during the custodial remand period. UC is routinely paid via a Single Household Payment, increasing the likelihood that payments may be suspended if a partner goes to prison. It is our view that, as the Best Start Grant is a one-off payment intended to benefit a child, then as far as possible a parent’s imprisonment should not affect entitlement to the grant. Therefore we would like to see qualification by UC to be extended to within at least a few months of the application being made. This would allow families a slightly longer window to put their claims in order and for any suspended benefits to be reinstated following a family member’s imprisonment before their entitlement to the Best Start Grant was put at risk.

As Universal Credit is rolled out, the requirements to have access to a bank account and to receive payments in arrears present challenges for those leaving prison. Support for prisoners to access bank accounts and to arrange payments in advance of release is particularly important in this context. This will also important for the receipt of the Best Start Grant given the proposal to make payments by BACS.

Given the potential complexity of the benefits system, it is critical that families have ready access to information regarding what they are entitled to and advice and support to manage the way in which imprisonment can affect their entitlement. Prison Visitor Centres are well placed to raise awareness of the benefits to which families may be entitled, because they have regular contact with a significant proportion of families who visit prisons. Many, though not all, Visitor Centres have formal partnerships in place with specialist benefits advice agencies. All provide regular information to family on financial support available through the Assisted Prison Visits Unit.

The devolution of new social security powers to Scotland is likely to result in significant changes to the benefits system in Scotland in addition to significant welfare reforms which have already been introduced in recent years. We welcome the commitment of the Scottish Government to work with prison health-based services to help raise awareness of the BSG within prisons. Prison Visitor Centres, Family Contact Officers, and other family-facing prison staff are well placed to promote awareness of the changes and take-up of new benefits such as the Best Start Grant with prisoners’ families but are likely to need information and training in order to do so with confidence.

[1] SPS Prisoner Survey December 2017 http://www.sps.gov.uk/Corporate/Publications/Publication-5751.aspx

[2] Dickie (2013) op cit. footnote 1.

[3] Bellis, M., Ashton, K., Hughes, K., Ford, K, Bishop, J., and Paranjothy, S. (2015) Adverse Childhood Experiences and their impact on health harming behaviours in the Welsh adult population. Public Health Wales. http://www2.nphs.wales.nhs.uk:8080/PRIDDocs.nsf/7c21215d6d0c613e80256f490030c05a/d488a3852491bc1d80257f

[4] Scottish Prison Service Prisoner Survey 2017, op cit. footnote 5.

[5] The Scottish Adverse Childhood Experiences Hub (2017) Tackling the attainment gap by preventing and responding to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Edinburgh: NHS Scotland.

[6] Epstein, R. (2014) “Mothers in prison: The sentencing of mothers and the rights of the child”. Howard League What Is Justice? Working Papers 3/2014.

[7] Minson, S., Nadin, R., and Earle, J. (2015) Sentencing of mothers: Improving the sentencing process and outcomes for women with dependent children. London: Prison Reform Trust.

[8] Dickie (2013) op cit. footnote 1.

[9] Liebling, A. & Maruna, S. (2005) The effects of imprisonment. Devon: Willan

[10] Minson, S., Nadin, R., and Earle, J. (2015) Sentencing of mothers: Improving the sentencing process and outcomes for women with dependent children. London: Prison Reform Trust.

[11] Scottish Prison Service Prisoners Survey 2017


We use cookies. By browsing our site you agree to our use of cookies.