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Volume 412: debated on Friday 11 April 2003

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4 pm

Being a parent is probably the most important job in the world, and parents, almost without exception, want to do their best at that job. Although those of us who are parents—like me, the Minister is a parent—recognise that we will never be perfect parents, we all, at the very least, want to be good enough parents. However, many things stand in the way of parents doing the job to the best of their abilities. That is a huge agenda, and we have only a short time, so I shall focus on only one issue that makes it difficult to be a good parent, which is simply the difficulty of finding time to spend with children.

I fully agree with what the Minister said in a debate on work-life balance:
"Strong families help children to flourish, which means that parents need time to spend with their children."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 9 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 231WH.]
That has to be right.

The author of the book entitled "The 60 Minute Father"—I occasionally think of the 60-second father, but then I realise that one has to spend a whole hour—said that children spell love t-i-m-e. In practice, however, growing numbers of parents spend less time with their children than ever before. I was shocked to read about a learning and skills council project in Norfolk that arose from a survey suggesting that the pressures of work meant that fathers spent less than 15 minutes a day with their children. In other words, they might spend more time shaving and cleaning their teeth than playing with their children.

I stress that I am not attacking parents who do not spend time with their children or stigmatising failing parents, but saying that we can do much more to encourage and enable parents. That is why I wanted to hold the debate. It is about Government policy supporting parents. It is about not condemning those who fail to spend time with their children, but helping those who want to spend more time with them, because there is plenty of evidence that parents who do not spend time with their children often have to be away from them; it is not that they want to be away from them. I maintain that there are plenty of things that Governments can do to try to put that right.

First, I shall consider whether it is true that parents spend less time with their children. One senses that anecdotally, but is there evidence for it? Is it a free choice? Are parents saying, "That is what we have decided. That is our priority, and the Government should not get involved"? If it is not a free choice and parents are, perhaps to some extent against their will, spending less time with their children, does that matter? Are there consequences? Are there respects in which Government policy in a raft of areas may exacerbate the problem, often as an unintended by-product of well-intentioned policies? What might be done? That is a long agenda for a short debate, but I shall try to scratch the surface of it.

As I said, my first question is whether parents are spending less time with their children. The clear answer is yes. Just in the last decade, over the 1990s, the proportion of working mothers with children under five increased by about a quarter, from 43 per cent. to 54 per cent. Again, I stress that I am not attacking working mums, dads who do not spend time with their children or single parents. I am simply asking what is happening to the time that we spend with our children. What are the pressures causing this situation and can we do anything about it? Parents with young children, including mothers with young children, are more likely to be in work.

There is not only the issue of work as we traditionally understand it, but what is known as atypical work. I will draw on some statistics from work by Ivana La Valle, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, with which I am sure the Minister is familiar, on atypical work done by parents. It is work that is done outside the typical working day of 8.30 am to 5.30 pm. The evidence is that half of mothers and four fifths of fathers sometimes work atypical hours—those are huge numbers. Parents are having to work when the children are not at school but at home, in the evening and on the weekend. A quarter of mothers and a third of fathers work one or more Sundays a month. As I examined the figures I was shocked at the scale of what Ivana La Valle says is increasingly not atypical but the norm.

People are not working only on evenings or weekends, but they are working long hours. Almost a third of fathers, and 6 per cent. of mothers regularly work more than the 48-hour limit set in the working time directive, although that is not an absolute ceiling. Those proportions are higher among the self-employed, who tend to be more driven and are trying to make ends meet. A high proportion of parents are working long hours.

A survey last month by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that between 1998 and now, the proportion of those in work doing 48 hours or more had risen from one in 10 to one in four. When I first saw that figure I asked for it to be checked because I did not believe it. Those trends are no longer atypical; one in four works more than 48 hours a week. The press release from the institute included the comment that
"the Government's campaign on work-life balance has had little or no effect to date."
That conclusion was based on trends, some of them recent.

There is clear evidence that parents are working longer hours, on weekends and evenings, and that parents with young children are more likely to be at work. Those are the trends. Is that of their free choice? Are parents choosing to do that and should we therefore poke our noses out? The evidence is that parents would not choose that for themselves. Of those who frequently work atypical hours, a quarter of mothers with a husband or partner and a third of lone mothers said that they were dissatisfied with the time that they could spend with their children. In cases where both partners worked atypical hours, two fifths of them said that they were dissatisfied with the time spent with each other. The research has shown us that the welfare of children is greatly enhanced by a healthy relationship between the parents. That is not rocket science. If they do not see each other, it is hard to build a meaningful relationship. Although parenting is the subject on today's agenda, part of Government policy should be to encourage strong relationships between parents as well as between parents and children.

The survey showed that half of working mothers in two-earner couples—the combination of full-time and part-time two-earner couples is now the norm—would prefer to stop work and be at home with their children if they could afford to do so. People are driven by a range of factors, of which financial pressure is a strong influence, into spending less time with their children. According to Professor Shirley Dex, who studied a range of the research, "many mothers' preferences" to spend time with their children
"run counter to the direction Government policy is trying to encourage, since they would prefer to work less rather than more while their children are young".
There is a raft of surveys and reams of statistics that hack up the view that many parents want to spend more time with their children. Seventy five per cent. of mothers-to-be surveyed by Pregnancy & Birth said that they would not return to employment if finances allowed. The fact that parents spend less time with their children is often not through choice but is forced on them.

As well as going out to work when children are young, working at weekends, especially Sundays, was
"the most unpopular working arrangement among parents".
Is this choice? Are people choosing to work at weekends because it suits them? No, often they do not want to do it, but parents in lower socio-economic groups and in low-status jobs do not have the negotiating power with an employer to refuse to work at weekends. The bargaining power of such parents is often very weak. They often feel that they have no choice but to work at atypical times.

The hon. Gentleman is known as an innovative and creative thinker. He has not disappointed us today by choosing this important subject. I ask him to consider that inadequate parenting skills often lead to antisocial behaviour. Social behaviour and its development are tied inextricably to better parenting. I hope that he will join me in urging the new Minister for Children, whom we welcome here today, to redouble her efforts to ensure that we invest in parenting skills so that we can improve social behaviour and reduce antisocial behaviour.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Although his eyesight is probably not that good, he leads me naturally to the theme that I was about to take up in my notes, which is the consequences of lack of parental contact with children on children's behaviour. So often in the House of Commons we pick up the pieces where things have gone wrong. Investment in encouraging and helping parents would yield rewards in children's behaviour, welfare and education, which, as the Minister said, is a win-win agenda.

Does the lack of parental contact produce adverse outcomes? Many of us will have heard the startling comments of the head of Ofsted, who said that
"if you talk to a lot of primary head teachers, as I do, they will say that youngsters appear less well prepared for school than have ever been before. For many young people school is the most stable part of what can be quite disrupted and dishevelled lives."
That struck a chord with me. When I have visited schools in my constituency, heads have told me how children arrive at school lacking social skills and appearing in some cases to have been neglected. Their parents have not given them time, listened to them, talked to them or played with them. Schools have to pick up the pieces.

The head of Ofsted said:
"There is evidence that children's verbal skills are lacking. We should encourage parents to talk to their children and give them a whole range of stimulating things to do and not just assume that the television … will do all that for them."

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the fore. Would one way to get parents better educated be through the voluntary sector rather than the Government? There are organisations such as the community family trusts, for example.

I support the work of the network of community family trusts that are being set up throughout the country. They have sometimes struggled for funding. They were dealing with the Lord Chancellor's Department in the past. I hope that the Minister will clarify that for me, because I am slightly hazy about where the area of relationship education and support for couples now falls within Government. I see that the Minister points to herself. I am pleased that we have the right person with us.

Returning to the theme of lack of parental contact and the consequences, in 1997 Feinstein and Symons, researchers at the London School of Economics, found some astonishing results about educational outcomes in secondary school. One might assume that outcomes depend on how bright one's parents were or how posh an area one grew up in, but they said that the critical factor was parental involvement. Academics do not often say things as clear as this, and as a former academic I can say that this is strong stuff. They say:
"Variables indicating parental interest in the education of their children generally drive out the family background indicators of social class, family size and parental education."
The thing that matters is whether the parents are involved. That is an astonishing and powerful result.

Research shows that long working hours, particularly Sunday working, disrupt family life. I was astonished to see that the Department of Health has commissioned the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and the Social Care Institute for Excellence to carry out an appraisal. Parenting courses will be appraised in the same way as drugs. They will appraise parent-training programmes to tackle conduct disorder of the sort described by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook). The scope of the appraisal is set out in a document, which states:
"Associated factors for conduct disorders include: homelessness, overcrowding, maternal depression, paternal criminality, violence and abuse. Aspects of parenting have also been associated with conduct disorders and include: poor supervision … and low parental involvement in the child's activities."

Is not one of the problems that as soon as we talk about parenting courses or skills, we tend to think as parents that we have it right and that such matters are someone else's problem? However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, as youngish parents we know only too well the difficulties that are involved. I have not been taught how to parent. I have learned from a wife who has a professional job and child development skills that I would never have thought of. Perhaps we must work out a way in which to overcome the stigma of parenting courses and lead the way as Members of Parliament, given the atypical working hours that we work for a start.

Having met the hon. Gentleman's children, I know that he is an excellent parent. I accept that we must make sure that we are not talking about a marginal stigmatised provision for people when things go horribly wrong. Accepting that parenting is difficult and that we all need some help should be a natural approach. I apologise for going on a bit, but the fact that several hon. Members have said that they are interested in the subject shows that we are scratching at something that crosses the party divide. I hope that the Minister will be involved in such an agenda and take it on across the Government.

At the risk of wrecking the chance of such action, I must ask whether the Government's policy is making matters worse. Much policy is drafted with the best of intentions, but the spin-offs are quite worrying. The Government often talk positively about the 24/7 society, urban renaissance, the evening economy, making cities nice places to visit, and having places to visit other than pubs in the evening. However, who will staff such places? Who will work the late-night shifts? The Government talk a lot about flexible working, too, but people have to work in such places, and often they are on low incomes. They do not have a strong negotiating position and work in the service industries, such as McDonald's. They do not have the power to say that they will not work evenings or weekends. I worry about the 24-hour society and the Government's sometimes positive rhetoric about it, and what it means for family life.

Recently, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that, on reflection, perhaps the Government's rhetoric about work was wrong. She said:
"If I look back over the last 6 years … we have given the impression that we think all mothers should be out to work, preferably full time as soon as their children are a few months old … We have got to move to a position where as a society … we recognise and we value the unpaid work that people do within their families."
That is right. Five or six years ago, I was saying much the same thing, but the Government were saying, "No. Work for those who can. Security for those who can't", by which they meant paid work. The rhetoric has been wrong, and there is a beginning of a realisation of that, but much more needs to be done. The Government still have goals for 70 per cent. of lone parents to be in work. No one will say that it is wrong for a lone parent to work, but is it right for the Government to set an arbitrary target for lone parents, rather than to say to them, "You judge what is in the welfare interests of yourself and your child, and we will support you; we will give you choices"?

If I have a core message, it is about choices. It is about parents who often want to spend time with their children not having free choices because financial necessity and lack of employment status put pressure on them to work when they do not want to. What can be done? There is a huge agenda, but I wish to flag up a couple of matters. I hope that the Minister will talk to her colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister about the 24-hour society and the agenda that that Department is pursuing. What does it mean for families? Will she talk to the Department for Work and Pensions about the poor pension rights of part-time workers? Even now, women—especially women—who try to spend time with their children and who earn less than the lower earnings limit, perhaps in two separate part-time jobs that both pay less than the lower earnings limit, do not build up pension rights. What signal does that send out?

Will the Minister talk to the Department for Work and Pensions? Will she talk within the Department for Education and Skills about women, in particular, and parents who are forced to work weekends, when no child care is available and when the children are left in situations that are not ideal for their welfare? Is it right that women and mothers suffer lack of employment rights in such circumstances? Will she talk to the Department of Trade and Industry about the need for employment rights and the need for parents to say no to being forced to work at weekends? Will she examine the working time directive to see whether it is stopping some of the long-hour working as effectively as possible? Will she essentially never sleep? I shall allow her to spend time with her children.

Will the right hon. Lady say to every colleague in the Government, "When you bring in a Bill in the next Queen's Speech, will you report to me and tell me what it will do for parents? Tell me whether it will mean that parents can spend more time with their children—which many of them want to—rather than less."

The House supports the Minister. We are glad that her reach extends beyond her own Department, and we urge her to talk to as many of her colleagues as she can, and to recognise that if we can get this right so many of the other problems that the Government are trying to tackle might mysteriously disappear.

4.19 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on securing this important debate. We have only a bare half an hour to discuss the matter, but other hon. Members might seek to ignite the debate in another forum.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government's commitment to support parenting and families is a central part of our vision. Parenting is not probably the most important job that we do on this earth; it is the most important, and the most rewarding and difficult. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) that we are too often ill prepared to do it.

I hope that the hon. Member for Northavon accepts that the Government's commitment to parenting and families is underlined by the creation of the post that I currently have the privilege to hold. With the machinery of Government changes, we are trying to bring together in one place responsibility for all the policy and services for children, parents and families, so that we can respond more easily to their needs and make it easier for individuals and organisations to do business with us.

Much has come together under the remit of my Department—the Department for Education and Skills—but there are still boundaries in Government. We must make sure that they do not become barriers. We must work together throughout Government. That is central to many of my concerns, and to the way in which I have been working—the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I have very regular meetings with Ministers from other Departments.

I am conscious of the shortage of time, so I will try to respond to some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. He said that parents are spending less time with their children. If we look at the history of parenting, it may be that in the past the tradition was for the woman to be in the home for longer, but it is questionable whether she spent more time in the home focused on the children than she does now.

I would not make the easy assertion, which the hon. Gentleman talked about, that more time means better quality of parenting. One of the changes that I have seen in my adult life is that fathers are now much more readily engaged in parenting. My oldest child is now in his early 30s: when I used to pick him up at the school gates, it was rare to see a dad there, but that is no longer atypical. I often visit parents and toddlers groups in my present role, and it is apparent that fathers are much more strongly engaged in the parenting of their children than they used to be. Both parents matter, and that equality of engagement is a change for the better.

Things have not become worse. What has happened is that more women are in the workplace. Is that a good or a bad thing? Do we give parents a choice? Choice underpins our policy. It underpinned it before my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality made the statement that she made, but it helped to underline what has been a consistent policy throughout the term of the Government.

We are attempting to provide choice. The amount of choice that parents have is influenced by whether they have trust in the quality and safety of the child care that is available to them. That is why we are proud of being the first Government to launch a national child care strategy, of the progress we have made in that, and of introducing free early years education for children aged three and four.

I often meet lone parents who have been helped back into the workplace by our welfare to work programme. That often works for the most disadvantaged parents: it is a terrific route out of poverty, because of the income that they get from it, and we help them with their child care costs through the child care tax credits system; it is also terrific because of the confidence and self-esteem that they gain from fulfilling a role in both the home and the workplace. When parents, particularly lone parents, have that confidence and self-esteem, they make better parents, and I have received some very warming letters from children about their mums going back to work. There is no right or wrong answer. There must be choice, as the answer depends on the individual circumstances. However, for many lone parents, work is a route back to self-esteem, confidence and better parenting, and out of poverty.

I have only five minutes to respond, and I want to talk about atypical hours. From talking to families and parents, I have found that women in work want their supermarket open and to be able to access their health service, GP or dentist at atypical hours. They also want to be able to talk to their children's teachers and school staff at atypical hours, so we are moving into a different world. Many parents who work atypical hours do so out of choice, because in two-parent households it often fits in well with parents' lifestyles and how they care for their children. They also want to enjoy the additional wealth that it brings. We should not see atypical hours working as a retrograde step; it can be positive for many people.

I agree with some of the points made about the long-working-hours culture, but statistics show that it is higher-level, better-off men who tend to work the longest hours and are more disengaged from their families, children and partners than those in lower income families. That is a terrible part of British culture, which we have taken from America more than Europe, and we should try to encourage greater engagement in the home.

I have spoken a lot to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) about the importance of parenting skills, which was raised by both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough. Some research in my Department mirrors what was referred to. It demonstrates that good parenting in the home is more important for the child's outcome than the best teacher in the most excellent school. Armed with that knowledge, we need to do all that we can to support parents in developing their skills, and although I recognise that we have a long way to go, I am proud of what we have done so far. There is our sure start programme and its work on parenting, and we give support to voluntary projects such as home-start throughout the country. We want to spread that to make it a more universal service, as is detailed in our Green Paper "Every Child Matters". Those are important early interventions.

Parenting classes can also be appropriate, but I worry a lot about transition. As new mothers come home from hospital, and as children move from home to nursery, primary and then secondary school, support for parents is important, and we are trying to focus our energy on those transition stages. Our Green Paper includes many propositions to extend services, for example with a parenting phone line not dissimilar to NHS Direct that parents could ring up during a crisis with their three-year-old or 15-year-old to seek some support. We are taking many different steps.

The hon. Member for Northavon talked about choice, and that is what we are about. We are trying to provide an infrastructure that gives parents both choice and the opportunity to engage. Choices are often different if the children are under five, and we have done much to support people who stay at home as long as possible with our reforms of maternity pay and benefits. We could perhaps do more, but we have taken the agenda further. Choice is important, as is joint working throughout Government, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am firmly engaged in that.

We must ensure that high-quality child care supports good parenting in the home to give children the maximum opportunity to develop their potential and ensures that no child falls through the net. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having successfully secured this short debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.