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Family Benefits (Absent Teenage Fathers)

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)

My constituency has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in western Europe, and we in Nottingham are doing things to address that—for instance, by having created the teenage pregnancy taskforce, which I have the privilege of chairing.

All too often, there is an unspoken assumption that girls alone should take responsibility for avoiding unwanted pregnancy and for caring for the baby if they fail. A recent Bristol university study shows that when both the parents of a new baby are under 17, only 2 per cent. of fathers are still involved with the baby nine months after the birth. Recent research by Dr. Peter Gates suggested that most teenage mothers in Nottingham were raising their child on their own, and that relationships between teenage parents were generally unstable. This is a tragedy.

The evidence suggests that love, nurture and support from an involved young father in the brain-building early years of nought to five gives a baby much better life chances. Yet teenage fathers are themselves children. That is the central dilemma for social policy generally and the benefits system in particular. That dilemma is complicated by the dispersal of responsibilities and powers between Government Departments and agencies, especially the divide between the Department for Work and Pensions, dealing with benefits and enforcement, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, dealing with wider policy. Perhaps even the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could think through how it could tackle the drip-feed of laddish TV and testosterone-filled films, and help promote a more respectful culture of manhood and fatherhood to give role models for young males in our society.

We need to ensure that the complex system of policy, payments and penalties gives clear encouragement to teen fathers to do the best they can for their children, not only financially but emotionally. The new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission has the opportunity to make this agenda its own. I have had the good fortune to speak to a number of its senior people, and it is clear that it does not want to be just an enforcement agency focusing on recalcitrant fathers. Those people want to go further; they see a policy role in trying to pre-empt the problems before they begin.

Let me now take a look at the current benefits system—and compliment the Minister on the work she has done in this area during her spell at the DWP. Contrary to the stereotype, many young fathers want to be involved with their children, but some are held back by confusion or anxiety about the benefits system and its financial implications. Does the Minister think that it is true that teen parents can get more benefit separately than together, thus discouraging the creation and continuation of family units? I would like to know whether that popular perception is true. If it is not true, we need to get that message into the areas that I, like a number of colleagues in the Chamber tonight, represent.

Many young fathers also complain that the benefits system is complicated and financially burdensome. The new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission now encourages parents to agree child maintenance arrangements directly with each other. That sounds good for people of good education—it is a sensible way to proceed, and many middle class people would use it to make good arrangements—but it is not necessarily that easy for poorer and less articulate parents, especially in areas where personal intimidation is often a way of resolving personal issues. I hope that the Minister will tell me, perhaps in writing, about the Government’s plans to help that group of people—those on a lower socio-economic scale—to make the maintenance arrangements and to make them stick.

We also need to find a place for young fathers who have no chance of making payments. Our system does not yet provide the social and emotional basis for such fathers to make informed decisions, nor does it give them a set of clear incentives to stay involved with their children, even when they desperately want to. This is not just about the crudities of the benefits system; it is about the subtleties of ensuring that the right perception and opportunity exist for young teenage fathers, who often want to make a go of a relationship and raise a child in the right way.

The Government have made fantastic progress in recent times, and I am particularly delighted that they intend to allow, in the very near future, all young mothers to keep any financial maintenance from their child’s father without losing any benefits. That is a long overdue, welcome and important step forward, on which I congratulate the Minister. It will deny absentee fathers the excuse, which many use, to refuse a contribution because, as they put it, “The social will only take it away.” Apart from relieving family poverty, the change will also provide an opportunity for fathers to make a real difference if they wish to. Will the Minister let us know, either now or in writing to me, what research is being done by the new CMEC on how best to encourage non-resident parents, who are overwhelmingly fathers, to pay maintenance in those new circumstances? The Government have created an opportunity, and I hope that it will be seized upon.

We also need to keep the benefits system as simple as possible. Young low-income parents have to negotiate a labyrinth of websites and leaflets. Will the Minister examine the possibility of a pilot for a one-stop office for young fathers, which could offer advice and support, as well as a medium through which to make maintenance payments? We could try that in one or two areas. Very often the parents of young mothers and fathers encourage absenteeism by the father. The perception that it is always the girl in the relationship who is the wronged party may not always be true; it may well be that the teenage boy would like to play a more significant part but is driven away by the mother herself, or by relatives and the hostility that the young person encounters. By refusing access and by blatant hostility, threats and infighting, such people can deny young fathers the chance to win the trust and respect not only of the family but of the child itself.

Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the downsides of the separation of the payment through the Child Support Agency from the legal process is that there is always frustration when someone is making a contribution, but that does not mean that they get any more rights of access to their children? It is unfair if somebody has made an attempt to pay to bring up their child, yet is just as likely not to see their child as someone who has flagrantly disregarded the need to make a contribution.

I shall touch briefly on contact later, but my hon. Friend’s remarks underline the need to bring the Ministry of Justice and other Departments to the party and ensure that we are not working in silos. All the parts have to work together, and as I know how difficult that can be at the local level, I can only imagine how difficult that might be in Whitehall, if the Minister were to set herself that task. There would be some tremendous dividends if we were to go along the lines that he suggests.

I wish to finish my remarks about the one-stop shop by saying that that could be a way in which young fathers could develop the self-esteem to build relationships and to have a meaningful dialogue with their child’s hostile grandparents.

There is another wrinkle in the benefits system for many fathers. They claim that maintenance payments are too high, and that failure to keep up with them leads to the breakdown of relationships with their children. Obviously, that problem is more acute for young fathers with a very low earning capacity. Full-time work may not be an option, especially if they are still in education. Through peer mentoring by other, successful young fathers, and through having vocational training, young fathers could be prepared for the world of work and for their parental responsibilities in a much better way.

The Care to Learn scheme, which pays up to £160 per child per week for teens’ child care and travel, is welcome. That and similar programmes could also give young fathers on benefits the chance to learn a skill and the chance to move forward and get a steady income coming into their house. Let us suppose that by taking part in such programmes young fathers secured a weekly addition of £5 or £10 to the mother’s benefit, without affecting her other entitlements. What a change that might be able to bring about: it would give young fathers not only skill and experience, but self-worth and the chance to demonstrate their sense of responsibility to their child.

Alternatively, a community programme pilot could provide waged positions with training and support and an automatic contribution to the mother as a maintenance payment. I hope very much that the CMEC will be allowed to let its imagination run into policy areas and to provide some of these new ideas that will begin to unite some of the families that we are talking about, and that that will allow those young children to have a mother and father in the same household. What more does the Minister feel can be done to incentivise young fathers to combine education with part-time work and maintaining the fullest possible involvement with their children?

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) touched on the difficult and sensitive topic of maintenance and contact between parents and children. The former is administered by CMEC, the latter by the courts. In the light of his remarks, will the Minister consider working across departmental boundaries and try—again, in a couple of areas—to bring maintenance, contact and all other child-related issues together under the same roof, as happens in Australia’s family centres? That might be one way of making progress in this country. Let us try it in a couple of areas that want to initiate it and see whether it works with organisations that are attempting to find some answers to these problems.

I now wish to deal with the myths. I hope that the Minister will take on the role—here is another burden for her—of myth-buster general in this area. She knows very well that although we can change things centrally, word of mouth locally can take a long while to catch up, and myths still persist. For example, let us consider the prevalent myth that benefits and offers of housing give incentives for young women to become lone parents. A study by the Minister’s Department this year concluded that there was no consistent evidence for that, but when I talk to single mums on the estates in my constituency—I am sure that other Members do the same in their constituencies—I find that the perception is very different. If we could have provision in supported housing with fewer limitations than at present—there is no space for couples with children—it would send a clear message to fathers in those areas with a concentration of teen pregnancies that they would be welcome. It could break down the matriarchal culture on some of our estates, where there is no adult male in the household, just grandmother, mother and young child. Housing is the responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government, which needs to be brought in on this matter because Whitehall needs to mesh on these issues.

I have also suggested to the Minister the need for a simple myth-busting series of posters to be spread throughout our poorer communities to underline the recent positive changes in the benefit regime and to kill off some of the more pernicious myths that stop people making progress.

Tackling teenage pregnancies and absentee fathers requires not only helping young parents to provide effective parenting, but also nurturing and supporting young people before pregnancy occurs, and encouraging them to make good life choices. Nottingham’s early intervention package therefore begins with the babies who will be tomorrow’s parents. We use the family-nurse partnership not only to give intensive help to new teen mothers through health visitors, but to instil the essential capabilities in infants that will enable them to become better parents later in life.

Nottingham’s Sure Start and children’s centres then pick up the baton and they aim to make children strong and resilient, through activities that encourage them to make their own decisions. That prepares them for making the really tough decisions later on—including those about sex and parenthood.

We then teach all primary school boys, as well as girls, the SEAL—or social and emotional aspects of learning—programme. This gives every child the intellectual equipment to develop effectively, which sadly all too many do not get at home because of the lack of parenting skills in their domestic situation. To complete the circle, in September we are taking this process to the next stage by starting to teach 11 to 16-year-olds life skills in every secondary school in Nottingham that volunteers for the programme—anticipating the Government’s initiative to make personal, health and social education, or PHSE, compulsory in two years’ time. This will enable boys as well as girls to understand how to parent, to sustain relationships and to build and maintain families. We are happy to teach young people mathematics, English and a foreign language, but somehow we resile from teaching them how to be decent people and good parents to the next generation of young people to the highest possible standards.

In the early 1990s I took part in a review of this issue, and the one factor that we found to be symptomatic of teenage pregnancy was lack of self-esteem in both boys and girls. It is possible to foster self-esteem through education, and does my hon. Friend agree that we should build that aim into all our policies?

We sum it up in Nottingham in slightly different words, but to exactly the same effect—we talk about building the social and emotional bedrock for young people. If young people have the ability to interact, to learn and to resolve arguments without violence—the basic things that most middle-class parents teach their children—it is virtually impossible to fail in terms of educational attainment, aspiration to work and raising a decent family. That is why it is important that such things are built into provision from the earliest point, instead of chasing after the problem later, by which time it is all but intractable without the expenditure of massive amounts of money and person hours.

In addition to building young people’s social and emotional bedrock, in Nottingham we are working directly to address young potential fathers. We fund a specialist health development worker for young men and have commissioned research by Dr. Peter Gates at Nottingham university on how best to identify potential absentee fathers and communicate with them. That research builds on the work that we have done with young girls, and it will result in a hard-hitting DVD and appropriate sex education materials to accompany it.

I know that the Minister will agree that more needs to be done nationally to target teenage boys, through the benefits system, and in enabling them to make mature decisions about parenthood, and encouraging them to delay sexual activity. Nottingham could be an example of how to tackle the problem in both the immediate and the long term. It is not only about swatting the mosquito, but draining the swamp. We need to build for the future through a long-term programme of investment.

Any materials used need to be easy to follow, and not beyond the comprehension of teen parents who left school early—or even of the average MP. The Family Planning Association does good work in this sphere, with community projects targeted at young men. It made getting the message across to boys the theme for its annual contraception week last year.

The message may be getting through: according to NHS statistics, the number of men attending NHS contraception clinics leapt by 20 per cent. in 2006-07, and there was a huge 54 per cent. increase in those aged 15 and 16. These signs of improvement must be enhanced by further work to provide young men with the social and emotional basis for sensible decision making.

I was pleased to see that in February the Ministers with responsibility for public health and for young people announced an extra £20.5 million to support young people and help them to access contraception. Do the Government actually know what that money has been spent on? Do the Government know the extent to which it is being used to track real boys as well as real girls? Otherwise, it could be business-as-usual syndrome instead of a sharp, systematic identification and face-to-face contact with those who need it before they even consider sexual activity. In other words, we should have outcomes with specific people rather than just allocating more money.

That is not as daunting as it might sound. Even in Nottingham, only 417 teenagers had babies last year. That is a perfectly manageable number when it comes to getting to know those people, their siblings and their associates as part of defining a broader at-risk group with whom we can then work very directly with some serious pre-emptive education. We will not do that unless we identify where money is going and what it is being spent on and get some real outcomes noted and reported to the centre so that they can be properly tracked.

Although improvements to the benefit system are an important step and the focus of tonight’s debate, it must be remembered that under-16s or under-18s who are full-time students or who are getting income support or income-based jobseeker’s allowance do not pay maintenance under the current rules. We need to find other ways to reach those fathers and to ensure that they are involved in their children’s lives.

I welcome another initiative of the Government’s, which is the requirement in the Welfare Reform Bill that a father’s name be recorded on the birth certificate. That might seem obvious to many people who read or listen to this debate, but it is not a current requirement. Four in 10 babies registered without a father are born to teenage mothers. This welcome change will not only make it easier to track down who owes maintenance, for example, but it will also enable the transmission of messages to the father to highlight the importance of that father’s being in the child’s life as that young person grows up.

Let us not forget that two out of three teen fathers are resident at a different address from the mother. Rebuilding that family unit with every possible assistance and support is clearly something that would be beneficial to the child when they were growing up. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister could tell us whether that provision will also entail a corresponding requirement to inform the father that he is named. That would not only be a safeguard against being falsely named but, for those who are truly and properly named as fathers, it could be a channel of communication to help deliver them from the status of outsider in their own child’s life. They can then undertake the responsibilities that fathering a child must entail.

I say that with some feeling. In some senses, I feel that I have come full circle in talking about this issue. Around 1989-90, I led for my party on social security on the first Child Support Agency Bill. Few things separated the parties on that Bill, but one thing that was very apparent was that we were not listening to anyone outside. We were not listening to Families Need Fathers or to battered wives. We did not have proper pre-legislative scrutiny. The result was that we reinvented that Bill—you can correct me if I am wrong, Mr. Deputy Speaker—on at least five subsequent occasions. How many broken families, how much misery and how many suicides did that oversight cost us?

We now have a chance to put the history right. We have created a new commission to oversee this area, which is not just about punitively chasing and tracking down teen fathers or any other fathers. It is about developing policy and bringing those young fathers back into the family in a literal sense so that we have a chance to rewrite some of the unfortunate history that there has been in this policy field.

I look forward to the Minister’s reply. I am not flattering her when I say that she has done a truly remarkable job in the short time that she has held this portfolio. Great progress has been made and I hope that she will confirm the Government’s commitment to a balance between carrots and sticks, to much better cross-departmental working and, above all, to committing to find ways to intervene early, which is cheaper and more effective, rather than late, which is both expensive and less effective. If she does that, there will be many teen fathers who will be part of a family rather than apart from their family. Above all, many babies and children being born today in our country will be raised with a father and a mother, and will be much more able as both individuals and citizens of our society. They will be among the foremost to be grateful for a Government who take that opportunity and challenge.

As is customary, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate. I also thank him for his kind words and know that he speaks with considerable expertise—as he has mentioned, he chairs the board of the teenage pregnancy taskforce in his constituency. Moreover, I know that he shares my strong personal interest in getting the policy right. He has made a clear contribution locally in Nottingham, and as he has mentioned, he recently met senior officials from CMEC, as well as officials from the Department for Work and Pensions. We very much welcome that engagement, so I thank him for it.

As I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware, he raised several issues that cross a number of Departments and challenged us to be joined up in our response. He has mentioned policy areas that are the direct responsibility of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Ministry of Justice, and my humble Department, the Department for Work and Pensions. I will attempt to give him a cross-departmental response, because he is absolutely right that we need to solve the issues by working together.

I want to start with my hon. Friend’s key insight: of course, all children have two parents, and over time, the widespread use of the phrase “single parent” or “lone parent” in the media has drawn attention away from the fact that there are almost always two parents around, as well as the child or children involved. My hon. Friend rightly reminds us that our policies need to encompass everyone in separated families. Often, parents, whatever their age, who do not live with their children have a genuine desire to be more involved. Our role in government is to remove any barriers to that across the gamut of Government policy.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s distinction between the separate issues of how we best support young people after they become parents, and how we best intervene so that they can come to a mature decision about when is the best time to have children—that is, before they become parents. There is also a fundamental challenge across both issues: how do we help teenage girls and boys to break out of the pattern of behaviours that they see all around them—the very behaviours that have often led to child poverty being handed down from generation to generation? How do we break that cycle? How do we change the presumptions that society sometimes unfortunately makes?

I will address all the points that my hon. Friend made, starting with the issues that he raised about supporting fathers, particularly young fathers, into work, so that they can perhaps contribute from a more confident standpoint, and are, of course, more financially able to contribute. The cornerstone of our whole approach to welfare policy is a benefit and tax system that provides support for those who cannot work at the present time, but that provides every incentive for them to enter the world of work at the earliest possible opportunity. That might be full-time work, part-time work or preparing for work through training or education. In this debate, we have focused on young parents, but of course we want everybody in society to realise their potential.

The particular point about young parents is that if people’s ambitions become thwarted or dented, or are never realised, due to lack of confidence at a young age, it is much harder to recover a sense of drive. There is always a second or indeed a third chance, particularly under this Government, but it is important to try to get it right first time round. That has been a consistent theme of the Government, and the Welfare Reform Bill, which is being debated in the other place, builds on the foundations that we have put in place over the past decade.

The issue is particularly important in the current economic climate. I know from my experience as a constituency MP how heartbreaking it is when a young person enters the job market for the first time and cannot find what they want because of the macro-economic situation, which is beyond their control, and then does not have the confidence to come back to it later. They may perhaps take a different path in life, often involving setting up home and having children. If the Government, through their welfare-to-work policy, are not able to give that person the chance that they need when they want it, all too often the opportunity does not arise again.

All Jobcentre Plus advisers are trained to help people find out what they are entitled to—to find their way through the benefits maze—and can guide people through filling in a claim form. If the young person is 16 or 17, someone will call them back within four hours to discuss the situation. If they are 18 or over, an adviser will contact them within 24 hours, once they have made their initial claim. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has made it quite clear that by the turn of the year young people between 18 and 24 who are verging on becoming long-term unemployed as a result of the recession will be guaranteed jobs or training precisely to try to avoid a whole generation of young people being abandoned on the scrapheap, as happened in previous recessions under previous Governments.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of the “couple penalty”, as it is called in the jargon. Perhaps there is a perception that by separating, families can get more from the system. We are ever vigilant to make sure that that is not a real economic effect, and I have no evidence to assume that it is more or less relevant to younger parents. However, if my hon. Friend does have such evidence, we would like to keep it under close review. We want to allocate resources according to need, and not to create perverse incentives.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of complexity. The situation does remain complex, and the December 2008 White Paper on welfare reform argued that a system of benefits fit for the 21st century should be simple to understand, well targeted and empowering, and that is our motivation through the successive stages of welfare reform, which must provide clarity and certainty for people making the transition between benefits and work. The White Paper committed the Government to exploring whether, over the long term, a single benefit is the right approach to make things simpler. The desire to reduce complexity lies behind, for example, the review of housing benefit that I am leading and on which I hope to report soon. Regardless of people’s age, complexity is something that we must do our best to reduce.

My hon. Friend proposed a one-stop shop for young fathers. It is an interesting idea, but personally, I am not convinced at the moment. I think that it would be better if, in mainstream services, the entire government system can deal with young people’s demands. I would be interested to hear of examples in which that is not the case, so that we can make sure that we correct them. However, I will bear his suggestion in mind.

The Government recognise that families are more diverse than ever before, and the issue of teen families proves that very point. The role of mothers and fathers in modern families is changing, and public services and the workplace must reflect those changes not only in benefits policy but across all public services. My hon. Friend is quite right that the outcomes for children are better when their fathers are involved. Moving on to the territory of my hon. Friends in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it is worth saying that guidance on supporting teenage pregnancies was published by the DCSF and the Department of Health in July 2007, setting out what local areas should have in place to improve outcomes for teenage parents, both mothers and fathers, and their children.

Fathers’ ability to become involved is, I agree with my hon. Friend, sometimes hindered by service providers who do not appreciate the role that they could, or do, play, particularly if they are not visible to the service provider, who consequently does not take their needs into account. If someone does not ask the question, “Are you a father?” when a young person comes into their sphere of influence, they might not realise the full extent of support that is required. We recommend that local services should take a much more proactive approach to identifying young fathers through the common assessment framework and targeted youth support arrangements. For example, young men who are not in education, employment or training should routinely be asked, as I have suggested, if they are a parent, so that we can build up a better picture of them and provide the support that they need as fathers. That includes the desire that we hope they will have to support their children and earn a wage sufficient to do so, regardless of whether they live with them.

The “Think Fathers” campaign was launched at the end of 2008 to effect a change in attitudes and behaviour and to help deliver more father-friendly practice across the board, following the publication of research that showed that engagement and support for fathers from the DCSF and children’s services was patchy. We agree that a more focused approach to the issue is needed, and we are in the process of trying to achieve that.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Welfare Reform Bill contains significant change on joint birth registration. The answer to his question whether an unmarried father’s name can appear on the birth certificate without his knowledge is no. That is crucial to the way the system works. A mother would, by law, have to name the father if she knew who it was, or she would be committing perjury. The father would then be contacted and asked to confirm that. The father’s name would then appear on the birth certificate. Yes, the birth certificate is only a piece of paper, but it is a legal piece of paper and it has huge ceremonial and cultural significance. We are clear that at the crucial moment when a father comes to terms with fatherhood and perhaps deep down wants to get involved, it is a little nudge in the right direction, rather than a barrier preventing him from doing so.

One aim of the joint birth registration provision is that an unmarried father who registers his child’s birth will acquire parental responsibility, whereas under the current system, if parents are not married to each other, a mother can prevent the father from registering, and he would need to apply for a court order. Also under the current system, an unmarried father may refuse to register, even if the mother wants him to do so. It would be illegal for him to refuse under the new system. I hope that that will be welcome.

Moving away from the slightly punitive aspect that my hon. Friend has been describing, is that not a fantastic opportunity to communicate with fathers? If the father’s name, and presumably his address, are known, it is open to the relevant agencies to inform him about parenting classes, and about how to use the right services to keep their family together, sustain relationships and so on. That moment is a great opportunity for early intervention that might bring a number of fathers back to the mother and child, help them to realise their responsibilities and equip them to do the job more effectively.

We certainly need to find a way to make it easy to do that. There is an inherent tension between the role of registrars and wider social policy, because registrars are, by definition, very important clerks—they register. They do not have a wider social policy goal. I agree with what my hon. Friend is trying to achieve, but there may be other ways of doing that, which I shall come to.

I shall deal next with the extra dimension added by CMEC, which my hon. Friend has mentioned. From the outset, the difference between the commission and the CSA, which forms part of it, is that it has a wider role, which is extremely ambitious but cuts to the core of what my hon. Friend wants to achieve, which is to change the culture of society. The commission’s work in this area has not begun, but it has some exciting ideas for creating a society where parents recognise their responsibilities towards children and the responsibilities that come from sexual relationships as part of that, rather than that being an add-on when events force people down that route.

The innovative work that my hon. Friend is doing in Nottingham will be watched carefully by staff at CMEC, as well as by officials in my Department, to see whether there are wider lessons that can be learned. My hon. Friend is ahead of the curve in many areas, which is extremely useful as policy develops.

The commission’s “Options” service is available to both parents to help them determine the best maintenance arrangement for their circumstances. The CSA’s role is to alleviate child poverty by ensuring that money flows to children. That is and should be its primary role, but the people who contact it may be in need of other sorts of help. That can be a means of keeping families together and/or involving absent parents with the upbringing of their children, regardless of the state of the relationship between the two parents. The “Options” service can signpost parents to other services, such as mediation and third-sector support, which can include mentoring and so on. The challenge is to ensure that, when there is a clear need, the “Options” service points people in the right direction. It can help parents to come to arrangements that may include support in kind and the transfer of objects rather than money, and it can encourage people to understand what a private arrangement looks and feels like. That is crucial to a relationship between separated parents that works in the interests of the child, and there is potential in those services.

The Minister will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) talk about contact centres, and I should like to pay due regard to those people who organise them. It is the most difficult job for all sorts of reasons: people do not necessarily go there willingly, and they are certainly not there to talk to their former partner in the best of manners. However, the people who run the centres are amazingly important to our whole system, and I hope that the Minister agrees that they are worthy of comment.

Indeed. I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution and completely agree. Contact centres have an important role to play in the tapestry of policy in certain circumstances, and it is not easy to work there, so I pay tribute to the staff and, indeed, to everyone involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North raised the issue of lower socio-economic groups, to use his words, and how they respond to the options that the “Options” service presents. He made an extremely valid point about monitoring and, to ensure that people do not drop out of the system as the law changes, I have made it a top personal priority to monitor “Options” service usage and the number of people who go through formal or informal arrangements. He has put his finger on a crucial issue, but I should like to reassure him that we have no evidence of such activity—and we do have as much evidence as it is possible to have. As time goes on and more data become available, however, monitoring will certainly be our top priority.

My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that, from April 2010, child maintenance will be fully disregarded in the calculation of benefits. It will have a huge psychological impact on people’s desire to contribute but a very real financial impact on the families concerned. The commission is also carrying out research into why some parents choose not to make maintenance payments and how such behaviour may be changed. Once we have the results, we can take the appropriate policy action. Of course, in circumstances where behaviour does not change and the non-resident parent is liable to pay maintenance, which is means-tested, the commission has an enhanced range of enforcement powers, including the powers in the Welfare Reform Bill.

Cutting to a point that both my hon. Friends made, I should say that the commission is also involved in the development of the pilots that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families announced in December 2008. They will test the impact of providing more accessible and better co-ordinated local services for separating and separated parents. It is a potentially exciting policy. The pilots will start later this year and include advice on child maintenance and child contact and residence as part of the same service, and advice on child care benefits and tax credits. They will enable us to see whether we can use holistic services along the lines of the Australian approach, which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North mentioned, to provide a more effective service to support separated families. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions visited Australia last week specifically to look at how such centres work in practice.

It is worth touching on the question whether there should be a relationship between financial support and contact. I completely understand that some aggravation is often felt: there is no love lost between separating parents if someone pays maintenance but is not able to have contact. However, it is important to separate the two arrangements, and I do not think that people can pay for contact, which is perhaps what would follow. There is an important, softer point as well. If separated or separating parents of whatever age can come to a financial arrangement, which is often the hardest thing to negotiate, I see no reason why they should not take confidence from that and come to an arrangement about contact. We encourage people to start with the finances but not to see that as the end of the negotiation. That is one of the important reasons why people, even those on benefits, are able to opt out of compulsory CSA negotiation. If they are able and willing to come to their own private arrangements, the chances are that there will be a kernel of an opportunity for the parents to talk. That would help the children by helping an agreement on contact to be reached. If that fails, there is always the opportunity to go to court.

I am aware that we have the luxury of being able to talk for several hours, but I will not detain the House for much longer. I just want to touch on the issue of supporting children prior to parenthood and how best to provide them with the life skills to make mature decisions about their futures—including when to have children and how to break out of negative behaviours that they see around them. I am sure that we all share concerns about England’s high rates of teenage pregnancy compared with those of most other developed countries. That is why we launched the 10-year teenage pregnancy strategy in 1999, following a detailed report from the social exclusion unit.

Since then, we have achieved a 10.7 per cent. fall in the conception rate among under-18s, and a 6.4 per cent. fall in that rate among under-16s, reversing a trend that had been going upwards. Within the overall reduction in teenage conceptions, teenage births have fallen by 23.3 per cent. Those falls are welcome, but we would not be having this debate if we did not recognise that the progress has not been fast enough.

I understand that there are particularly challenging circumstances in Nottingham; that is why we welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution and engagements. To accelerate progress, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), at the Department of Health, recently announced additional support to help local areas reduce their birth rates further. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North mentioned the £20.5 million extra that there has been to improve young people’s access to effective contraception, and support for parents so that they can talk to their children about sex and relationships. Of course we need to know how that money is being spent, and I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s questions to colleagues at the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

I can exclusively reveal that the money is broken down into £10 million for local health services to ensure that contraception is available in the right places and at the right times. I am thinking especially of long-acting, reversible contraceptive measures, which science dictates will be more likely to be focused on girls; that does not mean, however, that the same principle will not apply to boys. Another £7 million goes towards a new media campaign on contraceptive choices to raise awareness of the different options. Department of Health Ministers have not yet decided whether there will be a particular focus on boys, although I hope that this debate will encourage them to do so. Furthermore, £1 million is directed towards the further education sector for on-site contraception. That sector is proving a particularly useful channel for making an impact on young people’s views. There is also £2.5 million for the Healthy College programme. That follows the announcement last October that the Government intend to make personal, social and health education statutory in all schools, to ensure that young people have the knowledge and skills that they need to make safe and responsible choices.

I have already alluded to the issue, but my hon. Friend posed the question whether teenage pregnancy campaigns are too girl-centric and do not focus enough on boys. We know that boys tend to have fewer sources of information on sex and relationship issues and that they talk to their parents about them less. That is why, if done appropriately, the information that comes through teaching at schools is so crucial for boys. Department for Children, Schools and Families Ministers have commissioned Brook to produce revised guidance on contraception and sexual health services for boys and young men; that will be ready in autumn this year.

In many communities, including my own constituency, Brook provides a valuable and often credible service to boys and young men. We look forward to its advice. The whole issue of how sex education, including contraception, and child maintenance issues should be taught in schools is being considered as part of the Macdonald review. We will have an opportunity to discuss the issue in the months ahead.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the offer of becoming myth-buster general; I will do my best. Much stigma needs to be overcome. Gingerbread, the lobby group for single parents—those of all ages and genders, obviously—provides an excellent starting point. It does research among its own client group showing that single parents feel that their needs are not properly understood by society, particularly by the media. We in Government, and hon. Members on both sides of the House, have a leadership role in debunking some of the myths, and I encourage colleagues to do so.

My hon. Friend raised several interesting points about housing, some of which we are considering as part of the review of how housing benefit rules treat separated families. I would be interested in having his views on that when we have launched our consultation.

As for posters—yes, I am happy to consider those if we feel that they can have an effect. The changes to child maintenance may be a peg to hang that on, so let us keep talking about it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving the House an opportunity to discuss such an important issue, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is no longer in his place, for his engagement. I hope that my hon. Friend has been reassured that I and my ministerial colleagues across Whitehall take this issue very seriously. I am not alone in commending his deep personal commitment to changing the lives of teenage parents in his constituency. I hope that from the lessons that he is learning locally we can develop national solutions that will affect the lives of even more of them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.