Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Damian Hinds.)
I commend the Government for their groundbreaking work in beginning to put relationships at the heart of family policy.
The Minister can be justly proud of the Government’s progress in a number of ways, including: raising the care leaving age for young people who are fostered, acknowledging that ongoing relationships with foster parents can be incredibly redemptive for children whose birth families have been unable to raise them; transforming the adoption landscape, so that heroic adoptive parents get the support that they need, making it far more likely that they can provide a stable, loving family and that the adoption is as successful as possible; building on the existing evidence-based programme and approaches that help couples to strengthen their relationships and prevent family breakdown; and investing in parent-child relationships by launching the CANparent scheme, providing vouchers for free parenting classes in three trial areas.
The coalition must also be congratulated on recognising marriage in the tax system, acknowledging the greater stability of marriage. Unmarried couples with children are at least twice as likely to split up as those who are married, regardless of income. Furthermore, the Government established a cross-cutting Cabinet Committee on social justice—which rightly treats family breakdown as a driver and not simply as an effect of poverty—and appointed the Department for Work and Pensions as lead Ministry on the issue, to bring all relationship support policy under one Department. I also thank the Prime Minister for his speech in August this year in support of strong families.
I could go on, but I want to leave plenty of time to explain why relationships matter so much to children’s well-being and to make it clear that while that is a great start, it is only a start. The agenda has to be seen as a journey with a long distance left to run. It is like a ship that has finally set sail and edged out of the mouth of the harbour, but is still a long way from achieving its purpose in setting forth. What is that purpose? The over-riding priority for family policy has to be to tackle our epidemic levels of family breakdown in this country.
With the exception of our Prime Minister and a few others, some of whom are present—I acknowledge the support of Members attending the debate—politicians often hold back from talking up the benefits of marriage and committed relationships. They worry that by emphasising the need to support and encourage such relationships they will be seen as judgmental or moralising, or as adopting a “nanny state” approach. The costs of family breakdown, however, are enormous; at £48 billion, they exceed the defence budget. Surely it
“is not a nanny state so much as a canny state”
that tackles the issue—not my words, but a quotation from the conclusion reached by the Centre for Social Justice in its July 2014 Breakthrough Britain report, “Fully Committed? How a Government could reverse family breakdown”.
The CSJ has probably done more than any other organisation to put the issue on to the policy agenda. I pay tribute to the CSJ, to the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for founding the organisation and inspiring so much of its work, and to the excellent work of Dr Samantha Callan.
The CSJ report states:
“Strong and stable relationships and families are indispensable to a strong and stable society. Secure, nurturing, loving and reliable family environments are crucial for the health and wellbeing of children, adults, and wider communities, and where these factors are absent this can have a profoundly damaging effect on the fabric of society. Yet for almost half a century there has been an escalation in family breakdown across Britain—divorce and separation, dysfunction and dadlessness.”
The report and the statistics speak volumes about why we have no grounds for complacency in this country. For example, by the time that children are sitting their GCSEs, nearly half of them live in broken homes. That proportion rises to two thirds for those in low-income communities, and we must highlight the fact that it is the poorest who are hit hardest by family breakdown. Almost half of all children under five in our poorest households are not living with both their parents, which is seven times the number of those in the richest households. One statistic in particular brought home to me the distorted priorities in our society: more teenagers have a smartphone than have a father at home.
We are known as the single parent capital of Europe, with one quarter of families with children headed by lone parents. That figure rises significantly in our poorest neighbourhoods and can be as high as 75%. Other countries are doing much better. In Finland, more than 95% of children under 15 live with both parents, and the OECD average is 84%. Many parents raising children on their own are doing an amazing job against the odds, but few set out to do that—it is rarely a lifestyle choice. They find it incredibly difficult and they do not want their children to be in the same position when they are older.
Why does stability matter so much for children? Surely the most important thing is that they are safe? Surely if a relationship is no longer loving and nurturing for the adults and children involved, it is time to call it a day. Campaigners against domestic abuse often argue against an emphasis on stability, on the grounds that violent and controlling relationships should not be stable and need to end. I will explain why, however, it is overly simplistic to pit safety against stability.
Not for one minute am I saying that a partner who is being subjugated or suffering significant and severe abuse should be under any societal or economic pressure to remain in an exploitative relationship. Nor am I saying that the poor status quo of low-quality relationships, even where there is no abuse, should simply be endured because of an ideological emphasis on stability. Relationship education, support, counselling and therapy represent a spectrum of help for those who do not want their relationship to end, but deeply want it to improve. That is why this and future Governments need to keep investing in effective programmes and research on what works.
Parents’ desire to stay together is often rooted in their awareness that relationship breakdown profoundly affects children. Children whose family splits are more likely to experience behavioural problems, to underachieve in school, to need more medical treatment, to leave school and home earlier, to become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age, and to have poorer mental health and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence.
That is explored in another report, which was produced last month by a number of parliamentarians. I was privileged to be involved, under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who I am pleased to see present today. That important report, “Holding the Centre: Social stability and Social capital”, which I hope the Minister will read, if he has not already received a copy, states that social capital is the wealth of our nation:
“While economic recovery is an essential foundation, it is not enough. Debt burdens, housing costs, worries about social care, and lack of confidence that all will share the fruits of domestic hard graft and global competitiveness weigh heavily. Fractured relationships are both a cause and consequence of these issues.
Strong communities and extended families can build both financial and social capital, increasing wellbeing and reducing long-term pressures on public spending. Every department of the government should therefore be crystal clear about the extent to which it relies on family and community relationships and the costs of that contribution being compromised.”
The report welcomes the Prime Minister’s announcement of a “triple test” for family policy, so that
“every government department will be held to account for the impact of their policies on the family”,
and it states:
“He is right to say that ‘whatever the social issue we want to grasp—the answer should always begin with family’.”
The report highlights the Prime Minister’s comment that
“to really drive this through, we need to change the way government does business”.
It makes a number of recommendations that, as I have said, I hope the Minister will look at and will respond to in his speech.
My simple and unapologetic message is that, for children, what matters is a trinity: relationships that are safe, stable and nurturing. The United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the equivalent of Public Health England, treats safe, stable and nurturing relationships—or SSNRs, in our acronym-prone world—as one of the essentials for childhood. It states:
“Safe, stable, nurturing relationships…between children and their caregivers…are fundamental to healthy brain development”
“shape the development of children’s physical, emotional, social, behavioral, and intellectual capacities”,
all of which ultimately affect the whole of their lives as adults. Children’s mental health rests largely on their benefiting from safe, stable and nurturing relationships.
The three dimensions of safety, stability and nurture are all important aspects of the social and physical environments that protect children and are indispensible to their fulfilling their potential. Safety is the extent to which a child is free from fear and secure from physical or psychological harm. Stability is about the degree of predictability and consistency in a child’s environment—including consistency in the people to whom children relate—as well as how they interact with caregivers and others.
Stability gives a child a sense of coherence and enables them to see the world as predictable and manageable. Without it, they may not form the secure and nurturing attachments they need for optimal development. Moreover, if the adults around them are not in stable relationships, it can make it more likely that a child will be exposed to relationships and environments that are stressful and unsafe. Many stepfathers are incredibly caring and conscientious, but sometimes living with unrelated males is a significant risk factor for child maltreatment, as in the baby Peter tragedy and many other serious child abuse cases.
Nurture concerns the extent to which a parent or carer is attuned and responding to the physical, developmental and emotional needs of their child. Nurturing relationships make a child feel safer and able to embrace new situations and explore their world with confidence. I should say that it is not one-way: one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life has been nurturing and bringing up two boys, who are now aged 18 and 21. Safety, stability and nurture overlap, and all matter. Children are more likely to grow up with all of them if their parents’ relationship is intact and high in quality.
In a worrying situation, over the past few days and weeks, world leaders and national Governments have been calling other countries to account over their lack of action on the Ebola outbreak. The scale of such a challenge requires all the wealthy nations of the world to plough in significant resources and make a sacrificial effort. Small gestures will not stem the tide. I would argue that exactly the same can be said about stemming the tide of family breakdown.
Evidence from the Healthy Marriage Initiative in the United States shows that those states that put a significant amount of resource into the poorest communities saw correspondingly significant increases in children growing up with both their parents and declines in child poverty. The states that did not had far less to show for their efforts. Our Government’s own research has already shown that Relate’s couple counselling and Marriage Care’s marriage preparation courses show a more than elevenfold return on investment through savings due to reduced relationship breakdown—that is, for every £1 invested, over £11 is returned to society. Courses such as those show that relationship skills can be learned. We need more of them in our society, in which so many people—particularly young people—embark on relationships with no role model for how to sustain a healthy relationship over time.
I am reminded of a discussion I had with a colleague in my law firm. It had become clear to me that our family department was advising on divorces for couples in shorter and shorter relationships. I asked the head of the department, “What is the shortest marriage that you have advised on now?” He turned to me and said, “The couple did not even end their reception. They had a row during the reception and came to us for a divorce.” Does that not highlight a lack of understanding of what commitment means, certainly in a marriage?
I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment not to allow funding for relationship support to drop below the current level as long as he is in post. But that level is meagre in comparison to the scale of need: it is just 0.02% of the cost of family breakdown. I understand that public finances are tight and that there is concern that the evidence base for effective programmes and approaches is still slender. However, surely the answer is to build on that base. Sir Graham Hart urged the previous Government to do that in the review of relationship support they commissioned him to undertake in the late 1990s. It is important to note that this is a cross-party issue. It concerns colleagues right across the political spectrum and should be above and beyond party politics. Any Government, of whatever colour, should treat it as a priority.
Relationship science is a growing and respected field of research in the US. One of its foremost proponents, Professor Scott Stanley, argues that we know enough to take action and we need to take action to know more. We have already learned a lot about what works in helping and supporting couples, but we need to keep on learning and improving all the time. Evidence matters enormously, so I am delighted that this Government have recently conducted their own family stability review. It is essential that the findings of the review are published soon, for the benefit of local authorities and commissioners of services.
We also need a What Works centre for families and relationships—not a vastly expensive proposition considering its potential return: the Early Intervention Foundation was set up at a cost of £3.5 million and is already making a huge contribution to local authority decision making. A What Works centre would help enormously in refining a curriculum for relationships education in school. It is critical that relationships are the priority in relationships and sex education in schools. There is hardly a person I know who does not agree with that. The subject should be a compulsory part of the national curriculum, drawing in local relationship support organisations as well as specialist teachers. Last week’s heated media discussions over the footballer Ched Evans’s rape conviction show how vital it is for all young people to understand issues such as consent, equality and respect in relationships, as well as commitment and the importance of enduring relationships.
We also need children’s centres in every community to evolve into family hubs where parents can get help with their own relationships, not just with parenting. Although all this help and support has to be delivered at a local level, it is essential that the policy agenda is championed nationally, otherwise it will have no hope of competing for time, money and attention in an already impossibly crowded set of priorities. Although I am aware that individual Opposition Members are extremely concerned about this issue, I am disappointed that apart from the shadow Minister there is only one Member on the Opposition Benches today, from the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea).
As chair of the all-party group for strengthening couple relationships, I had the privilege of hosting the launch yesterday, here in the House of Commons, of the Relationships Alliance’s excellent manifesto. That manifesto makes some excellent practical suggestions, including calling for a Cabinet-level Minister for Families with a properly resourced Whitehall Department. That would greatly help to ensure that the recently introduced family test for public policy is meaningful.
The manifesto has 12 points intended to challenge Government and promote cultural change. They include the suggestion that all front-line practitioners delivering public services should receive training on relationship support; that family and relationship centres should be piloted and established in the UK, as in Australia, where the Government have made a 20-year commitment to addressing the issue; that central Government should engage local authorities to develop and extend relationship support at local level; and that both local and central Government should ensure that services are designed to help at life transition points, so as to include a focus on couple, family and social relationships. Lastly, although there are other recommendations I have not mentioned, the manifesto says:
“The expanded Troubled Families programme should include a focus on supporting and measuring the quality and stability of couple, family and social relationships.”
I acknowledge, and pay tribute to, the four organisations involved in producing the manifesto: the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, Marriage Care, Relate and OnePlusOne.
To conclude, the Minister will agree that there is no shortage of ideas. In my brief speech, I have referred to three substantial reports on this subject, issued in almost as many months this summer and autumn. The challenges are huge, but they must be addressed—whatever the colour of the next Government, and by us all. The relationships manifesto states:
“Clearly, government…can only go so far, and it requires collective action from citizens, business, civil society and government to create the condition for people’s relationships to flourish.”
I urge this Government to grasp the nettle of family breakdown more firmly than has been the case before. That will immeasurably help this and future generations of parents to massively boost their children’s life chances, enabling them to face the future full of hope, to reach their potential, and to be fully confident that they are loved and that they matter. As the CSJ’s report says,
“Without concerted action across government and beyond to address our epidemic levels of family breakdown there is a danger that the agenda will be lost”,
and it is the children in our society who will pay the highest price.
It is a pleasure to take part in this vital debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing it and on championing, not only in this debate, but over the years, the importance of supporting the family.
It is extraordinary that the debate is not better attended, but despite the lack of attendance among Opposition Back-Bench Members, with the exception of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), we do face an epidemic, as my hon. Friend said, and it has been going on for many years. This epidemic needs the same attention we would give any other epidemic in our country, and it is interesting to reflect on that as we consider how well we are dealing with the scale of the problem.
My hon. Friend paid tribute to the report from the Centre for Social Justice. She mentioned a number of statistics, and one that struck me was that if we carry on in the same way, it is likely that, by the end of the next Parliament, more than half of children taking their GCSEs will come from broken homes. As she said, that is of particular concern as a social justice issue; in low-income households, half of those from the ages of nought to five do not live with both parents. The issue has been highlighted by not only the CSJ, but the recent Good Childhood inquiry, which said that family breakdown and conflict have the biggest adverse impact on children’s well-being.
I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister, who is with the Department for Work and Pensions, is taking a lead on this issue—quite properly, given the Secretary of State’s long track record on addressing family breakdown. However, it must be said that if our country was facing any other epidemic, Cobra would get together, and the Prime Minister would probably lead the meeting. There would also be a whole set of plans, and a significant amount of money would be thrown in to try to address the problem. I welcome the fact that the lead on addressing this epidemic is being taken by the DWP, but should it not be taken across Government at Cabinet level, as my hon. Friend said?
The Prime Minister has taken a lead—in fact, more than any other Prime Minister—not simply at the beginning of this Parliament, but very much as we get towards the end of it. I attended the speech he gave in August, in which he set out the steps we have taken, which are significant, and what we are doing now. My hon. Friend highlighted those points, but I should also emphasise the significant amount that continues to go into relationship support. That is welcome and important, but in many ways, it is the minimum we need to be doing.
Adoption reform is fantastic; what is happening is significant, and it must be welcomed. The belated introduction of the marriage tax allowance recognises the significance of marriage and helps to support it. The work done in the troubled families programme is also welcome. However, in many ways, that is only the minimum we should be doing to address the tide of family breakdown and instability, which is taking a huge toll on all our communities, but particularly the most deprived.
We should not simply accept that family breakdown is inevitable. We have to look at other countries. Sadly, we top the league of instability and family breakdown. There needs to be a shift, but it is not one that the Government can engineer; there needs to be a cultural shift, which will allow us properly to promote the benefits of marriage and committed relationships.
I do not want to give a commentary; in many ways, we all agree about the problems, the challenges we face, and the good steps the Government have taken. Instead, I want to address three issues. One is fathers. As we all recognise, fathers matter, but 1 million children in Britain today have no significant contact with their father. That is a huge problem and a huge shame. We all accept that fathers matter in family relationships, and we must do more to support fatherhood.
It is interesting that the Minister is here, because we need to do more in two areas. One is the joint registration of births. Schedule 6 to the Welfare Reform Act 2009 provides for the joint registration of births. Mothers are automatically registered, but unmarried fathers are not, and they have to go through a process to get on the birth certificate. I understand that the provisions have not been implemented yet, and they have no doubt been delayed by legitimate concerns about wanting to avoid problematic issues—for example, preventing a violent father from automatically registering and assuming responsibility for the child. However, the legislation does provide for exceptions, and I do not understand why we have not motored on with a decent piece of legislation introduced under the previous Government to ensure that, at the very least, we make it easier for fathers automatically to register. Being registered on the certificate is hugely significant; it says loud and clear that the father, as well as the mother, matters at the very start of the child’s life. Flowing from that, other shifts can take place, in terms of the father’s responsibility and the way in which he can be involved practically. Will the Minister therefore tell us how far we have got with implementing the legislation?
It is also important to look at how registration can happen practically. It does not need to happen at the registry office. Like others, I know the difficulty of getting everyone to the registry office to register. When couples are not married, or there are problems in a relationship, that can be even harder. We therefore need to look actively at registering births at children’s centres. That was recommended by the CSJ, and I ask the Minister to examine whether the Department for Education can look at the benefits. In particular, it has been recommended that we look at our children’s centres as real family hubs, where mothers and fathers can be together to access information and help to support their children. Even if there are problems in relationships, the mother and the father can still be involved in the child’s journey. Children’s centres can operate better as a wider family hub.
The second issue is one that does not always get a mention: grandparents and the extended family. Families come in all shapes and sizes: they go up, down and along in terms of their length, breadth and depth. We should recognise the unsung heroes of families—the 14 million grandparents in Britain today. They range widely in age, and we should not stereotype them. Half are under 65 and one in 10 is aged 50. One in four working families rely on them increasingly for child care. I understand from Grandparents Plus that they contribute some £7.3 billion of child care to society. We need to understand their role. They provide important practical and emotional support for parents, which is particularly needed in crises.
Kinship care is in some ways the poor relation in family policy. The Government have rightly done a lot about adoption, providing rights, support and access to information for adoptive parents. However, grandparents and other kinship carers are not on the same level. I invite the Government to think about how we can go forward on the reform of kinship care. It has such a significant role—particularly, as the Minister will know, when a child, or indeed a parent, has a disability. Grandparents can have an informal or formal role, and their involvement builds social capital within the family, but they also gain a lot of value themselves from being involved in the care of their grandchildren. It helps with their independence, and can avoid huge bills for social care subsequently. Much more active support for their role would be a win-win situation for the grandparents and the children.
In reality, grandparents struggle, particularly in crises. It is thought that up to 300,000 children are being brought up by 200,000 grandparents who carry out the role of family carers. In many instances domestic violence, drug or alcohol addiction, abuse and neglect are involved in the situation, and the only person who can be turned to is a kinship carer. That might be a grandparent, but it could be a sibling or other family member. Such approaches can also be important in crises, such as when there is a bereavement, an imprisonment or a combination of such factors. The reality is that 95% of children living with members of their wider family do not have formal looked-after status within the care process. Without that, kinship carers inevitably do not receive the same rights and benefit entitlements as those who provide formalised care. The evidence is that children do much better where there is a kinship relationship. Stress, anxiety, depression and isolation affect kinship carers immensely, and without the levels of support available to others, that is growing. Kinship carers may be affected by issues to do with housing and the availability of discretionary payments to enable them to cope during crises.
What can be done about the situation? When he gave the speech that I have mentioned, the Prime Minister was asked a question about kinship care and he said:
“You do see sometimes grandparents stepping in and effectively bring up children, and of course under the rules they don’t get quite the same set of rights as others. What you are saying is that if you can extend to adoptive parents things that birth parents have in terms of rights, couldn’t you do that for grandparents?
That is something I am very happy to look at in terms of manifesto, and we have got some Conservative MPs”—
in fact, there are two hon. Members present for the debate who were there at the time—
“who have got some responsibility for giving me ideas on that front, so I am sure they will take note of it.”
I encourage the Minister to take note, and consider the possibility of a local authority duty to consider the wider family before children are taken into care.
The Department for Education came up with good guidance in April, which states that
“the local authority should identify and prioritise suitable family and friends placements, if appropriate…before care proceedings are issued, as it may avoid the need for proceedings.”
That is very welcome; we need to think about how far that is embedded in local authority practice. The Department also said in guidance in April that foster carers should have 20 days’ paid leave for training and meetings, and that included grandparents who look after children. We should, furthermore, consider entitlement to adjustment leave to give kinship carers time to deal with family crises without losing their jobs. If the arrangement becomes permanent, they should be entitled to that leave. We should consider support based on need, not just legal status.
Quite often, when social services step in when families are experiencing breakdown or trouble, instead of looking first to the grandparents, who may have affection for and a relationship with the grandchildren, they look at them suspiciously. Social services should be looking in their direction.
Yes, there can be almost a presumption that a child should go into stranger care, rather than family care. That would run counter to many cultures, but sadly such an unwelcome culture shift exists in our society. An attempt is being made to shift things through the guidance, but that shift needs to be embedded in practice.
I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about kinship care. Campaigners such as Grandparents Plus and the Centre for Social Justice talk about bringing in some equivalent to adoption reform. For example, it was welcome that the Government introduced the passport for adoptive parents, to give them access to continuing support for housing and schooling. If adoptive parents can have it, why cannot kinship carers, who play such an important equivalent role, also have the right to request assessments of need, information on legal status, and support? I should welcome the Minister’s views on that, and on benefit system support to enable kinship carers to care for traumatised children. I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions is progressing that, with the distressed children review, and it will be interesting to see the conclusions.
I want finally to mention mental health. A child’s well-being is wrapped up with their relationship with their parents and family, and the need for a stable, supportive, nurturing relationship is also wrapped up with their mental health needs. Whether the parents—ideally two parents—are around is an issue, but so is the quality of parenting, which affects children’s well-being and emotional and mental development. It may perhaps go without saying that when the parents are in conflict, the anxiety, depression and anti-social behaviour emanating from family relationships can have a direct impact on children. It may not go without saying, perhaps, that family breakdown is strongly associated with poor mental health in adults and children. We need to tackle mental health issues. The Government recently advanced a welcome mental health strategy, but it did not mention how conflicts between parents and in fractured families affect children’s mental health. Perhaps that is a given, but it needs to be explicit, because we need to consider how work can be done with whole families to tackle the causes of problems. The Good Childhood inquiry report has recognised poor parenting as a significant contributory factor in increasing mental health problems.
What can we do? The Government deserve to be applauded for the improving access to psychological therapies programmes, which have been extended, and into which a significant amount of taxpayers’ money has gone. They are focused particularly on cognitive behavioural therapy, which is perhaps the normative response, and which has been expanded. I understand that couples therapy for depression has also been expanded within IAPT programmes. Some have expressed concern to me that when someone goes to their GP with depression, the response does not go beneath things, into the causes of the depression within the family, which could well be family problems.
I understand that only a quarter of IAPT programmes offer couples therapy, and that only 0.62% of IAPT sessions have delivered couples therapy. That seems to be out of kilter with what is happening on the ground. It is only rarely considered as an option. Millions of pounds are going into IAPT, particularly for cognitive behavioural therapies, but it seems to be inappropriate that little is going into couples therapy.
I do not want to take up more time, because colleagues have a lot to contribute, but to return to where we started, we have a huge problem. There has been significant progress, but we must pull all levers of Government, together, to promote a cultural shift and show that we are on the side of families and better relationships, in the interests of children’s well-being.
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my good friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this important debate. The subject needs discussion and careful and considerate handling, but it is right to examine how we nurture children’s well-being and what support exists to ensure that children in this country can benefit from the best possible situation when growing up. It is not enough to observe family breakdown and its wide implications for society and then say it is nothing to do with the state because we are frightened to death of seeming to moralise about people’s private choices.
I am here this morning because I believe we should look at the evidence in our society. As my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) said, the evidence is overwhelming. The Government must look at the evidence, suspend their reticence about getting involved in family circumstances, and act. It is right to acknowledge the Government’s progress. I, too, heard the Prime Minister’s excellent speech in London in August when he set out what the Government have done and his aspiration to go further.
This morning, I want to use my contribution to focus on the importance of children’s relationships with their fathers to amplify some of the points that my colleagues have made.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that good relationships and respect in society start in the home and in the family? Parental responsibility is essential and cannot be handed over to anyone else, not even the state. However, Government policy must encourage and strengthen the family unit instead of undermining the traditional family unit in society.
I agree absolutely that we must look at how relationships are formed in the home and recognise that families exist in a wide range of sometimes sad circumstances. We must not be squeamish about being honest about messy situations, but recognise that solid family relationships give children the best platform to develop good and meaningful lives in society.
I want to focus on the importance of children’s relationships with their fathers, especially when fathers cannot live with their children. I believe that fathers’ involvement boosts children’s self-esteem and confidence and that children with good relationships with their fathers are less likely to experience depression or exhibit disruptive behaviour at school. When fathers are actively involved in their children’s care, children are more likely to feel good about themselves, do well at school, avoid trouble and reach their potential.
Several months ago, a lady came to my surgery saying that her relationship with her partner had broken down after they had lived together for 10 years. During that relationship they had brought up their own child and another child who had been born a year before the relationship began. The acrimony of the breakdown of the relationship had led the departing father to arbitrate on which child—they were only a year apart in age—he would want to have contact with. The one who was not his blood relative—the stepchild—wanted to maintain the relationship because the man was the only father figure he had known, but his birth child was more reticent about seeing his father. The impact of the disruption on those children and the arbitrary removal of that father influence would have tragic consequences. That experience typifies many that we hear about in our surgeries and throughout society, and we must respond to it.
It is highly worrying that the Centre for Social Justice has estimated that more than 1 million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers by the end of their childhood. The shocking but quotable statistic that a young person is considerably more likely to have a smartphone than a resident father is a sad indictment of society.
The coalition’s programme for Government promised to encourage shared parenting from the outset and to look at how best to provide greater access rights to non-resident parents, but I would like to highlight three areas where we could do more. First, we should bring into force schedule 6 of the Welfare Reform Act 2009 on joint birth registration, which requires fathers to register themselves on birth certificates. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said, there seems to be some ambiguity about why that has not happened. At present, the law on birth registration signals that fathers are less important to children than their mothers and that less is expected of them. If they are not married, the mother, not the father, is named automatically. Crucially, the mother’s approval is required if the father wants to be named. Obviously, there must be appropriate exemptions, such as when the mother does not know the father’s identity or whereabouts, the father lacks capacity within the meaning of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 or the mother has reason to fear for her safety or that of the child if the father is contacted in relation to the registration of the birth.
If that change was made and the mother wanted the father to be recorded, but that was against the father’s wishes, the mother could identify the father independently. Similarly, a father who wanted to be named but was obstructed by the mother could declare his paternity and have his name recorded against her wishes. Being named on a birth certificate confers parental responsibility and the right to be involved in decisions affecting where the child lives, their education, religion and medical treatment. If fathers are not registered on the birth certificate, that predicts both less involvement in their children’s lives and low or non-payment of child maintenance. Australia achieved a reduction of 20% in mother-only registrations during the 10-year period between 1994 and 2004 by adopting a similar measure.
Secondly, if parents separate, it is often highly beneficial to children if they continue to have a relationship with both parents. Yet it can be incredibly difficult to ensure there are well functioning contact arrangements with children. That can be incredibly painful for children, but it is understandable because parents’ inability to work together rarely repairs itself naturally after they have split up.
At this point, I want to refer to a meeting I had on Saturday in Salisbury, where I gave out some awards to volunteers at Salisbury’s contact centre, and in particular to Liz Sirman, who has spent the last five years managing that contact centre. I said then, as I do now, that it seems we can either say that the glass is half-full or half-empty. We can either say that it is lamentable to have children’s contact centres, where parents’ relationships are so broken that they have to rely on volunteers to arbitrate—one partner delivers the child and goes, and another comes to collect the child, and then there is the same process in reverse—or we can pay tribute to the work of such centres, as they try to rebuild relationships and help those families form better relationships in the interests of the children.
We need to be willing to support families once parents have separated. The Department for Work and Pensions innovation fund has invested significantly in better ways of doing that. Additionally, we need family relationship centres, such as those that have been functioning in Australia for several years. Pioneering centres such as Island Separated Families on the Isle of Wight and the Jersey Centre for Separated Families will shortly be joined by other centres in the midlands and the north-west of England. Their help for separated families could be delivered within the system for family hubs mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.
Finally, although the contributory principle in child maintenance is indispensable, it should not have the unintended consequence of preventing non-resident parents from playing a meaningful role in their children’s lives. Some low-income parents are being left with too little money to look after their children adequately while they are in their care after paying child maintenance. That is because the current thresholds at which maintenance is paid are fixed at 1998 prices, and there is no self-support reserve in our system, unlike in many other countries.
This is a critical and controversial area, but we have to examine the reality of how these dynamics are working for the poorest in our society. We need to look at making interventions that change those rules to facilitate better dynamics between, and more involvement of, both parents in bringing up a child. I know that the Minister, who is universally seen as one of the most capable and thoughtful individuals in Parliament, will reflect very carefully on these points. I look forward to hearing what he has to say in response today and subsequently by letter, if some of these issues cannot be responded to today, but I urge him to reflect on the spirit and the substance of what has been said this morning. We are here because we can see an epidemic of family breakdown in our society. We are concerned about the life trajectory of those children, and I urge him to do anything that he can to improve that situation, such that those children can look forward to better lives, with both parents involved in their upbringing.
The debate is due to end at 11 o’clock and we have two Front-Bench speakers. If they split the time, it is 18 minutes each, but the debate does not have to run all the way to 11 o’clock —it is entirely up to them. I call Steve McCabe.
Good morning, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate. It is right that we should consider the impact of relationships on the well-being of our children, and we should take into account how Government policy can assist in this area.
I do not start with a wholly pessimistic view of relationships. It is true that marriage rates are declining, that less than 50% of British households are now headed by a married couple and that half of those marriages may end in divorce, but the divorce rate is also declining.
That may be one explanation, but we are seeing a downward trend in divorce—I simply make that point.
I was going on to say that I was struck by a bit of research done by the counselling organisation Relate, in 2012. It highlighted the fact that 93% of people said that they still regarded their relationship and family network as the most important thing in getting them through hard and difficult times. If we listen to the media or other people, it is at times tempting to think that we are living in a society where family relationships have completely broken down, but that is not quite our experience. Families—albeit sometimes new or reconstituted families—still form the backbone of our support system. In the era of same-sex marriage—which it is difficult for some people to acknowledge—we are not talking about a single model of marriage. We could be talking about cohabiting, heterosexual, homosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It varies in the world we now live in.
Relate also suggests that one of the things that puts the greatest pressure on families is the state of our economy. Relate says that couple relationships are eight times more likely to break down as a result of economic pressures. In the era of austerity Britain, we need to take that into account.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree—particularly in the light of all that we have heard, even in this debate—that the lack of secure, stable and nurturing relationships in a child’s life is a fundamental driver and a cause of inequality and poverty, that tackling it is progressive and that it needs to be a priority, whatever party is in power, over very many years to come?
I certainly agree that, as the hon. Lady’s colleagues have also said, we should be putting a high priority on what is happening to our children, the quality of the relationships they are growing up with, and what we can do to assist and facilitate the best possible outcomes for children in those circumstances. However, we have to be conscious that what happens to couples is not divorced from economic policy either. We need to take that into account when considering some of our spending cuts. I was struck by the assertion by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that an increase in working credits could be related to a 160% rise in the divorce rate. I would like to know a lot more about how he arrived at those figures.
I urge the hon. Gentleman to take a longer view of family breakdown and not just see it as confined to the last four years. He should recognise that before the great recession, family breakdown was a significant issue and was not just a result of Government. We are also talking about a cultural problem that has been around for many years and we have still not dealt with it properly.
I certainly accept that we would not want to try and explain family breakdown over a period of just four years. I will make the point later that there are a variety of issues; I am simply focusing on the fact that if we are considering the impact on how Government policy assists, we should not ignore the economic factors.
The hon. Member for Congleton referred to Dr Coleman and the OnePlusOne group, which makes the point that evidence shows that where couples enjoy a good employment situation, that in itself leads to a stronger relationship. That may be because they have fewer financial worries or a stronger sense of personal identity. I do not want to dwell on the issue unduly, but I do want to make the point that we have heard about family centres and the need to give Government support, and there are a couple of things from the past four years on which we should reflect. We should ask whether the decision to scale down Sure Start has necessarily been in the best interests of children.
I would just like to point out that across the country there are 420 of the children’s contact centres to which I referred, and they have never, throughout their existence, received any support from the state, but are supported by volunteers up and down the country.
The hon. Gentleman is right: contact centres do not receive state funding. Sure Start centres did, but there are 628 fewer of them since the Government came to power, and I suggest that they have in the past been used as a source of support for a number of parents and families.
Likewise, there is an issue about the availability of child care. That is why, to be fair, both parties are putting quite a stress on child care availability at present. We disagree about the best way to provide it. Obviously, I am much more attached to Labour’s model of providing between 15 and 25 hours for three and four-year-olds. We have to recognise the cost of child care.
I noticed that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), in what was a very thoughtful speech in a number of areas—I certainly agree with him on the question of kinship and grandparents—mentioned the married couple’s tax allowance. It is worth pointing out, if that is an instrument of policy to help families and children, that it is available only to one third of married couples. It applies to only 4 million of the 12.3 million married couples, and only about one third of them have children, so when it comes to targeting a policy to help children, it would be possible to do a bit better.
I entirely agree. It would be possible to do better, and many Government Members hope that there will be an increase in the allowance over the years to come, but the importance of the allowance is that for the first time for many years, and because of this Government, it has sent a clear message that this country recognises and values the commitment that people make to each other through marriage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that commitment is worth applauding?
I simply make the point that if one third goes to pensioners who do not have children, it is a question of targeting. I can see what attracts the hon. Lady. I am not saying whether a married couple’s tax allowance is a good or bad idea; I am saying that if we are talking about targeting the policy, it is reasonable to say that it would be possible to do that a bit better. We could have a disagreement about that.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate has mentioned that there are many factors besides economics. That is borne out in the briefing that the Relationships Alliance provided for this debate. It talks about a host of other factors that can affect people, including gender, age and marital status. I am not suggesting that there is one single thing. I think it would be interesting to spend some time looking at the factors involved. I noticed that the general focus of the remarks from the hon. Member for Congleton was on child well-being. I am also grateful to the Relationships Alliance for the things it had to say in that respect. It points out that children growing up with parents who have good-quality relationships or ones in which there is a lower level of conflict, even if the parents have separated, tend to enjoy better mental health and do better in a variety of other ways.
I thought that the point made by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) was that we should be careful not to think that this area is something that Government or agents of the Government can always address. Parents have their own responsibilities; they have to decide what the impact will be if they separate. I am not suggesting that people who reach that conclusion should not be allowed to do so, but it does seem—if I can take the example cited at the outset—that very little thought can have gone into the operation if people are capable of separating before the end of the wedding reception. It strikes me that people perhaps need to adopt a bit more responsibility. When people decide that they must go their separate ways, they have a responsibility to consider the impact on their children and to shield them from the anger and bitterness that may be part of their separation but should not be part of their children’s lives. That is a very strong argument for encouraging mediation for couples contemplating divorce or separation.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate talked about some of the mental health implications. It comes as no surprise to discover that children who are regularly exposed to intense and poorly resolved conflicts involving their separating parents often suffer more as a result of that than from the separation itself. The hon. Member for Congleton talked about the value of the return on relationship counselling. She talked about the return on every pound spent. There could be an argument for saying that there should also be counselling for children who are exposed to this situation. I do not know whether that is where the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) was going with his comments about family centre models, but it seems to me that this is not just about the two individuals who are separating. I am happy to see money spent on providing relationship support for couples and help for couples who are going to separate, but just as much needs to be spent on the children.
Then, of course, we have to think about some of the broader things. We need better sex and relationships teaching for children in our schools and youth clubs. I know that the hon. Member for Congleton is a great fan of teaching children how to budget and manage their own affairs and how to start a business, but we also need to help them on issues of health, including sexual health, and sexual relationships. The recent Children’s Commissioner report on child sexual exploitation in teenage gangs is frightening, particularly the degree to which children who do not have sufficient support are in danger of thinking that what they see in porn movies is a reasonable model for how they should behave in relationships.
Of course, the issue of fathers is crucial. Like other hon. Members, I am kind of tired of the number of cases that I see at my advice centre of fathers who have really done nothing wrong. Their relationship has simply come to an end. Where there is no question of abuse or violence and no question that the father has done anything other than be part of a relationship that has come to an end, it seems to me that no court and no parent has a right to deprive that father—or that child—of that relationship. In that context, I am particularly impressed by the work of the charity Families Need Fathers, which does quite a lot to try to bring people together in these circumstances.
A key policy ask of the Relationships Alliance is that the Cabinet Office expand its What Works network to include a What Works centre for families and relationships. Will the Minister say whether he has any plans to take up that suggestion?
It is tempting to say a lot more, but I am conscious of what you said about the time, Mr Hollobone. I want to conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton on securing the debate. She is absolutely right to say that this is an area to which we must give the utmost consideration.
Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, does he recognise that there has been a huge step change in one of the issues that affect well-being, namely the number of children growing up in households with at least one parent in work? The reality is that there has been a reduction in the number of workless households, and there are now some 200,000 more children growing up in households where at least one parent is in work. That must be a huge factor in their well-being. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that step change and the way in which the Government have shifted from children the burden of growing up in workless households?
It is absolutely right that children should not have to grow up in workless households. Of course, the issue about working is the other stresses that it may place on parents, particularly single parents, so we also have to consider factors such as the value of work, the level of pay and child care.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing the debate. I am not the most tribal of politicians, but I note what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has said: it is disappointing that only Conservative Members—with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea)—were present, although the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) made a thoughtful speech. I would have thought that all Members of Parliament would take seriously the question of relationships and children’s well-being. Listening to the remarks made by the shadow Minister and by my hon. Friends, it struck me that we all encounter such difficult family situations in our constituency surgeries. We understand how complex such problems are, and we know that there are no simple answers. The ideas proposed by all hon. Members today are worthy of consideration.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her supportive words yesterday at the launch of the Relationships Alliance manifesto, where she introduced my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who has been a supporter and champion of this area of policy for some time. She kindly paid tribute to my right hon. Friend for having founded the Centre for Social Justice, and to the work that the centre has done. We are talking about a central area of Government policy, and I know that my right hon. Friend leads it with pride.
My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of focusing efforts at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent the damage that poor relationships can cause, and I will say a little more about that later. I will set out some of the work that we are doing through the social justice strategy and the social justice Cabinet Committee, and some of the progress that has been made on putting into practice the ideas that she talked about.
My hon. Friend mentioned some figures on family breakdown. The social justice family stability indicator—that is a bit of a mouthful, but I will not turn it into an acronym—shows that 250,000 more children now live with both of their birth parents, 75,000 of them in low-income households. Evidence shows that cohabiting parents are four times more likely to have separated by the time their child is three years of age and, by their child’s fifth birthday, more than one in four of those who cohabit have split up. For married parents, however, the break-up rate is fewer than one in 10. That is something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State focuses on, and I think it is the foundation. It is not any form of prejudice; it is the evidence behind the Government’s wish to recognise marriage in the tax system.
The Prime Minister made it clear in his speech at the Relationships Alliance, at which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton were also present, that we support those who bring up children in all circumstances. It is a difficult job. There is, however, something about the commitment that marriage entails that enables those couples to stay together. That may be to do with the characteristics of those who choose to cohabit compared with those who marry, and the fact that those with good-quality relationships may be more likely to marry in the first place, so one has to be careful about causal links. That is, however, why we want to support marriage.
My hon. Friend gave a good example of people who probably had not given much thought to getting married or, indeed, to staying married. People who are married know that marriage is not a bed of roses and it has to be worked at, as my hon. Friend’s story illustrated. That is the reason for the introduction of the transferable tax allowance for married couples, which my hon. Friends have welcomed, from next spring. The policy sends out an important signal about the value of marriage. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister talked about the proposal he made the point, as did the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, that marriages can be between men and women, men and men, and women and women. The policy is not a discriminatory one; it is available to all who have committed relationships of that sort.
I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton set out why we need safe, stable and nurturing families. I will not join her in using her four-letter acronym—one of my missions in politics is to avoid acronyms and talk in plain English—but she made a sensible point. The approach that underpinned the cross-government family stability review was to make sure that children benefit from those characteristics, whatever the structure of the family, and whether the parents are still together or have separated. The point came through clearly from all contributions that the important thing is the relationship between children and parents, whether or not the parents are still together. That review was supported by evidence from a range of organisations, and the Relationship Alliance and its constituent bodies were involved in that process. Most of the points in the manifesto that the Relationship Alliance launched yesterday were picked up in the stability review. As my hon. Friend knows, the key policy findings of our review were announced by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Relationship Alliance summit in August.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate asked what action we would expect the Government to take if this were any other sort of social problem. As he acknowledged, the Prime Minister is leading on this. Family relationship support has been brought together under the Department for Work and Pensions, so there is better co-ordination and oversight, and the Prime Minister has committed to investing at least £7.5 million in relationship support every year for as long as he is Prime Minister, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. It is worth remembering that that is not the only funding; there is also £448 million a year, with an increase of £200 million next year, for the troubled families programme, which my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for Enfield, Southgate mentioned. That is a significant sum of money, which will be used to help some of the families who need it most in a joined-up, co-ordinated way so that they have one point of contact with the state and they do not have to deal with a range of organisations. The expanded programme will work across government with an additional 400,000 families from next year.
I thank the Minister for the emphasis that has been given to the troubled families programme. Will he elaborate on how the leadership shown at national level by the Prime Minister and Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions could be replicated at a local level? At present, I do not believe that we see such leadership. We do not see champions. One problem that has been highlighted in several of the reports that I referred to is the fact that local data on relationship strength to inform local authorities’ health and well-being strategies are inadequate. Will the Minister touch on what is being done to encourage local authorities to improve that?
I will say one thing now, and I will write to my hon. Friend about the more detailed work that we are doing. The troubled families programme has helped by bringing together not only bits of central Government but local agencies in partnership with the local authority. In my local authority in Gloucestershire, local leadership and local agencies have been brought together as a result. Let me take away that thought, and I will speak to colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to find out what work is going on at local government level and whether we can do more to create a joined-up process.
The Prime Minister also set out the family test, under which we will test all new domestic policy to see what its impact will be on families and family relationships. I think that is an important step. I will not touch on the other areas in great depth, because I want to talk about some of the issues that were raised in the debate.
My understanding is that the family test will effectively apply from November. From that time, as Departments develop domestic policies they should consider the impact on families. My hon. Friend made some sensible points about grandparents and wider family relationships. I am particularly familiar with the extra responsibilities of parents with disabled children and the help that they receive from grandparents and the wider family. He raises sensible points, and the Government are considering such issues. We have ensured that grandparents can claim child maintenance if they are the main carers. I know he also welcomes the Department for Education’s guidance on care, which recommends that local authorities now consider family options first before taking children into local authority care. There are obviously further ideas, and I think he ascribed both to himself and to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) the Prime Minister’s invitation to contribute ideas both directly to him and to other Ministers on how we can make further progress in this area—not that either of my hon. Friends need inviting to contribute on policy areas in which they both have a long-standing interest.
We are also looking at piloting relationship education in both antenatal and post-natal provision, and we are looking at national guidance for health visitors, who are well placed to spot early signs of relationship distress. Through Early Intervention Foundation pioneering places, we are also considering joined-up approaches that we can take with local authorities. Those ongoing trials may shed light on the suggestions for What Works centres made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, including using those children’s centres as family hubs. The shadow Minister also specifically mentioned the What Works centres.
I think there is general consensus among colleagues that we should recognise and support the involvement of both parents, and I hope colleagues welcome that following the Children and Families Act 2014 there is now presumed shared involvement of fathers and mothers alike. The welfare of the child still rightly comes first, but there is now explicit recognition that, except where there are specific reasons why not, the presumption is that the child should have contact with both parents. That recognition in the legal system is welcome.
The Government are also spending £10 million on the help and support for separated families innovation fund—it is admittedly not a catchy title—which covers 17 projects aimed at testing interventions to help parents going through a separation to work together and resolve conflict. Up to September 2014 those projects engaged some 53,500 parents. The projects consider innovations in delivering those services and the outcomes that we receive from them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton also mentioned the appointment of a Cabinet-level Minister with responsibility for families. The Prime Minister said in his speech that, as well as bringing together all relationship support policy within the Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be that Cabinet-level Minister. The Secretary of State has a long history in this area, and he is very pleased to have been given that responsibility by the Prime Minister. The Secretary of State considers himself responsible and accountable for families, and he is already effectively doing that within the social justice Cabinet Committee, which he leads on some of those issues.
Those are some of the things that the Government have been doing, and in the remaining minutes I will address some of the issues that colleagues have raised in this debate. Both my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury and for Enfield, Southgate mentioned joint birth registration, which was introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2009. I was shadowing this brief at the time, and I distinctly remember those debates. Joint birth registration is a more complicated issue than it seems at first glance because, as both my hon. Friends mentioned, there are exemptions in the legislation for difficult cases. Other ministerial colleagues are considering that issue, so it would be sensible if I arranged for the relevant Minister to write to both my hon. Friends, to all Members attending this debate and, indeed, to you, Mr Hollobone, so that we can have a detailed response. In my constituency I have experienced cases such as those raised by the shadow Minister in which fathers have been involved in the upbringing of their children and want that important relationship to continue, regardless of the fact that their relationship with the children’s mother has broken down. I will consider that carefully.
The shadow Minister spoke about children’s centres. As of February 2014 there are 3,019 main children’s centres, with a further 531 sites open to families and children. Since 2010, despite the significant financial challenges that we inherited from the Labour party, only 76 centres have closed. Indeed, six new centres have opened, and 90% of eligible families in need are registered with their local centre. That sounds like a pretty good record on providing such support at local level, even where there have had to be very difficult financial savings to rebalance the public finances.
I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said about mental health. My Department is working on the improving access to psychological therapies pilots with the Department of Health. Those pilots are important for ensuring that we do a much better job not just of addressing children’s mental health—he will know that that is one of the passions of the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who has responsibility for care and support, and it is a passion shared by both coalition parties—but of helping adults with mental health problems either to stay in or return to work. Less than half of adults with mental health problems currently work, so the Government must improve what we are doing. I hope my hon. Friend welcomes what we have done so far, and I hope over the months to come he will welcome our work to improve that still further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury referred to an award he gave to Liz Sirman, who works at a children’s contact centre in his constituency. I am a glass-half-full kind of guy, so I welcome the Government’s support for the work of volunteers in helping to support families and children who have experienced difficult relationship breakdowns. Such work is welcomed, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend was able to recognise it so publicly at the weekend.
The shadow Minister referred to the importance of mediation when a relationship breaks down, and in the Children and Families Act there is now a statutory requirement for people to consider mediation before they rush off to court, which is helpful. There will clearly be cases in which mediation simply cannot work, but the fact that it has to be considered and in people’s thought processes before lawyers get involved is helpful—I am an accountant, so I can be slightly rude about lawyers. Having more mediation to support relationships means that, even if the parents’ relationship cannot be preserved, the relationship with their children can be preserved, which is welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned child maintenance thresholds, and the Minister for Pensions has committed to reviewing the formula and the threshold once the current reforms have been safely implemented.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate did a good job of responding to the shadow Minister on the economic issues, but I have a couple of further points. First, children are three times more likely to be in poverty if they live in a workless family. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are now 290,000 fewer children living in workless households, which is good news. That means that there are 300,000 fewer children living in relative income poverty than when the Government came to office.
Finally, the shadow Minister referred to the importance of work and people being in jobs, which is why I am sure he will join Government Members in celebrating that there are now 1.8 million more people in work who are able to bring home a pay packet and contribute to their family. That is a positive note on which to finish this excellent debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.