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Children of Alcoholics

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for children of alcoholics.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am glad to see the Minister for Children and Families, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson) in his place. The matter we are about to debate is something I know he will care deeply about, and I very much look forward to working with him over the months—and, I hope, years—to come, to implement many of the things that I will talk about. I think he will embrace wholeheartedly what I call for, and I look forward to turning some of the ideas that we will debate into action.

I have done some difficult jobs in politics with my right hon. and hon. Friends, but in many ways this is the hardest speech I will have made in my 11 years in the House: it will be the first time I have talked publicly about being the child of an alcoholic. My dad was an amazing individual. He was warm and charismatic. He was the son of Irish immigrants. He dragged himself into grammar school and into university. He was a great idealist who devoted his life to public service. His warmth, charisma and idealism inspired me to join the Labour party when I was 15, and it was his example that inspired me to get stuck into politics—to do my bit to try to make our country a bit better.

My dad battled with an addiction to alcohol for most of his adult life. When he lost the woman whom he loved so passionately—my mother—at the age of 52 to pancreatic cancer, it knocked him over the edge. I know from first-hand experience the damage and harm that come to families living with an alcoholic. I know what that sense of guilt and shame feels like. I know about the kind of co-dependency that builds up in families as different members of the family do what they can to support each other. In my case, it was a co-dependency with my mum, who I talked to about my dad’s drinking from the age of seven or eight. I know all too well the feeling that most children of alcoholics have as they wrestle with why they cannot fix things or make things better. I know what it feels like to worry constantly about whether your parent is okay. You worry about whether they are on a floor and whether they are eating. I know what it is like to be at a bedside in an intensive care unit, having been told that your parent has maybe a one in 10 chance of surviving. I know the agony of constantly asking yourself whether there was more you could have done to help stop that drinking. I know that there are no answers to those questions.

I know what it feels like to feel second best. “Second Best” was the title of a great book written by Calum Best, the son of George Best, the footballer. Calum has done a great deal over the past few years to highlight the plight of children of alcoholics and to explain what the emotional turmoil feels like. I also know that if anything, I had it easy. Ultimately, I had a loving home. So many children of alcoholics have it an awful lot worse than I did, and many of them are here with us today in the House.

Children of alcoholics are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder. They are something like three times more likely to attempt suicide. They are three to four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves, and that is what happened to my dad. He, too, was the child of an alcoholic. In the months since my dad’s death just before the election campaign started, it has been a struggle to decide whether to speak up and speak out. I have been inspired by such people as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) to take the plunge.

For me, the challenge was the programming that comes with the fourth commandment, which is for people to honour their mum and dad. I struggled with whether I would be dishonouring my dad’s memory by bringing this issue into the public domain and talking about it. I suppose I concluded that I had to honour the boy who became a man who became my dad, because there was no help for him when he was growing up as the child of an alcoholic. If I want to change things for children in the future, I have to play my part by speaking up.

The final trigger for speaking up was the loss of a great friend to this House, Charles Kennedy. When I read a lot of the media coverage about his death, so much was riddled through with the old clichés about how Charles was a man who battled with demons. Charles was not battling with demons; he was battling with a disease—alcoholism. The sooner we start talking about alcoholism as a disease and the sooner we get rid of the taboos, the stigma and the shame, the easier we will make it for hazardous drinkers in this country to get the help they need to quit or to cut down.

The scale of alcohol harm is profound. It is estimated to cost our country something like £21 billion a year. It costs the national health service something like £3.5 billion a year, and there are something like 1 million accident and emergency admissions related to alcohol harm each year. I have accompanied people on a couple of those admissions myself in the past few years. When we look at different parts of the country, we can see how the problem is getting worse. Figures from the House of Commons Library that I am publishing today show that the number of A&E admissions due to alcohol harm is rising in two thirds of local authority areas. The problem is not going away; it is snowballing and getting worse. As a country, we have to decide not only how we will break the silence around the disease, but how we will break the cycle of alcoholism cascading down the generations.

I would like to offer a few thoughts today, based on my conversations with friends in the House. I thank in particular the host of organisations that have had the good grace to listen to me bleat on about this issue over the past few months. Some of the charities have helped me try to build an integrated picture of my path. In particular, I give enormous thanks to Hilary Henriques of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. It was through her doors that I walked about a month and a half after my dad died. NACOA was magnificent. It helped me see clearly for the first time that I was not on my own and that my dad’s drinking was not my fault, and that, frankly, there was little I could have done to change things for him. NACOA celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It is a small group that is run on a shoestring, and it has helped more than 200,000 children in our country over the past few years with the same kind of advice that it gave me earlier this summer.

Additionally, I thank Sir Ian Gilmore at the Royal College of Surgeons; the British Medical Association; the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield; Alcohol Concern; Adfam; Turning Point; and the Institute of Alcohol Studies for the advice that they have given. I do not want to offer the Minister some kind of manifesto that is perfect in all its design; I want to start a conversation, which I hope he will engage with in the months and years to come. Last night, I asked Members of this House and the other place whether they would be interested in joining an all-party group for children of alcoholics, and I have been overwhelmed by the response and moved by the personal stories that colleagues have shared. I hope that the group can work together with a number of other all-party groups—we have the chair of one here this morning—that have done such a magnificent job to champion solutions to the curse of alcohol harm.

Let me offer the Minister a few points to get the debate going. Above all, I want the Government to do more to support extraordinary helplines such as NACOA, which make such an enormous difference. As a former Minister with responsibility for children’s health, I know that there is a challenge when it comes to specialised commissioning for children’s services. There is never enough of a problem in any one part of the country to create a critical mass of demand, so we have to find ways in which local authorities can work together to put in place specialised commissioning. Crucially, however, we need to support charities such as NACOA, which is making so much difference to so many people.

I want to ensure that we have a Minister with clear ownership of the problem. The responsibilities span not only the brief of the Minister here today but those of Department of Health Ministers, so I was glad that the Minister for Government Policy, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), told me that the Minister here today is in charge of co-ordinating the challenge. The Home Office took the lead on the alcohol strategy published in 2012. We need clear, visible ownership of who will provide and lead the support policy for children of alcoholics.

I want the Government to set out clearly a plan of action to support children of alcoholics. Having someone in charge of creating a solution is not good enough if we do not have a plan in place. As the Minister knows, the Government published their alcohol strategy in March 2012. It did not mention children, support for children or the challenge of children of alcoholics. Over the next few months we need the Minister to come up with a specific plan to provide support for the children of alcoholics. He might tell me that the forthcoming report, “Collateral Damage”, to be published in 2016, will be the framework for that. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the bravery he has shown this morning in his moving description of his own experiences and what happened to his dad. He is asking the Minister a list of things. As he mentioned, I chair the all-party group on foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Will he include in his list of asks the children of alcoholic mothers who drink during pregnancy? We need the awareness and support that he has been talking about to be applied to that group as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the leadership that he has shown on that. Mothers who drink during pregnancy are absolutely included in the asks. I hope that the Government will accelerate the publication of advice for pregnant mums about what it is safe and not safe for expectant mothers to drink.

I want every public health director in England to make an estimate of how many children of alcoholics live locally. I want a local plan to make sure that hospitals, GPs and school nurses and teachers know how to identify the children of alcoholics and how to put help within their reach. The challenge with alcoholism as it relates to children is that it often falls between stools—between the public health director, the commissioning groups for children’s social care, the groups for adult social care, and primary care services. The children of alcoholics often sit in a hole in commissioning, which is why we need a specific plan of action locally.

I want the Government to publish a national league table of which councils are spending what on alcohol treatment, so that it becomes much easier for the public and parliamentarians to see where the problem is greatest. In that way we can challenge whether public health directors, councils and health and wellbeing boards have put in place the right provision for hazardous drinkers who are parents.

I want to make sure we have a public information campaign aimed at parents who are hazardous drinkers, so that they are clear about the damage they do to their children and how they can get help. What has been good about the way in which we talk about smoking is that we now aim our messaging at parents and help them understand the harm to children. Now that alcohol harm is the third biggest public health risk after obesity and smoking, it is time for a public health campaign on the same lines aimed at parents who are hazardous drinkers.

I want the Government to change the law, particularly the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, so that it would be illegal for under-16s to drink at home. Current legislation allows for drinking at home from the age of five, and I think that is the wrong message. I congratulate the coalition of alcohol charities that are preparing proposals on that front.

If the Scottish Government win their case for minimum alcohol pricing, I hope that the Government will look again at introducing that policy across the whole of England. Crucially, every charity and campaign group has said to me that we need far more research into the scale of the problem. The research that we have at the moment is patchy, and I think the Minister could do a great deal with a very small amount of money to make sure we have a good research base in place.

The 10 points that I have mentioned are a framework that parliamentarians can discuss over the weeks and months to come. I hope they are ideas that the Minister will be able to embrace wholeheartedly. If I were to pull out just my top three, however, the proposals would be as follows. First, we should equip front-line professionals to take proactive steps to identify the children of alcoholics and to make sure that they are equipped to advise and counsel children on where they can get help. For me it was absolutely crucial to understand that I was not alone as the child of an alcoholic, that my dad’s drinking was not my fault and that there was not much I could do about it. I want every child of an alcoholic in this country to know that they are not alone and that help, such as the NACOA helpline, is on hand.

My second priority would be the public information campaign. Many people have said to me that the Minister should take inspiration from the success of the public smoking campaigns, and we should gear up quite quickly a campaign aimed at hazardous drinkers who are parents.

Thirdly, we need to make sure that there is the right investment in treatment services up and down the land. We have made great progress over the past few years in putting in place the right budgets for drug treatment. By and large, we now know what works when it comes to alcohol treatment, but provision is patchy. The Minister will tell us that it is down to local authorities to ensure that the right treatment is in place, but right now, we as parliamentarians do not know whether the right treatment is in place. We need transparency so that we can get to grips with where budgets need to go up and where they need to go down.

What is shocking about some of the statistics that I am publishing this morning is that some local authority areas have seen 20%, 30% or 40% increases over the past few years in the number of A&E admissions due to alcohol harm. That tells us there are particular parts of the country where the problem is incredibly pronounced. Behind those statistics are children, which is why we need to know which local authorities are spending what so that we can campaign for better support.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has secured the debate. Does he agree that, as was certainly the case with my mother, many alcoholics are functional? They often go to work and outwardly lead normal lives, so they do not present themselves at A&E and the problem is invisible to many people. We need to make sure that in the campaign, and in whatever the Minister responds with, we understand that this group of people is wider than the public perceive.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Her intervention gives me the chance to say on the record how important her courage in speaking out some years ago was in persuading me that I could do it too. I very much follow in her footsteps.

Every child of an alcoholic has a different story. My right hon. Friend’s story is different from mine. Each of us in our own way and on our own journey learned that we could not really change things for our parents, but we sure as hell can change things for our children. That is what we have to do now as parliamentarians. We have to try to break the silence on this issue so that we can break the cycle of alcohol harm cascading down the generations. To normalise this conversation, we have to organise this conversation. We must sweep aside the stigma and the taboos. We must treat alcoholism as the disease that it is and make sure that help is within reach of those who need it. That is the only way we can help to heal so many lives up and down this country. It is a difference that I think we can make with practical steps over the months and years to come. I look forward to working with the Minister on putting some practical action into place.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I want to put on the record my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) on securing the debate and sharing some difficult personal experiences with the Chamber. That was not an easy thing to do—it is not an easy thing for anyone in public life. However, I hope that the conversation that he talked about opening will bring huge benefit to the lives of many children and improve the public health of our nation as a result.

In the brief time available to me, I want to outline and expand on a couple of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made. He is absolutely right that substance misuse—in this case, alcohol misuse—is an illness. Often there are links with anxiety, depression and people struggling with mental health problems. Yet our framework for tackling alcoholism in this country seems somewhat fragmented. I am sure that the Minister will want to pick up on that issue in his response. Local health services commission mental health services, and yet it is local authorities that have primary responsibility for tackling issues to do with substance misuse.

The two issues are so inherently intertwined that the support for both the people suffering from mental ill health and their families has to be co-ordinated and holistic, but it is difficult to understand how that can be achieved with a fragmented commissioning landscape. For me, that is at the heart of this dilemma—this challenge—and the right hon. Gentleman made the point very well. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, particularly on how we can better unify the services available for people who are alcoholics and their families.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) on securing this important debate, and even more on the manner in which he introduced it and his courage in speaking out about his experience with his own family. It is a testament to him that his determination to give a voice to the many thousands of children who find themselves in a similar predicament has led to today’s debate—and, I am sure, to many conversations in the coming weeks and months. I read about his dad, Dermot, this morning. I listened to the right hon. Gentleman talking about his dad’s life and how he inspired him to enter the world of politics and make the world a better place. I also heard about the ongoing anguish that his father’s battle with alcoholism caused him, which will inevitably still affect him today. But there is no shame in that whatever—absolutely none.

I am really pleased that the right hon. Gentleman made the decision to speak up today and put on the record his desire to ensure that, from here on in, those children out there will feel more able to deal with the consequences of living in such a family environment. Even more important is his desire to prevent the problem from even happening in the first place. To that end, I look forward to working with him and the organisations that have helped him to prepare for this debate, so that we can take stock of both the progress that has been made and where there are shortcomings and a lack of understanding. There is sometimes a lack of encouragement to those out there who still feel very much unable to let others know of the suffering that they are having to deal with day after day.

I salute the bravery of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) in introducing this debate. On the Minister’s point, will he ensure that all educational professionals have the appropriate training for when a child might disclose something to them? Many alcoholic parents are very concerned about losing their children, so will seek to involve them in the secret to try to prevent their child from being taken into care. The Minister is from the Department for Education, so will he look at whether all educational professionals are suitably trained for disclosure?

That is hugely important. It is not a surprise to me that one of the top three points that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill wanted me to address was the fact that it is the professionals who interact with children daily who are best placed to try to spot the signs and act on them sooner rather than later. In that way, children who have nowhere else to turn will receive timely and sympathetic support, backed by the knowledge of that professional about what works and how they can help the child and their family to turn the corner—knowledge that has so often been lacking in the past.

I am conscious that I have only five minutes in which to address all the right hon. Gentleman’s extremely well-made points. We must base any response on the premise that every child has a right to grow up in a safe and secure environment. Parents play a crucial role in how their children develop and behave. Of course, parents should act as role models for their children, but we recognise that parental alcohol dependency is a disease that affects many parents. It can limit their parenting capacity, which can have serious consequences for their children.

Rather than read out the response that a Government Minister might normally give to this sort of debate, I shall discuss how my own experience reflects what the right hon. Gentleman said and why I, too, am determined to join him in trying to do more and to do right by the children who still have to live in such circumstances.

I grew up in a family who fostered many children, of whom a large proportion, including one of my adopted brothers, came from a home in which alcohol misuse had been a regular feature. We cannot underestimate the lifelong impact on such a child, who, whether for a short time or a much longer period of their childhood, has been trapped in a cycle. They learn behaviour that they find difficult to avoid later in life, which creates that cycle between generations, and they often witness violence and conflict and feel a sense of isolation. To try to unravel all that is a huge task for anyone. If we superimpose on to that the scale of the problem, irrespective of the progress that has been made on the public health agenda and reducing alcohol dependency, we will see that huge problems further down the line are being stored up for future generations.

In both the private and public cases I dealt with in the family courts, alcohol was often a feature; as the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) rightly said, it was sometimes a feature in families of whom the overriding public impression was that alcohol would not be at the heart of their problems. On the surface, these are functional families, but underneath there are serious issues that need to be addressed. To that end, notwithstanding that this is a complex issue that transcends the work of many Departments, the Government have a role, because there is commonality: a shared ambition to ensure that no child should be left behind in our determined efforts to try to tackle the problem.

I will look very carefully at the 10 points raised by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill and undertake to talk to ministerial colleagues, particularly in the Department of Health, about how we raise public awareness of parental alcohol dependency in a similar way to how we have raised awareness on smoking. I am happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman, along with representatives from many of the excellent organisations that have come together to help him in both a personal and professional capacity to prepare for this debate, so that we can pull together our collective understanding of what is being done and where we continue to fall short.

Much of the work that we are doing on the social work reform agenda, and on how we equip teachers and other educational staff to understand the presentation of children from a family in which alcoholism is a problem, is going to be key to unlocking this taboo that sometimes remains. If we are honest, we all know of someone in our own family or immediate circle of friends, or certainly in our social network, for whom this is a feature in their lives.

We should not pretend that there is an easy way of trying to make changes happen, but, on the back of the right hon. Gentleman’s public push to galvanise the work already being done in many places around the country, we have a real opportunity to ensure that responses are more consistent and that we start to reduce some of the anomalies we see in different local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, there should be a much more joined up approach so that families who feel unsupported and children who feel lonely no longer have that as a central feature of their lives. We must use some of the innovation out there to ensure that the work we do in future really does make a difference.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered support for children of alcoholics.

Sitting suspended.