rose to call attention to the rights of the child and to the role of stability and family life in the well-being of children with particular reference to the recently published UNICEF report, Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I set down this Motion to give the House an opportunity to discuss the above-named recently published UNICEF report, and to note its shortcomings.
In their introduction to the report the authors say:
“The true measure of a nation's standing is how well it attends to its children”.
They go on to say, referring to their own report:
“Given the potential value of this exercise, every attempt has been made to overcome data limitations. Nonetheless, it is acknowledged throughout that the available data may be less than ideal”.
The report draws on the most recent comparable data available, but in some cases those data are several years-old. It is possible that later data may show the UK in a more positive position.
However, the findings of the report are to some extent mirrored in other recent reports; for example: the IPPR report in 2006, Freedom's Orphans, which draws attention to the poor socialisation of some of our young people today and to the serious consequences; the reports by Save the Children and the University of York, The Well-being of Children in the UK, published in 2005, and the Commission on Families and the Wellbeing of Children, published in October 2005; and, indeed, some of the Government's own publications, including Every Child Matters: Change for Children, published in 2006.
Things may be getting better, but as the fifth richest country in the world should we not be ashamed of having ever let things get so bad? I would be very interested if the Minister could give the House up-to-date figures for this country and comparable figures for the rest of Europe.
I did not table this Motion with the intention of attacking the Government. My hope is that it will give rise to a debate that will, in the long run, contribute to reducing the number, or indeed, the proportion, of the nation’s children who are prevented from attaining their full potential because of inadequate or inappropriate parenting.
In the 10 years since this Government came into power in 1997, they have instigated many initiatives targeted at improving the well-being of the nation's children, probably more than any other Government before them. First the Social Exclusion Unit was set up to identify in more detail the problem—a very intelligent start. Then Sure Start was set up at the instigation of the Treasury to solve the very important problems in children's early years. There was the Connexions service, the Youth Justice Board, more childcare and nursery schools and many other things; and there was more money for education. More recently, we began to hear about the huge organisational changes involved in the Every Child Matters programme. That work is still developing.
Now, dead on cue for this debate, the Government have published their latest report, Every Parent Matters. I am grateful to the Minister for sending me a copy on Monday. The report is most welcome. For 10 years, I have been hoping and occasionally trying to persuade the Government to accept that parents should be treated as partners rather than clients or, still worse, enemies in the great enterprise of raising the nation's children. Imagine, therefore, my surprise and delight when Every Parent Matters came into my hands. A good deal of surprise arose, I have to say, from the need completely to rewrite my speech for this afternoon, but the delight was genuine. If the report is implemented, the change of emphasis that it urges on local authorities and professionals will, I believe, eventually lead to better outcomes for children.
In the foreword to the report, Alan Johnson, the Minister, states:
“Parents and the home environment they create are the single most important factor in shaping their children’s well-being”.
Amen. That was music to my ears. At last, I see real hope that the professional and voluntary sectors will have to build parents into the equation as their partners. I am delighted that the report recognises two things, the first of which is the key role of parents. It recognises that parents should normally be encouraged and respected as the leading partners in providing for a child’s parenting and well-being. It states that the majority of parents give their children the family life that they need to develop to their full potential but that some are putting their children at risk of failure—failure in school and failure in life—by denying them the security, love, family life and parenting that they need in their early years and, indeed, throughout their childhood.
Why are parents so important? A major reason is that their influence almost inevitably dominates the very early years of a child's life. Those early years are when crucial emotional and social development should be taking place. A child’s healthy social and emotional development depends on that experience of a secure, loving attachment, a secure loving relationship with a dependable adult, from birth—indeed, throughout childhood, but particularly between conception and the age of two or three.
Of course, all children are different, as some have more resilience than others, but almost all, perhaps all, fare best if they have the experience of a secure and loving attachment in their early years. The outcomes for those who do not have such an attachment often appear as lack of self-esteem, lack of social skills or lack of communication skills. Those are the building blocks on which subsequent healthy relationships will be built, and too many children grow up in families that deny them those building blocks. That is one of the explanations for the poor socialisation of some of our youth today.
I am also delighted that the report recognises that fathers matter, that both a loving father and a loving mother are important to a child's well-being. Living in a home with a committed, caring father, it states, will improve a child's chances of success in school. Fathers simply should not feel that it is acceptable to walk away from a child whom they have fathered or that it is enough just to contribute to maintenance without giving the child emotional support and setting him or her a good example as a father should. I accept, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, said to me once when he was Lord Chancellor, that you cannot make a father love his child, but surely a father has a moral duty at least to try to help his child.
Some other issues seem to have been largely omitted from the report. The first is precisely the right of the child to a secure family life. Does a child have a right to a secure family life and to parental love? Statistics show clearly that children who live in two-parent families with a father and a mother in a stable relationship have better life chances. There is undoubtedly room for more research on the chain of causality—why that is the case—but, pending further research, there is a strong case for encouraging more young parents to form and sustain that sort of family, even if the help that we give is only through such things as affordable housing, tax breaks, flexible working, parenting education and support, more back-up from grandparents, and so forth.
If we are right in believing that a child absolutely needs a secure and loving relationship in his early years if he is to develop to his full potential, should he not have a right to that secure, loving relationship? I, and someone who is helping me, have spent a great deal of time looking at the law on the subject. It is depressingly unclear. Probably the nearest that we come to a statement on the subject is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states in Article 18:
“Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern”.
I wonder what they mean by “will be”. Is that a pious hope; is it a statement of intent; or is it indeed an order?
I turn from rights to duties, because there can be no rights without duties. The report does not address the duties and obligations of parents to their child, the role of commitment by parents, such things as the joys and rewards of being a parent, or the countervailing responsibilities, duties and sacrifices that parents have to make, including those relating to parental lifestyle choice such as career, money and the threat posed for some by monogamy.
During the past 50 years, our society has rid itself of outdated Victorian moral values, which were unfair or indeed sometimes cruel to women, but we have failed to replace those values with new ones that protect children adequately. Children need families with stability and love and they need a good example. There is a need for a much clearer understanding in our society of the duties of parents. Surely we need a new consensus on family values centred on the well-being of the child. Obviously, families need freedom to run their own lives, but they should not have freedom to damage their children's chances.
The third thing that the report does not address is the challenge of motivating and engaging parents who are at present short-changing their child. Of course, there will always be some parents who cannot or will not change, but we should be working at the margins with those whom we can influence. Also, the report does not address the funding, training and staffing of the new services that it envisages. It would be tragic and shaming for this country if the well-being of the nation's children ended up on the backburner for lack of adequate funding.
Finally, I shall move into the world of fantasy to tell you my dream, my secret wish list. On the basis of the research evidence available and of experience, this Government or some Government ought to be bold enough to do the following things. The first is to promote family stability by stating publicly that secure, committed, two-parent families are, for whatever reason and under today's conditions, likely to give children the best chance to develop to their full potential, and that parents who make that commitment should be encouraged and supported. Secondly, the Government must say publicly that, because a father’s role is important to his child, and because he, not the child, caused that child to be born, every father has the responsibility not only to pay maintenance but to give his child the time and love that it needs, whether or not they live under the same roof. Thirdly, the Government must say publicly that fathers and mothers who marry, or who make some other comparable long-term commitment to one another and to their child, are doing the nation as well as their child a service, and they should be encouraged, supported and rewarded accordingly. Fourthly, the Government should set themselves a target that, within a given period of years, every bona fide and committed parental couple will, within seven days of the birth of their first child, be offered affordable housing so that they can begin to make a home together for their family. I recognise the investment involved, but I believe that we can afford it. Fifthly, the Government should set a target to reduce by an agreed percentage over the next 10 years a proportion of the nation’s children who grow up in families that deny them the opportunity to develop to their full potential emotionally, mentally and physically. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for inviting the House to debate this important subject. The UNICEF report on childhood in industrial countries holds up to the light the way in which we in the United Kingdom support and parent our young people, and it finds us wanting. However, we can point to some sections of the report, such as the figures for relative poverty, and take some comfort from the fact that, if more current figures had been used we would have done much better. Like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I accept that the data used do not take into account the considerable investment by the Government to end child poverty or initiatives such as Sure Start, even taking into account the figures published yesterday that showed that we had slipped back in our efforts to end child poverty. We are trying. Others will point to initiatives such as the introduction of the specialised diploma scheme to address the poor level of educational well-being, which exists despite our children being better off than many for educational resources, and to improve the rates of children not in education, training or employment, as well as the ambitions of the current 40 per cent of our 15 year-olds who expect to find work requiring low skills.
We should hang our head in shame at the document’s analysis of issues that point to the mental and physical well-being of our children, and accept that, when we compare the UNICEF report with more recent research based on the direct experiences of young people, the picture of a troubled and unhappy generation still holds true. Although British children are less likely to die as a result of accidents, we show a high number of children with a very low birth weight, which is a well established measure of risk to cognitive and physical development through childhood and which may be linked to our relatively high rates of teenage pregnancy.
The study excludes mental health, but we know from research from the Nuffield Foundation that mental ill health in adolescents in this country is growing faster than in those in many other European countries and the United States. Research from YoungMinds, a mental health charity, shows the high level of anxiety and stress experienced by young people as they move from adolescence to young adulthood. The research also shows that children feel let down by their education. To paraphrase John Reid, they feel that they are not made fit for purpose and that they lack basic skills. Children killing children is almost impossible to believe. It seems to be becoming a new skill. The research highlighted the importance of the peer group, with friends taking the place of family as the most influential people in a young person’s life. Pray to God that this may not be so. It is deeply sad that we have the lowest number of children who find their peers kind and helpful. Recent reports on bullying have highlighted the level to which bullied children feel unprotected by others in our society. YoungMinds reports that it has spoken to children and young people who have said that their lives are made miserable by bullying, but that in their experience schools focused on the needs of the bully not on supporting and protecting those who complain.
The House must be fully aware of the concern about risky behaviour. It will come as no surprise that our young people take high risks by taking drugs, smoking, drinking, having sex early and having very high rates of teenage pregnancy. We may wring our hands over this current generation and wonder what we have done wrong, but I think we already know many of the answers. The old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child should be at the heart of how we raise our children today. We need to stop demonising young people by putting photographs of 10 year-old children with an ASBO on the front page of a national newspaper. We should listen to the child’s mother who says that his behaviour improved once he had medical help for his attention deficit disorder, and we should ensure that children like him receive help quickly.
The report points to the need for parents to remain fully involved with their children throughout adolescence, by which we mean maintaining the basics of talking, listening, being there when they come home from school, eating with them and knowing where they are going, what they are doing and with whom they are mixing. However, parents need support to do this. Those who work long hours—the Government want us all to go into the workplace—or who work in more than one job to pay high mortgages cannot be in two places at once, so we need to change the long-hours culture and to develop more family-friendly working practices. Those who do not know how to parent need practical help from the earliest days, with a high input from midwives, health visitors and other grown-ups. Schools must be places of safety where children can learn in peace. We need smaller classes, as we have been saying for years, and more behavioural support for the disruptive. The business community must become involved in supporting the parents who work for them and the young people who are left at home. However, we must also allow young people to find the resources within themselves and to take pride in what they can achieve, and we must help them to take responsibility for their own actions.
I have spent much of my life pointing out to the ignorant that the colour of your skin does not determine your ability. It can, however, determine your opportunity to succeed, and where it does, it can waste a lot of potential. I cannot accept that, in a nation that enables every child to have a school place and free healthcare and in which we have a range of professionals to help children born into disadvantaged communities, we still have so many young people whose potential is never realised. It is time for us to be humble, to look outside ourselves to see what is being done in other countries, and to take steps to put their good practice to work here. Our children cannot wait, and they deserve nothing less, or should we have a reformation of good manners, as Wilberforce said in 1807?
My Lords, I am privileged to follow the noble Baroness, who I know has been deeply committed to these subjects over many years. We first worked together in relation to the particularly tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence. He came from a family who were involved in his well-being, shared in his activities and supported him at school. They behaved in the way that all of us studying this deeply distressing report would wish and unlike the young men who were responsible for that matter.
We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. Like the Minister, I have had gentle hand-bagging—as one might say, depending on one’s political pedigree—from the noble Lord over the years. During my ministerial years he was a regular lobbyist and campaigner, a charming and coercive champion of these issues. So how much more worrying it is that we should read this UNICEF report, which is a challenge to us all. There are many paradoxes in it. I am sure that the Minister will be tempted to explain why the methodology is flawed and to say that it is a self-report. In the EU, it is the British who always complain more. In the complaints league, it is always the British who like to say that they are miserable and unhappy and who have a lot to talk about. But, using the words of the noble Baroness, I hope that we can approach this subject with a sense of humility.
It is deeply shocking that we should emerge in the bottom third of the table on relative poverty and deprivation. Of course poverty is not the only issue. Why else would we find that young people in the Czech Republic—which has a much lower GDP than the United Kingdom—have a much greater sense of well-being than our own? Why do we rank so low in the quality of children’s relationships with their parents and peers? Is there something in the comments today by His Excellency the Cardinal about something in our secular world repelling faith communities?
I recall the subtle resistance to giving money to faith-based groups when Section 64 grants—public money given to philanthropic organisations—were given and in the early years of the lottery. The Salvation Army, Jewish Care and the Children’s Society frequently provided a better quality of care than many of the secular models. Why is it becoming more difficult for faith-based schools? As many of us know through our own experience, faith-based schools are often much better at instilling not just knowledge and facts but a sense of belonging and the values that we want in our young people. Can we redress that balance? Why are our child health figures on low birth weight and infant mortality so poor? And what of the deterioration resulting from the MMR disaster and the myths that were allowed to spread all too soon?
Children need care, control and continuity—which is another way of expressing the noble Lord’s comments. It is like flying a kite. If children are too indulged—too loved—the kite falls down. But too little control or supervision is equally damaging. The early work by Harriet Wilson at the Child Poverty Action Group looked at families on a very difficult housing estate in Birmingham. How did some of those mothers—many of them single parents—ensure that their children did not lead lives of delinquency and crime? The answer was simple but difficult for the mothers involved. It was about supervision. It was about watching the children and knowing where they were.
For so many young people, who apart from their families knows them throughout their lives—where is that continuity? The person who can best rebuke a 14 year-old is a person who knew them when they were four. Parents are hard-pressed and there are more and more disrupted families. I like the wording in the UNICEF report which says that none of us wishes to be insulting or offensive to single-parent families, many of whom are single parents through no fault of their own. But we should not dispute that bringing up a child is hard enough for two parents and doubly hard for one. The evidence on the difficulties facing children in single-parent families is there for all to see.
It cannot, however, be down to parents alone. As the noble Baroness beautifully said, it takes a village to bring up a child. I endorse that. I speak particularly highly of youth groups such as the Scouts, the Brownies and the Boys Brigade. I remember when uniformed organisations were frowned on because they were thought very oppressive or authoritarian. But for young children who are feeling turbulent, unsettled or unsure of their identity, putting on that uniform is often the making of them—marching up and down, working for badges and being involved in a group activity. None of us can praise too highly the volunteers who give of their time, often unpaid, to run those organisations. We give time off for people to serve in the TA and as magistrates, but we do not give time off for those who help in youth organisations. Perhaps the Minister will take that on board.
When children are fed up with their parents—with one or both of them, and children are always fed up with their parents—where do they go? Who can they run away to within the family? It is the people who provide the ongoing relationships who are so important. The church and all faith groups understand that. Following a birth, you have the affirmation of that new life and you have godparents. I do not mind whether that happens in the Church of England or any other faith group; the message is that young people need stakeholders—champions and others who will be there for them particularly when they are revolting and disgusting. How can we build that in and stop children being isolated in this terrible teen culture of teen clothes, materials, bedrooms and music which locks them outside society?
Perhaps there is an unintended consequence in all the laws on child labour. Children used to work with adults on farms, in tourism and in the markets. They knew what adults were doing and they learnt to become adults. As for the continuity of relationships throughout life, I am sure that, like me, most noble Lords would champion the role of the grandparents who are there not only when the children are splendid but when they are impossible.
Have we become so risk averse that we do not allow children to take any risks? Children need to feel that they have been brave and courageous and have overcome the risk. The young people in my life are involved in sailing, a dangerous activity where I hope they will not be a danger to others and can manage the danger to themselves. By avoiding all sense of risk and adventure, we do our young people a disservice. We certainly do not help them on their way.
The popularity of the noble Lord’s debate, in which so many wish to speak, means that our time is sadly limited. I simply hope that, in this Parliament, we might give as much time to discussing the interests of children as the previous Parliament gave to discussing the very tedious subject of fox hunting. Parliament has a lot to make up for. We first legislated to protect animals, a tedious subject—I can say that as long as I am unelected; if we have to have elected Peers I will have to be nice about animals again—in 1822, with Martin’s Act on the cruel treatment of cattle. We did not protect children until 1889, in the Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act. We need to do more for children.
My Lords, I too join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for his timely debate on the findings of the UNICEF report. While recognising the limitations of the report, it is still an apposite warning to us about the well-being of some of our children in our society, especially when we are one of the richest nations. Although the Government are attempting to address some of the concerns, this is a long-term project and will need considerable effort by successive Governments, whoever they are, to change things around. There is no quick fix.
It is obvious from the report and from other findings that we need to work on policies that take children out of poverty, and I acknowledge the attempts made in last week’s Budget to address this. However, important though that is, Governments, organisations, institutions, communities, families and individuals also need to work together to make sure that children and young people feel affirmed, included, encouraged, listened to and loved by their families, peers and the wider society. Here I should like to affirm the role of the voluntary sector and the faith groups in the work they are already doing to support family life and offer children the chance to relate to adult role models beyond their immediate family circle. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, for her reference to these groups.
The question which needs to be addressed urgently is this: how can we as adults create a society where children enjoy their childhood, have space to make mistakes, dream dreams and flourish? Some of the ways forward are addressed in the Every Child Matters agenda, but is there more we could be doing? The findings in the UNICEF report reaffirm the decision of the Children’s Society to establish the Good Childhood Inquiry, an independent inquiry into childhood which I commend to noble Lords. The society is looking to open an inclusive debate on what makes for a good childhood in the United Kingdom today that will shape future policy which is informed by children and young people themselves.
For example, preliminary research conducted by the Children’s Society to launch the inquiry with 8,000 young people showed that the two words most commonly mentioned by young people when asked, “What makes a good childhood?”, were “family” and “friends”. Their comments emphasised themes such as the importance of being loved and supported, and being treated with fairness and respect by others. An emerging theme from the evidence submitted to the inquiry so far is that families, whatever their form, need to be able to provide financial and emotional security and stability for their children. This backs up what my friend the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his book, Lost Icons, when writing about childhood and choice:
“The protection of the imaginative space of childhood obviously needs a background of security, adult availability and adult consistency”.
Helping adults to grow up in order to let children flourish is not something which can be achieved by legislation or enforcement. We cannot force people to marry or stay together in unhappy relationships, even though we think that stability and commitment are important. To force adults to attend parenting courses via court orders and the threat of criminal sanction is to treat them in a childlike way—it infantilises them—even if in the end they benefit from such courses. Adults cannot keep see-sawing between viewing children and young people as vulnerable and needing our protection all the time, and seeing them as a threat to society or as competition for their own needs. Instead, in our government policies, our businesses, our institutions and our own actions, we need to support and encourage people to make choices that are about “us” and not “me”—choices that encourage responsibilities as well as rights, promote fidelity and commitment, and give children space just to be children.
I welcome the really important initiatives of the voluntary sector undertaken by bodies such as the Children’s Society and faith groups aimed at listening to and encouraging children and young people, particularly those whose childhood is most bleak. However, it might also mean business being prepared to take less profit so that employees have a better work/life balance so that they have the energy to give to relationships and children. It could mean increasing the minimum wage to a living wage so that those on low incomes have more choice and less worry. It might mean being more upfront about the importance of adults making stable and committed relationships such as marriage, and giving time to nurturing them. We could choose to fund adequately services that encourage emotional literacy and negotiation or that work alongside parents at an early stage.
The Children’s Society’s research and the UNICEF report suggest that our wealth has not brought us the kind of childhood we want for all the United Kingdom’s children. Here I support totally the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, and ask that we do not squander our resources and wealth, but look to find the means not only to assist this generation, but also in finding ways that improve the well-being of future generations of our children.
My Lords, I was tempted to scratch from this debate because a series of events meant that I have not been able to delve into the research that I would normally do before such an occasion. But the issues are so important and fundamental that they have to be addressed, and I wanted to spend a moment or two of your Lordships’ time in considering them myself. It is poignant to note that the table on page 41 of the report we are discussing, thanks to the good initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, reflects priorities through the eyes of the children, not the administrators. The first and most important component of a child’s happiness is its family, the second its friends and the third its school. It is disturbing to look at how those institutions actually serve them. Noble Lords can read the figures for themselves, but 80 per cent of our children do not enjoy their schooling very much, while 32 per cent do not eat the main meal of the day with their parents even several times a week, and so on.
In the short time I have for this disorganised speech, I want to look ahead to the National Offender Management Service legislation coming to us and ask the Government not to be obsessed simply with the prevention of reoffending. This report directs our attention to the prevention of offending in the first place. That is immensely more important and cost-effective.
There are certain basic issues we have to address, but we tend to fall into the use of mantras without thinking about what they mean. Most people of my generation regret the lack of discipline in schools and families. For most people, the word “discipline” calls to mind the parade ground and the punishment block. That is not how it should be. As my noble friend Lady Bottomley said a few minutes ago, it is care and control which lie at the root of this. Care and love are expressed by control. For a child to know who he or she is, they have to discover where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie. Much bad behaviour is experimental to discover what can be got away with, and eventually what are the boundaries within which one must live. That applies right through education and needs to be taken account of by schools. In the family, discipline should be understood by the child as something rational and beneficial, while in the school it should be something that belongs to the children. Discipline should not be seen as a thing imposed by a vengeful hierarchy, but something worked out in a community for the benefit of its members. School councils and so on are the machinery for this. How many schools actually conduct themselves along those lines? They are enormously important to children who leave school thinking either that good manners and acceptable behaviour are something applied by “them” and they are always to be evaded, escaped or offended against, or they can belong to “us”, the community.
I remember vividly when I was researching for the report into discipline into schools that my colleagues and I did many years ago. Norway had been lecturing us not long before about how badly we taught our immigrants, and how easy it would be to absorb them. I was amused to find that we arrived in the middle of that country’s first wave of immigrants, and it was having a lot of difficulty—except for one school, which stood out at once, because it had 17 flags on the front, all of different nations. Every time a refugee came to the school from a different country, he got his flag on the front of the building. The school discipline was worked out in consultation with the pupils, and if a child was so foolish as to start painting a graffito on the wall, he was set on by all the others and taken off to be dealt with by the staff because they were offending against their school. That is what discipline, and society, should be like. What has gone wrong with us is a disintegration of society so that we are all “us and them”; we are not all “we”.
The report is a collection of averages set against averages. We have national averages of various criteria set against the averages of other countries. It is a very broad brush. Beware of averages, however, because they conceal as much as they reveal. Between these averages are chasms of far worse conditions, with a few shining pinnacles of better ones.
We need to be concerned not only with the tone of society, which is important, and an acceptance of good manners as being a necessary ingredient, as well as a vehicle, of acceptable social standards—I have lost the beginning of that sentence, but I will cast back. I was speaking of the chasms. I have mentioned in another debate, and I make no apology for mentioning again, a seminal work published by the CYPS, written by Shaun Bailey, called No Man’s Land, which gives the most intimate, detailed, convincing and constructive analysis of what goes on in a sink estate and what can be done about it. I ask the Minister to spend 40 minutes on it. He will speed-read his way through it with great ease; it is a good read. It describes the ills of such a community, such as the very high percentage of single parents. Before we denigrate single-parent families altogether, the author was a product of one, and he is in my view a lay saint—he is a terrific battler for the underdog.
If you are a child and you are not in school, what are you going to do? You are frightened, for a start, because you are on your own—hence the beginnings of gang culture. Four years ago Diane Abbott had a conference in the Queen Elizabeth II Hall across the road, in which we were convinced that a great number of children in London actually feel safer on the streets in their gang than they do in school—in some cases, safer than in the fortress flat they live in on their abandoned estate.
We have to give security and update those estates. We also need to look at children who are not in school through the summer holidays; they will get up to something, and if we do not give them something constructive to do, they will do a great deal that is destructive, get into trouble and, eventually, join the criminal treadmill. That applies in spades to children excluded from school during term time, who do not even have their colleagues to turn to.
I said this would be a disorganised speech, but I have voiced an important principle: discipline, to be effective, should be friendly and accepted by the people who generate it. If we can export that from schools into society, we will change this country enormously for the better.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for obtaining this debate. Again, he has drawn our attention to families and the need for children in families to have stability. My noble friend’s Motion could not be more timely, with the publication of the UNICEF report and current concern about the violent attacks by children against children.
I shall concentrate my remarks on ensuring that every child has the right to the experience of a sustained loving relationship with at least one parent or parent substitute, to continue a theme of today’s debate. In particular, I shall follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and consider the experience of children of families caught in a cycle of low family achievement. As the joint Treasury and Department for Education and Skills discussion paper published in January, Policy Review of Children and Young People, says of such families:
“It is essential to support them on a sustained basis, if services are ultimately to shift resources and focus to a more preventative approach. It is also important if the Government is to break the cycle of disadvantage across generations”.
The theoretician of child development, Andre Green, writes of the British theoretician, DW Winicott, that the good enough mother is also the bad enough mother. There is a virtue in being a bad enough mother; one who does not frustrate her child’s development by being too much present. At the same time, if she is too much absent, the consequences can be catastrophic and result in the child’s disintegration.
It is striking that the two countries at the bottom of the UNICEF list are the United Kingdom and the United States; respectively, the founding father of liberalism and the child that has not only proved itself a chip off the old block, but has re-exported liberalism to the home country. The implication of the UNICEF report—and I recognise that report’s shortcomings—is that in the constant tension between support for families and encouraging individual responsibility, between being the good enough mother and the bad enough mother—we have allowed liberalism to unbalance interventionism. Crucially, we have not done enough to ensure that one way or another, above all things, every child has the opportunity to enjoy stability of relationship—the enduring love of a parent or parent substitute.
In recent history, we have failed to ensure an adequate supply of housing for our families, as my noble friend Lord Northbourne has observed, and more than 100,000 children are in temporary accommodation as a consequence. Until 1997, our health services were chronically underfunded, with especial shortages in adult mental health services and child and adolescent mental health services. The number of children in custody has been rising significantly over several years, and in February this year we had the highest number of children in custody in a February since records began. I hope your Lordships will not think it controversial to suggest that this custody record implies, at least in part, a failure on our part to ensure adequate family or surrogate family relationships.
Her Majesty’s Government have made the welfare of children and families a policy priority. The Minister has helpfully supplied many of us with the important document, Parenting Matters. It is immensely encouraging to learn of the Government’s investment there, but I shall highlight one concern that must not be overlooked. The paper refers to the value of good-quality early-years childcare and the new duty on local authorities to secure sufficient childcare under the Childcare Act. It can be of great benefit to children at the right stage of their development to interact with their peers, and, of course, for their parents to be in employment. However, it is apparent that much of the group care must be of doubtful quality. The workforce is poorly paid and consists largely of poorly educated young women. There is often a high turnover of staff and a shortage of qualified supervisors. I know the Government are working hard to address these matters, but we are far behind our neighbours in this.
Poor-quality childcare may not manifest its harm until an individual seeks to make relationships in adulthood. Poor-quality early-years childcare may undermine the attachment of parent to child. The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, made the point about the importance in adolescence that parents’ commitment is still strong. That may put some threat in there.
Public discourse on this matter focuses primarily on access to childcare, and in particular its cost. Research indicates that parents are willing to trade off quality against cost. I recognise Her Majesty's Government’s achievement in establishing a framework for care from zero to five to improve quality. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that he is constantly revisiting quality in early-years group care.
I welcome the recognition in the report of the policy review of children and young people about,
“providing support and motivation to front-line professionals to engage in what are often extremely challenging circumstances”.
The introduction of the social work degree, Her Majesty's Government’s success in recruiting applicants to that course and the creation of a professional registration are all important steps towards regenerating the social work profession. Despite these improvements, 49 per cent of local authorities find retaining social workers difficult or very difficult. Her Majesty's Government have proposed the introduction of protected status for newly qualified social workers.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in his most helpful letter to me of 16 February, wrote:
“Many newly qualified social workers are thrown in the deep end, with difficult cases right from the start of their employment, and where this happens the burn out rate can be high”.
“The development of a newly qualified social work status will have costs, and I cannot pre-empt decisions that have yet to be taken in the context of the current Comprehensive Spending Review”.
I recently raised this matter with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. If the Minister can supply any further information, I would welcome it. I recognise the difficulty of the timing, given the process of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Does the Minister recognise that newly qualified social work status would be thoroughly consonant with paragraph 7.11 of his Policy Review of Children and Young People? It says:
“The Review has identified the importance of support and motivation of front-line professionals to ensure that they can provide sustained and effective services”.
When does the Minister expect to have identified the likely costs of implementing newly qualified social work status?
The role of social workers in ameliorating the lives of the children of our most troubled families is essential. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who has brought the UNICEF debate on the well-being of children right back home, into our own backyard. In that context, I propose to follow him with the question of adoption and to treat it with reason, as distinct from faith.
The reasoning is that which was before your Lordships on 21 March. It was in the conclusions of a most reverend Primate, two right reverend Prelates, my noble friend Lord Pilkington—a man of the cloth—the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Browne, and many others. That reasoning was the basis of their objection to the regulations, which were, first, misunderstood in argument and, secondly, not justified. They were in effect ill conceived in law and would probably be read down by our courts if one sought to enforce them.
The point made and taken so well by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham was: what is needed by the child? He said that in any sort of family there was love, support, fair treatment, and so forth. It does not appear to have been appreciated, as was said by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, on 21 March, that the courts routinely give adoption orders in favour of homosexuals where the circumstances of the case warrant it. That is because it is the accepted rule that the interests of the child are paramount, not the interests of the adopters. The situation referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, was a classic example of where the courts make the order, have made the order and will continue to make the order. The reason might be that the child could not cope with an ordinary family relationship or, to put it the other way, the family relationship would be broken up by the state of the child. In either of those circumstances and many others, the order is made.
Why should there be any justification for discrimination against the Catholic agencies? The whole process of adoption is perfectly sound. The application for an adoption order is afforded to anyone, rich or poor, of whatever faith—or none—ethnic origin or sexual orientation. It comes before a court, which is a lay tribunal, and is subject to appeal.
The adopters are assisted by the adoption agencies, but there is a total service for homosexual couples. If they cannot go to an agency direct, as we have heard from my noble friend Lady Morris, they are transferred. The point is that the services are available. So if they are available and are satisfactorily rendered—and nobody has said they are not—what is the justification for this discrimination?
If this matter were to come before our courts, it could well be read down because it failed to take due account of the balance of the relevant articles of the ECHR and constituted unjustified means to an unacceptable end. In those circumstances, it would be a good idea if reconsideration were given to the way in which these matters were dealt with on 21 March.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate and welcome the publication of Every Parent Matters. Like other Members of your Lordships' House, I shall highlight relationships, which are fundamental to all human well-being, especially that of children. It is an area in which church and faith groups have a particular interest and a particular contribution to make, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, has already reminded us.
The UNICEF report recognises that,
“the quality of children’s relationships is as difficult to measure as it is critical to well-being”.
It bases our standing at the bottom of the table on the objective criteria of percentages of children living in single-parent families and step-families and those who eat their main meal with their parents, as well as on more subjective percentages of those who report that their parents spend time just talking to them and that they find their peers kind and helpful. As Every Parent Matters recognises, it is the quality of relationships with parents, adults and their own peers that forms and supports children’s well-being and behaviour, and not material possessions or even appropriate legislation alone.
Children’s and young people’s subjective well-being is another area where our children’s self-perception puts the UK in the lowest position in relation to the OECD average. Subjective well-being depends largely on relationships. Young people’s self-perception is linked to the attitudes of, and opinions expressed by, adults, and the evidence shows that that is too often negative. Research carried out in 2004 by the Young People Now magazine, as part of its positive images campaign, found that 71 per cent of press stories about young people were negative and that only 14 per cent were positive. Furthermore, huge press and public interest continues to focus on crimes committed by young people, producing an exaggerated fear of crime. The British Crime Survey shows that the public repeatedly overestimated both the amount of crime committed by young people and the proportion of all crimes for which they were responsible. We must not forget that most victims of youth crime are young people themselves.
It therefore behoves those of us who work institutionally and personally with young people to try to redress the balance by drawing public attention to the important contribution that young people make to the well-being of our society. Many of them are passionate about the shape of our society, the future of the environment and issues of justice and equality. They set examples of compassion and understanding which we would all do well to imitate.
The quality of relationships underlies patterns of behaviour, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, referred. It is therefore disappointing once again to see that the UK ranks last for risk behaviour, which measures the proportion of young people taking potentially harmful substances as well as their sexual activity, including rates of teenage pregnancy.
Adult responses to risk are often contradictory. On the one hand, we want children and young people to be agents of their own rights and choices—rightly so; on the other, we recognise that there are rightly limits to their agency. This tension between safety and freedom emerged as one of the cross-cutting themes of the Children’s Society survey to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has already referred.
Public policy too often reflects this ambivalence. For example, at the age of 10, children are not deemed responsible enough to own a pet, yet can be held criminally responsible for their own actions. A recent survey by the Children’s Society and the Children’s Play Council showed that, in contrast to the more non-interventionist policies of other countries, children in some parts of the country were prevented from riding bikes in parks or climbing trees because these activities were considered too risky. Health and safety legislation has gone mad in certain areas. We need to be more aware of real risk and, at the same time, allow children to be children and enjoy appropriate freedoms, as I am sure did all your Lordships and as did I. The quality of relationships with parents, adults and their peers is vital to the well-being of children and young people.
For this reason, the churches and faith communities give a high priority to our work with children and young people. As noble Lords will know, we do so in a variety of ways: parent and toddler groups, playgroups, Sunday schools in addition to our maintained schools, youth clubs and so on. In addition, we seek to encourage the establishing of good family relationships through work with those preparing for marriage as well as with young parents. I cannot speak for other faith groups, but, in the Church of England, approaching 1 million pupils attend our 4,700 schools; we provide activities in the local community outside church worship for more than half a million young people under 16, and for some 38,000 between 16 and 25. More than 136,000 volunteers run these activities for children and young people. I am sure that those statistics could be mirrored by other churches and faith groups. The voluntary organisations play a considerable part in caring for young people and building good relationships.
We therefore share the concern of many people about the outcome of UNICEF’s research, and we want to go on playing our full part in ensuring the well-being of our children and in establishing the good personal relationships on which so much of it is based.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to those already offered to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on securing this important debate. The report by UNICEF highlighted and reinforced what many organisations such as Save the Children and Barnardo’s have said for some time; that the position of families in poor or low-income households has deteriorated. That has knock-on effects for children in these particular groups.
We all know that of the six dimensions measured by UNICEF, the UK came bottom in five, ranking bottom of 21 industrialised countries in the well-being assessment. Looking after children should be everybody’s business: parents, schools, communities and Government. With less than 70 per cent of British children living with both parents, in contrast to more than 90 per cent of children in Greece and Italy, it is terrible to learn the statistic that 3.4 million of those children—that is 27 per cent of all children—are living in poverty.
Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to do well at school and have fewer social opportunities than other children. School attendance is poorer. They are more likely to leave school with no qualifications, have poor literacy and numeracy skills, live in sub-standard housing and have poor diet and little play space.
Families which are least financially able pay £1,000 more on average for their utility bills, loans and insurance—if they can get it—than those families on average incomes. It is scandalous, and the Government need to do more. By removing the 10 per cent tax bracket, the recent Budget did very little for them. They do not want to depend on state hand-outs, but want to work and support themselves. Women in particular, whose jobs are often driven by the needs of their families, will find themselves worse off. There is no comfort in telling them that the tax credit system will see them right. These systems are complicated, arduous and long, and those that are most disadvantaged are the very families that have the least skills. I am afraid that the Chancellor has penalised the very people that were encouraged to go out and get work.
It is important that our children and young people grow up confident and as well as meeting their educational needs we need to place emphasis on their well-being and happiness. Self-esteem is hard to measure but it is a crucial building block in the lives of us all. Families, as we used to know them, have changed, leaving few safety nets for children to fall into. Communities and neighbourhoods do not offer the same comfort that once they might have done and often the lack of positive adult role models has increased the circumstances that culminate in our coming bottom in family and peer relationships. We also fare badly with regard to drug and alcohol abuse and have higher rates of teenage pregnancies than our European partners.
It is depressing to see queues of our young people outside fast food places eating highly fat-laden foods that offer little nutritional value but add to the problems of obesity and other health-related problems. It is a sad reflection of our society when children begin to believe that these are normal diets, as even in their own homes it is often their staple food. It is important to ensure that children and young people are made food-aware and know how to use fresh ingredients, especially if it is not the norm in their own homes. It cannot be left to celebrities to highlight these issues and for Governments to be reactionary; it needs long-term planning and strategies to ensure that outcomes can be measured properly and not excite newspaper headlines for a day or two.
While we look at obesity and its added impact on the National Health Service—and, with other diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, it is predicted that by 2010 more than 1.7 million children throughout England will be obese—we also need to look at anorexia. Again, the power of celebrities and the media is far greater than what schools and parents can exert. Surely it is time to see how we can work with these powerful tools who carry responsibility when they enjoy personally huge financial successes from these young audiences. I hope that the Minister can tell your Lordships’ House whether targets set in 2004 between the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to halt year-on-year increases in obesity have been met.
More children suffer from depression and mental health disorders than ever before, with low esteem, low self-worth and self-harm also on the increase. Studies on adults show that mental health problems in adult life have most often stemmed from childhood. Can the Minister assure the House that adequate provision for children and young people is available in appropriate settings and not among adults in adult wards?
If we are to eradicate poverty and give all children and young people opportunity and aspiration, we cannot just offer sticking-plaster remedies that fill newspaper headlines. It is crucial to look at providing positive incentives in which families can thrive and offer support, and when needed reach and get support that is not difficult or complicated to access. We cannot be a nation that in parts is economically wealthy and successful and yet socially remains impoverished, where we leave our most vulnerable behind. We cannot criminalise our children by trying to predict who will be future criminals without expecting those young children not to fulfil those prophecies. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are investing in children and young people’s services with proper funding strategies, ensuring that consultation for what they need is fully taken into account?
Finally, can the Minister assure the House that more vigorous efforts will be made to eradicate bullying in both schools and neighbourhoods and that parents will be encouraged to participate more readily in activities in and out of schools?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, not just on this debate but on how he badgers, cajoles and speaks out on behalf of parents and children. I have been at the other end of it too, even though I am a lowly Cross-Bench Back-Bencher.
I shall try not to repeat the points covered by other noble Lords. I was particularly impressed by the long and excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about the discipline that children need, and the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, on that. One issue that we have not sorted out, certainly in our schools, is the balance between love, care and discipline. We have a generation of parents who have not learnt that skill because that generation, who went through school just after me, lost that capacity. Nor am I going to engage in a discussion on adoption with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell.
I was very disappointed by the UNICEF report. I was surprised, too, because I thought that we might be doing better. I spend some of my time in Europe working with European organisations that seem to envy much of our infrastructure for children. I tend to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, that we tend to say it how it is in this country—and there is some of that. I was disappointed because, if the report is true, our children are in poor health, unable to maintain loving and successful relationships, feel unsafe and insecure, have low aspirations and put themselves and others at risk—and this in 21st century Britain.
The Government have been quick to point out that a lot has been done since the picture reflected in the five year-old data used for the UNICEF study, and the Every Child Matters agenda has made a real difference to the lives of many families. I hope that the Minister will reflect on some of that and update us on what has happened. Evidence from many references already given suggests that we are still not reaching the children and young people in greatest need; for example, those in the criminal justice system. That system is outside the noble Lord’s department, but they are still children. The criminal justice system is obsessed with punishment rather than understanding why young people offend and attempting treatment and education. The criminalisation of our young sees us lock up more children than any other country in Europe, but they cannot be that much worse. Eighty per cent of young people reoffend, others self-harm, and the likelihood of positive outcomes is poor. If this Government wish to be tough on crime, they will not achieve it this way. Of course, young people must be held responsible for bad behaviour, but locking up many of them simply does not work. It confirms all they fear about themselves and the society in which they live rather than raising their sights and aspirations through positive programmes of intervention. Recently we have heard about such schemes in Manchester in the United States, which are having considerable success.
According to Care Matters, our services for looked-after children are also poor. Like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I sometimes wonder why the Government believe that constantly changing the framework of services, rather than concentrating on the quality and content of practitioners’ skills, will lead to improvement. Not too long ago, overall responsibility for children’s social work services was transferred from the Department of Health to the Department for Education and Skills. I still hope that this will have a positive outcome for service delivery, but the impression of children’s services given in the Green Paper Care Matters is overwhelmingly negative. One chapter is entitled “Life outside school”, implying that the remainder is mainly concerned with life inside school. The aspirations for improvement through the DfES’s new programmes may include a huge increase in family centres, but otherwise does it concentrate firmly on education rather than on a balance of other life experience and skills; that is to say, human relationships, about which other noble Lords spoke so eloquently? I hope that the Minister will tell me that that is not so.
A group of children and young people whose well-being does not appear to be on the Government’s radar are asylum-seeking children who have settled here. Separated children arriving alone in the UK face many challenges. I do not have time to catalogue the horrors that these young people have usually experienced before they reach our shores. Many, when they arrive, receive a poor welcome. The care that they are given by social services up to age 18 is excellent. Local authorities are doing all they can under difficult circumstances. But through its case work, the charity Voice has encountered practice that causes great concern on behalf of the young people it works with. The wishes and feelings of these young people about their placements and support needs are often ignored in a system in which, increasingly, some policies and decision-making processes appear to discriminate between separated children and the indigenous cared-for population.
The following are real stories. Abi is a 16 year-old from Angola. He was placed with a foster carer when he was 13, where he has remained. He has settled and done well. He was told by social services that he had to move from the placement on his 16th birthday. Abi told one of the helpline workers, “I am not ready to move. Emotionally I rely a lot on my foster carer. I have no one to support me if I leave here”. Social services admitted that the reason for moving the young person was purely financial.
Another child aged 17 applied for asylum but was told on her 18th birthday that she could not hear about her appeal. She had been offered a place at university, which was then withdrawn because she had not heard about her appeal. Her life is now again held in the balance. She is a bright, able young woman. I understand that only 20 per cent of these children receive decisions within the target timescale. Although this is a Home Office area, is the DfES speaking up on behalf of these children?
The Government have worked hard to place children and young people at the heart of their programmes, but concentrating on education to the exclusion of much else will not achieve the change they seek. As I have said to the noble Lord before, “Education, education, education” must be balanced by welfare, love and care. A new report might give a better picture, but does that matter? We know where we should concentrate. I urge the Government to reconsider their policy and to look at the whole child, the complete child and the well-being of the child, as every child matters.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has done the House a great service in using the UNICEF report as the basis of the important child welfare issues that have been the subject of this afternoon’s debate.
The report should have been a wake-up call to all those who believe that the UK has one of the most advanced standards of living in the developed world and that our children must therefore benefit accordingly. Although there is evidence that the figures used by UNICEF were not as up to date as they could have been, and some of the yardsticks that it used were perhaps not those most likely to produce the clearest outcomes, the report shows that if this country is not actually on the bottom line, we are pretty close to it. We are certainly too close to it for comfort or for any complacency by the Government or anyone else. The UK still has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Europe despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Why should that be the case after the strenuous efforts of the Government over the past 10 years—tax credits, other benefit changes and the New Deal—to reduce child poverty?
The UNICEF report claims that it should be interpreted as,
“a broad and realistic guide to the potential for improvement in all OECD countries”.
Anyone who has read the report would certainly agree with that. You do not need to read it to know, though it spells it out clearly, that evidence from many countries persistently shows that children who grow up in poverty are more vulnerable and more likely to be in poor health, to have learning and behavioural difficulties, to underachieve at school and to become pregnant at an early age. In defining poverty and assessing existing levels to try to alleviate that poverty, there must be an understanding that we are talking about relative poverty, about the lives of the poor in any society or country measured against the lives of others in that country. That translates fairly simply as one thing: distribution of income. That is the key. The UNICEF report, warts and all, demonstrates that the UK is one of the most unequal societies in the OECD. That impacts most of all on our children.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, highlighted in the title of the debate the role of stability and family life, which is vital in deciding the quality of life of any child. Many children in two-parent families suffer despite that, while many with a single parent often thrive. But it would be difficult to demur from UNICEF’s conclusion that,
“at the statistical level there is evidence to associate growing up in single-parent families with greater risk to well-being, including a greater risk of dropping out of school, of leaving home early, of poorer health, of low skill and subsequently of low pay”.
I am not a parent, but those findings appear to carry some weight. In the UK, 17 per cent of families have a single parent, which is the highest rate in Europe. That must have some impact on child poverty, though I caution that it would be wrong to exaggerate it.
More important is income levels, which do most to cause the unequal society that the UK is today. Although it is an easy sound bite, that does not in any way devalue the comment made this week by Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo’s, an organisation that noble Lords would agree is synonymous with the welfare of children:
“We are the fourth richest country in the world, we are a country where we can countenance individual bankers getting annual bonuses of £22 million while we give a family of two parents and two children, living on benefits, £10,000 to live on for a whole year”.
Martin Narey was responding to yesterday’s distressing news from the DWP figures on households below average income, which reveal that there has been a rise of 100,000 in the number of children in relative poverty from 2004-05 to 2005-06. For the Government to meet their target of reducing child poverty by half, a further 1 million children must be lifted out of poverty, which is 200,000 a year between now and 2010. While some progress has undoubtedly been made on that, it was very pleasing that the Chancellor last week announced new investment in the Budget of £1 million focused on the poorest families through working tax credit and an above-earnings increase in child tax credits for 2008. It has been estimated that that alone could lift as many as 200,000 children out of poverty, but it will take time.
Employment Minister Jim Murphy talked yesterday of encouraging more single parents into work, which is welcome, but the key to that is childcare. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the effects of poor-quality childcare. It must be affordable, accessible and good quality if it is to serve its purpose. The renewed commitment by the Government to give single parents £40 a week back-to-work credit is an important incentive to help them to make that step. The increase in the extent of nursery provision for three and four year-olds will also help more single parents to take advantage of work opportunities.
I hope that Mr Murphy will act on the recommendations on child support reform published earlier this month in the report by the Work and Pensions Select Committee in another place. The report contains important recommendations that the Government could introduce through their forthcoming child support reform Bill to help children in poverty. I particularly point the Minister to the committee’s call for a full benefits disregard for child maintenance payments, because that would ensure that all of the maintenance support would go towards supporting the child. That, in turn, would make it more attractive for a single parent to return to paid employment.
Another Select Committee in another place, the Scottish Affairs Committee, is undertaking an inquiry into levels of poverty in Scotland, where, as in other parts of the UK, poverty levels remain extremely high. I was interested to read the memorandum submitted to that committee by the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, which stated that, despite the national minimum wage and tax credits, low pay combined with job insecurity and a lack of flexibility for working parents continued to undermine work as a route out of poverty. The CPAG highlighted the fact that nearly a quarter of children living in poverty are in households where an adult is in full-time employment, while a couple with two children where one of the parents works 40 hours a week for the minimum wage, and who receive full benefit and tax credit entitlements, is still left £50 a week below the poverty line. It should be noted that a family with two children is officially defined as being in poverty if it earns less than £332 per week—over £16,500 a year.
That graphically demonstrates the scale of the task facing the Government in making real progress in shifting children out of poverty. In fairness to the Government, they have been working in a cross-cutting manner to tackle some of the issues associated with helping parents, and many noble Lords have referred to the fact that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, kindly sent copies of Every Parent Matters to all noble Lords who were to speak in this debate, with an associated booklet, Helping You Help Your Child. Although I am not a parent, I still found them extremely informative; but parents should find them very useful, because they include chapters such as “Being a Parent Today—the changing roles of mothers and fathers”, “The Transition into Adulthood” and “Developing Parental Engagement”.
I also learned that, from April 2008, all local authorities in England and Wales will be required to provide a full range of information about local and national services to parents of children from birth up to the age of 19. Later this year, families with children aged three to four will begin to be able to access 15 hours of free early education a week. Bookstart provides free packs of books to each family in England with children at various stages of development. I do not know how many people are aware of that, but I hope that those timely and excellent publications will be widely available. All that is to the good but, ultimately, actually tackling poverty by providing a network of support to poor families will do most for the well-being of children.
I finish by echoing the view of the campaign to End Child Poverty, an umbrella group involving 65 organisations active in combating child poverty. Highlighting yesterday’s figures showing that the number of children growing up in poverty has increased, the group says that for the Government to meet their commitment to halve child poverty by 2010, investment must be increased by up to £4 billion. The Government have done and are doing much to reduce child poverty, but the evidence is clear that they have to do much more.
My Lords, I agree with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and congratulate him on bringing these issues before the House. I have not yet received a copy of Every Parent Matters but hope to in the near future. I suppose that I could go down the road and get one.
This afternoon we have rightly emphasised the welfare of children, but, as your Lordships know, children are people as well as children. As people, they have rights. One of their rights is enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights—the right to respect for family and private life. Children, however, have many limitations on their rights, which are inevitably circumscribed. In particular, they are not in charge of their own lives. There is an inevitable reliance on parents, teachers and other adults who are in charge of them.
Section 3 of the Children Act 1989 identifies parental responsibilities as including parental rights and responsibilities; but the emphasis is on responsibility. As adults, we all speak, do we not, of “rights”? “Rights” predominates nowadays in the thinking across the country. Much less is said of “duty” or “duties”. Indeed, duty is an uncomfortable word. But parenting, as we all know, involves responsibilities and duties. It is a major undertaking to have a child. As was said earlier, it requires a commitment—and a commitment for life. Noble Lords who have adult children, as I have, may recognise the scenario when I say that I often hear the words, “Mum, can you help me now?”, in respect of one or other of my grandchildren.
We have to get the message across the entire country about the long-term adverse effect on children of bad or inadequate parenting. It will also affect people’s ability to parent the generation after the current young one, so, as my noble friend Lord Listowel said earlier, we need to recognise that bad parenting will continue if we do not get at the generation who are not yet parents.
I particularly want to emphasise the importance of fathers—an issue that is gaining recognition. I should like to see the Government encourage even further flexible working to enable fathers to join their children at all sorts of important events, such as school open days and sports days—if the school has a sports day—and anything else that the child considers to be important. That requires employers to recognise that parents and other carers of children have duties other than attending work five days a week from, as is particularly the case among middle-class parents, early in the morning to late in the evening. The City approach that says, “The job is the only thing that matters”, is in contradistinction to the importance of people showing their children that they care for them as well—and that means not playing golf every Saturday afternoon.
However, in fairness, we must recognise that fathers are now increasingly sharing in the day-to-day, practical care of very young children. We have gone far beyond the days of Dr Spock. Many noble Lords may not remember Dr Spock’s advice, which was to hold hard the corner of the diaper when you flush it down the lavatory. Nowadays, parents know all about looking after their young children, and fathers are as good at that as mothers. We just want that to be true of fathers across the board and not just of the responsible ones.
The Government can be congratulated on many of their initiatives. When I read Every Parent Matters, I shall no doubt see that even more are being offered. But I believe that they can do more to support marriage, stable relationships and single parents who need help. It seems to me that a relationship or partnership between government and local and voluntary organisations should also be encouraged.
Much is done already, particularly in the way of start-up help—for example, through youth groups and child contact centres, in particular—but, where parents are separated, it is very important that fathers are given the opportunity to see the child and maintain the relationship in a child contact centre. With all too many such centres, money is given by government to start them but not to keep them running, and child contact centres and some youth group initiatives die on the vine because there is no water to keep them alive.
I end by saying that children are our future. There is not much point for any of us if we do not support them now.
My Lords, we are all most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this important debate on the well-being of children. I am also grateful to UNICEF for prompting us to think about a whole range of factors that affect the well-being of children, including, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others have said, the need for a clearer understanding of what parental responsibilities are in this regard.
It would have been helpful if the UNICEF report card had shown clearly which data referred to which years. In an exercise of this kind, it takes a very long time to collect, verify and check for consistency such a broad range of international data. So, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, the Government were able to rubbish the report card by saying that it was out of date and that many of the parameters measured have since improved significantly. However, all the countries surveyed in the report will have done better, and we may still be near the bottom of the league table, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, has just pointed out. Yesterday’s Treasury figures show that poverty worsened last year, with 200,000 more children living below the breadline. So there is no room whatever for complacency.
I want to concentrate on two related aspects of child well-being which have not yet been touched on: the effects on children caused by under-age consumption of alcohol, which is measured by the answer to the question, “How often have you had so much alcohol that you were really drunk?”, on which the UK is by far the worst of any of the 21 countries surveyed; and the effects on children of alcohol-misusing parents or carers, which is not measured by the survey at all. One heading deals with children's relationships with family and friends, but it ignores the possibility of violence or neglect between parents and children, except very indirectly; for example, by asking about the frequency of eating meals with parents, or of parents talking to their children.
Alcohol misuse by children is a colossal and growing problem. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that it is parents who have responsibility for the well-being of their children and should be looking to this dreadful plague which has afflicted so many of our younger generation. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, that part of the responsibility rests with the role models that children look to for their conduct—the football stars and pop celebrities whose lifestyles are the very opposite of what we would like to see them adopting.
The proportion of 11 to 15 year-olds who drink has stayed at about 60 per cent since 1985, but average weekly consumption has more than doubled to 10.9 units, in 2006. The proportion of that age group drinking at least once a week rose from 13 per cent in 1990 to 21 per cent in 2006, and 27 per cent of teenagers report having been drunk 20 times or more. In this, as in the rest of the Government's so-called alcohol harm reduction strategy, we are failing miserably. It is no wonder that the Government refuse to update the Cabinet Office's interim analytical analysis of alcohol harm, which showed that in 2000-01 the cost to the nation was £20 billion a year. Despite the Home Office's attempts to stop alcohol being sold to children, their own figures showed last year that 29 per cent of on-licencees, 21 per cent of off-licencees and 18 per cent of supermarkets were still selling alcohol to minors.
The effects of this tidal wave of alcohol include 1,000 young people under the age of 15 needing emergency treatment for alcohol poisoning every year, and 8,900 young people under 18 being admitted to hospital with a diagnosis related to alcohol. The long-term effects of heavy drinking during adolescence include liver damage, especially among those who are also obese; lower oestrogen levels in girls and testosterone in boys; lower bone mineral density in boys; and brain impairment in both sexes. None of that is properly reflected in the posters or literature issued by the Department of Health. Unfortunately, under the rules of your Lordships’ House, I am not—like the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, yesterday—able to show that material to the House. However, the available material on this subject is totally inadequate and such as does exist is not properly displayed in doctors’ surgeries or in hospital out-patient waiting areas.
The UK has—as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, and others—the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. That is indirectly reflected in table 5.2d of the survey, which shows that the UK percentage of 15 year-olds who have had sexual intercourse is way off the scale. Childline says that alcohol is a contributory factor in teenage pregnancy, and many of the stories told by the young people who contact it demonstrate this risk. I shall give just one example. A girl aged 13 said:
“I got drunk at a party. I don't remember having sex, but my friends say I did. Now I'm pregnant”.
Alcohol use is frequently cited as a factor associated with unprotected sex. We are living in a highly sexualised culture, and this, coupled with the universal pressure to drink, and the inseparable link between alcohol and every social occasion, makes a disastrous combination. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, spoke of the increasing number of children entering the criminal justice system. That is a very serious problem. How much of that is due to alcohol-related offences committed by those young people? Why do we not bother to measure that relationship in the statistics?
A 1995 study estimated that up to 1.3 million children under 16 were in families with alcohol-abusing parents or carers. The amount of alcohol consumed per adult in the UK has risen by 18 per cent since then, so the number of children at risk—if the figures have risen comparably—would be as high as 1.5 million. Those children are more likely to become involved in crime and to exhibit conduct disorders such as truancy and anti-social behaviour; they are also more likely to suffer health problems and to become problem-drinkers themselves. If their mothers drank during pregnancy, they may already have been disadvantaged by low birth weight, which is another factor in the survey where the UK is near the bottom of the league table, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, said. In the worst cases—several hundred a year—alcohol misuse by a pregnant woman may lead to foetal alcohol syndrome.
In almost half of domestic violence cases, the offender had been drinking, and in three-quarters of these, the victim is the mother. One can imagine the effect on children of seeing their mother being battered by a drunken father or stepfather. It may often be in the same households that the 10 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls who are sexually abused, as we heard on Tuesday—often fuelled by drink and sometimes by the same perpetrator—are to be found. Sexual and physical violence, often fuelled by drink, leave permanent physical, emotional and psychological scars on children, impairing their emotional development, health and ability to learn. Nearly 4 million adults in the UK grew up in a family where one or both parents drank to excess.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, was pleased, as we all are, with the DfES strategy, just published, for promoting services to parents and helping them to fulfil their responsibilities to children. The document acknowledges that single parents and teenage parents require extra support but ignores the much larger number with drink problems. As Turning Point says,
“the needs of children of alcohol-misusing parents are still overlooked”.
Let us have a genuine alcohol harm reduction strategy that will stop children poisoning themselves, and use price and availability as weapons against alcohol abuse by parents so that we can curb this tide of alcohol-related violence and suffering.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is an unflinching champion—or, as my noble friend Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone called him, a “charming and coercive champion”—of children and parents. I am delighted that he was able to secure this all-important debate. I, too, extend my congratulations and thanks to him. I also thank the Minister for my copy of Every Parent Matters.
Children’s issues are one of the many topics on which your Lordships’ House excels, as witnessed today by the passionate and knowledgeable contributions from all sides of the Chamber. I acknowledge and welcome the Government’s considerable investment in their desire to improve the lives of children and young people in the UK. We have seen significant legislation in the past two years, much of which we have supported—as we supported the Sure Start initiative, although we have serious doubts about the way in which it is being delivered.
Last year, Oliver Letwin committed us to match the Government on their targets to eliminate child poverty, so I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that it is depressing and deeply worrying that the number of children living in relative poverty rose by 200,000 last year, which was the first increase in nearly a decade. There can be no doubt that we all want the same conclusions; we just differ on how we get there.
Children are now assuming a much higher profile politically, as is only right, given that they represent 20 per cent of the population. Yet despite all the changes, the UNICEF report makes uncomfortable reading and issues the wake-up call of which the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, spoke. Britain comes 18th out of 21 rich countries on material well-being and 19th out of 21 on educational well-being. The Children’s Society chief executive, Bob Reitemeier, said that the report was,
“a wake-up call to the fact that, despite being a rich country, the UK is failing children and young people in a number of crucial ways”.
Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner, warned in more detail that:
“We are turning out a generation of young people who are unhappy, unhealthy, engaging in risky behaviour, who have poor relationships with their family and their peers, who have low expectations and don’t feel safe”.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough reminded us of the sad fact that children and young people in this country are getting a bad, negative press. However, as Al Aynsley-Green said:
“It is time to stop demonising children and young people for what goes wrong and start supporting them to make positive choices”.
That point was echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids.
We must look at children in the context of their families. We on these Benches believe that the great challenge of this decade and the next is social revival. Earlier this week, my right honourable friend David Cameron announced that we are setting up an inquiry into the quality of childhood in Britain. In the light of the UNICEF report, it will investigate how and why children in Britain are failed when it comes to measures of subjective well-being, behaviours and risks, and family and peer relationships. The task force will be headed by David Willetts and will be advised by a number of high-profile, well respected and independent experts, including the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield. That work will be in parallel with the extensive work that we have already undertaken on behalf of children, not least the excellent research on family break-up and the importance of fathers that is being carried out by the social justice policy group of my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith. For some years now, the Conservative Party has had an extended family team, which is looking at the issues that face children and families across the departments of Whitehall.
We think that it is of the utmost importance that we do our bit to raise children and family issues up the political agenda, but a lot more needs to be done. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham so rightly said, that needs everyone joining in the debate, which is why I was disappointed to read the comments of Beverley Hughes, the Minister in another place with responsibility for children. She described our review into the quality of childhood as,
“yet another vacuous policy group”.
That did not advance the argument one jot, nor was it respectful of the dedicated people who are helping us to grapple with these difficult and vital issues.
My right honourable friend David Cameron has said that Governments cannot bring up children, but the decisions that they make have an influence on how children are brought up. Nowhere is that influence greater than in the early years of a child’s life. I give as an example the increasing pressure to start formal education earlier or, as my honourable friend in another place, Tim Loughton, phrased it,
“the sausage machine of schoolification”.
Children in the UK already start school earlier than children in most other European countries and the creation in England’s national curriculum of a foundation stage for children aged three to five seems to be adding more pressure for an even earlier start. We had serious reservations about the foundation stage for nurseries in the Childcare Bill, and those reservations remain.
We now have targets, testing and ticking of boxes. Whatever happened to children learning through play and forming strong attachments with their parents and carers in those all-important first three years? That issue was covered well by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. As Mike Baker, the BBC education correspondent, said in a recent article, there is a real risk that the Government are,
“opting for short-term gains at the expense of long-term damage”.
The UNICEF report and examples such as these show us that we have a lot to learn from other countries. In September last year, our children’s team members visited Finland and Denmark. Sadly, due to ill health, I was unable to join them. They were enormously impressed by what they saw. There were excellent nurseries and care centres with well trained and well motivated staff, the importance of which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, reminded us. They were struck by the very different attitude that prevailed. The children were neither mollycoddled nor starting formal education too soon. They were playing, socialising and learning to get on with their peer group, absorbing that friendly discipline and learning the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, of which my noble friend Lord Elton spoke so persuasively. That means that they start school socially well balanced, ready and eager to learn—and, whatever the weather, they were wrapped up warm and sent outside to play.
I now turn to looked-after children. The care of children in the guardianship of the state has been a shameful side of the welfare system for too long. The most alarming fact about children in care is that they are 66 times more likely to have their own children taken into care, thus creating a generation vicious cycle—a cycle that we must break. It worries me that the state, which is so keen to tell everyone else how to be a good parent, is a pretty bad one when it assumes the role.
The key to much that needs to be done lies in a well motivated and respected social workforce. For the past few months, I have had the pleasure of serving on our social workers commission, which was set up by Tim Loughton to look into the image and role of social workers. It has an impressive panel of academics and practitioners, and I feel very humble when I sit there.
We need innovation and the sharing of best practice because some excellent work is being undertaken for these vulnerable children. The council in Brent—a Conservative council—has set up a buddy scheme whereby every council officer, from the chief executive down, is paired with a looked-after child, working closely with their social workers. That provides real incentive to ensure the best possible provision and outcomes for these children.
Knowing that someone is there to watch out for you, to speak up for you and to guide and nurture you is empowering for young people. In an ideal world, that role is provided by parents or members of an extended family as part of their duty, about which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, spoke with such authority. Where that breaks down, it is vital that our young have someone to turn to. This is why I am such a supporter of youth clubs, voluntary organisations and mentoring schemes. The best are delivered by the voluntary sector and the faith-based groups, of which my noble friend Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone spoke in her impressive speech.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said in opening our debate that every child should have the right to a good family life. To that I add that every child has a right to a childhood. It is essential that we give our children time and space to grow up; that when they are growing up we give them our time, support and trust; and that we nurture that self-esteem of which my noble friend Lady Verma spoke. We need to take risks and to let them live a little. As Winston Churchill said, there is no safer thing to do than to take risks with the young.
My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for this opportunity to debate children and family life. It is an issue to which he and others who have spoken on all sides of the House bring not only a wealth of personal and professional commitment but a real passion, including the very passionate speech that we have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris.
I cannot possibly do justice in my reply to the full richness of the debate. As ever, I hope that noble Lords will accept my assurance that I will provide written replies to particular points that I am unable to cover now, although I am glad that I managed quickly to ferry across a copy of Every Parent Matters to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, so that at least she leaves the House with it, even if she did not enter with it.
One key theme of the debate is that the family is not a static institution; nor is the environment around the family. Families are becoming smaller; fewer people are marrying; more are cohabitating and they are doing so for longer. Since the 1970s, the number of single-parent families has trebled, while the number of babies born outside marriage has increased fivefold.
Childhood is not a fixed state either, but constantly redefined as educational expectations, social values and social contexts evolve. As an education Minister, I believe that many of the changes that we have seen are for the better. Whereas just a decade ago we came near to writing off about half of our young people in terms of serious school-leaving qualifications, that is no longer the case. I am glad to say that social expectations are now much higher in that area, as in so many others. I include within that the expectations of our young people themselves which, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough so rightly said, are largely positive and deserve to be reported as such.
Given those broad demographic and cultural trends, let me first address the UNICEF report that has prompted this debate. The UNICEF study contains some salient observations. Let me say straight away that the Government are not in the least complacent about that. I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said in her impressive speech: this is indeed a challenge for us all and one that, frankly, we should accept with humility.
I also agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham that to bring about change in many of these areas is a long-term project which is not susceptible to quick fixes. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that we should learn from other countries. I am sorry that she was not able to go to Finland. I have been to Scandinavia—I think I even managed to get there just before the Leader of the Opposition—and I agree that we need to learn a great deal from those countries, although I do not think that the lessons are by any means as straightforward as she may have wished to suggest. Scandinavian countries make a huge investment in childhood services and have high expectations of what those services will provide for the development of children. Those expectations are not that different from those that we have set in place.
Having said all that, it is fair to note that, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, himself accepted, the UNICEF data are mostly old and do not provide a full picture of what it is like to grow up in the United Kingdom in 2007. In particular, the UNICEF research focuses largely on adolescents, drawing as it does heavily on a World Health Organisation survey of 11 to 15 year-olds, whereas, as has been widely accepted in this debate, it is early life that fundamentally determines the fortunes of children.
Early childhood has been a particular focus of the Government’s investment and I think it is generally accepted that we have transformed under-five provision, which is so vital in determining the early life chances of children. Ninety-eight per cent of three and four year-olds now enjoy free nursery education, compared to just 56 per cent a decade ago. At the end of last year, the stock of registered childcare places stood at more than 1.29 million, which is more than double the 1997 level. In the past decade, we have created from scratch more than 1,200 Sure Start children’s centres, with a total of 3,500 to be opened by 2010. That will be one for every community, which will start to make the pattern of childhood services in this country much more on a par with that of Scandinavia.
Above all, the old data in the UNICEF report mean that there is no mention of the fact that, since 1997, relative poverty in the UK has fallen at a greater rate than anywhere else in Europe, which was an issue of central importance to UNICEF’s researchers and something that they recognised in their 2005 report cards. In the mid-1990s, one in three children in United Kingdom lived in poverty, which was the worst record of any major European nation.
The Government have set challenging targets to remedy this situation, aiming to halve child poverty by 2010 and to eradicate it entirely by 2020. By helping parents into work and providing financial support, we have reversed a 20-year negative trend, lifting 600,000 children out of relative poverty since 1998, and 1.8 million out of absolute poverty. This has involved significant expenditure. For example, we have raised the rate of child benefit for the oldest child from £11.05 to £17.25 per week since 1997, and have introduced the child element of the child tax credit, which, from next month, will benefit 10 million children to the tune of up to £1,845 per child per year.
We have also introduced the minimum wage and, as my noble friend Lady Howells so rightly said, we have given a big boost to family-friendly working practices, which are vital to enabling parents—mothers and fathers—to perform their own duties. We have introduced paid paternity leave for the first time, we have significantly extended the length of maternity leave and the increased the rate at which it is paid, and we have given parents with young children—including, I should stress, parents who work in the City—the right to request flexible working. We have also made a substantial change to employment in making it more family-friendly, which is now more generally reflected in the workplace.
Of course, I share the disappointment of my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie that figures released this week show that relative child poverty has risen in the past year. However, as he said, they do not detract from the longer-term achievement in the past decade. This work is continuing. In his Budget last week, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an increase in the child element of the child tax credit by £150 per annum above indexation from April 2008. We estimate that this will lift up to 200,000 more children out of relative poverty. The Department for Work and Pensions, which my noble friend also mentioned, has also just published its strategy for tackling child poverty, which concentrates on helping more lone parents into work and emphasises the family dimension in all dealings with parents. All our publications that give advice and guidance in this area take up the theme, which has been raised across the Chamber, of the role of the voluntary sector, which is so important in education, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, mentioned, and in social care and social services. We also recognise the role that the faith communities play in this area, and we have, for example, been strongly encouraging local authorities to engage with local faith providers where they can make a big difference to the quality of local provision. I entirely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that social workers also have a vital role to play in this area. He knows the measures that we have set in train and which we have debated in the House. We will have more to say about that after the Comprehensive Spending Review.
The inclusion of family structure in the UNICEF report’s indicators of well-being might be taken to suggest that children in lone-parent and step families do not thrive. I want to make it clear that, in the Government’s view, the quality and stability of relationships are crucial, and our policies are resolutely geared to supporting parents, whatever their individual circumstances. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, we do believe that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships in bringing up children. Equally, however, our task is to give all parents and carers, without discrimination, the support that they need to provide children with the best possible start in life.
The theme of parenting—and, indeed, grandparenting, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, mentioned—has been a common thread throughout the debate. It outstrips class, ethnicity, and even disability in its influence on the life chances of children. Indeed, supporting parents and instilling parental responsibility and duty—I have no hesitation in using the word “duty” in this respect—is the vital task that faces us as policy makers and legislators. I also agree that we must be very clear about what we mean by effective life chances for children. I say without any hesitation that this is certainly not a question only of education. I come to the House as an Education Minister, which I think sometimes makes the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, slightly suspicious of me because she thinks that I must want to ensure that education takes priority over all other matters. Let me be absolutely clear: the Every Child Matters agenda has five aims that are equally important: promoting children’s health, safety, economic well-being, educational achievement, and their ability to make a positive contribution to society. Every Child Matters is also the primary means by which the United Kingdom seeks to fulfil the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, involving as it does a radical programme of change in the development of and investment in children services nationwide.
One theme has come through very strongly in this debate. If every child is to matter, every parent must matter too. We need to do steadily more to help parents, which is why the Government have just published their Every Parent Matters report, which I am glad to note has been widely welcomed in this debate. Every Parent Matters sets out in one place what we are doing to promote the development of services for children, not only what we have done so far, but also what we are planning to do. It also acts as a guide for parents, which they find useful. My noble friend Lord Watson referred to many of the upcoming programmes set out in the back of the report, which may be useful to parents as well. For instance, local authorities are expected to appoint dedicated commissioners responsible for championing provision for parents and, from this May, schools’ governing bodies will be required to listen to all parents and consider their wishes.
A number of local authorities are currently piloting transition information sessions for parents of children who are moving from primary to secondary schools, providing advice for parents at that difficult stage in their children’s lives. These services will be available nationwide from next year, as set out in the document. From this September, advisers will also be on hand in every local authority to help guide parents, particularly less advantaged parents, through the sometimes worrying process of selecting secondary schools, which is so vital to the life chances of children.
Through this whole array of initiatives and support programmes set out in Every Parent Matters, we can help to prepare children ahead of significant moments in their lives. We are piloting family learning courses for parents and carers of pre-school children with basic skills needs, while the early support programme has spent £15 million over the past five years supporting young children with the most severe needs, including sensory impairment and autism. These are just parts of a whole programme of support available for parents with young children.
Lone parents have been mentioned repeatedly in the debate. Our support is particularly targeted at specific groups such as lone parents, whose fortunes have improved considerably over the past decade. Today, 1.7 million one-parent families in Britain care for more than 3 million children, a figure that is three times higher than in 1971. The New Deal for lone parents has helped more than 482,000 people into employment by helping them prepare for a return to the workplace and to secure the attendant benefits. The fact that the lone-parent employment rate stands at an all-time high of 56.5 per cent, an increase of 11.8 percentage points since 1997, will be of huge benefit to all their children. More than nine out of 10 lone parents are either working or would like to work at some point, and in-work benefits offer them incentives and critical financial aid to do so.
Let me also emphasise the importance of fathers, who are always raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in our debates and were also mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. All evidence demonstrates that the engagement of fathers in the lives of their children is vital, whether or not they live with them. We have sought to promote the responsibilities of fathers in several ways to enable them to perform those responsibilities better, from paid paternity leave to the new right to request flexible working for parents of disabled children and the under-sixes. The information duty in the Childcare Act 2006 will require local authorities to provide comprehensive information on childcare and access to local services for fathers as well as mothers. My department is currently considering how we might further strengthen support for fathers; for example, through the work of the new children’s centres. The assumption that mothers are the primary carers clearly needs updating in favour of an expectation that fathers will play a full part within a parental partnership.
None the less, family breakdowns occur all too frequently. As we know from our recent debates on the Childcare Act and the Children and Adoption Act, of the 12 million children in our country, some 3 million will experience the separation of their parents during their childhoods. Many handle the subsequent domestic arrangements well, including the continuing role for fathers, but children drawn into parental conflicts can and do suffer terribly.
Through Sure Start and the Children, Young People and Families Grant programme, we are backing voluntary and community sector agencies to provide better relationship support, including more and better contact centres, an absolutely vital area of provision which was mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. The Children and Adoption Act 2006, once implemented, will give courts additional flexible powers to enforce contact orders and will give the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service additional responsibilities, including risk assessments in private law cases to highlight child welfare issues much more effectively than has been the case in the past.
High quality education and early years provision is clearly vital. The Early Years Foundation Stage will come into force in September next year, which is a single framework for care, learning and development in all registered early years settings and schools from birth to the age of five. Good early education has a sustained impact on children’s learning up to the age of 10, and the framework is designed to raise standards across the sector, assuring parents of consistency in provision and closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged children.
At school level, which is also vital, we have four priorities. The first is to provide a safe and secure environment for children, in particular to tackle issues to do with bullying and hostile environments for children, which were raised so movingly by my noble friend Lady Howells and taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. The noble Lord has huge experience in this area and raised a number of issues for policy development, all of which we are taking forward. He mentioned schools councils, and I am glad to say that more than nine in 10 secondary schools now have such councils. Professor Geoff Whitty, Director of the Institute of Education at the University of London, is about to report to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on how we take the work of schools councils forward, including embedding their work in the development of behaviour and discipline policies in schools much more effectively.
We have the Education and Inspections Act passed last year which includes a requirement that behaviour policies must be devised after full consultation with the whole pupil body in schools, taking up the theme explored by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that discipline in a school must belong to the children. Unless it is owned by them it will never be effective in tackling the root causes of poor behaviour, bullying and disaffection in schools. The Education and Inspections Act implements for the first time in law the recommendations of the noble Lord’s own reports of the 1980s, that teachers should have a statutory right to discipline. We have just issued guidance on how that statutory right should be enacted. So I believe that we are taking forward the issues he raised in this first important area, which is to ensure a safe and secure environment for children.
The second theme is to provide truly personalised learning for all children which develops their talents to the fullest extent possible, with parents acting as true partners with teachers in their children’s education. More than £1 billion has been earmarked for personalised learning up to 2008, weighted towards schools with pupils from deprived backgrounds or with low prior attainment, and for the first time in this country we are developing new vocational education diplomas which will ensure that pupils who have particular vocational aptitudes but who historically have been poorly served by the education system are given the opportunity in due course to attain the qualifications they need. We believe that this will lead to a significantly higher proportion of them staying in full-time education and training after the age of 16, including apprenticeships.
The third theme of the debate is the need for schools to be more than simply nine-to-four institutions by providing a much wider range of social support for parents and children in the holidays and after school. We have the Extended Schools Programme, which seeks to ensure that over time all schools develop into extended schools and so are able to provide those services.
The fourth theme I want to highlight as vital to the development of effective schools which educate the whole child is the one raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley. It is the importance of schools focusing not just on learning programmes, important as they are, but on values by engaging young people in support of the values of duty, obligation and mutual responsibility which are so vital to the young people themselves becoming effective parents. I agree with the noble Baroness that the churches and faith communities have a part to play in this, but schools of all affiliations take these responsibilities increasingly seriously.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raised the issue of alcohol abuse. Let me say that I fully accept the gravity of these matters. The figures he gave are broadly correct. I would set against the fact that there is a certain amount of serious alcohol abuse taking place the fact that a Department of Health survey published today shows that the proportion of young people who said they never drink has been rising since 2001. Last year 46 per cent said that they had never tried alcohol, but that is not in any way to minimise the importance of the minority for whom alcohol abuse is a really serious and in all kinds of ways life-threatening issue for them.
Young people are one of the three priority areas in the revised alcohol harm reduction strategy, which is due to be published this summer. We are mindful of many of the noble Lord’s points about the effectiveness of that strategy, and I will keep him in touch with its progress when it is published. Of course, the Government encourage sensible drinking by adults through unit labelling and health messages, and the Children Act 2004 requires directors of children’s services to protect children put at risk from alcohol-misusing parents. Parental substance misuse is also clearly referenced in the new common assessment framework, which supports the early identification of substance misuse, including alcohol, and ensures that children receive planned interventions. I will have to deal with the other points in correspondence.
Parenting poses universal challenges irrespective of wealth or background, but while there are many challenges there is also much cause for encouragement. The attitudes of young people themselves are largely positive. Surveys show that most parents today spend more time with their children than their own parents spent with them. Education and standards are far higher than a generation ago, and mothers and fathers today want greater involvement in their children’s lives. For our part as a Government, we recognise that parents need steadily more and better support. Our policy, as set out in Every Parent Matters, is to provide that, especially to families with the fewest independent resources. While we have more to do, there are also grounds for optimism, which was reflected fully in the contributions today.
My Lords, that was a fascinating and interesting debate, well informed and wise. It would be impossible to summarise it, and it is not my job to do so, but there were three words that I heard come up many times: love, relationships and community.
It remains only for me to thank all the speakers for staying behind from their recess for an extra hour or two for this important debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.