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Children: Parenting

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 19 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to define more clearly the responsibilities of parenthood.

My Lords, the Government recognise that the vast majority of parents in this country understand their responsibilities and take them very seriously. They are doing a good job in bringing up their children. It is not government’s role to tell parents how to raise their children. The state already has clear powers to intervene where parents fail in the care of their children and we have no plans to add to the legislation on this issue.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. I was particularly interested in the latter part of what he said—what one might call the no-nanny-state argument. It seems to me that the Government are on the horns of a dilemma. As I understand it, it is their policy to increase equality and social mobility. In February, we had two debates on the importance of early parenting in which speaker after speaker emphasised the importance of early parenting in enabling a child to succeed in school and in life. How do the Government plan to ensure as far as possible that parents understand and know the needs of their children, even if they—the parents—did not have a happy home life? Are the Government prepared to make it clear to parents that they are responsible for providing the parenting their children need, or at least to raise the issue?

My Lords, I am extremely aware that few noble Lords in this House have done more than the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to champion the case for parenting, and there is broad agreement in this House about the importance of it. The noble Lord asked whether we have plans to specify parental responsibilities through more legislation, perhaps in the way that it has been done in Scotland. The answer is that we do not. Our view is that the Children Act 1989 sets out a very clear framework and having a new definition of responsibilities could complicate that. I am not sure that setting a declaratory definition would help. Most parents know what it is to be a parent and perform their role well. I am not sure that those who do not would be helped by something written down on a piece of paper. The priority is to give practical help to those parents, which I think all sides of the House agree is an important job.

Does the Minister agree that it is not the job of the state to do the job of parents? Rather than definition, surely we need action. Action was promised in the coalition document, but action there has been none. What will the Government do in terms of fiscal incentives and general improvements in the context within which parents can bring up loving families?

I am glad that the noble Lord agrees that there is no need for more definition around this. In terms of practical steps that have been taken, I disagree that the Government have done nothing. A range of steps have been taken including extending free nursery care for two year-olds to disadvantaged families, extending the offer to three and four year-olds, doubling the number of people working in family-nurse partnerships and increasing the number of family health visitors, so a number of practical steps have been taken. Clearly there are families in which parents have problems in performing their duties properly. There are lessons we can learn from the extremely important and valuable work of the previous Government with family intervention projects, which we can try to extend.

My Lords, could the Government not arrange economic affairs so that more parents are encouraged to get married?

My Lords, the question of what those economic incentives might be is clearly a matter for my friends at the Treasury. I am sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will consider any proposals there might be for such incentives and bring them forward at the appropriate time.

My Lords, international surveys of child happiness show the experience of childhood in this country not to be as positive as in many other countries, particularly in Europe. Therefore, I wonder whether there is not at least some case for codifying the proper expectations of a child in relation to parenthood, as has been the case, for example, in the Napoleonic Code in France for many years. Is there a case not for the nanny state but for some codification that might help the process of personal and social education in schools?

To revert to my earlier answer, I am not convinced of the need for a codification. I do not know how one would set about it or, in practical terms, the benefits it might bring. The priority should be to focus on and to help those families who most need help, rather than to draw up an approach for all parents and families, as I am not aware that there is a particular problem in most families and with most parents.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most successful initiatives designed to help parents to understand their responsibilities was the introduction of Sure Start centres? Is he concerned about the level of cuts being imposed by cash-strapped local authorities, which is estimated to be around 22 per cent in real terms? Will his department reconsider its decision not to ring-fence the Sure Start centre grant?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, about the contribution that Sure Start centres make. Other initiatives, such as the family intervention project, pioneered by the previous Government, achieved a lot and we can learn from that. I agree about the importance of Sure Start centres. There is a difference of opinion between us about the degree of local discretion and autonomy that one allows, which is why we have removed the ring-fence. We have put enough money into the early intervention grant to maintain a universal network of Sure Start centres, which is what we want to do.

My Lords, given the strong evidence showing the adverse impact on children who are exposed to high levels of damaging parental conflict, as so clearly highlighted by the Kids in the Middle campaign, what plans do the Government have to help parents to understand and meet their responsibilities to children when relationships break down?

My Lords, given the circumstances, I think that it probably is best to speak to my noble friend later and pursue that point with her.