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Family-strengthening Policies

Volume 824: debated on Monday 10 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the Children’s Commissioner’s Family Review, published on 1 September, what steps they will take to ensure every department brings forward family-strengthening policies.

My Lords, across government we are committed to strengthening families. We recently announced over £1 billion for programmes to improve family services, including funding for family hubs and the Supporting Families programme. Recent reviews such as the independent review of children’s social care and the Children’s Commissioner’s review of family life make recommendations on how public services should understand and respond to family needs. We will take a cross-government view when considering those recommendations.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her somewhat positive response. Has a Cabinet Minister been appointed to co-ordinate every department’s policies to strengthen families? Also, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that the hallmark of British families is their “greater fragility and complexity” compared with other western European countries. Only 56% of children are still with both parents at the age of 17; the OECD average is 84%. The IFS also says that parental separation lowers the economic and psychological well-being of the adults. How will the Government address the importance of family stability for economic growth?

I thank my noble friend for his question and I take this opportunity to thank him more broadly for his tireless work over many years on support for families and recognition of their value. The Government, too, recognise that a stable environment and well-functioning families are vital for children’s outcomes, which in turn can support economic growth. On the issue of a Minister within the Cabinet with responsibility for families, obviously my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is extremely focused on this, but our current focus is on how we can drive join-up, and the department is leading on collaboration with several other government departments in this area.

Does the Minister consider cutting the real value of social security benefits, especially for children, to be a family-strengthening policy in view of the Legatum Institute’s prediction that it would mean much more extensive and deeper poverty, especially among families with children?

I know the noble Baroness will recognise that the Government have committed £37 billion to households most in need, and that £8 million of the most vulnerable households will receive an additional £1,200 of support for energy bills.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the current Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, has a stated aim of ensuring that no child grows up in an institution. What help are the Government giving to ensure that that noble aim is achieved?

The noble Lord will be aware of the work that was done by Josh MacAlister in his independent review of children’s social care and by the Competition and Markets Authority on children’s homes. We have said that we are considering both those reports, and we will report back later this year.

My Lords, the Minister will know very well that there has been a marked reduction in family support services in recent years, in particular day centres and Sure Start centres, which can support families at a critical time in their lives when they are experiencing a crisis. Can the Minister reassure the House that everything will be done to recover these preventive services so that children do not come into care unnecessarily?

Obviously the noble Lord is a great expert in this area. I will do my best to reassure him. The Government recently announced over £1 billion in programmes to develop early help at any point from childhood to adulthood; as the noble Lord hinted, none of us always knows when a crisis might emerge. More specifically, on reducing the number of children in care, we are investing £84 million in the Strengthening Families, Protecting Children programme, which is working with the 17 local authorities with the highest numbers of children in the care system.

My Lords, one of the most interesting discoveries in the report, for which the Children’s Commissioner for England is to be commended—it is a really good report—is that policymakers work on households but families themselves think more broadly than households, and that “family” needs to be the thing that drives policy rather than “household”. This is seen, for example, in young offenders and in other areas of life. Can the Minister comment on thinking about changing how policy is made towards family?

It might take more than the time I am allowed to talk about how policy might be made but, more specifically, it is at the heart of our work on offering children a better start in life through the family hubs that services should meet the needs of families, be seamless to access and have a stress on welcoming; there should be no stigma to accessing them.

Part 1 of the family review is full of case studies of hard-working parents struggling with the cost of childcare, doing their absolute best to support their families but finding it incredibly difficult. Have the Government conducted any recent analysis of the value of free breakfast clubs for primary schoolchildren in England, to give parents and carers more support and flexibility?

I am not aware of any recent research, but the noble Baroness is obviously aware that we offer universal free school meals. There are 1.25 universal infant free school meals—sorry, 1.25 million; that was close, it was nearly policy at the Dispatch Box—so 1.25 million children in infant schools receive those meals.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a particular group of young mothers with very young children who are quite unable to understand how to bring them up, and what can the Government do to help that group?

One of the biggest lines in the budget for family hubs—£50 million of the £300 million in that package—is for parenting programmes specifically, and an even bigger line, about £100 million, is for infant and parental mental health. Both those things address the group which the noble Baroness refers to.

Does the Minister remember that many thousands of children take on caring responsibilities, far more than we would perhaps like to imagine? They do so often because services to support disabled parents are quite inadequate. Will her department remember the connection between those children’s health and the provision of social care services?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point, and that is where our joint working with the Department for Health and Social Care, for example, is particularly important.

My Lords, what plans do the Government have two remove, or at least phase out, the two-child cap on welfare benefit? Would that not be a great help to larger families?

I fear that I shall have to defer to my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions but, as I mentioned earlier, the Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable families in this country and have committed £37 billion to that end.

My Lords, has my noble friend considered the appointment of a commission of inquiry of some sort into the medium and long-term effects of the fall in the birth rate in this country to, I believe, now below 1.65?

There may be opportunities for a commission in this area, but my noble friend will be aware that a number of institutions and universities in this country and more broadly are very much focused on that issue.

My Lords, will the Minister talk to her ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health about the importance of tackling RSV in children, particularly those at school and infants, because that respiratory condition is debilitating for families as well as for children?