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Support for Children and Families: Covid-19

Volume 682: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2020

I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their patience during the security scare, but all has now been satisfactorily resolved. This is a one and a half hour debate; it will start now and finish at 25 minutes past 11. One Member has chosen to withdraw from the list as he will not be able to be here between 11 am and 11.25 am. If there are others in a similar position, they can notify the Chair accordingly.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for children and families during the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for supporting the application for this debate. We have become used to hearing that the pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities that existed in our society, and that we need to build back better. I do not intend to change that script. I want to start with some observations about family life under covid-19 and draw some lessons for the future.

I was very much a witness to the inequalities under lockdown. I spent it with my family in Wiltshire during the beautiful spring and early summer, watching the barley slowly ripen, under skies clear of planes; cycling on roads clear of cars. It was an idyllic existence. However, every day my inbox would fill with emails from families in crisis. I used to work with children and families at risk in disadvantaged parts of London, and I have some sense as to what parents in overcrowded accommodation without enough money must have been through this year. For families who were already in trouble, financially or emotionally, the pandemic has been a disaster. Rates of domestic violence have soared, alcohol and substance abuse have increased, people’s mental health has suffered, and, of course, poverty has worsened.

Save the Children reports that 40% of families have become worse off, and 20% of families have made use of food banks. Personal debt has risen dramatically, and children are the principal victims here, especially children with disabilities, looked-after children, and all those who really rely on support outside the home—support which in many cases disappeared during lockdown, and will remain unavailable in areas under local lockdowns.

I acknowledge how much the measures put in place by the Government have helped many of these families: universal credit, the brainchild of the my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), has worked with incredible efficiency. It is a tribute to him and the current Ministers, and to the thousands of officials and jobcentre staff who manage that system. The £20 per week uplift has been a lifeline for countless families. Likewise the mortgage holidays, the protection against eviction, the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. The Government put a defensive ring around families’ homes and incomes and I pay tribute to them.

I want to pay tribute not only to the Government, but to the families themselves, or should I say “the family” as an institution. The resilience, capability and adaptability and the hidden resources of care and skill that families found in this crisis are extraordinary. The families are the single most important system for what we used to call social security. They have been the most effective defence against disaster for children and adults. They are the single greatest asset that we have as a country.

I mention this because it is right that we focus on these dreadful problems, but we also need to consider the conditions for success, to accentuate the positive, as Bing Crosby said, not just eliminate the negative. However, to eliminate the negative first, I have two simple principles to suggest to address the current crisis for families.

The first principle is that of greater support around the family through more investment in the social infrastructure of communities, especially civil society, especially through the family hubs that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and others have championed so assiduously and that are found in the Conservative manifesto. I would also like to see expansion of the help to claim and the flexible support fund. We are inching towards the vision my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has for what he called universal support: a package of help provided by charities and community groups alongside the cash provided by universal credit.

The second immediate step that we should be taking to eliminate the negative, in order to meet the needs of families in trouble right now, is to invest directly in them. I respect the arguments of those who want to maintain the £20 a week uplift for all UC claimants beyond next April, but I would point out that it would not only cost nearly £6 billion a year but that half of those claimants do not have children, and in my view we should focus on households with children, aka families.

Let me finish with some high-level thoughts on how to accentuate the positive and strengthen families from within over the long term, so that people are better insulated against whatever shocks and challenges the next decades will throw at us. Here, I have to challenge what I see as a malign alliance of left and right, or more specifically liberals on the left and the right, who are the dominant force in both our tribes. By the way, I exclude from my idea of “liberal” the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, a Liberal Democrat. Where is he? Not here—withdrawn. He is a sound conservative in my book, but he is not here to defend himself against my suggestion that he is not really a liberal but a good conservative.

Anyway, liberals of left and right might disagree on the proper size and role of Government, but they agree that government and society in general should not try to influence family life. I think they are wrong and that government should seek to influence family life, because it does so anyway; it influences the choices that people make all the time. When it pretends to be neutral, its influence is no less real but is a lot less positive.

The policies that we have created in this country over many decades actively, although not intentionally, pull families apart. Our housing policy has created the smallest homes and our jobs market has created the longest commutes in Europe. We have childcare subsidies that only work for people if they put their kids into a nursery for most of the day, and we have a higher education system that makes young people study far from home for jobs that only exist in big cities. We have a social care system that only pays out to people if they put their parents into residential care or makes them sell the family home to pay for it. Most of all, we actively disincentivise family stability by penalising couples who live together. We pay couples more in benefits if they live apart. We tax people as individuals, which means we tax single-earner couples particularly hard, and then we compensate them in benefits. We then punish them for coming off benefits and moving into work with a very high effective marginal tax rate. I recognise that universal credit has greatly reduced that rate, but it remains too high. We have high taxes and high benefits, and we still leave families in poverty.

In contrast to the malign alliance of liberals who think that family life is no business of wider society and of the Government, I have a view of what good looks like. Before I cause alarm—I can sense the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) beginning to twitch—I should emphasise that I am not conjuring up the 1950s, with the nuclear family centred on the housewife. As David Brooks has written, the 1950s nuclear family, the single-earner household living literally detached from wider kin and community, was a brief and unsuccessful experiment only made tolerable by Valium. As Mary Harrington has argued, the trad wife—#tradwife, as it is trendily known in some conservative circles—is a historic anomaly. The really traditional wife was a trade wife; she was not just a domestic consumer, but a fully engaged player in the local economy. What I am getting at is that we need to recognise and support the economy of households and not just of individuals. You will know, Sir Christopher, that the economy of households is actually a tautology, because the etymology of our word “economy” is in fact the Greek world word for household—the oikos. The oikos was the smallest viable social unit, the foundation of society, and we need to strengthen it.

Yes, that means support for one-earner couples. I applaud the work of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies, and “A Manifesto To Strengthen Families”, led by the friend of many of us here, David Burrowes. They all call for an end to the couple penalty in the tax system. When Nigel Lawson introduced individual taxation in 1990, he always intended to let married couples share their combined personal allowances if one of them did not do paid work. Mrs Thatcher— possibly like the hon. Member for Walthamstow, who in so many ways she resembles—was not sympathetic to stay-at-home mothers.

We need to get this matter right, so that people who choose to work—unpaid—by looking after children or elderly relatives, or by helping in their community, are not penalised for doing so. My idea of what good looks like is both more old-fashioned than in the 1950s and more progressive; it is both medieval and modern, which I am sure Members will agree is what we should be aiming for in all things. Two parents where possible, multigenerational where possible, with both parents able to work from or close to home, in paid employment or self-employment, or caring for others without pay, and engaged in the local community. That is the vision that I think would command the support of the public. Middle-class families such as mine had a glimpse of that model during the lockdown, and I hope we can achieve it for everyone.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship Sir Christopher, as it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). Unlike with Caesar, I do not come to bury him but to praise many of the things that he has to say—and just for the avoidance of doubt, I am not on Valium while doing it. He and I agree on much of what he has just said. We agree that it is actually about the support for families.

It is always interesting to hear the hon. Member’s perorations about etymological foundations. I come with a much more practical message this morning, because we know that our families are in crisis. The question is—and he and I would agree on this—what can we practically do, as communities and as the state, to support them? We know that supporting families reaps rewards, not just for those families, but for the entire communities that they live in.

I agree with what the hon. Member says about the couples’ penalty and not penalising people for how they live, but I would gently encourage him to look at the penalising that currently goes on for those families who find themselves in the most awful situation: where one family member dies, but, because the family have decided that they do not wish to use marriage as a basis for their relationship, their children are pushed into poverty because, under our legislation, those children are not entitled to the bereavement support payment. If he wants to not just talk the talk but walk the walk, I am sure he will join me in raising that with Ministers.

I come this morning to talk about the defensive ring that the hon. Member has already mentioned in terms of rising evictions and debt, and what we can do now that the defensive ring that he talks about is about to end, particularly when we know that we are about to face a tsunami of unemployment in this country.

It has become increasingly clear over the last couple of months that within the family, it is the mums that are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Before a child has even been born in this country in the last couple of months, we have had women who have gone to have scans on their own and found out their child would not live; they have had to give birth on their own and health visitors have been cancelled without anybody being told. As the hon. Member for Devizes mentioned, domestic violence has risen. Now, the evidence is before us that it is mums who are bearing the brunt of that approaching tsunami of unemployment. If, as the hon. Member says, he believes that both sides of the family should be able to work and come together as a family, I hope he will join me in calling for urgent action to tackle the reasons why it is mums who are much more likely to have been furloughed and are therefore much more likely to face redundancy. Indeed, the fantastic organisation, which I am sure he is a supporter of, Pregnant Then Screwed has seen a 450% increase in calls to their helpline during the pandemic. Little wonder.

The protections that many of us took for granted preventing women from being made redundant while pregnant have disintegrated in the past couple of months. We know that it is women who have been doing the working from home in both senses. While the hon. Member was cycling, I am sure that his wife was looking after their three children and trying to home school them. That is not an unusual experience.

The evidence that we have had shows that overwhelmingly it has been women who have been managing children in the home and trying to work from home. Their employers push them to be furloughed to be able to manage that situation, and then they find themselves at the front of the queue to be let go. That is why we know that during lockdown, for every hour of uninterrupted work done by mothers, fathers had three uninterrupted hours of work, according to the research. We know that it is particularly women who are suffering because our childcare and schooling facilities were closed.

What is worrying me now—and I hope that the Minister will tell us they have an action plan for this—is that two thirds of women who want to return to work cannot do so because there is not any childcare. It is a very simple equation: when you have to socially distance three-year-olds—my goodness, I would not wish that on anybody—then clearly there are fewer places, which means that fewer people can put their children into childcare and so an already broken system in this country is now clattering to a halt.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that mothers were 47% more likely that fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit during the pandemic, and are 14% more likely to have been furloughed. Pregnant Then Screwed research of 20,000 mothers show that 15% of them had either already been made redundant or expected to be made redundant. It is a generational rollback of mothers in the workplace and of workplaces being able to work for mothers.

We already know from data published on 15 September by the Office for National Statistics that the numbers of redundancies have increased by 45% this quarter. Of those affected by that increase, 79% were women. The high-level data that looks at men versus women does not capture the particular phenomenon we are seeing of the tsunami of unemployment coming towards mothers. It is particularly in the industries that mums work in that we have seen higher levels of redundancies and high levels of closures— hospitalities, retail jobs—and it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that it takes political will to recognise that mums are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. That is why it is so important that we keep that universal credit uplift: we already know that more and more families are falling into poverty.

If the hon. Member wants, as I do, mothers to be able to work and fathers to be able to work, and for them to balance family life as they choose, then we have to make it possible for them to do that. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that withdrawing that uplift would bring 700,000 more people—including 300,000 more children—into poverty. If parents cannot work because they cannot put their children into childcare, then we need to be able to support those families, or destitution will become even more widespread than it already is. Child poverty has already increased by 600,000 since this Government came to administration, meaning that 4.2 million children are living below the breadline. That was before covid hit.

There are some solutions. In the time left, I want to be clear about that. First and foremost, we need urgent investment in childcare in this country to keep those nurseries and maintained providers open that are desperately needed so that parents can get back to work if they choose, so that mums can make that choice. We need to keep that universal credit uplift. We also need to simplify the tax support we give to childcare. I agree with the hon. Member for Devizes that the state can play an active hand—not a dead hand—in helping it work. Frankly, the money is there. Last year, £664 million worth of tax-free childcare was not claimed, amounting to £1.7 billion over the last three years. Imagine if we could put that into childcare settings, and help get families back to being able to organise their lives the way they want. There is £64 million in the local authority schools budget. The money is there. The need is there. The poverty is there. The question is whether the political will is there. I venture that the hon. Member for Devizes and I share a common concern to make sure that the political will is there, and to do what our suffragette sisters and fathers would ask of us: deeds, not just words.

Before calling the next speaker, I will say that 13 other Members wish to be called and there are 52 minutes left. By my calculations, self-discipline of about four minutes per speech should enable everybody to get a hearing.

It is a privilege to serve under your tutelage, Sir Christopher. It is always a privilege. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). Sometimes when I listen to what he says in his speeches, I often think that I could have written them. Perhaps I did, I do not know, but then I realise that he used to write speeches for me as well. In a sense, we are a little too heavily joined at the hip. I promise that I will not embarrass him any more on that basis.

I fundamentally agree with everything he said, particularly with regards to the challenges. In a sense, much of what the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), literally a neighbour of mine, says can be meshed together internally. There are ways through this, and I wish we could form some kind of common purpose in all of it rather than attacking each other. Too often, at the heart of these debates is not the question of left or right, but a big difference about whether people think we should intervene with Government or not.

To those assembled here, I make the point that we face real issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes mentioned the tax system. A good example of what happens when people get into government is that they immediately use the argument that we should not intervene because we show a bias towards one side. The UK has the worse tax system for families that wish to stay together. We have the worse system in Europe, particularly where a person in that family wishes to look after their children for a while. Every other major country in Europe has an allowance, and people can move their allowances across. In Germany, they have income-splitting which gives families an immediate balance, which is more expensive to be fair. But in France they have a marriage tax allowance form as well. We in the UK are alone in having not had one for a period, the Labour Government having taken it away. When I was in government, I sat arguing with the Chancellor—I did a lot of that when I was in government—about that very point. Finally, with the Prime Minister’s intervention, we reinstated the marriage tax allowance. However, it was done at such a measly and miserly level, and then hidden so deep in the documents, that nobody claimed it because they did not know it existed. The Government refused to let anybody know about it, until finally they told them about it. That is one of the problems we face with Government.

It is not a case of siding with one side or the other. If we get family life and the involvement of Government balanced, people will make their own choices; that is all I ever ask for. I know those choices will be, in the vast majority of cases, balanced, positive and constructive. Everyone out there, except for the exceptional minority, wants their family to be stable, and would prefer their children brought up with both parents looking after them all the way through their childhood. Government intervene in the wrong way and distort the nature of that decision, and then accuse everybody of asking them to intervene and take sides, but that is not the case.

I appreciate the comments about universal credit and, definitely, about universal support. Universal support, alongside universal credit, is critical in getting people help and assistance along the lines that the hon. Member for Walthamstow talked about. We should all be on the side of getting that rolled out.

Finally, on schools, we have a real problem at the moment. There is pressure on parents as a result of what is happening in our schools. Whole year groups are suddenly being sent home because one child is infected. That goes against all the evidence that children are not vectors to adults, but that it is the other way round. This situation is causing chaos in families up and down the land. There is a good organisation called UsforThem, which is made up of parents who are worried because they have had to leave work and go back home. That has caused real stress in families, and had a real effect on family break-up. It is also causing problems for children, more of whom need intervention and are now under protected schemes.

We need to think again about what in heaven’s name we are doing with our schools in relation to covid. The children are losing out massively, the parents are suffering dramatically, and if we do not get proper advice to schools, we will be buying ourselves a heap of problems down the road, in 10 years’ time. Schools are operating without clear advice on what they should do when children get covid, and they immediately send everybody home. That has to stop. We need to get a balanced view.

I end by saying that I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes’ speech. It was absolutely right; it is on the money. I will not repeat what he said, but I back every bit of it; I just wish we had longer to speak.

I will be uncharacteristically brief, Sir Christopher. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) for securing a debate on the subject. We have heard so much about the impact of covid on jobs, schools, universities, businesses, the hospitality sector and the NHS. Children—particularly young children—and families are the forgotten element in the whole covid crisis. It is important that we talk about them today, and about the mental health impact on not just school-age children, but parents, for all the reasons my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) mentioned. There has been huge upheaval due to the extra childcare required and the unpredictability of schools.

There is a lack of support networks for new parents in particular. Some 350,000 babies were born during lockdown. Many of them have not seen other babies. Mums have not been able to take babies to the normal post-natal classes and baby groups that they would usually take them to, so we are now seeing examples of babies recoiling when they meet other babies, because they are not used to other human beings like them. They have not had the support network of extended family members; for a new parent, a new mum—particularly a new single mum—that has been a huge challenge. We need to think not just about the catch-up we need for school-age children—the Children’s Commissioner has calculated this week that we have lost 575 million school days since lockdown—but about catch-up for very young children, and babies and infants in particular.

In last week’s debate, I flagged up the importance of health visitors. Before lockdown, we had lost 30% of health visitors. A great triumph of the coalition Government was to create 4,200 additional health visitors. We are virtually back to the numbers we inherited in 2010. Health visitors have had face-to-face contact only with new parents in vulnerable families, but there are over 106,000 children under the age of one living in households in this country where parents suffer from domestic violence, substance abuse or serious mental health issues. These children need those health visitors eyeballing them, providing health support and acting as an early warning system.

I recommend reading the “Babies in Lockdown” report, which was jointly published over the summer by the Parent-Infant Foundation, which I have been proud to chair for the last six years, Home-Start—a fantastic charity—and Best Beginnings. Their report found that 68% of the 5,500 parents interviewed felt that the changes brought about by covid-19 were affecting their unborn baby or young child. Over two thirds of respondents said that overall, their ability to cope with pregnancy or care for their baby had been affected by covid-19, and many families on lower incomes from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and young parents have been hit harder by the pandemic. This can only have widened the already deep inequalities in the early experiences and life chances of children.

The report therefore recommends that we increase specialised parent-infant relationship teams around the UK, of which there are only 30 at the moment. These teams bring together a range of highly skilled professionals to support and strengthen the important relationships between babies and their parents or carers. The report also recommends a parent-infant premium, which would provide local commissioners with new funding targeted at improving incomes for the most vulnerable children. We need children in schools to catch up, but if we do not help babies and pre-school children catch up, the problem will be even worse when they get to school; that is why this report and this debate are so important.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I start by congratulating the hon. Members for Devizes (Danny Kruger), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this important debate.

Sadly, too many children and young people, along with their families, have been left behind in the covid-19 crisis. Even before this pandemic, with youth services slashed, escalating debt, and persistently high levels of mental ill health, young people were being denied the opportunities enjoyed by their parents’ generation. According to the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission, 600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty than in 2012. Last year, the number of children living in relative poverty rose by 100,000 to 4.2 million, or around 30% of all children. Four in every 10 children in Leicester East live in poverty. Some 14% of our households are in fuel poverty. This means that too many families in my community are forced to make that impossible choice between heating their homes or feeding their children, and sadly, the Government have not done enough to support them.

Like many here today, I fear that the long-term impact of covid-19 will serve to exacerbate the difficulties that children and their families already face. For instance, the Government’s furlough scheme is due to expire at the end of the month, yet nearly 1 million people still on furlough are either living under localised restrictions or in cities on the national watchlist. That means increased economic uncertainty and distress for too many families up and down the country.

The knock-on effect for children cannot be overstated. Indeed, the lockdown has left some children at more risk of harm; at-risk children are less visible as schools and other services close. The number of children referred to children’s services between the end of April and the middle of June was 18% lower than over the past three years. This is especially concerning in Leicester, as we have faced localised covid-19 restrictions for longer than any other area, and will put a great strain on local authority children’s services, which have already been severely cut over the last decade of austerity. This means that essential frontline services that many children and families in Leicester East—my constituency—rely on will suffer as a result.

The amount that our community received in covid-19 support has also been insufficient. At the start of the extended lockdown in July, Leicester, Oadby and Wigston received £3 million in support, the equivalent of £7.30 per person. That is 1,000 times less than the Government are paying top consultancy executives for a single day’s work. As we all know, it was recently revealed that consultants from Boston Consulting Group received up to £7,360 per day while overseeing our disastrous privatised Test and Trace system.

This demonstrates the flawed priorities of our Government; they are happy to spend tens of millions enriching private sector companies, yet leave our families who are struggling to make ends meet to sink or swim. In the past week, they have rejected a campaign led by Marcus Rashford—who was recently awarded a well-deserved MBE—for 1.5 million more children to receive free school meals. Instead, the Government claim:

“the best way to support families outside of term time is through Universal Credit rather than government subsidising meals.”

However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently found that 4 million families face a significant decline in income if the Department for Work and Pensions goes ahead with its plan to scrap the £20 increase in universal credit that was introduced due to the pandemic. It is deeply worrying that the Government plan to cut universal credit during an unprecedented economic crisis. That is especially concerning in Leicester East, as last month, over 5,000 of our residents claimed unemployment benefits—a figure that has more than doubled—it has gone up by 3,000—since lockdown began in March.

The Government must increase the support available for children and families during the covid-19 outbreak. Young people did not ask for this crisis, or choose to grow up as it took hold. It would be a generational unfairness of unparalleled proportions if we allowed their future to be detrimentally determined by forces outside their control.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on his intelligent speech, which I fully support. I wish I had made it myself. The pandemic challenge is new, and it has exacerbated problems for many families, but many underlying challenges for families are not new—nor is my challenge to Government today, a challenge that has been made to previous Ministers and Prime Ministers. Essentially, it is this: when will we take strengthening families policy more seriously?

That sounds stark, but I will explain. After years of debate and discussions with Ministers, I am convinced that however committed an individual Minister in one Department may be to supporting families—I recognise the commitment of the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford)—unless we have co-ordinated, Cabinet-level leadership across Government, we will not get far on this issue. At present, there simply is no co-ordinated support for families.

Yes, central and local government are understandably focused on their statutory duties to children in schools, early years and social care settings, but what are we doing for children’s wellbeing in the place where they spend most of their formative hours—at home, with their families? The Children’s Commissioner says councils spend three times as much on short-term statutory interventions as they do on longer-term interventions to support families and promote children’s outcomes.

The Government, working across several Departments, can defend their record on mental health and victims of domestic abuse, and good work is going on around the children of alcoholics, but where is the long-term transformational strategy and effective government co-ordination to shift the dial for so many thousands of children impacted by problems in families? The poorest suffer most.

The Cabinet Office Minister, Lord True, said:

“Families are a responsibility for the whole of government … families are at the heart of this government’s agenda”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 April 2020.]

We were elected on a manifesto that states that a strong society needs strong families. We have seen covid support packages for businesses, the self-employed, and those on benefits. All that support has an impact on the financial wellbeing of families; but what about supporting family resilience? No family is immune from the need for support from time to time, to function well. Parents may need access at this time to support for their own mental health, when things get difficult for those with little children during lockdown. They may need support for substance and addiction issues, finances or housing. They may need relationship counselling or specialist support for domestic abuse.

I am not asking for a family bail-out—for billions for many different fighting funds to fix a dozen different symptoms, however serious those are. I simply ask that the Government commit fully to the bigger picture, given that they have already signed up to this, and for a Cabinet-level Minister to actively bring together cross-Government efforts to strengthen families. They could start with our commitment to championing family hubs. We need a strategic approach, not just short-term tactical solutions. We need preventive, whole-family approaches. Families need help to halt the intergenerational transmission of problems. We need a well-functioning, early help system, in which health education, family support, relationship support and other support for families are integrated and seamless, so that no child or family falls through the cracks.

At the heart of that system should be somewhere that people can connect with to get the help that they need. That should be the family hub. It might be a library or a repurposed children’s centre. Some people will simply get access to it online; but wherever and whatever it is, the family hub should be recognisable to local families. It should be a non-judgmental door open to all—a place that they can turn to whenever they need to. We all need such help from time to time. We must do this. Families need that help; it is not a nice-to-have policy. It must be a mission of Government. As we build back better, let us build families back better.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) for bringing forward today’s debate. There are significant challenges for families, not least with the economy bearing down on them now. The biggest solution that we could find would be a way to stop the mass unemployment that we are about to face. I urge the Minister to make representations in Government.

As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and permanence, I want to focus on adoptive families. Adoption UK’s survey in April understood the impact of lockdown on families. Following that, the all-party group carried out two shorter inquiries: one was into the adoption process, and the other was into education and home schooling. The witnesses made incredibly powerful contributions, and I thank them.

The adoption process has been significantly disrupted during the recent period, not least when courts have not been sitting. That has had an impact on children, and I ask the Minister to make it a priority that normal proceedings should resume. The priority should be on child-focused court sittings. It has also been harder for panels to meet. We need to find solutions, so that there will be no further delays to that part of the process. Also, of course, it takes longer to build relationships when people are not physically in contact with the young people concerned, so, again, we need to continue to review the process to ensure that the right connections are made in the right places.

The Minister could really help with the issue of medical checks. They have moved from stage 1 of the adoption process to stage 2, but, again, delays are being brought into the system. If there could be an advance there, it could prevent further delay of adoption processes.

More than half of adoptive parents have said that their children have experienced increased emotional distress during lockdown. Essentially fear about the health and safety of family members is triggering feelings of loss and instability for many adopted children. Those issues, combined with the fundamentally restrictive nature of lockdown, have led to an escalation in the frequency and intensity of child-on-parent violence, which is already common in some adoptive families. Nearly a third have reported experiencing more violent and aggressive behaviour than usual.

Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of many children in adoptive families, and that reminds us all of the importance of the adoption support fund in funding supportive and psychological services. As many children did not receive their established support from schools or health services during lockdown, more demand has been put on the services supporting their families. The additional £6 million provided to enable families to access helplines, virtual peer support and online therapeutic support was needed, but we must remember that this money was brought forward from future funding. I plead with the Minister to see this not as bringing money forward but as putting additional money put into the adoption support fund. I would also like to hear her plans for next year, as this period of uncertainty continues and pressures on families increase, particularly on those with vulnerable children. I ask that we meet that demand, to give those families the best chance of being successful.

Adopted children experience many trauma points in the course of their education, and we have certainly found that issues such as exclusion from school bring trauma not only to the child but into the home. We heard powerful testimony from the head of inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council, Mary Meredith—I recommend that the Minister meets her—who highlighted how exclusion approaches are deeply damaging, especially for a child with disordered attachment. I therefore ask that the Minister looks into the issue to ensure that we can keep children safe in school, not least as exclusions are 20 times more likely for children who have experienced care.

Finally, I want to highlight the fact that thousands of children are currently awaiting placement with a family. We need more families to come forward for adoption and fostering, to ensure that these children have a safe and healthy upbringing. I trust that the Minister will do all she can, working with the APPG and the incredible charities and organisations out there, to ensure that these children have safe families for their futures.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), who made such an excellent speech, and I will come to some of the points he made. May I also say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)? She made a powerful speech. Seventeen children in my constituency are waiting for that forever loving home, which I think we all agree is arguably the defining thing in lifting their life chances and their health and wellbeing, so I congratulate her on her work.

I think we all knew before lockdown that strong family relationships are defining for life chances on every measure we care to mention. They are the single most important driver in life, and the pandemic has only served to put that into technicolour. When restrictions started to ease and lockdown was lifted, there were miles of queues around McDonald’s drive-throughs, but hon. Members will not be surprised to know that, in the Big Conversation survey published in my local paper, the Eastbourne Herald, the most important and missed part of readers’ lives was their families. We have already reflected in the debate on the fact that we would like to see family policy far higher up the Government agenda, and it is clearly recognised by the people we represent that family is the original, best and most effective welfare state when times are tough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes is right that lockdown was polarising. Some of my constituents got in touch to say that, actually, during that time, they were able to reconnect and to rediscover and build stronger relationships with their children. Their priorities are going to change going forward. They have enjoyed their homes, and they have enjoyed each other. However, there is a far darker reality around lockdown, as reflected in the work of the Children’s Commissioner and the Centre for Social Justice around increased conflict and abuse and the pressure of near-constant confinement.

I pay tribute to East Sussex County Council. The teams there worked so hard during the lockdown months, directly calling more than 6,000 families to try to make sure that the available support was getting to those in need. Their abiding concern now is the unemployment landscape and all the challenges that that will present.

Services are available, but one of the points that I am most anxious to convey is that family support extends far beyond that nought to five category. Too often, people look just at those critical and challenging years, as people step into being a new parent, but we really need to make the case that family support is lifelong.

One of the aspects that I recognise and value about the provision in East Sussex is that the council recognises that families are under pressure and face challenges at every age and stage. Perhaps I speak with feeling as a mother to three teenage boys, but it is critical that we support families all the way down the line—that needs to be in neon lights.

There have been a lot of contributions around the role of the state. Whether it is an active hand or an influence that can distort, both are very recognisable realities. The state definitely has a part to play in setting the context, in setting priorities and in providing funding measures. However, we must avoid the trap of believing that the Government are the alpha and the omega here. In fact, there is real truth in the saying that it takes a whole village, and I would like to conclude by paying tribute to my personal village.

There are many organisations in my town that have worked hard in this time to hold the fabric of family life together. I pay tribute to our schools, which have remained open throughout. That has been hugely important, particularly for vulnerable children and their families. When I visited the Haven school, amid all the talk and anxiety about children returning to school, I arrived to the sound of children’s laughter in the playground. They need each other, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) talked about that connection—about babies being together, and young children being together. It is so important that we keep our schools open.

I pay tribute to Embrace, a charity that supports the parents of children with special educational needs, because it has been particularly challenged in this time. I also pay tribute to Holding Space, which works so hard around mental health.

Strong societies need strong families. We have a part to play here, and I hope this debate contributes to that discussion. I want to align myself with the call for that Cabinet-level leadership and that whole- Government approach.

It is pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on putting forward the case very well and with a certain amount of humour, and I thank him for that. It is also nice to see the Minister in her place. She and I were born in the same town—in Omagh, in County Tyrone—so it is pleasing to see her elevated to that position. I will never reach the heights of Minister, of course, but she has, and well done to her. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this debate and colleagues for raising the issue in the first place.

Covid-19 has been incredibly difficult for so many people and so many families. I am feeling the effect of it myself this week, as I lost my mother-in-law to it. The effect on children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is very real. Our children are aware of things that we would want to hide from them for their safety, and I know there is concern that this age group should be carefree. Hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen have referred to that, and I thank them for it. It saddens this grandfather to see so many children so uncertain and unable to do things that their normal lives saw them doing. Swimming lessons have been cancelled again. They can have no meals out with granny and granddad. There are no play dates with cousins. Little lives are disrupted, and that will have implications for their mental health.

I want to speak specifically on mental health, and others will probably do that as well. For some families who have already had their struggles, this isolation and removal from support can see irretrievable breakdowns. We need dedicated and focused support for children and families on this issue from the Government. I am proud that Northern Ireland pioneered the introduction of a nationally funded school-based counselling service over 10 years ago to support our vulnerable children and young people, and such a service has been adopted by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. It is important now that there is UK-wide provision of this critical early intervention.

Now more than ever, when we are isolating people in their individual circumstances, we need the support of well-funded initiatives to ensure that those individual circumstances are manageable. Some of the teachers I have spoken to in the last months have expressed fears that their children, to whom they give that little bit of extra support emotionally, as well as academically, are removed from them. That happens when schools do not operate as they should, and teachers are concerned that the gap is not being filled.

In Northern Ireland—I suspect it is the same on the mainland—we have rising numbers of those of school age with mental health issues. I welcome the NHS long-term plan commitment that, by 2023-4, at least an additional 345,000 children and young people aged up to 25 will be able to access support via the NHS. That is good, and I am convinced that it will serve a fifth to a quarter of schools and colleges in England by 2023. That is the start that must be made, and we welcome it as a good step forward.

However, we also need to consider the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of children and young people. We need to see more ambition; investing in school-based counselling services would help to serve the missing middle in terms of the support provided between child and adolescent mental health services and meeting the needs of the 75% to 80% of schools not supported under the new model. Mental health in the UK has worsened substantially as a result of the covid-19 pandemic—by 8.1% percent on average, and by much more for young adults and women, and those groups already had poor levels of mental health before covid-19.

A further survey—it is important to record this in Hansard—by Young Minds found that 80% of respondents agreed that the pandemic had made their mental health worse. Of those, 41% said that it had made their mental health much worse, up from 32% in the previous survey, in March. There are increased feelings of anxiety and isolation and a loss of coping mechanisms or motivation. Of 1,000 respondents who were accessing mental health support in the three months leading up to the crisis—including from the NHS and from school and university counsellors, private providers, charities and helplines—31% said they were no longer able to access the support they still needed.

I want to speak up for the people who need that support. Of those who have not been accessing support immediately because of the crisis, 40% said they had not looked for support but they were struggling with their mental health. That is the issue for children. Urgent steps must be taken to provide help to our families and to keep family units intact and—more importantly—happy, and support is needed for that to happen.

There are still six speakers and about 18 minutes, so three minutes each would be my recommendation. The next speaker is Jane Hunt.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to have the honour to follow the wonderful hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for facilitating this important debate. I almost have to declare an interest in Congleton, as it is where I moved to as a child and grew up.

As colleagues have mentioned, the covid-19 outbreak has impacted on society in an unprecedented way. Indeed, I have had many conversations with constituents, who have raised concerns about the future for themselves and their families. They have shared their anxieties about being made redundant and the financial pressures that that entails and about their children’s mental health and wellbeing and the impact that missed schooling may have on their future potential. Parts of Loughborough are among the most deprived in the country, so it is clear that without intervention we run the very real risk of leaving those often vulnerable people behind, widening the disadvantage gap and placing an even greater burden on social services, which are already under strain.

The importance of prevention cannot be overstated. I welcome the fact that the unprecedented impact of covid-19 has been met with an unprecedented package of support from the Government. As well as the financial support available to working families and the enhancements to the welfare system, significant funding has been ploughed into schools to help young people catch up, into local authorities to help the most economically vulnerable and into the fantastic organisations that have worked tirelessly over the past few months to support communities.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention some of the great things that have been undertaken by local people in my constituency recently, which have contributed to the wellbeing of children, young people and families in the area. First and foremost, many of our teachers have worked right through the lockdown to support our children and young people. They have gone beyond teaching to ensure that emphasis is placed on young people’s wellbeing, by regularly contacting many children and their families to ensure that vulnerable children, in particular, are safe, cared for and able to carry on their education.

During two recent visits, I have also witnessed first hand schools’ hard work and the impact that it has had on pupils. First, at Rawlins Academy, I saw the lengths staff had gone to in ensuring that the school could open safely in September. More recently, at Cobden Primary School, I saw how happy the children were and what fantastic work was being created by the head, the teachers and the pupils. We owe an immense debt of gratitude to our teachers and schools for all they have done. Online organisations such as Amazing Grace, which is helping to bring children back up to speed with their coursework, have also been invaluable to the area.

As well as supporting the community through the initial stages of the pandemic, I have been working with organisations that are looking to the future and on to recovery. For example, Loughborough College, Charnwood Borough Council, Loughborough’s business improvement district and Loughborough’s jobcentre have joined forces to help young people into work—the surest way out of poverty—by promoting the kickstart scheme. I am thrilled to say that, so far, 143 job opportunities have been identified in Loughborough, and we only started two weeks ago. That is a testament to what can be achieved when Government organisations and the public work together to support local communities, and it is this collaborative effort that will be vital if we are to ensure that no one is left behind.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on having secured such an important debate about support for families. I could fill much more than my allotted three minutes by retelling some of the heartbreaking lockdown stories that parents across Penistone and Stocksbridge have shared with me, but I particularly want to highlight the plight of families who have children with special educational needs, who have really struggled without the support of schools, face-to-face services and even help from extended family.

Early in lockdown, I received this email from a constituent, which I share with her permission:

“Dear Miriam, My daughter is 5, has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, is awaiting ADHD assessment and is pre verbal.

She has begun lashing out at all family members including her baby sister, she will only eat three foods, she has started smearing her poo on a daily basis, the meltdowns have intensified a thousand times 1000x, and she is sleeping a maximum of two hours a night. I have spoken to the autism nurses, I have spoken to the Multi Agency Support Team, to school; nobody can help and I don't even have a back-up help as I can't see my family.”

For families of children with additional needs, lockdown has been exhausting, but for other households, the picture has been mixed. For families where one or both parents have been furloughed, the opportunity to spend more quality time together has been welcomed. In other families, where parents have juggled an increased workload with home schooling or where loss of income has increased the strain, lockdown has been tough. For single-parent households, the reduction in physical and emotional support has been hard to bear, so what can we learn from the pandemic about how to support families in future?

We need to recognise that covid has stretched the capacity of families that have already reached their elastic limit. So many families, even in normal times, exist on a knife edge. There is just not enough time, money or effort to be a hard-working employee, an effective parent, a loving partner, a carer for elderly relatives, a homemaker, a fit and healthy individual and a volunteer at the local school, so when there is a bump in the road—bereavement, stress at work or sickness—there is nothing and no one to take the strain.

For decades, as has been mentioned by hon. Friends, we have eaten away at family life, with a series of policies that encourage both parents into full-time work. We offer ever-increasing hours of free childcare, without recognising that, for many families, the issue is a lack of work-life balance. We have taxes and benefits that treat each adult as an isolated individual and penalise couples who live together. Those policies have weakened family life, and we must hit reset.

We need to consider the household as a single economic unit, with policies that reduce pressure on family life. We should stop viewing free or cheap childcare as the only solution to families’ problems, and look at how we can redesign the benefits system to allow parents to spend more time at home when their children are young. We need to better understand the economic, health and social benefits to society of resilient family units, putting family at the heart of our levelling-up agenda and investing in family hubs. We need to appreciate the symbiotic relationship between families and communities, because strong families build strong communities, and strong communities build a strong nation.

Covid has hit families hard, but it will not be the last crisis that families face. We must not return to the status quo, but instead find a new settlement that gives families the breathing space and capacity they need and deserve to truly flourish.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates). I also add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) for having secured this debate, because, in large part, children and families are why I entered politics in the first place.

It was my very first day in court: I was out of the classroom, training as a magistrate. I was sitting in the court observing proceedings for the first time with my mentor when a young boy came into the dock. He was 18, making his first appearance in an adult court, but he was grey and tiny, smaller than my 10-year-old son at the time. I remarked on that to my mentor and she said, “Oh yes, I know him. He’s a regular in the youth courts. I’ve known him for years. The reason he is small is that he has been malnourished since he was a child. The reason he is pallid is that he has been fed drugs since he was a child. Because his parents are addicts, he’s been an addict for many years.” That was my introduction to a world I had not had a lot of exposure to before.

I referred to that boy in my maiden speech:

“the boy whose name I do not remember, but whose face I cannot forget.”—[Official Report, 24 February 2020; Vol. 672, c. 96.]

He was an inspiration to me. I saw right in front of me that for some people the mantras of opportunity, aspiration and hard work, the conservative values that I hold dear and which helped my family and me to journey from workhouse to Westminster in three generations, meant little. What did they mean to him or his family?

The virus has taught us many things, but it has also thrown into sharp relief those inequalities and those problems in our society. Communities like mine in Hertford and Stortford have rallied round to help and support each other hugely. I pay tribute to Hertfordshire County Council and East Herts District Council for what they have done to support all families over this period. I also pay tribute to the universal credit system, the jobcentres and the staff in Hertford Jobcentre Plus, because they have been amazing.

I could say a lot more about what the Government have done to support families of all types during this pandemic, but the economic crisis will outlive the health crisis and there will be more that we need to do. However, I will focus again on that boy in court, because he is the one that I go back to, and how families like his will cope. They do not cope in the good times, let alone the bad.

I refer to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Perhaps now is the ideal time to redouble our efforts on family hubs, to provide a place where we can give that intensive, holistic support to families such as that boy’s. We do not have a family hub in my constituency or near it, but I welcome the Department for Education’s support for a major shift in the development of family hubs. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes for initiating this debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. Following heartfelt speeches like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), I know I am in the right place.

Family is fundamental to my Christian beliefs, so I am extremely pleased to speak in this debate. I want to start with the word “entitlement”. I do not believe in entitlement per se. I understand that if we pay for something we are entitled to goods or services, but I hear the phrase “I am entitled” too often these days. However, I do believe we are entitled to good parents.

None of us has to be here. We are here through an act of love—a couple saying that they want a child, which is wonderful—or sometimes, sadly, through a horrible act of selfishness by a forced act. Either way, it is never the child’s fault that they are born. With that in mind, you will understand, Sir Christopher, why I believe that we are entitled to good parents. It should just be a given.

It has been proven time and again that a good family home gives children a chance to blossom into wonderful adults. Family life is not always easy—I know. Kids play up. There is not enough money with four or five different people all wanting different things. One child has a temper while another says nothing. There is one computer but two pieces of homework. Many of us have been there and still are. But when family members love one another and can communicate, they stand a chance of creating a great team that will always look out for each other and will need very little help from the state.

When a family starts to struggle, however, whether over money, work or addictions, we should be there to help keep it together. Too often in this place we make it easy for families to fall apart, but not with family hubs. The family hubs initiative is a wonderful thing. I am fortunate to have two in Don Valley. Although I have not had a chance to go and see the work that they do, I hear that they are doing wonderful work. They bring together many services that are often siloed and difficult to source. They bring them online or in person, but what I believe they do most is give a family a place to talk—they help give a family a second chance.

Why is that important? Because family is important. It is also economically important. It is expected that for every £1 we spend on family hubs, they provide between £8 and £12 in benefit. I believe it is much more. Children from complex families are much more likely to require the taxpayer’s money throughout their lives, through a lack of work, police, prisons and rehabilitation—the list goes on. Instead of being contributors, they end up being unhappy burdens. That cannot be right. We know prevention is better than the cure, so we need to ensure that that happens. That is why we are here.

I finally want to mention covid and the additional challenge that it has brought. I have spoken to many people about the positives and the challenges that lockdown brought, but one comment really stuck with me. A friend said: “If you cannot enjoy time with the people that you love, what else is there?” I thought, “What a wonderful thing to say.” We need to help more people feel a sense of belonging. Family hubs will help, so I ask the Minister to press for all we can afford, as I believe that we will all truly reap the rewards.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on securing this really important debate.

The corona pandemic has had tough consequences. Families across the UK and in my constituency have had to make hard choices and sacrifices in order to protect the health of the nation. This global health crisis has shone a light on the fundamental building blocks of our society. It has forced us to question what really matters and how our social structures operate. Who are the organisations, the people and the community that we look to for support in our daily lives? The pandemic has shown that the answer cannot and should not always lie in the hands of Government. Instead, the value of a rich and meaningful family, community and local support network has been realised.

In July this year, I welcomed the Government’s support for a place-based approach to supporting education and employment outcomes as part of the country’s recovery measures from the pandemic. In my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, I was delighted to see the Government deliver an extra £1.67 million in funding through the opportunity areas programme, which included support for holiday clubs for children and families, such as Ay Up Duck. Throughout the pandemic, the Ay Up Duck club and many charity organisations in Stoke have shown the value of voluntary and community sector organisations in supporting the delivery of Government-funded programmes for children and families, particularly for the role they played in ensuring that Government-funded meals were delivered to children from low-income households throughout the months of the school holidays and school closures. Since 2018, Ay Up Duck has delivered over 26,000 meals to more than 18,000 children and young people in schools, community centres and sports clubs across Stoke-on-Trent. It is a fantastic example of how charities are an essential community resource in organising the delivery of Government funding that is tailored to specific needs in the community.

Age UK has conducted research that shows that, if we feel more connected to our friends, families and communities, we are much less likely to encounter problems with brain function in later life. It is really important that, coming out of this pandemic, we capitalise on public support for volunteering and working together with families to continue to find ways to harness the economic, social and health benefits of being more connected to our community. Time and again, empowering families, communities and charitable organisations with the financial and political power to act has proven to be the most effective way to target Government money at the people who need it most.

I hope you are joking, Sir Christopher.

I want to thank The Sun newspaper and their agony aunt, Deidre Sanders, for flagging up today’s debate with their “Sort It Out” campaign. So let us sort it out for Louis, aged 8, who said:

“My mum and dad spend so much time hating each other, they don’t have time to love me”,

and for Shakira, aged 14, who says:

“when she picks up her phone and sighs and rolls her eyes, I know it’s my dad. I’d pay a lot of money to stop that, she just forgets that I love my dad too and I’m stuck right in the middle”.

I agree with what was said earlier on in the debate that the mums are bearing the brunt of so much of the ghastly covid pandemic. We have too many mothers out there forced to do everything by themselves. Those mothers are doing a heroic job, often under trying circumstances, and they deserve a lot of credit, but they should not have to do that alone as often as they do. Raising children is the most important job in the country and it is the responsibility of all of us as mothers and fathers.

As President Obama said in his 2010 father’s day address, our children

“don’t need us to be perfect. They do need us to be present. They need us to show up and give it our best shot”.

Too many fathers are missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities and acted like boys, not men. We need fathers to realise that responsibility does not end at conception. What makes someone a man is not the ability to have a child, it is the courage to raise one and then enjoy the most rewarding and joyful experience of being a father.

A third of children see their parents split up before they are 16, and 1.25 million children are exposed to conflict between their parents. Efforts to support healthy relationships between parents are vital and we know that children benefit from loving parents and strong, loving and respectful marriages and relationships as well. We pass on empathy and kindness by living it; we are not strong by putting others down, but by lifting them up. That is why the work Patrick Myers is doing at the Department for Work and Pensions is so important with his Reducing Parental Conflict programme and why the work done by the members of the Relationships Alliance—Relate, Tavistock Relationships, Marriage Care and OnePlusOne—is so vital, as is the pre-marriage course, the work of Jonathan and Andrea Taylor-Cummings and many others. Also Care for the Family is a fantastic charity that teaches so much, telling parents to stop scoring points and stop thinking the worst.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I want to thank the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this important debate. I am used to being in a room full of Conservatives, as my parents-in-law met through the Young Conservatives. This important debate has felt a bit like a family dinner, because I have thoroughly disagreed with some things the Conservatives have said while I have agreed with some points made. I agreed with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) when he talked about vulnerable children. Is he aware of the fact that 2 million children faced greater threats in lockdown, from domestic abuse to online grooming? He also raised the point about the mental health of black, Asian and minority ethnic children and families, who suffered disproportionately in the pandemic, exacerbating existing racial inequalities.

Unsurprisingly, I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) when she talked about the pandemic’s devastating impact on mothers’ earnings and employment. It is not necessary to be a mother with young children, as we are, to realise that our economy will not survive if we do not get childcare sorted and the system fixed in this country. It has been chronically underfunded for years and coronavirus has shone a spotlight, showing there is no doubt that funding is needed if we want to properly secure childcare and get mothers back to work. My hon. Friend also talked about redundancies, that the pandemic has hit women so much harder than men, the fantastic work of Pregnant Then Screwed, the broken system and child poverty.

The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) talked passionately about her constituency and about wellbeing. It is a word we did not mention much before the pandemic; I feel it was lost. However, the huge changes and isolation have hit wellbeing, with a survey by Young Minds showing that 80% of people have seen their mental health worsen during the pandemic. The hon. Lady also talked about food poverty passionately and how it affects her constituency. There were 200,000 children skipping meals at the height of the pandemic and around one in five children experienced food insecurity over the summer holidays.

I wanted to mention something said by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who has now left his place. I have never in my life agreed with him before, but I agree that there is a problem with schools, and we have to ensure that we fix the problem before the second wave of the pandemic hits us. He talked a lot about access to services, and anyone who does casework in their constituency knows what a problem that has been during coronavirus. Support through schools, the NHS and charities, and other services has been harder and harder to access. Teachers have been unable to identify problems, and that is one of the things that I urge the Government and the Minister to look at as we hit another wave of the pandemic.

I am glad that we are having this debate, especially because we have had so few opportunities to talk about the impact of the pandemic on children especially, and on their families. The received wisdom is that children suffer less from covid than adults, and thank goodness for that but, unfortunately, many times it has felt that children have been an afterthought in the pandemic. We have to fix that. I realise that covid-19 is uncharted territory and that this is something new for the Government. We as an Opposition have tried to be constructive—we want to help the Government navigate the choppy waters—but there is no excuse for repeating the mistakes that were made in the first six months of this pandemic.

This debate is an opportunity for us to examine the mistakes that were made and make sure that they are not repeated. We owe it to children to make sure that we do not repeat the massive mistakes that happened. By the end of March this year, the majority of children in this country were not going to school, for obvious reasons. The issues that arose from children not going to school were predictable. A proper plan should have been in place to mitigate the impact, especially for already vulnerable children, who were always going to be hit hardest by school closures.

School is often a safe haven for children who are at risk of domestic abuse or other threats at home and, because teachers often spot, report and provide support, or because of many children’s special educational needs and disabilities, such children were always going to find long periods away from school very challenging. That would often be without the SEN provision that they so desperately need. That was bound to have a knock-on impact on their family’s welfare.

I know that the intention of the Government was to keep schools open for vulnerable children but, in reality, if people actually look at the figures, very few vulnerable children went to school. As few as 5% of vulnerable children were going to school in the early weeks of the lockdown. Some children will have been safer at home during covid—there is no doubt about that—but that is not the case for many children. The reality is about ensuring that children at school get the support. That was not made a priority by the Government, and many of those children suffered as a result.

We have all seen the signs of the damage in the casework that we deal with as constituency MPs—the child with SEN struggling to readjust after six months out of school, the looked-after child unable to access a social worker and many more worrying examples. Young carers in particular have suffered during this pandemic. I heard from one 12-year-old boy who had struggled to sleep due to worries about the pandemic and his caring responsibilities. He is now receiving specialised support through the See, Hear, Respond programme, which is run by Barnardo’s and more than 80 local charities and community organisations, but many children in that position have not been so lucky. Referrals for children’s services fell by 50% in some areas during the pandemic.

I want to pick up briefly on adoption, which my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about so eloquently. The problems with adoption were outlined in her speech, especially the delays with medical checks, and I hope that the Minister will listen to her plea for future funding for the adoption support fund.

I also wanted to pick up on the point about the decision to water down legal protections for children in care and those with SEN. It was a particularly worrying example of this failure to prioritise vulnerable children. Ministers rightly recognised that local authorities would be under huge pressure due to covid-19 and would find it hard to meet their statutory duties to support children. However, instead of thinking about how to ensure children were supported, whether that was with investment in services, new ways of working or digital outreach, the Government simply scrapped many of the key statutory duties. So many children suffered in silence as a result of that, and wider neglect has been hidden from view.

When there was an up-tick in schools returning, we have not seen the problems that we know have developed and been exacerbated in lockdown coming to the surface. That means children are still missing out on the support. I ask the Minister, what work is her Department doing to reach out to those hard-to-reach communities?

The other thing I want to speak about is digital poverty in this country. Having an iPad, a laptop or a mobile phone is something a lot of us take for granted, but close to 1 million children went into lockdown without the IT equipment or internet access they needed to learn remotely or to keep in touch with friends. The Government recognised that they would need to deliver digital devices to many families. However, the 200,000 laptops that were promised were nowhere near enough, and the target to deliver them by June was too late for most.

I am sure that MPs in their constituencies had emails complaining about that. The June target was missed, and as the Schools Minister set out in response to a parliamentary question, only 200,000 laptops had been delivered by last month. That is far too late. In a meeting with headteachers earlier this month, I was told that much of the equipment that was delivered was unsuitable for children with special educational needs.

What was the result? Disadvantaged children, who were already unable to access as much learning support at home as their peers, were completely cut off from their teachers, a key factor in the 75% widening of the attainment gap that DfE officials have predicted. It also meant that children could not connect with their friends during the most isolated period of their lives, worsening their mental health and cutting them off from avenues of support.

Finally, on free school meals, which is tomorrow’s big debate in the Chamber, the Government have realised that they must act to provide for children who are at home rather than in school. They set up a voucher system, which of course we welcome, but the delivery of the scheme was shambolic. First, delivery of the vouchers was outsourced to a private company, rather than being entrusted to local authorities and schools who knew how best to meet the needs of their families. It was plagued by delays and technical difficulties that left many children without food and many parents facing the humiliation of being turned away from supermarket tills in front of their communities.

Secondly, we had to fight to get the scheme extended, first for the Easter holidays and then over summer. It took relentless campaigning from us and the intervention of Marcus Rashford to force Ministers into a U-turn, and now we are back in exactly the same position. The Welsh Labour Government have committed to providing free school meals over holidays until spring next year. We in the Opposition are calling for the same here, alongside Marcus Rashford and other food poverty campaigners, but yet again Ministers are stubbornly refusing to do it.

Free school meals are a lifeline for at least 1.4 million children who qualify for them—a figure that is now likely to be above 2 million as unemployment rises. I will share a quote from a parent who shared their experience with the Children’s Society last month and whose testimony will feature in an upcoming report. They say: “I tell my kid to make sure they eat all their school meals, as it may be the only meal they have. I often have nothing to eat and any food I do have I give to my kid, as they only get one meal a day. I don’t have a meal many days.”

I want all the Conservative MPs in this room to think for a minute about the children they know—maybe their own children, as the hon. Member for Devizes mentioned so eloquently at the beginning, or their godchildren, nieces, nephews, neighbours or friends—and think about them having to go to sleep hungry at home one night and then wake up the next day knowing that there is no food in the house. Can they imagine the small person they love going to sleep hungry, not being able to sleep because their stomach is rumbling? That is what I would like us to think about.

We all got into politics for a reason; we wanted to protect the most vulnerable and we wanted to make life better for people. I ask Conservative MPs to think carefully about the fact that we are the lucky ones. I never go to bed with my one-year-old or four-year-old hungry. I go to bed knowing that I can feed them the next day. Surely food support over the holidays is the least we can do to help families in this position?

Thank you for your excellent chairing of this debate, Sir Christopher. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on securing this important debate. It is good to have so many different hon. Members present.

I will use this opportunity to update the House on what the Department for Education has been doing to support children, young people and their families during this time. The Government are dedicated to supporting children and families, and the Secretary of State for Education has been entrusted with the family policy brief by the Prime Minister, to ensure that there is a Cabinet-level Minister with oversight of the issue. The Secretary of State is very clear that the two core aims are the protection of vulnerable children and ensuring that every child has the best start in life. He recently made a speech outlining the improvements needed to the adoption system in this country, aiming to close the gap between the number of adopter families and the number of children looking for those loving-forever homes.

We are soon to announce the independent review on children’s social care with the aim to reform and improve an incredible service that plays a vital role in the lives of our most vulnerable children. We continue to work on the SEN review for children with special educational needs and disabilities. We work with Departments across Government on a range of policies to support all children to grow up in happy and loving environments.

No, because there is a lot that I want to update hon. Members on. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said, supporting a family starts even before a child is born. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) pointed out how important health visitors are, so I was really pleased this month when the chief nursing officer made it absolutely clear that health visitors must not be redeployed from their frontline support for families, even as cases of covid rise further.

Early education and experience set up a child for life and support parents with childcare. Since 2013, the proportion of children who are at a good level of development by the time they end their reception year has gone up from one in two to three out of four. This is why the Government continue to invest and support early years education. We introduced the 15 hours free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds and then 30 hours for three and four-year-olds. We prioritised the early years sector for reopening from 1 June and out-of-school clubs and provision for reopening on 4 July. We have continued to support the sector by paying for those Government hours of entitlement at pre-covid levels of attendance, even if the providers had to close. Attendance is now around 85% of the usual pre-covid levels.

We also know that grandparents and other family members often provide crucial informal childcare. The good news is that those childcare bubbles can still be formed even in higher lockdown areas.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who was born in a wonderful part of the world, spoke about mental health. On World Mental Health Day, we published a state of the nation report which looks at research into children’s and young people’s mental health at this time. Levels of happiness among all children have remained stable, compared to previous years, but children have been anxious about missing education and social contact, which is why it has been so important to get them back to schools.

Levels of anxiety have increased for certain cohorts of children and young people, especially disabled children, BAME children, disadvantaged groups and those with previous mental health conditions. This is why we introduced the Wellbeing for Education Return project, which gives support for schools and colleges, delivered in their local area by local mental health experts. Over 97% of local authorities have signed up to that. We must continue our Green Paper commitment to introduce new mental health support teams in all schools and colleges and training for senior mental health leads and faster access to specialist support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) spoke of a heart-breaking story about families of children with special educational needs. They have faced enormous challenges. The Government have provided over £37 million to the Family Fund to help over 75,000 of those families, including an extra £10 million specifically for the pandemic. As she knows, we are also increasing the high-needs budget by nearly a quarter over a two-year period. In our £1 billion catch-up premium for schools we have ensured that specialist settings and alternative provision will get three times more per pupil than those in mainstream schools.

Fundamentally, it has been so important to make sure that all children can get back to school and get back their support, especially those with special educational needs and disabilities. Over 80% of those children and young people are back in their educational settings now.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), mentioned that children in care and those children who have a social worker are especially vulnerable, which is why we kept schools open for them at the height of the pandemic. I am enormously proud that we were one of the few countries in the world that did that. Yes, attendance was low, because parents were rightly concerned at the beginning of the pandemic, but it grew over the summer and now 85% of children with a social worker are now back at- school.

We also invested another £360 million in frontline charities supporting vulnerable people during the crisis and worked hand in hand with the NSPCC to make sure that people could report—and knew where to report—a child at risk of harm.

We have provided another £4.7 billion to local authorities to help them respond to the pandemic. We know that some local authority children’s services are stronger than others, so we have supported those who need extra help by deploying our new react teams across the regions and Ofsted inspectors have come back to the frontline.

Family hubs were mentioned with great passion by my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and I share their passion. I have an excellent family hub in my constituency that offers early support to families who need advice or help. Co-locating such services supports families and providers.

To inform Members, what is happening to the £2.5 million which the Chancellor allocated in the Budget several months ago and which I understand was passed to the Minister’s Department to champion family hubs?

I will make announcements on that very shortly. I want it to be spent on research and development.

Regarding adoption, data was published last week showing a gap of about 600 children between those waiting for adoption and those waiting for a child. The gap has narrowed, but we must narrow it further. We need to encourage more families to come forward to provide those loving forever homes.

We are investing £1 million in a national adoption recruitment scheme and another £2.8 million supporting the voluntary adoption agencies. Courts have prioritised adoption. Flexibility to the adoption support fund during covid has helped another 60,000 families. The changes we made to social care regulations—incidentally, the Opposition tried to throw them out—were specifically to make sure that adoption could continue while not being delayed for medical reports. However, I take the important point made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

We have put in more support to those who are leaving care to make sure that they do not need to leave care at this time. On the very important point on child poverty and food, we have injected more than £9 million into the welfare system over this period and given support to income protection schemes, mortgage holidays, additional support for rent, and we have done other things to support family income.

When schools were closed to the majority of pupils, we launched the national voucher scheme. It was challenging, but it meant that 1.4 million children who normally received free school meals could still be supported. We also extended free school meals to the children of those families who have no recourse to public funds. Some £380 million was spent on supermarket vouchers, but now that schools have reopened, kitchens have reopened and children are being provided with food, which is so much more important than a paper voucher.

Schools up and down the country are also providing food parcels to those who are self-isolating. In the summer, children from more than 1,800 schools received healthy breakfasts through the breakfast club programme. Our holiday activities and food programme was absolutely remarkable in the 17 local authorities where it was run. We have also announced £63 million for local authorities to provide discretionary financial help to those in need in schools.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who has now left, mentioned that schools sometimes sent home whole bubbles. We have set up a new Department for Education helpline to help schools with bespoke advice when they have cases.

Finally, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) spoke about the outstanding work that schools and school staff have done to bring children back to school. She is absolutely right, and I agree with every word she said about how fabulous school staff up and down the country have been. We will continue to work with other Departments to put in place significant amounts of wider support. As we know, providing a child with the best start in life means that they can grow up in a loving, happy, stable home environment. That is what we are committed to do.

I have exercised my discretion to allow the debate to go a little longer, because the next debate has been withdrawn.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered support for children and families during the covid-19 outbreak.

Sitting suspended.