Child Development — Debate
The Bishop of Chester (Bishop)
My Lords, I was delighted when I heard that I had been successful in the ballot for today's debates. The Motion was tabled in part in order to follow up the debate on marriage which I introduced 18 months ago. On that occasion, the debate coincided with National Marriage Week. Today's debate occurs on the first International Day of the Girl, sponsored by the United Nations. It is of course not my purpose to claim that these coincidences have any metaphysical basis-I merely draw them to your Lordships' attention.
The importance of children to the overall health of society has been a particular theme in political debate in recent decades. There was an early focus on child poverty. In March 1999, Tony Blair announced that the Government's goal was the abolition of child poverty by 2020. In the subsequent decade, no less than £134 billion was redistributed to families through the tax credit mechanism alone, and I welcome that. I have seen the beneficial impact on clergy families, which are mainly dependent on a single stipend. Yet even without the recession and the need to cut and limit public expenditure, the previous strategy, which was essentially one of throwing money at the problem, was in trouble.
The central issue can be stated quite simply. The problem is not so much a lack of financial resources, although that can remain a significant issue. The greater problem is the widespread neglect of children in our society. This was the central conclusion of the independent review on child poverty and life chances that the Prime Minister commissioned from Frank Field in June 2010. In the evidence that the review gathered was a report from Tesco on the changing aspects of shoplifting by children. The report stated:
"Children were now far less inclined to steal sweets. Instead, the targets were sandwiches, to assuage their hunger, and clean underwear".
Frank Field added the comment:
"Does anyone any longer believe that this modern face of neglect will be countered by simple increases in child tax credits?".
The point can be illustrated by the problems that primary schools often face when children begin school. A head teacher of a large primary school in Birkenhead listed the skills that were often lacking in children when they entered school. They included the ability to sit still and listen; to be aware of other children; to understand the word "no" and the borders that it sets for behaviour; to be potty trained and remember their own name; to speak to an adult to ask for something; to be able to take off their coat and tie their shoelaces; and to talk in sentences.
Frank Field's report called for the recognition of an initial phase of child development, from pregnancy to age five, to be called the "foundation years" and given the same level of priority and resource as is currently the case for primary and secondary education. The Field report has to be taken with other recent reports by Graham Allen and Clare Tickell and others, as summarised in the helpful Library Note prepared for this debate. I am grateful for the Government's response in supporting families in the foundation years, and for the increased attention that this neglected area is now receiving.
I welcome the trend away from the approach that was based too narrowly on boosting the level of financial income for poorer families and hoping that somehow that would do the trick. Two recent reports show that there is much more beyond improvements in short-term family income that determine the life chances of poor children and children who for one reason or another face particular challenges. Parental attitudes and hopes matter much more. It is parenting above all that needs the support of wider society-not to be taken over by the state but neither to be regarded as essentially a private matter for the parents concerned. The stakes are too high for society as a whole.
When the Minister responds, I hope that she will explain the Government's current thinking in this area, and comment in particular on the proposed greater involvement of voluntary and charitable providers in the local delivery of support for parents and children. For all that I welcome recent developments, there is still too much emphasis on pushing children and preparing them as soon as possible to enter formal education. The continental approach that delays formal education until a child is six or even seven is fundamentally healthier.
Our current practices too easily lead to later mistakes in criminalising children at too young an age or dealing with them through adult rather than special youth courts. So much has been said and written in recent decades that it can be quite hard to identify the key underlying issues. In many ways what we need is nothing less than a culture change in how children are viewed in our society. That was required by the UNICEF report of 2007, which put us at the bottom of the child welfare league on various markers and stimulated much of the research of more recent years.
The old Judaeo-Christian view is that children are to be seen as a precious gift from God. We seem to have lost the positive part of that tradition by seeing children as essentially mini or potential adults. The early sexualisation of children illustrates this, and I must acknowledge the devastating tragedy of child abuse by some ordained representatives of the Christian church that has so disfigured the Christian landscape in recent years.
How as a society can we work towards a rediscovery of an understanding of children as a precious gift, irrespective of whether we wish to add "of God"? This will be an uphill task. Reverting here to the Question for Oral Answer we were considering just now, can a society which has virtually embraced abortion on demand really continue to regard its children as precious gifts? I say that as someone who acknowledges that mothers and fathers can face difficult dilemmas, and I have never taken an absolute stance on abortion. But when nearly 25% of recognised pregnancies are deliberately ended, what culture towards children does that promote? This is not the subject of today's debate, but I cannot avoid a passing reference. We need a wider discussion about this whole matter.
There are wider issues too. We rightly admire the extraordinary power and cleverness of computers, iPhones and so on, but a human being represents a centre of potential and of sheer sophistication way beyond any human invention. We may admire the Mars exploration device, "Curiosity", and the systems that got it there, but it does not stand comparison with a single human life and its own intrinsic marvel. An illustration that reflects my misspent youth as a scientist will point up our endemic tendency to underestimate the potential which a single life represents. Take all the DNA molecules out of the cells of a typical human body and string them together. How far do you think they might stretch? The extraordinary answer is that they will stretch to the moon and back, which is about half a million miles, and will do so about 8,000 times, which is 4 million billion miles-and that is from a single human body. We should seek to treasure and protect each human child as the miracle and mystery that they are, recovering a tradition that to a significant degree, in our rather pragmatically orientated society, we have lost.
Recent years have seen a growing awareness that child poverty is not just a material or financial problem, and there is a growing body of research into the wider aspects of child well-being, often based on the views and hopes of children themselves. The message from children is that what is most important to them are the relationships which surround and nurture them. Yes, having sufficient money is important, but only in order to sustain the relationships that matter to them. The success of Facebook illustrates this so well, and in particular shows us how young people value a range of relationships both within and beyond their biological family.
As I mentioned, 18 months ago I introduced a debate on marriage, and I would hold today to everything I said then about the importance of marriage for the general well-being of children. I accept that stable relationships matter most rather than marriage per se, and I gladly pay tribute to single parents, who have such a challenging task. Anyone with the responsibility for the care and nurture of children deserves our fullest support. Marriage has to be seen as part of a broader context of relationships in the extended family or too much stress and pressure will be placed on individual marriages. But we can look at it from the other side too. Good marriages are not just a benefit for the couple themselves and for their children, they serve to strengthen the wider society of which they are a part. A strong respect for marriage will actually support single parents and others with the care of children who are in different relationships, and indeed society as a whole in all its aspects. That is because marriage is first and foremost not a contract between two individuals, but a social institution. It is not merely a convenient and helpful way in which two people may choose to relate to each other and thus to be encouraged on that basis. This, if I can make a passing reference to another issue that will come before us again, is the problem with much of the current discussion of same-sex marriage, that it is framed in too individualistic a way and fails to see the wider social setting in which marriage has traditionally been seen. To declare civil partnerships to be marriage is actually unlikely to help us to recover a deeper sense of the honourable place of marriage as the natural and best context for the nurture of children; it will just further confuse a confused society. No doubt we will return to these issues in due course if the Government bring forth their proposals. Indeed, the Prime Minister made this point back in 2007, when he said:
"I want to see more couples stay together, and we know that the best way to ensure this is to support marriage. Not because it matters how adult men and women conduct their relationships. But because it matters how children are brought up. Nothing matters more than children".
It might be said, and rightly, that the role of government in promoting marriage, stable relationships and good parenting is limited, but there are certain things that only a Government can do. In the coalition agreement there is a commitment to recognise marriage in the tax system through the introduction of transferable allowances between partners. Such a move is sometimes criticised on the grounds that it should not be necessary to offer financial incentives for couples to marry-or, for that matter, to establish a civil partnership-but I believe that that is to miss the point.
A recognition for marriage in the tax system would send a powerful symbolic message from government into society. At the end of the day, Governments cannot simply wash their hands when moral issues are presented, because government is intrinsically a moral activity. To recognise marriage in the tax system would say something important about the wider importance of marriage to society.
It would be possible to limit such transferable allowances to parents with children or even, in line with Frank Field's recommendations, initially to parents with pre-school children. Can the Minister please tell us when this pledge-I underline the word pledge-in the coalition agreement will start to be implemented? Given the associated IT changes that would be required, if it is not introduced or balanced for introduction in the next Budget, it will simply become an unfulfilled pledge when we get to the next election.
There are many other issues that I could have touched upon in these introductory remarks. I am very much looking forward to the rest of the debate.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Conservative)
My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester in his very fine opening of this important debate. I congratulate him on having secured it. In the time available I am going to talk on only one point, which the right reverend Prelate has already referred to: namely, the situation in the tax system. Of course, I am married and have been for some considerable time, and have long passed any obligation of a legal character to support children of my own.
Back in February 2007, the fact that Britain came at the bottom of the UNICEF league for child well-being was, very rightly, a matter of considerable concern. This was picked up in an important speech on
"I want to see more couples stay together, and we know that the best way to ensure this is to support marriage. Not because it matters how adult men and women conduct their relationships. But because it matters how children are brought up. Nothing matters more than children".
This fed into the Conservative manifesto and, as the right reverend Prelate mentioned, the key coalition agreement commitment to recognise marriage in the tax system and the wider Conservative Party commitment to make Britain the most "family friendly in Europe".
We always used to recognise marriage in the tax system but in 1999-2000 that changed. To take statistics a little into account, only 20.9% of people in the OECD live in countries that do not recognise marriage in the tax system. Of that number, nearly all are in either Mexico or the United Kingdom. It would be extraordinary if our tax system penalised marriage. It is not so much a question of giving an incentive to people to become married as of removing difficulty that the tax system has created for people who live together as married and there is only one major income coming into the house.
The latest available figures demonstrated that the tax burden on a one-earner married couple on an average wage with two children, as a percentage of that placed on a single person on the same wage, was 73% whereas the OECD average was just 54%. There is plenty of evidence that the institution of marriage is the best possible environment for bringing up children. Many statements have been made by Ministers and others to that effect and I shall not take up time by repeating them here, except to say that they are of great importance.
That does not mean that single parents find the task of bringing up children any less challenging. Many of them, particularly those who have lost a spouse by death early in their marriage, have done tremendously well and they should incite the admiration of us all.
As the right reverend Prelate has said, if this situation is going to be corrected, it will require time, first in drawing up the relevant legislation and secondly in making the accompanying IT arrangements which have to be put in place. Time is running out, and it is highly important that before the next general election the Government fulfil the commitment which is in the coalition agreement.
Lord McFall of Alcluith (Labour)
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester in raising this debate and I congratulate him on his speech. In an article for a national newspaper in April 2009, I castigated the Labour Government for their first ever omission from the Budget of their pledge to halve child poverty by 2010 and to eliminate it by 2020. I said that, at a time of economic crisis, their efforts had weakened. However, tackling child poverty is more important than ever in such times.
The background to the Labour Government's attempts has to be analysed. During the 1980s, inequality rose faster in the UK than in any OECD country other than New Zealand. By 1997, we had the highest level of child poverty in the EU. The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies looked at the record of the Labour Government and said that they had halved the number of children in relative low-income poverty in the United Kingdom from 1998 to 2010, taking the figure down from 3.4 million to 1.7 million. Moreover, the number of children in absolute low-income poverty had fallen from 3.4 million to 1.4 million. It noted that, if the Government had just uprated benefits in line with inflation, more than 1.7 million children would still be living in poverty.
That is our record, which is a commendable one. In fact, the IFS said that it was the best record since it had started keeping records in 1961. However, the target was still missed by a substantial margin of 600,000 children. The question that the Labour Government asked at the time was: is ending child poverty a right or a responsibility? Correctly, they assumed the latter. That was why the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, set the ambitious target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eliminating it by 2020. In doing so, the Government had both a narrative and a target.
That was reinforced by the Child Poverty Act 2010, which the coalition signed up to before entering government. However, to date we have neither a narrative nor demonstrable targets from the Government. Indeed, where the coalition is retaining income-based 2020-21 child poverty targets, there is absolutely no realistic chance of meeting them under current policies. The IFS, another respected institution, has said that.
If the Government believe that their targets are inappropriate, they should be both honest and explicit about it and set themselves objectives that they want to pursue. The question is still begging: how do we live up to the commitments that the Government have entered into? I said at the time of my article that we should dispel the false debate that is taking place over national debt because it is distracting us from the human face of the crisis. Those of us who have worked at community level, and witnessed the obstacles and impediments faced daily by low-income families, have heard parents express high aspirations for their children; but in our hearts and in our minds we realise that those aspirations will only lead to low life chances for these individuals, because they are deprived of opportunities given to the rest of us in society.
I know that ending child poverty is both a right for the individual child and a responsibility for society and government. I hope fellow Peers realise and accept that proposition. However, do not forget that tomorrow's world starts with today's children. I remind the House that at the Making British Poverty History event in April 2008, the Prime Minister said, quite simply and boldly:
"We can end child poverty-I mean it".
This Chamber is still waiting for an answer as to when and how the Government are going to achieve that.
Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for introducing this important topic. Our people are our national capital, which is why I agree with the premise of the right revered Prelate's speech that child development has a major effect on national well-being and, of course, the economy. If we were manufacturers, wanting to produce a high-quality product, we would not start our quality control when the gadget was finally put together or packaged. We would start at the very beginning and ensure that we have the best components we could get. In the same way, a child starts its development in the womb and that is why we need to pay attention to its development right from nine months or so before birth. Well-being starts before birth-during pregnancy-and has a lifelong effect on the baby. We all know it is easier to get a thing right from the start than to get it wrong and put it right later, which is always more expensive.
A stressed mother means not just a stressed woman but a stressed baby. Since the baby is developing in her womb, all that is happening to her has an effect on her child's development. I often think that I became a singer because my mother sang all the time while she was carrying me. Research has shown clearly that how we treat nought to two year-olds affects the whole of their lives, and society, and that money spent preventing problems at that stage is money well spent and the most effective use of our resources.
Let us look at what we can do during pregnancy. I am going to concentrate on mental and emotional development rather than physical development because I think we have to get those right first. Research has discovered that up to 20% of pregnant women experience mental or emotional illness requiring referral for psychological therapies. More effective measures to reduce stress, alcohol and tobacco use, drug use, malnutrition, poverty, and domestic violence could improve child IQ and reduce mental health and social problems later, and also reduce ADHD.
Antenatal depression is a predictor of postnatal depression. There is a high risk to baby from antenatal depression because of the effects of stress chemicals on brain development. Postnatal depression risks the effective attachment between mother and baby. The magnitude of the risk is clinically significant, so health professionals need training to spot the risk factors and symptoms and refer to services early.
In the UK, 144,000 babies under the age of one live with a parent who has a common mental health problem, but many children's centres do not provide services that promote infant mental health. Perhaps we should do something about that. The benefits of improving the situation are many. Improving attachment and bonding prevents the baby being at risk of emotional disturbance later. Secure children are resilient, able to regulate their emotions, experience empathy and able to self-repair when stressed or challenged, so secure attachment can prevent all sorts of problems later.
Are all health visitors trained to detect attachment problems and identify the attachment types? I do not believe so. The anti-violence charity WAVE has recommended that, as well as the routine six-week assessment after birth, there should be a pre-birth assessment of the risk factors for infant mental health and another at three to five months to look at the parent-child interaction, which is so important for development.
Domestic violence is a very big factor here. It is reported that about one quarter of all children witnessing domestic violence develop serious social and behavioural problems themselves and sometimes repeat the cycle of violence. Also, it can seriously impact the parenting capacity of the victim. So domestic violence support services should prioritise pregnant women, particularly because there is evidence that domestic violence increases during pregnancy. Most of the services to address those issues are multi-agency, but in many parts of the country multi-agency working is said to be poor. There are good examples, such as the highland region's streamlined rapid reaction system. How are the Government identifying such successful models and disseminating their expertise?
The staffing of early years services is very important. What is important is not just the qualifications of the people who go into that work but their personal qualities. Are those personal qualities-which I do not have time to go into-looked at during recruitment? What is being done to nurture and develop those desirable personal qualities among the staff of children's centres and all those who work with very young children?
Baroness Butler-Sloss (Crossbench)
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on the appositeness-even if fortuitous-of holding this debate on the occasion of the first United Nations International Day of the Girl Child. I strongly support the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, but I wish to go down a wholly different route from earlier speakers. I declare an interest as the co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Human Trafficking and as a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation, because I want briefly to speak about children trafficked within England and those who are brought to this country and exploited by traffickers in conditions of modern-day slavery.
The Council of Europe's expert group, GRETA, recently reported on the United Kingdom response to the Council of Europe convention, which we signed before we accepted the European Union directive on human trafficking. In its report, on page 12, GRETA expresses particular concern that there are, "indications that THB"-trafficking of human beings-
"within the UK is on the increase, in particular of girls for sexual exploitation".
That leads me to the cases in Rochdale and Rotherham, both exposed by the Times newspaper. All I know is what I have read in the newspaper, but we know that teenage girls, some as young as 12, have in each area been exploited by men, mostly of Pakistan origin, who have groomed them and then passed them to other men for sexual exploitation. That is human slavery and human trafficking, of course, because the girls had no choice. No doubt some of them were raped, behind locked doors. In Rochdale it appears that this situation may have lasted for something in the region of five years but in Rotherham for over 10 years.
What, to me, is particularly shocking has been the response of the agencies involved. These girls in Rotherham appear to have been labelled, in effect, as child prostitutes who chose this way of life. For many years, no steps were taken to deal with the offenders-but the offenders were not the girls. There appears to have been a culture of non-interference because they were seen as bad girls but this was a form of human trafficking. The law against exploiting children is particularly there to protect children from themselves. A man who has sex with any girl under the age of 16 is committing a criminal offence and some offences are probably rape. I cannot understand why the criminal aspect was not recognised and effective action taken. The accounts of the plight of these girls in Rochdale, Rotherham and no doubt elsewhere are a disgrace. As a nation, we should feel ashamed that we cannot protect our teenage girls. It is a distortion of national well-being.
GRETA, to which I referred earlier, has had some cogent criticisms of the response of the United Kingdom Government to human trafficking. The Government have an excellent strategy document and are undoubtedly committed to reducing and trying to eradicate this scourge. I hope that I am not being unfair in saying that the Government are a trifle complacent about the effectiveness of their response. We are principally a country of destination to which men, women and children are brought and, when here, treated as slaves. Among the justified criticisms of GRETA are those in respect of children; 390 children were identified as having been potentially trafficked in 2010 while 109 were accepted by the NRM as victims. We do not have an effective database. Local authorities, which have expertise in child welfare and child protection, are not given an opportunity to identify children and decisions as to whether a child has been trafficked are made by the staff of UKBA, who may not have the requisite expertise in relation to children.
I appreciate the time, so I will make two quick points. Significant numbers of children go missing. There have been two reports by the Children's Commissioner about children arriving in this country and being bounced back to France within 24 hours, without any child protection or social work intervention. My most important point is that the noble Lord, Lord McColl, and I withdrew an amendment asking for a legal advocate on the basis that the Children's Commissioner would investigate. That was a government promise. I would very much like to know from the Children's Commissioner what progress has in fact been made and to have some positive indication from the Minister, because in paragraph 245 on page 57 of its report, GRETA has said that,
"a social worker or a voluntary advocate fall short of providing",
legal guardianship and of upholding, "the child's best interests". On page 58, its recommendation is to,
"ensure that all unaccompanied minors who are potential victims of trafficking are assigned a legal guardian",
and that is not happening at the moment. I apologise for taking a minute too long.
Baroness King of Bow (Labour)
My Lords, in the short time available, I shall concentrate on two areas: the link between positive child development and early intervention strategies, and the link between early intervention strategies and reducing the economic deficit. I also wanted to discuss the link between poor housing and stunted child development, but time limits mean that will have to wait until another day.
I start with the most fundamental issue of all: early intervention. I have mentioned this issue in virtually every speech that I have given in this place because in my view the future of our children and of our country depends on it. One organisation that has always instinctively understood this is Community Links in east London. Last year it launched the Early Action Task Force, which publishes its keenly awaited report on
"a society that no longer needs the resources to respond because it has developed the strengths to prevent",
and has built,
"fences at the top of the cliff rather than running ambulances at the bottom".
Despite lip service, the way we run country and the way we invest in our children just does not add up. We invest in their failure, and in the failure of their families, rather than investing in their success and keeping families together. As the task force points out, early intervention may be common sense but it is not yet common practice. Children and families are the cornerstone of this country's well-being and, as Graham Allen highlights in his often-quoted report, Early Intervention: The Next Steps, the consequences of ineffective support for families and children and poor parenting, as we heard earlier, have an impact way beyond the individual and family concerned. Every taxpayer in Britain pays the cost of low educational achievement, poor work aspirations, drink and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and criminality, which lead to social disruption, fractured lives, broken families and sheer human wastage.
Another organisation that works hard to reverse this downward spiral of family breakdown is 4Children. Its research findings show that what happens in pregnancy and the early years of a child's life has a profound impact on the rest of his or her life as they grow through primary school and secondary school and into adulthood. 4Children undertook two years of research that highlighted three issues that must be tackled urgently as a nation if we are to reduce family crisis and improve well-being: maternal depression, as we heard earlier; family violence; and parental alcohol abuse and, I would add, other drug abuse. These issues often have an impact way beyond the individuals concerned.
For families experiencing five disadvantages-depression, alcohol misuse, domestic violence, periods of homelessness and involvement in criminality-the cost to the state is between £55,000 and £115,000 per year. The cost of post-natal depression is around £45 million for England and Wales, and treating physical injuries and mental health problems as a result of domestic abuse costs the NHS almost £1.4 billion a year. For looked-after children the costs are much larger indeed; indeed, they are eye-watering. For foster care, the cost per child is £25,000 per year, while for children in children's homes it is £125,000 a year and children in secure accommodation cost £134,000 per year. We spend that money on vulnerable children when they have already gone completely off the rails. If only we could invest a fraction of that on preventing children and their families from falling apart, we would reduce the economic deficit rather than increase it.
I was delighted to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, say that nothing matters more than children. I could not agree more. Could he and others who form part of the coalition Government, particularly the Minister, explain why the Government have announced that they are scrapping the early intervention grant from next April? This truly beggars belief. Councils have warned that the move will lead to cuts of up to 20% in their early-years and family intervention programmes, and could put Sure Start networks and other innovative projects at risk. I am sure that the Minister will reply that much of that money is going to pay for the ministerial commitment to provide free nursery care for two year-olds-so basically we are robbing one year-olds to pay for two year-olds. This seems to be the definition of a short-term approach, and I implore the Government and those who can most effectively influence them to think again on that issue.
We know that addressing these issues with a proactive, early intervention and family-focused approach has the potential to ensure proper child development in order to pay huge dividends to families and the national well-being as a whole. Only if we make these changes can we move government resources from the ambulances ranged at the bottom of the cliff to more strategic thinking at the top of the cliff so we stop throwing families and children off that cliff-face.
Baroness Benjamin (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for securing this important debate. I want to take this opportunity to spare a thought for April Jones, her family and all children who are being abused.
Childhood lasts a lifetime, and everything we do affects children directly and indirectly, so their development must be society's highest priority. The well-being of society has always depended on the way we bring up the next generation, but never before has there been such a profound and significant change in the way human beings interact with each other.
We have entered an age where technology is so influential on our lives that it seeps into our daily existence and governs the way we live, think, speak and, above all, communicate, and for some it has altered their thought processes. There are dangers and hidden consequences of the digital age, and we do not yet know how it will affect the way our children's brains develop and their thought processes. Children are at the forefront of this techno-social revolution of instantly accessible information.
To children the internet, social media and all that goes with it are a fact of life. They are the norm and without question they are a major influence on their development and their way of thinking, and some people are beginning to worry. A planned conference, hosted by YoungMinds and the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, is chillingly entitled, "Young People in the Internet Wilderness: A Psychological Time-Bomb?". The conference proposes to highlight and discuss the effects of the internet on the mental health of young people.
Many have highlighted the risks of uncontrolled, unregulated use of the internet and other screen media by children. The latest, and perhaps the most damning, is a report by Dr Aric Sigman which states that the average 10 year-old has access to five different screens at home, that many children are suffering from screen addiction and Facebook depression, that prolonged screen time can lead to reductions in attention span because of its effects on the brain chemical dopamine, which is linked to addictive behaviour and the inability to pay attention, and that the use of screen technology has been linked to obesity problems and heart disease. The report concludes that the average child spends a full year glued to screens by the time they reach the age of 7. This is not good.
For years, I have spoken out and pleaded with parents not to allow children to watch television or access computers in their bedrooms, especially late at night, but just last week I visited several schools across the country and was shocked to learn how many children still have televisions in their bedrooms. Apart from children being tired and unable to concentrate in school, they are being exposed to psychologically damaging material, including violence, pornography, cyberbullying, sexual grooming by online predators and manipulative content, as well as self-harm and suicide websites, all on a daily basis. Worryingly, we have no idea of the long-term implications for how all this will affect their personal and social development into adulthood. Sadly, many children are having to face peer pressure to conform and are made to feel inadequate if they are not part of this techno revolution.
The value of making computer technology and the internet accessible for all cannot be underestimated, but the challenging question is: what are the long-term effects on children? Perhaps one day long in the future we will look back at the way the internet and mass media took over our lives and speculate that it was the ultimate Pandora's box which forever changed the world and-dare I say?-unintentionally harmed it.
There are, of course, many who will profoundly disagree that the internet and our growing use of social media might have an adverse effect on society but, one way or another, there is no doubt that it is already having some effect on the way in which our minds work.
We must view the internet techno-genie with extreme caution, and ensure that we put in place measures to protect against the potentially harmful long-term effects on our children and, in turn, society. I ask my noble friend: what consideration is being given by the Government of the effect of the internet and social media on children's social and psychological development, and the implications for the future of our society?
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative)
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Low, stands up, I offer a gentle reminder that we are in a time-limited debate. Even the odd 30 seconds or minute eats into the Minister's time and, obviously, the time for the response of the opposition Front Bench.
Lord Low of Dalston (Crossbench)
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the right reverend Prelate on securing this debate. At a time of long-term and deepening austerity, it gives us a good opportunity to consider the impact that it is having on child development, and how far public policy may be contributing to this.
Over the summer, I was asked to address a conference on the subject of childhood disability and social disadvantage. This was not something that I knew a great deal about, so I had to knuckle down and look at the evidence. Fortunately, a research team at Warwick University has done some very interesting work on this subject, so it was not as difficult as it might have been.
The association between disability and social disadvantage is unmistakable. Just to summarise, disabled children are more likely that non-disabled children to live in households with lower-than-median incomes, live in families experiencing debt and with greater dependence on benefits, live with families that are less likely to be able to afford things that they consider necessary, live in rented accommodation and in houses with fewer rooms, live with other disabled children, live with a disabled adult, live in lone-parent families and be born to single mothers. How is society tackling this challenge? Well, 3.6 million children-rather more than one in four-are living in poverty. Poverty has consequences for children's health and education in the form of increased infant mortality, chronic illness and lower levels of literacy. Twenty-four per cent of children in the poorest fifth of households are in families who cannot afford to keep their house warm, compared to just 1% in the richest fifth. As Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children has said, growing up in poverty in the UK means children being cold and going without a winter coat, going to bed hungry and not being able to join in activities with friends.
Child poverty reduced dramatically between 1998-99 and 2010-12, with 1.1 million children being lifted out of poverty. Today, however, it is clear that policy is driven by economic rather than social considerations, and welfare is a prime target for public expenditure cuts. This cannot fail to impact negatively on rates of poverty. In a recent interview on the "Today" programme, John Humphrys appeared to have difficulty understanding that it is the poorest in society who are hardest hit by benefit cuts. It goes without saying that the poorest are disproportionately affected by benefits cuts because, by and large, it is the poorest to whom the benefits go. Thus, under current government policies, child poverty is projected to rise from 2012-13 with an expected 300,000 more children living in poverty by 2015-16. This upward trend is set to continue with 4.2 million children living in poverty by 2020.
Howard Reed, in a study entitled In the Eye of the Storm, commissioned by the Children's Society, Action for Children and the NSPCC, has tried to estimate the number of vulnerable children and families in Britain and the impact of the current economic context on them. His conclusion is that, by 2015, there will be significantly more vulnerable families than there were in 2010. They will be significantly worse off in terms of disposable income, and public spending cuts will hit them particularly hard compared with the population at large.
Furthermore, the number of children living in families with five or more of the vulnerabilities used by the Government to identify troubled families or families at risk is predicted to increase by around 17%. The number of extremely vulnerable children in families with six or seven vulnerabilities will almost double. Taking into account tax and benefit changes, spending cuts, macroeconomic trends and long-term trends, Howard Reed suggests that the number of families with five or more vulnerabilities will increase by 14.5% to 150,000 by 2015, with the number of children in the latter situation increasing by 17%.
The centrepiece of the Government's reforms is the so-called universal credit, which combines a number of key means-tested benefits into a single entitlement. The Government estimate that about 2.8 million households will gain from that, but 2 million will lose. However, it is necessary to treat these estimates with some caution as the impact of the cuts may not be fully understood by viewing specific cuts in isolation. I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, is reviewing the overall impact of universal credit on support for disabled people. I look forward to her report, which is to be published next week, with considerable anticipation.
It is clear that no group will be more affected than disabled people. That is because not only will key benefits for disabled people be incorporated into the new benefit but changes will affect the rates at which some key benefits are paid. Others will not be mirrored in the new system at all. While some disabled people will gain, many more will get significantly less help. Cuts, such as those to support the most disabled children and disabled adults living alone, will make the future considerably bleaker for many of the most vulnerable households in Britain.
The Bishop of Derby (Bishop)
My Lords, I add my thanks to my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for introducing this debate and laying out the ground so carefully and comprehensively. We have had some thoughts about early intervention, the importance of pregnancy and an important emphasis on parenting. I want to look at another area: children who at the moment simply fall through the provision and are struggling in our society with the odds against them.
In recent months, I have been privileged to chair a commission for the city of Derby, bringing together politicians, voluntary workers, businesses, educationalists, young people and many others for a conversation about how we can best order life in the city to encourage the well-being of all its citizens. We have had a lot of input from young people. I should like to share some words from a rap that a 15 year-old offered to our commission. He said:
"You don't understand what I have seen.Your shoes haven't walked in the places I've been.Life is a struggle, that's what I'm trying to say.Live your life in the light and never run a colour grey."
He is someone who has fallen through the net and is a struggling, disadvantaged child who has been excluded from school.
From young people, we heard some very challenging things about the context in which they live, such as peer pressure and the power of the drug and gang cultures. Sadly, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, we heard about predatory sexual exploitation by individuals and organised networks, and about a real disconnection with many young people and children from school. Probably the most challenging problem for the future of these young people, as well as our future, is disconnection from the world of work. That is a major issue because they are not living in environments where work or that kind of lifestyle feature.
Clearly the Government and local government have a role, but the commission has shown that local people of good will and concern can come together to try to create the right kind of opportunities to allow children to recover from these setbacks and disadvantages. In Derby, I came across an organisation called Baby People, which is where our young rapper came from. It uses music and arts to reintegrate people who have dropped through the net into creative activities and making a contribution. We should not underestimate the importance of going to meet children on their own cultural ground, rather than expecting them to conform to how we think that they should behave.
Also in Derby we have Business in the Community, which the Prince's Trust supports in many places. It is proactive in going into schools. For instance, in years 10 and 11 it gives people mock interviews and feedback. It helps to supplement what parents and single parents are trying to do by encouraging them to be responsible, thoughtful and reflective about themselves, the possibility of work and what their lives are about.
I urge that we take seriously the cultural setting in which children grow up and that we meet them there. I also urge that we take seriously the fact that many of the most needy children-we are trying to take preventive action to help future generations-are challengingly disconnected from the mindset of the world of work. That is a real challenge for local organisations as well as for the Government and local government.
I will finish with the words of a rap from another 15 year-old that he gave to our commission. He said:
"I started to get my life back on track.The past is the past, ain't ever looking back.Being in a bad gang ain't being cool.Got to right my wrong and study at school.Going to be up on my feet, not lazy.Getting an encore just like Jay-Z.Music is going to be part of my life.Put me through the pain and the struggle and strife.This is the present, what's with the fighting?The only war I'm happy with is the spits and the rhyming.Words are the only weapon that I need.Listen to my bars, I am going to succeed".
That is wonderful creativity from someone who has been right on the wrong side of the track. He was a 15 year-old child who came into an adult forum to challenge the commission to think creatively about a cultural milieu where a person is allowed to flourish. We need to take that challenge seriously and the challenge of connecting people like that to the world of work and its disciplines.
Lord Sacks (Crossbench)
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for initiating this important and timely debate. I wish that I could follow my predecessor, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, and rap my speech. Instead, forgive me if I say simply that the timeliness of this debate is that we have heard much talk in recent weeks about the phrase "one nation".
I believe that in the space of half a century we have become two nations that are divided into those who, as children, have and do not have the gift of growing up in stable, loving association with the two parents who brought them into being. According to copious research, those who have not will be disadvantaged in many ways. On average, they will do less well at school and have less chance of attending university. They will be less likely to find and keep a job. They will be less well off and less likely to form stable relationships of their own. They will be more prone to depression and its syndromes. They may even be less healthy. All that will be through no fault of their own but through the circumstances of their early childhood.
The result is a deep and dangerous divide between two cultures, in one of which children are growing up without the support and presence of their natural fathers and often without constructive male role models. They are at risk of being robbed of the habits of the heart, the security and self-confidence, the discipline and restraint that they will need safely to negotiate the challenges of an ever-changing world. Too many of our children are being robbed of hope.
The depth of this divide has been hidden from public attention by a perfectly honourable desire not to sound judgmental, not to condemn any freely chosen way of life and not to add further to the immense burdens of being a single parent. I respect those scruples. But we have seen in recent weeks-the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, referred to it-how an equally honourable wish not to offend certain sensitivities allowed young girls in Rochdale and Rotherham to be ruthlessly exploited. There is a price to be paid for silence and it is usually children who pay that price.
We cannot change the past but we can change the future. Many years ago, in the course of making a television documentary on the state of families in Britain, I discovered the work of a speech therapist, who was teaching five year-old children and their parents a set of skills-listening, problem-solving, praising, negotiating and contract-making. They were intended to help to cure the children's stammers, but one after the other the parents told me that they helped to save their marriages. I suddenly realised that there are easily teachable skills that can transform young people's ability to make and sustain relationships. I wonder why we have not explored the possibility of introducing them into the curriculum. They are not cognitive or judgmental; they are learnt by playing games. They are transformative and they are fun.
We as a society have a duty to see that our children are given the best chance of success that we can give them. That means, in part, doing all that we can, especially through the educational system, to train children from the earliest possible age to develop the skills and sensibilities that will help them to become loving, caring and responsible parents. I urge the Government to consider new and creative ways to do just this.
Lord Young of Norwood Green (Labour)
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for introducing this debate, although I did not always agree with his analysis-but that is what the debate is about. I do not bring any particular expertise to this debate, other than the fact that I have been a parent for what seems a large chunk of my life, and now also a grandparent. When I look back on it, it seems that I came from a somewhat dysfunctional family. I retain an interest in education, because I am still a school governor at my local primary school. One thing that impelled me to enter into this debate was a conversation I had following a school governors' meeting, when we walked around the school, looked at a lot of good improvements made in the playground area, and talked about the school's achievements and tasks that were still to be done. This school had an outstanding Ofsted assessment a year before last, so we are making progress. However, the head teacher's comment to me was, "The problem is that the damage is done before we get them". That was just an aside, but it really had an impact on me and made me think that I would enter into this debate even if I offered only that comment. It is an important comment.
A problem with entering this debate at this stage is that a lot of the best points have already been made. The noble Lord, Lord Sacks, focused on asking why we do not have parenting as part of the citizenship curriculum. He said that it was an important skill and that we all enter it as amateurs-and those of us in this Chamber who have been parents know how true that is. When you are confronted with that little screaming bundle of joy, when the child has come home from hospital or the midwife has departed, you wonder what you are going to do next. So I hope that the Minister will think about that particular idea.
It has been a good and rounded debate, but when the right reverend Prelate said that the last Government just threw money at the problem I thought that it was a less than fair comment. We actually did a lot more than that-and I am not saying that everything that we did was right or that every pound spent was absolutely rightly directed. My noble friend Lord McFall set the record straight when he talked about the progress that had been made on child poverty.
I, too, congratulate the House of Lords Library-there is a mine of information in its notes. There is a comment from the Children's Society, authors of the Good ChildhoodReport, that:
"Children from the poorest 20% of households in England have much lower wellbeing than average".
Of course, throwing money at it will not be the answer, but neither will it help children's development if they live in poverty. We know that this is a multi-faceted problem and that it has to be addressed in a variety of ways.
I listened carefully to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who always has something interesting to say. Far be it from me to disparage the holy state of matrimony-I enjoyed it so much that I embraced it twice-but we know that a large proportion of people in this country are not going to get married and do not want to; they have a principled reason. So even if we do as he suggested, it will address only part of the problem, and then there will be a vast array of single parents or parents going through multiple relationships, some good, some bad and some extremely damaging.
This has been an absolutely fascinating debate. My noble friend Lady King talked about investing in failure. It costs us an enormous amount of money if we do not get it right in the early years. I was also very sympathetic to what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said about the early years services and the impact of drugs and alcohol and ante and post-natal depression. We know that the earlier that we address those problems the better.
I end by reiterating the point made by my noble friend Lady King. I welcome some of the Government's actions. The pupil premium is having a positive impact in our schools, and I welcome the free nursery education, but not at the expense of other schemes. That is the bit that worries me, the bit that my noble friend brought to the Minister's attention. I give credit to the Government for encouraging Graham Allen to produce an independent report. However, he said himself that although the free nursery scheme was a good idea, funding it by taking cash out of other preventive social programmes "flew in the face" of ministerial promises and could lead to disproportionate cuts in services.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, my inspiration to speak in this debate came from a presentation that I saw a while ago by Professor John Stein, which he gave to the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum. I declare an interest as I chair that forum now, following in the very large and hard-to-follow footsteps of the noble Lord, Lord Rea. Professor Stein's presentation on the effect of nutrition on the development of children's brains and how early that begins, from conception right through, made a very deep impression on me. I have followed the work of the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour, of which he is a member-and of which two Members of your Lordships' House, the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, are also very respected members.
Along with the other issues that your Lordships have mentioned this morning, we need to continue the battle about good nutrition. There is a danger that because a lot has happened with regard to breastfeeding-and I agree that it is in a much better place than it was at the end of the 20th century-and because there has been a lot of action on school meals, there may be a misconception that the battle about nutrition is won. But far from it-the biggest gap occurs between the moment when breastfeeding or bottle feeding finishes and the child goes to school. In those years of toddlerhood those habits are formed that are critical for what the child chooses to eat later. So the moment when the child may develop a sweet tooth and a liking for various foods, such as fruit, and an addiction to fairly salty foods, is critical. That happens between the age of nine months and three years. Even giving your young toddler lumpy foods affects their ability later on to accept very different foods. If they always receive food of the same sort of texture, their liking for different foods will be diminished.
My first question to the Minister concerns the Early Years Foundation Stage, which is the framework that sets the standard for all early years providers. Is my noble friend satisfied that nutritional standards and eating habits are adequately addressed as we all know the statistics around not sitting down for meals and not having the sort of portions that a child will finish and be satisfied with. Those are all things that early years providers need to address.
An interesting question was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in a debate in this House on
The importance of knowing whether children have an adequate diet and the consideration of whether supplements should be added to foods are live issues. The debate over the status of nutraceuticals and the pros and cons of supplementation is not merely academic. I am sure that we have all heard about the benefit of omega-3 fatty acids in foods or about the lack of that substance. As that debate livens the supplements industry will push for supplements to be added to foods in place of a healthy diet. We may not have enough fish in our oceans to provide us with natural fatty acids but that is the sort of question we must address. We must not forget the importance of nutrition to children.
Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP)
My Lords, I thank and congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing this timely debate. In 2007, UNICEF published a report on child well-being which made for troubling reading. As noted in the opening pages of the report:
"The true measure of a nation's standing is how well it attends to its children-their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born".
In this report the UK was ranked lowest of all the countries scrutinised and was in the bottom third of the rankings for five of the six dimensions of child well-being that were assessed. The report went on to highlight the disgraceful way in which we had failed to discuss and develop policies which meet the needs of children and improve their lives. While we have made progress in some areas, we must not pause until we are sure that we have in place the very best public policy framework. I am far from convinced, five years later, that this is the case.
The social science evidence clearly demonstrates that, on average, children do best in stable two-parent homes and that the public, lifelong, "till death us do part" commitment, recognised by law-that is, marriage-provides, again on average, by far the best environment for securing this. To this end I congratulate the Government on their commitment to end the current arrangement whereby, unlike most developed countries, our tax system does not recognise marriage or indeed family responsibility. It is certainly right that it should be no harder to marry here than in other comparable developed countries. Given that this commitment needs to be implemented within the 2010-15 period to which the coalition agreement pertains, the Government really need to start taking action, especially in the run-up to the next Budget. In a speech given in the run-up to the general election in 2010, David Cameron did just that, saying,
"that marriage matters is something we should not say quietly but something we should say loudly and proudly. What is so backward looking in a country where we have social breakdown and social problems of saying that committed relationships, encouraging people to come together and stay together is a bad thing?".
In the same speech, he continued,
"if you look around the European Union, if you look around the OECD, we're almost alone in not recognising marriage in the tax system. And why do we think, why do we think that with our appalling record of family breakdown that somehow we are in the right position and everyone else is in the wrong position; we're not, they've got it right and we have got it wrong".
Just this week, a report published by the Centre for Social Justice, ForgottenFamilies? The Vanishing Agenda, painted a less than rosy picture of the coalition Government's support for the family. The opening sentence reads:
"In the vital area of family policy, the Coalition Government has been characterised by a lack of boldness and clarity of purpose which contrasts sharply with their approach to education and welfare reform".
The same paragraph concludes with the shocking assertion that,
"48 per cent of all children born today will see the breakdown of their parents' relationship".
Given that, as we have heard, any implementation of a transferable allowance policy recognising marriage in the tax system will take some time to carry through as HMRC makes necessary IT changes, the Government must act now. I recognise that the coalition agreement provides scope for Liberal Democrats to abstain and that therefore the noble Baroness may not be the right person to respond. However, perhaps a Conservative Treasury Minister could do so and update us on the progress being made on implementing this important policy commitment. Two and a half years later, can a timeframe be provided for when this promise will be acted on?
Another issue of particular concern has been raised today and that is child trafficking. Today, which is the first United Nations International Day of the Girl Child, the need to ensure that children are protected and supported and allowed to develop free from oppression and fear must be driven home. By now we know the statistics but we cannot allow ourselves to become numb to them or to the young children the statistics represent. Between 2007 and February 2010, of 942 trafficked children rescued in the UK, 301 were subsequently lost from local authority care. Put another way, one-third of rescued children went missing. Progress must be made on this issue.
I end by again thanking the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate and simply say that where we can take action to right wrongs and to ensure that children are protected and afforded the best possibility to succeed in life and to thrive and contribute meaningfully to our national well-being, we absolutely must do so.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote (Crossbench)
My Lords, I, too, warmly congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on securing this very important debate. I start by emphasising the vital importance of the Government providing sufficient resources for all those early intervention strategies which have been mentioned, such as those of Graham Allen, Frank Field and many others, for which there is a growing pressure and total cross-party support. These are particularly relevant for those children who are trapped in what, many years ago, Keith Joseph called the cycle of deprivation. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will reassure us on that issue.
I wish to focus the rest of my comments specifically on the subject of child safety online. In doing so, I should declare an interest in that I am the sponsor of the Online Safety Bill, which had its First Reading in your Lordships' House on
The consultation considered three possible parental control mechanisms: active choice, active choice plus and the opt-in system, which is proposed in my Bill. While I very much hope that the Government will adopt the opt-in system, it is not my intention to get into detailed discussion about the pros and cons of the three options today. What I want, however, is to express my concern that the consultation did not mention age verification in relation to any of the options. Without age verification the effectiveness of any parental control model will be very limited. If the Government are to advance serious proposals, they must engage with age verification.
I am, of course, aware that some might try to suggest that age verification is not possible and that it does not work. This, however, is flatly contradicted by the evidence. Tanya Byron in her review states,
"One of the most effective methods of age verification is requiring the user to register using a credit card. Even if registration is free, a process can be put in place so that a debit and re-credit is shown on the cardholder's bill, so that parents know when a child has borrowed their card for this purpose".
This system does not tell you the exact age of the person but confirms that they should be 18 or over. Moreover, I should point out that the law already requires age verification with respect to the online sale of alcohol and online gambling where the provisions have proven to be successful.
I am aware that the Department for Education and the other departments with an interest in the consultation, such as DCMS, will be examining the responses to the controls consultation and considering the best way forward. If the Government are to take seriously the need to care for our children and provide the best public policy framework to support optimal child development, far from avoiding mentioning age verification, they should put it at the front and centre of their proposals. The technology is certainly there. The question is: is the political will there? I very much hope that the Minister is able to reassure me on that point. I also ask her to provide us with an update on the Government's projected timetable in terms of the publication of the analysis of the consultation responses and their aspirations in terms of next steps.
In closing, like the right reverend Prelate and other speakers, I think it is very appropriate that we should be discussing these matters on the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, mindful of the fact that the objectification of girls through pornography is one of the main online safety challenges we face. I hope that we can develop a public policy framework that increasingly celebrates girls as people, not as objects.
Baroness Massey of Darwen (Labour)
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for introducing this debate on such an important issue.
I returned to teaching when my children went to school and I was asked to teach a CSE subject called child development, as well as French and English. It may be that they thought that, having been a mother, I knew all about child development, and of course no one ever does. As part of this course, pupils-sadly, only girls-learnt about healthy pregnancy, language development, physical development, diet, emotional development and play. They had to do a case study by watching a child for a month and spending one afternoon a week in a playgroup. I hope that those girls learnt that if a child has love, social and emotional skills and the opportunity to play, their development will be off to a good start. I hope that it helped them to become better and more confident parents. Of course, every pupil of every ability should learn about child development. Sadly, the Government do not seem interested in citizenship education or personal, social and health education. I doubt that we shall see these important skills given any emphasis-at least for a while.
There is nothing new about what children need to flourish. If we look along the shelves in bookstores at any section relating to bringing up a baby, we see that despite varying fashions and diverse gurus-mine was Dr Spock-the basic message is the same: children need love, social skills, a good diet, language and play. Sadly, some children enter primary school without this attention and they are unable to learn. They do not know how to play or socialise, do not know what a book looks like and have no sense of how numbers work. Such children are likely to have difficulty in achieving and in contributing productively to society. Some will end up in the criminal justice system, have early pregnancy or seek solace in drugs or alcohol.
Other noble Lords have spoken eloquently about internet safety. I, too, am concerned, and I support the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. I am particularly concerned about pornography and other unsuitable material. I am concerned about mobile technology, which is of course wonderful, but how often do we see parents or carers absorbed in a mobile phone call, with a child alongside getting no attention? We have the problem of balancing these new technologies with effective child development.
The Government have expressed good intentions on child development-many reviews have already been cited. We are blessed with an extraordinarily committed and active voluntary sector for children. However, the first child development begins with parents and in families, and I am aware that many organisations are seriously worried about the impact of government austerity on families. I am not saying that poverty or austerity are the only problems here, but deprivation is a serious issue. Research by the Family and Parenting Institute points out that,
"families with children are shouldering a disproportionate burden ... equivalent to an annual reduction of £1,250 for a couple with two children".
Deprivation does count and it affects families.
We have already heard about the early intervention grant and subsequent cuts to Sure Start programmes. There are now 124 fewer Sure Start centres than there were when the coalition Government came to power. What does the Minister have to say to all this? Surely, in order to encourage positive child development and break cycles of poverty and underachievement, we need investment in high-quality support for parents, childcare and schooling. Stressed and exhausted parents often find it difficult to cope with, let alone support, the learning and development of their children. Having children is expensive and demanding. Parents should not be bearing a significant proportion of tax and benefit reforms. How can the Government speak of their support for good child development, yet punish parents and children in this way?
Lord Storey (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for this debate. As someone who studied his degree in education at Chester I think it appropriate that I should speak now.
We all know that children's early experiences are important in affecting health, behaviour and development outcomes. In their first three years children develop physically, cognitively and emotionally at a faster rate than at any other time in their lives. We need to respond to and support children as they learn to walk and run, speak and communicate, relate to others, play and explore the world. We need to provide children with the balance of child-initiated play and focused and structured learning to ensure that they enjoy learning to read, write, use numbers, think mathematically, explore their world and become creative. For children, the interaction with their environment, especially with their parents, ultimately determines how these characteristics are manifested as they grow and develop into complete adults.
All research-I repeat, all research-has shown that nurturing in the form of parents or carers spending sufficient quality time with their child leads to happy, healthy and successful children. Parents-yes, parents; surprise, surprise-are the key to helping the child's development, self-discipline and positive character traits. Of course it is important for parents, particularly working mums, that schools have breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, and sometimes even Saturday clubs at the local school. However, often a young child can be in school from 7.30 in the morning to 6 at night, five days a week. They have a daily diet of often 10 and a half hours of school without their parents, and of course parents often come home from work tired and exhausted after a hard-working day. Maybe we need to accept that pattern in the complex society in which we live, but any maternity or paternity tax break or incentive scheme which gives more time for parents or carers to be with their child must be welcomed. Children love the opportunities that parents have to interact with the school.
I want to talk about three important ways that schools can support child development but, first, let us recognise the part that successive Governments have played in the approach to child development, their understanding of the importance of early years and the need for high-quality early years provision, which is well funded. It is hard to believe that less than 10 years ago the pupil-weighted budgets gave half the amount for under-fives as for secondary children.
Often the problems that children face in their schooling, and indeed in their personal development, are down to a failure to identify those problems at an early stage and for the child to be supported with the necessary professional guidance and resources. Early intervention does work but only if we have the resources to make it happen. Often the best-intended bureaucratic processes get in the way and provide delay after delay when early intervention should mean what it says. That is why the pupil premium has the potential to be really important in this field, giving a school the additional finance to just get on and support the child without having to wait. I do have concerns about the pupil premium-not with the policy itself; more with how schools use the additional resource. Do we allow complete freedom of use or do we earmark it? A school with, say, falling rolls might well use the money to plug budget deficits rather than support children with developmental needs. There is real evidence that many schools see it as just an additional budget line rather than using it in a targeted manner, which can really make a difference to children.
Secondly, thank goodness we have recognised that child development in schools cannot be about constant form-filling, endless reports, assessments, profiles and observations, with paperwork on top of paperwork. It has to be about quality teacher or teacher assistant time with the pupil. Yes of course we need a record or profile of an individual pupil's progress but it needs to be light touch and the teacher should not become a slave of the recording process.
Finally, young children develop through play, and children develop at different rates. Yes, we want our children to be able to read, write and be numerate but we do not want to put them in a learning straitjacket. Some children are not ready for a formal educational approach but of course some are. Let us recognise and understand that. Let schools be equipped and supported to develop the learning to suit the child and the child to suit the learning. We need to understand that some children are not ready to access the national curriculum. We need a personalised learning approach.
Child development is of course important not only to the child but to the family, community and society in which we live. Policymakers must not be dogmatic or demand a one-size-fits-all or "we know best" approach. They must constantly be prepared to listen, to understand and to support.
Lord Northbourne (Crossbench)
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for introducing this important debate and for giving us such a broad canvas on which to explore the enormously important issue of child development. It is a time-limited debate and I, like the rest of your Lordships, must stick to only one aspect of this very important problem.
Speaker after speaker today has referred to the importance of parents. For my part, I believe that we are not doing enough to prepare our young people while they are in secondary school for the opportunities and challenges of adult life and, in particular, of parenting. In many schools today, they do not learn what used to be called the "soft skills". Too many schools are "teaching to the exam" rather than giving their children what we used to think of as a balanced education.
I am a strong supporter of Michael Gove in his drive for better academic results but I am concerned that too many of our secondary schools have become crammers for getting young people into university, rather than places of education in the true sense of the word. What is often missing is what have been called the soft skills-relationship skills, social skills, emotional literacy, the skills of leadership and the ability to work as a team, as well as a sense of belonging, consideration for others and many other life skills which, we all know, are extremely important if one is to succeed in the adult world today.
Many of us were lucky enough to learn those skills in the family but some children today are not so lucky. In this country today most parents do a good job but there are some who, for a variety of reasons, are failing. It may be because they have an addiction problem or suffer from mental ill health, as has been mentioned by a number of speakers. It may also be due to family breakdown, domestic violence or a parent being in prison. Some cannot give their children the parenting they need because they themselves never enjoyed supportive parenting or a loving family.
I want to speak for a moment about the early years-a subject on which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and I have spoken before. Parenting is important because in recent years neurological science has taught us much more about brain development. The latter part of pregnancy, as the noble Baroness mentioned, and the first three years of life are crucial in the development of the child's brain. By the child's third birthday, the brain is 80% developed. During those first three early years a child should learn to love and to be loved; it should learn to feel safe and valued so that it can begin to develop an identity and the self-confidence to value itself; and it should be beginning to develop relationship skills with peers and adults. It might even learn to sit quietly, to listen and to do what it is told-at least for some of the time.
In these first three years, the role of loving attachment to one or more principal carers is crucial. That is why mothers and fathers are important. Girls need to be prepared for parenting long before they become pregnant-effectively in secondary school, where they should also learn about developing good interpersonal relationships.
I dare say that the Minister is going to say that these matters are covered by the PSHE programme. However, the reality exposed recently by Ofsted is disappointing. It shows that in most secondary schools today PSHE is either badly taught or not taught at all. Where it is taught, it tends to be treated as a Cinderella subject, often being taught by teachers with no specialist training in the subject. What are the Government doing about publishing their new PSHE policy, which has been deferred time and again? Will their new policy do anything to improve the chances of this subject being taken seriously in secondary schools?
I believe that our education system needs a cadre of well trained teachers with the confidence to teach PSHE and similar subjects in an interactive way, following and guiding the interests of their pupils. I believe that Ofsted should include in all its reports on schools a section on the development of the soft skills or life skills and on the quality of preparation for adult life. I also believe that one or more of the major teacher training colleges should start an experiment in developing courses for teachers who are keen to become specialists in the interactive teaching of the skills required for adult life.
Baroness Uddin (Labour)
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for bringing this important debate to the House and for the way that he described child development issues and the encompassing issues of marriage. However, time does not permit me to elaborate on that.
I should like to make some general points today. As has been said, one way of judging a civilisation is the manner in which it invests in the nurturing and development of its children. The moral responsibility involved in ensuring that the well-being of our children is maximally catered for is very much related to how we envision our future. If our aspiration is to grow old in a society that is compassionate to the elderly, brimming with harmony and at ease with itself, then investing in the well-being of our children becomes a utilitarian task. We must ensure that our children are not only properly fed, clothed and housed, but that they are also properly and adequately trained to be well integrated human beings who are sensitive to others, able to cope with changes and eager to be of service to family, community and the nation. In a world dominated by inequality and social and economic injustice, the danger of alienation and marginalisation of children who become problematic adults are all too well known to us, as has been mentioned.
When it comes to parenting, our society has moved dangerously close to making one of life's greatest pleasures an unnecessary burden financially, psychologically, physically and environmentally. Sadly, we exist at a time when the project of bringing up children is not so much a collective effort that is rewarded but a burden that depends on your socioeconomic conditioning and the postcode lotteries for education and prejudice, and where the struggles facing parents, teachers and community organisations are all-pervasive. Hard-pushed parents, to whom reference has been made across the House, are trying to make ends meet in difficult economic conditions, and they find themselves with little time and few emotional resources and skills. My noble friend Lady King and I have both noted occasions when we were on the phone while our children-in my case grandchildren-are struggling to get our attention. A real concern is that needy young people are left to be influenced by the dominant street culture of "I want" and "I want it now". They lack opportunities and are influenced by the "increased privilege" that seems on offer on the streets. It is a real concern which was referred to earlier this week.
As other noble Lords have said, our television screens have been dominated by deeply depressing news of children who have been abducted, impacted by domestic violence or raped. Social networking throws up a complex set of values the impact of which the Government must consider and deal with. Among the Muslim communities, the twin evil forces of Islamophobia and racism continue to marginalise and blight the lives of thousands of children and young people. Urged on by the youthful imperative of being rebellious and confrontational, these young people are perilously vulnerable to being recruited to drugs, violence and, sadly, to militancy. That is a threat to all of us.
In this context I commend the work of Radical Middle Way and the London Muslim Centre which, with many other groups, continue to try to address these issues despite struggling to find sufficient financial resources. Some commentators and analysts saw last year's London riots as reflecting our lack of investment in our young people. The exemplary way in which young people participated and were involved in the Olympics was explained in the same terms. Surely the lesson is that there are winners or losers. The destiny of our children and that of our society lies in our ability to invest in, respect and honour our children as we ourselves would wish to be honoured and respected. I asked the Minister what if any work is being undertaken to address the impact of Islamophobia and racism on children particularly in the early years.
Lord Eames (Crossbench)
My Lords, a disadvantage of coming at the end of a long list of speakers is that you can run behind the scene saying, "Everything that is worth saying has been said". Today that is true. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and I do not envy the Minister in having to respond to this debate because we have covered so many things at great speed. I know that the Minister has taken this occasion very seriously and, therefore, we look forward to her response.
Among the reports that have been mentioned today, one has received scant mention. That is a report of Reg Bailey, which had the wonderful title, Letting Children be Children. As I have listened to the debate, I have become convinced that that title says so much about what we have been saying to each other. The tragedy of so much of what we have discussed today is that children cannot be children; society does not allow them to be children. Society puts pressures and demands on them, and a lack of opportunity prevents them experiencing the idealistic childhood that so many of us have enjoyed.
When the coalition announced that the bedrock of society would be the stable family, we all rejoiced. Those of us who, in our careers, have been involved with families and with society's problems down the years welcome that. Unfortunately, for many of us the conditions under which the coalition has had to address the economic ills of our society has meant that some of the glint has disappeared. It has been eroded for one simple reason: so often we have wonderful ways of expressing the vision of what needs to be done by the Government, by Parliament and by those with a responsibility to address a situation such as our present economic one, but we lose sight of the fact that we are not talking about principles or society in general but about individuals.
Many of the measures that we now know will be implemented to try to meet our economic situation will have a knock-on effect on those who are least prepared to face them. Among that category are those about whom we are talking rather scantily in this debate. Not everyone in our society has enjoyed a stable home; not everyone in our society has enjoyed the strength of caring parents. I think of my own experience when, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, my clergy brought to me, time and time again, their worries about what was happening to the young people in that society. I am certain of one conviction: in a society such as mine, it will take a generation to understand the depth of the scars that have been forced on young people. I am not highlighting this as characteristic of the United Kingdom-of course I am not-but I am saying that some of the lessons that we have learnt apply to those who have been displaced by society, those who have been denied by society and many of those who have been mentioned in this debate, who have been denied the stability of that family that I picture.
One example that I can give in the time allowed to me today is this: do we honestly understand, not the opportunity, not the burden, not the difficulty, but the privilege of childhood? As a society, have we yet realised that, even if there is a knock-on effect in what we have to do in the economic area, that the most vulnerable in this picture are children? It will be another generation before we can honestly understand the scars that we are allowing to be placed on them. That is why this debate has been essential. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for introducing it.
Baroness Worthington (Labour)
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, for that most eloquent speech in an amazing debate. I feel that I have learnt a huge amount today. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on securing this important debate.
I will start with a quotation which states:
"The best thing you can do for your child is to provide them with loving parents who are happy, healthy and at ease with themselves so that they can grow up with that as their idea of 'normal' and be likely to adopt the same approach to life".
That is from the psychologist, Dr Amanda Gummer. The most challenging aspect of the debate is the question of the extent to which Governments can help or hinder the achieving of the ideal of happy, loving parents who are at ease and who can bring children up in that image.
We have touched on a wide range of topics in today's debate. Some of them are at a softer end of the spectrum, where we try to influence society as a whole; and some are much more specific and cover the role that Governments and legislators play in helping foster this ideal. I will touch on a few.
We heard very eloquently from the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, about the role that nutrition plays. That fundamental bedrock of a child's development is something to which perhaps we do not pay enough attention.
Early intervention was definitely a theme that came out of the debate. A number of noble Lords quoted the excellent resources that were made available by the Library and that covered the need for early intervention. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and my noble friends Lord Young and Lady Massey mentioned the need for early intervention to ensure that we do not end up spending far more as a society on trying to solve the problems that will arise from not tackling the early problems in a child's development. I was taken with my noble friend Lady King's analogy that we have ambulances waiting at the bottom of the cliff, rather than trying to take more preventive measures to prevent people falling through the cracks. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby talked about what happens after perhaps 15 years of falling through the cracks; it then takes a big intervention to get people back on track.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of internet safety. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who has a Private Member's Bill on this topic. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and my noble friend Lady Massey also mentioned it. Clearly we are going through something of a new age in children's access to information. I am at the other end of the spectrum from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay; I have a toddler under two at home and know that he is already using the iPad. That concerns me because, as we heard in the debate, by the age of seven you may already have spent a year in front of a screen. It is a troubling statistic. I do not have any solutions. I wonder whether the Minister might have some because I would like to know what I can do to get it away from him.
I will return to slightly more serious issues. The debate touched on a range of topics. What was interesting was the way in which it intertwined with debates about marriage. There are many ways of addressing this. Personally I think that having stable parents who are loving and in a warm and supportive relationship is perhaps more important than the piece of paper that gives the relationship legal status. Nevertheless, a number of noble Lords raised this and it is an important aspect of the debate. We also heard about a troubling aspect that threatens children's development: namely, child trafficking. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, was very eloquent in raising this important issue.
I will wrap up and make my points because I know we are time-limited. There is a role for legislation, legislators and policy-makers in this very important and broad-ranging debate. Our role must be to ensure that there is a support network in place for parents and families who find themselves struggling through no fault of their own. It is absolutely true, as many noble Lords mentioned, that if parents struggle, children will struggle-and we will end up in a cycle of repeated problems. The problems that parents experienced in their childhood are repeated and reproduced in subsequent generations. We must try to find a way of breaking the cycle.
One thing that we should be very proud of in Britain is sustaining and maintaining the very valuable network of social services that help families break the pattern of negative cycles and protect the most vulnerable from harm. These services are not perfect-nothing is-and they tend to hit the headlines when something goes wrong, but I will take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those people out of the glare of the media spotlight who spend their working lives trying to improve the situation of families who are struggling. It is not easy work. It is mentally and emotionally draining, it is not highly paid and it is not glamorous, and yet it is extremely rewarding for those who do it. The social services are a great asset of British life, and a constant reminder that there is more to life than simply pursuing money, fame and privilege. Helping people in need, leaving things in a better state than they were when you found them and improving the lot of the most vulnerable people in society are noble endeavours that provide dividends to those who undertake them that cannot be measured by pounds in the bank.
As we struggle to reboot our economic growth we must recognise that recession hits the most vulnerable hardest, and social services feel the direct pressure that comes from more and more people slipping from the position of just about coping to being suddenly overwhelmed and then desperate. We cannot, in our zeal to decrease our debt and address our economic problems, sacrifice the welfare state that helps prevent people reaching that point of desperation. I am sorry to say that the Government do not understand that this is a fundamental aspect that must be maintained. In the Chancellor of the Exchequer's comments to his conference last week, because he lacked a comprehensive strategy on the economy, he made policy suggestions that have potentially very serious negative consequences for the well-being of families and children.
Why is it that in a time of economic difficulty we suddenly point the finger of blame for our slow economy at those hard-fought-for employment rights that are maintained because we want a civil society that helps support families and children? Why should they be brought into the frame as being part of the problem? The idea that we should invite employees-it will probably turn out that we will insist on this-to drop their rights to parental leave in return for shares is a miserly, short-sighted policy. I would welcome the Minister's comments on how it would help engender safe and secure parenting and families if parents were pushed into a situation where they had less parental leave than they otherwise would have enjoyed.
We tend always to look to America as a shining beacon of how we should pursue economic growth-although America's economy is not doing well-rather than to some of our more progressive European neighbours. The UK's record on parental leave is pretty poor. It is not yet quite as bad as that of the US, but if George Osborne's proposals take off, we will see parents who will have no parental leave. In Germany the situation is far better for parents. There is much greater flexibility and extended periods of leave that apply to both the mother and father. Why can we not look to Germany rather than the US when we consider how we might build a strong economy while maintaining our social fabric?
I am conscious of the time. Other noble Lords mentioned concerns raised in the media and elsewhere about money being taken away from very important programmes such as Sure Start. Not only do we have fewer Sure Start centres, but announcements about increasing access to education for two year-olds are robbing money from the Sure Start programme. Surely that cannot be the answer.
It is likely that we will see more children falling into relative poverty. We are not the only ones saying that. The Government's analysis in the Autumn Statement forecast concluded that changes would increase child poverty by 100,000 in 2012-13. Surely that is not the right time to cut services for our most vulnerable children.
This is a huge debate and we could talk at great length. I will end by echoing the contribution of my noble friend Lord McFall, who pointed out Labour's excellent record in this policy area. We passed the Child Poverty Act 2010. It creates important targets and we were making great progress towards them when we lost the election. I echo my noble friend in asking the Government to be honest about whether they think they will be able to meet those targets and, if not, to set more realistic ones that take into account everything being done to the welfare system and other policy changes.
Labour is the party that introduced the minimum wage and used tax credits to create a system of welfare back to work. That is how you create happy, stable homes with parents who are at ease with themselves and able to bring up healthy, happy children. Labour's record is excellent on this. I look forward to hearing from the Minister in regard to the Government's policies.
Baroness Garden of Frognal (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for giving us the opportunity to explore this very important matter in such depth. The number of speakers and the quality of the contributions mean that I may not be able to respond to all the very significant points that have been raised in the debate, but perhaps I may reassure noble Lords that none of them will be lost and that, where appropriate, a written response will follow. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, to the Dispatch Box in this debate. I do not think that she has faced us on education matters before.
I have listened with great interest to all the views expressed, and I shall set out briefly the Government's position. We agree completely with the premise behind this Motion, that a good childhood is key to our national well-being. We must do all we can to ensure that our children and young people develop as individuals, as members of their communities and as citizens to reach their full potential. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, reminded us, we should be mindful of the privilege of childhood. To do this successfully, it is important to get a strong evidence base so that our policies can be fully informed. A considerable amount of work has already been done by a great number of distinguished people, including many here within your Lordships' House. I should also like to acknowledge the contribution of the previous Administration and all the work they did in this regard, as well as their promotion of the concept that every child matters.
Building on that, the Prime Minister has asked the Office for National Statistics to devise a new way of measuring well-being in Britain, the Measuring National Well-being Programme. This is in recognition of the limitations of GDP as a measure of the country's progress, and indeed many noble Lords referred to that in the course of the debate. We want to develop a wider suite of indicators covering not only economic development but the state of the environment and, crucially, the quality of people's lives. One strand of the work is to develop questions on subjective well-being, in essence how people think and feel about their own lives. So far, the ONS has developed four self-report questions to measure universal well-being among adults aged 16 and above, and we intend to do something similar for children and young people aged under 16.
Yesterday, the ONS published a report on 16 to 24 year-olds that has some interesting results. It shows that young people's subjective well-being is higher than for older age groups. Young people aged 16 to 17 rated their life satisfaction on average at a higher level than all other age groups, while average ratings for all young people show lower levels of anxiety than for older age groups. The details for children aged under 15 are still to be finalised, and we expect the ONS to report on 26th of this month. More recent research suggests that the well-being of young people in the UK is broadly in line with international averages. We have seen a range of surveys in this area that, in the interests of time, I will not go into in great detail, but perhaps I may pull out one from the University of Essex. Its Life Satisfaction and Material Well-being of Children in the UK survey shows that, overall, children appear to be satisfied with their lives. In relation to a point raised by a number of noble Lords, it also found that children's happiness and well-being is not entirely linked to family income. A stable home life with a network of friends, a healthy lifestyle, a sense of community and good behaviour in their classmates matter more to children's sense of well-being than their parent's earnings.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, children who live with both their parents are generally happier than those living in single families and stepfamily relationships. But this is not to suggest that such families are somehow failing their children, it is just that they face greater challenges. We heard a valuable contribution on this subject from the noble Baroness, Lady King, who also linked it to the cost of failure in telling detail. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester raised the importance of marriage, while the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, talked about male role models and the importance of fathers, as well as the joint parenting that is so vital to the well-being of children. There is absolutely no complacency and the Government are already acting to address these issues.
We are working to support families and improve parenting. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, I, too, pay tribute to those who work in those areas that deal with families, and sometimes families in the greatest need who can be in the most stressful situations. We have the Family Nurse Partnership Programme, which is a preventive programme for first-time mothers. It offers intensive and structured home visiting delivered by specially trained nurses from early pregnancy until the child is two. The Government are also committed to turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families in England by 2015 through getting children back into school and reducing youth crime and anti-social behaviour. We are working with local authorities to deal with each family's problems as a whole, with a single caseworker to provide intensive help and promote long-term change. We heard the powerful contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby on this, and indeed his passage in rap which set a standard for the rest of us to deliver our speeches in a slightly different fashion.
We have provided funding for Family Support Services, which contribute to children and young people's development and well-being by supporting parents with advice, guidance and intensive support on issues such as child mental health and behaviour. The services support parents and families when and where they want it and in a form that suits them. We are also taking forward policies that will enhance children's development by promoting their self-confidence and sense of responsibility. The contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, posed a challenge to educators for parental education. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and my noble friend Lady Walmsley also spoke passionately about good personal, social, health and economic education. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, spoke of his own experiences in this connection, while the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, emphasised the importance of soft skills in this area.
PSHE contributes to children and young people's development and well-being by enabling them to make safe and informed choices. In spite of what may have been said earlier in the debate, Ofsted reports that PSHE continues to be well taught in over 75% of schools, and we are looking to improve the remaining 25% through a review of PSHE education. We expect the review to report early in 2013. Citizenship education is a compulsory part of the national curriculum in secondary schools. As part of the national curriculum review, we are considering what the secondary national curriculum should look like, and we will set out our proposals in due course. We also have the National Citizen Service, which gives young people the confidence and skills they need to get involved positively with their local communities and increasing the number who want to stay on in education. It gives them the chance to try new activities and mix with other young people they would not normally meet. It supports their successful transition to adulthood. An independent evaluation report showed that 95% of the young people involved said that it had given them the chance to develop useful skills for the future.
Positive for Youth, a briefing published on
I should also like to take the opportunity to mention the Cadet Forces and similar uniformed organisations such as the Scouts and Guides. They make a major contribution to young people's development by building self-confidence, promoting a sense of personal responsibility and teaching skills of leadership. I have seen at first hand, for example, how the Air Training Corps can provide a forum for young people with few home advantages to blossom when faced with leadership challenges, to speak in public with confidence, often to the astonishment of their close family, and to take pride in their behaviour and their appearance, as well as to demonstrate social responsibility and care for their neighbours. Further, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby pointed out, preparation for the world of work.
There is no contradiction between academic attainment and well-being. Research from the Centre for the Economics of Education has found that pupils with higher levels of enjoyment of school at age 14 go on to have relatively higher levels of attainment at age 16. Our policy is to allow good schools to continue to play their vital role as promoters of well-being in their local communities, and to do so as far as possible without central government prescription.
Perhaps I can pick up on some of the points that were made in this very varied debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, my noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, all asked about parenting. We have the CANparent trial project which aims to stimulate a private sector market in parenting education by encouraging parenting programme providers to offer a range of universal parenting classes. Most of the providers offering classes within the trial are charitable or not-for-profit organisations. The right reverend Prelate also mentioned the vital role played by the charitable, voluntary and not-for-profit organisations in this field. He also asked what progress had been made with the pre-school pledge. The new entitlement for two year-olds will be introduced in two phases. From September 2013, 20% of two year-olds will be eligible; from September 2014, this will be extended to 40% of two year-olds-around 300,000 children.
My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay asked what we were doing to support marriage. Family support services contribute to children and young people's development and well-being by supporting parents with advice, guidance and intensive support on issues such as school admissions, appeals and exclusions, child mental health and behaviour, and disability and special educational needs.
The question of marriage and tax was raised by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay and the noble Lords, Lord McFall and Lord Browne. The Government remain committed to recognising marriage in the income tax system. We want to show that we value commitment. We are considering a range of options and fully intend to come forward with proposals at an appropriate time.
The noble Lords, Lord McFall and Lord Low, mentioned the child poverty benefit reports. The Government are indeed committed to tackling child poverty but believe that it is key to tackle the causes rather than to treat the symptoms. We remain committed to the target set out in the Child Poverty Act, but want to find new measures better to reflect the reality of living in poverty today. We are launching a consultation on this shortly and would very much welcome input from noble Lords who have contributed to today's debate.
My noble friend Lady Walmsley raised a range of issues. I will, if I may, write to her in response to some of those. She asked about identifying problems early and the training of children's centre staff. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has introduced compulsory training on sexual health and domestic violence in the foundation programme curriculum for children's centre staff, and there is ongoing work to ensure that children benefit from informed and qualified people at the earliest stage. I acknowledge the noble Baroness's contributions about music and so on at a very early stage, which is proven to have some beneficial effects.
The issue of child sexual exploitation and trafficking was raised movingly by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Browne. On
Combating human trafficking is a key priority for this Government. We are committed to tackling the organised crime groups that profit from this human misery. The response to trafficking should be primarily about protecting the victims of crime and bringing those who exploit them to justice. An immense amount of work needs to be done on this because it is an extraordinarily serious issue, and we benefit from co-operation with European partners and cross-border organisations, which help us to treat this as the international problem it is. We acknowledge that this has been a particular issue in some areas of the country. The current figures of potentially trafficked children who go missing from care remain too high. It is encouraging to see the year-on-year decrease in numbers of missing trafficked children but of course we are in no way complacent about this issue.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady King and Lady Worthington, and the noble Lord, Lord Young, talked about the early intervention grant being reduced. It has become clear that local authorities and others believe that £534 million will be removed from the early intervention grant in 2013 and transferred to the dedicated school grant, but this is not the case. The department consulted earlier this year on the proposals to transfer funding from the EIG to the dedicated school grant, and the change was supported in the consultation, but the two year-old offer is funded with £760 million of new money, as announced in the Autumn Statement. So it is not true to say that it is being funded through cuts to children's centres, which indeed is not what we would wish. We pay tribute to the report of Graham Allen MP on these issues.
My noble friend Lady Benjamin, who has a long record of championing children's rights, particularly through television and radio, mentioned the effects of children's television-or rather the effects of sitting children in front of the television at too early an age. I know that she is also very active in ensuring that the quality of children's television and radio programmes remains high, and remains a proper informative and positive experience for children. She also referred to cyberbullying, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who has been so actively involved in this area, and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. The problems of cyberbullying are totally insidious. It is a very complex problem but we have got co-operation, particularly in response to Reg Bailey's report on this, to try to keep children safe online.
One problem is that very often the children actually know rather more than the parents. Indeed, hearing from the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, about her two year-old already being proficient with an iPad, one feels that this is a problem that may become less as that generation grows up to be responsible parents. Today's parents have slightly more of a struggle sometimes in matching the skill in technology of the young people. We have been consulting and have had a wide range of responses. We are drawing on a wide range of people from the industry as well, from businesses and regulators, to try to make it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material or to find other ways in which exposure to such totally unsuitable material can be managed. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, mentioned Islamophobia. Of course, that itself is a form of bullying, which needs to be addressed as well for children.
My noble friend Lady Miller raised the issue of good nutrition. The Government are certainly committed to promoting the health and well-being of infants, children and young people, and supporting them to eat a healthy and balanced diet. There is a range of initiatives, including the "eat well plate", which shows the types and proportions of food needed for a healthy and balanced diet, and Healthy Start, which is a statutory scheme providing a means-tested nutritional safety net to pregnant women and families with children under four in very low-income and disadvantaged areas. We hope that those programmes will continue to improve children's nutritional health.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked a number of questions. I may need to write to her on some of those. She talked about child development in initial teacher training. That is down to the ITT providers, but we would certainly expect that to be part of training, and for child development to be fully taken into account during the recent review of the national curriculum. She also referred to the Sure Start centres. It is for local authorities to determine where those cuts should fall. There has been only a small net reduction in children's centre numbers and only 18 outright closures to date. The vast majority of the reduction is accounted for by organisational changes such as mergers of children's centres to make efficiency savings.
My noble friend Lord Storey made reference to play, which of course is such an important factor, and paternal leave. The Government have consulted on more generous and flexible parental leave and an extension of the right to flexible working to all employees, to support mothers and fathers to develop positive patterns of shared caring from the start.
As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said-indeed, reference has been made throughout this debate-all these efforts are constrained by the financial situation in which we find ourselves and trying to ensure that we can operate as effectively as possible in this important field. Of course, the pupil premium is one measure that we have been able to take, and it is having a tremendous impact in schools. It is for schools to decide how it is spent, and schools must be accountable for that, but it is one of the things that we have been able to implement.
In conclusion, once again, I thank noble Lords for their thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions. I apologise if I have not referred to all the contributors to the debate. All the contributions were valuable and wide-ranging. Most especially, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for initiating the debate, and giving us the opportunity to explore these very complex issues so fully.
The Bishop of Chester (Bishop)
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate, which has been as fascinating as it has been wide-ranging. I thank the Minister for her response. On those points to which she did not respond-and the coalition pledge is one of them-a letter to me, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and others might be a helpful addition to the store of human wisdom and understanding in the weeks to come.
The UNICEF report was a wake-up call, and it is encouraging to see how it is being recognised as such. There are issues of encouragement. I go into a lot of schools and, generally speaking, find myself encouraged after doing so. A lot of good things are happening, but we need to go a lot further. It is particularly important that children are seen not just as proto-adults and that we see something again of the dignity of childhood, which is encroached on in so many ways, as noble Lords have mentioned, not least by the internet.
I was reflecting on the irony of your Lordships' House discussing childhood when 20% of our Members are over the age of 80. The answer is for more of us to cast our speeches in the form of a rap, which my noble friend gave us earlier.