[Mr Alan Meale in the Chair] — Family Policy
Jessica Lee (Erewash, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Meale, and I am delighted to have secured this important and wide-reaching debate on family policy.
I will begin by reflecting on the royal wedding last Friday. There are, of course, many joyful moments on which to reflect, but I want to focus on the prayer that their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge prepared in advance of their special day. It is telling that before going on to give thanks for their marriage and expressing their wish to serve others, in the first sentence of the prayer they thanked God for their respective families.
The value of the first relationships that we develop, and the care afforded to us by our first carers and family unit, plays a key role in the formation of the years ahead. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting that one needs to marry into royalty or luxury to value the importance of family and stability—far from it. That prayer reflects the wishes and aspirations of thousands of newlyweds up and down the country, and it was a valuable statement to make.
Since the coalition Government were formed nearly a year ago, there has been a focus on commissioning reports to examine how to tackle child poverty and how to best assist children and families in the important early years development. Most notable are the reports by Mr Field, which looks at the foundation years, and that of Mr Allen on early intervention. The report by Dame Clare Tickell presents her results on the evidence regarding the foundation years. Professor Eileen Munro has examined child protection procedures, and David Norgrove has published an interim report on the Family Justice Review. Most of those reports are at the interim stage, but they have already provided a detailed and highly informative overview for how to approach the complex issue of assisting families, particularly in the early years.
It is important to mention the valuable role played by the voluntary sector in supporting and caring for families. That role varies from national charities and organisations, such as Action for Children or Barnardo’s, to small local organisations that provide niche help and assistance. That work is underpinned by the vision and aspirations of, among others, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He has sought to get to grips with the reasons behind the cycles of poverty in the UK, and he has looked at how best to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged people.
Such an aspiration cannot be achieved by central Government alone, and I believe that we need to empower the most disadvantaged people to make sustained changes
and to aspire for their children. The complexities of family breakdown, drug and alcohol misuse, personal debt and educational failure have created long-standing problems for many families. The benefit reforms proposed and implemented by the coalition Government will make work pay, so that providing and taking responsibility for children, and the creation of a work ethic, will hopefully move some families away from those generations of people who did not feel equipped to work. Such people should be equipped with the skills and self- esteem that they require to move into work. I hope that this debate will pull together some of the strands that run through those different reports, and give hon. Members the opportunity to contribute their own views and experiences.
The contribution of the report into foundation years by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead is an excellent place to start such a debate. The report confirms the importance of the early years, and presents evidence to show how critical those years can be in determining the likely outcomes for children as they move into adulthood. Essentially, it proposes to place equal emphasis on the first five years—the foundation years—of a child’s life, as on the primary and secondary sections of a child’s education and development. It is a plan for long-term investment—not only financial investment but investment in services and skills—so as to achieve long-term results and improvements.
The proposal to set life chance indicators to support work undertaken during the foundation years is a bold step, and such indicators would help the Government to understand how investment in the early years is bearing fruit. The right hon. Gentleman seeks ring-fencing for some services, but the report makes it clear that that is not simply a request for funds. Trying to help the most disadvantaged children is not a new approach taken by the coalition Government, because previous Governments have also aspired to tackle that complex issue. The previous Labour Government set a target of abolishing child poverty by 2020, but in my view their approach ignored the long-term complexities behind cycles of poverty. The policy of child tax credits was never going to be a sufficient step towards resolving the social and economic problems for the next generation.
We need a structure where help for the foundation years can be accessed by those most in need. The proposals in the report for Sure Start centres to be refocused make great sense. In my constituency, Erewash, we are blessed with excellent Sure Start centres, and the staff and volunteers work with families and provide a great service to everyone who comes through the doors. Commissioning children’s centres and making them places where child benefit forms can be collected or parenting classes accessed are just some of the proposals aimed at making such centres attractive. In other countries, parenting classes are often a given, and it is part of the culture to undertake them when a new baby arrives. I want to see a shift in culture in the UK to make parenting classes fun and become the norm.
My friends who have had children often describe the sudden sense of responsibility that they felt when they first held their newborn child. As godparent to three young children, I have only to take care of the enjoyable stuff such as presents and day trips and so on, which is great fun. We know, however, that babies do not arrive with an instruction manual, and the shock of suddenly providing for another human being can be overwhelming.
Indeed, that shock can be overwhelming for well-supported, financially secure and well-educated parents, so it is easy to see how a parent who, for example, is struggling with their finances, has an unreliable partner, lacks a good family support network or has no knowledge of where to access help could suddenly fall apart. We must reach out and help those parents. We need more health visitors and easily accessible support for parents. If we can provide the right support from the outset, the prospects for children in the future will be much improved.
The report by the hon. Member for Nottingham North sits neatly with the work on foundation years. He has been an advocate of the theory and practice of early intervention work for many years, and we are all grateful for his first report on that subject. The forward to the report reiterates a point that I have made from the outset: the call for early intervention is about not only asking for money but the impact of social disruption, the effect of fractured lives and the sadness of broken families.
The introduction to the hon. Gentleman’s report contains the startling fact that a child’s development score at 22 months is an accurate indicator of educational outcomes at the age of 26. Other indicators in the report show how depression in adult women can often be traced back to their childhood experiences, and how adult criminal activity in men can be a reflection of their formative years. In my view, such facts only increase the need to look at long-term strategies for how we support families with young children, and how we structure support for those vital early years. The use of early intervention work to nip in the bud any struggles or problems faced by families has to be a goal for the future.
The work of Dame Clare Tickell includes data collated from various providers, schools and voluntary organisations. She has considered how best to implement measures to support the foundation years. It is one thing to identify the early years as an area that we need to assist. What we really need to do is to ensure that the work that is undertaken is correct. A question was asked about the most important skills that young children—pre- school children—should learn. Of the 1,184 responses, 81% listed helping to build good personal, social and emotional skills as the highest priority, with developing communication, speaking and listening skills coming a close second. Those are notable responses, as they are just the skills that could be monitored through early intervention work and assessed as part of a foundation years programme.
Another conclusion in the report was about the enthusiasm among professionals to speak, with permission of course, to other professionals involved with families, such as health visitors and support workers, which would very much assist work with families. It, too, is a significant theme and threads through to the steps that we take, but need to improve, in working with the most vulnerable children in society and those at risk of harm.
I come now to the important topic of child protection and support for the most vulnerable families. There is a need to tackle delays in the system and to ensure that the important work that social workers undertake is valued and respected. That is long overdue. My mother was a children’s nurse for about 40 years—probably longer than that—and her role would be considered a
front-line role. That would also be the case for nursing staff in accident and emergency departments in particular. Similarly, the role of a child protection social worker, stepping into the unknown in people’s homes, is front-line work and needs to be recognised as such. I am a family lawyer, and most if not all of the social workers with whom I have worked over the years have been subject to verbal abuse and physical assaults. They have to walk into homes where there are alcoholic parents or drug misuse with not a clue about what will happen on the other side of the door. That is not a role to be taken lightly. The reason for dwelling on those experiences is that we need to structure children’s services correctly, so that they can best support the vulnerable children for whose care and well-being they are responsible, which is no small responsibility. Professor Munro set out in the conclusions to her report the need to reduce bureaucracy for social work teams and how we can better structure working practices in children’s services.
I want to champion the role of the voluntary sector in supporting local children’s services. In my constituency of Erewash in Derbyshire, we have an excellent Home-Start organisation, with which I have been honoured and delighted to be closely involved. It provides valuable support for mums, who are often young, who need advice and guidance—it is a supporter. It usually involves an older figure to whom they can turn for advice without fear of judgment or criticism. Such volunteers do not step on the toes of children’s services when they perform their statutory duties. I would object to any suggestion that by supporting the voluntary sector, we are trying to take statutory roles away from government. We are not trying to do that; we are trying to embrace the voluntary sector, support it and give it the voice that it needs. Such volunteers add to the much-needed fabric of a support network for inexperienced parents. I support Home-Start in Erewash and throughout the country, and I support the many other similar organisations.
In Derbyshire, we also have an excellent scheme, which has been rolled out through the county council, for a volunteering passport. After training, volunteers can be awarded the passport as a sign of their commitment and experience, and they can then go forward to assist families. Again, it is often young mothers who need a friendly face and some guidance on parenting skills. The scheme is a success, and it reduces bureaucracy. It could easily be incorporated in new and different projects across the county—indeed, I would like to see it rolled out across the country.
For too long, patterns of abuse and neglect have been passed down the generations in families involved with social services. To link back to the earlier reports, it is often the lack of early intervention work that leaves a vulnerable family without support in the home, which can escalate to emergency situations and then to the statutory involvement of social services. That is not how social workers wish to work with families and, most importantly, it is very damaging for children. Sadly, by that stage, the level of harm to children can be so great that their attachment to their parents and siblings is irreparably damaged and beyond repair, despite attempts to weave the family back together.
An additional factor in this rather depressing scenario is the structure of the family justice system. The family justice system is served by hard-working people who have often worked in it for many years and who have a
passion for, and a commitment to, supporting vulnerable families. However, there are long delays in cases being heard and problems with the availability of experts and court time. David Norgrove has been commissioned to tackle those problems head-on, and he has provided a detailed interim report. The proposal to create a free-standing family justice system is well argued and evidenced in the report. It is important, because the current delays impact on planning for a child. If a baby of, say, six months is taken into foster care, it can be a further nine months or so before decisions are made about their future. The baby will therefore have lived more than half their life with an uncertain future. That matters, because it is at that stage that babies and young children are forming important attachments to their carers. Any disruption to their placement and delay in forming those attachments impact on the long-term prospects for young children. That takes us back to the concerns raised in the report by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead on the foundation years. To help the most vulnerable and damaged children in our society, we simply must speed up the decision making and court processes for them.
Finally, I come to the outcomes for looked-after children, which have also, sadly, remained poor. That has been the situation for many years. It was my privilege the other week to meet some young people from Cardiff who had travelled to Westminster. They were all children in foster care. One teenager told me that she had been through nine foster care placements in the past two years and that she did not think that that was fair. I did not hesitate in agreeing with her and saying that if I had been through so many placement changes in such a short time, I would be angry and upset with the system. Fortunately, that young person has now hit it off with an excellent support worker and has a focus and ambitions for the future. She knows where she wants to go. But what about the thousands of other young people who are—rightly—angry and upset? I applaud the Government’s steps to improve the adoption numbers in the UK and the wish to cut out political correctness and delays in approving matches for adoption. We must do that, because a whole generation of children on care orders depend on it.
My reason for initiating the debate is so that the Minister can, I hope, assist us all by responding to it and bringing together the threads of all these different and important reports. For any reforming Government who have recently come to power, there are many issues to tackle. We have all seen what the new Government have had to deal with in relation to the financial situation, reforming welfare benefits, foreign policy and so on, but to me, there is nothing more important than how we deal with young people and families. That takes me back to my opening comments. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recognised the point in their thoughtful prayer, which they set out before they were married. For any person who wants to get on in life, the love and support of a family is the most important foundation. Our duty as parliamentarians is to help as many young people as possible to have a stable and supportive start in life.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Meale. I congratulate most warmly my hon. Friend the Member
for Erewash (Jessica Lee) on securing the debate and on her excellent introduction to this very important subject. I am pleased that so many hon. Members have come along this morning to take part.
We know that the country faces a very severe financial crisis and we are reminded almost daily of the huge challenges that we face internationally in the middle east and elsewhere. However, the crisis facing family life is the most serious of all the issues facing this country. I do not say that lightly, because the data on family breakdown are extremely alarming. The most recent analysis from the Office for National Statistics in the millennium cohort study shows that 48% of all children born today will not grow up with both parents. It is alarming that nearly one in two children born today will experience some form of family breakdown, because although single parents do heroic and fantastic work on many occasions, and I give them all the credit they deserve for performing a tough role, the data show that outcomes for children overall across the country—obviously, there are exceptions—are much less good than when two parents stay together.
There has been a view across academics, policy makers and journalists that Governments cannot really go near this issue and that although they can build schools, run a health service, maintain decent roads and try to promote economic growth, they cannot or should not get involved in the issue of family life, even though that is the most important to many of our constituents, as my hon. Friend said. I want to challenge that contention because if we go about this in the right way, we can make a significant contribution to preventing family breakdown and strengthening family life.
Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry, DUP)
The hon. Gentleman is elaborating on the severe problems that family breakdowns cause society. Does he share my concern that the financial cost of such breakdowns is in excess of £40 billion, according to statistics from last year? Whatever investment the Government put in is worth while if it can address that fundamental problem, which will otherwise be with society for generations to come.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire, Conservative)
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and he is absolutely right. The recent study by the Relationships Foundation put the cost of family breakdown at £42 billion. In a recent speech, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions put it at between £20 billion and £40 billion per annum. Whatever the figure, we can all agree that it is massive, and if we can reduce it, there will be many better uses to which the money could be put in our constituencies; indeed, we could also reduce taxes. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that point so firmly on the record.
As I said, success or failure in marriage and relationships is not merely a matter of luck. Nor do people in a troubled marriage or relationship have just two options—to stay together and be miserable or to split up. That is absolutely and emphatically not the case, and I want to spend the rest of my time explaining why. I also want to praise the Government for some of the things they have done recently and to commend the Minister for some of the excellent initiatives she has introduced. I will perhaps
also outline some of the areas where we can go a little faster and a little further to match the scale of the problem.
I praise the recent funding from the Department for Education for a range of relationship support initiatives, from Relate to Care for the Family and its Let’s Stick Together project, which I am particularly keen on. I commend the Minister for that excellent start, which is an early down-payment on the coalition’s promise to take this issue seriously. I also commend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who has committed his Department to recognising marriage in its data and analysis. Under the previous Government, the issue was just wiped off the piece, and we could not look at the data on it. I am not talking about tax, which the Minister and I will disagree on as far as marriage is concerned, but about having an honest analysis of the data. Such an analysis is a good thing, and we should just see what the data say. That is a significant issue.
I want to comment a little on the funding that the Minister has given Care for the Family to roll out the Let’s Stick Together course. People ask what we can do about family breakdown, and this course is really practical. It is run by health visitors up and down the country for new parents, whatever type of relationship they are in. It takes an hour or so. Often, it is run by new parents who have recently done the course. It gives some of the basics about how to have a healthy, strong and happy relationship or marriage that will last. The early feedback is very positive and suggests that the course is well received. Surely, it is better to give people the tools, support and skills to make a success of their relationships than to come round and sort things out afterwards, when everything has gone wrong. In Bristol, where the course has been trialled, it now reaches nearly 30% of new mothers, and there has been very positive feedback. I commend Harry Benson of the Bristol community family trust, in particular, for the pioneering work that the trust has done. I also commend Bristol health visitors for the enthusiasm with which they have picked up the course. If that can be done in Bristol, why can it not be done in every other great city, and in every market town, village and rural area, in our country, because this really matters?
I hope that we will see a little more support from registrars for marriage preparation. Two thirds of all weddings take place in registry offices, but registrars do not offer good enough signposting towards the marriage preparation that is available from local and community groups. That is an obvious thing we could do, it would not cost any money and it would lead to better outcomes. What do we have to fear? What is there to prevent us from doing that? I hope that we can go further and faster on that.
At the moment, all our local authorities are preparing local child poverty strategies. I welcome that exciting development, which is taking place alongside the Government’s excellent work nationally to reduce child poverty. We can see different and pioneering initiatives at the local level, and I hope that strengthening families will be a key part of what local authorities look at. From the early evidence I have seen of some child poverty strategies, however, I am not convinced that that is yet the case. I know that we are all localists now, and that we are not really in the business of telling our
local authorities what to do, but an emphasis on strengthening families would be enormously helpful and useful, given that a child who grows up with one parent rather than two is twice as likely to grow up in poverty as one whose parents stay together. I therefore hope that strengthening families will be an aspect of local child poverty strategies and that authorities will work with the community and voluntary sector. There is a community family trust in my constituency, which could do this work very well with my local authority, and that would be helpful.
My hon. Friend talked about the importance of parenting courses, and I completely agree with her. The additional point I would make is that internationally peer-reviewed academic work, particularly from Professors Cowan and Cowan at the university of Berkeley in California, shows that parenting work is even more successful if the relationship between the two parents can be enhanced at the same time. Where parenting work is being done and there are two parents, let us also strengthen the couple’s relationship. We could usefully do that, and it would not cost us any more money where parenting work was already being done. That would lead to better results.
We can also do more in our schools. I recognise that our school curriculum is completely packed, and whenever anyone tells me that they want to add something to it, I ask them what they want to take out. However we do have assemblies in our schools, and teachers and head teachers are often looking for material to present. There is very good material around. Care for the Family has its evaluation material. There is also an excellent charity called Explore, which is based in Hampshire. I have met both, and they have really excellent material, which is welcomed by students in schools. It speaks to children in a language they understand and tries to give them some of the skills and support they need to make a success of adult relationships when they leave school. We could do more work on that.
My final suggestion to the Minister before I sit down, as many colleagues want to speak, is not to ignore what we can do in prisons. That might seem an odd area to mention; however, strengthening the relationships of prisoners is important. It is not a fuzzy thing to do, akin to giving prisoners televisions in their cells. The academic evidence tells us that prisoners who have a strong relationship to return to after they leave prison are 35% less likely to reoffend when they come out. If their relationship breaks down while they are in prison, they are 40% more likely to reoffend. Why does that matter? Because you and I, Mr Meale, are less likely to have our back door kicked in on a Saturday night, or our car radio stolen, if we can support the relationships of prisoners. We might not immediately think of that when we discuss family policy, but it is important.
Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response; I commend her for the excellent start her Department has made. However, I would say it is a massive challenge. If we are to make Britain the country we all want to see, we need to go a little further and faster in this area.
Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP)
I, too, congratulate Jessica Lee on raising the subject. All of us believe that family values are
important; I certainly do as an elected representative. They are the core of society, and it is important that they are in place. That is the thrust of what was said by the hon. Lady and Andrew Selous. I missed the beginning of the hon. Lady’s contribution, but I understand that she mentioned Kate and William’s marriage as an important example. That was also important for me: it was not just the pageant, the grandness of the occasion and that 2 billion people around the world watched; it was that it was about two young people in love. That is the core of the marriage relationship. They are two ordinary people, if one takes away all the grandness of last Friday.
I have a couple of points to make about marriage. In correspondence that we all received as elected representatives, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Prime Minister clearly stated that family values are important to them. They intended to take action to help, which I would welcome. I will return to that later, but I am conscious that others want to speak, so I will not deliberate for too long.
I have one of those long-suffering wives who from the beginning realised that the guy was going to be away most of the time, and that she would have to look after the family, which is what happened. The role of the lady is important in any marriage. Ultimately, they run the household and look after the children. That bond between mother and child is stronger—perhaps more than it should be—than the one between the father and child. Statistics indicate that 90% of those in a married relationship are happy, and a similar percentage of those cohabiting are also happy. That is an indication that lots of people are committed to the married or cohabiting relationship.
It is not just about the relationship between the mother and father; it is also about the families and the time they spend with their children. The only mealtime I spend with my children is on a Sunday. There is an indication that families should eat together on a more regular basis. A family eating together three times a week provides that strong bond for a marital relationship.
My comments focus on the marriage relationship and the need to build upon it, and the need for Government to play a role. Words are all very well, but actions are needed to back them up, and I want to see that happen. If my wife is watching, she would probably say that that man is talking about love and romance, and wondering whether that is the man she married. I hope it is, but maybe we do not always show our emotions in the way that we should.
Will the Minister indicate the progress of the Conservative promise of a tax break for married couples? I do not think that we should base marriage on finance alone. People do not get married because of a house, car or good job; I hope people always marry for love. The Conservatives and the coalition have clearly stated that they wish to bring in a tax break for married couples, so I want to hear from the Minister where that features in the process. We heard the suggestion discussed a lot in June and July last year but not much since. In Hungary, it has been proposed that families should be allowed an extra vote on behalf of their children. I am not saying that we should do that here, but I am interested to see what we are doing to assist families with a tax break.
My final point is about breaking up. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire hit on the fact that not every marital relationship works out. We all have friends
who tried hard but the relationship fell down. That happens. We must have a process in place to ensure that those who experience marital break-up can survive and get by. I hope the Minster will state whether there should be a mediation process. I believe that there should be. Should both parties be committed to that mediation process? Yes, they should. That has perhaps been overlooked. It is all too easy, when a relationship falls down, to walk away and leave it. It is almost a part of the disposable society: the car breaks down, get a new car; household appliances break down, get a new one; the marriage breaks down, move on.
Jessica Lee (Erewash, Conservative)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although families sometimes break down, it is at that point that the parents need to put the interests of their children first and foremost, and set aside their own differences, for the well-being and the future of those children? To emphasise that, the Government have taken various steps in welfare benefit reforms, as well as through the Department for Education.
Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP)
A lot of things are being done. I am not saying that things are not being done; they are. I suggest that there are some things we can do but have not been. There is an indication that, with the removal of legal aid, people contemplating divorce or separation might decide to do a quickie and get it over. That means that they would not go through the process. As the hon. Lady has said, children who are clearly part of the relationship are pushed aside and forgotten. Will the Minister indicate where mediation should be in the process?
Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald, Conservative)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the unhappy circumstance of a breakdown, the emphasis should be on relationship repair, keeping people out of courts and moving on in a much more civilised, less expensive way?
Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP)
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. Sometimes, when relationships have fallen down, anger comes to the fore. I feel mediation provides a method for focus, strategy and drive in the direction that she has mentioned. That would be good. It is much better in every case to have mediation rather than battles in court—or out of court, and battles everywhere else. I would like to see mediation from that point of view as well.
Mr Justice Coleridge of the Family Division has said that
“almost all of society’s…ills can be traced directly to the collapse of the family life”.
The judge deals with such problems each and every day, and he has knowledge and experience of family breakdowns. He also referred to a
“never ending carnival of human misery.”
We have to move on from that.
We need more commitment from people outside the marriage to make the marital relationship work. We need a commitment to young families, to children and to doing the things that are important. We all have to work at it. We cannot say, “It’s great to do that.” We have to work at it and try to make it happen. We need tax breaks from the coalition Government and an indication of how they might work. We also need mediation. If we
have that, there is a chance of people holding on to their relationships, which will ensure that families and children are helped.
Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Erewash on introducing the debate. It is a good and timely debate, especially as the whole nation is thinking about that special marriage last Friday.
Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jessica Lee on securing this important debate.
The family is a fundamental and vital tool in holding society together. It can provide security, stability and commitment. In the family we learn how to give, how to share, we learn how to be kind and how to care, and we learn how to build relationships. However, the family has been and continues to be badly neglected as an institution, notwithstanding the fact that it is a key element in dealing with issues such as gun crime, knife crime, teenage pregnancy, truancy and antisocial behaviour. The Government need to do everything they can to support and protect the family.
David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate, Conservative)
My hon. Friend puts the matter in its proper context, referring to issues such as antisocial behaviour and gun crime. Would she commend the work of Barry and Margaret Mizen following the tragic murder of their son Jimmy? They helped to set up Families United because they wanted to channel their grief into the positive energy of trying to support such families, that being the best way of dealing with those very deep issues.
Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald, Conservative)
I am happy to commend that special initiative, and the bravery of the individuals affected.
Since the general election, some good and positive family policies have been announced; they include underpinning Sure Start, more health visitors, flexible working and parental leave. However, much more is needed.
I was a legal aid family lawyer for 23 years—I am giving away my age—prior to becoming a Member of Parliament. I declare an interest, in that during those years I saw a relentless rise in family breakdowns. As Jim Shannon said, Mr Justice Coleridge described family breakdown as a
“never ending carnival of human misery—a ceaseless river of human distress”.
The judge went on to say:
“We are experiencing a period of family meltdown whose effects will be as catastrophic as the meltdown of the ice caps”.
From practice, I know that the situation is indeed dire. Our family courts are overstretched and under-resourced, and there are many delays. The situation will be made even worse with the demise of legal aid and the increasing number of litigants in person. This comes at a time when ever more people need family lawyers, and families are marching through the family courts at an ever-increasing rate and with no sign of decline. Sir David Norgrove, in his interim family justice review, acknowledges the capability and dedication of those who work in the family justice system, but he also says
that the family justice system is no system at all. He identifies fundamental failures and faults, and he concludes that our children are badly let down.
Successive Governments seem to have been oblivious to the realities of family life for many—and oblivious, too, to the profiles and personalities, psychological and otherwise, of those who rely on the family justice system and use the family courts to resolve their problems. If those Governments had appreciated the situation they would not have hesitated in comprehensively reforming the family justice system, including the substantive law of divorce, and questions of money and cohabitation; they would also have adequately funded the system, including giving legal aid for family cases.
My firm looked after about 14,000 clients in south London, Surrey and west Kent. The family profile that I shall describe to the House is, sadly, not unusual.
Mother presents with some learning difficulties, a history of violence and a history of drug abuse, but says that she is now clean. She has three children, all girls, with three different fathers. Mother seeks a non-molestation injunction order against X, the youngest daughter’s father, mum having been hit over the head with a pickaxe. There are numerous other incidents of violence. The two older children, too, need injunctions to protect them from X. There are also allegations by the eldest girl that X had touched her in an inappropriate manner. All the girls are having problems at school. The middle girl has been diagnosed with ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The school has threatened suspension because of disruptive behaviour. Mother is on income support and feeling suicidal. All the children are on the child protection register. When I took instructions from this lady, her physical appearance and her demeanour when she came into the room led me to think that she was about 50; only when I asked for her date of birth did I realise that she was only 25 years old. That is a true story.
Tragically, the children growing up in these families are watching and learning from bad behaviour and absent boundaries, and they will breed future generations of victims and perpetrators. It is an absolute vicious circle.
Jessica Lee (Erewash, Conservative)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way at this important point in her speech. Does she agree that after taking instruction from such clients, a further question is often posed? We might be dealing with a young mother whose baby may be taken into foster care, and the question is, “Who is there for you? Who can help you and support you?” Sadly, the answer is often no one. The client will have lost the family support network. They may have managed to extricate themselves from an abusive relationship, but they will be on their own and that is such a difficulty.
Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald, Conservative)
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I could not agree with her more. I know that in her practice she has also come across the very situation I described. The answer to her question is that often, there is nobody, which neatly brings me on to my next point in this sad scenario.
It is worth noting that under the Government’s proposals for legal aid, this highly vulnerable woman, with nobody there to help her, would not be entitled to help with her
residency and contact issues, with her debt problems or with the educational difficulties that she had with her children.
Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight, Conservative)
Will my hon. Friend help me by saying how many of the 14,000 clients whom she referred to fall below the lady whose story she has spelt out for us? I ask that not because there is a disagreement that there is a problem, but because we must say how much money would be needed to put it right.
Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald, Conservative)
It is very difficult to give an exact figure, but probably 80% of clients in my family law legal aid practice in south London have a profile very similar to that of the family I described.
When Mr Justice Coleridge made his remarks about family meltdown, he was criticised for sounding off by some in the media and others, whom I think should have known better. That learned judge, of some 20 years’ experience at the sharp end, was absolutely right. There have been at least seven reviews of the family justice system since 1989, and yet precious little has changed or improved. We cannot allow this to continue. We ignore the family at our peril. I urge the Government not to avoid the issue but to be brave and robust in dealing with it.
David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to take part in a debate on such an important subject, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Jessica Lee on securing it. It should be noted that it is only six hours since we were in the main Chamber, and you will forgive me, Mr Meale, for saying that today we have shown our capacity to be full-time MPs without a change in the electoral system.
As all speakers have noted, family policy is not shaped around living in an ivory tower. As my hon. Friend Mrs Grant said, we are dealing with a policy that affects intractable problems in society—the poverty-stricken estates and the areas in all our constituencies where we see the need to support and strengthen the family, which at its core would provide a stronger community, as Jim Shannon mentioned, and by its essence would support the weakest and most vulnerable.
When we debate family policy, we are talking not about the washing powder advert, sanitised version of the family, but about families affected by the deepest problems. I draw attention to the 250,000 to 350,000 children living in households where a parent is misusing drugs; barely four in 10 fathers in such families are in any contact with those children. At least 2.6 million children live in households where a parent is a hazardous drinker, and 750,000 live in a household with an alcohol- dependent parent. Those are deep problems, which are affected by our family policy.
Moving away from those statistics, one can drive down into the individual stories. A number of years ago, when taking part in the Centre for Social Justice’s study of addiction issues, I came across Ruth, who told me that, once, when politicians and others talked about family values she did not have a clue what they were talking about. She was a victim of drug and alcohol
abuse, and went through the experiences of children’s homes and further abuse, which previous speakers have described. In words that have long stayed with me, she said that at the age of eight,
“I longed for someone to cuddle me and tell me they loved me, as I just didn’t belong. I cried and I cried but no one heard. My tender heart was breaking.”
Thankfully, Ruth managed to get through the system, going through numerous social workers, homes and allocated workers. The great value of voluntary sector organisations has been mentioned today: Ruth eventually found herself and landed on the help and care of one of those organisations, Victory Outreach UK, run by a Christian couple acting on their own family values of reaching out to others and to the most vulnerable, not just keeping to themselves. They supported Ruth and enabled her to understand what family values were about. She ended up saying that she did understand families and that they were about belonging. She wanted me to ensure that we take account of that as a matter of policy.
Mark was one of my regular clients as a criminal solicitor. No doubt he gave my firm good trade, but he blighted his life and the lives of those around him by being one of the most prolific criminals in Enfield. He was the subject of intergenerational drugs misuse, knowing only what he saw: he saw his mother taking drugs and he continued to take drugs, and from what he saw around him, he knew that the way to get more drugs was to commit more crime. His life was full of potential—he had the potential to train for the Olympics next year in weight-lifting, rather than watch the hatch lifting on cell doors in Pentonville and other prisons around London, which is what he spent his time doing. What made a difference to him and made the lights flicker on, just for a while, was the involvement of family.
I remember a time when Mark had gone through a spate of criminality and ended up in the cells of Enfield magistrates court. The bravura of being a high-profile criminal left him, and he did not demand a cigarette as he usually would, but said, tears running down his face, “Where’s my father? I want to speak to my father.” That was the big issue for him and what he had missed through his life. The lights flickered on again when Mark himself became a father—he suddenly realised that life was not just about himself and feeding his addiction habits and the criminality around him, but about his responsibility to others and his profound responsibility to the most vulnerable person in his vicinity: his child. That was when he realised that he had a responsibility beyond himself to his child and to the community. Sadly, that opportunity was not grasped the first time round and was taken from him, but it was grasped for the second child. There were people and community organisations around him who helped him to engage with the child. Mark is now, thankfully, turning the corner, being a great dad to his child and trying to break that intergenerational cycle of crime and drug misuse.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe, Conservative)
In many ways, what my hon. Friend describes, drawn from his experience as a solicitor, is very similar what our hon. Friend Mrs Grant said. She too was speaking from the heart as well as from her experience, as was our hon. Friend the Member
for Erewash (Jessica Lee). Does he agree that it is imperative that the Government understand and appreciate that lawyers, be they solicitors or barristers, play an invaluable role in bringing families together? We are much more than just lawyers: we bring together other services through our work when we represent people.
David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate, Conservative)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not want the debate to be too much of a mutual admiration society. The reality is that lawyers are not top of the bill in terms of our promoting them. What they are about is providing a service, especially to the most vulnerable, and we need to ensure that they are part of the picture—it is quite right that they should be part of it—of supporting and strengthening families.
My point is that we do not need a family policy for just one Government Department. I say that with respect to the Minister, and it is excellent to see her here today. She recognises, as we all do, that family policy affects all Departments. When we look at individual cases, we see that support and welfare structures have tended to treat people as one-dimensional clients rather than as the complex and unique individuals they are, who are part of complex and unique families. We need to look at the whole person and beyond them at their whole family, however dysfunctional it might be. We need to look at the mum, the dad—if he is around—the brothers and sisters and the grandparents. The Government need to assess at all times and in all policies the impact on whole families.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash mentioned, family policy is not simply about having a centrally directed policy. Let us take the example of early years child care. High-quality nursery care provision is important, but it is not just about the Government directing that provision; it is about nurturing children in their early years—indeed, in their early days and weeks. That is why we can all welcome the increase in the number of health visitors and the empowerment that that provides. If the parents are dealing with drugs or alcohol misuse, early intervention could indeed mean intervening as soon as pregnancy has been confirmed and creating the opportunity to prevent more children from entering the intergenerational cycle of abuse.
Supporting early years provision also means recognising the value of parents in their nurturing role. More often than not, it is the mother who is involved in full-time care of children in their early years. I want to see a time when that practice is not the preserve of the few who can afford it but a choice that is available to many.
Family policy is not just about money—and more money. Yes, resources help to provide the opportunity for children to have a good start in life, but the most important element in any family is good relationships, which most likely involve having both a mother and father around and, the evidence shows us, the parents being married. That is where Government can play a role. We are having the debate about the proper incentives and support that can help that family structure.
Finally, family policy is not only about mothers. As I said when I talked about Mark, it is about fathers too. It is worth saying that the time that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash spoke for this morning—15 to 20 minutes—is roughly the time in the average working
day that that a father 30 years ago would spend with his child. That that has improved is positive: indeed, a father today typically spends about the entire length of this debate—an hour and a half—and perhaps even a bit more time with their child in the average working day.
We must all recognise that the absence of a father has a profound effect, whether that be seen in problems for the children at school or in their future mental health, employment, and involvement with crime or misuse of drugs. That is why we welcome the approach right across Government of encouraging payment by results, giving incentives and measuring outcomes in all those policy areas that have at their heart the health and well-being of children. In particular, that approach will help to support and incentivise relationships that can become so frayed, but that are so fundamental to improving the outcomes for children.
We have spoken about strong family attachment, the supervision of children, establishing boundaries, affection and emotional warmth, all of which are crucial not only to protect children but to enhance their health and well-being. I believe that this Government will be judged by results and should be judged most profoundly on whether we are protecting and doing our best for the most vulnerable and fighting poverty. The way that we will do all that is by strengthening the family.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Meale. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jessica Lee on securing this important debate. I thank her and my other hon. Friends in Westminster Hall today for all the excellent contributions that they have made.
This debate on family policy comes at a particularly auspicious time following the royal wedding, which I mention because I believe the most important relationship is marriage. I believe that Government should support marriage, particularly for the sake of children—many of which I wish upon the happy royal couple, in the fullness of time.
Like many of my hon. Friends in Westminster Hall today, I have practised in the field of law. I did so for well over 20 years—actually, nearly 30 years, but I was reluctant to say that—as the head of a high street law firm. As a result, I do not have a completely doe-eyed view of marriage. In my time practising law, I witnessed the incalculable cost of relationship breakdown, not least the financial price and the personal price paid by children. However, even after taking that cost into account, I still believe that it can be argued persuasively that marriage is good for the stability of family life and that stable families are good for society.
That being the case, if a key question in policy making is about fairness, why do many parents who choose to marry feel penalised for doing so by our tax system? Fiscal policy that was intended to help single mothers, which is a wholly worthy cause, has created the odd situation whereby some couples who want to live together actually live in separate homes because the tax system rewards them for doing so. On a national scale, that is terribly wasteful, not only because shared housing is more efficient but because, as we have already heard today, cohesive family life brings immeasurable benefits to both individuals and society as a whole.
“The family is the most fundamental, basic and rooted unit of society…The centre of the family, the thing that holds it together…is the relationship between parents… There is an increased unwillingness for parents to commit to each other which has given rise to a significant increase in cohabitation which in turn has major implications, not only for adults but also for children… A child born to cohabiting parents has a nearly one in two chance of living in a single parent family by the time they reach their fifth birthday, whilst a child born to a married parent has only a one in twelve chance of finding themselves in this situation. The consequences are far reaching. Children from lone parent families—who today constitute nearly one quarter of all children—are 75 per cent more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent more likely to become drug addicts and 50 per cent more likely to become alcohol dependant. Girls from fatherless homes are an over-represented demographic in teen pregnancy statistics, while boys from fatherless families are typically over-represented in criminal gangs.”
Even if one’s ideals do not include marriage as a public act of commitment, there is evidence that marriage as an institution is mutually beneficial, both to the partners in the relationship and to society as a whole. It is also the most important factor in predicting a child’s well-being. Some see supporting marriage through the tax system as regressive, but I see it as progressive.
In the UK, we support single parents financially—directly or indirectly—because it is right to recognise that bringing up children is a hard job at the best of times, particularly if one is more or less alone in doing so. Many single parents are courageous, self-sacrificial and deserve commendation. Sadly, it is also true that many children who grow up in a single-parent household live in poverty. That is not right, but it is also true that almost half of children who live under the poverty line come from two-parent households. It seems wrong that we should incentivise single parents through the tax system to remain single, simply because of the financial benefits that that status affords.
Other research shows that it is harder for couples with children to lift their children out of poverty than it is for single parents. Again, I quote from the CARE paper:
“Although designed to deal with child poverty, tax credits are now locking children into poverty in working households, especially couple households. The latest poverty statistics are those for 2008/2009 which show that of the 2.8 million children living in households with incomes below the official poverty line (60 per cent of median equivalised income), 1.5 million were in households with one or both parents in paid work, 1.3 million (a number that is increasing) were in couple households… The problem arises because tax credits do not take account of the way income is measured for calculating the number of children in poverty. The DWP say that a lone parent with two children would have required net income of £293 per week to be on the poverty line, whereas a couple with two children would have needed £374 per week. However, a couple family’s entitlement to tax credits is the same as that for a comparable lone parent family. Couple families therefore have to earn more, but because of the way the means testing formula works they receive fewer credits… However, there is a further problem. As pre-tax income increases, tax credits reduce… In 2008/09, a lone parent would have needed to earn only £95 per week to be out of poverty. By contrast, the couple family would have needed to earn £283 per week.”
For a number of years, CARE has been pointing out that many couples would be better off financially living apart than living together. Seventy-eight per cent. of the families in CARE’s sample were shown to be better off living apart, even after the additional housing costs
were taken into account. Families find themselves better off living apart principally because of the way in which tax credits are structured and means-tested.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton, Conservative)
Certainly, Mr. Meale. I will conclude my remarks.
Marriage is good for society. It is a public institution as well as a private relationship, and as such society as a whole has a stake in supporting the family unit. If society benefits from the family, as it undoubtedly does, families should benefit from society and its fiscal policies, especially for the sake of our children and their children.
Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West, Labour)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Meale, after just about five hours’ sleep.
I congratulate Jessica Lee on stepping in to lead this debate, which I understand was secured by Nicky Morgan. I also thank her for providing me with notice of the particular aspects of family policy that she addressed. Yesterday, I learned that in a former life she was a lawyer specialising in family law, and that background certainly came to the fore today in her very well-informed speech. She praised Sure Start centres in her constituency and made the suggestion, which has a lot of merit, that parenting classes should become the norm. She also said that early intervention is not only about the money but about how it is used. I note that my hon. Friend Mr Allen highlighted evidence on specific early interventions that work in his excellent report—I am sure that the Government are paying particular heed to that report. The hon. Lady also spoke about the speed of the safeguarding process, which we all agree takes far too long, especially for babies and toddlers.
I pay tribute to all the other hon. Members who have spoken this morning. There have been many excellent contributions, covering the whole gamut of family policy issues. We have heard some harrowing cases that have been used not to sensationalise but to highlight the worst that can happen when families break down, or when they were never whole or healthy in the first place. There is a cycle of damaged people having children, who are then in the system in one way or another, throughout their lives, from day one. I think that we are all united in an ambition to end the cycles of deprivation that we know exist right across the country, despite decades of initiatives and interventions.
Although the debate has been very well-attended, there are other hon. Members who would have wanted to be here but are no doubt tied up with campaigning around the country. Many of them will be speaking to families at this very moment, about the issues we are discussing here.
It goes without saying that families are the bedrock of our society, and one of the most important duties of Government is to support the parents of today in providing a stable and loving environment in which the parents of tomorrow can flourish. No two families are the same, however, and the needs of parents and children vary widely, making developing policy in this area as difficult as it is important.
On safeguarding, we are clearly waiting for the outcome of the Munro review, which was commissioned following the tragic case of Peter Connelly, and I would not want to presuppose what any of its final recommendations might be. Needless to say, I welcome Professor Munro’s initial findings, and I look forward to the final recommendations and to the Government response. It is welcome that the Government are seeking the advice of the professionals who deal with at-risk children and families every day to find out how we can improve the systems to help those children.
I have not been working on this particular area, but I think that I am safe in saying that we accept the need for a balance between the guidance and processes that adults and professionals working with children are given, and their ability to act on the basis of their judgment and to respond swiftly in co-operation with other agencies when a risk to a child’s safety or well-being is identified. There are concerns about whether the cuts to local authority budgets will mean a reduced social worker work force in some areas; many local authorities certainly expect an increased case load, and foresee problems due to cuts to police, mental health and primary care trust budgets. I hope, therefore, that we can implement any sensible changes quickly and seamlessly, to ensure that no children slip through the gaps in the meantime. As the hon. Member for Erewash described in highlighting a particularly concerning case, the unintended consequences of our care system often do not help or improve the life or outcomes of an already damaged child, and we must do all that we can to ensure that the system does not cause harm.
An area in which I have done a lot of work is that of early years and early intervention. This is another very important topic, and although the Government have been making some positive noises, it is actions that count, and their actions, so far, have left a lot to be desired. Again, they have sought wise counsel, and we have seen some very thoughtful, and at times convergent, reports from my right hon. Friend Mr Field, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North and Dame Clare Tickell.
One of the programmes that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North praises in his report is that of family nurse partnerships, in which young, first-time parents, possibly from families with multiple problems, are given help and support from the point of identification, past birth and into the early years of their child’s life. The intervention does not focus on just the health of the mother and the child—important though that is—but crucially on the aspirations that parents have both for their child and for themselves, and on how to achieve those aspirations. I have heard great things about the results, and look forward to shadowing a family nurse in my constituency later this month to see the work for myself as part of the Royal
College of Nursing’s campaign for everyone to shadow a nurse. The Government have made a commitment to reach 12,000 families in that way by the end of this Parliament, but I hope that, given the strong recommendation in the Allen review, the Minister and her colleagues will look at rolling that kind of intervention out more widely, particularly as it focuses wholly on families who might not actively engage with other services, such as Sure Start children’s centres.
I also welcome the fact that the Minister has assembled an early years working group to advise on further policy development in this area, but I hope that she will listen to the group if it turns around and says that what she and her colleagues have done to early intervention funding—cutting the budget by some 22% this year and removing the ring fence—negates what we ought to be trying to achieve, which we all agree is to improve outcomes for all children. I have been trying to get that message across for a while now, but do not seem to have had much success, with the Opposition day debate on children’s centres last Wednesday a case in point. I have to place on record the fact that the Minister was very much missed from that debate, and I sincerely hope it was not through illness. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, Tim Loughton, might have his eye on her job. He is a very charming man, but I have to admit that I have grown to enjoy my little jousts with the Minister, so I am very pleased to see her in her place today.
On the afternoon of last Wednesday’s debate on children’s centres, the OECD published a report, “Doing Better for Families”, that called on Ministers to rethink their decisions to cut support for families, particularly support for early years services. The Government enjoy quoting OECD reports, so I hope that they will listen to this one. Perhaps the Minister will give us a few comments in a moment.
On wider policies affecting families, one key element that a family needs to thrive is the parents’ ability to earn a decent income with which to bring up their children. In the vast majority of cases, that means that they must be able to organise child care in order to go out to work. I do not want to take this collegial and serious debate down too political a route, but it is clear to most people that many of the choices made by the Minister’s colleagues over the past year have not been a great help to ordinary working families in that respect.
One decision that keeps coming up relates to working parents’ ability to pay for early education and child care. Hon. Members will be aware that Save the Children’s report on child well-being, published yesterday, places the UK 23rd out of 43 developed countries on that measure. That might be the subject for a later debate, but Save the Children’s chief executive, Justin Forsyth, said that the Government should reverse their cut to support for child care in tax credits, which reinforces what I have heard time and again from the sector.
I wanted to say a few more things, but I will conclude, as I think that everybody here wants to hear the Minister’s response to the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Erewash for leading this debate. Given the day and many Members’ commitments to the campaign trail—and to catching up on sleep—it has proved to be a useful discussion. I hope that we will have many more opportunities to continue this vital discourse.
Sarah Teather (Minister of State (Children and Families), Education; Brent Central, Liberal Democrat)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Meale. I congratulate Jessica Lee on—I was going to say winning this debate, but I am not sure whether “winning” is the right word, considering what time she probably got to bed last night. There is some irony in discussing family policy in the least family-friendly institution in the UK. I congratulate all hon. Members on being here and on an interesting and informative debate. I particularly enjoyed the opening remarks of the hon. Lady, which addressed family policy across the piece. I doubt that I will be able to respond to everything in the time remaining, but I will do my best to pick up on as many of the points raised as I can.
I thank Mrs Hodgson for her profound affection for my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Tim Loughton. I will of course pass on her remarks to him. I am sure that he will be terrified, but I will draw his attention to her flattery of his great skills.
The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said that this goes without saying, but I think it is worth saying again: strong and stable families are the bedrock of a strong and stable society. They are key to ensuring that children grow up in a loving and nurturing environment and develop into healthy, happy, successful adults. The quality of relationships matters. Adults in good, stable relationships have better life outcomes, and so do their children. Families are also the social capital that builds and sustains neighbourhoods and communities, as Mrs Grant said eloquently in her introductory remarks. They are the basic unit of society, and they are where we learn the social skills we need to survive and flourish in life. They are where we learn how to form relationships with other people, and the success of those relationships will affect our life outcomes as well as those of our children.
The make-up of the family unit is changing, as several hon. Members said. Families come in many varied shapes and sizes, including single-parent, multi-generational and foster families. Fathers are becoming more involved with their children, which I believe is a positive step forward that the Government should do much to support. Despite the many different changes referred to by Jim Shannon in his speech, families are, as he also said, happy on the whole with family life. Most families say that they are fairly or very happy; 93% of respondents to a recent BBC poll said that they were happy with their family life.
However, it is vital that we support families as much as we can, and this Government believe that we should do much better. It is our ambition to make this country the most family-friendly in the world. At the heart of all our policy making is the determination to ensure that family services are designed around parents’ needs rather than the other way around, and take account of changing work patterns, the evolving roles of parents and the financial pressures families face.
Andrew Selous said that some people believe that families are not the Government’s business. Sadly, many politicians
who consider themselves progressive believe that the family is not an area in which the Government should be involved. There is sometimes a dichotomy between believers in a small state and in a big state regarding what they believe the role of Government should be. However, I believe that the Government have an important role in supporting families, systematically removing the barriers that prevent them from thriving and creating the right environment through legislative change, financial systems and the design of public services so that families can be the best that they can be. That matters to our children, and to their children as well.
It is also important that we intervene to support vulnerable families when things are difficult. All families go through times when things are harder. We know, for example, that there are pressures on families when they have a first child or when children move into the teenage years. Those with many social networks might manage to get through such times, but if life is stacked against people, as in some of the examples given in several hon. Members’ speeches—if they suffer from a mental health problem, have unstable relationships, live in overcrowded housing or have a drug or alcohol problem—it is much more difficult to do so.
That is why the Government are investing in extra health visitors, for example, to support people in the early years. It is why we are doubling the number of family nurse partnerships—to refer to the remarks of the Opposition spokesperson—and why we feel so strongly that Sure Start matters and must be focused particularly on families that need support at that time. It is also why we have begun a new campaign to support families with multiple problems to ensure that they get the support they need, rather than being passed from one service to another.
We will shortly consult on new proposals for family parental leave, an issue about which I feel strongly. Several hon. Members discussed fathers and the need to involve them more. Involving fathers at an early stage makes a difference to children’s outcomes. If the worst happens—if all the other things we are doing to support relationships do not work and the relationship breaks down—fathers who are engaged at an early stage are much more likely to remain engaged later.
I am running out of time, so I will not be able to speak about all the things that I wanted to address, but I will refer a little to our work on relationship support, which I believe is important to sustaining families who might go through difficult times, as any family will. As the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said, the Prime Minister recently announced that my Department will fund relationship support to the tune of £30 million, a substantial increase. As part of that, we are also providing funding through a series of voluntary sector organisations—at the moment, telephone and internet services are going out to tender—to ensure that all sorts of relationship support mechanisms are available to families.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire will be pleased to know that we already support prisoners’ families with £1.3 million through about six voluntary sector organisations. I agree that it can have a dramatic impact on reducing reoffending. I have long been interested in the ideas that he mentioned involving greater availability of guidance and support before marriage. Having the
skills to negotiate difficult times and knowing where to go for support can make a difference when couples hit rocky periods.
The work we are doing—