Children and Parents

– in the House of Lords at 6:20 pm on 26th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench 6:20 pm, 26th March 2003

rose to call attention to the role of parents in providing for the needs of the nation's children in the 21st century and to the case for making available more encouragement and support for parents; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, I should like to welcome our two maiden speakers, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton. The debate will be distinguished by the presence of a former Archbishop and an Archbishop. We welcome the new Archbishop as he makes his maiden speech and we welcome back the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, who, as noble Lords will recall, has himself led an extremely distinguished debate in this House.

Fifty years ago, the role of parents in our society was clearly understood. Since then, enormous changes have taken place and, in effect, the rulebook has been torn up. Many of today's parents have never experienced a functional family or even a family where anyone has work. Fewer and fewer people are choosing to become parents. Noble Lords will, I think, agree that our children still have a right to the love, security, care and education they need if they are to develop to their full potential. We are not meeting those requirements.

A significant minority of our young people are growing up anti-social, excluded and without hope. Some 9 per cent of children leave school functionally illiterate. We are sending these young people out into the world disabled. The cost to the taxpayer is huge, both directly and in later lost productivity; the human cost is probably even greater.

Today it is fashionable to blame the schools. However, I am going to be bold enough to suggest that it is the quality of early parenting which lies at the root of the problem. Furthermore, as they held their first baby in their arms, 99 per cent of those parents who fail wanted desperately to succeed. They have been defeated by the mountain of multiple disadvantage against which they have to struggle. It is those parents and that disadvantage which are the concerns of our debate today.

In her Reith Lecture last year my noble friend Lady O'Neill pointed out:

"Every time we create a right for some person or group, we inevitably create a duty for some other person or group".

Who, then, has the duty to deliver the rights of the nation's children today? The Children Act 1989 established the concept of a partnership between parents and the state. I shall return to that concept of partnership later.

First, however, I want to show that, in spite of the welfare state, parents still play a pivotal role in raising the nation's children. By "parent" in this context, I refer to any adult who has made a long-term commitment to love and care for a child. Obviously, birth parents are by far the most likely people to volunteer for the job.

A recent report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health states:

"The way parents look after their babies and toddlers makes an important difference to their mental health and social and emotional development. The impact of parenting and its potential for improving mental, social and emotional health is discernible both in the child and later in adulthood. Parents are crucially important because the foundations of learning and of successful relationships are laid in the first five years. That is also the time when parents are at the very centre of the life of the child".

My noble friend Lady Greenfield will speak later about the development of the child's brain. As she is a world expert on the subject, I shall say no more.

Professor Nicholas Elmer wrote in a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report:

"The most important influence on a person's level of self-esteem is their parents. After parents have had their say, little else in life will be able to modify the 'opinion of self' formed by parents".

Much other recent research shows the strong links between the quality of parenting and outcomes for children, both in school and in later life. I believe therefore that the evidence is compelling. In spite of the welfare state, parents still play a key role, especially during the first five years of a child's life.

Most parents today, most of the time and with the help of the welfare state, are giving their children the care and education they need for a good start in life. Of those who are not succeeding, most desperately want to do so. Why does success elude them? Research suggests that often more than one factor is involved. A cluster of linked factors causes the problem. These may include ill health, mental illness, depression, learning disabilities, poor housing, lone parenting, loneliness, poverty, violence, alcohol or drugs and ignorance. Today many parents do not know what their child needs, still less how to deliver it. Many have never experienced a happy, supportive family, or even a kind word, or boundaries to acceptable behaviour. They are struggling against a mountain of severe and multiple disadvantage. They need help. How can we help them?

The Government have given these problems very serious thought. Much has been done and they are to be congratulated on that. This morning my noble friend Lady Howe and I visited a Home-Start programme based in Southwark. What is being done in that project is impressive. Parents are empowered by being brought together in a holistic way with the various services they need so that, through the parents, objectives for the children can be achieved. How different, alas, from most local authorities. Often the various departments do not even speak to one another. Furthermore, they try to substitute for parents rather than work through parents. I shall not say more in flattery about the Government's achievements because the Minister has 20 minutes in which to speak, while I have only 15. I shall not sing his song for him.

Much more still needs to be done. I realise that there is only so much that governments can do. Parents do not want to be told how to bring up their children and people do not want a nanny state. That is why I want to spend my remaining few minutes looking at four areas where I believe it is politically feasible for both government and the rest of society to do more to help parents.

First, however, we must define more clearly the role of parents. In her book, Who's Fit to be a Parent?, M J Campion wrote:

"I would argue that the degree of mismatch between expectations of child, parent and state are at the heart of most parenting problems today. Parents are being asked to do a job without any job description".

Parents cannot be expected to get it right if society is not clear about what it expects of them.

A recent report from the National Family and Parenting Institute considers the case for a "parents code" or for guidelines for parents. I am inclined to think that a road map for parents might be a better proposal. A map can show a variety of routes; it can also indicate those which are likely to be the easiest and those which are likely to end in trouble. Ultimately, however, it leaves the choice to the parent.

Parents' responsibilities should be set in the context of the responsibilities of others. We need to shift from emphasising "feckless parents" to a consideration of the responsibility of society as a whole for the future care of our young people. In designing a code or road map for parents, society and parents themselves, as well as government, should be seen to set the agenda. There is a need for open consultation and debate. That debate would probably need to be inaugurated by government, but then they would have to be prepared to listen.

My second points relates to more education and preparation for parenthood. There is no one best way to be a parent. But that does not mean that there is nothing to learn.

A recent report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health stated that,

"parenting is a difficult task. The way we were cared for by our own parents influences how we look after our children".

It goes on:

"There is now a growing body of research which shows that our familiar assumptions about bringing up children are not always correct. Some parenting practices (which are passed on from generation to generation) are harmful, and play an important part in the development of emotional and behavioural problems, conduct disorder, delinquency, violence and mental health problems in adult life".

Yet a recent survey by Mothercare indicated that 70 per cent of mothers today rely either on instinct or on what they learnt from their mothers to guide their parenting.

Parents and prospective parents need reliable, research-based information and opportunities to learn about what has worked for others so that they can make informed choices. Education for parenthood in schools has been shown to work, and is popular. The emphasis at that age is on relationships, on accurate information about what a young child needs, and on discussion about the teenager's own aspirations. This subject should be compulsory in all schools—which today it is not; the syllabus should be part of government policy—which it is not; and it should be taught by well-trained staff—which it is not.

Parenting education for young parents, including fathers, during the mother's pregnancy and after has also been shown to work well. Even parenting orders have worked—which all the professionals predicted would not be the case. The Parenting Education & Support Forum tells me that many parents have asked: "Why didn't I get help before? Why did I have to wait till my boy had committed a crime?".

My third point is that we need a more holistic approach to help parents. The point was made clearly in a wonderful debate introduced by my noble friend Lady Howe a few weeks ago.

Even when support is available, too many parents and children are falling through the net because services are over-stretched and, more importantly, are not working together. It is interesting to note the comparison with the Sure Start programme, where the empowerment of parents and a holistic approach to the contribution of the various services are central to the project. How I wish that that could be extended to all areas in all parts of the country, and to all children and all parents.

Health visitors, having gained the confidence of parents, have an important role to play in introducing them to the services that they need. Again, that is working with the Sure Start programme.

Finally, I believe that we should value and respect parents more. This is a crucial message. Parents are a fantastic resource for the nation. Let us stop taking them for granted. If parents feel valued, they will value themselves more; they will be more likely to prepare themselves for the job, and do it well and with enthusiasm. There is an enthusiasm these days for positive parenting, and we are told by the experts—rightly, in my view—that children respond better to praise than to blame. Why do we not try that with parents too? We should value particularly fathers and mothers who make a long-term commitment to do the job of parenting, because long-term commitment is important to children.

We need a more family-friendly society. I dream of a society in which, when you walk into a restaurant with children, people look up and smile, as they do in Spain and Italy.

We must listen to parents. Today, parents in our society do not have a voice. Perhaps we could consider developing an organisation for parents which would give them a voice—a kind of trade union for parents.

The time has come to recognise that parents save the state a vast amount of money and do a job which no one else can do as well as good parents can. They are doing the most important job in the world. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Liberal Democrat 6:35 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, we are very lucky to have the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, among us to remind us of the importance of children, and of their parents, in the scheme of things. I thank the noble Lord for introducing this debate, and for doing so with his customary blend of knowledge and humanity. The subject has attracted a distinguished group of Peers, with a wide range of experience. We can all look forward to the debate ahead of us. It will be particularly pleasant to hear from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, in his new role as a life Peer, and from his successor, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom we welcome to the Bishops' Benches.

We do not need to be experts to know that parents are the most important factor in the lives of children. That is true whatever the make-up of the family—traditional or otherwise.

It is within the family that children first learn a sense of values—sharing and fairness; discipline; the boundaries of acceptable behaviour; how to enjoy themselves; what is safe and what is risky. It is where they first learn to relate to others—it is to be hoped with rational self-confidence, but, sadly, sometimes with fear, suspicion or aggression.

My conviction is that most people, whatever their financial or family circumstances, try their best to give their children a good start in life. But some parents—often, but not exclusively, the poorest—have real problems with coping with their own lives, or with their children, their partners, their finances, their own mental health, or all of these. Or they may not have had the experience of "good" parenting from their own parents. Even so, one should not assume that these will be "bad" parents. People can show amazing resilience in the face of daunting problems. But they may need support or financial help or advice, or the opportunity to meet other parents in similar situations and to learn from each other.

There is a considerable amount of discussion as to what help should be offered, in what form and by whom. But there is a wide acceptance that it should be available as early as possible. I suggest that a great deal could be done at maternity clinics, during a post-confinement stay in hospital and via mother and baby clinics to increase a young mother's confidence in her own ability to look after her child. Written material about local support and help services could also be made available in these places.

I am sad to hear of the decline in the provision of mother and baby clinics since my time as a parent. A marvellous opportunity to learn which young mums were not coping and to offer discreet suggestions as to "what works" with small babies may have been lost.

I think it is hard to exaggerate the loneliness of the young mother at home. I certainly experienced loneliness, but I suspect that things may be worse now. Young parents may not have their own parents near at hand; or granny may herself be working and not able to provide a second home and partial refuge for the next generation. She may not even want to do so, having only recently stopped looking after her own children.

So it seems to me that a great deal of care should be taken by the authorities in tailoring offers of help and the way in which they are presented to parents, in such a way that they emphasise the things that parents themselves seem to value: a respect for their own opinions and for their wish to be good parents, the ability to meet other parents and to learn from them, and a concentration on practical help with dealing with young children.

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that, in rolling out programmes designed to help parents and particularly poor parents, the Government will pay close attention to the work of researchers which could help in encouraging parents to seek and receive support. Not all adults in our communities are confident in approaching the authorities and asking them for help. Indeed, many people would rather do anything than approach, say, social services.

Some may say that all would be well in the family if only mums stayed at home. Personally, I am glad that I was able to do so, although I did not always feel like that at the time. Nor did long periods at home, combined with residence abroad as a diplomatic wife, have a beneficial effect on my earnings or pension. But I doubt that being a full-time mum is an option for more than a very few people today. Indeed, I doubt that it ever was. Poor women have always worked, first in the fields, then in the factories, in other people's houses, as laundrywomen, cleaners, cooks and, later, as clerks, shop assistants and typists. It is the desertion of her children by the married middle-class mum which shocks some observers. But we cannot go back to the 1950s, much less the 1930s. We have to find ways of integrating the world of work and the world of child care as much as possible—more, even than the Government's new policies on flexible working, to be activated in a few weeks' time, will achieve.

Those policies are a good base from which to go forward, and I look forward to seeing how they will operate in practice. I am particularly keen to see how they will affect the role of fathers as carers. The pressure on women who want to do well at work is a risk to successful parenting, but so is the terrible modern culture of exaggeratedly long working days for men who want to play their part as parents. In this context, I would like to know whether the Minister is satisfied that working parents, particularly poorer workings parents, have access to the reliable nursery care in school holidays as well as in term time which can help them maintain their earnings.

It is a cliche to say that a society's children are its future, but it is true. Recently there has been a lot of bad news about young people—their increased smoking, drug-taking and drinking, and the violence they cause in the streets. The Government appeared at first to respond to this in punitive mode. There are too many women and too many young people in prison today adding a financial cost to the social costs caused by bad behaviour. This is not the time to discuss penal policy. In any case, the Government seem to have changed tack, with a greater emphasis on punishment in the community and developments such as Community Punishment Plus.

We should never forget that lack of care for parents and families can, in the worst cases, result in offending behaviour. Indeed, as I have said before in your Lordships' House, the breakdown of family life is the single greatest predictor of offending behaviour. It is also associated with low educational achievement and the risk that the cycle of poor parenting begins again. How much better to offer useful help to parents when they really need it—when they first become parents.

Photo of Baroness Brigstocke Baroness Brigstocke Conservative 6:43 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, what an important and absorbing subject the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has chosen to introduce today. I offer him my sincere thanks and warm congratulations.

As a secondary school teacher for almost 40 years and, over the past 10 years, as chairman of governors of a large inner-city technology college, I have never doubted the importance of the early years in the moulding and development of a child's character and abilities. This is a truth known to the Spartans in ancient times and to the Jesuits later.

The noble Lord eloquently described many of the problems facing parents who are struggling inadequately to look after their young children in the tough world of today. I am glad to tell him that help is at hand. This evening, I would like to tell your Lordships about Home-Start, an organisation which exists entirely to provide encouragement and support for parents who have at least one child under the age of five.

Home-Start is now 30 years old, and is acknowledged to be the leading family support organisation in the country. It began as a simple scheme in Leicester, the brainchild of Margaret Harrison, and is now a national organisation, with more than 320 schemes all over England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That Home-Start is now a major source of family support nationally is largely due to the energies of its chief executive, Brian Waller, the former director of social services in Leicestershire.

Each Home-Start scheme is locally run and managed by co-ordinators who recruit, prepare, train, supervise and support local volunteers, who are parents themselves. These volunteers offer simple, practical help and, most importantly, friendship and support. They live in the same neighbourhood as the families they visit and they are, as it were, matched to the vulnerable families who are in difficulties.

The volunteer parent visits the family in their own home, becoming a trusted friend and very often helping a family to stick together through periods of crisis or depression—particularly post-natal depression. Imagine the comfort for a lonely young mother just to have a companionable neighbour popping in, perhaps saying, "You go and have a rest, I'll wash up and then take the children for a walk", introducing her to a local welfare service or playgroup, suggesting—always in a non-threatening way—a few tips on diet or, indeed, just listening, over a cup of tea.

Our Governments, whatever their colour, have, I am glad to say, given great support to Home-Start over many years, demonstrating their commitment to families and young children. I think particularly at this time of the Ministry of Defence, which provides funding for the many Home-Start schemes that operate specifically for families in the Armed Forces.

Four years ago, Margaret Harrison had another brainwave. She set up Home-Start International to respond to the ever-increasing number of requests from other countries for help in setting up similar schemes. She asked me to chair the trustees, having already done me the kindness of recruiting the director, Tanya Barron, who has a wealth of experience internationally, most recently advising UNICEF's child care forum.

It has been most encouraging to see the UK model of family support so welcome all over the world. One of the attractions of Home-Start is the very low cost of the operation, which is therefore sustainable even in low-income countries. Moreover, its tried and tested information and training materials are available for Home-Starts throughout the world; they are currently translated into Hungarian, Greek, Russian and French.

We are helping 18 countries to set up their own family support organisations. One of the most important lessons that we have learnt is that the needs for family support are very similar throughout the world and across the different parts of society in each country. Home-Start works as well in Australia as it does in Russia, or indeed South Africa or the Netherlands.

Another important lesson learnt is how crucial it is to develop strong working partnerships between professionals and the voluntary sector. During my recent visit to Home-Starts in Australia, I was particularly struck by the fact that nurses looking after mothers suffering from post-natal depression were grateful to be able to refer them to Home-Start volunteers.

The European Commission is currently funding a research project led by Home-Start International to evaluate the effectiveness of parent support programmes in Europe. The first research publication from the project will be available next Monday.

Finally, to return to this country, Home-Start does a wonderful job, but it is still not available to every family that needs it. Imagine what it could do if it were available in every town and city. The Green Paper on children at risk, to be published in May, will give the Government the chance to make Home-Start a truly universal service throughout the UK. What a wonderful opportunity.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench 6:50 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I shall be extremely brief. As a fellow trustee of Home-Start International, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, has referred, I endorse everything she has said about the valuable role that Home-Start has played in its 30 years of existence in providing exactly the type of family support to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has drawn attention in this timely debate.

I also endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, said about the work that Home-Start International is doing to spread the practices and principles of Home-Start to the growing number of countries that are starting up similar schemes around the world.

I also take this opportunity to thank my former colleagues in the Diplomatic Service for the help, support and encouragement that several heads of mission have given to their local Home-Start schemes. I also thank the Department for International Development for the financial help that it has been able to give, for instance, to Home-Start in South Africa. I hope that the experience that officials have now been able to acquire from their contacts with Home-Start will have convinced any doubters of the vital contribution that such organisations can make towards the aims and objectives that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, set out.

Photo of The Archbishop of Canterbury The Archbishop of Canterbury Bishop 6:52 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving us the opportunity of so timely a debate—a debate that recognises, as we needs must recognise at present, a major cultural shift. The time was when the family appeared as a safe and stable piece of territory, surrounded by the ups and downs of public life. Now it is often the family itself that appears fragile and in need of support from public attention and public investment.

The word "parenting", which has been thrown around already in this afternoon's discussion, is in some ways admittedly a barbarism. As somebody recently said, it would be nice to know what the corresponding duties of "childing" involved. But we cannot do without that. However much it may suggest an unhappy replacement of relation by contract, there are questions here about skills and the management, nurture and development of those skills, which have become a matter of increasing urgency for all those reasons which your Lordships have already heard amply set out.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, rightly referred to the weight of multiple disadvantage that presses upon many families these days. I agree wholeheartedly with the identification of that problem and see its effects not least in the challenges that face many parents in the management of stress, anger and conflict. Much of the most important work that can be done in the field of parenting skills is in addressing these issues.

At the same time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, has reminded us, we face a culture of work that is in many ways inimical to the values we wish to develop. It is, I believe, a fact that fathers of young children work, statistically, the longest hours among our working population. Our attention has already been drawn to this. It is a reminder to us that, while it is perfectly right to think of work as one of the more reliable routes out of poverty, that can only be true in a constructive way and in the long run if our culture of work becomes more humane and less pressurised. I hope that that, too, will be part of our considerations in this area. We are not simply talking about the multiple disadvantage that weighs so heavily on economically less advantaged members of society; we are also looking at the burdens borne by those who are counted prosperous in the world's eyes.

It is because of the increasing awareness of these pressures and conflicts that the level and quality of voluntary contribution to this situation has developed so dramatically in recent years. The noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, and the noble Lord, Lord Wright, have drawn our attention to one of the most distinguished essays in voluntary assistance here. I am particularly glad to hear the work of Margaret Harrison referred to, as not only her practical work, but also her research, have proved a benchmark for the understanding of these issues in recent years. It is an area where the life of faith communities and the Christian Churches has become much involved in recent years.

The Mothers' Union has been running a parenting skills programme that, I believe, is currently educating 220 people in parenting skills, of whom nearly a quarter now have professional accreditation. Christian groups have been prominent in many other fields here. There are several names that might be called to mind: FLAME, the Family Life and Marriage Education network; Care for the Family; and the delightfully and aptly named Fathers Direct. I do not believe that it is quite true yet that you can have a mail order arrangement to provide a male parent, but this is a very important contribution to precisely those areas that previous speakers in your Lordships' House have mentioned in this afternoon's debate.

Unprecedented levels of skill and attention have been devoted to this in the voluntary sector. This is where a note of, if not caution, at least concern might need to be sounded. It is always welcome when statutory encouragement and assistance are given to voluntary work in areas such as this. But, as many of your Lordships will realise better than I, the promise of statutory encouragement and assistance can sometimes be something of a Trojan horse. The armed warriors inside brandish their weapons of accreditation and accountability in ways that may be perfectly defensible and yet which create their own problems in discouraging volunteers. Some of the effects of this are already visible in some of those voluntary organisations that I have mentioned.

We need some overview of the situation, able to balance the appropriate level of statutory involvement with a proper flexibility about the volunteer and his or her role. It is in relation to that question of an overview that I make the first of two concluding points that I wish to leave with your Lordships. This has to do with a question that has been ventilated more than once in recent decades. Legislation affecting families and children crosses a wide number of departmental boundaries in government. From time to time, the cry has been raised that it is perhaps time to see some co-ordinating structure that will have that overview of the needs of families and children, which is able to interpret departments to one another and interpret the common mind of government departments to the public at large and turn it into effective action. I hope that that challenge to a co-ordinating role within government will not go unheard.

If I may refer to it in your Lordships' House, the experience in Wales of the development of the role of the Children's Commissioner has again reminded us how very important it can be to have some figure or figures who have that broader role and that broader vision and remit in their work.

Many more things could be said on this subject. I look forward to hearing them from other speakers in the debate, not least the noble Lord, Lord Carey, my distinguished predecessor. But one concluding reflection, which is perhaps particularly timely, is in relation to the way in which faith communities are capable of collaboration in the delivery of parenting skills. Experience in urban south Wales suggested that collaboration between the Churches and the local Muslim communities could break down many barriers of understanding. I suggest to your Lordships that that area is well worthy of further development at a time when relations between faith communities so need reinforcement, cementing and solidifying.

It is a sad fact, and this debate will remind us of it, as many others will, that it is not always shared aspirations that give us the deepest sense of our common humanity—shared problems do that too. The cross-boundary problems affecting faith communities, such as the difficulties of parenting and the management of adolescents, have sometimes proved a major spur to better and fuller co-operation between those faith communities that have a particular investment in the health and nurture of family life.

Photo of Lord Sheppard of Liverpool Lord Sheppard of Liverpool Labour 7:00 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, it is a special delight and privilege to be able to congratulate the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on his maiden speech. I have for a long time given the greatest value to his teaching and writing and I am delighted that your Lordships have heard him today. He is never pre-packaged but always thought-provoking, bringing fresh thoughts and entering fully into the debate. Your Lordships' House will look forward to many other contributions.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on introducing the debate. He set the right tone in speaking of encouragement and support. The blame culture has dominated many approaches to parenting for much too long. A community worker told me of a conversation that he had with a local head teacher about a mother whom they both knew. The head teacher said, "She just doesn't care", but the community worker told me that, as it happened, that mother had been in his office that morning saying, "I can't cope". Sometimes people who feel that they cannot cope try to retain their dignity by covering it up with a brassy and aggressive exterior.

Lately I was reminded how fragile parents can feel, when we were given sole charge of our two grandsons, aged four and two, for the whole morning. Would we be able to cope? It reminded me of anxious days when our daughter was growing up.

Parents who have had poor experiences in their own childhood may need intensive and sensitive support. The report to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, rightly warns against assuming that professionals will always know best without listening seriously to parents. Parents need to feel respected and valued.

I had the privilege of being national chairperson of the Family Service Units for 10 years. Each year, I was given a president's visit to one or other unit in the most disadvantaged areas of different cities. A vivid and simple memory is of a unit where there was a playroom where members of staff were down on the floor playing alongside children. Some parents there said that their own parents had never played with them and that they had not known how to begin.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke of his visit with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to a Sure Start project in Southwark. That programme is under the leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. The most reverend Primate spoke of the need for investment; the Government are making a huge investment into that programme. They are halfway in and, in two years, £1.5 billion will have been put into Sure Start. That shows the priority that is being given to young children and their parents.

Sure Start reckons to support families with core local programmes, especially in the most disadvantaged areas. Its focus is especially from pregnancy to four years old, right through until children are 14. It sets out to co-ordinate services that can too easily act in different parts of the forest. One Sure Start project in Liverpool, still in its first year, includes in its team a midwife, a health visitor, a nursery teacher with particular skills in family learning, an adviser in bilingual work, an educational psychologist and someone from adult learning. It is one of four in Liverpool that are up and running, and there should be 10 in the city in two years. I was told that there will be 100 nationally.

Sure Start aims to support parents as parents and in their aspirations to employment. That means enabling access to quality and affordable childcare, allowing mothers to go out to work. Getting into employment is the best way out of poverty for many, and brings more rewards than simply financial ones. Self-confidence begins to flow, which makes a huge difference to parenting. A friend told me that when a mother gets a job and goes to work every morning, children get to school on time.

What about fathers? On one large outer estate in Merseyside, I was told that fathers are redundant. To be resigned to that takes away a vital part of a child's upbringing. I hope that Sure Start will build the kind of bridges that bring fathers into the picture too. Men will often help if they are asked to do a job that their skills can offer to a centre, such as repairs or redecorating. On such first bridges of friendly contact, they may dare to acknowledge that they need support in parenting.

In many of the neediest areas, parents have very low horizons. It is all too easy for some parents in the neediest estates to say, "It never did me any harm growing up on this estate, with its culture", and to go on to have low expectations for their children. Building bridges for mothers and fathers brings contact, conversations and ideas that may lift those horizons.

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Ashton and the Government on the priority being given to Sure Start. I hope that its professionals will work at building the bridges with parents to which I have referred. They can be places where self-confidence begins to grow and the proper dignity of parents is guarded.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 7:07 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I follow two extremely impressive episcopal speeches, and another one is to come. It is fascinating how the Bishops are spreading around the House. If the present incumbent of the see of Canterbury scores a home run, we shall find the diamond full and one on our benches. That would be a welcome event.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is right in saying that almost all parents want to be good parents. One sees that in the most extreme circumstances. Everyone in the House must recognise what an enormous benefit it is to children and to society at large that parents should be good parents.

There are two principle problem—image and access. The image of parenting education is that it is frankly naff, especially for fathers. The idea of going along to a parenting class strikes horror into most fathers' hearts and does not much appeal to mothers either, in my experience. However, it is possible to tackle that problem.

One sees several excellent examples in the voluntary sector, such as Pippin—the Parents in Partnership-Parent Infant Network—which works in prisons. People from that organisation say that few fathers attend conventional parent-craft classes and that those who do frequently feel out of place. That is certainly accurate, but Pippin is finding ways around that. Another organisation successfully getting round the problem is the Parenting Education and Support Forum, which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned and which has pointed out that groups must be rooted in small communities and that leaders must be respected for their integrity. That was echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, in her speech on Home-Start. I hope that she will add me to the mailing list for that organisation, as I have not had dealings with it to date.

I see the same tendency in Safe Ground, the prisons charity with which I am involved, which has just launched its latest venture. "Family Man" is a teaching pack for family skills in the Prison Service. Prisoners are a good example of group of bad parents who have put themselves in an extremely difficult position. It is wonderful to see how proud they become of being involved in such a course, of wearing the t-shirt, telling their fellow prisoners what they are doing and getting involved with their families again. Once one turns the corner of image, one can do a very great deal.

Access is the other problem for most of us. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, you almost have to be a criminal to get in touch with the available support services. Four months ago, I had the pleasure of becoming a father again. In the process of my wife's pregnancy and subsequently, no one pointed out a parenting class to me. I have learnt a lot today about their availability. However, it is not something that has been on offer to me in any way. It is generally not something that men talk about. I cannot recall having a conversation at a pub or anywhere else about the skills of parenting. So far as one can judge the matter from daytime television—which is something that you get used to when your wife is pregnant—women do not talk much about it either.

So what can the Government do? First, they can avoid being prescriptive. There are lots of different ways of bringing up children well. I remember sitting at the house of my parents-in-law when their friends, who had two young children, came to visit. The children got hold of the butter and the jam and were spreading it all over the furniture and carpets while their parents were sitting back with smiles of approbation on their faces. Those two children grew up to be the most courteous and most thoughtful young people that I know of in that immediate family. The furniture did not fare so well, but the children, despite that type of bringing up, turned out extremely well. There are lots of different ways of doing it. When people grow up in different cultures and different religions and have learned from their parents in different ways, you cannot cram them into one mould.

It is important that the Government should encourage lots of different voluntary sector organisations. There are lots of different ways of doing that, but the Government should get behind and encourage them. They should help publicise what is available. They should help spread good practice. As the most reverend Primate said, let us get some real evidence-based research on what works and how it works and spread that round the system. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, we should revisit the PHSE curriculum. A great deal can be done to involve children in the questions of parenthood. You just need to employ a little drama-based technique. Use a little role play. Get children involved and talking about it. After all, what we want to create for the future is children who will talk about these subjects, who will converse.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, we want to deal to some extent with current work practices. It is terribly difficult for a father. I hardly saw anything of my first two children. I was working for an organisation that believed in starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m., after which one became involved in the office politics and socialisation. I saw my children at weekends and when they were asleep. Now I have the great privilege of being able to look after my child half time. What I am noticing now is that there is remarkably little support. There is not a crèche in this place, for example. I shall have to consult the Clerks on whether I am allowed to carry my child through the Division Lobby if one happens to occur when I am sitting downstairs in the family room.

The Government can do a great deal in setting an example. I have often come across the excellent work that they do in making room in the structures of work for those with disabilities or long-term illnesses. But there is no sign of that when it comes to families. By setting an example in their myriad of employees, the Government could do a great deal to set the tone for the rest of society.

Something can be done in television. I do not know how many noble Lords saw the series by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, in which he touched on some of the problems of raising children and on how parents can be shown to get round the problems that they allow to develop between themselves and their children. Just a little direction and counselling can make an enormous difference. So many of us know only how we were brought up and do not find our way to other things. "The Archers" has an agricultural story editor, but no clear evidence of anyone who understands family problems. Yet that programme has been taken as the worldwide pattern of how to educate people. A great deal can be done by encouraging that type of story line. It helps when the media deal with such matters in a knowledgeable way.

Finally, there are always little things that can be done. Prison can be made a much better place for families. We can stop imprisoning so many women with children; there is almost always a better way of dealing with them. We should look particularly at the number of foreign women whom we send to long prison sentences for drug offences, separating them from their families. Why not—it would be much cheaper—send them home to prison in their home countries? They can keep in at least some contact there.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I can draw his attention to a recent incident in the Australian Parliament, in Victoria, where a Member of Parliament was ejected from the Chamber for breast-feeding—not because breast-feeding was of itself illegal but because she had brought an unelected member into the Chamber.

Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench 7:16 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Northbourne on securing this extremely important debate. I add my congratulations also to the most reverend Primate on an absolutely moving and inspiring maiden speech. It was truly a pleasure to listen to him.

I agree with my noble friend about the critical role of parents in bringing up children. It is still largely their responsibility, but many need to learn the skills appropriate to today. Many are also confused by the very many conflicting messages that they get from all sorts of sources. They need confidence to set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and to use the authority of parenthood. They need to be able to do that without always worrying that what they are doing is wrong. Their responsibilities must be shared with other partners, as the noble Lord said, including schools, the health service and community health workers—especially health visitors, when the children are very young—in order to achieve those goals.

However, the responsibilities of parenthood are also extended to new types of partners today. Many underestimate the influence of mentors and role models. The difficulties can be exacerbated in the new types of families which are very familiar to all of us today. There is a very broad range of step-families, half-siblings and so on. I know of one example in Derby, in a deprived ethnic minority area. Parents from one of those communities decided to go on the school bus every day, where other people's children were running riot, breaking windows and causing great harm and damage with their antisocial behaviour. By reasserting their authority as parents in their community, they were able to reverse that behaviour. Most people need help in getting the confidence to do that. They receive such help through an initiative, which I am proud to chair, called the Experience Corps.

Because of the huge increases in longevity that occurred at the end of the 20th century, which are continuing, families are increasingly multi-generational, and they will become even more so. Families are sometimes composed of four or even five generations. Many such families are called "beanpole" families, composed of single parents mothering and grand-parenting more single parents, usually women. People are also often "sandwiched" between the job of parenting children and the other job of looking after frail elderly relatives who are living for much longer.

The huge geographical spread of our families means that the extended families of today are really not like those of a former era. That situation makes parenting extremely complicated. We have to ask ourselves how much responsibility people should have for former relatives and their children who often live far away but whose expectations add to the stress of caring and parenting roles.

Parents have an important role in influencing their children's life course through health, diet and healthy living—a life course approach. If we do not act fast, rising longevity will reverse and today's children could be the first modern generation to live shorter lives than their parents. A recent BMJ report stated that a third of teenagers are overweight and 10 per cent are obese. I mention two examples in that regard. I refer to a well-known large prison where the prisoners' diet was changed and to a large inner-city school where no sweets or fizzy drinks are now available for sale to the children and where anti-social behaviour has been rapidly reversed. There is much less aggressive behaviour and bullying in both those situations.

In The Times of 21st March an article by Camilla Cavendish stated that,

"parents know the life story of Beckham and how to send a text message but not to give their children a basic start in life".

Rather, they allow them to eat poorly, watch TV for hours on end, play on computers and so on. That is exaggerated, but there is more than a grain of truth in it. Such an approach makes life easier for parents who cannot face what they see as the tyranny of their children.

We know also about the importance of sport and drama in bringing out strengths in our children such as the confidence they need to acquire and feelings of self-worth. Yet much of that is no longer available in schools. The Cadbury Youth Sport Trust programme to encourage more children to take part in sport is a good example of a carefully crafted corporate social responsibility initiative. PE needs to be focused on accessible fun games and on sport which does not put off those who have not been brought up in a tradition of sport and team games.

We need to give support to parents and to make wider use of the excellent initiatives that have been mentioned such as Sure Start and Home-Start. Those are wonderful holistic approaches to the care of our young people where it is most needed in the areas of highest deprivation. The potential of citizenship courses in school must also be developed. That is an important initiative. Schools have an important role in enabling foster parents' networks to be set up, building on those established with the first child.

In conclusion, we should congratulate most parents on bringing up their children well, considering the pressures and difficulties they can face. We need to give more help to those who need it most. The Government are prioritising. I too congratulate those programmes which focus on areas of high deprivation and families with special needs.

Timely interventions are incredibly important—the earlier, the better. Preventive programmes are much better than those implemented at times of crisis, whether they involve the physical, social or psychological development of our children.

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench 7:24 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, as a parent and grandparent and, at some distance, a child, I welcome the initiative of my noble friend Lord Northbourne. My particular experience of parenthood is coloured by having a disabled daughter and a disabled grandson. I want, if I may, to focus on that disability dimension.

My noble friend Lord Northbourne asserts that 50 years ago the role of parents was clearly understood in our society. It was certainly clearly understood in the case of parents of learning disabled children with the heady expectation that both parents would be responsible for everything at all times.

Our daughter, Shelley, was born with Down's Syndrome in 1951. The obstetrician met me. He began, "Have you ever heard of Mongolism", which I had, albeit vaguely. He continued, "Please tell your wife". That was hardly necessary for the paediatrician, having examined Shelley, visited my wife and said, "I am happy to tell you that your daughter is a mongol". I think he meant that he was happy that he had reached a diagnosis. The combined advice of both those doctors and others was to put Shelley away, to forget her and to start all over again. After the tactful breaking of that news, I phoned the Minister of Health for some help and advice and I received an equally short but tactful—I am sure your Lordships would agree—written response:

"You telephoned me about the services available for mentally defective children. I am assuming the mongol child you referred to will not be capable of education within the education system, and will therefore have to be dealt with under the Mental Deficiency Acts".

It was a further 20 years before the Education Act 1970 reversed that disgraceful decision.

Fifty years after our first child was born with Down's Syndrome, our younger son Jonathan and his wife Caroline had a second child, Robbie. By quirk of fate, not heredity, our delightful red-haired grandson also has Down's Syndrome. Jonathan has written something of his experiences as a parent in a book called Learning from each other to be published in the autumn by David Fulton for the Open University. If I may, I shall quote briefly:

"Comments from professionals, friends, family . . . show how much Robbie is marked out by his syndrome. It is what people see. It is where they begin their thought process . . . This is not just about comparison with siblings and peers, although there is plenty of that, but it involves targets and lists in every developmental area of his life, and therefore of our lives. In many ways, Robbie has been presented to us . . . as a syndrome. He is a tick list child. As soon as he was born, the tests began. Is it any wonder if as parents we focus on exemplars that rebut those symptoms? And is it any wonder if sooner or later we come to resent those boxes and the questions behind them?"

Jonathan goes on to present the challenge for parents of disabled children and points out that you need all these tests and labels although they are for the most part so horribly negative, because they pinpoint possibilities for action and open access to benefits and services, or at least they do now; 'twas not always thus.

At the same time, you want your child to be just a child, with all the unknown potential and unimagined possibilities that all children have. Moreover, while Robbie and others may well in time acquire a voice of their own, for many parents the stark reality is a lifetime of interpreting and speaking for their son's or daughter's best interests, particularly those with profound intellectual and multiple disabilities whose parents are virtually on 24-hour watch day in, day out, year in, year out until their extreme old age.

I turn now from real people to firm recommendations. First, can we all try just a little harder to see people with learning disabilities and their parents as natural partners? The Valuing People White Paper was very good in giving equal value to the two groups. The partnership is acknowledged in the education field but listening to parents does not always come easily to some professionals. In education we sometimes seem to want to take the big stick to parents although we have banned that for their children. In particular, during the years of transition, as disabled child moves towards disabled adult, it is good that parents should be surprised by what the young person achieves that they had thought impossible. It is not good that professionals and planners should be surprised by the young person's difficulties and support needs because they could not be bothered to listen to what parents had to tell them in the first place. Please can we capture and record the unique perspective of the parents, especially when the child will never be able to tell their own story and plan their own future?

My daughter inspired me to help make a contribution to the history of learning disability. Inspired by my grandson, my son Jonathan is doing the same thing. We shall watch with great interest to see what the Government say in the next few weeks about parents and families in their first annual report to Parliament on the implementation of the White Paper.

Rights, independence, choice and inclusion—the four key principles of the White Paper—have been the dream of parents for their disabled children for as long as I have been a parent. Please God we will not have to wait another 50 years for that dream to become a reality.

Photo of Lord Chan Lord Chan Crossbench 7:30 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Northbourne on securing the debate on the vital role of parents in meeting the needs of their children. I also warmly welcome the maiden address of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, which was thought-provoking, especially on how Christian organisations help parents. I look forward to his future contributions in the House. It is also a pleasure to congratulate my noble and right reverend friend Lord Carey of Clifton, who will be making his maiden address as a life Peer. I look forward to his words of wisdom. I shall focus my attention on children of parents living in deprived communities.

I come from Merseyside and in particular the Wirral peninsula where one in four people lives in electoral wards that are among the 20 most socially deprived in England. I referred to them when we debated the gracious Speech on 19th November last year. The five electoral wards of Bidston, Birkenhead, Leasowe, Seacombe and Tranmere have the highest proportion of children and the highest frequency of teenage mothers in Wirral. In those districts, the nuclear family frequently comprises a teenage mother with her low-skilled male partner and one or two babies and young children under five years of age. They are dependent on state benefits for housing and basic necessities. Very few of those families come from ethnic minority groups.

That rather unpromising setting is where many of our children are raised by their young and inexperienced parents. If we do not support them, we will be guilty of neglect and continuing a cycle of deprivation and inequality. To their credit, the Government have given priority to the family by financial support, through improved child benefit and income-related benefits with the working families' tax credit and children's tax credit.

Flexible working hours will be introduced from April this year to help mothers of children under six years or disabled children to work in order to increase the income of families. I have my doubts about the wisdom of that legislation. Young mothers in Wirral need time to learn how to care effectively for their babies and pre-school children. They should be given the choice to concentrate on being successful mothers in the 21st century.

Above all, the Government should be congratulated on introducing the Sure Start initiative mentioned by my noble friend Lord Northbourne and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool. It has given support to low-income parents and low-skilled families by working with parents and their children through an integrated childcare service across traditional boundaries of government departments. Its purpose is to transform service delivery and to meet better the needs of children and their parents in vulnerable communities. The Government's longer-term aim is to establish a children's centre in every one of the 20 per cent most disadvantaged wards. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what progress has been made so far, how they will enhance the role of parents, and when we might see those centres established in north-west England.

Like the noble and right reverend Lord, I acknowledge the good work done by Sure Start. In the Wirral, Sure Start projects target mothers and young children in pre-school groups in all five disadvantaged wards. Sure Start staff, who have a variety of professional skills, work with pregnant mothers and their partners, parents and children to help them with parenting skills, good quality childcare and health services. Those services are being extended to ethnic minority families to help them, among other achievements, to acquire English language skills early.

Before Sure Start began, Home Start, which was described by the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, and the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, had been working with parents and young children in Birkenhead for nearly two decades. The advantage of Sure Start is its availability to many more families and the involvement of statutory services. I take note of what the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said about that involvement.

There are derelict houses in our disadvantaged wards—some 900 in Wirral—but they are being renovated by the local council. Improved housing does not create a community that supports young families. That can come about only when local residents work with local government through their neighbourhood forum where they meet service providers to discuss their needs.

Nutrition and the availability of cheap food is another essential requirement of parents with young children. In Wirral, better quality food and lower prices are available in Birkenhead market rather than in supermarkets. But parents on low incomes have no car and need a reliable public transport service to take them to market to buy food. Buses provide such a service, but they are neither frequent nor regular, even though Birkenhead has Europe's first best-designed bus terminus.

Local health services need to be involved. Poor people have poor health and make more demands on those services than other residents. For young families, health intervention such as encouraging young mothers to breastfeed their babies will succeed only when every young mother has an experienced nurse, mother or midwife who has successfully breastfed her own babies to provide personal support. The public health unit of the Birkenhead and Wallasey NHS primary care trust, of which I am a non-executive director, has begun to work with local service providers and families to improve healthcare to young children and their parents living in our five most disadvantaged electoral wards, but our capacity is limited by financial and human resources.

I look forward to the Minister's response to these issues affecting our young children and their parents living in poverty.

Photo of Lord Carey of Clifton Lord Carey of Clifton Crossbench 7:37 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, a second maiden speech in your Lordships' House is, I suppose, an unusual occurrence, but it happens to be the fate of those who move from the Bench of Lords Spiritual to other sections of the House. However, it affords me the opportunity to express my gratitude not only for the support and friendship of noble Lords during my time as Archbishop of Canterbury, but for the welcome that I have received since re-entering the House as a life Peer. As Archbishop Rowan, the 104th incumbent in the See of Canterbury, will find, this is a very splendid place to be, not only for the friendliness of everyone who works here, but, as he will have already noted, for the quality of the debates and the effort made by everyone to make democracy work.

Whatever we may have achieved before entering the House, we can all re-echo the words of the American farmer who entered his old nag in the prestigious Kentucky Derby. When asked if he thought that his old horse had any chance of winning, he said, "No, not the slightest, but just think of the company he'll be in". In this House, we are in very good company indeed.

However, I think that we will all agree that the best company of all is the human family. The family is by far the most significant factor in developing the social capital that makes any nation great. We are all in the debt of my noble friend Lord Northbourne for introducing the debate and emphasising the importance of parenting. As he indicated, there is much to celebrate about the family, and our debate ought to recognise that fact. Some 80 per cent of dependent children still live in two-parent families in the United Kingdom, and by far the majority of parents seek to be good at the increasingly difficult task of bringing their children up well. That is the good news, and we can and should build on that fact.

However, the word "family", as the most reverend Primate mentioned, is now becoming a portmanteau word for many different types of family associations: singe parents made so by death or divorce; solo parents by choice; and multiple families, in which children may meet several male parents and overlap with several step-siblings. It is when we pause to examine what has happened in our society since the mid-1980s that we might well conclude, as my predecessor has already hinted this evening, that we are witnessing a dramatic cultural revolution that will have profound consequences for future society.

In this quiet yet unmistakable cultural change, two things are happening: we are seeing the undermining of marriage as a contract between two people for life, and we are witnessing fatherless families becoming commonplace. Let us take marriage first, and let me get out of the way my total commitment to the traditional family, comprising a mother and a father in a monogamous relationship with dependent children. As a Christian leader, that is my preferred choice. However, there are many reasons for presenting that view uncompromisingly and without coyness, because its superiority over other forms of relationship are very clear to see. All studies—the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, invited comments on statistics—now point in one direction: lone parents are poorer and are more likely to suffer from stress and other health and emotional problems. Their children have more trouble at school, perform less well academically and are at greater risk of suffering physical and emotional abuse. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, spoke feelingly about the loneliness of the lone parent.

Similar issues arise when we compare the traditional marriage with cohabitation. Marriage may be less popular these days, but cohabitees fare a lot worse than those who are married. The average cohabited relationship lasts less than two years and fewer than 10 per cent endure, compared with 60 per cent of those who enter marriage. It is sometimes said that it is children who make stable relationships. However, studies show that within five years of the birth of their child, 52 per cent of unmarried parents break up, compared with just 8 per cent of those who marry.

Central to those statistics is the absent father in the family relationship. We must note and celebrate that this coming Sunday is Mothering Sunday, when we emphasise the centrality of the mother in the heart of the family. That is good to celebrate. However, we must also acknowledge the importance of the father in bringing up his children. Again, the statistics tell a sorry tale, although there is no point in dwelling on them at length. In brief, the absent father suffers from separation from his children but the children fare far worse because there is no male role model to share the responsibility of guiding them into adulthood. The puzzle, whenever one is confronted by any social or cultural change that threatens to undermine society, is: what can we do collectively about it? I offer two reflections.

First, even though we should and must support different forms of family relationship, as a nation we should be more vigorous in affirming the importance of the traditional family and seek to restore the cultural importance of life-long monogamous marriage. We should be unafraid to emphasise its emotional, economic and health benefits and seek to share that knowledge with teenagers who are on the brink of forming relationships which may make or break them.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is surely right to call for a closer partnership between the Government, parents, schools and voluntary organisations. The Government have already given a lead through such initiatives as Sure Start and the Lord Chancellor's Fund. We salute and applaud that. We should also celebrate the work of so many organisations that are doing such a wonderful sacrificial job. However, such organisations could do far more if more resources were at hand to help them. When I compare the social cost of broken families, which is said to be in the region of £15 billion, with the amount of money that is at the discretion of the Lord Chancellor, which I understand is £5 million, the latter seems derisory. If I may be allowed in this maiden speech to direct a question at the Minister, it is this: bearing in mind the social capital that healthy family life contributes to the nation and the economic costs of family break-up, is there any possibility that more funds could be made available to the voluntary societies that are at present hindered in their work by lack of resources? Does the Minister agree with the view of Mary MacCleod, chief executive of the National Family and Parenting Institute, that:

"We need to offer specialist help to more families much earlier and recent studies issue a challenge to Government to increase the resources for family support"?

Families are the basic, foundational units in any society. It is therefore in everyone's interests to help to create the most healthy environment in which they can flourish.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 7:46 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, it gives me very real pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, and to be the first to congratulate him most warmly. My congratulations are twofold. First, I welcome him on his return—or his rebirth, one might say, in light of the topic being discussed—to this House and on his arrival on these Benches. We are indeed happy and proud to have him. Secondly, I am sure that the whole House appreciated the wisdom and humanity of his perceptive second maiden speech. On a personal note, I say that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, is someone to whom I owe a very special debt for having given me the rewarding opportunity to serve as chairman of the Archbishop's Commission on Cathedrals, and for his personal friendship and support thereafter. I am sure that all noble Lords look forward to hearing him on many occasions.

I also thank my noble friend Lord Northbourne for securing this debate. He has been long at it. The subject is one close to his heart and I am delighted to have an opportunity to participate in this debate.

The case for supporting, valuing and applauding families in their vitally important role as parents could not be stronger. None of us is necessarily born a good parent. We can, however, all benefit from and be grateful for expert help. I can certainly remember—like most young, and inevitably vulnerable, mothers—being absolutely delighted to see the health visitor. Being visited at home and being able to drop into a centre that was pretty well on your doorstep and which was full of colourful and stimulating experiences for young children and their parents—such as the impressive Sure Start pilot schemes which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and I visited today and last week—must add value, enjoyment and confidence to parents and children alike, whatever their background.

Facilities such as those would, as I said, be valuable for any families from averagely supportive backgrounds. Other noble Lords have already made that point. But they are much more valuable for parents and children, especially single parents from deprived backgrounds, whose own parenting role models may, in any case, have been poor or non-existent.

That is why I, like the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool, find it especially encouraging that the Government are giving increased attention and extra financial resources—perhaps even more are needed—to less affluent areas around the country to enable local Sure Start partnerships to be set up.

The challenge will be, as it tends to be with many other initiatives, to see that it is rolled out equally well in all local authority areas. The emphasis—what is so good about Sure Start—is on partnership. It is about joined-up government in practice, with local authority, health, education and social services joined by voluntary organisations, of which I am sure Home-Start is one, and crucially, parents and grandparents—all of them involved in planning, implementing and deciding the priorities of the scheme. It appears that involving dads will be a challenge that has yet to be achieved.

Even more important than Sure Start from the perspective of my noble friend Lord Northbourne is that Home-Start operates from before birth right through to 14 years. As he has repeatedly stressed, help and support during pregnancy and the early months of a child's life can make a crucial difference to the child's later physical and mental health, development and behaviour. The need for support will not, of course, stop when a child reaches the age of 14. I am glad to see that the plan is to ensure continuing support by linking Sure Start to services for older children.

Equally important for community cohesion is the scheme's potential for the prevention of anti-social behaviour. One USA study—the US was ahead with schemes such as this—concluded that crime and violence could be greatly reduced by assuring vulnerable families access to school-readiness childcare programmes. If we look at the total cost of crime in the UK, which amounted to £60 billion in 1999–2000, it is clear that, as the report Delivering for children and families states, even a modest percentage reduction would have a large impact.

Many years ago, when campaigning for increased out-of-school recreational facilities, most schools were reluctant to play a greater role in providing community facilities out of school hours. Thankfully that is changing but, alas, not yet everywhere. With only 5 per cent of day nurseries so far based in schools and a falling birth rate—that is not the case everywhere, but nevertheless it is a falling birth rate—as the report states, there should indeed be both space and financial saving if more of the planned facilities for Sure Start projects could be housed in schools. An added advantage would be that parents and pre-school children would be more comfortable with, and feel less threatened by, familiar premises and staff when the time came for the children to start full-time schooling.

In the current debate about how to ensure that more children from disadvantaged backgrounds qualify for higher education, the universities and the White Paper point to the continued failure of schools to produce better results from children from less affluent backgrounds. Only 19 per cent, compared with 43 per cent from the higher socio-economic groups, have attained the required standards on moving to secondary education. So, once again, more resources and top-quality teachers are essential in these same Sure Start areas if more children with academic potential are to get to university without the kind of reverse discrimination that so many people find distasteful.

If we are not all born good parents, there is still far more that we can do throughout a child's life to emphasise how vital and how valuable to society as a whole his own parenting role will be when he, in turn, becomes a parent. Your Lordships need to be sure that enough emphasis is given to all aspects of parenting in the citizenship courses which are now part of the national curriculum.

I close by returning to the one single area where greater support is needed: high-quality, affordable childcare. That is even more essential for single parents and those with little income. It is important for government to achieve their target of getting 70 per cent of single mothers back into work by 2010 and of halving the number of children living in poverty. But it is also important in giving parents that vital choice of whether to work or to study for a later return to the labour market or, indeed, to stay for the present a full-time parent.

There has been progress, but, even now, 22 per cent of two-parent families and 29 per cent of single-parent families cannot find what they want when they want it. Childcare should be geared increasingly to fit individual needs. What I would call "wrap around" childcare should be available during pre and post-nursery school hours to enable parents to work part-time, do shift work—whatever the hours—work or study in today's more flexible marketplace.

To match that, employers should have part-time work and flexible working hours far more tightly wired into the norm of their workplace practices. In other words, much more emphasis should be placed on employers providing family-friendly employment patterns for both women and men. Those patterns should not only form part of their social responsibility programmes—important as those are—but should be built into their own competitive, economic "bottom-line" thinking.

As for the rest of us, we need to show how, as a community and as individuals, we value and applaud the job that today's parents are doing in raising tomorrow's citizens. On a purely selfish note, your Lordships will be relying on them to ensure a relatively tranquil old age.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 7:56 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Howe of Idlicote. I could not agree more with so much of what she said. No doubt she is aware of the recent research published in the US which followed up the longitudinal study taken from 1951 in which two groups of children—one a control group—received high-quality childcare early in their lives. They had greater access to higher education, were healthier and less likely to smoke. There was a very positive outcome.

I am most grateful, too, to my noble friend for again calling our attention to the subject of parents. If I may say so, in his consistency he reminds me of a good parent who always keeps his child in mind.

I shall concentrate my remarks on childcare. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health report, Helpful Parenting, concludes:

"A choice of affordable, high-quality, non-parental care with carers who can replicate the intimate and familiar care of confident parents, and who can engage with the parents and get on well with them is essential to support helpful parenting".

My observations will be informed by my regular visits to the Anna Freud Centre—a centre of excellence in the training of child psychotherapists. As many noble Lords have noted, and paid tribute to, Her Majesty's Government have taken a strong interest in improving the quality of early years provision. They have formulated the first national childcare strategy since the period of the Second World War.

Sure Start programmes have taken a welcome multidisciplinary approach in focusing provision in our most deprived areas on the first years of a child's life and even before birth. The Government have recently introduced new guidance—Birth to three matters—A framework to support children in their earliest years. They have given clear responsibility for early years provision to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, and, importantly, have thus moved the early years portfolio to education.

As many noble Lords have said, Her Majesty's Government are now developing the use of children's centres—institutions which provide a range of professional services for children and parents. I welcome the important steps that the Government have taken, and I hope that their achievements may be adopted and sustained by future governments of whatever political persuasion.

The Daycare Trust recently arranged for the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, and myself to visit the Stepping Stones Nursery, run by Westminster Children's Society—a short walk from your Lordships' House. We learnt that at that nursery the same staff team has been in place for the past four years. That stability was attributed to the good training and general professional development provided to staff at the nursery.

Within the staff team there is both a member qualified to assess and a member qualified to train others for the National Vocational Qualification level 3 in childcare. Stepping Stones Nursery can therefore ensure that the training is of a consistently high quality. Furthermore, there is a highly experienced operations manager at the head office who provides effective supervision to the nurse manager.

I am advised that a secure attachment by an infant to a particular adult is crucial to a child's successful development. John Bowlby is the psychoanalyst who coined the term "secure attachment" in the 1960s. His understanding is now much employed in the care of children. A child with a secure attachment knows that there is one principal adult available to him, an adult who keeps him in mind and is able to meet the child's emotional and physical needs.

It was highly disconcerting therefore to learn from the nurse manager that there is a high turnover of workers in early years care. I believe the turnover is 25 per cent each year. The nursery manager described her dismay when she interviewed nurse officers from other organisations and found them unable to answer basic questions on health and safety matters.

My understanding is that the early years workforce is suffering from years of disrespect, of lack of attention to training and development and of low pay. Staff are now being drawn off into local Sure Start programmes and into work as teaching assistants in schools. Rising house prices in many areas is making the work, even for those with a vocation, unviable. As a consequence, such workers may lack the capacity to ensure that children in their care experience a secure attachment. That is my concern.

A child who has not experienced such an attachment may become less able to concentrate when he enters primary school and may be less able to manage his feelings; for instance, feelings of anger or sadness. It may be that much of the behaviour that the Youth Justice Board, our schools and our health service seeks to manage in adolescence, and increasingly earlier, is due to the failure to form secure attachments in early childhood. Without the experience of such an attachment in early childhood children may be less likely to grow into adults who can act as good enough parents for their own children.

I have two questions for the Minister. What are Her Majesty's Government doing to ensure that children placed in childcare provision, particularly from birth to three years old, experience secure attachment? Are the Government ensuring that the principle of assigned workers—workers assigned to a particular child—and the principle of considering the need to understand the behaviour of a child, rather than merely cleaning and minding the child, permeate early years provision?

It is vital that we provide parents with childcare in which they can have confidence, especially from birth to three years old. I welcome Her Majesty's Government's achievement, but there is still much more work to be done to provide access to consistently good quality childcare in the early years.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Crossbench 8:03 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating the debate. It has provided the opportunity to hear two distinguished maiden speeches. I was reassured to hear words like "resources" and "investment" appearing in those speeches because they are subjects extremely dear to my heart. I shall say more about them later.

I declare an interest as chairman of the Youth Justice Board—my day job. In that capacity I know only too well that it is the family circumstances of young people that are one of the three main predictors of offending behaviour. Parents and parenting skills are critical to success in preventing offending and antisocial behaviour by children.

I helped the Government to write their 1998 Green Paper on Supporting Families. From that time I well remember the memorable remark of Dr Mia Kellmer Pringle:

"Modern parenthood is too demanding and complex a task to be performed well merely because we have all once been children".

How much more complex and demanding has become the role of today's parents since that remark made in the 1970s. We have the reconstitution of families with new adult relationships for our children to handle; dual-earning parents trying to balance work and home; huge rises in one-parent families and child poverty; and greater social mobility with more families separated intergenerationally. Within that complex web of social change too often we forget the additional relentless pressures of commercialism, advertising and television on today's parents and children. Even the most confident and skilled parents struggle to establish socially constructive values in their children where the "must have" individualism of the other pressures is so strong.

To illustrate that, perhaps I can quote from some recent research that the Youth Justice Board commissioned on interviews with young street robbers. Some said quite openly that they stole items like mobile phones, often from other children, because they were "must have" items that defined them in their capacity to participate in today's society. Helping those children to see the world differently presents a real challenge to many parents today.

Yet we have been slow to see parenting and parenting skills as something in which we should invest. For too long we have seen the area as the preserve of the individual and of groups and unsuitable for intervention by the state and public agencies other than at the time of birth and, to a more limited extent, in the early years. The Government deserve great credit for being bolder than many of their predecessors in funding tax credit schemes for low-income families, on the establishment of the National Family and Parenting Institute, the Sure Start scheme, which others have mentioned, and the expansion of parenting programmes and support through organisations like Parentline and the work of the Youth Justice Board.

There is still a long way to go and far too little of the work relates to helping parents in the difficult teenage years. The latest quarterly analysis of calls to Parentline. shows that the top two reasons, by some distance, for calling Parentline were the challenging behaviour of a child and the emotional state of a child. In nearly 80 per cent of cases it was the oldest child in the family causing concern and mainly in the early teenage years. Belatedly, we are finding that providing support can produce beneficial outcomes. Since 1999 the Youth Justice Board has been funding parenting programmes provided through youth offending teams. One may ask why. We were implementing some of these programmes because no one else was. In an evaluation of 3,000 parents who participated in the programmes in 1999–2000, over 90 per cent said they would recommend the programmes to others, even though many were actually on them as a result of a court making a parenting order. They reported improved communications with their children, improved supervision, a reduction in family conflict and better relationships with all the children in their family.

In the year, following a short eight to 10-week group programme, there was a 50 per cent reduction in the number of offences by children causing the parent to be on the programme in the following year. So, for very low investment, there was a huge benefit in those family dynamics and to society as a whole.

Those are the results from late intervention. How much better it would be to make these programmes more widely and easily available without having to threaten people with parenting orders. We will still need parenting orders—or the threat of them—for some, but these low-cost, mainly group programmes are some of the best investments the Government can make.

I would encourage the programme to invest more in this area of parenting support programmes. The forthcoming Green Paper on children at risk provides the Government with the opportunity to set out a bolder strategy on support for parents from the first 12 months of life onwards. We know that early child/parent bonding is critical. We need more home visitation in the early days, easier access for parents to help and support at times of crisis during the school years, and particular help during the teenage years.

We badly need a more coherent strategy for investing in parenting help and support if we want to reduce the number of children at risk and curb the growth of antisocial and offending behaviour in the teenage years. Of course parenting orders may be required for some, but the great majority of people want to do a better job in bringing up their children and many need more easily accessible help and support programmes on a voluntary basis.

Photo of Baroness Blood Baroness Blood Labour 8:10 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for this timely debate. Families are the key to our communities and our society, and parents are the linchpin that holds families together. They are the first educators and carers of their children and as such they have a right to expect support and encouragement from the state. The future of our society depends upon the success of parents in bringing up children and it is the foundation upon which good citizens and secure societies are built.

Yet, we increasingly see parents under stress. I refer to the competing demands of work and home, the changing nature of families and family structures, and parents who find themselves struggling to keep up with the world in which their children are living and growing. The changes and opportunities that come with technological advances bring challenges to the normal values with which those parents themselves grew up. In that respect, Northern Ireland is no different. We can easily see evidence of the changing context and shape of families.

At 28 per cent of the total population, children and young people under 18 form a higher percentage of the population in Northern Ireland compared to other areas in Britain. We also have a higher percentage of households with young children under the age of five—17 per cent of all households compared to 13 per cent here in Britain; and an overall higher percentage of households with dependent children—30 per cent compared to 25 per cent. So the issues of parenting and parental support are particularly important for us.

Northern Ireland has, however, not been immune from other social changes that have impacted on parents. We have—at 23 per cent—a higher percentage of lone parents than Britain as a whole, which has 21 per cent, and an increasing number of women working both full and part time. Stresses such as poverty continue to have a huge impact on families in Northern Ireland, with 40 per cent of all children under 16 in Northern Ireland living in poverty.

A group of projects which work with parents and children in Northern Ireland has recently undertaken a consultation with parents on the issues that are important to them. They identified a number of key areas that cause concern. The majority of parents were concerned at the increased access to, and awareness of, drugs and alcohol among children and young people. They felt they needed more support and information to deal generally with this issue and more specialist help if their child became involved in taking drugs.

Sectarianism and conflict in Northern Ireland was of particular concern to parents. Many of the communities most affected by the conflict have been excluded from the benefits of the ongoing peace process and many of these communities feel marginalised and isolated. An example of that—I know that your Lordships' House took a particular interest—was the Holy Cross issue, when we were trying to get some settlement to the issue from both sides of the conflict. Two issues that emerged from our consultation with groups were support for parenting and early years provision. Is that not odd in a conflict where every night there was rioting?

These communities also continue to suffer from inter-community violence. Parents often felt they were unable to protect their children or keep them safe in the way that they might wish. The trauma associated with the ongoing levels of violence also affected parents' and children's experience and hopes for the future.

Even for those parents not bringing up children in interface areas, the issue of sectarianism and its impact was of concern. Many parents felt that little help or support was available for them to address the issue. When Barnado's and Save the Children recently published a booklet about talking to children about prejudice and discrimination, the demand from parents for the booklet was overwhelming.

Parents identified technological advances as a cause of concern. They were aware of the dangers of the Internet, but felt ill-equipped to know how best to protect their children. Lack of access to computers and technology also caused a divide between families with the resources to make best use of them and those unable to afford them or without the necessary skills to use them.

Access to education and ensuring that their children had the best educational opportunities were of vital concern to parents. Parents sometimes feel that it is difficult to engage with their children's education or that they lack the appropriate knowledge and information to guide them.

Many parents who contributed to the consultation were parents of a disabled child or young person. One consistent theme was the sense that life with a disabled child was a constant struggle due to lack of support. The experience of many families was of a continual fight just to get access to basic service provision or information for their child. In fact, parents identified that struggle for services, rather than the demands involved in caring for their child, as the main issue.

Parents also felt that discrimination on the basis of their child's disability was rife in society—in education, the health service, local youth and community provision, future opportunities for education and employment, and generally, through society's low expectations of the potential of young disabled people.

Parents are probably under more stress than at any time in our history and need much support and encouragement; yet they remain of the same key importance to children as ever. Many parents felt that they received little or no preparation or training for one of the most important roles that they will ever undertake. The vast majority of parents said that they would be more than interested in ongoing access to parental advice, information, support and training.

Most first-time parents attend ante-natal classes, but they cover only pregnancy and birth. The opportunity could be taken to cover the first year of the child's life and what parents should expect in terms of the child's development at different ages and stages during the crucial first year. Researchers also tell us that those children most likely to be smacked are aged under one. That indicates a lack of information on child development and a misinterpretation by some parents of normal child behaviour as "naughty".

Education and information can make a real difference to parental stress levels and children's experience of childhood. My experience of being involved in an early-years project for many years shows the extent of the difference that education and information can make to both parents and children.

In Northern Ireland, we are eagerly awaiting the development of a children's strategy and we hope that this opportunity will be taken to highlight the need for a family support strategy and to ensure that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety develops and resources such a strategy. When the Government introduced, consulted on and debated the Supporting Families policy, Northern Ireland did not. We have never taken an opportunity to focus on how parents and families might best be supported to undertake their role.

The lack of a clear, well resourced strategy can be seen in local communities across Northern Ireland. Services are primarily delivered by voluntary and community organisations on shoe-string budgets, while statutory services remain under pressure and more firmly focused on sharp-end child protection.

That situation is made worse not only by the lack of a coherent family support policy but by the continual under-spending on family and child care. Northern Ireland spends 30 per cent less per capita on family and childcare services than England. That is despite the fact that we have a significantly higher percentage of children in need. I urge the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety at home to consult on, develop and resource a coherent family support strategy as the first step to enable parents in Northern Ireland to undertake their parenting role as effectively as possible.

While pointing up the lack of a strategy, there have however, been some welcome individual developments. The introduction of Sure Start has provided some much needed support in local communities. However, much still needs to be done. I have been interested to hear Peers speak about Sure Start 0–14. In Northern Ireland, we are still at the 0–three stage.

We welcome the initiatives that have been undertaken by the Northern Ireland Executive to support children and families, including the Children's Fund and the creation of our Children's Commissioner. However, some schemes are notably missing from Northern Ireland, including Sure Start Plus and Connexions, which would be very welcome.

I know that my time is up, so I shall go to the end of my speech. For parents who are wholly dependent on social security, the replacement of Social Fund loans with grants would make a singularly substantial difference to the quality of life for both parents and children. I know from my experience of families the difficulties of managing on benefits. Social Fund loans create an additional burden on an already inadequate weekly income. I urge the Government to reconsider their position on this issue and to act to ensure that we do not reduce further the already basic income on which many families and children exist.

Overall, it is crucial that we recognise that to secure the future of our society, we put children first. A crucial element in doing that is to put parents first and to provide the kind of support and resources that will make a real difference in the lives of parents and children.

Photo of Baroness Strange Baroness Strange Crossbench 8:20 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, how grateful we all are to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for introducing the subject of families at this particular time. And what an interesting debate it has been. The only problem is that with each speech my own speech has become shorter and shorter, as I cross out something already said by someone else. Also, the Chamber has become emptier and emptier.

It must surely be a record to have two maiden speeches by what I can only describe as an absolute blessing of Archbishops. I should particularly like to congratulate my noble and right reverend friend Lord Carey on his second maiden speech in this House, and I agreed with everything that he said.

After God, of course, families—I use the word traditionally—are the basis of all that really matters in this world. At a time of war when there are so many orphans, we find ourselves thinking of them, and of the parents that they have lost, with so much love and sorrow in our hearts. And of course we think of our own families and of our own parents. Many of us in this House are already orphans. My daughter says that one cannot count as an orphan over the age of 16. All the same, I do so count myself, and so particularly enjoy the friendship of those who knew either of my parents. This has been a bad time of year for orphans—my daughter-in-law lost her bright and beautiful mother. My nephews and niece lost their active and jolly father, and my noble friend the Chief Whip lost his own father. We all cherish and love our parents, and we all feel lost and abandoned without them, however old we are.

Being a parent is not a sinecure. It can mean a great deal of hard work—I do not just mean nappies. Years ago when my children were young, someone once asked me what was important in bringing up a child. "The important thing is to love them", I said. One of my children overheard this and said, "What Mum means is saying 'No', and going on and on about everything all the time". "Yes, it is", I agreed. "Doing all those things is a bore, and if I did not love you, I should not bother". A child is like a dog—for life and not just for Christmas.

Incidentally, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, should know that there is a families' room at the Peers' Entrance; that the refreshment staff in the Peers' Dining Room are very good at playing with small children, and have so with my grandchildren; that there is a plot afoot to provide two high chairs in the Peers' Dining Room; and that the Doorkeepers are absolutely brilliant at explaining things to slightly older children.

Being a parent and, indeed, a grandparent, is an enormous pleasure. It comes very high on one's list of blessing to count. Last month, I was in an aeroplane which appeared to have difficulty in getting its wheels down and we were flying around for over two hours before making an emergency landing. I was sitting beside a doctor and we spent the time so happily talking of our children, and also my grandchildren, that we hardly noticed two hours had elapsed. We were counting our blessings. She did not have grandchildren yet, but she had delivered over 1,000 babies.

At the moment, we are all praying for our brave servicemen and women. Our hearts are with them all the time and with the families that they have left behind. We pray for all the orphans and widows, British, American and Iraqi. And we hope that they will all find much love and comfort from their own families.

Photo of Baroness Greenfield Baroness Greenfield Crossbench 8:25 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the most reverend Primate and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, on their valuable and powerful contributions to the debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving the House the opportunity to debate this important issue.

Many noble Lords have alluded to the importance of the environment on the developing brain. As a neuroscientist, I root and endorse that view in the bump and grind of brain cells. You are born with most of the brain cells you will ever have. It is the growth of the connections between the brain cells that accounts for the growth of the brain after birth. What is exciting is that the environment will influence the configuration of those connections. So even if you are clone—that is, an identical twin—you will have a unique pattern of brain cell connections.

Genes play a part. I do not wish to denigrate genes; I merely wish to put them, despite all the hype, literally in their place. Genes make proteins, which are important biochemical baggage for brain cell circuits to work. But they are not a one-off; they are constantly being activated or switched off according to the caprices of the environment, whether it is the micro-milieu of the brain itself or the external environment in which you are moving.

Hence your Lordships will appreciate that it is impossible to make the old and hackneyed division between nature a nurture. Rather we should think of a dialogue, an interaction, where there is no genetic controller orchestrating events but a ceaseless interaction between the environment and the molecular landscape of the brain. What is important is that the environment can determine how that landscape looks.

Let me take, for example, what may seem to be a counter-example. The condition Huntingdon's Chorea—named after the Greek for "to dance"—is so-called because it is characterised by a wild involuntary flinging of the limbs in a grotesque form of dance. The reason for choosing this example is that it is one of the few brain disorders that can be attributed to a single rogue gene. However, we know that even in mice that have had their genes tweaked so that they have the single rogue gene—they have the mouse equivalent of this movement disorder—the onset and severity of the disease can be offset. It can be made much more moderate and come along much later in their lives if they have a so-called enriched environment. For a mouse this means a few little ladders and toys with which they interact.

We know that adult rats exposed to ladders and toys and a so-called enriched environment will have more connections in their brains. The brain cells have more branches, which enable the brain cells to form more connections than their counterparts kept in simpler conditions. If this is the case for adult rodents playing with a few little ladders and wheels, how much more for the human brain?

The most marvellous aspect of being born a human being is that you are freed-up more than any other animal from the tyranny of your genes; you are freed-up from having to obey instinct. That is why we, as a species, occupy more ecological niches than any other species on earth. It is because we are supremely able, compared to any other species, to learn that we are freed-up from the demands of instinct. And if you have individual experiences, guess what? You become an individual.

We are born into the world, in the words of the 19th century psychologist William James, "as a booming, buzzing confusion". We evaluate it in terms of its primary sensory qualities—how sweet, how fast, how cold, how bright—but gradually these abstract sensations will coalesce into faces and objects. Gradually, as we get language, those faces and objects will acquire a name, a label. If they mean something to us they will feature in certain events in our lives that become memories. The more they feature, the more connections they will trigger and the more deep their significance to us will become.

As this happens, we personalise our brains; we develop a mind. It is this learning, this ability to see one thing in terms of another, that I regard as understanding. Far from being some airy fairy alternative to the squalor of the physical brain, I see the mind as the personalisation of the brain.

It is these personalised connections, sadly, which can be dismantled by conditions such as Alzheimer's Disease. As your Lordships may know, in such degenerative conditions the patient will gradually recapitulate childhood; gradually the world will mean less and less and gradually the patient will retreat back into the booming and buzzing confusion, where even people and objects that were very dear and close to the patient are no longer recognised.

The point I am trying to make is that the competence of our brains, of our mental abilities, rests on the integrity and the extent and number of our brain connections. It is these connections which, in turn, are dependent on the experiences we have in the world.

Noble Lords may have heard of a fascinating study recently undertaken with London taxi drivers. It is of course well known that London black cab drivers learn the "knowledge"; they have to remember all the streets of London in order to navigate about without using references. This is a huge burden on that particular ability, but it turns out that the brain scans of London taxi drivers, when compared with people of like age, show an enhanced area related to memory. That part of the brain is larger in taxi drivers than it is in other people. The fact is not lost on our London taxi drivers, most of whom have heard of the study. It is not the case that London taxi drivers are predisposed to having larger areas in this part of their brains. The longer someone works as a taxi driver, the more marked is the difference.

You do not have to be a London taxi driver to display plasticity in this way. It has been shown that non-piano players exposed for only five days to learning five-finger piano exercises will show an enhanced territory in the areas of their brains related to the digits than will the so-called controls. More remarkable still is that those who were asked simply to imagine that they were playing the piano demonstrated a similar structural change. I gather the same applies to golf. Apparently if you imagine that you are going to play golf and think about the golf swings, then when finally you go on to the course, you will find that you are more competent than would otherwise be the case.

Those examples shoot down the old dichotomy of mind and brain and show that the most airy of mental events actually does have a physical home among the connections. Not only can we see that this breaks down the barriers of nature and nurture, of mind and brain, and of the physical and mental, but every thought we have, however seemingly insubstantial and refined, has a physical base in the brain. It is therefore important to realise the huge power that the environment will have on our children, and in particular the parents who feature in that environment, because they will quite literally be leaving a mark on the brain.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat 8:31 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on initiating what has been a really excellent debate. We have been privileged to hear a number of extraordinarily interesting speeches. Perhaps I may also congratulate the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on a thoughtful and thought-provoking maiden speech. I congratulate too the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, on his "second" maiden speech , which I also very much enjoyed.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, has just explained, the way in which we bring up our children is also the way in which we pass on our culture from one generation to another. How we as parents behave towards our children plays a vital part in the way in which they, in turn, will behave towards others. In society as a whole we have seen something of a crisis in regard to anti-social behaviour. Surveys of local populations often show that the issues which rise to the top are those affecting the neighbourhood. Worries are expressed about hooliganism, wanton vandalism, graffiti, petty crime and litter.

I shall turn to the area in which I spend most of my working life—education. Ofsted reports show that one in 12 secondary schools is seriously disrupted by bad behaviour. Four out of five secondary school pupils say that their classes are disrupted, often just by one or two pupils in the class. The same problems are being seen increasingly in our primary schools. What are termed as EBD children—emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children—form the most rapidly increasing category with special educational needs. Such children often exhibit violence, bad behaviour and bad language not only towards their peers, but also towards their teachers. Every day, over 50,000 children stay away from school without permission. Truancy sweeps that are carried out from time to time indicate that many of those children are in fact out with their parents.

The problems of hooliganism have often been discussed in this House. One of the four principal factors is the breakdown of family relations, a matter that we have dealt with in considerable detail. Between the ages of one and 16 years, four out of 10 children will experience family breakdown. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, mentioned the increasing incidence of what are called "beanpole families". Teenage mothers have children who themselves become teenage mothers. Over time, the family works out as an extended female line.

Poverty affects one in four children in this country—although, as the noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord Chan, among others said, the Government's initiatives have done a great deal and have helped to alleviate childhood poverty.

Poor housing is linked to marriage break-up and poverty. There is, as everyone knows, a lack of good rented accommodation for those on low incomes.

Poor physical and mental health in parents are, again, linked to poverty and family breakdown, but with knock-on effects: one in 10 children themselves suffer from mental health problems.

As well as those four generally recognised features of the problems of family break-up, bad behaviour and so forth there is the problem mentioned by my noble friend Lady Thomas; namely, the problem of the work culture, and the fact that so many parents do not have time to spend with their children these days.

It is something of a vicious circle. Children who are abused verbally and physically at home tend to reciprocate when they are frustrated—hence the five year-olds in primary schools who hit out and swear when they do not get their own way. But it is not just the parents who are to blame. As the work of Michael Rutter at the Institute of Education has shown over the years, there are many other influences on children: peer group influences; the school; and, increasingly, the pressures of commercialism and TV—a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Warner. That underlines the importance of early intervention, of trying to break those habits before they become ingrained.

It is important to remember that one of the features of the Head Start experiment in the United States—which in many senses was the prototype for Sure Start in this country—was early intervention. The experiment indicated the so-called "sleeper" effect; namely, the intervention when children were young sometimes did not show up until the later years, but there was changed behaviour in those teenage years. The young people who had been through Head Start had fewer brushes with the law; they had a later start in terms of sexual activity; and there were fewer teenage pregnancies.

We have talked a great deal about Sure Start, and rightly so. The noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, and the noble Lord, Lord Wright, mentioned Home-Start. I am not certain whether Home-Start developed out of a post-Plowden experiment in the late 1960s called the Red House experiment. Head Start in the United States was based on the Red House experiment, where for the first time there was a bringing together of the day care centre, people going out visiting parents and teaching them how to play with children, how to have a toy library, and teaching them to read books to children. All those elements were brought together, and proved to be extremely valuable.

It is sad that the lessons from the Red House experiment, Head Start and Home-Start were so long in taking root in this country. It is extraordinary that it took until the mid-1990s, when the present Government came to power, for us to put down firm roots in terms of Sure Start. The Sure Start programme is now doing excellent work. But we must remember that it is not spread that widely. It is planned that it should work only in the 20 per cent most deprived wards in this country. Yet we are well aware of the fact that there is much deprivation in other areas; there are pockets of deprivation even in well-to-do middle-class areas such as Guildford. It is perhaps dangerous to concentrate the work too narrowly.

I want to put in a word for teenagers. A great deal of work is now being done to help parents in the early years. As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said, intervening early is essential. Yes, the earlier we can teach parents how to look after children, the better. That is an excellent approach. But there are very real problems in the teenage years. Are we doing enough in those years? Peer group pressure is very strong at that stage. It is necessary to provide teenagers with counselling on behaviour management—how to resolve disputes without violence, learning to work with and listen to others. The Connexions programme and mentoring are growing in importance in providing the ear of a sympathetic adult. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked, what place is there in the curriculum for parenthood and parenting? We also need to look at exclusion programmes and make quite sure that those who are excluded from school continue their education in one form or another and that we minimise the number of exclusions.

Are we doing enough to help teenage parents? The National Family and Parenting Institute has done a survey of what parents need. It came to the conclusion that many parents needed help but not, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, prescriptive help. They were wary of the professionals and needed more help from basic family support networks. They would take advice from the TV and women's magazines but were fed up with being given lots of glossy pamphlets.

Too many local authorities have practically closed down youth activities, because they are non-statutory services, at a time when budgets have been extremely pressed. Looking after older people and children who need protection has used up all the budgets of these statutory services. We need to think much more seriously about youth services, the role of the school in extended school times, keeping schools open, after-school sports—much of that provision has now disappeared—after-school clubs and homework clubs. Furthermore, many such children do not have access to computers at home, so they should be able to go into school and use the computers there. All these options should be given greater prominence than at present.

Is there really enough joined-up thinking across the various sectors? What role are the proposed children's centres likely to have in relation to the children's trusts proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Laming? What has happened to the DfES behaviour improvement projects? Do they continue? Are they being tracked? If so, how, and by what criteria are they being judged? Are we doing enough to support teenage parents? Is enough thought being given to integrate the efforts of the Connexions service and the youth service with other services within the community?

Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Conservative 8:42 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this important debate. His experience and commitment to family matters is well known to all, and on this occasion he has not disappointed us.

It is a measure of the profound pastoral issues which bear on the subject of this debate that two successive occupants of the seat of St. Augustine have chosen each to make their maiden speech, or near-maiden speech, on it. It is customary in this House to pay exaggerated compliments to the speaker and to express the hope that the noble Lord will be heard on many occasions. I am sure that this sentiment is echoed tonight with acclamation. I am sure that neither they nor your Lordships will require me to declare an interest as chairman of the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library.

Some two years ago I took part in a debate—then, as now, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne—to draw attention to the problems experienced by boys growing up without the care of a father. The theme running through that debate was the handicap suffered by so many boys who had grown up without the father role model.

Today's debate is in many ways complementary, but on a wider canvas. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on departing from the possibly conventional view that it is all the fault of the education system or, if the children have been in trouble, the police. He rightly emphasised the responsibility of the parents in having an influence over the development of the child. But if I may say so, he is to be congratulated on his constructive approach in emphasising that help must be given to parents who are themselves often so terribly vulnerable. As he rightly says, many parent-child problems can be put down to two factors. The first is the environment in which the child is reared. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, gave us a scientific line on that. The second is simply ignorance, which, sadly, can often come from lack of education. The basic skills agency produced the awesome statistic that in some parts of England nearly four adults in 10 cannot read or write properly or do simple sums.

There is a third factor, which is the vicious circle of parents who, in their turn, have suffered from an absence of role models of one or both of their own parents in their own childhood and who simply have no experience of a wholesome parent-child relationship. If unaddressed, that will perpetuate itself from generation to generation.

To take the subject of the debate at its most literal, we are here to see the parent from the child's point of view. The child will have no control over whether his or her parents are married, single, separated or divorced, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, reminded us. We must address how the community—be it the state, the Churches or the voluntary organisations—can provide help, support and guidance to these parents. It is relevant and appropriate that we also look to some of the root causes of parental problems, as so many noble Lords have done this evening. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Chan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, have given us vivid examples of teenage pregnancies. In its very good pamphlet, Teenage Pregnancy, the Social Exclusion Unit highlighted the environment in which young boys grow up. Sexually active before the age of 16, nearly half the males interviewed cited peer pressure as a major factor. Many young men were reluctant to discuss or to use contraception. A survey in America found that contraception was viewed as a purely female concern, while 40 per cent of the women relied on men to use contraceptives. That is a no-win situation.

That links back to the main theme of the debate. A key finding was that 12 months after the baby's birth, only half the teenage mothers were in a relationship with the father. The rest were usually single and without a steady partner. The important point is that research showed that young fathers often wanted to stay in touch with their children and play a proper part in their upbringing. That is the challenge facing us. Many speakers in the debate who are expert in the field are only too well aware of that.

The Government are to be commended on initiatives taken in the past two years on better personal, social and health education in schools, on the Sure Start Plus pilot projects that support teenage parents, on new resources for fathers to increase their involvement in the care of their children and, not least, on support for parents in talking to their children about sex and relationships. We can be thankful that we have moved on from the experiences of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, with Shelley half a century ago, but there is still a lot to be done.

The most reverend Primate issued a clarion call to the voluntary sector. Many noble Lords have spoken of the many voluntary organisations involved in the field. I shall add a further one, which is particularly concerned with very early crime and delinquency. My right honourable friend Mr Oliver Letwin has set out a strategy of what he terms early intervention. He has drawn on the research of Dr Stephen Scott of King's College, London, who found, in an initiative conducted in south London, that 15 per cent of children under five showed signs of anti-social behaviour, characterised by being oppositional and defiant, disliked by siblings and with poor relations with parents, who find them difficult or impossible to control.

One hundred and forty one children aged three to eight were referred with anti-social behaviour. The parents of 90 of them were allocated to parenting groups, with the remainder placed on a waiting list. The parents of the 90 were invited to attend a course of eight to 10 meetings in a pleasant environment for just one evening a week for 10 weeks. Attendance was voluntary, but the vast majority attended. Classes involved a structured sequence of topics introduced with video clips of parents with children. The topics covered included play, praise, incentives, setting limits and discipline. The course emphasised the promotion of sociable, self-reliant child behaviour and calm parenting and related this to the background experience and predicament of the individual parents.

The effect of the course was subsequently assessed, both by direct observation and interview. The anti-social behaviour of the children showed a marked overall reduction compared to those in the waiting group, which did not change at all. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, reported similar experiences from the Child Protection Unit.

We on these Benches would like there to be targeted intervention to help parents to handle children at a young age who show signs of disruptive and delinquent behaviour. We should like the programme to be extended to parents of teenage children who are showing similar problems. The programme should be holistic, drawing on the support of health visitors, social services, primary and secondary school teachers and, for children already in trouble, the police. I have described how that can work.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, gave us a telling statistic from the Youth Justice Board, which showed a 50 per cent drop in offending rates by young people whose parents attended parenting programmes. That was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Warner. That is an example of how the voluntary sector and various government-supported agencies can work together in that field.

The debate has been fascinating and informed and distinguished by speakers with a detailed knowledge of their subject. In thanking the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, again, I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 8:51 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, what a good topic this has been for debate, and what an excellent example it provides of what this House can offer on an issue of this type. It is a privilege to be present in a debate of this quality, especially as we heard the maiden speech by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and were able to relish a second maiden speech of the outgoing Archbishop.

I shall set out from the Government's perspective why this subject matters and perhaps open a discussion of the role of government in that respect. I shall touch on what we have done so far and signal some pointers as to the future. In the process, I shall try to answer the 30 or so questions that were raised.

We have all established clearly why this subject matters. First, children first learn about values, rights and responsibilities in their families and, if they do not learn, there are consequences for them and for society. Secondly, successful parenting helps children to achieve their full potential, which is clearly in the interests of children and society. Thirdly, successful early parenting is crucial for the effective emotional development of the child, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, pointed out, quoting the important pioneering work of John Bowlby in that respect. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, emphasised the quality of early parenting as being crucial.

We know what we need to happen and what good parenting looks like; the problem is what happens when it goes wrong. What are the risk factors? Research carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified several factors centred on the home that put children at risk of poor outcomes, such as drug abuse, crime, early pregnancy and school failure. They include weak parental supervision and discipline, family conflict, a family history of behavioural problems, parental involvement or attitudes condoning behavioural problems, low income and poor housing. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, and others referred to those problems.

The research evidence also suggests protective actions to help to reduce the impact of those risk factors. We are beginning to tease out some clarity about the role of government in supporting families to reduce the risk factors and supporting parents in developing skills to be a success for their children and to make their children successful. Clearly, all noble Lords who have spoke see that as highly desirable.

The noble Lord, Lord Warner, is to be congratulated on the role he played in the Government's Green Paper Supporting Families in 1998, which introduced some reflective action by the Government as to how the state should support families without moving too far. It set out five areas for action: reducing child poverty; making it easier for parents to spend more time with their children; strengthening marriage; tackling the more serious problems of family life; and seeking to ensure that parents have access to advice and support. I shall touch on some of those later. All of that sits in the context of a commitment to try to provide public services of the quality and accessibility that families and children need to ensure they have the opportunity to achieve their potential.

In government policy and public services generally, however, there is a particular focus on the most disadvantaged. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sheppard, spoke about Sure Start and the Children's Fund Partnership. Many have spoken about Sure Start. The Government, like the House, recognise that Sure Start has delivered better outcomes for all children. The Sure Start approach will be mainstreamed over the next 10 years. We are beginning to pilot how to mainstream it into the rest of society across Britain generally.

We have put in place a comprehensive strategy to improve the living standards of today's poorest children and to break the cycle of disadvantage. We want to go further in that respect. From April 2003, the new child tax credit will increase financial support to all low and medium-income families. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and others spoke about the importance of work-life balance and ensuring that parents have the time and energy to devote to good parenting. Many of us know how tightly stretched one can sometimes feel when trying to manage two careers and two or more children at the same time, perhaps even with many compensating advantages.

We are putting in place a number of measures, from April 2003, to go further on that. First, families with children younger than six years old will have a right to expect and demand from their employer, or to negotiate with their employer, flexible working. We believe that they should. Next, there will be improved statutory maternity and paternity pay. Thirdly, there will be an increase in paid and unpaid maternity leave, extending to 12 months the period in which parents can get maternity leave.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, challenged the Government as an employer to exhibit some of those practices. We are seeking to do so in the Home Office by running an innovative parenting course for our staff, both mothers and fathers. The course has been running for two years and has proved very popular. The noble Lord also signalled the importance of fathers—as did the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey—as well as the pain and suffering that can be experienced by children who do not know the identity of one of their parents or feel that they have lost contact with a mother or father. We recognise the important role that fathers play. We are making a start through key initiatives such as Sure Start and the Children's Fund and the family support grant. The Home Office family support grant involves funding for a number of projects that will support fathers.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, spoke about the importance of marriage and of secure relationships, as did the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. The Lord Chancellor's Department funds the voluntary sector to provide marriage and relationship support services. In a number of areas, I think that the support is developing and improving as it needs to.

The noble Lord, Lord Chan, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, spoke about teenage pregnancy. That is clearly, as I signalled, on our agenda. We are seeking to address the root causes of teenage pregnancy and are committed to halve the rate of conception among under 18s by 2010, which we feel is a central thrust and focus for the work.

We then had, I was delighted to hear, a range of noble Lords speaking about the importance of the voluntary sector in providing parental support and contributing to these issues. I am delighted partly because I think that it is right, but also because I am delighted to be the Minister with the lead responsibility for the voluntary sector. So you are preaching to the converted. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop was not least in addressing those issues, some of which I shall touch on.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, talked about the importance of making parenting support available when it is most needed, when people become parents. I agree. The fifth annual national family support grant, worth £5.8 million annually, will support a wide variety of parenting support programmes. It will continue to fund innovative work, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, signalled. We try to fund a range of programmes in order to find out what works. We then try to support what works by rolling out the programmes when they have proved successful in early initiatives.

The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury signalled the importance of an overview of the role of the volunteer and the voluntary sector. I strongly agree. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, challenged me to get the sack by saying that the Government should give a commitment to make more resources available to the voluntary sector. However, I think I can support him without getting the sack by signalling that we seek to challenge both central government departments and local government to think more creatively about how they can harness the potential that is in the voluntary sector to address a range of societal problems, not least how to support families and children. I and my officials have worked on a range of initiatives to open up creative dialogue to determine where we can offer further support. I confidently expect that that will lead to a switch of funding and will result in more funding going into the voluntary sector where we identify—as I believe we shall be able to do—that it can make a bigger impact and consequently deliver more successful outcomes.

We are already doing a fair amount in that regard. The new Parenting Fund announced in July in the spending review is worth £25 million over three years for new services delivered in partnership with voluntary and community organisations. I am delighted to support the most reverend Primate the Archbishop in paying credit to the work of faith communities in providing support for parents. We already do so through providing funding for Care for the Family and Fathers Direct. No doubt we should be doing more, as I shall be encouraged to reflect upon.

This is a good opportunity to congratulate Home Start on its thirtieth birthday. The noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Wright, signalled its importance and its achievements. The Home Office provides funding of £100,000 a year to it in recognition of the impact it has made.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, made the important point that one should not simply mount a range of initiatives but that one needs also to undertake serious research to evaluate what works, why it works, and to ascertain whether it can be developed further. Recently we commissioned the Policy Research Bureau to provide us with an up-to-date systematic overview of what works in parenting support. That will tell us what works and what is promising. Sometimes what appears possible should be supported just as much as what is certain, as what is certain is often too narrow. One has to have information and evaluation to inform the next stage of policy and service delivery.

Clearly, giving parents access to information when they need it and when they judge that it is necessary is an important factor. The old model of being able to talk to a grandmother is not always available. Therefore, we are supporting Parentline which is already receiving a quarter of a million telephone calls a year from parents. As noble Lords would expect, we are also supporting other departments in this respect. A website is to be launched in the autumn which will provide a one-stop shop for parents to be able to access advice and information from the Government on parenting issues.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, rightly mentioned anti-social behaviour and asked what happens when things have gone wrong in respect of parenting and discipline resulting in anti-social behaviour. Not all of that is caused by children or even teenagers. The Government's White Paper on anti-social behaviour had families and children at the very heart of its agenda. It seeks to ensure that parents face up to their responsibilities and are supported in doing so. I refer to parenting contracts whereby a parent is asked to sign a contract agreeing to attend parenting courses and achieve improvements in child attendance. We are encouraged that parents who have attended parenting courses, often unwillingly at first, have said afterwards that they valued and welcomed the experience. They have asked why they were not encouraged, pushed or cajoled into attending such courses sooner as they were helpful. In the light of that experience, we are not shy about taking such initiatives further.

Speakers were concerned about those most at risk. Recently, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and others have drawn that issue to our attention. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, also mentioned the Children at Risk Green Paper which will be published in the coming months. That will consider the recommendations of the children's commissioner raised previously by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and mentioned by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, although I cannot forecast at this stage exactly what it will say. Clearly, that is part of the jigsaw of action in terms of how we care for those in greatest need.

I was asked about the quality of nursery education and childcare. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, raised the subject of expanding childcare. I have twice heard my right honourable friend Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, emphasise the importance of developing better childcare arrangements, including when she spoke to regional development agencies about their programmes and made the point that regional economic development requires effective childcare if we are to harness the contribution of some fathers and mothers into our society. We are well on our way to meet our target of creating new places for 1.6 million children by 2004.

I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised the subject of nurseries. Free nursery education is universal for four year-olds, but it will also be for three year-olds by 2004, which we think an essential part of better support for parenting.

Not for the first time in the House, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, shocked us with his direct statements of how dreadful matters have been in the past. It would be good to think that all those dreadfulnesses were over, but we would be a complacent government if we believed that that was the case. That cri de coeur—that experience of how individuals feel powerless in the face of the state at times—is a salutary reminder. Even so, we have seen evidence of it when the Government have sometimes tracked the experience of a parent with a disabled child. They have often had to negotiate with many very different parts of the public sector, which has shown no capacity to join up its services in a parent, child and client-centred way. That is one of the biggest challenges to government, and we must try to get better at it.

The noble Lord, Lord Chan, spoke about the children's centres that will bring together integrated childcare and early-years education, as well as parenting, family support and health services. We believe that to be a very interesting new experiment. The longer-term aim is to have a children's centre for every disadvantaged area, including north-west England, about which he inquired.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked about better use of schools. Extended schools are likely to be open to pupils, families and the wider community throughout the school day, before and after school hours, at weekends and during school holidays. That will come as some comfort to many noble Lords who have probably argued for 30 or 40 years that schools locked up seem a chronic waste of a public resource. We are not there yet, though; we have not got it totally cracked, although we are making progress.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, made a unique speech about the importance of emotional development, a subject that might not have had as much emphasis as one would have expected in the debate. He asked a couple of specific questions. I hope that he will bear with me if I write to him, as they would take too long to answer orally from the Dispatch Box.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, raised the question of Northern Ireland. Proposals for a children's strategy for Northern Ireland are being developed. We already involve a sizeable number of parents in Northern Ireland in discussions from the early stage of the process, to get their view on the measures needed in the strategies to support families. In part, involving the potential recipients of government policy is how that policy should be formed.

Not for the first time, I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, about being impressed by the work of Stephen Scott and others in the area. The recent White Paper, Respect and Responsibility, outlined plans to make parenting support available through parenting orders and parenting contracts, in many ways building on his important work.

That is a quick tour d'horizon of where we have been. In the two minutes or so left to me, I will speak very briefly about what comes next. Although the House has been generous in commenting that the Government have done quite a lot in the past six years, we do not claim that we have got perfection or solved the problems yet.

We believe that it is important to continue to ensure that policy across government is coherent and that we have a strategy for the future that appears to be evidence-based and building on what we have learnt so far. Four years after Supporting Families, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, it now appears to be time to take another look at family policy across the board. We must ensure that lessons are being learnt across government, that all the gaps are being plugged and that government agencies and the voluntary sector are being harnessed as effectively as they can be. We therefore intend to carry out such a review to take stock of where we have got to since Supporting Families and to see how government policy in that respect needs to change and develop. I have no doubt that that process of review and reflection will be informed by the quality of this debate. It will be our responsibility to reflect on what has been said.

I hope that if we carry out that review without too much delay, we could do so by 2004, which is the 10th anniversary of the United Nations International Year of the Family. We therefore hope that the review of family policy will lead us into that with a firm foundation for how we make the next stage of movement to address this crucial problem. That involves trying to support families and children to have the success that they want in society and to find an appropriate role for the state in supporting them in doing so.

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench 9:11 pm, 26th March 2003

My Lords, although there are a few minutes left, I will not delay the House at this hour. That was a brilliant debate and I am deeply grateful to everyone who took part. I thank and congratulate all the speakers. Much of the ground was covered with much knowledge and experience and in a lively and interesting way. I also thank my Cross-Bench colleagues for the very strong support that I received from them.

The most reverend Primate mentioned the difficulty of defining the family. Might I dare to suggest a formula that I recently heard from Sweden? It is that a family is any group that feeds out of the same fridge.

I am going to try to attract the attention of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh—

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord. I was saying that I have been in Scandinavia in student hostels at which all sorts of people feed out of the same fridge, but we were certainly not family!

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench

My Lords, I am told that there are 11 departments of state whose decisions affect the fortunes of children and parents. In view of the quality of this debate, will the Minister undertake to ensure that the other 10 of his colleagues in the relevant departments read this debate?

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench

My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.