Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:11 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Howells of St Davids Baroness Howells of St Davids Labour 2:11 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for inviting the House to debate this important subject. The UNICEF report on childhood in industrial countries holds up to the light the way in which we in the United Kingdom support and parent our young people, and it finds us wanting. However, we can point to some sections of the report, such as the figures for relative poverty, and take some comfort from the fact that, if more current figures had been used we would have done much better. Like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I accept that the data used do not take into account the considerable investment by the Government to end child poverty or initiatives such as Sure Start, even taking into account the figures published yesterday that showed that we had slipped back in our efforts to end child poverty. We are trying. Others will point to initiatives such as the introduction of the specialised diploma scheme to address the poor level of educational well-being, which exists despite our children being better off than many for educational resources, and to improve the rates of children not in education, training or employment, as well as the ambitions of the current 40 per cent of our 15 year-olds who expect to find work requiring low skills.

We should hang our head in shame at the document's analysis of issues that point to the mental and physical well-being of our children, and accept that, when we compare the UNICEF report with more recent research based on the direct experiences of young people, the picture of a troubled and unhappy generation still holds true. Although British children are less likely to die as a result of accidents, we show a high number of children with a very low birth weight, which is a well established measure of risk to cognitive and physical development through childhood and which may be linked to our relatively high rates of teenage pregnancy.

The study excludes mental health, but we know from research from the Nuffield Foundation that mental ill health in adolescents in this country is growing faster than in those in many other European countries and the United States. Research from YoungMinds, a mental health charity, shows the high level of anxiety and stress experienced by young people as they move from adolescence to young adulthood. The research also shows that children feel let down by their education. To paraphrase John Reid, they feel that they are not made fit for purpose and that they lack basic skills. Children killing children is almost impossible to believe. It seems to be becoming a new skill. The research highlighted the importance of the peer group, with friends taking the place of family as the most influential people in a young person's life. Pray to God that this may not be so. It is deeply sad that we have the lowest number of children who find their peers kind and helpful. Recent reports on bullying have highlighted the level to which bullied children feel unprotected by others in our society. YoungMinds reports that it has spoken to children and young people who have said that their lives are made miserable by bullying, but that in their experience schools focused on the needs of the bully not on supporting and protecting those who complain.

The House must be fully aware of the concern about risky behaviour. It will come as no surprise that our young people take high risks by taking drugs, smoking, drinking, having sex early and having very high rates of teenage pregnancy. We may wring our hands over this current generation and wonder what we have done wrong, but I think we already know many of the answers. The old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child should be at the heart of how we raise our children today. We need to stop demonising young people by putting photographs of 10 year-old children with an ASBO on the front page of a national newspaper. We should listen to the child's mother who says that his behaviour improved once he had medical help for his attention deficit disorder, and we should ensure that children like him receive help quickly.

The report points to the need for parents to remain fully involved with their children throughout adolescence, by which we mean maintaining the basics of talking, listening, being there when they come home from school, eating with them and knowing where they are going, what they are doing and with whom they are mixing. However, parents need support to do this. Those who work long hours—the Government want us all to go into the workplace—or who work in more than one job to pay high mortgages cannot be in two places at once, so we need to change the long-hours culture and to develop more family-friendly working practices. Those who do not know how to parent need practical help from the earliest days, with a high input from midwives, health visitors and other grown-ups. Schools must be places of safety where children can learn in peace. We need smaller classes, as we have been saying for years, and more behavioural support for the disruptive. The business community must become involved in supporting the parents who work for them and the young people who are left at home. However, we must also allow young people to find the resources within themselves and to take pride in what they can achieve, and we must help them to take responsibility for their own actions.

I have spent much of my life pointing out to the ignorant that the colour of your skin does not determine your ability. It can, however, determine your opportunity to succeed, and where it does, it can waste a lot of potential. I cannot accept that, in a nation that enables every child to have a school place and free healthcare and in which we have a range of professionals to help children born into disadvantaged communities, we still have so many young people whose potential is never realised. It is time for us to be humble, to look outside ourselves to see what is being done in other countries, and to take steps to put their good practice to work here. Our children cannot wait, and they deserve nothing less, or should we have a reformation of good manners, as Wilberforce said in 1807?