Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:19 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Conservative 2:19 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I am privileged to follow the noble Baroness, who I know has been deeply committed to these subjects over many years. We first worked together in relation to the particularly tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence. He came from a family who were involved in his well-being, shared in his activities and supported him at school. They behaved in the way that all of us studying this deeply distressing report would wish and unlike the young men who were responsible for that matter.

We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response. Like the Minister, I have had gentle hand-bagging—as one might say, depending on one's political pedigree—from the noble Lord over the years. During my ministerial years he was a regular lobbyist and campaigner, a charming and coercive champion of these issues. So how much more worrying it is that we should read this UNICEF report, which is a challenge to us all. There are many paradoxes in it. I am sure that the Minister will be tempted to explain why the methodology is flawed and to say that it is a self-report. In the EU, it is the British who always complain more. In the complaints league, it is always the British who like to say that they are miserable and unhappy and who have a lot to talk about. But, using the words of the noble Baroness, I hope that we can approach this subject with a sense of humility.

It is deeply shocking that we should emerge in the bottom third of the table on relative poverty and deprivation. Of course poverty is not the only issue. Why else would we find that young people in the Czech Republic—which has a much lower GDP than the United Kingdom—have a much greater sense of well-being than our own? Why do we rank so low in the quality of children's relationships with their parents and peers? Is there something in the comments today by His Excellency the Cardinal about something in our secular world repelling faith communities?

I recall the subtle resistance to giving money to faith-based groups when Section 64 grants—public money given to philanthropic organisations—were given and in the early years of the lottery. The Salvation Army, Jewish Care and the Children's Society frequently provided a better quality of care than many of the secular models. Why is it becoming more difficult for faith-based schools? As many of us know through our own experience, faith-based schools are often much better at instilling not just knowledge and facts but a sense of belonging and the values that we want in our young people. Can we redress that balance? Why are our child health figures on low birth weight and infant mortality so poor? And what of the deterioration resulting from the MMR disaster and the myths that were allowed to spread all too soon?

Children need care, control and continuity—which is another way of expressing the noble Lord's comments. It is like flying a kite. If children are too indulged—too loved—the kite falls down. But too little control or supervision is equally damaging. The early work by Harriet Wilson at the Child Poverty Action Group looked at families on a very difficult housing estate in Birmingham. How did some of those mothers—many of them single parents—ensure that their children did not lead lives of delinquency and crime? The answer was simple but difficult for the mothers involved. It was about supervision. It was about watching the children and knowing where they were.

For so many young people, who apart from their families knows them throughout their lives—where is that continuity? The person who can best rebuke a 14 year-old is a person who knew them when they were four. Parents are hard-pressed and there are more and more disrupted families. I like the wording in the UNICEF report which says that none of us wishes to be insulting or offensive to single-parent families, many of whom are single parents through no fault of their own. But we should not dispute that bringing up a child is hard enough for two parents and doubly hard for one. The evidence on the difficulties facing children in single-parent families is there for all to see.

It cannot, however, be down to parents alone. As the noble Baroness beautifully said, it takes a village to bring up a child. I endorse that. I speak particularly highly of youth groups such as the Scouts, the Brownies and the Boys Brigade. I remember when uniformed organisations were frowned on because they were thought very oppressive or authoritarian. But for young children who are feeling turbulent, unsettled or unsure of their identity, putting on that uniform is often the making of them—marching up and down, working for badges and being involved in a group activity. None of us can praise too highly the volunteers who give of their time, often unpaid, to run those organisations. We give time off for people to serve in the TA and as magistrates, but we do not give time off for those who help in youth organisations. Perhaps the Minister will take that on board.

When children are fed up with their parents—with one or both of them, and children are always fed up with their parents—where do they go? Who can they run away to within the family? It is the people who provide the ongoing relationships who are so important. The church and all faith groups understand that. Following a birth, you have the affirmation of that new life and you have godparents. I do not mind whether that happens in the Church of England or any other faith group; the message is that young people need stakeholders—champions and others who will be there for them particularly when they are revolting and disgusting. How can we build that in and stop children being isolated in this terrible teen culture of teen clothes, materials, bedrooms and music which locks them outside society?

Perhaps there is an unintended consequence in all the laws on child labour. Children used to work with adults on farms, in tourism and in the markets. They knew what adults were doing and they learnt to become adults. As for the continuity of relationships throughout life, I am sure that, like me, most noble Lords would champion the role of the grandparents who are there not only when the children are splendid but when they are impossible.

Have we become so risk averse that we do not allow children to take any risks? Children need to feel that they have been brave and courageous and have overcome the risk. The young people in my life are involved in sailing, a dangerous activity where I hope they will not be a danger to others and can manage the danger to themselves. By avoiding all sense of risk and adventure, we do our young people a disservice. We certainly do not help them on their way.

The popularity of the noble Lord's debate, in which so many wish to speak, means that our time is sadly limited. I simply hope that, in this Parliament, we might give as much time to discussing the interests of children as the previous Parliament gave to discussing the very tedious subject of fox hunting. Parliament has a lot to make up for. We first legislated to protect animals, a tedious subject—I can say that as long as I am unelected; if we have to have elected Peers I will have to be nice about animals again—in 1822, with Martin's Act on the cruel treatment of cattle. We did not protect children until 1889, in the Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act. We need to do more for children.