My Lords, I too join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for his timely debate on the findings of the UNICEF report. While recognising the limitations of the report, it is still an apposite warning to us about the well-being of some of our children in our society, especially when we are one of the richest nations. Although the Government are attempting to address some of the concerns, this is a long-term project and will need considerable effort by successive Governments, whoever they are, to change things around. There is no quick fix.
It is obvious from the report and from other findings that we need to work on policies that take children out of poverty, and I acknowledge the attempts made in last week's Budget to address this. However, important though that is, Governments, organisations, institutions, communities, families and individuals also need to work together to make sure that children and young people feel affirmed, included, encouraged, listened to and loved by their families, peers and the wider society. Here I should like to affirm the role of the voluntary sector and the faith groups in the work they are already doing to support family life and offer children the chance to relate to adult role models beyond their immediate family circle. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, for her reference to these groups.
The question which needs to be addressed urgently is this: how can we as adults create a society where children enjoy their childhood, have space to make mistakes, dream dreams and flourish? Some of the ways forward are addressed in the Every Child Matters agenda, but is there more we could be doing? The findings in the UNICEF report reaffirm the decision of the Children's Society to establish the Good Childhood Inquiry, an independent inquiry into childhood which I commend to noble Lords. The society is looking to open an inclusive debate on what makes for a good childhood in the United Kingdom today that will shape future policy which is informed by children and young people themselves.
For example, preliminary research conducted by the Children's Society to launch the inquiry with 8,000 young people showed that the two words most commonly mentioned by young people when asked, "What makes a good childhood?", were "family" and "friends". Their comments emphasised themes such as the importance of being loved and supported, and being treated with fairness and respect by others. An emerging theme from the evidence submitted to the inquiry so far is that families, whatever their form, need to be able to provide financial and emotional security and stability for their children. This backs up what my friend the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his book, Lost Icons, when writing about childhood and choice:
"The protection of the imaginative space of childhood obviously needs a background of security, adult availability and adult consistency".
Helping adults to grow up in order to let children flourish is not something which can be achieved by legislation or enforcement. We cannot force people to marry or stay together in unhappy relationships, even though we think that stability and commitment are important. To force adults to attend parenting courses via court orders and the threat of criminal sanction is to treat them in a childlike way—it infantilises them—even if in the end they benefit from such courses. Adults cannot keep see-sawing between viewing children and young people as vulnerable and needing our protection all the time, and seeing them as a threat to society or as competition for their own needs. Instead, in our government policies, our businesses, our institutions and our own actions, we need to support and encourage people to make choices that are about "us" and not "me"—choices that encourage responsibilities as well as rights, promote fidelity and commitment, and give children space just to be children.
I welcome the really important initiatives of the voluntary sector undertaken by bodies such as the Children's Society and faith groups aimed at listening to and encouraging children and young people, particularly those whose childhood is most bleak. However, it might also mean business being prepared to take less profit so that employees have a better work/life balance so that they have the energy to give to relationships and children. It could mean increasing the minimum wage to a living wage so that those on low incomes have more choice and less worry. It might mean being more upfront about the importance of adults making stable and committed relationships such as marriage, and giving time to nurturing them. We could choose to fund adequately services that encourage emotional literacy and negotiation or that work alongside parents at an early stage.
The Children's Society's research and the UNICEF report suggest that our wealth has not brought us the kind of childhood we want for all the United Kingdom's children. Here I support totally the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, and ask that we do not squander our resources and wealth, but look to find the means not only to assist this generation, but also in finding ways that improve the well-being of future generations of our children.