Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:44 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 2:44 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for obtaining this debate. Again, he has drawn our attention to families and the need for children in families to have stability. My noble friend's Motion could not be more timely, with the publication of the UNICEF report and current concern about the violent attacks by children against children.

I shall concentrate my remarks on ensuring that every child has the right to the experience of a sustained loving relationship with at least one parent or parent substitute, to continue a theme of today's debate. In particular, I shall follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and consider the experience of children of families caught in a cycle of low family achievement. As the joint Treasury and Department for Education and Skills discussion paper published in January, Policy Review of Children and Young People, says of such families:

"It is essential to support them on a sustained basis, if services are ultimately to shift resources and focus to a more preventative approach. It is also important if the Government is to break the cycle of disadvantage across generations".

The theoretician of child development, Andre Green, writes of the British theoretician, DW Winicott, that the good enough mother is also the bad enough mother. There is a virtue in being a bad enough mother; one who does not frustrate her child's development by being too much present. At the same time, if she is too much absent, the consequences can be catastrophic and result in the child's disintegration.

It is striking that the two countries at the bottom of the UNICEF list are the United Kingdom and the United States; respectively, the founding father of liberalism and the child that has not only proved itself a chip off the old block, but has re-exported liberalism to the home country. The implication of the UNICEF report—and I recognise that report's shortcomings—is that in the constant tension between support for families and encouraging individual responsibility, between being the good enough mother and the bad enough mother—we have allowed liberalism to unbalance interventionism. Crucially, we have not done enough to ensure that one way or another, above all things, every child has the opportunity to enjoy stability of relationship—the enduring love of a parent or parent substitute.

In recent history, we have failed to ensure an adequate supply of housing for our families, as my noble friend Lord Northbourne has observed, and more than 100,000 children are in temporary accommodation as a consequence. Until 1997, our health services were chronically underfunded, with especial shortages in adult mental health services and child and adolescent mental health services. The number of children in custody has been rising significantly over several years, and in February this year we had the highest number of children in custody in a February since records began. I hope your Lordships will not think it controversial to suggest that this custody record implies, at least in part, a failure on our part to ensure adequate family or surrogate family relationships.

Her Majesty's Government have made the welfare of children and families a policy priority. The Minister has helpfully supplied many of us with the important document, Parenting Matters. It is immensely encouraging to learn of the Government's investment there, but I shall highlight one concern that must not be overlooked. The paper refers to the value of good-quality early-years childcare and the new duty on local authorities to secure sufficient childcare under the Childcare Act. It can be of great benefit to children at the right stage of their development to interact with their peers, and, of course, for their parents to be in employment. However, it is apparent that much of the group care must be of doubtful quality. The workforce is poorly paid and consists largely of poorly educated young women. There is often a high turnover of staff and a shortage of qualified supervisors. I know the Government are working hard to address these matters, but we are far behind our neighbours in this.

Poor-quality childcare may not manifest its harm until an individual seeks to make relationships in adulthood. Poor-quality early-years childcare may undermine the attachment of parent to child. The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, made the point about the importance in adolescence that parents' commitment is still strong. That may put some threat in there.

Public discourse on this matter focuses primarily on access to childcare, and in particular its cost. Research indicates that parents are willing to trade off quality against cost. I recognise Her Majesty's Government's achievement in establishing a framework for care from zero to five to improve quality. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that he is constantly revisiting quality in early-years group care.

I welcome the recognition in the report of the policy review of children and young people about,

"providing support and motivation to front-line professionals to engage in what are often extremely challenging circumstances".

The introduction of the social work degree, Her Majesty's Government's success in recruiting applicants to that course and the creation of a professional registration are all important steps towards regenerating the social work profession. Despite these improvements, 49 per cent of local authorities find retaining social workers difficult or very difficult. Her Majesty's Government have proposed the introduction of protected status for newly qualified social workers.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in his most helpful letter to me of 16 February, wrote:

"Many newly qualified social workers are thrown in the deep end, with difficult cases right from the start of their employment, and where this happens the burn out rate can be high".

He continued:

"The development of a newly qualified social work status will have costs, and I cannot pre-empt decisions that have yet to be taken in the context of the current Comprehensive Spending Review".

I recently raised this matter with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. If the Minister can supply any further information, I would welcome it. I recognise the difficulty of the timing, given the process of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Does the Minister recognise that newly qualified social work status would be thoroughly consonant with paragraph 7.11 of his Policy Review of Children and Young People? It says:

"The Review has identified the importance of support and motivation of front-line professionals to ensure that they can provide sustained and effective services".

When does the Minister expect to have identified the likely costs of implementing newly qualified social work status?

The role of social workers in ameliorating the lives of the children of our most troubled families is essential. I look forward to the Minister's response.