Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of The Bishop of Peterborough The Bishop of Peterborough Bishop 3:00 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate and welcome the publication of Every Parent Matters. Like other Members of your Lordships' House, I shall highlight relationships, which are fundamental to all human well-being, especially that of children. It is an area in which church and faith groups have a particular interest and a particular contribution to make, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, has already reminded us.

The UNICEF report recognises that,

"the quality of children's relationships is as difficult to measure as it is critical to well-being".

It bases our standing at the bottom of the table on the objective criteria of percentages of children living in single-parent families and step-families and those who eat their main meal with their parents, as well as on more subjective percentages of those who report that their parents spend time just talking to them and that they find their peers kind and helpful. As Every Parent Matters recognises, it is the quality of relationships with parents, adults and their own peers that forms and supports children's well-being and behaviour, and not material possessions or even appropriate legislation alone.

Children's and young people's subjective well-being is another area where our children's self-perception puts the UK in the lowest position in relation to the OECD average. Subjective well-being depends largely on relationships. Young people's self-perception is linked to the attitudes of, and opinions expressed by, adults, and the evidence shows that that is too often negative. Research carried out in 2004 by the Young People Now magazine, as part of its positive images campaign, found that 71 per cent of press stories about young people were negative and that only 14 per cent were positive. Furthermore, huge press and public interest continues to focus on crimes committed by young people, producing an exaggerated fear of crime. The British Crime Survey shows that the public repeatedly overestimated both the amount of crime committed by young people and the proportion of all crimes for which they were responsible. We must not forget that most victims of youth crime are young people themselves.

It therefore behoves those of us who work institutionally and personally with young people to try to redress the balance by drawing public attention to the important contribution that young people make to the well-being of our society. Many of them are passionate about the shape of our society, the future of the environment and issues of justice and equality. They set examples of compassion and understanding which we would all do well to imitate.

The quality of relationships underlies patterns of behaviour, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, referred. It is therefore disappointing once again to see that the UK ranks last for risk behaviour, which measures the proportion of young people taking potentially harmful substances as well as their sexual activity, including rates of teenage pregnancy.

Adult responses to risk are often contradictory. On the one hand, we want children and young people to be agents of their own rights and choices—rightly so; on the other, we recognise that there are rightly limits to their agency. This tension between safety and freedom emerged as one of the cross-cutting themes of the Children's Society survey to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has already referred.

Public policy too often reflects this ambivalence. For example, at the age of 10, children are not deemed responsible enough to own a pet, yet can be held criminally responsible for their own actions. A recent survey by the Children's Society and the Children's Play Council showed that, in contrast to the more non-interventionist policies of other countries, children in some parts of the country were prevented from riding bikes in parks or climbing trees because these activities were considered too risky. Health and safety legislation has gone mad in certain areas. We need to be more aware of real risk and, at the same time, allow children to be children and enjoy appropriate freedoms, as I am sure did all your Lordships and as did I. The quality of relationships with parents, adults and their peers is vital to the well-being of children and young people.

For this reason, the churches and faith communities give a high priority to our work with children and young people. As noble Lords will know, we do so in a variety of ways: parent and toddler groups, playgroups, Sunday schools in addition to our maintained schools, youth clubs and so on. In addition, we seek to encourage the establishing of good family relationships through work with those preparing for marriage as well as with young parents. I cannot speak for other faith groups, but, in the Church of England, approaching 1 million pupils attend our 4,700 schools; we provide activities in the local community outside church worship for more than half a million young people under 16, and for some 38,000 between 16 and 25. More than 136,000 volunteers run these activities for children and young people. I am sure that those statistics could be mirrored by other churches and faith groups. The voluntary organisations play a considerable part in caring for young people and building good relationships.

We therefore share the concern of many people about the outcome of UNICEF's research, and we want to go on playing our full part in ensuring the well-being of our children and in establishing the good personal relationships on which so much of it is based.