Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Shadow Minister, Education, Shadow Minister, Health, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips 3:07 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I add my congratulations to those already offered to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on securing this important debate. The report by UNICEF highlighted and reinforced what many organisations such as Save the Children and Barnardo's have said for some time; that the position of families in poor or low-income households has deteriorated. That has knock-on effects for children in these particular groups.

We all know that of the six dimensions measured by UNICEF, the UK came bottom in five, ranking bottom of 21 industrialised countries in the well-being assessment. Looking after children should be everybody's business: parents, schools, communities and Government. With less than 70 per cent of British children living with both parents, in contrast to more than 90 per cent of children in Greece and Italy, it is terrible to learn the statistic that 3.4 million of those children—that is 27 per cent of all children—are living in poverty.

Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to do well at school and have fewer social opportunities than other children. School attendance is poorer. They are more likely to leave school with no qualifications, have poor literacy and numeracy skills, live in sub-standard housing and have poor diet and little play space.

Families which are least financially able pay £1,000 more on average for their utility bills, loans and insurance—if they can get it—than those families on average incomes. It is scandalous, and the Government need to do more. By removing the 10 per cent tax bracket, the recent Budget did very little for them. They do not want to depend on state hand-outs, but want to work and support themselves. Women in particular, whose jobs are often driven by the needs of their families, will find themselves worse off. There is no comfort in telling them that the tax credit system will see them right. These systems are complicated, arduous and long, and those that are most disadvantaged are the very families that have the least skills. I am afraid that the Chancellor has penalised the very people that were encouraged to go out and get work.

It is important that our children and young people grow up confident and as well as meeting their educational needs we need to place emphasis on their well-being and happiness. Self-esteem is hard to measure but it is a crucial building block in the lives of us all. Families, as we used to know them, have changed, leaving few safety nets for children to fall into. Communities and neighbourhoods do not offer the same comfort that once they might have done and often the lack of positive adult role models has increased the circumstances that culminate in our coming bottom in family and peer relationships. We also fare badly with regard to drug and alcohol abuse and have higher rates of teenage pregnancies than our European partners.

It is depressing to see queues of our young people outside fast food places eating highly fat-laden foods that offer little nutritional value but add to the problems of obesity and other health-related problems. It is a sad reflection of our society when children begin to believe that these are normal diets, as even in their own homes it is often their staple food. It is important to ensure that children and young people are made food-aware and know how to use fresh ingredients, especially if it is not the norm in their own homes. It cannot be left to celebrities to highlight these issues and for Governments to be reactionary; it needs long-term planning and strategies to ensure that outcomes can be measured properly and not excite newspaper headlines for a day or two.

While we look at obesity and its added impact on the National Health Service—and, with other diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, it is predicted that by 2010 more than 1.7 million children throughout England will be obese—we also need to look at anorexia. Again, the power of celebrities and the media is far greater than what schools and parents can exert. Surely it is time to see how we can work with these powerful tools who carry responsibility when they enjoy personally huge financial successes from these young audiences. I hope that the Minister can tell your Lordships' House whether targets set in 2004 between the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to halt year-on-year increases in obesity have been met.

More children suffer from depression and mental health disorders than ever before, with low esteem, low self-worth and self-harm also on the increase. Studies on adults show that mental health problems in adult life have most often stemmed from childhood. Can the Minister assure the House that adequate provision for children and young people is available in appropriate settings and not among adults in adult wards?

If we are to eradicate poverty and give all children and young people opportunity and aspiration, we cannot just offer sticking-plaster remedies that fill newspaper headlines. It is crucial to look at providing positive incentives in which families can thrive and offer support, and when needed reach and get support that is not difficult or complicated to access. We cannot be a nation that in parts is economically wealthy and successful and yet socially remains impoverished, where we leave our most vulnerable behind. We cannot criminalise our children by trying to predict who will be future criminals without expecting those young children not to fulfil those prophecies. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are investing in children and young people's services with proper funding strategies, ensuring that consultation for what they need is fully taken into account?

Finally, can the Minister assure the House that more vigorous efforts will be made to eradicate bullying in both schools and neighbourhoods and that parents will be encouraged to participate more readily in activities in and out of schools?