Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Howarth of Breckland Baroness Howarth of Breckland Crossbench 3:15 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, not just on this debate but on how he badgers, cajoles and speaks out on behalf of parents and children. I have been at the other end of it too, even though I am a lowly Cross-Bench Back-Bencher.

I shall try not to repeat the points covered by other noble Lords. I was particularly impressed by the long and excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about the discipline that children need, and the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, on that. One issue that we have not sorted out, certainly in our schools, is the balance between love, care and discipline. We have a generation of parents who have not learnt that skill because that generation, who went through school just after me, lost that capacity. Nor am I going to engage in a discussion on adoption with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell.

I was very disappointed by the UNICEF report. I was surprised, too, because I thought that we might be doing better. I spend some of my time in Europe working with European organisations that seem to envy much of our infrastructure for children. I tend to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, that we tend to say it how it is in this country—and there is some of that. I was disappointed because, if the report is true, our children are in poor health, unable to maintain loving and successful relationships, feel unsafe and insecure, have low aspirations and put themselves and others at risk—and this in 21st century Britain.

The Government have been quick to point out that a lot has been done since the picture reflected in the five year-old data used for the UNICEF study, and the Every Child Matters agenda has made a real difference to the lives of many families. I hope that the Minister will reflect on some of that and update us on what has happened. Evidence from many references already given suggests that we are still not reaching the children and young people in greatest need; for example, those in the criminal justice system. That system is outside the noble Lord's department, but they are still children. The criminal justice system is obsessed with punishment rather than understanding why young people offend and attempting treatment and education. The criminalisation of our young sees us lock up more children than any other country in Europe, but they cannot be that much worse. Eighty per cent of young people reoffend, others self-harm, and the likelihood of positive outcomes is poor. If this Government wish to be tough on crime, they will not achieve it this way. Of course, young people must be held responsible for bad behaviour, but locking up many of them simply does not work. It confirms all they fear about themselves and the society in which they live rather than raising their sights and aspirations through positive programmes of intervention. Recently we have heard about such schemes in Manchester in the United States, which are having considerable success.

According to Care Matters, our services for looked-after children are also poor. Like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I sometimes wonder why the Government believe that constantly changing the framework of services, rather than concentrating on the quality and content of practitioners' skills, will lead to improvement. Not too long ago, overall responsibility for children's social work services was transferred from the Department of Health to the Department for Education and Skills. I still hope that this will have a positive outcome for service delivery, but the impression of children's services given in the Green Paper Care Matters is overwhelmingly negative. One chapter is entitled "Life outside school", implying that the remainder is mainly concerned with life inside school. The aspirations for improvement through the DfES's new programmes may include a huge increase in family centres, but otherwise does it concentrate firmly on education rather than on a balance of other life experience and skills; that is to say, human relationships, about which other noble Lords spoke so eloquently? I hope that the Minister will tell me that that is not so.

A group of children and young people whose well-being does not appear to be on the Government's radar are asylum-seeking children who have settled here. Separated children arriving alone in the UK face many challenges. I do not have time to catalogue the horrors that these young people have usually experienced before they reach our shores. Many, when they arrive, receive a poor welcome. The care that they are given by social services up to age 18 is excellent. Local authorities are doing all they can under difficult circumstances. But through its case work, the charity Voice has encountered practice that causes great concern on behalf of the young people it works with. The wishes and feelings of these young people about their placements and support needs are often ignored in a system in which, increasingly, some policies and decision-making processes appear to discriminate between separated children and the indigenous cared-for population.

The following are real stories. Abi is a 16 year-old from Angola. He was placed with a foster carer when he was 13, where he has remained. He has settled and done well. He was told by social services that he had to move from the placement on his 16th birthday. Abi told one of the helpline workers, "I am not ready to move. Emotionally I rely a lot on my foster carer. I have no one to support me if I leave here". Social services admitted that the reason for moving the young person was purely financial.

Another child aged 17 applied for asylum but was told on her 18th birthday that she could not hear about her appeal. She had been offered a place at university, which was then withdrawn because she had not heard about her appeal. Her life is now again held in the balance. She is a bright, able young woman. I understand that only 20 per cent of these children receive decisions within the target timescale. Although this is a Home Office area, is the DfES speaking up on behalf of these children?

The Government have worked hard to place children and young people at the heart of their programmes, but concentrating on education to the exclusion of much else will not achieve the change they seek. As I have said to the noble Lord before, "Education, education, education" must be balanced by welfare, love and care. A new report might give a better picture, but does that matter? We know where we should concentrate. I urge the Government to reconsider their policy and to look at the whole child, the complete child and the well-being of the child, as every child matters.