Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Education 3:48 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is an unflinching champion—or, as my noble friend Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone called him, a "charming and coercive champion"—of children and parents. I am delighted that he was able to secure this all-important debate. I, too, extend my congratulations and thanks to him. I also thank the Minister for my copy of Every Parent Matters.

Children's issues are one of the many topics on which your Lordships' House excels, as witnessed today by the passionate and knowledgeable contributions from all sides of the Chamber. I acknowledge and welcome the Government's considerable investment in their desire to improve the lives of children and young people in the UK. We have seen significant legislation in the past two years, much of which we have supported—as we supported the Sure Start initiative, although we have serious doubts about the way in which it is being delivered.

Last year, Oliver Letwin committed us to match the Government on their targets to eliminate child poverty, so I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that it is depressing and deeply worrying that the number of children living in relative poverty rose by 200,000 last year, which was the first increase in nearly a decade. There can be no doubt that we all want the same conclusions; we just differ on how we get there.

Children are now assuming a much higher profile politically, as is only right, given that they represent 20 per cent of the population. Yet despite all the changes, the UNICEF report makes uncomfortable reading and issues the wake-up call of which the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, spoke. Britain comes 18th out of 21 rich countries on material well-being and 19th out of 21 on educational well-being. The Children's Society chief executive, Bob Reitemeier, said that the report was,

"a wake-up call to the fact that, despite being a rich country, the UK is failing children and young people in a number of crucial ways".

Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children's Commissioner, warned in more detail that:

"We are turning out a generation of young people who are unhappy, unhealthy, engaging in risky behaviour, who have poor relationships with their family and their peers, who have low expectations and don't feel safe".

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough reminded us of the sad fact that children and young people in this country are getting a bad, negative press. However, as Al Aynsley-Green said:

"It is time to stop demonising children and young people for what goes wrong and start supporting them to make positive choices".

That point was echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids.

We must look at children in the context of their families. We on these Benches believe that the great challenge of this decade and the next is social revival. Earlier this week, my right honourable friend David Cameron announced that we are setting up an inquiry into the quality of childhood in Britain. In the light of the UNICEF report, it will investigate how and why children in Britain are failed when it comes to measures of subjective well-being, behaviours and risks, and family and peer relationships. The task force will be headed by David Willetts and will be advised by a number of high-profile, well respected and independent experts, including the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield. That work will be in parallel with the extensive work that we have already undertaken on behalf of children, not least the excellent research on family break-up and the importance of fathers that is being carried out by the social justice policy group of my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith. For some years now, the Conservative Party has had an extended family team, which is looking at the issues that face children and families across the departments of Whitehall.

We think that it is of the utmost importance that we do our bit to raise children and family issues up the political agenda, but a lot more needs to be done. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham so rightly said, that needs everyone joining in the debate, which is why I was disappointed to read the comments of Beverley Hughes, the Minister in another place with responsibility for children. She described our review into the quality of childhood as,

"yet another vacuous policy group".

That did not advance the argument one jot, nor was it respectful of the dedicated people who are helping us to grapple with these difficult and vital issues.

My right honourable friend David Cameron has said that Governments cannot bring up children, but the decisions that they make have an influence on how children are brought up. Nowhere is that influence greater than in the early years of a child's life. I give as an example the increasing pressure to start formal education earlier or, as my honourable friend in another place, Tim Loughton, phrased it,

"the sausage machine of schoolification".

Children in the UK already start school earlier than children in most other European countries and the creation in England's national curriculum of a foundation stage for children aged three to five seems to be adding more pressure for an even earlier start. We had serious reservations about the foundation stage for nurseries in the Childcare Bill, and those reservations remain.

We now have targets, testing and ticking of boxes. Whatever happened to children learning through play and forming strong attachments with their parents and carers in those all-important first three years? That issue was covered well by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. As Mike Baker, the BBC education correspondent, said in a recent article, there is a real risk that the Government are,

"opting for short-term gains at the expense of long-term damage".

The UNICEF report and examples such as these show us that we have a lot to learn from other countries. In September last year, our children's team members visited Finland and Denmark. Sadly, due to ill health, I was unable to join them. They were enormously impressed by what they saw. There were excellent nurseries and care centres with well trained and well motivated staff, the importance of which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, reminded us. They were struck by the very different attitude that prevailed. The children were neither mollycoddled nor starting formal education too soon. They were playing, socialising and learning to get on with their peer group, absorbing that friendly discipline and learning the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, of which my noble friend Lord Elton spoke so persuasively. That means that they start school socially well balanced, ready and eager to learn—and, whatever the weather, they were wrapped up warm and sent outside to play.

I now turn to looked-after children. The care of children in the guardianship of the state has been a shameful side of the welfare system for too long. The most alarming fact about children in care is that they are 66 times more likely to have their own children taken into care, thus creating a generation vicious cycle—a cycle that we must break. It worries me that the state, which is so keen to tell everyone else how to be a good parent, is a pretty bad one when it assumes the role.

The key to much that needs to be done lies in a well motivated and respected social workforce. For the past few months, I have had the pleasure of serving on our social workers commission, which was set up by Tim Loughton to look into the image and role of social workers. It has an impressive panel of academics and practitioners, and I feel very humble when I sit there.

We need innovation and the sharing of best practice because some excellent work is being undertaken for these vulnerable children. The council in Brent—a Conservative council—has set up a buddy scheme whereby every council officer, from the chief executive down, is paired with a looked-after child, working closely with their social workers. That provides real incentive to ensure the best possible provision and outcomes for these children.

Knowing that someone is there to watch out for you, to speak up for you and to guide and nurture you is empowering for young people. In an ideal world, that role is provided by parents or members of an extended family as part of their duty, about which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, spoke with such authority. Where that breaks down, it is vital that our young have someone to turn to. This is why I am such a supporter of youth clubs, voluntary organisations and mentoring schemes. The best are delivered by the voluntary sector and the faith-based groups, of which my noble friend Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone spoke in her impressive speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said in opening our debate that every child should have the right to a good family life. To that I add that every child has a right to a childhood. It is essential that we give our children time and space to grow up; that when they are growing up we give them our time, support and trust; and that we nurture that self-esteem of which my noble friend Lady Verma spoke. We need to take risks and to let them live a little. As Winston Churchill said, there is no safer thing to do than to take risks with the young.