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My Lords, I also welcome the Minister to the Front Bench and thank the Government for this important debate. I declare my interest as a landowner, detailed in the register of interests. I am also vice-chair of the parliamentary group for children and young people in care and leaving care; treasurer of the parliamentary group for children; and a trustee of the Michael Sieff Foundation, a charity promoting child welfare.
I rise in part to take issue with the very interesting speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson. In the detail of it, he rather dismissed the idea of social investment at the current time-I hope that I am being fair in conveying what he said. We must not underestimate the importance of investing in early intervention, even at these difficult times. If we want to have a skilled workforce and if we need to compete with China and other nations around the world, we need to invest early in our children, because what happens in the early days and years of a child's life is the most important determinant of whether they will do well in education and employment.
I welcome the Government's commitment to early intervention. The right honourable Iain Duncan Smith has championed for many years this notion of intervening early to get the best outcomes. I was cheered recently to hear Andrea Leadsom, a Conservative MP and vice-chair of the parliamentary group for children's centres, really highlighting the difference that can be made if one gets in early with children and children's lives, or indeed in terms of the pregnancy of a mother and at certain times in adolescence as well. There is a flexibility to the mind where the neural pathways are able to be rejigged in certain ways, which can help people to do far better in education, in work and elsewhere.
Of course, there have been some positive outcomes with respect to the 100,000 troubled families that the Government have been focusing on recently and the Government's investment in health visitors, which is very welcome indeed. However, I repeat that what happens early in life is the determinant, to a large extent, of future employability. Too often business people think, "The education system has failed. We need to put in our skills now at the age of 16, 17 or 18"-but that really is too late. We know from the research on early years education that good-quality early years education gives a huge boost to the educational outcomes of children. Indeed, a good early years experience can protect children against bad later educational experience. For instance, children having good early years experiences going to poor or middle-quality primary schools will do as well as other children going to good primary schools because of that good early experience. China is investing hugely in early years provision because it recognises its importance to its future economy.
I am afraid that despite the welcome attention from the Government in early intervention, the global picture is worrying in terms of children and family services, and in particular in terms of child protection. The 28% cuts across the board to local authority spending, the cuts in the number of youth workers and the cuts in other services are really impacting on children and families. Local authorities are maintaining their statutory services, so they are ready to protect the most vulnerable children, those harmed the most. However, all those other services around children and families are gradually being picked off. Statutory services are moving on to the back foot. Year by year we see more and more children being taken into care. All those good services that could have intervened earlier on are not there. To use an analogy, it is as if this is a football match. Over time, one is seeing one's forwards being sent off, then one's mid-field players and then one's backs. One is left with the goalie at the back-the child and family social worker-trying to step in and feeling overwhelmed.
I have an example to express better what I mean. I draw noble Lords' attention to the National Grid Transco young offender programme which is closely associated with Sir John Parker, the former chairman of National Grid Transco. In 10 years it has provided the programme to 1,000 young people. It has seen recidivism rates drop from a norm of 70% to less than 4% for those young men and women. Sir John Parker always highlighted-he was a tremendous advocate in business for adopting this programme-the cost to the nation of keeping these adults in prison. The year before last that was about £38,000 each per annum.
Recently, I have been hearing stories about some of the young men who have come through this programme. I heard how well they were doing in their jobs in the utilities. We have an ageing workforce and they were meeting a real need for new men and women in these areas. They were rising up the ranks and taking on responsibility very effectively.
I also heard about a man who got a home for himself so that he could be a lone parent to his two sons. Another man had lost custody and contact with his children but made sure that he quickly got a home so that he could have shared contact with his sons. In my own experience of visiting presentation ceremonies for National Grid in the past, I have been touched to see fathers with their young children. These young children now have fathers. A chief indicator for offending is that one's parent was an offender themselves. Instead, these infants and young people are now seeing their fathers in a decent job, able to provide income to the family and setting a good example to them.
I hope that that example shows what a difference good social investment can make to the economy. I hope that the Minister will give an ear to the concerns of the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and others about the risks of making cuts that are too deep. I am no economist, and cuts may be necessary in the current circumstances, but I am very concerned that we have seen this all before in the 1980s and 1990s. Youth services and children's services are cut and cut and we pay the cost in the long term. We will not get the educational outcomes we need for our population if we do not give families the strong support that they need.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, emphasised that one of the strengths of the east Asian economy was the cohesion of its families. In terms of our society, the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, emphasises again and again the crisis in fatherhood with so many children growing up without fathers. We cannot overlook the need to support families as best we can, even in these difficult times, if we want the children and young people of the future to be productive citizens and not to end up on benefits or in the criminal justice system at great cost to the taxpayer.