Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:47 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Rebuck Baroness Rebuck Labour 12:47 pm, 8th September 2016

I think that most noble Lords would agree that there was much fiction among the arguments put during the recent Brexit campaign. Obviously I am not going to defend the fictitious slogans on campaign buses, one of which stated that Brexit would provide an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, but I am going to stand up for fiction in this debate, the importance of 100% literacy and reading for pleasure as an essential ingredient in our democracy, and the role played by charities and trade unions in achieving this. I declare an interest as a book publisher and from a lifetime’s engagement with most of our literacy charities.

The benefits of fiction have been known for some time. It is associated with high levels of empathy and improved relationships with others. Reading for pleasure has been linked to a reduction in the development of dementia in later life and to helping alleviate depression. Almost twice as many people who have low levels of literacy also suffer from depression. The journal Social Science & Medicine recently reported that cognitive engagement, or deep reading, regenerates the brain, and that people who read an average of half an hour a day—I include in this, I hope, all noble Lords—may well live, on average, two years longer than non-readers.

Studies have shown that visits to libraries improve general health, saving the NHS some £27.5 million a year in England in reduced GP visits. Perhaps we should put this figure on the side of buses. Perhaps we should also put it on the side of mobile libraries and even ambulances, to recognise the value of reading to our health. Sadly, however, our libraries themselves have not been in good health; many have died, and the epidemic continues. We have seen more than one library a week close across England since austerity measures were introduced, and Lancashire just announced that it is about to close 29 of its libraries. We must urgently bring the library network into remission.

Of course, the real patient is our democracy. There has been much analysis of the referendum result but perhaps we can agree on one thing: too many in our society feel disconnected, disempowered and are disengaged from politics, particularly the young. The Prime Minister alluded to this in her first speech in Downing Street when she said that her Government would be not only for the privileged few but for every one of us, and she gave a list of “burning injustices”. If she is to live up to these words, the Government should focus on the lack of literacy, which is at the heart of so many of these injustices. Around 9 million people of working age in England have low basic skills. The proportion of 16 to 19 year-olds who have low literacy is the highest of the 23 countries in the OECD’s 2012 survey. We are the only developed nation where our young people significantly underperform their elders.

I hope the Government agree that reversing this trend would help give people more control over their lives and that in “making literacy and numeracy a fundamental right of all adults” we should begin by harnessing all the innovation in the charity sector. One person in six in the UK lives with poor literacy, as I have said. As a child they will not succeed at school; as a young adult they will be locked out of the job market; and on becoming a parent they will not be able to support their child’s learning, leading to a cycle of deprivation over generations. Lacking these vital skills undermines people’s well-being and stops them making a full contribution to the economic and cultural life of our nation, and it harms our democracy.

If we want to compete in the digital world and the knowledge economy we need to lead in literacy, not trail in it. It makes economic sense as 100% literacy for all adults would boost our economy by some £80 million a year. Sadly, however, many employers still say that they cannot find enough skilled employees. So this does not mean just focusing on raising the numbers achieving entry-level skills but on improving the performance at the very top. Only a quarter of UK graduates have top-level reading and writing skills compared with at least a third of those in other developed nations.

Alongside literacy charities, trade unions are also playing a significant role in helping to meet the skills gap and increasing social mobility. It is 10 years this year since Unionlearn was established. During that time, 35,000 trade union learning reps across the country have helped more than a quarter of a million people improve their functional skills in English and maths. Often training is peer-to-peer, with dinner ladies teaching other dinner ladies, train drivers teaching other train drivers and prison officers teaching other prison officers and prisoners, too, 60% of whom, let us remember, have very poor literacy.

On the literacy charities themselves, we must embrace and value the work of all of them and government should draw on their expertise and innovation. The National Literacy Trust has established ground-breaking hubs to target interventions where they are most needed and partnerships with tailored approaches to meet local literacy needs. For example, three years ago five year-olds starting school in Middlesbrough were 23% below the national average in school readiness. The local hub has transformed this to a gap of just 6% today. In Bradford, over half of its eight to 16 year- olds are encouraged to write something daily which is not for school. They are now almost 10% above the national average, with a transformed attitude to writing.

The Reading Agency—an independent charity, where I declare a particular interest in the Quick Reads initiative—each year commissions major authors to write short books that are specifically designed to engage emergent readers with an average reading age of nine years old. Since 2006, 7.5 million books have found their way to emergent readers, including outreach work via hospitals, prisons, community centres, factories, army bases, libraries and adult education centres.

For many of our most disadvantaged citizens, Quick Reads has been a lifeline, inspiring confidence in more than 90% of emergent readers and encouraging more than 55% to be confident enough to address further learning needs. In Camden in north London, for example, Quick Reads was used in a pilot scheme with white working-class mothers in a book group to address their sons’ underachievement at school, another injustice highlighted by our new Prime Minister. The mothers sped through their first books and quickly became avid readers, taking an interest in their children’s education, often for the first time, with a marked improvement in attendance, confidence and school results.

My last example comes from the Learning and Work Institute’s groundbreaking Citizen’s Curriculum, which teaches the core capabilities needed for life and work in the 21st century. As a result of this training scheme, Rochdale council has found increased take-up of public health services, such as drug and alcohol support, and a 14% decrease in call-outs to police. The latest pilots suggest that public services overall save £3 for every pound invested. This, I argue, is a model for civic engagement. My point is that charities are the seed beds of innovation in our fight against illiteracy and inequality of opportunity and while the Government have assisted literacy charities with funding in the past, over the last five years that funding has been dropping. Surely it is in all of our interests for these charities to be well funded. The private sector plays its part but private money can often be withdrawn, leaving important initiatives in limbo. As my noble friend Lord Griffiths has already so eloquently argued, we also need to ensure that the best and most effective charity pilot schemes are adopted and scaled up by government in a move to achieve a once in a lifetime goal—100% literacy. This is my plea to the Government.

I have one final point. Literacy charities may help many of those without a voice to gain one through improved skills. This helps our democracy to survive and thrive. However, just as the people they help need a voice, so too must the charities be allowed to campaign. They must be able to challenge and lobby government for change. Any attempt to reduce that ability would take us a further step away from the desperate improvement needed in literacy, improvement that is essential to the health of our nation, our economy and our democracy.