My Lords, it is with a great sense of purpose and, indeed, determination that I open today’s debate on A Manifesto to Strengthen Families. It has over 50 signatories from honourable Members on Conservative Benches in the other place and a solid showing from noble Lords here, many of whom are speaking today. I am sure that all will wish to join me in welcoming my noble friend Lord Agnew to his place on the Front Bench. Given his outstanding track record in business and educational improvement, he will, I am sure, rise admirably to the considerable challenge of making his maiden speech while responding for the first time to a long debate as a Minister. He is very well placed to do so, given his evident passion for tackling disadvantage.
I am grateful to him and all noble Lords who have taken the time to contribute to our deliberations today. They are long overdue: it is almost 10 years since my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes led the last debate on the importance of strengthening families, following the launch of the Centre for Social Justice’s landmark report Breakthrough Britain. It is fitting, therefore, that my noble friend Lady Stroud is here to add her considerable weight to our debate—I trust she will take that in the spirit intended—as she was instrumental to this report’s delivery.
Published mid-2007, Breakthrough Britain highlighted the role family breakdown plays in driving poverty and further entrenching disadvantage. Prior to it, our social and political commentary had become stuck in the groove of orthodoxy that said financial hardship caused families to fall apart and, as a result, family policy had been reduced to a three-word slogan, “End child poverty”. Yet shortly before the Labour Government came to power, Tony Blair told his party conference that a strong society cannot be morally neutral about the family, and referred to:
“The development of an underclass of people, cut off from society’s mainstream, living often in poverty … crime and family instability”.
He described this as a “moral and economic evil”. The first ever Green Paper on the family, Supporting Families, published shortly after Labour came to power, did not shrink from addressing family instability, to Labour’s great credit. However, policy proposals to tackle relationship breakdown within it were largely abandoned and family stability became the elephant in the room of social policy, despite it being a root cause, as well as an effect, of poverty. It hits the poorest the hardest, compounds existing disadvantage and is a potent driver of wider social breakdown.
My own involvement with the Centre for Social Justice, and my work in this House, are deeply rooted in a desire to address root causes of disadvantage, and I am encouraged that current government policy is pushing in this direction. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Freud, when he was Minister for Welfare Reform, committed the Government to developing,
“a range of non-statutory indicators to measure progress against the other root causes of child poverty, which include but are not limited to family breakdown, addiction and problem debt. Anyone will be able to assess the Government’s progress here. The Government are saying, ‘Judge us on that progress’”.—[
In April, several family indicators were published, including parental conflict, parental worklessness and parental mental ill-health. These are all essential for building a picture of the number of children growing up in families where relationships are under such strain that children are highly likely to suffer ill effects. Certainly, that is what research on the outcomes of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, on later life teaches us. However, there is one ACE, parental separation, that used to be captured in the family stability indicator but seems to have been quietly dropped. How can we judge the Government on their progress against family breakdown as a root cause of child poverty when we no longer measure it but instead use the proxy of parental conflict? Will the Minister explain why the family stability indicator does not sit alongside the other parental indicators?
The manifesto we are discussing today makes it clear that parental conflict devastates a child’s emotional world and is a cause of mental ill-health, even if it manifests itself not in violence or verbal aggression but in a pervasive and permanent atmosphere of coldness, indifference and hostility. Couple counselling should be available through children and young people’s mental health services if parental conflict lies behind children’s mental illness.
However, research by Amato and Booth shows that low-conflict divorces can be as harmful to children as high-conflict but stable relationships. Children do not understand why a split has happened. They blame themselves and assume that relationships are inherently unreliable. Additionally, they almost invariably lose daily contact with one of their parents and, if they stay with their mothers, their incomes are more likely to drop. The first Children’s Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley Green, said that children’s biggest fear was that their parents would split up. We have one of the highest divorce and separation rates in the OECD and one of the highest rates of children growing up without both birth parents. These truths make us very uncomfortable. They also make us very uncompetitive. Rightly, we have a Chancellor who is determined to boost our nation’s productivity and ability to live within our means. Well-functioning families are wealth generators, which make a considerable contribution to society. However, when families falter they often become welfare consumers, and relationship difficulties that affect mental and physical health can make it incredibly hard to perform well at work.
The cost of family breakdown has been set at a shade under £50 billion per annum. However, many indirect costs accrue to every department of government. For example, high demand for local authority care has an impact on prison budgets, as a quarter of prisoners were looked-after children. Some of the greater need for counselling in schools, children’s mental health services and housing stems from fractured families. They will also be less available to supplement social care for elderly people.
These costs are ultimately borne by the Exchequer, so the Chancellor has the greatest interest in demanding that each Secretary of State brings forward plans to strengthen families. Government-wide challenges need cross-departmental co-ordination. Our manifesto recommends that a senior Cabinet Minister take responsibility for driving family policy in the same way that the Secretary of State of a big existing department champions qualities across government as part of their wider brief, is aided by an equivalent to the Government Equalities Office and has a dedicated budget.
To change the structure of government in this way would be a clear signal that this country no longer pays lip service to the importance of families. At every election there are warm words on the subject from across the political spectrum but, to date, Governments of all colours have delivered very little when they hold the reins of power. This week, the President of the Family Division of the High Court pointed out that too many Whitehall departments were responsible for children and that,
“there is no department and no secretary of state whose title includes either the word ‘families’ or the word ‘children’”,
and implied that the current structure was failing those who needed it most.
We have been encouraged by the response from Ministers since the manifesto was launched, and I think they have got the message that we are not going to go away. David Burrowes, the highly respected former honourable Member in the other place, has been appointed executive director to ensure take-up of the manifesto recommendations, whether at a national or local government level. There will be an annual progress update and, as policies are implemented, we will add more to a rolling programme of family-strengthening measures.
The input of noble Lords to this process would be very much appreciated. In the process of rallying support from our Benches, the ideas were sharpened by signatories’ decades of government and front-line experience. Now they are published, all those involved in the manifesto are keen to draw on cross-party expertise. Reversing our damaging family breakdown trends will not be achieved by one or two terms of government—it will take a generation.
I conclude my remarks by focusing briefly on three areas in the manifesto in which I am personally much invested. First, in this Session I will bring forward a Private Member’s Bill, the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill, which will make it a statutory obligation for all government departments to carry out a family impact assessment on all their policies and expenditure. At present, we have the non-statutory family test, introduced during the coalition years. I have found a lack of clarity in some departments about whether this is still government policy, so it has by no means become embedded. Moreover, officials are under no compulsion to publish the results and findings from impact assessment exercises, which makes a mockery of transparency and accountability.
Secondly, the manifesto refers to family hubs, about which I have spoken several times in your Lordships’ House, the introduction of which was Labour Party policy just before the 2015 election. Family hubs are local one-stop shops that particularly help children in need, offering families with children aged from nought to 19 early help to overcome difficulties and build stronger relationships. Such provision is typically co-located with superb early years healthcare and support, such as in transformed children’s centres, supplementing and not supplanting those vital services.
We have recommended that the Government put in place a transformation fund and national task force to encourage local authorities to move towards this family hub model, working closely with charities and local businesses. These should build on the experience of councils, such as on the Isle of Wight, that have pioneered family hubs effectively. Barking and Dagenham is also making hubs part of a major local authority reorganisation, in which housing and other departments have been subsumed into a community solutions department that draws in community assets—not “doing to” people but “doing with” people.
Finally, policy 14 encourages police and crime commissioners to work with local schools to ensure that any child who experiences domestic abuse gets the support they need, after a bad night at home, from the minute they go through the school gate. In his book Blue, former borough police commander for Southwark, John Sutherland, recounts how for those young men who go on to cause serious harm,
“it all began behind closed doors—hidden in their homes and their childhoods. It’s one of the undeniable conclusions of my professional life”.
Gang formation is partly driven by children and young people seeking out comfort and security from their peers because they did not find it among the adults in their lives. Schools are ideally placed to offer that but, unless children’s emotional pain as a result of experiencing or witnessing abuse at home is picked up early in the school day, it can result in inattention in class, other forms of disengagement and, at worst, them mimicking that abusive behaviour. Instead of experiencing care and sympathy, they will likely be reproached and feel rejected.
Over 25 police forces have adopted this Operation Encompass model, which requires them, after a call-out to a domestic violence incident, to share data in a timely way with schools. It needs to be every force and every school, with the ultimate aim of stamping out domestic abuse for good.
In summary, this Government urgently need to develop a strategic approach to strengthening families. We recently heard in this House that the Farmer review recommendations in this manifesto are already being implemented by the Ministry of Justice. Can the Minister encourage us that this welcoming spirit towards similar policies will be evident from all government departments?
My Lords, I warmly welcome my noble friend the Minister to your Lordships’ House. He has worked tirelessly for the communities of Norfolk for many years, and I worked closely with him as a non-executive director of the Department for Education and in his capacity as chair of the academies board. He is particularly committed to improving the life chances of young people. He is someone of very sound judgment, with a very fine mind, and I am absolutely delighted that he has taken up this position. I am sure that he will be an outstanding Minister and—this is probably the only time I could ever say this without upsetting someone—far better than the previous incumbent.
I also thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for bringing forward this debate on such an important issue. As he said, so many of our children and young people suffer from unstructured home lives, poor parenting, family breakdown and absent fathers, and they are at risk from gangs. At one charity in which I am involved, we surveyed the parents and asked how many of them had any kind of structured environment at home. Nearly 90% said that they had no such structure or routine system at home, but a similar number said that they would like to hear about one if someone would describe it to them. Increasingly, we are seeing children enter primary school with inadequate toilet training and some with black teeth from too much sugar. At one school with which I am involved, one of our five year-olds had to have all his teeth removed.
As the academy movement has progressed, we have seen many academy groups which started with secondaries move into primaries and then into nurseries, as have many free school primaries. One particularly successful free school—Reach Academy Feltham—engages with parents when their children are babies, and I am delighted that it has been approved for a second free school, where it will seek to have a range of services on site for families.
Overlaid on this issue of parenting is the problem of children and young people’s overexposure and addiction to computers and smartphones. This can affect the development of a child’s brain and lead to poor ability to concentrate, scatty behaviour and severely disrupted sleep patterns. Many schools are now exhorting parents to ensure that children do not have their smartphones with them after, say, nine o’clock at night or to consider using one of the apps available to control access time and content. All this, however, requires discipline and structure from the parents. One school in California, where many parents who work for social media and other IT companies send their children, severely limits the use of computers and smartphones.
We want our children and young people to grow up and become good parents themselves. Most pupil surveys show that the majority of school pupils aspire to finish up in a permanent, long-term relationship. Sadly, so many of them have no experience of having seen what that looks like at close range. This is why relationship education, which is now compulsory in all schools under the recent Children and Social Work Act, is so important.
I strongly support any initiative that can help deal with these issues and welcome the manifesto. I am particularly attracted to the idea of family hubs and hope that the Government will consider piloting at least some of these. I am sure that the benefits and payback, in every sense, would be substantial.
My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to his new appointment. I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and his colleague in the other place, Fiona Bruce, for drafting the manifesto. It presents a very depressing picture of what is happening to family in our country. We are almost a world leader in family breakdown, and in economic terms the estimated cost of family breakdown is about £48 billion. By the age of five, around half the children in low-income families have seen matrimonial breakdown. That leaves deep scars. So in addition to the economic consequences there are psychological and moral scars on people growing up. The question is: what do we do about it?
The manifesto points out several reasons why this happens, including poverty, fathers not being involved in the raising of a child, domestic violence and poor ability to manage relations—all those factors are responsible. In the 18 policies that the manifesto articulates, these problems are addressed.
However, in the minute and a half that is left to me, I want to concentrate on two major difficulties that I have with the report. First, I began to ask myself what kind of family the report is talking about. Family is an abstraction. There is one structure of family among Afro-Caribbeans, another among the south Asians and a third among the white community. What kind of family model did the manifesto’s writers have in mind?
If you look at the manifesto closely, it is striking that the ethnic-minority family is virtually absent. For that family there are certain peculiar problems. Parental pressures can be exerted over children asking them to perform, sometimes beyond their capacity. There can also be cultural conflicts, with children going out to school and bringing back certain cultural mores and customs that parents are unable to cope with. There can even be linguistic and conceptual problems, where parents are unable to communicate with their children. A few years ago I was part of a BBC film called “I Can’t Talk To My Parents”. It focused on a girl who wanted to go to university in another town, but her parents could not understand why she wanted to do that and not stay at home with them and study. She said that she wanted to explore herself, but she did not have the language to explain that concept to her parents—neither the parents nor the child could explain to each other what they meant. The report does not fully take care of Asian families and others.
The other difficulty is that the report talks about strengthening families. I always worry when I see normative concepts such as “strengthening”. In many cases, for the south Asian family it is not a question of strengthening the family bond but of it being too strong. There are occasions where children are very deeply bonded to their parents and unable to exercise autonomy and independence, especially girls. In that situation, what does strengthening the family mean?
I have several difficulties of this kind. However, I simply intend to alert the writers of the manifesto to the problems that this will create and not at all to detract from the considerable merit of the manifesto.
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Farmer for enabling this debate on the report, A Manifesto to Strengthen Families. I fully endorse the proposals in it and have been pleased to add my name to its list of supporters.
Military families live in every community in the UK. Many in the naval service choose to settle in one place so that their children’s education is stable and their spouse can have a career. The compromise they make is that the serving person has to travel, becoming a “weekender”, leaving the spouse to be a lone parent for much of the time. Others choose to follow the flag. This means relocating every few years, lots of school moves and a recurring search for suitable employment possibilities for the spouse.
Research from King’s College suggests that 13 months separation within a three-year period is likely to damage a romantic relationship. The Armed Forces families regularly deploy for much longer periods. Family hubs, as suggested in the manifesto, would offer real support to Armed Forces families who have chosen to settle in the community rather than live close to a base. Accessible parenting support that recognises the particular challenges of service families would be especially welcome, as the deploying or weekending parent can struggle to maintain an effective parenting relationship.
The increasingly dispersed nature of Armed Forces families and the advent of the new accommodation model means that more and more families will become embedded in the community rather than following the flag, which brings a new set of challenges for the families. The characteristics of Armed Forces family life mean that, where it exists, families are potentially more vulnerable to domestic violence. In the case of mobility, there is increased social isolation from family and support networks, which can make it more difficult for victims to access support. It is believed that separation brings about dynamics in a relationship that can increase the likelihood of domestic abuse. Relationship support that teaches what a healthy relationship looks like and the skills and behaviours needed to maintain it would be enormously beneficial as a preventative measure.
The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, is not able to speak in this debate but he mentioned to me that his wife worked for years as a Relate counsellor in British Forces Germany and campaigned hard—ultimately without success—for free counselling for those in need in the Army. Despite the Lobor millions used to support the Relate initiative, lack of money was the real determinant. I ask the Minister whether the issue of family support could become routinely raised in the Armed Forces covenant report to Parliament.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for initiating this important debate. If I have a concern with this manifesto, it is an over-confidence in the role of the state over time.
In my experience, it takes a family and a local community to raise children well. My colleagues and I have been building a supportive entrepreneurial culture which has been supporting children and families in the East End of London at many levels for 34 years. Today the Bromley by Bow Centre employs 270 staff, is operating on 30 sites across east London, runs four health centres with 40,000 patients and hosts 2,000 visitors a year from across the world seeking our wisdom and practical insight into how you build, in reality, integrated responses and support networks with some of our most challenged families. To help them these families need us all to take the long view. Ideally they need cross-party support over many years rather than being the subjects of party political ideology, game playing and short-term initiatives. My colleagues and I have the long view, and we know and have witnessed on countless occasions what positive outcomes can happen if you take the long view and stay around over time with these families.
If the Government are serious about this manifesto, they might like to look back over the past 30 years and learn from the programmes the state has run—because in our experience government is not a learning organisation; it has little memory and this fact has many unintended consequences for many of our most vulnerable families. Thirty years ago in our area you had a rich ecology of providers of child care and often strong relationships with parents and families. Then, government said we will encourage children to enter school two years earlier, thus destroying the business model of many small nurseries and support networks—the older ones subsidised the younger ones, who needed much higher levels of care.
They then set up Sure Start and children’s centres; indeed, the launch of these centres was at the Bromley by Bow Centre. We were told that we were the model for what should happen nationally, and now of course they are saying that we cannot afford them. Being aware of unintended consequences and learning from what we have done is the first rule of thumb. The family hubs proposal is a great idea and absolutely in the right direction of travel, bringing services together and creating an integrated environment. The danger is that they will become the next shiny new thing for the next few years, rather than be embedded in communities.
One of the major causes of family break-up is poverty—arguments about money. Go on YouTube and listen to Paul McCartney’s interview with David Frost and you begin to get under the surface of what was really going on with Lennon and McCartney. On the housing estate where McCartney lived, he describes the endless rows he listened to among poor families that were all about money. He and John decided that the way out of this was to make money; it was not just the music that drove them.
Today, our experience and ideas about building integrated entrepreneurial cultures in poor communities are going national. I am leading 10 projects in 10 towns and cities in the north of England for Public Health England, through the Well North programme, in communities and with families that successive Governments have failed. I declare my interest. Here we can see all the silos of government at play, often undermining and contradicting each other and not working together, and yet we say that doing anything about the systems of government is all too difficult. Really? If it takes not just a family but a whole community to bring up a child, we need communities to take greater ownership of their areas. This is what we are seeking to do, and there are great examples in the north of people trying to do just this, if only we will let them. This is how communities become successful.
Post Brexit there is a real opportunity to do something about this operating model. Some of us are already putting platforms in place on which to build, but I wait to see whether this Government are interested in long-term, joined-up responses, in genuinely doing things differently and becoming an institution that can learn from their rich history.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Farmer and all his 65 Conservative supporters from both Houses on his excellent paper, A Manifesto to Strengthen Families. It has been beautifully produced and is easy to read. It contains 18 policies to support the Government in their aim to strengthen families as part of their wider ambition for social reform.
As we have heard, family breakdown is estimated to cost almost £50 billion a year. That is a huge amount, but the manifesto points out that it is a fraction of the overall cost as fractured families are likely to be dependent on the state. Strengthening families has to be one of the most important social justice priorities of our times. The long-term, indeed probably lifetime, effect of fractured families is so sad. It is heart-breaking to contemplate how frequently marriages that were celebrated with joy and happiness collapse in a morass of recrimination, unhappiness and even hatred. Of course there are massive support systems that can be called into play, including mediation, help from other family members, support from social workers, the Church and many others.
The 18 policy points in this manifesto are set out in practical language that is free of jargon. This makes it a valuable contribution to our thinking and examination of what can be done to tackle this seemingly intractable situation. The first policy points out that supporting families cuts across every part of government and recommends that a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for families should be appointed, along with the suggestion to establish a cross-cutting body similar to the Government Equalities Office that is based in the Department for Education to enable the co-ordination of family policies. In addition, the recommendation proposes that all departmental business in every area of government should have specific targets and produce impact assessments in relation to the development of bespoke family policies.
The document contains a quite amazing amount of information, suggestions and downright common sense and it is impossible to find fault with it. It would also be presumptuous of me to attempt to do so, as I almost certainly have less experience of families than almost anyone else in the Chamber. What experience I have is decades out of touch, but from remembering my personal experience, the glaring omission in the manifesto is a recommendation for a specific policy to involve grandparents in the bringing up of children.
Today’s grandparents are much more in tune with children than those of the 20th century. They are more active, more travelled, healthier and more aware of what children need and value. As an aside, I am told that Beveridge made no reference to life after retirement from work. He would be so surprised to realise that today’s 60 year-olds can be so fit—marathon runners—and willing and able to be involved with their offspring’s offspring.
Research from the University of Oxford has shown that grandparents play a vital role in children’s well-being, and the results have informed UK family policy. Professor Ann Buchanan’s study of more than 1,500 children demonstrated that those with a higher level of grandparental involvement had fewer emotional and behavioural problems. However, there is one big problem: grandparents have no legal right to see their grandchildren. Professor Buchanan has addressed all parliamentary parties to raise awareness of how grandparents contribute positively to grandchildren’s well-being. I am told the Government have promised a review on family law to look at how best to provide greater access rights for grandparents. I wish the Minister well in his new position and ask him when the review is likely to be published? If it is still in the embryonic stage, will he suggest that it may be a good idea to widen the terms of reference beyond the ghastly situation now pertaining, whereby access can be hopelessly difficult in some cases?
My Lords, I warmly welcome the report and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and others involved. I find myself liking it more each time I read it. Its very modesty is its virtue, for a small number of strategic changes can make an immense difference. I speak from a background of nine years as a vicar in outer estate parishes in Halifax, in very poor communities, and seven years before my previous appointment as Bishop of Sheffield serving again some of the most impoverished regions in the country.
I will make two points. First, I wholeheartedly commend the vision of a government focus on supporting families. The default in our culture, and across a range of government departments, is a progressively greater focus on individuals in law and public policy. Yet we all exist as part of diverse families and networks of relationships—a fundamental insight of the Christian tradition. Such families are the cornerstone of our well-being and the common good. The proposals in section A of the report offer a necessary countercultural counterweight at the very heart of government that pays attention to this reality in the deep fabric of our lives. The proposals are more radical than they sound on first reading. Let us do them.
Secondly, I applaud hugely the report’s encouragement to work with voluntary and private sector partners. The task of supporting families is much too important to be left to government, national or local. However, government’s role is vital in setting vision and standards, as a convenor and broker. The charity PACT—Parents and Children Together—was founded by the Diocese of Oxford in 1911. PACT exists to build and strengthen families. Last year, as part of PACT’s work, we placed 87 adopted children in families and approved 49 families to adopt, as well as much other good work. Each extra family approved to adopt adds over £1.1 million in value to society.
Two years ago, Oxfordshire County Council had to cut its funding to its 43 children’s centres. All but eight of them were in danger, which would have been an immense loss to local communities. The council chose to work with the Churches and the voluntary sector. Correspondingly, there has been a tremendous response. Thanks to the power of “working with”, 38 of those centres will remain open under voluntary, Church and charitable leadership. Funding to these ventures is modest, but it needs to be consistent. As was said earlier, the staccato cycle of new funding followed by funding cuts and new initiatives starting then ending prematurely halts improving outcomes for the very families we seek to support.
I welcome the report wholeheartedly. The new focus, the “working with”, the modesty and the chance for a new beginning are vital. I hope sincerely that the Government will find the courage to take this manifesto forward.
My Lords, I, as one of the signatories to this manifesto, thank my noble friend Lord Farmer very much for his work in this area and for securing this debate. I also welcome my noble friend the Minister to his important new position. My support for this manifesto is not based on value judgments or a desire to turn back the clock, but neither do I think we should disown the past as if it had nothing positive or worth while to teach us.
As we all know, Britain has an increasingly serious childhood mental health problem, with one in 10 children estimated to have a diagnosable mental health condition. Indeed, in a survey of more than 4,500 children seen by child and adolescent mental health services in 2015, “family relationship problems” were cited by half of these children as the cause of their mental health problems. Moreover, the Marriage Foundation conducted research that shows that being with their married parents significantly improves both the self-esteem and life chances of teenagers. In other words, having married parents can boost children’s mental health. Yet, nearly half of all teenagers are not living with both parents.
What does the data show to be the main driver of family breakdown? The data shows that it is cohabitation—that the separation of unmarried parents now accounts for the majority of family breakdowns. Thus, although cohabiting parents account for 21% of all couples, the separation of cohabiting parents accounts for 51% of all family breakdown.
I want to stress that I am not condemning parents in cohabiting relationships or those parents—in many cases mums—who find the courage to take themselves and their children out of an unhappy marriage. However, neither situation in itself devalues the case for supporting marriage as a model, which all the evidence shows brings tangible benefits across the piece. It is worth noting that a ComRes poll conducted only in August this year shows that 71% of British adults agree that marriage is important and that the Government should support couples who get married.
I say to my noble friend the Minister: what better way for this Government to show they are on the front foot on social justice than to introduce the measures contained in this manifesto, and thereby strengthen the primary tried-and-tested source of stability in our country—the family.
My Lords, I remind the House that Back-Bench speeches should conclude as the Clock reaches three minutes and no later. Timings are tight in this time-limited debate.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord, Lord Farmer, on securing this important debate. I will endeavour to stick within the strictures of the time limits.
The social science evidence is very clear that the greatest driver of family breakdown is relational instability and the greatest antidote to this instability is marriage. Let us consider the following benefits for children associated with having married parents: three-quarters of family breakdown where there are children under five comes from the separation of non-married parents; children are 60% more likely to have contact with separated fathers if the parents are married; the prevalence of mental health issues among children of cohabiting parents is more than 75% higher than among those of married parents, and children from broken homes are nine times more likely to become young offenders, accounting for some 70% of all young offenders.
We should recognise that making the marriage commitment is a key driver for stability, quite apart from wealth. Crucially, even the poorest 20% of married couples are more stable than all but the richest 20% of cohabiting couples. In this context, I want to argue that there is a powerful imperative for doing more to recognise the value of marriage through the marriage allowance.
At the moment, the contribution of a non-earning spouse, who may be working full time looking after young children or caring for elderly relatives, receives only the most derisory recognition. They are allowed to boost household income by transferring just 10% of their personal allowance to their working spouse. Put another way, the Government currently refuse to recognise 90% of their personal allowance in any way even though the work that they do is of high value.
The case for change is further compounded by the fact that, during the tax year 2015-16, the Government spent more money on supporting marriage through the much more generous married couple’s allowance than through the new marriage allowance. Noble Lords will recall that the married couple’s allowance applies to married couples where one or both spouses was born before
As the Chancellor considers his upcoming Budget, I urge him to introduce a fully transferable allowance and would happily tell the Government to pay for it if necessary.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Farmer on securing time for this important debate and on playing a key role in the production of A Manifesto to Strengthen Families. I also add my congratulations to those offered to my noble friend Lord Agnew on his appointment to the Government’s ministerial team and wish him well with his new responsibilities.
While I welcome and endorse the manifesto’s conclusions and policy recommendations, I believe that the authors of this document have missed a trick. I say this because police and crime commissioners should have been given a much more prominent place in it. PCCs already play a key role in this area of government business. By the very nature of their statutory responsibilities, they are best placed to deliver many of the policy recommendations set out in the manifesto, particularly those which are best delivered locally.
As my noble friend Lord Farmer has already mentioned, PCCs have a place in the document, but it is in relation to only one policy area, education, where it is recommended that they be encouraged to work with schools in their local area to ensure that any child living in a household where domestic abuse is present is automatically offered early support. This is obviously a good idea. Many police forces across the country are already involved in this scheme, and I am happy to say that many more are planning to introduce it shortly.
PCCs are also involved in countless other programmes aimed at strengthening families. But this should come as no surprise. After all, PCCs are explicitly tasked with keeping local communities safe. Although the manifesto does not say so in terms, we all know that those brought up in families where violence is common and love and support are rare are much more likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, whether for serious crimes or anti-social behaviour.
Therefore, it is clearly sensible, when thinking about how best to deliver the policy recommendations of this manifesto, to look to our local police and crime commissioners. They are already committed to strengthening families as the most effective way of keeping their communities safe. They have already established close working links with the other parts of the criminal justice system and with the other local agencies, such as health and education, which are critical to building strong families. Most importantly, they are directly accountable through the ballot box to those whose lives are most directly affected by the success or failure of these policies.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on so ably introducing the debate. I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, to his new role and look forward to his maiden speech. I particularly welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, said earlier about the importance of family impact statements, something I have supported for many years, and hope the Government take note of that. I also strongly endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, said about the role of grandparents. I declare a recent interest in this. The Government’s housing strategy in particular should look at intergenerational housing, ways in which families can be united and the role that grandparents can play.
My brief remarks will focus on the mental health of children caught up in toxic relationships, not least because the mental health charity, YoungMinds, says that one in 10 children has a diagnosable mental health disorder, which the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, referred to. That is the equivalent of three children in every classroom. Early onset of mental illness suggests a strong correlation with family circumstances, and that is borne out by the evidence. Around 1 million children grow up now with no contact with their father. Common sense tells us that that is bound to impact on their emotional well-being but the empirical evidence bears it out, too. In a review of 18 international studies, the University of Sussex found that family breakdown is consistently linked with higher risks of depression in children.
In a recent answer to a question in your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, said that,
“good relationships are very influential on young people’s mental health”,
and are a,
“positive benefit in reducing parental conflict, which is, of course, one of the causes of mental illness”.—[
The Prime Minister says that this,
“demands a new approach from government and society as a whole”,
and we are told—and I welcome this—that the forthcoming Green Paper on children’s mental health,
“will tackle mental health through early intervention”.—[
Currently mental health trusts and local authorities do not routinely collect information about the family circumstances of children presenting with mental health problems. That should change. The DWP’s Improving Lives report begins to recognise this, as do plans to put £30 million into a programme to help workless parents resolve conflict through independent providers. But the need extends way beyond workless parents. In tackling mental health issues, it is of fundamental importance that the whole family and not just the child are incorporated into the new approaches proposed by the Government.
The Manifesto to Strengthen Families championed by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and the admirable Fiona Bruce MP, calls for the provision of couples counselling by children and young people’s mental health teams as a matter of course. This and the rollout of family hubs would be a very welcome outcome of today’s debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Nash, that some pilot schemes, at least, would be extremely welcome if that were to be the case.
Prevention and earlier intervention make financial and social sense. Instead of firefighting the symptoms, we need to tackle the root causes, which surely must mean strengthening families.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to speak in this important debate. As a Conservative, I have always considered the family to be the building block of society. My deceased friend the former Prime Minister who sat in this place had it right when she said referred to there being no such thing as society, only people and their families. We owe it to subsequent generations to keep the twin pillars of family life secure, so that we may inherit resilient communities.
All too often, in this House and the other place, we can lose sight of what holds this country together. We focus on policies that may make sense individually, but not the holistic sum of what we have passed. I remember some years ago the former right honourable Member for Witney saying that all policies would be vetted before they were announced. This vetting was to include a robust breakdown of the effect on families. Sadly, I never saw much evidence of that protocol being continued or respected, and it appears to have died a death in the Cabinet Office.
That is not to say that the Government are not aware of the problem. I supported the marriage tax allowance when it first came before us, but the depth of the policy has been lacking. Rarely do I cite the serving right honourable Member for Doncaster North, but he was right when he said that departments shape priorities and priorities shape outcomes. I understand the current pressure on government jobs, with all the new departments, and that it is an inopportune time when so many big events are coming down the track. But there is ample precedent for additional responsibilities being attached to Ministers, as this manifesto recommends.
Portsmouth received a Minister responsible for its well-being, following job cuts as navy shipbuilding moved to Scotland. This model worked well because the needs of the city cut across many departments, even if the Minister was not always of Cabinet rank. The Minister for Women and Equalities has always been of Cabinet rank, including when the current Prime Minister held it. Ministers can champion a cause in Cabinet and bring the cross-departmental focus that these policies need. In justifying the creation of a Minister for Women, the then Government argued that the lesser role of women held growth back and that there was a pressing need to address the lack of equality across systems in the public and private sector. All that holds true for the shocking state of family breakdown in our country today.
I feel that more hard facts need to be brought to bear on this debate. The most compelling statistic in all this is that, of all the parents who are still together when their children reach the age of 15, 93% are married. Children from broken homes are 2.5 times more likely to be in long-term poverty, and 44% of children in lone-parent families live in relative poverty—nearly twice the figure for children in two-parent families. If we do not support the family and marriage, we are condemning youngsters to a life more likely to be spent in poverty. The Government’s own statistics show that only 1.6p is spent for every £100 of social harm that is caused by family breakdown. More needs to be done to tackle the associated price tag of £47 billion a year. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Farmer and his assistant for doing the important work of collecting the facts and making the case in his manifesto.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for the opportunity to talk about another magic bullet. This time it is the family but the magic bullet could have been education, or what I have been talking about since the moment I stepped into this House, which is prevention. There is a choice of magic bullets.
In 1991, I appointed myself the father of hundreds if not thousands of lost human beings, especially in the United Kingdom but then in Africa, North America and South America, and then into Asia. The most important thing, I had realised, was that the most disfranchised people who I met lacked a mum and dad, or a set of brothers or sisters. It was all the kind of things that we take for family life. So I tried to turn the Big Issue—I have to declare an interest as I am still involved in it—into a kind of loose association where people could lean on and learn from each other, and get that sense of belonging. If you can get that sense of belonging in the very early stages of your life, then in many senses you can overcome the vicissitudes.
I was unfortunately born into a family that did not really know how to act as a family. My father would beat my mother and we would often be without food and all that, largely because 42% or, let us argue, 45% of the wages disappeared into the hands of Mr Arthur Guinness on a Saturday night. When I learned to stand on my own two feet, I learned to become a family man through the prison system. I learned to make up for the things that had gone wrong in those early days because there were people who acted like mum and dad in the Catholic orphanage, the prisons and the reformatories that I was in. Let us not give up on the idea that we can all be pastoral, that we can all look to our churches and our institutions to try to iron out the difficulties that happen. I suggest we broaden the idea of the family so that we are not just talking about mum and dad and the early stages in life.
Let us also not forget that the poor have not got a monopoly on broken families. When I was a boy, if you were a member of a poor class you stuck together. It was the middle and upper classes and the aristocracy who were trading families, moving on and doing all those sorts of things. What has happened to people in poverty is that the whole system of society is breaking up with the growth of consumerism. Let us try to turn the family into a magic bullet, but I would also like the magic bullet to be prevention. If prevention was at the centre of the work we do, we could dismantle poverty and all those pressures that bear upon the lives of the poor.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for bringing this important debate to the House and commend him on his excellent and tireless work on this subject to date.
The scale of family breakdown in this country is a significant social challenge for this generation, as we have just been hearing. Far from being confined to the home, family breakdown affects society as a whole and the life chances of many. In this country today, there are nearly 3 million children without a father figure at home and 1 million children who have no significant contact with their fathers at all. Statistically speaking, there will be a child without a registered father in every primary school class. A teenager sitting their GCSEs today is more likely to own a smartphone than to live with their father.
However, the biggest question to ask is: why does this matter? Is it not just part of the social change that all countries have been going through? It matters because it affects the outcomes for children, and for many years we have been silent on this issue. Children from the lowest-income backgrounds with an active father figure at home are 25% more likely to escape the poverty they are growing up in, so it addresses the issue of poverty, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bird. Children with highly involved fathers have better school attainment and higher self-esteem and are less likely to find themselves in trouble in adolescence, so it addresses some of our productivity challenges as well. However, boys with little or no involvement with their fathers are twice as likely to find themselves in the criminal justice system as their peers with highly involved fathers. Girls and young women with similar early-life experiences are at greater risk of mental health problems, entering into early sexual relationships, often characterised by violence and abuse, and early parenthood, so it addresses some of the issues of resilience and mental health.
In my experience, the extraordinary thing is that when one starts to have a conversation with people about the importance of family stability, many times one is confronted with the very genuine and real belief that nothing can be done about it. But examples from other countries show that it does not need to be this way. In the UK, 60% of children born to a cohabiting couple will have experienced some kind of parental relationship breakdown before they are 12 years old. That is almost 40% higher than the European average. Long term, 33% of children in the UK will grow up in a single-parent household. Comparably, in France, only 19% of children are brought up in single-parent households, in Germany 17% and in the Republic of Ireland 18%. Clearly, even in our modern 21st-century world, there is another way. We have much to learn from countries whose cultures are really similar to our own but which have better outcomes for children and families.
When the Government set a course to introduce a new policy agenda, it is really important to understand whether this is a change that the public want or not. Here, it is remarkable to see how out of step the Westminster policy-making bubble is with the majority of the British public. A poll undertaken by ComRes in August this year showed that 76% of adults agree that the Government should invest more to help strengthen families and improve parenting. If I had had that sort of poll rating for any other policy I had previously worked on, I would have thought I had hit the jackpot. Even over half of lone parents say that they recognise the importance of two-parent families. So what could be done? I will leave it there and hand that to my noble friend Lord Farmer, who can tell us in his concluding remarks.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for bringing today’s important debate and spearheading this manifesto on families. We have already touched on a number of issues this manifesto recommends should be addressed, from promoting the role of fathers within families to tackling the mental health crisis among young people from broken homes to developing family hubs. The Government play an important role in supporting families, which is why this manifesto is key to achieving that objective.
Stronger families are in everyone’s interest. Families are much more than just a unit: strong families are a critical component for the Government to achieve their objectives to increase social mobility and deliver social justice. As my noble friend Lord Farmer says, strong families are also vital for economic growth. They are wealth creators, as opposed to broken families which, aside from causing emotional turmoil, increase dependency on the state. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned the cost of that to be approximately £48 billion.
I will take a brief moment to comment on the British Indian community, which I am a proud member of. As in many communities, the role of families is central to the British Indian community. I believe the notion by which the British Indian community promotes strong families is the secret of our community’s success. Last month, the Government released an audit on racial equality which proved this point. The report showed that British Indians had among the highest rates of hourly pay, and high levels of employment and education. They are the most likely to own their own home and among the least likely to live in social housing. All these elements link to the fact the British Indian community has the highest marriage rate and the lowest rate of divorce and family breakdown. It proves how strong, united families can create wealth and opportunities not just for themselves but also for Britain. They carry the hallmark values of hard work, education, enterprise and family—that word family is crucial.
However, there is still more to do. Regretfully, the audit also revealed deeply ingrained disparities across the country. It was disheartening to hear that the UK also has one of the highest levels of family breakdown in the world. It is for this reason that I welcome this manifesto to strengthen families and that I believe government intervention to support families is absolutely vital. Worse, family breakdowns disproportionally fall on poorer children in our society. Surely our Government cannot sit back and watch that happen. We cannot lead on social reform if we struggle to get the basics right.
I will conclude with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said:
“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them”.
The manifesto presents viable options for how the Government can support families, not by dictating to them but by empowering them. I hope that it reflects the positive difference that the Government can make to thousands of families across Britain in building a country that truly works for all.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for securing such a generous slice of precious time for this important debate. I also welcome the Minister to his new spot. I wish him well in his important role; he has big shoes to fill.
I remind the House that I was on the Social Mobility Select Committee, which will become important later on in my very short remarks. I join the many noble Lords who have praised A Manifesto to Strengthen Families, with its eight calls to action and 18 suggested policies. We get sent many documents that are calls to action, but few are as crisp and well thought-through as this manifesto, and I congratulate the noble Lord and those responsible for it wholeheartedly. I had the rare benefit of an education on families policy from the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, during our year together on the Select Committee, and the passion and scholarship that I had the privilege to enjoy was visible for all to see in his remarkable speech when he opened today’s debate. Along with almost all, if not all, noble Lords here today, I am wholly supportive of all eight calls to action and all the suggested policies.
However, I want to underline two matters. The first I term the “forestry point” and the second I term the “Chinese doctor point”. In forestry terms, I want to remind the House of something the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, said earlier: this is a very long-term thing and you have to take a long-term view. The effects of policy interventions, good and bad, become truly visible only many years after they are made. What is disastrous is to chop and change policy every few years. Thus, in forestry theory terms, I submit that policy interventions in the families sector need to have broad cross-party support to give them a real chance of success, as they would then stand a significantly enhanced chance of surviving a change of government. Does the Minister agree with that point?
Turning to my second and final point, the “Chinese doctor point”, we in this House rightly concentrate regularly on those in our society who are at a disadvantage. The Chinese, however, visit doctors when they are healthy. I submit that the Government’s efforts in this policy area must not forget the importance of supporting and bolstering families that are in good shape. There is no magic bullet here, but each small assistance in family life would go part-way to strengthening and preserving that life. Does the Minister agree with that submission?
My Lords, I welcome our new Minister and sympathise with him for being put in the hot seat before he has had time to warm his trousers. I also thank my noble friend Lord Farmer and those who worked with him for a sterling piece of work.
This is a hugely important debate. We have not altogether taken on board how countercultural it is. Societies are not static; they change. We are mostly in the top half age-wise yet we are talking about the problems of the bottom half as though we were actually part of them and understood them fully. We have to try to point out to them where they are going.
We all seem to agree that families are the bedrock of society, and that the strength of the nation depends on the strength of the family. We mostly realise, I think, that the bedrock is eroding, and the erosion seems to coincide with the way that our society has turned away from faith and, with it, from the standards of faith.
Marriage was a badge of respectability, and it was almost revered by those who did not have it. In my parents’ day, it was thoroughly approved of and enjoyed—as it was in my own day. But it is becoming unfashionable. Fewer people are getting married. Fewer people are committing themselves and their life to the future and the happiness of others by getting married, whether in a registry office or a church. I see the smiles passing between Members on the opposite Front Benches, but there is a scent in the wind. You know you can smell rain before it gets here—well, I can sense a further decline in standards because they are not being taught.
I am with the noble Lord, Lord Bird, who is a personal magic bullet in himself, on the primacy of prevention. That is what we are trying to do tonight. It is what we ought to do on the big scale in intervening in families, and in helping those that have come apart to protect the children and teach the separated parents that they can have a good relationship and make life comfortable and happy for the children.
We must recover faith. I argue passionately for the Christian faith because I am a Christian and I believe that Christ is my saviour. Faith itself is something that gives stability to character, and it is stable characters we need for stable families. In three minutes, I can only begin. I wish I could go on for three hours, but thank you very much for listening this long.
My Lords, I declare my interest as the Prime Minister’s special representative on internet safety. I welcome the manifesto and support it wholeheartedly.
Technology is transforming childhood and family life beyond recognition, and for this manifesto to achieve the desired results of stronger, more resilient families, we must examine the impact on family relationships of the increasing use of digital devices. The manifesto speaks to the importance of parents’ active participation in their children’s lives. However, it is not about just being physically present; it is equally important that parents give their children consistent and wholehearted attention, without the interruption of apps, messaging and interaction on social media platforms. These digital interruptions send the message to children that text, email, Facebook or Twitter posts are more important than they are. That message has far-reaching implications for their mental health and well-being.
An observational study by the University of Michigan showed that occurrences of negative behaviour in children, such as tantrums, whining, hyperactivity and restlessness, were far more common among children whose parents admitted to using smartphones while interacting with them. Earlier this year, a survey of 2,000 secondary school students by Digital Awareness UK reported that 44% of children felt upset or ignored as a result of overuse of mobile phones by their parents. One headmistress at St Joseph’s Primary School in Middlesbrough posted signs asking phone-obsessed parents to greet their children with a smile at the end of the day rather than staring at their screens.
Active participation of parents not only means giving their wholehearted focus to their children but not reaching for tablets and iPhones to keep their children occupied. Although studies suggest the cognitive benefits to children of learning to use technology at an early age, we have to be alert to their potentially failing to learn effectively other very important human skills, such as listening, making eye contact, expressing empathy and showing respect for others.
Excessive social media use has been proven to correlate positively to mental health issues. The Royal Society for Public Health and the young health movement recently found that four out of five of the most popular forms of social media actually harm young people’s mental health by,
“deepening young people’s feelings of inadequacy and anxiety”,
with the photo platform Instagram ranking the worst. Feeding off the already insecure minds of growing teenagers, these applications place young people into an alternative universe where they are bombarded with and consumed by messages that undermine their self-worth.
It is no coincidence that an increasing number of academic studies are finding that this soaring increase in mental health problems over the past five years coincides with the period in which young people’s use of social media has exploded. New NHS data obtained in the past decade shows that the number of times girls aged 17 or under have been admitted to hospital in England because of self-harm has risen by 68%. Cases of self-poisoning have risen by 50% and cases of young girls cutting themselves have quadrupled. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has identified this as a “growing crisis”.
If we fail to acknowledge the pivotal role of technology and the resulting dramatic shifts in how we communicate within the family environment, it will be not only an oversight but negligent, because the shift is not neutral: it is often negative. If we are to ensure that children and families have strong bonds at home, we must view increasing technological dependency and its substitution for real human contact as one of the most urgent issues facing families. Whatever else we do, this will ensure that the policies we develop will be fit for today and tomorrow.
My Lords, I start by welcoming the Minister to the House of Lords and congratulate him on his meteoric rise to the Government Front Bench. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for a very interesting debate and extremely important manifesto. There are so many policy areas that could be improved in order to redress the magnitude of family breakdown in this country that it is hard to know where to start. However, I plan to mention adoptive families, the benefits of family hubs, what can be done to keep offenders in touch with their families to reduce reoffending and the importance of teaching children about relationships in school.
I start with adoptive families—not mentioned by anybody except the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford—since I have a particular interest in them. I was recently contacted by a couple who are both psychologists and are adoptive parents. I took very seriously the points they were making, which were about burnout of adoptive parents and the lack of support for them. They reminded me that adoptive parents take on some of the most needy and challenging children in our society—traumatised children whose mental and physical health has been damaged by their life experiences. The people who take on these children are heroes and their attempts to give them a stable and loving family in which to recover from their previous trauma should be applauded and supported. However, these adoptive parents often have to deal with violence directed at them or other siblings, self-harm, incontinence, inappropriate or dangerous sexual behaviour, anger, school refusal and many sorts of mental health problems. Adoptive parents cannot take sick leave, resign or ask for a transfer to another department. Unlike foster parents, they do not get much help. Indeed, if they adopt after fostering, whatever help they had before often just stops.
Adoption UK thinks that as many as a quarter of all adoptive parents are in crisis and in need of professional help to keep the family together. But local authority post-adoption services vary tremendously; despite the fact that adopters save local authorities a massive amount of money, some are less than helpful when asked for help. Can the Minister say what is being done to ensure that an appropriate level of support for adoptive families is offered everywhere? If we do not do this, the NHS will be saddled with the cost of the mental health issues of the parents as well as their children.
Mental health has been mentioned by several noble Lords—the noble Lords, Lord Farmer, Lord Shinkwin and Lord Alton, among others. This brings me to the subject of teaching relationship and sex education in schools and the ability of schools to identify and signpost mental health problems. The best way to deal with mental health is of course to prevent the problems arising in the first place—the noble Lord, Lord Bird, mentioned prevention. Many of the issues that children face arise from family break-up or from violence or poor relationships in the family. Many children do not have a good model of healthy and respectful relationships at home. It is therefore often the job of the school to pick up the pieces and help build up children’s resilience. There is a major role for relationship and sex education in this, so I welcomed the Children and Social Work Act earlier this year, which should ensure that all children get it in an age-appropriate manner as part of their PSHE curriculum.
I have become aware, however, that the regulations to mandate schools to prepare and publish their RSE policy have not yet been made. Can the Minister say why this is and when it will be done? I welcomed the Prime Minister’s initiative on mental health first aid training in schools and wonder if the Minister can update us on how that is progressing. Such work can help children to ride out the worst effects of family unhappiness or even breakdown.
We live in a very unequal country, and an interesting statistic in the briefings we have received caught my eye. It showed that poor families break up more frequently than more affluent ones. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, almost half of five year-olds in poorer families are in broken families, compared with 16% in wealthier ones. This did not surprise me. It is widely known that a high percentage of parents are worried about money, and that money is frequently the cause of family arguments, so what is being done to improve the finances of families with children? I am afraid that the marriage tax allowance, which the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, mentioned, brings in less than £5 a week, even if the family applies for it, so that is not going to make much difference. By the way, I am not suggesting that it be improved, as I do not approve of it in the first place. I do not think it is the role of the state to support particular kinds of families.
Benefit cuts and the six-week wait for universal credit have sent far too many families into debt, and to food banks. If the Government are really concerned to keep families together, which, of course, is a laudable aim, they need to do everything possible to ensure that parents can feed their children and pay the bills. We hear about the record number of people in work, but the fact is that many jobs are very low paid and a high percentage of poor people are in work and eligible for benefits, which makes a nonsense of the Government’s constant claim that the best way out of poverty is through work. I would say it depends what sort of work, and how well it is paid. Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to make what they choose to call the living wage into something people can actually live on?
Many families need a range of services to help them survive, stay together and bring up their children successfully, and it is desirable that these services be easily accessible and linked together. That is why I, like the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and others, support the idea of family hubs, which can be based on children’s centres or Sure Start centres. I hope they will not become what the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, called the shiny new thing that disappears before long, as they would offer a wide range of services for parents as well as children. This is not a new idea. Several years ago, I visited the Coram Centre, where all kinds of services such as debt advice, immigration advice, English lessons and help to find a job and a home were offered to the parents of children in the nursery. It was a great example of what can be done in response to the particular needs of the families in the locality. Therefore, can the Minister say whether the Government support family hubs and whether extra funding will be made available, given the savings to many other services that they could provide in the future?
I will say a few words about prisoners and their families. There is an important role for families to keep in touch with offenders while they are in prison in the interests of their relationships with their spouses and children, and of reducing reoffending. However, in many cases, the prison system does not make it easy for families to visit. There is some very good practice, such as Skype conversations, but in some cases it is hard to see the logic of where offenders are placed. For example, there is a large, brand new prison in Wrexham, near where I live in north Wales. I recently learned that only 10% of the inmates come from Wales and that many come from a very long way away in England. In addition, the prison is located on an industrial estate miles from the nearest railway station. It cannot be easy for families without their own car to visit in those circumstances, so what is being done to ensure that families who want to keep up their relationship with the offender are helped to do so?
Finally, from experience, I issue a warning about impact assessments. During the coalition Government, my then honourable friend Sarah Teather said that policies would have a child rights impact assessment. I am not aware that that is being done. Therefore, if we are to have a family impact assessment, I hope that it really happens.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure for me to wind up for the Opposition on what has been an interesting and important debate. I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, to the Dispatch Box for his maiden speech. We look forward to working with him in the future. It has indeed been a wide-ranging debate. In a sense, the last three speeches—the noble Lord, Lord Elton, talking about the impact of loss of faith and the unfashionableness of marriage, as he put it; the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, on digital harm; and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on adoptive parents—could almost be debates in themselves. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that I was laughing partly because two of my children got married in the last year—there are three to go. I am not sure that I absolutely agree with him that marriage has lost its fashion; it is just that people tend to do it rather later—and rather more extravagantly—than we used to do.
Noble Lords know what I mean there.
The enormity of the consequences of breakdown of so many families has been well documented in our debate today. We all know from personal experience, and from the statistics that are so readily available, the misery and long-term damage that this can cause, particularly to children. Therefore this debate is timely and welcome. One symptom of this was a briefing we had this morning from the Children’s Society which detailed the 72,000 children in care in England and Wales. We know from previous debates—the noble Lord, Lord Nash, in particular focused on this—about the poor outcomes of so many children in care, whether one looks at mental health, their employment prospects, or simply the statistic that 34% of care leavers were not in education, training or employment at the age of 19 compared to 15.5% of the general population.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has explained the background to the manifesto, which was published by a group of Conservative MPs and Peers. I agree with a number of recommendations. In particular, he is right to say that at heart, creating a Government who are focused on families would be a good start—although I agree that it is not everything. I also welcome the recommendation to remove financial disincentives for those on low incomes, promoting healthy relationships to tackle the country’s mental health crisis, and helping prisons to put the role of families at the heart of efforts to reduce reoffending. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, underlined the importance of that.
However, a manifesto produced by one political party might have had somewhat more credibility if it had not rather ignored some of the damage being done to families by so many current government policies. I also share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that in emphasising couple relationships we need to be careful not to stigmatise one-parent families, and we need to acknowledge that there are different families today. That goes to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, made; we are in a different situation than many generations ago. My noble friend Lord Parekh and the noble Lord, Lord Popat, spoke about some of the cultural dynamics in families of different ethnic groups. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned.
In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, made some interesting comments about the link between poverty and family breakdown. In fact, he was cautious about it. I understand that; as regards what makes families strong, there are clearly much wider elements than that. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, was very interesting when he talked about a sense of belonging. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, suggested that if Government were prepared to invest more in preventive programmes up front, that would have a beneficial impact on downstream welfare benefit payments and other government expenditures. We cannot ignore the impact that poverty can have on family relationships. Work done recently by Relate, Relationships Scotland and Marriage Care found that a significant number of respondents cited financial matters as the key strain in terms of breaking up long-term relationships. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is right.
The last Labour Government took hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, but new research published today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the number of people living in poverty will soar to a record 5.2 million over the next five years because government welfare cuts are biting deepest on households with young families. As the IFS said, freezing benefits, the introduction of universal credit and less generous tax credits will mean a surge in child poverty, and the steepest increases will be in the most deprived parts of the country. That must have some impact on family cohesion and relationships.
As Polly Toynbee wrote last week, universal credit was introduced as a strong incentive to go to work. However, the taper rate means that claimants lose 63p for every pound they earn. That, to me, is not a work incentive. On top of that, the cruel six-week payment delay is going to leave those without savings in debt and trapped in rent arrears, and many will be forced to go to loan sharks or food banks. I cannot see how that supports families. It would certainly be a very good introduction to ministerial life if the Minister made the triumphant statement today that the Government are not going to introduce universal credit throughout the country and that the six-week delay will be done away with. However, perhaps that will not happen.
I can see why family hubs are supported by many noble Lords. I would have been interested to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, how he thinks that they might impact on and relate to Sure Start centres. I have to say to him that the closure of more than 1,200 centres as a result of a £437 million budget cut has had a very disadvantageous effect. I believe that Sure Start centres have benefited hundreds of thousands of young children and their parents, particularly those from a poorer background.
It is right to welcome the increased number of people in work but the fact is that for many, work is very insecure. The problem of low pay and the iniquity of zero-hours contracts are the reality for hundreds of thousands of people. That must have an impact on the way that family life works.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, wants to see the appointment of a Secretary of State for government responsibility and organisation. I can see exactly why he would want that and why family impact assessments might work. However, all experience shows that, unless that Secretary of State has a strong departmental responsibility, they will not have the influence required to make such an appointment work. All my experience of government is that, if you give a Minister or a Secretary of State responsibility for cross-government working, unless they have the support of the Prime Minister, and indeed the Treasury, and unless there are targets that other departments have to meet, it might sound good but in practice it does not work. It would be interesting if some further work were done to see how that office could be enabled to work effectively.
The same applies to family impact assessments. If they simply become a tick-box exercise, they will, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, knows from experience, simply be a waste of time. Officials can produce impact assessments till the cows come home. They produce equality impact assessments and other sorts of assessments, but at the end of the day I do not think that they have any impact whatever on how a government department does its work. You have to combine tough impact assessments with a policing role in central government to make them effective in the way that the noble Lord would like.
This has been a fascinating debate. I am sure that the preventive measures that many noble Lords have suggested are well worth pursuing, although, like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I have some reservations about tax benefits for married couples, and I should place that on the record. However, I do not think that we can ignore the impact of government policies, which I am afraid in many ways are working against families at the moment.
My Lords, it is a great privilege, if somewhat terrifying, to become a Member of the House in this way. I must thank many noble Lords on both sides of the House for the warmth and courtesy of their welcome. I am grateful to my noble friends Lady Evans of Bowes Park, Lord Faulks, Lord Younger and Lord Courtown, who have all provided early guidance. In particular, I must thank my predecessor, my great and noble friend Lord Nash. I only hope that I can live up to the standard that he has set, both for debate in this place and in his ministerial duties. As one noble Lord said earlier, his huge personal impact on the improvement of the school system in England leaves me with very big shoes to fill.
I know that a great number of noble Lords share my passion for transforming the lives of young people through education. Looking around these Benches, I see many who surpass me in knowledge or skill—probably both. I can only trust that I may look to other noble Lords for wisdom and support as I set about learning the intricacies of this place.
I am delighted to be making my first contribution in your Lordships’ House on the subject of families. I am one of seven children and when I was four years old my mother left my father with all seven of us. I remember going to Heathrow Airport, aged four or five, and watching as her plane took off for South Africa and wondering why we were not going with her. But I have been very lucky in many other respects, with a supporting and loving father and rumbustious and entertaining siblings. There is an African saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I had that too, in a wonderful community of farm workers and their wives who provided everything that a child could ask for, including picking me up from school when my father forgot. We all forge our way into adulthood coloured by our childhoods. Failing the 11-plus, but still benefiting from a good education because of the sacrifices my father made, was a major motivation in my becoming involved in the education debate.
Many noble Lords have seen the challenge in the classroom. I have seen it as a businessman and as a school leader. Each of these roles has given me a valuable perspective on the gaps in our system. The first gap lies between this country and our international competitors. I experienced this 18 years ago in southern India, where I was able to employ maths graduates for one-tenth of the cost of UK-based staff with lower levels of education. Today that business employs over 30,000 people. This is the conundrum of globalisation: hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty, but overseas. It is my strong conviction that education is the way out of this dilemma.
Noble Lords will be all too aware that we are the only OECD country where the basic skills of our 16 to 24 year-olds are no higher than among those aged 55 to 64. This is what I am determined to try to change. However, it is important to acknowledge the progress that we have made since 2010. Nearly nine out of 10 schools are now rated good or better by Ofsted and we have opened 390 free schools with 300 more on the way, bringing dynamism and energy into the sector.
However, there remains a second important gap between different parts of our country. While some areas such as London have raced ahead, others have been left in cycles of low productivity and low performance. This impacts on our economic performance but it also holds back social mobility. I know this all too well. My academy trust is located in Norwich—here I declare an interest—which is one of the most deprived areas of England. It has the fewest outstanding schools and the lowest participation rates in further education in England. Almost unbelievably, Norwich was rated 323rd out of 324 in the social mobility index in England. Our reforms need to do more to lift up such parts of the country. It is not good enough that 62% of our new free schools are in London and the south-east and only 20% in the north. We intend to shift the focus specifically to these left-behind areas and encourage more high-performing sponsors to take on schools in these places.
This links closely with today’s debate. Another vital component of good education and social mobility is good parenting. I wholeheartedly support the premise of this debate and the efforts of my noble friend Lord Farmer in this area. He finished by asking whether other government departments are taking forward the policies in the strengthening families manifesto. He will be glad to hear that I am here to discuss the policies of four government departments that are leading the way. We have heard many contributions today and I will cover as many as I can. For all others I will write.
I start with parental conflict. The noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord Suri, recognised the devastating impact parental conflict can have on families. As they rightly point out, recent evidence shows that children exposed to frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict can experience a decline in their mental health and suffer poorer long-term outcomes. To address this, the Department for Work and Pensions will be launching a new reducing parental conflict programme to help local areas improve their support for families. This will be available to families whether parents are together or separated. It is vital to reduce conflict in both circumstances, as children will feel the impact in both.
On the point of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on the family stability indicator and why it does not sit alongside the other parental indicators produced by the Government to address the causes of family disadvantage, the Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families publication announced nine new national indicators. In publishing them, we responded to evidence which tells us that the quality of relationships within a family had a greater impact on child outcomes than the structure of the family. I hope that responds to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. We will, however, continue to collect data on family breakdown to support policy development.
My noble friend Lady Eaton and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, rightly spoke about the importance of relationships and sex education in schools on the mental health of children. We want to ensure that all pupils are taught about healthy and respectful relationships, including the core knowledge that all children need to form safe and positive relationships.
That brings me to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Nash, about smartphones in the classroom. We have strengthened teachers’ powers to enforce discipline on phone use in the classroom and to promote good behaviour. However, there is more to do with parents and we will continue with that.
Family hubs have been a constant theme in the debate today. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for his attention to family hubs and the importance of working closely with charities and local businesses that will help children in need. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, also raised important points about the effect of inequality on families and social mobility. The noble Lords, Lord Mawson, Lord Bird, Lord Popat and Lord Hunt, also spoke about the impact of poverty. The Government recognise the serious impact poverty has on families. The proportion of people in absolute poverty, though, is at a record low and there are 200,000 fewer children today in poverty than in 2010. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is right to say that I do not have the brief to overhaul the universal credit system. However, concerns are being listened to and there are already opportunities for shorter payment times and direct payments to landlords. I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments in the other place yesterday, which acknowledged the value of stable and strong families and the support that family hubs offer.
On the points of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about Sure Start centres, we know that councils are rethinking their children’s centre services as part of wider service reform and we are seeing successful innovation emerging. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, spoke of Isle of Wight Council and Barking and Dagenham. I know of Newcastle City Council, which, in 2010, implemented a new integrated early help and family support model focusing on the 30% most deprived areas in the city. This is already showing dividends. The take-up of places for two year-olds has increased from 76% in 2015 to 92% this year. Leeds City Council began a similar initiative in 2015 and has already received recognition from Ofsted.
Councils have a duty to improve the well-being of young children in their area and to reduce inequalities. I hope that we will encourage other local authorities to consider these case studies when reviewing their own provision. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford talked about Oxfordshire’s children’s centres. The work of the councils, Churches and voluntary sector in this area is an excellent example of what collaboration can achieve.
My noble friend Lady Eaton made a point about the Armed Forces covenant and family hubs. I will look into this with my noble friend in the Ministry of Defence and write to her separately. Similarly, I will follow up with my noble friend at the Home Office the point made by my noble friend Lord Wasserman about police and crime commissioners.
A final area to touch on is my own experience as an academy sponsor. I have extended the school day in all of my schools by three hours a week. This has been warmly received by parents. The initial driver was to improve education, but it has also helped in ways that I had not anticipated.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, talked about support for adoptive families. Children who have left care can remain vulnerable and may have high levels of need, putting pressure on adoptive families. The Adoption Support Fund, which was launched in May 2015, has provided almost £60 million for therapeutic support to more than 25,000 children, and from May 2018 the parents of previously looked-after children will have access to information and advice from a trained, designated teacher in their child’s school and from the virtual school head.
Children from less-advantaged backgrounds are already behind in their learning by the time they start school. The Government want to close the gap and high-quality learning from the age of two can help with this. The primary focus of free early learning places for two year-olds is to improve outcomes for children. Imposing conditions on parents, as suggested in the strengthening families manifesto, may reduce the number who take up their offer of an early learning place, particularly in those families who are hardest to reach but may benefit the most. There is always a difficult balance to be struck between allowing families to have control over their own affairs and the point at which the state needs to intervene. Parents have a vital role to play in their child’s development. Evidence suggests that aside from maternal education, the home learning environment is the single biggest influence on a child’s vocabulary at the age of three. That is why we will use a £5 million evidence-based trial on home learning environment support programmes in the north of England that will focus on early language and literacy.
My noble friend Lord Shinkwin and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, spoke about the impact of parental relationships on children’s mental health. This Government recognise the value that family relationships play in promoting positive mental health. We have invested record levels of spending on mental health, including more than £11 billion in the last financial year. Our forthcoming Green Paper setting out our vision for children and young people’s mental health will discuss the importance of families in promoting positive mental health. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, was right to say that it is vital to consider inter-parental relationships as part of this.
The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, spoke about the importance of families having regular access to a family doctor or healthcare professional. The Government aim to foster positive family relationships through the healthy child programme. This is offered to every family, not only those in crisis. It includes a programme of screening, tests, immunisations, developmental reviews and information and guidance to support families with children from birth to five years old. For young mothers who are particularly vulnerable, the Family Nurse Partnership offers intensive and structured home visiting which is delivered by specially trained nurses from early pregnancy until the child is two years old. This early support for parents and children is key to preventing mental health issues developing in childhood and adolescence, and my noble friends Lady Stroud and Lady O’Cathain were absolutely right to point out the importance of fathers and grandparents in this regard. We know this work is building on strong foundations, including work done in many areas by the voluntary and social sectors. I echo the point of the right revered Prelate about the voluntary sector working with government provision.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, spoke about support for prisoners and their families. Families can have a major impact here. Positive family relationships have been identified as an important factor in reducing reoffending. We are therefore making family relationships a fundamental part of prison reform, alongside improving opportunities for education and employment. As many of you will agree, it is not just prisoners who suffer because of their incarceration. Anybody’s child or partner entering custody has a profound impact on the whole family. Recent research indicates that in an average year, an estimated 200,000 children in this country are affected by parental imprisonment. We are committed to providing opportunities for children to have access to their parents in prison by creating as hospitable a visitor environment as possible, helping with the establishment and development of positive relationships.
In November 2016, the Government committed to investing £100 million annually to strengthen the front-line prison service, with 2,500 additional prison officers by the end of 2018. Recently published figures show that from October 2016 to August 2017, there has been a net increase of 1,290 new prison officers. With that net increase, prison governors should be able to manage more flexible and frequent access for visits. In order to enable families to visit prisoners, the assisted prison visits scheme provides financial assistance to prisoners’ close relatives, partners or sole visitors who meet qualifying rules on income. The scheme currently receives approximately 85,000 requests for assistance each year, covering some 250,000 visitors. This year, 64,000 claims were successful.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, asked about the family test. Operating the family test is a department responsibility, and all policymakers are encouraged to think carefully about new policies that may affect family relationships.
In closing the debate, I reiterate the Government’s commitment to supporting families. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, emphasised, we recognise they are an essential pillar to our society. We will continue to seek challenge in how we can better deploy the available resources for them. I thank you all for your kindness in making me feel welcome. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate and I look forward to future occasions when I can contribute further.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on his maiden speech and on giving us such an encouraging government response to the debate. It is clear that he will make a huge contribution to government in his role at the Dispatch Box.
The debate has been excellent, with a lot of constructive contributions. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed. I make the point that I made at the beginning: the family manifesto that has been produced is an ongoing work. It is progressive and rolling, and I am sure that your Lordships’ involvement today will be both a great help in continuing the thinking behind the manifesto and a challenge to the Government as they read Hansard for what was said today. A lot was added to the debate; I do not have the time to go over individual contributions, but I want to mention the word “counterculture”; I think the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford used it. We have been living in an age that is focused on the individual. To repeat what I said at the beginning, it will take a couple of Governments at least to turn around this culture on the individual and focus it more on the family unit as the basic social unit.
I thank all noble Lords. There have been a lot of additions. We have had emphasis on military families. We have a new Secretary of State for Defence today. We will be knocking on his door and talking to him about how to look after the peculiar pressures military families are under.
I come back to the Minister and thank him for his news about what is going on in DWP on parental conflicts and for the fact that a policy will be developed reducing that. I am also very encouraged by Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, when she said she was all for family hubs. If that is coming from the top we might get somewhere. Talking about family hubs, I mention the criticism of Sure Start children centres from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I tried to touch on that; the Minister also did. Apart from the fact that money is scarce, there is the whole idea of joining in with the community, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and using voluntary organisations, but also of developing Sure Start children centres into a family hub for children aged zero to 19, in particular for the category of children in need. Families can go there to find out where to go for the problems they may have.
I do not have much time. I again thank all noble Lords for an excellent, constructive debate. It had a lot of ideas in it. I am quite encouraged by the current mood in government to recognise that families are very important to strengthen. We cannot go on having the record we have in OECD countries and, as we heard earlier, our record in Europe. It is appalling. We need to refocus our minds and hearts on strengthening family relationships. It will be to the benefit of the whole of society. I beg to move.