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A Manifesto to Strengthen Families - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:22 pm on 2nd November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Stroud Baroness Stroud Conservative 5:22 pm, 2nd November 2017

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.