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A Manifesto to Strengthen Families - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:59 pm on 2nd November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 5:59 pm, 2nd November 2017

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.