My Lords, I echo the words of other noble Lords in thanking the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for once again bringing us together, at the end of the year, to reflect on such important matters to our nation and to learn from one another. Education is certainly not just for the young.
We ask a lot of our children and pin great hopes on them. They are our future, after all. We ask them to navigate a complex and difficult world, one which operates 24/7 and in 360 degrees through Facebook and Instagram, and blurs the lines between private and public. Our children never get a day off; some never get a night off either. But what is our legacy to them? It is an inheritance of debt; a dream of owning their own home which is dimmer than our own; a mistrust of politics; a growth of populism; a decline of productivity; a climate of storms, real and political, to navigate in a world where truth is hard to get a handle on and in some quarters has been declared out of vogue. Our debate today throws the net wide so I would like to touch on two different issues in my remarks, both of which are vital in building not only a flourishing society but a flourishing democratic, tolerant and liberal one, made up of happy, confident adults. I speak of mental health issues and of social media.
I turn first to mental health. We are allowing a generation of children to reach adulthood without the support they need to be the rounded, stable, independent human beings they can and should be. These are our future citizens: mums and dads, teachers and leaders of our country. The figures are sobering. Last year, as many as one in 250 children was referred to what is known as CAMHS by professionals. Of those, nearly a third were turned away altogether and nearly 60% were left to languish on waiting lists. This means a lot of desperate and disappointed children, as well as families under enormous strain doing their best to support them. A recent joint report of the Commons education and health committees noted:
“50% of mental illness in adult life … starts before age fifteen”,
so the troubles of today’s children will soon become the troubles of tomorrow’s adults. We have been slow to act. There is a growing cry for help and not enough help at hand. I welcome signs that people are finally beginning to listen but let us hope that this listening translates into real solutions. I welcome the Secretary of State’s mental health initiative, announced earlier this week.
Certainly, some of the answer must lie within the school community. I speak here of primary as well as secondary schools, where many of the problems first emerge. Teachers and parents are often the best-placed people to spot problems at first and, for some children, a few meetings with a counsellor at school will be all the help they need. However, let us be clear that others will need a full programme of treatment within the NHS, and we will never solve the problem if a lack of trained councillors, rigid thresholds, rejected referrals and unacceptable waiting times remain. Of course we must not shy away from the source of the problem and why the cries for help are growing in the first place. Some of that comes down to education and to what we teach our children way beyond the three Rs: a sense of well-being, self-respect, kindness and consideration for others and a sense of community and nationhood.
In the rush to win the global race, we must remember who we are trying to win it for. We have much to do for every child to grow up to be the happy, independent, functioning adult they can be. When they reach that golden age of adulthood, we ask them to do something very important: to participate for the first time in our democracy and exercise their vote. Of course, there is far more to democracy than the casting of a vote. Our tradition of western democracy is underpinned by the rule of law embedded in a tolerant society which protects freedom of expression, encourages debate and presides over a free press. Once every few years, our citizens are asked to assess their Government and decide at the ballot box whether they want more or less of them.
At the heart of a healthy democracy lies the integrity of the poll, and today we cannot escape the uncomfortable and growing realisation that one of the key sources from which we take our critical views may be open to manipulation. I talk, of course, of social media. Where once we might have watched the evening news and read a trusted newspaper, we now have at our fingertips an infinite number of news sources, often from unknown origins, through which to navigate at high speed all each day. We scour the net. We are less certain of what is information, what is misinformation, who to trust and what is real and what is not—bishop or Russian bot. Our judgment of the content of what we read is clouded by the lack of context and the waves of supercharged reactions that are so powerful. They are sometimes a force for good and necessary change, and sometimes they are not. When the truth emerges, if it does, it is often too late to diffuse the tensions that have been created. The reality is lost in the mist of anger, so the storm rages about how our democracy is under threat from social media but there are few ideas about how to address it. While I have no doubt that regulation in one form or another will come, I am less certain that we can count on it to protect the integrity of our democracy.
That leads us back to the individuals who use it in the first place and to their judgment, which brings us back to education. It is vital to teach children from a young age to navigate the web, to help them assess the validity of what they read and to explain why they should care in the first place. Rather than wrapping our children in cotton wool and surrounding them with safe places we must encourage debate in the classrooms of our country and the campuses of our universities so that our children have the confidence to form a view, to weigh it up against the argument of another, and to be open to challenge and sometimes to change. As Aristotle said, it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. I speak today for our duty to bring up a generation of young people to be confident, stable adults—citizens of the future—who are able to navigate the abstract world which is theirs to inherit.