Strengthening Families — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:51 pm on 8th February 2018.

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Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford 2:51 pm, 8th February 2018

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Given that Middlewich is not too far from where I live and where I represent, with her permission I would like perhaps to come and talk to that headteacher, to see what I can learn from the school in her constituency.

As I say, the situation needs to change, and the Department for Work and Pensions has begun to recognise that. The “Improving lives” report announced plans to put £30 million into a programme to help workless parents to resolve conflict through independent providers. However, that provision does not go far enough, because the need is not just among workless parents. A far-reaching, holistic, family-based approach to tackling children’s health is needed, as the example in Middlewich shows.

The recent Green Paper on children’s mental health is an important step in the right direction, and for the first time recognises the importance of parental relationships on children’s wellbeing and mental health, but we need to do more to support families. By incorporating couples therapy into NHS provision, children and young persons’ mental health teams would not be syphoning funds from where they are most needed, but redirecting them to where they will be most effective. Training would be required to enable professionals and frontline workers to be confident in identifying and treating the needs of the couple, alongside an efficient system of referral. The roll-out of family hubs would facilitate a collaborative and consistent provision of couples’ support in addressing children’s mental health. Alongside providing for those affected by mental health problems, that would also help to prevent the mental health problems from arising by providing relationship support and encouraging the involvement of fathers in the family.

Sometimes there is a reluctance to make such points. My hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh talked about the reluctance of referring to faith and religious belief. I entirely support what he said, but also, in our western, perhaps individual-focused society, we do not recognise enough the support that the wider family, indeed the community, can give to families. When I was living with my family in Tanzania, we often came across a proverb that was originally in Igbo, a Nigerian language, but in Swahili is, “Inachukua kijiji kizima kumlea mtoto”, which means: it takes a whole village to raise a child. If we view a village as our community, we should not shy away from recognising that families cannot do everything, as I know from my own experience. They come under great pressure at various times. Parents are otherwise engaged, perhaps going through crises themselves. It takes a community.

In my constituency, and many others, we have an organisation called Home-Start, which works with troubled families. The problem is that Home-Start relies on volunteers who give their time. It takes professional co-ordination, but we find that the funding for that, which is frankly peanuts when one considers what else we spend money on, is often the first to be cut, as I found in my constituency. Local authorities who were very generous have been put under pressure and, because it is not a statutory requirement, will remove the funding. As a result, the whole service is put under pressure, and may even disappear. These are people working on a voluntary basis with families that are under pressure, and saving the state huge amounts of money, because those families might otherwise fall into needing extremely expensive services. In addition to the issue of mental health, which I have spoken about at some length, I ask the Minister to look at the possibility of making relatively small amounts of funding available to schemes such as Home-Start. We are talking about a few thousand pounds, or tens of thousands, in a whole local authority area. The total cost for the country would be pretty minor, and the savings substantial.

Finally, colleagues may disagree, but I have found the value of family time at meal times very important, as well as the value of not having television. I have never had television, either as a child or an adult, but if people do have a television, there is value in saying, “Well, it has its place, but it shouldn’t be the centre of family life, because it takes up so much time and stops people talking to one another.” I think we can extend that to social media. I was very encouraged to read in The Evening Standard last week of a school, I think in London, which has ten commandments about the use of social media. That school is really improving the lives of the children, not by forbidding access to social media, but by saying, “Let’s put less emphasis on social media, and spend more time interacting with one another personally, face to face, rather than via small screens.”

We ought to spend more time together as families, and play more games together. Despite my distaste for games that take longer than half an hour, I have discovered a great game called Bananagrams, which is brilliant for families that enjoy that kind of thing. It is not something that the Government can get involved in, but schools and other organisations can provide opportunities and suggestions for families.