Strengthening Families — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:25 pm on 8th February 2018.

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Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 3:25 pm, 8th February 2018

I really need to make progress, and I do not want this to become a two-way, Conservative-versus-Labour debate.

On the point about spending on childcare, I have already talked about the role of parents in children’s development. Children from less advantaged backgrounds are already behind in their learning by the time they start school, and high-quality early learning from the age of two can help us to close that gap. 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 have committed £5 million to trial evidence-based home-learning environment support programmes in the north of England—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton referred to them. They will focus on early language learning and literacy. We are currently running a procurement exercise to identify an external organisation to work with us in delivering that trial.

The primary purpose of providing free early learning places for two-year-olds is to improve outcomes for children. We want to make it as easy as possible for children to benefit from early education. One of the interesting initiatives in that area is community-based nurseries, at which parents volunteer in return for lower childcare fees. Disadvantaged families are helped through the lower cost of childcare, and they learn parental skills by working in the nurseries. A number of those trials have already happened with voluntary organisations, and they have had very positive outcomes.

The “Manifesto to Strengthen Families” also recommended that relationship education should be extended online, with a dedicated campaign and virtual platform. The Government want to help all schools to deliver high-quality relationships education and relationships and sex education to ensure that pupils are taught about healthy and respectful relationships, and that they stay safe and are equipped with the knowledge they need to prepare for adult life. I completely agree that it needs to cover concepts such as commitment, respect and safety. Of course, marriage is a perfect example of all those things. I urge hon. Members to make sure their views are heard as part of that consultation process, because that evidence will shape draft statutory guidance and regulations, which will be subject to further consultation later this year. There will be many opportunities for hon. Members to have an input into that process.

In December, the Government published our social mobility action plan, which set out our ambition to close the word gap in early years. It is a clear direction for all those that have a part to play, including children’s centres. Our focus is on delivering that ambition. We welcome the development of family hubs as one way to meet local needs. We believe that local councils are best placed to understand local needs, so if they believe there should be a family hub, they should be free to set one up.

This excellent manifesto also focused on health. The Government are already working to reduce health inequalities by addressing the social causes of ill-health, promoting healthier lifestyles and tackling differences in outcomes of NHS services. We are doing that in a number of ways. We are investing more than £16 billion over the current spending period to support local public health services. That action is being led locally to ensure that the solutions reflect the needs of individual communities. Local authorities can also commission a range of children’s public health programmes that support women in pregnancy through childbirth and support children from early years through to adolescence. Clinical commissioning groups and local authorities are responsible for commissioning services to meet the needs of their local populations. As part of that, we also need to look at mental health. The Government are committed to parity between mental and physical health, which has been one of the challenges in our health service for successive Governments.

The manifesto contains an excellent recommendation about maternity services and maximising the involvement of fathers. Perhaps I can call myself a new dad—I was certainly there at the birth of my two children. There really are some excellent maternity services now. I was at a midwife-led unit at Watford General Hospital, just outside my constituency, and I saw how helpful it is to have a dedicated room in which the birth takes place with en suite facilities. That helps the father to be involved. That is why the Government have provided more than £37 million of capital funding since 2013 to support maternity services and to create safe, family-friendly environments. That includes increased provision of facilities in labour and post natal units, such as double beds, reclining chairs—which can be converted to beds for partners to rest in, especially overnight, and remain with their partner and new-born children—en suite toilets, new birthing pools, and dedicated family rooms.

The manifesto also raised the important issue of couples therapy. When children arrive it is a time of great happiness, but it can put a tremendous amount of strain on relationships, so it is important that we focus resources at that stage. The NHS already offers couple-based therapy as part of its Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme.

On drug addiction, many hon. Members eloquently made the point that families play an absolutely central part in helping people through that very challenging time in their lives. At a national level, we have extended the troubled families programme to help local areas to ensure that their services have an integrated, whole-family approach. The programme now specifically supports families with younger children and those with a broader range of problems, including substance misuse, mental health problems and domestic abuse.

On the point about police and crime commissioners working with schools in which domestic abuse issues are prevalent, the Government are fully committed to tackling domestic abuse, and we will shortly be launching a consultation on the landmark domestic abuse Bill to improve protection and support for victims, to strengthen the focus on perpetrators, and to recognise the lifelong damage that domestic abuse does to children. The evidence on that front is completely overwhelming.

My hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson made a passionate speech about the prison system and the role of families. I was particularly struck by his statistic that reoffending rates are 35% lower if partners and families are allowed to visit. That is also borne out by other studies. The impact of imprisonment on a family is likely to be long term, especially if the main breadwinner of a family goes to prison—the problems back home build up, with rent or mortgage arrears going up, and social stigma and loneliness for the family left behind.

While offenders are in custody, therefore, we have an opportunity to support them in changing their values and perspectives on their roles and responsibilities. As a Government, we believe that prisoners who are in touch with their family are likely to be more settled while in jail. Multiply that improved mood among prisoners, and we see a transformation in prison conditions. As we have heard, on 10 August last year the Government published a review by Lord Farmer that made several recommendations to strengthen family or significant other ties. As has been recognised, we have welcomed all those measures and will be working to implement them.

On the military covenant, the case was well put by Carol Monaghan —sadly, she is no longer in her place. We all know, and I certainly do from my previous role as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Defence Secretary, the huge sacrifice made not only by our armed forces, but by their families. That is often under-reported, with the families often the ones who take the strain of prolonged periods of absence and moving around, so it is important that we support those families under the military covenant, which is exactly what we have done.

The Ministry of Defence launched its first ever UK armed forces families’ strategy in 2016, which focuses and co-ordinates activity to support service families. The single service welfare organisations provide a flexible and inclusive network of welfare support to service personnel and their families. Defence also rightly works hand in glove with the principal service charities and organisations such as Relate to provide specialist support to families. In addition, we have launched a health and wellbeing strategy to improve mental health, and developed a memorandum of understanding with the Royal Foundation. As part of such efforts, I certainly take on board the suggestion of my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne about ensuring that we include training courses.

I thank hon. Members for allowing me to speak for some time. I wanted to cover all the points included in the manifesto, as well as the other matters raised. If Members feel I have left anything uncovered, I undertake to write back to them. I believe that as a Government we are working towards a shared goal of putting family at the heart of policy making. I hope that we will continue in that vein, because all the evidence shows the value of families to our national life.