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House of Commons

Friday 3 December 1993

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Adjournment (Christmas)

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House, at its rising on Friday 17th December, do adjourn until Tuesday 11th January.-- [Mr. Patnick.]

Madam Speaker : I have to inform the House that I have not selected either of the amendments. Of course, hon. Members are free to vote against the substantive motion if they are opposed to it. 9.35 am

Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale) : I am grateful to be called this morning, Madam Speaker, and I am particularly grateful to be called so early. There were times in the old days when the House had Adjournment debates which were not restricted to three hours, and which went on and on. It was a good idea to change the format, because a three- hour limit on the debate means that we have quite short speeches.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington) : Get on with it.

Sir Fergus Montgomery : Get on with what?

I want to raise a subject that I have raised before, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will not be surprised to hear it. It is not an airport or a hospital, but the question of affordable housing. I think that housing is a vital concern.

I fear that, if we are not careful, tenants in low-cost housing will increasingly depend on housing benefit. Any reduction in the housing association grant is likely to increase the numbers of tenants who are dependent on housing benefit, and more tenants would be trapped in the poverty trap.

I remind my right hon. Friend that the Select Committee on the Environment looked at the matter some time ago, and it fired a warning shot across the bows of the Government about the serious consequences if the rate of the housing association grant should fall below 67 per cent. The rate has fallen already to 62 per cent. The Government must also bear in mind the effects, not just on people who need housing, but on the construction industry. I am told that around 500,000 construction workers have lost their jobs during the past three years. It has been said over and over again that the cost to the Government of every unemployed person is around £9,000 a year because of the cost of providing benefit, added to which is the amount lost in income tax and national insurance contributions. The diminishing of the housing programme is bound to inflame that situation. We desperately need more low-cost housing. By building more, we will lower the unemployment figures, and also rehouse people who are in urgent need. I think particularly of the homeless, of people

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who are leaving institutions for care in the community, and of the increasing number of elderly people who require specialist housing. I worry about people who want to help themselves and who go out to work, often for low wages. They sometimes find that they would have been better off if they had not gone to work but had sat back and relied on benefit. I do not want to see the growth of a benefit- dependency culture. I want more to be done to help people who try to help themselves. That particularly applies to younger people, but the elderly are also disadvantaged.

All hon. Members will have elderly constituents who, during their working lives, scrimped and scraped to put something aside for the proverbial rainy day. Those people find when they retire that their savings do not help them at all when it comes to getting assistance. As the rules apply at the moment, people with capital of between £3, 000 and £16,000 find that interest is assumed--that is the all-important word--at the rate of £1 a week for every £250 of capital. I wish that somebody would offer me those terms for my savings--I would put my money with them immediately.

That gives the elderly no encouragement to save ; I believe that it gives them a disincentive. I asked the Government earlier this year urgently to re-examine the situation, so far without a response. I am currently concerned about the annual development programme. In the immediate future, the rented programme will be protected, but I am worried about what will happen in a few years' time. The 12 October edition of The Financial Times correctly forecast a £300 million cut in the annual development programme.

Working on that basis, the Oxford Economic Forecasting Unit predicted the loss of a further 8,000 jobs in the construction industry. However, the increased benefit payments and the loss of income tax and national insurance contributions will mean that the net saving will be only £200 million in the public sector borrowing requirement, not the £300 million that the Government are apparently aiming for. The net effect will be more unemployment in the construction industry and more misery for homeless and overcrowded families. On social and economic grounds, therefore, I plead for careful consideration to be given to the housing association programme.

I must admit that I get very depressed when I see people sleeping rough on the streets of our cities. I realise that it is happening all over the world, and I know the reason for it--there are more broken marriages than there used to be, and young people perhaps have more independence and leave the nest earlier--but that does not alter the fact that it is a blot on everything that we British stand for. Secondly, I want to refer to a subject that is of great concern to my constituency. In August this year, the Department of Trade and Industry asked local authorities to bid for designation as objective 2 areas. The key criteria for description as a declining industrial area under objective 2 are, first, the average rate of unemployment over the past three years must have been above the European Community average ; secondly, the percentage share of industrial employment in total employment must have equalled or exceeded the Community average in any reference year from 1975 onwards ; thirdly, there must have been an observable fall in industrial employment as compared with the reference year chosen.

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Trafford--the council area in which my constituency is located--is one of 10 districts that comprise Greater Manchester, and Trafford council has been working with the other nine councils to formulate a Greater Manchester operational programme for objective 2 status for European funding.

On 11 October, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry announced with a great fanfare that the Government were including more of north-west England in the bid for European funds. He said : "This is good news for the region. All current Objective 2 areas are on the list, plus new areas which face job losses, such as Barrow. The new candidates from the North West include Central Lancashire, Fleetwood and Lancaster and Morecambe. All the existing Objective 2 areas of East Lancashire, West Cumbria, West Cheshire, West Lancashire and much of Greater Manchester stay in the list the Government has proposed."

The parts of Greater Manchester that have been excluded are certain wards in Stockport and Trafford. I want my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to find out why. I remind him that the west midlands areas included both deprived areas and areas of structural decline, and affluent areas on the fringes of the conurbation. I want to know why there is one rule for the west midlands and an entirely different one for Greater Manchester. The whole of the Altrincham and Sale constituency has been overlooked. It is impossible to understand what sort of objective criteria formed the basis of the decision.

The exclusion of certain wards in Trafford is damaging. Without objective 2 status, European regional development fund money, which aids capital projects, cannot be claimed. The exclusion will have significant effects on proposed economic and environmental initiatives in the Broadheath and Altrincham wards. The loss of objective 2 will also have a serious effect on the borough. It will undoubtedly mean a substantial reduction in European social fund money for the South Trafford college.

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention in particular to the Broadheath area in my constituency. That area contains an industrial estate--not as large as Trafford park, which is world famous--that was once noted for the part it played in the machine tool industry. In 1975, there were more than 6,500 jobs on that estate ; now there are about 2,000.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Terrible, isn't it?

Sir Fergus Montgomery : Yes it is, and the terrible thing is that the decline started when the last Labour Government were in power.

Mr. Cryer : Nonsense.

Sir Fergus Montgomery : Oh, yes it did.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : When the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) was a Minister.

Sir Fergus Montgomery : Yes, when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister. There is no point in trying to put the blame on a particular Government.

Mr. Cryer : Do you remember?

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Sir Fergus Montgomery : Yes. We remember some of the hardships that occurred during that time ; some of us have long memories. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman has something to say, I wish he would stand up and say it.

Unemployment locally is above the Community average. Major companies such as Churchill Machine Tools, Kearns Richards, Linotype, Luke and Spencer and Record Electrical have all been casualties of the structural decline and economic recession.

Mr. Cryer : Under the Tories.

Sir Fergus Montgomery : Under successive Governments since the end of the war.

For the life of me, I cannot understand the exclusion of Broadheath. In my view, it should have been a prime contender for European funding, because it seems to fit the objective 2 criteria like a glove. European funding would have meant new infrastructure investment to help business with better communications and improvements in public transport, and the local community could have continued to enjoy vital training initiatives organised by the local further education college using European social fund finance. Broadheath is a prime example of the unfairness of the Department of Trade and Industry ruling, but there are other examples in Trafford, such as parts of Altrincham, where we have redundant British Rail sidings right in the centre of town and other evidence of decline.

I have a horrible feeling that someone in the Department of Trade and Industry thinks that my constituency is an area of leafy suburbs. It is true that we have good residential areas--I do not deny that--but we also have areas that have problems, where there is an industrial base, and I believe that we have been unjustly penalised. My right hon. Friend knows that I never lose my temper and never raise my voice. I am glad to see that the Whip agrees with me. Similarly, I never repeat gossip. I am staking my claim to go upstairs--I do not mean to the House of Lords but in the hereafter.

Mr. Dicks : You mean downstairs.

Sir Fergus Montgomery : If I go downstairs, I know who I will see there.

Mr. John Marshall : Those two below the Gangway--the hon. Members for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

Sir Fergus Montgomery : Yes, I will see lots of old friends. I want to tell my right hon. Friend that all those virtues that I possess will disappear overnight unless something is done about this matter. I hope that he will go to whoever made the decision in the Department of Trade and Industry and say how angry I am. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend is being subjected to all my rage, but if nothing is done, whoever made the decision will be subjected to it, too.

I hope that, before we rise for Christmas, my right hon. Friend will ensure that the relevant Ministers at the Department are aware of the anger in our area at the fact that Altrincham and Sale and other parts of Trafford have been excluded. I hope that my right hon. Friend will have some good news for me before I go home for Christmas.

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9.46 am

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : I agree with the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) about the need to build houses in Britain. For many years following the end of the second world war, we built more than 200,000 houses a year, but in the past 14 years there has been hardly any local authority building. As for unemployment, I would merely comment that it stood at 1.25 million when the Labour Government left office. I voted against that Government 150-odd times ; I was not altogether happy with what they were doing. But I can tell the House that most of my constituents would settle for 1.25 million unemployed now, given half a chance [Hon. Members :-- "And the inflation?"] And the inflation, caused largely by the previous Tory Government, who left a right old mess, and by the quadrupling of oil prices and the rest. I am not here to talk about that : I just mention it en passant.

From the top of the hill where Bolsover castle is, near New Station road and High street, there is a beautiful view over the edge of the Pennines across from the industrial side straight over to the edge of the Peak district. About two years ago, some of my constituents in High street and New Station road asked me to see them regarding what was referred to as a landslip at Backhills.

The local newspaper reports talked about gardens that were disappearing down the side of a hill. Greenhouses were demolished, then garages. I immediately raised the matter with various Ministers, because I could foresee the possibility, given that we were talking about the side of a hill, that eventually some houses might go. That is what happened.

Having watched the television and seen the hotel at Scarborough disappear down the cliff face, and knowing that the Government had given more than £1 million in grant on that occasion, I thought that it would be feasible for the Government to assist people in the landslip area by allocating similar sums.

I was told by the Minister concerned that the Scarborough hotel received money from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under the Coast Protection Act 1949. We could not apply under that Act, but landslips that occur on the coast and landslips that occur inland should not be treated differently ; we should not hand out grants on one hand and, on the other, tell people that they will have to grin and bear it.

I hope that the Leader of the House will pass a message on to the relevant Ministers that some way should be found to ensure that the people in the Bolsover area--four have seen their houses demolished, and another two houses are likely to be demolished in the next few months--are compensated in some way.

Derbyshire county council immediately tried to find out the cause of the problem. At first it was difficult because, very cleverly, British Coal, which had mined underneath the area, had ordered what it called a Mott Macdonald study to find out the reason for the landslip from its point of view. British Coal was very quick to get the study into operation, and it came up with findings that the landslip was nothing to do with coal mining- -even though British Coal had been mining under the area as recently as 1973.

I believe that British Coal has some responsibility in the matter. I asked British Coal to compensate these people for the loss of their houses and other assets. British Coal said that, according to the Mott Macdonald study, it was not its

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responsibility. The study did not include, however, the fact that British Coal had been pumping out millions of tonnes of water in the area. Many local people consider that the dams of water that had built up were part of the reason for the landslip and the houses falling away.

It is significant that a few yards from the landslip stands the church, which is approximately 40 or 50 yd from the escarpment face. Several years ago, I raised in the House the subject of subsidence in Bolsover church, because of the problems that had been created. Arising out of my questions, a settlement was eventually made by British Coal. If it can pay for subsidence in the church, which is a few yards away from the escarpment face, there is surely an argument that the same should apply to the owners of the houses on High street and New Station road that have been demolished. British Coal still refuses to pay, and that is why the Department of the Environment and/or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should find some way of assisting the residents of that area.

As I have said, the Scarborough hotel came under the Coast Protection Act 1949, but perhaps the houses in Bolsover could come under another heading. In the mid-1960s, there was a disaster in Wales at Aberfan, where 200-odd kids were killed in a school. I was a member of my local authority at that time. The Government of the day decided to send an inspector to every area in Britain where there were pit tips and said, "If these tips are dangerous, shift them--the Government will find the money." At Clay Cross, we managed to get rid of a pit tip during that period. The money was provided by the Government.

If it was possible in the aftermath of that awful Aberfan disaster for the Government to find the money to get rid of all those dangerous tips--not only in coalfields but in many other areas around Britain--it should be possible to draw the same parallel for the people in the Bolsover area.

Probably more than 80 houses are blighted. The house owners cannot get their homes insured--certainly not for the same price that they paid before --because the insurers have said that it is a bit dodgy. Those house owners have suffered in many ways over the past two years.

British Coal says that it is not its responsibility. I believe that it is, but let us assume that British Coal can sustain its argument that it is not. We then come to the question whether it is a natural occurrence that the people in the area could not have foreseen. It that is the case, it could be argued that Ministers should take a fresh look at the matter, and study the reports sent in by people in the area and the local authorities, to see whether they can assist. Bolsover district council and Derbyshire county council have set up an assessment to find out what is causing the problem and what the cost of draining the area of the escarpment would be. There is a lot of water in the area, which we contend has built up from pit workings in the past. It is estimated that to find out what the problem is and how to eliminate it will cost £50,000, and that to elimimate it will cost more than £1 million.

The people who live on the side of that hill should not be expected to find £1 million to resolve the problem. The Department of the Environment should take the problem into account when making grants available to the Derbyshire county council, which is taking part in the study, and to the Bolsover district council, which is helping to pay for it.

The massive amount of money that it will cost to drain the whole area should also be taken into account. I hope

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that the Leader of the House will inform the relevant Ministers of the need to look at ways in which this problem can be settled. I have discussed it with the various local authorities of the area during the past few days.

Will the relevant Ministers in the Department of the Environment and-or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food meet Bolsover district council, Derbyshire county council and other local representatives of the tenants-- the house owners have formed an action group--with a view to considering the possibility of building into the grant settlement, if nothing else, a sum of money to enable the local authorities to eliminate the problem once the assessment has been made?

The Department of the Environment should meet British Coal and ask all the relevant questions that I have sent to it from D. C. Carter Associates, which is acting on behalf of the residents. It is contended that the dams of water that built up in the area as a result of coal mine workings are part of the problem.

Will the Leader of the House pass those messages to the relevant Departments, so that a meeting can be arranged with the local authorities concerned? Those authorities will be pleased to come down to discuss the matter.

I do not believe that the settlements made yesterday took into account the amount of money that will be needed by that area. If British Coal refuses to accept responsibility, that money can come only from the people who live in the area and the local authorities responsible for its administration.

I hope that the Leader of the House will pass on those messages, and that he will be able to impress on the relevant Ministers the need for them to meet the local area representatives and the residents as soon as possible, so that we can get to the bottom of the problem and ensure that the matter is dealt with as speedily as possible.

9.59 am

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) : I am delighted to be called to take part in the Adjournment debate. My subject is the family--at this time of year, as we approach Christmas, that topic is perhaps more important than ever.

Tuesday's Budget represents a turning point in the economic fortunes of the nation. All the economic indicators point to a period of sustainable growth and a gradual return to sound finance. It might be said that some of the social indicators are less favourable. The numbers of young people involved in criminal activities continue to cause concern. Our divorce rate--at four out of 10 marriages--remains at a high level. In fact, it is the highest in the European Community. The number of children born outside wedlock has soared in the past few years.

Teachers up and down the land pull their hair out over the unacceptable behaviour of a rising number of five-year-olds who are encountering school and authority for the first time. Policemen express concern at the number of teenagers who take their names and numbers and threaten to report them for assault or wrongful arrest. The nation wrings its hands and searches its soul over the James Bulger case.

What can be done to stop the apparent rise in the number of young people growing up with no respect for others or for authority, and no apparent knowledge of right and wrong? I wish to make my contribution to the debate

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on the social issues facing society today. I welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in raising the priority of social issues in today's political agenda.

I strongly support the range of measures to be introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. Certainly, the balance of the criminal justice system needs to be restored--away from the criminal and towards the innocent. I also welcome the wide-ranging debate now under way about the size and shape of the welfare state. Those who oppose such a debate have obviously never read some of the speeches of Beveridge and the other founding fathers of the welfare state.

I wish to explore one aspect of our social fabric that remains undervalued in modern society. I feel strongly that the role of the family in the past 30 years has been sidelined in a way that has become a significant factor in many of our social problems today. I am delighted that 1994 is to be the United Nations International Year of the Family, providing an opportunity to promote the importance of family relationships.

As I draw on my own experience of 38 years, as I read report after report and article after article, and as I talk to those involved with law enforcement, I increasingly take the view that children who grow up in a balanced and stable home, where they receive care and affirmation, are much less likely to become involved in crime or to seek financial support from the state, and more likely to achieve well at school. Those factors are becoming as plain as a pikestaff. A recent article in The Guardian written by Paul Webster stated :

"A French study of violent adolescent crime puts most of the blame for aggression on the failure of parents to provide role models Psychiatrists Bernard Zeiller and Tony Laine examined 600 files on violent juvenile crime in Paris for the national institute of health and medical research. These included seven murders, one by a child under 13.

Sixteen children aged 13 to 18 took part in a study aimed at drawing up a portrait of juveniles likely to become criminals. All had an image of a failed father who had not protected them from criminal impulses as they were themselves delinquent, or alcoholic. Mothers had failed to provide an environment in which the child's personality could develop. The offenders suffered from narcissism and a constant feeling of insecurity and the fear of abandonment." A recent article by Janet Daley which appeared in The Times on 25 November 1993 stated, about two thirds of the way through : "Scientific rationalists that we are, we cannot accept the central mystery of the human condition : that we are all born with a capacity for evil and a readiness to be good. How most of us learn to be good rather than evil is a secondary mystery, but there is little doubt that it requires the presence of other people.

Good behaviour is taught and measured by others, whereas bad behaviour may grow in perverse isolation, feeding on its own introversion. Instructing the young to suppress their innate evil impulses is the individual and collective responsibility of adults. Without constant supervision (and the kind of moral instruction now regarded as authoritarian) the young can and will run amok into amoral, sadistic egoism."

Surely she hits the nail on the head.

Can we any longer doubt that each child is born with a potential for good and for bad? Each young life, if properly nurtured with love and consistent discipline, is able to learn from a responsible role model, and is much more likely to develop into a predominantly law-abiding citizen.

Of course I recognise that some children will have psychological difficulties whatever their parents do. There

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are also those well-raised children who are derailed by incidents of circumstances later in life. However, as a general rule, children raised in stable and secure homes are overwhelmingly more likely to make a positive contribution to society, and are also more likely to pass on that capability to the next generation. As we debate the Christmas Adjournment, it is an appropriate time to consider the implications of the family in this nation.

An article in The Evening Standard on 4 March 1993 states : "Mrs. Roberts, chief probation officer for Hereford and Worcester, told the association's annual conference in London : Tackling shortcomings and equipping young people with basic social skills are the components of the successful reduction of offending behaviour. These skills include dealing with people in authority, learning how not to lose your temper, getting what you need by legitimate and acceptable means and finding positive opportunities for creativity and achievement.'

In a reasonably stable and supportive home environment, young people were tremendously responsive, Mrs. Roberts said.

But sadly, in some of the more desperate urban settings, motivation is less easily tapped,' she added.

What is needed to reduce persistent offending is what most people acquire during childhood through stable family life, education, the learning of skills and the availability of opportunity.' "

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) : We all agree about what we wish to see in society. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman does not appear to be willing to define the family. Much has been written about the family as a nuclear family, with male and female parents and a number of children. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that many studies have shown that, although the trauma of divorce greatly disturbs children, if they come through the divorce and are left with one caring, loving parent who teaches them as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, that parent can be just as successful in bringing up the child in a balanced way and keeping him or her on what the hon. Gentleman would call the right path?

Mr. Streeter : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I accept what he says. If he is patient, I shall come to that issue. Sadly, it is also true that children raised in a setting in which mother or father or both do not care, do not love and do not discipline consistently, are much more likely to develop into adolescents and adults who live in conflict with others and end up in trouble with the law. Importantly, there is also a tendency to pass those problems on to the next generation.

I realise that I am making generalisations, but I trust that the House will not condemn me for that. I recognise that exceptions to general principles can always be found, but I believe that the evidence in support of my general premise is overwhelming. Thelop into irresponsible adults. Children from the poorest home, where a mother and father valiantly try to bring them up well, are likely to grow into citizens who make a positive contribution. My argument is that whether each child born in this nation develops into a predominantly law-abiding citizen, or someone likely to slide into crime or lean on the state, depends largely on the forces that shape and nurture that life in its early years in the home and then in school. Care and affirmation produce children who are at peace with

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themselves and others. A strong and stable family unit is the best vehicle--perhaps the only vehicle--for delivering children who make a positive contribution, because a stable family offers the best context for parenting and a role model for children.

If we are to find long-term solutions to rising crime or welfare dependency, we must find ways of encouraging and strengthening stable relationships between parents and their children. So many things that we now seek to do as a Government, or as local authorities or other statutory agencies--whether it be seeking to prevent crime or caring for elderly people--should and can be done better by the family. Many of our social problems would gradually disappear if we established family relationships as the cornerstone on which our society is based.

For that reason, I believe that Government should actively seek new ways to support and encourage the family. That would have long-standing and far- reaching benefits to our nation. If we strengthen family relationships, that will also strengthen individual responsibility and responsible citizenship. If we strengthen family relationships, that will foster a great sense of community and neighbourhood. The healthy future for our nation lies in the proper balance of individual responsibility, the stable family and active community, not in ever-increasing state provision.

Many will shake their heads and say that it cannot be done, that it is not the role of Government to tell people how to live their lives. I agree that freedom of choice is paramount, but surely it is the job of Government to set the direction and create the environment in which those choices can be made. When better to consider those matters than now, as we approach Chistmas?

It is also right to give a lead in social policy, and not merely follow behind people's choices, picking up the pieces no matter how high the cost. We must be prepared to make value judgments. If it is right that the personal, social and financial costs of family breakdown are so damaging to our nation, should we be reticent about saying so? If we believe that family relationships are important, we should say so and seek to give a lead.

We have allowed the fear of upsetting minority groups to undermine our moral leadership and social policy for far too long. It is now considered discriminatory to say that we wish to encourage the family. We fear a critical backlash from those who choose an alternative life style, so we remain silent. We must now move the agenda forward. The family is better because it is better for society as a whole. It is sound common sense. People who chose an alternative life style are free to do so, but we must not let the tail wag the dog.

The stable family unit should be our goal, not because of some fancy moral argument, but because it delivers maximum social benefits. It is a practical matter. We have the right to make that call. I do not hark back to a golden age of perfect family life, for it never existed. My call is to learn the lessons of yesterday and today to make tomorrow better.

It is important to stress that, in promoting the family, I am attacking not lone parents but neglectful parents. Research appears to support the view that two parents are better than one. The presence of mother and father enables the burdensome responsibilities of child care and breadwinning to be shared. Let me make my view clear : thousands of single parents up and down the land are doing

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a magnificent job in raising their children in difficult circumstances. They deserve our support, not our condemnation. The challenge is to find ways to prevent so much family breakdown in the future, to produce better parents and reduce the number of children who grow up outside a framework of security and discipline. I hope that, as we approach Christmas, we can debate those issues. Our divorce statistics are truly horrifying, yet when I speak to young people about their aspirations for the future, I find that they aspire to long-term commitment. Most people are looking for a partner to whom they can commit and with whom they can share their life. They want a secure home in which to raise their children. That is their dream, but sadly today, too many lack the skills, the understanding or the benefit of a role model to make that dream a reality for them.

In seeking to support and encourage the family, we are not cutting across the grain of people's aspirations ; we are cutting with the grain, seeking ways to help people to achieve their goal in life. We have helped people to own their homes. Let us help them to achieve the personal security that we all seek.

What can be done? We need to reach a consensus that family is important, that family is better and that family can deliver the social benefits that we rightly seek. I suspect that we are much closer to that consensus now than we were even three years ago. What we lack is any clear view on how to take the debate forward and convert it into practical action.

In closing, I shall make some brief suggestions. First, it is clear that too many young people grow up without learning the skills of being a parent or a spouse. We must commit ourselves to educating young people about their relationships and the complexities of partnership and parenthood. A great deal more can be done in our schools to educate young people in those areas. Of course there is no magic formula to being a good spouse or partner and a good parent, but there are timeless principles involved that can be taught and passed on.

Secondly, there is value in more proactive counselling, and teaching young couples before marriage is entered into--and during it. For several years, my wife helped run a pre-marriage counselling course in our church in Plymouth. In some cases, it was amazing how little some young couples on the threshold of marriage knew about each other.

In every case, the course proved of benefit to those taking it. Approximately one in five young couples decided not to get married, or deferred their marriage, as a result of being confronted by important issues that they had not previously considered. Surely that should be seen as a success, not a failure.

We also know from our own experience and with being involved with other couples that expert and wise counselling at the right time for all couples going through a bad patch can mean the difference between reconciliation and separation. We need to explore ways of reaching couples before marital problems become marital crises.

Thirdly, having taught people the skills, and having given them the counselling and backup necessary, parents must be made to face up to their responsibilities. The Child Support Agency has made a valuable start in addressing

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