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Column 450years when, despite the noble intentions of the welfare state, dependency gained the upper hand over independence, freedom and choice. The House will have noted that, when the hon. Lady referred to independence, freedom and choice, she did so with a certain sneer in her approach to those concepts.
It was in those same years that fashionable nostrums in education, housing and law and order took hold. Non-judgmental, permissive values undermined respect for the values of responsibility, community and self-help--the very values that families had honed and passed on down the centuries. It is in those years that we can trace the origins of so much extra family breakdown and the erosion of respect for order and law.
Mr. Devlin : The Opposition do not care, either.
Mrs. Bottomley : And they do not care, either.
Such trends have, regrettably, continued in the 1980s and 1990s. They have been a phenomenon shared to a greater or lesser extent by comparable developed countries over that period. The social changes that brought them about are complex. Unfortunately, many lie beyond the power of Parliament to reverse. But what Governments can do is to provide the right environment to support and strengthen families and uphold their independence from the state. It is here that Conservative Governments since 1979 have made the decisive break from their predecessors.
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West) : Given our broad agreement that the state should not take the place of the family, and the Secretary of State's concern about the dependency culture, how worried is she that a record number of families with children are totally dependent on the state for income, and that the dependency culture has increased during the past 15 years ?
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : A good argument for the Child Support Agency.
Mrs. Bottomley : As my hon. Friend rightly says, that is a good argument for the CSA. It is also a good argument for the measures that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget in terms of assistance with child care, and, indeed, for the dramatic improvements in family credit--whereas around 80,000 people benefited when the Labour party was in power around 500,000 people benefit now. [Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) seems to be engaged in a running commentary.
Mrs. Bottomley : Conservative Members are familiar with the fact that, when Labour Members have no arguments, they either make a dreadful noise or start saying that the figures have been fiddled ; we always know that we are home and dry when that is their response. We have made a great number of changes to improve the situation for families. We have opened the doors to opportunity and enterprise, which gave families the chance to assert their independence and strength. Socialism nationalised choice, taking it away from individuals and families. We gave it back. Some 1.4 million families have been able to buy their homes under our right-to-buy policy--1.4 million families freed from the serfdom of the state and able to experience the independence and responsibility of home ownership ; the tenants of Labour local authorities
Column 451in particular found the tyranny, patronising attitude and lack of concern quite deplorable. That is something about which I know a great deal.
To its shame, the Labour party fought us at every stage. More powers to families meant less power to the baronies of the Labour movement and to the trade unions and municipal socialists. We know why the Labour party fought so hard to avoid the sale of council houses : it thought that, when people were in them, they were within its power. Those who used to see the difficulties that people faced in getting their council houses repaired by some Labour local authorities will know exactly why it thought that.
We still see today how entrenched is Labour's opposition to genuine independence and choice for families. In education, for example, the Labour party has opposed, and continues to oppose, every single measure that gives parents more choice, more influence and more control over their children's schooling. The Labour party opposed the right that we gave parents to choose their children's schools. It opposed grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges. It opposed testing. It carps at and criticises the publication of school performance tables, which give parents the information that they need to make informed choices.
The Labour party may claim to support the family, but what families want is information and influence over their children's schooling. They do not want to be frozen out. They want to participate. They want to be involved. They want information. But the Labour party resists every single measure that we pass that gives families power.
Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley) : Is the Secretary of State aware that the money for city technology colleges could have provided many more pre-school education places for the under-fives ? She raised a point about housing, which I think represents one way in which the state can support family life. Does she agree that the question that we should ask is how many families are in adequate housing, regardless of the ownership of those houses ? Is not it a tragedy that, when commenting on housing, she seeks to make political points about home ownership and ignores the very real fact that more families now live in disgraceful and appalling housing than at any time since the second world war ? What support are the Government going to give to get people out of housing misery ?
Mrs. Bottomley : Presumably, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) will now not feel the need to make a speech in her own right to start denigrating city technology colleges as always. The Opposition hate choice, diversity and variety, and that is why the public have no confidence in them. The public realise that the Opposition believe that they always know best. The Opposition never trust the people ; that is why they deplore every opportunity that empowers the public and families and offers diversity. I shall in a moment deal with the points about child care that the hon. Member for Yardley raised.
In the health service, family doctors are being empowered through GP fundholding. True to form, the Labour party opposes the scheme and does so with a
Column 452vehemence that can only foreshadow an ignominious U-turn in two or three years' time when it realises that the argument is lost. It is an instinctive part of human nature to want to live an independent life and to provide for one's own family. Our economic and taxation policies since 1979 have supported that instinct.
Mr. Enright : Is the Secretary of State aware that the Catholic bishops' social conference has placed at the door of current Government policies the problems experienced by families and difficulties of criminality ? Has the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), made her aware of it, or is that hon. Lady very selective in the Catholic policies that she accepts ?
Mrs. Bottomley : I fear that I shall have to deal with that point in more detail later. However, to attribute criminality to the Government is exactly the approach that the Opposition always pursue. Criminals are responsible for criminal behaviour. One matter on which I warmly support the hon. Member for Eccles is on the significance of parenting and parents' ongoing responsibility to control as well as to care for their children.
As I was saying, our economic and taxation policies since 1979 have supported the family instinct to want to live an independent life--a fact that the Opposition clearly fail to understand. The Opposition believe that families want to be dictated to and to be under the control of the Labour party. Fortunately, families have supported our party in the past four general elections.
Our policies have encouraged and rewarded individual enterprise and endeavour. We have reduced tax rates on income and savings to promote incentives, to encourage saving and to ensure that wealth, as well as values and traditions, can be passed down the generations. The Labour party denounces that as the so-called "greedy society".
We remember how, suddenly in the late-1980s, all the social problems which for years the Labour party had been telling us were caused by people not having enough money appeared to be caused by people having too much money. Today, as the hon. Member for Eccles reminded us, we are back to the poverty argument. We do not need economists to tell us where we are in the economic cycle--one has only to read the latest Labour speech on the causes of crime.
The hon. Lady might like to read what her noble Friend Baroness Dean said when introducing a recent debate on the family in another place :
"poverty is not just about a lack of money ; it is also about a lack of opportunity".--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 23 February 1994 ; Vol. 552, c. 637.]
Because the Government have pursued economic policies of opportunity and enterprise, families are substantially better off than they were in 1979. The income of the average family has increased by 35 per cent. ahead of inflation. Moreover, the increase extends to a large number of people on below-average incomes. On another key measure--the ownership of household goods--it is also clear that the picture painted by the Opposition is highly selective. Seven out of 10 of the poorest 10 per cent. of families by income now have central heating, compared with four in 10 when the Opposition were in power. Half have cars, compared with
Column 45340 per cent. in 1979, and 60 per cent. have videos. Again, the sneering and scoffing of the Opposition shows just how out of touch they are with what really matters to people.
The advances to which I have referred are mirrored by improvements in health. The hon. Member for Eccles was rather wise to avoid too much discussion about health because there is clear evidence of improvements in the health of all people in our society since our party has been in power-- especially since the successful implementation of our NHS reforms. Life expectancy is greater by about two years than it was a decade ago. The rate of infant mortality has halved since 1979 and is now at its lowest ever level ; it has fallen in all social classes and in all regions and, although it remains higher in social classes 4 and 5 than in others, the gap has narrowed significantly in the past 12 years.
More than 90 per cent. of children are now immunised against the major childhood diseases, which is a stunning achievement. I am sure that the House will recall the Opposition opposing the introduction of payments for immunisation targets. They said that the targets were too high and too heroic and that they should be lower in inner-city areas. That is the Opposition's two-tier health service--lower targets in the inner cities. We would have none of it : we said that to help the inner cities we would introduce deprivation payments so that GPs there would have extra assistance. As a result, childhood diseases have dropped to their lowest ever levels, saving lives and sparing thousands of children the fear of hospital treatment. I remind the House that much of the credit for that lies with the incentive payments introduced under the GP contract.
The best way to improve the well-being and the living standards of families is to make it more worth while for those who can and want to work to do so. Most parents--couples and lone parents--do not want to be dependent on benefit, locked into what can be a hopeless cycle of despair. Poverty occurs when the state drives out opportunity. Prosperity means breaking free--wanting to work, wanting to provide for oneself and one's family and wanting to put something back into society rather than merely taking out.
Mr. Heald : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the striking points to emerge from the press conference was
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : Reading.
Mr. Heald : I am about to quote. The press conference dealt with the first year of the operation of the Child Support Agency. Kate Lister from Newbury is reported as saying that the CSA had allowed her
"to get off benefit and into a part-time job for the first time in six years."
It had enabled her to escape the benefit trap and have choice. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is appalling that the Opposition, who talk so glibly about the rights of women, are not prepared to back the agency all the way down the line ?
Mrs. Bottomley : I strongly support the views expressed by my hon. Friend. The Child Support Agency provides a much greater opportunity for women to live independently and is yet another aspect of the Government's success in recognising their need to do so.
The twin aims of the Government's social security reforms have been to target help on those most in need and
Column 454to ensure that the system retains incentives for individuals to break out of the unemployment and poverty traps. The Government have sought to help parents who are less well off to take jobs. Family credit, which I have already mentioned, is currently paid to 500,000 families and ensures that low-income families with children are better off in work. On average, families are £23 a week better off on family credit than on income support.
All parties welcomed the announcement in the Budget that we shall provide additional assistance with child care costs from this October. One hundred and fifty thousand low-income families will benefit. It is a telling contrast : while the Government pursue practical policies, the Labour party's answer is a statutory minimum wage which would force families out of work.
The Labour party criticises the Government's record on child care because it cares only about public provision--it edits the independent and voluntary sectors out of the figures.
Ms Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West) : I am sure that the right hon. Lady knows that there are good Labour local authorities, such as North Tyneside, which, far from believing in only one means of child care provision, have invested in a superb system that has attracted money from the public sector and which the Government themselves have used. I understand that at least eight Departments now provide creches. Such authorities have increased the quality of care available for the children of parents who cannot afford it by using imaginatively and creatively money from employers and the parents who can afford it. That is a superb example of what can be done to give children and their families opportunities and to raise standards, without additional cost to the taxpayer.
Mrs. Bottomley : It is encouraging to think that there are glimmers of hope in the Labour party from time to time. It is all a question of partnership, and it cannot be put at the feet of central Government to solve all ills. The key is partnership, diversity and choice, as my honourable and splendid Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) said when she made that point so well. She also said that 90 per cent. of three and four-year-olds in England now attend some form of pre- school education or other group provision. That is one of the best records in Europe.
There has been a steady and welcome growth in private and voluntary day nursery provision. The intervention by the hon. Member for Durham, North- West (Ms Armstrong) revealed that there are glimmers of hope that perhaps here, as with the sale of council houses--and, I predict, with GP fundholding--it is possible in the fullness of time for the dinosaur's tail to twitch, and for change to take place.
The Government encourage the private and voluntary sectors, as well as individuals, to provide a variety of services that give parents choice. Parents, employers, the churches, voluntary bodies and the private sector should all play an active part. We help national organisations such as the Pre-School Playgroups Association, the National Childminding Association and Kids Clubs network to provide services for their members. Such organisations not only provide care for children but give confidence to parents.
Mr. Thurnham : Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities should not be over-zealous in interpreting the Children Act 1989 so that voluntary organisations such as the scouts do not suddenly find artificial difficulties placed in their way ?
Mrs. Bottomley : My hon. Friend is right. The Children Act, which has been a great success in protecting and safeguarding children, has been so zealously implemented by some local authorities that people providing voluntary and private child care have been oppressively treated. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), when he was a Minister, did much to relieve people from some of the oppressive interpretations of the regulations under the Act, and now we hope to stop many such activities-- certainly those organised by the scouts, guides and some of the other organised youth movements--from being controlled by that Act.
Child care is not the only way of helping parents to reconcile work and family responsibilities. The true family-friendly employer will consider a whole package of measures--child care, career breaks, flexible working and job sharing. I am pleased that in the national health service--one of the largest employers of women not only in this country but in the world--we are setting a good example. The NHS was one of the first employers to sign up for Opportunity 2000, and we are showing a lead in giving women more opportunities to develop their careers while discharging their family commitments. That is the right way. Progress is made not by Government edict but by employers realising that it is enlightened self-interest to be able to accommodate women who wish to give time to their families and their domestic responsibilities.
The hon. Member for Eccles spoke about nursery schooling. Well over half of all three and four-year-olds are now in state-funded nursery education, as opposed to just over 40 per cent. 10 years ago. Our long-term ambition is to widen access and choice, as and when we can afford to do so. We shall consider a range of options to achieve that ambition, concentrating on our key goals of quality, diversity and choice.
Parenting is a difficult as well as a rewarding task. I agree with the hon. Lady about that. The ability to be a good parent does not always come automatically.
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : There is no doubt that in due course the Child Support Agency will achieve a number of the objectives that my right hon. Friend has laid down, including those that she mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald). However, is she aware that in the shorter term there will be a number of difficulties within families, caused by the work of the CSA, and will she convey that to her colleagues in the Department of Social Security ? For example, there will be tensions between separated parents who might otherwise have preserved reasonable relations, and there may be more contests over child custody. Will my right hon. Friend convey those concerns to her colleagues in the DSS ?
Mrs. Bottomley : I take my hon. Friend's point, and of course I shall pass on his comments. Any new system will have a number of teething problems and any responsible Government will take time to adjust to them. However, the principle that fathers should have a continuing financial responsibility for their children is right, and I welcome the establishment of the agency.
Column 456I was talking about the difficulties faced by parents. Many parents, young and old, often need help from family and friends, from neighbours, from teachers and sometimes from professionals. Sometimes they are crying out for help and advice. One of the benefits of an aging population is that we should increasingly be able to look to grandparents and older members of the community to support the younger members in bringing up their children. It is encouraging that, according to a recent survey, 69 per cent. of older people in the United Kingdom have contact with their families at least once a week.
Let us not forget that the roles can be reversed, too. There are at present about 6 million informal carers in Britain, looking after elderly or disabled relations. In our community care reforms we took care to recognise their invaluable role and to support them in it. The voluntary sector and the churches can and do play a role in helping parents to cope with their responsibilities. The Government support organisations such as Homestart and Newpin, which do such valuable work. We recognise befriending by volunteers, some of whom have overcome parenting difficulties in their own families. Other organisations set up self-help groups of parents.
The common element is the voluntary approach. We have a rich source of altruism in our society. Such effort provides the sort of practical help that can often prevent family breakdown. I welcomed a visit this week by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) to talk about parenting, and to mark the establishment of the new all-party group.
One of the most persistent and persuasive advocates of community help to improve the quality of parenting has been my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Joseph. I was pleased to see that, despite his illness, he returned with characteristic gusto to that theme in a recent debate in the other place.
We need good parents and high-quality parenting to ensure that the values of the family and the values of society are passed on. Children need stable family relationships to help them develop into responsible and law-abiding citizens. Parents must provide children with warmth and security. But they must also provide
boundaries--control as well as care. They must give their children a sense of order and predictability.
Parents who do not take their responsibilities seriously must face the consequences of their children's behaviour. In reviewing community-based sentences, we shall assess ways of strengthening parental involvement. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill will introduce the new parental bind -over, which will give the courts power to make parents responsible for ensuring that their child complies with any community sentence.
It is the duty of parents to instil in their children respect for the values of our society. But those messages must also come from beyond the family. For example, many people are rightly concerned about the pernicious effect of violent videos falling into children's hands. The welcome measures announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary earlier this week will provide extra safeguards, and tough penalties for those who expose children to video violence.
When young offenders commit crimes they should not be rewarded with holidays abroad or mountain bikes at the taxpayer's expense. Schools should support parents in teaching children to tell right from wrong. The spiritual and moral development
Column 457of children in schools is no less important than academic achievement. I pay a warm tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education for all that he has done to establish the moral and ethical climate in schools. He is right to stress that sex education should be taught within a clear moral framework. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Health was right to withdraw from circulation the Health Education Authority's "Pocket Guide to Sex". Ensuring effective sex education is vital in helping to meet "The Health of the Nation" targets on under-aged pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. However, there must also be a proper emphasis on stable relationships and individual responsibility.
The Government's commitment to the family as the cornerstone of our society is unshakeable. That commitment is founded on two convictions : first, the family is the essential source of love and respect between individuals and of their development as citizens. Secondly, family relationships and family values are and must be essentially private. The public interest is to support the family, not to substitute or to undermine it. The Government's fundamental duty is to provide a legislative framework that underpins family relationships. Our programme of enlightened family law reform--the Children Act 1989, the adoption White Paper, our proposals on divorce law and mediation--does just that. Our reform of public services in health and community care, in education, in housing and in social security has put families in the driving seat. Above all, we must acknowledge and respect the privacy of family life and reinforce parental responsibility.
Our policies work to support families. No other institution is as important to our society or as important to our future. Families want independence. They want opportunity. They want choice. Our belief in those principles makes us the party of the family and of their hopes and ambitions. We trust the family and we trust the people. That is why the electors have trusted us in the past four elections and that is why they will be right to do so again.
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West) : I welcome the debate on family policy because I am sure that we would all agree that some of the most critical issues on policy agendas affect the family, whether we are concerned with the young or the old. Throughout the country, some important debates, often led by voluntary organisations, are going on about family policy. Members of Parliament would do well to listen--I emphasise listen-- to those debates, because the quality of them is often high.
The other point that we should make is that we are not alone in the world in having to worry about such issues. Certainly throughout the western world, many of the trends that now affect the policy agenda are apparent and we have much to learn about positive and negative aspects from experience elsewhere. I hope that we use the opportunity of the International Year of the Family to have a serious and not a merely partisan debate about those questions.
There are three themes with which we should concern ourselves. One is that we should be interested in both the strengths and the insecurities of families. We often stress the negative aspects of family life, often because they pose the most critical policy challenges. Let us also emphasise the strengths, on which the Secretary of State touched. We
Column 458often talk of aging in a negative and an agist way, but the fact that more and more of our children are growing up in three or four-generation families represents a strength. The fact that my three children grew up partly cared for by their grandparents as well their parents represents a strength which earlier generations were denied.
We need to learn far more, not only about the nuclear family of parents and children but about the dynamics of the three and the four-generation family, and even the five-generation family, which one occasionally meets, so that we understand the patterns of help and care in families in both directions--from young to old and from old to young. If one were to ask what is the most important child care agency in the country, it would not be those that readily come to mind. Rather, it would be the grandparent and, one must say, usually the grandmother. Let us remember the strengths and play to those strengths, because we neglect strength at our peril. One of the reasons why community care is so important to put into practice and not only into words is that it represents a strength if only we were to recognise it.
Secondly, we should try to discuss not only the rights of families but the responsibilities. Most of us, our citizens and our parents want to take on responsibilities and duties as well as to be able to exercise rights when necessary. That is why, in all the difficult debates about child support and the Child Support Act 1991, it is so important to get it right. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the practice of the Child Support Agency because we care deeply--not only in words but in sentiment--about the principle of parental responsibility. If we were to lose that parental responsibility and if it were overthrown, it would be a major loss to our generation.
Thirdly, let us also consider the association between the family and the wider society--not only the state, the private sector and the voluntary sector--and let us think about the partnerships that we need between the family and the state. If one is sensible, the argument is not about either the family playing all the roles in education, health and care, or the state doing so, but about necessary partnerships. If one has learnt anything from research and experience, it is that, often, issues such as education and health depend far more on the family than on formal services. Building partnerships is crucial.
At the moment, three major forces cause family instability. Although I have already noted that we should recognise the strengths, I hope that the House will forgive me if I focus on the instabilities, because it is important that we get those issues right.
Mr. David Nicholson : Before the hon. Gentleman talks about instability, may I point out that when I made an intervention about the Child Support Agency, the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)--I think that it was him--referred to travel costs. On that point, where we may be agreed, would the hon. Gentleman agree that the CSA is in some cases making it difficult for absent fathers to visit their children ? The other day, a constituent of mine, who is resident in Taunton, told me that his family had moved to Leicester and that he faced considerable difficulty in funding regular visits to his children.
Mr. Wicks : It is not for me to grapple with the details of that issue, but I recognise that there are a number of factors, such as housing where the house has been made over to the mother, which somehow need to be recognised
Column 459in the formula. I recognise that is difficult, but experience in Australia may help us. Travel costs are another difficult issue. Although I do not want to become too diverted on the issue of child support because the family policy debate is wider than that, I am bound to say that, while we should recognise different costs that the "absent" parent has to pay, the costs of bringing up his own children should be near the top of the list and not near the bottom--a factor that we forget.
I am concerned that, in the difficult debate on child support, the crucial voice at the moment, which is the silent voice, is often that of the lone mother with her children. We hear from men and sometimes from second wives but, at present, it is a male-dominated debate. Unless Parliament is wise enough to listen hard to the voices that are not shouting, we shall make mistakes. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) quoted one lone mother who spoke at a recent press conference and gave her perspective of child support. I was pleased that I had the opportunity to chair that press conference, because some of us are trying to listen to those voices and construct a more considerate debate on child support. We can get it right and there are lessons to be learned from overseas. I wanted to talk about the forces causing insecurity, of which there are several. One is family breakdown, to use that term as shorthand. Most hon. Members recognise that the social revolution of the family, which is affecting our society--all societies of which I know in Europe, as well as societies in the Antipodes, North America and so on--is not a bloodless revolution. I do not know whether some have felt that it may have been a bloodless revolution in the 1960s but it is not today. There are many victims and most of those victims--not all--are women and children. It is time to put women and children first in the debate. We know of the trends and that increasing numbers of our children are born outside wedlock. I am not saying that that is a negative factor, but I am giving it as a demographic fact. Some children are born to cohabiting parents, while some are born to the group that we often refer to as single, unmarried mothers.
We need to understand the trends. I was struck by the fact that the Secretary of State reminded us that her Department is responsible for the collection of official statistics. We need to be aware that our official statistics--they tend to register things like marriage and divorce--are increasingly not capturing the full family picture because those who cohabit do not have to register ; I am not advocating that they should. Cohabiting parents with children whose relationships break up are not captured in the official statistics. We must recognise, and the Government must recognise, that the official data are capturing an increasing proportion of the dynamic family change, and much of the research is taking place in our universities.
We know that probably one in four young children--I suspect that that may be an understatement--will have before they reach the age of 16 parents who divorce. We should not imagine that that trend has something to do with a specific period in our history, such as the 1960s or whatever decade we are against this week. It is happening around the world. We must recognise that the forces are complex and fundamental. That does not mean that we always give in to them. We try to resist some of them.
Column 460The trend means that more of our children are living in one-parent families. There are different groups of one-parent families, and some are more insecure than others. The research that I have seen, and the experience that I have gained, suggests that we should not leap to simple conclusions about the issue. Poverty must be a factor. It would be absurd and partisan in the worst sense for anyone to deny that. Seven out of 10 one-parent families draw income support. None of us can be happy about that--the families are not happy about it. Some of the insecurities that are associated with such families are not simply about poverty. The research evidence on educational attainment, the fact that some children in one-parent families leave home early and the fact that some girls form cohabiting relationships very early and become pregnant very young suggests that we are dealing with a more complex interaction between material, social and psychological things which we would do well to consider wisely--and perhaps more wisely than some of us would sometimes like to. That is important. About 2 million of our children are in one- parent families. We need not to attack or condemn but to understand what is happening. We must rigorously examine the evidence if we are to make wise judgments about social policy.
Mr. Streeter : I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech and enjoying it because it is a thoughtful contribution. The hon. Gentleman is studiously avoiding making any value judgment at all about the statistics that he is bringing to the House--I am not saying that that is right or wrong. Does he agree that unless we can say that marriage is a good thing and in most cases two parents are better than one for raising children, and unless we can make value judgments, we cannot find a way through to provide solutions ?
Mr. Wicks : I wanted, perhaps unwisely, to give some evidence and facts because I know that it is often a tradition in the House that facts should not get in the way of a good argument. Sometimes, facts make one more thoughtful about a particular argument. If necessary, I apologise for presenting some trends and facts.
I am sure that most of us agree that, wherever possible, if children can be brought up by two loving parents who stay together--many people would say married but they can be unmarried--they benefit from birth until young adulthood. That is good, and it must be right. However, we must be humble enough to recognise that not all marriages can be successful, and many people suffer from divorce. If we were wiser about those things, we would recognise that all of those experiences exist around all the powerful tables of our land, whether Cabinet tables or shadow Cabinet tables. We should draw on those experiences and make wise judgments about them. That is as far as I would go on a value judgment.
We all have a vested interest in recognising that many of our children are living in a range of family circumstances. We talk about one-parent families, and I have done so. One in 10 of our children--that is about the right proportion--are living in step-families or reconstituted families. There are issues in those situations that need to be discussed, but we often neglect them. Sometimes, the official data do not give us enough guidance on those issues.
Lady Olga Maitland : On the subject of broken families, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it takes two
Column 461for a family to break up and that the deserted wife is the victim of the husband or the partner who has disappeared, so that today we should be putting more emphasis on teaching young men responsibility ?
Mr. David Nicholson : Sometimes it is the other way round.
Mr. Wicks : The hon. Lady is talking to the young man--the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson)--beside her. Later, I shall talk about some of the implications for parenthood which I think are important.
Obviously, there is so much blood and thunder in any relationship breakdown that it is often unwise for a Member of Parliament to make a judgment about who is at fault or whether the concept of fault is a valuable one. All I am saying is that breakdown is occurring in all walks of life and in some of the most senior families in the land. We draw lessons from that but we do not rush to judge and suggest that changing that social tide will be easy.
When I was at the Family Policy Studies Centre, where I spent 10 years of my life, we produced an estimate which sums up the force of some of the trends. By the end of the century only 50 per cent. of British children will experience what many of us might regard as conventional family life-- in other words, being born to parents who are married to one another. They will also experience until their late teens living with a mum and dad who are still, hopefully, happily married to one another. By 2000, that will be the experience of only one in two--50 per cent.--of our children because of the rise in out-of-wedlock births, one-parent families, divorce and reconstituted families.
Family life is very complex. We may make our own judgments about it, but I hope that some of those judgments will be tough-minded ones when it comes to policy. I also hope that the milk of human kindness will be apparent in our debates. On some platforms, that substance does not always seem to be in great supply.
Family breakdown is one force of family insecurity. Another force is economic insecurity. We must accept that as a fact--if I may talk about facts once again. Recently, I asked a parliamentary question about the number of children living in families where the family head was unemployed. The answer was 1 million. Furthermore, a proportion of those children have family heads who have been out of work for some time. That is a major force for family insecurity. The two things combined are important. If many of us had the benefit of growing up in secure families in terms of happily married parents and also in families where parents were in work, we benefited from a double stability.
Too many of our children have neither the security of a strong family nor the economic security of at least one parent in full-time work. When we get so worried about the issues of crime, drugs and video nasties, it does not surprise me that there are indicators of social malaise and that family security and economic security is no longer present.
Mr. George Howarth : I was reluctant to intervene on my hon. Friend's speech because it is certainly having a powerful and educational effect. One point that I have observed from my constituency, which flows out of what my hon. Friend is saying, is that when men--I am not saying this in any way to make a value judgment--do not have an economic role in the family, women often take an
Column 462utterly rational decision that, while they want a family, it is not necessarily a family in which a man has any sort of place. That has all sorts of consequences, not least of which is that men who find themselves in that position do not have the security and the responsibilities that go with being a parent in a family. That is an equally worrying trend.
Mr. Wicks : There is an issue now about the role of part of a generation of young men which should concern us. I recall that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has made some comments about that too. Often in family debates, the focus is on women. I sometimes think that we would begin to get things right if we began to talk about boys and men also within the family.
One of the revolutions which we need to cope with within the family changes that I have been I discussing is not just that in the thinking of the Government or of other institutions but that in the thinking of men within the family. I do not say that in a silly anti-men way. There are some serious and difficult issues here for boys and men.
I talked about the economic insecurities of unemployment. One of the ironies is that when we need to grapple with the family of unemployment, there are other issues about the family of almost over-employment, or what I would call the over-active or over-busy family. That is one where the two parents are both in work while, at the same time, bringing in the bread to pay the rent or mortgage. They are also becoming parents and bringing up their youngest children. Given that we live for 80 or so years, there is something remarkably absurd about the way in which we attempt to pack so much into a relatively short time.
The pressures around the typical dual-worker family must be allowed for in policy. Otherwise, there will not be enough time to devote to bringing up children. Work pressures are the third theme in family insecurity.
Lady Olga Maitland : The hon. Gentleman refers to dual-working families. Does he agree that what is harmful to children is not so much having working parents but that they come from a broken home where they are not number one to any particular parent ? Is not that far more harmful to the child ?