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Column 485part of the legal institution of marriage, are applied to that person anyway by the state. The point about Sweden is the opposite to that normally assumed. Virtually everyone in Sweden who is living with someone is, for the purposes of British law, married. We have not begun to confront that dilemma. But, one way or the other, we will have to go down that path. The extraordinary level of misunderstanding on the subject by people who are in those non-legally married partnerships is a worrying indicator of how things may go in future.
Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : I am glad that, at last, we are getting down to discussing what we mean by "family" when talking about family policy, because stereotype families have changed very much in the past decade. The old stereotype family is now a minority. Only 25 per cent. of children are living with parents where both adults are either married or cohabiting.
Since the 1980s, people have begun to change their lives a great deal. Many women with children live on their own out of choice. Increasingly, as the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) mentioned, couples reject legal marriage, even when there are children. Four out of 10 marriages--no doubt entered into with high hopes--sadly end in divorce.
There are now many single-parent families. In fact, 21 per cent. of all families are single-parent families. The vast majority of them are headed by women, but, nevertheless, they are families just as much as families where two adults are living with their children. There are also many extended families, with complicated relationships--half-brothers and half- sisters, step-brothers and step-sisters, stepmothers and stepfathers. Where the relationships are harmonious, that can work very well and be a supportive system for the children, but the Child Support Act 1991 has done more to create conflict and discord between such families than anything that has happened in the past decade.
The Child Support Agency shows little regard for the needs of stepchildren and second wives. In some cases, as a result of its rigid formula, violence has been created against the parent with care. In others, faced with impossible financial demands, the absent parent has been in despair--even suicides have taken place. Conflict has been created between the first and second wives and their families, and between the second wives and their partners, over such financial arrangements. The children suffer. The insecurity that is brought about when formerly harmonious relationships are disrupted shows in bed wetting by the children, and in other signs of tension and trauma.
Obviously, the old system of maintenance for children did not work too well and there were many defaulters, but the rigid formula of the CSA, as was mentioned in the debate on that matter, does not work to the benefit of families. We need family courts which can do more than consider access to children where the parents are separated, and can decide on the financial arrangements, with a flexible approach that really takes into account all the factors and needs of those families. The more people the CSA reaches out to, the more damage it will do. It has become a very bad feature in disrupting the lives of families in this country.
Column 486Government policies are pulling women in two directions. A number of Ministers have attacked women and blamed them for juvenile crime, because, they say, they are not spending enough time, care and attention on their families. On the other hand, Ministers are telling women to get off income support and go out to work.
The Secretary of State gave some very spurious figures about family income. She did not take into account the changing value of money when mentioning those figures. When I started work, £3 a week was a very good wage, on which one could live well. Now, one needs £300 a week to live at the same level. The bare figures can give a very wrong impression.
What is absolutely certain is that families can no longer live on one salary. Women are having to go out to work to make ends meet--even women with very young children, despite the difficulty and expense that this entails. It costs about £90 a week for a place in a nursery for a child under five.
Women are replacing men in the work force, at lower wages and in part-time jobs. Eight out of nine jobs created recently have gone to women ; they are mainly part time and low paid--the kind that were covered by the wages councils which have now been abolished. The protection in those jobs has been removed by the Government. Women are being given one-day and one-week contracts, which are absolutely disgraceful and which take away their rights to holiday pay, their maternity rights, their pension rights and their rights to reasonable notice.
That means that there is no stability for their family. Those women do not know from one week to the next whether they will earn money. That is bad for them, their children and the relationships of the whole family. It is not that women are seeking little jobs for pin money, but that only little jobs are available.
One feature of the Government's time in office has been perpetual and rising mass unemployment. As a child, I knew the terrible effect that it had on my sister, my mother and me when my father had a period of unemployment. Now, men, women and youths are experiencing years of unemployment. Some of these youths have never had a job since leaving school.
I do not think that Conservative Members really understand this. If they do, the smirks on their faces during many a speech in the Chamber tonight and on other occasions show that they have no sympathy with what it is like to be unemployed, not to have enough money to last to the end of the week, to be really afraid of the future and to live from hand to mouth.
I know what it is like, from the cases that come to my surgery, from the people who come in and cry on a Friday because they do not have enough money to last them through to the weekend. We have to give them a few pounds, because it is too late on a Friday night to get them help immediately. I know what it is like. I know what they suffer. I know the terrible and frightening effect that it has on their children and on their self-confidence throughout the rest of their lives.
The 1991 census revealed a dreadful picture of child poverty and lone parent poverty. The situation has deteriorated dreadfully since the Conservatives have been in power. For millions of families, "back to basics" is back to nowhere.
In 1990-91, 13.5 million people were living in poverty--24 per cent. of the population. In 1979, the figure was 9 per cent. That was bad enough, but the increase is colossal.
Column 487Some 9.6 million adults are living in poverty--one in four. More disgracefully, 3.9 million children are living in poverty. That is taking poverty at a level below 50 per cent. of the net national average wage. It accounts for 31 per cent. of all children in Britain.
The figure is even higher if we take a wider definition of poverty, as a situation in which one cannot keep up with one's peers ; for example, when one cannot go on school outings or have the equipment that one needs at school or the same entertainments as one's peers. It is a tragedy that such a large percentage of our children live in poverty. Sixty per cent. of lone parents live in poverty, and one in five of all families with dependent children are lone-parent families. The difference between the lives of those children and those whose families have a good income and good homes and live in security is enormous--they are different worlds.
Of course it is true that well-housed families are not necessarily happy families. Child abuse has been mentioned, and it is a subject on which the curtain is only just being lifted. We need to discuss seriously what society can do about it. It is rife in all classes of society.
In addition, we all need to learn to respect children's rights. That is a whole new chapter that needs to be investigated. We must listen to what children say, and learn to treat them as people, rather than as objects which we can order around as we fancy. Overcrowding is another issue to be considered when we debate the family. If any Conservative Members would like to listen in on my surgeries on a Friday night in Tower Hamlets, they are welcome to do so. They might learn something about a slice of the life of families living in misery because of overcrowding. They might learn that some have been on the housing waiting list for years, and that their children are brought into conflict with one another because they are sharing bedrooms when it is clearly unsuitable for them to do so. Family members are breathing down each other's necks because of a lack of space
Bad housing is a source of misery and disruption for families in inner-city areas. The blame for increasingly bad housing lies at the Government's door, because, until this year, they refused to allow money earned from the right-to-buy policy to be used for repairs, and have deliberately brought council house building to an absolute halt. Families need the affordable rented housing, which only councils have been able to provide. The shortage of housing is now creating misery and destroying family life in inner-city areas.
The Government are creating an ever greater divide between families who have a good standard of living and the huge number who are struggling to give their children a decent start in life. All Government social policies- -on housing, health and education--are increasingly elitist, and poorer families are getting a bad deal. The poorest are suffering the greatest blows from increased indirect taxation and cuts in the money available for nurseries and day centres, for social services and for
Column 488carers. Care in the community is underfunded and people are not receiving the care and help that is needed for the elderly members of their families. The only hope for families in my constituency and elsewhere across the country is a change of Government.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : I shall bring the House back to the motion on the Order Paper, which relates to whether the Government have a comprehensive family policy. The debate has strayed rather wide. Indeed, if we were to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock), we could be discussing issues such as defence on the ground that we need to consider whether families are properly defended against missile attacks from other countries. However, I shall concentrate on where the Government and the family interface, which means considering whether the Government have a comprehensive family policy or whether they are putting together the necessary components of such a policy.
It would be correct to commend the Government on undertaking a comprehensive review of the law relating to children and families. That review is evidence of the priority which our party, through its statements at party conferences and in the House, has attached to the family and to children in particular.
The review started with the work done in preparing the Children Act 1989, which had substantial cross-party support. The Act reviewed and improved all aspects of public and private child care law. On the private side, it overhauled the outmoded custody and access system and gave us instead a range of flexible new orders dealing with residence, contact, other specific issues and prohibitive steps, which allowed the courts to deal flexibly and individually with the range of issues arising from a child's upbringing. The idea was to move away from regarding the child almost as a chattel and to concentrate instead on narrowing any specific areas of dispute. On the public side, the Children Act reviewed the provisions governing state intervention in child care to reflect a better balance between child protection and parents' rights. For example, the Act introduced the "assist and befriend" order which allowed children and parents to be given social work help while concentrating on letting the child stay at home. It also reviewed the emergency protection provisions and replaced the despised place of safety order, which had caused so much trouble in my constituency in 1987, with the shorter and more flexible emergency protection order. Equally important, the Act meant that cases relating to children were brought together under a concurrent jurisdiction in the courts--replacing the old fragmented and confused system--with hard cases being transferred to higher civil courts and simpler cases being dealt with by magistrates. That concentrates the valuable resources of the higher courts on those cases which really need them and, with the new specialist judiciary, introduced a framework for a family court about which the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) feels so strongly.
Following the Children Act, the Government introduced the Child Support Act 1991 which established the Child Support Agency. Despite its bad press and unpopularity, the Act offers two main benefits which are worth defending and on which I believe that there is
Column 489substantial cross-party consensus. First, it removes a large tranche of maintenance cases from the courts, thus saving valuable court time and resources. Secondly, it emphasises the idea that all fathers should be made to face their parental responsibilities rather than leaving the state to provide, as so many do.
Perhaps what now needs to be done is to concentrate the energies of the regional agencies on tracking down more fathers who pay nothing at all at the moment. There has already been some success in that respect. We should also ensure that the needs of second families are properly taken into account.
In dealing with child care and maintenance under the two Acts it is crucial to dissociate the two concepts of access and maintenance. It is important to move away from the myth that maintenance is related to access and vice versa. The two are not at all related, although many fathers seem to think that they should be. The message that needs to be put across is that access and maintenance are both for the benefit of the child, whose interests are at all times paramount. That concept is written into both Acts. To link the two would mean facing the possibility of depriving the child of one or the other. As part of the ongoing review, the law on adoption has been reviewed and recommendations made for reform in the White Paper entitled "Adoption : The Future", which was published in November 1993. The Government will make the law more explicit by insisting that the first duty in adoption is to the child. The White Paper makes it clear that children are best brought up in stable and loving families and reinforces a strong presumption in favour of adoption by married couples.
We must emphasise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said in a superb speech, that we cannot skirt around the moral issues relating to the family ; we have to face them and say that some circumstances are preferable to others, regardless of the fact that it is not always possible to achieve them.
Guidance issued by the Government on adoption will stress that parents who want to adopt should be judged by the care and affection that they can offer the child. The age, race, social class or other characteristics of potential parents should not count above the interests of the child. I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) supported that view in meetings with the Secretary of State.
Several questions remain outstanding. With divorce, what are we to do about couples who have no ancillary issues to resolve and no areas of dispute, and a firm idea of what each wants from the divorce ? Do we still make them go through the process ? How do we avoid allowing a spouse who may not want a divorce to lengthen the proceedings by refusing to settle ancillary issues ? Will the courts simply step in and settle matters for them, rather as happened in the old system, after the process has been set up ?
How are we to avoid the charge that the new proposals on divorce make it too easy ? The Law Commission has recommended that the present acrimonious system be replaced by a process divorce. People enter at one end with a ground of irretrievable breakdown and then spend a determinate time--that is one of the issues to be agreed--during which they may reflect. During that time the parties will be expected to reach agreement on ancillary issues and child care, and to bring the decisions back to the court for an order when the decree absolute is issued.
Column 490The period of reflection leaves room for fitting conciliation into the process, although it is not clear whether it could be made compulsory, even if there were enough conciliation services to go round. The aim is to make divorce a process of consensus and negotiation rather than one involving set-date watersheds that leave all the other business to be bashed out painfully afterwards. The ancillary issues would be part of the process itself, which would build in an incentive to reach agreement.
The law on divorce has remained untouched since the Divorce Reform Act 1969, which was something of an unsatisfactory compromise. At that time people could not agree whether to remove fault altogether, so it was decided that fault should disappear from the grounds, leaving the sole ground as irretrievable breakdown. However, breakdown had to be evidenced by one of five factors--two years' separation with consent, five years' separation without consent, desertion, adultery or unreasonable behaviour. Two of those factors are fault related, so that that let fault in by the back door and led to the resultant acrimony that is often so obvious, and on which I do not need to elaborate.
I sometimes think that if young people in this country spent as much time planning their marriages as they spend planning their weddings, their marriages might go a great deal better and we should not have such a high divorce rate. As I said in Committee on what was then the Children Bill, we must also consider what is the correct age at which people should enter marriage. The statistics show that the younger people are when they get married the more likely they are to be divorced before the age of 24.
Before I entered this place, when I was working as an accountant, I interviewed a 22-year-old bookkeeper who had been divorced twice. She had married first at 16, and been divorced at 19 ; then she married again at 19 and was divorced at 21. She had had a child in each marriage and no doubt she is now having great fun negotiating with the Child Support Agency. That person had entered into marriage, an institution which ought to be taken extremely seriously and solemnly, probably with little idea of what it might entail and little background training as to what to expect. She had then found that marriage did not meet her very high expectations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Havant spoke of the question as to which route we should take on the status of marriage. Should we say that marriage enhances one's privileges and gives one a special legal status, or should we say that every couple living together will automatically be treated as though they were married ? That will be one of the big questions for the 1990s and the beginning of the next century.
In my surgery I hear all too often, as I am sure many other hon. Members do, people saying that they live with their common-law wives or common-law husbands and assuming that that provides some solid status, backed by legal sanction, that will provide them with a range of privileges or rights in any future breakdown. They seem to think that their relationship is as stable as if it were sanctified by the full legal status.
I believe that we should consider emphasising the fact that marriage is the clearly preferred state in which to bring up children, and that we should therefore put together a package of enhancements such as tax privileges, so that people will more readily enter a formal contract published
Column 491before the world rather than allowing their lives to drift through a series of relationships without taking on in their own minds the real consequences of what they are doing.
When we think about the future of divorce, we must consider first whether both marriage and divorce are too easy. We must also think about what steps we can take to de-lawyer the process. Should we do anything to make couples share lawyers ? Personally, I do not believe that that is a good proposal, because there would be a clear conflict of interest, but there is much to be said for turning divorce into more of an independent conciliation and arbitration rather than a legal battle in which both sides up the ante, and one side often attempts to punish the other by making the litigation as difficult as possible.
I do not want to widen my speech far beyond the law on children and families, except to say that in a review of the Government's comprehensive family policy one must mention child benefit. That was a manifesto commitment, and it currently stands at £10.20 a week for the first child and £8.25 for other children. The Government have also introduced targeted help through family credit, and from October 1994 working parents will be allowed to offset £40 a week in child care costs. About 150,000 families will gain from that.
However, we are moving into a new period in which we shall have to examine the whole range of benefits. I do not wish to make party political points, and it is encouraging that much of the family legislation of the past has been relatively non-partisan. My experience during the passage of the Children Act showed me that there were broad swathes of policy making where both sides could agree on many of the details.
It is interesting to note, however, that the Labour party is now undertaking an internal debate on the future of child benefit, other universal benefits and all the benefits that affect families. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is quoted in the Daily Express of 14 December as having said :
"It's quite clear scrapping Child Benefit is an option that ought to be looked at".
The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), too, has said that improved child care and job opportunities might be
"a much better way to lift a child out of poverty than actually providing its mother with a small cash handout".
The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who has often chided the Labour party for being insufficiently socialist, suggested in The Independent on Sunday on 5 December that perhaps Labour should think about offering child benefit in "alternative forms", one of which might involve clawing back child benefit through the tax system from better-off families.
To make a broader point, despite the fact that the Opposition have arranged for a debate on improvements in family policy, no Opposition Member can say anything about how the Labour party would improve provision for the family. As we know from the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), there are no clear or firm spending pledges at present. On 26 January, on the Radio 4 "Today" programme, the hon. Gentleman was asked specifically about the commitment to nursery education. He replied :
"We will spend what we can afford to spend and only as growth allows . . . I have said there are no manifesto commitments at this stage . . . there is no commitment to spend money on anything".
Column 492The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said something similar when she said that we in Britain should be aiming for a target. She said that we should be careful that we do not involve ourselves in too many spending pledges, but that we should be aiming for a target of providing nursery education to all children from the age of four, which would give every three-year-old and four-year-old a chance of a place in a nursery school.
We must look beyond the broad range of criticisms that the Labour party put in its motion. It is clear that, were Labour Members in charge, they would tax families more, eradicate choice in education, oppose making parents responsible for their children's criminal acts and perhaps even withdraw child benefit. I believe that I am in a position to commend the Government on their fine record of supporting the family over the past years and I look forward to much more legislation, especially on divorce, to further strength in the family. I do not see any Opposition Member tonight who would improve on that situation.
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : We have heard a great deal of scaremongering from Conservative Members, epitomised by the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). We do not need to go in for scaremongering, as Labour Members may simply point to the facts.
Many of us criticise the media--newspapers and television--usually justly, so it is only fair to point out that, now and again, something of real value appears in the press. I shall refer to an article in The Guardian on 10 March which concerns the subjects with which we are dealing. It is headed "A psalm for Sally-Ann". The article is about an anonymous baby who was found in a bag on a charity clothing dump. It is headed :
"As she was buried she became a symbol for all the unknown children who are victims of the new poverty."
She was found on a Salvation Army dump, so they called the baby Sally-Ann, although, of course, she could not be officially named because no parent was known. She was buried in Sutton Coldfield cemetery. I do not whether it is always the case, but in Sutton Coldfield cemetery there is a little rectangle of lawn behind a hedge which is the public plot for babies whose parents cannot afford their funerals. The article continues :
"The granite tombstone at the head of the plot says : In Loving Memory of All Our Babies. On the wall over the flower bed is a collection of 12 plaques with the names of the children who are buried there."
The child in question had no name, but she was also buried there. In times gone by, people such as my grandmother were afraid that they would not have money to pay for their own funerals. I find it absolutely sickening that we have to make provision in 1994 for the burial of babies whose parents cannot afford to pay. The article describes the life which the baby and its mother may have had if the baby had not been abandoned. It describes in detail the sort of housing conditions which are commonly suffered by so many people. It states that the National Children's Bureau reported in the past year that one in every 25 children in Britain lived in a home that was officially condemned as unfit for human habitation. If there is one thing which has a bigger effect than anything else on a family and its capacity to survive, it is its home.
It was pointed out earlier that a good home and a good income do not necessarily bring happiness and that there are other factors involved, which is absolutely true.
Column 493However, one thing is certain : a bad home, bad living conditions, overcrowding, dampness, vermin, lack of a home, or lack of space to live or space to play make it much more likely that there will be stress, unhappiness and misery.
It is the fate of one in 25 children to live in a place condemned as unfit for human habitation. That is the tip of a much bigger iceberg, since many of the remaining 25 are living in totally unsuitable conditions. In the borough of Preston in my constituency, 6,000 homes are unfit for human habitation, but they are inhabited. I see the smirks, the inattention and the general attitude of contempt from Conservative Members. That is because they know that neither they nor anybody belonging to them will ever live in such conditions.
Housing is important, but so is money. The article points out that, if Sally-Ann's mother was not working, she might have been able to beg £100 maternity payment from the ruins of the welfare state--from the social fund. That would have been nowhere near enough to pay for clothing, a cot, a bed, a buggy and all the other props of motherhood. If she had had more than £500 saved, she would not even have been entitled to that sum.
Up to 1988, there was a grant available for people on supplementary benefit. The equivalent of that 1988 figure, even two years ago, would have been £188, not the £100 which was and still is available. A good £200 is needed to treat those poor mothers as well--or as badly--as they were treated in 1988, let alone as they were treated when we had a more civilised Government.
Five years ago, one fifth of children born in Great Britain could be regarded as born into poverty. Now one third are in that position. If Sally -Ann's mother had lived in a flat with a private landlord, she would probably have had trouble. She would have had trouble wherever she had lived because the standard rule is no pets and no children. That has been so all my life. One could not get rooms from a private landlord if one had a baby when I had young children. It is true to say that that is almost a standard rule. The article continues :
"If she tried to move she would have had problems with the rent. When they"
"changed the rules in April 1988, a million people lost their right to Housing Benefit and five million others had it cut. If she had trouble heating her home, she would simply have gone cold." Sally-Ann's mother would not have been likely to be disconnected ; she would have had to disconnect herself because, as the article states :
"Electricity and gas companies now routinely install meters in the homes of poor families : if they have no cash, they have no heat." That saves everybody the embarrassment of disconnection. The article continues :
"In Birmingham alone, some 600 people die each year from winter hardship . . . If Sally-Ann's mother had had the confidence to inquire, she would have discovered that a single mother with two children is supposed to survive on Income Support of £88.65 a week. The Child Poverty Action Group has worked out that she would need £23.08 more than that each week to break even."
The Select Committee on Health undertook an inquiry into maternity services and maternity matters, and published a report in March 1992. Part of the report dealt with the absolutely bizarre fact that there is age discrimination in pregnancies--16 and 17-year-old pregnant girls are treated infinitely worse by the state than women of 25 and over ; even if 16 and 17-year-olds have no job and no income, they do not have the same
Column 494entitlement to benefit as they would have if they were older. Presumably, they and their babies-to-be can live on nothing. The Government's answer is that 16 and 17-year-olds should be provided for by their parents and they should be on one of the training schemes. However, the Government do not explain why those who run the training schemes should be interested in providing training for a girl who will have to pack it in within a few months of being given a place. If we are serious about the way in which we treat 16 and 17-year-old pregnant girls, we should not start by trying to shove them into a few months of totally irrelevant training, which no one wants to give them anyway. We should give them understanding and education to help them cope with the job that they will have to do in caring for the baby.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) said, such education should start early. Education for parenthood for both sexes should start in school and be part of the core curriculum. I do not believe that we can talk about having a sensible curriculum that ignores the most important roles that all of us as human beings must undertake. I am concerned about the treatment of young pregnant girls.
When I read the article about the anonymous baby abandoned on the charity dump, it struck me that it is possible that her unfortunate mother is a 16 or 17-year-old with no rights, no entitlements and no sympathy, who is expected to prove to the Department of Social Security not that she is pregnant and suffering hardship but that she is suffering severe hardship.
Mrs. Wise : Tory Members have chosen to make a mockery of part of this debate and I will not conspire with them to do that. I have important points to make. I shall make those points and then sit down, and they can make their own speeches.
The article in The Guardian says :
"The price of a child is now too high for many mothers to pay. The National Council for One Parent Families says that financial hardship has become the overwhelming reason why mothers ask for their children to be adopted, even though their own wish would be to keep them ; and senior social workers speak of a new market in working class babies for middle class parents'. Others are pushed into abortion." I am in favour of the right for women to choose to have a pregnancy terminated, but I abhor a society that causes such pressure and stress as effectively to drive women into taking what I believe is a desperate step. I am pro choice ; I am not pro abortion. We should take note of the fact that
"advice workers at Marie Stopes clinics say that the recession has seen a surge in women trying to terminate pregnancies because they don't have the money or the security to cope with a child." Those are the sorts of problems that people who are overwhelmingly represented by Labour Members are facing. The answer is not found in Government policies at present. The Government's policies are characterised by an overwhelming feature--the increase and intensification of inequality.
Inequality is the enemy of social justice. I want not a levelling down, as the Government may say, but a levelling up. I want people to be treated fairly. I want undue financial
Column 495stress and housing shortage removed from families. I want us not to have to face what I regularly face in my surgeries--young women looking old beyond their years who have children with them. It is routine. They nearly always say of at least one of their children, "Little Tommy has asthma". I am surprised if I come across a child in many areas in my constituency who does not have asthma or some other respiratory problem.
We need measures that seek to elevate the importance of children to us. We want parents to regard their children as the most important things in their lives. As a society, we should regard children as the most important beings, and they should be at the front of the queue when resources are being given out, not at the end.
Mr. Bates rose
Mrs. Wise : I cannot set an example to the Secretary of State ; she has already spoken and she is not here to hear the debate. If she were here, perhaps I would set her a good example. As it is, I shall do to the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates) what the Secretary of State did to me--ignore him.
There has been some reference to education. I wanted to ask the Secretary of State what advice I should give to the parents and teachers in the primary school nearest to the place where I live. Frenchwood primary school is a well-managed, good school. However, despite its good management, it is financially stressed and will lose one teacher, with the result that children aged about six may be taught in mixed-age classes. It is not beneficial for children to be taught in mixed-age classes, especially when it is not being done for educational reasons but simply because the school is losing one teacher. I have chosen that example because it is not a particularly dramatic one.
Many schools are losing more than one teacher. Many children are facing worse problems at school than being taught in a mixed-age class. Many of the schools facing more dramatic problems have suffered greatly from the cuts in section 11 funding. Some schools in my constituency are losing several teachers because of the Government's cuts in section 11 funding. I do not in any way blame the county council, which is the unfortunate agent for passing on the cuts.
Tory Members are good at blaming parents. Sometimes parents are to blame. I may be somewhat puritanical ; I am conventional in many ways in my approach. I believe that it is best to have a two-parent family. I believe in stable relationships, although I know that that cannot always happen. I know that many people are driven beyond endurance. During my surgeries, I sometimes marvel that the suicide rate is not higher. It is no good simply lecturing people or setting up a counsel of perfection. It is easier to blame parents than it is to help them, and it is cheaper.
I do not want to blame parents. I want to educate parents and to encourage them to accept their responsibilities. Children should be a joy to their parents, and I want to help to bring that about. Childhood should be a joyful,
Column 496constructive and pleasurable part of life, but, for many children, childhood is a burden and for many parents children are burdens. That is an obscenity.
We should not blame parents ; we should be helping them. I want not so much blame, and a lot more resources. All kinds of
resources--educational, financial and housing--should be made available for the children of our society to bring them to the front of the queue. We should not let them languish at the back, as they do now. 8.10 pm