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Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) : It was a great pity that the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) did not give way to any of my hon. Friends who tried to intervene. One would have liked to have asked her many questions in a speech that, quite frankly, was more fantasy than fact.

I am pleased to take part in this debate about the family. I believe that the family is vital to the future well-being of our nation. By that, I mean that we should seek to have as the ideal, goal or target the traditional nuclear family, with one man and one woman for life with children. That is the optimum target, and I will talk later about what happens when that cannot be achieved. It should remain our target and goal and it is not an optional extra. It is at the heart of our society.

An urgent task lies ahead of us during the next few years--to restore to the centre and the heart of our nation the place of the traditional family unit, which has been so eroded in the past 30 years. Having listened to some excellent speeches from my hon. Friends and, I am bound to say, one excellent speech from the Opposition, from the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks)

Mr. Bates : It was not the last speech, that is for sure.

Mr. Streeter : No, it was not the last speech. I would like to think that there is a common cause emerging and that there is a fresh recognition of the vitality and the essence of family life in 1990s Britain.

The family is important for three crucial reasons. The relationship between a husband and wife, or between long-term partners, is one of mutual support and fellowship. They share problems and joys, and, in that long-term relationship, fulfilment in all sorts of ways can be found. Furthermore, traditionally, financial support can be found in that structure and it is within the framework of a strong and stable family unit that children are best raised.

Is it not a pity that in this day and age we appear to have lost the sense of the importance of raising children ? How refreshing it is to come across young people who feel a calling to be a mother or a father and who understand that it is a vital task. How often we turn our backs on that and look down on the importance of being a good parent.

If there is one evil in our society at the moment, it has little to do with poverty or Government policies, as Opposition Members would have us believe. The evil in our midst is poor and neglectful parenting. I would be the first to admit that that could come from two parents as well as from one. How it upsets me when I go to the supermarket--that seems to be where one mainly encounters it--to hear the way in which some parents talk to their children. I saw a lady at the weekend who was talking to her three or four-year-old son in Tesco. She was cuffing him around the ear and saying, "You're stupid."

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That child will grow up 15 years later believing that. Poor parenting shapes the character and personality of our children. It is within the family context that we learn self-esteem, because others value us. Our parents value us and we therefore learn to value ourselves and it is in the first formative years that children learn so many important lessons. Another reason why families are so important is that they are the vehicle or forum through which we can care for one another in sickness or infirmity, whether that involves a husband and wife, parents and children or brother and sister. The family unit is a vital instrument of care in modern Britain. Some people believe that the traditional family was just a choice that we made at some stage of history, or that it is just an optional extra that we can now replace. Some seem to believe that the state can replace the family and that it does not matter that relationships between people are breaking down or that parents are less and less likely to bring up their children with values.

Mr. George Howarth : Could the hon. Gentleman perhaps name the people who believe that family institutions should be replaced by the state ?

Mr. Streeter : It is abundantly obvious that, during the past 30 years, we have suffered at the hands of left-wing ideology. [Interruption.] Oh yes. That teaches us that we can no longer support the argument in favour of the traditional family. It says that it is perfectly all right to have children brought up by lesbian or gay couples. That made hon. Members suddenly go very quiet. The left-wing ideology states that single parents are as good as two parents. That has been thrust down our throats, and how we have suffered as a result. There is no substitute for a strong family. The state cannot deliver the vital responsibilities of mutual support, affection and good parenting. They must be done by the family. The debate is extremely important. For far too long the tail has wagged the dog in terms of social policy. For the past 30 years, we have been frightened to speak out and make value judgments for fear of upsetting minority groups or being accused of discriminating against those groups. It is time for the vast majority of people who believe in families and who aspire to strong and stable relationships to stand up and be counted.

It saddens me greatly that, in my daughter's class at a good grammar school in Plymouth--the school is known to you, Madam Deputy Speaker--half the children no longer live, at the age of 13, with their natural father or natural mother. What kind of society are we breeding ?

Family breakdown has serious consequences. It affects personal security, and we know that it affects the security of children. We know now that, although many single parents are doing an excellent job of raising their children, bringing up children is best done by two people who share problems and encourage each other when one is tired of disciplining. That is a tiresome and difficult thing to do and it is difficult to achieve a consistency of discipline. The breakdown of families undermines the disciplining of our young people.

Enormous social costs flow from family breakdown. We have already heard of the billions of pounds that have been spent on housing. Is it not odd that the number of houses in this country since 1979 has increased

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substantially, and yet still we are told that there are not enough ? That is because households are splitting at a far greater rate. We must take a long and hard look at where we are going with social policy. Can it be right that, no matter how people choose to live, the state will always come behind with a cheque book and a bucket and spade to clean up the mess ? Should not we be saying that there is an optimum way of living and that there are targets that we should set ? As a society we should encourage people to live in a responsible manner. That is what most people want.

Is the constant drip of family breakdown irreversible ? Can we do nothing about it ? Can we say that the family does not really matter and was just one style of living which was right then but not now ? I should like to think that we will not go down that route and that we will say that the family is important and should be our target. Let us find ways to make it work.

We can give more support to families than they have been given during the past 30 years in three key ways. If hon. Members would like to learn more of my views they can read the speech that I made in this place on 3 December, which was 22 minutes long. I shall not speak for that long tonight. I am not one of those who say that economics are not important. We can support the family economically. I am also not one of those who say that poverty is not important or that unemployment is not a factor because it is, but it is one of many.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East) : I am pleased to acknowledge the emphasis that the hon. Gentleman places on poverty. Is he aware that it is clear from answers to my parliamentary questions during the past year that 5.7 million families with children now have a lower disposable income than they had in 1979 ? It is all very well for him to go on about morality--we all want children to be brought up properly--but does he agree that that does not pay the gas bill ?

Mr. Streeter : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making me aware of her views. Every sector of our society is better off than it was 15 years ago and that is an unmistakeable fact. The benefit and welfare system that is supporting people is vastly superior to the one that we had 15 years ago and she cannot escape that fact. Poverty and unemployment are factors in family breakdown, but they are only two of many.

Because economics are important, I pay tribute to the way in which the Government have steered our economy during the past two years, so that interest rates are low and inflation is low and is staying low. Those are vital ingredients for the future of families. Unemployment is decreasing at an encouraging rate--a factor that I am sure that Opposition Members welcome. The Government are getting the economic framework right and that is an important foundation stone for getting the family right in the years ahead.

Secondly, I am convinced that when most people are 17, 18, 20 or 21 they aspire to a long-term relationship and a home and family of their own. That is the main aspiration of the overwhelming majority and we must find ways to help them to achieve it. The Government were successful in helping people to achieve the aspiration of their own homes in the 1980s. Let us build on that success in the

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1990s and find ways to help young people to achieve their deeper aspirations to build long-term relationships and to raise a stable and secure family.

We can do much more by teaching in schools the principles of parenting, being a spouse and relationships. Many of us picked those up at home. I am fortunate to come from a close and loving family, but I know that that is not everyone's experience. We used to assume that such things were passed on naturally from generation to generation and learnt from the role models and framework created for us by our parents, but principles can be extracted and taught in schools and we must think about that more seriously.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) that we can and should counsel young people who are on the threshold of marriage. Too many people rush into marriage, for all sorts of understandable reasons, when they have not sat down and thought through the real responsibilities involved. Counselling young people on the threshold of marriage would be a great help. Who should do the counselling ? Should it be local authority social workers ? I would say not. A vast army of people have enjoyed secure and strong marriages, learnt the principles of being a parent, a husband or a wife and know what it is like to run a house effectively and pay their way, not spending more than they get. Those are the people who should be counsellors. We can call on the voluntary sector and people with experience and a heart to give to counsel young people. I want more pre-marriage counselling schemes to be made available. On the question of support for the family, more help must be given when a marriage is in difficulties. I know that from my experience at the church in Plymouth where my wife and I are members. We have been involved in the lives of many young people who have gone through marital difficulties. Sometimes, just a little experienced advice here, some help there and the opportunity to talk things through is immensely helpful and can get people through a difficult period. Who should give such help ? It should be not some of the professional people employed by local authorities but people with experience. I know one social worker in Plymouth who has made an utter mess of her life. Her children run wild on the streets--one is into drugs and the other is the worst-behaved child at her school. However, that lady is a social worker and she tells other families how to bring up their children and make their families work. That is wrong. The people who have experience of getting it right and who have gone through problems and come out the other side should teach our young people, rather than professional social workers who have often ruined their lives and will only drag others down with them. Finally, we need a fiscal and financial framework that will encourage marriage. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) explained the dichotomy--should we say that marriage is the way that we want to go or that any sort of mutual cohabitation is acceptable ? The majority of people believe that marriage is an important institution. We should dust it off, make it important and put it at the centre once again.

I want future Budgets to take more care to encourage young people to get married and to encourage married couples. I want our fiscal policy to support husbands and

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wives, encourage them to stay together and make it more beneficial for people to be married than for them to live together or as single people. Enormous social benefits would flow from such a fiscal policy. Where the family has broken down and been eroded, the state has rushed in with all its solutions and panaceas, none of which has worked. The state may need to be rolled back before the family can walk forward. If the state is always there doing it, what incentive is there for families to get their act together again ? We may have to be bold and allow the state to take a step backwards.

Mr. Bates : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having the courtesy to give way. The Child Support Agency is one of the greatest advances that we have made in rolling back the frontier of dependency and making people realise their responsibilities. Is it not the case that by reinforcing the parent's financial responsibility for the child, which is life-long, we may also be reinforcing their moral and spiritual responsibilities towards their children ?

Mr. Streeter : I am grateful for that intervention, with which I whole-heartedly agree. The Child Support Agency is becoming increasingly popular among women who have not received proper maintenance payments from the fathers of their children. Also, people are beginning to think far more seriously before they split up and to consider whether they can afford it. The CSA is causing people to think about the implications and consequences of their choices. That is no bad thing and it is to be welcomed warmly.

I am afraid to say that it has taken us 30 years to reach the present situation, with family breakdown so evident around us. There is no overnight solution. It may take us another 30 years to get back to the situation where the family is at the centre of our society and where it is the cornerstone on which our country is built, but I am confident that, under Conservative leadership over that period of time, we will arrive.

8.29 pm

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : Tonight's debate has contributed to our understanding of the depth and strength of mother love. So many Conservative Members have drawn attention to the fact that they themselves were brought up by loving mothers that it demonstrates to me that there is no end to the generosity of the love of mothers. I find the hon. Members somewhat unlovable.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter), among others, may have been exposed to Aldous Huxley at too early an age and been frightened by him. Hon. Members described a ludicrous, science fiction kind of world in which the Labour party is supposed to advocate that the state should run families and that mothers and fathers should not look after their children. Where hon. Members get such nonsense from, they have not explained, but it is the kind of stupid diversion that comes from Tory central office and prevents them from addressing themselves to the issues in front of us. It is not our case that the Tories are responsible for every ill that befalls humankind. What we are saying, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) and others have already said, is that there are many ills that beset families in respect of which it is the duty of the state

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and of local government to help rather than to hinder those families. It is the Government's gross inadequacy on those counts that we are addressing tonight.

Take, for example, the case of a 10-year-old boy who I know of in Glasgow. Conservative Members talk about freedom of choice and independence for families. What freedom or independence can that particular child have when his father happens to be a drunkard and his mother is so chronically depressed that she cannot stir herself to make sure that he gets to school ? The boy is looking after his younger brothers and sisters and carrying a load of responsibility that is far too great for his years. His parents love their little boy but, for whatever reasons, are simply not up to the task of looking after him at present. For that child to have any hope for his future--any hope of an education or of respite or of the chance of a life of his own--he has to depend on the education and social work departments, and on the state itself to vote the cash and the care to helping him and children like him. His is no isolated case ; similar cases can be found throughout the land.

The Secretary of State described what she regards as the success of what I would call the Government's meddling with the national health service. She is no doubt not terribly well briefed on such matters as they apply in Scotland, but I wonder what she would make of a few recent events in Scotland that give a very different picture of how the state of the NHS affects families today. At Glasgow royal infirmary, cleaners and porters have had their wages cut to levels that applied four years ago because of compulsory competitive tendering. What possible benefit can that bring their children ? Perhaps those people's families do not matter to the Tories. Let us look at patients in hospitals. During the past week, it has emerged that people are leaving Scottish hospitals less well nourished than they were when they went in because of the contracting arrangements to provide food in hospitals. If, after going in for an operation, a patient recovers and is ready to eat and hungry before the catering system is ready to provide food, the nurses are no longer permitted to cook him or her a light meal in the ward kitchen. People can spend 24 hours without a bite to eat as a consequence of such cost-cutting exercises.

Dr. Sandy Macara of the British Medical Association last Sunday condemned forcefully the two-tier system of health care. Is he lying or scaremongering ? The consultants at Raigmore hospital are condemning the way in which things are run down, yet the chairman of the trust has the cheek to condemn them. Who knows more about running the health service--the doctors doing the work or some part-time chairman of a trust appointed by the Secretary of State ? What does the Secretary of State think of second and

third-generation unemployment ? What is that doing for families ? As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) asked, when families are endlessly living on benefits with no sign of ever getting work, what can it possibly do for them ? They live in unfit damp housing, which causes asthma and bronchitis. At every single surgery that I hold in Maryhill, I see families whose children have asthma or bronchitis. We heard all that described by one Conservative Member as something that does not happen. I wonder what world he is living in. Such things may not happen in his constituency but they happen in many of ours. In their 15 years in office, the Government have made draconian cuts in housing support grant and in borrowing

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consents, making it far more difficult for local authorities to do something about improving the state of the housing in which those families live.

The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) talked about what might be done to make run-down estates more civilised places in which to live. He suggested that grannies could form some kind of control. What sort of world does that hon. Gentleman live in ? The grannies in these estates are not old, white-haired ladies ; they are women in their thirties and forties, some of whom might even have jobs themselves. Many of the problems that we are discussing relate to single mothers who are struggling to look after children, with fathers absent for all sorts of reasons. It is those very mothers whom Ministers condemned and attacked at the infamous Tory party conference last October.

A minute ago, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton argued that the Child Support Agency helps mothers. That is news to us. The Child Support Agency could be more accurately described as the Treasury support agency. The money is collected from the fathers but it does not go into the pockets of the mothers to help them look after their children.

At present, the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill is in Committee. The Government have chosen to embark on a local government Bill instead of on a long-awaited Children Bill for Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles was very much involved in the proceedings on the Children Bill for England and Wales, which were successfully concluded five years ago. What we have now is a decision by Scottish Tory Ministers. I do not blame English Tory Members--hon. Members from shires south of Scotland ; they may not even know that this is happening. But Scottish Ministers have chosen to introduce a Scottish local government Bill that no one in Scotland wants and to do nothing at all about badly needed legislation for children in Scotland.

We need legislation to take account of children who are in care and who are leaving care at 16, homeless, without a job, without training, without income support and ending up in the famous cardboard boxes. We have not heard tonight in the entire debate what solution the Government offer. Those children cannot be sent back to their families because many have no families. Those I have mentioned have left care at the age of 16.

There are many other aspects of the matter that we want to look at in such a Bill--children at risk of abuse, children with disabilities, children whose needs of all descriptions or whose deeds bring them before our children's panels. Instead of updating and reforming our legislation by means of a new Bill for children, the Government are taking no action whatever ; there was nothing in the Queen's Speech and there is apparently no timetable for such legislation. Reference has been made to nursery places. If the Prime Minister now favours nursery places, why has he still done nothing about them ? A Conservative Member asked earlier what it would cost, no doubt thinking smartly that this was a challenge to the Labour party on its cost commitments. Let me point out one thing : whatever it would cost would be more than repaid by the development of young children's socialisation, helping them to develop a sense of responsibility and consideration for others, and the saving of the millions of pounds currently wasted on vandalism. All these sums together could well exceed the cost of running nursery schools. It was the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) who wanted to

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know what such education would cost. I think that she meant that she wanted a society in which those people who are well enough off to pay can afford to have all the care that they wish for for their children while the rest are allowed to go hang.

In many cases, well-off people are not caring, loving families--they are the upper-middle classes, many of whom send their children away at ridiculously young ages. They tell other people to look after their children and take that responsibility off their hands ; they can pay for it to be done. That is the type of society that the Conservatives want. That has been Tory policy through the ages, and it shows no sign of changing tonight.

8.40 pm

Mr. David Amess (Basildon) : It has been an interesting debate so far, but I have not heard any hon. Member describe an easily achievable solution to the problems that we face in family life today.

I utterly condemn the disgraceful motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, because a close reading reveals that it describes precisely the results of the nonsense that went on in the 1960s and the 1970s, the consequences of which we are reaping today. I am optimistic about our future because I do not anticipate that our children, born in the 1980s and 1990s, will suffer in the way that those people born in the 1960s and 1970s have. That is why I entirely support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Ms Corston : The hon. Gentleman made a point just now about the number of children who were living--I am sorry, I have lost my thread.

Mr. Amess : I was referring to the children born in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ms Corston : If that is the case, why have Conservative Members supported the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which provides for the locking-up of children who were born after the Government came to power ?

Mr. Amess : I entirely accept the argument of the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) and I will discuss that point shortly when I mention the efforts that are being made to protect law-abiding citizens from those young people. I will not forget the point. I very much support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which says that the Government will continue to support policies

"which ensure that the family remains the cornerstone of society", because I believe that when the family thrives, society thrives. Let me first make two partisan points. In doing so, I shall refer to both the socialist parties. First, it is simply not good enough for a Liberal Democrat Member to participate in the debate and make a blatant propaganda speech. Whenever one gives the alliance power, it breaks the promises that it made in that propaganda. I am reminded of the position of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) when she fought and won the by-election for Christchurch. She went round the constituency, complaining about crime and saying that we needed more bobbies

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on the beat. Now alliance-controlled Hampshire county council is cutting the number of policemen on the beat, and I could go further. Mrs. Maddock rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not give way, because his remarks already seem to me rather far from the debate.

Mr. Amess : Your point is well made, Madam Deputy Speaker. The second partisan point that I want to make is about the Labour party.

During the week's break over Easter I was listening to LBC--an excellent radio station--and I clearly heard an Opposition spokesman who has responsibility for London saying that it was disgraceful that the Government were not allowing time for a debate on the increase in prescription charges. I am sure that many members of the general public who were listening thought that that was, indeed, a disgraceful thing to do, because the interviewer did not explain that the Opposition are allocated a number of days when they can choose a subject. At that time I had not received notification from my Whip saying that the subject of today's debate would be the family. We all know only too well that it was a cheap point. I welcome the debate today on the family, but it is less than honest to pretend that the Opposition could not choose on another occasion to have a debate on prescription charges if they seriously wanted to make the point. The Conservative Benches have been far better populated during this debate than have the Opposition Benches. That is worth noting if the Opposition care so much about the subject.

I much regret that the hon. Members for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) and for Preston (Mrs. Wise) have left the Chamber. They made what I regard as two old-fashioned socialist points. I resent, as a Conservative Member, being patronised and lectured by socialists and told that all Conservative Members have privileged backgrounds. It was suggested that we have all led a sheltered life, that we all have pots of money, that we do not hold surgeries and that we do not listen to people's problems.

As I look round the Chamber, I notice that I am the only east ender present. I spent the first three decades of my life in the east end of London and I am very proud of my background--hardly a privileged one. We lived in a terraced house with no bathroom, an outside toilet and a tin bath, but none of my experiences made me a socialist ; they made me a Conservative. The way in which the hon. Members for Bow and Poplar and for Preston lectured Conservative Members, saying that they believed that they had the panacea for the working class, was a disgrace. All Labour Members do is to grind people lower in their esteem. When I lived in Newham we had a Labour Government, a Labour Greater London council member and a rotten Labour council, so I take no lectures from socialists about the working class and the solutions to our problems.

I represent the constituency of Basildon, where I am proud to say that the latest statistics show that we have the greatest number of central heating appliances in the country. Many of my constituents come from the east end of London. When I lived in the east end of London, family life was wonderful. It was a close-knit community. We

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helped one another and it is true that we did not bother to lock our doors at night. There was always a lady in the road if someone was going to give birth and we looked after our mums, our dads and our grandparents. All that has changed. It is not for me now to look to the past, but I very much believe, speaking about family life, that the state can never be, and never should be, a substitute for the family. It is all about individual responsibility, and I believe that there is a serious problem as regards parenting.

Being a parent is an enormous responsibility. I very much regret the current trend--the popularity of transient relationships. I take my hat off to the women who are abused and abandoned, primarily by men, and I cannot understand how anyone who has fathered a child can turn his back on his own flesh and blood, never want to see the child and never want to support the child. Surely all Members of Parliament will condemn that type of activity.

Now I come to the argument that the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) made when I referred to the 1960s and 1970s. It is all about what I call unsocial behaviour. Recently, I launched a campaign in my constituency. I thought that the media were being less than helpful to the Conservative party, so I decided to make speeches on milk crates with a loudhailer to my constituents. I have to say that they have been very well received. I drew a large crowd two weeks ago, and at the precise point at which I reached the subject of yobs, one appeared. Many of my constituents are pleased about the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. They badly need the protection that it will give them. I wanted to demonstrate to my constituents that the law is there to be enforced and that those yobs need to be caught. I went and confronted the yobs and, on one particular estate in Crudens, I managed to find six such individuals making people's lives hell--smashing windows and doing disgusting things of which I am sure no hon. Member would approve. What do we do with those children ? Do we say that the problems date back to the 1960s and 1970s ? Do we say that all those children come from broken homes and we cannot possibly restrain them from the general public ? Having spoken to them, I know that no one in the House could have coped with the language and violence that they demonstrated towards me. People badly need protecting.

I much regret the present divorce rate. When I first came to the House, we introduced a measure to make divorce easier. As a new Member of Parliament who is not a lawyer, I tried to intervene, but there was all-party agreement on making divorce easier. Often, women come to my constituency surgery and say, "We had no idea that it was so easy to get divorced." That measure badly needs to be looked at again because marriage is an enormous responsibility. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) talked about the age at which people can get married. Figures show that those who get married at 16 are more likely to divorce. I am sure that a number of hon. Members married at 16 and have been happily married ever since, but statistics prove that such marriages are more likely to fail. I am preaching not marriage but stability in relationships--men and women sticking together and looking after their children.

Finally, I am astonished at the House's attitude over a number of years on abortion, embryo research and sex selection. Over a period, we have taken legislative decisions that have undermined family life and cheapened life itself. Last Tuesday, the Prime Minister came to my

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constituency and opened a gynaecology ward in a new maternity hospital in Basildon. We took him down to the special baby-care unit where he saw tiny babies and witnessed at first hand the emotion felt by women who wanted the hospital to do everything that it could to keep those tiny babies alive.

The hon. Members for Preston and for Bow and Poplar, who are both here, discussed abortion. In the Carlisle baby case in 1987, a baby was born alive after a failed abortion and lived for three hours with no medical support. But we heard no sympathy whatever from the Opposition. The hon. Member for Preston said that she agreed that we should help people not to have abortions ; if I follow her logic, she is in favour of life. I agree with her. The idea that this House feels that it is okay for that shoddy little clinic in north London to con people in selecting the sex of their babies is a disgrace. I introduced a 10-minute rule Bill that was defeated by 80 votes and I was told in an intervention that I should wait until the Committee had reported on sex selection. That Committee did report and decided that it would not legalise sex selection in clinics. Since then, one of the partners in the clinic went in for sex selection and the child turned out to be the wrong sex. As we all know, mother nature gives people a 50-50 chance of having a boy or girl, so to con people and take money from them is a disgrace. A little while ago, I appeared on a television programme with a doctor running the clinic. One of his patients, whom he had wound up to attack me, said that she had five boys and wanted a girl. She said that it would be nice to have a girl because girls could be taught to clean and cook. That says it all.

I hope that the whole House will encourage young people and children in every sense. Let us unite behind the family, and society as a whole will benefit.

8.55 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : I should like to make two brief points about the last two speeches by Conservative Members--the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) and for Basildon (Mr. Amess). It is difficult to believe that the two hon. Members could be so wrong about so much, but what I find really disturbing is that they seem sincerely to believe what they say. That is cause for a great deal of concern.

I do not want to enter the wider political debate because my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) and the motion on the order paper have made the wider political case effectively. I participate in the debate because the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) and the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), which were both thoughtful and not politically partisan, raised some important issues.

First, there must be, as most people acknowledge in different ways, an economic dimension to how families are developing in the latter part of the 20th century in this country and elsewhere. That should not be ignored. J.K. Galbraith, the distinguished and world-respected economist, made an interesting point about how societies in the United States and Britain are becoming what he calls "two thirds-one third societies". By that, he means that two thirds of society do quite well--they find employment, often well paid, but, more importantly, they do better out of non-targeted, non-means- tested state benefits and state-provided services than the one third who tend to get,

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if any job at all, the worst paid jobs and the worst service provision in terms of education and other areas of social policy. Society in the United States seems to have reached a point where all but a few of those in that one third of society can never break out of it. The system seems closed, so that those who are born into that one third are unable to break out into a profession, higher education or the escape route that my generation had--the apprenticeship. All those opportunities seem to have gone. Unless we can break the cycle and start doing something about the problem, we shall face real problems in the future. I do not know where this trend will lead and I do not intend to make any apocalyptic predictions about where it will lead, but it is very worrying, for reasons to which I shall refer in a moment.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : Does the hon. Gentleman not therefore welcome the introduction of the new apprenticeship scheme, which will help 150,000 young people to enter apprenticeships in this country at a cost of £2.25 billion over the next three years ?

Mr. Howarth : I shall go on to talk more specifically about apprenticeship schemes, their consequences and the opportunities that exist today in a few moments, but I will do it in my own way and in my own time.

I want to contrast the experiences today of people in that one-third of society with my own experiences as one who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. I was a teenager and in my twenties in the 1970s. I have checked how old the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) is, and I think that only three years divide us, but I think that he was growing up in a different country from the one in which I grew up in the 1960s.

The first point I make is that, far from my development being governed by some extreme left-wing ideology which pointed me in some direction or other, I was not aware that the teachers in the schools that I attended had any ideology whatsoever. They were just teachers who got on with their jobs. It seems to me that in the last decade or so the Government have done more to politicise the education system than was ever the case in the 1960s or 1970s.

My second point is that there was some security about being young during that time. I presume that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me about that. I was brought up on a council estate : I do not say that in any boastful way--it is just a fact of my life. My father was a skilled worker and my mother was an office worker. At no point in my teenage years did I have any expectation that at the end of my schooling and my time at technical college I would not have a job. Now, however, large numbers of young men, in particular, in my constituency are growing up in the almost certain knowledge that when they finish their schooling they will not have a job. This is not because they have done badly at school or because there is something congenitally wrong with them which makes them unfit for work, but because there simply is no employment in my part of the world. There is nothing to lead them to believe that at the end of their education they will find employment.

One may make whatever political or value judgments one likes about that, but it has profound implications on a

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number of issues, not the least of which are family relationships and the development of the family in the 1990s and towards the end of the century.

Everything that my generation did in areas such as mine was conditioned by the fact that we were brought up and lived during a time which, far from stifling people's aspirations and oppressing them with the dead hand of the state, was a time of rising expectations. The belief was that every year things would get a little better. It was thought that if one left school and entered further or higher education things would improve ; people had career prospects. That is simply not the case any more in areas such as the one that I represent.

I raise that point in the context of discussing the family because a lot has been said in the last 12 months to two years about single or lone- parent families. All sorts of reasons have been given for this phenomenon : young women trying to jump the council housing waiting queue was one and access to social security which would allegedly give unmarried women or those without a permanent partner a better life style was another. I reject those reasons. I believe that many young women in my constituency and elsewhere have made a rational decision to be single parents. The decision is not based on whether it will help them to get a council house or flat or on some detailed knowledge of what social security benefits they will be entitled to claim. It is based on the change in the economic role of men in areas such as mine.

I do not say that in any judgemental way, but once men cease to be the economic providers within a family--I do not necessarily say that that was a good thing, it was simply what happened in my generation--many women have to make a rational decision. If they want to have a family, they have to decide whether being permanently linked in some way, through marriage or some other means, with the fathers of their children will enhance their lives or those of their children. Many arguments could be, and have been, put forward as to the social consequences and the importance of fathers in the lives of children, and I accept those arguments, but sometimes women make a fairly rational decision that men are no longer necessary in their lives.

Lady Olga Maitland : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way at that interesting point. Does he not agree that we want to encourage marriage because it provides for the father and mother to give a commitment to the child, and that the lack of that commitment creates a problem ? If the couple do not marry, it means that the father escapes and never feels the bonding. That is the great difficulty today.

Mr. Howarth : Personally, I agree with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) that the ideal situation is for children to be in a stable family relationship, with two parents and proper care. I am married and I think that marriage is a good institution, but I do not condemn anyone who chooses to live with a partner or to do something else : that is a personal choice, and I do not think that it is the most important point for our debate. I want to talk about the changing nature of the family. My circumstances suit me and, I hope, my family. My observation has shown that the diversity of relationships among my constituents and all over the country seems to suit them. People decide for themselves about their relationships, by rational means or otherwise.

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Lady Olga Maitland : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Howarth : No, I have given way once to the hon. Lady. I know that the hon. Lady is hoping to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that her contribution will be illuminating, or at least amusing.

It does not seem to me to be the job of the House or of any individual Member of the House to describe what the right state of affairs is for every individual in every set of circumstances. It is strange that the Government and their supporters, who make so much of their support for the individual, always make that support conditional on certain stereotypical conditions, such as a particular sort of family and relationship with children. It seems strange that Government support for the individual is always predicated on the idea that that individual should be part of a family set-up of which they approve, rather than all individuals.

Young women often decide for rational reasons that they want to have children, but do not want a man involved in the family relationship. The man may have a continuing role, but he will not be a resident in the same household. At the end of that chain we are left with thousands--probably hundreds of thousands--of young men in this country who no longer have a role in the family. They may not have worked out properly where they fit into society. They often remain living with their mother--without responsibility and without access to work. I am not making judgments about that lifestyle, but where does it lead ? What self-esteem, ambition and expectations can those young men have when the one thing that they might have expected to experience--fatherhood--becomes a purely biological function and they have no continuing role in the family ?

I am not making value judgments but, in that spirit, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West raised a number of interesting issues. He mentioned the demographic trends, and what is happening within society and within families. If we insist--as some Conservative Members do--on using debates such as today's as a yah-boo exercise in lobbing hand grenades across the Chamber, we shall not progress. In five or 10 years' time, the two thirds-one third society that I mentioned will still be intact. It will be a closed society, with large numbers of people excluded from any sort of expectation or ambition for the rest of their lives. Subsequent generations will be in exactly the same position.

Given that the future is unpredictable and we do not know where it is all leading, we should try not to have a sloganised debate which simply suits the ideology and sloganising of one party or another. We should seriously consider the effects of the changes, not just on social policy, but on those individuals who no longer have the rising expectations and ambitions for themselves and their families that we had in the 1960s and 1970s. We must get to the stage of being able to look rationally at these problems, think about where they are leading us and try to bend social policy and legislation in such a way that people are helped on the basis of their actual situation rather than some imagined past--presumably the 1950s--when everything was rosy and nothing ever went wrong. Things simply were not like that, and re-inventing history will not serve the Government or the House of Commons. Least of all will it serve people outside.

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9.9 pm

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : We are having a very interesting debate. To that extent, I congratulate the Opposition on their choice of subject and on their timing. I heard only on Tuesday that the debate was to take place. I do not know what inspired the Opposition. Perhaps they saw the photograph of the Bottomley family on the Isle of Wight. Certainly the Bottomleys led the debate off very well.

Nothing is more important to the future of this country than the way in which our children are brought up. The rearing of children is absolutely central to the matters that we are discussing. Having congratulated the Opposition on their timing, I should perhaps declare an interest in that just before one o'clock in the morning of Wednesday 30 March I became a grandfather. I was very relieved that the birth did not take place 60 minutes earlier, as my grandson's name is Jack Jones and 29 March happens to be the birthday of another Jack Jones. I should not like a grandson of mine to be thought of as having been named after a trade union leader.

This has been a strange debate. It is supposed to be an Opposition day, but we do not seem to be learning very much about Opposition policies. The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), who led off, seemed to be uncertain about statements on child benefit made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). She said that she did not know anything about them. But surely child benefit is absolutely central to the Opposition's thinking.

Then there was the extraordinary intervention of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who promptly demoted her hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden, describing him as a Back Bencher. I became very worried when the hon. Gentleman came in and sat on one of the Back Benches for a while. My fear was that he had actually been demoted, and I put forward the idea that we might adjourn while the Opposition Front Bench sorted itself out.

The greatest interest in the debate and the greatest speech content has come from the Conservative side. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who is not in the Chamber at present, was very modest. When he quoted the left winger Beatrix Campbell he might have said that he was reading from one of his own excellent

pamphlets--"Happy Families ?" published by the Centre for Policy Studies, of which he used to be the director. My hon. Friend recently wrote another interesting pamphlet, called "The Family". I recommend both publications to my hon. Friends.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on her appointment as Minister for the family. This is something to which I have been looking forward for a very long time. It provides us with an opportunity for better co-ordination of both Government policy, and the local application of policy through the various agencies. There is a great need for better co-ordination of the services provided locally. I am thinking of what is done by social service bodies, education authorities and Home Office agencies such as the police and the probation service. My right hon. Friend said that responsibility begins with parents and must remain with them. That is exactly right, and it is a concept which our policies support. Opposition Members have referred to the need for funding. The most important funding for a family is the

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