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4.56 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) who, as a former regular officer, always speaks on military matters with real knowledge and experience. He and I have a link, as I have just learned that his regiment suffered a friendly fire incident in the recent Iraq conflict and my regiment, the Royal Fusiliers, suffered a similar shocking incident during the first Iraq war.

It was also a pleasure to listen to the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather). I am sure that all Members agree that she spoke with great style and poise and will join me in wishing her well in Parliament.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) opened the debate for the Opposition. He pointed out the huge inconsistency in

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the Government's position on the European constitution. They say that it is a matter of such little importance—a mere tidying-up exercise—that it is not necessary to put it before the British people, yet at the same time they say that the matters before our country are so urgent that they may need to veto the whole treaty. Those two positions cannot logically be held at the same time. We should be aware of that significant point.

I was pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned Zimbabwe and Burma. It is certainly true that the UN has failed those countries especially poorly. We have a special duty to the people of Zimbabwe, a country in which I declare a personal interest, as my great-great uncle showed Cecil Rhodes where it was. The situation is appalling, with nearly 6 million people facing starvation. The citizens of Zimbabwe rightly look to the UK to make a serious effort at the UN on their behalf. If we can do that for Iraq, we can do it on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe—we have been remiss in that regard.

Similarly, Burma is all too prone to slip from the gaze of the international community. The UN should consider the situation there much more seriously.

We have heard some outstanding speeches this afternoon. I do not think I am showing bias by saying that they came mostly from the Opposition Benches, as we have heard relatively few contributions from the Government Benches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) was right to say that, as a loyal partner of the United States, the UK needs to make sure that we are not ignored by the US. There should be some payback for our loyalty to and support of the United States, but that has often been lacking.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) correctly pointed out that international law has not caught up with events after 11 September. That is one of the most urgent issues facing the world community, if we are properly to deal with such threats legally in the future. He raised an important matter, and we are all indebted to him.

I pay particular attention to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who put with greater clarity and force than I have heard to date the appalling fact that the Government are now claiming a justification for the war with Iraq which they clearly said in column 772 of Hansard of 18 March was not a legal one. That is a shocking state of affairs. The British people will not easily forgive or understand it.

I understand that during these debates it is the convention for hon. Members to raise issues in any part of the Queen's Speech or that they think should have been included. I want to move away from international affairs to consider one or two items that I am extremely sorry that the Government have not included. In particular on social policy, I believe that family breakdown and father absence are among the most severe issues facing us. The figures are shocking. Recently we learned that a quarter of all dependent British children live in single-parent households. The average across the European Union is 14 per cent. When I mention that figure, many people suggest that that must be because the Catholic south, with its

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greater sense of family values, brings the average down. They are wrong in that assumption. In the Netherlands and Luxembourg, only one in 10 children live in single-parent families.

This country sticks out poorly and worryingly in this area. The situation causes massive distress to parents and children and it costs the country a huge amount—a conservative estimate is about £15 billion a year. We spend peanuts by comparison on trying to do something about the problem—about £5 million or £6 million a year through the Mars—marriage and relationship support—programme and support for community-founded trusts, which do excellent work. Is it not time that we put greater emphasis on prevention rather than cure? We have heard a lot about pre-emption in international affairs this afternoon. What about some focus on prevention in this area?

It is a shame that there is only one Government Back-Bench Member present this afternoon, and he is the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary. The links between child poverty and single-parent households are significant. I serve as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. We have just had a briefing on the subject in which we were told that 22 per cent. of children in couple families live in poverty, compared with 54 per cent. of children in lone-parent families—a full 32 percentage points more.

The good news is that there is a road map to do something about it. Only a few weeks ago we were privileged to have a visit to this country and House from Dr. Wade Horn, the United States Assistant Secretary for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services. He would be the equivalent of a Minister of State, probably in the Department for Work and Pensions. I chaired the meeting in Committee Room 12 which was attended by Members from all parties, and indeed the Work and Pensions Minister Baroness Hollis. We learned about the welfare-to-work programmes in America, and in particular the family support measures focusing on father absence, healthy marriage programmes and support for fragile families. They have had real success. In America in the past five years, child poverty has reduced from 22 per cent. to 16 per cent.

Dr. Horn was formerly the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. We need a similar body to undertake such work in the United Kingdom. We need a body that emphasises fathers' responsibilities, not just fathers' rights. There are issues around fathers' rights—access and the way in which courts deal with cases—but for the good of our children, the emphasis should be on responsibilities. That is urgent. I personally would like to be involved in such moves. In America today, there are about 24 million children in father-absent households. As I have said, a quarter of all British children are in that position.

It is a great pity that the Queen's Speech did not say anything about that important matter, which is of great concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Sadly, children in father-absent homes are significantly more likely to do poorly, on any measure of child well-being. Figures for America tell us, and I have no reason to suppose that they are hugely different from those for this country, that 72 per cent. of adolescent murderers and 70 per cent. of long-term prison inmates grew up in homes without fathers. It is

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always important that we handle these issues sensitively, and we are talking about generalities, but we cannot ignore such figures if we are to do the best for our country.

The United States Government are putting money into programmes that are having positive results. I regret that the Queen's Speech said nothing about that. Those programmes are having demonstrable results and making the situation better. For example, 16 per cent. of couples in the study group who did not attend the prevention and relationship enhancement programme divorced after five years, but only 3 per cent. of couples who were on the course divorced.

Another programme, known as relationship enhancement, had dramatic effects on reducing domestic violence. Of 90 violent husbands, all of whom were first offenders for spousal abuse, not one who was on the programme was arrested again for the same offence within a year, whereas 20 per cent. of those who were not on the programme were arrested again. The Queen's Speech refers to a Bill on domestic violence, but it is a question not just of passing a law on such behaviour but of providing the courses that will help to change behaviour. That will have results and lead to improvements.

The United States is spending £300 million a year on what it calls its healthy marriage programmes. Those are for people who have decided to get married and want to stay married. Who could possibly be against that? It is not the state interfering in people's private lives, because these people have already made that choice freely. It does not involve taking any money from programmes in support of single parents. I am saddened when I see the contrast between America and this country. We learned yesterday from some of our press that page 41 of the Government's paper on civil partnerships says that they want to abolish the words "marital status" from all Government forms. Why cannot we just have the words "spouse/partner"? What would be the problem with that? That would recognise the world as it is and give some recognition in that area.

It is a concern that we trap so many lone parents in poverty by treating lone parents better than those who live together. I give two brief examples: the council tax discount for single occupiers and the invisible second adult in the tax credit regime.

Those are hugely important areas of social policy. The Queen's Speech could have said something about them. It is not a case necessarily of passing laws or even spending vast amounts on those programmes, but we urgently need a national debate. We need to spend time and attention on these matters. I hope that that will happen in the very near future.

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