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Parents (Family Policy)

2 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I shall begin by saying a few words about the context of this debate. I am grateful for the support for my remarks from a number of colleagues and from those on the Front Benches.

This debate has been sought by a cross-party group of Christian MPs, a number of whom are present. They are taking part for a variety of reasons. First, we want to make it clear that those of us in Parliament who have faith are no different from the millions of people in this country who take their faith to work with them every day— from those who work in the home to those who work in hospitals, shops, offices and every other corner of daily life. Our faith sustains our work in an entirely natural manner. We share that with those of other faiths in our society, such as Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs.

Secondly, we wish to make a contribution to countering the current cynicism about political life by showing that MPs can come together across party boundaries to address matters of common interest. That tends to happen quite a bit in Parliament, but members of the public can be forgiven for hearing only about conflict and difference. In their minds, a typical debate might follow a familiar pattern: I explain how the Government have got it all wrong and which of my party's policies will put it right, the Minister explains how all life began in 1997 and why everything is now fantastic but that we are at risk of returning to mediaeval times if my party wins the next election, and, in between, we both manage to poke sticks at the Liberal Democrats. I am not saying that we do not have such debates, but that this one will draw attention to the hidden agenda of politics, which is not what people allege their opponents will do on being elected that they have not already spelled out, but what opposing parties hold in common but rarely express.

Thirdly, I would like this debate to be about how those of faith in Parliament meet together, support each other and wish now to address a number of areas where we hope to contribute from a Christian perspective, and how we welcome those of other faiths and encourage them to have no qualms about expressing themselves in a similar manner.

British public life is at an uneasy junction. We are not north Americans, who seem to find these things easier, and we are aware of the sensitivities involved in bringing faith and politics together. However, those of us who were at the Advent service at Lambeth palace last night could not have received more gentle encouragement, and nor could the wider public have been more reassured, by the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Addressing just this point, he spoke of those of faith in public life not responding to life's problems with "easy or glib certainties" but exercising patient listening and answering a call to discern not simply the noise of a majority or of a media campaign but the wisdom of God expressed in the harmony of his creation, and that that reference point, as an addition to those of politics, should be a help to us and not a hindrance or a cause of concern for others.

Let me also say briefly what this debate is not. It is not the expression of some form of new party. We are strong supporters both in our own parties and of the robust
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debate that is essential to provide choice for the electorate and clarity in our own positions. We believe that Christians should be involved in party politics, and exercise their influence within all parties. Nor is this an attempt to find a complete consensus on difficult issues. We may agree on analysis and on some ideas to press forward, but we will not agree about everything, and we will support our party colleagues for the ideas they put forward—we will certainly do so if we have influenced them.

I hope that the area of consensus might grow, but all of us in Parliament know what happens to ideas and legislation that everyone believes are right; they get less scrutiny than they should and we often end up with bigger problems than we started with. No former Minister who had responsibility for the Child Support Agency could ever believe otherwise.

Finally, this debate should not be seen as sermonising by the sanctimonious, and nor should any other debate that we might seek to introduce. We all believe that our faith has brought us close to our own human frailty. We all mess up. We have all experienced the sort of human failure that leads us to have compassion for those in difficulties. That is why Christians are drawn to work in so many areas of life where there are problems. We care for our neighbours, the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed and the imprisoned. But, however any of us may try, no Christian leads the perfect life.

Let me turn to the subject of today's debate. I recognise at once the sensitivity of dealing with such intimate matters as the family. However, there is no doubt that it is a legitimate issue of public concern and debate. Our family structure has a public as well as a private connotation. Yesterday, the United Nations General Assembly devoted a debate to the 10th anniversary of the international year of the family. The preamble affirms the obvious. It states that

That was not put very elegantly, but we know what was meant.

The Government are closely involved in picking up the pieces when things go wrong for families, in providing financially in circumstances when families might have provided for themselves, and in having a public debate about whether marriage is the best and most stable option for bringing up children—the Government have done that in the past few years. The debate may have moved on; last week, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families said:

What are the consequences of that statement?

Let me acknowledge one or two other things before I get to the heart of my concerns. Polarisation of views on the issue has caused harm by stifling debate and creating the ground only for conflict. Few, if any, of our marriages or families are perfect. We all know the difficulties and can acknowledge fault and hurt, but that should not stop us talking about ideals to which we can all strive. Changes in society over the past 40 years have been right in exposing and denouncing the shamefully hidden abuse and violence in some marriages. It is right that there has been a greater openness in talking of problems in relationships and that there has been more equality within marriage. Family relationships have benefited from that, and that has been a good thing.
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Equally, there have been other changes, which are now impossible to ignore. It is now right to challenge the impression given by some in the past that marriage was a form of prison and that the freedom and happiness of adults was all that was required to ensure that children were similarly happy.

Why should the interest of Christians in these matters have been such a source of concern? The world expects those with faith to be involved in international development and in the relief of poverty in our streets and those abroad. For some reason, our interest in families appears too often to have been greeted with a sense of suspicion.

Perhaps I can square the circle. I acknowledge that 30 or 40 years ago, Christian campaigners were portrayed as almost solely concerned with moral justification when they voiced worry about changes in family structure in this country. They appeared to represent a finger-wagging authoritarian God, and concern was overladen with condemnation. That was very much against the spirit of the times.

At that time, however, there was no evidence of what those changes would bring. It was an argument in a vacuum—the worst sort—in which prejudice and ideology competed and it was more important to win than to keep an eye on the causes of concern. Now things are different. Although there have been perfectly good outcomes to some parts of the family revolution, as I have acknowledged, other things that have had poor outcomes have had dreadful personal consequences for too many adults and for too many children. Therefore, the approach of my hon. Friends and colleagues is not to proclaim a finger-wagging God, but a father who loves us and who gives us a structure for living that is designed to fulfil us, and to let us live life joyfully and to the full and, when things go wrong for us, to provide a pathway back, rather than blame and exclusion.

Seen in such a light, what are my worries? I am worried about the impact of brokenness on so many people—young and old alike. I offer hon. Members a series of statistics, which do not give comfort and are not meant to, but we must acknowledge them. Two thirds of couples divorcing have children under 16. An unknown number of cohabiting couples separate every year. Cohabiting parents separate at about five times the rate of married parents. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published research in 2004 that estimated that one in three children will experience parental divorce or separation before the age of 16.

Nearly one in five babies are born in a home with no father. A recent survey-based report into child maltreatment from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children questioned 2,869 18 to 24-year-olds about their childhood experiences. The research revealed strong links between child maltreatment and other family relationship problems and showed that children experiencing frequent changes in family structure were especially vulnerable to abuse. Children living in step-families are three times as likely
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to run away from home as children living with both their natural parents are. Children of lone parents are twice as likely to do so.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes a profoundly interesting case, but surely he is not trying to argue that people who are married should invariably stay together for the sake of the children, perhaps in situations that are fraught with disharmony, or where abuse, domestic violence or child abuse may occur.

Alistair Burt : No, I am not seeking to argue that. In situations where there is abuse or violence, as I said earlier, one of the changes is that society has been more open in bringing such things out and people no longer have to remain in such abusive relationships. I am arguing that parents should be careful about their relationship with each other and recognise the impact of a relationship of conflict on the children. They should do all in their power, with help from others if need be, to resolve such conflicts before they lead to separation. That is our concern. People should not stay together at all costs, but they should recognise that there are also costs of separation.

Mr. Dawson : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that, and he leads me on to another point. From my perspective, it sometimes seems that committed Christians see the family as something entire in itself that does not need any assistance or support from the state. He seems to be leading us down a different path.

Alistair Burt : I am, and I think that if the hon. Gentleman listens to the contributions from colleagues, he will find further elucidation on that. I am grateful for the intervention because it gives me the chance to rebut some of the charges that have been made against those from my and other standpoints. It is good that he has brought those matters out.

I shall return to the statistics. Children on the at-risk register were eight times more likely to be living with their natural mother and a father substitute, compared with the national distribution for similar social classes. Children of separated families are twice as likely to have behavioural problems, perform less well in school, become sexually active at a younger age, suffer depression and turn to drugs, smoking and heavy drinking. In May 2004, Cambridge university reported that teachers were losing the battle to maintain discipline in schools because of the breakdown in family relationships.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, because he is making a powerful case. May I remind him that the Office for National Statistics published a report three or four years ago on the mental health of children and adolescents in Great Britain? It found that the incidence of conduct disorder in boys aged 11 to 15 in a single-parent household was three times higher than in a married household. However, even more significantly,
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there was no difference between a cohabiting household and a single-parent household. Does not that tell us something about the value of marriage?

Alistair Burt : I think it does, and I will come to that point later. However, the collection of statistics is making its own case, which is one of concern, not condemnation.

Children born to cohabiting parents are more likely to see their parents split up than those who are born inside marriage. Within five years of a child's birth only 8 per cent. of married couples have split up, compared with 52 per cent. of cohabitees and 25 per cent. of those who marry after birth. That is the starting point for our range of concerns in this debate.

I have two pleas for the policy makers in all our parties. First, please include the expertise of those in faith groups across the country who already work in such fields even more than the Government already have done. I commend the practical work being done by CARE, Care for the Family, the Family Matters Institute, the Salvation Army and a host of others. They deserve more support, but they do not need to be taken over by Government. To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), although I recognise that the Government have a legitimate interest, they should not feel that they have to be the sole provider of support when families break down. They could do more to outsource that work to those who are already engaged on it.

I now come to my second plea. I am delighted to see the Minister in his place, and I fully appreciate the reason why the Minister for Children, Young People and Families cannot be here. I urge the Minister to urge his right hon. Friend to be bolder, following her comment on marriage and stability last week. Surveys show that marriage remains a popular ideal for most of our young people, but they are woefully under-prepared for its realities away from the glossy, over-romanticised hype. We should put support into marriage preparation courses run by Churches and others and into conflict resolution within marriage, consider restoring financial advantages to marriage, add a marriage message to teen pregnancy prevention, and work with the new grain to make marriage cool again and turn around what is almost a reverse stigma that seems to have grown up around marriage. The financial and social benefits could be huge.

None of this is said to suggest that those who are not in such a relationship are in any way second class or excluded—a concern that I know Ministers have had in the past. For too long, we have been so shy of that that we have ignored the evidence of the benefits of a stable relationship, to which the Minister for Children, Young People and Families has referred.

I close by referring again to the successful debate at the UN yesterday, and the UN's support for the recent Doha declaration. That declaration has been supported wholeheartedly by 149 out of 192 members of the United Nations. It is significant that the European Union has not quite been able to muster as much
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support for the declaration, and I urge the Government to discuss further with EU colleagues precisely what their stance is.

The Doha declaration says, in relation to marriage, that the nation should

It says that we should


John Stuart Mill, in his essay "On Liberty" in 1859, said:

It is time to take this familiar debate forward, on a road that has been rather less travelled in recent years, away from the polarisation of the past. Those of faith—Christian, Jewish, Muslim and others—should be closely involved, neither themselves disguising the imperfections of life, nor being derided for having faith in a secular age. We should, while welcoming the benefits of a changing society, recognise equally the harm that has been done, and therefore dedicate ourselves together to the practical and spiritual goals of repairing the unhappiness and dealing with the consequences of broken relationships for the good of society and, not least, for our children.

2.19 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): I shall make only a brief contribution because I know that a number of Members wish to speak. I compliment the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate and on his speech. I do not share his religious faith, although I have utter respect for it and its principles. I suppose I should say that I have been married for 31 years, so I think that I have a reasonable knowledge of the significance and importance of marriage. However, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is supplying us with the whole story and with everything that we need to do to support parents and the family to ensure that such a significant institution works well for existing families, families of the future and the whole of our society in years to come.

I accept entirely the argument that children benefit from stable, loving relationships between their parents. However, I wonder whether such relationships need to be within marriage and whether, in espousing marriage as having greater qualities than cohabitation, the hon. Gentleman falls into the trap that he correctly identified: denigrating other people's relationships and other ways of bringing up children.

I worry sometimes that the family lobby—I mean that in a very positive sense; there will be a great deal of consensus in this debate—gets suspicious and frightened of the idea of children's rights. Children's rights need to be at the heart of our debate on the effective upbringing of children and the quality of families. Sometimes it
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seems that some who speak eloquently on behalf of families set up the virtues of families in opposition to what is sometimes derisorily referred to as the children's rights lobby.

If we consider children's rights and the fundamental statement of them—the United Nations convention on the rights of the child—we see important principles that support not only the well-being of children but the ability of the right parents to bring up children as they wish, for the best interests of the child.

I do not recall the hon. Gentleman talking about poverty, although I may have missed that. The greatest commitment that this Government have entered into is the one to end child poverty in this country within a generation—by 2020. There can be nothing more destructive of children's and families' lives than the experience of poverty.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Did the hon. Gentleman disagree with any of the statistics put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) in his opening remarks? The hon. Gentleman is engaging on the question of whether one lobby should say things about the other. Will he say what he would do practically to help the plight of children in this country today?

Mr. Dawson : I am very happy to, and I have embarked on that quest. One can bandy statistics around as much as one likes. [Interruption.] Having lived in and been brought up in a family, had my own family and worked with families for many years, I think that the essential quality of a family and a relationship is not whether the parents have entered into marriage, but the strength of their relationship and the care, consistency and concern that they give their children. For a blueprint for the future of children, we should return to this Government's fundamental commitment to end child poverty. There can be no more important quest for a Government intent on supporting children and families than to do that. To help people work their way out of poverty and support people in their quest to find work, we must support families in bringing up children.

We also need a wide-ranging social agenda, which starts from the needs, aspirations and participation of children. We must listen to children extremely effectively. Effective families involve and listen to their children. A wide-ranging social agenda must support parents in the vital task of parenting.

One criticism I would make of the Government is that they have not yet recognised the scientific development and cutting-edge understanding that we now have of how the development of children's brains mirrors the social interactions to which they are subject. For some 50 or 60 years, we have had Sir John Bowlby's theory of attachment, which has gained worldwide acceptance. The theory says that to give children the emotional foundation for a successful life and to assist their physical and social development, it is important during the earliest years of life that they build secure attachments with a small number of significant individuals. Recent research on children's brain development shows a physical correlation with that vital psychological theory.
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It is incumbent on the Government to do more to ensure that parents understand the crucial message that in the first few days, weeks and months of life it is vital to maintain consistency in how children are managed, and to build strong relationships with them and respond effectively to them. All the research—the scientific physical theory backs up the attachment theory of the past 50 or 60 years—shows that if we attend to those issues, we will have much more attached, integrated, together and secure children and adults. We might even find that some of the problems that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire correctly identified in society to do with fractured relationships, and some problems that the Government are addressing on other fronts, such as antisocial behaviour, crime and people's inability to maintain good working relationships, will be dealt with. We need to attend to the fundamental rights of children. We must attack poverty. We must have excellent public provision that supports parents in their parenting task, one of the hardest tasks in the world.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Through the hon. Gentleman, I wish to commend to the Government the Solihull model that was developed by our primary care trust. It was built on the scientific evidence that, when a baby grows up in an atmosphere of fear, tension and argument, the baby's brain is infused with the fight-or-flight hormones that we all have. That leads to a child who can cope only with constant "adrenalin" and has an attention deficit disorder. The logic of my argument is that, if there were stability, the parents stayed together and the fear and insecurity were taken away, babies would have less of those fight-or-flight hormones that affect their brain and development.

Mr. Dawson : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for providing that information. I am pleased to hear about the development in Solihull. One argument that is sometimes advanced against such an approach is that it pushes women away from the workplace and back into the family home. I disagree with that, as I do with the tendency outlined by the hon. Lady, which is that two married parents must always be together with the child. I do not believe that the science or theory of attachment means that.

The line of that argument is that, especially in the very early weeks and months of life, children need to have consistent attention from one or two—or perhaps slightly more—significant figures in their lives. Those figures do not need to be married or to be there all the time. Such a science does not militate against women working; it does not militate against men working; it does not militate against men staying at home and looking after the children and it certainly does not militate against people living together in a stable, committed relationship that ensures consistency and the effective upbringing of children. I have now said quite enough; it is important that we are having such a good debate and I look forward to hearing the contributions of others.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara): Order. Hon. Members who catch my eye may wish to bear in mind that many others wish to do so and that the wind-up speeches must start at 3 o'clock.
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2.32 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that many colleagues wish to speak, I shall be as brief as possible. I wish only to refer to one area where we can do something positive as a nation to improve marriages and relationships in all families in this country. Four statistics mark out the United Kingdom, in comparison with our European neighbours, as having a serious problem. We have the highest divorce rate, the highest level of teenage pregnancies, the highest number of children—one in four—in single-parent families, and poor infant mortality statistics that are closely related to teenage pregnancy figures.

The biggest and most worrying problem is not divorce, because fewer people are getting married, but the break-up of unmarried partners, which has shown a sharp increase.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that high rates of infant mortality are clearly and easily attributable to particular parts of the country? One of the real scandals was the covering up of the Black report, which highlighted several health inequalities.

Andrew Selous : I have no doubt about what the hon. Lady says, in that there are certainly areas in this country where the problem is peculiarly concentrated. However, I am sure that she would agree with several clinicians, as I do, that the link between teenage pregnancy and infant mortality is strong.

My interest in the matter was aroused when I examined homelessness. On youth homelessness, there is universal agreement among all the voluntary agencies in the sector that parental conflict—often step-parental conflict—with adolescent children sends youngsters out of their homes. They may feel not loved and not welcome when mum's new boyfriend or dad's new girlfriend moves in, which drives them on to the streets of King's Cross or elsewhere.That is just one further example of the serious national problem that we must get to grips with.

I keep in regular contact with all the 18-year-olds in my constituency; indeed, I survey them throughout the year. This year, more than three quarters of them have told me that they think that family breakdown is a serious issue for their future. They do not want it for their own lives. They hope that they will have enduring and fulfilling relationships in their own lives, and they are aware of the difficulties caused in their homes and communities by this problem.

Let me explain what depresses me about the debate. We can all rattle off statistics and say how awful the situation is, and, quite rightly, we put mechanisms in place to pick up the pieces. We need a housing system that offers housing when couples split up and two houses are needed rather than one. We need a benefits system to provide financial provision when people need it following a break-up. We need the Child Support Agency—and, my goodness, we all know that it has problems—to ensure that money gets from one side to the other. But what are we doing as a nation to turn off the tap and do something positive? What are we doing to say, "Come on. Collectively, let's find a way to make a real difference and improve all relationships, for married and non-married people, in our country"?
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My piece of good news as we come up to a season of good news is that we have a role model in this country that is starting to do what I have described. I am talking about community family trusts. People who know me reasonably well know that I think that those organisations are wonderful. I do not say that they are the only type of organisation that can do the work, but 27 community family trusts have sprung up throughout the country, from the voluntary, charitable and Church sectors. They are funded in part by Government money, from the marriage and relationship support programme, which was set up in 1996 and has a budget of about £5 million. The little bit of money that goes to the trusts is very welcome. They also receive little bits of local authority money. Trusts exist in some quite tough parts of the country and are already making a difference. I see them as offering help, support and encouragement to families to ensure that they have enduring, successful and sustaining relationships.

Community family trusts came out of work that was done in America some 10 years ago. America is a very different society from the UK and it would not be right to replicate here exactly what happened there—indeed, that would not work, for a host of reasons—but let us consider the American example for a moment. We now have hard data—verified by a team of academics at the university of Texas who were brought in independently to verify them—that in communities and districts in America where work similar to that done by community family trusts has taken place, there has been a 25 per cent. reduction in the divorce rate. Those academics have calculated that that is a reduction of some 30,000 divorces in districts that have embraced the concept of a community family trust, as compared with those that have not, which is very exciting. We know that what we do must be evidence-based, but that is a positive result, which I commend to officials in the Department. They might want to study those data to see how we can lend more support to the organisations working in the UK.

Let me mention three other countries that are taking the issue seriously, because we are not alone in facing these problems. Australia is a similar Anglo-Saxon country, with some of the genetic make-up that perhaps gives people slightly more difficulty in forming harmonious relationships than people in some countries in Europe seem to have. The Australian Government are setting up a series of family relationship centres throughout their country. They will be the gateway to a range of voluntary, community and Church-based services that offer support before relationships or marriages start and all the way through them, to ensure that they are successful. Singapore and Malaysia, two different societies, are also grasping the nettle in similar ways, well before seeing the sort of statistics that we have heard about.

What are United Kingdom community family trusts like? Their effectiveness varies because many are small and operate on tiny budgets, but the best involve all the schools in their area to ensure that teaching about relationships is an essential part of the curriculum. They also work particularly closely with registrars in their area. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, 62 per cent. of United Kingdom marriages take place in registry offices rather than
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churches. Many registrars want to be able to signpost relationship support services to couples who come to them to get married.

Mr. Dawson : The hon. Gentleman is making a very sound case for community family trusts. Does he see them as being an adjunct to the work of Sure Start, children's centres and extended schools, or as a replacement?

Andrew Selous : From my conversations with Naomi Eisenstadt, the head of Sure Start, I would say that that organisation is just beginning to realise the importance to children's development of the relationship between their parents. The trusts should work alongside Sure Start. The entire area of relationships and family life is intensely private and personal. That has been the general view in the UK for many years. Couples often find it comforting, and easier, if services to do with such personal issues are offered by voluntary and community groups. Therefore, it would be beneficial if this work were to take place alongside that of Sure Start. I would also like Sure Start to recognise the importance of that work a little more, and to act as a signpost to the groups within communities that provide such services.

Health visitors are another vital group, enabling us to access many people who are struggling in their relationships. We know that relationships often get into difficulties when children arrive, because of the extra stresses and pressures that are produced, and that every family in this country is visited by a health visitor. Would it not be sensible to ensure that health visitors are able to flag up to couples the services that are available in a community, and to direct them towards them?

Community family trusts also do good work in prisons, and that is very well received by the prisoners concerned. I commend those organisations to the Minister, and I hope that their work can be increased throughout the UK.

2.43 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I shall keep my remarks brief.

I recognise that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) draws the inspiration for his work in this area from a particular tradition. Many of us draw our inspiration from different sources, such as religion, another political credo or personal experience. I think that all those approaches are equally valid, but as MPs, we choose to work out our views through the medium of politics and to pursue our goals through our political parties. Therefore, I make no excuse for being very single-minded in my view that this Government have been pro-family and have done everything possible to support family life and improvements in the upbringing of children.

In a way, my constituency is all about families, because they are a fundamental part of what drives most of my constituents. Two issues are of particular concern to them—the security of their finances and their certainty about public services. Those are the two elements they draw from in order to plan the future for their families. Therefore, the things that are important
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to them and that make a qualitative difference in their lives often are not talked about in the House. Those include, for example, child care tax credits, the enormous advances in child care that the Government have provided, the Sure Start programme, legislation on homelessness, extra finances for schools—children's centres will be key in that respect—and improvements to health care, including NHS Direct, which is an invaluable resource for improvements in care.

Equalities issues and children's issues are also important. In the contributions that we have heard, one of the elements that has arisen time and again is the problem of abusive and violent relationships, which often occur because of attitudes to women in our society. The strengthening of women's position and rights and the recognition of their equality, as well as the strengthening of the position of people with disabilities and those from black minority ethnic communities, are key to the underpinning of a society in which people's rights and views are much more greatly respected.

There are still issues to be resolved. Statistics have been quoted on the problems of teenage pregnancies and other issues, and there is no point in rehearsing them again. There are some areas in which we as politicians must think of policies that will produce some change and start to resolve some of the practical difficulties that we all see in our constituencies.

One key issue is the role of boys and young men. For example—I do not think that anyone has yet quoted this statistic—about one in four or one in six young men will have had some involvement with the criminal justice system by the time they are 25. That is a phenomenally high figure. We need to find a way in which those young men can be engaged in more constructive activities, and a way of ensuring that they do not under-perform at school—an increasing problem that many of us will have encountered. We also need to find a way of ensuring that young men in their late teens and early 20s can become involved in constructive relationships and can also see a stake for themselves in a family context. That is an issue with which many young men seem to have difficulties.

We also still need to examine ways in which we can support families that run into severe difficulties. I recognise the validity of all forms of families. In my constituency, a number of families are same-sex partnerships whose members are passionately committed both to their family unit and to their children. There is also a continuing issue related to single parents. Many single parents are passionately committed to their families and their children, but they often find that the problems caused by emerging from an extremely difficult partnership are exacerbated by having to deal with children and with poverty. In that regard, the new deal for lone parents has been a startling success, and I hope that every party would want to continue that policy.

We also need more support for housing. I agree with some of the remarks that have been made about that. We should consider some of the models for family housing projects, which provide support for families that have had particular difficulties with antisocial behaviour. A number of people who have contributed to the debate this afternoon have obviously spoken from their own experience of successful marriages. One
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recognises that, like me, they are extremely fortunate in that respect, particularly when one considers the turbulent times and places in which we work.

I argue, however, that the role of the Government is to provide a supportive climate for people who are working very hard to carve out successful units for themselves and a partner and to bring up children who will fulfil a constructive role in our society. I congratulate the Government on the many measures that they have put in place thus far.

2.50 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): We all agree—most of our constituents would—that family units are under pressure, despite the support that various Governments have provided for many years. Today, many families find themselves under pressure financially, for example, because of housing costs or for employment reasons—perhaps because of short-term contracts or because there is employment but they have to move. There is also a certain amount of peer pressure from the desire to live with people of a similar age.

Families are under pressure socially. The question is asked: why get married in the first place? Why should people tie themselves up with that sort of thing? Even those who do get married sometimes think about entering into a social contract—they are thinking about divorce even before they get married in the first place. Yesterday we were told that the divorce rate among people in their 50s and 60s is shooting up, which is very sad. Something that has not been touched on—we have tended to concentrate on the junior end of the population—is longevity. There are four generations around my Sunday lunch table. Many people in their 50s and 60s are having to look after older parents at the same time as trying to support their children and grandchildren. Longevity is putting the pressure on family units. Many of them are coping well with it. Do not get me wrong; I fully accept the fact of poverty—it is a reality—but conditions of the sort in which my parents had to bring me up during the post-war years and the pressures of poverty today are totally different. Poverty is different today.

We have to recognise that families are still the greatest agents of care and well-being in the country. They provide the greatest amount of child care, irrespective of all the nurseries and child care facilities. Families provide the greatest amount of support for teenagers, no matter what other advice they receive at school and elsewhere. Families also provide the overwhelming amount of care for the elderly in our society. Therefore, the best policies that the Government could pursue would be to support, reinforce and prioritise policies towards encouraging the family unit as the core of our society.

I was a spokesman on rural affairs when the Government introduced the idea of rural proofing—looking at policies to see how they affected rural areas. It was a laudable objective, although I am not certain that they got around to doing it. I hope that the Government will examine all their policies in the light of "family proofing", and ask, "What does this policy do? However laudable it may be in other terms, will it promote, reinforce and support families, or might an inadvertent consequence be to undermine or reduce the
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opportunities for families?" I hope that the Government will examine all their policies in that way. They should consider how they might affect family units, because in my view and that of a significant number of people of all political persuasions in our constituencies, the family unit should be supported.

2. 53 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I am delighted to take part in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for introducing it and for his leadership of the Christian community in the Palace of Westminster. He does a tremendous job. I shall be extremely brief, because I am desperate to hear from the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), who speaks about the family with great wisdom and from personal experience. I just want to make a couple of points.

We in this country are in danger of seeing far too many children raised outside the framework of love, support, encouragement and discipline from which many of us benefited and which is essential if one is to grow into a mature and rounded person—although that obviously did not happen in my case. Not everything is about whether a child has one parent or two—I think we have moved on from that debate of a few years ago. It is the quality of parenting that matters, and too many children do not receive quality parenting.

We all know that being a parent is hard. We all try our best, but there are no guarantees regarding the outcomes. I agree with the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed): it is essential that the Government put the family at the centre of their approach to children and society. Parenting is important, and the key point that I want to emphasise in my tiny contribution is that parenting principles can be taught. Many say that that is not true and scream, "Nanny state!" at the very idea of the Government having anything to say or do about encouraging the teaching of parenting principles. However, I believe that the evidence is now overwhelming that certain principles of parenting can be taught, particularly to a generation who have never had positive parenting themselves.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the problems that arise with the kind of people who grow up outwith a stable and secure family background are the most serious issue facing our society today. What are we going to do about that? We all see cases in our surgeries such as the Child Support Agency cases. The thought of what some of those children are going through makes one want to weep. We know that those children will underachieve—that is what the commentators and academics tell us. We know that the evidence suggests that such children will be more inclined to become involved in crime and antisocial behaviour. The question is: what are we going to do about it?

Are we going to say that it is too difficult an area for politicians to involve ourselves in, or are we going to say that this is the most important issue facing our country and we must respond? I call upon the Government not to be weak-kneed. There will be screams of "Nanny state!" from some—perhaps even from some Conservative Members—but I want the Government to know that not every Conservative Member shares that view.
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There are excellent charities and voluntary organisations with a great deal of expertise, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) pointed out. I want the Government to find gateways, mechanisms and signposts to ensure that those organisations have contact with the people who need them the most. I am so keen to hear from the hon. Member for Loughborough that I will now sit down.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I call Andy Reed to make a cameo appearance.

2.57 pm

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I am often asked, "Why do you speak so quickly, Mr. Reed?" It is because I always get called at 2.57 pm in Westminster Hall debates. I will try to get through very quickly the specific points that I wish to make.

The hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) hit the nail on the head: it is easy to think that one knows it all as a parent, only to realise as soon as the baby arrives that one knows nothing. It is one of the few areas of life where we have no training and no opportunity to learn. We rely on friends and relatives.

We can talk about relationships and about the family, but if we do not get the work-life balance right, none of it means anything. There can be loving parents with a stable marriage whose children never see them because they work ridiculously long hours. A couple of statistics demonstrate what has happened over the past few years: 65 per cent. of people now work an atypical working week; in other words, those working what we regard as the typical working work—nine-to-five, five days a week—are a minority. Parents and families are bypassing each other in the home. An enormous amount of work needs to be done in that respect.

In 1981, 24 per cent. of mothers returned to work within a year of their child being born. In 2001, 67 per cent. did so. Clearly, there is enormous pressure. The Government are doing an enormous amount and we have benefited from the provision of nursery places for three and four-year-olds, but the period when children are aged between one and three is a difficult time for parents, and we have failed so far to make a real difference.

The Work Foundation says that the work-life balance is about people having a measure of control over when, where and how they work. The vast majority of my constituents working part-time, full-time or atypical hours all over the place do not have that sense of control over their life. While I am pleased to support others of faith about their vision of what the family unit will look like, an enormous amount of work needs to be done in one respect: the work-life balance. All the other things that we discussed today depend on our getting that balance right.

Getting that balance right ensures that we are able to invest in our children at the right time. Statistics have been quoted showing that early years provision can make an enormous difference. If a child starts school at five, their chances of achieving well at GCSE and going to university, and of reducing their exposure to crime and antisocial behaviour, improve. If we get the work-
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life balance right, we will make an enormous difference in making many of the things that the Minister has heard today into reality, because the family unit will be around to provide time, develop relationships and give a child the best start in life.

3 pm

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), especially on his desire to discuss matters of common interest, as we have done for the most part today. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) on his three-minute contribution. Nobody before him had mentioned the work-life balance, and I concur with his point.

Having seen the title of this debate, I started wondering whether the Government should be concerned about parents and families and whether they have any role in determining priorities for parents. Many hon. Members have spoken about the enormous changes in our society. Should we simply accept those changes? It is hard to do that when we hear some of the statistics quoted today. I shall add one more to emphasise the picture drawn for us. ChildLine reports that 1,500 suicidal children phone its helpline every year, often citing problems of abuse, neglect and low self-esteem, which build up during childhood. We must accept that childhood, and therefore parenting, are much more complex now. We need to understand the needs and rights of parents of both sexes and of children, as well as the environment in which we live. I believe that we need to provide support mechanisms and have a positive agenda to promote social cohesion in our communities. Judging by today's debate, it seems that there is a consensus that support is needed from a variety of sources. The decisions on the how, why, what and who of that support are inevitably heavily value-laden.

We have touched on marriage versus unmarried partners versus single parents. Although I am a Christian and believe in marriage, I recognise that there are other forms of relationship that can be successful.

Mr. Gerald Howarth : Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Brooke : I would like to keep to the time limit.

There is a certain amount of wishful thinking back to the good old days, but we should ask ourselves whether they were so good. Sometimes people stayed in bad relationships. On the other hand, many of us would look back to the strength of the extended family, and to the contribution made by grandmothers in particular.

Recognition of what constitutes legitimate state intervention has changed. We all accept that we should intervene in domestic violence and that there should be strong child protection measures. However, banning physical punishment of children was recently seen by the vast majority of MPs as a step too far. I certainly regard the state as an enabler, for example in helping important parent-child relationships to prosper.

I agree with Labour Members about the importance of reducing child poverty. However, concentrating predominantly on one tool—encouraging lone parents to return to work—concerns me. That has many good
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consequences, but it has other consequences for the child-parent relationship. Inevitably, some have more choices than others in the first instance. Some people are more able to create opportunities—for example, one parent may be able to work from home. However, choices are severely limited for others, and an important aspect of state intervention or enabling should be to create more choices for all.

Many things can be done, some of which have been outlined. There are many excellent projects, especially in the voluntary sector, which have enormous potential to support families and children, and to prevent things going wrong in the first place, but all too often they are grossly underfunded. There is a large cost to society of broken relationships and of children and young people being damaged in some way by broken or difficult home relationships, and perhaps even being taken into the care system. Looked-after children generally underperform and there is a high possibility of their ending up in a young offenders institution. The Government have done some wonderful things with quality protects and the concept of a corporate parent, but we do not seem to be able to do enough to break through the problems. When a relationship has broken down, it is important that there be good foster carers to try to mend the situation for the children.

So many young people do not conform to the norms of our society, but when we talk about the problems we have to remember that only a minority of young people break the law. Many young people who experience difficult relationships in their early life go on to score tremendous achievements. However, the general point is that the cost of positive intervention is very small in comparison to the cost of breakdowns in the family and local community. Positive intervention might simplistically be compared to having a car regularly serviced and maintained, and responding quickly to any potential mechanical failures.

Nobody enters a relationship hoping that it will end miserably. I agree that there is evidence to show that children thrive best in families in which the parents care for each other and for them. However, that does not mean that there are not other situations in which single parents are successful. We must put greater emphasis on equipping people with opportunities to learn skills that will enable them to handle and manage their relationships as partners, parents and children. Such services need to be provided as mainstream support, rather than as rescue remedies for families labelled as problematic or dysfunctional. I was interested in comments made by two single parents in a recent radio broadcast: both felt that telling them how to bring up their children was extremely patronising. Offering people classes on parenting without being patronising, and getting everybody to participate, is difficult.

Middle-class parents would probably come very happily to parenting classes. About 15 years ago, I was involved in trying to run a course entitled, "It's hard being the parent of a teenager, and even harder being a teenager." Not all groups that we would have liked to come, came. We sought funding for our initiative, and the one stream of funding that we got was for tackling teenage pregnancy; I suppose that that was good. People in our group came from all sorts of backgrounds, and our ideas stemmed from the fact that, traditionally—before everybody took their children to school by car—
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mums or dads would talk a great deal outside the school gate. We reckoned that school-gate support was rather important. Sure Start offers such support at children's centres. If they have time and are not dashing off to work, mums can stop and talk. Some of the best support is given by one parent to another or by a mentor or somebody in the community. The Church has an important role to play, because it is at the heart of communities. Our traditional communities have broken down and the Church seems to be reaching out and putting something back.

Parenting orders have been a great success. I thought that forcing parents to go to parenting classes would be impossible, but it is not. I should declare an interest: I am a founder member and trustee of Poole community family trust, which receives money from the Government and is of great interest to me. We started with what was perhaps a heavily biased Church background, but we recognise that our task is to strengthen relationships generally. One cannot emphasise enough how important it is that we prepare to enter relationships at adult level and with our children.

Society could do more by ensuring that both parents have an opportunity to participate. From a female perspective, I think that fathers should be far more involved right across the spectrum. They should be involved at the prenatal stage. Some fathers abandon children and do not want to see them, but I think that if they have a good opportunity to form important bonds at an early stage, that might lead to more amicable settlements and we might not end up with the tremendous stress and upset that we have now.

I support Sure Start and think that the Government have done a great deal of good in establishing good child care. I support extended maternity and paternity leave because it can only help. I endorse what so many hon. Members have said: there are important issues and we need to develop a culture of putting children and their interests first. We need to love and care for our children and value their great achievements, and realise that our children are precious beings who should be put above our own selfish interests.

3.10 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I cannot claim to be a member of the group of Christian MPs, as it was described by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who put the debate together. However, I am the child of a vicarage, so that genesis perhaps gives me a certain qualification to speak.

I commend my hon. Friend for having brought this important topic to debate in Westminster Hall. Indeed, I hope that we will have other opportunities to debate families, their role in society and how government supports or does not support them, on the Floor of the House. It is an important topic in which all Members have an interest, and it is crucial that we talk about it in a way that recognises the issues that families today face. One of my complaints about government is that too often it considers issues in departmental silos and completely fails to address them as they affect the recipients of the policies—families are crucial in that respect.
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My appointment as shadow Secretary of State for the family was a recognition on our part of the important role that we believe families play and of the need to put families back at the heart of government. In answer to the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), it is our way of family proofing what we are doing in Opposition, and how we are considering our policies and their effect on families.

My remit on the family runs widely in terms of the structures that families now find themselves in. We recognise, and I consider policy as it relates to, families of all shapes and sizes. A recognition that a healthy, stable marriage is the best environment for bringing up children does not deny that children will be brought up well in other circumstances. My hon. Friends have quoted many statistics on the family, including on the breakdown of the traditional structure and model. What we need to do is understand the pressures that exist today on families and the relationships that people are forming.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) talked about the problem of how so many people are bringing up families without the experience of a stable relationship or family background from which they can have benefited. That is one problem that we need to address. It used to be the case that a core of knowledge was naturally imparted from generation to generation, both overtly and covertly, as children were brought up in a stable relationship and learned from it. What we see today is that, sadly, many people have not had that experience, so they lack that core of knowledge.

We need to break into that cycle and find other ways of imparting the knowledge to young people, so that they, in their turn, can provide the examples that will help future generations. I commend the work done by the community family trusts, to which my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) referred. They do excellent work in several areas of the country, and I am particularly pleased to commend the work done by Woodley Baptist church on that.

The trusts can offer a quality of advice and support that government cannot, and that is an important point. Reference was made in the opening speech to the need for government to give greater recognition to faith groups, and I would widen that to faith and voluntary groups. They can provide a quality of advice, support and service to people over and above that provided by government, however hard those working within government try.

Mr. Dawson : I wonder how the right hon. Lady can justify that statement. Such groups do not have the resources, training or professional qualifications of state and local government. They offer an important service, but surely, as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, that is complementary to other activities.

Mrs. May : If the hon. Gentleman thinks that someone requires a knowledge of local and central Government to be able to provide good-quality services to individuals, I entirely disagree. I will give one
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practical example, although it relates to a different issue. There is a Christian-based drug rehabilitation centre in my constituency and I have talked to the people there. I have visited a number of charitable groups operating such centres and they say it is important that that group cares for people beyond the point where they have been taken off the drugs—which is all the state does. It builds up people's self-esteem, provides them with training and supports them once they are back in the community. That level of support is not provided by the state.

Mr. Dawson rose—

Mrs. May : I will allow the hon. Gentleman one further comeback, provided that he is willing to recognise that faith groups can provide something more than the state provides. Will he do that?

Mr. Dawson : The right hon. Lady makes my point for me. She talks about a complementary, not a replacement, service.

Mrs. May : I suggest that the hon. Gentleman listens rather more closely to the debate in future, because that was not what I was talking about. Nevertheless, perhaps I may return to the pressures on families, which have increased immeasurably over the years.

We place immense expectations on children and parents today. Many families find themselves coping with the double whammy of having to care for children and their own parents, because of the current age profile. The pressures on those families are considerable. There is another pressure, too, which is the need for families to live up to a rosy picture of family life that is constantly presented to them. I fear that something else underpins some of the problems that have been identified by my hon. Friends—the idea that if people are not in a relationship where everything goes well, they have to get out if it.

During a television interview last week I was asked, "Can a happy family exist?" I answered yes, they do. I was brought up in a happy family, as are many people, and many people provide happy family backgrounds. However, being a happy family does not mean that there are no disagreements, arguments or that there are not problems. What matters is that people have the ability and skills to cope with problems and overcome them. The expectations that society places on people today create a real problem that we need to address if we are to help and provide them with the support and the ability to enjoy the sort of relationships and families we are talking about.

None the less, I take the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson)—that we need to provide the necessary support for people in abusive and violent relationships. One of the most chilling figures is that the average woman involved in domestic violence suffers from some 35 violent incidents before she leaves and takes action. We need to do much to ensure that we are providing more support for such people.

It is important that government is honest with families, accountable for what it does and does not pretend that it is able to provide them with more support
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than it can. It is also incumbent on government not to add to the pressures on families in the practical operation of policies. For example, there are problems with the tax credit system. Colleagues and I have had constituents in our advice clinics who have been asked by the Inland Revenue to pay back thousands of pounds that they cannot afford to pay, because of Revenue mistakes. There is also the chaos in the Child Support Agency. Even small things matter, like would-be mothers worrying about where they are going to give birth. For example, the closure of the maternity unit in Wycombe hospital reduces choice for my constituents, and the potential closure of the maternity unit at Fairfield hospital reduces the scope for choice for mothers in the Minister's constituency. Government needs to understand those practical pressures placed on families, and it needs to consider the impact of its policies on families and on the wider family.

I should like to refer to the importance of the wider family, which other hon. Members have not mentioned—not just parents and children, but grandparents, uncles and aunts. Sadly, that wider family is all too often denied in the family justice system, which can not only deny fathers or mothers access to children, but sometimes denies grandparents access to their grandchildren, and which lets families down.

The Government have a responsibility to understand the impact of their policies on families. They have a responsibility to support when support is needed, and help when help is needed, a responsibility not to impose or interfere, but to let families get on with the job of making decisions for themselves and to give them the freedom to do what they believe is in their best interests.

3.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis) : The debate reflects great credit on the House. These are incredibly important issues and, for the main part, they have been discussed with great maturity and reflection. We should have more debates of this nature; I suspect that we would gain more respect from people outside if we did.

I particularly welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). Life began in 1997 for me, but some thought that it had ended then for him. I know that many people in Bury are glad, on a personal level, that it did not all end for him in 1997. That is a personal, and not necessarily political, reflection.

On the hon. Gentleman's comments about faith communities, my experience is that bigotry can work two ways. Many secularists, in my view, are bigoted towards those who say that their opinions and values are shaped and formed by their strong faith beliefs, but I do not think that we should condemn, criticise or devalue that approach. It should be a source of celebration in terms of a Parliament that is truly representative of the nation and its values. Certainly, we must respect the contribution that faith communities can make to this debate and to offering practical support to families in our society.

When the hon. Gentleman said that few marriages were perfect, I was tempted to ring home to get a witness to the contrary, but I do not think that I could do that. He made a number of substantive comments, to which I
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shall return. He said that stability matters to children and that it is important that we express concern and do not demonstrate condemnation, and he talked about the importance of involving and utilising the expertise of faith groups. I endorse that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) is absolutely right to say that the elimination of child poverty is integral to turning around some of the experiences of children and young people in our society today. He is also right to stress the importance of very early intervention. There is almost consensus on the importance of child care and nursery provision for those earliest months and years in making the difference for many families and communities, and in tackling the whole issue of intergenerational deprivation, which everyone in this House should be passionate about. Early years intervention is very important.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) promoted the concept of the work of community family trusts. I will certainly look into their work, and will speak to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families to see whether there is anything that we could learn from them about mainstreaming, good practice or engaging with such trusts and their work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) talked about the importance of security of personal finance and the quality of public services. Of course, it is true that those things are important; people's standard of living matters significantly and it has links to stability. Families need access to high-quality public services to support stability within the family unit.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) was right to talk about the new pressures on the modern family. We live in a high-pressure, high-stress society, and that has brought new challenges for families. He and other hon. Members were right to point out that, increasingly, parents are not only parenting children but acting as carers for older people. We should not forget that that changes the nature of family relationships. It is true that the extended family is not as strong in many communities and cultures as it was, but there are also many examples of parents caring for an older, dependent relative as well as young children.

In a very thoughtful contribution, the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) highlighted some important issues. He said that good parenting is about striking the right balance between love and discipline. Sometimes when I read the Daily Mail, I am slightly concerned by the emphasis on discipline. Of course, we need to restore discipline to our classrooms and communities and to tackle antisocial behaviour, but many children have never experienced love, affection or positive attention. We must remember that when we make policies in the round.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the quality of parenting, and he recognised that the state may have a role in offering support to parents who are struggling through extremely difficult decisions. I welcome his support for the state to assist parents in appropriate circumstances—not for the state to circumvent parents' proper responsibility and role—and to intervene when children are at risk of abuse or of not receiving the minimum parenting care that they deserve and need.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) rightly raised the issue of the work-life balance. Many of the policies that the Government have been most progressive about and that have had the biggest positive impact are those that recognise that, as society changes, the modern welfare state needs to put at its heart policies that support achieving the right balance between work and home.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) made the important point that we should not give messages that it is right to stay in horrendous relationships—for example, when there has been domestic violence. We must make it clear that some people leave stable relationships because they turn out not to be stable at all and have horrendous consequences for both the adults and the children involved. She was also right to point out the tremendous job that foster carers do in looking after some of our most damaged and disadvantaged children, and to talk about the importance of mainstream, and not only targeted, support.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was right to talk about the need to join up policy—the Children Act 2004, "Every child matters", and the extended school model are vehicles for us to do that. She is also right that the role of the voluntary sector can be very important. I spent my entire working life in the voluntary sector, and I remember the slogan "Voluntary doesn't have to mean amateur." It is important to remember that. We need a balance between the contributions of the state, the voluntary sector and active citizens. She also made important points about domestic violence.
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The right hon. Lady, however, also made a couple of political points, which I think spoiled her contribution—but Members would expect me to say that. She talked about being honest with families. Because of the way that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire presented the debate, I will not read out the long list of policies that the Government have put in place to support families, such as early years education and child care, universal and targeted financial support, maternity pay and leave, paternity leave, extended schools, parenting support, advisers and mentors, welfare to work, and eliminating child poverty. The right hon. Lady has the gall to talk about this Government being honest with families when the previous Government must look back with shame on the way that they allowed the concept of there being no such thing as society to take hold. I know that many Opposition Members have talked about the excesses of Thatcherism.

We should try to achieve a level of consensus on these issues. First, we should state that children benefit from stable relationships. We should promote the benefits of marriage among young people, although we should do nothing that stigmatises adults or young people in different family circumstances. We should recognise that adults have a responsibility to put the interests of their children first—that they have duties, not just rights. We need to rebalance responsibilities and rights in our society. We need to support parents in giving their children the best possible start in life in terms of both quality provision and financial assistance. We need to support people in remaining in stable relationships when things start to get a little tough. In all stable relationships, things can get difficult. It should not be the first—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. We must now turn our attention to the next debate.
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