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3 July 2007 : Column 175WH—continued

9.55 am

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Olner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), whom I call my hon. Friend, on securing this debate on behalf of several of us who went to Sweden. As I am in a congratulatory mood, I also congratulate the Minister on her job. I believe that it is similar to her previous one, but I hope that it will include even wider responsibilities, not least because the Prime Minister has replicated at national level what we have had at local level—a children and young people’s Department, in effect. I hope that the Minister will attend many Cabinet meetings to fight the corner for children, schools and families.

It is important that such a structure is in place. We are talking about a central difficulty that we as policy makers must resolve if we are to make progress in our society. Members of Parliament have probably seen that many of the problems that we encounter—whether antisocial behaviour, failure at school, disruption in classes, criminality, drug abuse or a lifetime on benefits—stem directly from the failure to raise children in the right way, and that is a follow-on from parents not having the right parenting skills.

To resolve some of those problems, our main strategy must be early intervention. We can spend billions chasing after problems once they are part of a human being and part of their personality, or we can intervene early and spend a little bit of money on children and mothers, so
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that both can fulfil their human potential. Early intervention should be the key strategic objective in Government policy making in this area.

Two years ago, I could not get anyone to talk about early intervention. Now everybody talks about it, and they are throwing in everything. On every policy, we are talking the talk on early intervention, but we must be careful. We need to define what early intervention is. To me, it is a policy that makes an impact on the inter-generational nature of problems, that seeks to break inter-generational cycles. I am sure every Member has had this experience. I have been in the House for quite a long time. I am now getting not the 16-year-old who came to my first surgeries in 1987, with a little babe in arms, but the babe in arms herself, bringing her child to my surgery to get advice on problems. That inter-generational cycle must be broken.

That is not to say that we should not continue with our remedial policies—of course we should. We should be helping out at the sharp end. We should be helping to find remedies for those people who suffer because of neglect in the early years, but let us not confuse a package of early intervention measures with the continuing necessity for remedial policies.

Early intervention is necessary because in so many areas we have lost the skill—the art—of parenting. I say that because in many senses we are a child-illiterate society. We have lost the trans-generational transmission of child-rearing practices. Parenting has never just been about one poor little 16—year-old girl on a tough estate in my constituency struggling to raise a child on her own. Parenting was traditionally something in which a whole group, or family, engaged. Work has been done on that by Bruce Perry who, by tracking back the family group size to the year 1850, has made it clear that it was typical to have 12 people in the family unit. If we go back further to 1,000 years ago, there were sometimes up to 50 people in a family unit—thus there was always a stimulus around, the ability to learn was developed and interaction took place. In a sense, we are trying to find a substitute for that in modern society, and we certainly do need to find a substitute because this problem will not get better.

According the work of the Child Trauma Academy, the number of young people who we can say are generally at risk is around 10 per cent. but, because of differential birth rates and the fact that mums in those situations have their children earlier, in six generations, it will not be a 10 per cent. problem, but a 25 per cent. problem. Let us imagine the feral nature of our society if one in four children do not have opportunities in society and have all those terrible risks. This matter is not one of choice or of asking whether we do or do not take action; it is a matter of how fast we seek to act.

The policy task is to provide early intervention and to reinvent and relearn effective parenting and child rearing. We also need to spread as standard the best parenting practices that are around. To do that, we must make the best use of the natural—biological—gifts that we have, which we are not doing at the moment. For example, we must make best use of the power of relationships and the ability of a mother to transmit empathetic parts of behaviour to a baby—the ability to care, to understand, to interact and to relate to others. Doing so will act like body-building for the brain. We must focus on the
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ability of the brain to interact, understand and mirror development, so that youngsters can develop to their fullest potential.

The other biological gift is the brain’s malleability, particularly in the early years. Oddly, a graph of expenditure on education would start quite low and build up to a massive amount of expenditure on those who go to university. That direction is obverse to the brain’s development and its capacity to move quickly, which is very high in the first three years, but for most of us in this room has now tailed off to a level plateau.

Child rearing at home by parents and socially through interaction at school and elsewhere is the bedrock of our society, and we neglect it at our peril. The issue is that important; it is the choice between a healthy or unhealthy society. I could provide examples from education, health or employment, but I will give just one example in relation to crime. I am talking to people in the Home Office and to Ministers in the Cabinet Office and the new Department of Children, Schools and Families about the issue. If empathy can be developed in children, it becomes the greatest inhibitor to crime—particularly violent crime. If someone is raised with an understanding of how other people feel—for example, how someone feels if they are hit—it is a great inhibitor to violent crime. We are creating large numbers of people who do not have that inhibition and who think nothing of using violence to further their ends, whether when they are in the playground at four years old, when stealing a mobile phone from a child when they are a teenager, or in relation to other even worse activities.

Research has been done by George Hosking at the World Alternatives to Violence Trust on helping parents to introduce empathy and interaction and to resolve arguments without violence. We are trying to do that in my city by extending the “social, emotional aspects of learning” programme. If we can develop such qualities in people and, above all, do so early, we will put money in the bank in terms of crime prevention. In effect, ensuring that people act reasonably is the glue of our society, whether that relates to the awful extreme that we heard of yesterday where a family member raped and murdered a two-year-old girl or to the other trivial, superficial end of the spectrum where “I’m not bothered” culture is prevalent in society.

We can do better, and to do so makes social and economic sense. The economic sense is an area on which I hope the Government always feel vulnerable. It is useful to demonstrate that early intervention saves masses of public money. Investment made in intensive health visiting and mother care centres before the birth is tiny relative to what it costs to get a youngster on to a drug rehab programme. It costs the taxpayer £250,000 to keep a 16-year-old at a secure unit. However, Place2Be—a voluntary sector scheme that helps young people under the age of 10 talk about their problems, get their anxieties out and get the help that they need—costs my city £100,000. We have a choice: £100,000 to put dozens and dozens of young people on the right track or £250,000 to pointlessly bang up a 16-year-old for a year. I know where my money would go.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is making a truly outstanding speech. He referred to the waste entailed by a young person who is incarcerated in jail. At the last reckoning, 60 per cent. of approximately 12,000
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people in our young offender institutions suffered from speech, language and communication difficulties that prevent them from accessing education courses. Would the hon. Gentleman care to guess how many of those young people would not be in young offender institutions today if they had benefited from early intervention?

Mr. Allen: The figures bear out the hon. Gentleman’s point. There is a tremendous correlation between the under-achievement that results from poor parenting and people’s backgrounds, and criminality. Where people do not learn language skills, they invariably do not learn other skills, so the hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head.

One of the problems in getting such a strategic view over to the Government is that they fear the public expenditure consequences. The Government often talk about the 3 or 4 per cent. that we need to help. In a constituency such as mine in Nottingham, North, which is possibly one of the most educationally deprived constituencies in the UK, it is not a 3 or 4 per cent. problem; it is probably a 30 per cent. problem. It is a volume problem; not a small slither problem. To tackle that and put it right, we cannot just have schemes, pilots and little projects—although, of course, they will pioneer where we need to go. Ultimately, we need a complete reorientation of public services and to move away from the massive expense of failure towards intervening early and inexpensively to ensure that youngsters benefit and reach their full potential.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon also mentioned long-termism, which has been raised time and again. Whenever I take part in such a debate, I e-mail people locally, let them know what I am doing and ask them whether they have any bright ideas. I have been inundated with responses from people saying, “Please tell them about long-termism. I am fighting now to save my job, which runs out in six months’ time. I am getting a little bit of grant from somewhere, am begging money from the lottery and am trying to get some neighbourhood renewal funding to keep this work going”, and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that is particularly the case in the voluntary sector.

In Sweden, there has been a long-term approach, over 50 or 60 years, involving both parties—there has been an all-party consensus—which is the answer for us, too. We must do it long term. As the chair of the local strategic partnership, I am looking to create in Nottingham a 20-year prevention package, but I do not know whether there will be a local strategic partnership next April, or whether it will have any money to spend, because the comprehensive spending review has been delayed for so long.

Very briefly, Mr. Olner—I am conscious of your words earlier—I shall finish by mentioning three specifics from Sweden. First, on maternity leave and pay, in Sweden a person is allowed 18 months of child-rearing leave, for 13 months of which they are entitled to 80 per cent. of their work salary. That time can be split between the partners. In the UK, maternity leave is for one year. Mothers and mothers-to-be can receive statutory maternity pay for up to 39 weeks, but the employer, not the state, pays 90 per cent. of the individual’s average weekly earnings for the first six weeks, and then a mere £112 for the remaining 33 weeks. How would one of us like to
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raise our children? Clearly, we would choose to do so in the system that allows us those 18 months, to keep body and soul together.

Secondly, prenatal services—another facet of the Swedish system—are provided to pregnant mothers who register with a mother care centre, which allows the earliest possible contact, which continues throughout pregnancy, and early intervention for those who need it most. Again, that compares favourably with our own system. In Sweden, everyone is entitled to take time off from work for antenatal classes at their mother care centre, whereas here we need an absolute right for pregnant women to have antenatal classes and care. That should be specified in legislation. It should be a right, and there should be a duty to promote it within primary care trusts and local councils. That is not a matter of middle-class choice; it is essential that we get help to pregnant mums at the earliest possible moment and start them on that trail, so that they can access the necessary assistance as and when they need it. We need a more systematic effort to get to people at the earliest possible moment.

Finally, I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) will talk about child care provision. However, we need to ensure also that that is comprehensive. This is the most important aspect of our social policy. We need to learn the lessons from Sweden, which has been doing this for a long time. We need to do the same and ensure that our comprehensive spending review recognises that early intervention is good not just for society, but for our economy as well. If we do that, we will end up reducing the proportion of at-risk children from 10 per cent., but if we do not, we had better be ready to reap the whirlwind that will result if 25 per cent. of our children behave in a way that most of us do not feel is appropriate in a civilised society.

10.13 am

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I shall calibrate my remarks to the timetable that you set out, Mr. Olner.

I thank the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), who is certainly a friend, for asking for this debate, and I congratulate the Minister, who has long been a champion of better parenting and child care. I am glad that her voice on these matters will now be heard in the Cabinet.

Over the past 10 years, we have made immense progress on parenting and child care, but as everyone acknowledges, we started a long way behind the Scandinavian countries, and we are still catching up. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the situation in Sweden. The focus of the visit made under the auspices of the all-party group on Sweden was on comparing benefits to parents in the two countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) took a very thoughtful and broad approach. I shall try to concentrate more on the details.

The trip was organised by Christina Winroth, Anna Komheden, and others at the British embassy in Stockholm, and it was very helpful in giving us the background to the situation there. I shall go through chronologically the years from nought to six, starting before birth, because Sweden provides for mothers in physically strenuous jobs pregnancy benefits amounting to 80 per cent. of
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their salary for up to 50 days before the birth. I do not know whether we have an equivalent. When the child is born, the first issue is statutory maternity pay; as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said, it applies for 13 months in Sweden at 80 per cent. of salary. In the UK, it is available for nine months, starting at 90 per cent. but falling rather abruptly to £212.75 a week. Sweden’s 80 per cent. is not for unlimited salaries, but for those up to £35,000, which still means that mothers can be paid up to £28,250 a year, plus for another three months at £105 a week. For most of the 18 months on statutory leave, therefore, they will receive a reasonable income.

Another issue is what happens to fathers. In Sweden, they are entitled to 10 days on 80 per cent. of pay. I am glad to say that in the UK fathers can now take up to two weeks at £112 a week. In a written answer, however, the Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North that the then Department for Education and Skills was

I look forward to hearing about that.

Probably the most important issue is statutory maternity leave, which is for up to 18 months in Sweden and is now 12 months in the UK, although before April, it was dependent on being with an employer for six months. I am glad that that condition has now been dropped. Another issue is whether a father can take parental leave. As I understand it, in Sweden, parental benefit can be taken by either parent, but the other parent must take at least two months. A single mother can take 13 months, but any other parent can take a maximum of 11 months, with the other parent having to take the other two. In the UK, however—I hope to be corrected if am wrong—parental leave is an individual right and cannot be transferred between parents.

Another issue is whether a parent has to take the whole parental leave period in one stretch. In Sweden, it can be taken at the full rate for one year, at a half rate for two years, a quarter rate for four years or even at an eighth rate for eight years. Given that the leave has to be taken by the time that the child is eight, it is possible for parents to take the whole of the period off, electing to draw their parental benefit at a much lower level. More commonly, it is taken in bits, in the form of a shorter working week or working day—a six-hour day, for instance—at any time up to the child’s ninth birthday. It is true that most parents take it in the first year, but many stretch it out over two or three. Some hold it back until later. Typically, Swedish parents take a two-month summer holiday when the child is four, five and six, using up their parental leave.

Another issue is what to do when a child is sick. Often that is overlooked, but it is very important for parents of young children. In Sweden, if a child is sick, the parents want to take a child to the doctor or the child minder is sick, up to 120 days—roughly 17 weeks—of temporary parental benefit can be taken. That extends to when the child is 12. During such periods, the parent gets 80 per cent. of their salary, up to a lower ceiling of £22,000, which still is much more than in this country. As I understand it, in the UK, we get up to 13 weeks of unpaid parental leave to take care of a child, but only until that child is five.

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There is a question about the age at which a parent can enrol their child in a nursery school. In Sweden, it is a legal entitlement to take children from the age of one. However, most local authorities refuse to take children before the age of one; that happens very often in this country. However, nursery provision is almost universal by the ages of four and five; 96 per cent. of Swedish children are in nurseries at that age.

How much do people pay for nursery provision? Again, the comparison is interesting. Nursery school fees are much lower in Sweden than in this country. They are related to income. People pay 3 per cent. of their income for the first child, 2 per cent. for the second and 1 per cent. for the third, but all that is subject to the incredibly low maximum charge of £92 a month, or £23 a week. Many people in my constituency pay more than £200 a week for one child—nearly 10 times the Swedish figure. Furthermore, the maximum charge for a second child is only £15 a week; for a third child it is £8 a week; and a fourth, fifth or sixth child goes to nursery free.

The Social Democrats fought the last election in Sweden on a platform that included a promise to reduce the maximum charge from £23 to £17.50, which seems almost like never-never land to us—we would be happy with either sum. The Social Democrats lost the election and the charge remains at £23, but either way it is much lower than ours.

In the United Kingdom, as I am sure hon. Members know, the maximum available help with child care costs has gone up enormously in the past two years. People on working tax credit can now claim 80 per cent. of nursery costs up to £175 a week. That increase was introduced explicitly to help families in constituencies such as mine in London, where nursery charges can be extremely high. In the 10 years since 1997, there has been a fifteenfold increase in help with nursery charges, but many parents in my constituency still feel that they cannot afford to have their children looked after.

In Sweden, nursery places are so heavily subsidised that the average parent pays only 8 per cent. of the true cost. That has a clear implication for the system of taxation, which has to be much higher than in other places, but it means that no parent feels that they cannot afford to put their child in a nursery. In this country, even a couple with two children on maximum support will pay 16 per cent. of the true cost. That is the case even with the combined effect of the child care element and free nursery places.

Another big difference is that, at the age of three, children in this country qualify for 12.5 hours of free nursery provision, whereas in Sweden it is 15 hours—which we will soon go to, but only for four and five-year-olds. In the UK, children start nursery school at three and have to go to primary school at five, although sadly many local authorities start them at four. Sadly, many children—I speak as someone who has been the governor of a nursery school for the past 20 years—stay in nursery school for only a year or even two terms because they are starting school, in some cases only a few days after their fourth birthday.

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