Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Local Government

That the draft City of Bradford (Mayoral Referendum) Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 5 December, be approved.—(Bill Wiggin.)

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 25 January (Standing Order No. 41A).


Bus Services in Sedgefield

10.14 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): This is a petition on behalf of 1,000 residents of Bishop Middleham and Fishburn. It states:

The Petition of residents of Bishop Middleham and Fishburn,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that in order to maintain a reliable rural transport network in County Durham additional funding needs to be provided for rural bus services.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to ensure that there is funding in place to maintain the provision of reliable rural bus services in County Durham.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Children's Subjective Well-Being

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

10.15 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Our children are under threat like never before. In the past, threats to children were mainly physical. Many died in infancy, when working or of diseases. The modern threat to our children and young people is more to their mental and psychological well-being.

There are many reasons why, and one is child poverty. After the war, whichever party was in government, child poverty hovered between 12% and 15%, but it went from 13% in 1979 to 29% in 1992. With the huge investment that Labour made over 14 years, we managed to get it down only to 20%—a big reduction, but not enough.

There are other factors. We face an obesity epidemic, with costs to the individual child’s health and self-image. The most recent figures, for 2010-11, show that obesity among children in reception class, at five years old, is at 9.4%, and that by the time they reach year 6, at 10 years old, it doubles to 19%.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we are storing up problems for the future, both in terms of cost and from a psychological point of view, as many such children unfortunately become very disturbed adults?

Chris Ruane: The cost will be huge in terms of the individual, society and the economy.

When we look at mental illness, we find that certain groups are affected more than others: 45% of looked-after children and 72% of those in residential care suffer with mental illness. Some 1.5% of children are hyperactive; 0.3% have eating disorders; 5.8% have conduct disorders; and 3.7% have emotional disorders. Those figures might sound low, but at any one time 10% of children between the ages of five and 15 are suffering with a mental health disease. That is 850,000—almost 1 million—children.

We have to look at the reasons why that has come about. As I suggested earlier, something happened in the 1980s. The Government often talk about the broken society and broken Britain, but I honestly believe that the problem started to ramp up in the “loadsamoney” era, when there was no such thing as society and atomisation and isolation were rampant.

We have also seen the decline of those institutions that did believe in a big society and in social cohesion, such as the Church and the trade unions. Stable minds equal a stable society, but even Labour used the terms “producer” and “consumer”. We did not use “citizen”, and that is what we need to get back to—to viewing individuals as citizens and as part of society.

The Government can take many kinds of action, and many programmes have been tried, tested and proven. The roots of empathy classroom programme in New Zealand is a big success; the Swedish Government banned advertisements to children under 12, and that, too, has been a big success; and the Welsh Assembly Government introduced the foundation phase, with children learning through play until the age of seven.

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My local authority of Denbighshire has had quite a few initiatives, including one by Sara Hammond-Rowley, involving simply sending out information sheets to parents, teachers and social workers, and giving out books, readily understood by parents and teachers, that can help with emotional disorder. We have had volunteering days in the local school in Prestatyn. Thirty-eight local volunteering groups aimed at children were there. The children were let off, one year at a time, to join them in friendship groups. It is about increasing volunteering and getting children away from the TV and computer and into socially interactive and physical activity. That is all to the benefit of those individuals and society.

The curriculum needs to be rebalanced. The national curriculum was introduced by the Conservatives. I was a teacher for 15 years and we followed the curriculum religiously, but we need a review. Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater? We need to go back to stuff such as gratitude, empathy, discernment, reflection, silence, mindfulness, resilience, centring—the softer, gentler, more emotional approach to the curriculum, heavily present in the Catholic school in which I taught and in many religious schools. That would be a means of countering the advertising, media, peer pressure, consumerism, materialism and individualism.

A number of key statistics are not being monitored by the Government. I have tabled parliamentary questions asking what monitoring there is of advertising’s impact on children; there was no assessment. I have tabled questions about the number of fictional acts of murder that a child will watch, but there is no assessment and no figures are kept.

A young child will see tens of thousands of fictional acts of murder and violence, which do not correlate to their own, natural world. What is most disturbing is that the Government do not collect statistics on self-harm, eating disorders, mental illness, hyperactivity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or transient children. The statistics are out there; they are often compiled by research departments or voluntary organisations.

I pay tribute to two reports in the past week, one of which—“Promoting Positive Wellbeing for Children”, came out last Thursday and is jam-packed full of practical steps that local and central Government can take to promote positive well-being for children. This afternoon, the Action for Children campaign on neglect was launched; the Minister was there and spoke well. Those reports are excellent documents, but what use do the Government make of them? When the guiding association found out about the speech that I was making today, it sent me a briefing about its research on volunteering.

The Prime Minister talks about the big society and volunteering and I back that 100%. But we need to make sure that his words are backed up with action. This is a quote from the Prime Minister in 2006:

“It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB—general well-being. Well-being can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.”

I share every single one of those sentiments.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Earlier, the hon. Gentleman touched on child poverty. Does he feel that the Government’s proposed changes to the benefits

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system will directly impact on families in child poverty now and those who will fall into it? Does he feel that the Government should be giving priority to address child poverty across the whole United Kingdom?

Chris Ruane: I absolutely concur with every word of that, and I shall come to those points in more detail in a moment.

I want to spend a few minutes on the Children’s Society’s excellent report on children’s subjective well-being. It gives the definition of subjective well-being, which focuses on how people are feeling, whereas objective well-being focuses on conditions that affect those feelings, such as health or education. The report looked at 10 areas: relationships with family, relationships with friends, time use, health, the future, home, money and possessions, school, appearance, and the amount of choice in life. It has some interesting key findings. One in 11 children has low subjective well-being. Family relations and choice are the two most important factors. Family relations has the best score and is always a positive, but how a schoolchild or young person manages the choices that affect his own or her own life has one of the lowest scores. External factors, life events and relationships with others can have a dramatic and sudden effect on the subjective well-being of children. Household income is important, but it should be enough rather than a lot. If a child has too much, they can mark themselves out and become a figure of fun as the posh kid in the class.

The report highlights six priority areas, one of which is the opportunity to learn and develop not just cognitive but emotional intelligence. I was a little disturbed last week when one of the education Ministers said that he held emotional learning in complete disregard. That does not chime with the opinions of the Prime Minister, and the Minister needs to think carefully about it.

The home environment is as important as the school environment. If a child goes home to a house in multiple occupation and is living six storeys up where it is wet, windy and draughty and he or she cannot concentrate, that is not a good environment in which to create opportunities for learning and developing.

Children and young people should have their opinions respected. They should be listened to not only in school, through schools councils, but by their parents around the breakfast table or the dinner table. They need to have a positive image of themselves. Advertisers tell us that beautiful people are thin, attractive, intelligent and dynamic. That is not always the case, but it is the image that is thrust at us through the media.

We must ensure that all families have enough to live on as they face the sudden shock of redundancy, benefit caps, the freeze in child benefit and the abolition of education maintenance allowance. The full consequences of those measures as regards how they will impact on childhood well-being must be thought through before they are introduced.

Positive relationships with family and friends are a key priority area. Family bonds are 10 times more important than the structure of the family. A lot is made of the nuclear family, which is held up as a paragon. I am from a nuclear family and I have my own nuclear family, but we should not be promoting that

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model by saying “You are not quite right” to all the other families, because that additional pressure will not help a child’s well-being.

Children must be in a safe and suitable home environment. Privacy is important for a child’s well-being: they need to have their own bedroom. If a child is in a transient family that moves between one town and another, they are twice as likely to have poor well-being. I come from a seaside town, Rhyl, where one primary school has a 49% transiency rate. In other words, for every 100 children who are there in September, 49 are gone by July. That is not good for the 49 and it is not good for the 51 who remain. Those children will often move two or three times in a year, leading to massive pressures on themselves and their families.

Children need an opportunity to take part in positive activities, because otherwise they will turn to negative activities such as drink, drugs, teenage sex and teenage pregnancy. We need to create positive opportunities for volunteering and creative and expressive activities.

The report is a mixed blessing. I hope that the Minister has a copy. The final page has a grid on which the green areas represent initiatives that have been put in place—I congratulate the Government on that—and the purple areas represent ideas that have not been acted on. I hope that in the course of this Parliament they will all become green areas. Just to remind the Minister, I have put down 36 questions tonight—one for each box—so he will be able to answer them tomorrow.

The important thing that the report says is that all these things need to be monitored. I know that the Minister, his party and the Government do not believe in red tape, but if they are not monitored, we will not know whether they are successful.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I am afraid that the hon. Lady cannot make an intervention from the Front Bench, but if she moves to the Bench behind, she can.

Chris Ruane: Come on down!

Mrs Hodgson: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am interested in what my hon. Friend said about monitoring the outcomes. We are signed up to the UN convention on the rights of the child. Many of its articles, such as the article on the right for the child’s voice to be heard, could play a big part in meeting those outcomes. What does he think about the idea of having a Bill of Rights for children?

Chris Ruane: There is much to be said for that. The UN perspective is important, as is the European perspective. We need international comparators so that we can measure ourselves against international standards. We also need to monitor the programmes that we put forward nationally.

The Children’s Society report gives credit to some of the initiatives that the Government have put forward over the past year, such as telephone support for families, free parenting classes for those with under-fives and the junior individual savings account. Of course, to have an ISA people need enough spare cash to put in it and many families do not have that.

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There are big changes, which the Minister knows about, that will impact on children and their well-being. I will simply echo a thought that is in both reports. One of the key things that the neglect report asks of the Government is for information to be collected. For dozens of parliamentary questions that I have put down, the answer has been that the information is not collected by the Government—I must say that it was not collected by the Labour Government either.

These are two excellent reports. Progress was made under the Labour Government and it is being made, although more slowly, under this Government. However, there are dark clouds ahead and we all need to monitor this area—both those in government and those outside government—through parliamentary questions and debates to ensure that we get the best deal for our children and young people.

10.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on raising this important subject. He and I probably do not constitute the beautiful people physically, but that does not stop us bringing important and weighty topics to this House.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of interesting ideas, many of which the Government support and are working on. I am glad that he produced the Children’s Society’s bingo card. After 20 months, I am proud of a number of the things that we have instituted. It is now important to see them through. I am confident that we will make a lot more progress with many of the other considerations in the report.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Action for Children report on neglect, which was launched this afternoon. That report references some of the things that the Government have latched on to. I was able to say in my speech this afternoon that we are already on the case in ensuring that more children are identified and supported before a case of neglect becomes a case of abuse and a child ends up in the care system.

I agree with many of the hon. Gentleman’s points, although I raised an eyebrow when he suggested that everything started to go wrong in the 1980s and that mental health only started to become an issue then. I am afraid that that is a rather limited perspective on history.

The Children’s Society report, which the hon. Gentleman described, has clearly sparked a lot of interest and debate. It shows that many factors determine how happy children feel, including the quality of the relationships they have with their family and friends, their family income relative to that of their peers, how much choice they feel they have, their health and appearance, and where they live. I was pleased to note that most of the conclusions of the report were positive. In looking at the specific issues that it raises, we should not forget that 90% of the young people who were interviewed are satisfied with their lives. Some 85% are happy with their family life, more than 80% are in good health and more than 80% have a good set of friends. Nearly three quarters believe that that they learn a lot at school. Overall, the story is positive. Concerns are clearly being raised, and one is not being complacent, but there are lots of positives.

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Not surprisingly, though, discussion has focused on the more negative aspects of the report. It is worrying that large numbers of children will experience low well-being at some stage in their childhood. The hon. Gentleman specifically mentioned mental health, and it has always been a worry to me to see the number of school-age children who have some form of notifiable mental illness and how young some of them are when they develop it. That is why the “no health without mental health” policy that the Government have instituted to raise the profile and importance of mental health in the NHS is key. Within that, we are placing importance on child and adolescent mental health services, particularly for children in the care system. We recognise their increased susceptibility to mental health problems. Across Government, we are determined to make improvements to all aspects of children’s and young people’s lives. We are working across Departments to try to bring about more effective solutions.

One of the things that the report says matters most to children is doing well at school. Achieving well academically builds children’s confidence and self-esteem and provides them with a clear pathway to further learning and a skilled job. That will help to ensure that they experience positive well-being in their adulthood. The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said how problems in childhood clearly lead to troubled adulthood.

Feeling positive about the future is another important aspect of children’s well-being. We are therefore absolutely clear that having a strong focus on raising academic attainment is critical to improving children’s well-being. We believe that key to that aim is reform of the school system, giving school leaders the freedom and flexibility to respond to the challenges that they face. Our school reforms have been guided by three overarching goals: to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds, to ensure that our education system can compete with the best in the world and to trust the professionalism of teachers and raise the quality of teaching.

One of the suggestions that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd made was that we review the curriculum. I can tell him that we are doing that. We are streamlining it to ensure that children get the very best grounding at school, which too many of them are still missing out on at the moment. To narrow gaps in achievement between the lowest-performing students and the average, we must have high aspirations for all children and a zero-tolerance approach to the view that schools facing difficult circumstances cannot succeed.

We recognise, however, that children from poorer backgrounds may need additional support, which is why we have introduced the pupil premium, releasing an extra £625 million of funding to support higher achievement among children from poorer backgrounds, rising to £2.5 billion in 2014-15.

We must also aim to halt the decline in our performance relative to other countries. It is not acceptable, for example, that at the age of 14 the reading ability of pupils in England is more than a year behind the standard of their peers in Shanghai, Korea and Finland, and at least six months behind those in Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia. Overall, in the past nine years England has fallen from seventh to 25th in international student assessment tables in reading, which is completely unacceptable.

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We must also trust the teaching profession to get it right. Good schools have always recognised that children who feel happy and safe are more likely to achieve well at school, and such schools know what to do to ensure that they address underlying causes of low well-being among their pupils. They do not need the Government to issue endless guidance telling them what to do or how to do it. I am proud to say that in one year of this Government, we have cut more than 6,000 pages of guidance to schools. That means not that we think children’s well-being is not important but that we trust schools to do what is right for their students, for example by intervening early to address problems so that children do not fall behind in their studies.

We want to be clear that the core business of schools is to ensure that every child receives a high-quality education and achieves to the best of his or her ability. That is why, for example, we have refocused the school inspections framework on four key areas: pupils’ achievement, teaching quality, leadership and pupils’ behaviour and safety.

We recognise, too, that we must take action to remove the barriers that prevent some children from flourishing and give extra support to children who are disadvantaged. I should like to take this opportunity briefly to illustrate how we are making improvements on all the factors highlighted in the Children’s Society report.

First, on the family, the “Good Childhood” report states that a stable and supportive family environment is the most important factor that affects children’s well-being. We are investing £30 million over the spending review period to fund a range of support for families and relationships, delivered through the voluntary and community sector, including counselling for couples who are experiencing relationship difficulties, parenting classes for first-time parents, and a commitment to turn around the lives of the estimated 120,000 most troubled families in Britain, who have multiple social, health and economic problems. A good, stable, happy family background is a major component of a good and happy childhood.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned income. Although the “Good Childhood” report is clear that having more money than their peers does not make children happy, it is equally clear that being poor relative to their friends reduces levels of well-being, with children in the poorest 20% of households experiencing lower levels of well-being. Our child poverty strategy sets out how we will take a cross-Government approach to tackling the causes of poverty, such as worklessness, educational failure, debt, poor health and family breakdown, thereby raising the life chances of poorer children and breaking the cycle of entrenched intergenerational poverty, which is such a blight on our society. The Government remain committed to the goal of eradicating child poverty.

Friendship is another subject that the hon. Gentleman flagged up. Having good relationships with friends is a key component of well-being. Conversely, experiencing bullying has a devastating impact on how children feel—those who have experienced bullying by peers are six times as likely to experience low well-being. That is why we have recently issued new guidance to schools on preventing bullying and taking decisive action to tackle bullying when and in whatever form it occurs. My work

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as co-chairman of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety—UKCCIS—is an important part of tackling cyber-bullying.

On supporting the most vulnerable, we are taking steps to improve the lives of those who face the biggest challenges. Whether through the reforms that we plan to introduce to improve the lives of children with special educational needs, implementing the recommendations arising from the Munro review of child protection, publishing the first national action plan to tackle sexual exploitation of children, or the improvements we are making to the support for children in care, the Government care about the well-being of all children. Many of those matters were referenced in both reports that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

I want to finish on “Positive for Youth”. The Children’s Society report found that older age groups—in other words, those in their teens—tend to have lower subjective well-being than younger children. The Government accept that view, and take the well-being of that age group very seriously. Last December, after extensive collaboration with young people and professionals, we published “Positive for Youth”, which is a new approach to cross-Government policy for young people. It is different in several ways. It brings together the policies of nine Departments, with nine Ministers contributing, into a single vision. It moves away from the centralised approaches of the past to set out a vision for how all sections of society can and need to work together to help all young people achieve. Most important, it is relentlessly positive about young people and their potential—it focuses on helping young people succeed, not just on how to prevent them from failing. I firmly believe that the vast majority of young people are hard working, responsible and creative members of their communities, who do not deserve the bad press they attract due to the behaviour of a tiny minority.

We will follow “Positive for Youth” with an audit of progress at the end of 2012. As part of that, we will publish a new set of data to demonstrate progress, moving away from reporting on the negative outcomes that have been prevented and focusing instead on young people’s positive achievements.

Along with those measures, we are also developing a new national measure of young people’s subjective well-being as part of the Measuring National Well-being programme that the Prime Minister commissioned. The Department for Education and the Office for National Statistics are working closely with a group of experts and partner organisations, including the Children’s Society, to ensure that children’s views are captured and acted upon. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of listening to the voices of children and young people. I have always practised that and will continue to do so. The results will tell us even more than we already know about children and young people’s well-being and enable us to know how the views of children and young people in the UK compare with those in other countries, and to ascertain what progress we are making over time. The Government will also use the emerging data to better formulate and evaluate policy.

Let me deal finally with volunteering. Young people volunteer disproportionately when compared with other sections of the community. All the attributes of volunteering that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are encompassed

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in the national citizen service programme, which the Prime Minister launched. It is all about giving young people opportunities to learn, to develop their personal social characteristics and to engage. I greatly hope that the hon. Gentleman will give his support to the national citizen service, which is part of our work to tackle all the issues that he rightly raised. We would very much like to extend it to Wales because it is a United Kingdom-wide scheme.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising such important points. I am sure that he and I share the objective of having much happier young children growing into much happier and productive adults.

Question put and agreed to.

10.45 pm

House adjourned.