Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Renton: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord concludes, perhaps I may ask a question. As one who has won 10 general elections, I wonder

24 Jan 2001 : Column 300

whether he is aware that the majority of voters pay far more attention to the candidate's election addresses than they do to the party manifestos.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, some do and some do not, but I believe that in most organised political parties the candidates' addresses have something to do with the party manifestos.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, before my noble and learned friend sits down, perhaps I may ask about his reference to the future composition of your Lordships' House. He did not take note of my point that, unless major changes are made, there are likely to be 800 Members in the future. Would the Government be happy with that?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I have said that government policy is, by and large, to accept the general thrust of the Wakeham commission. That commission pointed to what it thought was an optimum figure. I did not want to intrude into private grief by suggesting compulsory retirement--even paid compulsory retirement--but, plainly, we need to address that matter. That gross figure is exactly that. Before the great reform of 1999 we had a notional attendance of well over 1,500. The interesting thing was that no one was sure of the number because some had not answered their Writs. Among the best jokes made was that by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who said that this is the only legislature in the world which can function only on the basis that a good majority of its Members do not turn up.

5.32 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, it falls to me now to make two comments. First, I thank those noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I do so most heartily. With respect, the quality of the speeches abundantly justified the choice of my noble friends on the Cross Benches in choosing this subject for debate.

Secondly, I note that my Motion as it appears on the Order Paper calls for Papers. Your Lordships are inundated with papers--perhaps almost as much on the constitution as on stem cells. But my noble friend Lord Northbourne is also asking for Papers and I would not wish to deprive him of that or indeed anything else. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Boys and Fatherhood

5.34 p.m.

Lord Northbourne rose to call attention to the problems experienced by boys growing up without the care of a father and to the case for more resources to be devoted to preparing boys to become responsible citizens and fathers; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I want to pay tribute to the Government for identifying and addressing the problem of social exclusion. Recently

24 Jan 2001 : Column 301

they accepted that many of the problems of social exclusion have their origins in the problems of men and boys. The purpose of this debate is to draw attention to the failures and frustrations of some men and boys in our society; to look at the causes; and to explore some solutions.

It is in no sense intended as a criticism of single mothers. I see single mothers as one of the groups who are the victims of the changes which have taken place in our society in the past two decades. I fully recognise that women and girls have problems, too, but today I want to focus your Lordships' attention on men and boys.

Most men and boys in our society today are coping well with the seismic economic and social changes which have taken place in the past few decades. But a significant minority of boys are growing up uneducated, unsocialised and convinced that they have no future in the legitimate economy or as parents. In a recent survey conducted by Adrienne Katz of 1,400 boys, 13 per cent were found to have low self-esteem, low motivation and low confidence. Boys in that group said that they were uncertain about their responsibilities and depressed about their future. Twenty per cent of that group had been in trouble with the police; 11 per cent were deeply depressed or suicidal. I should point out that today three out of four suicides in our country are males. One of the group said, "There is no position in society for us to grow into". Those are significant words.

This is an underclass of young men, often detached from the socialising influences of the family, often believing that they are unfairly excluded from the opportunities of the consumer society. If we want to reduce crime, substance abuse and domestic violence and to strengthen families, we must give these young men back hope and self-confidence. To do so should be an essential plank in the Government's policy of "Opportunities for All".

Many of these disillusioned and depressed young men are growing up in unstable or non-functional families. Many have been abandoned by their father. About 750,000 boys today have no contact with their father. Others have a poor relationship with their father, who may be violent or take little interest in them. Yet other fathers are working such long hours that they cannot give their sons the time they need. Those phenomena have been neatly described as the "Dad Deficit".

In the previous generation the number of people marrying halved; the number divorcing trebled; and the number of children born outside marriage quadrupled. What are the causes of all those changes? I suggest, first and foremost, changes in the nature of work due to technological change and globalisation. In the past 50 years, 2.8 million traditional full-time men's jobs have been lost, many of those in the past 10 years. The Armed Services have been decimated, the mines have been closed and there is little demand for strength and physical courage. A strong but uneducated young man can no longer count on being

24 Jan 2001 : Column 302

able to support his family. Some families in our country have had no man in work for three generations. It is hard to come back from that.

There has been a reaction against Victorian moral values and shared responsibilities towards the pursuit of personal lifestyle. There has also been a shift in social attitudes which has tended to make women's and men's roles in the family interchangeable rather than complementary. Some men feel that they no longer have a role in their family of which they can be proud.

We should not seek to place blame for those changes; indeed, change can and should be healthy and good. But we must blame ourselves for the fact that we have lamentably failed to manage this change. We have failed to recognise the damaging effect that the change has had on some groups. Perhaps I may give your Lordships some statistics from the General Household Survey in order to put the picture in proportion. Today 66 per cent of families are headed by a married couple; 9 per cent are headed by a cohabiting couple; and 25 per cent are headed by a lone parent, of whom nine-tenths are mothers. There are 1.7 million single mothers, who often struggle against the odds to bring up a child, and 1.5 million boys who live in families without a resident father. Children need the security, predictability and commitment of two parents who love them. Boys need fathers. Harriet Harman recently said to fathers:

    "Your children need not just your money--they need you".

Why do fathers matter? There is overwhelming statistical evidence that boys with a poor or non-existent relationship with their fathers are more likely to be violent, to do less well in school and to be bullies or to be bullied, and they are three times more likely to be involved in serious or persistent crime. It is known that the single most effective way to help boys is to encourage their involvement with their fathers. But there are other factors. Families without a father tend to be poorer. Sixty-five per cent of single-parent families grow up in poverty and are statistically more prone to stress, accidents, illness and abuse. Boys who are abandoned or abused by their fathers have a deep psychological wound which I have come across again and again. They feel that they have been rejected by the person who should matter most in their lives. Boys also need male role models to socialise them, show them how to be decent men and how to treat women and teach them to cope with their instincts and emotions. A father's interest can motivate a boy to work in school.

I interject here that the reason for socialising boys is not that they are so awful but that they have so much to offer. Some birth fathers will fail and set their boys a bad example. When that happens it may be better for a boy to have a surrogate or substitute father who can provide many, if not all, of the things that a birth father can offer. But from where are all these surrogate fathers to come? Only a limited number of suitable men are prepared to give other men's sons the love, time and interest that they need. Mentors, male school teachers and youth leaders can help, and I shall refer to them a little later.

24 Jan 2001 : Column 303

What is the price of inaction? Any society that fails to nurture and socialise its children and pass on to the next generation accumulated knowledge, skills and experience burns up its social capital. The prognosis for such a society is not good, and it is a slippery slope. A boy who has not known loving care in the family will himself find it difficult to form a stable family or become a good father to his own children. The golden chain is broken. I believe that we need to look urgently at the way in which our society educates and socialises boys, especially those who are not lucky enough to have a caring father.

I turn briefly to the ways in which society can help, under three headings: helping fathers, helping good relationships within the family and helping boys themselves. As to fathers, there is a need for a fundamental change of heart and recognition that, however significant may be the role of the mother, for a boy the father's role is also very important. The first person who needs to accept that is the father himself. Until he is convinced of the importance of his role, he will not prepare and train for it, perform it properly or make the sacrifices involved. But mothers, teachers, social workers, employers and government also need to recognise the importance of a committed father's role.

To be a good father a man needs self-confidence, which primarily comes from being able to support his family, at least as we perceive the family today. It is difficult to see what other role a father can have. Fathers need a real job, not just a "MacJob". I suggest that to build self-esteem in fathers is an essential building block in socialising boys. Government should support caring fathers, especially those who are prepared to make a long-term commitment of some kind. Employers should recognise that fathers as well as mothers need time for their children.

I turn to relationships and family structures. Research shows that the outcomes for children depend to a great extent on relationships within the family. But it is also true that good relationships need the support of good family structures. Put another way, good relationships are much more difficult without good family structures. Relationships between parents are likely to thrive best if they are set in a long-term, committed partnership. At present, marriage appears to be the only formula devised by society to formalise and celebrate a long-term commitment. I think back to the debate last week. It is possible that there are better structures but we have not thought of them yet. Those who resist the support of marriage often talk of it as a kind of ball and chain, and to some no doubt it is. However, recent research in the United States shows that marriage can produce substantial benefits for both parents:

    "On average married people have better health, longer life, more and better sex, greater wealth and better outcomes for their children".

Perhaps we need to look at the image of marriage and develop alternatives for those who are put off by the baggage which marriage has accumulated, or its cost.

24 Jan 2001 : Column 304

I turn finally to support for boys as they grow up. A boy's failure in school can condemn him to failure for life. Boys need motivation to learn. The encouragement and interest of a father, or another man whom the boy admires, can be, and is, a powerful motivation for boys. There is an urgent need for more young men of integrity as teachers in our schools, especially at primary level, and as youth workers and mentors. Boys need adult male role models from whom they can learn how to behave and develop their masculinity in constructive rather than anti-social ways so that as they grow up they find legitimate outlets for qualities like courage, loyalty, the competitive instinct and love of adventure.

As boys and girls grow up they both need opportunities gradually to grow away from the family towards independence. Essentially, they need somewhere to go and something to do outside the home, because hanging about the street corner is for most boys an almost certain precursor to juvenile crime and substance abuse. Boys need opportunities to develop self-confidence, social skills, friends, companionship and a sense of belonging. All boys particularly need support when they come to the transition from school to training or work, and from living at home to living independently.

It is a scandal that so many local authorities have been allowed to decimate their youth provision. In this context many of the better local authorities spend over 300 per young person per year. The figure for Brent is 18, and I am aware of others which are not dissimilar. It is a scandal that successive governments have allowed local authorities to sell off playing fields. As in France, every community should have access to playing fields, walks, cycle tracks, sports facilities and good youth services, both statutory and voluntary. There is a huge job of work to do in rebuilding facilities for young people.

The Government's Connections programme is an excellent initiative, but it is no good having such a programme if there is nothing with which to connect. The Connections programme must have the necessary services and opportunities for young people. There is a need for activities which boys and their fathers can share. Youth provision should not be an optional extra.

As an alternative to education, training or work there should be an option for every 16 and 17 year-old boy to spend six to 12 months in an environmental and community service corps. That would be voluntary, residential--away from home--and modestly paid. It would train young men in personal health, fitness and basic life skills and develop self-esteem and the ability to work in a team through adventure, endurance and calculated risk. Also, by giving back service to the community, it would be a stepping stone to independent living and enhance a young man's confidence and social skills and therefore his subsequent employability. A regular routine, feeling valued, friends and a sense of purpose would reduce exclusion and depression and enhance future prospects for a young person. The scheme would cost

24 Jan 2001 : Column 305

money. But so does building prisons. Surely it is better to spend money building up people than building prisons.

Finally, there is the new citizenship and PSHE curriculum. That offers a powerful motive for changing attitudes and developing skills. I believe that every child before he leaves school should learn about the parenting needs of children and the consequential responsibilities of parenthood; the need to prepare for parenthood; that in the age of effective contraception, to conceive an unwanted child is a form of child abuse on the part of both parties; the importance of considering and respecting other people's needs; and how to communicate with others, and so on.

Some of the changes which I have suggested may seem difficult and some may seem impossible. But, on the analogy of global warming, if the outcomes of past and present policy are leading us to disaster, the sooner we start to address the impossible the better. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page