Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I recently raised this matter with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. If the Minister can supply any further information, I would welcome it. I recognise the difficulty of the timing, given the process of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Does the Minister recognise that newly qualified social work status would be thoroughly consonant with paragraph 7.11 of his Policy Review of Children and Young People? It says:

When does the Minister expect to have identified the likely costs of implementing newly qualified social work status?

29 Mar 2007 : Column 1821

The role of social workers in ameliorating the lives of the children of our most troubled families is essential. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

2.52 pm

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who has brought the UNICEF debate on the well-being of children right back home, into our own backyard. In that context, I propose to follow him with the question of adoption and to treat it with reason, as distinct from faith.

The reasoning is that which was before your Lordships on 21 March. It was in the conclusions of a most reverend Primate, two right reverend Prelates, my noble friend Lord Pilkington—a man of the cloth—the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Browne, and many others. That reasoning was the basis of their objection to the regulations, which were, first, misunderstood in argument and, secondly, not justified. They were in effect ill conceived in law and would probably be read down by our courts if one sought to enforce them.

The point made and taken so well by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham was: what is needed by the child? He said that in any sort of family there was love, support, fair treatment, and so forth. It does not appear to have been appreciated, as was said by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, on 21 March, that the courts routinely give adoption orders in favour of homosexuals where the circumstances of the case warrant it. That is because it is the accepted rule that the interests of the child are paramount, not the interests of the adopters. The situation referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, was a classic example of where the courts make the order, have made the order and will continue to make the order. The reason might be that the child could not cope with an ordinary family relationship or, to put it the other way, the family relationship would be broken up by the state of the child. In either of those circumstances and many others, the order is made.

Why should there be any justification for discrimination against the Catholic agencies? The whole process of adoption is perfectly sound. The application for an adoption order is afforded to anyone, rich or poor, of whatever faith—or none—ethnic origin or sexual orientation. It comes before a court, which is a lay tribunal, and is subject to appeal.

The adopters are assisted by the adoption agencies, but there is a total service for homosexual couples. If they cannot go to an agency direct, as we have heard from my noble friend Lady Morris, they are transferred. The point is that the services are available. So if they are available and are satisfactorily rendered—and nobody has said they are not—what is the justification for this discrimination?

If this matter were to come before our courts, it could well be read down because it failed to take due account of the balance of the relevant articles of the ECHR and constituted unjustified means to an unacceptable end. In those circumstances, it would be a good idea if reconsideration were given to the way in which these matters were dealt with on 21 March.

29 Mar 2007 : Column 1822

3 pm

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate and welcome the publication of Every Parent Matters. Like other Members of your Lordships' House, I shall highlight relationships, which are fundamental to all human well-being, especially that of children. It is an area in which church and faith groups have a particular interest and a particular contribution to make, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, has already reminded us.

The UNICEF report recognises that,

It bases our standing at the bottom of the table on the objective criteria of percentages of children living in single-parent families and step-families and those who eat their main meal with their parents, as well as on more subjective percentages of those who report that their parents spend time just talking to them and that they find their peers kind and helpful. As Every Parent Matters recognises, it is the quality of relationships with parents, adults and their own peers that forms and supports children’s well-being and behaviour, and not material possessions or even appropriate legislation alone.

Children’s and young people’s subjective well-being is another area where our children’s self-perception puts the UK in the lowest position in relation to the OECD average. Subjective well-being depends largely on relationships. Young people’s self-perception is linked to the attitudes of, and opinions expressed by, adults, and the evidence shows that that is too often negative. Research carried out in 2004 by the Young People Now magazine, as part of its positive images campaign, found that 71 per cent of press stories about young people were negative and that only 14 per cent were positive. Furthermore, huge press and public interest continues to focus on crimes committed by young people, producing an exaggerated fear of crime. The British Crime Survey shows that the public repeatedly overestimated both the amount of crime committed by young people and the proportion of all crimes for which they were responsible. We must not forget that most victims of youth crime are young people themselves.

It therefore behoves those of us who work institutionally and personally with young people to try to redress the balance by drawing public attention to the important contribution that young people make to the well-being of our society. Many of them are passionate about the shape of our society, the future of the environment and issues of justice and equality. They set examples of compassion and understanding which we would all do well to imitate.

The quality of relationships underlies patterns of behaviour, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, referred. It is therefore disappointing once again to see that the UK ranks last for risk behaviour, which measures the proportion of young people taking potentially harmful substances as well as their sexual activity, including rates of teenage pregnancy.

Adult responses to risk are often contradictory. On the one hand, we want children and young people to be agents of their own rights and choices—rightly so;

29 Mar 2007 : Column 1823

on the other, we recognise that there are rightly limits to their agency. This tension between safety and freedom emerged as one of the cross-cutting themes of the Children’s Society survey to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has already referred.

Public policy too often reflects this ambivalence. For example, at the age of 10, children are not deemed responsible enough to own a pet, yet can be held criminally responsible for their own actions. A recent survey by the Children’s Society and the Children’s Play Council showed that, in contrast to the more non-interventionist policies of other countries, children in some parts of the country were prevented from riding bikes in parks or climbing trees because these activities were considered too risky. Health and safety legislation has gone mad in certain areas. We need to be more aware of real risk and, at the same time, allow children to be children and enjoy appropriate freedoms, as I am sure did all your Lordships and as did I. The quality of relationships with parents, adults and their peers is vital to the well-being of children and young people.

For this reason, the churches and faith communities give a high priority to our work with children and young people. As noble Lords will know, we do so in a variety of ways: parent and toddler groups, playgroups, Sunday schools in addition to our maintained schools, youth clubs and so on. In addition, we seek to encourage the establishing of good family relationships through work with those preparing for marriage as well as with young parents. I cannot speak for other faith groups, but, in the Church of England, approaching 1 million pupils attend our 4,700 schools; we provide activities in the local community outside church worship for more than half a million young people under 16, and for some 38,000 between 16 and 25. More than 136,000 volunteers run these activities for children and young people. I am sure that those statistics could be mirrored by other churches and faith groups. The voluntary organisations play a considerable part in caring for young people and building good relationships.

We therefore share the concern of many people about the outcome of UNICEF’s research, and we want to go on playing our full part in ensuring the well-being of our children and in establishing the good personal relationships on which so much of it is based.

3.07 pm

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I add my congratulations to those already offered to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on securing this important debate. The report by UNICEF highlighted and reinforced what many organisations such as Save the Children and Barnardo’s have said for some time; that the position of families in poor or low-income households has deteriorated. That has knock-on effects for children in these particular groups.

We all know that of the six dimensions measured by UNICEF, the UK came bottom in five, ranking bottom of 21 industrialised countries in the well-being assessment. Looking after children should be everybody’s business: parents, schools, communities and Government. With less than 70 per cent of

29 Mar 2007 : Column 1824

British children living with both parents, in contrast to more than 90 per cent of children in Greece and Italy, it is terrible to learn the statistic that 3.4 million of those children—that is 27 per cent of all children—are living in poverty.

Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to do well at school and have fewer social opportunities than other children. School attendance is poorer. They are more likely to leave school with no qualifications, have poor literacy and numeracy skills, live in sub-standard housing and have poor diet and little play space.

Families which are least financially able pay £1,000 more on average for their utility bills, loans and insurance—if they can get it—than those families on average incomes. It is scandalous, and the Government need to do more. By removing the 10 per cent tax bracket, the recent Budget did very little for them. They do not want to depend on state hand-outs, but want to work and support themselves. Women in particular, whose jobs are often driven by the needs of their families, will find themselves worse off. There is no comfort in telling them that the tax credit system will see them right. These systems are complicated, arduous and long, and those that are most disadvantaged are the very families that have the least skills. I am afraid that the Chancellor has penalised the very people that were encouraged to go out and get work.

It is important that our children and young people grow up confident and as well as meeting their educational needs we need to place emphasis on their well-being and happiness. Self-esteem is hard to measure but it is a crucial building block in the lives of us all. Families, as we used to know them, have changed, leaving few safety nets for children to fall into. Communities and neighbourhoods do not offer the same comfort that once they might have done and often the lack of positive adult role models has increased the circumstances that culminate in our coming bottom in family and peer relationships. We also fare badly with regard to drug and alcohol abuse and have higher rates of teenage pregnancies than our European partners.

It is depressing to see queues of our young people outside fast food places eating highly fat-laden foods that offer little nutritional value but add to the problems of obesity and other health-related problems. It is a sad reflection of our society when children begin to believe that these are normal diets, as even in their own homes it is often their staple food. It is important to ensure that children and young people are made food-aware and know how to use fresh ingredients, especially if it is not the norm in their own homes. It cannot be left to celebrities to highlight these issues and for Governments to be reactionary; it needs long-term planning and strategies to ensure that outcomes can be measured properly and not excite newspaper headlines for a day or two.

While we look at obesity and its added impact on the National Health Service—and, with other diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, it is predicted that by 2010 more than 1.7 million children throughout England will be obese—we also need to look at anorexia. Again, the power of celebrities and the media is far

29 Mar 2007 : Column 1825

greater than what schools and parents can exert. Surely it is time to see how we can work with these powerful tools who carry responsibility when they enjoy personally huge financial successes from these young audiences. I hope that the Minister can tell your Lordships’ House whether targets set in 2004 between the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to halt year-on-year increases in obesity have been met.

More children suffer from depression and mental health disorders than ever before, with low esteem, low self-worth and self-harm also on the increase. Studies on adults show that mental health problems in adult life have most often stemmed from childhood. Can the Minister assure the House that adequate provision for children and young people is available in appropriate settings and not among adults in adult wards?

If we are to eradicate poverty and give all children and young people opportunity and aspiration, we cannot just offer sticking-plaster remedies that fill newspaper headlines. It is crucial to look at providing positive incentives in which families can thrive and offer support, and when needed reach and get support that is not difficult or complicated to access. We cannot be a nation that in parts is economically wealthy and successful and yet socially remains impoverished, where we leave our most vulnerable behind. We cannot criminalise our children by trying to predict who will be future criminals without expecting those young children not to fulfil those prophecies. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are investing in children and young people’s services with proper funding strategies, ensuring that consultation for what they need is fully taken into account?

Finally, can the Minister assure the House that more vigorous efforts will be made to eradicate bullying in both schools and neighbourhoods and that parents will be encouraged to participate more readily in activities in and out of schools?

3.15 pm

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, not just on this debate but on how he badgers, cajoles and speaks out on behalf of parents and children. I have been at the other end of it too, even though I am a lowly Cross-Bench Back-Bencher.

I shall try not to repeat the points covered by other noble Lords. I was particularly impressed by the long and excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about the discipline that children need, and the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, on that. One issue that we have not sorted out, certainly in our schools, is the balance between love, care and discipline. We have a generation of parents who have not learnt that skill because that generation, who went through school just after me, lost that capacity. Nor am I going to engage in a discussion on adoption with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell.

29 Mar 2007 : Column 1826

I was very disappointed by the UNICEF report. I was surprised, too, because I thought that we might be doing better. I spend some of my time in Europe working with European organisations that seem to envy much of our infrastructure for children. I tend to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, that we tend to say it how it is in this country—and there is some of that. I was disappointed because, if the report is true, our children are in poor health, unable to maintain loving and successful relationships, feel unsafe and insecure, have low aspirations and put themselves and others at risk—and this in 21st century Britain.

The Government have been quick to point out that a lot has been done since the picture reflected in the five year-old data used for the UNICEF study, and the Every Child Matters agenda has made a real difference to the lives of many families. I hope that the Minister will reflect on some of that and update us on what has happened. Evidence from many references already given suggests that we are still not reaching the children and young people in greatest need; for example, those in the criminal justice system. That system is outside the noble Lord’s department, but they are still children. The criminal justice system is obsessed with punishment rather than understanding why young people offend and attempting treatment and education. The criminalisation of our young sees us lock up more children than any other country in Europe, but they cannot be that much worse. Eighty per cent of young people reoffend, others self-harm, and the likelihood of positive outcomes is poor. If this Government wish to be tough on crime, they will not achieve it this way. Of course, young people must be held responsible for bad behaviour, but locking up many of them simply does not work. It confirms all they fear about themselves and the society in which they live rather than raising their sights and aspirations through positive programmes of intervention. Recently we have heard about such schemes in Manchester in the United States, which are having considerable success.

According to Care Matters, our services for looked-after children are also poor. Like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I sometimes wonder why the Government believe that constantly changing the framework of services, rather than concentrating on the quality and content of practitioners’ skills, will lead to improvement. Not too long ago, overall responsibility for children’s social work services was transferred from the Department of Health to the Department for Education and Skills. I still hope that this will have a positive outcome for service delivery, but the impression of children’s services given in the Green Paper Care Matters is overwhelmingly negative. One chapter is entitled “Life outside school”, implying that the remainder is mainly concerned with life inside school. The aspirations for improvement through the DfES’s new programmes may include a huge increase in family centres, but otherwise does it concentrate firmly on education rather than on a balance of other life experience and skills; that is to say, human relationships, about which other noble Lords spoke so eloquently? I hope that the Minister will tell me that that is not so.

29 Mar 2007 : Column 1827

A group of children and young people whose well-being does not appear to be on the Government’s radar are asylum-seeking children who have settled here. Separated children arriving alone in the UK face many challenges. I do not have time to catalogue the horrors that these young people have usually experienced before they reach our shores. Many, when they arrive, receive a poor welcome. The care that they are given by social services up to age 18 is excellent. Local authorities are doing all they can under difficult circumstances. But through its case work, the charity Voice has encountered practice that causes great concern on behalf of the young people it works with. The wishes and feelings of these young people about their placements and support needs are often ignored in a system in which, increasingly, some policies and decision-making processes appear to discriminate between separated children and the indigenous cared-for population.

The following are real stories. Abi is a 16 year-old from Angola. He was placed with a foster carer when he was 13, where he has remained. He has settled and done well. He was told by social services that he had to move from the placement on his 16th birthday. Abi told one of the helpline workers, “I am not ready to move. Emotionally I rely a lot on my foster carer. I have no one to support me if I leave here”. Social services admitted that the reason for moving the young person was purely financial.

Another child aged 17 applied for asylum but was told on her 18th birthday that she could not hear about her appeal. She had been offered a place at university, which was then withdrawn because she had not heard about her appeal. Her life is now again held in the balance. She is a bright, able young woman. I understand that only 20 per cent of these children receive decisions within the target timescale. Although this is a Home Office area, is the DfES speaking up on behalf of these children?

The Government have worked hard to place children and young people at the heart of their programmes, but concentrating on education to the exclusion of much else will not achieve the change they seek. As I have said to the noble Lord before, “Education, education, education” must be balanced by welfare, love and care. A new report might give a better picture, but does that matter? We know where we should concentrate. I urge the Government to reconsider their policy and to look at the whole child, the complete child and the well-being of the child, as every child matters.

3.23 pm

Lord Watson of Invergowrie: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has done the House a great service in using the UNICEF report as the basis of the important child welfare issues that have been the subject of this afternoon’s debate.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page