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The report should have been a wake-up call to all those who believe that the UK has one of the most advanced standards of living in the developed world and that our children must therefore benefit accordingly. Although there is evidence that the figures used by UNICEF were not as up to date as

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they could have been, and some of the yardsticks that it used were perhaps not those most likely to produce the clearest outcomes, the report shows that if this country is not actually on the bottom line, we are pretty close to it. We are certainly too close to it for comfort or for any complacency by the Government or anyone else. The UK still has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Europe despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Why should that be the case after the strenuous efforts of the Government over the past 10 years—tax credits, other benefit changes and the New Deal—to reduce child poverty?

The UNICEF report claims that it should be interpreted as,

Anyone who has read the report would certainly agree with that. You do not need to read it to know, though it spells it out clearly, that evidence from many countries persistently shows that children who grow up in poverty are more vulnerable and more likely to be in poor health, to have learning and behavioural difficulties, to underachieve at school and to become pregnant at an early age. In defining poverty and assessing existing levels to try to alleviate that poverty, there must be an understanding that we are talking about relative poverty, about the lives of the poor in any society or country measured against the lives of others in that country. That translates fairly simply as one thing: distribution of income. That is the key. The UNICEF report, warts and all, demonstrates that the UK is one of the most unequal societies in the OECD. That impacts most of all on our children.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, highlighted in the title of the debate the role of stability and family life, which is vital in deciding the quality of life of any child. Many children in two-parent families suffer despite that, while many with a single parent often thrive. But it would be difficult to demur from UNICEF’s conclusion that,

I am not a parent, but those findings appear to carry some weight. In the UK, 17 per cent of families have a single parent, which is the highest rate in Europe. That must have some impact on child poverty, though I caution that it would be wrong to exaggerate it.

More important is income levels, which do most to cause the unequal society that the UK is today. Although it is an easy sound bite, that does not in any way devalue the comment made this week by Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo’s, an organisation that noble Lords would agree is synonymous with the welfare of children:

Martin Narey was responding to yesterday’s distressing news from the DWP figures on households below average income, which reveal that there has

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been a rise of 100,000 in the number of children in relative poverty from 2004-05 to 2005-06. For the Government to meet their target of reducing child poverty by half, a further 1 million children must be lifted out of poverty, which is 200,000 a year between now and 2010. While some progress has undoubtedly been made on that, it was very pleasing that the Chancellor last week announced new investment in the Budget of £1 million focused on the poorest families through working tax credit and an above-earnings increase in child tax credits for 2008. It has been estimated that that alone could lift as many as 200,000 children out of poverty, but it will take time.

Employment Minister Jim Murphy talked yesterday of encouraging more single parents into work, which is welcome, but the key to that is childcare. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the effects of poor-quality childcare. It must be affordable, accessible and good quality if it is to serve its purpose. The renewed commitment by the Government to give single parents £40 a week back-to-work credit is an important incentive to help them to make that step. The increase in the extent of nursery provision for three and four year-olds will also help more single parents to take advantage of work opportunities.

I hope that Mr Murphy will act on the recommendations on child support reform published earlier this month in the report by the Work and Pensions Select Committee in another place. The report contains important recommendations that the Government could introduce through their forthcoming child support reform Bill to help children in poverty. I particularly point the Minister to the committee’s call for a full benefits disregard for child maintenance payments, because that would ensure that all of the maintenance support would go towards supporting the child. That, in turn, would make it more attractive for a single parent to return to paid employment.

Another Select Committee in another place, the Scottish Affairs Committee, is undertaking an inquiry into levels of poverty in Scotland, where, as in other parts of the UK, poverty levels remain extremely high. I was interested to read the memorandum submitted to that committee by the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, which stated that, despite the national minimum wage and tax credits, low pay combined with job insecurity and a lack of flexibility for working parents continued to undermine work as a route out of poverty. The CPAG highlighted the fact that nearly a quarter of children living in poverty are in households where an adult is in full-time employment, while a couple with two children where one of the parents works 40 hours a week for the minimum wage, and who receive full benefit and tax credit entitlements, is still left £50 a week below the poverty line. It should be noted that a family with two children is officially defined as being in poverty if it earns less than £332 per week—over £16,500 a year.

That graphically demonstrates the scale of the task facing the Government in making real progress in shifting children out of poverty. In fairness to the Government, they have been working in a cross-cutting manner to tackle some of the issues associated

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with helping parents, and many noble Lords have referred to the fact that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, kindly sent copies of Every Parent Matters to all noble Lords who were to speak in this debate, with an associated booklet, Helping You Help Your Child. Although I am not a parent, I still found them extremely informative; but parents should find them very useful, because they include chapters such as “Being a Parent Today—the changing roles of mothers and fathers”, “The Transition into Adulthood” and “Developing Parental Engagement”.

I also learned that, from April 2008, all local authorities in England and Wales will be required to provide a full range of information about local and national services to parents of children from birth up to the age of 19. Later this year, families with children aged three to four will begin to be able to access 15 hours of free early education a week. Bookstart provides free packs of books to each family in England with children at various stages of development. I do not know how many people are aware of that, but I hope that those timely and excellent publications will be widely available. All that is to the good but, ultimately, actually tackling poverty by providing a network of support to poor families will do most for the well-being of children.

I finish by echoing the view of the campaign to End Child Poverty, an umbrella group involving 65 organisations active in combating child poverty. Highlighting yesterday’s figures showing that the number of children growing up in poverty has increased, the group says that for the Government to meet their commitment to halve child poverty by 2010, investment must be increased by up to £4 billion. The Government have done and are doing much to reduce child poverty, but the evidence is clear that they have to do much more.

3.32 pm

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I agree with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and congratulate him on bringing these issues before the House. I have not yet received a copy of Every Parent Matters but hope to in the near future. I suppose that I could go down the road and get one.

This afternoon we have rightly emphasised the welfare of children, but, as your Lordships know, children are people as well as children. As people, they have rights. One of their rights is enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights—the right to respect for family and private life. Children, however, have many limitations on their rights, which are inevitably circumscribed. In particular, they are not in charge of their own lives. There is an inevitable reliance on parents, teachers and other adults who are in charge of them.

Section 3 of the Children Act 1989 identifies parental responsibilities as including parental rights and responsibilities; but the emphasis is on responsibility. As adults, we all speak, do we not, of “rights”? “Rights” predominates nowadays in the thinking across the country. Much less is said of “duty” or “duties”. Indeed, duty is an uncomfortable word. But parenting, as we all know, involves responsibilities and duties. It

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is a major undertaking to have a child. As was said earlier, it requires a commitment—and a commitment for life. Noble Lords who have adult children, as I have, may recognise the scenario when I say that I often hear the words, “Mum, can you help me now?”, in respect of one or other of my grandchildren.

We have to get the message across the entire country about the long-term adverse effect on children of bad or inadequate parenting. It will also affect people’s ability to parent the generation after the current young one, so, as my noble friend Lord Listowel said earlier, we need to recognise that bad parenting will continue if we do not get at the generation who are not yet parents.

I particularly want to emphasise the importance of fathers—an issue that is gaining recognition. I should like to see the Government encourage even further flexible working to enable fathers to join their children at all sorts of important events, such as school open days and sports days—if the school has a sports day—and anything else that the child considers to be important. That requires employers to recognise that parents and other carers of children have duties other than attending work five days a week from, as is particularly the case among middle-class parents, early in the morning to late in the evening. The City approach that says, “The job is the only thing that matters”, is in contradistinction to the importance of people showing their children that they care for them as well—and that means not playing golf every Saturday afternoon.

However, in fairness, we must recognise that fathers are now increasingly sharing in the day-to-day, practical care of very young children. We have gone far beyond the days of Dr Spock. Many noble Lords may not remember Dr Spock’s advice, which was to hold hard the corner of the diaper when you flush it down the lavatory. Nowadays, parents know all about looking after their young children, and fathers are as good at that as mothers. We just want that to be true of fathers across the board and not just of the responsible ones.

The Government can be congratulated on many of their initiatives. When I read Every Parent Matters, I shall no doubt see that even more are being offered. But I believe that they can do more to support marriage, stable relationships and single parents who need help. It seems to me that a relationship or partnership between government and local and voluntary organisations should also be encouraged.

Much is done already, particularly in the way of start-up help—for example, through youth groups and child contact centres, in particular—but, where parents are separated, it is very important that fathers are given the opportunity to see the child and maintain the relationship in a child contact centre. With all too many such centres, money is given by government to start them but not to keep them running, and child contact centres and some youth group initiatives die on the vine because there is no water to keep them alive.

I end by saying that children are our future. There is not much point for any of us if we do not support them now.

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3.39 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, we are all most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this important debate on the well-being of children. I am also grateful to UNICEF for prompting us to think about a whole range of factors that affect the well-being of children, including, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others have said, the need for a clearer understanding of what parental responsibilities are in this regard.

It would have been helpful if the UNICEF report card had shown clearly which data referred to which years. In an exercise of this kind, it takes a very long time to collect, verify and check for consistency such a broad range of international data. So, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, the Government were able to rubbish the report card by saying that it was out of date and that many of the parameters measured have since improved significantly. However, all the countries surveyed in the report will have done better, and we may still be near the bottom of the league table, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, has just pointed out. Yesterday’s Treasury figures show that poverty worsened last year, with 200,000 more children living below the breadline. So there is no room whatever for complacency.

I want to concentrate on two related aspects of child well-being which have not yet been touched on: the effects on children caused by under-age consumption of alcohol, which is measured by the answer to the question, “How often have you had so much alcohol that you were really drunk?”, on which the UK is by far the worst of any of the 21 countries surveyed; and the effects on children of alcohol-misusing parents or carers, which is not measured by the survey at all. One heading deals with children's relationships with family and friends, but it ignores the possibility of violence or neglect between parents and children, except very indirectly; for example, by asking about the frequency of eating meals with parents, or of parents talking to their children.

Alcohol misuse by children is a colossal and growing problem. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that it is parents who have responsibility for the well-being of their children and should be looking to this dreadful plague which has afflicted so many of our younger generation. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, that part of the responsibility rests with the role models that children look to for their conduct—the football stars and pop celebrities whose lifestyles are the very opposite of what we would like to see them adopting.

The proportion of 11 to 15 year-olds who drink has stayed at about 60 per cent since 1985, but average weekly consumption has more than doubled to 10.9 units, in 2006. The proportion of that age group drinking at least once a week rose from 13 per cent in 1990 to 21 per cent in 2006, and 27 per cent of teenagers report having been drunk 20 times or more. In this, as in the rest of the Government's so-called alcohol harm reduction strategy, we are failing miserably. It is no wonder that the Government refuse to update the Cabinet Office's interim analytical analysis of alcohol harm, which showed that in

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2000-01 the cost to the nation was £20 billion a year. Despite the Home Office's attempts to stop alcohol being sold to children, their own figures showed last year that 29 per cent of on-licencees, 21 per cent of off-licencees and 18 per cent of supermarkets were still selling alcohol to minors.

The effects of this tidal wave of alcohol include 1,000 young people under the age of 15 needing emergency treatment for alcohol poisoning every year, and 8,900 young people under 18 being admitted to hospital with a diagnosis related to alcohol. The long-term effects of heavy drinking during adolescence include liver damage, especially among those who are also obese; lower oestrogen levels in girls and testosterone in boys; lower bone mineral density in boys; and brain impairment in both sexes. None of that is properly reflected in the posters or literature issued by the Department of Health. Unfortunately, under the rules of your Lordships’ House, I am not—like the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, yesterday—able to show that material to the House. However, the available material on this subject is totally inadequate and such as does exist is not properly displayed in doctors’ surgeries or in hospital out-patient waiting areas.

The UK has—as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, and others—the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. That is indirectly reflected in table 5.2d of the survey, which shows that the UK percentage of 15 year-olds who have had sexual intercourse is way off the scale. Childline says that alcohol is a contributory factor in teenage pregnancy, and many of the stories told by the young people who contact it demonstrate this risk. I shall give just one example. A girl aged 13 said:

Alcohol use is frequently cited as a factor associated with unprotected sex. We are living in a highly sexualised culture, and this, coupled with the universal pressure to drink, and the inseparable link between alcohol and every social occasion, makes a disastrous combination. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, spoke of the increasing number of children entering the criminal justice system. That is a very serious problem. How much of that is due to alcohol-related offences committed by those young people? Why do we not bother to measure that relationship in the statistics?

A 1995 study estimated that up to 1.3 million children under 16 were in families with alcohol-abusing parents or carers. The amount of alcohol consumed per adult in the UK has risen by 18 per cent since then, so the number of children at risk—if the figures have risen comparably—would be as high as 1.5 million. Those children are more likely to become involved in crime and to exhibit conduct disorders such as truancy and anti-social behaviour; they are also more likely to suffer health problems and to become problem-drinkers themselves. If their mothers drank during pregnancy, they may already have been disadvantaged by low birth weight, which is another factor in the survey where the UK is near the

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bottom of the league table, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, said. In the worst cases—several hundred a year—alcohol misuse by a pregnant woman may lead to foetal alcohol syndrome.

In almost half of domestic violence cases, the offender had been drinking, and in three-quarters of these, the victim is the mother. One can imagine the effect on children of seeing their mother being battered by a drunken father or stepfather. It may often be in the same households that the 10 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls who are sexually abused, as we heard on Tuesday—often fuelled by drink and sometimes by the same perpetrator—are to be found. Sexual and physical violence, often fuelled by drink, leave permanent physical, emotional and psychological scars on children, impairing their emotional development, health and ability to learn. Nearly 4 million adults in the UK grew up in a family where one or both parents drank to excess.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, was pleased, as we all are, with the DfES strategy, just published, for promoting services to parents and helping them to fulfil their responsibilities to children. The document acknowledges that single parents and teenage parents require extra support but ignores the much larger number with drink problems. As Turning Point says,

Let us have a genuine alcohol harm reduction strategy that will stop children poisoning themselves, and use price and availability as weapons against alcohol abuse by parents so that we can curb this tide of alcohol-related violence and suffering.

3.48 pm

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is an unflinching champion—or, as my noble friend Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone called him, a “charming and coercive champion”—of children and parents. I am delighted that he was able to secure this all-important debate. I, too, extend my congratulations and thanks to him. I also thank the Minister for my copy of Every Parent Matters.

Children’s issues are one of the many topics on which your Lordships’ House excels, as witnessed today by the passionate and knowledgeable contributions from all sides of the Chamber. I acknowledge and welcome the Government’s considerable investment in their desire to improve the lives of children and young people in the UK. We have seen significant legislation in the past two years, much of which we have supported—as we supported the Sure Start initiative, although we have serious doubts about the way in which it is being delivered.

Last year, Oliver Letwin committed us to match the Government on their targets to eliminate child poverty, so I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that it is depressing and deeply worrying that the number of children living in relative poverty rose by 200,000 last year, which was the first increase in nearly a decade. There can be no doubt that we all want the same conclusions; we just differ on how we get there.

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