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Children are now assuming a much higher profile politically, as is only right, given that they represent 20 per cent of the population. Yet despite all the changes, the UNICEF report makes uncomfortable reading and issues the wake-up call of which the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, spoke. Britain comes 18th out of 21 rich countries on material well-being and 19th out of 21 on educational well-being. The Children’s Society chief executive, Bob Reitemeier, said that the report was,

Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner, warned in more detail that:

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough reminded us of the sad fact that children and young people in this country are getting a bad, negative press. However, as Al Aynsley-Green said:

That point was echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids.

We must look at children in the context of their families. We on these Benches believe that the great challenge of this decade and the next is social revival. Earlier this week, my right honourable friend David Cameron announced that we are setting up an inquiry into the quality of childhood in Britain. In the light of the UNICEF report, it will investigate how and why children in Britain are failed when it comes to measures of subjective well-being, behaviours and risks, and family and peer relationships. The task force will be headed by David Willetts and will be advised by a number of high-profile, well respected and independent experts, including the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield. That work will be in parallel with the extensive work that we have already undertaken on behalf of children, not least the excellent research on family break-up and the importance of fathers that is being carried out by the social justice policy group of my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith. For some years now, the Conservative Party has had an extended family team, which is looking at the issues that face children and families across the departments of Whitehall.

We think that it is of the utmost importance that we do our bit to raise children and family issues up the political agenda, but a lot more needs to be done. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham so rightly said, that needs everyone joining in the debate, which is why I was disappointed to read the comments of Beverley Hughes, the Minister in another place with responsibility for children. She described our review into the quality of childhood as,

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That did not advance the argument one jot, nor was it respectful of the dedicated people who are helping us to grapple with these difficult and vital issues.

My right honourable friend David Cameron has said that Governments cannot bring up children, but the decisions that they make have an influence on how children are brought up. Nowhere is that influence greater than in the early years of a child’s life. I give as an example the increasing pressure to start formal education earlier or, as my honourable friend in another place, Tim Loughton, phrased it,

Children in the UK already start school earlier than children in most other European countries and the creation in England’s national curriculum of a foundation stage for children aged three to five seems to be adding more pressure for an even earlier start. We had serious reservations about the foundation stage for nurseries in the Childcare Bill, and those reservations remain.

We now have targets, testing and ticking of boxes. Whatever happened to children learning through play and forming strong attachments with their parents and carers in those all-important first three years? That issue was covered well by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. As Mike Baker, the BBC education correspondent, said in a recent article, there is a real risk that the Government are,

The UNICEF report and examples such as these show us that we have a lot to learn from other countries. In September last year, our children’s team members visited Finland and Denmark. Sadly, due to ill health, I was unable to join them. They were enormously impressed by what they saw. There were excellent nurseries and care centres with well trained and well motivated staff, the importance of which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, reminded us. They were struck by the very different attitude that prevailed. The children were neither mollycoddled nor starting formal education too soon. They were playing, socialising and learning to get on with their peer group, absorbing that friendly discipline and learning the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, of which my noble friend Lord Elton spoke so persuasively. That means that they start school socially well balanced, ready and eager to learn—and, whatever the weather, they were wrapped up warm and sent outside to play.

I now turn to looked-after children. The care of children in the guardianship of the state has been a shameful side of the welfare system for too long. The most alarming fact about children in care is that they are 66 times more likely to have their own children taken into care, thus creating a generation vicious cycle—a cycle that we must break. It worries me that the state, which is so keen to tell everyone else how to be a good parent, is a pretty bad one when it assumes the role.

The key to much that needs to be done lies in a well motivated and respected social workforce. For the past few months, I have had the pleasure of serving on our social workers commission, which was set up

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by Tim Loughton to look into the image and role of social workers. It has an impressive panel of academics and practitioners, and I feel very humble when I sit there.

We need innovation and the sharing of best practice because some excellent work is being undertaken for these vulnerable children. The council in Brent—a Conservative council—has set up a buddy scheme whereby every council officer, from the chief executive down, is paired with a looked-after child, working closely with their social workers. That provides real incentive to ensure the best possible provision and outcomes for these children.

Knowing that someone is there to watch out for you, to speak up for you and to guide and nurture you is empowering for young people. In an ideal world, that role is provided by parents or members of an extended family as part of their duty, about which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, spoke with such authority. Where that breaks down, it is vital that our young have someone to turn to. This is why I am such a supporter of youth clubs, voluntary organisations and mentoring schemes. The best are delivered by the voluntary sector and the faith-based groups, of which my noble friend Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone spoke in her impressive speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said in opening our debate that every child should have the right to a good family life. To that I add that every child has a right to a childhood. It is essential that we give our children time and space to grow up; that when they are growing up we give them our time, support and trust; and that we nurture that self-esteem of which my noble friend Lady Verma spoke. We need to take risks and to let them live a little. As Winston Churchill said, there is no safer thing to do than to take risks with the young.

3.59 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for this opportunity to debate children and family life. It is an issue to which he and others who have spoken on all sides of the House bring not only a wealth of personal and professional commitment but a real passion, including the very passionate speech that we have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris.

I cannot possibly do justice in my reply to the full richness of the debate. As ever, I hope that noble Lords will accept my assurance that I will provide written replies to particular points that I am unable to cover now, although I am glad that I managed quickly to ferry across a copy of Every Parent Matters to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, so that at least she leaves the House with it, even if she did not enter with it.

One key theme of the debate is that the family is not a static institution; nor is the environment around the family. Families are becoming smaller; fewer people are marrying; more are cohabitating and they are doing so for longer. Since the 1970s, the number

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of single-parent families has trebled, while the number of babies born outside marriage has increased fivefold.

Childhood is not a fixed state either, but constantly redefined as educational expectations, social values and social contexts evolve. As an education Minister, I believe that many of the changes that we have seen are for the better. Whereas just a decade ago we came near to writing off about half of our young people in terms of serious school-leaving qualifications, that is no longer the case. I am glad to say that social expectations are now much higher in that area, as in so many others. I include within that the expectations of our young people themselves which, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough so rightly said, are largely positive and deserve to be reported as such.

Given those broad demographic and cultural trends, let me first address the UNICEF report that has prompted this debate. The UNICEF study contains some salient observations. Let me say straight away that the Government are not in the least complacent about that. I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said in her impressive speech: this is indeed a challenge for us all and one that, frankly, we should accept with humility.

I also agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham that to bring about change in many of these areas is a long-term project which is not susceptible to quick fixes. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that we should learn from other countries. I am sorry that she was not able to go to Finland. I have been to Scandinavia—I think I even managed to get there just before the Leader of the Opposition—and I agree that we need to learn a great deal from those countries, although I do not think that the lessons are by any means as straightforward as she may have wished to suggest. Scandinavian countries make a huge investment in childhood services and have high expectations of what those services will provide for the development of children. Those expectations are not that different from those that we have set in place.

Having said all that, it is fair to note that, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, himself accepted, the UNICEF data are mostly old and do not provide a full picture of what it is like to grow up in the United Kingdom in 2007. In particular, the UNICEF research focuses largely on adolescents, drawing as it does heavily on a World Health Organisation survey of 11 to 15 year-olds, whereas, as has been widely accepted in this debate, it is early life that fundamentally determines the fortunes of children.

Early childhood has been a particular focus of the Government’s investment and I think it is generally accepted that we have transformed under-five provision, which is so vital in determining the early life chances of children. Ninety-eight per cent of three and four year-olds now enjoy free nursery education, compared to just 56 per cent a decade ago. At the end of last year, the stock of registered childcare places stood at more than 1.29 million, which is more than double the 1997 level. In the past decade, we have created from scratch more than 1,200 Sure Start

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children’s centres, with a total of 3,500 to be opened by 2010. That will be one for every community, which will start to make the pattern of childhood services in this country much more on a par with that of Scandinavia.

Above all, the old data in the UNICEF report mean that there is no mention of the fact that, since 1997, relative poverty in the UK has fallen at a greater rate than anywhere else in Europe, which was an issue of central importance to UNICEF’s researchers and something that they recognised in their 2005 report cards. In the mid-1990s, one in three children in United Kingdom lived in poverty, which was the worst record of any major European nation.

The Government have set challenging targets to remedy this situation, aiming to halve child poverty by 2010 and to eradicate it entirely by 2020. By helping parents into work and providing financial support, we have reversed a 20-year negative trend, lifting 600,000 children out of relative poverty since 1998, and 1.8 million out of absolute poverty. This has involved significant expenditure. For example, we have raised the rate of child benefit for the oldest child from £11.05 to £17.25 per week since 1997, and have introduced the child element of the child tax credit, which, from next month, will benefit 10 million children to the tune of up to £1,845 per child per year.

We have also introduced the minimum wage and, as my noble friend Lady Howells so rightly said, we have given a big boost to family-friendly working practices, which are vital to enabling parents—mothers and fathers—to perform their own duties. We have introduced paid paternity leave for the first time, we have significantly extended the length of maternity leave and the increased the rate at which it is paid, and we have given parents with young children—including, I should stress, parents who work in the City—the right to request flexible working. We have also made a substantial change to employment in making it more family-friendly, which is now more generally reflected in the workplace.

Of course, I share the disappointment of my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie that figures released this week show that relative child poverty has risen in the past year. However, as he said, they do not detract from the longer-term achievement in the past decade. This work is continuing. In his Budget last week, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an increase in the child element of the child tax credit by £150 per annum above indexation from April 2008. We estimate that this will lift up to 200,000 more children out of relative poverty. The Department for Work and Pensions, which my noble friend also mentioned, has also just published its strategy for tackling child poverty, which concentrates on helping more lone parents into work and emphasises the family dimension in all dealings with parents. All our publications that give advice and guidance in this area take up the theme, which has been raised across the Chamber, of the role of the voluntary sector, which is so important in education, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, mentioned, and in social care and social services. We also recognise the role that the

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faith communities play in this area, and we have, for example, been strongly encouraging local authorities to engage with local faith providers where they can make a big difference to the quality of local provision. I entirely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that social workers also have a vital role to play in this area. He knows the measures that we have set in train and which we have debated in the House. We will have more to say about that after the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The inclusion of family structure in the UNICEF report’s indicators of well-being might be taken to suggest that children in lone-parent and step families do not thrive. I want to make it clear that, in the Government’s view, the quality and stability of relationships are crucial, and our policies are resolutely geared to supporting parents, whatever their individual circumstances. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, we do believe that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships in bringing up children. Equally, however, our task is to give all parents and carers, without discrimination, the support that they need to provide children with the best possible start in life.

The theme of parenting—and, indeed, grandparenting, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, mentioned—has been a common thread throughout the debate. It outstrips class, ethnicity, and even disability in its influence on the life chances of children. Indeed, supporting parents and instilling parental responsibility and duty—I have no hesitation in using the word “duty” in this respect—is the vital task that faces us as policy makers and legislators. I also agree that we must be very clear about what we mean by effective life chances for children. I say without any hesitation that this is certainly not a question only of education. I come to the House as an Education Minister, which I think sometimes makes the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, slightly suspicious of me because she thinks that I must want to ensure that education takes priority over all other matters. Let me be absolutely clear: the Every Child Matters agenda has five aims that are equally important: promoting children’s health, safety, economic well-being, educational achievement, and their ability to make a positive contribution to society. Every Child Matters is also the primary means by which the United Kingdom seeks to fulfil the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, involving as it does a radical programme of change in the development of and investment in children services nationwide.

One theme has come through very strongly in this debate. If every child is to matter, every parent must matter too. We need to do steadily more to help parents, which is why the Government have just published their Every Parent Matters report, which I am glad to note has been widely welcomed in this debate. Every Parent Matters sets out in one place what we are doing to promote the development of services for children, not only what we have done so far, but also what we are planning to do. It also acts as a guide for parents, which they find useful. My noble friend Lord Watson referred to many of the upcoming programmes set out

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in the back of the report, which may be useful to parents as well. For instance, local authorities are expected to appoint dedicated commissioners responsible for championing provision for parents and, from this May, schools’ governing bodies will be required to listen to all parents and consider their wishes.

A number of local authorities are currently piloting transition information sessions for parents of children who are moving from primary to secondary schools, providing advice for parents at that difficult stage in their children’s lives. These services will be available nationwide from next year, as set out in the document. From this September, advisers will also be on hand in every local authority to help guide parents, particularly less advantaged parents, through the sometimes worrying process of selecting secondary schools, which is so vital to the life chances of children.

Through this whole array of initiatives and support programmes set out in Every Parent Matters, we can help to prepare children ahead of significant moments in their lives. We are piloting family learning courses for parents and carers of pre-school children with basic skills needs, while the early support programme has spent £15 million over the past five years supporting young children with the most severe needs, including sensory impairment and autism. These are just parts of a whole programme of support available for parents with young children.

Lone parents have been mentioned repeatedly in the debate. Our support is particularly targeted at specific groups such as lone parents, whose fortunes have improved considerably over the past decade. Today, 1.7 million one-parent families in Britain care for more than 3 million children, a figure that is three times higher than in 1971. The New Deal for lone parents has helped more than 482,000 people into employment by helping them prepare for a return to the workplace and to secure the attendant benefits. The fact that the lone-parent employment rate stands at an all-time high of 56.5 per cent, an increase of 11.8 percentage points since 1997, will be of huge benefit to all their children. More than nine out of 10 lone parents are either working or would like to work at some point, and in-work benefits offer them incentives and critical financial aid to do so.

Let me also emphasise the importance of fathers, who are always raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in our debates and were also mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. All evidence demonstrates that the engagement of fathers in the lives of their children is vital, whether or not they live with them. We have sought to promote the responsibilities of fathers in several ways to enable them to perform those responsibilities better, from paid paternity leave to the new right to request flexible working for parents of disabled children and the under-sixes. The information duty in the Childcare Act 2006 will require local authorities to provide comprehensive information on childcare and access to local services for fathers as well as mothers. My department is currently considering how we might further strengthen support for fathers; for example, through the work of the new children’s centres. The assumption that mothers

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are the primary carers clearly needs updating in favour of an expectation that fathers will play a full part within a parental partnership.

None the less, family breakdowns occur all too frequently. As we know from our recent debates on the Childcare Act and the Children and Adoption Act, of the 12 million children in our country, some 3 million will experience the separation of their parents during their childhoods. Many handle the subsequent domestic arrangements well, including the continuing role for fathers, but children drawn into parental conflicts can and do suffer terribly.

Through Sure Start and the Children, Young People and Families Grant programme, we are backing voluntary and community sector agencies to provide better relationship support, including more and better contact centres, an absolutely vital area of provision which was mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. The Children and Adoption Act 2006, once implemented, will give courts additional flexible powers to enforce contact orders and will give the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service additional responsibilities, including risk assessments in private law cases to highlight child welfare issues much more effectively than has been the case in the past.

High quality education and early years provision is clearly vital. The Early Years Foundation Stage will come into force in September next year, which is a single framework for care, learning and development in all registered early years settings and schools from birth to the age of five. Good early education has a sustained impact on children’s learning up to the age of 10, and the framework is designed to raise standards across the sector, assuring parents of consistency in provision and closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged children.

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