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I do not want to overstate the connection, but I am absolutely certain that the Government’s conviction that academic behaviour is in some important respects influenced by parental involvement goes equally for social behaviour. In this House Ministers have to think on behalf of the whole of Government, so not only is there a department of education aspect to this, but also aspects involving the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. These departments have a common interest in improving the lot of society as a whole. An important part of that will be that if we can get even a small but significantly higher percentage of parents involved in their children’s education, it will yield a pay-off. In my days at the Department of Health, I discovered that I was responsible for the welfare of children in local authority secure accommodation. Through that route I was introduced to non-custodial sentences which immensely benefited children and reduced their reoffending rates. But by the time they were reoffending, they were the responsibility of the Home Office, so the Department of Health could save no money by pursuing that policy. And when I got to the Home Office, it was not interested in spending money on children before they had reached the age at which they became that department’s responsibility.

If we are now in an age of joined-up government thinking, I hope that the Minister will ask his colleagues in other departments to consider whether we cannot achieve greater parental involvement in children in school by many different means, including by giving the parents of children between the ages of six and 18 the right to apply for, if not the right to have, flexible working hours. We could then nibble away at some of the eight excuses that can be given in response to their request.

7.43 pm

Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for introducing this subject, and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for a speech which covered the area I call, “If ever in doubt, one can always ask for joined-up government”. He very elegantly reflected the fact that it is required in virtually all areas of government activity. Whether it will be any more successful with this department that it is in others remains to be seen, but the fact is that the knock-on from what one government department does to another is unavoidable. One should always bear that in mind.

The title of the debate turns on the issue of school-age children, quality time, low incomes and weekends. I thought that maybe I could score an easy hit here by talking about keeping Sunday special. But then I thought, “Aha! Tony Hancock and the dreadful traditional British Sunday afternoon”. I recall how he went on about there being nothing to do and how dreadful it all was, hanging around waiting for the next badly cooked meal to turn up. Sadly I cannot remember exactly the eloquence of his language, but that is roughly the image conjured up. However, this is about something else: the fact that we do not have designated rest time at the same time, so we cannot interact.

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Many of the positive things in life depend on people being able to gather together. I was trying to avoid talking about organised sports again, but I am afraid that there is a knock-on here. We should encourage people to take part in sporting activities. Let us face it, for any form of sport you need at least two people, and for the most common sport you need 22 people. No, let us make that 23 because you cannot play football without a referee. Twenty-three people must gather together in a formalised structure, all turning up and leaving at roughly the same time. We can then bring children into it with coaching, but it definitely needs some more co-ordination.

It is said that everyone is in favour of preserving their weekends, but everyone is also in favour of doing the shopping, having houses cleaned, and the service industries being available. There are no two ways about it; that results in a degree of conflict. We are not going to go back to the dreadful Sunday afternoon, even if the Sunday league sides did manage to get out in the morning. Indeed, the right reverend Prelate is probably in direct competition with those Sunday league teams. Those days are gone. But if we are going to compensate for that type of activity, we need to make it easier to do.

The right reverend Prelate referred to families on low incomes, and thus put his finger on a very important point. If you have sufficient income, you can get round the problem by employing people to do the running around for you. Although that is not as good as the parents being there, there is some compensation because at least the child is safe, being cared for and some attention is being paid to it. Let us face it, certain parenting skills may not be apparent in the parents so they may get someone in to do the job for them. That is the service industry taken to its nth degree, if you like. But that is not a choice for those with low incomes, and for one-parent families there are real problems.

Let us not beat about the bush: flexible working does not provide all the answers. No matter how flexible the hours, if you are a single parent on a low income, you have to shuffle half a deck of cards and there is a limit to how many good hands you can get from it. We have to ensure that parents are given some support, and that often means that the state must be the provider in the form of local government for sporting activities or other structured leisure pursuits that are most appropriate and accessible to those with the least spare time.

How are we going to balance this? We can chase the argument for hours, but as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, the fact is that if you do not expect people to achieve in, for example, academic pursuits, the parents are not going to waste time on them. That is particularly so if they are under time pressure and have to meet the expense of getting to parents’ evenings. It may mean that they have to miss a shift at work. The lower your income, the less likely you are to give up some of it. It is a vicious circle.

Do the Government have some answers to this? How do they think they can encourage those on low incomes to take part in social activities together? Although the idea of families sitting at home reading

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to each other is commendable, if there are low intellectual skills or there is dyslexia—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for mentioning it before I did—they will not do it. They need to get involved in something outside. Do the Government have any ideas for how they can engage this group? Although flexible working will help, it is not the answer unto itself. For this group, that is harder to reach, we need to find more creative means. If the Minister has answers in the form of schemes, I will be very interested to hear about them.

I come back to the point about sports. Any ideas for how parents can assist in organised activities would be welcome. It may be Dad sitting on the touchline, screaming at his child to get faster up the wing and get that cross that he never could, but at least it is involvement. If you can also get Dad to take a coaching course, that is a much better type of involvement. How are the Government expecting to facilitate this type of activity for those on low incomes? On a low income, most of the compensatory factors that other people will bring in are simply not available.

7.50 pm

Lord Dearing: My Lords, we are in debt to the right reverend Prelate for engaging our minds on a major issue and for offering a practical solution—or contribution to a solution—to a problem we know about. When the White Paper Every Child Matters was published in 2003, it devoted a whole chapter to the issue of parents. It said:

It recognised that public policy had not in the past paid sufficient attention to that. It said:

as it was then—

Substance was given to this statement in the 2003 White Paper when, under Mr Brown’s Government, we had established a Department for Children, Schools and Families—however difficult it may be to remember absolutely rightly the sequence in which those words come.

The right reverend Prelate’s Question draws attention particularly to families on low incomes. Those who are not disabled from work by incapacity or illness but who are in poverty find it necessary to accept long hours, working whatever hours they can—the anti-social hours that people do not want, including especially weekends. There is therefore a particular detriment to family life for those who live with the least of the world’s resources. They have the most difficulty in offering their children the support and personal engagement that the Government and all political parties now recognise is essential for the well-being of the child and of our society.

I again picked up the UNICEF report on child well-being in rich countries that was published last year. It brought home how relevant the issue of parenting

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is and how much it matters in our personal judgments and our own lifestyles to think through again our responsibilities as parents to our children. That of course applies equally to the duty on all of us, acting together as a society, to change our priorities. The UNICEF report makes uncomfortable reading for all of us. There has been criticism of it but you cannot get away from the central message. It put us at the bottom of the league of 21 nations. In two areas in particular, the two with the most direct relevance to parenting, we were outstandingly at the bottom, yards below the rest in the tables. The first was the behaviour of our young people and the other was what was described as a risk-taking culture. In those areas we were at the bottom of the 21. Both are closely related to family and to family engagement with young people.

Since poverty and the concept of poverty lay so close to the heart of this issue, I very much welcomed the Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget that the Government’s intention is to commit £1.7 billion over the next two years to halving the number of children in poverty by 2010. But as it was said that it will be 2020 before we remove the rest from poverty, there is work to be done by other means. That brings us back to the right reverend Prelate’s point.

When I first read this document on the subject—which no doubt descended from heaven, with excellent briefing on the subject—as an old civil servant I thought: “You’ve got to be reasonable. You can’t expect to jump all in one go from provision that covers children up to age six to provision that includes 18 year-olds. Let’s compromise and go for 12”. But then I read the evidence in the UNICEF report and realised that we have a specific problem in teenagers. The right reverend Prelate is therefore right. I am with him on going the whole way. The UNICEF report talks about behaviour in terms of eating and exercise, smoking at 15, engaging in violence or being a recipient of it, sexual involvement and use of contraceptives, and excessive drinking. Those are the kinds of thing where the family—if they are there and have the energy—can engage with their kids, take the issue on and attempt to deal with it. If they are not there and the kids are out in the streets, that behaviour is going to happen. We must address this issue within the age-range that the right reverend Prelate proposes.

As I have two minutes left, I should like to widen the discussion slightly by referring to one other issue which is relevant to the issue of poverty: the working tax credit. Thanks to a footnote in that briefing, I picked up a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research which devotes a chapter to the working tax credit. It says:

which currently amount to £4,000 million—

Of course we are talking about the low paid and the poor. The effect of this—the worry and stress it has caused in families—is that:

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That is another area where the Government can do something. But it is very complex, and the staff administering the scheme are overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.

I come back to where we started and to the right reverend Prelate’s Motion. I congratulate him. Here is another practical thing the Government can do, and I hope the Minister and his colleagues will think about it.

7.58 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, earlier today when I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, that I would be speaking in this debate, he suggested a four-word speech as a solution to the Question posed by the right reverend Prelate: chuck out the telly. Think about it, my Lords.

I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on giving us the chance to talk about this issue today. I recall that he and I fought the good fight on the Work and Families Act when we tried to persuade the Government to extend the age limit of children whose parents can ask for flexible working. I very much support his call for the Government to increase that to the age of 18, because it is important for children of all ages to have their parents available when they are at home. It can be particularly hard for single parents, as I well recall. At a time when the Government are going to insist that single parents should go out to work once the child reaches 12, and that children should stay in education or training until they are 18, a bit of joined-up thinking is required. The age limit should certainly rise to 18.

Schools are pretty consistent in their timings, apart from a week here and a week there at the beginning and end of the major holidays. There are some small flexibilities in the school day, mainly to avoid traffic jams in the morning and evening rather than to help parents. But what is the scope, now that the Government are concentrating on the concept of personalised learning, to have a flexible school day? If personalised programmes of work are to be developed, what is to stop a child asking for flexible working hours at school to fit in with his parents’ working hours? Now there is a novel idea. The main need, however, is for parents to understand how important it is that they should spend time with their children. We should teach them that before they become parents—in other words, when they are at school themselves in parenting classes.

I shall turn now to what parents can afford to do with their children when they are spending time with them. Of course, by “spending time with the child” we do not mean sitting alongside them on the sofa watching TV—although there is a place for a bit of that. How much better to do things together, such as sport, walking, birdwatching, astronomy, outings to places of interest, cinemas, theatres, music and so on. However, this can be an awful problem for families who do not have much money. Fortunately, many local authorities have schemes to help young people use council facilities such as swimming pools, gyms, tennis and basketball courts, libraries and so on at very little cost. Many local sports clubs and other interest groups do not cost much to join either, especially for juniors.

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It is really important that the local children’s information services give parents information not just about childcare services but about activities that they can do with their children: toy libraries, playgrounds, council services and so on. Although it is important for councils to have subsidised schemes to help young people to pay for leisure activities, would it not be even better if poorer parents could also get the cost covered so that they could do those things together with their kids?

One thing that really is a bonus these days is the family railcard, through which families can now have ridiculously cheap train trips if they plan ahead. That has come in since I was a young parent. Another good development since I had young children is the way in which museums have become so child-friendly. At very little or no cost, parents can take their children to some splendid museums where the interactive exhibits can keep them fascinated for hours. You can spend the whole day and have a meal, and of course they learn a lot quite painlessly. There are many I could name; the Natural History Museum in London, the Liverpool Museum and the science and transport museums in Manchester are ones that I would recommend, but there are lots more. I commend the museum curator profession for the way they have risen to the challenge of serving children and young families. Museums are also very good at making their facilities accessible for disabled children.

I recommend one more thing that costs very little and many children enjoy: gardening. Children love to grow things, and a packet of seeds costs very little. It can give them a real sense of where food comes from and can contribute to their understanding of what makes a healthy diet. Growing your own veg has really taken off in the UK recently, thanks to TV programmes presented by people like Carol Klein and Jamie Oliver. I appeal to them not to forget the kids and to put some ideas into their programmes for busy parents to get kids interested in growing things, whether they have three acres or a pot on a balcony.

It takes time and effort to be a good parent and some parents may not feel like it when they are tired. When a child wants a bedtime story it may be very tempting to say, “I’m too tired, get to bed”. However, I recommend reading to children from the earliest age. It can be great fun; it can instil a sense of the joy of books and it will be remembered fondly by the child when he or she grows up as a very warm and intimate time. Only very recently my granddaughter read me a bedtime story, and I really enjoyed that. This does not have to cost money as our libraries are very child-friendly places these days. A child who can read need never be bored. Children’s authors today are so wonderful at stimulating the imagination, and even the classics that we remember from our own childhoods are coming back into fashion and being reissued in modern editions.

I heard of a wonderful initiative the other day, sponsored by Dolly Parton—I am really name-dropping tonight, aren’t I?—in her home state in the USA and here in the UK, in what she calls “Rotherhayam”. It is called the Imagination Library. The scheme sends books to young children on their birthdays so that,

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however deprived they are, at least they have some chance of owning their own books. Hooray for Dolly, I say. Perhaps the Minister could say something about the funding for museums and libraries to ensure that they remain affordable for the poorest families to use with their children.

When kids say they are bored and have nothing to do, it may be because they have never been taught by their parents how to spend their time constructively. The best way to do that is by example. I know parents who spend all their free time doing sport with their children, not just standing on the touchline, taking them on days out, taking them to football and so on. I have enormous admiration for their energy and dedication and I know their children will never be bored because they know how to occupy themselves. However, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that it is important for the Government to do all they can to enable parents to be at home when their child needs them.

8.05 pm

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I add my thanks to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham for securing this important debate. I know from working with him during the course of the then Work and Families Bill in 2006 that these are issues that he cares about deeply and on which he speaks with passion and authority.

The family is the most immediate and significant group within which people share responsibility for one another’s well-being. It is no surprise that at our spring forum in Gateshead my right honourable friend David Cameron said it was his ambition to make Britain more family-friendly, because families should be the most important thing not just in our lives but in the life of our country.

We are all too familiar with the depressing statistics of what happens when children are not taught the vital core values of respect, hard work and what is right and wrong. We have anti-social behaviour and crime, of which my noble friend Lord Elton spoke with such great knowledge. We also have gangs, drugs, binge drinking and underachievement at school. It is vital that families, in all their guises, are supported.

My right honourable friend’s speech at the weekend was spot on and touched on many of the issues we are debating tonight. He said:

He went on to ask:

Juggling a job and family responsibilities is still not easy, especially—as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said—if you are on a low income. It is therefore hardly surprising that EOC polling showed that seven out of 10 people were concerned about what family life would be like for them and their grandchildren, with six in 10 expressing concern about spending enough time with their families.

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As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, the concept of a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five working week is a thing of the past. However, as the daughter of small shopkeepers who worked six days a week and, if the right reverend Prelate will forgive me, all the hours God sends, and as a working Peer, Monday-to-Friday and nine-to-five is not something that I have ever recognised. Many jobs now require unsocial hours, with three out of four families experiencing some weekend work.

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