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I blame the pharmaceutical industry, to which I, and many other women, have cause to be grateful. First of all, along came the contraceptive pill, so that I did not have to have 10 children like my grandmother did and so I could go out to work and contribute to the family economy. Many children today are better fed and clothed and have much more fun than ever before because their mothers go to work. Then along came HRT, which kept us all young, gave us more energy and enabled us to work longer than our mothers did. This means that many grannies cannot look after the children while mum goes to work, because they are at work themselves. However, the report tells us that 44 per cent of children of working mothers are cared for by a relative, at least in part, and this is fine as long as they are well supported, especially in the early years.

That brings us to the subject of childcare. Research shows that, as long as the relationship with the parent is good and the quality of childcare is high, the child in a good nursery does not suffer at all; indeed, from the age of two, the child can benefit enormously from good group care. He learns to socialise and share as well as having more stimulation than most homes can give. He comes into contact with well trained professionals who can identify problems and arrange early intervention. We on these Benches believe, therefore, that investment in a good amount of high-quality childcare from the age of two is an investment worth making. We also believe that parents should have 19 months of shared parental leave so that father as well as mother can bond with the child. The report's recommendation that parents should be allowed up to three years' leave from work, albeit unpaid, is ambitious. However, I wonder how many people could afford it.

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This brings me back to the subject of fathers. It is sad to learn that 28 per cent of children from separated families have no contact with their father after three years. Fathers are, of course, as important to children as their mothers. The child's relationship with the father affects his or her psychological well-being, enables him to develop friendships and empathy with others, affects his self-esteem and educational achievement and makes him less susceptible to drug abuse and crime. That is why we on these Benches are so keen on parental leave, not just maternity leave, and on more rights to flexible working. I suspect that a father who has held a baby in his arms, changed its nappy, dried its tears and really got to know its developing personality is much less likely to go away and lose interest. Sadly, many fathers who have had broken relationships find it terribly difficult to keep contact with their children. The resident parent has enormous power and can even prevent the non-resident parent from receiving information from the child's school, doctor, et cetera. Of course, this is warranted in the case of abuse or violence, but usually it is not. Can the Minister say whether the details of the non-resident parent must be on the new ContactPoint database?

It seems a great pity to me that courts do not, or cannot, enforce contact orders, since far too many break down against the wishes of the non-resident parent. It can be very hard for fathers to keep contact, so we need to think how the state can help-more conciliation services, more counselling for parents in danger of breaking up and more help with parenting strategies. The report proposes parenting programmes for all parents around the time of birth, free on the NHS. Hooray for that, I say.

Grandparents need help too, especially if they are separated from their grandchildren because of a difficult divorce or separation. Grandparent carers should also have access to advice and support from children's centres. After all, it is probably a long time since they looked after a toddler.

Before I close, I turn briefly to the subject of friends. I found it interesting that children value friends second only to family. Most children today keep in far-too-regular touch with their friends on mobile phones and the internet, but I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that they need places where they can meet in the flesh to share interests and enjoyment. That is why it is wrong that youth services have been so reduced in recent years. I congratulate the Government on putting the proceeds of abandoned bank accounts into youth services and I applaud the report's recommendation for a high quality youth centre for every 5,000 young people. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government will be able to match up to that?

Very finally, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Layard, and my noble friend Lady Garden about school league tables, SATs and raising the status, pay and training of people who work with children. We pay people who clean our houses more than we pay some of those who work with our children. The status and pay of teachers have been successfully raised over recent years. Can we not learn lessons from that in relation to those who work in early years settings and children and family social workers? As the noble Earl,

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Lord Listowel, said, these are two important groups of the children's workforce and they need more support and recognition, since they are looking after our country's future and our most precious resource.

1.49 pm

Baroness Verma: My Lords, in joining noble Lords in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and all involved in the report, I should like to add that I feel especially privileged to participate in a debate led by the Bishop of my great home city of Leicester. Leicester is very fortunate to have someone so passionate about the welfare and well-being of people, children and young people in particular. The right reverend Prelate laid out eloquently the findings of the report. Indeed, I listened carefully to all noble Lords, including those whose experiences certainly outweigh my own.

Reading the report, I was continually reminded very much of what we as a party have being saying for a very long time: stable, loving relationships are the best way for children and young people to flourish and become responsible citizens. The report looked at a number of key areas and, like other noble Lords, I shall speak on a number of them and ask the Minister questions posed by the report. The report identified that in order for children to flourish, be happy and achieve their potential, having a loving, stable family structure was important. The comments made in the report by children clearly identified a need for stability, avoidance of conflict and a desire to be nurtured. My noble friend Lady Byford rightly pointed out that the implications for society are enormous if parents abrogate their own responsibilities, and that economic and social factors usually hugely impact upon these fragile structures even more so.

The rise in family breakdown and the increase in divorce rates have had adverse effects on our society. Where there were once obvious networks of friends and family, we now have transient relationships, with people coming in and out of the lives of these young children. Does the Minister accept that, under this Government, the traditional family structure has been penalised by the tax system, providing less incentives for people to stay together, so rightly highlighted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. He rightly says that more support for two-parent families does not have to be at the cost of supporting single parents. Surely both relationships should be strengthened.

When families separate, 28 per cent of children sadly lose all contact with their fathers by three years after separation. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, about the importance of the father in the lives of children. Children from broken families are 50 per cent more likely to fail at school and suffer behavioural problems, anxiety or depression. Can the Minister say what progress the Government are making in ensuring that schools are better equipped to address these rising problems?

Child poverty is up by 100,000 children, standing at 2.9 million before housing costs are calculated. These figures have remained unchanged for the past five

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years. The number of families living in severe poverty has risen to 400,000 since 1998/99, and I suspect, with the current economic climate and the increasing numbers of job losses, that will be set to rise. Does the Minister still believe that the Government will reach their target to halve child poverty by 2010, by 500,000 children; or will she accept the predictions made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that, on current policies, the Government will miss all their targets?

The Government have made much over the past 11 years of the number of jobs that have been created in the UK. Can the Minister then say why we have a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any of our partners in Europe? Would the Minster not agree with me that the approach taken by my party of looking at both worklessness and educational failure together will deal with the problems culminating from these crucial areas?

Children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often perform less well in school. They are 13 times more likely to fail their maths GCSE. Often there is a greater pressure on teachers to teach disruptive pupils rather than exclude or expel them. The cost of expulsions for schools of around £5,000 has often put schools off from proceeding with them, especially as one in four is unsuccessful under the current system. Can the Minster say what the Government are doing to improve teacher authority in the classroom and school authority over expulsion?

The Government have without doubt spent enormous amounts of money on education. Yet the gap between schools in more affluent areas and those in poorer areas widens. Truancy rates have increased, as have the cases of both physical and emotional bullying. Schools need to be places of safety and security, places of happiness and learning, of friendships, and of exploring the world through critical eyes and exchanging experiences. If you are academically minded and attend a school in an affluent area, you will be of the 89 per cent expected to reach key stage 2, compared to only 69 per cent in more deprived areas. In 2006, 67 per cent of children in the least deprived areas achieved five GCSEs at grades A to C, compared to 28 per cent in the most deprived areas. What are the Government doing to address the shortage of male graduates, in particular, going into teaching, especially as there is a real need where male role models are scarce? Will the Minister say more about how teachers are being encouraged to stay in the profession, as the numbers leaving seem to be ever increasing?

The report overwhelmingly points out the importance of families in providing stability and love for children. It is crucial that, with the fragile networks many children have to exist on today, all is done to ensure that they share a loving and stable relationship. In times of economic pressure, job losses and rising unemployment, the most stable and strong families are tested. What are the Government doing to help those in vulnerable positions? I have in recent days had many letters from people frightened of repossessions, afraid of losing their benefits if they cannot find employment. Yet they cannot find employers taking on new employees.

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The Government have promised childcare for all parents seeking employment with children under four. Will the Minister say what is being done to accelerate the numbers of nursery places available to parents? Is the Minister confident that the Government will reach their target of 3,500 Sure Start centres by 2010? If in areas where there are no state funded centres, will parents still get access to funding to use it at their local PVIs?

On children's health, it has sadly been widely reported that as the economic downturn hits there is an even greater tendency to eat cheaper food, often cheap fast food. We know that children are less active now and spend longer periods in front of the television and the computers. There is also a much greater tendency for parents not to let their children play in unsupervised open spaces, such is the fear for the safety of the child. Sadly, there are fewer open spaces and only one in four young children has access to a youth club. Children are becoming so risk averse that decision-making becomes a real challenge. Of course, this will have a negative impact on the decisions they take in later life.

The Government have of course pledged in the Children's Plan to increase open spaces, and that is very welcome. But can the Minister say that she will also work with other agencies to address the culture of fear and mistrust felt by both parents and children of our streets and open spaces? Will she also revisit encouraging parents to get their children to become physically more active? Can she say whether all schools are providing at least four hours of physical activity in school?

We are seeing increasing numbers of children suffering with behavioural and conduct disorders. These children are then more likely to be involved in crime, truancy and anti-social behaviour. What is being done to put in early intervention programmes? Are there adequate resources available to health professionals to ensure that assessments can take place at the early stages of a child posing difficulties? What support, if any, is there for children wishing to seek support?

Alongside the problems of obesity, we have underage drinking and teenage pregnancies. There was a 14 per cent increase in alcohol-related admissions to the A&E departments in 2006 of under-18 year olds, and violent attacks under the influence of alcohol went from 40 per cent in 1996 to 46 per cent in 2007. The UK has the highest teenage birth rate in the EU. What more is being done to ensure that sex education in schools is introduced much more with relationships at the heart of the subject's teaching, and that it is introduced at an appropriate age? The easier availability of contraception has sadly led to an increased rise in STIs. Does the Minister agree with me that, while contraception advice is important, it is also crucial that young people are aware of the other dangers involved with sexual relationships?

While there is so much to discuss, I have some brief points on the need for equality of all children to be able to enjoy a well supported home and school life. We must do all we can to see that children with special needs and learning and physical disabilities are able to enjoy happy experiences throughout their childhoods. That is why I urge the Government to stop the closure

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of any more SENs. While we all accept that inclusion is important, there may be children who need the specialist pastoral care that only specialist teachers can provide.

This has been a fascinating debate. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, I believe that we have a real duty to ensure that our children get the best possible start in life. I look forward to the Minister's response to the many questions raised by your Lordships today.

1.59 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords, I am afraid that I will not be able to pick up all the many questions raised today, but I will do my best, as usual, to respond in writing to those I cannot cover now. I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for calling this important debate. I also thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has joined our debate today, and all those who have contributed to this very interesting and, as ever in this House, valuable session. The commitment of every speaker today to the health and well-being of children has come over loud and clear, and I hope that this is one of many more debates that we will have about what constitutes a good childhood.

I welcome A Good Childhood, the report published by the Children's Society, and pay tribute to the authors, my noble friend Lord Layard and Professor Judy Dunn, and those who took the time to contribute to the lengthy and extensive consultation that the Children's Society carried out. The way in which a society treats its children is a good indication of its values, and the report has much to say about the values of modern society. As my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen said, the Government's commitment to children and young people is very clearly set out in the Children's Plan. It could be argued that the five principles of the Children's Plan strike at the heart of the very individualism that the Children's Society report is concerned about. The five principles are that the Government do not bring up children; parents do, so those in Government need to do more to back parents and families. That picks up the concerns of my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley that we do not forget about the contribution of families and friends and do not err towards overprofessionalisation.

The second principle of the Children's Plan is that all children have the potential to succeed, and we should help them to go as far as their talents will take them. Thirdly, children and young people need to enjoy their childhood as well as grow up prepared for adult life. The report makes that point, too. Fourthly, services need to be shaped by and responsive to children, young people and families, not designed around professional boundaries. The fifth principle is that it is always better to prevent failure than tackle a crisis, a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, made.

Our vision is a future where this is the best place in the world for children to grow up and where every child can achieve the Every Child Matters outcomes. I believe that we will see more promising results as we

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work with UNICEF on future reports. The Every Child Matters outcomes are a golden thread that runs through all our work in government and in local government. These are: to be healthy, to stay safe, to enjoy and achieve, to make a positive contribution and to achieve economic well-being. The approach set out in the Children's Plan is for a holistic approach to children's services to help ensure that no one falls through the net. That means universal services for children, backed up by targeted support for those with particular needs, for instance, young people suffering from mental health problems or with special educational needs.

My noble friend Lord Parekh issued a challenge to us, calling for a more historical analysis, which I am sure would be very welcome. I agree with much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, said. A lot of the coverage of this report tended, sadly, to focus on an assertion that the quality of life in childhood is in decline. Like her, I wonder when this golden age of childhood was. Children growing up in this country today enjoy a standard of health and opportunities for fun and learning that would have been unimaginable to their ancestors. As my noble friend Lady Morris suggested, perhaps we sometimes yearn for a world that we can understand a little better. Do we understand anything like as well as we should what it is like for children growing up in a modern world? Modern childhood contains pressures that would have been equally unimaginable to earlier generations.

Twenty-first century parents need to balance work and family life, and must find ways of dealing with new challenges such as the internet and increasing commercialisation. At the same time, they must keep their children safe while allowing them the freedom to explore the wider world. Our very ambitious play strategy looks at the question of how we can help children take safe and proportionate risks.

The latest results from the regular Tellus report, based on a national survey of 150,000 children and young people, show that the majority-69 per cent-report that they are happy, and that 95 per cent say they have one or more good friends; that is, not just a name on Facebook. Fewer feel unsafe in school: the figure is 11 per cent compared with 14 per cent last year. Talking to children on a regular basis is very much at the heart of our work in government and our Children's Plan.

Despite all this, there is no reason for complacency. Behind improving statistics on health, education and living standards, too many children are growing up in poverty and failing to thrive. Our Government have always recognised that some children face many social and economic problems, and that is why I am proud that we have lifted 600,000 children out of relative poverty, and are introducing legislation to end child poverty in Britain by 2020. This House will have the opportunity to debate that in full.

We want schools, children's services, health services and the police to engage parents and tackle the barriers to the learning, health and happiness of every child. That is why we are giving children's trusts a new strengthened leadership role and encouraging schools

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to become real centres of their communities. We have today published, with the Department of Health, the first ever children's health strategy. Healthy Lives, Brighter Futures is a long-term strategy to support children's and families' health. Our aim is to achieve world-class health outcomes and minimise health inequalities, by providing services of the highest quality.

We have heard of the importance of fiscal stimulus in this debate. Most people would agree that these programmes to help children and support families are essential but, of course, they also cost money. So it would be interesting to hear from the Opposition exactly where in a future Budget they might find cost savings in this area.

We agree with the authors of A Good Childhood that families are the bedrock of society, and we believe they must be given all the support they need in the face of the costs that that involves. The fiscal stimulus is as important for families as it is for business. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and we should provide support to all of them. A good family is one in which children are loved and valued. Yes, I will, as a Minister, say the word "love" from the Dispatch Box. We see the importance of children being loved and valued by their families. That is why we need to support families. We are taking action on many fronts to support mothers and fathers, including flexible working and paid maternity leave, and we have also introduced paternity leave.

The Government have invested £25 billion on early years and childcare services since 1997. All three and four year-olds are entitled to a free part-time early education place if their parents want one. I am so glad that Sure Start had a mention in this debate because I am not sure that it made it into the report. There are more than 2,900 Sure Start children's centres open, offering services to 2.3 million young children and their families. I, too, was glad to see Professor Judy Dunn's letter in the Guardian yesterday clarifying the report's views on working parents, which some in the media have interpreted in perhaps more mealy-mouthed terms than would have been ideal.

Central to the Government's vision of a good childhood is the provision of high quality education. Standards in schools have hugely improved since 1997, with results at 11, 14, 16 and 19 now at or about the highest ever levels, far fewer weaker or failing schools and more young people than ever before going on to university. As my noble friend Lord Layard suggests, schools are key. We have set out our vision for how we want schools to be the hub of their communities and we are calling them 21st-century schools. They will offer personalised, responsive education with excellent teaching and easy access to other services to support children and young people as they grow up. I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that we see this as enhancing the impact of the school in the community.

Our vision is that schools should offer a universal service to quickly identify and resolve additional needs at the centre of a system for early intervention and targeted support. The 21st-century schools will be a

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community resource, working with families alongside health and youth services, voluntary organisations and the police to contribute to the local community fully.

Many noble Lords mentioned child poverty. We have already made significant progress in tackling it, and the 2008 Budget announced further investment which takes us another step towards the 2010 target and beyond. Measures announced in the Budget 2007, the PBR 2007 and the Budget 2008 taken together will lift a further 500,000 children out of poverty. I have very generously been given a copy of the report TheTaxation of Families. I know that we are not allowed to use props in the Chamber, but no doubt we will have a very interesting debate, when we come to the Child Poverty Bill, about how we can all work together in society to achieve our 2020 targets. No doubt the report will surface again then.

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