Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Indeed, there are steps in place to do that. I recently visited a centre for very difficult children, Tanglewood in Wiltshire, based on the therapeutic community

14 May 2009 : Column 1111

model. As one member of staff said to me, “Such children need consistency, clear boundaries and security in order to combat their low self-esteem and feelings of victimisation and powerlessness”. Yet, on average, most of those young people have moved from one setting to another every six months. Therefore, a child of 13 who has been in care for seven years will have been moved 14 times as a looked-after child. Of course they have problems with attachment. Such children need intensive programmes but, alas, there are too few. Some children will be from families where substance misuse is common, while sexual abuse and domestic violence may also be common.

Recent reports and statements emphasise protecting children, and I am glad that the Government have accepted the recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. I am glad that the Children and Young People Act 2008 emphasised the need for better educational attainment for those in care. Social care needs high-calibre staff. The Government have recently announced extra money to recruit both departed and new social workers, a move welcomed by the LGA. The system needs an overhaul.

My third concern is with young people’s health. Young people’s sexual health initiatives illustrate the dilemma. Young people’s sexual health in some areas of the country has shown dramatic improvement, particularly the teenage pregnancy rates. It is clear that where this has happened, services for teenagers, such as in school, surgeries and clinics, have collaborated. The same needs to happen across all young people’s health services. They need a sympathetic, confidential approach, and they need collaboration between agencies. The news that personal, social and health education is to be statutory in schools is welcome, but I wish it had happened earlier.

My fourth concern is about the importance of play and too early an emphasis on formal learning. We have a play strategy, we have increased the time for physical activity in schools and we have had the sensible proposals of the Rose review recommending the removal of SATs at key stage 3. Young children need the chance to be creative, be it in sport, music, art, drama or whatever. Creativity is the bedrock of all real learning. Education is not training to pass exams or passive experience on a computer. The Government have invested considerably in education and in improving standards and attainment—for example, the Narrowing the Gap initiative, 21st Century Schools and the gifted and talented programme. There has also been investment in improving outcomes for children with special education needs.

I said earlier that a vital foundation for well-being in children and families is good parenting. Most children are wonderful and not the depraved monsters depicted in the media and perceived as such by many adults. I believe that some 70 per cent of stories about children in the media are negative; a shocking indictment. The experience of children in families is all-important, and the Government are to be congratulated on their support to families by way of tax credits and other initiatives, as well as by parenting support through Sure Start and family intervention programmes, which I shall say more about in a minute. The Government

14 May 2009 : Column 1112

have recognised that disability in families requires special support. Welfare reform policies will help more people into work, the best route out of poverty.

Sadly, some families fail children. I am chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. I am proud of the progress made on drug treatment over the past eight years, due largely to dramatically increased government funding support. I see the impact of parental substance misuse, usually of drugs and alcohol, on children who may end up as victims, either as young carers or removed into care, or simply suffering. Thankfully, some are picked up by family and friends, particularly by grandparents. I am glad to say that the Government have responded in part to the needs of such grandparents by regularising their national insurance contributions, although there is still some way to go in ensuring that such family carers have adequate financial and other support. When families are failing, that needs to be spotted early and measures taken. Support must be built in and superb care systems are required, otherwise negative and vicious cycles will continue. The Government have recognised that.

Time is needed for policies to become embedded and for good practice to spread. More joint working across government and across services at a local level is needed to deliver the desired outcomes. I know the Government are working hard on this, but the breakdown of silos may take longer than was anticipated. Perhaps the Minister can give some examples of good practice in collaboration at national and local levels.

I end by referring to two recent initiatives that demonstrate aspects of working with children and families in positive ways. The first example encourages young people to become activists on environmental issues, something that young people are interested in. The Health Protection Agency defines sustainable development as a way of linking together recommendations in UK strategy for children’s environment and health. Small steps to a sustainable future, a project funded by the DCSF sustainable development team, works in collaboration with the National Children’s Bureau. It will involve local authorities and vulnerable young people to develop a young person’s vision for sustainable development. The NCB is also a founding member of children in a changing climate, a global advocacy and learning programme aiming to motivate children, young people and their families, to influence climate change. The Government have set up the development of a sustainable schools programme, Defra has led a third sector task force on climate change and environment, and youth climate change champions were appointed in 2008. This timely action involves young people and families directly, and works across government and agencies.

The second initiative is the family interventions project, which works with challenging families to tackle anti-social behaviour, prevent homelessness and tackle social disadvantage. There are 67 of these projects across England, and they will be expanded to every local authority targeted in the youth crime action plan. More than half the projects are being run by local authorities, through for example, community safety, youth offending, children’s services or housing

14 May 2009 : Column 1113

departments. The remainder are run by the voluntary sector, such as the National Children’s Home and other organisations.

The projects have a key worker, who will help the family identify problems, co-ordinate services to support the family and agree steps to motivate change. They have proved very successful, and evidence suggests that they save money. It is estimated that a family with severe problems could cost between £250,000 and £300,000 a year, without such interventions. Again these projects involve families in solutions to problems, and have multi-agency collaboration. It is not just doing things to people, which can be demotivating and create dependency.

I have tried to demonstrate that vision and determination can make a difference. Parents, a good workforce, co-ordinated systems of delivery and listening to and involving children and families are all key. This Government have shown vision and determination. We all know that governments cannot do it all—visionary and determined people in the systems are what ultimately count. However governments can set an agenda. There are of course still issues to be addressed, but children and families deserve governments who help them thrive. I hope that whatever the next election brings, and whichever political party is in power, it will not lose sight of the need to act on behalf of every child and every family.

11.58 am

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, this debate today covers a huge range of issues, all of them important to the well-being of our society, and so I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and express my admiration of her for yet again securing a debate on these essential issues. I too came close to being dangerously incompetent in domestic science, although my husband probably thinks I still am. In the short time I have, I will focus on just a couple of issues; first, the increasing perception that our children are less fulfilled and happy than they once were, and, secondly, the threat to family life in all its forms. I do not believe it is too controversial to suggest that the two are closely linked.

It was more than two years ago, in February 2007, that UNICEF—I declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF UK—produced its damning report on the state of childhood in Britain. The findings were profoundly worrying, and although most noble Lords will be familiar with them, the main headline deserves to be highlighted. The UK was rated at the bottom of the table overall for children’s well-being, scoring the lowest of the 21 industrialised countries studied—not near the bottom, but at the very bottom. Even after two years I think that conclusion has lost none of its power to shock.

The significance of the UNICEF report was that it found that neither national wealth nor household wealth in the countries concerned was the determining factor in whether children were happy. By definition, the countries studied were developed and affluent but there was still evidence of poverty in the quality of the childhood experience. A detailed look at the report shows that family breakdown is more prevalent in the

14 May 2009 : Column 1114

UK, with fewer children living with both parents than in any other country except the United States. But the most shocking findings were those on children’s behaviour, with the UK leading the tables on the percentage of young people indulging in “risk” behaviour such as drunkenness and under-age sex.

Just a few months after the UNICEF report, the Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, warned of a,

Sadly, this grim picture has been reinforced again in the recent report compiled last month by the University of York for the Child Poverty Action Group. Although it shows the UK placed slightly higher than in the previous UNICEF study, it is only slightly better, at 24th out of 29 countries. Germany comes out in eighth place, with Scandinavian countries at the top of the table. Overall, it looks depressingly like the scoreboard of the Eurovision Song Contest over recent years. Let us hope we have a better result in that this weekend, but I fear that solving the complex problems of childhood will be beyond even the ability of my noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber.

I acknowledge that, following the UNICEF report, the Government published the Children's Plan and the Department for Children, Schools and Families was born. Of course, change does not happen overnight, but it seems as if we keep debating the same issues, passing more pieces of legislation and getting the same outcomes. One area where this is most obvious is children in care, the system now known in local government by the awful title of “corporate parenting”. We learnt last month that the attainment gap for looked-after children has widened. As Natasha Finlayson, the chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust said:

“Achieving a level of good GCSE grades is the absolute minimum to ensure children get access to employment and a good start in life. It is a major concern that progress is so slow and the gap between those in care and not in care is widening”.

But it does not have to be that way. During our deliberations on the Children and Young Persons Bill and in previous debates I drew attention to Barnet Council, where each child in the care of the council has been twinned with an employee of the council. They do not meet them or mentor them but they are that “pushy” parent that all children need, asking the awkward questions. The result is a dramatic improvement in educational achievements. That does not require money or an all-singing and dancing piece of legislation; it is simply something that works.

Similarly, we are now in the middle of a debate on whether more children should be taken into care or whether we should spend more time and resources on early intervention. Again in Kent—I make no apologies for referring to this once more—the authorities spend a good deal of their precious resources on working with families and the extended family to try to reach a solution which keeps the family together. Only when that has failed do they take a child into care, and then move swiftly to adoption so that a child receives the stability and consistency that is so vital to the well-being of which the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, spoke—and it saves money. So my question to the Minister is, what happens to best practice? Rather than always trying to

14 May 2009 : Column 1115

reinvent the wheel, why do we not look at what is working across our councils and with some of our wonderful charities such as Save the Family, which every week battle to rescue broken families before they disintegrate? Why do we always have to have shiny plans and countless new pieces of legislation?

In conclusion, alongside providing our children with the best possible education with rigorous standards, we must support families and help them to stay together wherever possible. Unless we address the root cause of family breakdown, or in many cases the absence of a family structure at all, I fear that the Government's well intentioned policies will fail to deliver the quality of life and opportunities that so many of our children and young people deserve.

12.05 pm

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for giving us this opportunity to review the Government’s policies on children and families and to look more broadly at community support. As a nation, we are still failing to provide all our children with the best possible existence. We have evidence of this, to our shame, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, set out, in the child well-being index and other international reviews, where the UK is well down the list.

Legislation can go only so far to improve people’s lives. Government cannot intervene at every stage in personal relationships—nor, indeed, would we wish them to—but they can set frameworks to promote equality and opportunity for all, as well as encouraging a caring culture and promoting a healthy work-life balance.

The House’s recent debates have included the report A Good Childhood, which came up with sound and positive proposals for children’s well-being. All our deliberations are framed by Every Child Matters, the Children’s Plan, UNICEF’s work, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We are not short of good guidance, but it should be matched by implementation.

On the horizon at the end of May is National Family Week, a new national occasion to encourage families to spend quality time together, with an imaginative range of events and an impressive array of supporting organisations.

Families these days come in all shapes and sizes. They may consist of two people or myriad people, one child or more, one parent or more—maybe male and female or same sex—birth parents and foster or adoptive parents. They may be made up of two, three, even four generations. There is diversity in ethnicity, faith, health and wealth. In short, there is no such thing as a standard family and no pat solutions for ensuring universal well-being. Today’s tolerance of diverse families should have reaped positive benefits. Too often it has led to lack of opportunity, rather than increased confidence.

The media, as ever, have their part to play in raising awareness. There is a current series on Channel 4 highlighting the care system. On Sunday it will show “The Unloved”, a film directed by Samantha Morton who herself grew up in local authority care. I saw the

14 May 2009 : Column 1116

preview last week. Often a single case can make a more powerful point than all the general statistics put together. The film follows an 11 year-old child, as seen through her eyes, as she is moved away from her drunken father to a children’s home. She is surrounded by well meaning but often inadequate adults, trying to cope in the most difficult circumstances with young people in need.

The film is a dramatisation, but with the detail of a documentary. It conveys the lack of security, warmth or engagement between adults and children. It portrays the powerlessness of a child taken into care, her isolation and the basic wish to be with a parent, to be part of a family unit. We witness young people reaching out for communication, recognition from another child or an adult, with brief moments of friendship, happiness and love, which give hope of a better life.

Reports from UNICEF, Barnardo’s and other children’s organisations indicate that such a depiction of vulnerable, disadvantaged children is sadly only too real. Children in care have so much disproportionately poorer prospects of success, educationally or socially. The levels of child poverty in this country are still much too high, given our wealth as a nation. In raising awareness, there should be a concerted effort to use the expertise and advice from children’s organisations to target funding where it can be most effective and to encourage people to train and to work in social care. Adverse publicity about tragic cases has accelerated moves to ensure better safety for vulnerable children, but too many laws and regulations may have unintended consequences. There is a real danger that good people will be deterred from becoming social workers and fewer people will come forward. They work in some of the most difficult and dangerous areas of the community, often under stress, often undervalued and underpaid, but with some of the greatest rewards in turning around disadvantaged lives.

This debate comes shortly before your Lordships' House considers the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which will have an impact on children’s well-being. Education has a key part to play in ensuring that young people grow into responsible and confident adults, better equipped to be caring parents. To that end, we, too, welcome the Government’s commitment to making PSHE a compulsory part of the curriculum as one step toward giving them the confidence and skills to build good relationships.

The well-being and safeguarding of children should be the responsibility of us all—of parents, certainly, but with the support of friends and neighbours, and of professionals in schools and health services. We look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government will take forward the issues raised in the debate to provide opportunities and quality of life for those who need them most.

12.10 pm

Baroness Warnock: My Lords, I, too, must thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for initiating this debate, which is obviously of enormous importance, especially if we wish to improve on the rather dismal place that we occupy in the league tables to which both she and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, referred.

14 May 2009 : Column 1117

I want to address a relatively narrow issue, but one to which I know the Government, to their great credit, are committed: the improvement of children’s linguistic abilities. I think of it as linguistic deprivation; it has also been spoken of as language poverty. The Government have taken good note of the 2008 Bercow report, and doubtlessly of Sir Jim Rose’s recent remarks in his curriculum review on speech and language needs. Nothing is more important to a child’s future well-being than confident communication.

Some time ago, I visited a primary school on the outskirts of Birmingham, an area of acute poverty and squalor where most of the children were of single mothers, living in blocks of flats quite apparently in need of demolition. A nursery school had only recently been opened at the school as a result of intense lobbying by the local GP.

The average vocabulary of the children, aged about three when they started, was five words, at least two of which were expletives. The difficulty that the teachers faced was largely that of engaging the attention of the children, who had never had a conversation in their lives. Their mothers, many of whom had relatively short-stay boyfriends, had no time or inclination to talk. When they went out, it was usually in a pushchair facing firmly away from their mother; at home, they sat in front of the television.

I heard from the teachers, and could see for myself, that one of the most important things that those children began to learn was to do things together in a regular, indeed a rhythmic, sequence, such as playing ring a ring o’ roses, saying rhymes together or singing songs. They were drawn in to such activities and began to enjoy all the repetitions, jokes and actions. All this was confirmed in last year’s departmental national strategy publication, Every Child a Talker, which is full of ideas for nursery and primary school teachers and for parents. But there is one thing that I would like to factor in to this programme: radio.

I must declare an interest as acting chairman of a broadcasting group called Sound Start, which for three years ran a highly successful children’s radio station in London as a privately funded pilot—the group is actively campaigning for children’s radio and hopes to collaborate with the BBC. As noble Lords will know, the BBC will next week bring to an end its only readily accessible radio programme for young children.

This seems to be a genuine abrogation of the duty of public service broadcasting. The BBC is, sadly, moving increasingly further away from what it used to do so brilliantly in schools’ radio programmes, which were useful, not only at school but at home. The need for this good programming is even greater, now that there are more children in our primary and nursery schools for whom English is not the first language.

The BBC has turned its back on an enormous service that it used to perform. It shares the totally unfounded belief that small children are not interested in radio and that the only radio they need is the sort of wall-to-wall pop that they can listen to while they are doing something else. This belief is completely and profoundly mistaken, as the BBC could have a profound input into making children take part in what I think of

14 May 2009 : Column 1118

as genuine conversation. Radio also used to be amazingly useful for schools which lacked a teacher with the confidence or ability to teach music, movement, singing, rhymes, poetry and literature. There are schools where teachers could easily learn from the input of radio.

I come back to the concept of linguistic deprivation, which is one of the most serious kinds of deprivation that a child can possibly suffer. I firmly believe that radio can teach children not only to talk and to sing, but to listen. Television is no substitute, because it tends on the whole to distract a child from listening and to limit a child’s imagination. After all, the imagination of children is the foundation of their future education, well-being and ability to live lives that they will think are worth living.

I therefore ask the Minister to assure the House that subsidising children’s radio will form part of the speech, language and communication action plan under which the Government are committed, I am glad to say, to spending several million pounds over the next few years. I greatly welcome the action plan, but beg the Minister to consider the place that radio may have in school and, perhaps above all, at home, where children and parents together can benefit and learn—learn the power of listening and talking—as a way of properly engaging with the world.

12.17 pm

The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, with others I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for bringing this debate to the House and to her consistent and distinguished commitment to the issues which it raises. As chair of the Children’s Society, I must declare my interest.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page