Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

My third point is closely tied up with the question of at-risk registers. The registers, on which there are the names of thousands of children in England and Wales, form some sort of a potential statutory shield of protection for those children. But it is a sad fact that 80 per cent of children who are killed or who die of neglect do not have their names on a register. How can we improve that situation?

Care orders have been mentioned. I agree completely with everything said so eloquently by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It is inevitable that there will now be what the chief executive of CAFCASS has described as a bulge in applications for care orders. In October of last year, the number of applications in England was 496, whereas in March of this year, that figure had risen to 733 and is bound to rise further.

The point I wish to make—and I do this, in common with all noble Lords, with the utmost regard for social workers and those who administer the care system—is that there is an institutional failure here. It is failure in the sense that it has not been possible to bridge and narrow that gap between children in care and those not in care. That gap, if anything, is getting wider. The dismal statistics are known to all Members of this House—how in every league of achievement they fail, and how, in every statistic of underachievement and dismality, they are overrepresented.

It is well known that, of all prisoners aged under 25 in our prisons at the moment, half of them have, at some time or another, been in care. Many noble Lords will say, “Isn’t that to be expected? They are damaged children and have suffered terribly in the battle of life”. That is perfectly true. A very high percentage of

14 May 2009 : Column 1134

them—something of the order of one third of those who have been in care for more than a year—are the subject of educational statementing. They are educationally subnormal in almost all those cases. One can quote statistic after statistic suggesting that the situation is almost inevitable, but it is not. In Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany, the gap is being narrowed substantially, and we can do the same. I congratulate the Minister on initiatives taken in relation to the pedagogic attitude towards childcare.

We have a great challenge to face, but also a great opportunity presented to us. There is a strong tide of feeling running on behalf of children and young persons. If we take that tide, it can lead to great progress and happiness so far as children are concerned. If we miss it, we should remember the words of the Bard:

“Omitted, all the voyage of their life

“Is bound in shallows and in miseries”.

1.20 pm

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Massey for allowing us to debate this important matter. I thank and salute her for all her work as chair of the Children’s Group and the NTA. My remarks concern the effects of addiction on families, in particular on children living in households where the parents take drugs and drink alcohol. I should like also to register my interest in that I am remunerated by and work with a national charity concerned with families. I have worked with vulnerable children and on child protection issues for much of my professional life, especially with children caught up in the midst of domestic violence, often directly as a result of parental substance and/or alcohol misuse. More recently, I have had the privilege of working with those who provide treatment and support to individuals and families trying to recover from their substance and alcohol addiction, and it is the lessons I have learnt from that experience that I should like to share.

As has been recognised, there has been a dramatic increase in the variety of services available since the 2005 Hidden Harm report and the Government’s subsequent report published in 2008 entitled Drug Strategy. It is recognised that the family needs to be at the heart of good practice. At least 1.3 million children in the UK are growing up in families where their mum, dad or both have chronic drug and alcohol problems. Concerns remain about the resources being directed at support for families beyond drug and alcohol misusers, even when there is the possibility of children being taken into care.

In coming to the debate, I have spoken to a number of workers on the ground. They say that it is a simple but ignored truism that drugs have a big impact on families. The person who develops a problem with drugs or alcohol is also someone’s son, daughter, brother or sister. It is also a fact that families dealing with substance misuse often live in an atmosphere of secrecy where children tend to bear much of the burden. Workers say that evidence suggests that angry, irritated, scared and bewildered children are shut out of rooms and often told to go away while unexplained

14 May 2009 : Column 1135

activities take place. Imagine a six year-old accidentally stumbling across syringes on top of the fridge or microwave as an ordinary occurrence. They say that children are reluctant to raise the subject of substance use for fear of causing more aggravation or tragedy in their already volatile environment either with other family members or in school, resulting in their further isolation. They also say that many children become carers responsible for their parents and siblings.

That 1.3 million children are frequently denied regular education and the opportunity to take part in mundane childhood activities, that their good days and bad days are determined by how their parents behave under the effects of drug taking or drinking alcohol, means that many of these children feel different. Having been exposed to conversations about drugs, they feel guilty, worthless and often ignored by the actions of their parents. They often experience bullying both at home and at school. Research shows that children know far earlier and in more detail about drugs than their parents believe, and that some people are likely to engage in sexual activity earlier where there is inadequate parental involvement or support.

These descriptions do not come from novels, they are the harsh reality of children’s words. What is shocking is that they come from the experiences described by children once they become engaged with services. Tackling these problems is not the work of a magic wand. The parents and children I am referring to have complex, long-standing problems that need intensive intervention from a wide range of services. I agree with my noble friend Lady Massey that despite significant local and national initiatives, there remains a vast inconsistency between services for children caught up in these families. A family culture of denial and secrecy has major consequences for whether children seek services.

All too often, the drug user’s problem is seen as the cause of difficulties rather than as a symptom of a range of problems, each of which needs to be addressed before a parent can become capable of taking care of their children. Indeed, the frequent chaos of family life, coupled with the long-term nature of drug use and an atmosphere of denial, can mean that the work to stabilise one family may take a year or more. Yet despite these pressures, we know that less than 1 per cent of the drug treatment budget is currently spent on family support. Needless to say, the reality is that where family work is funded and available, many children need not be burdened with caring responsibilities and indeed may feel able to take advantage of support from a range of services, including from teachers and other welfare agencies. Work by leading organisations in the field shows that change is possible if there is a strong family focus when working with drug and alcohol misusers.

As a result of my current professional involvement in this work, I am aware of independent ongoing research that is looking at the impact of the work being done with over 300 families. Early indications are that the majority of clients, 88 per cent of those being monitored, showed a reduction in substance misuse and harmful behaviours, and an improvement in social and parenting skills. They are also more

14 May 2009 : Column 1136

successfully prioritising the well-being of their children. We need more input into building family support and services, and the new Drug Strategy launched last year is a step in the right direction. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister would consider undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of some of these successful interventions.

It is true that drugs and alcohol are life choices for adults, but 1.3 million children have not chosen these parents. It is critical that we commit ourselves to working jointly to ensure that the well-being of children living with parents who misuse drugs and alcohol are given our paramount consideration so that they can break free from the generational cycle of substance misuse themselves.

1.27 pm

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, securing this debate and, as other noble Lords have said, for the many valuable things she does for children. At a time when the economic situation is grim and the Government have had to drop their target for the elimination of child poverty by 2020, it makes every kind of sense to address the best way those of us speaking think the Government can achieve their many valuable plans for the well-being of children and families. I hope to concentrate my remarks on two areas where I believe that the Government could give an even higher priority.

First is the need for more effort and resources for the early—and I do mean early—prevention of family breakdown. Secondly, if that fails and offending has meant imprisonment, far greater concentration needs to be placed on returning the offender, especially a young offender, to their community with maximum support plans in place to prevent any reoffending. In both these situations, it is for the local authority, indeed for the whole local community, to support these plans, their reward being that if the horrendous financial cost of keeping a child in care followed by a lifetime in prison is averted in even, say, 10 per cent of cases, substantial sums of money can be saved. But of greater importance is that if a family’s “cycle of deprivation” has genuinely been broken, the result is that the individual’s life and talents will benefit not just their own family, but also the whole community in which the family subsequently settles. If that happens, the five outcomes that children and young people themselves have identified as necessary for well-being in childhood and later life will have been achieved.

First, early support and prevention with a known deprived or disadvantaged family. Once a pregnancy is known, planned support should begin. If a family is not already known to the authorities, then the statutory health visitor or midwife visiting after a child’s birth may well be the first point of contact able to alert other authorities.

I need hardly say, and others have mentioned, that social workers are an even more important community resource, but they are in dire straits. We all know the appalling history of Baby P, but we should acknowledge that social workers have taken the blame for much that is the shared responsibility of others, not least primary health trusts. It will take time before government plans

14 May 2009 : Column 1137

for upgrading their pay status and training turn social work, once again, into a natural choice for graduates leaving university. A better approach to the problem, and resources to deal with it, must begin now. Equally, there are nothing like enough foster carers available when children need to be taken into care. Their training and involvement in an individual child’s plan need upgrading.

In today’s world, there are other aspects that warrant extra attention if support and prevention of family breakdown are to be effective. One example is for more employers to offer flexible working for both sexes, which will enable parents, and I mean men as well as women, to work and share the practical side of bringing up the next generation to be well adjusted, responsible citizens. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has just published a report on this, entitled Working Better. Their research makes clear that men increasingly want these facilities as much as their partners do.

Many other examples spring to mind about how to help today’s families to combine the important roles of workers and parents, but time is limited and I want to turn to my second priority, which is where prevention has failed and imprisonment begins. The Corston report points to the immense danger done to families if a mother is imprisoned. With male overcrowding, women prisoners are housed well beyond the recommended 50 miles from their homes. Worse, with the family break-up and with all the children taken into care, the inevitable cycle of deprivation begins again.

A limited form of Corston is under way, but it is essential that, except for really violent and dangerous offenders, all women should be helped, and treated for their drink, drug and often severe mental health problems, as the recent Bradley report recommended, within their local communities, while the local authority and third sector continue to support other measures necessary for the rehabilitation of the whole family.

For those whom we have failed already, and who are now in prison, the Government’s original end-to-end offender management may still have some potential if the plans are realistic. The Government’s latest Education and Skills Act has, thankfully, placed responsibility for providing education for young offenders, up to the age of 18 firmly on the shoulders of the local education authority. No longer can the individual prison governor pay prisoners more for working in the kitchen than for attending those vital education classes.

Many of them also have totally inadequate skills and qualifications. Thankfully, the new plans for 14 to 18 year-olds include a reinvigorated apprenticeship strategy, which could well start to begin within the young offender institution. Like my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham, if I had one wish that could be granted, it would be to persuade this or any future Government to test all children, at the very start of their schooling, for signs of dyslexia or other learning problems. The earlier a plan to deal with this is worked out, the sooner it is likely to be successful.

For the future, and particularly for the priority group of young offenders, it is also vital to return them to the community with three essential elements

14 May 2009 : Column 1138

in place, all of which take full account of the wishes of the young person concerned. These are an educational plan, a safe and stable place in which to live, and a probation officer or, at the very least, a mentor, probably from the third sector, to help with the process of settling in. I believe that we will see real and measurable success from everyone involved if these plans are put in place.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the last four speakers over-ran their time, and it really is not fair on everybody else in the debate. I ask the next lot of speakers to stick to time. When the clock says six, please stop speaking.

1.35 pm

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, I shall have to try to make sure that I stop at a full stop. I thank my noble friend Lady Massey and I assure the House that her domestic science skills have improved since she was at school. Her report card showed that, despite difficulties, this is a topic on which the Government have a good story to tell, and it would be a terrible catastrophe for families, and in particular for children, if all the good work that has been achieved in the past decade were to be compromised in the next few years, blighting the life chances of a generation, as happened a generation ago.

I will concentrate my remarks on the role of arts and culture on the well-being of children, and I will refer to two organisations with which I am connected: the Roundhouse in north London, and Artis, which is a small but perfectly formed business that recruits and trains performing artists to deliver specially developed programmes linked to the national curriculum and to the Every Child Matters agenda in primary schools and, more recently, in secondary schools.

I am afraid that what I say will overlap significantly with the eloquent words of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I hope the House will forgive me. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, referred to the review of the primary curriculum by Sir Jim Rose, in which he referred to the necessity of emphasising the importance of speaking and listening. The review talks about the possibility of needing formal lessons in spoken English. Command of language is one of the most powerful tools we have. It can be used for good or, of course, for ill, but without it we are denied access to our imaginations, and to the expression of our most complex emotions. A child impoverished in this way will remain at a disadvantage throughout life.

There are few more effective ways of developing language skills than through engagement with the arts, and I refer to a report that was published last month by the Culture and Learning Consortium, which is made up of a number of arts and cultural bodies. The report, Get It: The Power of Cultural Learning, is a compilation of feedback and recommendations from a wide public consultation among practitioners working in the cultural and learning sectors in England, directed toward a new approach to cultural learning. The report has an excellent set of recommendations focused on improving outcomes for children and young people. I was going to share with noble Lords some of the

14 May 2009 : Column 1139

marvellous quotations that are peppered throughout it, but as I am a bit afraid of the Whips, I will not do so. However, two jumped out at me. The first is from Sir Alan Ayckbourn, a great playwright, who said:

“When you are young, the arts afford you a glimpse of the world through the senses of others, while helping you to make sense of yourself”.

The second is almost my favourite. It is from Doreen, aged nine, and is a tribute to my noble friend Lady Massey. After a school visit to the Unicorn Theatre for Children she said:

“I am telling you, theatre is better than TV”.

Amen to that, say I, though of course I am biased, but I believe nothing beats participating in a live experience. The Government, to their enormous credit, are piloting the Find Your Talent initiative, which aims to ensure that all children and young people, no matter where they live or what their background, have the chance to participate in at least five hours per week of high quality culture, in and out of school. The key phrases are “participate” and “high quality”. To be candid, this is a very ambitious plan, but it is really important that the current economic situation does not result in such ambition being stifled. I hope that my noble friend, when she comes to reply, will be able to reinforce the Government’s commitment to maintaining this initiative.

The two organisations that I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, Roundhouse and Artis, are both contributing significantly in different ways to using arts and culture to develop skills and confidence in children and young people. Again, I would give examples of this but I am not going to because I want to raise one other point. I will say only that the quiet work that Artis does, which reaches 25,000 children a week in primary schools, and the rather noisier and more ebullient work that Roundhouse does in engaging with the young people who have come through its pioneering studio programmes, which resulted in it creating, producing, managing and delivering an entire weekend’s worth of work at the Roundhouse last weekend, are important indicators of what can be achieved. There are many more, too, but we have some way to go before the benefits of learning through cultural experience are fully embraced in our educational and social policies. I hope that we shall not lose ground on this issue in the years ahead.

I want to talk about radio. I am a lifelong radio addict. I started with the pirates and Radio 1, but now I am in the arms of Radios 3 and 4. That may conform to a very comfortable middle-class stereotype that suggests that this is not really what children and young people today are interested in, but I do not think that is true. What the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said about the potential power of radio is important, and we should take it seriously. Speech radio for children is a medium that engages imagination and reinforces the power of language, and it encourages listening skills, which are essential to the development of complex language skills. I ask the Government, when they publish their Digital Britain report, to recognise the contribution of high-quality speech radio for young people and make sure that they encourage the BBC to reinvest in it.

14 May 2009 : Column 1140

1.41 pm

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for introducing this debate. With her agreement, I am going to speak for a few minutes not so much about the Government’s programme but about the way in which we in this House as a group try to influence their programme. I want to see whether my thoughts have any resonance with your Lordships.

Those of us who are speaking today and those who are not but wish that they were—perhaps those who often speak about children—comprise a voice for disadvantaged children in this House. In effect, we are an informal lobby group for children and together we have an enormous reservoir of expertise. My concern is that, in spite of all this, we as a group may not be as effective as we might be in achieving change. An equally informal disabled lobby often seems to be more powerful in its advocacy and more successful in achieving change. An example that is fresh in my mind is the Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill last week, when five or even six speakers talked about the problems that the Bill would create for the disabled, whereas only one, who happened to be me, talked about the potential disadvantages for children.

There are two principal ways in which we in this House bring our influence to bear on the Government: one is to chivvy them and the other is to amend their Bills. There is plenty of work to do on the chivvying front, of course; lots of things need to be addressed, such as shortages of staff in children’s social services, the problems of looked-after children, children in prison and so on—many things that noble Lords have mentioned today. But I shall concentrate on the revision of Bills.

Among the members of the children’s lobby there is no lack of dedication or knowledge. The problem is not a lack of dedication or enthusiasm but, in my view, a lack of organisation, co-ordination and support. The current position on support in this House is roughly as follows. We have an admirable research facility in the Library, but there are limits to what we can ask it to do. Sometimes it does the right thing but does not tell anyone; as we walked into the Chamber today, my noble friend Lady Howe told me that it had done a Library note on this debate. It would have been nice to have known a little sooner.

Then there are the children’s charities. They send some of us briefings, but most of those are focused on the particular interests that the charity has at that time, rather than on the broader implications of the Bill for children. Then, of course, there are the political parties. The parties have their own priorities, which often include the best interests of children, but I suggest that, although there is overlap, we should not have to rely on the Front Benches to lead us on children’s issues.

There was a time when the National Children’s Bureau was funded to undertake a series of child impact statements on all Bills. Its report was an elaborate legal statement; it was too expensive to produce, took too long to read and often came too late. Anyhow, that service funding has come to an end.

14 May 2009 : Column 1141

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page