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Column 687Wilshire, David
Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Young, Sir George (Acton)
Younger, Rt Hon George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Alastair Goodlad and
Mr. Tony Durant.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
Mr. Speaker-- forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House supports the Government in its view that those who can afford to pay for sight tests should do so and that the money which was previously spent by the National Health Service on free sight tests for those who could afford to pay is better spent in other ways in improving health care ; believes that this will not lead to the nation's health or sight being put at risk nor deter those from seeking sight tests who need them ; and fully supports the Government's policy that sight tests paid for by the National Health Service should continue to be available to those on low income, children and those most at risk of blindness from diabetes and glaucoma.
That this House deplores the damage to children resulting from eleven years of Conservative governments, whose pursuit of socially divisive policies has seriously undermined the domestic security and future prospects of millions of children ; calls on the Government fully to acknowledge its responsibilities towards all children through a fundamental re-assessment of service provision to children by recognising the need for substantially increased levels of co-ordination at both national and local government level ; further requires the Government to facilitate the national collation and interpretation of information about children through the establishment of information-gathering mechanisms and continued support for existing systems ; and urges the Government to bring before this House a timetable for ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as a sign of its commitment to improving the welfare of children, both within the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Mr. Speaker : I must announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
Miss Lestor : In setting what I hope will be the scene of this debate on children, I should like the House to cast its mind back to 1975 when the Prime Minister said in a speech in New York : "Let our children grow tall, and some grow taller than others if they have it in them to do so. Opportunity means nothing, unless it includes the right to be unequal."
We little thought then that this "right" to inequality would be enshrined in law as a result of policy decisions taken by successive Conservative Governments in the past decade.
We have recently been subjected to many fine words, albeit dangerously oversimplifying the issues affecting children. I urge the House not to pay too much attention to what the Government say, but to look at what they have done, because there is a substantial, if predictable, gap between the myth of a caring Government and the reality experienced by many of our children.
The Tory party is fond of claiming to be the party of the family, yet it is the same party which, during a decade of government, has taken policy decisions after policy decisions which have divided families and not supported them. I shall give a few brief examples, starting with unemployment. The Conservative Government deliberately engineered appallingly high unemployment, thus throwing millions into dependency on state benefits. A generation of Thatcher's children have gone from childhood to adulthood without experience of their parents being in work and without any job prospects of their own. Do hon. Members remember the saying, "On your bike"? What was that advice meant to achieve? It meant a parent, more often than not a father, being absent from home for long periods actively seeking work in other parts of the United Kingdom--a stranger to his children and subjecting his marriage to intolerable strains.
When do the Government intend to sort out the tangible contradictions in their approach to families and members of those families? There is an increasing tendency in Government circles to browbeat some members of the family to stay put at all costs. For example, 16 to 18-year-olds are supposed to stay with their families or face unacceptable levels of financial hardship, making it virtually impossible for them to lead an independent life at a decent level. If their parents are unemployed, they can no
Column 689longer, thanks to Government action, claim these young people as dependants. If such young people are not on a youth training scheme, they will not get any benefit.
Younger children running away from home are dubbed dreamers who are chasing the bright city lights, but many of them are running away from shocking domestic pressure, overcrowding, violence, sexual abuse and other problems. Many of these children are throwaways, not runaways. Only recently the Prime Minister expressed horror at the idea that we might be in danger of rearing a generation of creche children. She told us that women with young children should stay at home and raise their family. It would be nice if most women had that choice. The Prime Minister had that choice and she took it. However, child benefit has been frozen since 1987, and there were hints in the press over the weekend that it is likely to remain at that level. In many areas, including Conservative-controlled authorities, mothers are finding that child benefit, their only directly paid benefit, barely pays their monthly poll tax bill. Ministers other than the Prime Minister have expended much energy and effort trying to persuade women to return to work to meet the needs of industry. The Government should get together to decide what they want. If women are to be encouraged to return to work, I shall support that, as someone who was a working mother when the children were young.
It is wrong for us to rely on workplace nurseries for child care. Child care needs to be child centred, and it should take into account the needs of children. If we rely on child care for working mothers, what will happen when the country decides that it no longer needs those mothers in the work force, as it has done in the past? If that happens, child care will disappear, as it did at the end of the second world war. Children are caught in the middle of Government confusion. Have they benefited from the decade of supposedly unprecedented prosperity or has the economic miracle passed them by? The Prime Minister has said that the Victorian era had much to commend it. We can see what it was like, for some of it has returned with a vengeance. For a minority of our children there are slum dwellings, child working and an increase in social inequalities. The Children's Society says that 98,000 children cease to sleep at home on any one night. Of course, many of these children turn up unharmed, but many do not. Government information--what happened to the children who ran away from home and why they did so--is scant. That is not my view alone. Since taking on the portfolio of Labour's spokesperson for children--it is not a soft option as one or two members of the press have suggested--I have had intensive consultations with voluntary organisations, professional bodies and individuals who are actively involved in caring for children. The same picture emerges. There is a clear and increasing tendency for the Government to rely on the voluntary sector to pick up the pieces, the damaged children for whom they and society--I know that "society" is not the Prime Minister's favourite word--are responsible. Any Government who are serious about taking on that responsibility must begin with a thorough understanding of the problem, and that means national information gathering.
Column 690The House may find it significant that many of the statistics that I shall use have come from non-Government sources. I pay tribute to the Children's Society, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Save the Children Fund, the National Children's Home, the National Children's Bureau, Barnardos, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Health Visitors Association and many other organisations for filling the vital information gap.
Mr. Taylor : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She has mentioned some eminent and worthy charities, all of which do an excellent job. That job, even by their own admission, has been helped by the Government's generous tax arrangements for charitable giving. It is the charities which deal with the problem and which know best how to deal with it, and we fully support them.
Miss Lestor : When I have asked Ministers for information and statistics on missing children, children who are sleeping out and truancy, I have been told that the Government do not collect such statistics or I have been referred to one of the agencies. Surely hon. Members have the right to receive Government information about what is going on.
I shall draw attention to a striking exception to the rule which I have just enunciated. There is a piece of Government-funded research that is proving indispensable for those who are genuinely concerned about the health and welfare of the younger generation. I refer to the long-term study of the health of primary schoolchildren, which was set up after the Prime Minister, in a previous guise, abolished free school milk. The nationwide study of 10,000 children is being carried out by St. Thomas's hospital within the medical sector. It has produced valuable information on children's height, weight and general health. I am advised that, although it is regarded worldwide as a model of its kind, there is the threat of withdrawal of funding next April, despite the fact that the study is revealing what has happened to underprivileged groups in society. It seems that the trend in the 1970s towards more equal birth rates across the social spectrum is now, after 10 years of Conservative government, in reverse. Surely that could not be a cause for the Department of Health to get cold feet. I ask for an assurance from the Minister for Health that the rumour to which I have referred has no foundation and that the research will continue.
I have no doubt that the Minister will wish to assure the House also that the Government are doing all that they can to achieve higher welfare standards for our children. I am sure that the hon. Lady will say that the Government have spent X million pounds on this and a further Y million pounds on that, but their policy is obviously not working.
The Child Poverty Action Group demonstrated recently that millions of people, including children, are still getting a poor deal from the rich society and that the famous trickle-down theory of economic growth working over the long term is irrelevant to the needs of children now. Our children cannot wait.
Column 691When we get a significant and potentially powerful tool of legislation that can be used to help children who are in need, such as the Children Act 1989--I am pleased that the Government refer to the Act in their amendment--there are difficulties when it comes to implementation. It was said that the Act would lead to an improvement in court hearings, but we did not get family courts, although we fought hard to secure them. The need for such courts was agreed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. The Act is in danger of being sabotaged by the Government's refusal to provide adequate extra resources to help local authorities to implement it. According to a survey conducted by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, local government will have to find as much as £150 million a year to implement the Act. What is the use of raising hopes and expectations as a result of our knowledge of the needs of children--that knowledge forced the Government to introduce the Act--if we are not to give local authorities the money to implement it? In these days of poll tax and capped councils, where is local government to find the necessary finance to put much-needed legislation into practice? The local authority within my constituency tells me that it will cost it £450,000 a year to implement the Act. Will the authority be capped if it increases the poll tax to pay for implementation? That is what the Government are saying. High spending are dirty words only if the money is squandered. If money is well spent on services that are needed, and the Children Act has shown a need, it becomes indispensable.
It is especially relevant that we are debating the welfare of children during National Sleep-out Week, which is designed to highlight the plight of people, including many young people and children, who are forced to sleep rough on the streets or in bus shelters, alleyways or cardboard boxes. The plight of homeless young people distresses us all. It is a visible sign of our failure to deal with a range of social and domestic problems that give many youngsters no choice but to leave home or local authority care. Many of these youngsters--a few as young as nine or 10 years--find temporary shelter courtesy of the voluntary organisations. The Centrepoint refuge found a doubling of the number of young people sleeping rough between 1987 and 1989 and suggests that the main cause is the absence of cheap accommodation and the young people's unwillingness, often because of fear, to return to the place from which they came. Most sinister is the finding of a group that is campaigning for the end of the Vagrancy Act 1824. It draws attention to an increase of more than 230 per cent. in arrests under the Act of young people who are sleeping on the streets.
That legislation was passed in 1824 to "deal with" veterans of the Napoleonic wars who exposed their wounds in order to solicit money from passers-by. One hundred and sixty-six years later it is used to criminalise young homeless people. Why? Under that Act, sleeping out is a crime, as is asking the public for money. Under more recent Government legislation, 16 to 18-year-olds not living at home or on YTS programmes are not eligible for state financial support. What kind of Government is it who force youngsters to beg in order to survive, make them criminals when they do so, and further criminalise them when they have to sleep rough for lack of money?
A disproportionate number of these young people have run away from care ; some agencies suggest that the figure is as high as 40 per cent. We must examine where and why our care system is failing them. A similarly high
Column 692proportion have told voluntary workers that they were subjected to physical or sexual abuse at home, in school or in care, and cannot go home. I take this opportunity to express my concern about one particular aspect of child protection. I refer to the vetting of adults applying for jobs that will bring them into close contact with children. We have all been appalled by cases of children who were placed in care as a refuge from something that occurred in their background and who have then been further abused while in that care. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities' recent survey on vetting procedures makes alarming reading. It reports delays ranging from three weeks to 10 weeks in some areas. At least one hon. Member has publicly criticised the police for unnecessary and bureaucratic delay, but the picture is not that simple. That police are at full stretch, trying to cope with the greatly increased demand on vetting services. That demand has arisen, rightly, from heightened awareness of the need to extend the protection of children.
In 1987-88, almost half a million inquiries were processed in response to requests from local authority departments, social service departments, probation services, and health authorities. Fewer than 400 requests were received from the Department of Education and Science on behalf of independent schools. Without a Government commitment to provide additional resources, the police will either have to resign themselves to an ever- lengthening backlog of inquiries or to providing a restricted and less than thorough service. All that is at a time when the Government are encouraging education authorities--especially those in inner city areas--to advertise abroad for qualified teachers to plug staffing gaps. Some European countries provide their nationals with a certificate of good conduct, but not all. Can the Minister for Health confirm, by making inquiries among her colleagues, that the Department of Education and Science provides no guidelines to local education authorities as to the countries in which they should advertise for teaching staff, bearing in mind the important point that reciprocal arrangements exist in some? Do the Government have any plans for extending international co-operation between police forces after 1992, further to safeguard children from potential harm when they are in educational or caring establishments, given that there will be more open access to people from abroad to work in them?
In 1988-89, 2 million children were living in families on income support. Given the acknowledged inadequacies of state benefits, there can be no doubt that those children were, and still are, living in poverty. The children in single-parent families are likely to be worse off. Today, about 1 million lone parents, 90 per cent. of them women, are bringing up 1.6 million children--or 13 per cent. of all the children in the United Kingdom. About 65 per cent. of lone parents are dependent on income support --double the number of a decade ago. Most single parents are discouraged from working for reasons that include the high cost of child care, compelling them to seek a wage far higher than that which they are likely to obtain. They also risk the loss or reduction of housing benefits, the loss of free school meals, and of other concessions that they have when claiming income support. The low level of child benefit is another factor. The children of families living on benefits are at risk of poverty, and the link between poverty and reception into care is very strong.
Column 693The Government's most recent figures show that £9 million annually is being spent on preventive work, in trying to keep families together. I approve of that work, but £434 million was spent on fostering and residential care. Something is radically wrong. A large number of children in this country are on at-risk registers. Latest figures for the London area show that between 400 and 600 children on at- risk registers have no social worker attached to them because there are insufficient staff to do that work. That underclass of child is not only poor but likely to be malnourished. We pay insufficient attention to food poverty. By and large, it is as true today as it was a century ago that a child's health and diet are dependent on its parents' economic status--with the notable exception of some middle-class parents who force-feed beefburgers to their children.
It is no use suggesting that families can work their way out of poverty and that they have only to get jobs for all to be well. Although some new jobs are being created, many of them are very low paid. People are now earning their poverty--receiving less in pay than the value of the supplementary benefits for which they would be eligible if unemployed. The Maternity Alliance report on poverty and pregnancy examined the cost of an adequate diet for expectant mothers. It found that many pregnant women faced serious difficulties in affording the kind of diet recommended by hospitals. The diet was costed at £15.88 per week in 1988--more than one quarter of income support for an unemployed couple expecting their first baby, and more than half the income support for a single woman aged 24 expecting her first baby. What was the use of the 1977 DHSS report that said : "An inadequate diet before and during pregnancy may impair the growth of the baby and put at risk the health of both mother and child"?
In 1990, it is still women on low incomes, but especially unsupported mothers, whose babies face the greatest risk of being born underweight or of an early death.
Our debates on the Broadcasting Bill have featured some striking omissions in respect of children, including the advertising of sweets, food and drinks on children's television. Recently, I accompanied a delegation to the IBA on behalf of dentists and nutritionists to protest at the amount of advertising of sugar-rich food and sweets. According to one food magazine, more than half of all advertisements on children's television encouraged an unhealthy and mainly sugary diet. Bearing in mind the large number of hours that children spend watching television, the IBA's code of practice is clearly failing to protect them. It is time the Government got tough and brought Britain into line with other European countries. Our guidelines are among the weakest in Europe. No encouragement is given to advertisers to relate proper teeth-cleaning habits or to promote the eating of decent foods. The health of our children should take precedence over commercial interests.
The same argument applies to child road safety and to the important hold that the road lobby seems to have over the present Government. More than 120 children are killed
Column 694or injured on our roads each day. Road accidents are the leading cause of death among school-age children. We have the second worst record of child road deaths in Europe. We need to know more about those accidents if we are to prevent further loss of life or injury. Is poor housing, with inadequate play space, to blame? The National Playing Fields Association expressed concern last year at the ever- increasing commercial exploitation of land, insensitive planning and lack of awareness combining to threaten outdoor recreational space. The association says in its 1989 report :
"Too many playing fields and play grounds are deteriorating or disappearing altogether"
and that far too many major housing developments are created with inadequate green space, especially for children to play in. Are we taking any notice of such observations? Three fifths of all road accidents involving pre-school children occurred in the street less than 100 yards from the home. Do we plan for children when building new road systems? Eighty-five per cent. of casualties occur in built-up areas.
Miss Lestor : Over the past decade-- [Interruption.] I do not know why Conservative Members find child deaths funny. I do not. I find them appalling. I agree with the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that they have been making stupid remarks. I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman on my side. His hon. Friends have been making stupid remarks. Child deaths are not funny, and the fact that 85 per cent. of child deaths in roads occur in built-up areas needs to be studied.
Miss Lestor : Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, that is where they live. If areas are built up to such an extent that children are killed, we should study the planning of such areas and decide to do something about it.
In the past decade we have seen increasing Government support for the arguments put forward by the pro-road lobby at the cost of young lives. The Secretary of State for Transport announced earlier this year that substantial sums would be allocated to new road-building pro-grammes. What proportion of that is going towards road safety? I have submitted a written question on the matter and I am still waiting for an answer.
Children also need protection in the home. The impact of poverty on young lives can have a profound and damaging effect on children's life chances. We can now see evidence--although not yet Government evidence--of how children are being used to prop up the state. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 young people and children are carers of dependent adults. Many more will have taken on a substantial part of the responsibility for looking after brothers and sisters. Financial, practical and emotional help for such youngsters is grossly inadequate, and the Labour party is currently considering ways in which we can meet the needs of that special category of children.
We must reject the attitudes which lay behind the comment from one social services chairman that it was good training for a 10-year-old girl to get up three or for times in a night to help her disabled mother. Something is going wrong. Such children do an adult's work for no pay.
Column 695Many more children work illegally for low pay and as many as one in three children between the ages of 11 and 15 works outside school hours. It is estimated that 8 per cent. of them work illegally ; they work too many hours. That is between 1 million and 2 million children.
Poverty and adult unemployment mean that all too frequently such children are the only breadwinner in the family, transforming at a stroke working for pocket money into an essential element of the family budget. The Anti Slavery Society, Defence for Children International and other organisations have carried out studies which show that many children work longer hours than adults, often doing two jobs, one before and one after school. Those are the children who are tired at school, frequently go absent for short periods of time and fail to reach expected educational standards. When are the Government going to implement the Employment of Children Act 1973? I do not have time, bearing in mind what I told you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to go into many other matters. Truancy is on the increase both among younger and older children and how such children spend their time causes great concern to all agencies.
Last November the United Nations adopted a convention on the rights of the child. At its heart lies the recognition that each child is a valuable and unique individual. It stressed the need to balance the child's right to security, protection, education and nurture with its right to be listened to, responded to and respected. Seven months later we are still waiting for a timetable for its ratification by the House. Why are we waiting so long?
I was involved in some of the discussions on the convention on the rights of the child and I noticed that in this country people's thoughts usually flew to Third world children where extreme poverty and underdevelopment deny them security, education, proper nurturing and protection, where they are exploited and abused, and live and work in the streets, robbed of their childhood. Many die before they have a chance to live. However, this country is neither poor nor underdeveloped. We have no such excuse.
welcomes the major programme of work in the child care and child protection field which the Government are overseeing and undertaking in co-operation with local government and the voluntary sector, backed up by the Children Act 1989, which will establish an improved court system for children and a new balance between public support of children within their families and action to protect children from abuse and neglect, and families from unwarranted intrusion by the state ; and welcomes other initiatives such as the reformed system of social security which targets help more effectively on the least well off among families with children.'.
Children are the key to our future and the true wealth of our nation. They are our most sacred trust. The Government are committed to encouraging responsible attitudes towards the care and upbringing of children and to providing a framework for health, community, education and social services. Wherever possible, we want to enable families to provide for their children's welfare. When necessary, others need also to be able to assist or to intervene.
The Government undertake to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. This is an issue of profound
Column 696concern to all of us. We want to take forward thinking and action on children's issues. We already have a record of achievement. This debate provides a welcome opportunity to set out our far-reaching programme.
I have already had discussions with the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) on a number of subjects, and I do not for one moment doubt her sincerity about the needs of children, but it is important that the Government should set a framework within which we can work with local authorities. Above all, children belong in families and in communities. We have to spread that sense of responsibility and awareness of children's needs throughout society. It is a source of regret, although scarcely surprise, that so often the hon. Lady should have sought to make rather petty party political capital out of a subject on which, frankly, there are many areas of broad agreement.
The way to provide for the financial side of the welfare of children, as for other vulnerable groups, is to establish a flourishing economy.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, who will wind up the debate, will be speaking in greater detail about some of the benefits that are available to families.
Few doubt the commitment of the Opposition to children, but we all have every reason to doubt their ability to deliver. Under the Government, over the past 10 years, families have seen major improvements in their living standards. There has been a 34 per cent. increase in the real value of take -home pay for a married man on average earnings with two children, compared with an increase of less than 1 per cent. under the last Labour Government.
This year nearly £10 billion is being spent on the whole range of benefits for the family. In real terms that is an increase of more than a quarter since 1979. Under the Labour party, financial support for the family was cut by nearly 10 per cent. in real terms in six miserable years.
The reforms of the social security system have rightly concentrated help on those most in need. This year £5.4 billion is going in social security payments to low-income families--the third year running when these families have seen real increases in income-related benefits. Family credit, which was born out of the previous family income supplement, is a major initiative which was brought forward by my noble Friend Lord Joseph and is paid to the mothers in almost all cases. It is important in ensuring that working families do not lose out as they cross the threshold between unemployment and work and as they climb the income ladder. The average award is more than £27 a week and family credit now goes to more than 300,000 families--nearly half as many again as were helped under the old family income supplement. Twice as much help is being given now.
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : I wonder what the Minister would say to one of my constituents who, when she applied to the social fund for her expected baby's needs, was told that she could have money for a cot or a pram but not for both. Is that something which would have happened at any time before the Government came to power? I cannot remember anything like it--unless we look back to the years before 1945.
Column 697social security system. I worked for the Child Poverty Action Group, and I had the most enormous and overwhelming difficulty getting any kind of civilised or courteous handling for such families under the Labour Government. However, I would not seek to make any capital out of that.
In the provision of welfare services, difficult assessments have to be made. Low-income families can be confident that they have seen their benefits and incomes rise. The Opposition, as we have said time and time again, are not short of rhetoric but are devoid of the ability to turn that rhetoric into reality.
It is not my view, or that of the Government, that resources are the only issue. We also believe that children require the protection of legislation. It is a major tragedy of our society that still there are children in our country who are neglected and abused and whose needs are not being met. We take considerable pride in the Children Act 1989, which was the work of my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). It has placed on the statute book an integrated legislative framework which balances the needs of the child, parents and local authorities. We are working closely with local authority associations and voluntary organisations to make sure that the necessary guidance and training is in place. It is the first attempt to establish a unified and consistent code of law covering the care and upbringing of children in both the private and the public sectors. This is but the first of a series of reforms of family law.
We have begun a review of the law on adoption. We are expecting proposals from the Law Commission to reform the law on divorce and domestic violence.
Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham) : My hon. Friend has extolled the progress that has been made under this Government which, examined by any rational person, can be seen to be great compared with the sanctimonious words that were uttered earlier this evening. However, will my hon. Friend verify that some of the progress that we have tried to make by means of legislation could come adrift if some Government agencies are not sure about the purpose of the legislation? I ask her to consider the fact that Customs and Excise is making life difficult for those who offer a fostering service to more than three children by insisting that they should register for VAT. The Inland Revenue has been helpful and sympathetic but Customs and Excise has not. That is an example of the Government's intentions not always being fulfilled by a Government agency that is not helping those who foster and who may subsequently adopt children in need.
I have referred to the important progress that we have made in trying to clarify and establish a legal framework that pays better regard to the needs of children. Those of us who have long deplored the needlessly destructive effects of the legal process on families welcome this progress towards an integrated structure of family law. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Eccles has had to leave the Chamber, since she stressed that point.
Column 698The Children Act sets new standards in child care. The welfare of the child is paramount and must underpin any decision that a court makes about the care and upbringing of children. The Act specifically requires the court to consider the child's wishes and feelings, its physical and emotional needs, the likely effect of changed circumstances and whether the parents are capable of meeting the child's needs. The Act explicitly recognises that the child's welfare requires separate consideration from any rights or needs of the parents. We replace terms such as "parental rights and duties" with the concept of parental responsibility--a responsibility that persists through divorce, separation or care. It can be relinquished only if the child is adopted.
The new range of court orders concentrates the minds of parents on their continuing responsibility for the upbringing of the child in family proceedings. The hon. Member for Eccles did not refer to the responsibilities of parents. We recognise that there is a role for Government and local authorities and that often there is a central role for voluntary organisations, which have done so much to improve child care, but we believe strongly that parents, above all, have a responsibility and that legal processes should never inadvertently undermine their role.
Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West) : I waited to intervene until the Minister had completed her remarks about the Children Act. I am disappointed that she has not responded to the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) to talk about resources. All those who are involved with the implementation of the Children Act are concerned about adequate resources being made available for the purpose. When the Bill was considered in Committee emphasis was placed on the fact that additional resources would be needed. Already there are huge backlogs over the registration of child minders, day nurseries and private facilities because social services departments have been unable to employ sufficient people to complete their registration. What do the Government intend to do about that?
Mrs. Bottomley : I have not remotely come to the end of my remarks on the Children Act. I shall certainly deal with the implementation process and with the specific point made by the hon. Member for Eccles. Each year we have discussions with local authority associations about the challenges that they face. The resource implications of the Children Act were recognised by the Government. During this year's public expenditure discussions with local authorities we are considering whether additional resources will be needed. Some of them were referred to by the hon. Member for Eccles, such as the resource implications of those leaving care. The hon. Lady has a great interest in the working of the Children Act and I recognise her concern.
I return to the question that unites my hon. Friends--the responsibility of parents. Too often, under present arrangements, court orders treat children as though they were possessions to be fought over, along with the car and the microwave. The Act makes it clear that the child's religious persuasion, racial origin--a matter of concern to the hon. Member for Eccles--and cultural life and linguistic background should be taken into account in decisions affecting the child. Once again, recognition of the child's needs is central.
Column 699Eccles (Miss Lestor) made no mention of the role of parents in the welfare of children, or of the role of parents in terms of accepting responsibility for their children? Is it not much more practical and realistic to ask ourselves about the responsibility of parents instead of knocking the Government and offering no alternative policies?
Mrs. Bottomley : The role of parents is fundamental. I have made it clear on many occasions that their role is not properly recognised. I think that both sides agree about the duty of local authorities under the Children Act to safeguard the welfare of children within the family, wherever possible. All hon. Members agree that, ideally, local authorities should not intervene only in order to remove a child ; they should safeguard the child's place within the family. That is one purpose of the legislation.
Lord Joseph referred to the cycle of deprivation. He has made a continual and valuable contribution to the debate on the role of the family. The title of his most recent work, "The Rewards of Parenthood", speaks for itself. The background against which a child grows up is fundamental. Children require stability, continuity and affection as much as they need food, shelter and education. Some parents require help to cope with their child's demands. Bringing up children is no easy task. Individual children and circumstances present different challenges to different parents. No other role calls for the range of talents and sustained commitment that parenthood requires.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : I draw the Minister's attention to a particular difficulty--what is going on in the Hong Kong camps. Britain has responsibility for that colony. I visited various camps last week under the auspices of the Hong Kong Government. I saw thousands of children in a camp holding 22,000 people on an eight-acre site. They were living in indescribable squalor behind metal bars and barbed wire. The psychologists and psychiatrists who visited the camp have reported that those children will be damaged for life. What do the Government intend to do about the conditions under which they live? Those children are being damaged. They are the responsibility of the British Government and it is all happening under the Union Jack. What are the Government going to do about it? I was besieged by people in those camps asking for a response from the British Government.
Mrs. Bottomley : Hon. Members will agree that it was wrong for me to give way to the hon. Gentleman. It is clear that the Government are deeply committed to resolving the situation in Hong Kong, but it is far from easy. The Opposition have naive aspirations with no possible mechanism for translating their pious hopes into policies and arrangements that can deliver the assistance that is required. I do not intend to give way any further.
Prevention of family breakdown is always better than cure. Volunteer or befriending schemes can help families to deal with difficulties, and a professional social worker or agency does not necessarily need to become involved. We particularly applaud the work of the home start consultancy, but others such as NEWPIN are being funded out of our £2 million under -fives initiative that is directed particularly towards assisting the voluntary sector. Similarly, the development of family centres in recent years has done much to promote informal
Column 700networks. I know that many hon. Members support a range of professional and voluntary organisations that play a crucial role. The hon. Member for Eccles spoke about the needs of children leaving care. There is not doubt that leaving care without adequate support and proper arrangements can easily exacerbate a child's difficulties. A recent report has suggested that something like one third of the homeless youngsters on the streets of London were previously in care. The House will know that we are looking carefully at the problem of homelessness among young people. It is a complex, multi-faceted problem. It is not a question of vagrancy legislation or the particular arrangement of social security benefits. The Children Act placed a new duty on local authorities to advise, assist and befriend each child that they look after with a view to promoting his welfare when he leaves care. We fund a number of voluntary organisations to assist in that important work.
The number of women joining the work force is growing, and it is estimated that women will take up to 90 per cent. of the additional jobs that will be created between now and the end of the century. We firmly believe that parents should decide for themselves whether both parents or which parent should work when their children are young or still dependent.
A variety of day care services for pre-school and school-age children should be available so that parents may choose which best meets their children's needs. In the past 10 years there has been a rapid expansion in day care provision--a 90 per cent. increase in the number of children placed with child minders. In the debate about workplace nurseries I hope that none will overlook the important contribution made by child minders who can provide a continuity of care and stability that many other arrangements cannot. There has been a 75 per cent. increase in day nursery places, and all will welcome the recent concession from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to assist with workplace nurseries.
There has been an 18 per cent. increase in playgroup places. Playgroups provide help and day experience for 400,000 children each year. It is the most popular and widely used system for providing activity during the day for pre-school children and has the unique characteristic of providing encouragement, support and collaborative experience for the parents about whom my hon. Friends feel so strongly. In Britain 86 per cent. of all three to five-year-olds benefit from some form of day care or educational provision. Few other countries rival our record--only France and Belgium do --and the Netherlands is the only other country in the Community where children start compulsory full-time education at the age of five.
We believe that central Government have a role in establishing a legislative framework to regulate day care services, to issue general guidance on standards and quality and to test out new initiatives. We see local authorities not as the monopolistic providers of day care, but increasingly as enablers. They have an important strategic and co- ordinating role to bring together local authority agencies, employers and voluntary groups to ensure that in each area adequate provision can be made for the growing number of children whose parents wish them to benefit from some form of pre-school experience or day care.
The hon. Lady mentioned a scourge on modern life. It is a source of perplexity and great concern that in an age