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The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, in her powerful and eloquent maiden speech, referred to housing and parenting. We know that more than 100,000 families are now living homelessly, which is a very high number and a troubling situation. I have visited Newham and seen damp running down the walls of some of the private rented accommodation in that area. The poor quality of housing is a real problem for families.

It struck me some time ago, sitting in on a parenting group, how invaluable it was for those parents to have a highly skilled facilitator and to sit together to talk about their children. One parent had two sets of twins under the age of five and spoke little English. Such parents had the opportunity to break through the isolation of their lives, which for some of them at least were impoverished because of these challenges. I welcome in particular the work of the Parenting
 
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Education & Support Forum, which organised the session, and especially Mary Crowley, whose devotion to this cause is very noteworthy. I hope that the Minister will ensure that in the academies that he is establishing there will be a space for these sorts of classes and will bear in mind how to encourage them as far as possible.

I wish to talk about information for parents on the value to the child in the first year of life of a close and interested relationship with parents. Last week I attended a lecture on midwifery at King's College London introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege. My neighbour provided ante-natal classes to parents. She was a professional woman in her fifties of vast experience and a former chief executive of a large maternity charity. I expressed my concern to her that parents were not being informed of the value of a good relationship between child and parents in the first year of life. She replied that it worried her to hear so many parents making early plans to rush back to work.

I warmly welcome Her Majesty's Government's proposals to introduce an extension of paid parental leave. That is a tremendous step forward. However, we live in a society that puts great value on home ownership, the latest car and clothes. Unless clear information is provided to parents and prospective parents that their full attention and sustained interest in their child in the first year of life are of importance, they may make other commitments.

A good attachment to the parents can be immensely rewarding for those parents. It also helps to ensure that the child learns how to manage his emotions in later life so that when he begins school he can contain his feelings of disappointment, elation, rejection or anger.

Some parents who are professionals, for instance, lawyers, need to understand that childcare comprises more than just feeding and watering, and that a nanny, if employed, needs to be emotionally interested and invested in their child. Parents on low incomes need to be aware that passing a baby between several low-paid helpers is undesirable.

I hope that in his response the Minister will say that Her Majesty's Government recognise the importance of the secure attachment of a child to his parents in the first year of life, and that he will say how Her Majesty's Government are ensuring that all parents and prospective parents are aware of this, for instance, through PSHE. One welcomes the drive towards parental employment and consequent reduction in child poverty. That is very positive, but the approach needs to be nuanced and to recognise fully the developmental needs of children.

7.42 pm

Baroness Howells of St Davids: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for initiating this debate and to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for the informative and valuable lessons I have learnt from listening to her.

My contribution will centre almost exclusively on Caribbean British children, who have been the subject of much research in the UK. Despite this the community ends up with more children in prison than
 
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in university, more being excluded from school than any other group, achievement levels still at the bottom and parenting being blamed for that unfortunate set of circumstances.

"It takes a village to raise a child" is an African proverb with utmost relevance to the situation in the UK today. Many of our children grow up in an atmosphere far removed from the Janet and John idyll of mum, dad and the 2.2 children. For many British Caribbean children growing up today it is a family vastly different even from the one that I recall. Then mum and dad had a support network of granny and grandad, aunts and uncles—most totally unrelated by blood—who watched out for, administered to, disciplined, fed, taught and loved in equal measure. Today it is quaintly labelled "the extended family", but it is something with which I grew up knowing only as family.

Just as the wider community watched out for and over the children in their midst, children also understood their role and responsibility in the wider scheme of things. To sit while some adults stood, fail to greet an elder, or confront a teacher, priest or policeman was unthinkable. Any rebellions were swiftly brought into line. We grew in the sure knowledge that with perseverance and application we could achieve anything.

My grandmother always used to say, "A mother is a mother to the world". Somehow it seems that adults have lost the plot. Parenthood is not just giving birth but the teaching and training of a child, and it does not stop at our doors or with our own children. It is the job and duty of every adult to nurture and guide the next generation.

The question that still puzzles me is of how this society sees children. Are they assets or a bother to society? Recently I was standing in a schoolroom with a head when the bell rang for break and the children poured out into the playground. In no time, the whole place was bubbling with life, with the children running around, playing games, yelling and chasing one another. As we looked on, the head said to me, "We have real problems here. You see that group over there? They are the school's worst nightmare"—"they" being a group of black boys.

The pity of that remark was that, unfortunately, the head saw only the dark side of the situation playing out before her. After some time of silence I felt inspired to answer her. I said, "Those children should not be seen as problems but assets". To me, they were real assets—treasures; indeed, gifts that were given freely to us to take care of. Those children are our future. I suggested that one of them might be a future Albert Einstein, Bill Gates or Marie Curie—a potential genius waiting to be discovered and be helped to blossom as individuals if we were to nurture them. She looked at me as though I were insane.

Is it not often the case that we see in children only problems and difficulties confronting society, yet there can be no greater truism than the fact that children are the future of every human society? Whatever their colour, they are in reality assets and investment opportunities waiting for the adult society to grasp their potential and turn it into real estate for the future of all humanity.
 
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I believe that every child, once he or she is conceived, is a potential asset—a treasure; indeed, we could say a gift of God to humanity. The Indian sage Tagore said so eloquently:

That is the confidence that we are still capable of bringing to blossom every potential of a child—still capable of bringing to fulfilment every promise that each child holds for humanity. Do we truly understand that responsibility to nurture and develop children in a way which produces tomorrow's citizen? I am sure that we all agree that those whom we expect to do so are those whom we label parents.

What is our mental picture of parents—two adults, male and female joined in matrimony, whose role is to bring up children? Are we deluding ourselves? Is our world really like that? I suggest that the UK falls far short of that ideal. Look around you. There are different kinds of parents: birth parents; adoptive parents; single parents. The local authority is also a parent, and teachers are in loco parentis. Police officers used to be parents at one time, and youth workers are parents at some part of a child's life. I could go on, but I think that noble Lords have got the idea. I shall end here, although I felt that I was going on for another day. The clock has beaten me.

7.50 pm

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for introducing this important subject. It is extremely disappointing that we have so little time, as I should have loved to comment on some of the brilliant and interesting speeches that have been made, not least the very touching speech just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells.

There have been huge changes in the challenges that face parents over the past 75 years, and many of the problems facing our society today stem from the fact that we have failed to manage that change. In all fairness, I should say that this Government have introduced a lot of important initiatives, some of which have been outstandingly successful, and I congratulate them on that. I only have time to touch on two points that are important and which still need to be addressed. First, we would all agree that parenthood should always be an informed choice. Secondly, I should like to touch on the "dad deficit".

On informed choice, effective contraception today makes it possible to make two separate decisions—first to have a sexual relationship, and secondly to make a lifestyle choice to be a parent. In a healthy society, every young person should have the chance to make an informed choice based on sound information about each of those two major life decisions. In schools today, we teach the mechanics of sex and contraception, and I am sad to say that in most schools that is about all. We are promised emotional and relationship education in schools. In most schools up to now, that has been totally inadequate, largely due to the lack of trained staff, lack of staff time and lack of curriculum time. But it is a hugely important subject.
 
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Parenting today cannot rely on instinct; parenting skills need to be taught and learnt. The trouble with teaching parenting to young people in schools is that most young people of school age are not yet really interested in the details of parenting. They are interested in how to form and sustain relationships, and that is what they should be taught in school, plus one other thing that I am just coming to. Experience suggests that it is probably better to teach parenting skills mainly in ante-natal and post-natal settings, at the time when they are particularly relevant.

Nevertheless, young people of school age must be given enough knowledge in school to understand the implications of making the major lifestyle choices to become sexually active and to become a parent. They must learn about the costs, sacrifices and responsibilities of being a parent. In particular, boys must learn that they share those responsibilities; and girls must learn the implications of raising their child without a committed father. One of the things that is needed to put those messages across but which is lacking is a clear picture of what our society believes are the responsibilities of parenthood. In an interesting recent study by Clem Henricson and published by the NFPI, the point is made that the law and the different departments of state send different messages about what the responsibilities of parents are. There is undoubtedly a case for considering some sort of code for parents.

I turn now to the "dad deficit". I draw attention to the imbalance today between the number of women who want to be committed mothers and the number of men who want to be committed fathers. The statistics suggest that it could even be as great as about 20 per cent. It contributes to the high level of children who grow up in single parent families—now some 27 per cent of families—and, undoubtedly to the increasing level of family breakdown.

Will the Minister seriously consider funding research on the attitudes of men to making the long-term lifestyle choice to be a committed parent and on the reasons why they are not making that choice? If we had that information, there might be a pragmatic case for measures to make the choice of long-term committed fatherhood a less unattractive proposition, compared with other lifestyle choices for young men today.

As a nation, we need more young men who want to settle down to a stable, committed family life which would give their children the stability, security and love that they will need if they are to thrive and achieve their full potential.

7.56 pm


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