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Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, for giving us the chance to debate this subject. As he ended by saying, this is really just a continuation of last night's debate. I am here with the prime purpose of heaping praise on the Government in general and the Minister in particular, as we all did for six hours yesterday. Indeed, I shall be talking mostly about schools, because what interests me is life chances.
All of usthe poor and the richhave life chances, but you have to be ready and prepared for them to be able to make use of them. You have to be able to recognise them and to have the mindset that enables you to take advantage of them. That is mostly a mindset that the young in particular will pick up at school. Some will be lucky and will have homes where this is encouraged, but school will have a very large influence. At independent schools, the core of this readiness to take advantage of life chances comes through the extra-curricular programme. Now we have a Government who say that they will consider increasing the funding of state schools to independent-school levels. Presumably that will entail state schools once again having a really vibrant extra-curricular life, as the best do.
Such an extra-curricular life was greatly impoverished in the 1960s and later as a result, initially, of the industrial action taken by teachers. It would be wonderful to get back to that, because that is what really opens children's eyes to the opportunities that are available to them. It gives them a little experience of them and of success, which will give them the confidence to take opportunities when they occur and to make the effort to go that extra mile to learn a bit more to equip themselves. They can then branch out from what might seem to be an otherwise narrow life expectation, which for some is the possibility of a third generation in continuous unemployment.
My wife spends her life working with prisoners. She takes groups of 20 of the most challenged prisoners who have really failed at education and who have very poor communication abilities. In a few weeks, she
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turns them into people who want to succeed and who have found not only an ambition but a way forward. That can be done at any age. It is actually quite easy with prisoners, because they are all stuck there. By the time they are 25, they jolly well want to make a success of their lives; they just do not know how. They have lost the rebelliousness of youth. Earlier in her life my wife succeeded in doing that in schools. It is not easy; it takes time, expertise and, of course, money, but all this is now promised to us by the Government. I would be delighted to see that come through.
We need far more sport in schools. We need far more by way of culture. All these young people of my children's generation, intent on acting careers, spend large amounts of time doing nothing very productive with all their thespian skills. Get them out there around the schools, organising plays and events. Young musicians are much the same: get them out there, giving people the experience of participating in plays, music and other cultural activities, such as painting, with people who are expert in these things. Getting people in from outside schools who participate in this kind of thing is an uplifting experience. The schools that succeed in these subjects are the ones that involve people from outside. However, it takes additional money.
Look at what we can do within the curriculum to inspire people to take up subjects. There is terribly little left in our standard curriculum that really lights the flame. For those to whom the subject comes naturally it is wonderful, but the mathematics curriculum has no fun in it. There is nothing in the maths GCSE which delights the ordinary child. There is precious little left in history and geography, which ought to be the sort of subjects that capture people's imaginations. To make kids of 16 study Shakespeare as if it were a penance is ridiculous. Again, coming back to my wife's experience, Shakespeare works wonderfully in prison, particularly with black prisoners, because you can rap itit has the rhythm in it. It was written for the masses, so do Shakespeare like that; do it as an experience. Let people catch on to the magic of Shakespeare, rather than having to treat it as a total rigmarole.
We should use what there now is in modern technology. There is so much that the young are using that we really do not experience: the whole business of blogs and websites and what you can do with them. There is a lot there which kids, even at the beginning of secondary school, can start to participate in. Because it leads on to other things on the web, it gives them a sense of what is out there. Because so much commercial life is on the web, it will also give them skills that will be useful afterwards.
Let us support the great outward bound activities, such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award and Young Enterprise. Let us teach people how to cook. Home economics is a subject now almost entirely confined to the independent sector, where it flourishes. If we want people to enjoy healthy eating, let them experience what it is to cook something wonderful themselves. Jamie Oliver's recipes are enormously accessible. The delight of finishing up with something you could never
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buy in Tesco and the pride of taking something like that home to their parents is something children should experience. There is so much we can do after school, with a considerable amount of time and money. This is what independent schools do and it is one of the great reasons why parents use them: they are giving pupils an experience that goes beyond what has become a very Gradgrind curriculum.
We can take that outside the school, too. What the Government have been doing in opening schools up to the public is wonderful. If you have a play coming to your school, invite everybody; involve the community. If there is a jazz band playing, let everybody come to hear them. If you want people to help pupils experience chess or any other activity, bring someone in from outside. As my noble friend was saying at the end of the last debate, there are thousands of retired people who know how to do things and who would love to be involved. Involve the Scouts and Guides in schools much better than at present. Make them something that is part of the school experience, but extends it outside.
I believe that we are going to come on to this in the schools Bill. In terms of provision for youth in the community, it is terribly important to give young people something constructive to do. Let us hope that in 20 years' time we no longer see street signs saying "No ball games". That is a terribly anti-youth thing. It says, "Go away. We don't want you. We have no space in our community for the noise and enjoyment of youth". It would be really nice to see an attitude that welcomed the exuberance of youth as part of our ordinary community rather than the sense at the moment that we are rather frightened of it. I am thinking of ASBOs, hoodies and all those other obsessions of the Daily Mail which I would be delighted to see gone.
This is a hopeful debate and I hope to learn a great deal from it. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, asked, "What hope for these children?". There is every hope for these children; without hope there is nothing. They are our children and we should always have hope and the highest expectations of them. I end with one last plea, and here I echo the request of the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. It is a request for a measure of poverty which is absolute. To set ourselves a target that can never be reached because as we get close it moves further away is ridiculous. We ought to have a measure that has an absolute value and is one we can set our eyes on and get to, even if having got there we then want to go beyond it.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, as bad as are the problems of child poverty so ably described by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, there are some other evils that happen to children in this country today. Cases have been brought to my attention which lead me to suspect that the Adoption Act is not working as I hope the Government intended that it should"hope", because if what is in fact happening is what the Government intended, it would be the most disgraceful state of affairs.
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In the past month my attention has been drawn to two cases where children have been removed from their families on highly controversial and unsubstantiated, let alone unproven, evidence of abuse, and put up for adoption, or in one case adopted, so that the parents have no hope of ever getting their children back. I am very much afraid that this is only the tip of an iceberg. I have heard of a number of cases over the years and I expect that many of your Lordships have too.
In the most recent case, where I cannot give names for fear that the plaintiff may be under a gagging order, a one year-old girl whose mother has long-term mental health problems was placed nine months ago with her grandmother, who was given a glowing assessment as to her parenting ability. The child is very attached to her. But eight years ago this lady was accused falsely of abusing her daughters by having Munchausen syndrome by proxy. The social workers dug up this case and have used it as an excuse to remove the baby from her, going to the child's nursery and taking her from there so that the grandmother would have no chance of finding out where she had been taken. For that child, it must have been a nightmare, being kidnapped and torn from everything and everyone familiar to her. Social workers do not realise that even at one year old a baby is very attached to familiar people and surroundings, and the trauma caused by such an action may be very great. Social services wanted the baby for adoption so that they could meet their targets. They cannot always do this from children in local authority homes because many are mentally or physically damaged and no one is prepared to adopt them.
The other case is that of the Hardingham family where three children were removed from their parents. One of the boys had a metaphyseal fracture. Brittle bone disease runs in the mother's family, but because she did not have it very obviously the doctor said she could not have passed it on to her child, and the parents were accused of causing the fracture. All three children were removed, advertised for adoption on a video which the parents were forced to watch, and adopted. Even if the parents are completely cleared of all suspicion, they can never get their children back. They have just had another baby and social services are trying to steal him too. Your Lordships may have read about this case in the Mail on Sunday of 14 May and watched the BBC "Real Story" documentary broadcast on 15 May.
There are two problems here. One is that the local authority social services appear to have been set targets for the numbers of children to get adopted. I like to think that the Government did this with the object of reducing the number of children in local authority carea laudable enough object, until you remember that keeping children in care costs money. But the result is that in order to meet their quotas, or targets, or whatever you call them, or possibly in order to fulfil the maximum number of orders from would-be adoptive parents for children, they have resorted to virtually stealing children on the flimsiest of pretexts,
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pretexts which are largely manufactured by themselves with the help of tame doctors. This inflicts indescribable misery on innocent parents who love their children, and indescribable trauma on the children, who are torn from everything and everybody they know and love. Incidentally, it is usually, although not always, poor and sometimes rather simple working-class families they chose to do this to, ones who do not have the money or legal know-how to fight.
That brings me to the second problem, which is the family courts and the secrecy under which they are always required to operate. In cases of this kind they should operate openly, without any gagging orders, so that parents accused of abuse would be able to get the help and advice as to how to defend themselves which they need so very badly. As it is they are in a heads-you-lose and tails-you-lose too situation, worthy of the worst of totalitarian regimes where justice does not exist. They are guilty until they can prove themselves innocent and they can never prove themselves innocent because they cannot even call a witness for their defence.
I make no apology for straying somewhat from the aspects of child welfare which the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, wished to discuss. I hope the Minister will realise that there is a serious ill and injustice here which needs to be addressed urgently. Is the onus which there clearly is on local authority social services to maximise the number of children offered for adoption to be found in the Adoption Act or in regulations? How does it arise? I should also like to ask about the secrecy under which the family courts operate and the gagging orders placed on parents who have been accused of child abuse. Do they appear in primary legislation or are they set out in an order that slipped through Parliament unnoticed? How do they arise?
I realise that I am probably bowling the noble Lord a fast ball and that he may be quite unable to give me the information today, but I should be most grateful if he would write to me and perhaps put a copy of the letter in the Library.
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