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Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, on initiating this debate and in saying how much I have enjoyed it. We have had a splendid debate and it has complemented well our extremely good debate yesterday on the Second Reading of the Education and Inspections Bill.
In preparing for the debate, I did a little homework on the statistics mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and others. Based on a measure of poverty as 60 per cent of the contemporary median of household income, in 1997 some 4.2 million children in this country, one in three, were living in poverty. I take on board the difficulty of meeting the moving target, but as relative incomes rise it is hard not to accept that the poverty level should also rise to some degree. While there may be a case for going for an absolute level of poverty, it is one that we would need to revise from time to time.
The Government set themselves a series of quite ambitious targets in seeking to eradicate child poverty over 20 years, and by 2005 of moving 25 per cent of those children out of poverty. I looked at the list of initiatives that have been put in train and I have to say that they are and have been enormously impressive: child benefit has been raised in real terms; the introduction of child tax credits and the child trust fund; improving maternity pay and extending rights to maternity and paternity leave; the provisions of the Children Act 2004 and all the initiatives associated with Every Child Matters. As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said only yesterday, all this makes for a revolution in the Government's approach to childcare. A great deal is being done in that area to raise standards, to improve quality and to train the providers. All that is very much in train, as is the provision of nursery education for 15 hours a week for three and four year-olds with the aim of extending it up
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to 20 hours a week and the initiatives of extended schools. I could go on and many noble Lords have mentioned a number of other initiatives. It is very impressive. That the Government missed their target of 25 per cent does not take away from the fact that in the course of the years 199899 through to the end of 2005, some 700,000 children were taken out of poverty. That is impressive and is to be applauded.
"Children born in different circumstances in the UK today have very different life chances of enjoying good health, a good level of personal development and education and a safe environment in which to liveoutcomes which can have knock-on effects through later life. Perhaps most fundamentally, not every child is given the chance to flourish and enjoy a secure and happy childhood".
The report then goes on to say that children from low income, low socio-economic status homes, often from ethnic backgrounds and sometimes with disabilities, are particularly at risk of living in poverty. This is very much the picture painted by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The report states that,
We are 100 per cent behind the Government in their war on poverty, although on occasions we would perhaps choose to follow slightly different routes. I pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, in questioning to some extent the outcomes of some of these initiatives. Many of us were shocked by the evaluation of the Sure Start initiative, because we all felt in our guts that it was absolutely the right initiative. Yet here it was, showing that it was not reaching those it was targeting.
The failure of child tax credits also demonstrates that there are perhaps times when initiatives become too tied up in their own initiatives. I do not know whether anyone else feels that we have so many strategies and strategy groups, and so many of our front-line professionals tied up in writing strategies for the groups and then monitoring those strategies, that perhaps we have created too complicated a network of initiatives. Perhaps some of these tax credit systems are too complicated and the simpler systems such as child benefit and the old family allowances paid universally to everybody but perhaps clawed back through the tax system in one form or another might be a better way to go. I applaud the initiative suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that perhaps we ought to be thinking of paying more for later children in larger families. Perhaps we ought to be looking at simpler initiatives rather than trying to micro-manage quite so hard.
I finish by talking about educationthe area I know best. The fact that one child in five leaves primary school unable to read and write properly is an indictment of our education system. Those children then go on to fail through secondary school. If children
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cannot read and write when they are 11 they have no chance of coping with the curriculum in our secondary schools today, wrong though I think that curriculum is. One of our problems is that it is, on the whole, a curriculum set for the top 30 to 35 per cent of the intelligence cohort. We have many children who are not motivatedwho are in fact positively disincentivised by the secondary school curriculum that we offer them. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that the chance of learning by doing has more or less gone out of the window; we expect all the children to learn by sitting at their desks and being told didactically what is done. Many children react badly to that. Doing something about our secondary school curriculummaking it more appropriate for most of the children who go through secondary schoolsis important.
I am a governor of one of the primary schools in Guildford; it happens to serve one of the more disadvantaged areas. I am the foundation-stage governor so I have sat in on the class of the rising fours to fives, the reception class. From talking with the teacher, it is clear that there is an enormous range of capability among the 25 children. Some are on the verge of reading and have good communication skills, but others find it difficult even to talk, because no one has talked to them very much at home. Roughly speaking, the teacher could say to me that five of them would be difficult kids to cope with later. One of the points that I need to make is that most teachers know, by the time the children are seven, which ones will find it difficult to read and write when they are 11. If we were Scandinavian, we would be pouring resources in to make sure that those pupils could read and write at 11.
Sadly, often the reasons why children do not read and write reflect their turbulent and difficult lives outside school. One little boy was aggressive and rude to everybody. When the teacher managed to get him on one side to try to find out why, it was because Mum had a new boyfriend and, basically, no one loved him. Such things affect those kids. It is important that we carry through the recommendation in the Steer report that every school has a parent and pupil support worker. Teachers with 25 kids to cope with, five of whom may be difficult to manage even with teaching assistants, cannot give the time and attention that some of the kids need. Having a school counsellor is vital to enable schools to cope with such children and to identify those who need special help. Frankly, then we need to target that help to do everything that we can to make sure that those children read and write by the time that they are 11. That is my message this afternoon if we want to improve the life chances of many of those children in poverty.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, for giving us the opportunity to debate this crucial topic. There is no doubt that he makes us all think and question our assumptions, and shakes us out of our comfort zones.
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That is no bad thing. It has been an excellent debate. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, I have enjoyed it. I never cease to be amazed by your Lordships' House: rapping Shakespeare is not something that I expected in today's debate, yet my noble friend Lord Lucas, in his excellent speech, was right to talk about the poverty of aspiration and the role that schools can play in opening children's eyes to the opportunities available and equipping them to seize those opportunities.
The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, is not alone in her fears and concerns on adoption and children in care. As always, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is right to question the Government on placements and the lack of foster carers. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, is again right to point out the problems of mental health in so many of our looked-after children. The mention of overdriven working mothers by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, struck a chord, and I agreed with much that he said on parents, a subject to which I shall return.
No one in your Lordships' House, whatever our political allegiance, will approach government policy for children with anything other than good will and the hope that it will succeed. Many will rightly and properly criticise those policies, and we on these Benches will seek alternative, more effective policies, but none will disagree with the ultimate objective of giving our children their best possible chance from the very beginning of their lives and as they grow to adulthood. The Aashas and Sufias deserve no less. These children will grow together and form the society of a new generation. We should be aware, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, that disadvantage is passed on from generation to generation, or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, so succinctly put it, poverty is inherited, unmerited and unearned.
The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, threw down the gauntlet to ask whether we would dismantle the mechanisms set up to tackle child poverty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, reminded us that it was Keith Joseph who first talked about breaking the cycle of deprivation. We have recently pledged our commitment to the target to reduce child poverty, and it was no idle pledge. Our policies will be based on the findings of our commissions, but whatever our policies, they must be robust and fit for purpose.
Our children's experiences nowthe nurture, love and care they receive, their practical welfare, their early and later education, the emotional and financial security of their families in all their diversitywill form the adults and, in turn, the parents of another generation. Those adults will become our nation's human wealth, the core wealth of our society. They will grow into a world where an educated population and workforce do not simply represent a social good, but a necessity for economic success and survival. Today's policies and decisions on child welfare could not be more important for their future and our country's future.
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This is a vast and complex subject. I do not think I had realised quite how vast it was until I began my research for this debate. Because it is so wide-ranging I had a dilemma about how best to tackle it in such a short debate. I decided to look at two areas where government policy, the thinking behind it and the way it is administered have a direct link on raising children out of poverty and improving their general life chances. I shall then take a quick look at other areas that may be more innovative.
First I shall look at the Child Support Agency. We currently have 800,000 children who do not have contact with one of their parents, usually their father. Undoubtedly, children have a better chance in life if they have two parents looking out for them, offering them love and support. Sadly relations between adults break down, but, as we said many times during the course of the Children and Adoption Bill, where safety is not an issue, the best parent for a child is both parents. That is why we believe strongly in the legal presumption of co-parenting. We argued passionately for the right of both parents to have reasonable access to their children, and for their child to have reasonable access to both of them and their extended family.
That matters for so many reasons, but particularly for two very important ones: the emotional stability provided, and financial stability. It must be right that all children should be supported by both parents. I think we can all agree that no one is happy with the way the CSA has performed the task of getting money from absent parents to the parent with care. I accept that the system was far from perfect when we were in government.
I cannot help thinking, however, that if parents were obliged to maintain some link for the sake of their children, financial problems might not be quite so bad. In the Times on 27 January 2004 there was an interview with David Levy, the president of the United States Children's Rights Council, who was over here to discuss shared parenting. He said that its benefits were not just in fewer costly disputes in court, but in increased child support payments. Consensus Bureau statistics showed that fathers with shared parenting rights paid twice the amount of fathers with no contact. I so agreed with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on this issue.
During a debate on this subject earlier in the year I asked the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, if Sir David Henshaw would look at this in his review of the CSA. I hope he will, and I hope he will take the findings from America very seriously. That would help children who are often financially disadvantaged when their parents go their separate ways, but what will help children in general is to ensure that their parents have proper relationship guidance. As my right honourable friend David Cameron said on Tuesday in a speech to the National Family and Parenting Institute:
"When we think of family policy, we rightly focus much attention on the relationship between parent and child. But the truth is that often the best way of improving the parent child relationship is to improve the couple relationship".
As he points out, although the state cannot deliver that, society has a strong interest in strengthening couples' relationships, something he sees being delivered by community and voluntary organisations.
The second area I should like to focus on is Sure Start and childcare. We have consistently welcomed the support given through Sure Start to some of our most disadvantaged children and families. The Government were absolutely right to make childcare and children's services a priority. The debate is not over whether Sure Start or better, wider childcare is delivered but how to deliver it.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, reminded us that the first evaluation of Sure Start reported that it had not been particularly beneficial to the disadvantaged. Sure Start is starting to remind me a little of that line in the film, "Field of Dreams":
But if parents prefer to use the informal care, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, spoke, as we know that most of them do, or if they have to struggle through a system of complicated tax credits, they will not come. The Green Budget 2006 of the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that overpayments and complexity are intrinsic features of the system and that recent changes to cure overpayment problems have increased complexity and the costs of compliance to recipients. What is more, the full impact of the changes will not be clear until 2009. Therefore we are left with a system that does not work, where most take up is from middle income and not poor families, and where we shall not see how bad it is for three years; and by then the Government will have run out of room to change them.
Perhaps the most serious concern I have with Sure Start is its potential to entrench immobility by locking in pockets of dependence on state provision rather than using market forces to generate service improvements. We need a great focus on improving social mobility which, according to a report in 2005 by the Sutton Trust, is falling in Great Britain.
I do not for one minute think that the Government's heart is not in the right place but the battle to lift millions of children out of poverty will not be won with any great government schemes. It will not be won by the Government's heavy-handed top-down approach which can all too often act as a disincentive. These problems will be best tackled through locally based solutions, engaging communities and the voluntary sector and by looking after our neighbour. This is where the innovation and drive will come from. It will come from people like Camila Batmanghelidjh at Kids Company who do more to alleviate the sufferingemotional and materialof vulnerable children than abstract government agencies; and who through her work is starting to rebuild small community action
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where the children whom she helped are now helping others. Those are the areas that we are looking at through our commission on social justice.
When in 1999 Tony Blair pledged to eradicate child poverty by 2020 he may even have thought that he would still be Prime Minister those 21 years later. It will be for others, and will require different policies, if that aspiration is to be met. In a powerful and thoughtful speech to the Child Poverty Action Group in June last year my honourable friend David Willetts said,
"The government's figures show that despite all their best efforts they haven't had much success in tackling the problems of persistent poverty. It is a problem of successive governments. It is relatively easy to spend a lot of money to boost the income of the poorest people. But it is much harder to open up British Society so that people genuinely feel that it is open, meritocratic and mobile".
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