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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, with the leave of the House, my noble friend Lord Adonis will repeat the Statement on investment in new trains immediately after the debate in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester.
The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, the very day of the launch of the report of the Good Childhood Inquiry coincided last week with Londons heaviest snowfall for 18 years. By an unexpected coincidence, as the report drew attention to the need for adults to consider more carefully the consequences of their values, priorities and lifestyles for the development of children, so, in our parks, playgrounds and gardens, many people were finding, for one brief day, what it meant to set aside their normal routines, and the sound of laughter and play could be heard in the streets and neighbourhoods of much of England. That coincidence, neither planned nor intended, had the effect of raising for all of us the central question of the inquiry: what does it take for us to create the conditions in which the power for good in children and their extraordinary potential can flourish? What does it take for us to recognise the obstacles to their flourishing and to find the resources of mind and spirit to overcome them?
I am proud to declare an interest in the debate today. I am the chair of the trustees of the Childrens Society, which launched the inquiry in 2006, bringing together an independent panel of experts to consider the conditions for a good childhood in the 21st century and to make recommendations for ensuring that those conditions are achieved for all children.
I am profoundly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Layard, for his immense contribution to this report as its principal author, and delighted that he will be contributing to the debate today. The whole panel of inquiry was delighted to engage with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury as patron, and is grateful for his incisive afterword to the report and his presence here.
Most of all, however, we benefited from the contributions of some 30,000 people who gave evidence to the inquiry and, among them, over 10,000 children. They took part in polls, research and focus groups. They responded via the BBC Newsround programme and included children from all walks of life, including those in prison, pupil referral units and early years settings, as well as refugee children and disabled children. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this report merits attention because, above all, it gives a voice to the hopes, concerns and longings of those children.
One of those giving evidence in person to the panel was Adam, now aged 20. After being taken into care at a young age, he was moved from one residential home to another. After multiple failures, he was taken into foster care. Eventually, at age 14 he began the first of three sentences in prison. On hearing his story, a panel member asked him whether there was anyone in his life who meant something to him. He replied that the only person he could think of was his independent visitorsomeone to talk to, someone to help him navigate choices and prepare for his release. Adam explained that he neither requested nor wanted this person. He initially used every trick he could think of to make the visitor leave and never return. It did not work. For the first time in his life, he had met someone who would not give up on himwho, regardless of his treatment and rejection would come back week after week. So began a transformation, the first constructive and positive relationship with an adult that he had ever had. Now, after six years, this relationship forms a critical and unique source of stability.
This is the closest approximation to an experience of love in Adams life. It is love that children and young people see as the most fundamental requirement of a good life. Our children are clear that the foundation for a good childhood is rooted in their experiences of primary, living attachments with their parents and significant adults. This report identified key factors which put pressure on those relationships. It asks why society has become tone-deaf to those most fundamental requirements of children, and why words like love, happiness and stability have become eroded for many adults in achieving life-giving relationships with others.
The evidence is clear. There has been an erosion of trust, 29 per cent believing that most people can be trusted compared to 56 per cent in Britain 40 years ago. Similar, dramatic evidence points to a decline in a sense of collective moral values and a decline in a sense of community.
What are the consequences of this excessive individualism? This is an ambitious report. Its horizons and range are wide. I know that other noble Lords with an impressive range of expertise here this morning will discuss other aspects of the recommendations, including what is said here about schooling, advertising, lifestyles and mental health, among other things. However, I shall briefly draw attention to some of the key findings that support the central thesis, such as the fact that the proportion of children experiencing emotional or behavioural difficulties rose from 10 per cent in 1986 to 16 per cent in 1999, and has remained at that level. Some 70 per cent of children agree that parents getting on well is one of the most important factors in raising happy children but, by contrast, only 30 per cent of parents agreed with that statementa significant difference of perspective. Only a quarter of the children who are seriously disturbed by mental health difficulties get any kind of specialist help. Increased exposure to television and internet measurably increases materialistic attitudes and reduces mental health. Children who
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I mention one other finding of the report which has attracted considerable attention and controversy: namely, that children with step-parents or a single parent appear to be, on average, more likely to suffer short-term problems with academic achievement, self-esteem, depression and anxiety. Whether welcomed or criticised, it is clear that this report has attracted widespread attention. Some reporting has focused on the potential impact of family separation on children. Indeed, some commentators have interpreted this as a condemnation of single mothers. The fact is, the report recognises that where there are high levels of conflict among adults, it may be in the best interests of the child for a separation to take place. Further, not all single-parent households are the result of separation. The critical factor has to do with how we support families who get into these difficulties. That is why the report recommends making family counselling and support services much more easily available. However, it makes no apology for pointing to some of the hard truths about the rapid changes in employment patterns in the past 25 years and the difficulties which these can raise for some of our children.
Others among the commentators have questioned whether a report sponsored by the Childrens Society, with its clear Christian roots, adequately articulates a Christian vision for society. That was not our primary purpose, but those who look for such a vision will see it in the reports conclusions: that parents should make a long-term commitment to each other; that the decline of religious belief in social obligations means less confidence in communal values; that children need opportunities to develop spiritual qualities. Here we can find a clear echo of the values of the Christian tradition as well as of the other great world faiths.
The report, in response to these issues, makes a number of specific recommendations, but in the time that I have remaining I want to highlight two urgent priorities. The first relates to inequality. It is now widely understood that after the United States, Britain is the most unequal of the rich countries. In Britain, 22 per cent of children are below 60 per cent of typical income, in contrast with only 13 per cent 30 years ago. Combinations of inequalities can have a drastic effect on childrens life chances. Research has shown that a young person aged 13 or 14 experiencing five or more problems in the family, such as mental health problems, physical disability, substance misuse, domestic violence, financial stress, neither parent in work, teenage parenthood, poor basic skills and living in poor housing conditions, is 36 times more likely to enter the care system or to have contact with the police.
The Childrens Society is a founding member of the End Child Poverty campaign and is committed to supporting the government target of eradicating child poverty by 2020 and halving it by 2010. This requires
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As recession bites ever deeper, most financial crisis meetings now take place not in boardrooms, but around kitchen tables. The financial crisis that poor families constantly struggle with comes at a tremendous cost to all of us. Recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation research reveals that the economic costs of educational failure, health inequality, disability and social breakdown from child poverty are more than £25 billion per year to the economy, or more than £1,000 per household. There cannot, therefore, be a choice between rescuing the economy and rescuing children from poverty. Fiscal stimulus, delivered through poor families, using tax credits and child benefits, is morally right and economically prudent, since the money delivered in this way will be spent immediately by families on their childrens needs, boosting the economy at its grass roots.
The second recommendation to which I want to draw attention relates to the question of collective responsibility. Children learn their behaviours and their values from those around them. An important example is alcohol consumption. The reports chapter on lifestyles highlights excessive alcohol as a very serious threat to young peoples well-being. This is widely understood, and the publication by the Chief Medical Officer of guidelines for parents on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people was a welcome move. However, in the media reporting, scant attention was paid to the example set for children who see many adults regularly drinking significantly more than the recommended daily amounts.
This corroborates another central theme of the reportthat we remain an essentially adult-centred society in which the response to many of the challenges of the report tends to centre on the question: how does this proposal affect our understanding of the good adulthood, rather than what contributes to the good childhood? So there is much in the report about parents, who carry the greatest responsibility for our children. This is rightly described as an awesome responsibility requiring a long-term commitment by the parents to each other, as well as to the welfare of the child. It requires that before the child is born, parenting classes should ensure that the parents be informed of what is involved in bringing up the child.
Time does not permit me to touch on many of the other recommendations in the report, which I hope will repay your Lordships careful study. We were all taken aback two years ago by the UNICEF report, showing that children in Britain and the United States face a much more difficult world than those in continental Europe. This report attempts to explain why that may be so and points to some remedies. Its central thesis is that a society for whom the acquisition of wealth, property and personal status has become the primary focus has led to damaged childhoods, damaged relationships and communities, anxiety and stress for children in an overcompetitive educational system. In the midst of very difficult economic times, we have an opportunity to rebuild our financial health in ways that create a society that is better fitted for children, who are our sacred trust.
If this report contributes to the discovery of that love for our children who most desperately need it, it will not have been a labour in vain, and it will have made a worthy contribution to the society we all want to build.
Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I am delighted that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester has secured this debate. He introduced it with humility but passion, and I agree with much of what he said. As a humanist, however, I maintain that spirituality, morality and values are not limited to religious faith but apply to our human condition. However, the right reverend Prelate has given us the opportunity to discuss matters related to children, at which this House is extremely good. I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children.
I welcome the report as a platform for debate, as the right reverend Prelate said, and I salute those who had the difficult task of putting the inquiry together. I also salute my noble friend Lord Layard not only for his work on the book but for his dedication to insisting that material well-being is not the sole aim of life and may have distracted us from other important qualities.
Now comes the however. I am disappointed in some aspects of the report. Peoples circumstances affect the way that they see life and they affect their values. Society has to sort out much that is practical before people can be happy, decide about their values and relate successfully to others. I agree that children need both inner and outer harmony, but I have difficulty with the statement at the beginning of the report that,
Tell that to the single grandparent trying to bring up her daughters children because the daughter has died of a drug overdose. Most people, I think, have to be reasonably happy before they can help others to be happy. This is not about selfishness; it is about having the resources, internal and external, to be content with ones life.
When I say that we have to sort out practical issues, I am not just talking about poverty. Many children have been brought up in poverty and have gone on to succeed in all kinds of ways but, as the book points out, many more do live in relative poverty in Britain and the United States. We are also less mobile; we have
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We really cannot have it both ways. I am totally sympathetic to the need for, ideally, two parents. Child rearing is a tough job, needing, I think, at least 2.5 parents. I totally agree with the need for a child to have a secure attachment with at least one person, and to be loved, encouraged and supported in what psychologists have called unconditional love, well described by the right reverend Prelate. However, this does not apply just to childhood. Having unhappy or unemployed parents is not ideal. People have to have some basic security to parent well.
We do not need more declarations making women feel guilty about working and having childcare for their children. And they do feel guiltyask any working mum. Many work not because they have to but because they enjoy their job and are fearful of what might happen if they have a career break. What they need is reassurance that their child is being well cared for and is forming healthy attachments. This is not selfishness. Happy and fulfilled parents make for happy children.
However, I think that that will nearly always be unrealistic. In fact, if I may say so, it is breathtakingly naive. Children may need mediation. Families in difficulty need support, which is recognised in the book. Some children will not be able to live with their parents and the inquiry is right, of course, in saying that the professionals dealing with those children must be well trained and able to supply the emotional support that has been lacking in these disrupted and damaged lives.
These problems will not be sorted out by personal, social and health education in schools, by social and emotional learning programmes, or by the excellent UNICEF Rights Respecting School programme. The problems are too deep seated. I am a great supporter of such programmes, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who may say more about this. I have often spoken about the need for them to be statutory. But for some children, the damage is severe and needs sustained intervention.
I was disappointed to see so little reference to children in substantial difficulty, such as disabled children, those with special educational needs, young carers, immigrant and asylum seeking children. Children in custody are referred to on page 145. There is a call to help them earlier and to give them the care that all children deserve. They are indeed damaged and needy children, many of whom have gone through our care system. Custody should be the last resort. In the recommendations to this chapter, I should have liked to see a strong call for early intervention for children in difficulty. Children can often identify tipping points in their lives, such as a death, abuse or a failure. This is
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I cite these examples to reinforce my earlier point that children and families need practical supportsome more than others. Numerous reports and recommendations have come from government and other organisations, including the very strong and dedicated voluntary sector, in the past few years. Many have been referred to in the inquiry. Two government reportsthese are only two examples among manysuggest ways of helping families and young people to live in harmony and to achieve. The reports are full of references to the importance of values, relationships and collaboration. The 10-year children plan from the DCSF in 2007 suggests practical ways of delivering services for all children and families, for example, through childrens trusts, local safeguarding boards, personalised teaching and learning, extended schools, and so on. The report Aiming High for Young People discusses characteristics of successful provision. We should focus on what works for families. If children and families have real help, maybe we can achieve what so many reports call for: a better society and better treatment of children. Programmes such as Sure Start and the nurse-family partnerships have produced evidence of what works for parents and children.
Does the Minister agree that we need practical solutions to help families and children, as well as values? Will she say what policies and programmes provide those practical solutions and talk about the family intervention programmes which I believe are already showing positive outcomes?
I may have appeared somewhat negative about this inquiry. I am not. I think that it could have gone further, and could have been more precise in its examples and recommendations, but I am sincerely glad that it has been produced and am delighted that we have had the opportunity to discuss it today.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, this is a most welcome report and I thank all those who gave and took evidence on which it was based. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for introducing the debate today, thereby giving us the opportunity to discuss the issues raised in the report.
None of the recommendations is comfortable. Some demand attitudinal changes towards children; some require government intervention; and some have large financial implications. My concerns reflect on the importance of family life, the need for community involvement, factors that can mar a childs progress to adulthood and the demands placed on them before they reach maturity.
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