HC Deb 16 March 1990 vol 169 cc795-850 9.39 am
Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

I beg to move, That this House believes that the family is as vital an institution as ever; and calls for the further development of policies designed to support it. I have been in the House for 20 years, with occasional intervals on the Front Bench, and during that time I have tried to win the ballot for a Private Member's motion. At last, after 20 years, I have succeeded. I hope that the House will feel that the subject I have chosen is an important and worthy one.

I am grateful that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, will be taking part in the debate. The motion that I have chosen covers some half a dozen Government Departments, perhaps more, and I imagine that there was a long queue of Ministers waiting to speak today. I assume that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health is anxious to test his larynx after the past few days. I should be surprised if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security did not want to want to return to the scene after just a couple of days. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer feels that he has got a few moments to spare and would like to attend our debate. I also imagine that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment does not have much else to think about. In spite of that, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister is present today.

This debate is a serious one, as I believe that its subject will increasingly become a major theme in British politics in years to come. Looking back at the history of the welfare state and social services since the war—as it happens I have just written a book about that—it strikes me that, throughout the early post-war years, the dominant theme was resources and their redistribution. I shall not be so naive as to pretend that the distribution of resources will not continue to play a large part in social policy. However, I am sure that all of us accept that, on top of the traditional issues, there is an ever-increasing pressure to try to get to grips with the problems thrown up by family life, particularly the breakdown of it.

Social policy must concentrate harder and harder on the questions of family life. We all have an uneasy feeling that, because of the things that happen in family life, the incidence of crime, vandalism, hooliganism and even child abuse has increased. Such behaviour causes great anxiety. I do not suppose that this debate will come up with agreed and definitive answers, but at least it will serve a valuable purpose by giving the House the chance to air such important issues.

When we talk about family policy, we risk indulging in easy rhetoric. We all know that, when elections come round, we stand up to say that we are strongly in favour of the family—it sounds the right sort of thing to be. Beyond that, however, Governments, particularly my own, have tried to look hard at specific family issues and to take effective action.

My motion talks about the further development of policies designed to support it", because I believe that we already have such policies. Today we should' try to take on board a commitment to a coherent and all-embracing family policy. We should look across the various parts of our system of government to ensure that we pursue objectives that I believe to be extraordinarily important. If we can find such coherent policies that are designed to help parents to bring up their children—in a sense, that is what the debate is all about—we shall have done something useful.

I shall not try to define what I mean by "family". If one looks in the dictionary, one finds the usual variety of definitions, from which one can choose according to one's taste. Essentially I am talking about the family in terms of parents and children, but I do so in the traditional sense, as I believe that the traditional institution of marriage is still the best mechanism for bringing up children. It is right and proper that we should state that belief. We know very well that we live in a world where alternative patterns, if I may use a rather ugly piece of jargon, are becoming prevalent. I do not believe that we should simply sit back and say, "Well, that's happening and there is nothing we can do about it. Let's just get on with it." We need a notion of a model that should underline our approach to this matter.

The breakdown of family life is clearly illustrated by current statistics, and it should cause us great concern. As I attend my surgeries in my constituency, it strikes me that the big change since I became a Member in 1970 has been the shift in the balance of cases with which I deal. When I was first elected, about 70 per cent. of those cases were to do with housing. They were straightforward cases in which people wanted a council house—sometimes it took a bit of time before they got what they wanted.

Today, the proportion of cases to do with some aspect of family breakdown is much larger. Housing problems are a vivid illustration of that, because the mere fact of a family breakdown immediately doubles the need for accommodation. Problems connected with social security reveal the same disturbing tendency of family breakdown.

One or two statistics are necessary to set the scene and they are drawn from the 1990 edition of "Social Trends". In 1987, the United Kingdom, with Denmark, had the highest divorce rate in the European Community. In 1988, there were 166,000 divorces in this country. The figure for births outside marriage has been mounting steadily. In 1961, they accounted for 6 per cent. of births, in 1981 they accounted for 12 per cent. and in 1988 the figure had risen to 25 per cent. So, between 1961 and 1988, the percentage of births outside marriage rose from 6 per cent to 25 per cent.—more than a fourfold increase.

Lone parents are also an important factor about which we must think. The proportion of families with dependent children classified as lone-parent families went up from 8 per cent. in 1971 to 14 per cent. in 1987. Of lone mothers with dependent children, the percentage who were divorced rose from 24 per cent. in 1971 to 44 per cent. in 1987; the percentage who were single rose from 16 per cent. in 1971 to 29 per cent. in 1987; and the percentage separated fell from 29 per cent. to 19 per cent. The percentage of lone parents who were widowed fell from 31 per cent. in 1971 to 8 per cent. in 1987. That shows the strong increase in lone parents who are divorced and single.

One of the most important developments has been the way in which divorce has spread as a social habit throughout the socio-economic scale. There was a time when divorce was a rather upper-class and middle-class habit, particularly an upper-class one. In recent years that trend has reversed and the less well-off, the poorer sections of our community, are now ahead in their divorce rate. It would be wrong to make a value judgment about that, but one cannot evade the fact that divorce, which can he a hardship to many people, can be a particular hardship to those who are by definition the least able to meet the financial side of it—the poorest.

The statistics reveal a depressing situation, which as politicians, we should think about. I appreciate that there is a great danger of being seen to be moralising, but that is inescapable. We cannot talk about this subject without some notion of morality, but I hope that my remarks do not sound unbearably priggish. I am seriously trying to draw attention to what I see as a grave problem.

When we use statistics, we inevitably generalise. We know perfectly well that, in this issue, generalities conceal an enormous variety of particular circumstances. I do not want to use statistics to make a blanket, unthinking condemnation. One of the particular factors that we must face, however, is that those who are brought out by the statistics, particularly lone parents, lead lives that, overall, are marked by greater proverty and worse housing and that they are likely to face all sorts of difficulties in comparison with others.

A sadly high level of crime emanates from those who have been brought up in broken homes. I visited an institution in Aylesbury, in my constituency, which houses just about the worst offenders among the 17—21 age group. The governor said that about 80 per cent. came from broken homes. Anyone who has visited some of the comparable institutions in the United States will know that their statistics are even more startling.

A briefing paper sent to hon. Members by Relate before this debate says that, by the age of 21, delinquency was twice as high among girls and boys who had experienced their parents' divorce while under the age of five. Relate said: Children who experienced their parents' divorce during their school years were more likely to have lower educational attainment. On 11 March, Professor Anthony Clare wrote in The Sunday Times: In 1989, Wallerstein and Blakeslee published Second Chance, their account of a 10-year study of 60 families affected by divorce. They found that five years on from divorce, a third of the children were significantly worse off than prior to the divorce. They were clinically depressed, doing poorly at school, and they had deteriorated to the point that disturbances such as sleep problems and poor learning had become chronic. Many still hoped their parents would be reconciled, fantasising that 'if they can get divorced once they can do it again'. They were still angry with their parents for putting their needs before the emotional needs of their children. I want to be careful how I express myself, but family breakdown is leading to a position which, in many cases, is not helped by a second marriage.

I want to cite a survey in The Spectator about the impact of divorce, and which quoted Polly Toynbee's article in The Observer on 10 September: Divorce is a financial catastrophe for most families. Women and children lose an average of half of their income after divorce. Remarriage is by far the best prospect for women. But failure of second marriages is even greater, with two-thirds ending in divorce. The blow falls doubly hard on children. A fifth of all children will see their parents divorce before they reach 16. Evidence is now mounting that shows quite how badly they suffer emotionally, educationally and financially. And the effects for most last right on until adult life. This is partly for emotional reasons and partly because they will have a childhood significantly poorer and in worse housing than children of the same class whose parents didn't divorce. Ms. Toynbee then referred to people's regrets.

Those statistics cover an enormous variety. I do not take the view that, in all circumstances, divorce is wrong. I accept that it is necessary to have it. I do not condemn people. However, that survey illustrates the problem that we must try to unravel. We all know that cause and effect are notoriously difficult to unravel in social science. Just to say that one set of figures matches another set does not prove the former causes the latter. It would be foolish to say that divorce should not be part of the picture; I do not go along with the Roman Catholic view on that. However, we must think hard about how the system operates.

What can we do about the problem if we recognise the facts as I have tried to summarise them? It is a difficult matter. However, it is part of the purpose of the debate to re-establish and reiterate the basic value of marriage in all sorts of ways. We have become accustomed to campaigns on a variety of social issues such as drug-taking and AIDS. I do not know why a campaign for marriage should not be at least as valuable a part of our apparatus as any of the others. Of course, it should not adopt a crude note, but should strike chords to which people respond. It is an essential part of what we must do.

It is right that we build into our tax and benefit systems some incentive to marriage. We already do that to some extent; indeed, the new law on independent taxation for wives allows significant benefits in favour of marriage, as well as for couples with children. I shall later deal with the best way to support children through the tax and benefit systems, but in principle it is right to accept that demonstration of society's point of view. It is important to provide the necessary practical back-up to marriage in such areas as housing, with which I shall deal in a moment. It is no good saying that people should stick together and have a happy marriage if they do not have a home in which to lead their married life. That is a crucial point.

The divorce laws are of great importance and have become a topical issue. My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor made a speech a day or two ago that I commend to hon. Members as well worth reading. He is a man of great wisdom and experience. He made his speech to the NSPCC, and it received some press coverage. However, it is a much richer speech than can be shown in a short press report. I do not agree with all that he said, but his speech illustrates our concern.

Scottish legislation currently in the other place includes changes in the Scottish divorce laws. I do not think that many hon. Members have followed progress of that legislation with quite the attention that it merits. It is the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill which, in due course, will arrive in this House. It aims to reduce the period of separation from two years to one where there is consent, and five years to two where there is not. We could argue whether that is the right provision, but it shows that we are waking up to the fact that it is an important matter. The divorce laws should not just he left to the Law Commission and the lawyers, important though they are. It is a matter on which all the public should have their say. We must try to find the right answers.

The English Law Commission is also preparing a report on the divorce laws. In 1988 it produced a preliminary report called "Facing the future", which gave a fairly firm idea of its thinking at the time. It appeared to come down strongly against any notion of fault. In a sense, our current laws do not really incorporate the notion of fault, but in effect the ground of unreasonable behaviour to some extent replaces former fault grounds in the previous law. The Law Commission appeared to be seeking what it described in its report as a morally neutral system. Before we reach any final decision on that, we must think hard about whether it is wise.

Is it right to say that the divorce process, although very properly showing great concern about what happens to the children—it would be ridiculous if it did not give an almost overriding priority to the children—should say that, in all cases, it should be a no-fault divorce? Let us think about the most obvious and simple example—that of the middle-aged man who abandons his wife in favour of a pretty young girl. Of course there are enormous differences between cases, yet underlying that is a moral failure by the man who is prepared to abandon his wife. It would be foolish to legislate such a fact out of existence.

However imprecisely, the marriage and divorce laws should provide some kind of moral sanction and buttress for holding marriages together. If we start from the position from which I started, that marriage is still the best of the institutions, it is right that the law should express its moral commitment in practical ways. When the Government consider the Law Commission report, they should bear that in mind.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor—I am not sure whether that is how one refers to the Lord Chancellor, but he has all those qualities—talked about this matter in his speech. He spoke in terms somewhat different from those that I have used. Dealing with whether there should be fault, he said: Should bad behaviour by one partner give the other the right to a divorce without regard to the consequences, especially for the children? We must think seriously about that.

I would not dismiss what the Lord Chancellor said, but within what he said one can draw a distinction between the first question, whether we take a moral stance and the second question, what we do about the children. As I have said, I am sure that every hon. Member would agree that, after divorce, what happens to the children is of overwhelming importance. There is no dispute about that; but that does not necessarily mean that we should eliminate some of the matters that I have mentioned.

I think that the House will agree with the Lord Chancellor's view that he does not want easier divorce. He and the Law Commission have said that whatever system of divorce we choose must contain real chances to bring about reconciliation, if that is possible. It must be a patient rather than a hasty process, and there must be an enormous focus on what happens to the children. It is foolish to support the slogan of easier divorce.

The qustion of timing is slightly different. I am instinctively against any further shortening of the period in which divorce can take place. It is very short now. The thing that most heartened me about the Lord Chancellor's speech was the firm statement, that the Government are comitted to marriage as the best guarantor of family life.

I accept that my thoughts are not necessarily tidy or entirely coherent. Like many people, I am trying to find the best answer. Rather than offering my own remedies, I am more concerned to do what I can to encourage public debate on a difficult but extremely important matter. We cannot sit back and say that, although there is a great deal of family breakdown, there is no need to do anything about it.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our divorce laws are such that it is possible for people who should carry most of the blame for the breakdown of a marriage to gain substantial financial reward as a result of the divorce?

Mr. Raison

That is possible, but I hope that my hon. Friend will have a chance to develop his thoughts later in the debate.

Another important topic in the area of how we should support the family is the matter of day care and the question of what support we should give to the working parent. To be realistic, in this context that overwhelmingly means the working mother. The question has become topical as, in the pre-Budget period, there is much discussion about whether there should be tax reliefs to support day care. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will do anything about that, but no doubt my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office will tell us what the Chancellor intends to do in the Budget. The issue of tax reliefs has aroused much interest.

The case being made is that there should be fiscal support for people with children who wish to go out to work. As I have said, such people are predominantly women. Naturally, they feel that they must find some form of day care for the children and believe it right and proper for that to be supported. The argument focuses on various aspects. There is the question of whether there should be tax relief on what is seen as a benefit in kind. When a company provides nursery or day care facilities, should they be taxed as a benefit in kind in the same way as a motor car or any other similar benefit? The argument is that such facilities should not be taxed.

There is also the question whether one should be able to claim tax relief if one pays for day or child care through some other mechanism. There is also an argument that the state, or possibly companies, should provide child care vouchers to be spent on different forms of day or child care. Each of those alternatives has strong advocates and I see the cases they put.

There are several different strands to the argument. I suppose that, in a sense, one of the strands is part of the feminist movement, the desire by women to have more ability to go out to work and earn money than they have had historically. We know that there has been a tremendous growth in the employment of women in Britain, and the signs are that it will not diminish. We face the problem of the decline in the 18-year-old age cohort, which in itself will create pressure for more employment, and we know that in other ways the economic need for women to work is likely to be sustained.

What should the Government do about this? Should they accept the argument to apply a bias in the fiscal system in favour of people who want to go out to work, or should they adopt what I see as a more neutral view?

I am against tax relief. It is fundamentally a matter of fairness. The mother who goes out to work is better off than the mother who stays at home to look after her children. It would be wrong to couple that to tax relief while the mother who stays at home has neither income nor tax relief. I do not say that we should bias the system the other way, but there should be neutrality. We should not tip the balance in favour of those who want to go out to work.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Like many hon. Members, I hope that I will get an opportunity to expand my argument, but does my right hon. Friend accept that there is no equity at all between the tax on, for example, the workplace nursery for child care and the fact that the parking place at the office and the canteen may be completely free? Training and all sorts of other activities that enable women to go to work may also be completely free, and the tax man is not interested.

Mr. Raison

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point, and I hope that she will take part in the debate. I am talking about the two different ways of trying to bring support to women who are bringing up children.

If we go for tax relief, we will tip the balance strongly one way. There is an altogether better way to approach the matter and the House will not be surprised to know that I intend to refer to it. It is, of course, the child benefit system which offers a much fairer and in many ways more satisfactory answer.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

It would be a pity to move on from the point about child care without drawing attention to the growing need for a comprehensive and high-quality nursery school system. That is important from the point of view of the family. My right hon. Friend has spoken from the point of view of the mother, and I understand that, but there is also the child's point of view. From every conceivable aspect, whether it is our economic performance or a child's emotional stability if he is from a broken family, there is an increasing need for a high-quality educative nursery service.

Mr. Raison

My hon. Friend has, with the greatest persuasiveness and eloquence, anticipated what I was about to say. I entirely agree with him, and I shall come back to his point in a moment.

The important point in all the argument which we have to face is that we do not have sufficient knowledge of what is happening in this area or about the impact of the different ways of bringing up children. All of us speak with prejudice and emotion about the best way to bring up a child. Some believe that it is far better for the child to be brought up with his mother at home, whereas others believe that it is better for the mother to be content, to go out to work, to have a reasonable income and a varied life, and to come back home in a better temper than if she had been cooped up with a child all day. All those arguments float around. They may all have some truth in them, but we suffer from the lack of a decent basis of research and knowledge on the subject.

It is not that there is no research, but that it is not of sufficient clarity to give us much help in shaping policies. Those of us with long memories will remember the terrific impact of John Bowlby in the post-war years, with his psychological studies of maternal deprivation. There was a strong feeling that to take a small child from its mother was likely to have long-term damaging consequences.

In more recent years, research has pointed in a different direction. Much of it has been carried out by people who are themselves working mothers and who are anxious to reinforce their own position. This is a subject on which we need to know more; I hope that the resources of the Home Office and of other Government Departments will be provided to try to find out more clearly what goes on in the families we are talking about. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can also say something on that point.

We must deal with the situation as it is. We have to make decisions; we cannot simply say that we shall come back to the subject in five years' time, when all the research studies have been carried out. In practice, it would take 25 years, as the research we need is longitudinal research. We must face the present situation and try to make up our minds what we are going to do.

One point that strikes me is the fact that the movement for child care seems, to a remarkable extent, to be fuelled by the equal opportunities movement rather than by a child-based movement. It is interesting how often organisations that are concerned with equal opportunities, whether European or national, advocate the case for child care most frequently. I do not condemn them for doing so, and they are perfectly entitled to do so, but we must have a clearer idea of what is happening in the lives of our small children and whether what is happening is leading to the kind of social concerns about which we all have opinions.

I want to come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden). Whatever one thinks about the merits or otherwise of day care or child care for small children up to the age of three, we need far more extensive nursery provision than we have at present.

Hon. Members may recall that, a year or so ago, the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, of which I was then Chairman, produced a report on education for the under-fives, the essence of which was the need for education for the under-fives, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has referred. It did not advocate teaching them sophisticated mathematical techniques or cramming them with things that could be learned more appropriately later, but it advocated quality and the idea that a three-year-old or a four-year-old is capable of an education that is concerned with the growth of his mind as well as with the more obvious areas of well-being.

We have much good nursery education. The most encouraging point of the report was to see how standards had moved on. I was a member in the 1960s—a long time ago—of the Plowden committee, which devoted part of its report to the pre-school years. Whereas the progressive mood then had much to do with liberating the child arid was in favour of a rather permissive approach, there is today in good nursery education a far stronger sense of coherence.

Good nursery teachers today have a stronger notion of a discipline in their activities. I mean not that they take out the birch and beat children at the first opportunity, but that they work out what the child should be doing. They have an interesting system, whereby they discuss with the child at the beginning of the day what the child will do in the course of the morning and they come back to it at the end of the day. There is a greater coherence, which is enormously valuable. That is true of the state sector and sometimes of playgroups and similar provision.

Although one sees work that is remarkably good, there is not enough nursery provision. There are still far too few children in some form of nursery provision. It is below the 50 per cent. mark, although it has increased. I was surprised by the extent to which nursery provision has increased in the past decade; I had not realised that there had been a steady expansion of pre-school education, but it still has a long way to go.

I was encouraged by the way in which the Government responded to our report; we received a more favourable reception than I had expected. I want to ask my right hon. Friend whether he will say a little about what is happening now. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science took over the chairmanship of the committee concerned with the implementation of some of the ideas that were put forward in our report. I hope that my right hon. Friend will tell us what that committee is doing and when we may expect my hon. Friend the Minister of State to report on the quality of nursery education. That would be of interest and value to the House.

There are many social as well as educational reasons why we need to develop pre-school education; my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred to them briefly. I come back again to family breakdown, which is one of the most powerful reasons why a good nursery school can be of enormous advantage to a child from an uncertain and unhappy home.

Isolation is also a problem—the isolation of the tower block or of the rural community. Both are serious problems. Isolation is very much tied up with the fact that there are fewer siblings than there used to be. In days gone by, even in a tower block 10 children might be grouped together, and although conditions might be extremely uncomfortable, there would be a community of children with whom to grow up. The same was true of rural families. The farm might be in a very remote area, but there might be six of seven children in the family playing together, rather than the one or two children in a family that one finds today. Isolation is a problem with which we must deal.

Another important problem is the over-dependence on television in our culture—and much of that television is pretty mediocre, to put it mildy. There is no doubt that it is easy to plonk a child down in front of the television and to leave it there while one does something else. There are good programmes on television and it provides some stimulus, but there is much mediocrity. I have met good nursery teachers who have stressed that one of their tasks is to get children to use their minds rather than to sit in passive reception of what is pouring out through the channels.

We must have a strong commitment to pre-school education, which is a crucial part of family policy. I have mentioned housing briefly. Judging from my own constituency, there seems to be a resurgence of housing need among less well-off young married couples. The Government have been brillantly successful in the way in which they have promoted home ownership, and I have always supported the right to buy, which has been of outstanding value. I wholly accept that the housing association movement has much to offer and I am happy that it should be offering more. I hope that the Government's plans for the private rented sector are successful.

All that is fine, but I still face the fact that young couples come to me on Friday evenings in my constituency and say that they have nowhere to live. They may be living with their parents. They often say that each has had to go back to his or her own family because there is no room for the whole family in their present house.

The Government must accept that council housing, including new building where appropriate. must be part of what is provided to help such people. Circumstances change; today, the problem is more local and regional than national. It was a national problem 25 years ago, but that is not true today. There is quite enough housing in many parts of the country. However, I am very concerned about the position of some of my constituents. I do not know what to say to them. They tell me that they need a house, but I can say no more than that I will take up their case with the local authority and that they will have to wait. We must take action to help those people.

As for financial support for families with children, I have already said that I do not believe that tax relief on child care is the right answer. Therefore, I have to face the question of what I favour. Predictably, what I favour is child benefit. The more one looks at the problems that face us, the more one realises that, as an all-round solution, child benefit stands on its own. It has a string of advantages. I do not intend to make a speech about child benefit—I have done that often enough—but I intend to refer to a few relevant points.

First, child benefit is neutral. It goes to everybody. I am delighted to see that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has arrived on cue. I hope that he will be able to make a contribution to the debate. Child benefit is neutral as between the working and the non-working mother. In principle, that must be right. Cost is involved in bringing up children, whoever we may be. Therefore I should like it to be supported in that way.

If child benefit is increased sufficiently, it will help the large number of single parents without putting the spotlight on them. It has one great advantage over child tax allowances, which the hon. Member for Birkenhead has shown some signs of supporting for practical rather than ultimate reasons: it gives more help proportionately to the people who most need it.

It is absurd to go on grumbling about child benefit on the grounds that it is indiscriminate if at the same time one supports tax allowances that are, to put it mildly, indiscriminate, except that in many cases they discriminate in favour of the better-off. Child benefit can be much better targeted than tax allowances. However, it has other enormous advantages—not least the sheer simplicity of its administration by comparison with tax allowances, or a combination of tax allowances and means-tested benefits such as family credit and income support.

Then we must ask how much support should be given in the form of child benefit. We cannot say that we believe that child benefit is important if we do not uprate it. At the very least, it has to be uprated, if it is to be a meaningful benefit. However, I am becoming increasingly persuaded that there is a case for doing something far more dramatic.

The Child Poverty Action Group, with others, argues that it would be possible to double child benefit if we scrapped the tax allowance that goes to both married and unmarried couples without children. I am reluctant to take that on, in view of what I said earlier about my support for marriage. I should like a mechanism to be built into the system that supported marriage.

However, looking at the hard realities, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, rather than giving every married couple support through the tax system, regardless of whether they have children, it would be better to transfer the £4.5 billion from them to people who are bringing up children. The case is almost indisputable that those who have children, rather than childless married couples should receive the benefit. That could not happen overnight. It would have to be phased in. We have learnt that over-dramatic changes cannot be made to the system.

We must consider all the options and try to find coherent policies that will help to rid us of some of the deepest social anxieties that all hon. Members share.

10.24 am
Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) on his speech. The whole House will look forward to the publication of his book. We authors must stick together. However, I am not sure that I shall look forward to it as much as some; I have an awful feeling that my period at the DHSS will be examined.

My right hon. Friend is right in at least two respects and, I believe, in many more. Family policy will become a major political issue in the next few years. All the parties should take account of that fact. It is crucial that within Government and Whitehall there should be a good mechanism by means of which the various strands that make up family policy are brought together. Departments should not work in isolation. I pay tribute to the work of the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), who is to reply to the debate, for the work that he has already done and that I hope he will continue to do to bring together those strands.

I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said about child benefit. It is entirely legitimate for the Government to make annual decisions about the level of uprating. They have to take into account what can be afforded, other priorities and changes in the tax threshold. It is one thing not to uprate child benefit for one or two years; it is quite another to make that a permanent policy. I should oppose the abolition of child benefit and also the policy of allowing child benefit to wither away.

The reason was set out in the social security review that the Government, with myself as Secretary of State for Social Services, carried out in 1985–86. The diagnosis of need that we made then showed that there had been important changes. Whereas 30 or 40 years ago there was no question about poverty and need among elderly retired people, the relative position of retired people since then has improved, due to improved state pensions, greater access to occupational pensions and, most of all, because people now own their homes. However, the other side of the coin is that, in terms of relative need, more families with children are now in that category. That diagnosis was at the centre of some of our recommendations in the social security review. Therefore, we formulated the family credit policy. The aim was to give help to working families on low incomes. It was intended as a replacement for family income supplement, which had served its purpose but which was being criticised in all parts of the House.

It was never our intention—certainly it was never mine—that family credit should simply take the place of child benefit; it was to replace family income supplement. Child benefit was a basic family benefit for all children, and family credit was in addition to that. The case for a general benefit of that kind is surely indisputable.

According to the first paragraph of the chapter of "Reform of Social Security"—the social security review published in 1985—that deals with children, The principle that we should give financial support to those who bear the extra responsibility of bringing up children is one to which this Government are committed. It acknowledges not only the duty to ensure that children should not face hardship, but also the importance of supporting family life and those who are ensuring our own future by caring for the next generation. Nearly all countries acknowledge that principle, either through tax concessions or through the payment of benefits—or, indeed, through both. It was Government policy at the time of the review, and it remains Government policy.

I know of few countries, if any, in western Europe—in the western world, indeed—in which the extra expense involved in raising children is not recognised. It would be a serious error to abandon child benefit, which is popular and effective and helps countless families.

The only part of my right hon. Friend's speech with which I disagreed was his suggestion that there was an "either-or situation". We must relate the position of working women to family policy: making equal opportunities compatible with family life is the challenge. In my view, the idea that working women cannot be good mothers is nonsense: it is a ludicrous proposition, and I reject it out of hand. The duty of the House and of Government is to establish how the demands of working mothers can best be met.

This country has a higher proportion of working women than almost any other western European nation, and that proportion will undoubtedly remain high; there is no sign that it will suddenly melt away. My right hon. Friend mentioned demographic pressures. Certainly there is already a dramatic shortage of school leavers, which will continue for the next few years. Employers are trying to attract married women back into the work force, and unless they succeed they will find it difficult to maintain the level of service that they provide. Nursing is an example of that. Even without the demographic problem, however, we should need the major contribution that working women can make. We should do all that we can to encourage them, in the national interest.

Many women choose to work outside the home—all day or for part of the day—for a variety of reasons. They may do it for the extra income, or for the extra interest. Our general policy should be to encourage women to decide what they want for themselves and their families, rather than making decisions for them. Bringing up children is, of course, a valuable full-time job, which I would not dream of denigrating, but we should enable women who want to work to do so.

Fortunately, things are changing. When I first joined the Government in 1979, job sharing was rare in the Civil Service. One Department for which I worked lost a very good woman worker, simply because we had not the flexibility to allow her to make her contribution. In some Departments the position has changed out of all recognition. My right hon. Friend the Minister is nodding: I am sure that the Home Office is an example.

Much of the responsibility rests with employers, who have a good deal to gain. Training and enterprise councils, for example, provide a mechanism for employers to introduce co-operative facilities, rather than single companies doing their own thing. There is also a role for Government, however: to encourage and to enable. That that should bring me to the subject of tax, and next week's Budget in particular, was as predictable as the references of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury to child benefit.

The present tax arrangements discourage employers from providing workplace nurseries. The circumstances are rather nonsensical, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) pointed out in an earlier intervention. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer should abolish the tax on workplace nurseries. Since April 1985 the employers' subsidy to workplace nurseries has been taxed as a fringe benefit to the employees. It is treated as a perk in the same way as a company car, but it is taxed even more severely. If an employee's earnings exceed £8,500, the employee must pay tax at the marginal rate on the entire benefit. That is curious, as up to April 1984 it was not the policy. For almost 40 years no one paid tax on the benefit of workplace nursery. Three or four years ago the policy was changed as the Government took the view that tax had always been payable, but until then it had not been collected. As my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South said, it is most extraordinary that a motorist with free parking in central London is not taxed on that undoubted benefit. Dare I say it, everyone in the House of Commons has that free benefit.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

We should stop it.

Sir Norman Fowler

My hon. Friend says that we should stop it, but he might have noticed that the policy changed only last year. It would be rather silly to stop a policy that was put on the statute book only last year. No doubt at that time my hon. Friend was arguing fervently against it. However, that is not the point that I was making.

We are in an anomalous position. There are fairly good reasons why there is no tax on free parking, but it is extraordinary that we have tax-free parking here in the House of Commons, as does everyone who has free parking in central London, yet workplace nurseries are taxed.

We should make it easier for employers to provide child care vouchers that could be used to pay for all forms of care. That would give employers another option, apart from setting up their own nurseries. However, the tax position on vouchers is even worse than on nurseries. Under present rules, employees are liable for tax on such vouchers whether or not they are earning more than £8,500. Obviously, there is a strong case for making such vouchers exempt from tax. Not only would the cost be shared between employers and the Government, but it would provide flexibility and leave the mother to chose whether to use the vouchers to pay for childminding or for a nursery.

To continue with the car parking analogy, instead of providing free car parking, employers could provide car parking vouchers that could be used in National Car Parks elsewhere, but the benefit would remain tax free. In my view, we have got ourselves into a right muddle, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will use the opportunity of his first Budget to put it right.

I am not for a moment claiming that the measures that I propose will solve everything. I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said about nursery education. I doubt that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be looking at nursery education with the same urgency as he will be considering tax changes. However, if he can make tax changes, he can give a signal and build on the initiative of employment training, for example, where we introduced into the system payments of up to £50 for lone parents. That would emphasise and underline the importance of such measures.

In my view, we should not sloganise. It is foolish and misguided to say that women who work are unable to bring up families. I strongly deprecate such statements. we should recognise that many women will continue to want to work and that many women will want a career as well as a job. That is crucial and I hope that we shall have the opportunity to discuss it in other debates. Frankly, it is very much in the interests of the country that women make that contribution. It goes far beyond demography and equal opportunities; it is in the national interest. We should aim to make it easier for women to raise families and to pursue a career if that is what they want. It presents a profound challenge for the 1990s, and I hope that we shall meet that challenge.

10.45 am
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

The right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) should be congratulated on giving us the opportunity to discuss a matter of such importance. In some ways it is a pity that the debate has been tucked away on a Friday morning and is rather sparsely attended. Like the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), I believe that the family and children will be of increasing importance over the next few years.

The right hon. Member for Aylesbury will accept that it is a rather vacuous motion—although that word might be too substantial. However, his speech was much more substantive and reflective. His speech had a tendency towards abstract principles, although later he mentioned some of the material conditions under which those principles operate. I should have liked to hear his definition of the family. He referred to the dictionary, but there are many definitions. In my view, we should be considering not only the nuclear family but the single parent family, and the extended family, particularly among ethnic groups. Although the motion refers to the further development of policy, I cannot recall the right hon. Member for Aylesbury mentioning one aspect of existing policy which he viewed with faith and hope.

The right hon. Gentleman criticised a number of aspects of existing policy. That is not surprising as there are two ways of considering policy on the family and children. One can try to design a specific set of policies to attack various problems, or one can bear in mind the family and children whenever one is considering any specific policy, always having at the back of one's mind, whatever the Department or the specific piece of legislation, the effect on the family and on children.

I want to examine the effect on the family and children of a number of Government policies over the past three or four years. I very much welcome the remarks of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. He must have argued that line for some years inside the Cabinet, but his view must have been strengthened by his practical experience of the family over the past few months. Given the new interest in the family among Cabinet Ministers, I was looking forward to hearing from the Secretary of State for Wales.

I shall start with the same subject as both previous speakers in the debate—child benefit. I need say little more about the advantages of child benefit, as, surprisingly, it has received almost universal applause today. There are two ways of abandoning child benefit. One is to abandon it in principle, which the Government have refused to do, not least because it is among the most popular benefits. The alternative is through salami tactics, by freezing it over a number of years, to reduce its importance compared with other means-tested benefits.

Last week I asked the Secretary of State for Social Security to give the total estimated saving to the Exchequer as a result of the freezing of child benefit in the financial years 1988–89 and 1989–90. The answer said that in 1988–89 £140 million and in 1989–90 £210 million were saved. The savings to the Department are the other side of the coin in terms of the loss to the family. In two years alone, some £350 million has been taken out of family budgets by the expedient of freezing child benefit. If that continues for three, four or five yars, although child benefit has not been abandoned in principle, the effect will be to abandon it relative to other benefits.

The 2 million children who are in poverty demonstrate the extent of the problem. The right hon. Member for Aylesbury gave statistics on family breakdown and spent some time, perhaps rightly, discussing the morality of relationships. He knows as well as anyone that morality does not occur in a vacuum and that it is not an abstract philosophy. Morality is shaped by one's circumstances and, above all, material circumstances. Over the past 10 or more years, the dearth of decent reasonable housing because of the degeneration in housing stock has been one of the major pressures on the family unit.

In 1979—the year when the Conservative party came into office—Motherwell was building 1,400 new council houses a year, but for the past four years it has not built one. The effect on families—single parent and nuclear—has been disastrous. It has meant that a husband and wife begin their lives together not in a home where they can bring up children but in the front room of a relative's house or perhaps sleeping on a sofa in a back room. There has been a disastrous decline in council housing over the past 10 years that cannot but affect the family and children.

If we add to that the pressure of poverty, the despair of unemployment and the chronic lack of child care facilities, to which reference has been made, we can begin to understand some of the reasons why the numbers that the right hon. Member for Aylesbury mentioned have increased over the past few years. The break-up of marriages, child homelessness and child poverty are not merely a reflection of Government policy, but anyone who approaches this subject without paying attention to material deprivation as a direct result of Government policies cannot reach a satisfactory conclusion. Families cannot be held together by external pressure, by legislation. The cohesion of the family unit—whether nuclear, single parent or extended—is internal cohesion which reacts and responds to external conditions. Poverty, unemployment, lack of housing and so on affect that internal cohesion.

The right hon. Member for Aylesbury referred to a lack of research and statistics. I strongly believe that, if the Government were motivated to solve some of the problems that the right hon. Gentleman outlined, the first basis of policy-making must be information. I am afraid that there is not only no information but a distinct lack of Government will to seek or provide it. The Government do not know how many children are illegally employed. When one asks them for the number, one is referred to statistics from the Low Pay Unit. It conducts surveys whereas the Government find it impossible to do so.

The Government do not know how many missing children there are in Britain. They do not co-ordinate the statistics. They know how many missing dogs there are, because they co-ordinate those statistics, but anyone who asks for the number of missing children is referred to the estimates of voluntary organisations. The same applies to hostel accommodation. A Government who do not have the will to discover basic information can hardly be in a position to develop positive policies.

Given what has happened to the family—I mentioned unemployment, poverty, divorce and higher taxation—what has been the Government's response? I listened with great interest and admiration to the right hon. Members for Aylesbury and for Sutton Coldfield, but all too often when these subjects are raised, the Government say in response, especially in keynote speeches, that it has nothing to do with them, that it is not their fault, that it is all down to others—to the permissive sixties, absentee fathers, the weather, the Book of Revelations, or whatever. Over the past 10 years, the Government have tended to abandon any commitment to a supportive role for families.

We hear about hooligans and vandals, but—I hope that this does not sound like too much of a party point—many of them are the Prime Minister's children, the children of 10 years of deprivation. If children are brought up in an economic jungle one can hardly be surprised if some turn out to behave like animals. I take no great pleasure in saying that.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

The hon. Gentleman is trying to be as non-combative as possible, and I shall do the same. Does he realise that in the past 11 years of this Conservative Administration, the juvenile crime rate has fallen substantially? Does he realise that, 10 years ago, 8,500 juveniles were in detention, whereas now there are 4,000? The hon. Gentleman has been analysing matters seriously and philosophically. What does he make of those figures?

Dr. Reid

I make two points. First, there has been a redefinition of the policy on crime. Secondly, the nature of crime has changed. Crimes of violence, hooliganism and vandalism—the very crimes to which I referred—have increased within the general figures that the right hon. Gentleman gave.

I shall not say that the Government have done nothing. They introduced the Children Act 1989, many elements of which are extremely beneficial. I regret the fact that resources have not yet been committed to those provisions, but no doubt the Government will do so in due course. However, in terms of major issues of social provision and social support for families, there have been adverse effects. I listened with interest to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield speak of the changes in the benefit system introduced in April last year. They were to the detriment of millions of families in Britain. The right hon. Gentleman said that means-tested benefits were not meant to be a substitution for child benefit—I cannot psychoanalyse him, so I do not know what his motivation was. The introduction of means-tested benefits while freezing universal benefit three years in a row is not designed to make the best use of limited resources. It is designed to ensure that the benefits remain limited. It is based on a fallacy long prevalent in the Reagan Administration—that seems to be the direction to which the Government look in terms of future child policy—that the main cause of poverty among the poor is the assistance given to the poor.

Homelessness undermines the family. Regular official statistics on the number of homeless people are maintained only for those described as homeless under the Housing and Planning Act 1986. Once again, as with missing children and illegally employed children, we do not have the basic statistics to tackle the problem. No one really knows how many people are homeless. It is estimated that roughly twice as many households as are accepted by local authorities apply to be considered as homeless. In 1986 in Great Britain there were 120,000 acceptances, against 244,000 applications. However, official figures give no idea of the degree of hidden homelessness. It is likely that a similar position exists in other areas of the country outside London. Estimates of the number of people sleeping rough are hard to make and the Government have made little attempt to assess them.

We must have all the statistics and figures if we are to have a serious discussion about the nature of the family and the circumstances in which family life might prosper. The total estimated figures for homeless people in London sleeping out in hostels, hotels and so on is estimated to be as high as 75,000.

I make no apology for mentioning one last policy—the poll tax—of which we in Scotland have experience. I shall be brief because it has had sufficient attention in the House recently. It is not just an unjust and iniquitous tax, but a feud-making and family-breaking tax. All experience in Scotland shows that it breaks up families. Let us imagine that there are three unemployed children above the age of 18 who are liable for poll tax in a family, but the head of the household—the parent—is the responsible party. In case after case in Scotland, children have been told by their father or mother, who have been driven to despair because they are liable for the poll tax, "Either pay up or pack up". The tax has driven children out of the family home and broken up family after family.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

It would be worse for those three children if they were in low-paid employment because, given the tapering system, they will suffer the full effect of the tax. At least those who are unemployed will probably have some partial protection.

Dr. Reid

I accept that, but I do not want to go into the details of the poll tax now. We have had discussions about that. I am merely trying to say that it is no good having a separate abstract debate on the family if we continually pass legislation in a vacuum, not in the context of the effects that it will have on the family.

The same is true of day care provision. If families or children were viewed as valuable in themselves we would expect to see some consistency in the Government's attitude towards day care. Sadly, the Government's attitude has all too often been defined by the market, particularly the labour market. That which 10 years ago was portrayed by many Conservative Members, though not the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, as a ludicrous feminist scheme to allow equal opportunities—

Mr. Frank Field

And by Opposition Members.

Dr. Reid

Yes, and by Opposition Members. as my hon. Friend says. Due to the changes in the labour market and the demographic curve, day care is now regarded as something which should be given due consideration. I welcome the fact that the two Conservative Members who have spoken said that the matter should not be regarded merely as a response to shortages in the labour market. As hon. Members have said, even now the disgraceful practice continues of regarding employers' subsidies to workplace nurseries as a fringe benefit, thus penalising working parents who use the facility. I am glad that the Labour leader has made, and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield this morning made, a commitment to support such a measure to withdraw the penalisation of those parents, particularly women, who use child care facilities of workplace nurseries. I hope that the Chancellor will take the opportunity to rectify that anomaly.

I noted that the right hon. Member for Aylesbury was opposed to that, I think because he preferred child benefit to a system of tax allowances. There is no incompatibility in using a universal benefit and supplementing it with a tax allowance. There is no reason why a range of measurements should not be used to assist the provision of child care facilities for mothers and children. I take the point that it would be unfair if the mother who went to work was given a tax advantage over the mother who preferred to stay at home. But that is not the only comparison; at present, there is gross unfairness as between the mother who chooses to go to work and the father who chooses to go to work, because generations of traditions and burdens prevent the mother from going to work but allow the father to go.

When talking about fairness we should not just compare woman with woman, but compare the opportunity extended to fathers and mothers or women and men. On those grounds of fairness, as well as the policy of supplementing the universal child benefit, we can justify the tax allowance. That is quite apart from the contradictory nature of the existing system mentioned by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. We can justify that tax allowance in terms of fairness.

The right hon. Member for Aylesbury took some solace from the expansion of pre-school education. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield doubted that the Chancellor would look at the matter urgently. "Urgent" is a bizarre word to use in this case. Almost 50 years ago, in about 1944, we admitted the necessity for the universal provision of comprehensive nursery education. To suggest that it is perhaps worthy of urgent consideration in 1990 is misleading. I criticise not only the present Government, but previous Labour Governments. Some 50 years after it was admitted as desirable, we are still as far removed from the provision of comprehensive nursery education as ever. That is nothing less than a scandal, particularly in the modern world which relies more on education and socialisation than it did 50 years ago. For their solution, I understand—this is confirmed by the establishment of the family policy unit at No. 10, a major and dynamic member of which is a former adviser to President Reagan—the Government appear to be looking to the United States in terms of the development of family policy, as they did with employment training. They appear to be working gradually towards the free market, trickle-down theory of provision, which was so close to the heart of President Reagan.

I give Conservative Members two warnings. During the administration of President Reagan, poverty among families with children in the United States increased dramatically. At present in the United States one child in five lives in poverty. Among Hispanics that figure is two in five and among blacks the figure is one in two. Any adoption of the United States' approach to such matters would spell disaster for the children of Britain, particularly in the ethnic minorities.

Mr. Raison

Which definition of poverty is the hon. Gentleman using? There is a longstanding problem in this country because the favoured definition of poverty used by some people relates to the level of income support. That is a palpably nonsensical definition because the more generous benefits become, the more people are deemed to be in poverty as a result. What is the American basis of definition?

Dr. Reid

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. As he knows, there is a continual dispute about the definition of absolute poverty and relative poverty. Perhaps I should put this matter in an international context. Last year the Urban Institute, a highly respected, Washington-based research institute carried out a survey among eight western industrial nations. The United States came top of the list for both relative and absolute poverty across the scale. I hope that that answers the right hon. Gentleman's point. I am working on instinct, evidence and straws in the wind, but the American approach appears to be seen as the one that should be taken by the British Government. It would be disastrous if they did so.

Although today's motion started out as a vacuous one, like most Friday motions it has stimulated a fairly substantial debate. I hope that the debate will continue and I am sure that it will increase in importance over the next few decades. I hope that some of the ideas expressed today, particularly by former Cabinet Ministers, will gain prevalence in the Cabinet in their absence. I hope that we can look forward to a Budget in which child benefit is restored and adequate financial provision made for families and children in Britain.

11.9 am

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) on introducing this timely debate. I say only that it is a great pity that there are only three members of the Labour party here, and not a single member of any of the minority parties.

Mr. Frank Field

Given that there are twice as many Conservative Members as there are Labour Members, the ratio seems a fair one.

Mrs. Currie

But the hon. Gentleman will, of course, join me in condemning the minority parties.

We have already heard several distinguished speeches today, and I hesitate to take issue with everyone who has spoken so far on child benefit; I hear what they say. Three arguments are usually advanced in favour of child benefit. First, it is said that it helps the poorest families. That is the view taken by the Child Poverty Action Group. As a matter of fact, it does not help the poorest families, because child benefit is set-against income support. If we want to help the poorest families, we should raise the level of income support. I have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) explain in the past that child benefit does not help the poorest families.

Mr. Raison

The question whether child benefit helps the poorest families is entirely a matter for the Government. The Government could increase child benefit and say that it should all go to the poorest families. It is the Government's decision which prevents that and it is the Government who say that it must be deducted from income support. There is no need to deduct it.

Mrs. Currie

The fact remains that it is income support that determines the living standards of the poorest families in this country, including single-parent families, who get a higher level of child benefit. I would say to the Government that, if they have £5 billion to spend on helping the poorest families, they should not spend it by simply giving the same amount of money—£7 a week—to every child in the country, because that is not the most efficient way of spending the money.

The second argument that is advanced in favour of child benefit is that it gives mothers money in their own right. That is the view of most Conservative women, and it has certainly been adopted in motions passed by the. Greater London area Conservative women's committee. That is true, but it is becoming less true as the proportion of mothers who work increases. It is becoming less and less necessary. It is a chunk of money that it is nice to have, but in relation to the average earnings of women—even women manual workers earn well over £150 a week on average—that sum is not as necessary as it used to be.

The third argument is put forward with real force by the Maternity Alliance, to which I am a parliamentary adviser and which I admire very much, in its March to June 1990 newsletter: it is that the fundamental purpose of child benefit is to recognise the additional costs faced by families at all income levels with children of all ages. The House will allow me hesitantly to raise a dissident voice. Why should we recognise, with taxpayers' money, the costs of all children in all families at all income levels? That no longer seems to make sense. It may well have done in days gone by, when we were a less prosperous nation, but I wonder whether it is appropriate now. If we want to help our poorest children, children hurt by abuse and children disadvantaged by divorce, we could easily spend £5 billion a year to achieve that, but there are better ways of doing it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury implied that he would prefer child benefit to be paid in respect of all children to the allowance of tax relief on child care. I would point out to him that child care of any kind costs the working family an awful lot more per week than they get in child benefit, whereas tax relief—even modest tax relief—would cost the Exchequer far less than child benefit does.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury raised the important issue of divorce and its effect on the family and society, and, if for no other reason than that, he deserves the congratulations of the House and every family in the country for ensuring that we address ourselves to what is happening. My right hon. Friend said that we had the highest divorce rate in Europe. We have had a sixfold increase in divorce since 1970. That is appalling.

Divorce is always painful and the result of the increase is that divorce now affects an enormous number of children in Britain. Every day 420 children experience their parents' divorce, and one third of those children are under five. One child in eight now lives in a single-parent family, and recent research has estimated that 40 per cent. of the children of divorced parents have lost touch with one of those parents within two years of the decree. That cannot be right for the children, and it cannot be right either for the parent who is left literally holding the baby or for the parent who, having fathered a child or children, never sees them again. To my view it is a national tragedy. It is a miserable, terrible business and it cannot be right to carry on like that.

Divorce is also very expensive to the public purse. Figures published by Relate in a press release in September 1989 showed that that organisation had worked out that divorce is costing this country £3.5 million every day. Relate works it out like this: the cost of income support is £850 million per year; housing benefit costs £220 million per year; the cost of one-parent benefit is £100 million a year; the cost of legal aid is £80 million a year, and if legal aid were better funded it would probably cost more. The total cost to the public purse of broken marriages in this country now stands at £1.25 billion a year.

Yet, speaking on these issues back in September, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary refused to give the then Marriage Guidance Council, now known as Relate, any extra money. It was asking for £1 million a year. I cannot understand the pattern of public policy that says that it is all right to spend £1.5 billion on the products of divorce and nothing, or relatively little, to take steps to prevent it. That cannot make good sense. The figures do not add up.

Relate tells us that it has calculated that about 25,000 of the couples they counsel every year decide to stay together. The savings from that are around £6 million a year. The Princess of Wales has taken a great interest in Relate. It has to be said that that fact has been a double-edged weapon, although the organisation appreciates her interest enormously. One of the results has been a 20 per cent. increase in referrals and applications. In the absence of adequate public support from the Government and the taxpayer, that, has served only to make the waiting list for Relate appointments even longer. That just does not make sense, and I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to take into account these points.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said, some aspects of divorce law are encouraging the present pattern of divorce. Again, some of what we have been up to cannot be right. My conscience on this is clear. I have once again consulted the Division lists for 13 June 1984, when we debated the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Bill. When we voted on clause 1, which reduced the time period over which the divorce application can be filed from two years to one, I was one of only 69 hon. Members who voted that the clause should be deleted from the Bill and one of only 51 hon. Members who voted in favour of the proposition that if we had to have a limit of that kind, the period should be two years. That Act was a disaster, and I hope that, in the review that is now taking place, aspects of it can be changed.

That brings me to working mothers. I listened with the greatest delight to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and his passionate support of working mothers. It was wonderful. It does working mothers good to hear working fathers stand up and talk like that. It is about time, and it is entirely appropriate and right that my right hon. Friend should have said that. We have two working mothers present and quite a lot of the civil servants ranged behind us in the Box are working mothers. In fact, the majority of women who work in the Palace are working mothers—the majority of the women who serve us our teas, who clean the floors and who work in the Library are working mothers. We tend to forget that when we say that the House of Commons is composed mostly of working men, although most of the Members are working men.

No one should sneer at working mothers. They have the right to use their talents like everyone else. They have an obligation to use them to the benefit of society. I venture to think that a fulfilled woman is a happier woman and that a happier woman is likely to have a happier family. I know that my family would never find it acceptable if I was stuck at home whingeing at them all the time. [Laughter.] They are much happier now.

Those of us who are working mothers deeply resent the notion that our children are neglected or become thereby psychologically disturbed, or that we are being selfish. That is a very insulting approach. That does not make working women feel guilty; it makes them feel very angry. Many women who work for their families would make the opposite claim. They work because they want to give their children a better life. They work so that the children can have holidays or travel. They work so their children can have a bedroom of their own in which to do their homework in peace. They work for all sorts of reasons. Many professional women work in order to pay school fees, in the belief that thereby they will give their children a better education. One million women are heads of families, as I believe is the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), and therefore many of them will feel that they have no choice about going out to work.

Of course there should be choice. I do not want to pressure women either way. I am content, and I would seek to ensure, that there should be active and effective choice. However, I would say this to some people who would like all of us to be back in the kitchen, barefoot and cooking for them. If the care of the children is so important, it is too important to be left to the women. Children need parents and they need fathers as well. How nice it would be if the sort of men who make such speeches—and I have heard one or two—would just occasionally stop before they enter the pub on the way home, go home and take the children out for a walk and perhaps even have a conversation with the wife while they are at it.

There are other arguments that could be put on the table for consideration by those who would like us all to stop work. It was all very well in the days when women spent their entire lives having children, being pregnant and looking after the home. That is not true any more. If we are all going to be living to be 50, 60 and 70, the idea that we should spend all our lives being at home is absolute nonsense.

In any case, it is too late. Those arguments are out of date. The majority of women in this country—over 70 per cent.—work. The majority of women with children work, and the majority of women with dependent children work—over 60 per cent. That changeover, the point at which we became the majority, actually happened for the first time about 15 years ago. This is not a recent phenomenon.

That means that the majority of families have resolved many of the issues that trouble us. I suspect that many of them have not quite resolved those issues of how to combine the home, family and the job to the women's satisfaction. All working women would like a bit more help, please. We would particularly like a bit more help from the husbands and fathers who so praise us, but occasionally are not as helpful as they might be—and I exclude my own husband from that, because he is super.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the business about women going out to work recently is all a bit of a myth? Throughout history, women, in addition to raising the family, have woven the cloth when they lived in little country huts. Throughout the Victorian era, they were largely involved in manufacturing. It is rather a masculine myth that women have always sat at home raising children and have suddenly been drawn into the labour force. It has always been part of a woman's lot to work to help to support the family outside as well as inside the home.

Mrs. Currie

That is absolutely right. My hon. Friend may join me in feeling that, in the end, we know who is being selfish. It is not the woman who is going out to work to try to give her family a higher standard of living: it is the chap who comes home, who thinks that everything is done without his help or intervention, who expects warm slippers, a hot dinner and—dare I say it—a steamy bed afterwards. No doubt there will always be some women around who find their fulfilment in providing all that. Indeed, some of us try to do it with a job as well.

I want now to consider child care and tax. Why should the Government do anything to encourage women to work? There are several responses to that. The first is that there is no reason why not. I would reject the argument about psychological damage, because that is a false argument. The second reason is that keeping house is much easier than it was a couple of generations ago. The real root of women's liberation is the hoover and the automatic washing machine. The third reason is that the women want to work. We believe in choice. This is a free society, and we should not restrict people's choices. The fourth reason is that the demographic time bomb and the reduction in the number of young people leaving school means that we have to encourage them. As a nation, we need women now to go back to work.

It has been estimated that, by 1995, about 80 per cent. of all the new jobs created in this country will have to go to women because there are no new men around to do them. By the year 2000, the problem will become even more acute because that figure rises to 90 per cent.

The problem is child care. There are other issues about the status of women and all the rest, but the thing that stops the vast bulk of mothers in this country going to work is the problem of child care. Gallup Poll did a study for the CBI and the Manpower Services Agency, which was published in November 1989. It asked women what their attitudes were to work, and the results were very interesting.

Among those questioned with child care responsibilities, Gallup Poll found that 28 per cent. of all women with children would be interested in an immediate return to work, provided that satisfactory child care arrangements could be made; 21 per cent. of those with pre-school children and as high as 41 per cent. of single parent families surveyed would be interested in a job immediately if the question of child care could be resolved.

I say this to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he is listening—and I hope he is: I do not think that the answer is an extension of Government funding for child care. Since the employers benefit, it is they who have to do this in order to maintain the growth in productivity that we need in the 1990s to pay for the extra services that we are all busy demanding. If we are going to do that, employers must get organised on this issue and ensure that they can encourage their women to stay at work for a longer period during the time that they are having children and to return to work much more quickly afterwards.

Workplace nurseries are not my favourite solution, for a number of reasons. I do not think that they are always best for the child. The idea of the commuting child is a bit of a misery. It is not always in the national interest, either, to wish to maintain employment in such numbers in the centre of major cities, and in the south. I would much prefer to see jobs moving away from those centres of population and perhaps then reducing the amount of commuting for everyone.

Workplace nurseries are only a partial solution. What do we do when the child gets to five? A woman has been working happily with the baby in the workplace nursery, the child gets to five years old, and what will the mother do then? They are only a partial solution. They are also the most expensive of the solutions that are suggested.

The real problem so far as the employee is concerned is that the costs of the workplace nursery are so high, the employer's subsidy costs included, that they almost automatically push the employee over the £8,500 limit at which tax comes in on benefits in kind. That is almost invariable.

I would therefore agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield. I think that child care vouchers are a much better idea. They were introduced by the Luncheon Vouchers company in the autumn, and one or two other schemes are in the offing. They are not transferrable for cash, so there is no fraud. Administration is very easy and there is no worry about insurance, premises and all the rest. They are very flexible, so the pattern of child care can be changed during the years and of course the employee can share the expense by topping up. I think that that is right.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is listening to some of this. The problem at the moment is that child care vouchers are taxed even more heavily than workplace nurseries because they do not count as benefits in kind for the £8,500 rule. They are taxed right from the beginning.

There is a major public policy issue. To me, the calculations suggest that there is an awful lot of money to be saved from the public purse. If we take the 41 per cent. of single-parent families who would like to go to work but cannot unless the child care issue is resolved, we are talking about a lot people.

The typical single parent with one child in a typical council flat is receiving £85 a week in public benefits of one kind or another at the moment. If she—or he—goes back to work, even part-time, she starts paying tax and national insurance. If she gets a child care voucher, she may not even be able to claim family credit. The turnaround figure is enormous.

The calculations done for me not long ago by the Library, of which I have sent a copy to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, suggested that, if we were only to get a quarter of a million of those families back into work, we could save £1.25 billion a year net in benefits. That has to be very much worth doing. It would also be popular, and it would be lovely if the Government would do something that would be popular for a change.

The Gallup Poll that was published in The Daily Telegraph a week or so ago did a survey of people's attitudes to tax relief for child care and found that in every age group and in every political party, the majority of the respondents were in favour of tax relief for child care and only 21 per cent.—one respondent in five—said that they were against it. I commend that fact, all by itself, to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, in the hope that he will bear it in mind.

We hear an awful lot about the downside of the changes that we have been discussing. The high activity level among women, the general lack of child care availability and the high divorce rate, in my judgment, are not coincidences: they are related. The Government stance, for a long time, on the law of marriage did not help. It has been deeply unsettling for a Conservative like myself, until quite recently, to recognise how the tax laws, the divorce laws and many other aspects of the legal code have discriminated against marriage.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) became one of the good guys in 1988, when he removed the discrimination against married women when it came to sending in their tax returns, and when he removed the discrimination in favour of unmarried people when he took away the dual tax relief for mortgages. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West (Mr. Patten), who sits on the Front Bench, is about to join the good guys, I am sure, for he has asked for a review of the law on rape in marriage, which discriminates against married women in a wholly unacceptable way. It is not right that a man can be prosecuted and convicted and imprisoned for raping his girl friend, but cannot be prosecuted and convicted for raping his wife in identical circumstances. I hope that that law will be changed.

There is an upside. Most marriages do not end in divorce. Most children are not affected by divorce. In most marriages, it is a promise kept for life. That tells us a lot about what a family really is. It is not just a group of pals or mates who get together on a temporary basis. It is not just an economic union. It is not just a legal set-up, in which spouses and children have certain legal rights. It is not just for show, for a family is very hard work.

The family is a group of people who make promises to each other—explicit promises in the case of wedding vows and implicit promises in the case of children, that we will have our children, and we will love them and care for them, and in the end we hope that our children will love and care for us. I should like to hear a promise from our Government, that they will do everything to encourage the family and to remove, not just ignore, the discouragements, so as to enable the family in Britain to flourish once more.

11.33 am
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) on initiating the debate and on the much more that he does on behalf of families in the political arena. He is a model to which Back-Bench Members should aspire because it is crucial, while we are in this place, to set out our views, and sometimes judiciously to vote, against our own side to ensure that those views are advanced. I hope that some of those who support the motion will act as courageously in the Lobby when we have a chance to put some of these proposals into practice.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) has had to leave for a moment. Listening to him was like a trip down memory lane. It could have been his speech in the run-up to the 1979 election. Perhaps one of his most important contributions today was to sound the end of an era. Then, as now, much of the rhetoric from the Conservative party was about the need to support families. We have now had 11 years of Conservative Government. I do not want to disturb the non-political atmosphere of the debate, but I may later say one or two things that cast a critical view on their record.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) on her contribution. I agreed with several things she said, disagreed with some and shall concentrate on one in particular. She was right to emphasise that the silent revolution of the past 20 years has been the capitalisation of the kitchen. If British industry had capitalised as effectively as homes, perhaps the Government would not be facing the present balance of payments problem. Because of how we measure national income and how we think about increases in living standards, this revolution does not appear in any of the statistics. It has brought about an almost total change in the chances and choices that many people, particularly women, are able to take advantage of or make. Although it may sound grand to talk about the capital programmes the hon. Member was right to talk about hoovers, washing machines and dishwashers because that is what the change has been about. However, I disagree with the hon. Lady's line on child benefit. Interestingly, she approached the topic in a way that suggested a change of attitude among Tory Members. Six months ago, she would have made a much tougher speech against child benefit. I hope that that is a sign that the Chancellor will fulfil some of the early promise that he showed in his commitment to this benefit.

I take issue with one point that the hon. Lady made about child benefit because it is something that the Labour party must face, too. It is easy to dismiss the case for child benefit on the ground that if one is interested in helping the poor, an increase in child benefit will not result in a net increase of income for people on income support. If we are interested in taking people out of means tests and, at the end of our stewardship in the House in 20 or 30 years' time, seeing something radically different from the ever-increasing numbers of individuals and families caught in means-tested welfare, unpleasant decisions must be taken.

One of those is to decide that, when we increase universal benefits, we may not always increase the rates for means-tested support in the same proportion. For example, if the next Labour Government, as I hope that they will, increase substantially the old-age pension, there is a clear case for not matching that increase in equivalent terms, in income support. If we did, we should do nothing to free older people from means-tested dependence.

Similarly, if child benefit were increased substantially, by taking the equivalent of the married man's tax allowance in the new system of independent taxation and putting that on child benefit, I hope that we would hold to the policy of not making similar increases in income support, so that the two levels moved in line with each other—we increase child benefit, and we increase income support. If we did that, there would be no chance of taking families off means-tested welfare. Any Government who are determined to turn their back on means-tested welfare will go through a period of short-term unpopularity, but we must accept that if we are radically to transform the welfare state.

Like the hon. Lady—although, unlike her, I voted against the Bill introducing divorce reforms in 1984, and not just against one clause—I believe that the House can do some things, but cannot do many others. It is wise, in the measured way that the right hon. Member for Aylesbury spoke, not to pretend that the House has the powers to determine people's lives in the ideal way that we think they should live, and thank goodness for that.

I am also pleased that, so far, we have all resisted the temptation to put our sticky fingers into people's private lives. We can set down the framework within which people can live their lives, but we should do no more.

I agree with the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South that a danger arose when the House voted for a divorce reform proposal that allowed divorces in certain circumstances after a year. In effect we said that one could break a marriage contract in less time than an average hire-purchase agreement or, in other words, that HP agreements are more important than the marriage contract. The hon. Lady, however, did not make the distinction made by the Lord Chancellor this week. He seemed to suggest that we should be less interested in couples without children who want to break the marriage contract than in couples with children. How we go about taking the debate on to that second stage is easier said than done, but it is important to make the distinction.

Obviously it is not our intention to ensure that couples who have no interest in one another and who cannot get on should stay together just because they have children and for our sakes. We must act sensitively, but it is useful to distinguish between couples without children and our greater concern for the survival of marriages that involve children.

The Prime Minister's recent speech at the National Children's Home gave us one sign of hope about maintenance. One might have asked where the Prime Minister has been for the past 11 years, or, to use the coded language of Conservative Members, where the Prime Minister's advisers have been for the past 11 years. During that time those on income support have witnessed the virtual collapse of the principle that fathers should be responsible for their children. That has almost ceased to be a principle guiding the private conduct of people on income support. The figures demonstrate the scale of that collapse in the past 11 years. It is important that the Prime Minister registers that that is an issue, and takes some of the responsibility for it.

Mrs. Gorman

How can the hon. Gentleman possibly blame that problem on the Prime Minister? Does he agree that the extensive nature of the welfare state allows men to walk away from their responsibilities, because they assume that the state—the Government and the taxpayer—will pick up the bill for their responsibilities? Surely we should consider curtailing certain benefits of the welfare state.

Mr. Field

I do not want to disturb the hon. Lady too much, but if she reads the Prime Minister's speech she will note that the right hon. Lady accepts some of the responsibility. If the hon. Lady wants to pursue her line of argument, she should take it up with the Prime Minister.

I am concerned that, so far, the debate has been couched in terms of saving welfare payments. If we are concerned only about offering a new deal to mothers who are drawing income support, in effect, we will ring-fence even more mothers into welfare. Let us suppose that we offer a new deal to mothers who ask the state to take over collecting their maintenance for them so that they do not have the hassle of chasing fathers through the courts. Let us suppose that that deal was offered provided that the mother remained on welfare. If we did that we would create a huge disincentive for mothers to leave welfare and seek work, especially if, at the same time as taking on all the uncertainties of work, they had to resume responsibility for chasing their husbands or partners for maintenance payments.

If the proposal on maintenance collection is to be a success—I hope that it is—we must be generous and make it a universal provision. In other words, all mothers, whether on welfare or not, should be offered a new deal whereby they can make over to the state the role of collecting the payments, which we will ensure that they receive regularly. If we limit the scheme merely to women on welfare we shall build in yet another disincentive to leave welfare, I am glad that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) intends to campaign on that issue on the Conservative Benches.

When we consider what has happened to families we must draw a crucial distinction between what we can achieve and the foolishness of some politicians who believe they can put their sticky fingers into people's private lives. One thing that we can influence is the level of financial support to families. That issue will certainly concern i he Chancellor in his Budget next week.

It is extraordinary that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South should say that child benefit should be frowned upon because it is indiscriminate when she, with many of her colleagues, supports indiscriminate tax allowances. The hon. Lady also advocated some indiscriminate support through tax subsidies for the advancement of child care provisions for mothers who wish to go out to work, or who are in work.

Mrs. Currie

I advocated that support for different reasons. The argument that all parents of children should receive child benefit must be challenged. The argument for tax reform on child care is that the nation needs far more women with children at work.

Mr. Field

I accept that, and if those reforms are merely posing a challenge to make us rethink our position, it is a good thing. I hope that the hon. Lady will make a similar challenge on the question of universal support for all home owners through mortgage interest relief. We could go through a great list to encourage such challenges from the Conservative Benches.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I have a great deal of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's case, but I am worried that £1 billion a year goes to households that earn £20,000 or more. Will he consider the suggestion that people on higher rates of tax should not receive child benefit?

Mr. Field

If the hon. Gentleman proposed abolishing all other tax allowances for that income group, he would, on grounds of consistency, have a powerful case. He knows as well as anyone that child benefit has two roles. It has a welfare role as it is targeted to help the poorest, and it acts as a tax allowance to try to maintain tax equity between those with or without children, irrespective of their income.

That nicely brings me on to the main challenge in the debate—what has happened to family income during the lifetime of the Government. As a result of the Government's policy on child benefit the tax burden has moved from the childless to those with children. That shift has affected families whether they earn £7,000 or £70,000 a year. If we are interested in setting guidelines of public policy to show our preference—it seems clear what the House's preference is on supporting families—we should vote for policies that back up that commitment, otherwise it is an empty one.

The motion calls for further development of policies designed to support the family. If the House was serious about supporting the family that could be done in four ways. I have already said that it is clear from the speeches of Conservative Members today that the atmosphere in the debate on child benefit is changing for the better. If we are serious about sending out a sign from this House to show that we are interested in supporting families and ensuring that they have adequate money to do the best job for their children, our next generation, the Chancellor must heed that changed atmosphere in time for the Budget next Tuesday.

Secondly, I hope that the Chancellor will examine how the new system of independent taxation will work against some married women who currently benefit from the chance of having their husband's married man's tax allowance transferred to them if they are working. That allowance will not be completely transferable under the new system. One mother in my constituency, who is the main breadwinner in the family, has the total tax allowance transferred to her. But when the new system is introduced the whole family would be better off if they ceased work—unless a similar right to transfer the tax allowance was introduced. That is not unusual in Merseyside because of the wage rates in the area. To lose the equivalent of the married man's tax allowance would mean that that family was actually paying to work, rather than being better off. In his Budget, the Chancellor should ensure that the new system of independent taxation has a transferability of tax allowances equal to the current system.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is not in his place to hear my third point. Before the 1979 election he said that if we were serious about supporting families, a future Conservative Government should implement a policy of family impact statements, which would analyse the effects of the legislation on households with children—just as every major measure must have a financial statement on the effect on taxpayers. One problem with the general debate promoted by the right hon. Member for Aylesbury and others, who have been trying to push the issue of family policy for a couple of decades, is that everyone assumes that we have done rather well for families when the evidence shows that we have done rather less well.

One important way constantly to bring us back to the effect of any policy would be to have an impact statement on every major Government measure. The advantage of the Government doing it this time is that it would not cost very much in the initial stages, although the effect of how we spend that money would be costly, whatever the total may be, because we would be more conscious of the needs of families.

The debate on child care appears to be gelling rather well. I agree with the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the House that the least desirable option is workplace nurseries. It is one matter to be employed by a company, but it is another for that employer to decide who will look after the children. That applies also to the House of Commons. What are the alternatives? If we abolish the £8,500 bar as the cut-off point for those who receive fringe benefits, there will be a major mushrooming in the near future that will have a negative effect on the Treasury. We must ask whether we are in the business of further reducing the taxable base. My mind is clear on that—I want to phase out all tax allowances so that there can be a standard rate of tax of 12p to 15p in the pound.

Mrs. Currie

Come over here then.

Mr. Field

There is no sign of the Government embracing that policy.

In addition, there would be higher tax rates above a certain level. People could then choose how to spend their income, rather than the state bullying or bribing them into spending it in certain ways. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South says that she is in favour of yet another tax privilege being established, so she is being inconsistent to say also that she wants to phase out tax benefits and reduce standard rates of tax. Child care vouchers will achieve more choice than workplace nurseries. However, if we are concerned about the size of the taxable base we must insist that employers pay the cost of those vouchers from post-tax company income and not offset it against corporation tax. if not, it will be another effect on the tax base and another way to push up standard rates of tax.

My final recommendation is that we follow the policy outlined by the Prime Minister when she was Education Secretary. She said that it was her aim that families with children aged three and four should have the right, if they wished, of an opportunity for their children to attend nursery schools. I should have thought that on this occasion, if not on others, it is a policy that the right hon. Lady—

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

It is also Labour party policy.

Mr. Field

It was Labour party policy long before the Prime Minister's conversion in 1972. It is one of the options to consider if we want the best development for our children. I hope, too, that it will be Labour party policy after the next election to be aware, when we implement that pledge, that many mothers work for longer hours than those available at nurseries. It is not only a question of increased provision, but the delivery of that provision to suit the hours of working mothers as well as the people who work in the nurseries.

If we want to increase work choices for women, we should undo the social security changes that now place an almost penal bar in the way of single mothers working while remaining on benefit. The previous system may have been clumsy, but at least they could offset the whole of their child care costs. In the name of simplification, there is now just the payment of a set sum out of which mothers are expected to cover child care costs. Given that the figure is only £15, I cannot think of any mother in Birkenhead who would be better off working than staying at home. It is a thoroughly bad reform and it should be reversed.

I hope that during this debate we have not only set the ground for some agreement—and also important disagreements—between the parties, but that we have paid due attention to the motion on the Order Paper which calls for the development of new policies. My speech has concentrated on the importance of child benefit; the need to have an impact statement for each major Government measure on how it affects families with children; the need to give real choices of child care and not to superimpose our desired policies on families: and the small but important change in policy so that mothers on income support who want to work can offset the total cost of child care before they lose benefit.

11.58 am
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) on this timely debate and also on his excellent speech. The debate has attracted interesting speeches from many hon. Members. I was especially interested in the speech by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I agreed with about two thirds of what he said, but I suspect that he will disagree with most of what I have to say. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not immediately follow his remarks.

I declare an interest as my wife is expecting twins. I shall have to be careful in expressing my views on child benefit as my wife will read Hansard.

I should like to pose a question that has been posed before and is not especially original. However, it is important to address it. Ever since the war we have had steadily rising living standards under every Government—more under this Government than under some previous Governments. We have also had increases in real terms in social security spending under every Government of both political persuasions, yet for a generation many of the indices of human misery and, dare I use an old-fashioned term, human wickedness, have been rising.

Why has the crime rate been rising so rapidly? Violent crime is almost 20 times the level that it was 40 years ago. Why is child abuse rising so fast? I understand that the Children's Society says that nearly 100,000 children left home last year, many of them I am afraid for good reasons. Why is illegitimacy spiralling? We are not talking about the religious views of the natural parents. Some 27 per cent. of children born in this country last year were born to natural parents who were not willing to make the lifelong commitment to marriage. I am afraid that for many people marriage is no longer a lifelong commitment.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) made an interesting speech, although I disagreed with much of it. I can tell him that between 1960 and 1980, when by his own testimony enormous resources were poured into housing, the divorce rate quadrupled—it went up by 300 per cent. The use of drugs and alcohol continues to rise rapidly as it has for a generation. The indices that we cannot measure, loneliness and despair, go on rising, as people such as my secretary who works with the Samaritans will testify. The suicide rate continues to rise.

Many people with varying political views will say that the solution to the problems is more resources. This year we are putting £50,000 million into the Department of Social Security budget. That is the largest budget in real terms that we have ever seen. We have an army of 200,000 social workers. I am delighted to pay tribute to my excellent social service workers in Canterbury, with whom I have a good working relationship. They are funded from a different budget, which is over and above the funding of the DSS.

What is the explanation for the extraordinary paradox of ever rising living standards and ever increasing Government resources, and the rapid worsening under all Governments of most of the indices that I have mentioned? I make no bones of the fact that I am a Roman Catholic and believe that the heart of the problem is that Britain has ceased to be a Christian country. It is absurd to try to blame either the Government or individual Church leaders, who are convenient targets—such as bishops whose names I shall not mention—for this change. What we as legislators can achieve is modest but nevertheless important.

I should like to suggest five areas in which we can contribute to tackling the problems; to a greater or lesser extent they are all controversial. I shall touch briefly on abortion because we shall shortly be dealing with it at greater length. I recently looked at a scan of the twins whom my wife and I are expecting. I saw two 8 in long babies who at 19 weeks were swimming about, able to feel pain and to listen to music. It is incredible to think that under our laws, as a matter almost of convenience, because we are very close to the point of abortion on demand for babies of less than 28 weeks' gestation, such babies can be killed. It cannot be an accident that the statistics for violence against children both at home and in care have not declined as we were promised in 1967, but increased sharply from that time. In Scotland 30 years earlier in 1936, a loophole in Scottish law enabled abortion to begin there, and Scotland has the same pattern.

The second area with which I shall deal is divorce. We have heard such good speeches on the matter that I shall be brief. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) about Relate. How can it be right to spend 20 times as much on legal aid to assist divorce as we spend to fund Relate? I have just been to see my branch of Relate in Canterbury. I am told that one person in three who has been divorced regrets it afterwards. That is a rather sad statistic. In some cases both parties regret it afterwards. We should look again at that statistic.

I tread again on dangerous ground in speaking about two matters. I strongly support the Prime Minister's initiative to make not only divorced fathers but the fathers of single-parent families pay. I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Birkenhead about that. This must apply across the social spectrum and not just in cases where the mother is on income support. We should go further. I strongly endorse the view that we must return to the concept of a guilty party in certain divorces. It is wholly wrong that we have virtually eliminated from the divorce laws the concept of guilt. I shall give one example.

The wife of a policeman in my constituency, a decent man with a thoroughly honourable record in the force, decided almost at the drop of a hat to live with a lover. For a year she abandoned her husband and children and for six months of that year she did not attempt to visit her children at all. She suddenly decided that she missed her children and would like to have them back. Her husband had some resources and she had none, although she was living with a man who had a substantial income. She went through the divorce proceedings and was able to extract a substantial sum from her husband. Much more important, she got custody of the children even though she had previously abandoned them. I am offended not by the details of the case but by the fact that I was assured afterwards that her guilt in the divorce, the fact that she had been a persistent adulteress and had chosen to live with her lover, was not even a material factor when considering the allocation of assets or the custody of the children.

The third area is housing. Good intentions in housing have led to an enormous amount of damage to the social fabric of our country. I introduced a ten-minute Bill last year. I am delighted to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has agreed to come back to me as soon as research on the matter in the Bill has been completed. Believe it or not, if a man commits such severe violence against his wife and family that the council has to rehouse them, there is no provision in law by which the council can recover the council house, even if the man is sent to prison because of the violence. We as taxpayers have to pay for housing benefit to ensure that such a man keeps up his rent payments, so that he can occupy the house when he completes his prison sentence.

People have duties as well as rights. It is the duty of a man who is given a council house to look after the family for which he was given the house, but he also has a wider duty to the community. Given the comfort in which most of us live, we considerably underestimate that duty.

The saddest delegation that I have ever received at my surgery was from a group of people from a council estate that has been ruined by two groups. One was a single woman who was running a prostitution service. Her girls would sit out in all stages of disarray on warm evenings attracting their customers with children playing around. Worse still, four doors along was a problem family with children who had three dogs bottled up in their house. The dogs filled the garden with the most unspeakable excrement, the smell of which was unbelievable in summer. The dogs howled at all hours of the day and night. Their owners had parties frequently going on until 3 am or 4 am. It is all very well for us to be relaxed, to minimise the problems and to say that we must be careful that any sanctions that we take against families with children do not knock on to the children. But how can parents living on that estate possibly give a decent upbringing to their children while such problems are allowed to continue?

I do not support what councils are forced to do in desperation, because it is their only option in law, which is to put such families on to sink estates. Those estates then become breeding grounds of problems for the next generation of children. We should carry out the experiments that have been tried out in Holland. If a family have so failed in their duty to their neighbours that they are willing to destroy their environment, it should be possible under civil law to have them removed and put for a period into special remedial accommodation, which would be supervised and have adequate, but robust furnishings. Their previous house could then be given to families who could well do with it. At the end of the period in remedial accommodation, the family should again take their place on the housing list.

Tax benefits are also relevant to the debate. We have heard a mixture of different views so far. I shall declare straight away that I am on the side of the one-income family. It is important to make a distinction, which has not been made adequately so far, between mothers with pre-school-age children and those with school-age children. I want to focus on the former. It seems grossly unfair that a family who have small children and a mother who has taken the decision that until her children are of school-age she wants to stay at home should be expected, although they have only one income, to subsidise through the tax system child care facilities for the family with two incomes. I am very much opposed to tax relief on child care facilities.

I should like to see us go down the road of the most imaginative Treasury White Paper that came out in 1986 and, sadly, seems to have been shelved. I think that the hon. Member for Birkenhead may have endorsed its ideas, although I did not quite understand his comments on it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury certainly endorsed the idea of allowing the tax allowances of mothers whose husbands are working, but who do not themselves work, to be transferred to the husband. That is a most imaginative route and would do far more for families with pre-school-age children than cuts in the basic rate of income tax.

Law and order is another aspect of the debate. I have tried to stress that we must get back to traditional values. We cannot legislate to make people Christian and it would be wholly wrong for us to try to do so. I am the first to accept that in the middle ages, my own Church was guilty of excesses—perhaps to understate it mildly—in trying to do so.

Mr. Frank Field

That is the most modest statement so far.

Mr. Brazier

I shall not enter too far into the religious divide by saying that there were fewer executions on our side than on the other side in this country and abroad.

Mr. John Patten

Do statistics prove it?

Mr. Brazier

My right hon. Friend calls for the statistics. The figure on our side was 100 before the reformation and 300 under Queen Mary. There were 18,000 deaths during the reformation, but I do not want to get involved in that as it is an irrelevant figure.

It is terribly important to realise the extent to which, in our laws in a range of areas, we have undervalued the extent to which people have obligations as well as rights. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister here. Through his White Paper, he is considering the extent to which we must start to make parents more involved with their children and to have more obligations towards them if they become young offenders. It is incredible that no previous Government have made it a legal requirement for parents to attend court when their children are being charged with offences. One would like to think that parents would want to do so. It is a sad reflection that many of them do not. That is only a modest beginning.

We must be willing not only to consider making parents liable for the fines that their children incur, but to consider, when juvenile offenders are given non-custodial remedial treatment, making the parents also attend some of that treatment. In that way, we can bring home to parents the fact that they have a duty towards their children. In my constituency two months ago, two 12-year-old children beat up an 85-year-old woman at a bus stop and robbed her of £7. The parents of those children have failed as parents. It should be made clear to them through the law that they have done so.

I want to leave the House with these thoughts. We cannot legislate to make people Christians or to make them better, but it is terribly important that when we consider resourcing and the law, we do not simply say, "How can we throw more money at the effects of the problem?" Instead, we should ask how we can reinforce the family and how we can reinstil a sense of duty and obligation into people.

12.17 pm
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

This has been a wide-ranging debate. All who have spoken have contributed something to a discussion that we must have about family policy and where we go from here. I want to congratulate the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) on at last coming up in the ballot. I had the same experience. It took me 17 years, so I should tell other hon. Members who have not been here so long that it is worth waiting for. I did not find what he said at all priggish, although he said that he was afraid that he might sound that way. It is important that we consider the policies of all Governments, although we are concentrating today on this Government, because they have been in office a long time. We must consider how their policies relate to children and to what is taking place within our families.

When we enact certain housing policies, for example, we must consider what effect they will have later. Many speakers have said that we must consider the effect on family life and on the availability of housing.

I want to speak first, as I may not have time to go into this later, on child care, workplace nurseries and related matters. The Minister and I argued for many years about provision for the under-fives. We have both always supported the provision of nursery education. The one issue between us is that, when he says that there is more nursery provision than there was, he does not say that much of it is part-time provision, which does not meet the need we have been discussing today.

I have a rather different view from that stressed today on workplace nurseries and child care generally. I support the removal of tax on workplace nurseries for one reason only—that it is unfair, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) said. When I park my car here, or at Euston, or at the airport, I do not have to pay tax. If we had a workplace nursery here and I parked my children in it, I should have to pay tax. That is remarkably unfair. That is why I favour abolition of tax on the workplace nursery.

The right hon. Member for Aylesbury referred to Dr. Bowlby and to the fact that, in the 1960s, we were told that there should be a one-to-one continuous relationship with a child so that it would develop into a stable person. That fitted in nicely with conditions after the war, when we were told that women were not needed in the work force and that if they did not stay at home to look after their children, the children would behave appallingly when they grew up. However, it became attractive once again for women to return to work, so there was talk about various forms of child care provision.

If workplace nurseries are provided but a recession follows and women are no longer needed, they will be the first to go, because provision for working mothers will be abolished. That is why I have always been in favour of co-ordinating child care provision. It should include education for them; educational opportunities should be provided very early in their lives. It should also encapsulate child care and an extended day, after 4 o'clock, for men and women at work whose children need to be looked after. If we do not follow that course, there will be another argument in a few years' time about women staying at home, or they will be forced to do so because there will be no child care facilities for their children.

I was appointed as the spokesperson for children because it was recognised that it is important to consider the needs of the child as well as freeing women to go to work. The two go together. Workplace nurseries have a role to play, but it would be undesirable if children had to travel a long way to reach workplace nurseries. I have visited a good workplace nursery in Leicester; parents have to travel only a short distance there with their children. Such provision must be community-based and centered on the child. Child care provision must not be related to economic conditions or to changes in society.

Several hon. Members have referred to the so-called breakdown of the family and to many of the difficulties and problems that that causes. There is some truth in that. I do not deny that the high divorce rate leads to many children being brought up by one parent with great difficulty. It would be a great help if we could be given statistics concerning children who have been brought up in what appeared to be a normal family but who then became anti-social or delinquent.

We are never given those statistics; we hear only about the children of one-parent or divorced families. Most of them do not go wrong. I adopted two children as a single parent. I feel deeply for those of my colleagues who are also single parents and who brought up their children without their becoming anti-social or delinquent. People say of the one-parent family, "What can you expect? It is a one-parent family." That is unfair.

Mr. Rowe

The previous Secretary of State for Education and Science put in hand a series of deprivation studies. Is it not remarkable that it was found that a large proportion of the children who came from deprived families caused no trouble to the state?

Miss Lestor

Yes, that is true. I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support, as that is the point that I am trying to make. We do not look at the other side of the coin. Against enormous odds, many single parents are bringing up their children very well indeed. They will make a good contribution to society.

Money is the biggest problem for single parents. All their difficulties arise from lack of resources. The right hon. Member for Aylesbury referred to the number of childen who are born out of marriage. I believe that he said that 25 per cent. or 27 per cent. of children are born out of wedlock. However, many are born to people who have a stable relationship. The attitude towards marriage has changed. It is difficult to analyse the statistics, but I accept that, because more children are born out of wedlock and that because working mothers are in difficulty through lack of resources, there are bound to be problems.

Mr. Raison

I accept that many children are brought up admirably by single parents. However, statistical evidence is beginning to emerge that those relationships are not so stable as married relationships and that we delude ourselves if we believe otherwise.

Miss Lestor

I do not deny that; the statistics speak for themselves. Relationships are changing. More marriages are ending in divorce. We have no figures relating to the breakdown of relationships, but when there is such a breakdown it is a tragedy, especially for the children.

I am appalled that the Government have made no money available to Relate and to other organisations that are trying to assist people through the trauma of divorce and to give them counsel regarding their children. It is appalling that, in divorce cases, even after all the changes in the law, there is still a tendency for there to be a guilty and an innocent party and for one partner to rubbish the other. Children are torn between the two parties. When the parents remarry and there are new families, the children of the first union often feel that they do not belong to anyone. It may take us a long time to change that; we may never change it. However, children should not be used as pawns so that parents can score points off each other by means of their children.

Much more work needs to be done, and the Government should give a lead by providing more money for interested organisations to help parents and children through the trauma. There is nothing worse for a child than the feeling that it does not belong anywhere, and must constantly share with its rivals. I was pleased to learn that branches of the National Children's Home in my area, the north-west, provide such a service, as I am sure that they do in other parts of the country. We need more of that.

In her speech to the National Children's Home, the Prime Minister seemed to be talking about a family that no longer existed. Conventional families still exist, of course, but there are many other kinds of family group nowadays. Some hon. Members have mentioned the Prime Minister's point about the need for fathers to take financial responsibility for their children, and I have no objection to that idea—if, that is, the fathers can be found and can afford to pay, and if the money goes to the children and not straight to the Exchequer.

I have received many letters from fathers who say, "I maintain my children, but I do not see them because the relationship has broken down," or, "I cannot put them through the trauma." When couples divorce or simply break up, it is the children who suffer.

Much has been said about the need to deal with such problems as poverty, and I am all in favour of fulfilling our pledge to retain and upgrade child benefit. I am sorry that the Government have frozen it for the third successive year. In my constituency, the extraction of £400,000 by the Exchequer has squeezed the purchasing power of women in particular, thus inflicting further damage on the economy of an area that is already in a bad way. I know that many Conservative Members agree that the universal concept of child benefit should be retained, and I hope that the Government will think again while there is still time for the Budget to be "rewritten".

Not so long ago, the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) told my present constituents to get on their bikes, come south and look for jobs. At that time I was the Member for Slough, where there were jobs but no houses. Men who look for jobs in different parts of the country often cannot find anywhere for their families to live, and those who take up such opportunities may see their families as seldom as once a month because of the expense involved. Moving to where the jobs are takes its toll of family life.

One reason why I wanted my present job was the fact that governmental responsibility for children is spread among a number of Departments. Whichever party is in power, Governments must consider the effect of their policies on family life. When the policy of enforced council house sales was introduced, no corresponding right to build accompanied it. That has caused havoc in some areas.

The right hon. Member for Aylesbury and others have said that their constituents often complain to them about housing problems. The better council houses have been sold; mortgage repayments are a growing burden; those who seek work elsewhere find that there is nowhere for them and their families to live. The number of children who are now brought up in bed-and-breakfast accommodation should prompt grave concern. That is no way for children to grow up—living in one room, often with poor sanitation and in conditions that breach fire regulations. Many children in such accommodation have no play space and, for a variety of reasons, are unable to attend school regularly.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) mentioned desertion. Sadly, it is usually the men who desert the family, and the women who, as a result, become impoverished. If we try to catch men who are not paying maintenance, I hope that the money will go straight to their families and not to the Exchequer, with the family remaining on a low income, because that would not benefit the family or the children.

We also need to consider truancy and the added problem of children who are engaged in drug abuse at an early age and the children who go missing. According to the Children's Society, at any one time 98,000 children do not sleep at home for a night or longer. Many of them turn up, but some do not, and the resulting problems are enormous. Some of them sleep out. One or two programmes have shown, and those of us who have talked to agencies know, that some of them are extremely young. The prospects for those children are appalling as they already feel rejected by society. We all know that one cannot simply pick them up and send them home, however young they are. Often what they are running away from is worse than sleeping in the street or in some sleazy hole. We have to examine why that is happening.

I am also concerned that recently the Government have not taken seriously enough the addiction of young children to fruit machines and the growing habit of truancy from school to participate in that form of gambling. The parents of young gamblers are extremely worried about what is happening to their children.

Mr. Frank Field

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Does she agree that the gambling casinos are often centres for drugs and prostitution?

Miss Lestor

My hon. Friend is perfectly right. Of course undesirable people hang around those centres and children are extremely vulnerable. There is no doubt that there has been an increase in prostitution among young men and women. That is because it is a sure source of income when they are homeless and we cannot deny that it is happening in our society.

Child abuse has been mentioned. I do not think that any of us really knows whether child abuse is increasing or whether more cases are being reported. The publicity has been such that many victims have been encouraged to come forward, and we are all pleased about that. I have no idea whether the problem has become worse, but there is more of it than many of us realise. It is one reason why children run away from home, but it is not the only reason.

We have not matched the needs of our social workers and local authorities in tackling the physical and sexual abuse of children. Hundreds of children in London who are on the at risk register are not allocated a social worker. Now that we know what is happening, it is not good enough for us not to spend the money and invest in dealing with some of those problems.

The Children Act 1989 is a great improvement on much of what has gone before. Sadly, we have not matched it with more resources. I hope that, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer reads the report of this debate, he will realise that it is not much good passing legislation that is much more child-centred than before without recognising the demands and needs of local authorities in dealing with the problems. They need more resources and help.

Everyone who has spoken today has expressed concern about what is happening to children in our society. It involves a minority of children, of course, but it appears to be a growing minority. I believe that something can be done if only the Government will take steps and recognise that those children whose family lives have broken down, who are deprived and who do not have access to many things that others have will grow into adults and those adults will have enormous chips on their shoulders. They will have undergone all sorts of unpleasant experiences and it will be difficult for us to deal with them.

One of the contradictions in our society applies to child abuse and many other problems. We are all full of sympathy for the little boy who has been sexually abused and we call the person who has done it all the names under the sun. We are all very understanding. But when that victim becomes the assailant, our attitudes change. Unless we grasp that aspect of child deprivation and say that we will deal with it now, the cycle will continue. Not all abused children become abusers, but unfortunately there is a pattern.

This has been a useful and wide-ranging debate. We have talked about child poverty, the alleged breakdown in family life, divorce, working mothers and the need to ensure that women have a right to go to work, rather than have that matter raised only when Governments feel the necessity for it. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aylesbury on choosing this subject. I hope that we shall return to it. Unless we do so, and have policies to meet some of our needs, the anxieties that have been expressed will continue to be justified.

12.40 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

The deep interest in children's welfare of the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) is clear to the House. We all pay tribute to her for her longstanding interest in this matter. Nothing shows that interest more clearly than the fact that the hon. Lady wanted to speak from the Opposition Front Bench on children's issues rather than on issues that might have been seen to be a bit more glamorous by her colleagues who did not do as well as she did in the shadow Cabinet elections. If I had a vote in those elections, I would vote for her—and, for the sake of completeness, for the hon. Members for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) and for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). This is an equal opportunities day, and I do not want to offend any of the hon. Lady's colleagues.

When I was the parliamentary private secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), he was a tough taskmaster. I do not remember ever carrying into a debate on his behalf—for he did not choose to carry his own folders; I always carried them for him—as much briefing as I have carried into this debate. That information has come from eight Departments around Whitehall. Not just ripples but a tidal wave of briefing has flowed towards the Home Office. I have 445 pages of briefing on which to base my speech, which I hope to complete by 2.30 pm, if not before.

I thought that I had been uniquely let down by the Civil Service during the rather interesting and entertaining debate that broke out between that notable Roman Catholic, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), and that notable Anglican, the hon. Member for Birkenhead, about the numbers that each religion had executed during the religious troubles in the 16th and 17th centuries. I looked through all my folders and could not find those statistics anywhere. Happily, seeing my concern at not being able to answer the question, the Box has provided me with the answer that Home Office statistics on executions began in 1749 and that Queen Mary was at it rather earlier—clearly, there was an Anglican hand in that note.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury speaks on issues involving the family, the House listens. When the founder editor of the New Society, which alas is no longer an independent and freestanding journal, speaks on these issues, the House listens. He is characteristically modest and did not reveal that he was about to write a book. He did not reveal its title, price or publisher. There are two prospective authors in the Chamber—my right hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury and for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler)—

Mrs. Currie

And me.

Mr. Patten

Some people never stop scribbling. I have read the book written by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie).

I was delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield in the Chamber. I would not attempt to add to the analysis of the problem given by my right hon. Friends. Between them, they have analysed it better than anyone could.

I should like to hazard a purely personal view about the family. It is central to our national life. It is the basic building block of our community. It is the place where education begins, where our habits and lifestyles are formed and where our characters are moulded. I strongly believe that the family should be more than simply a group of people with keys to the same house or flat.

This leads me to the Government's response. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury called for a campaign for the family and marriage. That is an interesting idea, which I shall certainly contemplate and discuss with my right hon. Friend on another occasion. I recognise, as we all should, that Governments cannot make people love one another or stay together. I am prepared to shoulder the blame for all sorts of things in the House, but I am not prepared to shoulder the blame for failing to prevent people from parting. My right hon. Friend is right to say that we must shoulder the responsibility to do all that we can to support people trying not to part. That is critical. The hon. Member for Birkenhead was right to say that when hon. Members legislate or debate issues, they can deal only with the framework of people's behaviour, and cannot interfere with how they choose to behave.

The Government recognise the central part that the family plays in our national life. We want to do all that we can to promote the interests of the family. We must help marriages, which may be made in Heaven, but on which the maintenance work must be done by men and women. It is incumbent on us to try to do the maintenance work better than we have done in the past.

The Government and I believe that families should be given as much help, choice and independence as possible. That lies at the heart of our thinking on a wide range of issues on family policy, extending far wider than the possible reform of taxation and social security systems. We hope to introduce policies extending even further the choice and responsibility in education and housing. The policies that we have introduced in the past have done much towards the desired effect of strengthening and upholding the family unit.

In 1988 someone said: The family is the building block of society. It is a nursery, a school, a leisure place, a place of refuge and a place of rest; it encompasses the whole of society; it fashions beliefs; it is the preparation for the rest of our lives. No one in the Chamber would dissent from what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in 1988. That is an acute analysis of the family. The analysis is founded on an issue which runs through the Conservative party as far back as the time of Burke.

It was Edmund Burke who most clearly laid down the dominance of the family unit as one of the most critical factors in the nation's political cohesion. It is crucial in forging a commonly accepted morality among people. As a political party, we have never deviated from that over the centuries, which has made us the oldest political party not only in the western world but in the entire world. That is an astounding record of political consistency.

With regard to present arrangements, rather than the philisophical grounding of past arrangements, I shall consider what we have done in the 1980s and hope to do in the 1990s to meet some of the challenges contained in the views of my right hon. Friend the Members for Aylesbury and for Sutton Coldfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South and others who have spoken.

Before doing so I shall consider four things that might have occurred in the 1980s had history taken a different turn. It is important to try to do that. First, if there had been a different political scene in the 1980s it is arguable—I am not saying that it is right or wrong—that there would not have been such a rapid and dramatic shift away from the traditional style of manufacturing industry, with its full-time unionised labour force. If the changes that occurred in the 1980s had not taken place, we would have seen more of that traditional style and less of the move towards service industries, with far more non-unionised and female labour. A Government who, rightly or wrongly, propped up traditional manufacturing industry and had close links with traditionally male-dominated trades and professions might have presided—perhaps paradoxically—over a much smaller increase in female participation in the work force than we have experienced, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South pointed out.

Secondly, had we had a different Government and had not my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield conducted his review, which is likely to form the foundation for much of social security policy well beyond the year 2000, we might have experienced a much more dramatic expansion of publicly funded and publicly run services for families, such as child care and nursery education. We might have moved a good deal closer to the Scandinavian model and some people, myself included, would have seen that trend as one that displaced the family, which would not have been a good idea.

Thirdly, the pattern of benefits might have been rather different. Benefits might have been less well targeted, in which respect I again refer to the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield when he was Secretary of State for Health and Social Services. Superficially, at least, it may seem odd, and a parodox, that a Conservative Government who wish to target help on the poor should disagree with a left-of-centre party which has a policy of spreading benefits universally, however affluent their recipients may be. We have present a Left-wing thinker who knows very much more about these issues than me, and I beg the hon. Member for Motherwell, North not to torpedo me below the waterline, as he certainly could on these issues. He would argue that services or benefits exclusively for the poor become poor services and benefits. That has been incorrectly argued for many years.

While a great expansion of social security benefits—spread more widely and at ever higher levels—might have produced a larger constituency of social security recipients, that might not have helped the family in the end. We might have found the legitimacy of the system that had been introduced being threatened by higher tax rates necessary to pay for it and by the "Why work?" syndrome, which was highlighted clearly in the example given by the hon. Member for Birkenhead to show the effect of the taxation system on his constituents.

The final difference is probably the most significant of all, and none of us has managed adequately to pin it down this morning. Two institutions above all help individuals and children. The first is the family and the second is the state. No advanced society will ever rely solely on one of those institutions. It would be bizarre for us to argue, "This matter will be dealt with purely by the family and this will be dealt with purely by the state." That would clearly be wrong. The two institutions are not necessarily always in conflict; why should they be? Each is there to help the other. The more that the state does to help on a rainy day, the less we need to do for ourselves, through a reliance on the extended family or on personal savings.

The pattern of cause and effect is complicated. An increased role for the welfare state reduces the need to rely on the resources of the family. Perhaps—I say "perhaps"—the role of the family in providing its own welfare services has been allowed to slip away a bit too much in post-war England without our thinking deeply enough about it, and the state has necessarily come in to fill the vacuum. Perhaps the state's increased role is simply another example of the specialisation of labour in this country. After all, we do not all bake our own bread and not as many of us care directly for our elderly parents. The elderly are very often looked after by outside providers. Those are key political and philosophical questions which nobody will ever be able to answer. If we had had a different Government with a different philosophy in the 1980s we should undoubtedly have given a much more ambitious role to the state in family matters—in the provision of finance and services. However, that would have placed much less stress on the family's responsibility for providing, or at least choosing, services.

Those four differences, which are hypothetical because we know what happened in the 1980s—they might have occurred had there been a different political creed—would eventually have undermined the family even more than the family has undermined itself because of the changes of the past decade. We must resist some of those trends in the 1990s.

I have a number of points that I wish to lay before the House. The Government believe that families should be given as much independence as possible in all areas of the community, thus strengthening the family unit. I shall relate a few examples of how I believe that we have succeeded. A family with two children and one earner on average earnings has seen its real take-home pay rise by about one third in the past 10 years. That is a substantial increase. I fought my first general election campaign in 1979. If one of my minders had told me to get on to the platform and promise that people on average earnings would be one third better off in 10 years' time, I would not have dared. But that has happened, and it must have benefited a good number of families, even though not every family has shared in that extraordinary increase in affluence.

Mr. Frank Field

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Patten

I will give way provided that the hon. Gentleman's question is not too difficult.

Mr. Field

I have a dummy question for the Minister. Will he give us the equivalent figures for single people on that level of income? What has been their real increase in comparison with people with children?

Mr. Patten

I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Nearly 80 per cent. of families have children and nearly 80 per cent. of families with children pay tax and therefore benefit from tax cuts. That has been apparent from the 1980s. I am advised that two-earner couples with children—I must rely on advice from others—have on average gained about £8.50 per week from tax cuts and benefit changes over the past 10 years. However, I shall deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Birkenhead by writing to the hon. Gentleman and I will place a copy of the letter in the Library.

Dr. Reid

My question will be much easier, because I am not an expert. As the Minister is talking about tax, but confined himself exclusively to direct tax, can he confirm that, in direct and indirect tax, the average family is now paying over £27 per week more than in 1979?

Mr. Patten

No. I dispute those figures. Again, I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman and send him the relevant tables and place those in the Library, too.

Let us consider the money spent on a whole range of benefits for the family. The figure is nearly £10 billion, which is a substantial increase of about one quarter in real terms since 1979. There has been a redefinition of poverty during the 1980s and we must strive to do more in the 1990s to help families. Strong points were made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury and for Sutton Coldfield and by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South about the need to make changes in the tax and benefit system as it affects children and child care. I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to those points before Tuesday.

There has been a debate about nursery schools and nursery school provision. About 25 per cent. more under-fives now attend nursery schools than in 1980 although, as the hon. Member for Eccles said, some do so part-time. However, they may not be worse off for attending part-time. Some three and four-year-olds find nursery education rather tiring and need to go home in the afternoon. We must make flexible provision in nurseries. Overall, 70 per cent. of four-year-olds receive nursery education or help from pre-school playgroups and other organisations.

Had Lady Plowden been taking part in the debate, she might have teased my right hon. Friend on his suggestion that the only way to help three and four-year-olds was through nursery provision. She and others feel that while nursery provision is valuable, various other provisions, such as pre-school playgroups, can, in their way, do just as well for some children, as my daughter's experience shows.

Mr. Raison

For the record, I should say that I support playgroups as well as nursery schools and I did not wish to give any other impression.

Mr. Patten

I thought that Lady Plowden's name would bring my right hon. Friend to heel. She terrifies me and I am sure that she terrified him in his day.

My right hon. Friend asked about the work being done in the Department of Education and Science by my hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibility for schools. She chairs a committee of inquiry, which will report in the summer, looking at the issues that concern my right hon. Friend. The group will not only deal with nursery school education, but will look at the educational value of all child care facilities available to three and four-year-olds. The group will look at nursery schools, pre-school playgroups and a range of other child care facilities. That is in tune both with the spirit of the age and what is happening out there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South described the growth in women's employment and in child care provision. Substantial changes have been made without any Government direction or interference, local or national. It has been interesting to see the massive boom in women's employment, full-time and part-time, and to speculate where and how child care has been provided. It has been provided in different ways in different parts of the country.

I welcome what the hon. Member for Eccles said about the Children Act 1989. We may differ about resources, but we agree that the Act demonstrates the Government's clear commitment to caring and providing for children.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, the hon. Members for Motherwell, North and for Birkenhead, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and others spoke about housing. As the House is aware, in recent months my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has been looking closely at the problems of homelessness and of those who are finding difficulty getting secure and safe housing. Further announcements are expected. I shall make sure that my right hon. Friend receives a copy of the Official Report of today's debate, so that he is aware of the strong concern that has been expressed.

The Government have introduced, and are introducing, other measures, such as setting up a Broadcasting Standards Council and ending the exemption of broadcasters from the provisions of the Obscene Publications Acts. These will help family life by curbing excessive sex and violence on television, and are measures that I regard as very important.

This has been a wide-ranging debate. We have been told about the needs in education. The National Curriculum Council is doing much valuable work to ensure that more social and personal education is built into the national curriculum. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently made an announcement about getting maintenance from fathers who absent themselves, which has been widely welcomed this morning by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and others.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has put forward proposals to ensure that parents are a bit more responsible for preventing their children from offending. That idea would have been thought outrageous 10 years ago, but it is coming into its own time. There has been little dispute from outside bodies about the need to move in this direction.

Here, in a non-combative way, I pick up the point of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North, who gave the impression that, during the 1980s, juvenile crime increased. I demurely demurred with his suggestion, whereupon he was egged on by the hon. Member for Birkenhead, who said that the figures had been redefined. The figures have not been redefined. The way that we have collected statistics about offending, including those on young offenders, has not changed during the 1980s, apart from a couple of changes made in 1980 or 1981 which inflated the amount of crime reported.

It was interesting to see the veil suddenly slip from the normally demure political features of the hon. Member for Birkenhead. We know that he is a saintly figure who floats at some height above the debate, looking down at we lesser mortals who cannot quite reach the golden mean between both sides. He reminds me of the tortured saints who one sees in the frescos of the great Romanesque churches in Ravenna, looking down in slight horror at what they see below them. For a moment we saw the politician, tooth and claw, and we were jolly pleased to see it, when the hon. Member for Birkenhead beguiled and entrapped the hon. Member for Motherwell, North into saying that there had been a redefinition of the figures.

Mr. Frank Field

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his description of me—although he may think it damaging here, it will no doubt boost the vote in Birkenhead.

The point that my hon. Friend and I were seeking to make was not that the Government had been caught with their fingers in the till and had literally fiddled the figures, but that the problem is so serious that, increasingly, our constituents do not report to the police cases that they would have reported five or 10 years ago. That is why it was right to say that it is difficult to read trends into the figures because we do not know whether there has been a change in reporting crimes or a real change of substance.

Mr. Patten

I must dispute that. We have two sources of information—the annual criminal statistics, the calculation of which has not changed in the past 11 years except in two minor and inflating ways that made the crime figures worse than they were in the early 1980s, and the British crime survey. That survey is taken every four or five years and it has shown that the reporting of crime went up substantially during the 1980s. Although I am the first to admit that there may be regional differences and that the incidence of crime may be greater in one town than in another, we are much closer to the real figures on domestic violence or violence against children than we were in 1980. I accept that there is still a lot of hidden crime, but the figures are better owing to people's increased willingness to come forward to report crime.

More needs to be done in the 1990s to help the family, and this morning hon. Members suggested many changes to the tax regime. The Conservative Family Campaign and the National Family Trust are debating how such changes can be made. Others believe that much more can be done through social security to help the family.

Above all else we need to take a long, hard look at divorce, which has been spoken about at some length this morning. I do not intend to repeat the argument brilliantly led by my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor in another place, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury drew attention. I concur with the ideas advanced by my noble and learned Friend.

We shall need to keep the conciliation services under review. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South referred to the good work done by Relate. A number of other bodies help with marriage guidance, including the Catholic marriage body and its Jewish equivalent. We try to support all those organisations. Last year, at the request of Relate, we made available to it an extra £600,000 which it welcomed publicly and privately.

Throughout my speech I have stressed the importance of working with the natural pattern and grain of our community—that point was made plain by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. We must let individuals take responsibility for their acts and recognise the importance of local communities that stand in a free society between the individual and the state. No set of policies can do more to satisfy those requirements than measures designed to confirm the role of the family as the building block upon which our community is founded. That is why the House should be extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury for his notable contribution in getting that debate going this morning.

1.14 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I have already told my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) that an engagement in my constituency means that, alas, I cannot stay to the end of the debate. I thank him for initiating such a valuable debate.

There is more to a family than what the Scots call "Ma, Pa and the weans". It is a multi-generational family. Indeed, that has been brought home to me today because my family is wrestling with the sad and uncomfortable problem of helping my mother to adjust to being in a residential home. In addition, my daughter telephoned in a rage this morning because we will not be there when she gets home this evening. The fact that that unfortunate latch-key child is eighteen and a half is a sign that parenting continues for a great deal longer than many of us expected when we set out on that road.

There are a number of important elements in the crisis that has already been discribed by hon. Members. One of the advantages of being called late in the debate is that I do not have to use many of the statistics that I had originally chosen to illustrate my points. One reason that families are under pressure is the very much greater mobility that now prevails. People change their homes every five to seven years and firms expect families to uproot and move to other parts of the country.

Another reason is that to an increasing extent, the older generation are withdrawing from the nuclear family—not through any malice aforethought, but, as Titmuss pointed out at the beginning of the century, the gap then between the last child leaving home and the mother dying was 10 years. The gap today may be 45 years. Of course, the healthy, fit and, in many cases, relatively affluent older generation move house and pursue their own avocations. They are glad to see their grandchildren when opportunity permits, but they are often many miles away. That is a further pressure on the family.

Another pressure is that of the two wage packets. I could not endorse more fimly the view expressed across the Chamber—which I know my right hon. Friend the Minister practises—that there must be a change in the masculine role in the family. It is absurd to imagine that we can simply load on to women—whether or not they are willing to accept the load—the additional role of a major wage earner in the family, on top of all their other roles.

The belief of some hon. Members that families are best served by mothers staying at home pays far too little attention to the technological revolution. Most women can complete their domestic maintenance chores in an extraordinary short percentage of the week. The result is that wives, who are often in smaller and smaller accommodation, are frequently surrounded by neighbours with whom they find it difficult to form a relationship, for all sorts of reasons.

Large numbers of people now think of their front doors as a barrier to the hostile outside world, rather than as an entry into congenial society. Women want to get out and meet people. They want to be in more congenial circumstances. They become claustrophobic at home. This is an area in which the Government can use their hortatory role to assist. There must be more flexible working hours for both women and men. There is absolutely no reason why men should not enjoy the benefits of job sharing in exactly the same way as women. I want to see job sharing extended much more rapidly. The difficulties that my wife encountered in achieving a job share were an object lesson in the rigidity of attitudes among many employers.

It would be valuable to look again at the shape of the school day. There is nothing sacrosanct about the hours that schools operate. They are set just by tradition, and almost every country in western Europe has a different idea about the times at which schools should be open. I would not wish to see here what I understand to be the position in Switzerland where, consciously or unconsciously, there are extreme variations in school hours between different areas and, indeed, between one school and another. That has had the effect of imprisoning women in their own homes because they have a child at one school and another child somewhere else and are incapable of doing anything but treat the home as a base.

A consequence of the changing emphasis between men and women means that the courts will have to look much more carefully at the assumption that the mother should always have custody of the children. That is being looked at, but we need to do a great deal more.

As a result of pressures on the family and the break-up of many families, there has grown up a tendency to rely upon professionals to provide the support which, in an ideal world, would come from the family or the local community. As professionals always do, they extend the frontiers of their responsibility until they can no longer police it. Police forces and social services departments are at last admitting that the problems of discipline among the young are beyond them. We shall have to find alternative resources and I shall return to that matter.

It would be appropriate, for the sake of the children, for divorce not to be an option until the parents, except in exceptional circumstances, can show that they have taken measures to receive assistance about reconciliation. It would be perfectly reasonable for divorce courts to ask whether the parents have taken any steps to bring about a reconciliation. It is entirely reasonable that there should be a cooling-off period.

It might make sense to have some kind of addendum to a marriage contract that makes arrangements about what should be done with the children in the event of a breakdown. That could be done before the children are even conceived and may well be sensible, rather like making a will. There is no doubt that a will diminishes family rows over where property should go, and some statement about what should happen to the children in the event of a family breakdown might be of assistance.

The debate has overlooked the fact that having a child is probably the most frightening single event that can happen to a family. It is exciting and often a pleasure, but it is frequently—usually—a very frightening experience. Legions of young women who have children are given a rudimentary education about how to feed and clean the child, and that is about it. They go home from hospital, often alone but frequently with an equally frightened husband, to try to set out on making a home for the child. They assume only too easily that they are doing it worse than anyone else. When a child cries through the night, they think that it must be their fault. It is common for such a couple or individual not to seek help because they think that, if they do, they will be blamed for the failure.

We must look carefully at the support services available to young parents. Fears are diminished ludicrously easily when drop-in centres are set up where there are a number of young mothers. The support the women gain from one another, and from older women and men coming in and telling them that they are not the worst parents in the world, is extraordinary. They point out that they have all had the same experience. That is important and the Government could do much to encourage such centres, especially with the use of volunteers, many of whom would be happy to assist in that way.

One of the most horrifying features of many of the terrible stories about child abuse is that, in a curious way, the children are seen not only as instrumental in family quarrels, but as adjuncts. They are not seen as a value in themselves. It is vital to encourage people to see that children are of value in themselves. The debate about tax allowances confirmed the view that people think that their car is of more value than their child. Parking spaces are more important than spaces in day care centres. People do not kick or scratch their cars, but they are willing to do all sorts of unpleasant things to their children. That is sad, but common.

I want to illustrate the importance of support for young people from a study, which is now old, in which I took part when I was a lecturer at Edinburgh university. It was the first study of which we knew that looked at young couples who had come to the Scottish Marriage Guidance Council. We studied 300 such couples, one of whom had to have been under 21 on marriage and both of whom had to be under 30.

The one overriding finding from the study was that it was not promiscuity or permissivenes that had led to the marriages running into trouble, but the fact that these young people had frequently gone steady from an absurdly early age. They might have been going steady since the age of 11 because they wanted someone to go to the pictures with them. They then found no way of breaking off what was increasingly becoming an unsatisfactory relationship. They frequently had a child to try to paper over the cracks, but as they grew up, they were separating.

Those young people did not know about human relationships and had never tried a human relationship with anyone else. That was one of the fundamental reasons for the break-up. Why do people go for such relationships? The reason is that they are alone, frightened and unsure of themselves. Their parents or their broken homes have failed to give them a sense of self-value. It has made it extremely difficult for them to face the difficulties of saying no, of having a row or of risking having a disagreement with someone else.

I speak from personal experience. I am the child of a divorced couple and, sadly, I myself have been divorced. One of the last results of that is that it takes a long time for one to risk upsetting the apple cart by asserting oneself. The idea of causing someone to be angry is horrifying when one has had to endure the business of being dependent on the good will of people who are not one's own parents, and it necessarily creates real problems.

We must take seriously the need to use whatever means we have—I fear that the education system may be one—to enable young people to learn a great deal more about marriage and human relationship. If that sounds like a wishy-washy response, I do not think that it is. A recent study has shown that very young children are interested in the question. It showed that they are far more interested in human relationships than their parents or their teachers thought they would be.

I endorse the remarks about the importance of conciliation services being properly funded and supported. Active citizenship is one means by which to support people with children. If there are no grandparents, they could be given advice on how to raise their children. Many older people would value the opportunity to support a family. We must also encourage people who are living on their own in a house with more accommodation than they need to provide a home for a mother and her child. That would be to their mutual benefit. The older person might come to rely heavily on the energy and companionship of those young people.

It might be worth exploring a different set of divorce laws for couples without children. I should like couples with children to be compelled to say that they have at least sought a reconciliation. Divorce should not be allowed until after the arrangements for the children have been sorted out. When no children are involved, the position is different.

As for older members of families, technological advances in the medical profession have led to many people living far longer than they wish to live. They are becoming a great burden on their families. It places immense pressure upon them and leads to great financial burdens.

It often leads to families being unable to build up financial resources for their own old age.

I wonder whether it might be possible to introduce a system of mortgage in reverse, under which it would be possible for someone who has been moved into a home for the elderly and whose house is no longer needed by the family to dispose of it. The purchaser of the house would pay for it month by month. That money would pay for the care of the elderly person. When the elderly person died, the house would be owned in proportion to the contributions that had been paid by the purchaser. Such a system might ease the difficulties that many young people face when trying to buy a house.

If we want fathers to be responsible for their children, could not the national insurance number be modified to show that they are parents? Everyone has a national insurance number. If a stroke were added to show that that person had children, it would be much harder for many fathers, who seem to disappear off the face of the earth, to pretend that they do not have a family. That might be a practical way of dealing with the problem.

The cost of our present policy paralysis runs into billions: the National Health Service, the schools, the prisons and many other institutions are victims of our failure to devise and execute an effective way of supporting the family. We cannot afford to ignore the problems any longer.

1.30 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) on securing today's debate. Having read the Hansard report of last November's debate on the subject in the other place, I feel that ours has been equally interesting. My right hon. Friend's speech showed great wisdom; I disagreed only with his remarks about the Catholic view of divorce. I am glad that, at long last, someone has had the guts to persuade the House to discuss this matter seriously: we have heard some splendid speeches.

If I made the remarks that I had intended to make about women going out to work, and if my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) happened to charge back into the Chamber, they would probably handbag me. As two or three more hon. Members wish to speak, however, and as my hon. Friends, having seen my name on the monitor, may indeed charge back in, I shall not say what I was going to.

Although I cannot compete with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), I have three small children and my wife is expecting our fourth in two weeks' time. At the moment the poor woman looks rather like a barrage balloon. When Members of Parliament debate family life they lay themselves open to criticism: our lifestyles are not conducive to a normal family existence. Every hon. Member, whether married or single, must know the stresses and strains that the job involves. Husbands and wives have a pretty rotten deal. Unfortunately, Members of Parliament are regarded as the lowest of the low nowadays, but the majority are conscientious and hardworking, and their families too make many sacrifices.

I was born in the east end of London, with a very happy family background. We were very poor—if my wife were here she would probably get out the violin at this point—and lived in a small terraced house with no bathroom, an outside toilet and a tin bath hanging on the wall. There was nothing special about that; it was very common at the time. Nevertheless, as I said, we were very happy. I am a great supporter of the Conservative Family Campaign: in my view, the family is the cornerstone of society.

There seems to be a division of view between the parties on individual responsibility and the role of the state. Grandparents were fundamental to east end family culture, and the people living in our road had various responsibilities. One person was responsible for delivering the babies, another for counselling those in marital difficulties and a third for laying out the body in the sad event of a death. There was a wonderful community spirit. We did not have to lock our doors; people helped each other, and society was generally very well ordered. Sadly, however, the planners came along, the high-rise blocks were built and the happy family life of the east end was spoilt.

I am saddened by the lack of parental responsibility in certain quarters. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has already drawn our attention to the fact that the peak age for offenders is 15. That in itself is a dreadful thing for us to contemplate. We must ensure that there is more parental responsibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) said that having children is an enormous responsibility. We do not have any help with our children, and until we had small children we never realised quite what a responsibility it is. It is an enormous strain being woken up at 4 o'clock in the morning by one's son jumping into bed wanting to talk about dinosaurs. Then the youngest baby jumps in, and then, after having three or four children in the bed, one has to spend the next day washing up, hoovering and tidying. Having said that, we must have more parental responsibility now. It is not good enough for youngsters to play late at night, causing great disturbance in the neighbourhood and then, when the parents are tackled, saying that they simply do not want to know. We must address the fact that many parents do not even go to court with their children.

I commend to the House the excellent book that my right hon. Friend's Department was involved in producing, "Practical ways to crack crime". It is an excellent publication that contains many ideas that I hope the Home Office will develop in the next year. Although it will not be easy, I hope that legislation will be introduced in the next Session to deal with parental responsibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury spoke about abortion. I shall not bore the House by developing my views on that subject. I note that the right hon. member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, (Sir D. Steel) presented a petition to the House this morning on the subject of embryo research and abortion. Although I accept that no woman undertakes an abortion lightly, I regret the fact that 2 million babies have been aborted since the right hon. Gentleman's Act was put on the statute book. It is crazy that we have special baby care units trying to save the lives of babies born after 22 or 23 weeks' gestation, yet abortion is available up to 28 weeks. That does no good for the stability of family life in Britain.

I am appalled at the concept of the abortion drug RU486 being allowed into chemists in Britain, as it will help to destroy family life. I was disappointed and angry at the debate on the subject in the other place. The idea that we shall be able to police laboratories so that research on embryos stops at 14 days is absolute nonsense. I wonder where such research will continue.

A few weeks ago I introduced a ten-minute Bill about adoption. Anyone who has looked at magazines with advertisements showing little boys and girls who desperately need to be adopted cannot fail to be moved by the trauma involved in adoption. For example, one boy had been moved 36 times within just 13 months. Obviously that will have an effect on him in later life. I hope that the Government will take on board the suggestions in my ten-minute Bill so that we co-ordinate adoption rather better.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South mentioned divorce. She did not mention that as a newly elected Member of Parliament I tried to amend that Bill. Of course, as we know, the House is more or less dominated by lawyers.

Mr. John Patten

Not any more.

Mr. Amess

Perhaps these days the House is not dominated by lawyers, but it certainly was in the past. I was tied up in knots on that occasion and was told that we had to do something to reduce the period after which a divorce could be obtained.

The legislation has had a traumatic effect in Basildon, but I pay tribute to Relate. Many people have said, "We did not realise that a divorce could be obtained so quickly". As my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said, the divorce figures are staggering. We should be ashamed that we are not doing more to counsel people to stick together. It is not easy to be married. One has to work at these things. I admire the many Basildon women, and some men, who valiantly battle on as single parents. They have not deserted their children but accept their responsibility. It is a difficult task and as a local Member I would wish to do all that I can to support them.

Housing has been mentioned. All of us meet young couples at our constituency surgeries who say that they need a house. I have referred to the east end spirit. In the past, when there was also a great housing need, why did we not have the serious problem that we now face with family break-ups? In the past, often mum and dad would give a room to a young couple until they could move on. I am not entirely convinced that the argument is as simple as some have made it.

I am appalled at what is happening in Basildon. The word is going round that if one has a baby, one gets accommodation from the council or the Commission for the New Towns. Any officer or individual who peddles that myth should be ashamed of himself. It is disgraceful to bring a child into the world because one believes that one can thereby get accommodation. I do not believe that any responsible person would say that, but large numbers of people say that that is what happens in Basildon. If so, it is wrong and I hope that the local authorities and the CNT will address that matter.

Three weeks ago, there was a terrible tragedy in Basildon involving a Hong Kong couple. The gentleman came home from work and found that his four childen had been suffocated. That incident has had a traumatic effect on the community in Basildon. The media immediately wanted the inside story on what went on between the two people. Everyone tries to apportion blame, but I am not having any of that. We must deal with the facts. This terrible tragedy has happened, four tiny lives have been lost and somehow the working relationship that should have existed between the family structure and the state was not effective. I hope that in due course we shall act on the report of the inquiry.

Family life is fundamental to everything that we hold dear. I look to the Church to be much more outspoken about family life. I look forward to the Government's excellent policies continuing to underpin family life.

1.44 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess). Like him, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) on his excellent motion and the good debate that it has produced on the centrally important matter of the family.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) is not here. When she spoke of working mothers she was clearly referring to women who leave home to do a job. It is absurd to pretend that they are the only mothers who work; mothers at home seem to work equally hard. That should not be forgotten and mothers should not be disparaged for staying at home.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon spoke of his personal contact with the east end of London, I thought of when I lived there for quite a long period and how much I grew to love it. He was absolutely right that when the miles and miles of terraces of small houses were replaced by tower blocks the neighbourhood changed completely, the spirit of one person being the next door neighbour's keeper went, and the sense of family in the east end community was dissipated. That spirit is still there to some extent, but is nothing like it was, which is a great tragedy.

Like my hon. Friend, I am a supporter of the Conservative Family Campaign and I commend a good deal of the work that it does. I shall amplify what he said about Churches. They have a particular responsibility which the Church of England sometimes—not always—fails to discharge. Any Church should see itself as the family of the people of God and encourage individual families to feel that they are a reflection of that one family.—Too often, Churches and Church leaders simply engage in political diatribes which are useless and unhelpful for families, who want leadership, saying, "Let us have an end to easy divorce and let us put children first in marriage and in every way." That is what Jesus taught. He was not concerned with the illegal immigrant who broke the law 15 times and was expected to be deported from a church in Manchester back to Sri Lanka. That was not the business of the bishop of Manchester, who should be teaching his flock the word of God, the gospel and how that relates to family life, and the relationship of the broad family of God with the nuclear and wider family.

Delinquency by the age of 21 is twice as high among young men and women whose parents divorced while the children were under five. Eighteen-year-old men from divorced families are much more likely to be unemployed. If couples consider splitting up for fairly facile reasons, as sometimes happens when they are not striving to stay together for the sake of their children, those statistics should give them cause for thought.

Of all those who go into prison, or other custodial institutions, between the ages of 15 and 22, no less than 80 per cent. return. Giving young people the stability to enable them to keep out of prison, particularly up to the age of 22, is of great importance to the individual and to society. We should never forget that requirement because it is of such central importance.

During my long years as a teacher I saw children of every kind of background and I saw the difficulties of those who came from single-parent households or divorced backgrounds where their parents were constantly fighting, sometimes physically. I know the difficulties and strains that such circumstances placed on children. The House should remember that and find ways of preventing such occurrences, although that is not easy.

When we look beyond those difficulties to parents who are trying hard, and succeeding, in their marriages and bringing up their children—sometimes fairly strictly—we should not discourage them from being firm and strict. Too often, schools are in conflict with firm parents and sometimes society at large is in conflict with them. That is wrong. Recently, we had a court case because a parent had smacked a child three times with a wooden spoon even though there was nothing to see. A national campaign has been launched to dissuade parents, and if possible to prevent them by law, chastising their children. That is monstrous and will lead to serious social problems just as the abolition of moderately and reasonably applied corporal punishment in schools has led to difficulties. In some schools, no alternative method has been put in place, and that is why the children are seriously out of hand. Take away the occasional physical sanction that can be imposed on a child by his parent and one creates more difficulties in the home than one solves. I am not saying that children should be beaten up, and I shall come to the question of child abuse in a moment, but the occasional tap or smack does no child any harm.

Child abuse is an immensely serious problem in Britain. Not long ago, I had the sad experience of meeting a young lady who had a son, now aged 12, by her father. She was obviously in the most anguished state. Her father was about to go to court and the complete hatred with which she spoke of him was most upsetting. We need to talk more specifically than we do about child abuse and to give the nation examples of what happens to the child who has been abused and deal with his relationship with his parents. Then perhaps society would feel more strongly and take a more determined attitude to the question. One sometimes has to hold up a mirror to society to show people the results of their actions because only then will they change.

A number of hon. Members have referred to housing. It was a great wrong that until last year only one marriage partner could claim tax relief on the couple's mortgage, whereas those who were living together—sometimes wilfully and in sin—could both claim mortgage interest relief. It is greatly to the Government's credit that they ended that.

It will help family life that we now have separate taxation for married men and women. I should like to pick up a point made about community charge which, in my opinion, has not been sufficiently amplified. I shall refer to one particular injustice, whereas the Opposition criticise the whole charge and never say what they would do. I have worked out that the roof tax and local income tax that they propose, when applied to a house worth £80,000 in my constituency—many houses are worth a great deal more—would cost £1,500 a year, compared with a community charge of £435, which is already much too high. Labour's proposals do not bear thinking about; they are awful.

If it is right to tax couples separately, however, it cannot be right to lump pensioner couples' savings together for community charge purposes. The community charge must be amended and if that can be achieved through regulation, all well and good. Each elderly person, whether or not he or she is married, should be entitled to have savings at the permitted maximum level which at the moment is £8,000. If the combined savings of a married couple mean that they must both pay the full community charge, that is wrong. It is unjust and illogical when those people may be taxed separately as married people.

The care of the elderly is too often neglected and has hardly been referred to today. We have talked a great deal about children, and that is right because they must come first. However, we are all aware of instances in which old people, who have done a wonderful job bringing up children, sometimes single-handed and sometimes in happy marriages, have been forced into nursing homes or old people's homes in old age while their children live just down the road, but never visit them.

I emphasise that family relationships are lifelong. My grandmother lived to be 99 years and 50 weeks of age. One of my greatest pleasures was being with her regularly until the day she died. I would not have had it any other way.

Mr. John Patten

She taught my hon. Friend how to behave.

Mr. Greenway

She certainly did, and that might mean that I will live to be 99. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Minister will be about the same age if I live that long, and good luck to him.

I hope not to be a burden on the state. I will do my best to be useful to my descendants and have a good relationship with them. Even if I do not, I hope that they will love me enough to keep in touch even in old age and not live down the road but fail to visit me.

We must accept that families are the most cohesive unit in society. If people are not part of a happy family, that is their great misfortune. As I am a member of a happy family, I sympathise with those people and I would do anything I could to help them.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House believes that the family is as vital an institution as ever; and calls for the further development of policies designed to support it.

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