HC Deb 04 February 1991 vol 185 cc23-68 3.38 pm
Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

I beg to move, That this House, recognising the fundamental importance of the wellbeing of the family as the basis for a stable, responsible and free society, believes that Government policies should be concentrated not on supplanting the role of families but in continuing to support and increase their confidence and competence by extending choice in employment, education, health, housing, pensions and personal social services, while pursuing sound economic policies which raise living standards, encourage savings and provide reliable and effective public services.

Anyone winning one of these highly prized opportunities to present a motion of one's very own is sometimes congratulated on having the good fortune to win the ballot, but I do not want congratulations. Like anyone else, I had only to find my way to the No Lobby and manage to sign my name. It is on winning that the real difficulty begins, for it is necessary to choose a subject. Why not choose something simple such as nuclear physics or local government finance, for example? As I thrive on a challenge, I decided to choose to debate issues concerning the family. Hence my motion.

I know that, from the beginning, I shall get into trouble for choosing to debate such a subject. Aspects of family policy intrude into almost every Department of Government. On the Benches in front and around me I see right hon. and hon. Members who are steeped in detailed knowledge of any issue that I might raise. There are riders of hobby horses and authors of books or pamphlets. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) is in his place to add what wisdom he can to the debate.

I shall start the trouble by defining what I mean by family. I have selected the third definition in the "Shorter Oxford English Dictionary". That definition of family is: The group consisting of parents and their children, whether living alone or not; in a wider sense, all those who are nearly connected by blood and affinity. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who will contribute to the debate and who I am pleased to see on the Government Front Bench, wrote something in The House Magazine a week or two ago that put the matter more colloquially. She wrote: if you ask people whether they have a family, they believe you mean children, when family of course includes parents, grandparents, aunts and cousins. I agree with my right hon. Friend. We must not consider children alone in this debate.

There is a vital public interest in the success of the family. It is where earliest education takes place, where the individual experiences a sense of security and of purpose, and where responsible attitudes should be based from an early age. If parents, who are the first to reap what they sow in this respect, do not or cannot cope inside the home, why should we expect schoolteachers, police officers or others to do so outside the home? In addition, a country in which strong, lasting family values are considered normal, is much more likely to have citizens who contribute to the community and understand the benefits of freedom and obligation. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary put that in a wider setting when he was a distinguished Home Secretary. He said: Freedom can flourish in a community only where shared values, common loyalities and mutual obligations provide a framework of order and self-discipline, otherwise liberty can quickly degenerate into narrow self-interest and licence.

Sometimes family influences are not always for the best for every child. The poet Philip Larkin put his line of thought succinctly. As this is a family occasion, I have had to bowdlerise one word of his famous or rather infamous lines. He wrote: They mess you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you up with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you. But they were messed up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats, Who half the time were soppy-stern And half at one another's throats. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself.

Despite those lines of some pessimism, for most people the importance of the success of the family is linked inextricably with the success of marriage in providing stability. A commitment to the binding nature of marriage should at the same time mean acceptance of a mutual obligation to care for the children of the marriage. That is if we insist on not taking Philip Larkin's advice in the last lines of the poem from which I quoted.

This is where our divorce laws and arrangements for marriage guidance and conciliation are so significant. I do not want to moralise. Indeed, I recoil from moralising: I believe that that is for bishops, both the official ones and the honorary ones who sit on the Benches in this place. I am not a philosopher either. I agree with Henry Adams definition that philosophy is unintelligible answers to insoluble problems.

I strongly believe, however, that for the sake of the children of a marriage, it is usually by far the best course to try to keep the marriage together. Apart from purely private considerations, there is a significant public interest in doing so. There is the expense of broken marriages, which is often thrown on to the state, and the desperate disruption and unhappiness that are so often caused to the lives of children, with the variety of anti-social consequences that that frequently has for society.

The Government can specifically help in the crucial area of marriage and divorce law. They have done so already: the Children Act 1989 is very much to their credit, with its emphasis on the child's welfare, its obligation on parents, local authorities, social services and other agencies to help, its fostering of a fair understanding and approach to custody and access wrangles, and its crucial recognition of the role of grandparents.

But there is more to do. It is now possible to divorce on grounds of irretrievable breakdown after only one year of marriage. The Law Commission's recent report, entitled "The Ground for Divorce", which was debated in the other place last Thursday, proposes that, in effect, no divorce should be granted until at least two years after the marriage, including a one-year enforced wait for possible consideration and reflection, with the priority being to save the marriage—and if that is not feasible, at least to consider and agree essential questions on the upbringing of children, maintenance and property before the marriage may be dissolved.

There is much sense in so changing the law. Of course, at times help must be available through counselling, reconciliation or conciliation services, which brings me to a hobby horse of mine— Relate, which was formerly the Marriage Guidance Council. It provides excellent services in trying to keep marriages intact. Hon. Members will be well aware of its work.

I know my Portsmouth branch well and, given what it has at its disposal, it is good at what it does. It is no different, I suspect, from any other branch in the country. It has a waiting list of several months, principally because of a lack of trained counsellors. The Government cm help by increasing grant aid, particularly to meet the expense of recruiting and training such counsellors. That makes sense not only in human but in financial terms, as the cost of broken marriages to public expenditure through legal aid and medical and social services, is monumental. Grants should not be increased to such an extent that incentives to voluntary aid and fund raising are stifled. I give credit to the Government for current provision, but more would be welcome and would be most efficiently spent, certainly in Portsmouth.

If a marriage cannot be saved, organisations such as the Hampshire family conciliation service stand by to help in an atmosphere of least bitterness, settling the essential questions of children, maintenance and property—a settlement when it is hoped will endure in co-operation between the parties after the marriage is dissolved. That service, like so many similar ones, is looking in particular to my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to make a strong case for increased Government support to supplement substantial voluntary effort.

I now want to seize the nettle of employment issues, where the cry, "Women and children first," takes on an added meaning. In considering these matters, I want to say something about education and the interaction of taxes and benefits.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

My hon. Friend mentioned the role of grandparents. Does he agree that they have a role to play, particularly where, for some reason, the parents are inadequate or the marriage is breaking down? Grandparents often have much love and interest for young children. They have a role which the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) has tried to enshrine in legislation, but I appreciate the difficulties involved. Should not grandparents, who may not have much income and who may fall on difficult times in their 70s and 80s, be able to call on the younger members of their family for support, rather than the taxpayer all the time?

Mr. Martin

My hon. Friend makes his points lucidly and eloquently. I wholly agree with what he says and with the sentiments behind it. I am glad that he added those thoughts to the debate.

The interaction of taxes and benefits has a bearing on employment, particularly the employment of women. This is an area where ideas are difficult to put into practice. I have already said that I am not a philosopher. I have so far avoided quoting Burke, which is very difficult in such debates. His modern counterparts who have helped my thinking on these matters in preparing for the debate are David Willetts, the director of studies at the Centre for Policy Studies and, after the next election, my neighbour in Havant; my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), pamphleteer extraordinaire, who has written some sound sense on the subject; and Ludger Eiling of the Konred Adenauer Foundation. I am grateful to them for their contributions.

As hon. Members understand, married couples without children have the least difficulty in making ends meet. They have the most unhampered choice as to whether one or both should work in paid employment. The real tests begin when the first child arrives. If only one parent is left alone to cope, those tests naturally multiply. In approaching the issue of mothers who are either in paid employment outside the home or are staying at home—I shall not say "not working", because looking after the home and children is certainly work, as hon. Members would agree —the Government's role should be strict neutrality. They should see how people live and then encourage, or at least not inhibit—if one can get politicians not to poke their noses in—the patterns that those people have chosen for themselves.

There should be no endless debate about whether mothers should or should not go out to work. The important factor is choice. When all is said and done—this is a little-known fact—most mothers of young children do not go out to work and most of those who do are part-time. Only when children are 10 or over does full-time work outside the home become most popular. These days, sensible employers recognise that women's work patterns reflect their role as mothers over a number of years—leaving work, coming back, retraining, leaving work and so on. Employers cannot ignore such a valuable source of labour, and the best certainly do not.

For years it has been accepted that families with children, whether or not one or both parents are working outside the home, require extra support. Parents make a variety of child care arrangements which, I am well aware, is a highly controversial matter. This is where the extended family—grandparents and others—plays a particularly valuable part.

In the formation of policy, it is important to recognise that two thirds of children of full-time working mothers and almost 90 per cent. of children of part-time working mothers are cared for by a grandparent, a husband or other relation. As a tried and tested method of financing child support or child care services, child benefit beats child care vouchers or child care tax allowances or a return to child tax allowances.

The only fair and evenhanded help is that which is available to all mothers with young children, regardless of whether those mothers work. In the early years, when a reduction to one wage or no wage provides the biggest strain, I should like an increased child benefit to concentrate on children under five.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I strongly agree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Not only should child benefit be increased but the 12 per cent. reduction from which child benefit suffered between 1979 and 1989 should be reinstated. If it is not, the neutrality for which the hon. Gentleman argued is not possible. In other words, taxation would be a punitive measure against marriage and family life.

Mr. Martin

I was speaking about what I should like to see as future policies. I welcome the fact that the recent measures of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security gave more to the eldest child in a family. My suggestion about increasing support for under-fives is a logical progression along that road and I should like to encourage that move. I want not to go over the past but to look positively to the future to obtain the best possible method.

Nurseries and creches provided by employers at the workplace or elsewhere—people often do not realise that they are supplied elsewhere—are now encouraged through the tax system and not taxed as a perk. That is only one way. Independent nurseries, child minders, specialist day care centres, family clubs and playgroups are other ways, and more are needed.

Further help for mothers who buy such child care, whether or not they go out to work, could also come from a simple change in VAT regulations. If nurseries became zero-rated rather than exempt nursery providers could reclaim VAT on many costs and therefore charge cheaper and more competitive prices. That would not favour a particular form of child care, because at present, playgroups, home helps and child minder services—believe it or not—do not suffer from that particular VAT problem. It would merely remove the bias against nurseries.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

I wholeheartedly endorse what my hon. Friend has said. However, I should like to add one comment. Does my hon. Friend agree that, historically, the whole system of education for the under-fives has not been handled well? Are not such affairs handled much better on the continent? Does not my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to move towards full provision of education for the under-fives?

Mr. Martin

My hon. Friend has anticipated precisely my line of thinking. I agree that, for older children, we need to improve opportunities for nursery education. I have stated some of my ideas on how to improve education for children up to the age of five. There are many ideas from the continent, such as those of Ludger Eiling of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. We should investigate what is done abroad and seek better practice here.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that cash-strapped Labour local authorities have pursued such policies, against the odds, for years? They have often been rate-capped because they have insisted on making nursery education provision available. The national statistics, drawn up by those who are interested in nursery education, show that Labour local authorities are at the top of the league in terms of nursery provision in the United Kingdom, although they are pressed by central Government to cut their moneys. Are not Conservative Members inconsistent to argue a purist position on nursery education while voting to cut local authority budgets, thus preventing them from providing the very services for which the hon. Gentleman argues?

Mr. Martin

I shall discuss shortly the contribution that Labour may or may not be able to make. The other day, I visited a school in my area which has excellent nursery provision, some for the morning and some for the afternoon. I shall not go into the details of local government finance, but if Labour authorities have been rate-capped, it is because they have often done much that is not helpful in this respect. If, instead, they spent money on real provision—as opposed to what is happening in Lambeth at the moment—we should get some sense. There is a distinction between the Government's views and those of the Opposition on this issue.

We need to improve opportunities for nursery education for older children. That is especially vital for lone-parent families. At present the social security system —principally through income support—while providing more financial help than ever before frankly does not encourage a parent who is able and willing to work to do so. For working families, the family credit arrangements have proved successful. The lone parent, however, is most likely to become most dependent on the state. Good nursery education means that that parent can exercise more real choice as to whether to earn a living. The result is that both parent and child, as well as the state, are better off, and family values are more likely to flourish in a happier home.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

Will my hon. Friend accept that there must be some change in nursery education practice if it is to become an alternative form of child care for the under-fives which helps mothers to go back to work? Many local authorities provide nursery education only in morning or afternoon sessions for different children at each session. If there is full-day provision, that will start at about 9 am and finish at 3 pm or 3.30 pm. That is no good for a lone parent who wants to work full-time instead of part-time.

Mr. Martin

I recognise the shortcomings in the provision of nursery education, and that is why I have raised the matter today. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) was Secretary of State for Education and Science, she used to promote those ideas. They should be re-established in future Conservative party policy. The Government would then be able to adopt my ideas.

Housing is fundamental for families, because housing, in the sense of a satisfactory roof over a family's head, is important to a family's well-being. Providing adequate and affordable housing for all remains a seemingly intractable problem despite the intentions, actions and numerous Government initatives over several decades, including the expenditure of thousands and millions of pounds.

It would be ludicrous for the Opposition to criticise us for indifferernce or for not trying with respect to housing matters. None of us wants inadequately housed people trooping into our surgeries week after week. Discounting natural feelings of humanity, only a fool would wish hardship on his constituents—and Ministers have constituencies as well.

Since the war, the landmark features have been increasing home ownership, the continued steep decline of private rented homes, the dominance of local authority housing for rent and, in recent years, the rise of housing associations. I must make it clear at the outset that the state has a role in housing. Of course social housing is necessary. However, I have a persistent feeling that many of the problems have been made worse, not better, by the paraphernalia of both local and central Government which, have over the years, continually stifled or ignored the best methods of supply. I have never been able to understand why it should be acceptable that the supply of food and clothing and a host of other human needs and wants can be left to free enterprise, although, of course, reasonably regulated by general rules of contract, consumer protection arid safety, while the problem meeting the housing needs of those who cannot or do not wish to buy cannot be resolved in that way.

Housing needs have been firmly hedged about with draconian rent legislation and controls which have acted as a powerful disincentive to supply, while fiscal initiatives such as mortgage interest relief have distorted ownership and the capital cost of homes. I will be controversial and state that, in the next Budget, the higher rates of mortgage interest relief should go and we should see the beginning of the end of that relief. I am pleased that it has been withering on the vine at £30,000. However, we will have to bite the bullet in future and get rid of it altogether to allow that money to lower taxation bills all round and do some of the things that we should do in the sphere of housing.

Mr. Alton

While I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, does he accept that there are 850,000 young people in bedsit accommodation and 30,000 homeless in the country at the moment? How would the housing approach that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined help those people?

Mr. Martin

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the existing housing position. I am looking to a better approach in future. The market has not met the needs of the people to whom the hon. Member for Liverpool Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) refers. They are fed and clothed, but they are not housed or sheltered. Why do we not use the same market methods for those people as we use in respect of food and clothing?

With regard to rental accommodation, there is an ever-increasing reliance on local authorities, and more recently on housing association provision. That will never satisfactorily meet the demand. The result of such reliance, which we have seen over many years and which is clear from the number of people in bedsits, is rationing and queues. By embracing such half-measures in rented housing, we are like the hopeful wooers of Penelope, who made love to the waiting women because they could not reach the main objective.

In this country, we must often queue to get out of a supermarket rather than to get into it. Clothing is supplied in such abundance and with such cut-throat competitiveness that it spills out on to the streets alongside food market stalls in every part of the land, and it is available to the poorest at the best possible price.

We cannot look for solutions from Opposition Members. They created many of the problems because of a lack of confidence in ever re-creating the market. The Labour party's latest document, entitled "Looking to the Future", in particular, a section entitled "Good homes for all", is a hotch-potch of Conservative policies that they can no longer avoid adopting, such as the right to buy. It is a summary of their old and failed methods of spending more public money, particularly through letting council spending rip and killing off what remains of the private sector.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree or disagree that the sale of council houses that has been forced on local authorities, plus the denial of the right of those authorities to build houses, have contributed to the large number of youngsters in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and the large number of homeless families? Many people cannot afford to take out a mortgage, particularly at present interest rates, yet the local authority, because it has been forced to sell many of its council houses, has nothing to offer them.

Mr. Martin

The hon. Lady should read her own party document "Looking to the Future", where she will see that the right to buy is supported.

I should like to apply precisely the same solutions that have sorted out other vital aspects for ordinary people, both rich and poor. We must face up to that if we are to sort out the problems. Of course I welcome the energy of my hon. Friend—soon to be right hon, I hope—the Minister for Housing and Planning. No one understands or sympathises more than he, but, until we apply to the provision of homes the solutions that supply other staple human needs so efficiently, we shall not comprehensively tackle homelessness. We shall see people, families in particular, in bedsits for ever, without the proper accommodation that we should provide.

Rent legislation should not apply to future lettings—forget past lettings. To many, that sounds as politically impossible as the privatisation of public utilities or effective legislation to tackle abuses of union power. The latter, incidentally, has emancipated many families not only from being caught up in the turmoil and bitterness of frequent strikes but from the lights suddenly going out, the heating going off, the trains suddenly stopping, the dead lying unburied, and the hospitals not accepting those who are ill. All those nightmares culminated in the infamous Labour winter of despair of 1978–79, which led to many years of Conservative Government.

I note the excellent work that is done by our housing associations to help single people as well as families. People in Portsmouth are no exception. The concept of a mix of public and private money and expertise is sound and is standing the test of time. I welcome the recent initiative by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning in urging upon housing associations an enabling role to bring privately owned property, estimated at a staggering 600,000 empty properties—that shows the lack of confidence that has been built up over many years of hammering the supply of rented properties—into the rented market by offering managed short-term leasing for the owner with guaranteed vacant possession at the end of the lease.

That is the way in which local authorities must act. I have been pressing it on my own local authority and other local authorities for as long as I can remember. To create confidence, we must find the homes, tell the owners that they may have their homes back at the end of a particular period, and they will let to people on the housing list in the meantime. That will make houses available, because people will have confidence that they will get their homes back.

We owe it to our constituents and to families all over the country to get to grips with remaining housing problems. The more boldly we act in this sphere—it is the agenda for the 1990s—the greater will be their reward.

The theme that runs through all the matters that I have raised is the principle that Government policy must complement, not replace, family and individual responsibility. It must encourage, not displace, the host of voluntary and charitable organisations to which so many citizens contribute. Of course, without the right economic policies, all the compassion in the world cannot be translated into sufficient effective help. The good Samaritan had to meet the innkeeper's bill, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) said in his inimitable style not long ago.

All the objectives that I have set out in my motion will be most effectively tackled by policies that encourage the creation of wealth in a strong, market-based economy, rather than the collectivist obsessions of past Labour Governments or any future one. We know from experience that such Governments, however well intentioned—I give every credit to the intentions of Labour Governments—contract the habit usually after one or two years of living beyond their means, and then beyond ours.

According to its latest document "Looking to the Future", the new model Labour party's policies, with their massive spending commitments, differ only in degree from the policies that led to the party's defeat in the 1987 general election, let alone those in the fiasco of that longest suicide note in history, as it was described by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), upon which the Labour party fought the 1983 general election. When I consider those policies and the policies in the new document, I wonder how many Opposition Members are truly reconstructed in the party's apparently new red rose image and how many, desperate for another Labour Government, are keeping quiet and swallowing any revisionism necessary.

When I was reading—I was determined to do so, even if it killed me—"Looking to the Future", to which I have referred many times, I considered what its authors were up to. I was helped by recollection of an old recipe from a Saxon medicine book: If sheep be ailing, take a little new ale and pour it into the mouth of each sheep, and manage to make them swallow it, quickish; that will prove of benefit to them. I thought that that was exactly what the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Cabinet were probably up to with their Back Benchers.

But the problem is that the document did not say how long the medicine's beneficial effects would last. It is certainly difficult to contemplate the electorate trusting the future to a party which has opposed most measures of the past decade. Those measures sought to strengthen family independence rather than state provision, provide choice rather than uniformity, overhaul benefits, establish the right to buy, reform education and the health service and build savings, rather than attack them. Under Labour, power would once again be taken from the home and the parents and would be given to the state, including to a patronising and bureaucratic Ministry for Women.

The Conservative party recognises what is required and has the necessary courage to achieve it. In my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister we have a winner. Opposition Members know it, and we know it. He has a Government around him of Ministers who are also winners. We must, and I am sure we will, continue to develop policies best designed to nurture and help families along the lines of my motion.

4.12 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Having told us that he did not intend to be a surrogate bishop this afternoon, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) decided to give us the reinterpretation that we have heard before of one of the most famous gospel stories. He told us that the real moral of the story of the good Samaritan was that we had to have some money in our pockets in the first place. Of course, the true moral of the story is that one must show unconditional love, care and respect for the person who has fallen on the other side of the road and is vulnerable, weak and in need of help. Herein lies the chasm which divides some Members.

We all welcome this debate on families. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South placed great emphasis on choice. For me that is a modern heresy. The idea that it is one's right to do whatever one wants at anyone else's expense is expressed again and again. We hear little about responsibility. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to provide more accommodation for people who wish to exercise the right to buy or, indeed, to allow the right to buy in the private sector, where many properties have lain empty for many years on end.

When I was chairman of the housing committee in Liverpool in 1978, we introduced policies to give people the chance to buy empty properties in the public sector and I was generally in favour of that proposal in the Government's legislation, but that alone is not enough. For the past decade I have been a trustee of the charity Crisis, which is the largest charity dealing with homelessness in this country. It was previously known as Crisis at Christmas. During that decade all hon. Members have been shamed as the numbers of homeless people have increased inexorably—we have all seen the people in cardboard city or the pictures of the homeless on our television sets. Anyone who walks around any major metropolis will see homeless people, many of them young, sleeping rough on the streets at night. That is where the parable of the good Samaritan is applicable. Surely it is not merely about the money to buy one's own home. In addition—it is not mutally exclusive—we need a willingness to reach out to the person whom no one else will care for or speak for.

The debate is timely because each party, in its own way, has been building a family policy and honing the issues before a general election. Although the received political wisdom is that elections are won or lost on economic issues, increasingly—the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South was right about this—public apprehension about the disintegration of social cohesion in Britain has forced each party to set out its stall on family policy.

Curiously, in contrast with much of the emphasis placed by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South, all the parties seem to come to the same conclusion—that family life will somehow be strengthened by making divorce even easier. The motion states that the family should be the basis for a stable, responsible … society". That is not possible if marriage is no longer to be regarded as a lifelong commitment. The statistics show that marriage is increasingly regarded as temporary and that children become the casualties. Marriage breakdown is 600 per cent. higher than it was in 1961 and involves more than 150,000 couples each year. One in three marriages now ends in divorce and we are fast approaching the American norm where 50 per cent. of all marriages break up. In this country, 3 million people will experience a broken marriage during this decade and 150,000 children under 16 are caught up in divorce every year. One in five British children can expect to experience their parents' divorce before they reach the age of 16.

In its document, "Family Change and Future Policy" the Family Policies Study Centre predicts that, by the year 2000, only one out of every two children will grow up in what it describes as a conventional family. The number of single parents abandoned and left to shoulder all the responsibility for rearing a child has risen inexorably, with one in 10 children in single parent families in 1979, compared with one in four now.

Not everyone decides to marry or to live in a family, but at some time in most people's lives the family provides love, companionship and security. When family life breaks down the community should do all in its power to protect and care for the casualties. I am well aware, as is probably every other hon. Member, of the bitter sequels to family breakdown—the bitterness and recriminations which have far-reaching and catastrophic effects on estranged partners and children alike. Rarely does a week go by without constituents consulting me about maintenance payments which have not been honoured, access arrangements which have broken down and legal battles which sometimes go on for years.

A few weeks ago I met a woman who told me how her husband had walked out on her when she was four months pregnant. He has never bothered to show the slightest interest in his six-months-old daughter, although he wants access to his 12-year-old son, who does not want to see his father. She contested his attempt to divorce, but was told by a court official in the Liverpool Crown court that her attempts to fight for her marriage represented attitudes from "the dark ages". Subsequently, she was rebuked by a judge who told her that her feelings did not "enter into it".

I took up that case with the Lord Chancellor's Office and was told it was a matter entirely for the local courts. Surely that is an example of how far the pendulum has swung away from the safeguarding of marriage and the family as our most basic community.

Many argue that families are irrelevant in modern society and that marriage should not be regarded as a permanent institution. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research—the Labour party's source of new ideas —argues that two years is too long for couples to wait for a fault-free divorce. The institute also argues for more publicly funded child care rather than tax relief, to help parents who prefer to stay at home. The same view is held by many Conservative Members and within my own party. Instead of making it earlier to divorce, policy should concentrate on strengthening family life and on making it easier for families to stay together.

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

Although there are no statistics, a large number of women are trapped in their homes with violent partners and cannot leave because they have nowhere else to go. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on women who are forced to live in a violent situation of that kind?

Mr. Alton

I will comment later on violence—and on pornography, which I believe helps to fuel it. I accept that the cases that the hon. Lady mentions are among the most painful of all. They should not be considered from a judgmental point of view. Instead, we must do all that we can to help the single parent to cease being an isolated element in society and to be a fully integrated part of the community, enjoying all the support that we can give. It is not a question of simply apportioning blame when acknowledging that families sometimes break up.

Even in cases where families want to stay together, often courts and court officials tend to shift the emphasis in the direction of favouring divorce which accounts for the massive increase in marriage breakdowns. People too often view the institution of marriage as a temporary commitment into which they can enter on a trial and error basis.

The Government can help the pendulum to swing back in the other direction in a number of ways. I should like every Government Department to produce an assessment of the effects of its policies on family life. If such an indicator and impact statement were built into every Government policy, that would be one way of entrenching the family. Also, taxation should not penalise marriage but ought to recognise the work of the spouse who undertakes the rearing of the children. Tax legislation ought to take into account the real costs of family life—particularly of caring for children. The state should encourage and enable family life, but—and in this I agree with the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South—it should never attempt to substitute for it.

In the case of the elderly, for example, Government policy could take account of changing demographic patterns. The hon. Gentleman mentioned grandparents. One in four of the population of the city that I represent are over retirement age. The fastest-growing group are the over-80s. Families ought to be given improvement grants for the purpose of providing granny flats, so that aged relatives can be accommodated in the family home, if they wish.

In many areas—including my own—planners have been the culprits in destroying the community and family life. Aged people are left in isolated tenements while their former home and the community are ripped apart, with their former residents being shanghaied to places miles away, often to be left in the most dehumanising conditions. Young families are often separated from their grandparents who, in former times, might have been able to give support and help.

The child should, from the moment of its conception, be at the centre of a family-based policy. Its life and its integrity must be protected. Once a child is born, it should, wherever possible, be provided for by both parents. When a parent walks out on his or her child, there should be an automatic attachment of earnings, so that the child can be properly cared for and supported. Children deserve a world that can offer them the best chance for development. Their good is the responsibility of parents and of the wider community.

A glimpse of the statistics shows how much we are failing our country's children. Last year, 184,000 unborn children had their lives ended in the womb and only four out of five pregnancies now go full term. Child abuse continues after birth. Barely a day passes without a new report about attacks on children. Child protection registers were established in 1974, but it was not until 1989 that the information they contained was first published. It revealed that 40,700 children were registered and that 41 per cent. were the cause of grave concern, as being at significant risk of abuse. Also, 4.8 per cent. of those children had been subjected to emotional ill-treatment or rejection; 14 per cent. had been sexually abused, 23 per cent. physically injured, and 12 per cent. persistently neglected, while 3 per cent. fell into a mixture of those categories. Such violence often stems from the spurious libertarian argument about choice that says, "It is my right to do whatever I want—even to take another person's life —because it is my right to choose." That is a form of modern heresy.

The free distribution of pornography is also defended on the grounds of choice. Pornography degrades families and homes throughout a country where it is so easily accessible. No hon. Member could be unaware of the effects and linkage that exist between the free availability of pornography, and violence against women and children. Despite the recent reports submitted to the Home Office claiming that there is no link, I am convinced that such links exist.

Our lack of concern for the young and the environment in which they are reared is reflected in many ways, for example in the number of runaways. The Children's Society estimates that last year 98,000 children ran away from their homes, but we do not even keep a national computerised register. I hope that the Minister will touch on that issue when she replies. The society estimates that 150,000 young people aged 16 to 19 are homeless each year —often lured away into a life of drugs and prostitution on the streets of London. It is estimated that 100,000 young people take drugs. In addition, alcohol abuse and gambling by young people in amusement arcades deeply corrode family life.

Poverty is another corrosive influence and I was sorry that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South did not say more about the issue. In 1989, the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted 20 examples of the underside of life in Britain. More than 15 million people in the mid-1980s were defined as living in poverty or on its margins, with more than 2 million children living in families with poverty. While tax allowances have increased, the value of child benefits has fallen since 1979. The value of tax allowance has gone up by 22 per cent. for married men and 19 per cent. for single people, but the value of child benefit has gone down by 12 per cent.

Babies with fathers in unskilled jobs run twice the risk of still birth and death under one year old of that faced by babies of professional fathers. Although two families in every three own their own home, homelessness is on the increase and has doubled in the past decade, with 30,000 homeless families sleeping in hostels. In 1989, a total of 70,480 households were in mortgage arrears for six months or more. If poverty, drugs, pornography, homelessness, abortion and divorce are corrosive of family life, so too is consumerism.

Last week in answer to questions that I tabled in the House, the Economic Secretary confirmed that, this year, 3 per cent. of all households—560,000—have serious debts. At the end of the third quarter of 1990, consumer debt stood at £49.6 billion. When broken down into categories, consumer debt is divided up as follows: bank credit cards, which have multiplied massively in the past decade, account for £7.6 billion; retail accounts amount to £2.3 billion; bank loans on personal accounts account for £17 billion; finance houses and other specialist credit granters, which are often loan sharks, account for £20 billion. That places massive pressure on families and we should not underestimate the effect on them. Where is our nation of savers? We have become a nation that is in pawn and in debt, with many families being hit by debts that they cannot meet. Some 560,000 households are in serious debt. Last year, 23,000 households had their gas supplies cut off and 73,000 households had their electricity supplies cut off, 13,780 homes were repossessed and there were 70,000 households in mortgage arrears of six months or more.

A genuine family policy would have the child and related considerations at the heart of its approach. It must be balanced when addressing all forms of pressure, economic and social.

The family can be a school of more abundant humanity. It can be the community's basic building block. It is uniquely suited to teach and to transmit cultural, ethical, social, spiritual and religious values. The House should therefore do everything possible to protect it and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South for giving us the chance to debate such a crucially important question.

4.29 pm
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) on winning the ballot. This subject touches many of us, and I agree with much of what he said.

The family is perhaps the most enduring institution known to mankind. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) observed, it is a basic building block for society itself. Without the family, society would be impossibly atomised, and relationships transient and unsatisfactory.

Like almost all institutions, the family has undergone rapid change over the past 25 years. The statistics for illegitimacy, divorce, cohabitation and abortion certainly bear witness to the pace of that change. It is almost conventional wisdom nowadays to speak of the family as if it were an anachronism: it seems to be fashionable to talk of a tidal wave of divorce and cohabitation sweeping away what left-wing intellectuals derisively call the traditional family.

Media pundits often claim that the family is really an institution of the past, and that the 21st century will see its demise. I believe, however, that the resilience of the family structure is probably greatly underestimated. During the second world war, for instance, many families were broken up as service men and women were lost in battle and civilians were killed, but the family remained as strong as ever in the 1950s. Ask school children whether they want to marry and have children, and the overwhelming majority will say yes. Most people spend most of their lives in a household headed by a married couple, most people believe adultery to be very wrong, and the great majority believe that children are best reared by both their natural parents.

It is not so much that traditional values have collapsed, for they patently have not. Most people continue to aspire to a basically traditional lifestyle involving marriage and the raising of children within that union. The problem is that we are increasingly finding it hard to live up to that ideal—in large part because we have far higher expectations of the degree of happiness that marriage will secure, and, conversely, because we are far less tolerant of unhappiness and disappointment.

What is indisputably clear is that marriage remains overwhelmingly popular, because individuals find that it works. For all the well-chronicled problems and unhappiness that can exist within human relationships, we would do well to remember that most people find the greatest happiness and fulfilment within marriage.

I believe that there is a great deal of agreement across the political spectrum about the importance of the family; yet there is no consensus about how policy-makers should try to support the family. An area of particular disagreement is the role of the mother. One of the most worrying developments that I have witnessed in the past decade or so is the devaluation of the status of women who choose to stay at home to bring up their children. Increasingly, it seems that an individual's identity is determined by his or her job, rather than by the role that he or she plays in society.

The housewife's role, rather than being scorned as unfulfilled or untested, should be recognised for the important position that it is. What more valuable job could one do than to mould a future generation? I spent 15 years as an unpaid housewife and mother raising three children before, in middle age, taking up a new career in politics. I become irritated when I hear politicians and business men telling women why, for a thousand and one reasons, from demography to self-fulfilment, they should go out to work.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

I am closely following the hon. Lady's argument and I understand her points. Does she agree that over the last decade many women in the United Kingdom have been forced to work because of changing family and financial circumstances? They usually have to take low-paid unskilled work, so it is not a matter of career prospects. They would much rather work in a fulfilled atmosphere at home, but necessity drives them to the market place where they have to find work in order to make ends meet. We need to enhance the role of women in society. Necessity should not interfere in the family by forcing women to work.

Mrs. Roe

Not all women return to work because of financial necessity. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill drew our attention to the high divorce rate. Many women feel that they have to return to work early because they fear that in middle age they may well find themselves divorced and with no career structure to which to return. Many young women are returning to the workplace in order to create a base for themselves in the unhappy event of divorce. I assure the House that the woman who stays at home looking after her family works just as hard running her home as she would running a business outside.

It is not the Government's role to encourage or discourage women from taking paid employment. Today married women certainly have far greater freedom of choice than ever before about whether to have a career outside the home. Opportunities through education, which their mothers or grandmothers never had, are now available to them. The Government should not campaign to get mothers into the workplace. Mothers should decide for themselves about whether to do that.

I would not wish to see British women subjected to the social and cultural tyranny which, for example, exists in Sweden where women who choose to stay at home to bring up children are derided as inadequate failures. As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South has said, choice is the key factor. Whether and how much a mother works outside the home is an intensely personal decision for wives and, of course, for their husbands.

Increasingly, women are deciding to work outside the home. In 1931, only 10 per cent. of married women were employed, while in 1987 the figure had risen to 60 per cent. It should be noted that most of that increase was due to the increase in part-time work. I suspect that it is despite the direction of Government or zealous feminists that women are managing to combine work with having a family.

By 1987, more than half of married couples with children consisted of two working partners. As the age of the youngest child rises, the number of mothers who choose to re-enter the work force rises as well. Among families in which the youngest child is under two years of age, 70 per cent. of mothers do not work outside the home. Among families in which the youngest child is over 10 years, the figure falls to 26 per cent.

We have begun to see a substantial rise in job sharing, part-time work, at-home work and flexitime, as a result of which working mothers can choose the hours that they work. Certainly, demographic and social changes have made it easier for women to enter the work force. As fewer and fewer teenagers are available, more and more companies will seek out mothers to fill vital positions. Firms that want to recruit and train mothers will increasingly have to offer attractive child care facilities and opportunities for part-time work. I see no reason why women should not be able to combine work and family.

I have no time for grandiose state-sponsored schemes to get women back to work—schemes operating through taxation or through the benefits system. Such schemes would only redistribute income from the poor to the affluent. By and large, two-earner households are wealthier than single-earner households where the mother stays at home to look after the children. What good could possibly be done by a regressive redistribution of income from the needy to the affluent? We must be careful to ensure that Government intervention does not distort. No Government should try to deny mothers the option to stay at home, yet that would be the effect of offering tax hand-outs or benefits to people who put their children into nurseries or creches. Encouraging one form of behaviour discourages or penalises another.

Today, couples have much higher expectations of marriage. One of the prime factors motivating women to work is the extra income, as well as the self-esteem, that it can bring. People want more for themselves and more for their children: a stable home, a car and holidays. Surely there is nothing wrong in looking for a better quality of life. That, quite simply, is a natural human impulse. Between 1979 and 1985, real household income rose by 8.8 per cent. overall. All family groups saw increases in real income, and couples with children saw their real income rise by 9 per cent.

But with higher expectations come also greater opportunities to fail. As the hon. Member for Mossley Hill has outlined, divorce is now much more prevalent. In 1951 2.6 marriages in 1,000 ended in divorce; by 1987, the rate had risen to 12.7 per 1,000. However, while the divorce rate doubled during the 1970s, it appears that it remained fairly level throughout the 1980s.

Over the last few decades we have seen many changes in the structure of the family. Some trends, such as the rise in illegitimacy, are very worrying, while others, such as the rise in living standards that most families have enjoyed, are very encouraging. What is clear is that the family will continue to endure and adapt. I suggest that, at least in part, the chance of it doing so successfully will depend on the Government ensuring that the woman who chooses to stay at home is not disadvantaged or pressurised in any way. As a housewife, she should not be made to feel that she is at the bottom of the career ladder. She should be provided with opportunities to retrain or to learn new skills if or when she wishes to resume paid employment as her children grow older.

4.44 pm
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) on having chosen this subject for debate. I think that I am right in saying that the previous time we debated anything connected with children and the family was the occasion on which I chose the subject for a motion. My only reason for mentioning that—and it may turn out to be the only point of agreement between the hon. Gentleman and myself—is that only when individual Members take the initiative does the House take seriously, or bother to discuss, the subject. Yet a large proportion of the population is involved, and whatever action is taken will determine to a very large extent the sort of adults that children will become.

The hon. Gentleman, despite the best will in the world, is rather ill-informed about what is actually happening to children and to family life in this country. It is very easy to say, as he said, that people ought to look forward rather than backward, that these are policies for the future. Some of the problems facing many children today have been mentioned, and I shall talk about others later. Those problems have arisen because of the policies that the Government have enacted during the past 11 years.

I asked a question about housing, and the hon. Gentleman replied that the Labour party believes in the right to buy. That is not the point that I was making. We have never said that people should not have the right to buy; what we have said—this is the point that I was making—is that if local authorities, irrespective of the housing situation in their areas, are told that they must allow people to buy their council houses and, at the same time, are deprived of the ability to replace those houses, a housing problem will arise. Obviously, there will always be people who cannot afford to buy houses. Why are so many local authorities, such as the one in my area, under enormous pressure to rehouse families? Why do we not have accommodation for them? The reason is that the best houses have been sold, and Government policy dictates that we cannot replace those that have been lost. That is why we are in this vicious circle. It is also why the number of children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and the number of children who have run away have increased, and why a host of other calamities have arisen. Thus there is a direct connection with Government policy.

In that regard, I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). Indeed, his remarks made me think that he had probably read some of the policy documents that I, in my capacity as Labour party spokesperson on children, have written. I agree entirely that, before introducing legislation, any Government ought to look at the effects it will have on children. That is very rarely done. Indeed, in this respect, the last Labour Government were guilty. Had such effects been taken into account, we should not have built high-rise flats in the 1950s. We should not have expected kids to thrive and flourish in such homes, and we should not have expected women not to be bored and miserable and to become dependent on Valium because there was no escape for them.

No, we do not relate our policies to the needs of children. I could talk about this in the context of transport and a host of other things, but I do not have time to do so. I repeat that when we are passing legislation it is important that we consider its effects on children—its effects now, in 10 years' time and in 20 years' time.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South, by way of giving evidence that the Conservative Government have done a great deal for children, highlighted the Children Act 1989. I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered that Act. The hon. Gentleman—indeed, the whole House—will know that one of the reasons for our having achieved legislation in the shape of the Children Act arose from the Cleveland report's appalling disclosures of child abuse, which came as a shock to many hon. Members. Indeed, there are very few people who were not appalled by those disclosures. The Government were right to wait for the publication of that report before introducing legislation. In that way they were able to provide greater protection for children. I was happy to support the legislation.

However, there is no money to implement the provisions of the Act. We have heard about the large number of children on at-risk registers who are not attached to any social worker. In the light of what we know about child abuse in this country, that is absolutely disgraceful. Indeed, it is unbelievable and inexcusable. The purpose of the Children Act was to protect children, yet in London and all other large cities there are increasing numbers of children on at-risk registers. That is not because people are treating their children worse; it is because we are beginning to find out how badly people have always treated their children. Of course, it is a minority who abuse children, but people are disclosing abuse, children are coming forward and social workers are trained to recognise the signs. This is all useful and desirable, but we need the money to implement the legislation.

The local authority in my area has said that employing the extra staff needed to do that job would cost £400,000 or £500,000 a year. That local authority, like all others, has to consider its poll tax bill. It is ridulous that, in order to ensure that we are not poll tax capped, we have to cut services that are needed to avoid damage to children and to the fabric of society. I urge Conservative Members in particular, who put themselves forward as members of the party of the family, to look at what the Government have done to families. They should not say, "I am not concerned about the past, let us look to the future", because we are picking up the pieces of the past for the minority—sadly an increasing one—of our children who face appalling problems.

The Government frequently hide their inactivity behind a mask of ignorance. The figures about the number of children who go missing have rightly been read out. There are about 98,000 on the books of the Children's Society, but the Government say that they do not collect those figures nationally. I have asked about the number of children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but the Government do not have figures on that. I have been referred to some other agency. I have asked about the number of children who play truant and about the number who work illegally—some for pocket money, but some because their parents are unemployed and they have to be a contributory factor in breadwinning for the family—and the Government do not have the figures.

When the Government enact their policy, they should know about all these problems and about why they exist. No party can claim to be the party of the family when it knows so little about children and family life. We know that 2 million or more children are living in poverty and of the increase in the number of reported cases of child abuse and of violence within families. I do not know whether the incidence of such crimes has gone up, but I know that there are many more reported cases. We should be devising policies and making it easier for women and children who experience violence to be offered the means of escape.

This is where I part company with those who hold up their hands in horror over the divorce rate. One has to take into account why people get divorced. People do not opt for divorce lightly, but many have taken advantage of easier divorce laws to get out of a situation that they can stand no longer. They know that they can escape from such situations. One should not say that divorce is wrong, or should be discouraged, or that people should stay together for the sake of the children. Ask the adults whose parents stayed together in an atmosphere of violence and misery for the sake of the children that they then were, and see what they say.

Mr. Burns

Does the hon. Lady accept that, in many cases, it is more harmful to the children if parents stay together rather than seeking divorce? Divorce is not an easy option.

Miss Lestor

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Our society lacks the proper structure to deal with divorces, with children of divorces once separation has taken place, and with the changing pattern of family life in which both parents remarry and have children in the new relationships. Few organisations help children and other families to relate to that and to organise their lives. I do not believe that the family has collapsed or is disappearing. It has fundamentally changed and will continue to change. We have to devise structures and ways to help people, particularly children, to cope with those changes, and to take away the guilt associated with the break-up of marriage.

Within our definition of families, we should have more than the narrow concept of mother and father and Janet and John in a two or three-bedroomed house with a dog. A family is what the children perceive it to be. It can be a one-parent family with all the love and care of a two-parent family. It can be a grandmother who cares for the children because things have gone wrong. We do children who are not in the accepted pattern of family life but are in offshoots of it a disservice to present to them the ideal of the family to which many hon. Members feel we should aspire. Many children never can and never will have such a family life, but they should not be deprived of family support or of what is available to families.

Mr. Alton

I agree with some of what the hon. Lady is saying and I do not elevate the idea of the nuclear family to an ideal because things can go badly wrong. However, does she accept that, all other things being equal, the best interests of the child are served where there can be two parents in a stable relationship that does not change? When a child loses one or other of its parents, for whatever reason, it may suffer enormous emotional trauma.

Miss Lestor

The hon. Gentleman and I agree on many points. He is saying that if a family is loving, that is the best thing for the child. That is true, if people are prepared to work at it and if their irritations, antagonisms and personalities are such that they can work at it. However, that is not the case for a growing minority of our children. My plea is only that we take these people with us when we present our ideas about what is desirable and preferable in family life.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) said that women who stay at home to look after their children are made to feel guilty. I do not agree with that. It is up to people to make a choice. The trouble is that many women do not have that choice. Many are forced to go out to work, for a wide variety of reasons. One of the worst suggestions that the Government made, which seems to have got lost somewhere, is that if a woman refuses to name the father of her child, for whatever reason, she should be penalised by the loss of 20 per cent. of her income support. There may be good reasons why a woman makes such a refusal, but, even if the Government feel that they must take punitive measures, why must they take it out on the kids? That is what they are doing. They are saying, "Right, we are not giving you much anyway, but if you won't tell us who the scoundrel who fathered your child is, we shall take 20 per cent. from your income support and push you deeper into poverty."

Women's rights are tied up with their right to work, or not to work, as they choose. It is up to people to decide how they run their lives. The terrible dilemma for many one-parent families is that the cost of child care is so great that women in such a situation would have to earn between £50 and £70 a week more than most women to pay for the child care that enables them to work. Furthermore, by working they lose many of the benefits that they would otherwise have. If we believe in freedom for people to please themselves, and for women in such a situation to please themselves, the Government should look closely at child care arrangements, which represent one of the biggest barriers to work for many single women. If they want to stay at home looking after their children, it should be made easier for them to do so. Sometimes, social security offices do not make it easy for mothers to stay at home to look after their children when that is what they would like to do.

As the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South said, child care is a complex issue. Nursery education has always been free—the problem is that there has never been much of it. If one is lucky enough to live in the area of a local authority that offers nursery' ethication—most likely Labour—one can send one's child there. Mostly, it would be part-time provision. Apart from that facility, there is a variety of other child care, most of which is expensive and some of which is for only a few hours a day, which does not help the working mother. It can be a workplace nursery. For the good of family life and of children, mothers and fathers, whatever child care policies are developed, we should be talking about child care facilities for all children, not just for those of working mothers. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) will say more about this later. Whatever the cost of child care facilities, if they are available only for working mothers, whenever a Government decide that such women are not needed in the work force any longer, they will stop them.

In whatever form it comes, child care is an essential part of bringing up children. After they are two or three, because of their essential curiosity, most children want more than can be provided in the best of homes. At that age, they learn more than at any other time in their lives and as most of us cannot provide enough stimulus in our homes, we look to outside agencies. My plea is, as it always has been, that such a facility should be available for all our children. If we are to have priorities and to move step by step, we must ensure that poverty does not deny children access to such facilities while we allow those with money access to better facilities.

An example has been provided by Warwickshire county council, which has recently decided to close its nursery schools—as they come under the Department of Education and Science, children can attend them free of charge—and then to let them out on a commercial basis. That means that the poorer people in the area for which the county council is responsible will not be able to afford the nursery education that was available to their children free of charge, and there is much poverty within the area. If we push private provision too far, many children will be unable to participate in pre-school activity because it will be far too expensive for their parents.

Many of the Government policies and many of the attitudes that have been developed have contributed to a denial of access to nursery education for many children. I believe that this will contribute to a breakdown in family life, which the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South claims that the Government have enhanced. The freezing of child benefit, the removal of income support for 16 to 20-year-olds, the introduction of poll tax, the shortage of housing and a host of other things have all been contributory factors in breaking down family life. Life has been made harder for families.

I was appalled to receive a letter from a woman who had taken on her murdered sister's two children. She had taken them into her home alongside her own two children. No money is involved. The children are not in the care of the local authority. As she is hard up—the family is not rich—she applied to the Department of Social Security for the extra £1 for that group of siblings as well as for her own. She argued, "I have taken on another family and there are two first-born children." The Department said, "You cannot have the money. You can have it only for one, because you are a unit. You can apply only in respect of the older child in the situation in which you find yourself." I could not believe it. Equally, I could not believe the letter I received from the Department. I was confident when I wrote that it would accept that a mistake had been made. After all, what is £1?

That sort of application of a rigid rule undermines what we understand by family life. It undermines also what the woman is doing in bringing up the children of her murdered sister.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South talked about what he would like to see in future. We would not need to have so many dreams, hopes and ideas about and for the future if the past 11 years had not been so bad for our children. Things have become worse for a minority of our children. For a growing minority of our children, things continue to become worse. Until the Government grasp that nettle and understand what family poverty is, what child abuse is and how some families depend on child benefit and the uprating of it, we shall face year in and year out the problems that we are discussing. At the same time, more of our children and more families will suffer.

5.3 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

There have been some wide-ranging and thoughtful contributions to an intersting debate. I do not propose to add to the wide-ranging nature of it. Instead, I shall concentrate on one narrow issue about which I feel strongly, and on which I know that I am right, and that is the remarriage of widows.

I shall spell out the background. As people become healthier and live longer, and as their old age is healthier, it is possible for more and more people to contemplate remarriage later in their lives. My mother remarried at 74, and the last five years of her life were as happy as any other part of it. I shall concentrate on widows because the longevity of women is greater than that of men, and pension schemes are normally based on male contributions rather than those made by females. Increasingly, widows are in receipt of pensions because of the contributions that their first husbands made at their places of work. Those pensions will cease, however, if the widows remarry. Some of these pensions are quite generous.

I represent a considerable number of service men and their families including many service widows who are living on naval pensions. If one of those widows wants to remarry, she has to face the agonising choice of remarrying and forfeiting the pension—it would fall on remarriage —or remaining alone when it might be her inclination, and that of the man she has met, to remarry. It is an agonising choice and it should not have to be faced by anyone.

In many instances the widow will decide that she wishes to remarry. Her second husband—I am talking mainly of elderly people—will probably be already retired. If that is the position, the women will have no pension rights associated with her second husband. It will be a post-service marriage. If she should be widowed again, for a second time, she will be left without the first pension that she received by virtue of her first husband's service. She will have no pension by virtue of her second husband's service because it was a post-service marriage. People should not be placed in that position.

I have spent years trying to explain to Ministers that there is a real problem. Unfortunately, I am getting nowhere. I have been told consistently that if a woman decides to remarry it is only right that she should cast her lot in with her second husband and look to him for a pension arrangement. As I have said, that is impossible if the second husband has already retired and it is a post-service marriage.

I shall deal specifically with examples that concern the Ministry of Defence because many of my constituents are service personnel, but my argument can be applied generally throughout the public and private sectors. I greatly welcome the introduction by the Ministry of Defence of a discretionary right. The widow who marries a second time can ask for her pension from her first husband to be reinstated. The rule is that if she is significantly worse off as a result of the second marriage and losing the first pension, the Ministry, in its wisdom, will contemplate and grant a pension that goes back to the one that was paid to the widow by virtue of her first husband's service.

I ask hon. Members to put themselves in the position of a widow who is contemplating remarriage who does not know whether she will have her first pension restored as of right. Discretionary restoration is not good enough. No sensible woman with a significant pension that enables her to live in some comfort in retirement will cast that pension aside with only the hope that the pension fund trustees will restore her first husband's pension if she should be left a widow for a second time.

A most respectable elderly couple who are known to me—I hasten to say that they are not constituents of mine—went away for a weekend and returned to tell their friends that they had married in their absence. They told me privately that they had done nothing of the sort. If they had remarried, the woman would have lost her first pension and would, perhaps, have been left without a pension on second widowhood. As I have said, this is a serious problem.

Unlike many of the other submissions that are made to the Treasury and rejected by it, I am delighted that what I am suggesting would not cost anything. I know that there are a significant number of widows who would like to remarry but who cannot do so. As a result, their pension from their first husband continues. If we were to introduce a rule that had the effect that if a widow remarried and was left a widow for a second time her pension from the first marriage would be restored automatically, more widows would enter second marriages. Socially that would be desirable. It is my own family experience that it would make for a great deal of happiness in the community, and it would not cost anything. We would be suspending the first pension only during the second marriage. If a widow were not left a widow for a second time, nothing would happen. If she were to find herself in that position, the first pension would be restored.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

My hon. Friend makes an important point that applies to a significant number of people. Perhaps we should ask the Ministry of Defence how many letters from Members of Parliament it has answered. Two leading members of my association are in this position. I suspect that the Ministry of Defence may have been dealing with this in an atomistic way. Perhaps we should combine.

Mr. Viggers

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Martin

Join the club.

Mr. Viggers

My hon. Friend asks me to join. Perhaps we should table a joint parliamentary question.

I am not picking out the Ministry of Defence as a bad employer, but my experience is based on it and on service personnel. I am considering public and private sector pension schemes generally.

I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to consider this issue carefully; it is of great importance to a few people. The change that I have suggested would be the best one. Others say that changes should be made to the pension arrangements of the second husband and that his pension scheme should bear the burden of the post-service marriage. For technical reasons, I do not think that that is as good as the right to restoration of the first pension. I am grateful for the opportunity to make that small point.

5.10 pm
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) on securing this debate. Since coming to the House nearly four years ago, he and I have tried to maintain as reasonable a working relationship as possible, bearing in mind our views on politics. I give a genuine welcome to the debate and to the issues that he has raised.

The debate is a bit of a pot-pourri on the issues of the family. I am the youngest grandfather in the House; I have two grandchildren. I believe in marriage as an institution, as I have now tried it twice. There is no such thing as an easy divorce. We must try, not only in legal but emotional terms, to provide resources to enable families to remain together or, if that is not possible, to disengage in such a way that it damages neither the partners nor, more important, the children. That disengagement is more traumatic for children than the final outcome of a divorce and separation, and that trauma can remain with the children for many years and affect many aspects of their lives.

We should discuss this matter not in a pious way but by recognising that every statistic is a human being in a complex relationship. Our constituents come to see us about the housing, economic and social consequences of the breakdown of marriage.

An on-going problem for women is violence in the home, which leads them to seek refuge in order to protect themselves and their children. When women cannot find refuge, they remain in marriage and in those violent circumstances. Insufficient resources are made available for local authorities to provide refuges for women who are suffering from violence. In many parts of the United Kingdom this evening, women will suffer, not for the first time, from the violence of a partner but will be unable to take themselves to a place of refuge either because none exists or because the police are unwilling to take action.

The problems that we are discussing are complex, and we shall be unable to resolve them by 7 pm. If we are committed to the concept of the family, its role must be maintained and developed. For the majority of people, there must be genuine choice in employment, training, health care, housing, personal social services and pensions. Access to those services must be consistent with the needs of the family either as a group or individually. I want to concentrate not on the generality of family policies but on the suffering of families because of a breakdown in personal relationships, which affects the behaviour of children.

By the time that this House adjourns on Friday afternoon, two mothers in Britain will have lost a child because of solvent abuse. Solvent abuse knows no social barriers. It can affect a family who are well off, on middle income, on benefit or who have no social problems. It is a growing problem. Resolve is a national charity that works with the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Health and the Home Office to establish the nature of solvent abuse and to introduce measures to protect individuals. Between June and December 1990, there were 725 reports of solvent abuse. There were 230 reported deaths of young people because of solvent abuse, and a further 215 were involved in criminal activities because of it.

The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) has campaigned long and vigorously on the issue of solvent abuse, which has led to changes in the law and to growing recognition by the Home Office of the need for special measures to take care of those involved in solvent abuse. Despite those changes in the law, an escalating number of children are becoming involved for a short or a longer period. It can make someone a chronic abuser or a social abuser. Social abusers are mainly those who come under peer pressure at school not to "chicken out". A child may abuse solvents only once, but such is the toxicity of the materials used that one sniff is sufficient to kill. I am aware of two cases of the so-called chicken syndrome, whereby a friend was saying, "Come on, try it; it gives you a bit of a high, but there are no problems, we have done it before" —and those children are now dead.

Society must see what it can do to identify children who are at risk, why they become involved and what we can do about it. The House has rightly turned its back on criminalising those who are involved in solvent abuse, and has looked to social changes to try to tackle the problem. Forty-six per cent. of children who die from solvent abuse are found at home. Children under 17 are most at risk, and single parents in particular need support.

Many of those who died were under the influence of other people—older children or their peers. It is important that the House should make a commitment to give resources and to work with Resolve in the voluntary sector and with local education departments to develop special projects to bring to the attention of children at school the damage that can result from solvent abuse and to enable teachers to identify children at risk.

We must deal at local level with those who sell solvents. Often, shopkeepers sell solvents because they are ignorant of the use to which they will be put. Following legislation, it is now a criminal offence to sell solvents to children but, tragically, a small hard core of retailers are prepared to sell solvents to schoolchildren knowing that they will not be used for the stated purpose. That is not just my view; it is shown in surveys conducted earlier this year by Resolve and local authorities in Cheshire and Newcastle. Industry and the Government should give additional financial resources to assist Resolve to run training schemes at local level for retailing employees who sell these dangerous solvents.

School practices should be changed. There is no need to use Tippex when water-based solutions do the job just as adequately and pose no danger to schoolchildren. Resources are not always needed—all it takes is a common-sense approach by the Government and retailers to remove from shop shelves those solvents which are readily available to schoolchildren and which, if sniffed, may kill them. Any Government who are concerned about the family, particularly children, can take that reasonable approach on board.

Amusement arcades are another source of child exploitation. Since 1987, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) has twice tried to change the law to regulate the amusement arcade industry. The Minister may reply by saying that the Home Office is satisfied with self-regulation. My experience as a Member of Parliament who has been involved with groups of children addicted to amusement arcade gambling is that self-regulation does not work. Few amusement arcade owners do anything practical to prevent children under 16 from using their premises. Indeed, were it not for the under-16s using those arcades, the clientele would be significantly reduced.

I know of cases of young people who became involved in car thefts organised by adults who had hung about amusement arcades, first giving the young people money to feed their habit and then using them to steal, while the adult criminals got away with the booty.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) spoke eloquently about problems in inner-city areas. He will know of the large-scale inquiry into prostitution rackets involving female and young male teenagers who are recruited from amusement arcades because they are vulnerable and because their gambling can be exploited.

Mr. Alton

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments about the acute problems in the centre of Liverpool. Is he aware that one in five of those who visit the amusement arcades are estimated to be under nine?

Mr. McCartney

The hon. Gentleman is right. That happens in my area as well. When local authorities have attempted, through their planning and other regulations, to prevent such premises from opening, their decisions have been overturned on appeal by the Department of the Environment, and the Home Office has been unwilling to replace self-regulation with a regulatory system.

Why should the industry be worried about the loss of self-regulation? Arcade owners who do not allow children on their premises have nothing to fear from legislation. Only those who exploit young children and those who allow their premises to be used by criminals who exploit children have something to fear.

Every day, tens of thousands of young people are involved with amusement arcades. Some take part in criminal activities; some steal from their parents; some leave school at lunchtime to go to an amusement arcade and use the money that they have been given for food to feed their gambling habits. Many of the problems that relate to children being out of school can be traced back to local amusement arcades.

If we are serious about dealing with this social problem, Government assistance is needed, as well as involvement by parents and local authorities. If we do not tackle that problem, a small percentage of the young generation will be involved in a gambling tradition which is exploited by criminals and others involved in prostitution. I am sure that the House would not like that to continue without doing something about it.

5.26 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) on his success in the ballot and I thank him for enabling us to debate this important issue. We live in an age when practice may have changed but, sadly, all too often attitudes have not. The prevailing attitude among many people is that a wife should stay at home, looking after the children, or locked to the kitchen sink preparing her husband's tea or evening meal. I do not in any way downgrade those mothers and wives who wish to stay at home. It is a noble profession to look after the house and bring up children and it should on no account be criticised.

We live in a different era when many women prefer to go out to work or have to go to work from financial necessity. There are two sides to the coin. Everyone should have the right to choose to stay at home and should not be criticised for doing so or be considered dull, miserable or old-fashioned for following that course. Equally, everyone should have the right to choose to go out to work, earn a living and receive the stimuli of a working profession and career.

It is utterly wrong to think that, as soon as one has a child, one must give up the career that one enjoyed in order to stay at home. The trouble is that, all too often, people look down their noses at working mothers and think that they are worse mothers for going out to work or they think that the children are deprived of love and affection and the security of a home.

I speak from a little personal experience. In the light of some of the suggestions that I shall make, perhaps I should declare an interest. My wife is a working wife and we have a young daughter who is just over three. From the day my daughter was born, I knew that my wife would continue her career as soon as that was feasible and that that would entail someone else looking after our daughter during the day. Perhaps foolishly, but for the first 12 months after my wife returned to work, I was embarrassed when the inevitable question came: "What do you do with your daughter during the day?" I fell into the old trap. I thought that people would think that we were less good parents because one of us did not stay at home to look after that child. I used to hum and ha but finally, with many justifications and explanations, I would confess that our daughter went to a creche during the day. I explained how wonderful it was for her, how she enjoyed the company of other children, how she was learning to share more and get on with other children at an earlier age than she would otherwise have done.

After about 12 months I thought about the way in which I had behaved and realised that there was no reason why I should attempt to justify what we were doing or feel embarrassed about it. There was nothing wrong with it. Certain children enjoy the company of other children all day. They enjoy the stimuli that they get from each other, the constant attention given by the people looking after them, and the love that they receive—provided that they return in the late-afternoon or early evening and at the weekend to a secure and loving family home.

I make no apology for my view that everyone who wishes to take that decision should be able to do so. Sadly, some people have that decision forced upon them for economic reasons, and we must consider the awful cost of child care for people who wish to return to work. The problem affects not only those families on low incomes or single-parent families, although it is obviously greater for them. In many parts of the country it is virtually impossible to break out of the poverty trap. It is a vicious circle which traps them at home when they would dearly like to have the choice of working. Their weekly income is simply not sufficient to enable them to afford a child minder or place their child in a creche and still provide a reasonable standard of living for themselves and their families. Facilities range from child minding, which is a relatively inexpensive option—although I choose my words carefully—to the kind of creche in which I place my daughter. That costs £500 a month which, over a year, is more than it costs to send children and young people to many of our public schools.

Child care can be an expensive business and it is out of far too many people's range. There is a range of options for the care of one's children—creches, child minders and nannies who live in—but they all cost money. The Government must consider carefully the question of tax relief on the money that is paid out, which is earned income in all cases. The tax man twice gets his share of the cake: he taxes the money earned by the parent and does not give tax relief on the fees paid out of that taxed income. For many single parents, tax relief could make the difference between staying at home, trapped on income support and other benefits, and going out to work to gain experience and build the foundations of a career that will lead to an improved standard of living.

There is a problem with child minders. A few councils adopt rules that I find quite incomprehensible. My own county council—Essex—is one of them. According to that council's rules, one child minder may look after only three children. Clearly, child minding cannot be made into a business with 12 or 18 children being looked after by one person, because that is not sensible, but nor is it sensible to apply a rigid rule. When I dealt with a constituency case 18 months ago, I could not understand the county council's resistance and lack of flexibility. A lady who had been a registered child minder for 19 years was looking after three children. Then, one of the mothers found a place for her child for half a day each week in the local nursery run by the education authority. She was expecting another baby and wanted that new-born child to be looked after by the child minder whom she had used for many years. With the older child being looked after only on a part-time basis, the child minder would, in effect, have been looking after three and a half children a week. She was not allowed to do that. The rules said that she could look after only three children. There was no argument, no compromise and no flexibility. That seemed to me to be pointless bureaucracy. It is a pity that local authorities are not more flexible.

Playgroups and nursery schools are not the answer when it comes to helping women back to work. They do a magnificent job in their different ways but they usually provide facilities on a part-time basis—a morning or an afternoon session. Even if one is lucky enough to have placed one's child in a nursery on a full-day basis, the hours may not be compatible with one's own working hours if one wants to work full time. In those circumstances, one is stuck. Nursery schools are not an easy option unless one works part time.

Young mothers should take the opportunity to form their own playgroups of creches tailor-made to the needs of their friends and neighbours. Some mothers who would not want to go to work in an office love looking after children and, for reasonable remuneration, they could enable their friends and neighbours to go out to work.

I urge the Minister to use all her influence to press the case with the Treasury, which, for many reasons—some of them perfectly understandable—has been resistant to the idea of providing tax relief. We made a step forward in the Budget introduced by the then Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, last March, in which the £8,500 earnings rule in respect of taxation for workplace nurseries was abolished. In Chelmsford, and, I am sure throughout the country, more workplace nurseries have been developed. Smaller companies that could not embark on such projects on their own have joined forces to set up workplace nurseries. That has been a bonus and it has worked.

The Treasury should reconsider. It should not be blinkered. It should not close its eyes but should re-examine the need to help more people back to work. It should stop condemning people who desperately want to go back to work—or to go to work—but cannot because they are stuck in the poverty trap.

It is all a question of attitude. Three years ago, I tabled an early-day motion calling for creche facilities in this place. I think that I was the first hon. Member to do that. We have a work force of thousands and I see no reason why we should not have a creche. Government Departments are now developing workplace creches. At the time, some of my hon. Friends thought that I was bananas. They thought that mine was an extraordinary view for a Tory to take and that there must be something wrong with me. I was new to this place and they probably thought, "He does not know his way around." Their attitude was that Tories did not behave in that way. I ask, "Why not?" Why should not those employed in the Palace of Westminster—not only hon. Members but the back-up staff of thousands, many of whom have young children —enjoy the same benefits and help as those employed elsewhere?

Ms. Richardson

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman supported the idea of a creche in the Houses of Parliament which is something for which we have been working for a very long time. I hope to goodness that we will have a creche one day. What about the need for creche facilities for the staff in this place who work split shifts? Catering staff come in, prepare lunches and have a couple of hours off in the afternoon. They then have to return to prepare dinners. They need support and help. Care for children within the confines of the Palace of Westminster would be very useful for those people.

Mr. Burns

That is an extremely valid point. I hope that we can address that problem if right hon. and hon. Members could persuade the powers that be—

Ms. Richardson

The Leader of the House.

Mr. Burns

Yes indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—that creche facilities are a reasonable proposition. They are not a gimmick or something that we have to fight over for years to come. However, I accept that my view might be unfashionable among many of my colleagues.

Maintenance and divorce are clearly pressing problems facing many women. Even now husbands or partners can walk out of the family home and totally abandon any financial responsibility for their children. The mother must then turn to the state for support. Far too often, the level of income support that the state provides is well below that which the errant husband or father could afford to raise the children involved. We may find it incomprehensible that fathers or partners can behave in that way, but that is a major fact of life and it happens far too often.

I welcome the Bill that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will be presenting to the House to change maintenance payments and to make those errant husbands and fathers financially responsible for their children. That legislation is long overdue. Frankly, it should have been introduced years ago and it would have avoided so much of the suffering and misery that have been inflicted on mothers.

I hope that the law will be changed so that if an errant husband or partner goes abroad he will not be able to evade his financial responsibilities because the Department of Social Security will be able to track him down wherever he goes in the world. That would be a step forward. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), has been active and extremely helpful in that regard.

Why on earth should women have to suffer the hardship, misery and upset of raising their children on their own, which in itself can be extremely difficult, and in addition be burdened with financial worries and problems because of the selfishness of their former partners? I am pleased that that problem will be considered and hopefully, in the majority of such cases, there will be a genuine improvement and benefit for mothers who are treated in that way.

The Lord Chancellor's Department is currently considering proposals about the future of our divorce laws. Family life is the essence of society. However, there must be a balance. There is the too-easy divorce whereby one partner, after a row or an argument, can simply throw up his or her hands and say, "Right, that's it. I can't stand you any longer, I'm going." That is too easy. On the other hand, it would be wrong to have the law too tight so that two warring factions are imprisoned in a home from which they cannot break out. There is nothing more debilitating or miserable for a child than to have to live in a family home with two parents for ever at each other's throats.

Mr. McCartney

We must consider reconciliation in family courts and the need to make things as easy as possible once it has been decided that a marriage has broken down irretrievably. In this country we tend to enter legalistic situations in which the only people who benefit from a marriage breakdown are the solicitors acting for either party.

We must rely on our perception of what is best for the children. Very often the last thing of concern to legislators is the children. We tend to create legislation under which it is even more difficult to end marriages.

I hope that we will not argue, as has been argued in another place, that divorce is far too easy and that it should be tightened up. I have found that in a general sense the legalistic activities involved in divorce are as damaging as the break-up itself. We should have family courts that can ease the position for children and the parents.

Mr. Burns

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. We do not want to relax the divorce laws so that a partner can simply walk out of the home and so end the marriage. There should be more attempts at genuine conciliation. However, once it has been established that the marriage, for whatever reason, has irrevocably broken down, it is only right that the marriage should be ended as swiftly and painlessly as possible for the children and the partners involved so that they can then get on with rebuilding their lives and repair the damage and emotional scars.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South for allowing us this debate during which we have been able to raise many issues about which we all feel deeply.

5.48 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I whisper to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) that nothing makes life for a young Member of Parliament so perilously difficult with his colleagues as producing a few practical and sensible ideas about how the Palace of Westminster could work more easily. I speak with fellow feeling, because I once found myself in the office of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for having suggested a better use for accommodation. I will leave it at that, but I felt for the hon. Member for Chelmsford in that respect.

In some ways, this debate is rather like Emperor Nero and the burning of Rome. Although in normal circumstances I would have agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), who said that we can discuss such important matters only by private initiative, it is incredible that the House cannot have time this week to discuss the Gulf, while we can debate this subject and mining subsidence tonight. I will leave it at that, because such matters would be more properly raised in an application under Standing Order No. 20. However, I believe that it is legitimate to refer to Gulf families. I ask that factual question straight away in the hope that the Home Office can provide some answer.

At Dumbarton Denny Hall on Friday night, and frequently since, I have been asked, as a Scottish Member of Parliament, whether it is true that nearly or more than 40 per cent. of the service men in the Gulf are Scots. The figure that is given is 13,500-plus, but there has been much comment on it. I simply ask whether someone in the Official Box or from the Ministry of Defence can answer that factual question. At the public meeting that was arranged by the Dumbarton Labour party and attended by many people of no party at all, I could not answer that factual question.

Hon. Members have received a letter from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in which he says: Dear Colleagues"— I imagine that it is to every Member of Parliament— As you may know, many Gulf Support Groups have been set up throughout the UK by the mothers, families and friends of personnel serving in the Gulf, and by others who wish to help. These groups aim to provide comfort and support to our personnel over and above the welfare services available from the Armed Forces. They are writing supportive letters to our troops and sending gifts from their local communities. I believe these activities are worthwhile and should be encouraged. If there is a group in your constituency I am sure they would welcome your interest and support. So it goes on.

My childhood memory of my mother is that, for six years, she was involved in the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association. I do not in any way run down the work that SSAFA does, but I offer my controversial opinion that such letters are not the way in which to help families in the Gulf. They should be told the brutal truth that any land battle on top of an oilfield would mean such misery that it would resemble not the events of 1939 but those of 1915 and 1916—the Somme and Passchendaele. Before anybody dismisses me, I do not know whether anybody present has actually been tank crew. I have. Although not in anger, because it was on ranges, I have helped to fire tank guns. Everybody had better be very clear what the prospect is. It is absolutely appalling for those families. It is no service at all to say that anodyne support is needed. What is needed is a change of policy, a ceasefire and a facing up to the reality of the mire of the middle east.

I do not want to abuse the debate by speaking further about the actualities of general strategies in the Gulf, but certain questions are highly pertinent to the debate. The first question arises from Harry Powers of Galashiels, who received a good deal of publicity during the Christmas recess. Mr. Harry Powers is a state registered nurse working at the Dingleton psychiatric hospital near Melrose. He approached me in circumstances in which, as a 44-year-old man, he has received no money from the Ministry of Defence for more than 10 years.

There is the argument that, somehow, reservists were getting money and therefore had an obligation to the state to go to a war in the middle east, supposedly under the umbrella of the United Nations—what a fiasco that has become. Nevertheless, the question arose about the rights of reservists. Under precisely what legislation are the Government asking people who are medical reservists or who have some other particular skills to be recalled to units? There is doubt. The 1907 legislation—the original Haldane Act—makes it clear that the Territorial Army and, by implication, the reserve forces do not have any obligations other than to join up in the United Kingdom itself for the defence of the United Kingdom. Nothing —

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I am finding it very difficult to relate what the hon. Gentleman is now saying to the subject of the motion, which is family policy.

Mr. Dalyell

When family men are called out of jobs in civilian life to serve in the forces, it causes enormous family disruption. Under what Act are the Government doing that? Is it the 1907, 1953 or 1980 legislation?

Mr. McCartney

I do not wish to refer to a specific case, but we are dealing with children in the Gulf and concern for them. Will my hon. Friend consider that currently, in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Gulf states, there are a considerable number of children who have been illegally abducted from the United Kingdom and now find themselves in a war zone? Will my hon. Friend consider what we can do in the short term and in the long term when hostilities end to get those children out of the war zone and back to the United Kingdom where they belong?

Perhaps we should consider bipartisan initiatives. Those children are the original hostages. They are not only unable to return home but are in a war zone. Their mothers in Britain are in the agonising position of not only not having their children with them but of knowing that their children are locked up in horrendous conditions in Kuwait and in surrounding areas.

Mr. Dalyell

Those matters are for proper discussion and study. In family terms, they are exceedingly important. I have a very difficult constituency case—I am sure that all hon. Members have—of a Scots girl who is happily married to a young man in the Yemen and who has problems with issues relating to nationality, proximity to war and so on. I am only too conscious of the relevance of what my hon. Friend says.

There is a second moral issue. Do families have an obligation to send their menfolk to war when that war could be nuclear? I refer to 1945 and 1946. I recall that Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel of the OKW, the German high command, was executed at Nuremberg on the ground that he had not resisted orders that were crimes against humanity. If service men, on reserve or otherwise, argue that they are to be asked to perform crimes against humanity—that is a highly topical matter when, this very morning, Defence Secretary Cheney did not rule out nuclear weapons, as did Vice-President Dan Quayle, as did General Colin Powell—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman said that he would not abuse the procedures of the House. He is now doing so. He must refer to family policy.

Mr. Dalyell

I should have thought that being yanked out of one's job to go to war was a matter of considerable concern to the families involved. Of course, I bow to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the benefit of the Home Office, in the hope that it will answer my question, I refer to 28 June 1978, when the United Kingdom gave a legally significant assurance to non-nuclear weapon states that are parties to the non-proliferation treaty of 1968: Britain undertakes not to use nuclear weapons against such States except in the case of an attack on the UK, its dependent territories, its armed forces, or its allies by such a State in association with a nuclear-weapon State. On 17 November 1978 the Americans accepted a similar undertaking. Do the Government respect those undertakings? Have they set out any code of conduct under which men may be extracted from their families to go to a war which all too probably will turn out to be nuclear?

My third question is about the position of Muslim communities in Britain. In a written question today, I asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what advice he is giving to those who have booked pilgrimages to Mecca or Medina. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. and learned Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), replied: Our advice to visitors to Saudi Arabia is that it is better to avoid travel, unless they have strong reasons to go there. The cities of Mecca and Medina are a good distance away from the area of hostilities but air services to Saudi Arabia are restricted. It is for individuals to decide whether to proceed The lifetime pilgrimage of many families in Britain to holy places is often arranged, for financial and other reasons, some years in advance. It is a matter of central importance to the family. Are we saying that they should not go?

What is the policy on Ramadan? These are matters of considerable importance to a great many families, not only in Britain but throughout the Muslim world. The war is already much longer by modern standards than other wars, such as Yom Kippur and the six-day war, and looks as if it will go on and on. Now that we are into day 18, what is the policy of Muslim families in Britain in this exceedingly delicate situation?

I promised to limit my speech in terms of time. The matters that I have raised are important questions to which the Government should address themselves in these terrible circumstances. The blunt truth is that, in all this, the loss of face of politicians is as nothing to the loss of human life and the catastrophe for the environment.

We are on the issue of rights and, before I finish, I wish to mention the rights of the animal world. I am not ashamed to raise the matter. There is a moral question to consider. Do human beings have the right by their own folly to pursue brutal wars in which entire species may become extinct from the face of the planet? I refer not only to dugongs, sea cows, hawksbill turtles and green turtles. Many other species will face extinction if the war is allowed to continue. Therefore, I shall use any parliamentary opportunity, as will some of my hon. Friends, to suggest that we should accept the proposal of the Magreb countries and Iran and have a ceasefire in the folly being pursued in our name and that of the United Nations.

6.3 pm

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

It was 1942, three years into the second world war, when the Beveridge report on social conditions in Britain came out. I doubt whether the type of speech that we have just heard was made in the parliamentary debate on that report.

If I may be permitted to respond to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for just one, or perhaps two, sentences, the Iranian leader said that he saw no suggestion whatever of movement from the Iraqi leaders. Also, the Gulf support groups deserve recognition. They are doing honourable work.

I do not wish to take away from any hon. Member the opportunity to put forward his or her view as often as possible on subjects of interest, but I take family policy seriously. I first introduced a debate on it 13 years ago and did so a second time in 1982. I felt that it was an intrusion in the general feeling in the Chamber today for the hon. Gentleman to use the opportunity to raise again issues which he has other opportunities to raise.

Mr. Dalyell

No, we have not. That is part of the trouble.

Mr. Bottomley

Will the hon. Gentleman please not interrupt my speech? I did not interrupt his.

There are 11 million children under the age of 16 in Britain. They and their parents could make good use of a debate on family policy which lasts only for three and a half hours. Among those children are some whom I would call the children of the state. I shall return to them on a different day. They are children in care, children in penal institutions and children whose life chances have been blighted, not because they have experienced failure but because they and their parents have never experienced success. They are the groups who deserve more attention. One cannot dwell on them in this debate except to say that the marvellous work of, among other organisations, the Children's Society, with its central London project, shows that 40 per cent. of children under the age of 16 who are at risk of being drawn into child prostitution are formally under a care order. They are children of the state; they are under the care of local authorities. The system is failing them. It is a double failure. The first failure is that the children have to be taken away from their families in the first place. The second is that they run away from the caring institutions of the local authority. We should pay more attention to the children of the state. They are a sign of how our emergency services are needed and how they sometimes fail.

I prefer to deal now with the way in which the family perspective and life cycle is brought in to social and economic policy. I could not have improved on the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin). The word "well-being" is a good way of bringing together welfare and material well-being without implying that either the definition of welfare or simply more material goods is necessarily the answer.

All the way through, from Rowntree in 1901, to the Beveridge report in 1942 and the work of Margaret Wynn, who in 1970 wrote the first book "Family Policy" in Britain, we have had to recognise that no caring services work unless they build on the aspirations and reflect the interests of ordinary people in Britain.

Ferdinand Mount, to whom I wish success as editor of The Times Literary Supplement which competes with Auberon Waugh's Literary Review, wrote a book in 1982–83 entitled "The Subversive Family". It showed that every major institution, whether Church or state, -ism or -wasm, which began by seeking to destroy the influence of the family had to recognise that the family had more continuity of power and ambition than ideology could compete with. Eventually the ideology, whether Christianity or Marxism, had to adopt the family rather than seek to supplant it.

There is no driving force on this earth as powerful as the ambitions and aspirations of the urban working class. I could go a stage further. Perhaps I will obtain the assent of the hon. Member for Linlithgow. By considering the family perspective and whether the family's life cycle comes into social and economic policy, we can unite Muslim and Christian, urban and rural, north and south, and rich and poor. In no other way is there any continuity of interest between generations with which people can identify, whatever their ethnic or other background.

The family brings together people who are Catholic and non-Catholic in Northern Ireland. It brings together people of all backgrounds in our inner cities. It rightly shows that, although we may not all have children, and celibacy is not an inherited condition, we have all been brought up by parents or parent substitutes. Caring for children and our elderly parents is something which we all have in common. The state can never be a substitute; strength comes from building on the confidence and competence of ordinary people in Britain.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Finchlcy (Mrs. Thatcher) said in the best speech at the UNICEF debate in New York on 30 September last year: for children the family is the most important factor in their lives". The same applies to many elderly people, especially the frail elderly, whose children look after them in their turn. It is part of the inter-generation contract. She continued: The dominant influence on a child's health is the family…The dominant influence on a child's behaviour is the family…The dominant influence on the success of a child's education is the interest taken by the family in the work of the teacher and the school. The most important thing that we can do as parents… after looking after the material needs of our children, is to give our children our time, our affection and our wise counsel.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South rightly identified, there are a series of issues where family policy can become part of our politics. We know that, as politicians, we fail at times. If I wanted to be partisan I would point out that it was a Labour Chancellor in 1968 who said: Next year I hope to introduce full selectivity for family allowances and to do it in such a way that people who are not in real need of them do not draw them at all. It is exactly the same point of view as that put forward by Mr. David Willetts—who may come to the House; then we could have a debate on equal terms. The problem with having a debate with him outside the House and me inside is that he gets the publicity and no one pays much attention to me.

Succeeding generations of Conservative politicians need to realise that a universal child cash allowance is the means of recognising that taxable capacity is reduced when people have dependent children and their needs are increased. Child benefit is not a poverty measure—it never was and it never will be. Income support is a poverty measure.

Child benefit is a taxation/benefit issue, and the sooner that we can find a way to think of tax, net of child benefit, in the hands of the Inland Revenue, with the Department of Social Security used as the paying agency, with the Chancellor being the only person concerned with the level of child cash allowance—as I now refer to child benefit —the sooner we will return to common sense.

A working couple with a mortgage of £30,000, with two personal tax allowances and the additional married man's allowance, who are paying higher rate tax, receive the equivalent of 12 child benefits, without Jilly Cooper, David Willetts or anyone else complaining about the waste of tax expenditure. I hope that we shall hear slightly less about how a switch to child tax allowances is better—it is worse.

Anyone who listened to Radio 4's finance programme this morning would have heard someone asking, "Should I pay off my mortgage as I have some money?" The answer was, "No. You would be a fool to do so." Mortgage interest relief on a £30,000 mortgage is equivalent to three child benefits and continues until we retire, or even when we are pensioners. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) nods in agreement.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

I was nodding in agreement because I am in agreement. Benefit paid to the mother, especially to those with children under five, is—as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) said—of great importance, and is at the heart of Conservative philosophy. It must not be lost in too many clever taxation techniques. Support for mothers with young children is important and support for the family is important because it creates allegiance within society, and that is at the heart of Conservatism.

Mr. Bottomley

I thank my hon. Friend for intervening. Money is not the only issue. As he says, allegiance and loyalty are also important.

I have the booklet from a series of Thames Television called "City Priest Voices from the City". Thames rightly gave a voice to many Church leaders in inner cities—not merely Anglicans but priests from many free and Pentecostal churches. The common ambition of people, whether their background is Afro—Caribbean, Asian or poor white, is the same. They have the same sense of solidarity. To use one priest's words: The ground is level at the foot of the Cross. That reminds us about caring for other people and sharing their burdens. In this rich, western country we can afford to arrange matters so that people with the burden of a particular handicap can be helped. The most obvious handicaps are physical and mental, but we must also remember that at any one time three quarters of our children are looked after by one fifth of the households. If we do not introduce a life cycle approach, we shall not get very far.

In a book called, "Family Matters, Perspectives on the Family and Social Policy" published on behalf of the Royal Society of Medicine, in a chapter which I contributed, I examined the issues of: families and economic well-being—money and the chances of employment; and families and human needs—health, housing, child care and handicapping conditions.

When Michael Rutter produced his book, "15,000 Hours" which studied the results of 11, matched, south-east London comprehensive schools, he showed that the most able children at the worst school produced poorer results than the least able children at the best school, even though the staff:pupil ratio was the same, they had the same number of pound notes per child and they were in the same education authority. The authority's only concern was to keep secret the names of the schools that were doing especially badly or especially well, so that parents should not know what was happening to their children. That is an example of how the mood has changed. I would not want to stigmatise schools, but if we did not let parents know about such research results, we could not be said to have freedom of information.

This may be considered a partisan point but, when we tried to focus on child immunisation a year ago—a serious area of child health—because 20 per cent. of our children were not getting the immunisation that they should have got, the Labour party wished to set a lower standard in the inner cities because of the difficulties there. Yet children in the inner cities have the greatest needs and, therefore, we should set the highest standards there. Professionals working there should set out to achieve results as good as those achieved in Esher.

In my chapter in the book "Family Matters", under the heading "Families: Challenges and Responsibilities", I examined the following: Preparation for Marriage and Family Life Specific Supports for Families Parents and Children Family Violence Substance Abuse Ageing and Families"— the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) mentioned substance abuse in a very good speech—and under the heading "Families and Major Institutions" I referred to: Government Media Community Institutions Law". An editorial in The Guardian on 24 December 1990—that shows how important it regards family policy; it printed the article the day before Christmas when no doubt all of us are studying the newspapers with extra special care while we are waiting for the midnight service—said: Here is a Thatcherist theme worth pursuing"— referring to it being time to look after the family. Unless we can build that upon helping the family to look after themselves as well as being willing to step in when the family cannot cope, we are lost.

We need to do the things that bind us together. We need to set outcome targets so that we reduce the number of children in persistent trouble with the courts. At the moment one male in three has a serious criminal record by the time he is 30. Too many children come into care. The emergency services, at great expense, must come in after a failure rather than give support before it.

My last argument, which I hope will gain support from hon. Members on both sides of the House as it follows on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), is that if we say that looking after children is as important as looking after cars, perhaps we could convert some of the massive tax expenditure on company cars and the massive commercial cost of providing car parking spaces at work to the provision of help for children, whether they are looked after at home, near the home or at work.

6.17 pm
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I was interested in what the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) said about Beveridge's reforms in 1942. I recall newspaper articles written at the time which described, in dramatic terms, the evil giants that had to be slain—he was talking about freedom from want, ignorance, fear and illness. The Labour Government in 1945 introduced the great reforms, based on Beveridge's plan. Such was the force of public opinion in Britain at the time which was in favour of those reforms that no one dared to attack that. Those reforms were introduced by a Labour Government with consent from the Conservative Opposition at the time.

The Labour Government introduced better pensions, the health service, universal education and decent housing at affordable rents. That brought families like mine out of the slums into decent housing. They achieved that by an immense programme of public sector building. The Conservatives' record of the past 11 years has slipped a great deal from the view that they held in 1942.

Labour wants to progress from Beveridge who—understandably, in the 1940s—wanted the father to be the bread-winner and the mother to remain always at home, to produce the conventional picture of mum, dad, two children and a dog. We maintain that women have a right to work and to receive proper payment for it, and that adequate child care facilities should be available to them, so that they can play a fuller role in society. The Government are tying themselves in knots, because half of them think that women should stay in the kitchen, and the other half agree that they should be able to work. The Government have failed to devise reasonable policies. As time is short, I will leave it at that.

6.20 pm
Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

We have all benefited from hearing the differing views of right hon. and hon. Members in this interesting debate. I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) on his choice of subject, and even on the blandness of his motion, although I quarrel with the hon. Gentleman's reference, in respect of families, to the Government continuing to support and increase their confidence and competence by extending choice". In fact, the Government do not have any policies for supporting the family. The reverse is true.

The words "family" and "family policies" have been bandied about for years. Many right hon. and hon. Members—although none of those present in the Chamber now—wail and wring their hands over the disappearance of what they think of as the ideal family, of the kind to which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) referred. It is meant to comprise a working husband, dependent wife, and two or three children—all living securely and happily in a nice home. That is some people's vision of a happy family, but it has never been true to say that all families are like that.

In reality, in former days there were millions of poor families. Women often bore large numbers of children, who lacked sufficient food. Many kids had to go to work because even the pittance they could earn was a necessary part of the family income. There was no national health service, no welfare benefits, and no sense of responsibility on the part of Governments in those bygone days—which some look back on with a false sense of nostalgia.

Today, more women with children than ever before go to work, but more families also experience divorce. Greater numbers are also remarrying and starting new families. Families come in all shapes and sizes. Some are one-parent families, some contain a disabled person—no one has mentioned that—and in others it is the parents rather than the children who need to receive care. They are as entitled to that care as are children. The well-being of all types of families is fundamental to society's well-being, particularly at times of great change.

Families deliver love and care to children, and it is within families that children learn the ground rules of good citizenship. The way that parents manage that job is important to us all, because children are literally our future. That is why Labour places so much emphasis on the need for coherent policies that will nourish and strengthen family relationship as they really exist—and not as some people imagine they should be.

We all want children to grow up in a secure and loving environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) mentioned the problems that confront children today, yet, over the past 11 years, Britain has suffered the biggest increase in poverty levels of any European country—and its children have suffered most. In 1979, 12 per cent. of children lived below the poverty line, but that figure increased to a shameful 26 per cent.—more than double—by 1986, and today more than 2 million children live in families that are on or below the poverty line.

Low wages, changes to the benefits system, poor housing, and less child care mean that millions of parents —especially single parents—cannot keep their children off benefit and off the poverty line. They need new opportunities and to be able to care for their families.

Everyone needs a home, yet the Government have presided over a decade of increasing homelessness, and allow the scandal of bed-and-breakfast accommodation to continue. That form of housing in itself creates strain, and often results in families breaking up. It has also increased the number of children suffering illness and accidents, and the number of babies born prematurely or at low birth weights.

When a Labour Government come to power, one of their first policies will be to provide sufficient decent and affordable housing to meet the nation's needs. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South referred to the right to buy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) said, we are in favour of that right, but believe that alongside it should run the opportunity for local authorities to build good quality, affordable, rented property for those who cannot afford to buy.

Child benefit was introduced by the last Labour Government, and it remains the only benefit to be paid directly to the person who cares for the child—in the overwhelming number of cases, its mother. The Government's own social security statistics, published a few days ago, show that child benefit is currently worth less than at any time since 1977, and worth less to families with three or more children than at any time since Labour introduced the family allowance 46 years ago, in 1945.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Eleanor Rathbone, an independent Member of Parliament, took that legislation through Parliament before the 1945 election. The House debated that measure for three hours, and no one voted against it. It is not quite proper for the hon. Lady to claim the credit only for her party.

Ms. Richardson

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point, but it does not change the fact that the value of the family allowance has been greatly reduced.

The Government froze child benefit in 1987, and now propose to increase it from £7.25 to £8.25—but only for the first child. In 1977, during the life of the last Labour Government, the allowance was worth £6.24 at 1990 prices, and the present payment of £21.75 for three children is the lowest since 1945. That is disgraceful, and it is scandalous that the value of that benefit should drop so low.

The sharp increase in 1989 of nearly 8 per cent. in income support for lone mothers sent the Government scurrying away to find a means of compelling fleeing fathers to pay maintenance, to reduce dependence on income support. I support the principle, but we must ensure that women who cannot or will not reveal the identity of their former partner will not be disadvantaged. A future Labour Government will restore the full value of child benefit by uprating it in line with inflation for every child in the family. We believe that that is the way to do it.

The motion calls for extending choice in employment —"Hear, hear" to that. The Government, however, have never had a coherent employment policy. We need a talent-based, highly skilled work force, and we need to develop and train the various talents that people possess. Many of those talents are undervalued—they are certainly underpaid, particularly those of women who struggle to work for their families.

The Government proudly say that Britain has the largest number of working women in any European country. That is true, but the increase has come about because of the need for part-time work to fit in with family responsibilities. Part-time work can be excellent and valuable, but the majority of part-time women workers do not receive, pro rata, the pay of full-time workers. Most of them have no right to holiday and sick pay entitlement, which is a disgrace. Home workers, and temporary or casual workers, are treated even more badly, but the work they do is a valuable part of industry.

Last Friday, I received a letter from a constituent which pulls the whole thing together. It relates to a traditional family—a working husband, a dependent wife and three children. The husband is self-employed and the wife has no job outside the home. She had a job but lost it, because the firm for which she worked went bust. The husband owes £350 tax to the Inland Revenue, the couple cannot pay their poll tax and they are in arrears with the mortgage. They are afraid that non-payment of the poll tax will put them in prison and the children into care. They fear that, if they cannot pay the mortgage, they may lose their home and the children may have to go into care.

My constituent is trying to find a job. The letter states: I'm not lazy and I'm not stupid but trying to find a job is very hard. I do work at home gluing folders and various other things. This is time consuming and very tiring. Most nights I'm up till 3 a.m. doing it enabling me to earn £40 a week. She thought of killing herself, but decided that that would be selfish because of her husband and children, and I agree with her. I have not written to her—frankly, I do not know what to say.

The Government's attitude to training is appalling. There are no coherent policies, which means that not only those who want and need to work cannot increase their opportunities and choice, but the whole community loses the profit that training in our education system and beyond would bring. Our public subsidy of child care—about which much has been said—is the lowest in Europe. Our employment legislation is riddled with inconsistencies and loopholes. If we continue with such policies, we shall be Europe's dumping ground.

We must invest in training, child care, effective employment rights and decent pay if we are to ensure a decent standard for families. We must provide more opportunities at work, to work and to continue to work and earn, as well as ensuring better provision for family care. Child care is not a substitute for family care, although I believe that good quality child care helps in the development of children—as I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said. Child care supports families and helps them to support themselves.

A Labour Government will engineer a package of child care, because we believe that parents should have options. I believe that the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) talked about tax relief on child care, which is one option that might be helpful. However, giving tax relief on child care or child care vouchers would not provide a single extra place, even in a workplace nursery. We need workplace nurseries, good quality, decently paid child minding, pre-school education, including pre-school play groups and nursery education, and out-of-school care to give parents options to choose the best for their children.

Mr. Burns

Does the hon. Lady accept that, if there were tax relief for working mothers or potential working mothers, it would encourage the development of more creches to meet a need? Those people who previously could not entertain the idea of working because it was financially impossible could probably bridge that gap with tax relief and find it worth while to work. That would bring more demand for creches and other forms of child care, which would mushroom as a result.

Ms. Richardson

We shall have to see how it develops. The Government must co-ordinate with local authorities on all the available options. If the Government decide to give some tax relief, we shall be able to see how the system works.

I am also keen that the Government should ask local authorities to give them their action plans for child care, so that we can ensure that child care is available throughout the country and not on a patchwork basis. We need partnerships with local authorities, employers, parents and voluntary agencies, but the Government need to co-ordinate those partnerships—and the Government are not doing so. That is a great shame, because it deprives so many parents of the option of going to work, leaving it all to the hit and miss of the workplace.

We have the most rigid maternity rights in the whole of Europe. We have no statutory paternity rights and no concept of parental leave, which would allow us to start to change the culture whereby it is always accepted that the woman looks after the children and the husband goes out to work, without sharing in the rewards and responsibilities of child care. We need all those developments, and we need the Government to introduce them.

I know that somebody, probably the Minister, will say that we cannot adopt the directive on maternity and allow the European standard on maternity provision because it would cost too much. However, my information is that it is estimated that only 1 per cent. of female workers in Europe are pregnant at any one time, so it would hardly be a costly exercise—[Laughter.] I obviously said something funny.

Finally, I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that today is the 20th anniversary of the setting up of the first women's aid refuge. I hope that the Minister will join me in paying tribute to all those people who worked so hard to provide refuges throughout the country. From a survey that I have just conducted, I know that we have only 275 refuges for victims of domestic violence. We have been talking about divorce—some of those refuges are for people fleeing from violent partners. We do not have enough refuges, and we need six times as many places. More work needs to be done in collecting statistics on how many women are in difficulties. That is something that Government should and could be doing.

Only one quarter of all local authorities provide, or help to provide, refuges. That is a disgrace which should be corrected. It is just another example of the way in which the Government could help to provide secure funding for refuges to enable them to continue in the proper way.

Like others, I have had to range over a wide variety of options—policies that the Opposition believe should be introduced. As hon. Members know, Labour will have a Ministry for Women. We believe that policies need to be co-ordinated, and that the work of Government Departments in connection with women and the family should be no exception to that rule. There should also be a Minister for children to co-ordinate the work done by a number of Departments to deal with children's problems. Together, those two Ministries should ensure that all our policies bear in mind the fact that the family is the responsibility not only of itself but of everyone else, and that Government must play its part.

It is, I suppose, a pity—from his point of view—that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South will not be here after the next election—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."]—but I hope that, when we have a Labour Government who start to introduce a coherent set of policies, he will watch and applaud and will remember this evening, when he initiated the debate.

6.41 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) did not necessarily wish to be congratulated on obtaining this slot, or on choosing this important subject for debate; nevertheless, I congratulate him on both. He has prompted an extremely interesting discussion, in which a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House have been able to make some valuable comments.

At the beginning of his speech, my hon. Friend mentioned that he could have chosen nuclear physics or local government finance as his subject. It was his second choice that made me wonder whether I was not rather fortunate to be responding to a debate on family policy!

My hon. Friend gave us an interesting quotation from Philip Larkin about the make-up of a family. A number of other hon. Members have asked the same question: what is the family today? Philip Larkin was right in what he said about grandparents. I am a grandparent, and the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) is the youngest grandparent in the House—at any rate, I have no reason to suppose that he is not; he may also be the smallest, but we do not know about that. Perhaps he can help us in the context of what the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) said about the number of pregnant women in Europe at any given time.

I am very interested by the definition of "the family". Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed interesting views. The continuing debate about the proper role for women within the family hinges on the sad fact that there are currently far more marriage breakdowns than there have been in recent years. I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton): it is nightmarish to realise that one in three marriages appear likely to result in a family breakdown.

All that gloom, however, should not mask the fact that the death of the family and the death of marriage are by no means on the horizon. It is true that we now see more divorces and more single parents; it is true that more female members of the family choose to go out to work —some because they wish to, and others because they feel that they must.

We must not exaggerate the changes, however. If the institution of marriage did not exist, I believe that we would busily set about inventing it, because it is the best and most satisfactory way in which to ensure that people can raise young children against the background of love, warmth and affection described by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). He cited the speech that my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) made to UNICEF, in which she said that time, affection and wise counsel were the most important factors to be devoted to the raising of children.

Mrs. Fyfe

Can I take it from the Minister's remarks that she, like me, disapproves of parents sending their children away to boarding school at the tender age of seven?

Mrs. Rumbold

I cannot agree with the hon. Lady. Such matters are entirely up to individual families; it would be entirely wrong for me, as a Minister—a mere politician —to dictate what people should choose to do with their children. That would be ridiculous. I fear that the hon. Lady will not be happy with that response, but I am certain that it is the right one.

Most of the issues that we have considered relate to the question that I mentioned earlier: what is the family? Is it the nuclear family—man, woman and two or three children—or the larger family, including grandparents, uncles, aunts and so forth? I strongly believe in that second concept. I share the sadness of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill that some of the more bureaucratic processes in—especially—local government planning in past years should have led to the break-up of the extended family, and, in my view, great damage to the basis of our society.

It is perhaps comforting to reflect that we are now seeing a slight reversal of that inherent damage, in that more grandparents are caring for their grandchildren while mothers or fathers are at work. It is reassuring to believe that we have recognised the value of the extended family. I trust that not only individuals such as the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and myself, but the wider world —including those who control such matters—will learn the lessons and perceive the truth about policies that have been set out so badly.

Mr. David Nicholson

I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend say that. Does she agree that, although in many instances this country can convey its ideas vigorously to its European neighbours, we may be able to learn from them in the case of the extended family?

Mrs. Rumbold

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I hope that we shall take note of the benefits of the extended family, and the support that it provides—not only when marriages survive for a number of years, but when the partners ultimately find that they cannot make the marriage work, and must resort to as amicable a parting as possible without upsetting the arrangements for the secure raising of the children.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Mossley Hill that the current review of family law encompasses not only an examination of the legal provisions, but the jurisdictional procedures and other arrangements for handling family business in the courts. I share his anxiety that we should not lessen the difficulties involved in achieving divorce, but should instead concentrate on maintaining the family and ensuring that, when divorces must take place for the benefit of both partners, the interest and welfare of the children are of primary concern.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South has a particular interest in Relate. I assure him that my right hon. Friends the Secretary, of State and the Minister of State are undertaking a review of the work carried out by Relate and other organisations which counsel couples who are going through difficulties. The Government are sympathetic to and support the work of Relate. However, we cannot undertake to increase funding while the review that I have mentioned is being carried out. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with that.

Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East)

I have not had the opportunity to hear the whole debate, but I am pleased to hear my right hon. Friend's reassurance about Relate. I am aware of the work of that body in Wolverhampton and other areas. Relate has asked me whether, if the Government wish to assist it in its work of trying to ensure that there are no further breakdowns, they could give it greater support. My right hon. Friend's kind words are a great encouragement, and I thank her for them.

Mrs. Rumbold

I have also talked to Relate, and I agree that its work is of enormous value.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who is not able to be in the Chamber at the moment, spoke about a widow in his constituency who remarried and lost her pension. We will write to him and explain the rules about the issues that he raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) spoke with great conviction about the importance of the role of the wife and mother in raising children. It is interesting to look at what British women actually do and compare it with the second-guessing about what they ought to do or might want that appears in newspaper articles. A high percentage of women choose not to work when their children are five and under. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne said that a woman's work in raising small children is invaluable. Without that basic care for the very small child, we cannot hope to have the building blocks for a sound and well-ordered future society.

The mother is of the greatest assistance during the early years when the baby is growing and learning the basic rules, such as not touching something that does not belong to him, and learning to talk, communicate and mix with others. Sadly, some girls find it difficult to cope with that task. Organisations such as Home Start assist young women in the extremely important task of raising small children. I value that work, especially when it is given willingly by young people who understand that it may well be a personal and financial sacrifice. However, for the welfare and benefit of the young people that they are raising the sacrifice is well worth while.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) raised an equally important issue when he said that many young women have careers. Young women are raised and educated in the expectation that they may go to work, and it is perfectly reasonable and natural to suppose that many of them will look at marriage, child raising and careers as a whole—a totality. They do not necessarily separate one from the other. Some women say, "I prefer to take time off while my children are small." Others reasonably say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said, "I think that it would be better if I continued with my career, and in order to do that I will make the right arrangements for child care". That brings me to the issue of child care.

I remind the House that the Government have looked carefully at child care and took steps towards improving it in last year's Budget. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is listening carefully to the debate, and no doubt he will read the Official Report and note the views of hon. Members about the way in which child care is tackled.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, at that time the Chancellor of the Exchequer, ensured that employers who provided workplace nurseries would have a tax benefit. That benefit extends further than many people appreciate. It is available to employers who participate in the management of nurseries at the workplace or anywhere else, as long as they are involved in the management of those schemes. It applies not only to workplace nurseries—those that are on the premises or on premises financed by the employer—but to out-of-school care schemes, which are much more relevant to the requirements of the potential working mother.

Women often wish to go to work not when the children are babies, but when the youngest child reaches school age. At that point, the woman looks for some assistance, and the out-of-school care schemes are especially important for such women.

Mr. Dalyell

If the Minister is being more than polite and other Ministers really intend carefully to read the report of the debate, may I ask when I may expect an answer to my question about why Scots families with 10 per cent. of the population are apparently supplying 40 per cent. of service men in the Gulf?

Mrs. Rumbold

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wishes to have a response. I hope that he will forgive me when I say that I am not immediately able to answer. However, I shall ensure that either my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs takes note of the hon. Gentleman's valuable point.

Some of my hon. Friends spoke about child benefit. We have noted the various proposals and especially some of the views contained in recent booklets. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said, they have raised a great deal more interest outside than would have been the case if they had been raised in this forum. Over the years, we have had many debates on the issue. It is accepted that such a large and comprehensive social security system will give rise to much public discussion and a great deal of analysis. I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has already made clear—that child benefit is and will remain a strong element of our family support policies. I hope that that goes some way towards reassuring some of my hon. Friends, whose interest in the matter is understandable.

I feel strongly about nursery education, but it is often suggested that somehow or other such education would provide a solution to the problems and difficulties confronting the working mother. It is no such thing. Nursery education should never be regarded in that light. In my view, it should be regarded solely as a great benefit for children between the ages of three and five, enabling them to learn better the social attributes and, perhaps, to start some of the other early learning processes. In no way should it be regarded as a mechanism to enable women to work. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, who is no longer in his place, would agree, as he raised the point. Nursery education is there for the benefit of children. It is available, in one form or another —provided by the voluntary sector, as well as by the local authorities—to 86 per cent. of the children in this country.

I wish, finally, to deal with the whole area of housing —a subject that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South mentioned and about which he feels very strongly.

It being Seven o'clock, the proceedings on the motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 6 (Precedence of Government business).