§ Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)
I beg to move,That this House, in this the International Year of the Family, condemns the failure of the Conservative Government to bring forward policies which give real and lasting support and encouragement to families; notes with alarm the damage to family life resulting from Government policies over the last 15 years which have produced substantial high levels of long-term unemployment, undermined health, education and housing services, increased the tax burden on ordinary families despite Government promises to the contrary, widened the gap between rich and poor, contributed to the significant increase in the incidence of marital breakdown, and threatened family security as a result of soaring crime rates; and calls on the Government to develop as a matter of urgency a comprehensive family policy which invests in training and job creation, extends welfare services, particularly pre-school provision, and meets the targets of the International Year of the Family and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.I welcome the opportunity to open this debate on family policy, although it is a pity that Ministers did not feel strongly enough about the issue to raise it themselves at an earlier date. After all, we are already one quarter of the way through the year, which has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of the Family—a year in which we are encouraged to make this a more family-friendly country and to develop policies to that end.
Perhaps I should not be surprised by the Government's slow reaction. The Secretary of State might need more time to ease herself into her new tagged-on role—how did No. 10 describe it?—with responsibility for the family".Despite all the ministerial rhetoric—much of which struck me as hypocritical, sickening and ill-judged—the "back to basics" fiasco and the subsequent squirming of prominent representatives of the Conservative party, the Government do not have a coherent family policy.
As we can judge from the Government amendment, they are prepared to sacrifice support in the names of independence and offering choice, but that is appropriate only when families feel that they have a choice.
In the circumstances, the Secretary of State's new responsibilities can be seen only as a reflection of Government public relations panic. Who better to reassure us of the Government's good intentions towards families than the Minister who made the remarkable claim that she shopped in Marks and Spencer earlier than the rest of us to avoid the embarrassment of being mobbed by crowds congratulating her on the running of the health service?
§ Miss Lestor
I do not find Marks and Spencer cheap. I find it very good quality, but rather expensive.
I have no doubt that the Minister's rhetoric will be confidently delivered, coming from someone whom my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell), writing in the Evening Standard last night, described as 436living in a fantasy world, a world of her own, with its own language, its own culture and now its own bizarre customs and practices.
The reference, by the way, was to a visit made by the Secretary of State for Health to a new general practice clinic in Dulwich. The timing of the visit was switched at the last moment so that the Minister could avoid any unpleasant demonstrations—clearly, not Marks and Spencer customers.
But even Tory Ministers cannot run away from the truth for ever. For the past 15 years, the Conservative party has consistently undermined families. Policy after policy has chiselled away at the optimism of families, withdrawn hope for their future and that of their children, sapped the confidence of individuals to cope. In their place has come fear—fear of crime in our streets, of repossession of homes, of homelessness itself, of bankruptcy of small businesses, redundancy and unemployment, and of the ever-increasing tax burden on ordinary people. The social impact of all these influences on young people who are robbed of hope before they reach adulthood is reflected in increasing alienation. I am surprised that so many cope and emerge as good citizens.
People are distressed by the sight of young homeless beggars on our streets, a sight that I never saw in my childhood. They are appalled by the knowledge that sick people are treated on trolleys in hospital corridors, wondering whether that will be their fate too. They are frightened by the prospect that, with incapacity and old age, will come bills that eat into their hard-earned savings. Yet only two years ago the Prime Minister boasted of his ambition to bring about an economic climate in which wealth would flow down from generation to generation. Increasingly, elderly people find their savings swallowed up by care charges or nursing home fees.
These are inescapable facts. The Secretary of State for Health will no doubt try to dismiss them as anecdotal evidence, but I can tell her that they are genuine fears and experiences shared by millions of people. They are more meaningful and true to people's lives than any of the carefully selected figures supplied by Government Departments.
The Conservative philosophy on families is quite straightforward. What have they to offer? Independence, opportunity and choice, they say.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
The hon. Lady is talking about making policies clear. Will she make it clear what the Labour party's policy is on child benefit? Does she agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) that child benefit should be scrapped? On 14 December 1993, he was quoted in the Daily Express as saying that scrapping child benefit was an option that ought to be looked at.
§ Miss Lestor
The hon. Gentleman must ask my hon. Friend. I have not seen that statement. If he asks me what my view is, I am a believer in and supporter of universal child benefit. I always have been, and I always will be.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to explain to hon. Members on the Government Benches that, unlike them, we do not make up policy on the cuff of our shirt sleeves, and that the difference between a Back-Bench Member, 437 however distinguished, voicing his own opinion on social security benefits and the Front-Bench team of the Labour party announcing an agreed policy is considerable.
§ Miss Lestor
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was asked what my views were, and I have given them. I have made them perfectly public and will continue to do so. I am a supporter of universal child benefit.
Before I was so uncharmingly interrupted, I was saying that Conservative policy on families is straightforward. Conservatives say that they have independence, opportunity and choice. But where are the "dramatic" improvements in living standards mentioned in the Government's amendment? Where are the opportunities that empower families? What are the choices? The amendment is a blatant attempt by the Government to offload their share of responsibility. That attitude places an extraordinary burden on individuals. It is an act of extreme irresponsibility; of moral and social cowardice by the Government.
Small wonder that the Government have no family policy—in its place, a rag-bag of unrelated legislation and guidelines; requirements on local government to pick up the pieces without the resources to make a good job of it; and an enthusiasm by the Government to blame anyone who falls short of the ideal. It is always someone else's responsibility—someone else's problem—as I will show.
To listen to some Ministers, we might be forgiven for thinking that it was not the Conservative party that brought in the socially damaging poll tax, bungled our entry into the exchange rate mechanism, with disastrous results, or fundamentally undermined local government, health and education services. The worst failings are now presented by Government spin doctors as the failings of individual Ministers who resign, are sacked or, in the remarkable case of the current Chancellor, are given the chance to collect a full set of departmental disasters. Let us hope that he learns from his experiences.
That approach to scapegoating individuals when Government policies go wrong is followed through right along the line. Juvenile crime? The fault of individual parents. Under-achieving at school? The teachers' fault. Teenage pregnancy? Moral lassitude by young girls anxious to get a council house. Let us not overlook the lasting impact of the swinging sixties—they have been brought in as well. You name it, they will find something or someone else to take the blame. It is a simple approach, but it is not a very honest one.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
Who does the hon. Lady blame for poor educational standards if it is riot the teachers?
§ Miss Lestor
The Government have been in power for 15 years. During that time, as the Government have said themselves, an increasing number of young people leaving school have had educational difficulties. There is no one else to blame but the Government. The overwhelming majority of children in our schools now have experienced no other Government than the current one. I blame the Government for the lack of educational opportunity in our schools.
The absence of a co-ordinated approach to family-friendly policies, the absence of a commitment to developing a network of preventative support services to families and their individual members, leaves a huge policy gap.
§ Miss Lestor
The evening is young. If the juvenile lead over there wants to get up, I will let him.
§ Mr. Streeter
I should like to introduce the hon. Lady to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who has just entered the Chamber, who is a Front-Bench spokesman on social security—not, as the hon. Lady said, a Back Bencher. He wants to reform child benefit; she wants it to stay as it is. What is the Labour party's policy on child benefit?
§ Miss Lestor
I think that the hon. Gentleman is getting his women muddled up. I was asked what my views were on universal child benefits. I said that I believed in them. I do believe in them. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Let him tell us."] With great respect, and the affection that I have for my hon. Friend, it is not his debate. It is mine, and I am making my speech. Therefore, I will not ask him to get up and participate in the debate.
§ Mr. Thurnham
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Should we adjourn for 10 minutes while hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench discuss what their policy is?
§ Miss Lestor
I happen to believe that families matter. I happen to believe that children matter. Conservative Members are showing the country at large how little they care about children and about families. If they could see the stupid grins on their faces, which will be on their television screens, they might like to take notice of the fact that many of the people whom we are here to represent are suffering under the Government, and that their children are suffering. I hope to hear from some Conservative Members positive policies to do something about it.
No doubt the Secretary of State for Health will refer to the major advances made as a result of the Children Act 1989. I and all of us were great supporters of the Children Act. What a pity, however, that such a potential for good should be undermined by lack of appropriate funding. Unfortunately, many of the safeguards in the Children Act 1989, particularly those aspects dealing with preventive work, have been underfunded, as any social services department will confirm.
It is no surprise that a Government so dominated by short termism should be panicked into producing over-the-top, ineffective and inappropriate statements. Media reactions to social issues say more about the ignorance of Ministers and their superficial grasp of the issues than anything else.
The International Year of the Family presents us with a golden opportunity to take stock of how effectively the Government support families. The organisation co-ordinating events during this year has identified three main areas of concern, which I commend to Ministers: families 439 and work; families, poverty and resources; and families and relationships. They are, of course, closely interlinked and require cross-departmental responses.
On the issue of families and work, one of the most important changes in employment trends over the past 20 years has been the rise in the number of two-earner families, from 43 per cent. of families with children in 1973 to 60 per cent. of families in 1993. That has come about partly by choice and partly by necessity. In only a minority of cases do both parents work full time. Indeed, only 14 per cent. of mothers have a full-time job.
Lone mothers are more likely to work full time than women in two-parent families, partly because they lose pound for pound of income support against earnings of more than £15 a week. They are therefore less likely to follow the more usual pattern of a mother easing her way back into work first through a part-time job.
Mothers, particularly lone mothers, cannot win with this Government. If they are lone parents on income support, they must go out to work. If they fail to find adequate child care and, in extreme cases, wrongly leave their children unattended, they are treated as monsters rather than having their needs attended to.
If they return to the labour market to enhance their children's living standards and opportunities and increase choice for them, and their children get into difficulties, as many children do through no fault of working parents, the first person to be blamed will be the mother. Women need and deserve a change in attitude by the Government. Most parents work hard to be good parents; most mothers work hard to be good mothers, and that should be recognised.
But how do the Government help parents to combine the need to earn with their responsibility as parents? There is little publicly funded child care in this country. Indeed, our record is among the worst in Europe. Local authorities provide day care facilities for less than 2 per cent. of our under-threes and, in the main, those precious places are allocated to children already identified as in need. That leaves private provision, which, being expensive, rules out low-wage workers. It is patchy and not always appropriate.
In 1991, for example, only 1 per cent. of families with children under five used workplace nurseries. One option that is becoming increasingly popular is the admission of young children into reception classes at primary schools. Children as young as just four are expected to cope with school life in what I regard as an inappropriate setting. That is nothing more than a back-door attempt to disguise the lack of proper nursery education. If we are to take children into school at the age of four, they should be taken into proper nursery classes, not given nursery education on the cheap.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
Is the hon. Lady not aware that, for small children under the age of five, we need a diversity of provision at the pre-school stage? At that stage, 90 per cent. of children under the age of five do have some sort of highly effective provision.
§ Miss Lestor
The hon. Lady has the honour of having talked out the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) dealing with the provision of nursery education and special needs. I am glad that she is a convert to the belief that we need, as I was about to say, a variety of provision for our under-fives. It 440 is hypocritical to take children into school at the age of four and then not allow them to have proper nursery education, when we all believe—the Government have said this—that nursery education is good for children up to the age of five.
All the research shows that nursery education is good for children. Nobody in this House disputes that. All children need it. Not only does it encourage their social and educational development—[Interruption.] Does the Minister want me to give way?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe)
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. As she has said that all children need nursery education, is she committing her party to providing nursery education for every child? Is she committing herself to the funding of such education? If so, how much will it cost, and by what means is she going to raise the money?
§ Miss Lestor
I will answer that question, because it is an interesting one. But we could do with some clarification from the Conservatives on this point, because the Prime Minister says one thing and the Secretary of State for Education says something else. I am totally bewildered. Our policy at the last election—which will continue to the next election—was that we will provide nursery education for all children over the age of three whose parents want such education for their children. That is our policy. Is the hon. Lady happy with that?
§ Miss Lestor
No, I am not giving way again.
We all agree that nursery education and a variety of pre-school provision is good for our children. It also allows problems within families to be identified quickly and allows the needs of those families to be met at a very early stage. It should be an essential part of any strategy which aims not only to promote and provide educational opportunity—children need educational stimulation early in their lives—but also to aid in the detection of abuse, neglect, special needs and family problems. The Government know this to be true.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather sickening that those such as Tory Members who have the financial means and can give their children every advantage—and rightly so—should resent the provision of nursery and pre—school groups and take every opportunity to try to challenge us about where the money will come from? If their children can be looked after properly, why should the large majority of children, many of whom are being brought up in the most difficult circumstances, not be looked after also?
§ Miss Lestor
My hon. Friend knows that he and I agree about this matter. Not all mothers want to work; nor should they, if they do not wish to. But their children, too, benefit from attendance at pre-school nurseries and from participation in other activities. This is a service for children and should not be dependent on the working status of their parents. A Government committed to a family policy would have full employment as a goal.
§ Miss Lestor
I will not give way again; I have given way on several occasions. The hon. Gentleman is not as persuasive as my hon. Friend, but if he keeps it up, who knows, I may give way.
§ Mr. Heald
The Select Committee on Employment has heard evidence that half the women who work and who have young children would like to see the establishment of workplace nurseries and would use them. As the hon. Lady knows, the Government have given tax relief in that area. At the moment she is talking about the position of non-workers, but on the question of promoting workplace nurseries, what more would she or the Labour party do to encourage them than has been done already?
§ Miss Lestor
I think that the whole question of workplace nurseries and the way they fit in with the needs of young children should be looked at very closely. Many people would welcome them. We want a complete survey of what is taking place in pre-school education, because many children's needs are not being met. I know what the Select Committee has said, and I am very interested in it. But we do not make policy standing at the Dispatch Box or on the hoof.
§ Miss Lestor
I will go on for a few moments, and then I will give way to my hon. Friend.
As I have said, a Government committed to a family policy would have full employment as a goal because that is what many families need. The poverty and demoralisation of families living with unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, cannot be overstressed. Hopelessness and lack of self-esteem are experienced in almost equal measure by parents and children alike.
One quarter of Britain's children are living in poverty today—many of them in families headed by a lone parent. In the vast majority of cases, this is not by choice: the parents started off in a stable relationship, and things went wrong. After a decade and a half of Tory government, 5.5 million people are in receipt of income support—the minimum safety net benefit—which amounts to more than £8.75 million. In 1979, there were 2.8 million people receiving the equivalent supplementary benefit. This country not only has the highest rate of poverty among the better-off countries in the Economic Union, but has also managed to achieve the sharpest rise in poverty throughout the European Union—what a record of achievement.
Predictably, families with children and pensioners form—
§ Miss Lestor
I shall not give way to the hon. Lady. She has already interrupted me. She had a chance to have a go at me on television, but did not take advantage of it. She had better keep quiet for a little while.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. I think that the hon. Lady has been here long enough to know the rules.
§ Miss Lestor
Predictably, as we all know, families with children and pensioners form the majority of those living in poverty in this country. If someone is in full-time employment but on a low wage, he or she is poor; if 442 someone is caring for a child with a disability, he or she is at greater risk of poverty because of the need to provide full-time care. According to the International Year of the Family Organisation, in 1989, 32 per cent. of people who were caring for a child with a disability had no earners in the family, compared with 18 per cent. of the general family population.
Poverty has increased dramatically under the Tories, as have homeless families. During the 1980s, the number of homeless families with children rose by 46 per cent. We run the risk of a return to the days when children were taken into care because their parents were without a home—a concern raised by the Department of the Environment in its recent paper on access to local authority and housing association tenancies.
There is a real fear that is shared by the Children's Society, among others. If, as a result of Government dictate, housing departments no longer have a responsibility to provide accommodation for those families, local authority social services will be hard put to keep families together, with appalling consequences. I urge the Minister to raise the matter with her colleagues at the earliest opportunity.
The International Year of the Family Organisation says that educational failure is directly linked to poverty. It says that, in 1991, one in five 21-year-olds were innumerate, and one in seven were illiterate. Those are young people who spent all their school lives under a Tory Government. The introduction of testing is not the answer. The Government must tackle the problem and target resources to lift families out of poverty, widen access to pre-school provision and educational opportunities after the statutory school leaving age, and improve the status of parents.
A start could be made on that policy by the Minister giving some advice to her colleagues about the derogatory language they use when referring to parental status and the skills of others. I was disgusted by the way in which Ministers fell over themselves last year to scapegoat parents, particularly lone mothers.
The Secretary of State for Social Security referred to his "little list" of young ladies who became pregnant deliberately to jump the housing queue. What a shock he must have received when his theory was blown out of the gutter by the Government's own research. Who could forget the notorious visit of the Secretary of State for Wales to the St. Mellon's estate in Cardiff? He professed himself profoundly shocked by the squalor and deprivation, and laid most of the blame at the door of lone mothers.
I too have visited St. Mellon's estate. I found the poverty shocking, but I was also struck with admiration for the way in which that much-reviled community was working to help families and individuals. What a pity that the Secretary of State was unable to recognise the obvious sense of community that runs through that estate and did not encourage the efforts and obvious achievements of the residents. I suspect that such an approach would not have fitted in with his pre-ordained view, but I hope that he has reconsidered the subject.
This is a significant month for families. Since 1979, the Conservative party—the party of the family—has been promising to reduce taxation. It has lied. Conservative taxation policy has hit ordinary families hardest, while giving huge tax handouts to the already rich. Over the next two years, the typical family will pay £1,330 more in tax 443 —the biggest tax hike in history. Yet people earning more than £64,000 a year will pay less tax from this month than they did in 1979.
The Treasury's own figures show that, from this month, a married couple on average earnings and with two children will be left with £331.76 a year less in take-home pay or real disposable income. This time next year, another £85.80 will go in the next phase of Tory tax increases. This month, national insurance contributions will rise from 9 per cent. to 10 per cen—an increase that will hit the low-paid even harder than the increase in the basic rate of income tax, as it impacts on every pound they earn over £57 a week, whereas an increase in the basic rate of income tax does not affect earnings of less than £124 a week. Four hundred thousand low-paid workers will now pay tax for the first time as a direct result of the Government's decision to freeze personal allowances for two years running.
Following the imposition of VAT on electricity and gas bills, a typical family is set this year to pay 5.8 per cent. of its income on VAT. That represents an increase of more than £600 on the 1978–79 figure, at today's prices. VAT on fuel bills is set to reach record levels, yet it hits hardest those who can least afford to pay.
According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the poorest households spend 13 per cent. of their income on fuel, while the richest spend only 2 per cent. The Government's compensation scheme is tragically inadequate. The 50p a week for pensioners is only half of what is needed to compensate them.
§ Miss Lestor
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but this is the last time I shall do so for any Conservative Member.
§ Mr. Brandreth
Does the hon. Lady appreciate that she is now touching upon her central dilemma? She is deploring tax increases only moments after having told us that she wishes to guarantee education for every three-year-old. The Government have increased from 43 per cent. to 53 per cent. the number of under-fives in maintained nursery education. How does the hon. Lady square the anomaly? She says that she does not want to tax more, yet she wants to spend more. Does she not see that taxation and spending are one and the same thing?
§ Miss Lestor
The hon. Gentleman has got himself into a little difficulty.
What is the trouble about the Government's taxation policy? First, Ministers told people that they would not increase taxation, but promptly did so. Secondly, people who are least able to pay have to contribute more than those who are able to pay. That is the contradiction. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if money is needed he look towards those who have done so very well under the Conservative Government as a result of tax handouts and all sorts of other benefits.
§ Miss Lestor
Yes, just as my hon. Friend says.
From this October, we shall all have to pay an extra 2.5 per cent. for home, car and travel insurance. Again, people 444 living in Britain's poorest areas will be hardest hit. They already pay seven times more in home insurance premiums than families in better-off areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) cited the family living in central Liverpool who will face a bill of up to £540 for a standard £30,000 contents insurance, whereas a family in Congleton may pay as little as £77. Later this year, the Liverpool family will face an insurance tax of £16.20, whereas for the family in Congleton the figure will be just £2.30.
In November, the Government will bring in an air passenger tax, which will put an extra £5 on the cost of all holiday flights in Europe, and £10 on the cost of flights elsewhere. This is another typically unfair Tory tax. As a flat rate tax, it hits ordinary families hardest. There are exceptions, however, and these illustrate a point that has been made. Those lucky enough to use executive or private jets will all be exempt.
In the meantime, tax abuses are ignored. A prime example is tax relief on executive share options. Last year, the average chief executive received £620,000 in share options. Thousands of pounds of this is tax-free. That is where the money is. Incidentally, I should like to draw attention to an item of news in The Daily Telegraph last week. This revealed that six privatised PowerGen directors cashed in £3.5 million-worth of share options over a four-day period. Their profit would pay the VAT on the fuel bills of 70,000 families this year. That is the contradiction.
Without a doubt, the gap between rich and poor has steadily widened under the Tories. The gap between top and bottom wage earners is wider than it has been for more than 100 years—since records began. What an achievement. When Labour left power, those earning an average of £6,000 a year—the lowest 20 per cent.—paid less tax as a percentage of their income than did any other group. Now they pay more as a percentage of their income.
The Tories have broken their promises on taxation because their economic policy has failed miserably. Since 1979, the amount of North sea oil and gas revenues received and wasted by the Tories is the equivalent of every family in the country giving the Government £5,000. It costs £9,000 a year in lost taxes and benefits to keep someone on the unemployment register. Unemployment now costs every taxpayer £20 a week.
What a waste of money, and what a waste of human resources. The knock-on effect of long-term unemployment on all the members of families should never be underestimated. One child in every four is now growing up in poverty, yet is surrounded at every turn by the trappings of a wealthy society which measures the value of an individual by his or her possessions.
According to the National Children's Home, the National Children's Bureau and the voluntary agencies, the number of children receiving free school meals has gone up, but, with the removal of nutritional standards in schools, their contribution to a healthy diet is now very variable. We are told that one out of every nine children goes to school without breakfast. One in six does not have a cooked evening meal. More and more rely on junk fast food to fill them up, with the consequent threat of heart disease in middle age.
We see the return of childhood illnesses and diseases which are associated primarily with extremes of poverty and which most of us thought we had left behind—for example, rickets resulting from malnutrition. The number 445 of reported cases of dysentery has increased by 10 per cent. since water privatisation. The number of water disconnections has rocketed in the same period. In 1973, Thames Water cut off 850 households, compared with 61 in 1991–92.
§ Mr. Irvine Patnick (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury)
It's being so cheerful keeps you going.
§ Miss Lestor
The Government Whip says that it is being so cheerful that keeps me going. I am not cheerful about what I see happening to children and families. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that this is something to be cheerful about, it is little wonder that the Government are fading as they are.
Health visitors are reporting rising levels of diarrhoea, nappy rash and thrush as a result of poor hygiene. If hon. Members can sit back and be complacent because this does not happen to their children, I can only say that they are not fit to be in government. I see these things day in and day out. I talk to health visitors, and I know what is going on.
§ Miss Lestor
I shall not give way to the hon. Lady, who does not represent the sort of children I am talking about.
These are not remarkable coincidences; they are the direct result of the Government's years of neglect of families. The strains on individuals as a result are enormous.
This leads me to the third aspect of the International Year of the Family—families and relationships. As we all know, parents are the greatest influence on the child's development, yet the Government do little to encourage good parenting practice. Instead, Ministers confine themselves to blaming poor parenting for all social ills, whether school truancy, juvenile offending or under-age sexual activity.
I realise that this issue concerns some Members on all sides of the House, and I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and to the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) for their work in setting up the all-party parliamentary group on parenting, which was launched a week or two ago. This is something that ought to be spread to a much greater extent throughout the country.
It is difficult being a parent. Parenting skills do not arrive with the baby; they have to be learned. Good parenting comes from a blend of love, the best of one's own childhood experiences and support. That is what is lacking. Much is therefore left to chance. We should be providing today's children—tomorrow's parents—with the chance to consider the responsibilities of parenthood before they take that important decision.
It is also important to remind young people that they do not have to make this choice until they feel ready. We spend enormous sums of money teaching skills in other areas of adult life: why not this one? I believe that preparation for parenthood should be part of the core curriculum, and I commend the recent "Education for Parenthood" pack produced by the Children's Society.
The broad issue of sex education and educating children for life is a classic example of the need for closer co-operation between Ministers. In "The Health of the Nation", the Secretary of State set targets for the reduction in teenage pregnancies, but how is that to be achieved? Not 446 by opting out of sex education in schools, closing down family planning clinics or refusing to answer children's questions on sex, health and relationships.
The panic that arose following publicity over an incident in a Leeds school recently was typical of the Government's failure to think issues through. The same newspapers that some weeks previously covered their front pages, for any child to see, with the most explicit details of an actress's alleged expertise in oral sex were up in arms at disclosures by a nurse. What a surprisingly shockable lot journalists are.
The Secretary of State for Education reacted strongly, if predictably, and one Health Minister ordered the pulping of a sex education publication aimed at young people. If young people are denied the knowledge they need, how are the targets set in "The Health of the Nation" to be met? That is another urgent co-ordinating job for the Secretary of State, wearing her "responsibility for the family" hat. The Government must get their act together and agree a positive policy towards families, in whatever shape they come. Government Departments must talk to one another.
All families are in some sort of need. Most need confidence to get on with their lives, raise their children and contribute positively to society. That comes from the secure knowledge that the Government of the day understand and appreciate the problems that all families face from time to time, and from the knowledge that there are no nasty surprises around the corner—no hidden tax bombshells, for example, to throw finely judged budgets off course.
Families need to be sure that there is in place a flourishing welfare state that not only provides a safety net for people in difficulty but strives to set standards and to help people achieve them. Families need access to a range of support services flexible enough to meet their individual family needs—whether that is help with caring for elderly or infirm relatives, or conciliation advice when relationships break down. Families need to know that cost will not be a barrier to good-quality, accessible services.
Families need to feel that they are in active partnership with the Government, based on mutual understanding and respect. This Government are clearly failing to face up to their proper share of responsibility.
In a radio interview yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health said that she did not know whether she had been handed a poisoned chalice. Her job, she said, was to co-ordinate policies, because different Ministers hold different pieces of the jigsaw. That is the problem. I have some advice for her. Solving jigsaws takes time and thought, and one does not solve them by forcing the wrong pieces together in a hurry. At the end, there will be gaps with nothing to fill them—just as there are policy gaps today.
The Secretary of State frequently takes the opportunity to remind us how well qualified she is to speak on these matters—her pre-parliamentary training and experience fits her for the role. She may even take the opportunity to do so today.
On this side of the House, we also have well qualified people—former teachers, social workers, ex-directors and deputy directors of social services, nursery school teachers, people who have fostered children and so on. The difference between them and Conservative Members—and often, I suspect, the right hon. Lady—is that they have learnt from their experiences and know the real world. 447 I hope that the Secretary of State will prove today that she has not forgotten her experiences and training, and that she can relate it to the real world. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than for the right hon. Lady to present, after 15 years of Tory rule, a co-ordinated family policy that takes on board the needs of all families. Families deserve such concern.
§ The Secretary of State for Health (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:'welcomes the International Year of the Family and urges the Government to continue to pursue policies which ensure that the family remains the cornerstone of society; recognises that what families most want is independence, opportunity and choice and congratulates the Government on its economic and social policies which have led to dramatic increases in living standards and health, rewarded enterprise and endeavour and given families greater power over their own lives; welcomes practical measures such as the child care disregard announced in the Budget; and believes that the best way to support families is to assert the authority and responsibility of the family itself while providing help for families where it is most needed.'.I welcome this opportunity to debate family issues. The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) mentioned the International Year of the Family, and she will know that the Government are an enthusiastic and practical supporter of the year. I am particularly looking forward to 15 May, which the United Nations has designated as International Day of the Family. The hon. Lady and I were with the British committee for the launch of the year, and it was a very constructive and productive event—although during much of the hon. Lady's speech she appeared to have a somewhat different day in May in mind. Nevertheless, I congratulate her on the choice of subject for this debate. I hope that she will not be disappointed if I do not allow my remarks to degenerate into a stream of vituperative personal abuse aimed at her and her colleagues; the subject is too serious for that.
As the House knows, I have been given the role of speaking for the Government on family issues. It is also appropriate that I respond to this debate given that my Department's health and social services responsibilities touch on all members of the family, often at the most critical points of their lives. The House may be less familiar with the fact that I also answer for the Registrar-General who records all births, deaths and marriages.
The hon. Member for Eccles lays at the Government's door every single social ill affecting modern society. I find that curious given that the subject of this debate—the family—is fundamentally a private institution. There is no recognition of that in the Labour party motion, just a call for more public spending. Labour's answer to every problem remains the general application of someone else's cheque book—not an approach that would survive long in any family. In today's debate the hon. Lady may already have got herself into some difficulties with other Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) believes that progress could not be made until growth allowed it. We have already debated disagreements with the hon. Member for Glasgow, 448 Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) over the possible scrapping of child benefit. But I shall not enter further into Labour party internal disputes.
The Labour party prescribes more state intervention and spending as the knee-jerk cure for every ill. That is scarcely surprising from a party whose funding, constitution and philosophy is dominated by organised labour and the man at work. Labour is unable to focus on the needs of the family at home. Labour will not accept that individuals are ultimately responsible for their own actions and must accept the consequences. The proper role of the family is to provide the learning and the stable, loving environment where that responsibility is mastered and turned to good effect.
Before dwelling on what divides us, we should acknowledge the substantial degree of cross-party support for some of the Government's most important family policies. That support was evident recently when I unveiled the Government's White Paper on adoption. When I first joined the Department, the hon. Member for Eccles called to see me on the vexed subject of trans-racial adoption and expressed her resentment of the politically correct attitudes to be found in that particular regard.
The hon. Lady may also have forgotten that, when the Children Act 1989 was introduced, personal social services saw a 15 per cent. increase in spending to make sure that its provisions were properly funded. We reproduced the central tenets of that legislation in our adoption policies, and that was widely welcomed on both sides of the House, as were the underlying principles of our community care reforms, which aim at caring for elderly and vulnerable people in privacy and dignity and, wherever possible, at home—close to their families and friends.
I understand that Labour has given its broad support for the Lord Chancellor's consultative proposals for reshaping divorce and mediation. In all the discussion in the House about the Child Support Agency, not one right hon. or hon. Member has, as far as I know, demurred from the principle that responsibilities begin with parents and must remain with parents.
The policies introduced by this Government constitute a far-reaching body of enlightened social reform that places families at its heart. Their uniting principle is the family as a force for social and moral good.
In adoption policy, we make it clear that prejudicial views about the age, race or social class of potential parents should not come before what is best for the child. Children need families, not text book theories. In the Children Act 1989, the presumption is that children thrive with their parents. Together with our strong support for the UN convention on the rights of the child, that shows our deep commitment to the rights of children within the family. Any intervention that breaks that family relationship should be undertaken only if the needs of the child absolutely justify it.
Since the 1989 Act came into force, the number of children taken into care by local authorities under court orders has fallen nearly 50 per cent. The House should recognise, as the Government do, the contribution of social workers, often in awesomely difficult circumstances, in making the implementation of the Act such a success.
The Child Support Act stresses the ongoing responsibility of parents, even after divorce or separation. It rejects the cynical assumption that the state should pick up the pieces, and the taxpayer the bill, where the individual cannot be bothered. But there is an underlying tension between the 449 family and the state—not one that I would expect the Labour party to understand or recognise. In his book, "The Subversive Family", Ferdinand Mount spoke of the family as,a last ditch from which to resist the state.
The family is the most powerful and venerable institution in the land. It predates churches, monarchies—even Parliaments. Long before legislators took to pronouncing on family values, the family was already transmitting those values down through the generations. Trying to substitute the state for the role of the family risks undermining the authority of the family itself and eroding the vital social cohesion that it provides.
§ Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
How does the Secretary of State equate the record increases in taxation that the Government are imposing on the average family with her contention that the Government seek to reduce the tensions within families? Is not it a fact that those massive and record increases, which are bound to hit hardest those on the lowest incomes, will increase rather than decrease the tensions in families?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
Once again, the Labour party misunderstands and misrepresents the situation. I think that most families would understand without great difficulty that the real take-home pay today of a man on average earnings has risen by more than £80 a week compared with the figure in 1979. [Interruption.] We can expect an onslaught from the Labour party: Opposition Members will not want me to inform the House that the figure rose by £1.60 in the years during which they were in power. The comparison between £80 a week and £1.60 a week speaks for itself. Families will certainly know which party will support their interests most strongly. [Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. Is the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) seeking to intervene? If he is, he should do it in the normal way.
§ Mr. Devlin
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if the Labour party had won the previous general election, it would have added more than £38 billion to the tax take, on top of the tax increases that are now going through? That would have been a much greater burden on family life in this country than anything that people are likely to face under the Conservative party.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
As ever, my hon. Friend is exactly right. The British public well understand that the Labour party raises taxes out of conviction. We have seen only today a string of further spending pledges. No doubt the debate will rage far and wide in the Labour party as to how account is to be given for the commitments that the hon. Member for Eccles gave today. I can assure her that we have taken note of the spending pledges to which she has already committed herself.
The hon. Lady argued, predictably, that what has happened in the years since 1979 has undermined the family; she is wrong. On the contrary, it was the post-war decades before 1979, with their insidious cancerous extension of the state into every nook and cranny of our lives, that were so damaging to the family. Those were the 450 years when, despite the noble intentions of the welfare state, dependency gained the upper hand over independence, freedom and choice. The House will have noted that, when the hon. Lady referred to independence, freedom and choice, she did so with a certain sneer in her approach to those concepts.
It was in those same years that fashionable nostrums in education, housing and law and order took hold. Non-judgmental, permissive values undermined respect for the values of responsibility, community and self-help—the very values that families had honed and passed on down the centuries. It is in those years that we can trace the origins of so much extra family breakdown and the erosion of respect for order and law.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
And they do not care, either.
Such trends have, regrettably, continued in the 1980s and 1990s. They have been a phenomenon shared to a greater or lesser extent by comparable developed countries over that period. The social changes that brought them about are complex. Unfortunately, many lie beyond the power of Parliament to reverse. But what Governments can do is to provide the right environment to support and strengthen families and uphold their independence from the state. It is here that Conservative Governments since 1979 have made the decisive break from their predecessors.
§ Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)
Given our broad agreement that the state should not take the place of the family, and the Secretary of State's concern about the dependency culture, how worried is she that a record number of families with children are totally dependent on the state for income, and that the dependency culture has increased during the past 15 years?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
As my hon. Friend rightly says, that is a good argument for the CSA. It is also a good argument for the measures that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget in terms of assistance with child care, and, indeed, for the dramatic improvements in family credit—whereas around 80,000 people benefited when the Labour party was in power around 500,000 people benefit now. [Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) seems to be engaged in a running commentary.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
Conservative Members are familiar with the fact that, when Labour Members have no arguments, they either make a dreadful noise or start saying that the figures have been fiddled; we always know that we are home and dry when that is their response.
We have made a great number of changes to improve the situation for families. We have opened the doors to opportunity and enterprise, which gave families the chance to assert their independence and strength. Socialism nationalised choice, taking it away from individuals and families. We gave it back. Some 1.4 million families have been able to buy their homes under our right-to-buy policy—1.4 million families freed from the serfdom of the state and able to experience the independence and responsibility of home ownership; the tenants of Labour local authorities 451 in particular found the tyranny, patronising attitude and lack of concern quite deplorable. That is something about which I know a great deal.
To its shame, the Labour party fought us at every stage. More powers to families meant less power to the baronies of the Labour movement and to the trade unions and municipal socialists. We know why the Labour party fought so hard to avoid the sale of council houses: it thought that, when people were in them, they were within its power. Those who used to see the difficulties that people faced in getting their council houses repaired by some Labour local authorities will know exactly why it thought that.
We still see today how entrenched is Labour's opposition to genuine independence and choice for families. In education, for example, the Labour party has opposed, and continues to oppose, every single measure that gives parents more choice, more influence and more control over their children's schooling. The Labour party opposed the right that we gave parents to choose their children's schools. It opposed grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges. It opposed testing. It carps at and criticises the publication of school performance tables, which give parents the information that they need to make informed choices.
The Labour party may claim to support the family, but what families want is information and influence over their children's schooling. They do not want to be frozen out. They want to participate. They want to be involved. They want information. But the Labour party resists every single measure that we pass that gives families power.
§ Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley)
Is the Secretary of State aware that the money for city technology colleges could have provided many more pre-school education places for the under-fives? She raised a point about housing, which I think represents one way in which the state can support family life. Does she agree that the question that we should ask is how many families are in adequate housing, regardless of the ownership of those houses? Is not it a tragedy that, when commenting on housing, she seeks to make political points about home ownership and ignores the very real fact that more families now live in disgraceful and appalling housing than at any time since the second world war? What support are the Government going to give to get people out of housing misery?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
Presumably, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) will now not feel the need to make a speech in her own right to start denigrating city technology colleges as always. The Opposition hate choice, diversity and variety, and that is why the public have no confidence in them. The public realise that the Opposition believe that they always know best. The Opposition never trust the people; that is why they deplore every opportunity that empowers the public and families and offers diversity. I shall in a moment deal with the points about child care that the hon. Member for Yardley raised.
In the health service, family doctors are being empowered through GP fundholding. True to form, the Labour party opposes the scheme and does so with a 452 vehemence that can only foreshadow an ignominious U-turn in two or three years' time when it realises that the argument is lost.
It is an instinctive part of human nature to want to live an independent life and to provide for one's own family. Our economic and taxation policies since 1979 have supported that instinct.
§ Mr. Enright
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Catholic bishops' social conference has placed at the door of current Government policies the problems experienced by families and difficulties of criminality? Has the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), made her aware of it, or is that hon. Lady very selective in the Catholic policies that she accepts?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I fear that I shall have to deal with that point in more detail later. However, to attribute criminality to the Government is exactly the approach that the Opposition always pursue. Criminals are responsible for criminal behaviour. One matter on which I warmly support the hon. Member for Eccles is on the significance of parenting and parents' ongoing responsibility to control as well as to care for their children.
As I was saying, our economic and taxation policies since 1979 have supported the family instinct to want to live an independent life—a fact that the Opposition clearly fail to understand. The Opposition believe that families want to be dictated to and to be under the control of the Labour party. Fortunately, families have supported our party in the past four general elections.
Our policies have encouraged and rewarded individual enterprise and endeavour. We have reduced tax rates on income and savings to promote incentives, to encourage saving and to ensure that wealth, as well as values and traditions, can be passed down the generations. The Labour party denounces that as the so-called "greedy society".
We remember how, suddenly in the late-1980s, all the social problems which for years the Labour party had been telling us were caused by people not having enough money appeared to be caused by people having too much money. Today, as the hon. Member for Eccles reminded us, we are back to the poverty argument. We do not need economists to tell us where we are in the economic cycle—one has only to read the latest Labour speech on the causes of crime.
The hon. Lady might like to read what her noble Friend Baroness Dean said when introducing a recent debate on the family in another place:poverty is not just about a lack of money; it is also about a lack of opportunity".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 February 1994; Vol. 552, c. 637]
Because the Government have pursued economic policies of opportunity and enterprise, families are substantially better off than they were in 1979. The income of the average family has increased by 35 per cent. ahead of inflation. Moreover, the increase extends to a large number of people on below-average incomes.
On another key measure—the ownership of household goods—it is also clear that the picture painted by the Opposition is highly selective. Seven out of 10 of the poorest 10 per cent. of families by income now have central heating, compared with four in 10 when the Opposition were in power. Half have cars, compared with 453 40 per cent. in 1979, and 60 per cent. have videos. Again, the sneering and scoffing of the Opposition shows just how out of touch they are with what really matters to people.
The advances to which I have referred are mirrored by improvements in health. The hon. Member for Eccles was rather wise to avoid too much discussion about health because there is clear evidence of improvements in the health of all people in our society since our party has been in power—especially since the successful implementation of our NHS reforms. Life expectancy is greater by about two years than it was a decade ago. The rate of infant mortality has halved since 1979 and is now at its lowest ever level; it has fallen in all social classes and in all regions and, although it remains higher in social classes 4 and 5 than in others, the gap has narrowed significantly in the past 12 years.
More than 90 per cent. of children are now immunised against the major childhood diseases, which is a stunning achievement. I am sure that the House will recall the Opposition opposing the introduction of payments for immunisation targets. They said that the targets were too high and too heroic and that they should be lower in inner-city areas. That is the Opposition's two-tier health service—lower targets in the inner cities. We would have none of it: we said that to help the inner cities we would introduce deprivation payments so that GPs there would have extra assistance. As a result, childhood diseases have dropped to their lowest ever levels, saving lives and sparing thousands of children the fear of hospital treatment. I remind the House that much of the credit for that lies with the incentive payments introduced under the GP contract.
The best way to improve the well-being and the living standards of families is to make it more worth while for those who can and want to work to do so. Most parents —couples and lone parents—do not want to be dependent on benefit, locked into what can be a hopeless cycle of despair. Poverty occurs when the state drives out opportunity. Prosperity means breaking free—wanting to work, wanting to provide for oneself and one's family and wanting to put something back into society rather than merely taking out.
§ Mr. Heald
I am about to quote. The press conference dealt with the first year of the operation of the Child Support Agency. Kate Lister from Newbury is reported as saying that the CSA had allowed herto get off benefit and into a part-time job for the first time in six years.
It had enabled her to escape the benefit trap and have choice. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is appalling that the Opposition, who talk so glibly about the rights of women, are not prepared to back the agency all the way down the line?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I strongly support the views expressed by my hon. Friend. The Child Support Agency provides a much greater opportunity for women to live independently and is yet another aspect of the Government's success in recognising their need to do so.
The twin aims of the Government's social security reforms have been to target help on those most in need and 454 to ensure that the system retains incentives for individuals to break out of the unemployment and poverty traps. The Government have sought to help parents who are less well off to take jobs. Family credit, which I have already mentioned, is currently paid to 500,000 families and ensures that low-income families with children are better off in work. On average, families are £23 a week better off on family credit than on income support.
All parties welcomed the announcement in the Budget that we shall provide additional assistance with child care costs from this October. One hundred and fifty thousand low-income families will benefit. It is a telling contrast: while the Government pursue practical policies, the Labour party's answer is a statutory minimum wage which would force families out of work.
The Labour party criticises the Government's record on child care because it cares only about public provision—it edits the independent and voluntary sectors out of the figures.
§ Ms Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)
I am sure that the right hon. Lady knows that there are good Labour local authorities, such as North Tyneside, which, far from believing in only one means of child care provision, have invested in a superb system that has attracted money from the public sector and which the Government themselves have used. I understand that at least eight Departments now provide creches. Such authorities have increased the quality of care available for the children of parents who cannot afford it by using imaginatively and creatively money from employers and the parents who can afford it. That is a superb example of what can be done to give children and their families opportunities and to raise standards, without additional cost to the taxpayer.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
It is encouraging to think that there are glimmers of hope in the Labour party from time to time. It is all a question of partnership, and it cannot be put at the feet of central Government to solve all ills. The key is partnership, diversity and choice, as my honourable and splendid Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) said when she made that point so well. She also said that 90 per cent. of three and four-year-olds in England now attend some form of pre-school education or other group provision. That is one of the best records in Europe.
There has been a steady and welcome growth in private and voluntary day nursery provision. The intervention by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) revealed that there are glimmers of hope that perhaps here, as with the sale of council houses—and, I predict, with GP fundholding—it is possible in the fullness of time for the dinosaur's tail to twitch, and for change to take place.
The Government encourage the private and voluntary sectors, as well as individuals, to provide a variety of services that give parents choice. Parents, employers, the churches, voluntary bodies and the private sector should all play an active part. We help national organisations such as the Pre-School Playgroups Association, the National Childminding Association and Kids Clubs network to provide services for their members. Such organisations not only provide care for children but give confidence to parents.
§ Mr. Thurnham
Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities should not be over-zealous in interpreting the Children Act 1989 so that voluntary organisations such as the scouts do not suddenly find artificial difficulties placed in their way?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
My hon. Friend is right. The Children Act, which has been a great success in protecting and safeguarding children, has been so zealously implemented by some local authorities that people providing voluntary and private child care have been oppressively treated. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), when he was a Minister, did much to relieve people from some of the oppressive interpretations of the regulations under the Act, and now we hope to stop many such activities—certainly those organised by the scouts, guides and some of the other organised youth movements—from being controlled by that Act.
Child care is not the only way of helping parents to reconcile work and family responsibilities. The true family-friendly employer will consider a whole package of measures—child care, career breaks, flexible working and job sharing. I am pleased that in the national health service —one of the largest employers of women not only in this country but in the world—we are setting a good example. The NHS was one of the first employers to sign up for Opportunity 2000, and we are showing a lead in giving women more opportunities to develop their careers while discharging their family commitments. That is the right way. Progress is made not by Government edict but by employers realising that it is enlightened self-interest to be able to accommodate women who wish to give time to their families and their domestic responsibilities.
The hon. Member for Eccles spoke about nursery schooling. Well over half of all three and four-year-olds are now in state-funded nursery education, as opposed to just over 40 per cent. 10 years ago. Our long-term ambition is to widen access and choice, as and when we can afford to do so. We shall consider a range of options to achieve that ambition, concentrating on our key goals of quality, diversity and choice.
Parenting is a difficult as well as a rewarding task. I agree with the hon. Lady about that. The ability to be a good parent does not always come automatically.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
There is no doubt that in due course the Child Support Agency will achieve a number of the objectives that my right hon. Friend has laid down, including those that she mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald). However, is she aware that in the shorter term there will be a number of difficulties within families, caused by the work of the CSA, and will she convey that to her colleagues in the Department of Social Security? For example, there will be tensions between separated parents who might otherwise have preserved reasonable relations, and there may be more contests over child custody. Will my right hon. Friend convey those concerns to her colleagues in the DSS?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I take my hon. Friend's point, and of course I shall pass on his comments. Any new system will have a number of teething problems and any responsible Government will take time to adjust to them. However, the principle that fathers should have a continuing financial responsibility for their children is right, and I welcome the establishment of the agency.
456 I was talking about the difficulties faced by parents. Many parents, young and old, often need help from family and friends, from neighbours, from teachers and sometimes from professionals. Sometimes they are crying out for help and advice. One of the benefits of an aging population is that we should increasingly be able to look to grandparents and older members of the community to support the younger members in bringing up their children. It is encouraging that, according to a recent survey, 69 per cent. of older people in the United Kingdom have contact with their families at least once a week.
Let us not forget that the roles can be reversed, too. There are at present about 6 million informal carers in Britain, looking after elderly or disabled relations. In our community care reforms we took care to recognise their invaluable role and to support them in it.
The voluntary sector and the churches can and do play a role in helping parents to cope with their responsibilities. The Government support organisations such as Homestart and Newpin, which do such valuable work. We recognise befriending by volunteers, some of whom have overcome parenting difficulties in their own families. Other organisations set up self-help groups of parents.
The common element is the voluntary approach. We have a rich source of altruism in our society. Such effort provides the sort of practical help that can often prevent family breakdown. I welcomed a visit this week by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) to talk about parenting, and to mark the establishment of the new all-party group.
One of the most persistent and persuasive advocates of community help to improve the quality of parenting has been my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Joseph. I was pleased to see that, despite his illness, he returned with characteristic gusto to that theme in a recent debate in the other place.
We need good parents and high-quality parenting to ensure that the values of the family and the values of society are passed on. Children need stable family relationships to help them develop into responsible and law-abiding citizens. Parents must provide children with warmth and security. But they must also provide boundaries—control as well as care. They must give their children a sense of order and predictability.
Parents who do not take their responsibilities seriously must face the consequences of their children's behaviour. In reviewing community-based sentences, we shall assess ways of strengthening parental involvement. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill will introduce the new parental bind-over, which will give the courts power to make parents responsible for ensuring that their child complies with any community sentence.
It is the duty of parents to instil in their children respect for the values of our society. But those messages must also come from beyond the family. For example, many people are rightly concerned about the pernicious effect of violent videos falling into children's hands. The welcome measures announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary earlier this week will provide extra safeguards, and tough penalties for those who expose children to video violence.
When young offenders commit crimes they should not be rewarded with holidays abroad or mountain bikes at the taxpayer's expense.
Schools should support parents in teaching children to tell right from wrong. The spiritual and moral development 457 of children in schools is no less important than academic achievement. I pay a warm tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education for all that he has done to establish the moral and ethical climate in schools. He is right to stress that sex education should be taught within a clear moral framework. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Health was right to withdraw from circulation the Health Education Authority's "Pocket Guide to Sex". Ensuring effective sex education is vital in helping to meet "The Health of the Nation" targets on under-aged pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. However, there must also be a proper emphasis on stable relationships and individual responsibility.
The Government's commitment to the family as the cornerstone of our society is unshakeable. That commitment is founded on two convictions: first, the family is the essential source of love and respect between individuals and of their development as citizens. Secondly, family relationships and family values are and must be essentially private. The public interest is to support the family, not to substitute or to undermine it. The Government's fundamental duty is to provide a legislative framework that underpins family relationships. Our programme of enlightened family law reform—the Children Act 1989, the adoption White Paper, our proposals on divorce law and mediation—does just that. Our reform of public services in health and community care, in education, in housing and in social security has put families in the driving seat. Above all, we must acknowledge and respect the privacy of family life and reinforce parental responsibility.
Our policies work to support families. No other institution is as important to our society or as important to our future. Families want independence. They want opportunity. They want choice. Our belief in those principles makes us the party of the family and of their hopes and ambitions. We trust the family and we trust the people. That is why the electors have trusted us in the past four elections and that is why they will be right to do so again.
§ Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)
I welcome the debate on family policy because I am sure that we would all agree that some of the most critical issues on policy agendas affect the family, whether we are concerned with the young or the old. Throughout the country, some important debates, often led by voluntary organisations, are going on about family policy. Members of Parliament would do well to listen—I emphasise listen—to those debates, because the quality of them is often high.
The other point that we should make is that we are not alone in the world in having to worry about such issues. Certainly throughout the western world, many of the trends that now affect the policy agenda are apparent and we have much to learn about positive and negative aspects from experience elsewhere. I hope that we use the opportunity of the International Year of the Family to have a serious and not a merely partisan debate about those questions.
There are three themes with which we should concern ourselves. One is that we should be interested in both the strengths and the insecurities of families. We often stress the negative aspects of family life, often because they pose the most critical policy challenges. Let us also emphasise the strengths, on which the Secretary of State touched. We 458 often talk of aging in a negative and an agist way, but the fact that more and more of our children are growing up in three or four-generation families represents a strength. The fact that my three children grew up partly cared for by their grandparents as well their parents represents a strength which earlier generations were denied.
We need to learn far more, not only about the nuclear family of parents and children but about the dynamics of the three and the four-generation family, and even the five-generation family, which one occasionally meets, so that we understand the patterns of help and care in families in both directions—from young to old and from old to young. If one were to ask what is the most important child care agency in the country, it would not be those that readily come to mind. Rather, it would be the grandparent and, one must say, usually the grandmother. Let us remember the strengths and play to those strengths, because we neglect strength at our peril. One of the reasons why community care is so important to put into practice and not only into words is that it represents a strength if only we were to recognise it.
Secondly, we should try to discuss not only the rights of families but the responsibilities. Most of us, our citizens and our parents want to take on responsibilities and duties as well as to be able to exercise rights when necessary. That is why, in all the difficult debates about child support and the Child Support Act 1991, it is so important to get it right. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the practice of the Child Support Agency because we care deeply—not only in words but in sentiment—about the principle of parental responsibility. If we were to lose that parental responsibility and if it were overthrown, it would be a major loss to our generation.
Thirdly, let us also consider the association between the family and the wider society—not only the state, the private sector and the voluntary sector—and let us think about the partnerships that we need between the family and the state. If one is sensible, the argument is not about either the family playing all the roles in education, health and care, or the state doing so, but about necessary partnerships. If one has learnt anything from research and experience, it is that, often, issues such as education and health depend far more on the family than on formal services. Building partnerships is crucial.
At the moment, three major forces cause family instability. Although I have already noted that we should recognise the strengths, I hope that the House will forgive me if I focus on the instabilities, because it is important that we get those issues right.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
Before the hon. Gentleman talks about instability, may I point out that when I made an intervention about the Child Support Agency, the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—I think that it was him—referred to travel costs. On that point, where we may be agreed, would the hon. Gentleman agree that the CSA is in some cases making it difficult for absent fathers to visit their children? The other day, a constituent of mine, who is resident in Taunton, told me that his family had moved to Leicester and that he faced considerable difficulty in funding regular visits to his children.
§ Mr. Wicks
It is not for me to grapple with the details of that issue, but I recognise that there are a number of factors, such as housing where the house has been made over to the mother, which somehow need to be recognised 459 in the formula. I recognise that is difficult, but experience in Australia may help us. Travel costs are another difficult issue. Although I do not want to become too diverted on the issue of child support because the family policy debate is wider than that, I am bound to say that, while we should recognise different costs that the "absent" parent has to pay, the costs of bringing up his own children should be near the top of the list and not near the bottom—a factor that we forget.
I am concerned that, in the difficult debate on child support, the crucial voice at the moment, which is the silent voice, is often that of the lone mother with her children. We hear from men and sometimes from second wives but, at present, it is a male-dominated debate. Unless Parliament is wise enough to listen hard to the voices that are not shouting, we shall make mistakes. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) quoted one lone mother who spoke at a recent press conference and gave her perspective of child support. I was pleased that I had the opportunity to chair that press conference, because some of us are trying to listen to those voices and construct a more considerate debate on child support. We can get it right and there are lessons to be learned from overseas.
I wanted to talk about the forces causing insecurity, of which there are several. One is family breakdown, to use that term as shorthand. Most hon. Members recognise that the social revolution of the family, which is affecting our society—all societies of which I know in Europe, as well as societies in the Antipodes, North America and so on —is not a bloodless revolution. I do not know whether some have felt that it may have been a bloodless revolution in the 1960s but it is not today. There are many victims and most of those victims—not all—are women and children. It is time to put women and children first in the debate. We know of the trends and that increasing numbers of our children are born outside wedlock. I am not saying that that is a negative factor, but I am giving it as a demographic fact. Some children are born to cohabiting parents, while some are born to the group that we often refer to as single, unmarried mothers.
We need to understand the trends. I was struck by the fact that the Secretary of State reminded us that her Department is responsible for the collection of official statistics. We need to be aware that our official statistics —they tend to register things like marriage and divorce —are increasingly not capturing the full family picture because those who cohabit do not have to register; I am not advocating that they should. Cohabiting parents with children whose relationships break up are not captured in the official statistics. We must recognise, and the Government must recognise, that the official data are capturing an increasing proportion of the dynamic family change, and much of the research is taking place in our universities.
We know that probably one in four young children—I suspect that that may be an understatement—will have before they reach the age of 16 parents who divorce. We should not imagine that that trend has something to do with a specific period in our history, such as the 1960s or whatever decade we are against this week. It is happening around the world. We must recognise that the forces are complex and fundamental. That does not mean that we always give in to them. We try to resist some of them.
460 The trend means that more of our children are living in one-parent families. There are different groups of one-parent families, and some are more insecure than others. The research that I have seen, and the experience that I have gained, suggests that we should not leap to simple conclusions about the issue. Poverty must be a factor. It would be absurd and partisan in the worst sense for anyone to deny that. Seven out of 10 one-parent families draw income support. None of us can be happy about that—the families are not happy about it.
Some of the insecurities that are associated with such families are not simply about poverty. The research evidence on educational attainment, the fact that some children in one-parent families leave home early and the fact that some girls form cohabiting relationships very early and become pregnant very young suggests that we are dealing with a more complex interaction between material, social and psychological things which we would do well to consider wisely—and perhaps more wisely than some of us would sometimes like to. That is important. About 2 million of our children are in one-parent families. We need not to attack or condemn but to understand what is happening. We must rigorously examine the evidence if we are to make wise judgments about social policy.
§ Mr. Streeter
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech and enjoying it because it is a thoughtful contribution. The hon. Gentleman is studiously avoiding making any value judgment at all about the statistics that he is bringing to the House—I am not saying that that is right or wrong. Does he agree that unless we can say that marriage is a good thing and in most cases two parents are better than one for raising children, and unless we can make value judgments, we cannot find a way through to provide solutions?
§ Mr. Wicks
I wanted, perhaps unwisely, to give some evidence and facts because I know that it is often a tradition in the House that facts should not get in the way of a good argument. Sometimes, facts make one more thoughtful about a particular argument. If necessary, I apologise for presenting some trends and facts.
I am sure that most of us agree that, wherever possible, if children can be brought up by two loving parents who stay together—many people would say married but they can be unmarried—they benefit from birth until young adulthood. That is good, and it must be right. However, we must be humble enough to recognise that not all marriages can be successful, and many people suffer from divorce. If we were wiser about those things, we would recognise that all of those experiences exist around all the powerful tables of our land, whether Cabinet tables or shadow Cabinet tables. We should draw on those experiences and make wise judgments about them. That is as far as I would go on a value judgment.
We all have a vested interest in recognising that many of our children are living in a range of family circumstances. We talk about one-parent families, and I have done so. One in 10 of our children—that is about the right proportion—are living in step-families or reconstituted families. There are issues in those situations that need to be discussed, but we often neglect them. Sometimes, the official data do not give us enough guidance on those issues.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
On the subject of broken families, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it takes two 461 for a family to break up and that the deserted wife is the victim of the husband or the partner who has disappeared, so that today we should be putting more emphasis on teaching young men responsibility?
§ Mr. Wicks
The hon. Lady is talking to the young man —the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson)—beside her. Later, I shall talk about some of the implications for parenthood which I think are important.
Obviously, there is so much blood and thunder in any relationship breakdown that it is often unwise for a Member of Parliament to make a judgment about who is at fault or whether the concept of fault is a valuable one. All I am saying is that breakdown is occurring in all walks of life and in some of the most senior families in the land. We draw lessons from that but we do not rush to judge and suggest that changing that social tide will be easy.
When I was at the Family Policy Studies Centre, where I spent 10 years of my life, we produced an estimate which sums up the force of some of the trends. By the end of the century only 50 per cent. of British children will experience what many of us might regard as conventional family life—in other words, being born to parents who are married to one another. They will also experience until their late teens living with a mum and dad who are still, hopefully, happily married to one another. By 2000, that will be the experience of only one in two—50 per cent. —of our children because of the rise in out-of-wedlock births, one-parent families, divorce and reconstituted families.
Family life is very complex. We may make our own judgments about it, but I hope that some of those judgments will be tough-minded ones when it comes to policy. I also hope that the milk of human kindness will be apparent in our debates. On some platforms, that substance does not always seem to be in great supply.
Family breakdown is one force of family insecurity. Another force is economic insecurity. We must accept that as a fact—if I may talk about facts once again. Recently, I asked a parliamentary question about the number of children living in families where the family head was unemployed. The answer was 1 million. Furthermore, a proportion of those children have family heads who have been out of work for some time. That is a major force for family insecurity. The two things combined are important. If many of us had the benefit of growing up in secure families in terms of happily married parents and also in families where parents were in work, we benefited from a double stability.
Too many of our children have neither the security of a strong family nor the economic security of at least one parent in full-time work. When we get so worried about the issues of crime, drugs and video nasties, it does not surprise me that there are indicators of social malaise and that family security and economic security is no longer present.
§ Mr. George Howarth
I was reluctant to intervene on my hon. Friend's speech because it is certainly having a powerful and educational effect. One point that I have observed from my constituency, which flows out of what my hon. Friend is saying, is that when men—I am not saying this in any way to make a value judgment—do not have an economic role in the family, women often take an 462 utterly rational decision that, while they want a family, it is not necessarily a family in which a man has any sort of place. That has all sorts of consequences, not least of which is that men who find themselves in that position do not have the security and the responsibilities that go with being a parent in a family. That is an equally worrying trend.
§ Mr. Wicks
There is an issue now about the role of part of a generation of young men which should concern us. I recall that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has made some comments about that too. Often in family debates, the focus is on women. I sometimes think that we would begin to get things right if we began to talk about boys and men also within the family.
One of the revolutions which we need to cope with within the family changes that I have been I discussing is not just that in the thinking of the Government or of other institutions but that in the thinking of men within the family. I do not say that in a silly anti-men way. There are some serious and difficult issues here for boys and men.
I talked about the economic insecurities of unemployment. One of the ironies is that when we need to grapple with the family of unemployment, there are other issues about the family of almost over-employment, or what I would call the over-active or over-busy family. That is one where the two parents are both in work while, at the same time, bringing in the bread to pay the rent or mortgage. They are also becoming parents and bringing up their youngest children. Given that we live for 80 or so years, there is something remarkably absurd about the way in which we attempt to pack so much into a relatively short time.
The pressures around the typical dual-worker family must be allowed for in policy. Otherwise, there will not be enough time to devote to bringing up children. Work pressures are the third theme in family insecurity.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
The hon. Gentleman refers to dual-working families. Does he agree that what is harmful to children is not so much having working parents but that they come from a broken home where they are not number one to any particular parent? Is not that far more harmful to the child?
§ Mr. Wicks
It may well be, but I am not trying to cast aspersions on the fact that a parent—whether the father or mother—goes out to work. I am trying to prepare the ground for an argument that policy issues about work and the family and the need for family-friendly employment policies must be among the agenda issues that we should be discussing.
We can have fun with one another across the Floor of the House about where the money will come from and about spending commitments. As a Back Bencher, I can make billions of pounds of spending commitments and no one will care. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), who speaks for the Opposition on Treasury matters, is looking rather aghast—I was obviously jesting.
Clearly if in the future we have to spend billions of pounds of public money on the consequences of family breakdown and family insecurity, none of us will ever be able to put into practice our social priorities. At the moment, we are spending billions of pounds not on a family policy, but on a family breakdown policy. We spend 463 billions because too many of our families with children are dependent on income support or even—because of low wages—on family credit.
I am not sure that a rise in the numbers on family credit is always something to boast about, but we do spend billions on it. If one makes the link—I do not see why it is so controversial, because there is now evidence—between lawlessness, disorder and the rising crime rate and economic insecurity, it means that a good proportion of our lawlessness and disorder budget is now being spent on the consequences of breakdowns of different kinds. Much of the work of social services departments and health agencies, and too much of the time and trouble taken by education authorities, will relate to some of the family change issues which we are trying to discuss sensibly today.
It is not that we have not got the money to spend, but that we are spending much at the moment on what I call a family breakdown service, or services of different kinds. The challenge, which is not an easy one to grapple with, is how we divert those resources from family breakdown to what I would call family investment.
I shall mention briefly ideas about the policy agenda that we should be discussing. At the end of last year, I published a paper called "Putting families first: a 10 point policy agenda". That is not to say that there are only 10 points, or that I necessarily got them right, but I was trying to encourage some debate. I will summaries the issues now.
First, we will all agree that we must invest in care because if the family is about anything, it is about providing care for the young and, increasingly, for the old as well. How are we to invest more in care and play to the strengths that are apparent in many families? We must start at the beginning with the youngest—the under-fives. We must start to grapple—a little late in our social history—with how we provide nursery education and other forms of care for the youngest.
I do not believe that we want a uniform state service. Parents come in all shapes and sizes, children have different needs and parents must make their own judgments about child care. We need a range of services —statutory, voluntary and private, and also nursery and other forms of education to provide that care.
We must also remember that, in this age of the extended family, much of our debate now must be about carers. I do not know whether Ministers will be able to respond on this matter at the end of the debate. We know now about the impact that the Community Care (Residential Accommodation) Act 1992 has had on providing extra care for carers. That provides much of the rhetoric on the issue and is one of its key objectives.
Do we have evidence now as to whether the carers of the eldest and those with disabilities are now—in practice and not just in words—receiving more services? I have not seen the evidence in my constituency, but I would be interested to know of any objective material. The most important community care service—one that is sometimes taken too much for granted and is given just a pat on the back in speeches—is the family. It is far more important than the Departments of Health and of Social Security.
The second subject on the policy agenda is parental support, to which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam 464 (Lady Olga Maitland) referred. When one buys a motor car, one gets a handbook which tells all about the car. I do not understand it much myself, but the handbook will explain how the machine works and what to do if things go wrong. One can join the Automobile Association or the Royal Automobile Club and get advice about motor cars. We take children and parenting less seriously than the motor car. There is not as much support for parents as there is for people who drive motor cars.
The agenda is about the work and family issues that we have been discussing. Given that workers have the annoying habit of being mothers and fathers, and given also that many workers are also carers of elderly people —another part of the debate that often we do not recognise —how are we to recognise the dual functions of the worker-carer? Are employers, trade unions and Government Departments trying to foster policies and practices that allow for that?
It must be worrying that probably the major reason that women are forced to leave their jobs before retirement age, although I have seen no recent evidence, is to care for an elder. It often would be better if they were enabled to stay in work as well as providing a caring role because of support from their employer and from the social services.
What about the preparation for parenthood in schools? What is the role there, and are we taking that seriously enough? Given the rates of teenage pregnancies, we are clearly making some mistakes.
I sometimes feel also that there might be a gap in provision during early childhood. When one has a baby, one gets support in the first weeks and months from the health authorities. Later, when the child goes to school, there is support from the education authorities. Is there a gap somewhere in the middle where parents sometimes do not get support from the wider welfare state? If there is a gap, who should bridge it? Inevitably, the fact that we have departmentalism, with education and health authorities, may not enable us to bridge that gap.
What about guidance counselling? Many marriages run into difficulties, and parents face problems. Do we have the right mixture of guidance and counselling? Is it true—as I have heard—that there is a waiting list for Relate and for other guidance services? Does that make any sense? A marriage in trouble cannot wait very long for good advice.
There is also divorce law reform, which raises important issues. I hope that we will soon get on with a divorce law reform that will put children first. Too often, divorce is a battle between adults behaving in an infantile manner, championed by their lawyers. The children are often neglected. Yet although most parents who divorce have children under the age of 16—each year 160,000 children under 16 have mums and dads who divorce—their voices and concerns are often not heard in court.
We should consider the Law Commission's proposal, which is discussed in the Green Paper, whereby there would be a cooling-off period of a year, in which the court would have to be satisfied that the best welfare of the children had been considered before allowing the divorce. Such a reform would require more services, such as mediation and counselling, but if we can provide that it will be another important step.
A third point on a policy agenda must be rebuilding economic security and independence. I asked the Secretary of State whether she was worried that more of our children than ever before live in families dependent on income 465 support—yet another of those facts. If I am wrong about that, I hope that someone will correct me, but if it is true it must give rise to concern.
At a time of increasing worry about the dependency culture it is ironic that more of our families are caught in it. When constituents ask me for a better council flat or access to the social fund I often do not consider that the families are the ideal epitome of the welfare state in action. They often live in poor council housing on income support and have to have dealings with the social services department. It is the reverse of the welfare state in action and I see it as the dependency culture. What employment and social policies do we need to build and rebuild economic security for our families?
Fourthly, we need a proper policy and programme for young people. It is heartbreaking to come across young people who have struggled hard at school for qualifications, with greater or lesser success, but who simply become unemployed. In 1993, 22 per cent., or more than one fifth, of our 16 to 19-year-olds were unemployed.
Equally heartbreaking is the fact that 40 per cent. of teenagers who were out of work in 1989 were still unemployed two years later. We are making a mistake when young adults start off unemployed—my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) touched on that—and we should not be surprised that things go wrong. We should also not be surprised that, when a crisis affects a generation of young men, it has implications for women.
Surely we can do something about the fact that in 1990, 115,000 teenage girls became pregnant and that most of the pregnancies were certainly unplanned. The consequences are a horrifically high abortion rate and a large proportion of young, single, unmarried mothers, who start their adult lives in the worst possible circumstances. I believe that we can do something about those things.
Surely Britain needs a strategy for family policy. Many European countries grappled with such a policy generations ago and it is time that we caught up. Britain is undergoing a social revolution. The changes in families are substantial. I am not being partisan, but we are handling the changes badly. Because of our failure to develop a family policy and strategy, there are many victims. Families now come in all shapes and sizes. Yes, it is a cliché, but it is true to say that they are our most precious resource. I do not believe that we are investing enough in them. It is not about more spending commitments but about the issue that I touched on and how we move resources from a family breakdown service to a policy that invests in families, children and those who care for our old people.
We are dealing with one of the most important matters that the House will consider this year. I hope that we can discuss it seriously or at least as seriously as it is being discussed by voluntary groups and other organisations outside the House in the International Year of the Family. Surely it is time to put families first.
§ 6.7 pm
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
The speech by the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) was well informed. In his work for the Family Policy Study Centre he did much outside the House to provide information and lines of thought on policy to those directly concerned with families.
466 Perhaps the kindest thing that I can say about the first speech in the debate is that the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) has a good reputation as her party's spokesman for children. If she and her hon. Friend the Member for s Croydon, North-West shared a place on the Opposition Front Bench, with the hon. Gentleman speaking for families, it might help the Labour party to have a two-pronged approach to such issues.
Many hon. Members present today will have missed the speech that I made on 17 December 1982, when I promoted a debate on the family—[Interruption.] I commend the speech, but I warn hon. Members that it took an hour to make. The issues are the same now as they were then. If we could have a two-day debate every year on the various aspects of family policy targets we might find that the House would speak with a degree of authority and purpose.
§ Mr. Thurnham
My hon. Friend suggests that we should have a two-day debate. Is it not extraordinary that when we have only an afternoon debate hardly any Opposition Members are present? Throughout this debate there have been more Conservative than Opposition Members present, yet this is supposed to be an Opposition debate. If the Opposition cannot fill their Benches for their own debates for one afternoon, how could they possibly fill them for a two-day debate?
§ Mr. Bottomley
I do not know what makes my hon. Friend think that he might tempt me into saying anything party political, but if he tries hard he might succeed.
The purpose of my earlier remark was that if we set targets we can then talk about the approaches that are likely to help people to achieve a reduction in avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap and improve their well-being.
One can make the obvious point—as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did, and I was delighted to hear her speech—that the Labour party's institutions are basically built around the representation of people at work. However, that is not exclusively the case, and I pay tribute to a miners' leader in the 1930s, William Straker from Northumberland, who stressed the importance of introducing family allowances, in support of Eleanor Rathbone's long-term campaign for some sort of family endowment.
It is also true that the Conservative party, at its best, is built around the representation of people's family and household interests, which to some extent include their work interests, but also include solidarity between the generations, if I may be allowed to use another European expression from the year of social action.
If we were to set targets to reduce avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap we would find it easy to reach an agreement across the Chamber, in the same way as we did when targets were set for reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads. We asked what the problem was, what could be done about it and whether it was feasible to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries by one third by 2000.
During the past 25 years and the past 100 years there have been significant medical advances. In the first 75 years they came mainly from the plumbers, and in the past 25 years mainly from the pharmaceutical industry, doctors, nurses, health visitors and the like. There have also been significant economic advances during the past 25 years and the past 100 years for various reasons. 467 Have there been significant social advantages in the past 25 years? In some areas there have been, but not nearly enough. How many young people will commit a serious crime for the first time this week—a crime for which, if they were caught and convicted, they might be sent to gaol for six months or more? The answer is about 2,000—or 100,000 in a year. To put it differently, one third of men have already been convicted of a serious offence by the time they reach the age of 30.
Smoking is not a crime, but it is highly undesirable. Between 3,000 and 5,000 young people will take up smoking this week—this week, last week and next week. When the issue is discussed in the press we read only about tobacco advertising and how far it should be controlled. I have no arguments for continuing the promotion of tobacco—there are some arguments against banning it—but if it would make a difference of between 1 per cent. and 5 per cent., and if a child's parents' smoking makes a 250 per cent. difference and their not disapproving makes a difference of almost 700 per cent., how can we engage those people who might be in the Press Gallery or in broadcasting studios in focusing on the issues that matter most?
Other hon. Members properly and sensitively mentioned unwanted pregnancies. Of those people who are sexually active this week, 6,000 will contribute to a conception which will end in an abortion during the next two or three months. It was 6,000 last week and it will be 6,000 this week and next. To put it bluntly, we ought to be able to halve that number during a period of about a year and a half just by overcoming people's ignorance, apathy, embarrassment, shyness, activity or whatever. But we should give them the choices. I pay tribute to Lord Deedes, who came to my constituency to talk to people. He went into various newsagents and came across what I would describe as a "child mother" of seventeen and a half, caring for a child. He talked to her about her relationship with the father of the child, with her parents and with her community.
It crossed my mind that if that young mother went into a school assembly to talk about the sense of responsibility in caring for her child, it would do a great deal more for the young people listening to her, not as she preached about behaviour but as she described her sense of responsibility for a new birth and for a relationship between hearts that goes on until one heart stops beating. Such a sense of responsibility is far more likely to reduce the number of unwanted conceptions than almost any preaching by any politician or by many others.
I do not want to disregard the role of the churches and other faith communities. When Geoffrey Finsberg responded as Minister to the 1982 debate, he spoke about the importance of trying to be with people at all stages of their lives, and our churches, chapels, temples, mosques and synagogues do a great deal of that.
A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, spoke in his book "Christianity and Social Order" of the importance of the intermediate group, which we could characterise as being part of our parish system. It is our membership of trade unions with the volunteer shop stewards and others. It is our membership of parish groups of one kind or another, whether it is the Baptists, the Anglicans or the Catholics or whatever else it may be, 468 where we can be with people who know what it means to give comfort and support when things go wrong. Things do not always go wrong because of people's actions.
Death comes to us all. Each of us will be told at some stage that a parent has died, a spouse is dying or a child is seriously ill. Nothing can be worse than that, so let us be open about these trials and tribulations.
If we take the purpose of politics as being to reduce avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap, there is a role for the state and for local authorities and for many other groups, but the biggest influence of all, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State put it, is what happens within the closest relationships.
Let us consider the research reports. The Plowden report into primary education in 1967 showed that the biggest influence on the success of a child's primary education was not the kind of school it went to or the school's approach, whether modern or old-fashioned, but the interest and support that the parents gave. And it does not have to be parents who are well educated themselves.
We could perhaps learn more from some parts of our immigrant communities, Chinese or Asian or people from the Caribbean such as Neville and Doreen Lawrence, the parents of Stephen Lawrence who was tragically murdered in my constituency. If people like that could have five minutes on television every week to explain how they are bringing their children up, and what sort of standards they want for them, it would be helpful.
Many of us whose families may have been in these islands for the past 14 generations, to borrow a phrase, have learned something about dedication to the interests of those to whom they feel responsible.
Let us consider also the two reports on child health—the Black report and the Court report. It may be going too far back in time for some hon. Members, but those reports showed that what matters is what parents and families do and what they are able to do.
Without getting too far into polysyllabic sludge, facilitating matters, asking people to make choices, asking them their aspirations and ambitions, giving them time for reflection, allows their actions to match their ambitions and enables them to recognise that, when things go wrong, forgiveness and allowing people to start again are better than condemnation.
Any teacher, certainly some of mine, any tutor at university, certainly one of mine, and probably people in my own household, should know perfectly well that I am aware when I get things wrong. Giving that encouragement to go on and get them right next time or the time after that does matter.
Think of the transformations in people: commentators in newspapers nowadays may say that when they were young and independent and trendy they watched some David Bailey film, or whatever it was, in the late 1960s and they discovered where the Kings road was in Chelsea, but that now they have changed their minds as they approach 45 or 50 and they begin to believe that perhaps we ought to have the kind of control as well as the care that my right hon. Friend spoke about.
What we need is the kind of continuity of common sense that comes from what I believe was described by Lady Thatcher or by my right hon. Friend as the impact of streetwise grannies.
In my constituency there are some estates where the amount of public money spent on housing has been dramatically high and where the outsides of people's 469 homes often look like Beirut on a bad day in the middle of the Lebanese civil war. When we consider that young people have managed to create so much destruction, we are bound to ask what can make a difference.
The answer may be the equivalent of parish constables. If so, I hope that they will be 40 to 60-year-old grandmothers who have lived there for some time, who know the people, their parents, their uncles and aunts and who have some link with the primary schools.
I would make this suggestion to the Lord Chancellor. In any estate of more than 2,000 people there should be a requirement for people from the estate to be some of the local magistrates. The magistrates should not consist solely of grand ladies or gentlemen from the Labour movement, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats or whoever else coming in. Where two or three thousand are gathered together one ought to be able to find some who can go in for the disposal of those who are brought up for delinquency or for persistent vandalism or for being out of control.
I go a stage further. I welcome the references to the work of the Children's Society with which I served before I became a junior Minister. It found that, by putting a half-trained social worker into an unoccupied flat with a kettle and a washing machine, many parents could come together and meet for the first time.
What are the social interactions on some of these estates of ours? When I was first elected in south-east London, part of my constituency had 5,000 people put there by a benign local authority. The estate was two-thirds the size of Arundel but it had no pub, no post office, no church or chapel, no policeman and nowhere to work within a mile and a half. Then one wonders why the community does not work and does not even exist.
The National Council of Voluntary Organisations, then called the National Council of Social Service, in the 1930s had the village hall movement which began providing the kind of place where people could meet and do the kind of things naturally together that they might do in a village in Surrey but that they do not do quite so often on the Middle Park estate, the Page estate, the Sherard estate, the Woolwich Common estate or any of the other estates in my constituency.
People are the same and their ambitions are the same. The disadvantage of stress and handicap that we wish to avoid is often a result of alienation or, in some cases, anomie as well. It is important to get people involved together with their children, no matter whether it is a single-parent family, or one with two parents or a reconstituted family with step-parents. It is trying to give people fuller lives and a greater sense of achievement that matters.
One expert in family policy told me that the problem was not one of people experiencing failure but that some people have never experienced success. Give them a pat on the back for having done well with their children.
I pay tribute to the author of the first book on family policy in this country, Margaret Wynn, who since then has carried on the work with her husband Arthur—even though both are now in their eighties—of looking at the things that make a difference.
If people knew the simple things that they could do and which would make a difference, we would have a transformation in well-being. One does not change society by a few extraordinary people doing a few extraordinary things occasionally but by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people doing ordinary things often. The parallel 470 with driving drawn by the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West was important. One need not know the lot to be able effectively to do most of the things that parents can reasonably achieve.
When I was involved in reducing drink driving—or in helping others to reduce it as I pretty soon cut it out myself —I learned that most of our information comes from the mass media: radio, television, newspapers and magazines. I also learned the importance of trying to work out where in the family life cycle people were most at risk. Perhaps I may use drink driving as an example. I do not want to build too much on it, but it is a good illustration.
In 1986 young men were twice as likely to drink and drive as their fathers. Now they are half as likely to do so. There has been a dramatic transformation in which the young people have done better, and the reason is clear. Most people over the age of 25 do not know what kind of radio most young people listen to. I conventionally asked which was the most popular radio station in the country, to which the answer for many years has been Radio 1. If I ask where it can be found on the dial, most people do not know that it is between 97 and 99 FM. Is it better to hear a public service message from a 44-year-old Minister, as I then was, or from a 58-year-old disc jockey presenting news and current affairs to young people in a programme called "Rhythm and Booze"? The answer is that the 58-year-old disc jockey wins every time.
Let us consider the importance within the M25 area of Kiss FM. One million young people a week listen to 100 FM. When one can ring up on the radio and have an exchange anonymously, when one can overcome embarrassment and ask the questions that matter most to one at the time about relationships or family formation, I believe that an audience will begin to react in a good way.
Fifteen years ago we missed out most discussion about business in public discussions and our broadcasting media. We had the Financial Times, The Times business news and 15 minutes a day on the radio, when no one was listening. That began to change because working life became integrated into public discussion and we learned a lot from that. Let us do the same with family policy issues.
Let us bring the family life cycle and the family perspective into account, and let us do it because of the numbers involved. If there are 7 million to 8 million live births a year in this country, that is about 1.5 million parents—more than 2 million people involved, at every stage in every year, half of them for the first time. If we have nearly two children per household, the second child may benefit from the experience of the experimentation of the first. If those 2 million people are this year for the first time involved in being an under-two or under-five or in a secondary school transfer or puberty or in learning to drive or in becoming sexually active for the first time, all those things deserve more than simply being concentrated in the agony columns or in condemnation when people spot some statistic saying that x or y proportion have been involved in this or that type of behaviour.
If we can bring together in Parliament or in our media —both matter—more people who are able to speak with a degree of experience, confidence and humility, we can make a transformation.
One of the reasons why it is important that, 70 or 80 years after women got the unrestricted vote, we ought to try to increase the percentage of women Members of the House of Commons from 8 or 9 per cent. to 20, 30, 40 or 50 per cent. is that we will move away from the caricature 471 of the Conservative family campaign, which makes it sound as though sex is something to be confined to a small corner of people's lives, and that having responsibility for elderly people or children is something to be spoken about only in big, bold letters in print in books, rather than as an ordinary part of a discussion such as this. I say that with modesty, seeing that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) is present.
We would be better informed about all those subjects if there were more people in this place who were able to say what our right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame Angela Rumbold) said during one debate before she became Minister. She said that she was fed up with men in this place telling her what to do with her body. One would bring more reality into discussion of those issues and the country would benefit.
I make a plea to the business managers and to the Opposition. Instead of having the general debate that we are having today, which I welcome, or the type of debate that we had on 17 December 1982, we could pick out three or four issues and over two days have four debates about the ways in which we could effectively tackle crime, for example, in addition to what we do with the police and the prisons—which is important, but which is not the answer.
We can do the same in relation to education and in relation to the problem of unwanted conceptions—not that every unwanted conception leads to an unwanted child.
We can pick out the influence of tax allowances or expenditure over life cycles and the ways in which one can begin to integrate benefits so that more people get the chance of becoming taxpayers instead of having to rely on income support when they do not choose to do so.
We can make the House start performing more effectively for families as they are, as much as for what they would want to be. It would deal with aspirations that matter most to people. I suspect that each side of the House has a contribution to make and we are only just starting.
§ Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch)
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate in the International Year of the Family. I shall speak about a group that I believe is neglected too often in political debate—middle-income families. Those are the families that I met when campaigning in my by-election, and whom I continue to meet. They are people who work hard, who pay their taxes and who play by the rules, and they want a good start for their children in quality schools, and to live in safe communities.
It is appropriate that the Labour party has chosen the family as a subject for debate. My experience is that the Conservative Government have launched one of the most sustained attacks on middle-income families in British history. The Government have broken their promises not to increase taxes, and imposed a range of new taxes, which, when combined, will hit middle-income families hardest. In addition, they have created a tax system which is much more unfair to middle and low-income families.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
On the subject of tax hikes, does the hon. Lady agree that the local authorities with the highest council tax are Liberal-controlled and Labour-controlled local authorities?
§ Mrs. Maddock
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution, and suggest that it would have been helpful if she had been at our press conference this morning. She would perhaps have got the true figures. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady has heard them as much as I have.
The Government have failed to combat crime effectively. They have promised to do something about the fear of crime, yet there has been an increase. They have slapped an expensive tax on insurance. That is what people need to feel secure, as crime is increasing.
The Government have failed to boost nursery education and child care, and promises to students have been broken.
The Government have made a stream of broken promises on tax increases and families. What did the Conservatives promise at the 1992 general election? A lower tax burden. That was what John Major promised on 15 March 1992.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I will give way in a moment. We were promised lower income tax. We were told in the Conservative manifesto of 1992:We will make further progress towards a basic Income Tax rate of 20p.
We were told by John Major:I have no plans to raise the top rate of tax or the level of national insurance contributions."—[Official Report, 28 January 1992; Vol. 202, c. 808.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Order. The Chair judges what is in order and what is not in order.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I realise that this is not comfortable for Conservative Members, but it is true. We were also promised no extensions to VAT.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I will give way in a moment.
If there was ever something that the Prime Minister said that he wished that he had never said, it must be that famous phrase:We have no need and no plans to extend the scope of VAT".Every one of those promises was broken in the two 1993 Budgets.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Lady will relate that to family policy, because that is the debate this evening.
§ Mrs. Maddock
In fact, 95 per cent. of families are affected by the tax changes introduced in the November 1993 Budget. Instead of the lower taxes that they promised, the Government are hitting middle-income families with higher—
§ Mrs. Maddock
I will give way in a moment.
The Government are hitting middle-income families with higher national insurance contributions. There has also been, along with all the other increases not phased in, restrictions in the value of personal tax allowances for married couples. That is Liberal Democrat policy and we have been attacked for it by the Conservative party.
§ Mrs. Maddock
If the hon. Gentleman will be a little more patient, I will allow him to have a say in a moment.
We have had cuts in mortgage interest tax relief—another policy that we put forward and on which we were attacked, and on which the Government will not come clean. When asked whether they will phase out mortgage interest tax relief completely, they will not admit it properly. VAT has been imposed on fuel. All those things are affecting families in my community.
§ Mr. Mans
So that the record is put straight, will the hon. Lady tell the House about the figures announced at the press conference this morning and the fact that the Liberal Democrats spend more local authority money and tax people more? Will she explain her party's proposal for an energy tax and the fact that they would increase income tax?
§ Mrs. Maddock
I should be in danger of going off the subject of families if I answered absolutely every question. On the press conference this morning—I dare say that this will cause some amusement—our taxes were in the middle when it came to spending by local authorities.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies found that the November 1993 Budget cut after-tax household incomes by an average of 3.5 per cent. But the middle-income families are hit hardest by the Government's tax changes.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I shall give way later.
The institute has shown that middle-income bands face the largest proportion of cuts in after-tax income and that working couples, most of whom are middle-income households, are the biggest losers. Couples with two children and earning between £215 and £390 a week will lose, on average, 4.15 to 4.2 per cent. of their after-tax income—between £9 and £16 a week. The highest earning tenth of the population will lose more than 3 per cent. of their after-tax income, which is less than the average. The poorest tenth will lose 2.3 per cent. of their income.
Even the Government's figures show that a family with one earner and two children and a projected £20,000-plus a year will pay more than an extra £22 a week in income tax in 1995 and more than £12 extra from this April.
The House of Commons Library figures show that a family with two children and one breadwinner, on average earnings of nearly £20,000, with a mortgage of more than £30,000 and interest rates of 8 per cent., will lose £1.85 on the married couple's allowance; £2.24 in mortgage income tax relief; 34p as a result of the freezing of personal allowances; £3.17 as a result of the rise in national insurance to 10 per cent.; 38p as a result of the wider 20p band; and £1.13 once VAT is added to their fuel bills. In addition, their extra insurance tax will amount to 35p.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
Does the hon. Lady agree that the most important factor for any family, whether middle income or not, is to have a stable economy, low interest rates and low inflation? We now have a reduced mortgage rate and the lowest interest rates in the whole of Europe, so what is she complaining about?
§ Mrs. Maddock
I agree that a stable economy is most important, which is why my party supports an independent central bank to achieve just that.
The Conservatives have made the tax system much more unfair to middle-income and poor families. The number of taxpayers paying the top rate of tax has increased by 28 per cent. between 1973–7493 and 1973–7495. That means that 500,000 taxpayers will have been dragged into the higher rate of tax, despite falling incomes during the recession brought about by this Government. A rate of 40 per cent. tax is paid on earnings above £27,000, which is only 1.5 times the average earnings.
Even worse, people earning £23,400 a year face a lower income tax combined with national insurance rate than people earning £7,000. That is extremely unfair, but it is not new to us. We have seen that it is part of the long-term Conservative programme. It is like Robin Hood in reverse —the Government rob the poor and give to the rich.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that all the tax changes between 1985 and 1995 will make the tax system much less progressive. [Interruption.] I regret that Conservative Members find it so amusing that all our constituents are suffering because of their tax proposals.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I shall give way in a moment.
The poorest 10 per cent. will have lost on average £3 a week and the richest will have lost £30 a week. But the unemployed with children will have suffered most. We have already heard about the fall in mortgage interest rates, but Conservative Members do not tell us that those rates were far too high in the first place. They were so high because they were pushed up by an economy that had been caused to overheat by one of their Chancellors.
§ Mr. Willetts
I invite the hon. Lady to contribute to the spirit of this debate by saying something about families. Or is it the Liberal Democrats' view that all that can be said about families can be said by a tax accountant?
§ Mrs. Maddock
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, because, like me, he has a family, that the most important thing is trying to keep that family. The Conservatives' tax changes are important to families because the stresses and strains caused by money are a great cause of family break-up. We have heard some good speeches by other hon. Members this afternoon about the strains and stresses on families. It is important that people feel financially secure. I doubt whether the family of any hon. Member in the Chamber has not had money problems that have caused stress. Even if it did not involve their own personal finances, it may have involved those of their children or parents. We have heard much about carers today. I make no apologies for discussing the Government's tax changes, which are hitting families in my constituency.
In drawing up our proposals on taxation, the Liberal Democrats' primary object was that everyone should contribute according to his or her ability to pay and that no one should be asked to pay more than he or she can afford. We want a system with two higher rate bands rather than smaller jumps, and a first higher rate that starts at an income level significantly above the present 40 per cent. rate. Most important, the top rate should be charged only on very high incomes. 475 Mortgage interest tax relief is neither fair nor progressive and should be phased out. It distorts the market and favours buying rather than renting. We welcome the fact that the Government will phase out mortgage income tax relief, but when I asked the Minister in the Finance Bill Standing Committee what the Conservative proposals were and whether the Government had a long-term policy of phasing it out, he would not come clean. My party has been perfectly honest about our policy on that matter.
Liberal Democrats propose also that housing benefit should cover mortgage interest as well as rents. That would help people in providing housing, another matter that has been discussed today, which is particularly important to families. If a family does not have a decent home, tremendous strains and stresses are placed on it.
§ Miss Widdecombe
The hon. Lady referred to a very interesting proposal to extend housing benefit to cover mortgage as well as rent. Can the hon. Lady tell us exactly how much it will cost and exactly how the Liberal Democrats propose to raise the money to pay for it?
§ Mrs. Maddock
The proposal—which we call housing cost relief—has been around for a number of years. I cannot tell the hon. Lady at the moment exactly how much it would cost. I doubt very much whether she could stand up and tell me what housing costs at the moment. The important point is that if mortgage income tax relief were phased out, there would be extra money which, under our proposal, would be distributed more fairly so that people received help according to their housing need. That is the whole basis of the proposal.
We also want to see the married couple's allowance phased out. Again, the Government have not come clean about what will happen about that allowance in the future or even what families can expect to happen next year.
Crime and the fear of crime have increased markedly under this Government. Despite more than 60 pieces of criminal justice legislation, reported crime has doubled since 1979. If we look at the impact on middle-income families, we see alarming statistics.
Burglary is more likely to be suffered by a middle-income C 1 group than any other group and, according to a 1993 survey, 35 per cent. of the group had been victims of burglary. That compared to a rate of 33 per cent. for the whole sample. Home Office figures show that burglary and car crime has been the largest contributor to the increase in crime in the past 20 years. The average cost of goods stolen in each burglary is about £1,210. It is the middle-income families who are suffering from the dramatic rise in burglaries.
There has been not only a rise in the number of burglaries and other crimes, but an accompanying rise in the fear of crime. Despite all the rhetoric that we have heard from the Conservatives, the fear of crime has increased dramatically. The results of a MORI poll asking families how they feel about this issue are very revealing. More than three quarters of the people surveyed fear having their home—where families live—burgled. That compares with three fifths of people in 1987.
More than half the people surveyed fear having their home—where families live—or their possessions vandalised. Half the people surveyed fear being mugged, compared with only one third in 1987. Some 80 per cent. 476 of people surveyed fear some form of theft. I am inundated with letters from elderly people, in particular—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you noticed that the more worried Conservative Members are about losing their seats, the ruder they are to new Members who are trying to make a contribution to the debate?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I have been listening attentively to the debate and there have been sedentary interventions from both sides of the Chamber.—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman is now interrupting the Chair. I should be most grateful if he would listen—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I should be most grateful if all hon. Members would listen to the Chair.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I am fairly used to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) interrupting. I think that she faces a big threat from the Liberal Democrats on her doorstep and she tends to get rather hysterical when I appear on the television or when I am in the Chamber. She points and waves at me regularly.
I return to the issue of broken promises in the area of crime. The Conservatives promised in their manifesto to give the police the support and resources that they needed. That is what families in my constituency wanted, but it is not what they got. Chief constables requested extra officers in 1993 and 1994, but the Government gave them none. The Government have refused to allocate any more funding to policing. But families in my constituency want to see more police on their streets.
As if the crime statistics are not enough, families are now being taxed on that crime through the insurance premium tax. At the same time as the Government are changing the tax regime, they are imposing an extra tax on crime on families in my constituency. Some 16 million households—85 per cent. of all households—will pay that tax.
The Chancellor believes that it will cost a typical family about 35p per week, but his calculation is not based on a total annual premium. Many families might pay £600 for motor, home contents and building insurance—all the things which help to make families feel secure in their homes—and one insurance company has claimed that an annual figure of £1,000 for motor, home contents and building insurance is much more realistic.
Some estimates of the annual cost for the average family run as high as £50 per week—that is equivalent to 1p in the pound in income tax. The typical house and car insurance bill for a family living in a three-bedroom semi and driving a 1666 cc car obviously varies from region to region, but we can expect it to be between £800 and £1,000.
These are taxes on essential household items which most families have very little choice about whether they should buy. Families have very little control over the premium level. If one is unfortunate enough to live in an inner-city area, one may not even be able to get any insurance on which to be taxed.
The Association of British Insurers has predicted that the costs of insurance will need to be passed on to policyholders. One insurance specialist has warned that the 477 tax will inevitably lead to a considerable increase in the number of under-insured or uninsured. That is of considerable concern to many families in my constituency.
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, especially as I was riot in the Chamber when she began her speech. I apologise for that. I should like to ask the hon. Lady a question about her party's policy arising out of what she said about crime and street crime. Could she confirm whether her party has under active consideration the legalisation of prostitution, with state brothels, and an equalised age of consent for boys and girls? These issues concern many families and are relevant to what the hon. Lady said about street crime.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I can confirm that at our annual spring conference in Cardiff we debated what is a very important issue for us all. We in no way said that we wanted state brothels. We looked at the issue and put forward proposals to try to regulate prostitution in a way that is helpful for families.
§ Mrs. Maddock
If one is unfortunate enough to live in an area where one's children are accosted in the street—as used to happen in my city of Southampton—one knows that something has to be done in those areas to try to stop it. It is not pleasant to live among prostitution and we have tried to face the issues and put forward a series of proposals. If the hon. Gentleman is interested, I can ensure that he receives a copy of our proposals.
I can categorically assure the hon. Member that we are not about funding state brothels. We are merely trying to tackle a problem which, as he says quite correctly, is of great interest—although some of his hon. Friends do not seem to think so—to people who live in inner-city areas and whose children are accosted on the streets.
We have heard a lot of rhetoric about education from the Conservative party. We have seen lots of legislation and a stream of Education Ministers. But we believe that the Conservatives have failed Britain's families by failing to make the essential investment in education that is needed to ensure a good future for our children.
There are places in nursery education for just 35 to 40 per cent. of children between the ages of three and five years. Five years is the compulsory school age and that is why my figures may not be exactly the same as others which were quoted earlier. This compares not at all favourably with a rate of 95 per cent. in Belgium and France and 85 per cent. in Italy and Denmark. Britain is ahead of just one European Union country in the provision of nursery education—Portugal.
I was pleased today to hear support for nursery education from Conservative Members. It is important that our children get a good start. We have seen studies that have proved that giving children a good start saves much time later when they grow up and become young people.
I can remember clearly that, when I was a councillor in Southampton, I was told that I was left wing and subversive because I was promoting nursery education. It was not just me; other councillors were also involved. I do not know whether the suggestions are still on the shelves of Tory Central Office, but that is where they came from. I am extremely heartened that all hon. Members can now 478 agree that nursery education is important and we should invest in it because it will be of great benefit to our families, not just now, but in later years.
I know that the Prime Minister continues to say that nursery education will be a priority for the Government, but the Secretary of State for Education continues to deny that the resources will be available. I hope that today the Secretary of State for Health, who has given us her commitment in her new role of co-ordinating family policies for the Conservative party, will be able to convince the Secretary of State for Education of the need to fund nursery education.
Parents and families in my community are also concerned at the dreadful state of repair of some of our schools. There is a tremendous backlog—£7.6 billion needs to be spent to make the buildings safe and fit for our schoolchildren. My constituents are also worried that there are not enough teachers in the schools. There are 11 per cent. fewer teaching staff now than in 1980, but 82 per cent. more students.
With members of my county council and another local Member of Parliament, I recently went to see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). We were concerned that there was not enough funding for education in Dorset. We were also worried about how to fund the teachers' pay rise. We were sent away with the message that schools would have to have larger classes.
The parents of children in my constituency do not want them to be in larger classes. We know—I know as a teacher —that large classes do not provide the best start. An important factor in helping children to get the best start is to teach them to read. It is impossible to give a class of 40 five-year-olds that sort of good start. I hope that the Secretary of State for Health will do her best to obtain a financial commitment for her support for nursery education.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
It will be interesting to hear the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) on nursery education.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I am sure that the hon. Lady will make a good point and I shall give way in a moment as I have an idea of what she might be going to say, and I probably have an answer for her.
I have children who are almost grown up—one will be leaving home and going to college. Another great worry for parents is how to support their children through further education. That worry causes tremendous strain. The Government have cut grants by 10 per cent. and raised loans by 44 per cent., which is another broken promise. During debates on the student loans legislation, Baroness Blatch promised that that would not happen.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way now, as we would otherwise be rushing on to other matters. I wish to return to the subject of nursery education. Has she calculated how much the nursery education that she envisages will cost the country in terms of income tax? Why has she made no reference to the importance of raising standards in schools, which is what parents want?
§ Mrs. Maddock
We have been perfectly clear—we made it clear in the last general election and have done so ever since—that we realise that one has to pay to obtain the standards that Liberal Democrats believe should exist in education. I have been in public meetings and have spoken to people in my constituency about that subject, and people agree with the Liberal Democrats. When we asked them how we should pay for those standards and said that it would mean paying more in income tax, people said that they would be prepared to do that. We have calculated that our proposals will cost 1 p of income tax. That has always been our commitment and remains our commitment.
There have been a variety of speeches today about family policy. My speech is not a comfortable one for the Government, but it involves the issues that my constituents come to talk to me about. The families that I see in my surgeries and those I talk to on the streets raise those issues. Once again, we have heard much rhetoric from the Government. We have had a serious debate, as well as Back-Bench games. People outside the House are not fooled. The electorate live in the real world and understand only too well what is happening to their families and the finances that affect their families.
I started by talking about families in my constituency —families who want to work hard, pay their taxes and live by the rules. Those families want their children to have a good start in good-quality educational establishments and they want to be able to live in safe communities. I hope that today's debate will result in a little less rhetoric from the Government, and a little more action and fewer attacks on the economic base of our families.
§ Mr. David Willetts (Havant)
It is a great privilege for me to be the first Conservative Member to speak who is not a member of the Bottomley family. So far, they seem to have taken on the massed ranks of the Opposition single-handed, and to have managed very well.
One of the surprises of the debate has been that, although the motion was tabled by the Labour party, when hon. Members had the opportunity to speak, only one Labour Member seemed keen to contribute, compared to seven Conservative Members. No doubt the Labour Whips have been around the Tea Rooms trying to haul in a few extra contributors. It seems an odd way for the Labour party to approach a debate for which it called.
The starting point for the debate has to be something on which all Members of the House can agree: the importance of the family as an institution. That importance goes beyond the financial and economic matters covered by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock), important though they might be.
I do not know how many hon. Members have seen the moving film "Schindler's List". One of the most interesting findings of the research done on those Germans who tried to help and rescue Jews in Nazi Germany was that many of them shared an important characteristic—many came from particularly close and stable family backgrounds. There seemed to be a connection between the moral strength on which they drew in those times, and a stable and clear family upbringing. In the debate, we must try to stray beyond financial and economic matters.
Although, as always, the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) made a most interesting and thought-provoking speech, it is a pity that, despite his 480 manifest learning and expertise on the subject, he tiptoed around the fact that there is a clear moral and cultural consensus in this country. It is a consensus that upholds certain basic propositions: for example, that it is better for children to be brought up by both parents if at all possible —we know that it is difficult to live up to that principle in practice.
We all know the pressures that families are under, and it is certainly not for us glibly to criticise people who find that proposition difficult to sustain in practice. We know the pressures that membership of the House of Commons places on family life due to the bizarre hours that hon. Members work. However, if we do not feel that we can even speak of such things nowadays, we do a disservice to the cause of the family, which hon. Members from both sides of the House claim to support.
There was another disappointment in the contribution of the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor). It is clear that, in her opinion, all family problems are caused by the Government, and all solutions involve the expenditure of more public money. That is a particularly odd position for the Labour party to adopt at the moment, given that it is trying to present itself as the party that does not believe in high taxes.
Some rather expensive spending commitments were made during the hon. Lady's speech. We heard a commitment to nursery education and a commitment to child benefit that seemed to me to be inconsistent with the Labour party's attempt to give the impression that it would be tough on spending, and therefore able to hold taxes down.
But, in addition, what we heard today failed to recognise the complexity of the changes that are taking place in family life. The hon. Lady referred, for example, to homelessness, particularly among 16 to 18-year-olds. This is undoubtedly a problem. It is easy to talk about changes in the benefit rules, but rather more tricky when one reflects on the family circumstances of many of the young people who, tragically, are homeless.
What is the crucial connection between many of these personal tragedies? It is that the people come from broken homes. Often, after marital breakdown, the mother takes on the responsibility of looking after the children. In many cases of relationships arising from mothers' taking new boy friends, the young people are not able to get on with the new man in the household. That theme lies behind much youth homelessness nowadays. It does not do any good to approach such social problems simply as matters to be explained with reference to the technicalities of the social security system.
§ Mr. Frank Field
If the hon. Gentleman were to talk to homeless people in the Strand, they would confirm what he has just said. However, if he were to continue the conversation, he would learn that most of those who sleep rough come from households where people have no work, no prospect of training and no benefit. The new man in the house has an incentive to expel and to be nasty to the old family.
§ Mr. Willetts
The hon. Gentleman does not do justice to his normally rich understanding of social problems. This is not simply a financial matter. We are talking about something that the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West raised, but did not pursue as I hoped he would—reconstituted families. I am perfectly happy to accept that 481 we Conservatives, in our preoccupation with some questions concerning single parents, have in many ways ignored the even more difficult questions that arise from reconstituted families.
§ Mr. Willetts
I have often pursued these matters with the hon. Gentleman, and I am always happy to do so. I greatly enjoyed serving under his chairmanship on the Select Committee on Social Security. However, the experience on which I am drawing is based not only on conversations with people in London but also on my contacts with people in the constituency of Havant.
I wish to refer to a social problem which is discussed glibly but which, with deeper digging, reveals the complexity of the forces at work. I refer to child abuse. It appears that there is more child abuse now than there was in the past. Some left-wing pundits leap at this as a very convenient opportunity to claim that the traditional family is an oppressive institution from which people need to be rescued.
The evidence suggests that by far the greatest likelihood of child abuse is to be found in the home where there is a non-natural parent—the new man in the relationship. Because there are many more children living in reconstituted families, we appear to be experiencing an increase in child abuse.
But what do we find? We are presented with a left-wing agenda claiming that this is an example of how the family is an inherently dangerous institution. Pressure is put on social workers to go round investigating apparent cases of child abuse, often hysterically exaggerated. In fact, the most serious attacks on the family in the 1980s have occurred in places such as Middlesbrough and Orkney. These were launched by social workers who had fallen prey to this particularly pernicious doctrine.
§ Mr. Duncan
Will my hon. Friend admit that a constructive comment at the Easter conference of the National Union of Teachers was that many teachers, even in that union, feel that they were wrongly accused of child abuse? To a certain extent, perhaps, this can be interpreted as the sad reaping of the preaching of political correctness.
§ Mr. Willetts
Many good public servants in the educational world and elsewhere face this new and serious threat. Sadly, that is something that we must all recognise.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
Would the hon. Gentleman, before pursuing this nonsense any further, care to say which Opposition spokesman has ever said that the family is a dangerous institution which is inimical to the interests of children?
§ Mr. Willetts
I shall be very happy to cite people writing from a left-wing perspective on family policy. Such people have seized on cases such as that of Jasmine Beckford and presented them as examples of the failure of the family, without digging into the real circumstances. [Interruption.] In response to the hon. Lady's invitation, I shall try to find some quotations to support my point. 482 Beatrix Campbell is a well-known left-wing commentator on the family. I quote from her book "Unofficial Secrets: Child Sex Abuse":The ghost of dead children—Jasmine Beckford, Tyra Henry and Kimberley Carlile …—smiled out from the newspapers … it all seems to vindicate Thatcherism's scorn for the busy-body welfare state. But not quite: these children died within the family, the institution sanctified by Thatcherism.
§ Mrs. Fyfe
I am sorry to interrupt again, but I have to make the point that the hon. Gentleman must realise that the Labour party is not responsible for the entire spectrum of left-wing opinion in this country. I asked him specifically to quote a view expressed by an official Labour spokesperson. He has clearly failed to do so. Let him stop trying to smear the Labour party.
§ Mr. Willetts
It is precisely the tide of left-wing opinion that I am talking about.
However, I want to move on to another topic, and one that is equally misunderstood—child care. We are all aware of the obvious attractions of appealing for more provision for child care. We all know of the pressures on families where both parents work. It is necessary to arrange child care, and that is often expensive. But before the Labour party rushes headlong to advocate more state expenditure in this area, it should bear two factors in mind.
If provision were to benefit mostly two-earner families, its impact on income distribution would not be to help poor people. We can be confident that, by and large, families headed by a two-earner couple are unlikely to be at the bottom end of the income scale. The risk behind the pressures that are building up for public expenditure in this area is the invention of another spending programme that grows and grows and grows—a programme financed by taxes often borne by people with modest incomes but, in general, benefiting affluent two-earner families.
There is a second risk, which was illustrated in the fascinating speech of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West—the fact that much child care in this country is informal. Many people like to argue that it is informal only for want of something better—faute de mieux—that everyone would like to buy institutional child care but, sadly, have to settle for in-laws or grandparents.
The situation is not quite like that. Many people have a preference for that arrangement. Many grandparents enjoy contributing to the family, and in many neighbourhoods a host of voluntary arrangements are made, such as, "You look after our children today, and we'll look after yours tomorrow."
The trouble with state child care provision and finance is that it distorts provision patterns and starts favouring formal, institutionalised paid arrangements as against the informal and non-institutional. People may be tempted into the most absurd manipulations of the system, such as invoicing their grandparents to claim a child care voucher.
Alternatively, those who have already made arrangements that admittedly may be haphazard, imperfect and painfully negotiated may feel, on discovering that a big public expenditure programme has been introduced, that they are somehow fools for having made arrangements that do not fit within the new parameters of provision. We should consider those risks before espousing the popular cause of state child care provision. I hope that Labour Members will reflect before making another expensive public expenditure commitment. 483 The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) was right to say that families struggle with child care costs, but the danger of focusing on the demand side of the equation—finance—is that the supply side is ignored. How can we encourage more provision?
There is a sad history of heavy-handed and excessive regulation, which makes it difficult for people who want to establish child care facilities. It would be interesting to know what approach Labour councils in London or elsewhere take to planning applications from people who want to set up a private nursery or day care centre. They need not be just for the well-off.
Arrangements can be made whereby some places are reserved for the children of parents with modest incomes, which could be paid for by the council or in other ways. It is difficult to obtain planning consent from many councils because of change of use, and an attitude to private provision that leads councils to being hostile when they should be encouraging.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Children Act 1989 encouraged some local authorities to be over-zealous in regulating child care providers.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
Is my hon. Friend aware of a case in my constituency in which the Liberal-controlled council insisted that a child carer sign an agreement not to discipline or smack a child in her care? When she refused, she was banned—but took the council to the High Court and won.
§ Mr. Willetts
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that case, which illustrates the problem of heavy-handed regulation of a diversity of child care providers.
The rhetoric of offering high-quality care for everyone is something that politicians of all parties find tempting, but introducing over-ambitious regulatory standards means that, in practice, some child care providers go out of business. Instead of provision that may not be perfect, more young children are left on their own without any child care.
We should examine whether reasonable if not perfect child care providers, nursery groups and playgroups are finding it more difficult to provide services because of the burden of the Children Act 1989. That significant problem ought to be addressed as part of the Government's deregulation initiative.
Another difficult problem is the connection between single parenthood, unemployment levels in some inner-city areas and crime levels. Some connections are too obvious to mention, and one that has not been made in this debate is that relating to young men aged 15 to 25, who often find it difficult to find jobs. If one's partner does not have a job, he will bring less to the marriage or relationship. Such young men often become involved in petty crime—and who wants to marry or enter into a stable relationship with someone who is involved in petty or more serious crime?
The task of taking a 15-year-old male from a family environment and shifting him, so that, at the age of 25, he is in a new stable family and in employment, is one that this country seems to have found more difficult since the 484 war. The transition from the parental home to a home that one has created oneself has become more difficult to negotiate.
The reasons are more complicated than simply unemployment levels, and the problem grew during the boom years of the 1980s. Hon. Members who now tell us that there is a link between unemployment, recession and crime were telling us a few years ago that the brash, vulgar materialism of the 1980s was the explanation for rising crime. We are told in the good years that a boom produces crime, and in the bad years that a recession does so.
The challenge is to make it more possible for young men to manage the transition from their own family home to creating a new family home. We can help them only if we are prepared to lay down simple, credible and coherent rules of the road. We do not need to sermonise or to lose contact with the pressures that those young men are under —but we ought to tell them that they should not drop out of school, because their chances of holding down a job successfully later will be much worse; warn that they should not become involved in petty crime; and draw their attention to the fact that the family is a civilising influence.
The single most important reason given by young men for giving up crime is that they are in a stable relationship with a woman who does not want them to carry on committing crimes. Putting aside all other factors—such as employment, unemployment, income and social background—young men who are married are less likely to engage in crime than young men who are not. Marriage is a civilising influence. The debate is not solely captured by the financial and economic arguments that preoccupy Labour.
Many people choose nowadays not to marry, or to marry only at the point when they are bringing children into the world. We all understand some of the reasons for that social change. One particularly worrying aspect of what sociologists call consensual unions—partnerships in which there is no formal marriage contract—is that many of the men and women in such relationships, but particularly women, exaggerate their rights.
Research shows that women believe that they have the same rights as married persons to future claims to their partner's income, and men assume that they have the same right of access to their children, when those rights accrue only in the legal institution of marriage. One of the dilemmas that we will face in future is how to handle that.
There are two ways to go about it. The first is to say that those people have taken a perfectly reasonable decision in not wishing to take part in the legal institution called marriage. Who are we to try to impose on them the legal obligations that come with it? If we go down that route, the people who are in those consensual unions need to understand the limited legal framework that would surround them.
The second way to go is, in effect, to extend marriage to people who have not gone through a ceremony and decided to enter into it as a legal institution. That is what Sweden has done. Sweden is misunderstood as an example of how marriage will change in future. The point about Sweden is not that everybody has opted out of marriage, but that the state decided that everybody who lives together is to be treated as married.
There is no way in which one can opt out of marriage in Sweden. If one settles down with someone and has lived with them for a certain period, all the legal rights and responsibilities, which we in this country associate with 485 part of the legal institution of marriage, are applied to that person anyway by the state. The point about Sweden is the opposite to that normally assumed. Virtually everyone in Sweden who is living with someone is, for the purposes of British law, married.
We have not begun to confront that dilemma. But, one way or the other, we will have to go down that path. The extraordinary level of misunderstanding on the subject by people who are in those non-legally married partnerships is a worrying indicator of how things may go in future.
§ Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)
I am glad that, at last, we are getting down to discussing what we mean by "family" when talking about family policy, because stereotype families have changed very much in the past decade. The old stereotype family is now a minority. Only 25 per cent. of children are living with parents where both adults are either married or cohabiting.
Since the 1980s, people have begun to change their lives a great deal. Many women with children live on their own out of choice. Increasingly, as the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) mentioned, couples reject legal marriage, even when there are children. Four out of 10 marriages —no doubt entered into with high hopes—sadly end in divorce.
There are now many single-parent families. In fact, 21 per cent. of all families are single-parent families. The vast majority of them are headed by women, but, nevertheless, they are families just as much as families where two adults are living with their children.
There are also many extended families, with complicated relationships—half-brothers and half-sisters, step-brothers and step-sisters, stepmothers and stepfathers. Where the relationships are harmonious, that can work very well and be a supportive system for the children, but the Child Support Act 1991 has done more to create conflict and discord between such families than anything that has happened in the past decade.
The Child Support Agency shows little regard for the needs of stepchildren and second wives. In some cases, as a result of its rigid formula, violence has been created against the parent with care. In others, faced with impossible financial demands, the absent parent has been in despair—even suicides have taken place.
Conflict has been created between the first and second wives and their families, and between the second wives and their partners, over such financial arrangements. The children suffer. The insecurity that is brought about when formerly harmonious relationships are disrupted shows in bed wetting by the children, and in other signs of tension and trauma.
Obviously, the old system of maintenance for children did not work too well and there were many defaulters, but the rigid formula of the CSA, as was mentioned in the debate on that matter, does not work to the benefit of families. We need family courts which can do more than consider access to children where the parents are separated, and can decide on the financial arrangements, with a flexible approach that really takes into account all the factors and needs of those families. The more people the CSA reaches out to, the more damage it will do. It has become a very bad feature in disrupting the lives of families in this country.
486 Government policies are pulling women in two directions. A number of Ministers have attacked women and blamed them for juvenile crime, because, they say, they are not spending enough time, care and attention on their families. On the other hand, Ministers are telling women to get off income support and go out to work.
The Secretary of State gave some very spurious figures about family income. She did not take into account the changing value of money when mentioning those figures. When I started work, £3 a week was a very good wage, on which one could live well. Now, one needs £300 a week to live at the same level. The bare figures can give a very wrong impression.
What is absolutely certain is that families can no longer live on one salary. Women are having to go out to work to make ends meet—even women with very young children, despite the difficulty and expense that this entails. It costs about £90 a week for a place in a nursery for a child under five.
Women are replacing men in the work force, at lower wages and in part-time jobs. Eight out of nine jobs created recently have gone to women; they are mainly part time and low paid—the kind that were covered by the wages councils which have now been abolished. The protection in those jobs has been removed by the Government. Women are being given one-day and one-week contracts, which are absolutely disgraceful and which take away their rights to holiday pay, their maternity rights, their pension rights and their rights to reasonable notice.
That means that there is no stability for their family. Those women do not know from one week to the next whether they will earn money. That is bad for them, their children and the relationships of the whole family. It is not that women are seeking little jobs for pin money, but that only little jobs are available.
One feature of the Government's time in office has been perpetual and rising mass unemployment. As a child, I knew the terrible effect that it had on my sister, my mother and me when my father had a period of unemployment. Now, men, women and youths are experiencing years of unemployment. Some of these youths have never had a job since leaving school.
I do not think that Conservative Members really understand this. If they do, the smirks on their faces during many a speech in the Chamber tonight and on other occasions show that they have no sympathy with what it is like to be unemployed, not to have enough money to last to the end of the week, to be really afraid of the future and to live from hand to mouth.
I know what it is like, from the cases that come to my surgery, from the people who come in and cry on a Friday because they do not have enough money to last them through to the weekend. We have to give them a few pounds, because it is too late on a Friday night to get them help immediately. I know what it is like. I know what they suffer. I know the terrible and frightening effect that it has on their children and on their self-confidence throughout the rest of their lives.
The 1991 census revealed a dreadful picture of child poverty and lone parent poverty. The situation has deteriorated dreadfully since the Conservatives have been in power. For millions of families, "back to basics" is back to nowhere.
In 1973–7491, 13.5 million people were living in poverty —24 per cent. of the population. In 1979, the figure was 9 per cent. That was bad enough, but the increase is colossal. 487 Some 9.6 million adults are living in poverty—one in four. More disgracefully, 3.9 million children are living in poverty. That is taking poverty at a level below 50 per cent. of the net national average wage. It accounts for 31 per cent. of all children in Britain.
The figure is even higher if we take a wider definition of poverty, as a situation in which one cannot keep up with one's peers; for example, when one cannot go on school outings or have the equipment that one needs at school or the same entertainments as one's peers.
It is a tragedy that such a large percentage of our children live in poverty. Sixty per cent. of lone parents live in poverty, and one in five of all families with dependent children are lone-parent families. The difference between the lives of those children and those whose families have a good income and good homes and live in security is enormous—they are different worlds.
Of course it is true that well-housed families are not necessarily happy families. Child abuse has been mentioned, and it is a subject on which the curtain is only just being lifted. We need to discuss seriously what society can do about it. It is rife in all classes of society.
In addition, we all need to learn to respect children's rights. That is a whole new chapter that needs to be investigated. We must listen to what children say, and learn to treat them as people, rather than as objects which we can order around as we fancy.
Overcrowding is another issue to be considered when we debate the family. If any Conservative Members would like to listen in on my surgeries on a Friday night in Tower Hamlets, they are welcome to do so. They might learn something about a slice of the life of families living in misery because of overcrowding. They might learn that some have been on the housing waiting list for years, and that their children are brought into conflict with one another because they are sharing bedrooms when it is clearly unsuitable for them to do so. Family members are breathing down each other's necks because of a lack of space—
§ Ms Gordon
No, I shall not give way. The hon. Lady has already intervened more than once, and has tried to interrupt continuously. She should make her own speech.
Bad housing is a source of misery and disruption for families in inner-city areas. The blame for increasingly bad housing lies at the Government's door, because, until this year, they refused to allow money earned from the right-to-buy policy to be used for repairs, and have deliberately brought council house building to an absolute halt. Families need the affordable rented housing, which only councils have been able to provide. The shortage of housing is now creating misery and destroying family life in inner-city areas.
The Government are creating an ever greater divide between families who have a good standard of living and the huge number who are struggling to give their children a decent start in life. All Government social policies—on housing, health and education—are increasingly elitist, and poorer families are getting a bad deal.
The poorest are suffering the greatest blows from increased indirect taxation and cuts in the money available for nurseries and day centres, for social services and for 488 carers. Care in the community is underfunded and people are not receiving the care and help that is needed for the elderly members of their families. The only hope for families in my constituency and elsewhere across the country is a change of Government.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
I shall bring the House back to the motion on the Order Paper, which relates to whether the Government have a comprehensive family policy. The debate has strayed rather wide. Indeed, if we were to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock), we could be discussing issues such as defence on the ground that we need to consider whether families are properly defended against missile attacks from other countries. However, I shall concentrate on where the Government and the family interface, which means considering whether the Government have a comprehensive family policy or whether they are putting together the necessary components of such a policy.
It would be correct to commend the Government on undertaking a comprehensive review of the law relating to children and families. That review is evidence of the priority which our party, through its statements at party conferences and in the House, has attached to the family and to children in particular.
The review started with the work done in preparing the Children Act 1989, which had substantial cross-party support. The Act reviewed and improved all aspects of public and private child care law. On the private side, it overhauled the outmoded custody and access system and gave us instead a range of flexible new orders dealing with residence, contact, other specific issues and prohibitive steps, which allowed the courts to deal flexibly and individually with the range of issues arising from a child's upbringing. The idea was to move away from regarding the child almost as a chattel and to concentrate instead on narrowing any specific areas of dispute.
On the public side, the Children Act reviewed the provisions governing state intervention in child care to reflect a better balance between child protection and parents' rights. For example, the Act introduced the "assist and befriend" order which allowed children and parents to be given social work help while concentrating on letting the child stay at home. It also reviewed the emergency protection provisions and replaced the despised place of safety order, which had caused so much trouble in my constituency in 1987, with the shorter and more flexible emergency protection order.
Equally important, the Act meant that cases relating to children were brought together under a concurrent jurisdiction in the courts—replacing the old fragmented and confused system—with hard cases being transferred to higher civil courts and simpler cases being dealt with by magistrates. That concentrates the valuable resources of the higher courts on those cases which really need them and, with the new specialist judiciary, introduced a framework for a family court about which the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) feels so strongly.
Following the Children Act, the Government introduced the Child Support Act 1991 which established the Child Support Agency. Despite its bad press and unpopularity, the Act offers two main benefits which are worth defending and on which I believe that there is 489 substantial cross-party consensus. First, it removes a large tranche of maintenance cases from the courts, thus saving valuable court time and resources. Secondly, it emphasises the idea that all fathers should be made to face their parental responsibilities rather than leaving the state to provide, as so many do.
Perhaps what now needs to be done is to concentrate the energies of the regional agencies on tracking down more fathers who pay nothing at all at the moment. There has already been some success in that respect. We should also ensure that the needs of second families are properly taken into account.
In dealing with child care and maintenance under the two Acts it is crucial to dissociate the two concepts of access and maintenance. It is important to move away from the myth that maintenance is related to access and vice versa. The two are not at all related, although many fathers seem to think that they should be. The message that needs to be put across is that access and maintenance are both for the benefit of the child, whose interests are at all times paramount. That concept is written into both Acts. To link the two would mean facing the possibility of depriving the child of one or the other.
As part of the ongoing review, the law on adoption has been reviewed and recommendations made for reform in the White Paper entitled "Adoption: The Future", which was published in November 1993. The Government will make the law more explicit by insisting that the first duty in adoption is to the child. The White Paper makes it clear that children are best brought up in stable and loving families and reinforces a strong presumption in favour of adoption by married couples.
We must emphasise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said in a superb speech, that we cannot skirt around the moral issues relating to the family; we have to face them and say that some circumstances are preferable to others, regardless of the fact that it is not always possible to achieve them.
Guidance issued by the Government on adoption will stress that parents who want to adopt should be judged by the care and affection that they can offer the child. The age, race, social class or other characteristics of potential parents should not count above the interests of the child. I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) supported that view in meetings with the Secretary of State.
Several questions remain outstanding. With divorce, what are we to do about couples who have no ancillary issues to resolve and no areas of dispute, and a firm idea of what each wants from the divorce? Do we still make them go through the process? How do we avoid allowing a spouse who may not want a divorce to lengthen the proceedings by refusing to settle ancillary issues? Will the courts simply step in and settle matters for them, rather as happened in the old system, after the process has been set up?
How are we to avoid the charge that the new proposals on divorce make it too easy? The Law Commission has recommended that the present acrimonious system be replaced by a process divorce. People enter at one end with a ground of irretrievable breakdown and then spend a determinate time—that is one of the issues to be agreed —during which they may reflect. During that time the parties will be expected to reach agreement on ancillary issues and child care, and to bring the decisions back to the court for an order when the decree absolute is issued.
490 The period of reflection leaves room for fitting conciliation into the process, although it is not clear whether it could be made compulsory, even if there were enough conciliation services to go round. The aim is to make divorce a process of consensus and negotiation rather than one involving set-date watersheds that leave all the other business to be bashed out painfully afterwards. The ancillary issues would be part of the process itself, which would build in an incentive to reach agreement.
The law on divorce has remained untouched since the Divorce Reform Act 1969, which was something of an unsatisfactory compromise. At that time people could not agree whether to remove fault altogether, so it was decided that fault should disappear from the grounds, leaving the sole ground as irretrievable breakdown. However, breakdown had to be evidenced by one of five factors—two years' separation with consent, five years' separation without consent, desertion, adultery or unreasonable behaviour. Two of those factors are fault related, so that that let fault in by the back door and led to the resultant acrimony that is often so obvious, and on which I do not need to elaborate.
I sometimes think that if young people in this country spent as much time planning their marriages as they spend planning their weddings, their marriages might go a great deal better and we should not have such a high divorce rate. As I said in Committee on what was then the Children Bill, we must also consider what is the correct age at which people should enter marriage. The statistics show that the younger people are when they get married the more likely they are to be divorced before the age of 24.
Before I entered this place, when I was working as an accountant, I interviewed a 22-year-old bookkeeper who had been divorced twice. She had married first at 16, and been divorced at 19; then she married again at 19 and was divorced at 21. She had had a child in each marriage and no doubt she is now having great fun negotiating with the Child Support Agency. That person had entered into marriage, an institution which ought to be taken extremely seriously and solemnly, probably with little idea of what it might entail and little background training as to what to expect. She had then found that marriage did not meet her very high expectations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Havant spoke of the question as to which route we should take on the status of marriage. Should we say that marriage enhances one's privileges and gives one a special legal status, or should we say that every couple living together will automatically be treated as though they were married? That will be one of the big questions for the 1990s and the beginning of the next century.
In my surgery I hear all too often, as I am sure many other hon. Members do, people saying that they live with their common-law wives or common-law husbands and assuming that that provides some solid status, backed by legal sanction, that will provide them with a range of privileges or rights in any future breakdown. They seem to think that their relationship is as stable as if it were sanctified by the full legal status.
I believe that we should consider emphasising the fact that marriage is the clearly preferred state in which to bring up children, and that we should therefore put together a package of enhancements such as tax privileges, so that people will more readily enter a formal contract published 491 before the world rather than allowing their lives to drift through a series of relationships without taking on in their own minds the real consequences of what they are doing.
When we think about the future of divorce, we must consider first whether both marriage and divorce are too easy. We must also think about what steps we can take to de-lawyer the process. Should we do anything to make couples share lawyers? Personally, I do not believe that that is a good proposal, because there would be a clear conflict of interest, but there is much to be said for turning divorce into more of an independent conciliation and arbitration rather than a legal battle in which both sides up the ante, and one side often attempts to punish the other by making the litigation as difficult as possible.
I do not want to widen my speech far beyond the law on children and families, except to say that in a review of the Government's comprehensive family policy one must mention child benefit. That was a manifesto commitment, and it currently stands at £10.20 a week for the first child and £8.25 for other children. The Government have also introduced targeted help through family credit, and from October 1994 working parents will be allowed to offset £40 a week in child care costs. About 150,000 families will gain from that.
However, we are moving into a new period in which we shall have to examine the whole range of benefits. I do not wish to make party political points, and it is encouraging that much of the family legislation of the past has been relatively non-partisan. My experience during the passage of the Children Act showed me that there were broad swathes of policy making where both sides could agree on many of the details.
It is interesting to note, however, that the Labour party is now undertaking an internal debate on the future of child benefit, other universal benefits and all the benefits that affect families. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is quoted in the Daily Express of 14 December as having said:It's quite clear scrapping Child Benefit is an option that ought to be looked at".
The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), too, has said that improved child care and job opportunities might bea much better way to lift a child out of poverty than actually providing its mother with a small cash handout".
The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who has often chided the Labour party for being insufficiently socialist, suggested in The Independent on Sunday on 5 December that perhaps Labour should think about offering child benefit in "alternative forms", one of which might involve clawing back child benefit through the tax system from better-off families.
To make a broader point, despite the fact that the Opposition have arranged for a debate on improvements in family policy, no Opposition Member can say anything about how the Labour party would improve provision for the family. As we know from the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), there are no clear or firm spending pledges at present. On 26 January, on the Radio 4 "Today" programme, the hon. Gentleman was asked specifically about the commitment to nursery education. He replied:We will spend what we can afford to spend and only as growth allows … I have said there are no manifesto commitments at this stage … there is no commitment to spend money on anything".
492 The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said something similar when she said that we in Britain should be aiming for a target. She said that we should be careful that we do not involve ourselves in too many spending pledges, but that we should be aiming for a target of providing nursery education to all children from the age of four, which would give every three-year-old and four-year-old a chance of a place in a nursery school.
We must look beyond the broad range of criticisms that the Labour party put in its motion. It is clear that, were Labour Members in charge, they would tax families more, eradicate choice in education, oppose making parents responsible for their children's criminal acts and perhaps even withdraw child benefit. I believe that I am in a position to commend the Government on their fine record of supporting the family over the past years and I look forward to much more legislation, especially on divorce, to further strength in the family. I do not see any Opposition Member tonight who would improve on that situation.
§ Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)
We have heard a great deal of scaremongering from Conservative Members, epitomised by the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). We do not need to go in for scaremongering, as Labour Members may simply point to the facts.
Many of us criticise the media—newspapers and television—usually justly, so it is only fair to point out that, now and again, something of real value appears in the press. I shall refer to an article in The Guardian on 10 March which concerns the subjects with which we are dealing. It is headed "A psalm for Sally-Ann". The article is about an anonymous baby who was found in a bag on a charity clothing dump. It is headed:As she was buried she became a symbol for all the unknown children who are victims of the new poverty.
She was found on a Salvation Army dump, so they called the baby Sally-Ann, although, of course, she could not be officially named because no parent was known. She was buried in Sutton Coldfield cemetery. I do not whether it is always the case, but in Sutton Coldfield cemetery there is a little rectangle of lawn behind a hedge which is the public plot for babies whose parents cannot afford their funerals. The article continues:The granite tombstone at the head of the plot says: In Loving Memory of All Our Babies. On the wall over the flower bed is a collection of 12 plaques with the names of the children who are buried there.The child in question had no name, but she was also buried there. In times gone by, people such as my grandmother were afraid that they would not have money to pay for their own funerals. I find it absolutely sickening that we have to make provision in 1994 for the burial of babies whose parents cannot afford to pay. The article describes the life which the baby and its mother may have had if the baby had not been abandoned. It describes in detail the sort of housing conditions which are commonly suffered by so many people. It states that the National Children's Bureau reported in the past year that one in every 25 children in Britain lived in a home that was officially condemned as unfit for human habitation. If there is one thing which has a bigger effect than anything else on a family and its capacity to survive, it is its home.
It was pointed out earlier that a good home and a good income do not necessarily bring happiness and that there are other factors involved, which is absolutely true. 493 However, one thing is certain: a bad home, bad living conditions, overcrowding, dampness, vermin, lack of a home, or lack of space to live or space to play make it much more likely that there will be stress, unhappiness and misery.
It is the fate of one in 25 children to live in a place condemned as unfit for human habitation. That is the tip of a much bigger iceberg, since many of the remaining 25 are living in totally unsuitable conditions. In the borough of Preston in my constituency, 6,000 homes are unfit for human habitation, but they are inhabited. I see the smirks, the inattention and the general attitude of contempt from Conservative Members. That is because they know that neither they nor anybody belonging to them will ever live in such conditions.
Housing is important, but so is money. The article points out that, if Sally-Ann's mother was not working, she might have been able to beg £100 maternity payment from the ruins of the welfare state—from the social fund. That would have been nowhere near enough to pay for clothing, a cot, a bed, a buggy and all the other props of motherhood. If she had had more than £500 saved, she would not. even have been entitled to that sum.
Up to 1988, there was a grant available for people on supplementary benefit. The equivalent of that 1988 figure, even two years ago, would have been £188, not the £100 which was and still is available. A good £200 is needed to treat those poor mothers as well—or as badly—as they were treated in 1988, let alone as they were treated when we had a more civilised Government.
Five years ago, one fifth of children born in Great Britain could be regarded as born into poverty. Now one third are in that position. If Sally-Ann's mother had lived in a flat with a private landlord, she would probably have had trouble. She would have had trouble wherever she had lived because the standard rule is no pets and no children. That has been so all my life. One could not get rooms from a private landlord if one had a baby when I had young children. It is true to say that that is almost a standard rule. The article continues:If she tried to move she would have had problems with the rent. When they"—
the Government—changed the rules in April 1988, a million people lost their right to Housing Benefit and five million others had it cut. If she had trouble heating her home, she would simply have gone cold.Sally-Ann's mother would not have been likely to be disconnected; she would have had to disconnect herself because, as the article states:Electricity and gas companies now routinely install meters in the homes of poor families: if they have no cash, they have no heat.That saves everybody the embarrassment of disconnection. The article continues:In Birmingham alone, some 600 people die each year from winter hardship … If Sally-Ann's mother had had the confidence to inquire, she would have discovered that a single mother with two children is supposed to survive on Income Support of £88.65 a week. The Child Poverty Action Group has worked out that she would need £23.08 more than that each week to break even.
The Select Committee on Health undertook an inquiry into maternity services and maternity matters, and published a report in March 1992. Part of the report dealt with the absolutely bizarre fact that there is age discrimination in pregnancies—16 and 17-year-old pregnant girls are treated infinitely worse by the state than women of 25 and over; even if 16 and 17-year-olds have no job and no income, they do not have the same 494 entitlement to benefit as they would have if they were older. Presumably, they and their babies-to-be can live on nothing.
The Government's answer is that 16 and 17-year-olds should be provided for by their parents and they should be on one of the training schemes. However, the Government do not explain why those who run the training schemes should be interested in providing training for a girl who will have to pack it in within a few months of being given a place. If we are serious about the way in which we treat 16 and 17-year-old pregnant girls, we should not start by trying to shove them into a few months of totally irrelevant training, which no one wants to give them anyway. We should give them understanding and education to help them cope with the job that they will have to do in caring for the baby.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) said, such education should start early. Education for parenthood for both sexes should start in school and be part of the core curriculum. I do not believe that we can talk about having a sensible curriculum that ignores the most important roles that all of us as human beings must undertake. I am concerned about the treatment of young pregnant girls.
When I read the article about the anonymous baby abandoned on the charity dump, it struck me that it is possible that her unfortunate mother is a 16 or 17-year-old with no rights, no entitlements and no sympathy, who is expected to prove to the Department of Social Security not that she is pregnant and suffering hardship but that she is suffering severe hardship.
§ Mrs. Wise
Tory Members have chosen to make a mockery of part of this debate and I will not conspire with them to do that. I have important points to make. I shall make those points and then sit down, and they can make their own speeches.
The article in The Guardian says:The price of a child is now too high for many mothers to pay. The National Council for One Parent Families says that financial hardship has become the overwhelming reason why mothers ask for their children to be adopted, even though their own wish would be to keep them; and senior social workers speak of 'a new market in working class babies for middle class parents'. Others are pushed into abortion.I am in favour of the right for women to choose to have a pregnancy terminated, but I abhor a society that causes such pressure and stress as effectively to drive women into taking what I believe is a desperate step. I am pro choice; I am not pro abortion. We should take note of the fact thatadvice workers at Marie Stopes clinics say that the recession has seen a surge in women trying to terminate pregnancies because they don't have the money or the security to cope with a child.Those are the sorts of problems that people who are overwhelmingly represented by Labour Members are facing. The answer is not found in Government policies at present. The Government's policies are characterised by an overwhelming feature—the increase and intensification of inequality.
Inequality is the enemy of social justice. I want not a levelling down, as the Government may say, but a levelling up. I want people to be treated fairly. I want undue financial 495 stress and housing shortage removed from families. I want us not to have to face what I regularly face in my surgeries —young women looking old beyond their years who have children with them. It is routine. They nearly always say of at least one of their children, "Little Tommy has asthma". I am surprised if I come across a child in many areas in my constituency who does not have asthma or some other respiratory problem.
We need measures that seek to elevate the importance of children to us. We want parents to regard their children as the most important things in their lives. As a society, we should regard children as the most important beings, and they should be at the front of the queue when resources are being given out, not at the end.
§ Mrs. Wise
I cannot set an example to the Secretary of State; she has already spoken and she is not here to hear the debate. If she were here, perhaps I would set her a good example. As it is, I shall do to the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates) what the Secretary of State did to me—ignore him.
There has been some reference to education. I wanted to ask the Secretary of State what advice I should give to the parents and teachers in the primary school nearest to the place where I live.
Frenchwood primary school is a well-managed, good school. However, despite its good management, it is financially stressed and will lose one teacher, with the result that children aged about six may be taught in mixed-age classes. It is not beneficial for children to be taught in mixed-age classes, especially when it is not being done for educational reasons but simply because the school is losing one teacher. I have chosen that example because it is not a particularly dramatic one.
Many schools are losing more than one teacher. Many children are facing worse problems at school than being taught in a mixed-age class. Many of the schools facing more dramatic problems have suffered greatly from the cuts in section 11 funding. Some schools in my constituency are losing several teachers because of the Government's cuts in section 11 funding. I do not in any way blame the county council, which is the unfortunate agent for passing on the cuts.
Tory Members are good at blaming parents. Sometimes parents are to blame. I may be somewhat puritanical; I am conventional in many ways in my approach. I believe that it is best to have a two-parent family. I believe in stable relationships, although I know that that cannot always happen. I know that many people are driven beyond endurance. During my surgeries, I sometimes marvel that the suicide rate is not higher. It is no good simply lecturing people or setting up a counsel of perfection. It is easier to blame parents than it is to help them, and it is cheaper.
I do not want to blame parents. I want to educate parents and to encourage them to accept their responsibilities. Children should be a joy to their parents, and I want to help to bring that about. Childhood should be a joyful, 496 constructive and pleasurable part of life, but, for many children, childhood is a burden and for many parents children are burdens. That is an obscenity.
We should not blame parents; we should be helping them. I want not so much blame, and a lot more resources. All kinds of resources—educational, financial and housing —should be made available for the children of our society to bring them to the front of the queue. We should not let them languish at the back, as they do now.
§ Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)
It was a great pity that the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) did not give way to any of my hon. Friends who tried to intervene. One would have liked to have asked her many questions in a speech that, quite frankly, was more fantasy than fact.
I am pleased to take part in this debate about the family. I believe that the family is vital to the future well-being of our nation. By that, I mean that we should seek to have as the ideal, goal or target the traditional nuclear family, with one man and one woman for life with children. That is the optimum target, and I will talk later about what happens when that cannot be achieved. It should remain our target and goal and it is not an optional extra. It is at the heart of our society.
An urgent task lies ahead of us during the next few years —to restore to the centre and the heart of our nation the place of the traditional family unit, which has been so eroded in the past 30 years. Having listened to some excellent speeches from my hon. Friends and, I am bound to say, one excellent speech from the Opposition, from the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks)—
§ Mr. Streeter
No, it was not the last speech. I would like to think that there is a common cause emerging and that there is a fresh recognition of the vitality and the essence of family life in 1990s Britain.
The family is important for three crucial reasons. The relationship between a husband and wife, or between long-term partners, is one of mutual support and fellowship. They share problems and joys, and, in that long-term relationship, fulfilment in all sorts of ways can be found. Furthermore, traditionally, financial support can be found in that structure and it is within the framework of a strong and stable family unit that children are best raised.
Is it not a pity that in this day and age we appear to have lost the sense of the importance of raising children? How refreshing it is to come across young people who feel a calling to be a mother or a father and who understand that it is a vital task. How often we turn our backs on that and look down on the importance of being a good parent.
If there is one evil in our society at the moment, it has little to do with poverty or Government policies, as Opposition Members would have us believe. The evil in our midst is poor and neglectful parenting. I would be the first to admit that that could come from two parents as well as from one. How it upsets me when I go to the supermarket—that seems to be where one mainly encounters it—to hear the way in which some parents talk to their children. I saw a lady at the weekend who was talking to her three or four-year-old son in Tesco. She was cuffing him around the ear and saying, "You're stupid." 497 That child will grow up 15 years later believing that. Poor parenting shapes the character and personality of our children.
It is within the family context that we learn self-esteem, because others value us. Our parents value us and we therefore learn to value ourselves and it is in the first formative years that children learn so many important lessons. Another reason why families are so important is that they are the vehicle or forum through which we can care for one another in sickness or infirmity, whether that involves a husband and wife, parents and children or brother and sister. The family unit is a vital instrument of care in modern Britain.
Some people believe that the traditional family was just a choice that we made at some stage of history, or that it is just an optional extra that we can now replace. Some seem to believe that the state can replace the family and that it does not matter that relationships between people are breaking down or that parents are less and less likely to bring up their children with values.
§ Mr. George Howarth
Could the hon. Gentleman perhaps name the people who believe that family institutions should be replaced by the state?
§ Mr. Streeter
It is abundantly obvious that, during the past 30 years, we have suffered at the hands of left-wing ideology. [Interruption.] Oh yes. That teaches us that we can no longer support the argument in favour of the traditional family. It says that it is perfectly all right to have children brought up by lesbian or gay couples. That made hon. Members suddenly go very quiet. The left-wing ideology states that single parents are as good as two parents. That has been thrust down our throats, and how we have suffered as a result. There is no substitute for a strong family. The state cannot deliver the vital responsibilities of mutual support, affection and good parenting. They must be done by the family.
The debate is extremely important. For far too long the tail has wagged the dog in terms of social policy. For the past 30 years, we have been frightened to speak out and make value judgments for fear of upsetting minority groups or being accused of discriminating against those groups. It is time for the vast majority of people who believe in families and who aspire to strong and stable relationships to stand up and be counted.
It saddens me greatly that, in my daughter's class at a good grammar school in Plymouth—the school is known to you, Madam Deputy Speaker—half the children no longer live, at the age of 13, with their natural father or natural mother. What kind of society are we breeding?
Family breakdown has serious consequences. It affects personal security, and we know that it affects the security of children. We know now that, although many single parents are doing an excellent job of raising their children, bringing up children is best done by two people who share problems and encourage each other when one is tired of disciplining. That is a tiresome and difficult thing to do and it is difficult to achieve a consistency of discipline. The breakdown of families undermines the disciplining of our young people.
Enormous social costs flow from family breakdown. We have already heard of the billions of pounds that have been spent on housing. Is it not odd that the number of houses in this country since 1979 has increased 498 substantially, and yet still we are told that there are not enough? That is because households are splitting at a far greater rate.
We must take a long and hard look at where we are going with social policy. Can it be right that, no matter how people choose to live, the state will always come behind with a cheque book and a bucket and spade to clean up the mess? Should not we be saying that there is an optimum way of living and that there are targets that we should set? As a society we should encourage people to live in a responsible manner. That is what most people want.
Is the constant drip of family breakdown irreversible? Can we do nothing about it? Can we say that the family does not really matter and was just one style of living which was right then but not now? I should like to think that we will not go down that route and that we will say that the family is important and should be our target. Let us find ways to make it work.
We can give more support to families than they have been given during the past 30 years in three key ways. If hon. Members would like to learn more of my views they can read the speech that I made in this place on 3 December, which was 22 minutes long. I shall not speak for that long tonight. I am not one of those who say that economics are not important. We can support the family economically. I am also not one of those who say that poverty is not important or that unemployment is not a factor because it is, but it is one of many.
§ Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)
I am pleased to acknowledge the emphasis that the hon. Gentleman places on poverty. Is he aware that it is clear from answers to my parliamentary questions during the past year that 5.7 million families with children now have a lower disposable income than they had in 1979? It is all very well for him to go on about morality—we all want children to be brought up properly—but does he agree that that does not pay the gas bill?
§ Mr. Streeter
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making me aware of her views. Every sector of our society is better off than it was 15 years ago and that is an unmistakeable fact. The benefit and welfare system that is supporting people is vastly superior to the one that we had 15 years ago and she cannot escape that fact. Poverty and unemployment are factors in family breakdown, but they are only two of many.
Because economics are important, I pay tribute to the way in which the Government have steered our economy during the past two years, so that interest rates are low and inflation is low and is staying low. Those are vital ingredients for the future of families. Unemployment is decreasing at an encouraging rate—a factor that I am sure that Opposition Members welcome. The Government are getting the economic framework right and that is an important foundation stone for getting the family right in the years ahead.
Secondly, I am convinced that when most people are 17, 18, 20 or 21 they aspire to a long-term relationship and a home and family of their own. That is the main aspiration of the overwhelming majority and we must find ways to help them to achieve it. The Government were successful in helping people to achieve the aspiration of their own homes in the 1980s. Let us build on that success in the 499 1990s and find ways to help young people to achieve their deeper aspirations to build long-term relationships and to raise a stable and secure family.
We can do much more by teaching in schools the principles of parenting, being a spouse and relationships. Many of us picked those up at home. I am fortunate to come from a close and loving family, but I know that that is not everyone's experience. We used to assume that such things were passed on naturally from generation to generation and learnt from the role models and framework created for us by our parents, but principles can be extracted and taught in schools and we must think about that more seriously.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) that we can and should counsel young people who are on the threshold of marriage. Too many people rush into marriage, for all sorts of understandable reasons, when they have not sat down and thought through the real responsibilities involved. Counselling young people on the threshold of marriage would be a great help. Who should do the counselling? Should it be local authority social workers? I would say not. A vast army of people have enjoyed secure and strong marriages, learnt the principles of being a parent, a husband or a wife and know what it is like to run a house effectively and pay their way, not spending more than they get. Those are the people who should be counsellors. We can call on the voluntary sector and people with experience and a heart to give to counsel young people. I want more pre-marriage counselling schemes to be made available.
On the question of support for the family, more help must be given when a marriage is in difficulties. I know that from my experience at the church in Plymouth where my wife and I are members. We have been involved in the lives of many young people who have gone through marital difficulties. Sometimes, just a little experienced advice here, some help there and the opportunity to talk things through is immensely helpful and can get people through a difficult period.
Who should give such help? It should be not some of the professional people employed by local authorities but people with experience. I know one social worker in Plymouth who has made an utter mess of her life. Her children run wild on the streets—one is into drugs and the other is the worst-behaved child at her school. However, that lady is a social worker and she tells other families how to bring up their children and make their families work. That is wrong. The people who have experience of getting it right and who have gone through problems and come out the other side should teach our young people, rather than professional social workers who have often ruined their lives and will only drag others down with them.
Finally, we need a fiscal and financial framework that will encourage marriage. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) explained the dichotomy—should we say that marriage is the way that we want to go or that any sort of mutual cohabitation is acceptable? The majority of people believe that marriage is an important institution. We should dust it off, make it important and put it at the centre once again.
I want future Budgets to take more care to encourage young people to get married and to encourage married couples. I want our fiscal policy to support husbands and 500 wives, encourage them to stay together and make it more beneficial for people to be married than for them to live together or as single people. Enormous social benefits would flow from such a fiscal policy. Where the family has broken down and been eroded, the state has rushed in with all its solutions and panaceas, none of which has worked. The state may need to be rolled back before the family can walk forward. If the state is always there doing it, what incentive is there for families to get their act together again? We may have to be bold and allow the state to take a step backwards.
§ Mr. Bates
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having the courtesy to give way. The Child Support Agency is one of the greatest advances that we have made in rolling back the frontier of dependency and making people realise their responsibilities. Is it not the case that by reinforcing the parent's financial responsibility for the child, which is life-long, we may also be reinforcing their moral and spiritual responsibilities towards their children?
§ Mr. Streeter
I am grateful for that intervention, with which I whole-heartedly agree. The Child Support Agency is becoming increasingly popular among women who have not received proper maintenance payments from the fathers of their children. Also, people are beginning to think far more seriously before they split up and to consider whether they can afford it. The CSA is causing people to think about the implications and consequences of their choices. That is no bad thing and it is to be welcomed warmly.
I am afraid to say that it has taken us 30 years to reach the present situation, with family breakdown so evident around us. There is no overnight solution. It may take us another 30 years to get back to the situation where the family is at the centre of our society and where it is the cornerstone on which our country is built, but I am confident that, under Conservative leadership over that period of time, we will arrive.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
Tonight's debate has contributed to our understanding of the depth and strength of mother love. So many Conservative Members have drawn attention to the fact that they themselves were brought up by loving mothers that it demonstrates to me that there is no end to the generosity of the love of mothers. I find the hon. Members somewhat unlovable.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter), among others, may have been exposed to Aldous Huxley at too early an age and been frightened by him. Hon. Members described a ludicrous, science fiction kind of world in which the Labour party is supposed to advocate that the state should run families and that mothers and fathers should not look after their children. Where hon. Members get such nonsense from, they have not explained, but it is the kind of stupid diversion that comes from Tory central office and prevents them from addressing themselves to the issues in front of us.
It is not our case that the Tories are responsible for every ill that befalls humankind. What we are saying, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) and others have already said, is that there are many ills that beset families in respect of which it is the duty of the state 501 and of local government to help rather than to hinder those families. It is the Government's gross inadequacy on those counts that we are addressing tonight.
Take, for example, the case of a 10-year-old boy who I know of in Glasgow. Conservative Members talk about freedom of choice and independence for families. What freedom or independence can that particular child have when his father happens to be a drunkard and his mother is so chronically depressed that she cannot stir herself to make sure that he gets to school? The boy is looking after his younger brothers and sisters and carrying a load of responsibility that is far too great for his years. His parents love their little boy but, for whatever reasons, are simply not up to the task of looking after him at present. For that child to have any hope for his future—any hope of an education or of respite or of the chance of a life of his own —he has to depend on the education and social work departments, and on the state itself to vote the cash and the care to helping him and children like him. His is no isolated case; similar cases can be found throughout the land.
The Secretary of State described what she regards as the success of what I would call the Government's meddling with the national health service. She is no doubt not terribly well briefed on such matters as they apply in Scotland, but I wonder what she would make of a few recent events in Scotland that give a very different picture of how the state of the NHS affects families today. At Glasgow royal infirmary, cleaners and porters have had their wages cut to levels that applied four years ago because of compulsory competitive tendering. What possible benefit can that bring their children? Perhaps those people's families do not matter to the Tories.
Let us look at patients in hospitals. During the past week, it has emerged that people are leaving Scottish hospitals less well nourished than they were when they went in because of the contracting arrangements to provide food in hospitals. If, after going in for an operation, a patient recovers and is ready to eat and hungry before the catering system is ready to provide food, the nurses are no longer permitted to cook him or her a light meal in the ward kitchen. People can spend 24 hours without a bite to eat as a consequence of such cost-cutting exercises.
Dr. Sandy Macara of the British Medical Association last Sunday condemned forcefully the two-tier system of health care. Is he lying or scaremongering? The consultants at Raigmore hospital are condemning the way in which things are run down, yet the chairman of the trust has the cheek to condemn them. Who knows more, about running the health service—the doctors doing the work or some part-time chairman of a trust appointed by the Secretary of State?
What does the Secretary of State think of second and third-generation unemployment? What is that doing for families? As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) asked, when families are endlessly living on benefits with no sign of ever getting work, what can it possibly do for them? They live in unfit damp housing, which causes asthma and bronchitis. At every single surgery that I hold in Maryhill, I see families whose children have asthma or bronchitis. We heard all that described by one Conservative Member as something that does not happen. I wonder what world he is living in. Such things may not happen in his constituency but they happen in many of ours. In their 15 years in office, the Government have made draconian cuts in housing support grant and in borrowing 502 consents, making it far more difficult for local authorities to do something about improving the state of the housing in which those families live.
The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) talked about what might be done to make run-down estates more civilised places in which to live. He suggested that grannies could form some kind of control. What sort of world does that hon. Gentleman live in? The grannies in these estates are not old, white-haired ladies; they are women in their thirties and forties, some of whom might even have jobs themselves. Many of the problems that we are discussing relate to single mothers who are struggling to look after children, with fathers absent for all sorts of reasons. It is those very mothers whom Ministers condemned and attacked at the infamous Tory party conference last October.
A minute ago, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton argued that the Child Support Agency helps mothers. That is news to us. The Child Support Agency could be more accurately described as the Treasury support agency. The money is collected from the fathers but it does not go into the pockets of the mothers to help them look after their children.
At present, the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill is in Committee. The Government have chosen to embark on a local government Bill instead of on a long-awaited Children Bill for Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles was very much involved in the proceedings on the Children Bill for England and Wales, which were successfully concluded five years ago. What we have now is a decision by Scottish Tory Ministers. I do not blame English Tory Members—hon. Members from shires south of Scotland; they may not even know that this is happening. But Scottish Ministers have chosen to introduce a Scottish local government Bill that no one in Scotland wants and to do nothing at all about badly needed legislation for children in Scotland.
We need legislation to take account of children who are in care and who are leaving care at 16, homeless, without a job, without training, without income support and ending up in the famous cardboard boxes. We have not heard tonight in the entire debate what solution the Government offer. Those children cannot be sent back to their families because many have no families. Those I have mentioned have left care at the age of 16.
There are many other aspects of the matter that we want to look at in such a Bill—children at risk of abuse, children with disabilities, children whose needs of all descriptions or whose deeds bring them before our children's panels. Instead of updating and reforming our legislation by means of a new Bill for children, the Government are taking no action whatever; there was nothing in the Queen's Speech and there is apparently no timetable for such legislation.
Reference has been made to nursery places. If the Prime Minister now favours nursery places, why has he still done nothing about them? A Conservative Member asked earlier what it would cost, no doubt thinking smartly that this was a challenge to the Labour party on its cost commitments. Let me point out one thing: whatever it would cost would be more than repaid by the development of young children's socialisation, helping them to develop a sense of responsibility and consideration for others, and the saving of the millions of pounds currently wasted on vandalism. All these sums together could well exceed the cost of running nursery schools. It was the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) who wanted to 503 know what such education would cost. I think that she meant that she wanted a society in which those people who are well enough off to pay can afford to have all the care that they wish for for their children while the rest are allowed to go hang.
In many cases, well-off people are not caring, loving families—they are the upper-middle classes, many of whom send their children away at ridiculously young ages. They tell other people to look after their children and take that responsibility off their hands; they can pay for it to be done. That is the type of society that the Conservatives want. That has been Tory policy through the ages, and it shows no sign of changing tonight.
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
It has been an interesting debate so far, but I have not heard any hon. Member describe an easily achievable solution to the problems that we face in family life today.
I utterly condemn the disgraceful motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, because a close reading reveals that it describes precisely the results of the nonsense that went on in the 1960s and the 1970s, the consequences of which we are reaping today. I am optimistic about our future because I do not anticipate that our children, born in the 1980s and 1990s, will suffer in the way that those people born in the 1960s and 1970s have. That is why I entirely support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
§ Ms Corston
The hon. Gentleman made a point just now about the number of children who were living—I am sorry, I have lost my thread.
§ Ms Corston
If that is the case, why have Conservative Members supported the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which provides for the locking-up of children who were born after the Government came to power?
§ Mr. Amess
I entirely accept the argument of the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) and I will discuss that point shortly when I mention the efforts that are being made to protect law-abiding citizens from those young people. I will not forget the point.
I very much support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which says that the Government will continue to support policieswhich ensure that the family remains the cornerstone of society",
because I believe that when the family thrives, society thrives.
Let me first make two partisan points. In doing so, I shall refer to both the socialist parties. First, it is simply not good enough for a Liberal Democrat Member to participate in the debate and make a blatant propaganda speech. Whenever one gives the alliance power, it breaks the promises that it made in that propaganda. I am reminded of the position of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) when she fought and won the by-election for Christchurch. She went round the constituency, complaining about crime and saying that we needed more bobbies 504 on the beat. Now alliance-controlled Hampshire county council is cutting the number of policemen on the beat, and I could go further.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not give way, because his remarks already seem to me rather far from the debate.
§ Mr. Amess
Your point is well made, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The second partisan point that I want to make is about the Labour party.
During the week's break over Easter I was listening to LBC—an excellent radio station—and I clearly heard an Opposition spokesman who has responsibility for London saying that it was disgraceful that the Government were not allowing time for a debate on the increase in prescription charges. I am sure that many members of the general public who were listening thought that that was, indeed, a disgraceful thing to do, because the interviewer did not explain that the Opposition are allocated a number of days when they can choose a subject. At that time I had not received notification from my Whip saying that the subject of today's debate would be the family. We all know only too well that it was a cheap point. I welcome the debate today on the family, but it is less than honest to pretend that the Opposition could not choose on another occasion to have a debate on prescription charges if they seriously wanted to make the point. The Conservative Benches have been far better populated during this debate than have the Opposition Benches. That is worth noting if the Opposition care so much about the subject.
I much regret that the hon. Members for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) and for Preston (Mrs. Wise) have left the Chamber. They made what I regard as two old-fashioned socialist points. I resent, as a Conservative Member, being patronised and lectured by socialists and told that all Conservative Members have privileged backgrounds. It was suggested that we have all led a sheltered life, that we all have pots of money, that we do not hold surgeries and that we do not listen to people's problems.
As I look round the Chamber, I notice that I am the only east ender present. I spent the first three decades of my life in the east end of London and I am very proud of my background—hardly a privileged one. We lived in a terraced house with no bathroom, an outside toilet and a tin bath, but none of my experiences made me a socialist; they made me a Conservative. The way in which the hon. Members for Bow and Poplar and for Preston lectured Conservative Members, saying that they believed that they had the panacea for the working class, was a disgrace. All Labour Members do is to grind people lower in their esteem. When I lived in Newham we had a Labour Government, a Labour Greater London council member and a rotten Labour council, so I take no lectures from socialists about the working class and the solutions to our problems.
I represent the constituency of Basildon, where I am proud to say that the latest statistics show that we have the greatest number of central heating appliances in the country. Many of my constituents come from the east end of London. When I lived in the east end of London, family life was wonderful. It was a close-knit community. We 505 helped one another and it is true that we did not bother to lock our doors at night. There was always a lady in the road if someone was going to give birth and we looked after our mums, our dads and our grandparents. All that has changed. It is not for me now to look to the past, but I very much believe, speaking about family life, that the state can never be, and never should be, a substitute for the family. It is all about individual responsibility, and I believe that there is a serious problem as regards parenting.
Being a parent is an enormous responsibility. I very much regret the current trend—the popularity of transient relationships. I take my hat off to the women who are abused and abandoned, primarily by men, and I cannot understand how anyone who has fathered a child can turn his back on his own flesh and blood, never want to see the child and never want to support the child. Surely all Members of Parliament will condemn that type of activity.
Now I come to the argument that the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) made when I referred to the 1960s and 1970s. It is all about what I call unsocial behaviour. Recently, I launched a campaign in my constituency. I thought that the media were being less than helpful to the Conservative party, so I decided to make speeches on milk crates with a loudhailer to my constituents. I have to say that they have been very well received. I drew a large crowd two weeks ago, and at the precise point at which I reached the subject of yobs, one appeared. Many of my constituents are pleased about the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. They badly need the protection that it will give them. I wanted to demonstrate to my constituents that the law is there to be enforced and that those yobs need to be caught.
I went and confronted the yobs and, on one particular estate in Crudens, I managed to find six such individuals making people's lives hell—smashing windows and doing disgusting things of which I am sure no hon. Member would approve. What do we do with those children? Do we say that the problems date back to the 1960s and 1970s? Do we say that all those children come from broken homes and we cannot possibly restrain them from the general public? Having spoken to them, I know that no one in the House could have coped with the language and violence that they demonstrated towards me. People badly need protecting.
I much regret the present divorce rate. When I first came to the House, we introduced a measure to make divorce easier. As a new Member of Parliament who is not a lawyer, I tried to intervene, but there was all-party agreement on making divorce easier. Often, women come to my constituency surgery and say, "We had no idea that it was so easy to get divorced." That measure badly needs to be looked at again because marriage is an enormous responsibility. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) talked about the age at which people can get married. Figures show that those who get married at 16 are more likely to divorce. I am sure that a number of hon. Members married at 16 and have been happily married ever since, but statistics prove that such marriages are more likely to fail. I am preaching not marriage but stability in relationships—men and women sticking together and looking after their children.
Finally, I am astonished at the House's attitude over a number of years on abortion, embryo research and sex selection. Over a period, we have taken legislative decisions that have undermined family life and cheapened life itself. Last Tuesday, the Prime Minister came to my 506 constituency and opened a gynaecology ward in a new maternity hospital in Basildon. We took him down to the special baby-care unit where he saw tiny babies and witnessed at first hand the emotion felt by women who wanted the hospital to do everything that it could to keep those tiny babies alive.
The hon. Members for Preston and for Bow and Poplar, who are both here, discussed abortion. In the Carlisle baby case in 1987, a baby was born alive after a failed abortion and lived for three hours with no medical support. But we heard no sympathy whatever from the Opposition. The hon. Member for Preston said that she agreed that we should help people not to have abortions; if I follow her logic, she is in favour of life. I agree with her. The idea that this House feels that it is okay for that shoddy little clinic in north London to con people in selecting the sex of their babies is a disgrace.
I introduced a 10-minute rule Bill that was defeated by 80 votes and I was told in an intervention that I should wait until the Committee had reported on sex selection. That Committee did report and decided that it would not legalise sex selection in clinics. Since then, one of the partners in the clinic went in for sex selection and the child turned out to be the wrong sex. As we all know, mother nature gives people a 50-50 chance of having a boy or girl, so to con people and take money from them is a disgrace. A little while ago, I appeared on a television programme with a doctor running the clinic. One of his patients, whom he had wound up to attack me, said that she had five boys and wanted a girl. She said that it would be nice to have a girl because girls could be taught to clean and cook. That says it all.
I hope that the whole House will encourage young people and children in every sense. Let us unite behind the family, and society as a whole will benefit.
§ Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)
I should like to make two brief points about the last two speeches by Conservative Members—the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) and for Basildon (Mr. Amess). It is difficult to believe that the two hon. Members could be so wrong about so much, but what I find really disturbing is that they seem sincerely to believe what they say. That is cause for a great deal of concern.
I do not want to enter the wider political debate because my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) and the motion on the order paper have made the wider political case effectively. I participate in the debate because the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) and the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), which were both thoughtful and not politically partisan, raised some important issues.
First, there must be, as most people acknowledge in different ways, an economic dimension to how families are developing in the latter part of the 20th century in this country and elsewhere. That should not be ignored. J.K. Galbraith, the distinguished and world-respected economist, made an interesting point about how societies in the United States and Britain are becoming what he calls "two thirds-one third societies". By that, he means that two thirds of society do quite well—they find employment, often well paid, but, more importantly, they do better out of non-targeted, non-means-tested state benefits and state-provided services than the one third who tend to get, 507 if any job at all, the worst paid jobs and the worst service provision in terms of education and other areas of social policy.
Society in the United States seems to have reached a point where all but a few of those in that one third of society can never break out of it. The system seems closed, so that those who are born into that one third are unable to break out into a profession, higher education or the escape route that my generation had—the apprenticeship. All those opportunities seem to have gone.
Unless we can break the cycle and start doing something about the problem, we shall face real problems in the future. I do not know where this trend will lead and I do not intend to make any apocalyptic predictions about where it will lead, but it is very worrying, for reasons to which I shall refer in a moment.
§ Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)
Does the hon. Gentleman not therefore welcome the introduction of the new apprenticeship scheme, which will help 150,000 young people to enter apprenticeships in this country at a cost of £2.25 billion over the next three years?
§ Mr. Howarth
I shall go on to talk more specifically about apprenticeship schemes, their consequences and the opportunities that exist today in a few moments, but I will do it in my own way and in my own time.
I want to contrast the experiences today of people in that one-third of society with my own experiences as one who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. I was a teenager and in my twenties in the 1970s. I have checked how old the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) is, and I think that only three years divide us, but I think that he was growing up in a different country from the one in which I grew up in the 1960s.
The first point I make is that, far from my development being governed by some extreme left-wing ideology which pointed me in some direction or other, I was not aware that the teachers in the schools that I attended had any ideology whatsoever. They were just teachers who got on with their jobs. It seems to me that in the last decade or so the Government have done more to politicise the education system than was ever the case in the 1960s or 1970s.
My second point is that there was some security about being young during that time. I presume that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me about that. I was brought up on a council estate: I do not say that in any boastful way—it is just a fact of my life. My father was a skilled worker and my mother was an office worker. At no point in my teenage years did I have any expectation that at the end of my schooling and my time at technical college I would not have a job.
Now, however, large numbers of young men, in particular, in my constituency are growing up in the almost certain knowledge that when they finish their schooling they will not have a job. This is not because they have done badly at school or because there is something congenitally wrong with them which makes them unfit for work, but because there simply is no employment in my part of the world. There is nothing to lead them to believe that at the end of their education they will find employment.
One may make whatever political or value judgments one likes about that, but it has profound implications on a 508 number of issues, not the least of which are family relationships and the development of the family in the 1990s and towards the end of the century.
Everything that my generation did in areas such as mine was conditioned by the fact that we were brought up and lived during a time which, far from stifling people's aspirations and oppressing them with the dead hand of the state, was a time of rising expectations. The belief was that every year things would get a little better. It was thought that if one left school and entered further or higher education things would improve; people had career prospects. That is simply not the case any more in areas such as the one that I represent.
I raise that point in the context of discussing the family because a lot has been said in the last 12 months to two years about single or lone-parent families. All sorts of reasons have been given for this phenomenon: young women trying to jump the council housing waiting queue was one and access to social security which would allegedly give unmarried women or those without a permanent partner a better life style was another. I reject those reasons. I believe that many young women in my constituency and elsewhere have made a rational decision to be single parents. The decision is not based on whether it will help them to get a council house or flat or on some detailed knowledge of what social security benefits they will be entitled to claim. It is based on the change in the economic role of men in areas such as mine.
I do not say that in any judgemental way, but once men cease to be the economic providers within a family—I do not necessarily say that that was a good thing, it was simply what happened in my generation—many women have to make a rational decision. If they want to have a family, they have to decide whether being permanently linked in some way, through marriage or some other means, with the fathers of their children will enhance their lives or those of their children. Many arguments could be, and have been, put forward as to the social consequences and the importance of fathers in the lives of children, and I accept those arguments, but sometimes women make a fairly rational decision that men are no longer necessary in their lives.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way at that interesting point. Does he not agree that we want to encourage marriage because it provides for the father and mother to give a commitment to the child, and that the lack of that commitment creates a problem? If the couple do not marry, it means that the father escapes and never feels the bonding. That is the great difficulty today.
§ Mr. Howarth
Personally, I agree with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) that the ideal situation is for children to be in a stable family relationship, with two parents and proper care. I am married and I think that marriage is a good institution, but I do not condemn anyone who chooses to live with a partner or to do something else: that is a personal choice, and I do not think that it is the most important point for our debate.
I want to talk about the changing nature of the family. My circumstances suit me and, I hope, my family. My observation has shown that the diversity of relationships among my constituents and all over the country seems to suit them. People decide for themselves about their relationships, by rational means or otherwise.
§ Mr. Howarth
No, I have given way once to the hon. Lady. I know that the hon. Lady is hoping to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that her contribution will be illuminating, or at least amusing.
It does not seem to me to be the job of the House or of any individual Member of the House to describe what the right state of affairs is for every individual in every set of circumstances. It is strange that the Government and their supporters, who make so much of their support for the individual, always make that support conditional on certain stereotypical conditions, such as a particular sort of family and relationship with children. It seems strange that Government support for the individual is always predicated on the idea that that individual should be part of a family set-up of which they approve, rather than all individuals.
Young women often decide for rational reasons that they want to have children, but do not want a man involved in the family relationship. The man may have a continuing role, but he will not be a resident in the same household. At the end of that chain we are left with thousands—probably hundreds of thousands—of young men in this country who no longer have a role in the family. They may not have worked out properly where they fit into society. They often remain living with their mother—without responsibility and without access to work. I am not making judgments about that lifestyle, but where does it lead? What self-esteem, ambition and expectations can those young men have when the one thing that they might have expected to experience—fatherhood—becomes a purely biological function and they have no continuing role in the family?
I am not making value judgments but, in that spirit, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West raised a number of interesting issues. He mentioned the demographic trends, and what is happening within society and within families. If we insist—as some Conservative Members do—on using debates such as today's as a yah-boo exercise in lobbing hand grenades across the Chamber, we shall not progress. In five or 10 years' time, the two thirds-one third society that I mentioned will still be intact. It will be a closed society, with large numbers of people excluded from any sort of expectation or ambition for the rest of their lives. Subsequent generations will be in exactly the same position.
Given that the future is unpredictable and we do not know where it is all leading, we should try not to have a sloganised debate which simply suits the ideology and sloganising of one party or another. We should seriously consider the effects of the changes, not just on social policy, but on those individuals who no longer have the rising expectations and ambitions for themselves and their families that we had in the 1960s and 1970s. We must get to the stage of being able to look rationally at these problems, think about where they are leading us and try to bend social policy and legislation in such a way that people are helped on the basis of their actual situation rather than some imagined past—presumably the 1950s—when everything was rosy and nothing ever went wrong. Things simply were not like that, and re-inventing history will not serve the. Government or the House of Commons. Least of all will it serve people outside.
§ 9.9 pm
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
We are having a very interesting debate. To that extent, I congratulate the Opposition on their choice of subject and on their timing. I heard only on Tuesday that the debate was to take place. I do not know what inspired the Opposition. Perhaps they saw the photograph of the Bottomley family on the Isle of Wight. Certainly the Bottomleys led the debate off very well.
Nothing is more important to the future of this country than the way in which our children are brought up. The rearing of children is absolutely central to the matters that we are discussing. Having congratulated the Opposition on their timing, I should perhaps declare an interest in that just before one o'clock in the morning of Wednesday 30 March I became a grandfather. I was very relieved that the birth did not take place 60 minutes earlier, as my grandson's name is Jack Jones and 29 March happens to be the birthday of another Jack Jones. I should not like a grandson of mine to be thought of as having been named after a trade union leader.
This has been a strange debate. It is supposed to be an Opposition day, but we do not seem to be learning very much about Opposition policies. The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), who led off, seemed to be uncertain about statements on child benefit made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). She said that she did not know anything about them. But surely child benefit is absolutely central to the Opposition's thinking.
Then there was the extraordinary intervention of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who promptly demoted her hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden, describing him as a Back Bencher. I became very worried when the hon. Gentleman came in and sat on one of the Back Benches for a while. My fear was that he had actually been demoted, and I put forward the idea that we might adjourn while the Opposition Front Bench sorted itself out.
The greatest interest in the debate and the greatest speech content has come from the Conservative side. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who is not in the Chamber at present, was very modest. When he quoted the left winger Beatrix Campbell he might have said that he was reading from one of his own excellent pamphlets—"Happy Families?" published by the Centre for Policy Studies, of which he used to be the director. My hon. Friend recently wrote another interesting pamphlet, called "The Family". I recommend both publications to my hon. Friends.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on her appointment as Minister for the family. This is something to which I have been looking forward for a very long time. It provides us with an opportunity for better co-ordination of both Government policy, and the local application of policy through the various agencies. There is a great need for better co-ordination of the services provided locally. I am thinking of what is done by social service bodies, education authorities and Home Office agencies such as the police and the probation service. My right hon. Friend said that responsibility begins with parents and must remain with them. That is exactly right, and it is a concept which our policies support.
Opposition Members have referred to the need for funding. The most important funding for a family is the 511 money that they have in their pockets. Under the Conservative Government, the take-home pay of a couple on average earnings, with two children, has increased by 40 per cent. The corresponding figure for the period of the last Labour Government was only 0.6 per cent. Thus, under our policies there has been a substantial increase in one of the most central resources available to any family—the amount of money they have to spend. Family credit has been a successful innovation, and is the best way to help both people in work and those who are not to take up employment and better themselves in that way.
I was amazed that Labour opposed the Third Reading of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill last night, because they did not oppose its Second Reading.
§ Mr. Thurnham
There certainly seemed to be an enormous number of votes last night, with constant opposition by Labour Members that kept us here until half-past 2 in the morning. Labour Members certainly opposed large slices of that Bill, if not its Third Reading. They certainly did not give the impression that they supported it. When we considered the Criminal Justice Act 1991, Labour did not support the proposal for parents to appear with their children in court. That shows a lack of understanding by the Opposition of the need for parental responsibility.
I was pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Tuesday to discuss the need for more effective parenting. I hope that a consequence of my right hon. Friend's becoming the Minister with responsibility for the family will be a White Paper entitled "Effective Parenting", presenting a new strategy to direct the future pattern of child development. Only by placing real responsibility back into parenting will we succeed in solving problems at source and achieving lasting improvements. Family intervention and support services, residential facilities and the general gamut of expenses that accompany troubled and troublesome children and their families are expensive and can be seen as a bottomless economic pit.
Parenting is a job and, like any other vocational skill, it can be taught in theory and by practice. We should no longer allow young adults to drift into the task of parenting with minimal training and support, only to express surprise and outrage later when such ill-prepared people fail at it. Ensuring that parents carry first-line responsibility for their children should be seen in the spirit of preventive medicine, and that concept must be fully explored.
Available strategies range from the educational to the punitive. Parenting courses should be widely available, and an increase in nursery school provision should be accompanied by an insistence on much greater parental involvement in a child's total schooling.
Parents should be brought to task for their child's misdemeanours. In the final analysis, punitive measures can be taken against parents of children who constantly commit misdemeanours. I do not see why courts cannot sentence parents to a parenting course if they are clearly seen to have failed. Instead of merely imposing fines, the money should be spent on educating parents in the basics of bringing up children.
512 Utilising the energy and resources of those concerned would not be expensive but cost-effective in the long term. All preventive medicine requires some investment. In the case of children who never had a fair start in life, the consequences of a lack of investment may prove too dire to contemplate. All society must play its part, but, in particular, leading agencies, media, educational institutions and existing support agencies could be brought together to produce a strategy for the future aimed at effective parenting.
Those issues have been well explored at meetings of the all-party parliamentary group for children. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyne (Mrs. Golding), vice-chairman with me of that group, is in her place. On 3 February, the group was addressed by Professor John Pearce of Nottingham and Mike Roberts, Welsh regional manager of the Children's Society, and others, who made clear the need for greater co-ordination between different agency local services. Mike Roberts said that the Children's Society would like an interdepartmental agency, to ensure an integrated approach at national and local level. I did not hear that point made strongly by the Opposition, whose debate this is. I am surprised that they have not made clear how they would like services better integrated locally. In my constituency, it is plain that much more needs to be done.
I welcome the new all-party parliamentary group on parenting, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on the part that he played in bringing that about. Its formation emphasises the need for greater attention to the subject. I pressed my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the need for more co-ordinated action in that area last year, because when one looks at the routes that children can take, it is clear that if they go into special schools for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children, it can be just a quirk of fate which path they go down, whether the education route—placement within an establishment for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties—or the social services route, for example, children who are placed via care orders into a community home system. There should not be such a random element to it.
There is also the danger of budget sweeping whereby education authorities leave the problem to social services, and vice versa. That cannot produce an effective continuum of provision and certainly cannot be seen as cost effective. There is a great need for much better cohesion and co-ordination of services at a local level. I feel that the appointment of my right hon. Friend as the Minister with responsibility for the family provides the opportunity for us to have that more co-ordinated approach to these matters.
When knocking on doors in Bolton during the 11 years that I have been in the constituency, the top issue has always been law and order. When one gets down to it, juvenile delinquency is nearly always the principal cause of local concern. How we bring up our children is seen to be the most important issue on the doorstep, but does not always seem to be so when one is addressing bureaucrats in the town hall, or even—dare I say so—different Government Departments here in London.
There is a need to co-ordinate those services much better so that the most important task that we face—how we bring our children up—is addressed much more fully, both here and locally. That is why I welcome the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime 513 Minister. I am quite sure that, when the House divides shortly, there will be no question but that we will support his amendment, and that we shall vote against the claptrap and rubbish contained in the Opposition's amendment, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) said, harks back to the failed policies of previous years.
We should look forward now to the opportunities that are in front of us, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State here to give us the co-ordination that, perhaps, has not been fully evident before. I look forward to the presentation of a White Paper entitled "Effective Parenting", which will spell it out for us to follow through.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
The conclusion from the debate is that we have indeed become a selfish society. The lesson that we have learnt today is that, when we are talking about the family, we should look at it from the point of view of the child. It seems to be that, for far too long, adults have been saying, "I do not want to get married", as though they had the right to make that decision when there is a child at stake. What about the child's rights? Does not that child have a right to a stable home and two committed parents, who, in my view, can remain tied with that bond only if they are married? I fear that the children are buffeted around. We have been told for years by trendy liberals that children are not affected by marriage breakdown—as though they are trying to excuse themselves from a difficulty. Child psychiatrists now acknowledge that the opposite is the case.
The scale of marriage breakdowns and their effect on children is worth bearing in mind. Every year, 150,000 children are the victims of marriage breakdown. They feel that they have been abandoned, whether it is right or wrong. Certainly, if the father goes, the child's security goes. I find that, whatever level of society one is looking at—it does not matter what income group—those children feel that no one parent is responsible to them, particularly if their parents then remarry and start other families. Therefore, we understand why those children become disturbed, fail to prosper in school, fail to maintain the same pace with their studies and, in some cases, turn to crime—perhaps as a way of drawing attention to themselves. One sadness is that, at a very early age, they start their own sexual relationships with the opposite sex and start the vicious cycle all over again by producing another infant. I agree with the suggestion that has already been made that we should place far more emphasis on teaching parental responsibility. That should be taught right through school.
I am very disturbed about the quality of sex education in schools. Far too often, it is moral-free and value-free and teaches children the mechanics of sex but not about moral responsibility to the infant that could follow. It is disturbing that the Family Planning Association, a much-respected organisation, issued workbooks of the type that I have here. They barely mention marriage and, if they do, it is almost dismissively. That will not do. If we want stability for our children, we have to provide a framework in which they can understand that, if one has a relationship, one must prepare for parenthood properly and that being capable of a physical relationship does not mean that one has to have a child when ill prepared for it.
Furthermore, our children need a proper spiritual and 514 religious education. It is worrying that so many local education authorities are still not complying with the requirement to produce a new model syllabus for religious studies. They are still failing the Education Reform Act 1988 which states that religious education should, in the main, be Christian. Sadly, children are having foisted on them a cultural mish-mash which is secular rather than spiritual. I am sorry that the Archbishop of Canterbury is spending too much time behaving like an unelected politician instead of paying attention to the spiritual growth of our young people.
We should also be paying attention to our children's role models. Although I greatly admire the vast majority of teachers and would follow them any day, there are still too many of them who do not provide the right role models. They turn up at school scruffily dressed in jeans, T-shirts and trainers.
§ Mr. Rogers
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It has apparently been proved this week that videos can have a great deal of influence on children and that role models are important. However, does she not think that her remarks are rather sweeping? I hesitate to mention them, but does she think that the royal family provide a proper role model for family life? What about politicians?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the restrictions on what we can say in the Chamber.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about video nasties and I congratulate the Government on having the imagination and energy to want to ban them from our homes when children are around.
It is time to put children first and to adapt our concerns to their interests. It is time for adults—men and women—to stop being self-indulgent at the expense of real commitment. I congratulate the Government for setting up the Child Support Agency to remind fathers that they, too, have a responsibility to their children. A child is for life, not just for the one night that a man spent with a woman.
It is appropriate that we should be discussing the family and I am only sorry that the Opposition failed to tell us what they believe to be a proper family policy. Why did they not mention the fact that such a policy should be child centred?
§ Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
I am pleased that the quality of the debate has been so high, and I thank especially my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks), for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon), for Preston (Mrs. Wise), for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) and for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) for their thoughtful contributions.
Unfortunately, the shallow response of the Secretary of State merely underlined the truth of our motion, which highlights the Government's failure to produce policies that will give real, lasting support and encouragement to families. Nothing that the right hon. Lady said gives me hope that the Government intend to give full support to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which talks of the necessary protection and assistance for the family, and of giving special safeguards and care to the child. That will be a bitter disappointment to many of us.
Back home, although people rarely talk to me about foreign affairs or politics in general, they always talk to me 515 about their families—their worries and concerns, as well as their hopes and aspirations. For them, to have a happy and secure family is one of the most important things in life. That means many things—good health, a happy home, youngsters doing well, and the security to cope with whatever life can bring.
Some people can cope well, and that is a blessing. However, because of 15 years of Tory government, many—an increasing number, unfortunately—are under considerable stress and strain, and need help and support to see them through. Many people are on very low wages, and others are impoverished because they fall just outside entitlement for income support.
People living on inadequate pensions have a hard time of it, faced as they are with worrying water rates and increased fuel bills. Others suffer because of bad housing conditions. Overcrowding has always made a happy family life extremely difficult; it certainly makes study almost impossible for children. People in those conditions desperately ask to move, but that is made difficult by the long council house waiting lists, the increases in housing association rents and the prohibitive deposits and rents required in the private sector.
Whatever the difficulties may be, those people want to be good parents, but they find that the job of being a good parent in this day and age is not easy. Rightly, people blame the Government for many of the difficulties they face. They know at first hand the truth of our motion. By making things harder for them, the Government are undermining family life.
Our people want security, but under the Conservative Government they get instead the uncertainty of short-term contracts and part-time low-paid jobs—or even worse, unemployment. Both high unemployment and uncertainty about jobs have done great social damage. Why do Ministers appear not to understand the anxiety that unemployment brings, or its impact on family life?
Worry about future security brings enormous stress, causing problems both inside and outside the home. When families have geared themselves to two incomes it is difficult to cope when one partner loses a job. There is not only worry about money—although heaven knows, that is bad enough. Imagine the devastation caused by a mortgage repossession. Moreover, a job gives people—especially men—their status. However untrue it may be, men believe that they cannot be respected if they are not the breadwinners.
It is not only the unemployed who suffer from the failure to provide jobs. Unemployment is one of the causes of the higher taxes that will hit families so hard in the coming years. When I listen to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I understand why people switch off from politics. He smiles and tells people that the enormous additional burdens which he has imposed on them are overstated. Overstated? It is not possible to exaggerate the worry and the anxiety that so many people experience about what they have to cut from their family budgets. His reaction, like the rest of this miserable Tory Government, is to blame someone else.
Let us consider the Government's record. They preach greed and decry community responsibility, and then wonder why parents, schools and youth groups find it difficult to teach youngsters to have respect for and 516 responsibility to each other. The Government refuse to let councils build and put the blame for the housing shortage on single parents. They create homelessness and dire poverty among the young and make life even more difficult for those people by refusing them any entitlement to benefits.
They wreck the national health service and expect carers to pick up the pieces. They undermine the work of teachers, producing chaos in our education system, and say that parents should intervene more in the classroom. They fail to provide our youngsters with work, status or hope, and having done nothing to reduce the underlying cause of crime, they float the idea of punishing the parents for the crimes of the children.
What I cannot understand is why the Government fail to understand that children and young people learn as they live. Given our present conditions, we are bound to be cursed by some who are doomed to be violent and maladjusted. Given Ministers' attitudes, against all common-sense advice, we are lucky that there are not more such people. The Government make a mess of the funding of the social security system and introduce the Child Support Agency in a way which brings so much suffering and hardship.
The Government's response to the break-up of families is so typical of their whole approach to life—to wield a big stick indiscriminately, to cause misery and not to alleviate the problems. A true family support agency would be concerned with the funding of such services as Relate—marriage guidance—which offers help and support to families. It would ensure that, in the case of a breakdown, the rights and welfare of all children, mothers, fathers and grandparents would be respected, and it would ensure that serious consideration was given to problems of violence in the home.
The Government have a lot to answer for. Their problem is that they are so remote and so isolated from the real world. They should listen carefully to the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), who, in arguing for a comprehensive family policy, not only shows great compassion but adopts a practical approach. She is close to the many voluntary agencies which do such a marvellous job in the country. The Government would do well to listen to them as carefully as she does.
My hon. Friend explained how the United Nations has highlighted this year as the International Year of the Family and set out its themes: families and work, families, poverty and resources and families and relationships. I echo her demands that the Government do better and meet the targets.
We are fortunate in Britain in already having such organisations as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which is dedicated to combating the neglect and maltreatment of children. In that pursuit, it has the total support of the public, who are horrified at the growing evidence of suffering among children because of violence, sexual abuse and criminal neglect—the desertion of children and leaving them home alone. The public long for an end to glue sniffing, juvenile drunkenness, drug addiction, truancy, and children running away from home and roaming the streets. Indeed, all such behaviour leads to juvenile crime, violence and vandalism.
The tragic misery that stems from bullying in schools has been highlighted in recent months. We need to do much more to prevent it. The NSPCC has proposed that there is someone in each school—not a teacher—to whom 517 young people can talk about their problems. Will the Minister give her support to that constructive idea, which I understand has already been taken up by some schools? Will she tell us how she will put the public's minds at rest on those other important issues?
In developing policies, I hope that the Government will take advantage of the important initiative that was taken recently by the all-party parliamentary group for children, of which I am the vice-chairman. A grant given generously by the Gulbenkian Foundation to enable the National Children's Bureau to service the all-party group made it possible to discover what a wide range of organisations thought were the most important issues affecting children that should be brought to the attention of Parliament. That has proved a most valuable exercise.
It is essential that the Minister should, as we have done, study most carefully the replies of the 160 associations and organisations which responded. Among them, she will find constructive proposals on a wide range of subjects, including childhood care and education, special needs, families and neighbourhoods, children from overseas, poverty, unemployment, young offenders, mental health, disability aids, care proceedings, residential care, foster care, adoption, child abuse and criminal proceedings.
The Government cannot afford to ignore, as they appear to have done, the vast practical experience that those organisations can give. The application of a bit of common sense in the spending of our money could help to solve many of our problems.
I have talked much about children. Before I conclude, I shall mention that families need fathers. It is distressing to hear from time to time from men who have great love for their children but who find it difficult through no fault of their own to get access to them. It should not be possible for a woman to spite a former partner by making access difficult. Families need fathers, and we need to strengthen the Children Act 1989 to protect their rights. At the same time, we should acknowledge the importance of grandparents and strengthen their rights of access.
In the short time available, I have been able to touch on only a small number of issues. Labour's message is clear: Parliament must ensure that families are able to prosper and to live secure and contented lives. We must give our people adequate shelter, warmth and protection from harm. We believe that our senior citizens should live out their lives in tranquillity, and that our children are entitled to better care. It is our responsibility to give them hope for the future. We should not fail them.
§ Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will appreciate that one of your main tasks is to protect the lives of hon. Members in the exercise of their duties. As I speak, the health, safety and life of one hon. Member is in jeopardy; I am referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd).
This morning, I went down to the Tower colliery with my hon. Friend. She went into the drift mine. I understand that she is now surrounded by eight managers and people from the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, who have shepherded her into a cold zone. She is being denied food, water and clothing.
The miners have been told that if they supply her with food, clothing or water, they will face disciplinary action and dismissal. That is putting my hon. Friend's health and 518 life at risk. [Interruption.] I hear some mumbling. I am astonished that there should be mumbling on an issue of such gravity.
My point of order is that, before a Government Department and a publicly owned industry conspire to injure or kill a Member of the House, the Minister should come to the House and call off the people who are creating that extraordinary havoc before some great damage is done, in which case tomorrow we will not get abusive and silly comments from Tory Members who are speaking in complete ignorance of the facts.
§ Madam Speaker
My responsibility is for Members of Parliament who are engaged in their duties. I am not aware of the situation which the hon. Gentleman describes, and of course I must take his word on what he says in the House. I will have inquiries made right away.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I have dealt with the matter to the best of my ability. I had not heard of the situation before, and all I can do is give an undertaking to the House that I will have a look at the matter as soon as I can.
§ Madam Speaker
That point is not in dispute. I have just said that I am concerned about hon. Members who are engaged in parliamentary duties. I have given an undertaking. I have not heard about the matter before, and I will have it examined as soon as I am able to leave the Chair.
§ Mrs. Mahon
This is a slightly different point of order from those raised by my hon. Friends. This afternoon, during questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I asked a question of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I said at that time that my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley had gone down into the drift to meet miners and to discuss the serious position in which the Coal Board has put them.
I urged the Chief Secretary to contact his colleagues and see whether something could be done about the situation. Since then, the situation has got serious, and I am concerned for the welfare—
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I was in the Chair this afternoon, and I clearly heard the question that the hon. Lady put to the Chief Secretary and the answer which he gave. It is a point of order for me. I dealt with the points which have been raised this evening, and I will carry out the undertaking which I have given the House.
§ Miss Widdecombe
In the short time which the Opposition have kindly left me, I shall not be able to address every issue which was raised in the debate.
I will say that one of the things which I found most offensive was the difference in attitude on the part of the Opposition towards people who get written up in The Guardian because they are in difficult circumstances, and hon. Members on my side of House who pointed to the difficult circumstances in which they grew up. I was disgusted by the sneering attitude which was displayed towards my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) when he described the conditions in which he grew up.
When the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) mentioned conditions in her constituency—under, I may point out, a Labour council which is responsible for housing conditions in her constituency—a great moral issue seemed suddenly to have arisen. That attitude shows that there is no real concern on the Opposition Benches, and that point of view was reinforced by the numbers of Opposition Members who have been present during the debate.
I turn first to the speech made by the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) on the subject of a coherent policy. All I can say is that, although she demanded a coherent policy several times in her speech, she evinced not one single policy—coherent or otherwise—or said what the Labour party would do. She did evince strong confusion about what her own Front-Bench colleagues think.
She did not appear to be aware, for example, that the shadow Secretary of State for Social Security has said that there was a case to examine child benefit, and to examine whether its continuation was justified. She did not know that and she continued to commit the Labour Government—[HON. MEMBERS: "Government?"]—the Labour party—to child benefit. Nor did she appear to be aware that the shadow Chancellor had said that, although the Labour party was committed to nursery education, it could be made available only "as growth allowed". She said that nursery education would be made available—no conditions, no qualifications—to every child whose parents wanted it.
If that is her understanding of her party's point of view, it is not surprising that Opposition Members are confused, that they have no coherent policy, and that they have to hide behind what they perceive as the inadequacies in our policies. They are not inadequacies.
For example, the Opposition said that pensioners' savings will no longer enable them to buy places in residential homes. They kindly neglected to mention that, in the 1970s under their Government, pensioners' savings were so wiped out by inflation that they could hardly buy a meal, let alone a place in a residential home. They completely missed out the role played by community care in supplying a support network for elderly people to enable them to stay in their homes, looked after by their families if that is what they and the elderly people choose.
In Opposition Members' speeches tonight there was an amazing lack of emphasis on a caring role in respect of the elderly, as opposed to children.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I am grateful for the prompting. The hon. Member for Eccles referred to the speech by my 520 right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security at the Conservative party conference, and said that he had scapegoated lone parents. She asked whether he did not realise that many lone parents find themselves in such a position against their will and deserve support. I shall quote from my right hon. Friend's speech:Many find themselves lone parents against their will and they deserve our support.The hon. Member for Eccles then made a terrific play of the economic situation, and how families would be taxed more. I find that a crying impudence from a party that went into the last election promising to make every family in the land poorer as a result of its tax policies.
The hon. Member for Eccles said that the Conservative party had betrayed families because of the results of unemployment. She omitted to point out that the Labour party threatens families with a loss of up to 2 million breadwinners because of its minimum wage policy. She poured scorn on and belittled part-time work. She does not appear to understand that such work, in which we take the lead in Europe, enables families to combine work and care at home in the way they choose. She shows scant respect for women who want to work in the home, and ignored them in her speech.
How can the hon. Member for Eccles come here and talk about support for the family when the Opposition consistently opposed the right to buy and the spread of home ownership? Families need decent homes, and we have enabled families to buy decent homes. The Opposition believe that the only homes that families deserve are those which have the state as landlord.
The hon. Member mentioned education policies for the family, yet she comes from a party that denied choice to those who cannot afford to buy education and opposed grant-maintained schools and the very important right of families who have no professional background and limited means of making their own assessment to receive information about how well their child's school is serving that child. Labour Members have opposed the right of families to know how well the child is doing. They have no policy for a child from a deprived family to have its progress monitored regularly and to enable the parents to learn the results.
The hon. Member talked about family responsibilities, yet her party opposed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which requires parents to be responsible for their children's criminal acts.
§ Miss Widdecombe
No. If the hon. Gentleman wanted me to give way, the House should not have been detained by bogus points of order from the Labour party.
Labour Members talk about protecting the breadwinner when they support strikes, when they support secondary picketing and when they support disruption of breadwinning.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must not pursue this. The hon. Lady has made it clear that she is not giving way at the moment. Is that right?
§ Miss Widdecombe
Yes: thank you very much, Madam Speaker. I am not giving way at all.
Apart from the posturings and the blatherings of the Labour party, we were treated tonight to an amazing speech by the spokeswoman of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock). It is worth pointing out, since she is so concerned with middle-income families and how badly they are affected by crime, that she too abstained from voting on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill last night.
It is worth pointing out too, since she was so concerned about education, that her party also does not believe in choice of schools, that it opposes opting out, and that it also opposed the right to buy. Her party also threatens breadwinners through its complete adherence to the social chapter, come what may.
The Labour party offers families the state: the state as educator, the state as landlord and the state as dictator in family and personal affairs. It offers the state up front. The Liberal Democrats offer the state by stealth. Neither party offers a policy for the family.
It is the Conservatives who have consistently shown themselves to be the party of the family and the Government for the family. It is the Conservative Government who have presided over a situation in which average earnings for a typical family, with one earner and two children, have gone up 40 per cent. since 1979. It is worth reflecting that, between 1974 and 1979, they went up not by 40 per cent. but by hardly 3 per cent.
It is this party which has made sure that those who want to own their own homes can do so, and now, with a reduction in mortgage rates and record low interest rates, we find that the average family with a typical mortgage is 30 per cent. better off after tax and mortgage payments. [Interruption.] Shall I say it again in case Opposition Members did not hear it? The average family is better off after mortgage and tax by 30 per cent. That is what the party of the family has brought about.
It is we who have introduced carers' benefits. It is we who have introduced flexible work patterns. It is we who have promoted part-time work. It is we who introduced independent taxation for women. It is we who have promoted policies which have led to low inflation and greater stability of expectation. It is we who have protected the poorest families. It was we who introduced the first comprehensive in-work benefit in the form of family credit.
It is we who support the right of families to choose their own schools. It is we who, at the same time, say that families should be respected and that we should respect individuals' choices and not dictate from the state. It is we who say also that families must be responsible for their own actions, and that means the actions of younger, dependent members.
It is we who introduced the comprehensive Children Act 1989. It is we who introduced the Child Support Act 1991. Whatever abuse we have received about that tonight, the essence of the Child Support Act is simple—that children are for life. If hon. Members scorn that message, they scorn the fundamental ambitions and fundamental views of every family.
The Labour party's policies on the family, and indeed the Liberal Democrats', are straightforward: to take us back to the dark ages. [Interruption.] The Labour party is 522 the dark ages, and I know that it will stay in the dark of opposition, not only for the past 15 years, but for the next 15 years, and every family in the land will be grateful.
§ Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:
§ The House divided: Ayes 225, Noes 290.525
|Division No. 211]||[10.00|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Foster, Don (Bath)|
|Adams, Mrs Irene||Foulkes, George|
|Ainger, Nick||Fraser, John|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Fyfe, Maria|
|Allen, Graham||Galloway, George|
|Alton, David||Gapes, Mike|
|Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)||Garrett, John|
|Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)||George, Bruce|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Gerrard, Neil|
|Ashton, Joe||Godman, Dr Norman A.|
|Austin-Walker, John||Godsiff, Roger|
|Barnes, Harry||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Barron, Kevin||Gordon, Mildred|
|Battle, John||Graham, Thomas|
|Bayley, Hugh||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Grocott, Bruce|
|Benton, Joe||Gunnell, John|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Hain, Peter|
|Berry, Roger||Hanson, David|
|Betts, Clive||Harman, Ms Harriet|
|Boateng, Paul||Harvey, Nick|
|Bradley, Keith||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Henderson, Doug|
|Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)||Heppell, John|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)||Hill, Keith (Streatham)|
|Burden, Richard||Hinchliffe, David|
|Byers, Stephen||Hoey, Kate|
|Caborn, Richard||Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)|
|Callaghan, Jim||Home Robertson, John|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Hood, Jimmy|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Hoon, Geoffrey|
|Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)||Howarth, George (Knowsley N)|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)|
|Cann, Jamie||Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Hughes, Roy (Newport E)|
|Clapham, Michael||Hutton, John|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||Ingram, Adam|
|Clelland, David||Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)|
|Connarty, Michael||Jamieson, David|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)|
|Corbett, Robin||Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)|
|Corston, Ms Jean||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)|
|Cousins, Jim||Jowell, Tessa|
|Cox, Tom||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)||Keen, Alan|
|Dalyell, Tam||Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)|
|Darling, Alistair||Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)|
|Davidson, Ian||Khabra, Piara S.|
|Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)||Kilfoyle, Peter|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)||Lestor, Joan (Eccles)|
|Denham, John||Lewis, Terry|
|Dewar, Donald||Livingstone, Ken|
|Dixon, Don||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Dobson, Frank||McAllion, John|
|Donohoe, Brian H.||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Dowd, Jim||McCartney, Ian|
|Dunnachie, Jimmy||Macdonald, Calum|
|Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||McFall, John|
|Eagle, Ms Angela||McKelvey, William|
|Enright, Derek||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Etherington, Bill||McLeish, Henry|
|Fatchett, Derek||McMaster, Gordon|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||McNamara, Kevin|
|Fisher, Mark||McWilliam, John|
|Flynn, Paul||Madden, Max|
|Foster, Rt Hon Derek||Maddock, Mrs Diana|
|Mahon, Alice||Rogers, Allan|
|Marek, Dr John||Rooker, Jeff|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)||Rowlands, Ted|
|Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)||Ruddock, Joan|
|Martlew, Eric||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Meacher, Michael||Sheerman, Barry|
|Meale, Alan||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Michael, Alun||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)||Short, Clare|
|Milburn, Alan||Simpson, Alan|
|Miller, Andrew||Skinner, Dennis|
|Moonie, Dr Lewis||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Morgan, Rhodri||Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)|
|Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)||Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)||Soley, Clive|
|Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Spearing, Nigel|
|Mowlam, Marjorie||Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)|
|Mudie, George||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Mullin, Chris||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Murphy, Paul||Stevenson, George|
|O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)||Stott, Roger|
|O'Brien, William (Normanton)||Straw, Jack|
|O'Hara, Edward||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Olner, William||Turner, Dennis|
|O'Neill, Martin||Vaz, Keith|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold|
|Parry, Robert||Walley, Joan|
|Patchett, Terry||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Pickthall, Colin||Wareing, Robert N|
|Pike, Peter L.||Welsh, Andrew|
|Pope, Greg||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Powell, Ray (Ogmore)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)|
|Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)||Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)|
|Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)||Wilson, Brian|
|Primarolo, Dawn||Winnick, David|
|Purchase, Ken||Wise, Audrey|
|Quin, Ms Joyce||Worthington, Tony|
|Radice, Giles||Wray, Jimmy|
|Randall, Stuart||Wright, Dr Tony|
|Raynsford, Nick||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Reid, Dr John|
|Rendel, David||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Robertson, George (Hamilton)||Mr. John Spellar and|
|Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)||Mr. Eric Illsley.|
|Roche, Mrs. Barbara|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Brandreth, Gyles|
|Alexander, Richard||Brazier, Julian|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)||Bright, Graham|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Brooke, Rt Hon Peter|
|Amess, David||Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)|
|Ancram, Michael||Browning, Mrs. Angela|
|Arbuthnot, James||Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Budgen, Nicholas|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)||Burns, Simon|
|Ashby, David||Burt, Alistair|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Butcher, John|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)||Carlisle, John (Luton North)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)||Carrington, Matthew|
|Baldry, Tony||Carttiss, Michael|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Cash, William|
|Bates, Michael||Churchill, Mr|
|Batiste, Spencer||Clappison, James|
|Bellingham, Henry||Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Coe, Sebastian|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Colvin, Michael|
|Body, Sir Richard||Congdon, David|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Conway, Derek|
|Booth, Hartley||Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)|
|Boswell, Tim||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia||Cormack, Patrick|
|Bowden, Andrew||Couchman, James|
|Bowis, John||Cran, James|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)||Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)|
|Davies, Quentin (Stamford)||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Key, Robert|
|Day, Stephen||Kilfedder, Sir James|
|Deva, Nirj Joseph||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Devlin, Tim||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Knapman, Roger|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)|
|Dover, Den||Knight, Greg (Derby N)|
|Duncan, Alan||Knox, Sir David|
|Duncan-Smith, Iain||Kynoch, George (Kincardine)|
|Dunn, Bob||Lait, Mrs Jacqui|
|Elletson, Harold||Lang, Rt Hon Ian|
|Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Lawrence, Sir Ivan|
|Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)||Legg, Barry|
|Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)||Leigh, Edward|
|Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)||Lennox-Boyd, Mark|
|Evans, Roger (Monmouth)||Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)|
|Faber, David||Lidington, David|
|Fabricant, Michael||Lightbown, David|
|Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)||Lilley, Rt Hon Peter|
|Fishburn, Dudley||Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham)|
|Forman, Nigel||Lord, Michael|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Luff, Peter|
|Forth, Eric||Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||MacGregor, Rt Hon John|
|Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)||Maclean, David|
|Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Freeman, Rt Hon Roger||McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick|
|French, Douglas||Madel, Sir David|
|Gallie, Phil||Maitland, Lady Olga|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Malone, Gerald|
|Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan||Mans, Keith|
|Garnier, Edward||Marland, Paul|
|Gill, Christopher||Marlow, Tony|
|Gillan, Cheryl||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair||Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Mates, Michael|
|Gorst, John||Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian|
|Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW)||Mellor, Rt Hon David|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Merchant, Piers|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Mills, Iain|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Grylls, Sir Michael||Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn||Moate, Sir Roger|
|Hague, William||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Moss, Malcolm|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Needham, Richard|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Nelson, Anthony|
|Hannam, Sir John||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Hargreaves, Andrew||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Harris, David||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Hawkins, Nick||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Hawksley, Warren||Norris, Steve|
|Hayes, Jerry||Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley|
|Heald, Oliver||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward||Ottaway, Richard|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Page, Richard|
|Hendry, Charles||Paice, James|
|Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Patnick, Irvine|
|Hill, James (Southampton Test)||Patten, Rt Hon John|
|Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Horam, John||Pawsey, James|
|Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Pickles, Eric|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael||Porter, Barry (Wirral S)|
|Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)||Portillo, Rt Hon Michael|
|Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)||Redwood, Rt Hon John|
|Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)||Renton, Rt Hon Tim|
|Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)||Richards, Rod|
|Hunter, Andrew||Riddick, Graham|
|Jack, Michael||Robathan, Andrew|
|Jackson, Robert (Wantage)||Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn|
|Jenkin, Bernard||Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)|
|Jessel, Toby||Robinson, Mark (Somerton)|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)|
|Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Ryder, Rt Hon Richard||Thornton, Sir Malcolm|
|Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas||Thurnham, Peter|
|Shaw, David (Dover)||Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)|
|Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)||Tracey, Richard|
|Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian||Tredinnick, David|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Trend, Michael|
|Shersby, Michael||Trotter, Neville|
|Sims, Roger||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Skeet, Sir Trevor||Viggers, Peter|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Waldegrave, Rt Hon William|
|Soames, Nicholas||Walden, George|
|Speed, Sir Keith||Walker, Bill (N Tayside)|
|Spencer, Sir Derek||Waller, Gary|
|Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)||Waterson, Nigel|
|Spink, Dr Robert||Watts, John|
|Spring, Richard||Wells, Bowen|
|Sproat, Iain||Whitney, Ray|
|Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)||Whittingdale, John|
|Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Steen, Anthony||Wiggin, Sir Jerry|
|Stephen, Michael||Wilkinson, John|
|Stewart, Allan||Willetts, David|
|Streeter, Gary||Wilshire, David|
|Sumberg, David||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Sweeney, Walter||Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)|
|Sykes, John||Wolfson, Mark|
|Tapsell, Sir Peter||Wood, Timothy|
|Taylor, Ian (Esher)||Yeo, Tim|
|Taylor, John M. (Solihull)||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)|
|Temple-Morris, Peter||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Thomason, Roy||Mr. Sydney Chapman and|
|Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)||Mr. Andrew Mackay.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to. Question accordingly agreed to.
§ MADAM SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House welcomes the International Year of the Family and urges the Government to continue to pursue policies which ensure that the family remains the cornerstone of society; recognises that what families most want is independence, opportunity and choice and congratulates the Government on its economic and social policies which have led to dramatic increases in living standards and health, rewarded enterprise and endeavour and given families greater power over their own lives; welcomes practical measures such as the childcare disregard announced in the Budget; and believes that the best way to support families is to assert the authority and responsibility of the family itself while providing help for families where it is most needed.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Many of us are concerned about our colleague the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) who, I think you are aware, is down Tower colliery in her constituency. She is being denied access to food and water, and is being deliberately kept in a cold area of the pit. I know that she elected to go down the pit voluntarily, but there is no reason why she should be treated in this way. We would be grateful if you would make some inquiries to make sure that she is treated properly while she is down the Tower colliery.
§ Madam Speaker
The hon. Lady has taken action that any other citizen might take. She has not been delegated by the House to take that action. In fact, the hon. Lady has elected to take the action herself and there is nothing that I, as Speaker of the House of Commons, can do.