HC Deb 10 June 2002 vol 386 cc577-9
1. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

What steps his Department is taking to establish local schemes for the promotion of positive parenting. [57044]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn)

As well as supporting parents through Government initiatives such as sure start, the Home Office is currently funding a wide range of projects across the country by means of the family support grant. We are also funding parentline plus, a national 24-hour telephone service that gives advice and support. To date it has helped some 400,000 parents.

Mr. Kidney

I thank my hon. Friend, and congratulate him on his new position in the Government.

Does my hon. Friend accept that if all parents raised all children with love, giving warm and responsive care and setting clear boundaries, future generations would be more emotionally mature, responsible and self-confident? Are there not also great financial gains to be made from additional educational needs provision, health and social services and law enforcement? Is there not a case for universal provision of information, advice and classes for all parents, from a range of providers, promoting positive parenting?

Hilary Benn

I very much agree with my hon. Friend's comments about the basis of good and effective parenting, and particularly with what he said about love, support and encouragement. Those are the most important things that we, as parents, can give our children. I also entirely accept the need to ensure that there are places throughout the country to which parents can go for help and advice. That need not be seen as a mark of failure; there are times when we may all need some support and encouragement. We must put across the idea that asking for help and advice is something that all parents may need to do at some time during their lives as parents.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his new duties.

Given that a third of all male children will be convicted of a serious criminal offence at some stage, that more than that will become teenage smokers, and that about 40 per cent. will be involved in a conception ending in a termination—all those being issues of family confidence and competence—will the Minister try to encourage broadcasters to devote as much attention to family functioning as they give to cooking, cars and gardens?

Hilary Benn

I can only agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I will go so far as to suggest that Members on both sides of the House would welcome a little less focusing by broadcasters on dysfunctional families and a bit more encouragement for functional families.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I welcome my hon. Friend to his post, and wish him well.

Is not positive parenting—through parents being given the tools with which to manage their children positively and effectively, without physical punishment—the key to dealing with so many problems in society, especially delinquency and antisocial behaviour? Should we not do far more of that, rather than locking up children in prison?

Hilary Benn

My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the need for positive encouragement for children. As he will know, and as I can attest from my experience as a constituency Member, there are occasions when the behaviour of young people causes great distress and havoc to local communities. My constituents come to me in distress, and ask what we will do to protect them from the consequences. We also know, however, that such behaviour is strongly associated with problems in family upbringing and poor literacy skills. Those are the issues that we must address if we are to reduce the likelihood of reoffending by those young people.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I join others in congratulating the Minister, who certainly suffered no lack of positive parenting.

Is the Minister aware of the work of Dr. Stephen Scott of the department of child psychiatry at King's college London, which suggests that 80 per cent. of children who show behavioural problems by the age of five go on to develop more serious antisocial behaviour? Does the Minister know of the enormously important work being done by groups such as Befrienders—whom I recently visited—the Parent Network, the child development programme, and the child and adolescent psychiatry unit at the Maudsley hospital?

Is it not very sad that despite the sure start initiative, which the Minister mentioned, there is generally no response whatever in the United Kingdom to a child who shows behavioural problems at the age of five, and that all too often we wait until criminality emerges before we do anything?

Hilary Benn

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), for their kind references to my appointment.

I was not aware of the research mentioned by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) until I read a very good speech given to a conference recently by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in which he too referred to it.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the need to provide support and help when children are at an early age, and we can identify those who are at risk. That is the purpose of sure start, which applies to children from birth until the age of three; but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must do more, and intervene early to prevent small problems from becoming larger problems later.

Mr. Letwin

I must read the Home Secretary's speech, as I am about to make one myself on the same subject. I wonder whether he mentioned the conclusions of the Rowntree Trust's study, which I think is called "Prevention through Family and Parenting Programmes". It concluded that successful programmes were those based on United States examples. Is it not a national disgrace that we have nothing remotely comparable to the Headstart programme, which has taken care of 15 million children with early behavioural problems and has mobilised vast resources in the voluntary sector and local communities as well as nationally? Does the Minister agree that we need to emulate that if we are to begin to tackle youth crime?

Hilary Benn

Yes, I do. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the sure start programme is modelled on the American Headstart programme, which was initiated by the Johnson Administration in the United States in the 1960s. Long-term studies of the Headstart programme demonstrate the benefits of such intervention. I have not read the research to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I shall add it to the very large pile of reading on which I am currently engaged in my new responsibilities.