HL Deb 12 December 1994 vol 559 cc1084-6

2.48 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take in response to the, Agenda for Action published on Thursday 8th December by the United Kingdom Committee for the International Year of the Family.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health launched a major initiative on 8th December to promote better support for parents in response to the Family Agenda for Action. The initiative covers better co-ordination of government policy, collaboration with the voluntary sector through informal meetings and development projects, a research theme on bringing up children and supporting families, and a survey of parents' concerns.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. I do not think anyone could doubt her commitment and that of her right honourable friend to supporting families in their role as educators and carers. However, will she accept that there are at least six other Departments of State whose decisions impact on the functioning of families? Can she give a commitment that her right honourable friends who are responsible for those departments are also committed to putting the well-being of families at the heart of policy-making, as recommended in the Agenda for Action of the IYF?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is absolutely right. It is fair to say that nearly every government department touches on this issue. That is why the Cabinet and its main committees will always need to bear this in mind and supply the necessary perspective from day-to-day. We have now decided that Ministers shall meet periodically to look at the impact of government policies as a whole on the family.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on Friday the committee about which the Question is tabled, together with the United Nations Association, the British Refugee Council and other organisations concerned with the family, presented to the Prime Minister a petition containing a very large number of signatures, and that that petition sought to ensure that those who have permission to remain, through the Home Office, will be able to have family reunification? Has the Minister a comment to make on that proposal which is part of the action plan?

Baroness Cumberlege

No, my Lords, that is left for another colleague in the Government.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that all families are much happier when every child in the family is a wanted child? Therefore, will she help to ensure that family planning services and advice within the National Health Service are available to all parents and potential parents, including teenage girls?

Baroness Cumberlege

Yes, my Lords, I can give that assurance to my noble friend. The prevention of unwanted pregnancies is one of the Health of the Nation targets.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Baroness really believe that the Government have given a good example to the rest of the world in their policies regarding care for the family? Is she aware, and will she confirm, that the Government have cut the value of the married couple's tax relief by 40 per cent. over the past 18 months? Is she further aware that the Government continually refuse to allow personal tax allowances to be transferred between spouses? Will she also confirm that families in this country have been badly hit, and will continue to be so, by the reduction from 25 per cent. tax relief to 15 per cent. for mortgages? Finally, is she also aware that families have been further hurt by an increase of 1 per cent. in interest rates over the past six months?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the Government have a whole range of initiatives which strengthen family life. The Children Act 1989 was a charter for children. Child benefit remains a cornerstone of our family policy. The Child Support Act reinforces the principle of parental responsibility. The National Health Service and community care Acts support the care of frail and elderly people within their own families. The adoption White Paper seeks to give adopted children the same prospects as other children and the childcare disregard was introduced in October 1994 for people on low incomes claiming benefits. We have a proud record in this field.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, is my noble friend aware—I am sure she is—of the research carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Trust and Great Ormond Street Hospital, which reflects that children are influenced by their parents and that their behaviour is dependent on either the happiness or unhappiness of their parents? Does she not agree that at the moment the social services are spending a great deal of time on child support work, but very little time on helping parents? Does the Minister agree that that may be due to lack of resources or to other factors? Does she further agree that it is important that parents—and thus the children—should be helped?

Baroness Cumberlege

Yes, my Lords. I believe that bringing up a family is one of the most difficult things that any parent or individual has to face. The maximum support that can be given is important. However, I believe that the family is essentially a private affair. Although it may need help—which is another aspect—the privacy of family life needs to be respected as well.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Agenda for Action contains some quite specific proposals? Can the Minister respond to some of those in addition to the general points which she has made? They include reinstating benefits for 16 to 18 year-olds, establishing a legislative framework for family leave and abolishing fault as a ground for divorce? These are specific proposals in the Agenda for Action. How do the Government react?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, there will be a full response, which I shall be happy to give to the noble Baroness in due course.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, the Minister listed a range of matters which she said supported the family. My understanding of that list is that each one of those items is targeted at individuals, whether as children, parents or mothers and fathers, but that none of them is targeted as regards support for the family. Will the Minister answer the question that my noble friend Lord Stoddart asked, which identifies the action that the Government could take to support the family?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the reform of family credit supports families. In October 1994 there was the offset of childcare costs against earnings, which supports families. A range of things support the family.