HL Deb 11 December 1996 vol 576 cc1085-149

3.8 p.m.

Lord Northbourne rose to call attention to the role of the family; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I welcome the many speakers who have put down their names. No less than 17 other speakers wrote to me saying how much they would have liked to speak today had they not been in America or had it not been for their wives' birthdays, or something of that sort. We need to be rather grateful to noble Lords' wives for having birthdays; the list would have been daunting indeed had all those noble Lords been present.

The Motion on the Order Paper is, To call attention to the role of the family".

By the end of the debate I hope that I shall have persuaded the House that there is an urgent need to invest in the family.

The Dunblane disaster, the murder of headmaster Lawrence and his wife's wonderful campaign, the Bulger murder, events at the Ridings School, and other similar events have drawn the attention of the public through the press to the problems that exist in our society today; and people are concerned. The reasons can be simply summarised. The welfare state is overstretched, family structures are weakened, and the family is uncertain of its role in our society.

However one defines the family, families will be a necessary ingredient in delivering care over many decades and centuries to come. Families provide a multiplier factor of the funds invested in them. The cost invested in the family is relatively small; the expenditure saved to the taxpayer can be very great indeed. The cost of law and order in this country in 1994-95 was just over £10 billion; the cost of mental health was well over £2 billion.

Today I intend to look briefly at the history of the welfare state and the problems which it now faces. I shall look at families as they are today and I shall address the vexed question of what we mean by "a family". Finally, I shall look at the role of the family in relation to the upbringing of children, which is my particular interest.

I have set down this debate to give your Lordships' House the opportunity to consider these issues and to bring to bear on them its very considerable wisdom. I cannot, of course, influence what noble Lords will say, but I hope that this will not be a bleeding hearts debate; I hope that it will address in realistic and hard-headed terms the very real problems which our society faces.

Throughout history, families have played a key role in the support and upbringing of children and the care of the aged, the sick and the disabled. At various times the state has intervened; at various times the Church has intervened. In this country in 1942 William Beveridge, who was based at Toynbee Hall, of which I am proud to be a trustee, developed a new type of social contract. It was called the welfare state and was designed to ensure lifelong care for all those who needed it. It was not intended to supersede the family or community support but to act as a back-up and a safety net. It was an enlightened and compassionate idea. It was an inspiration to many men fighting in the forces at that time, as the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, told me the other day. In this, Britain led the world.

Now, in the 1990s, the welfare state is under threat. It is under threat from the pensions time-bomb; from the increasing cost of residential care for the elderly, of whom there are more and more; from the rapidly increasing expectations and cost of healthcare; from the cost of family dysfunction in terms of emotionally disturbed children, juvenile crime and special education; from the technological revolution, which has led to higher education and training costs and fewer jobs; and from the increasing reluctance of taxpayers to fund what they often see as inefficient government expenditure.

However, I believe that we are still, and will continue to be, a caring society. We want those who cannot care for themselves to be cared for. How are we to fill the gap which may be left by the inability of the welfare state to fulfil the ever-increasing demands placed upon it?

There is still a majority of functioning families in this country, working well, loving and caring for one another, often making great sacrifices to do so. We need to build on that success. In today's complex consumer society, families need a little help and encouragement from time to time. Parents need preparation for this, the most important job in the world. We need to invest in families.

I suggest that today we look again at the role of the family, not to go back to some imagined golden age but to learn from the best of the past and the best of the present how we can re-create and re-empower the family to work in partnership with an overstretched welfare state in the future.

I want to turn for a moment to the vexed question, "What is a family?". This is important. Because there is so much difference of opinion on what is meant by the family, family policies are not being developed because people are not sure what they are talking about. Dictionary definitions of "family" vary considerably. Some stress the biological parent/child relationship; some refer to living together in the same household; others refer to "providing for its members". My own personal definition would place more emphasis on long-term commitment. For what it is worth, my definition is, "A group of people who make an unconditional commitment to love and care for one another". We need to develop a consensus on what we mean by "the family".

Today we have to accept different family structures. It is comforting to know that there have always been different family structures. The fact that one particular structure may work well in a particular case does not always mean that it should be universally applicable. I have in mind the case of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who, as your Lordships will remember, were nurtured by a she-wolf. One would be reluctant to recommend a she-wolf as a foster-mother in every case.

It is an interesting statistic that in the 19th century families included about the same proportions of children in step-families and single-parent families as today. The only difference is that in those days that situation arose due to bereavement.

What do family structures look like today? We can identify what is called the nuclear family, comprising father, mother, Jack and Jill and a dog called Rover. That was the basic kind of family which existed after the war and to some extent before it. In many cases it continues to be successful today. But it can be claustrophobic and disastrous if the adults cannot get on together or if one is too possessive or dominating.

Then there is the extended family. I have to admit to a prejudice in favour of the extended family; I grew up with two married parents, four sisters, two grannies and a whole assortment of uncles, aunts and cousins. I am happy to say—particularly as my noble kinsman Lord Hood is in his place—that I am most grateful to all those people for giving me a very happy childhood.

Families in which children still live with both parents account today for just over 70 per cent. of children. Step-families and adoptive families account for about 10 per cent. of children. Single-parent families account for about 20 per cent. of children. Of those single-parent families, only about 5 per cent. are due to bereavement; two-thirds are due to divorce or separation and just under one-third arise because the parent is single by choice. My own view is that single parents are heroes, but nonetheless a single-parent family is not usually the best solution for children. It is difficult for one person to do a job which is demanding for two. Children need different role models. There are often problems of stress, ill health, loneliness and poverty.

A great deal of heat is generated by arguments about family structures. I suggest to the House that it might be prepared to accept the following three propositions as the basis for discussion this afternoon: first, that no family structure can guarantee success; secondly, that no family structure is guaranteed to fail; and, thirdly, that some structures show a statistically better than average chance of being successful—by which I mean having successful outcomes for all the members of the family. It is the quality of the relationships between the members of the family which matters most. No structures are guaranteed to give good relationships.

I hope that other noble Lords will speak about the role of the family in relation to the aged, the sick, the disabled and the unemployed. I should like to speak for a few moments about the role of the family in relation to children.

Families are particularly important for children. Procreating and bringing up children are not totally private acts; they have significant consequences for the whole community. I intend to argue that investing in families will be less costly and provide better care for children than any of the available alternatives. As a society, we cannot afford to have more children in care; we cannot afford the economic and social costs of children who disrupt our schools and who grow up without adequate education or social values, condemned to a life of unemployment, futility and crime. Investing in families is the cheapest way to reduce the number of young people who are driven into that trap.

Children need a secure, stable and, if possible, loving environment. They need to be taught, mainly by example, how to behave, to communicate, to relate to one another and to adults and to enjoy learning. Very young children need to form a secure and loving bond of attachment with one dedicated principal carer, who is often, but not always, the mother.

There are three ways to achieve those objectives. There is direct state intervention—bringing up all children in state institutions. Few people would seriously advocate that. There is the laissez, faire attitude that we have at present—little help from the state until things go seriously wrong and then crisis intervention, at enormously high cost. Yesterday morning. I visited a school for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children from Tower Hamlets. The cost is £26,000 a year per child; similar schools go up to as much £36,000 a year per child. Psychological treatment for a child costs £340 a day. We are told that the Government's new secure units for persistent offenders may cost as much as £100,000 a year per child.

Almost all parents start out hoping and intending to be good parents. But, in today's complex society, with less support from the extended family and many young people who themselves have not had the experience of a happy home, parents often need some preparation and some support from the state. This afternoon I shall look at just three ways in which the state can help. The first is education for parenthood and support for young and inexperienced parents. The second is helping to reconcile the conflicting demands of work and parenthood. The third is a coherent government policy on families and children and effective co-operation between departments of state to achieve those objectives.

I turn first to education for parenthood. It must be education not only of young women but also of young men. They need to know about the importance of a stable, loving relationship, how to form and sustain stable relationships and about the responsibilities, skills, joys and sacrifices involved in parenthood.

A recent research paper from the Family Policy Studies Centre says: raising the next generation in today's society is probably more difficult and unsupported than at any previous period, and it is vital that young people are adequately prepared and equipped for the complexities and responsibilities of parenthood".

It goes on to say that: this can only he achieved by giving preparation for family life a central place in mainstream education through the national curriculum".

I am particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for speaking in today's debate. I hope that he will tell the House about some of the things that his interdepartmental working party has been doing in looking at education for parenthood and support for parents.

All children at secondary school should have the opportunity to learn about forming and sustaining relationships, including sexual relationships. They need to learn about communicating, negotiating and compromise; about the needs of children and the sacrifices as well as the joys of parenthood. In this country, 42,000 children a year are born to teenage parents. In this country, 6,000 people a week make the decision that they do not want to have a child after it has been conceived. All schools should teach citizenship and a commitment to values. But because the subject is not easy to teach, there is also an urgent need for training for teachers. I hope that the noble Baroness will draw the contents of this debate to the attention of her right honourable friend in the Department for Education and Employment.

My second investment would be a change of heart in our society about work and the family. Too many children today suffer from family breakdown and inadequate parenting because their families have either too much or too little work. Too little work—unemployment or low paid irregular work, a sense of shame, stress, poverty and often debt, exclusion from society—leads to family breakdown, ill health and crime. Unemployment is the most intractable family killer of all. Too much work—dual working parents, long hours, single parents—leads to stress, exhaustion and ill health, with not enough time for children. Children need parents' time above almost everything else.

Should not we, as a society and as employers, try to be respecters of people? Should not we recognise that an employee is not just a brain and a pair of hands but a person, with all the hopes, anxieties, responsibilities and obligations which that implies?

There are things that can be done and are being done to help employees and to help mothers and fathers reconcile their loyalties to their job with a healthy lifestyle and their responsibilities to their children—career flexitime, job sharing, parental and child sickness leave, and a whole range of tried and tested family friendly employment practices. I was privileged to be a judge at the Family Friendly Awards in the Parents at Work contest and was impressed to note that major firms such as British Airways and Price Waterhouse were competing for the awards.

Childcare has an important part to play. When talking about childcare, it is important to distinguish between the needs of children of different ages. Equal opportunities for mothers and fathers must not be at the expense of equal opportunities for children.

Thirdly, there is an urgent need for coherent government policies on children and for better co-ordination between government departments on matters affecting children. Fourteen different government departments are responsible for decisions which can affect the lives of children. I very much hope that those noble Lords who have any power to influence matters will support my proposal for a Select Committee of your Lordships' House on the question of government structures in relation to children and their families. I draw your Lordships' attention to a recent report on this subject published by the Gulbenkian Foundation.

I believe I have shown that the family is likely to continue and continue to be important in our society. I have shown that the enormous and growing cost of crisis intervention can be reduced and better outcomes achieved by timely support for families. I urge the next government, whatever its complexion may be, to invest in the family.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.28 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating a debate on this most important subject, in which we look forward to three notable maiden speeches. I regret that it is not possible for me to be present for the whole of the debate. Quite a long time ago I accepted an invitation from the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, to address this evening a Jewish marriage guidance council on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. It is rather strange that it should coincide with a debate on the family in your Lordships' House. However, I look forward to studying in tomorrow's Hansard the words of those noble Lords whom I shall be unable to hear.

The role of the family is a matter to which the Government attach the utmost importance. I believe that our achievements in that area fully demonstrate our commitment to the family. Therefore, I should like to outline some initiatives in support of families which fall within my departmental responsibility. They are concerned with marriage support, Children Act cases and domestic violence.

Last year, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned, I set up a marriage task force, drawn from many departments of state—an example, if I may say so, of interdepartmental co-operation—to advise me on marriage support services. The task force has carried out an extensive consultation exercise on the best ways of preventing marriage breakdown, and the results of that consultation have enabled me recently to launch two important initiatives. The first is a pilot programme of marriage support projects, which will start in the financial year 1997-98. I have invited proposals from a number of marriage support agencies, including some small, local organisations as well as the larger national bodies. I look forward to receiving some innovative proposals which will build on the wide range of services already provided.

The second initiative is a directory of existing marriage support services, which is to be published on 30th December. I believe that will be an invaluable resource, not least for those who are themselves involved in counselling or other marriage support services, but who may not always be aware of the range of services provided by other agencies. I hope to be able to update the directory regularly so that it remains valid.

The needs and wishes of children who are affected by marriage breakdown and divorce are a central concern. In my view, subject to special circumstances, children are best looked after within the family with both parents playing a full part. But the responsibilities of parenthood continue even when the relationship between the parents themselves breaks down. It is vitally important that in those circumstances everything possible is done to ensure that the children continue to have the best possible relationship with both parents.

The underlying philosophy of the Children Act 1989, unlike earlier legislation, emphasises the concept of parental responsibilities rather than parental rights. It encourages divorcing or separating parents to make their own arrangements for their future life apart, including their continuing relationship with their children, without resort to legal proceedings. When the courts need to reach a decision about a child's upbringing, they are required by the Act to treat the welfare of the child as their paramount consideration. While the Act provides for the court taking account of the views of children, giving them weight according to the circumstances, it does not put the children in a position to decide on those matters. That is an important point to underline in connection with the philosophy of the Children Act.

It is now just over five years since the Children Act came into force, on 14th October 1991. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Children Act Advisory Committee, which was set up at that time to advise Ministers on the operation of the Act, and which has made a significant contribution to the success of the new legislation. The committee has, in particular, performed an invaluable role in collecting and disseminating information about the progress of Children Act cases and in promulgating best practice.

During the passage of the Family Law Bill through Parliament earlier this year, I announced my intention of setting up a new advisory body to monitor the implementation of the Family Law Act and to report to me on issues arising from its implementation. With the agreement of ministerial colleagues, and of the President of the Family Division, I have now decided to extend the terms of reference of the proposed advisory board on family law to include the overall impact of Children Act work within the family courts system. The Children Act Advisory Committee will cease to exist as a separate body after July 1997, by which time the new advisory board will be up and running. To provide continuity with the work of the Children Act Advisory Committee, I intend to appoint a Family Division judge, or a Court of Appeal judge with Family Division experience, to be a member of the advisory board. I do not, however, propose to appoint a judicial chairman, because I think it is important for the chairman to be independent of the court system.

There is now a well-established network of family court business committees and family court forums to oversee the operation of the Children Act at local level. Their work will continue, and they will be able, as now, to refer any issues which cannot be resolved locally to the relevant government Minister. The Children's Services Strategy Group, which was recently set up by the Secretary of State for Health, also has an important role in co-ordinating the interests of government and other key agencies. I am confident that those arrangements will enable the interests of children involved in the legal system to continue to be properly protected.

I have emphasised the importance of keeping the family together as a unit. Sadly, there are some exceptional circumstances where that is not possible, or even desirable, because of violent situations in the home. Parliament has taken action in the Family Law Act 1996 to simplify and improve the existing civil law on domestic violence and occupation of the family home in order to offer increased protection to victims of domestic violence. The complexity and inconsistencies of the current law have been the cause of a great deal of justified complaint. Part IV of the Act aims to address that unsatisfactory situation by creating a clear, simple and comprehensive code with a single, consistent set of remedies which will be available in all courts with jurisdiction in family matters. I aim to implement Part IV in October 1997.

I should like to conclude by re-emphasising not only the Government's commitment to supporting the family, but also my own personal belief in the crucial value of a stable family unit, in which man and woman live together as one and, if they are blessed with children, together give their children a secure and affectionate home life. That, I believe, is the Christian biblical model which not only promotes the health and happiness of the individual, but also contributes to the cohesion and good order of civil society.

Apart from the breakdown of marriage, to which I have already referred, and the birth of children to unmarried mothers, sadly, death can also intervene. As a result, fathers or mothers can be left with the responsibility for their children without the support of a spouse. Those in that position deserve every sympathetic support we can give them. In conclusion, I suggest that support for the family is one of the most important roles that any government can undertake.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, a long-standing engagement as guest of the President and Council of the Law Society prevents me from remaining until the conclusion of this debate, but I shall stay as long as I can. We look forward to the three maiden speeches and not least to that of my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean whose integrity, if it were necessary to say so, is unimpeachable.

A fundamental point recognised by the noble Lord in opening this debate is that the family and the state must not be seen as rival providers for the needs of our citizens. The family is the ultimate cadre of our society; it is the bedrock on which individual happiness is built. But it cannot flourish fully unless the state plays its part in education and, where necessary, caring for the young, making adequate provision for family members when old or ill and protecting them from lawlessness and abuse of power. It is wrong therefore to set the family over and against society or the state. Society is the sum of families in our country, working together to do collectively what no family, however wise or rich, can do alone. That is why my party has been in the van of measures aimed at fostering family life.

The post-war settlement of the Attlee government enabled young people from working-class families for the first time to go to university. That enriched their lives. I am the first member of my family to have a university education, in fact two university educations. Neither of my parents had either; that was a gross waste of talent. I owe my education to two of our ancient universities, and the door it opened to my profession of the law, to the vision of the Attlee government.

I should not tempt providence, but I have been blessed with good health for all my life—so far. It is of inestimable comfort to know that the dream which led to the founding of the NHS—that medical treatment should be free at the point of need—holds good today, however diminished the NHS may have become. That is a first-class example of the state coming to the aid of the family and providing the resources which few would be able to provide unaided for themselves, even those with expensive medical insurance.

It was the Children Act 1948 which set the course for all future child care law. When the family broke down and the children failed to flourish, they were to be taken care of as an obligation of the state. The Children Act 1975 carried forward the protective role of the state. It introduced a new concept of freeing a child for adoption. This enabled the court to prevent the heartbreak of a child being placed in a family to be adopted, and then the parents changing their minds and demanding the immediate return of the child. Under the Act the court could order that a child should be free to be adopted before that child was placed in its future family. Of course the rights of the natural parents were fully considered before the order was made, but it avoided the tug of love heartbreak of former times. I have to say I am doubtful about the proposal of the Law Commission to abolish this provision in its draft adoption Bill.

The Children Act 1989 was given strong support from these Benches. My noble friend Lady David was particularly involved. It recognised the claims of parents to bring up their own children by denying to a local authority the right to take them away unless the child had suffered significant harm at the hands of the parents or was at serious risk of doing so. But the cost of proceedings under that Act have spiralled out of all reason and since almost all of these cases are publicly funded, the cost to the Legal Aid Board has reached unsustainable proportions. These hearings are growing ever longer. Under the Act there are now more and more parties to each case. The child is always separately represented by a guardian ad litem. That is right, but is it really necessary for the guardian to instruct, at public expense, another team of lawyers to put forward views which in most cases simply replicate the views of the local authority? Of course, there must always be a guardian, but I fail to see why the interest of the child in most if not all cases cannot be safeguarded by the guardian putting all relevant considerations before the court.

Next, I am dubious about the practice in child abuse cases of first having a criminal trial where the parents are accused of serious offences against children and then having the very same issues re-litigated before a family court judge with substantially the same outcome. All this is wrong. It is profligate of public funds. Unnecessary duplication of judicial proceedings must end.

Next, the Children Act. One problem I identify is its failure to trust the judges sufficiently. Once a care order is made, the Act prohibits any intervention by the court in the life of the child while in its care. Social workers are given a completely free hand. They do a fine job, but is the balance right? I understand that the court should not be an appeal tribunal on day to day decisions in relation to the care of the child, but the absolute refusal to permit the judge any say at all in the child's future may well be wrong. An in-coming government will wish to give serious consideration to, and consult on, restoring to our judges the ability to tailor court orders to meet the justice of particular cases.

Support for the family was the principle which informed the Family Law Act which we spent so much time considering last Session. It dealt with domestic violence and divorce reform. Of course, there would have been even greater protection from domestic violence had the Government not been constrained to make concessions to a small number of unrepresentative and relatively uninformed zealots in another place. But three-quarters of a loaf is better than no bread.

The reform of divorce law was fully supported on these Benches. It introduced the welcome concept of mediation which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack assured the House would be entirely voluntary. No one should be coerced into mediation against his will and we too are determined to ensure that mediation will be truly voluntary and that the resources which this Government have promised are applied wisely to that purpose.

Family law reform is always controversial. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack would, I am sure, be the first to acknowledge from his experience of the domestic violence legislation to which he himself referred—and which he and I agreed should be carried forward through our Jellicoe procedures on a fast-track on the basis that it was non-controversial in a party political sense—that it turned out to be highly controversial and was hijacked by a determined group of members of his party in the other place.

When it comes to family law we all think that our views are as good as those of anyone else. That is why family law measures always enjoy such close consideration in your Lordships' House. We all have families, therefore we are all experts, or we all think we are experts, on the family. I can assure your Lordships that support for the family will be a major priority for the next Labour Government.

3.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Carlisle

My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships' House as I have already apologised in writing to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, for the fact that I probably shall not be able to stay until the very end of the debate but I shall stay as long as I can.

I should like to make four points. First, I wish to underline what I hope will be one of the strong currents running through this debate, which is to remind ourselves of the positive value of the family. The Church produced a report, now over a year ago, imaginatively entitled Something to Celebrate. For all the problems and difficulties surrounding the family I hope that we will keep that note firmly before us because that relationship of love, commitment and intimacy within which children are born and brought up is vital to our personal life, our corporate life and our life as a nation.

That experience of upbringing gives to each of us an important sense of identity. It is the arena in which we learn positive memory, personal history and tradition; in which we discover and try out moral values and skills for living. Properly experienced, the family gives us stability in a context of growth and change.

I have no doubt, like other members of your Lordships' House, that other people's experience of family life is other than I am describing because it is oppressed by cruelty, violence and abuse which is demeaning and destructive. But let us keep clearly before us that which there is to celebrate and which is still the experience of more people than not.

In an address to a seminar organised by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives a month ago, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said: In the Christian tradition, we can only fulfil ourselves as people by loving our neighbours as ourselves, by recognising the inter-dependence of individuals within the wider human society, and taking our responsibilities towards other people at least as seriously as our responsibilities towards ourselves. By far the most important place where these basic human and civic values are taught is in the family where the strong and grown-up live out their responsibilities to the young and inexperienced and weak; where children learn that the human love on which the psychological security of the child can be based involves faithfulness, reliability, self-giving as well as self-fulfilment. Secondly, I want to remind us that for all its problems, the family is still good news and that a positive view is widely held even by those whose experience of family life is less than creative. In the report British Social Attitudes: Relative Values Kinship and Friendship, the family is seen as overwhelmingly more important than friendship by a margin of about 11 to one. The most dominant tie is still that between parents and children, even after children have left home.

For all that, as recognised in the debate, the family is vulnerable. Twenty per cent. of all families with children are already single parent families. As people cohabit, divorce and remarry, it becomes less and less easy to determine where family obligations really lie. That is part of the Church's dilemma. We still see quite a lot of family life at the moment of birth and baptism; we see even more at the moment of the rites of passage into eternity; but there is a growing gap in our involvement with families at the time of marriage. That we greatly regret and on it we are trying to work creatively and constructively.

Thirdly, perhaps I may return to a matter that we visited yesterday. I refer to the whole question of financial resources as provided for in the recent Budget. I understand the Government's strategy to move towards even-handed financial treatment as between one and two parent families. It certainly has the appearance of fairness and even of justice. But I hope that whichever government are in office—I crave the indulgence of noble Lords on both sides of the House who think that that is already a foregone conclusion—its working must be carefully monitored. If the consequence proves to be that lone parents, male or female, are not able to find sufficiently well paid work to meet their basic needs and their families become further blighted by increasing poverty, many thousands of children will be at risk. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, reminded us that experience shows that preventive expenditure is far more cost effective than that which is to remedy things which have already gone badly wrong.

Fourthly, I want to offer your Lordships a model of good practice under the nurturing project from School and Family Links which is developing in Oxford and in Hull. The programme provides immediate opportunities for intervention in the behavioural difficulties of small children and also carries implications of widespread long-term availability to every child as a means of learning about relationships and social skills from the age of four, and thereby begins to teach those things which implicitly eventually have a bearing on their ability as parents.

School and Family Links is a school programme. The games and the activities fulfil the language, literacy and other requirements of the national curriculum and they have a strong and firm emphasis on moral and social responsibility. Parents are involved in the 10-week programme where they learn techniques for the management of behaviour. They learn with their children a common language and a common approach and parents themselves find greater self-esteem and become more committed to their own involvement in the school community. This important development suggests a way forward for schools, for Churches and for voluntary bodies in taking their full part alongside government in positive contributions to giving family life the kind of encouragement and practical help which we believe it to need. I commend it to your Lordships.

3.55 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I had not intended to take part in this debate because I have spoken on these matters once or twice recently and I do not want to become someone who is always prodding at the same problem. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who set the field very widely, and to the Lord Chancellor and other speakers. It is difficult to talk about this subject seriously without some reference to religion and so I intend to make some reference to religion. However, I wish to say that I came to speak only because my noble friend Lord Meston is unable to be here and no one else seemed ready to step into the breach. Luckily, none of us is allowed to speak for very long, so although the debate will be too long, speeches in general will not be, which is a comfort to me both as speaker and as listener.

I said that I would make some reference to religion. I had better make my position clear at once. I was brought up as an Anglican Christian and believed in God. At 89, I still believe in God, but in very little else. I hope that most of the Christianity I inherited is true but I cannot say that I believe all of it. As I read the Bible, which I do spasmodically, I find verse after verse hard to swallow, but I very much like the taste. So there you are. I speak as a Christian with much hope but with little faith.

My later education taught me to believe that the family is the biological unit of society. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine, referred to it as the bedrock. That is perhaps saying the same thing in a different, less scientific way. My teacher used to say, "The only wedding ring I accept is a baby". He was not a Christian, but was better than many. I believe that the family is one, but only one, of the ways to a happy and healthy existence.

I hope that one of our historians can tell us when monogamy first came into fashion. I do not know but would like to. I suppose it was some time before the birth of Christ, when it was already a national virtue. It must be easier to have a happy family with only one mother about the place. I have a friend in Thailand who would only let me meet one of his wives. That certainly seems a complication. In the past in many areas it has been perfectly normal, even if it seems rather peculiar to us.

One looks at the less well off sections of society and sees how viciously poverty increases the risk of family unhappiness. One has only to read the classics—Dickens, Trollope and many others—to see how often the dominant male in comfortable families bullied both wife and children. So it is not only poverty that works against family happiness but the beastliness of human nature by itself. Poverty makes a significant contribution to family unhappiness, especially among the poor, but it is by no means the only one.

What is the effect on the individual of a happy and healthy childhood? He finds he has to keep some rules, and if he does, life goes well. If he does not, his family, whom so far he loves, find him a nuisance and bring him into line. So he finds himself one who normally keeps the rules and within the rules can look after himself. That is in contrast to a member of an unhappy family who finds he gets bullied by his brother if he keeps the rules and by his father if he does not. So he tends to grow up a rebel who knows that if he does not look after himself nobody else will.

This may produce a number of difficult and quarrelsome children, but now and again it produces a genius. Many leading figures in the arts, science and administration have emerged from a very unhappy childhood. That is something which I cannot begin to explain, but it is a well-known fact.

So to sum up, I believe that if you come from a happy, loving family you will do no evil. You will be friendly, decent and helpful all your life, but if you come from an unhappy one you will be an awkward character, fight many battles and very likely end in prison. But in one case in a thousand you may turn out to be a genius, a world leader or a great creative artist. So as it is better to have a lot of law-keeping, nice people rather than a series of self-seeking individualists of whom one may be a genius and 99 probably criminals, we should really try to pursue the happy family as perhaps the most important element in the happiness of the nation.

The best way of doing that is to help communities to build local well-being centres with family membership and facilities for all ages—babies, toddlers, schoolchildren, youth, the middle aged and the old, so that all can mix in what they feel is their own club, of which they can be proud and which they can run themselves. I have spoken about this before and I shall not say it again, but I believe it to be the truth. There are many things that you can do to help families that have gone wrong, but about the only thing that you can do to help families that have not yet gone wrong is to give them proper facilities, which give them the things that they want to do, in the way that well-off families can go where they want and do what they want to do, so that they can meet other families at all levels and create a proper, happy family life for all.

4.2 p.m.

Viscount Leathers

My Lords, I am torn between a sense of occasion and sheer terror. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this important and wide-ranging subject and for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. The noble Lord told me that he hoped that the debate would focus on the role of the family in protecting the vulnerable in society.

I wish to concentrate mainly on one section of the vulnerable, the young and homeless, and the duty of the family in alleviating their distressing plight. I must at this stage declare an interest. My son is in a hostel for the homeless. He helps to run the Lord Clyde Hostel in Vauxhall for the Depaul Trust. The Lord Clyde is a night shelter of 36 beds, soon, regrettably, to be reduced to 26 due to lack of funds. The shelter supplies emergency provision for 16 to 25 year-olds between the hours of 7.30 p.m. and 8 a.m. The Depaul Trust, which has two other hostels, is funded through the Department of the Environment's rough sleepers initiative and through charitable funds.

Who are the young homeless? Statistically, they are aged between 16 and 25. Tragically, many are younger and for them to obtain a bed there are few options other than to lie about their age or sleep rough and therefore increase their vulnerability. They are all, of course, "homeless"—that is to say, they have no permanent home. Homelessness is not houselessness. The nomenclature implies a lack of stability and security as well as the need for a place to subsist. The atmosphere of mutual pleasures; the consolation of shared problems; the relaxation within familiar and safe surroundings—all are absent. To a high degree, therefore, homelessness is synonymous with the lack of proper family life.

Many, but by no means all, of the youth who are homeless are in that predicament through a breakdown in their family circumstances. In some cases they have been forced to leave the family environment through the poverty of, or lack of space within, the household. In others they have suffered physical mistreatment or sexual abuse and are therefore, understandably, self-evacuees from the family; others have been rejected and expelled by parents. These situations can arise equally in surrogate families; for example, in foster homes or social service care.

Children are expected to leave the family when the time is right, but preparation for this event is generally undertaken and there is usually the fallback of advice, comfort and, occasionally, financial support. Local authorities also have a duty under the Children Act 1989 to prepare children in care for adulthood and to continue a degree of care beyond the age of 16. But in practice the child is ejected at 16 and society considers itself to have completed its duty. The family in this case has a sell-by date after which it ceases to exist. Young people are cast adrift to fend for themselves without the emotional support that families give offspring leaving the nest.

So, one way or another, through fear, rejection or impetuosity, they make their way to the urban centres. Here, lacking a sense of purpose, desolate and frightened, they seek those in similar straits since the option of family support is no longer there. Once on the streets these young people are vulnerable through their inexperience and, often, their naivety. Because they cannot get money on which to live, in desperation prostitution becomes a source of income and petty crime a source of material needs, both of which expose them to exploitation. They are at risk of turning to drugs or alcohol dependence in a wretched attempt to ameliorate the unhappiness and misery of their lifestyle.

Misfortunes can, of course, happen in the best established families. But the miscreant has recourse to the family for succour without exposure to the public eye. The homeless and vulnerable are immediately abandoned to the unforgiving world of overt correction. Because they lack the role model through the family they lose all aspirations and expectations. Rapidly, their health, both physical and mental, deteriorates. Suicide by males aged between 15 and 24 rose from about 220 to over 380 cases a year between 1982 and 1994, an increase of 75 per cent. The most significant factor, my son tells me, is the erosion of self-esteem. Self-esteem is established through identification with a group and through the individual's role as a valued member of that group. Families are an important group.

There is no panacea for the problems I raise; I have only broad suggestions for the way forward. There is a need to provide support, to instil a sense of purpose and to promote self-esteem. Government policy on homelessness has demonstrably worked. Because of the rough sleepers initiative and hostel provision, there is now an expert voluntary sector. Volunteers have always been imbued with altruistic and Christian values. Now augmented with acquired expertise and the earned trust of the homeless, the voluntary sector is capable of acting as a temporary surrogate family until the child makes a prepared entry into adulthood. Part of that preparation must be to reintroduce the family ethos. That can be done only by breaking the cycle of inadequate parenting and homelessness. The present generation must be educated to value the family ethos. Only then can it give the next generation the opportunity to leave home prepared for adulthood.

4.10 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, it falls to me to be the first to offer to the noble Viscount, Lord Leathers, the warmest congratulations of the whole House on his maiden speech. All of us have listened with great care to his moving description of young homeless families and what can be done to help them, and his comment about the importance of family ethos. We are delighted that he has chosen this debate to take part in today. We all hope that we shall hear from him on many occasions in the future. I should also like to offer my warmest wishes to the other two maiden speakers whose contributions we look forward to hearing later this afternoon.

I greatly welcome this debate on the family and thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving noble Lords the opportunity to debate it. At the beginning of his remarks he posed the very important question: what is the family? In my remarks this afternoon I want to provide a definition of the family and what government can do to support it. I define a stable family as a married couple who make a lifelong commitment to each other and to their children. They make it in public, either in church or a register office. This has been the basis of society for as long as we have known it. It is only in the past 30 years that that concept has broken down. We now live in a world in which marriage is sometimes regarded as one of a series of alternative lifestyles.

I should like to go back to some of the causes of the troubles in which we now find ourselves rather than the symptoms that we see. If my view of marriage is regarded as idealistic—I am sure that it will be—I believe that we need ideals to put before each other. Even if we fail to live up to them because we are human beings that does not excuse us from having those ideals. There are enormous difficulties. Those of us with children and grandchildren know the enormous difficulties that they face today as young parents. Let us not delude ourselves. Goodness knows that families in the 1930s must have had difficulties of poverty and unemployment on a scale that is unknown today, yet we did not have the same kinds of debates about the family.

The married family is quite different from the co-habiting couple. Of course, there are single parents who successfully bring up children, but on the whole they are the exception rather than the rule. I was interested in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about bereavement and divorce. I have read that children would rather their parents died than got divorced. Even if that is not always true it has a good deal of truth in it and it is something that we should remember. We all know that to bring up children is very hard work even in the most favourable circumstances.

I should like to make two points about what the Government might do. I believe that all legislation needs to draw a distinction between marriage and co-habitation. The law can and does influence action and the climate of opinion. It has taken 30 years of the working of the Divorce Act 1969 to get us into the position in which we find ourselves today, and I believe that it will take a similar length of time to get ourselves out of it.

I greatly welcome what the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has said on the important distinction between marriage and co-habitation. Marriage is declining all over the European Union. In this country it fell by two-fifths between 1961 and 1993. There is more co-habitation, which in many circles is regarded as the norm, but the evidence of the effects of the breakdown of marriage is there for all to see: the breakdown of law and order; difficulties of discipline in schools; and vastly increased social security budgets, to say nothing of the new homes required for ever more single people.

Much of the poverty of today stems from divorced couples and single parents. Co-habiting couples are far more likely to break up than married couples. They do not have a long-term commitment. When they have children and then break up, those children are far less likely to have contact with their fathers. In many ways co-habiting couples undervalue the role of fathers. I have even heard it said today, not as a joke, that men are in many respects irrelevant. That is a terrible statement, because all the evidence indicates that many of our troubles today stem from the fact that there is no father in the home—there is not a married couple—to act as a role model particularly for boys.

I regret that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is not in his place. I suspect that the Law Commission wants to abolish the distinction between marriage and co-habitation. At least one former member of the commission has gone on record as having said so. Two pieces of legislation, one of which has already been referred to (that dealing with domestic violence), ran into difficulties, not simply because a good number of odd people like myself were very worried about them but because they began to blur the distinction between marriage and co-habitation. There was something wrong with the legislation. It had to be amended, brought back and incorporated into the Family Law Bill, as it was then. There has also been legislation on inheritance which has blurred that distinction. I believe that to blur the distinction is to damage the whole concept of marriage and the family.

I welcome the proposal in the Budget to remove the single parent allowance for future single parents in certain circumstances. When my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor comes to make regulations under the Family Law Act it is important that we look at them to make quite sure that the detailed working of that Act carries through the important proposals debated at such length. I hope that the Family Law Act will save marriages. Nobody wants that more than I do.

I was asked to give evidence to the inter-departmental working party on marriage. One of the points I made was that I was rather surprised to discover that the Treasury was not represented among the government departments. One of the ways in which we can support marriage is to look again at the taxation system. I welcome the fact that in the past two Budgets the tax allowance for married couples has been improved, but the Government need to go considerably further and create a tax system in which families can prosper.

I read with great interest the report, The Taxation of Married Couples by Leonard Beighton and Don Draper which was prepared for CARE (Christian Action Research and Education). I commend that work to my noble friend the Minister. Not only would a tax change help to support marriage but it could reduce the social security budget for single parents; and it could even help with the care of the elderly. The fact is that grandparents and the extended family are so often the victims of marriage breakups. They are lost to the family. They may be brought back into the fold if the family was underpinned financially in a way that gave it the opportunity to prosper.

I believe that the tax burden on a young married couple with two children where only one parent is in work has more than doubled in the past 30 years. If that is true it is a tragic statistic. There are many areas in which government policy can and does help. I am sure that we will hear more about the welcome increased involvement by parents in schools, for example. Above all, we need to have as a principle the support for marriage as we have known it—the support for responsible parenthood—and policies which encourage both those activities.

4.20 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate and for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I, too, must declare an interest, as I am a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission. I hasten to add that what I have to say is for myself alone, and is not influenced or prompted by my membership of the commission.

It is some 20 years or so since I sat, as a young civil servant, in the Officials' Box to brief Ministers on the passage of legislation in this House. The view from where I sit now is a little different, but then, as now, your Lordships rightly had a reputation for the expertise, thoughtfulness and, possibly, above all, the fair-mindedness which all sides of the House bring to bear upon debates in this House. As a newcomer to the House, I have witnessed how well deserved that reputation remains. Now I have also experienced the warmth, courtesy and kindness of those on all sides of the House in welcoming a new Peer. Members, Officers and staff have been unfailingly helpful in their advice, guidance and patience—patience that has been much needed with someone whose sense of direction has never been a strong point.

I come to this House from a long line of trade union Peers. I had the privilege to serve for nearly 12 years in the Inland Revenue Staff Federation—the union of which the late Lord Houghton of Sowerby was a distinguished general secretary for many years, and where my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff began his trade union career. When I became a general secretary some eight years ago at the Association of First Division Civil Servants, I was also lucky enough to receive the guidance of a number of eminent Members of the Cross Benches from the Civil Service in particular, foremost among whom was the late Lord Bancroft whose public service record for many years was second to none.

This afternoon's debate is on the role of the family. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family greatly influenced by family ethos. My father was a civil servant and my mother a schoolteacher—a rather common coincidence of partners, as I subsequently discovered when in later life I came to represent civil servants. It was a family where individualism was valued and where, at the same time, mutual support for one another, both within and between the generations, was expected and received. Those values are common to most families in this country, but over the past two or three decades the structure of many families has changed. We have to come to grips with those changes to understand how the role of the family is changing, and how it can best be sustained.

The proportion of dependent children now living in one-parent families in this country has tripled over the past 25 years so that now one child in five lives with a lone parent. Divorce has increased nearly sevenfold over the past 30 years. At the same time, the role of many women has changed to that of breadwinner, so that the balancing act between running a family and a job is a daily fact of life for at least seven out of 10 women of working age in Britain today.

There is no one pattern for the working lives of women in this country. The sheer scale of the variation defies any such generalisation. Women are becoming a more significant part of the workforce every year; 5 per cent. more women work now than did so 10 years ago. Many commentators believe that by the millennium women will make up half of the country's workforce. Currently, 73 per cent. of married women aged between 16 and 59 are in paid employment outside their homes.

I should like to touch briefly on the role of the family in three areas: in relation to dependent children; in relation to young adults; and in relation to the elderly. First, good quality childcare is fundamental to the peace of mind of all working parents. It involves mutual trust and respect between the carer and the parent; that the carer will be dedicated to the well-being of the children concerned; and that the parent will stick to the arrangements made.

The financial implications of such arrangements can be extraordinarily difficult to deal with, but of course those arrangements vary enormously with the employment and the income of the families concerned. All such families, regardless of their financial status, need the help and the care of the extended family network of relationships if they are to thrive and prosper both as families and as individuals within those families.

Secondly, how do families sustain young adults? Compared with 40 years ago, fewer 18 to 24 year-olds now live with their parents. In the 1950s, adult children routinely remained in their parents' households until marriage and many beyond that. While about two out of three young adults lived with a parent in 1986, less than half do so now. That is a remarkable fall, given the changes in social security benefits and the type of housing and employment markets which currently prevail.

Thirdly—this is a point that I should like to stress in particular—one test of family values lies in how we deal with older and, in their own way, equally vulnerable family members. How does the role of the family help elderly relatives who live on their own? The proportion of married or partnered women seeing their mothers once a week has fallen steadily since the 1950s. In the past 10 years, contacts with all types of relatives appear to have dropped markedly, so that while in 1986 60 per cent. of people saw their non-resident mothers at least once a week, now-10 years later—only 50 per cent. do so.

My generation, particularly my generation of women, has lived through a revolution in its working life. We have seen changes in the range of opportunities open to us, which our mothers, far less our grandmothers, would hardly have dreamed about. That sort of equality of opportunity is undeniably right if we are to achieve social justice in this country, but it is also vital that we maintain our other range of opportunities outside the workplace and within our families.

Shouldering family responsibilities, not only towards our children but towards our elderly, is part of that fabric of social responsibility and opportunity which is so fundamental to social stability and social justice. The important issue for this House, for our economy, and for our country, is how to translate that into policy and how to put that policy into practice.

Companies, other organisations, indeed governments of all political colours, must now adopt family-friendly policies—investing in families, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has already advised us—not merely to improve the position of families and working mothers—it will certainly do that—but just as much to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our companies and our economy, and to give greater social stability to our society.

Those issues are a question of values—fundamental values. I believe in fairness, social justice and decency—in terms of the role of the family, yes, but in terms, too, of our great public services and our democratic processes.

I look forward to contributing—perhaps somewhat more robustly than conventions allow in this address—in future debates in this House in ways which reflect the values which I believe are central to the future of our family life, our society and our country.

4.28 p.m.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, this is the first time that I have had the privilege of commending a maiden speaker. In my previous incarnation I listened to a great many maiden speeches. I recollect that all of them were good, and some were even better. Your Lordships will agree that we have been privileged to listen today to a distinguished maiden speech.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, your Lordships will know that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, has been the general secretary of the FDA—a sort of convenor, are you'?—representing some 11,000 civil servants. I am somewhat of a convert to the Civil Service. In 1970 I was a Whip. We had a new government. I went to a briefing on Questions with Peter Walker at the Department of Industry and had what I then judged to be the complete truth when the permanent secretary leant forward and said, "Secretary of State, I think we can afford to be a little more evasive in answering that Question".

The noble Baroness's speech was far from evasive. It was a speech of great experience both as a civil servant and a commissioner in connection with equal opportunities. I know that the whole House will join me in congratulating her on a very fine maiden speech. We shall listen to her in the future with great respect.

In my alleged retirement I have been involved with a number of organisations concerned with younger people. Contrary to the view of some of your Lordships, and as a result of my experience, I have become a bit of an optimist. For instance, I am a member of the Scout Council. There are 500,000 boys and girls in the Scout movement and more than 120,000 leaders. There are 82,000 people in the St. John Ambulance, 82,000 of whom are between the ages of 6 and 18. They give 10,000 hours of voluntary service every day. I am also patron of the Institute for Citizenship Studies, with which I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, is also associated. We were both due at a meeting today. The organisation is concerned with trying to fashion the kind of society that we would like to leave to our heirs and successors.

It is against that background that I approach the subject with rather less gloom and doom than some. I believe that on balance the youth of this country is good and perhaps even better than it was in the so-called "good old days" when we were all much younger. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is right to point to the fact that previously the welfare state assumed many of the responsibilities of the family.

The good old days were certainly good for some but not so good for others. My father, who was born in 1883, contracted what was then called infantile paralysis at the age of six. His was a family of nine. There was no National Health Service in those days and food was very short. His father died some two years after he was born. Education was very sketchy. But his was a very loving family and he was put to the tailoring trade as being something that he could do. I bless him for that because although he believed in education he did not believe in higher education and I had to be apprenticed to the family business. I owe him a great debt of gratitude, and today I owe a great deal of gratitude to the National Health Service.

Nevertheless, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, hinted that things may have gone a little too far. I often reflect on the fact that if there is a golden age it is possible that we are living in it now. I doubt very much whether future generations will have the kind of facilities enjoyed today; for instance, subsidised travel and many other things we take for granted.

The besetting sin is that we tend to look back to the past but not sufficiently forward to the future. Absolutely "must" reading for anyone interested in the subject is the latest Demos publication entitled Freedom's Children: Work, relationships and politics for the 18-34 year olds in Britain today. It is an analysis of the world as it really is rather than as we would like it, or believe it, to be. It states that there is no turning the clock back to the rigid family and the hierarchical work patterns of the past. In the section on renegotiating relationships and parenting it states that marriage as an institution is breaking down largely for three reasons. First, women, particularly women with degrees, no longer see themselves as just staying behind looking after the family. Secondly, a wedding is very expensive. Today it costs about £8,500. Thirdly, there is a lack of confidence in the reliability of marriage. Frank Field, the Member for Birkenhead, told me yesterday that this year in a Roman Catholic church in his constituency there have been 520 funerals and only three weddings.

What is to be done? It would take a long time to indicate all the things that ought to be done, but there should be fiscal encouragement, as the noble Baroness said. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has supported the concept of the cooling off period in mediation and there should be some form of marriage preparation as advocated by Relate.

The real problem arises where children are concerned. There is universal agreement that children need support and the love and protection of their parents. I believe that that is best ensured by a lifelong commitment to marriage. Some years ago in my constituency of Croydon I asked a young man aged about eight what he intended to do when he grew up. He replied, "I want to he like my dad". That is the role model which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young.

In relation to this subject, we should not forget the wise words of Edmund Burke. He said: Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other".

4.36 p.m.

Lord Coleridge

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this important debate. I thank too noble Lords, the officers of the House and the staff for their unfailing courtesy and support. The traditional role of the family is under considerable strain in these modern times. Working mothers are hard put to maintain their matriarchal role and many fathers face the additional stress of uncertainty in the workplace. The children of the family are also under strain from new influences and temptations.

In the light of this, the fulfilling of parental responsibilities is as important as ever. The role of parents must always be to take responsibility for the children whom they bring into this world. It is only by their example, the standards they set and the support they give that they can influence their children to take their place in what is a very competitive world.

Many families cope magnificently. But some have grave problems and need extra support from outside. This is particularly the case when there is a handicapped child in the family.

I have been for the past 12 years a governor of the Royal West of England Residential School for the Deaf. These children have to suffer for the most part not only deafness but other severe multiple handicaps caused in the main by the mother contracting any one of a number of viral infections during pregnancy; for instance, rubella, CMG, or meningitis. Anorexia and drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse can also be factors.

The courage and fortitude of the children is humbling, but they do cause enormous stress on their families where, I am sorry to say, the divorce rate is above the norm. We at the school for the deaf therefore become their extended family. We give them the love and attention they crave. The staff are quite wonderful, and the work is very rewarding. Watching the children sing carols using sign language, manfully coping with the Christmas pantomine and taking part in sports is very moving. They try so hard and are invariably good humoured and courageous.

It is my experience that children and young people who do not have the support of their family suffer because of it. The number of children who experience social and emotional difficulties where families have separated or where there are problems is definitely higher than in the case of stable families.

In the case of the deaf child, the issues surrounding communication have tremendous implications. The deaf child of "hearing parents" finds itself in an environment that, at the outset, is less than supportive. The parents are struggling to come to terms with their child's disability. They are probably involved in a range of medical appointments to establish the cause and severity of loss, all at a time when early communication needs to be developed. This is where the parents need good support. Clearly this is the responsibility of medics, social workers, health workers and possibly educationalists in the early stages.

At schools such as the school for the deaf in Exeter, great store is placed upon partnership with parents. The school seeks to support the parents and families in a number of ways. For instance, the parents are always made to feel welcome; they are invited regularly to come to school, particularly at times of review. Secondly, the school offers signing classes to parents, and, thirdly, staff are encouraged to maintain regular contact with parents by letter or telephone. Also, parents who live some distance away can use school accommodation so that they can attend meetings or just visit to talk with the staff and observe the school in action. Lastly, where difficulties exist, senior staff or the educational psychologist will meet parents to discuss matters and offer guidance.

Throughout, it is the aim of the school to support the parents, and to enable them to provide the support that their child needs within the family. Parents are generally very complimentary about the support they receive.

Our object is to support the family, not to take the place of it. It is interesting to note that the young people who have the greatest difficulty in terms of their social and emotional behaviour are those whose families have not been able to provide the right support. That this school has achieved the correct balance between teachers and families is illustrated by just some of its recent successes. For instance, one student has been accepted by Merton College, Oxford, two students have taken part in "Operation Raleigh" and another plays cricket for Devon.

Further experience that I have had where outside support of the family is of paramount importance is in the Armed Forces. I had the honour to serve in the Army for 22 years and took my turn as families officer. I believe that your Lordships may be interested in the military system which places great emphasis on encouraging the role of the family. In fact, the regiment is the family and fully realises the importance of its welfare. A man with problems in the home quickly loses his morale and his efficiency. This support is most needful when a soldier is serving in Bosnia or Northern Ireland or on some other unaccompanied posting.

The services are a very tight community. They are independent and very proud. All ranks share a common bond of loyalty, and a sense of responsibility to protect each other. In the family support role, the wives of the senior non-commissioned officers and officers are always there to lean on. They are the unsung heroines and contribute considerably to the morale of the service family.

The duties of a families officer are to look after the families with regard to housing, supporting services and welfare in order that all servicemen and women, and their families, are happy to serve. He is charged with the responsibilities of liaising with welfare agencies, the family association, the wives' club, the créche, and the kindergarten and with organising or assisting family activities with a view to creating a feeling of comradeship and unity within the regiment.

For families to fulfil their role is vital. That some families will need help is inevitable. It is to them that we must give our support.

4.43 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, it falls to me to congratulate our third maiden speaker today, and I do so with great warmth. Indeed, the noble Lord's understanding and most interesting speech will have been much appreciated by all of us. I looked up the noble Lord's career in Dod's Parliamentary Companion and saw that he has spent half of his life in the Army and half in business. I also noted that he was governor of the Royal West of England Residential School for the Deaf. I was particularly interested in that as I am very interested in children with special needs. The noble Lord has shown that he has a great interest in that area. I hope that he will join in many debates in the future, especially those concerning children with special needs. In fact, the noble Lord inherited his title some 12 years ago. I hope, therefore, that we shall not have to wait another 12 years before he makes another speech. We look forward to hearing from him. Finally, I, too, would like to congratulate the other maiden speakers on their excellent speeches.

The commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to the family is well known in this House and he is to be congratulated on achieving a five-hour debate today. He has covered a very wide field. I explained to the noble Lord that I would have to leave the House at 5.30 today. I thoroughly disapprove of people missing the conclusion of a debate in which they have taken part. However, the noble Lord encouraged me to speak, so I am doing so. I apologise to all the other speakers whose speeches I shall not hear later today. Nevertheless, I shall read their speeches with great interest tomorrow.

I am sure that most of us support marriage and the two-parent family and that, in most cases, is best for the children—although it has to be admitted that there are all too many two-parent families, not suffering from any form of deprivation, who are not good parents and who do not make a good job of it. We give very little guidance on parenting and we do very little to help people acquire the skills of a competent parent, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said. We give learner drivers the Highway Code and a course of tuition before letting them loose on the roads, but we do not do the same for new parents who undertake what is really rather a harder job.

I think that we do have to be realistic. More and more couples set up house together, have children and lead a thoroughly happy and satisfactory life. It is a trend and it has to be recognised and accepted, as indeed did the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor when we were in the early stages of the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill.

Lone parents have a very much harder time. It may not be their fault that they are lone parents; they may be widowed or they may have been divorced or deserted. I do not believe that young women have children in order to qualify, as some critics say, for council houses. I am sure that that is very unusual. The point is the children and how they are to be brought up. To treat the parent badly, as Mr. Lilley has done in cutting benefit, is to deprive the children of a decent and tolerable background. The problem is that the concept of "family" these days includes more or less everybody. The sharper focus we need—both in Parliament and in government—is on children. Of course children need families, but too often the family agenda turns out to be an agenda of adult needs. There are also those who use rhetoric about "family values" to promote policies which could, possibly, make children's lives more difficult.

I want to speak today of a Gulbenkian Foundation inquiry into effective government structures for children in which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and I have both been involved as members of the advisory group; indeed, the noble Lord mentioned it in his speech. The inquiry's report was published on Monday. It provides a prescription, worthy of detailed consideration by all political parties, for ensuring that government pay proper attention to the needs of children.

I do not believe that any government consciously set out to treble the proportion of children being brought up in poverty, or to escalate school exclusions, or to design a juvenile justice system now described by the Audit Commission as "wasteful and ineffective". But these things happen—indeed, they have happened—not because politicians do not care about children, but because government do not care effectively about children.

Children make up almost one quarter of the population, but, having no vote, they seem to be politically of no great relevance. In this country there is no overall strategy for children. There is a damaging lack of co-ordination among the 14 government departments—I repeat, 14—responsible for policies which deeply affect children. Children—the real lives of children—remain largely invisible to government. There is no requirement to assess the impact of government policies on children, no systematic collection of statistics or annual report on the state of UK children and no analysis of government budgets to assess the proportion spent on children.

The report of the Gulbenkian Foundation sets out the justification for a high political priority and special structures for children—the moral justification, and the practical one—and our growing knowledge of the huge costs of failing children. The report provides a list of key functions of government for children and a detailed blueprint of structures within government to fulfil them, including a Cabinet Office children's unit led by a Minister for children, a standing cross-departmental committee on children—this is something for which I think the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked—and, outside government, an independent office of children's commissioner to act as a watchdog for children.

The cost of implementing these proposals is infinitesimal compared with the continuing costs—economic and social—of failing children. It is the united view of the professionals and organisations that work with and for children that we must have more effective structures in government. Some 140 organisations recently signed a broadsheet addressed to all MPs and Peers calling for a Minister for children and an independent commissioner.

I shall now give a plug for the all-party group for children. That group is meeting next Wednesday and its agenda is the consideration of this new report. I hope very much that many of your Lordships who are here today will come to discuss it and to let your views on it be known.

4.51 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I am grateful, as are other noble Lords, to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this subject at this particular time when we are about to celebrate—those of us who are Christians—the birth of Christ. To discuss children at this time is most opportune.

I take this opportunity to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for all the work he did on the Family Law Bill. I was in hospital for two-and-a-half months at that time and was unable to take any part in the Bill. However, I followed its progress from my hospital bed. I thank the noble and learned Lord not only for the end product, but also for all the work that he put into that Bill.

We must declare an interest—if we have one—when we speak in your Lordships' Chamber. My interest is only that I was a small child at one time. I am now a step great great grandmother to three children. I am also an aunt.

Families all over the world are varied. However, I wish to speak primarily of those who are of the Christian faith; in other words, the majority of the people in this country. I am fortunate enough to be a Christian. I follow, as far as I can, what the Christian faith tells us to do. One of the laws—at times they are unwritten—laid down is that a man and a woman can marry and have a family. I refer especially to a man and a woman because I feel strongly that a father and a mother must be of two different sexes. In my view two people of one sex should never be allowed to bring up a child. I know that some noble Lords may not agree with me on that point; and I know that in America there is a growing tendency for two people of the same gender to live together and to be allowed to bring up a child.

However, I wish to concentrate on what constitutes a happy family. From what other speakers have said today and from our own experience, we know that, unfortunately, there are many unhappy families and therefore unhappy children. However, there is a great number of happy children and happy families. What makes them happy? First, I suggest that the example set by parents will remain with their children throughout their lives. Whatever parents do—not through training, or through teaching, but by example—will be absorbed by their children. Secondly, there is the concept of love. Love is absolutely fundamental to a happy family. I refer to the showing of love and a child's knowledge that he has the love of the two people who gave him life. That is vitally important.

Further, there is the concept of communication. Communication has not ceased but has deteriorated to such an extent that one wonders sometimes if parents talk to their children and discuss their children's lives and their own as much as my parents did when I was a child. I was fortunate enough to have that experience and I hope that other noble Lords were fortunate enough to be brought up in that sort of environment. If one does not communicate, how on earth can one tell one's children how to behave, what standards are expected and to tell them about anything that one has been brought up to believe in?

The concept of back-up is also vitally important to making children happy. By back-up I mean a home in which children are welcomed by their parents. If they do not have a happy home to which to return, they will not return to it and we shall lose them. A great many children are now lost and cannot be found. The tragedy of those children is well known to many of us who try to help them.

Another aspect of family life is sharing activities. I was fortunate in that respect because my father and my mother were good games players. They shared that activity with me. They were not good horse riders whereas I was, so I was one up on them in that regard. However, they took me to tennis matches and played tennis with me. They also included me in other activities such as playing tiddly-winks in the evenings, because of course in those days there was no television. In my view the lack of television was a great bonus.

The other day I found a newspaper cutting which featured an article by the late Roald Dahl, who knew so much about children. Some children may be fortunate enough to read his books. He wrote: The most important thing we've learned, So far as children are concerned, Is never, NEVER, NEVER let Them near your television set Or better still, just don't install The idiotic thing at all". I do not know whether any families take notice of that warning but I doubt, unfortunately, whether many of them do.

I received today a helpful leaflet from the NSPCC. It recommends strongly that there should be a statutory requirement that the subject of family life should be taught as part of the national curriculum in all schools. It would be a large subject to include in the school curriculum, but I believe that it would be of enormous benefit to children when they grow up and have their own families.

Last, but by no means least, is the aim to bring children up as Christians. If children have the Christian faith as a basis, they will have that faith to turn to.

Unfortunately my papers have become entangled. However, I wish to conclude by saying that children are the future of our country. It behoves us to do unto them as we would have done unto us. The harder we work today at bringing up children, the better one hopes that the country will be in the future.

5.1 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, not for the first time, your Lordships have been put deeply in debt by my noble friend Lord Northbourne. He started, valuably in my respectful opinion, by concentrating on the family as a mini welfare state. Both Bakunin and Marx declared that the overriding principle should be: from each according to his capacity to each according to his need. That has proved a disastrous error when applied, as it has been sought to be applied, in the nation and empire state. It worked to a measure in the traditional village where the village idiot was as significant a figure as the village Hampden. But it works best of all in the nuclear family.

My noble friend emphasised the family's role as a nursery for children. That has been valuably developed in a number of speeches during the debate. I do not wish to say anything on that aspect because it has been so well said by others. However, I should like to draw attention to another role of the family, sociologically considered.

It is inevitable, it is fundamental, it is innate that men and women perform a different function in society in bringing up future citizens to full citizenship. It can be performed only in a family based on a monogamous lifelong union. It is grossly unfair to the married woman in particular if, without cause, she can be repudiated as soon as times become difficult and there is a prospect of their becoming easier in the future. That is an important aspect of the nuclear family as a monogamous lifelong commitment.

There has been a general intellectual movement this century doubting the value of the family. I suppose that it started with Butler's The Way of all Flesh, marked strongly by Shaw's preface to Getting Married, and in the life and literature of H.G. Wells. I feel that the tide is now turning. It went on strongly in the swinging sixties culminating in the Divorce Reform Act 1969. However, I believe that the tide may be turning.

Even during the Family Law Bill debate of last Session, although the Bill remained a provision whereby a spouse against whom nothing substantial could be alleged could be repudiated without cause, undoubtedly a number of provisions were proposed and accepted by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor which strengthen the family in the sense that I seek to indicate.

That is the first factor. The other factor is more recent. Party leaders are now vying against each other to proclaim their faith in family values. Rochefoucauld described hypocrisy as the tribute which vice pays to virtue. I do not accuse the party leaders of hypocrisy but at this time, on the eve of a general election, politics tend to be populist. If the party leaders find it expedient to voice their faith in family values, I think it probable that the tide has started to turn.

My noble friend Lord Northbourne begged us in the debate to be practical. I think that he will be pleased with the speeches made so far. We welcome with admiration the administrative measures that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor indicated. I believe that more needs to be done. We need to put legal sinews into the institution of the family. A crying scandal is the fact that a wife can only acquire a right in the matrimonial home, which is after all her sphere of living, either by becoming divorced or a widow. Virtually two decades ago the Law Commission drew attention to that anomaly, but nothing has been done. I hope that the noble Baroness who will reply to the debate will tell us that something will be done.

Undoubtedly, the property regime which best reflects the cohesion of the family is community of goods. I am sorry that my noble and learned friend cannot stay until the end of the debate. There is a large measure of community of goods in Scottish law. I do not know if the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, feels entitled to bear me out on that. But one need not go so far as that. For example, our law of testate succession gives unbridled testamentary licence. Scottish law is more reasonable in that respect and is geared to preserve what was formerly a feature of English law; namely, that the estate of the deceased was divided into three parts, one being the widow's part, the second being the bairns' part and only the third part being subject to testamentary disposition. Surely that reflects much better the concept of a family as a legal and social institution?

There is then the tax aspect, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred. I will not repeat what she said, but there is another fiscal aspect. There is a good deal of dissatisfaction at the moment with the inheritance tax. It is subject to the very grave fiscal disadvantage that it is not tapered. If we substituted a succession duty whereby members of the family could be benefited by being in a position of privilege compared to strangers, we should have a fiscal regime which very much better reflected the family as a social unit.

5.12 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for having introduced this very wide topic. The speeches we have heard so far have indicated how wide-ranging are the concerns of this House with regard to the role of the family. It has sparked three quite remarkable maiden speeches.

Within this wide range, I should like to address particularly the role of the family in their children's education, not so much in relation to children of school age but more in relation to children before they arrive at school, when they are wholly in the care of the family.

Most of us recognise that the role of the family in children's performance in educational and academic terms is absolutely crucial. I wonder how many of us realise, as psychologists tell us, that the average child has completed 40 per cent. of its academic learning by the time it is five. In those first five years children learn language, the most complex of all skills; they learn numbers; they learn spatial awareness; they learn a very wide range of social skills. You only have to watch the average four year-old winding their parents around their fingers to realise how advanced those social skills have become and to realise how much learning goes on in those early years. Everything that children learn afterwards in school is only the remaining 60 per cent.

But that is the average child. Ask any reception class teacher in an infant or primary school and she—and it usually will be she—will tell you what enormous ranges of learning those young five year-olds and rising fives bring with them into the classroom. The experience that they have had in their homes is the base on which all their future time in school will be built. That base can be very slim indeed. When I say "slim", I reflect on some of the children I have seen arriving in the reception classes of schools, who come from backgrounds so deprived that they have literally never heard, let alone taken part in, any sustained conversation. They are incapable of understanding whole sentences because they are very rarely spoken to at home in whole and rounded sentences. They come from homes where there are no books, so they have never seen books before. They have never taken part in travel and visits; they have never been taken to the theatre or to hear music. They have almost no experience of any place other than the very small area of their home.

A head teacher of a school in Penge, which most of us would consider a three-minute drive from this House, told me that the most exciting thing that they had done for the children was—as they called it—to take them up to London. The children, who had been on an expedition to the West End, said, "This is the first time we have been in London".

Those are children from extremely deprived backgrounds. I should like to reflect for a moment on how important it is to help those children by helping their families. I should like to say some positive things about some projects which try to help those families to help their children. There are, thank God, thousands of such projects. I believe passionately that the best way to help children is by helping their parents. I shall talk about three specific projects which help perhaps the most difficult families, some of them with only one parent.

One such project is the Partners Programme in the town of Andover, largely sponsored by the Mercers' Company. There are a range of partners. The parents themselves are crucially and centrally within this partnership. The school itself, an infant school, is a partner. Other partners are social workers, health workers and almost anyone concerned with the welfare of very young children. With the help of financing from the Mercers' Company, the school has reached out to the parents of children who will be coming to the school in three or four years' time, in some cases before they even reach the age of one. These are families from a very deprived council estate. The parents are brought into the school and are given some exciting and interesting materials so that they and their children can play together, join together in learning, have some benchmarks for what a child should be able to do by the age of one, what one can reasonably expect at the age of 18 months, what one can be working towards at the age of two, and so on. The parents arc brought in and helped from the very start, when the children are only a few months old. People work with them, they work through the materials, they give them materials to take home to enable rich play experience with their children. The difference in the performance of those children when they come to school is quite remarkable; they come with that 40 per cent. of their academic learning already firmly in place.

A second project I should like to mention briefly is the WelCare Project, with which I am very proud to be associated. The patron of the project is the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. It is a south London project to help mainly single mothers, many of whom are themselves in extremely desperate circumstances. I have heard one of these very brave mothers stand up in a group which included some quite formidable patrons of the charity and admit that she herself had had a drugs problem and had been drawn into prostitution, and yet she said, with great emotion, "I love my child and I was determined I would make myself better in order to make my child different from me". The WelCare Project works with such mothers, mothers who have sunk almost as low as can be. But working on their love for their children and their determination to help them, they are brought into centres and given opportunities to play with their children, talk over their problems with counsellors and help their children learn to become different.

A third project which I shall mention briefly is called Home House. It is run by a further education college in Stockton and helps young children's fathers who are in prison. The further education college staff, again with some of their colleagues in other services—the Prison Service and the social services—once a week go into the prison with the small children. The fathers are brought into a play area or a playgroup situation and are helped to help their children, particularly with literacy skills. Fathers and children work together. The fathers say that the project means more to them than anything else, "because our children are not going to live the life that we have lived."

Finally, I pay tribute to the often much maligned pre-school playgroup movement, which helps right across the social spectrum—not only deprived parents but middle-class parents who are just as much in need of help in parenting skills. I am a great advocate of pre-school playgroups, not just because of what they do for young children before they go to school—I myself have seen the confidence with which a child who has had two years of playgroup enters the reception class—but also because they have much to do with parent education. The mothers who are involved in pre-school playgroups—which is a precondition of their children being in a playgroup—are themselves educated and helped to see how children learn through play and how they may carry on the good work of the playgroup in their own home.

So there is light on the horizon. There are projects and ways of breaking that awful cycle of parents and children not knowing how to speak to each other or to communicate being passed on from generation to generation. Intervention can be successful and it can work.

5.22 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I wish to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing the debate today. I hope that he will forgive me if I follow the theme of his speech. In the words of Leo Tolstoy: All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". But it is not simply a matter of the presence or absence of one parent in the family which is significant in a child's life and in creating a happy family; it is the quality of parenting. Because of that, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who is just leaving the Chamber, was not implying that a single parent family did not deserve to be called a family. It is the relevance of parenting that is important. That has been recognised by the tremendous growth of interest in parenting, in the need for parent education and in the consequences of bad parenting. That view is supported by the Home Office study, Young People and Crime, which states: It is the effects of relationships within the family that have a great bearing on whether an individual commits a criminal offence". There is ample evidence that the interaction of social and economic pressures and inadequate parenting produces fertile ground for delinquency.

But turning the tide of delinquency means looking at the early years of people's lives, their upbringing, and the way that parental responsibilities are discharged. Being a parent can be more difficult than any other job. It brings joy, heartache and frustration. Children grow up and develop at an alarming rate. They are part of a culture which is often radically different from that of their parents and they grow up at a time when their parents' relationships are likely to come under stress. All those factors can cause communication problems and conflict, ultimately creating an atmosphere in which parents and children can drift apart. It can then become increasingly difficult to restore family relationships.

The 1989 Children Act acknowledges that the prime responsibility for children's upbringing lies with the parents. The legislation identifies a role for the state in helping parents meet that responsibility. It would, of course, be extremely difficult and probably wrong to prescribe all those responsibilities in the law. Family privacy has to be respected. But the breadth of the term produces its own problems in defining what is expected of parents.

Twenty years ago Mia Kellner Pringle, in her book The Needs of Children, said, and it is still applicable today, that, modern parenthood is too demanding and complex a task to be performed merely because we have all once been children". Reading her book made me realise that our own experiences are not sufficient. Parents should no longer have to rely on neighbourly and family advice and, more often than not, on instinct.

The level of support provided by local authorities is variable and dependent on local initiatives and the work of many voluntary organisations, such as Homestart UK, the Family Nurturing Network and Parentline, as well as the extremely valuable but small and varied mixture of parenting programmes. Those programmes vary in the tasks they undertake but they are all working to the same goals: to develop greater self-awareness; to improve parent-child communication; to make family life more enjoyable; and to provide useful information on child development. However, there is such a low level of investment in parenting skills in this country that, unfortunately, few parents in need benefit. The number is estimated at only 28,000 out of the 12 million parents in the UK with dependent children. That is at a time when there is an increasing amount of family breakdown, greater poverty and uncertainty concerning employment.

A recent Eurobarometer study found that in the United Kingdom only 24 per cent. of respondents saw "bringing up and educating children" as the most important purpose of the family, compared with six in 10 Portuguese, Italian, French and Spanish respondents. In the United States, where there have been parenting education programmes for some time, it is generally accepted that every dollar spent means six dollars saved on the costs of family breakdown, juvenile delinquency and criminal activity.

The National Children's Bureau in its Agenda for Action on parenting education, rightly called for government departments to develop a coherent national strategy; for parent education and support to be available to all who wish to take advantage of it; and for a more co-ordinated approach by local authorities, health authorities and voluntary organisations. Equally, young people—the nine out of 10 children who will become parents—have to be prepared and equipped to deal with the responsibilities that they will face in parenthood. That can start in schools.

Recognition of the problem has led to growing calls for the introduction of parenthood education in the school curriculum. Two years ago the Children's Society launched a teaching pack of materials entitled Education for Parenthood. The materials identified the basic components of a parenthood curriculum as including health and development; safety and security; financial and budgeting skills; and relationships. Early results show that the project which is under way in five schools in the Greater Manchester area is having a positive effect on young people's attitudes to parenting and that it would be a valuable addition to the mainstream curriculum. But we should not ignore the valuable contribution of nursery education, which can give the best possible start to children and the best opportunity for successful parenting.

Equally, we must make it easier to reconcile parental and work responsibilities. During the past decade there has been dramatic structural change in work patterns; continuing high unemployment, casualisation, loss of full-time jobs and the growth of part-time work for both men and women. Yet, overall, British men work the longest hours in Europe. One third of fathers work over 50 hours a week, compared with the EU average of about 10 per cent. One in three men work a six or seven-day week. And more than a million people have two or more jobs. Such long hours, accompanied by growing competitive pressures at work, place great strain on family life and are a real obstacle to equal parenting.

The interests of the family would be better served if more employers operated family-friendly employment structures, structures which would benefit fathers as well as mothers. That is essential if we genuinely believe in family values and the stability of the family. But it is not only up to employers. Government have a role in establishing a legislative framework for family life, a framework that provides for quality, flexible work, family leave, including parental leave, career breaks and a reduction in working hours. I am sure that there is no better argument for supporting the EU working time directive.

Unemployment, as well as over-employment, can also jeopardise men's involvement with their children. Time is not the problem. But loss of the role as the breadwinner can make it psychologically harder, not easier, for them to take part in the running of the family home.

The Family Policy Studies Centre, in its survey Parenting in the 1990s, illustrates the multiple disadvantages suffered by families where both parents are unemployed. Those parents would benefit enormously from the full implementation of Section 17 of the Children Act by providing a comprehensive network of family services in all areas.

In conclusion, successful parenting requires better co-ordination of resources. We need a labour market which is no longer an obstacle to parenting. We need sufficient childcare provision and parents equipped with the necessary life skills and knowledge to face the challenge and responsibility of parenting and with the time to meet the children's needs for emotional security, stability and affection. Good parenting is an investment for the future which society cannot afford to neglect. As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said, support for the family is the most important role any government can undertake.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate and, moreover, at such an auspicious moment. I too have an interest to declare, like my noble friend Lady Macleod. I am a granddaughter, daughter, niece and sister. I am also a wife, mother, aunt, great aunt and grandmother. I therefore have some experience of families.

We have heard three splendid maiden speeches this afternoon and I should like briefly to congratulate the noble Baroness, the noble Viscount and my noble friend. I should also like to apologise that I may have to leave the House shortly before the end of the debate, though I may not.

The last time we discussed the family was in 1989, in a debate introduced by Lady Ewart-Biggs. We were then allowed 12 minutes to speak; today we have only nine. Lady Ewart-Biggs said: It would be difficult—indeed impossible—to find a substitute for the family … Marriage provides economic, social and psychological support of a kind which is difficult to substitute, acts as a first line of defence in times of crisis and provides a small society in which human values are preserved against the pressures of mass living".— [Official Report, 29/11/89; col. 426.] In a debate of some 20 speakers, we all followed, in our own ways, the same line. That is because it was true and there is no substitute for truth. Since then, my husband and I have had two children married, one engaged and one niece married. We have gained four grandchildren and we have celebrated our Ruby Wedding.

There are several ways in which a government could help the family. They could, first, provide tax relief in order to make it more attractive to be married than to cohabit. Secondly, they could provide tax relief within the family for carers and an adequate income replacement scheme for them. Caring for the disabled, ill or frail relatives or friends is still a significant part of family life in Britain. There are an estimated 6.8 million carers in Britain, who save the state an estimated £34 billion a year through their caring responsibilities; 3.7 million adults bear the main caring responsibility for the care of someone; 30,000 young people under 18 care for someone else in their household—some can be as young as eight. Only around 4 per cent. of the frail elderly are looked after in institutional care. The main carers of older people, therefore, are families. Nearly one in three carers-29 per cent.—who care for sick, elderly or disabled people for more than 20 hours a week also have children under the age of 16. Some have given up work but there are over 3 million carers aged between 16 and 64 in paid employment. Thirdly, the Government could help widows who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in one-parent families.

I read through what I said eight years ago and everything I said then, I believe now. It is rather like the pelicans: Plumpskin plushkin Pelican Jill. We think so then and we thought so still". The family trinity is the basis of all life and all civilisation—test-tubes, in-vitro fertilisation and grandmothers having their children's babies have done very little to alter that. Families provide shelter and refuge from the harsh realities of the world. Families teach us to live with other people. The family is the most secure and happy way of bringing up children. The heart of the family is where love resides. And where love is, there lies healing and safety from all hurt.

Now, with apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I am going to do my "bleeding heart" bit. Which of your Lordships watched the Lawrence family on television on Sunday night and saw that brave little boy unveil the plaque "To my Daddy" without tears in their eyes or a lump in their throat? Certainly not me.

Christmas is, above all, the time to think about families. We pray together; we eat together; we share gifts together—and some of them are not wrapped up in fancy paper and sellotape, but are gifts of the spirit. I do not know if the lion quite lies down with the lamb—it always seems to me rather unfair to the lamb. But there is certainly an armistice. Angels sing in the trenches and we all sing carols.

We think back to that long-ago Christmas—that two millennium ago Christmas—when Mary, Joseph and the donkey were hastening towards Bethlehem to become a family (they were an "almost-family"). I am sure the night was cold. We know there were stars and the donkey was certainly thinking, as donkeys do, of a warm stable, of hay and thistles and perhaps even carrots. I am sure his feet were killing him because goodness knows what he was carrying on his back. But he was determined to get there because he wanted the shelter for Mary and Joseph and the coming baby as well as for himself. After all, they were his family.

5.37 p.m.

Lord Jakobovits

My Lords, I join in the acclamations directed towards my noble friend Lord Northbourne for his invaluable initiative. I regret that, due to having been confined to bed for the past six days with a feverish flu, I could not attend the opening speeches this afternoon and missed, above all, his own opening address, though I did see his preparatory notes, which I read with enormous interest.

I am sure that no one can quarrel with or fail to be impressed by my noble friend's argument that, as the cost of the welfare service escalates and demands continue to rise—particularly in an increasingly elderly population—there will be a growing reluctance or inability on the part of taxpayers to meet those spiralling costs and the need will become ever more urgent for the family to resume its traditional role in providing relief for its dependent members.

One statistical item will illustrate how intractable the problem has become. I am told that at the largest Jewish home for the elderly, Nightingale House, with over 400 residential places, the average age of admission is now 88 years. This means, with ever earlier retirement, that the reduced number of wage earners now have to take care of two generations of pensioners. Clearly the imbalance between givers and takers or contributors and beneficiaries is becoming ever more acute. It is absolutely right that we should expect the family to help to assume some of these extra burdens, but the truth is that the family itself is in a state of disintegration. Its fractured constituents are themselves often in need of social assistance by the state. We therefore come back to the fundamental question: how can we strengthen the family against further erosion?

No doubt the greatest piece of modern legislation in this sphere is the Family Law Act, which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor piloted through this House with such immaculate skill—perhaps I should say with such "Mackay-ed" skill. It is far too early to estimate how far the new law will stem the tide of marriage disintegration and its rising toll of human misery.

The greatest danger is that we shall take the current state for granted and no longer feel alarmed by it. Some efforts made to stem the tide of failed marriages were soon abandoned for the flimsiest of reasons. When the Prime Minister boldly initiated his "Back to Basics" campaign, he soon scuttled it because of a few moral offenders in high places. The whole moral climate today is a disincentive to the controls which are essential if marriages are to last. The common philosophy is: have a good time now and pay later—a kind of credit card mentality which is pernicious and blunts all responsibility.

On another subject of current concern, it is commonly believed that only minors have to be protected from the excesses of sex and violence in the media, and that after nine o'clock everything goes. You do not have to be under 16 to be corrupted by moral filth or to be rendered insensitive to the refinements of decency. The recent spate of mass murderers from Dunblane to Tasmania, possibly influenced by violence in the media, were not committed by children but by adults. If anything, adults are even more prone to be perverted than children, who have a certain natural defence against such perversion. What is not healthy for under-16s is not healthy for over-16s either.

In many ways we have lowered our natural defences against moral decay. One of the most powerful safeguards against unacceptable lapses used to be a deep sense of shame. Shame is to moral health what pain is to physical health. If physical pain did not alert us, we would never go to a doctor or a dentist to have some serious damage repaired. Without shame, moral decay passes unnoticed and becomes accepted. Our age wants to tell us that shame and guilt are unhealthy, when in fact they are indispensable conditions for moral health. We ought to encourage the cultivation of moral shame and disgrace in the face of deviant behaviour which is unacceptable.

I believe that the threat to the stability of the family is now real enough to warrant a proper in-depth inquiry into analysing the factors contributing to the catastrophic decline of the nuclear family as the bedrock of a healthy society. Perhaps we should consider a Royal Commission to study the present trends with expert witnesses, and to come up with practical proposals to reverse these trends.

The state, through Parliament, cannot abdicate its role as the guardian of our most cherished values—without which there will be no social security, no national stability, and no one left to care when we are too old or infirm to care for ourselves.

5.46 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I wish to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on initiating this debate. The number of speakers indicates the deep level of interest.

I wish to refer to one particular facet of this very wide subject. Certainly I do not claim to have an answer to the problems facing families today, but I wish to share a few thoughts with your Lordships. It is often said glibly that children grow up in spite of their parents. But what kind of adults do they become? I believe it is the basic teaching in the home from the very first days which makes the person. So family life is, for me, paramount.

I should also like to ask what we mean by a family and declare my own thoughts. I am passionately and unashamedly supportive of the traditional family in which two people of opposite sexes make a commitment and then together raise children. Some will be more skilful at parenting than others, but having two heads around is almost always better than one. No doubt difficulties will occur along the way, but so will all the joyous times, and the shared pleasure gives an extra dimension. Sadly, for some, married life can suddenly end. One parent may die, or insoluble problems may result in divorce.

My father died leaving my mother with two young children. I always felt that as a result we became an even closer family. I was therefore horrified when one of my sons, at a difficult stage of his adolescence, told me, "You just don't understand because you had a deprived upbringing". I could not believe it. I had only known love and affection in spite of my being very trying at times. But we knew where our home was and together we faced the challenges of coping with wartime life on very limited resources.

I become very uneasy when the suggestion is made that more money will make life better for families. It may make life more comfortable, but we should never feel that affluence brings happy families. In fact it can bring many more problems.

My experience as a magistrate sitting in the domestic court gave me a knowledge of family violence, but it also taught me one thing very clearly: children like to be living under one roof with both their parents. Divorce is obviously traumatic for parents, but for children it is a great tragedy. Sometimes they are put in a position where they have to choose with whom they will live. Some children are split up, with some living with the mother and others living with the father. How impossible it must be to make such decisions.

I heard a so-called child expert say quite recently that his children spend exactly half their life with their mother and half with him and it works wonderfully. I spend my life in two parts; here in London and at my home in Warwickshire. As a consequence, I feel I live out of a suitcase. But I just cannot imagine how difficult it must be for a small child. The situation is, of course, exacerbated when both parents remarry and have other children. I feel that it is an intolerable strain on everyone.

I do not wish to take a moral stance—that is for others—and I do not wish to comment, least of all because I think I am a good parent. But I want to point out that there are practical difficulties surrounding divorce. I understand that everyone sets out wanting a marriage to work, but sometimes that is just not possible and after much heartache people decide to part. In that situation there are, however, still two parents responsible and caring for their children even if it is from two bases. This is a very difficult area for anyone involved in politics so I am only giving your Lordships my personal views.

There is another group, who have live-in lovers or (that awful word) partners—some being longstanding relationships but others just passing by. Children from the latter group face huge problems. Very often the mother is young and has no experience of life, perhaps just out of school, but then is expected to bring up a child on her own. This may not be with her mother and father but in her own accommodation with only state benefits to support her and no father to assist in discipline and care.

Parenting is jolly hard work. It demands patience, understanding, subtlety and a knowledge of what life is about. I feel desperately sad for anyone trying to cope alone. I believe there is a great distinction between those people who start out on marriage, even if it ends in disaster, and those who make no such commitment. The wording in the marriage service "till death us do part" is an important pledge, even if it cannot he achieved. But some relationships outside marriage appear not to look that far ahead. In fact they could be interpreted as "until rows do us part".

I find it unacceptable that single parents are lumped together in one group. I wish we could find better words to distinguish between the various groups. As I see it, there are three. First, there are widows and widowers who battle on without their spouse; secondly, there are divorced parents who may live separately but who are both involved in paying and caring for their offspring; and thirdly, there are those who have no intention of building a family unit with a father living at home. I reiterate that I do not wish to make any moral judgment but I think that, as a result of the experience we have gained over the years, if we truly believe in marriage it is our duty to pass on our views.

We have to draw on our personal circumstances. I have indeed been fortunate to share 46 years of my life with my husband. The message we send out to our young people should be clear. I cannot agree that the third group that I have just mentioned should be treated more generously than two hard-working parents whose total income can be well below that of a single woman on benefit.

Marriage has served us well as the basic unit in society for many generations, giving stability and security to children. They are the future of our nation. If we fail them by giving wrong and permissive messages, we shall pay the price.

5.55 p.m.

Lord Rix

My Lords, like many of your Lordships, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for originating this debate on what is undoubtedly the most important building block in our society—the family. In your Lordships' House, family may be associated with centuries of public position and public service, and with some associated privileges and benefits. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, as chairman of MENCAP, I want to draw your Lordships' attention to a substantial number of families who certainly render a public service, but who lack position, privileges—other than the privilege of extended caring—and benefits—other than the modest benefits allocated by a frugal state. I refer, of course, to families who have a child with severe learning disability, or, as some of your Lordships prefer, mental handicap.

Nearly all children, and most adults, with learning disability live, and have always lived, in the community with their families. In the general population, children reach adulthood, leave the parental home and establish independent lives. For most families with children with learning disability, this does not happen. Their sons and daughters continue to live with them until well into adulthood—sometimes for the rest of their lives. Around 60 per cent. of MENCAP members, many of whom are over retirement age, still have adult sons and daughters living at home.

As part of its 50th anniversary, MENCAP looked at the experiences of parents whose children were born in the 1930s and 1940s and parents whose children were born in the 1980s and 1990s. The resulting report shows that, though services have improved, families still experience many of the same fears and anxieties that their predecessors experienced 50 years ago.

They are still fighting the same battles. Despite new legislation and improved opportunities—partly brought about by the campaigns of organisations like MENCAP—modern expectations are not being met. Families find themselves in the battlefield: fighting against professionals' attitudes to disability; fighting to get fair assessments or education statements or respite care; fighting to get the right education; fighting to get the right support and housing; fighting against cuts and charges. Battles which seemed to have been won have continued because legislation has been enacted but not implemented, or structures or resources have proved totally inadequate. Family life is in some ways no easier, where there is a disabled family member, now in the late 20th century than it was after the war; and people with learning disability are still denied equal opportunity.

This is the pantomime season, and the scene designers will be delighting us with rapid switches from the dark forest to Aladdin's cave. Life for a family with a disabled child also has its light and dark; and I need to refer to both good and bad in order to tell it as it is. The good things are often modest by conventional standards, but they are real and important: the 15 year-old from a special school who climbed a small Swiss mountain on the first day of his school trip, and then packed to go home, so proud and happy that he could not believe more was to follow; the eight year-old so excited by success in the swimming pool that he spoke for the first time—just one word, but what a breakthrough; the 16 year-old girl with not long to live, because her disease is progressive, who managed a smile during a long and difficult feeding time; the 31 year-old with severe learning disability who was asked in a Christmas quiz only last Sunday what word began with "X", and said "xylophone"!

However, families have much heartache, frustration and cause for anger. The news that the baby is disabled is broken to the mother on her own with a description of a large tongue and big hands and funny eyes, leaving the new mum to imagine a monster. The playgroup leader says, "We can't cope", leaving one to wonder how the family copes for 24 hours a day. School turns into a nightmare as the inability of staff to manage let alone educate is converted into a reflection on the family's "failure" to make the child more manageable and educable, and the case notes say "problem parents". When school is over, the message is not about further progress and continuing learning. For some families, and often the families whose son or daughter has the greatest needs, the message is about part-time attendance at a day centre, and a bill to pay for this.

How do we support the family in carrying the main burden and heat of the day? How do we move on from the kind of negative experiences my wife and I had 45 years ago and which I thought others would now be spared? Let me mention just a few ways forward. First, families need accurate information and impartial advice so that they can make the best of whatever is available locally or nationally. MENCAP is developing a network of family advisers supported by a comprehensive information data base, to fulfil precisely this role. This is based on a partnership between ourselves, our generous supporters and local authorities.

Secondly, families need strategic planning across the range of children's and adult services, and between the one and the other. Children's services plans and community care plans are gradually moving in that direction. Thirdly, they need someone who can act as co-ordinator to bring together what is needed by that family at that time, not leaving the family to find its way around a mystifying assortment of apparently unrelated and, occasionally, warring professionals. Fourthly, and not least, families need a family policy at national level spanning all Whitehall departments, including the Treasury.

We cannot rely on the family unless the family can rely on us; and we cannot rely on myths about nuclear families and extended families, which are cosy, but unrelated to the reality of our lives. If we want a society rooted in the family, we have to work to make it happen. In pantomimes magic is what the children see, but the transformation scene depends on months of planning and rehearsal, detailed professional input, and a lot of sheer hard work. The same is true of social policy.

I like the concept of parent partnerships and parent contracts under the Children Act, the Education Act, and in other contexts, but always provided that the expectations and the support go hand in hand. What will not work is a one-sided contract in which parents are expected to deliver and everyone else is free to criticise. By the time the school takes over the day, some parents have already changed two beds, given two baths, and cleaned up the mess in three rooms—all for a son or daughter who is distressed, who cannot speak to explain his distress, and who does not understand about toilets, bathrooms and personal hygiene.

In a highly successful play in 1938, "Dear Octopus", Dodie Smith wrote lines, which in this more cynical age might seem sentimental and bathetic: And so 1 give you our toast … to the family—that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape; nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to. In our inmost hearts, I am sure that all of us taking part in this debate believe that Dodie Smith was probably right. But for families with a son or daughter, a sister or a brother, who has a severe learning disability, "escape" is not a word which springs readily to mind.

The vast majority of families wish to go on caring, or be involved in caring, for their disabled offspring or sibling for the rest of their lives. But unless society as a whole acknowledges that in social policies and personal behaviour rather than just trading on it, we shall be saying to families—some of them at breaking point—the same uncaring words of 50 years ago: "You're on your own". That, my Lords, would be a denial of responsibility and a betrayal of trust.

6.3 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this debate to call attention to the role of the family. It struck me: what is the role of the family? To me, it is to provide a mutual support mechanism to nurture succeeding generations. It is important, even essential, that the family is supported. I also go along with many speakers who said that the family can take many and varied forms and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps I may give noble Lords the benefit of my own experience. In my formative years I had two mothers, two fathers, a full brother, two half-brothers and a half-sister, along with uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. I believe that we all had what was mostly a very happy time. In later life my own experience has been to marry and have three children. I have gone through marital difficulty following redundancy at work but, happily, I am now re-established with my wife. So families can take different forms. When one asks the ordinary man on the Clapham omnibus, "What do you think is meant by the family?" the image that is conjured up is the nuclear family; the mother, father and children.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said that the welfare state was a contract with society. He also mentioned that the welfare state is under attack. I have the feeling that one of its essential pillars—the commitment right across society to move towards full employment—has in fact been withdrawn. Therefore, it is not so much that the welfare state is under attack but that it has been virtually destroyed in the form in which it was set up by the post-war Labour Government of Clem Atlee. It is interesting to think of that feature.

The salient contribution I want to make tonight is to reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said about unemployment being the most intractable killer of families. I believe that he got it very right. I believe that one of the things that we can do in these debates, apart from bringing our own experience and knowledge to them, is to learn from other people. We can learn from social statistics and studies which have been made. I would like to flag up two revealing studies carried out recently. The first is a review of statistics and people's living circumstances going back over, I believe, three or four centuries. The review identified the fact that the proportion of the population getting married was higher in good times than it was in bad times. The investigation also revealed that the incidence of illegitimate births did not go up in bad times. It was not as though men and women carried on being sexually active and procreating and got married when there were good times but that they got married in good times and had a family. In bad times they did not. They might not get married at all or might just postpone it.

The statistics for this century show that during most of it unemployment has been pretty horrendous. However, for 30 years, from roughly the mid-1940s to the 1970s, we had a period of full employment. The emphasis placed on government action by all political parties was to ensure full employment.

It is interesting to reflect on the proportion of the population which was married or co-habiting. In the latter part of the 20th century co-habitation and marriage have become almost synonymous. Many people do not want to have that bit of paper, but they do wish to have a commitment to each other.

One interesting statistic is that the proportion of the population marrying was highest during the period of full employment. If we can repeat the consensus in which the object of social policy, government policy and opposition policy—the object of everyone—is to have full employment, it would provide an amazingly beneficial tonic for the family. It would be a marvellous commitment for the next century to ensure that families could be nurtured by the existence of full employment, economic stability and well being which they could pass on to succeeding generations. One of the reasons I shall support my party in the next general election is that it has a commitment to work towards full employment. I believe that that would be the best thing that could happen to the family.

6.10 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this debate. He has been a champion of issues affecting children and the family for many years. I welcome his thoughtful and practical contribution.

Since I have been a Member of your Lordships' House I have tried to speak in most debates where there has been a possibility of influencing the Government on matters affecting the family. There have been a few hard-won successes but many disappointments. For example, I recall the many hours in Committee on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. That Act sanctioned new fertility treatments, including the donation of gametes, which in recent months have come back to haunt us. Together with others, at the time I warned that any Bill which had special clauses to define the meaning of "mother" and "father" was bound to cause problems. It was very hard work. Eventually, a minor change was secured in the other place to the effect that a woman should not receive licensed fertility treatment unless consideration had been given to the need of a child for a father. Unlike the 1990 Act, I have no doubt that at the beginning of their lives children have fathers and mothers. They need two parents if at all possible throughout the rest of their childhood and beyond. Furthermore, I believe that we can support the Christian norm of family life—namely, the extended family of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers—without stigmatising lone parents.

I suggest that the Government should adopt two objectives, the first of which is to support marriage. I was heartened by the speech of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor at the beginning of this debate. Secondly, support should be given to parenting. Expressed in this way no one is excluded, but the priority of helping people to stay together in marriage is clear. I am convinced that the ideal secure family life to which most people aspire depends upon the exclusive love and commitment of a man and a woman for and to each other. That is what gives children security, affirmation and good role models to follow.

It is known that in many parts of the country the lack of men at home is beginning to reap trouble for youngsters, especially adolescent boys. We had the opportunity to cover some of this ground last year when we debated the Family Bill. I disagreed with some of the Government's thinking in respect of that Bill, but it left the Houses of Parliament in rather better shape than when it began. However, I commend the Government in following through their commitment to put more money into marriage preparation and counselling projects. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister can update noble Lords on that matter when she replies.

I particularly enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits. He said that what was bad for the under 16s was also bad for the over 16s. He is right. The truth of the matter is that children have lost their innocence and adults have lost their shame.

I turn to law and order in this country which I find deeply disturbing. For example, I will not allow my wife to travel on London Underground after 10 p.m. That is an appalling situation. I believe that the fundamental cause of all the law and order problems in this country is the breakdown of the family. It seems to me that the Government have never analysed the cause of the law and order problem. One puts either a fence at the top of the cliff or an ambulance at the bottom of it. The Government always appear to put an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff to take away the dead bodies. That might not be a bad thing in certain circumstances but they could do so much better if they tried to find the fundamental cause of the problem.

We ignore the health of the nation's families at our peril. If we play down the importance of marriage our children will suffer. If we fail to support parents in their difficult task—perhaps one that becomes more difficult with each passing year—future generations will reap the consequences. Perhaps truly the sins of the, father will be visited on the children. That is a quotation from Deuteronomy: chapter 5, verse 9. The Government cannot do the job of the family but they can encourage and support family life and help pick up the pieces when it is not working. I urge the House to send out one clear message today: prevention is better and cheaper than cure, and there is need to support both marriage and parenting.

6.16 p.m.

Baroness Dacre

My Lords, the role of the family in our society is clear to me. It is to provide for children and to prepare them properly to take their place in society, and also to look after the older generation when they can no longer look after themselves. It is my belief that the traditional framework of the family has been altered to the detriment of society in both respects. We must encourage a return to the general principle of mothers caring for their children, at least during their early years, and fathers working to support their families as a whole, including the older generation.

Children who are married should care for their elderly parents just as they were cared for by them when they were young. Members of the family should care for each other right to the end of their lives. This would happen in a perfect world, but we do not live in a perfect world. In many neighbourhoods unemployment and real poverty are prevalent. To enable families to fulfil their role in society the state must help them. Special allowances should be given to these families to encourage them to care for elderly parents and relations in their homes. Surely, this should lead to a less selfish society than we have today where care can never be as loving as it is in the family home. Moreover, it would have the added benefit of being more cost effective.

At the other end of the age scale, sadly all too often we hear about latch key children. Children return to empty houses because their parents through necessity are out at work. This is now thought to be one of the principal causes of juvenile crime. Mothers should be at home teaching their children right from wrong. I am sure that the terrifying increase in illiteracy is in part due to parents not being there to aid their children in early reading. Schools need the backing that parents can and should give in this way.

Mothers are made to feel that it is politically incorrect to be at home with their children. That is divisive. I do not feel that it is beneficial for a very young child to be sent to nursery school while the mother goes off to work. Here, the state should increase family allowances for mothers who stay at home with their children. They should be rewarded and made to feel that they have a vital role to play in bringing up their children, but it must be made cost effective for them to do so. Less money should be spent on nursery schools and more on the family. If we are to save our society—I believe that it needs saving—we must encourage in every possible way the role of the family in this cause. I believe that the future of this country lies in investing greater faith in the family.

6.20 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, first, perhaps I may apologise most sincerely to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and to my noble friend the Minister, because I may have to leave before the debate ends. I have an engagement which was fixed a long time ago. I speak in this debate with some hesitation since I know that the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne—entirely typical of him—was that we should discuss what practical things could be done to solve the difficulties families, young and old, face today. I am not familiar enough with the workings of the welfare state to be able easily to identify effective solutions and remedies.

However, I feel especially strongly about two problems—how to recreate a full family, and how to meet the need for the support of a family, which is so widespread among the young.

I spent my childhood with loving parents in a remote part of Africa until I was sent to England to school at the age of 11. Because my parents were poor and could not afford to travel home, and the war intervened, I did not see them again for 15 years. But I had another loving family in England—my two remarkable great aunts—and I had a surrogate family in my excellent state school.

Today families are scattered, and there are many single-parent households where the young mother, quite as much as the child, needs family support—not money, but warmth, love, practical help and a framework for living and someone to be there with.

I should like to see tax and other measures taken to encourage several generations of families to live together. Think how much society would benefit from that in terms of the costs to the community of our present arrangements. The Henley report on housing futures, to be published this week, forecasts, I understand, a return to the large, multi-generation house where grandparents and children will live together under one roof. The report is said to comment that that will help: to prevent grannies from using up their inheritance money on care costs". It would be an excellent thing to make it worthwhile for grandmothers and grandfathers to be able to play a valuable part in family life again—to be needed and to be there. There is often a happy and close affinity between the very old and the very young, and if it means waiving council tax on a granny flat, and freeing the old from the spectre of having to sell their home which is often their only asset after a hard working life, that would be thoroughly worthwhile. It would make good common sense.

In my time at Somerville, I could almost be sure of identifying undergraduates who came from broken homes; I should passionately support anything that could be done to give the young the broad and confident support of a family, and the old the chance to give some of that support by being there. Young, vulnerable people need and want to belong to something. We must provide them with something to which they can belong otherwise they are left with just one choice; that is, to join a gang.

There is one other thing that I should strongly advocate as would, I think, my great friend Lucy Faithfull. I refer to more support for such childcare centres as the one shortly to open in Pilton, a poor and deprived area of Edinburgh, about which I learnt when European Committee C, of which I am a member, visited the Pilton Partnership during a review of the third phase of the EU poverty programme.

The women of the community, many of whom were single parents, were working to raise money and support to establish a childcare centre which would not only bring different age groups of small children together but would provide jobs and training for the local people. The mothers themselves were taking turns to go to be trained in order to return to work in the centre themselves as qualified childcare workers. The object was to enable them to take up employment, training and educational opportunities which they had hitherto been denied for lack of affordable childcare. The object was also for them to build something worthwhile by their own efforts.

The centre is to open early next year, which is a wonderful triumph. That initiative, linking work, training and childcare will do much to raise the whole quality of family life in that deprived area. I can only say how sorry I am that the UK and Germany, when it came to the point in Brussels, did not feel prepared to support the next stage of the poverty programme which originally helped to launch the scheme.

When we come down to essentials, what is needed for the family to flourish again as a vital part of the country's life is to give children and their mothers the extended family which can be provided by living under one roof, or creating such things as good childcare centres and excellent community schools, like Craigroyston community school, which we also saw on that visit. That could give children a great deal.

The Armed Services too, always supposing that we are left with any soldiers, sailors or airmen by the end of the endless cuts, provide a wonderful family for the young.

My second point is that we need to give old people (I will not use that hateful phrase "senior citizen") the opportunity to live in a family again and to be known, honoured and valued, so that the past can nurture the future.

The family is a very powerful secret weapon. As all noble Lords will be aware, defence is one of my interests. The need for counsellors and all the paraphernalia of institutional care and support will be much reduced if vulnerable people have a family behind them. Those young Army wives whose husbands in the Welch Fusiliers were taken hostage in Bosnia two or three years ago, gave that answer loudly and clearly when the press demanded to know what counselling was being provided. They said that they had the regimental family to support them.

We must do what we can to convince successive governments that that secret weapon, with very little practical help, could release many resources into the community.

6.26 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, there is no one in this House better qualified to speak about the education of young people than the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. She will forgive me if, in the time available, I do not follow her line of discussion. We are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving his inspiring lead this afternoon. He is backing up the lead given in July by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I am afraid that I am a man of less sensitive feeling than the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I know that he is a good Christian. I am given to understand that he is a better Christian than I am, but he does not make a parade of it. I am speaking explicitly as a Christian without prefix or suffix, as have other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Ashbourne.

If one asks oneself what that amounts to, one surely starts with the thought that the essence of a Christian family is mutual love among all members of the family. Mutual love involves trust. Trust involves fidelity, and the enemy of fidelity is adultery. I know that it is considered rather bad form these days to use that word. It is rather as though one had used a four-letter word. People might say that it is hardly parliamentary. I am sorry, but until I am ruled out of order I shall go on saying that that is the real curse of our society today.

Adultery is much too common. It is commoner than it used to be. It might be said that it is a difficult subject. It is. We all admire, I suppose, a number of famous people who have committed adultery, beginning with King David, who combined it with a bit of murder, if one knows one's Old Testament, as Members of the House of Lords do. Many of us are admirers of the late President Kennedy. I had the temerity to write a short laudatory book about him, but his sexual mores are a painful memory which one tries to exclude. So one must be careful there.

We remember what Jesus Christ said to those who tried to stone the woman taken in adultery: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone". None of us is without sin, even if our sins do not take that particular form. We must be very careful.

Nevertheless in this country sexual mores have declined, in any Christian sense at any rate. There is far more sex outside marriage that there was in past years. Divorce has rocketed. Crime is 10 times higher than it was at the end of the war. No one will convince me that there is no correlation between those developments. On the other hand, I am not one of those who says that the whole country has gone to the dogs since my time. I believe that we are a more caring society, as was said earlier. There are many good points in our favour, but those developments are damaging, and running through it all is this sexual licence. The question that arises of course, for anyone who is keen on the family, is: what do we propose to do about it? Exhortation is a good thing. We should support Ministers or religious leaders who denounce immorality. They do not do it wholeheartedly at all times but, on the whole, they come down against it. We must support them in that respect.

What steps can we take? Perhaps I may tell two stories to illustrate the nature of the problem. Not long ago a taxi driver told me his life story. Briefly, he had been married with four children, had left his wife and set up house with a partner with whom he had two more children. The question arose of whether he proposed to marry the lady. I tried to persuade him to do so. However much we dislike divorce, because divorce would be involved, I hope that the House believes that I was right in saying that it was essential for the two small children by the partner that he should marry the lady.

He pondered on the issue and said that the question was one of economics. He thought that after five years it would not be as expensive as it would be after two years. Clearly, the economic factors weighed upon him. I entirely agree with noble Lords who have said that it should be made more advantageous for such a person to marry. That is not a very idealistic calculation, but perhaps we can agree that extra married allowances help and that he should be assisted.

As regards the second example, I was recently involved in a television programme. A girl aged nine—a simple soul, I think—wrote to me under the impression that I was a man of good will and someone who might help her and her mother. She wrote: Mummy and I are living in a dreadful flat. Daddy left us recently. There is no carpet on the floor and we have no money. Mummy says that we are looking forward to a horrible Christmas". That is a lone mother. Whatever we do to try to make marriage more profitable we must always realise that many people are victims of sin through no fault of their own.

I return to my main point. We must above all discourage adultery, but at the same time we must follow St. Augustine; we must condemn the sin and love the sinner. That is hard work but it is what governments and we, as humble citizens, are for. We must support those who give us a lead in this direction and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has given us a lead today.

6.32 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, first, I must apologise to your Lordships not for any intention to break the conventions of this House by leaving before the end of the debate but for being absent for an hour in the middle of the debate in order to chair a meeting upstairs on a related subject. I shall read with great attention the speeches of noble Lords which I missed.

The danger of asking to have one's name put down late in a debate such as this is twofold. First, everything that one wants to say will have been said already; and, secondly, all those who said those things will have gone home. I am partially the victim of both calamities. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, is notably present and said a great deal which I no longer need to say.

I shall begin my contribution with a remark which might otherwise seem somewhat startling, but to me it is as plain as the nose on my face, which is very plain. If all of us recognise the plain truth that God is love, that our first duty is to love him with all our strength, hearts, minds and souls and that our second duty is to love each other as ourselves, it would not be necessary to have this debate because all the consequences which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, pointed out would flow therefrom. But I am not here to lecture nor preach on that subject. I say merely that everything I say is subordinate to that one hypothesis.

A good point to continue with is to ask what marriage, and hence the family, is for. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is quite clear. It states that marriage: was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name". A little later it describes the proper relationship between the parents in that marriage; that it will be their children's home in a even more effective sense than the building in which they are to live. The book describes it as: the mutual society, help, and comfort that one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and in adversity". That is a description of one aspect of love in action, which is at the centre of the Christian faith. Looking back it is easy enough to see that the quality of that relationship is the first gift with which parents can endow their children. It brings with it the second and more directly important gift of a dependable, loving and directive relationship between each parent and each child.

In seeking to protect and sustain marriages as a secure and enduring structure to save adults—and more especially children—from the agonising calamity of divorce, we must pay close attention to the quality of those relationships. They are necessary not only to sustain the marriage but to raise the children of it in the secure and law abiding character rightly sought by the state and the secure and God-fearing character rightly sought by the Church.

Providing firm but loving guidance on how to behave is part—and a crucially important part—of what we now call "parenting". Without it a child is without the essential reference points for life. We must not assume that in providing the means for a couple to stick together in a conventional marriage we have done our job any more than a joiner can provide a table with four legs of any old length and say that it will not fall over.

The point is made in a telling sentence. It is always comforting to turn to statistics in a debate such as this because if one's theoretical points are not well taken at least the demonstrable ones are. Research Study 145 of the Home Office, Young People and Crime, by Graham and Bowling, is concerned with looking at criminal behaviour in children. They trace a clear link between criminal offending and family background. But the link is not quite what popular wisdom leads one to expect. They state: The difference in offending rates between those brought up by two natural parents and both those brought up in single-parent and step-parent families was statistically significant for both males and females". We settle comfortably back in our seats accepting what We have heard before. But they go on to state: However… once the quality of relationships with parents and their capacity and willingness to supervise their children are taken into account, the influence of family structure disappears". That Home Office research was recently undertaken and published. Graham and Bowling go on to quote other researchers who have come to the same conclusion.

In short, if we take criminal offending as one indicator of unsuccessful parenting we find that belonging to a single-parent family is not, surprisingly, the ultimate disaster. The ultimate disaster is the family of however many parents which does not deliver a proper relationship between one generation and the next. Having a really good relationship with a single parent, whether mother or father, is actually better than having a bad relationship with either or both parents in a whole marriage. The authors do not define a good relationship very closely, but other works by educational researchers endorse common sense and identify dependability, consistency and fairness as essential, and extreme harshness and permissiveness as harmful both at home and in the classroom.

What is needed, therefore, is a relationship that is dependable, loving and directive. Having two parents may be the ideal but it is very far from being enough. That is the point that I wish to make. Those parents need also to have the willingness and the capacity to supervise them. Willingness springs from love and capacity depends in part on circumstances. But even the best circumstances are useless without skill.

Ninety per cent. of everything any of us ever learns throughout our lives is learned, I regret to say, in the first three years of life: essential things like how to read the emotions on another's face; what results to expect from different ways of treating others; what are successful and what are unsuccessful means of getting our way; the meaning of guilt, of forgiveness, of punishment and reward; and, underlying all, the difference between right and wrong. It is, therefore, almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of parenting during those years.

However, parenting itself is a skill. It is not inherited; it is learned. We cannot expect the child of a teenage mother, herself born of, and neglected by, a teenage mother somehow to absorb the moral sense, civic duties and social skills with that mother's milk. Good behaviour is taught, both consciously and unconsciously. I once described it as a golden chain built link by link by succeeding generations. It is built by parenting. If a link is missing, the chain is broken. We must find a way to replace the missing link.

Eight years ago, a committee of which I was chairman recommended that parenting should be a subject in the National Curriculum. It is there, but not as a subject, only as a cross-curricular theme—the first victim to pressure for time to teach core examination subjects. Her Majesty's Government should look urgently at ways of promoting it in the timetable. They should also consider that the moment when parents are most aware of their responsibility, most uncertain of their ability to meet it, and most apt to accept some help is at the time of first pregnancy. That is the moment when lessons in parenting should be offered—and urged—by local health authorities.

Being a good person does not necessarily make one a good parent. Anyone doubting that should see Roger Grad's notable film on difficult children, and their parents, being helped at an outstandingly successful unit at Marlborough House, Swindon, where the referrals all come from the local education authority and the unit is actually supplied by the department of my noble friend on the Front Bench, the Department of Health. That directs me straight to the question of structures of government help for children.

I have much further information with me about which I should like to speak, but the central point is that in moral, not theological, terms, all this turns on love. Where children are deprived of love they go wrong. We must try to put it right. It also depends in part on the skill of parents in transmitting those standards when they actually have them themselves. We have to teach them to do this, or that resource will be fatally wasted.

6.42 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, there was a time—about 50 years ago—when I actively believed that a kibbutz was a better alternative way of living than the family. I have not felt that for a very long time. I suppose I then took that view for what has subsequently been expressed by the poet, Philip Larkin, about "your mum and dad". As I said, I now think quite differently and believe, like the rest of your Lordships, that the family is the proper building block (the term used, I believe, by my noble friend Lord Rix) for family and for society.

Society has been much mentioned in today's debate, despite the famous expression to the contrary made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. I believe that society is a proper context in which we should discuss the family. However, I believe most strongly that the family should not be allowed to live in poverty—which, unfortunately, is only too frequent in our society today. Nor should the family be allowed to exist as a homeless family. I was much moved by what my noble friend Lord Leathers said about homelessness in his notable maiden speech. It is unthinkable that the family should be allowed to exist in poverty and be homeless. I am afraid that there are far too many families which exist both in poverty and in a state of homelessness. That really illustrates the expression, "the bottom of the heap".

That leads me to consideration of what is quite frequently called the "underclass", though I believe that it is better described as those whose social status is such that they suffer from social exclusion. That is another and rather powerful way of expressing the plight of those who live on low incomes and one which I believe is gaining currency both in government circles and in circles which encompass those most interested in poverty.

In 1992–93, 4.3 million children were living in families in that category; that is, about one third of all the children in this country. Is it really right and proper that we should allow one third of the children in our families to live in poverty suffering from "social exclusion"? Can we expect that huge proportion of our society to bring up families in the ideal way that we have been talking about today? That seems to me to be an overriding consideration. We must get those children out of that particular category of deprivation.

After having attempted, if I may say so with reference to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to bleed the heart, I should now like to chill the blood. How many of this one third of the population will remain content with their condition? Is it not a lethal prescription for society? For such serious poverty breeds crime and in the end revolt. In this social climate, it is not proper or sensible to spend so much of our resources on law and order and especially on prisons. I suppose everyone knows that prisoners mostly come from families in that lowly category—except for the odd Peer or two, so kindly announced to us every now and again by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor.

I turn now to the Home Secretary's expression that prison works". I am afraid that prison can disastrously disrupt the prisoners' families and it hardly deters them from reoffending. I concede, of course, that prison keeps offenders out of circulation for the duration of their sentence, but it does so only at huge cost to the nation. I would say that that money would very often be better spent on ameliorating their condition and that of their families.

While I am on the subject of prisons, I might as well mention that a huge proportion of female prisoners are still debtors which, I maintain, is a scandal. It takes the woman away from the family and there is, therefore, a family disaster. Most of these fines are, I would say, piddling fines for the non-payment of television licences and could quite easily be docked from family benefits. I sometimes wish that we lived back in the 17th century when Mrs. Godolphin (a most pious lady at the Restoration court—a kind of Frank Longford of those days) used to visit the debtors prisons, pay off the debts and release the prisoners. It would certainly be cheaper to the taxpayer as well as less disruptive of family life if we were allowed to do what Mrs. Godolphin did in the 17th century.

We must be both mad and bad to gaol poor mothers for such small sums of money these days. I remember that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor was going to do something about the situation when I last raised the matter two or three years ago. However, I am horrified to find that there is still such a large number of debtors, especially female debtors, in prison.

I am happy to say that within prison much effort is now been made to encourage family visits, which are less of a nightmare than they used to be. The need for families to keep in touch with prisoners is recognised. Unfortunately, the reception facilities for such families in some prisons are pretty disgusting and not conducive to maintaining good family relations. It is especially important for families to keep in touch with young offenders, many of whom have girlfriends or wives with babies and who are nowadays taught in prison the rudimentary skills of parenting. That can only be an advantage. Much of this work can and is being carried out by voluntary bodies, at least one of which was founded by the noble Earl, Lord Longford.

In the short time that remains in which I may speak I wish to say a few words about families in the rest of the world. As far as I can recall, that subject has not been touched on so far in the debate. The fact is that all our lives depend to a certain extent on the world population. It is a great credit to this nation that great work is now being done—I refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, in this respect—by the United Nations, by voluntary bodies and by many nations on this essential matter. It is too big a subject to embark upon now. However, a sustainable world population, and a "children by choice" policy and universal, integrated reproductive healthcare are the essential ingredients of our future happiness and of the welfare of the family worldwide.

6.51 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate. I congratulate the three maiden speakers on their admirable contributions. We certainly all look forward to hearing them again.

Last night a lecture was given in this building which set out three current attacks on the family. The first constituted plain hostility from a few academics, but by no means all, and from other people such as Hugh Hefner, of Playboy fame, who has said, Family is a drag: marriage ties you down". The second attack is the eroticisation of western Europe which is all too obvious all around us on television, hoardings, advertisements and in other areas. The third attack is what the lecturer referred to as the therapeutic attitude often seen in, for example, our liberal media where feelings take priority over everything else. All one has to do is to share one's feelings. One does not have to enter into any commitment or obligation; it is what one feels that matters. All that seriously knocks the family. However, the family survives. Lenin tried to abolish it but 20 years later Stalin had to reinstate it. There is a divine aspect to all our discussion on the family. I believe it was Jean-Paul Sartre who said something to the effect, "I do not believe that any god exists but everything in my being cries out for God". That was a conflict for that unhappy man.

I wish to refer to three words which I feel are important in connection with the family and the need to have stable relationships and good parenting, as has been mentioned by several speakers. My first word has been mentioned quite often. It is "commitment". The husband needs to be committed to the wife, the wife to the husband, and both of them to the children. I emphasise the need for fathers as well as mothers to spend time with their children. My son who is now aged 25 lives overseas. Two months ago I spent four days alone with him. I believe that whether our children are teenagers, children or young adults, it is good for us to spend time with them. When I refer to time, I mean quality time and not just quantity. It is no good being with one's child if at the same time one is talking to someone else on the telephone. Our children need our attention. It is crucially important for all of us to concentrate on devoting time and love to our children and others in the family group with whom we live.

Companies and other employers need to recognise that employees who are parents of children need to spend time with their families. They should not be required to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I make a plea that companies should recognise the need for fathers as well as mothers to be at home to build family relationships. When I consider the concept of commitment today I am encouraged to note that an increasing number of adults are committed to the care of elderly family members. It is good that interest in the extended family is re-emerging.

The second word I wish to mention is "communication". My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has said: Communication is the essential foundation on which a marriage is built, extended and maintained in good repair". I heartily endorse the sentiments of that quotation. Communication between husband and wife, and between them and their children is essential. I make a plea for parents to communicate with their children's teachers. It is important that families should eat together to enable them to talk with each other. I make a plea for family members not to take their meal out of the microwave and go off to their room on their own to watch television but to sit down at a table and talk together. That is an important aspect of family life, but too many families miss out on that. Unless children receive time, attention and love—as my noble friend Lord Elton said a moment ago—and a sense of security, how can they possibly convey those concepts to the next generation?

The third word I wish to mention is "support". I am glad that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has given us an update on the work of his interdepartmental committee on the support of marriage and the family. Today we need to have professionals to whom members of a family can turn for support. I am glad that there are many marriage courses which people can attend to obtain support. I endorse what my noble friend Lord Elton said on the need for courses in schools to educate pupils on personal relationships and the moral context of sexuality. Much attention can be given to those subjects in schools. Can consideration be given to schools remaining open until six o'clock in the evening so that children who have both parents at work can stay at school to do their homework and play games and not go home to an empty house? For children to go home to an empty house again knocks the concept of the family. I do not wish to impose any more responsibilities on teachers who are stretched beyond capacity now. However, is there not some way in which we can work out a method whereby children do not have to return to an empty home after school?

I am happy that the majority of our children today live with both their parents. It constitutes a falling proportion but it is still a substantial majority. It is important that we work to halt the downward slide and get the proportion up again. Parenting needs both parents. It is a difficult enough task even when there are two parents living with their children. Anything which knocks the family—poverty, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, one-parent families or divorcing parents—increases the risk of children suffering psychological or emotional problems, becoming pregnant as teenagers outside marriage, being subjected to sexual abuse, becoming delinquents, finishing school at the minimum age and not going on to A-levels and higher education, and, as has been said, developing a tendency towards crime.

I believe that the Government, the Church and every noble Lord in this Chamber this evening, and those who have been present earlier, must be positive and creative in all that we say and do to support the family.

7 p.m.

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

My Lords, just under a week ago your Lordships debated the moral, ethical and practical issues concerning in vitro fertilisation—issues concerning life and death. Today we have been debating not so much the artificial making of a family, but its role in society.

Both those debates have been of the highest quality and when your Lordships' House is under threat surely these two occasions alone show what an important contribution your Lordships' House makes to the Government of this country.

I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate and for his clear exposition of the issues. I salute him, as I do my noble friends Lady Young and Lady Seccombe for defining "the family". I have been tussling with the definition for some time and I agree with them that the emphasis must surely be on the long term commitment to love and care for one another.

We have been privileged to have had three maiden speakers. I find it rather charming to have had three maidens in a family debate. Through the columns of the Daily Telegraph I understand that the Chief Whip has recently given advice to new Members of your Lordships' House: do not speak for too long; do not speak when the hour is late; and, do not speak too often. All three maidens excelled in complying with the first two virtues and it is my fond hope that they will ignore the third.

The noble Viscount, Lord Leathers, spoke with experience and insight about the Lord Clyde night shelter and the plight of young people who are homeless through no fault of their own. He is right to say there is no single panacea for the problems that he outlined, but I am grateful to him for paying tribute to the Government and our homelessness initiative which has in his words "demonstrably worked".

It is a delight to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, to this House. After her eventful and interesting career I wonder whether she will find exchanging the Civil Service for your Lordships' House a similar experience to that of Mrs. Patrick Campbell who on marriage described, exchanging the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue for the deep, deep peace of the double bed". But the noble Baroness will already be aware that noble Lords when roused are far from peaceful.

I warmly welcome my noble friend Lord Coleridge and his perceptive and interesting contribution. As a governor of the Royal West of England Residential School for the Deaf he is well placed to explore the issues of hearing impaired children and the needs of their parents. He may be interested to know that we are currently funding a project to help support deaf parents of hearing children and another to provide support and advocacy for Forces' families with children with special needs.

The Government's commitment to family life and family values is in the context of a pluralistic society. It is founded on three convictions. The first is that the family is the essential source of love and respect between individuals and their development as people and as members of society. Secondly—to reflect the views of my noble friend Lady Young—it is a critical economic unit. It should be almost a mini welfare state where the members of the family care for each other not only in times of extreme adversity but when support is required—the extended family. The third is that family relationships and family values are, and must be, essentially private. They should not be the subject of intrusion by the state or its agencies except where there is manifest need for help or protection.

Following from this commitment, and these convictions, the Government have four duties, the first of which is to ensure a framework of law, through which family relationships are expressed properly and which reflects social values and modern conditions in society. Their second duty is to offer protection and help where for one reason or another individual family relationships do not provide the support that they should, or even present risks to individuals, particularly children. The third is to ensure that the relevant public agencies play their part in preparing children and young people for adulthood in a balanced way that supports, rather than undermines, the responsibilities of parents; and the fourth is, in all other respects, to acknowledge the privacy of family life and to keep the state out of private family matters.

In his customarily thought-provoking speech, the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, suggested that families work best when they are independent and self-sufficient and, I would add, even a little proud. Then family members can more easily provide love and support to each other without worrying about the next financial crisis.

That is why this Government set so much store by giving families economic security. Our present economic prosperity, a hard-won prize, is helping. Daily, more jobs and hence more breadwinners for families are being created. Not only will families be better off, but more children will grow up with the role model of a hard working parent. And for the tough times, the spread of home and share ownership has given millions of families a nest-egg to fall back on.

The noble Lords, Lord Northbourne and Lord Rix, were concerned about having a coherent government policy. The Government start from the premise that every aspect of government activity has implications for families. The Government's view is that separating family issues into one department would not be an effective way of ensuring that the interests of the family were taken into account in every aspect of government. Experience shows us that rather than setting up separate departments for particular interest groups, it is far more effective to ensure that the necessary government structures for cross-departmental consideration and communication are in place. With regard to family policy, decisions remain a collective Cabinet responsibility. Views about all family policy decisions that affect other departments are sought from members of EDH, the Government Cabinet Sub-Committee which deals with social policies. In addition, my right honourable friend Stephen Dorrell has a special responsibility for the presentation of family policy.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, mentioned the Gulbenkian Foundation inquiry report. We shall study that report, but we do not see numerous new bureaucratic structures as the way to progress the special needs of children. Many mechanisms, formal and informal, are already in place to ease co-operation between government departments and organisations concerned with children. We believe that these arrangements work well, especially as they have recently been expanded by forming the children service strategy group, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rix.

I wish to start at the very beginning—with responsibility in childbirth. I have been very involved in a major government policy called Changing Childbirth. It is important because one of the main issues is to instil in parents a sense of responsibility. We feel that this should start with birth. We believe that we should give women and their families more control over the care that they receive. We urge professionals not to take over this event but to enable, support and encourage rather than assume all responsibility. Six hundred thousand babies are born every year, each one a living symbol of expectation, but each one also a huge responsibility for the parents involved.

The Government are unstinting in their support for young parents through health visitors who provide a valuable and valued service. Few other countries have specially trained nurses committed to health promotion and family support. It is the largest professional group working with parents of young children. Along with social workers, they are the people who work away on our behalf with those who are the most deprived and often the most broken.

Parents want their children to flourish. I am sure that the noble Baronesses, Lady Symons and Lady David, and my noble friend Lady Perry, will recognise that the Government's commitment to pre-school education has been considerable. It is an important area. Today families are smaller and children do not have the same opportunities to grow up with brothers and sisters. They need the company of other children. My noble friend praised the pre-school playgroup movement in which I started my public life. I am very encouraged by the nursery voucher scheme, which will help playgroups and nursery schools and give children the opportunity to learn at an early age to be sociable and tolerant.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Perry and to other members of your Lordships' House for citing some of the excellent community schemes which support parents. The Government, too, contribute through funding to many of these schemes.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, advocated that all schools should teach citizenship and commitment to values which care about the welfare of children. My noble friend Lord Elton felt that there should be greater emphasis on teaching values within the school curriculum. It is, of course, a statutory requirement that all schools must teach religious education to all children other than those withdrawn by their parents. Most schools teach personal health and social education, not always as a discrete subject but as a vein which runs through many subject areas.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, referred to the very difficult period between childhood and adulthood. We recognise that more needs to be done to help parents bring up their children to be law-abiding. That is why the Home Secretary set up a ministerial group to help identify new strategies for early intervention with young children most at risk of offending, and their families, to help divert them from crime. The group will publish a Green Paper this autumn.

It comes back to parental responsibility. The courts can now require parents to attend court with their child, pay their child's fines and be bound over to look after their child properly and ensure their child's compliance with a community sentence. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, will be encouraged to know that some imaginative and innovative schemes are already being put in place. He mentioned schemes in prisons. A great deal is being done to help at a local level with children who have become involved in crime and with their families. For example, family group conferencing is being piloted in a number of areas. This approach aims to encourage young people and their families to accept responsibility for problems and for putting them right. It encourages young people to face up to the harm they have done, an approach I am sure your Lordships will agree with.

I do not think we should be too despondent. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle told us, even when children do leave home they keep in touch with their families. Recent research shows that nearly half of all the adults in this country visit their mothers once a week and most of them speak to them on the telephone at least once a week. As my noble friend Lord Brentford said, it is good to talk. It is interesting that only 3 per cent. never make contact.

The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, rightly said that one of the positive challenges in modern life is how to balance work and family. We believe that these choices are personal ones but we want all people to have the opportunity to exercise those choices. As the noble Baroness, Lady Dacre, said, it may well be right for mothers to stay at home if that is their wish. On the other hand, we do not feel that we should exclude women from the workforce. Bored, lonely, housebound young mothers do not necessarily make better parents; and the nation loses out on the talent, intelligence, energy and economic benefits of a large percentage of the workforce.

My noble friend Lord Brentford is right to say that families also need time. If families are to combine both work and home, we need to have a flexible labour market which allows women and their menfolk to work the hours that suit them. When I have been involved in family-friendly employment policies, I have seen them work to the benefit of men as well as women. People in the workforce have come up to me and said, "For the first time ever, I have been able to put my children to bed." I welcome that. It also helps employers to recruit and retain high quality employees. Flexible family policies make good sense commercially as well.

Many of your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, have pointed out that the family is altering. But I wonder if there was ever really a golden age. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that it is difficult to know whether the Victorian family was no more or no less child-friendly than today's. Family life in the home could then be very harsh. Family life today in tower blocks can be miserable; family life in the suburbs can be lonely; family life in towns and cities is under great pressure.

Many of your Lordships have pointed out that divorce is easier and more frequent, but we should also look at the total figures which show that, as a nation, we marry more than some of our European counterparts—Italy and Spain, for instance. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that we have a higher divorce rate. We have no means of measuring whether life within families is better or worse, happier or more wretched. Maybe the greatest strength—love—has remained constant throughout.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and my noble friends Lady Young and Lady Strange were concerned about fiscal policy. Of course, they are right. My noble friend Lady Young paid tribute to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for his Budget this year. It is interesting that in the Budget, on average, a family on average earnings gained £120 a year from tax changes, including changes to indirect tax, compared to an average for all households of £70. Both child benefit and the married couple's allowance were increased in line with prices in this year's Budget. A family with two children will receive an extra £23 in child benefit. The married couple's allowance is now worth £274.50 a year. Families will also benefit from extra spending on key public services such as the health service, education and law and order. However, I agree with my noble friend Lady Seccombe that a prosperous family is not necessarily a happy family. We all know that relationships are much more complex than that.

I listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Jakobovits, had to say. I greatly respect not only the noble Lord but also the strength of Jewish family life. Many of us of different faiths will agree with much of what he said. I can assure him that the Government have no intention of abandoning the role of protector of the weak.

Many of your Lordships, including my noble friends Lord Elton and Lord Ashbourne, and the noble Earl, Lord Longford, with conviction and clarity, based their views on strong Christian convictions. I respect and indeed share many of those views, but I think they will agree with me that happy families can be based in many faiths and cultures; and the Government cannot, of course, legislate for happiness.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, in a very interesting and wide-ranging speech, pursued an issue which he raised several times during the progress of the Family Law Act; namely, the issue of matrimonial property. I understand that the noble and learned Lord has been in correspondence about this matter with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, who has invited the Law Commission to consider whether a review of matrimonial property law could be included in a future programme of law reform.

I strongly agree with my noble friend Lord Ashbourne that prevention is better than cure. My noble friend asked for an update on our plans to invest in families. The Lord Chancellor's Department contributes to the funding of six major marriage and support agencies. Total expenditure in the current financial year will be about £2.3 million. On 6th November the Lord Chancellor announced a pilot programme of marriage support projects, including marriage preparation, as well as counselling and support for married couples. Successful bids will be announced in February or March 1997. Total expenditure on the programme will depend on the number and scope of projects accepted.

There is, of course, much other investment through government sources. Only last week I visited some out-of-school clubs. We have the Family Fund, which is supported by the Health Department, and many schemes are sponsored through the single regeneration budgets.

My noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth highlighted the need for children to experience the care and love of their extended family. I agree. If we marginalise grandparents or discard the wealth of knowledge and assistance that they can give, we do so at our peril. The importance of the relationships between generations is crucial.

A number of other subject areas were discussed, not least the question of men and their role in the family, a point which was raised by my noble friend Lady Young. I could go on at length about men—I share my life with four: a husband and three sons. I married my husband at 17 and I have to say that it is the best thing that I ever did. But what we know from a recent study by the Family Policy Studies Centre is that 84 per cent. of children live with their natural father. We also know that family life is much more of a partnership today, especially if both parents are working. Men and women increasingly have to share the tasks of earning a living and rearing a family.

We acknowledge that families face problems. But, as my noble friend Lady Macleod suggested, we should celebrate their success. In today's society children grow up taller, heavier and healthier than ever before. Their achievement at school is greater. A larger percentage leave school to go into either further or higher education, or indeed into jobs. Wider home and car ownership has given millions of families more freedom.

But what I find most encouraging at a time when some would have us see only doom and gloom is the belief of young people in the value and importance of their parents and families. The recent British Social Attitudes Survey showed that only 13 per cent. of 18 to 24 year-olds would rather spend time with their friends than their family and that 76 per cent. of the same age group thought that their family was more important than friends.

Perhaps if we listen—not obey but listen—to young people, they will listen to us. Trust them and they will show responsibility. Love them and they will love their neighbour. I believe that if we could only live up to their ideals, we should be a better society and a finer country in a cared for world.

Lord Elton

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down perhaps I may say that she made an important announcement to the effect that the Home Secretary's group would be publishing a Green Paper this autumn. Can she please help us by saying when we can expect winter?

Baroness Cumberlege

As a farmer's wife, my Lords, I can say that we are quite flexible about seasons.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, before she sits down, can the noble Baroness not say anything beyond the fact that there has been correspondence about the absurd discrimination against married women whereby they can only get ownership rights of any kind in the matrimonial home either by becoming widowed or divorced? There are now three outstanding Law Commission reports, two of which are very long outstanding.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I am aware of the noble and learned Lord's impatience. However, I feel that this is a matter for my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. I know that he is working with the Law Commission to try to expedite matters.

7.25 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I was impressed and delighted by the enormously high standard of the debate, for which I am grateful to all noble Lords who took part. It seemed to me that there was consensus on the huge cost to society of failing families and children; consensus on the need for families and the importance of the family; consensus on the importance of parenting and the need for education and support for parents; consensus that intervention can be successful; and consensus on the desirability of lifelong commitment and that the two parent family, if it works, can be the best vehicle. There was consensus also on the need for holistic employment practices and attitudes, including childcare which respects the equal opportunities of children as well as parents; and consensus on the need for a coherent government policy among all speakers, except for the noble Baroness, which is understandable.

There were differences about marriage. There were clear differences of opinion on how we should celebrate that long-term commitment that we all want and how we should encourage it and give it a formal status. Those who are opposed to marriage or inclined to treat cohabitation as equal to marriage ought to think quite seriously about that. So ought those who support marriage. If so many people do not want to get married, we must ask ourselves why. Is it because they are not prepared to make the long-term commitment? Is it because it costs £8,500 and they feel that they must have a tulle dress, get themselves up in funny clothes and pay a lot of money for a feast. It is very nice to have a feast but that is not the point of marriage; that is not what marriage is about. In that context, what is marriage about?

Today, too many young people probably see cohabitation and marriage as an extension of a relationship. The research, from One Plus One in particular, suggests that there is a need for young people to learn to think about entering into a formal partnership to bring up a family as entering not into a relationship which will have ups and downs hut into a partnership to do a job, a partnership in which the children will be involved as powerless partners and therefore their interests and concerns must be respected. Therefore there must be a determination to make it work.

Your Lordships did not entirely agree on the whole question of how a balance between work and family can be achieved. It is a complex issue and we still need to give much more thought to it. While respecting the right of women to go out to work and have equal opportunities, we also must consider how we can achieve equal opportunities for the children and secure, so far as possible, the solidarity of the partnership.

I feel that it is a mistake to talk about a Golden Age. I do not think that any of us believes in a Golden Age. We should not be thinking about turning the clock back. We should think positively. We want to see how we can go forward and make sure that we do not go forward blindfold. We must make sure that we are indeed looking at society today and at the problems and we must at least try to make a plan to achieve the maximum success within the parameters on which we all agree.

I omitted to mention in my opening remarks that there are many other things which are being done and could be done. I shall deposit in the Library a "wishlist" which has just been published by the Parenting Forum (of which I have the privilege to be chairman) of some of the things that the 300 members of that organisation feel ought to be done.

I want particularly to thank and congratulate the maiden speakers. The noble Viscount, Lord Leathers, made an extraordinarily interesting and important contribution on homelessness and the noble Lord, Lord Coleridge, was equally eloquent on the school for the deaf, which 1 had the privilege of visiting the other day when I was in Exeter. The noble Baroness Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, gave an immensely impressive speech. I see, too, that we have another great fighter for equal opportunities on the Opposition Benches. I just hope that she will fight as hard for equal opportunities for children and men as for women. If not, she will find herself crossing swords with me. I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who said that the role of men is a major problem in our society today.

The noble Baroness, Lady Perry, said something very close to my heart when she said that the best way to help children was to help parents. She mentioned pre-school playgroups. That leads me to one other small matter, which I omitted to mention earlier; namely, the very low cost of certain forms of support for parents.

Homestart costs only £510 per family served and that is for a trained volunteer to visit parents in their home for six months or more. Pre-school playgroups, which now call themselves the pre-school learning alliance, costs £320 per child, per year, per half a day. After-school provision of the Kids Clubs network costs £15 a week and £35 in the holidays.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, referred to the importance of schools as part of the community and helping with the stresses of parenting. In that context it is important also to think of schools as a centre for lifelong learning and help for parents so that they can contribute too and be involved with their children's learning. All the evidence suggests that the strongest single factor in a child's success at school is parental involvement.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Jakobovits, in his absence, for his support of my Select Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, was bold enough to speak the word "love". It made me think of the phrase I intended to use in relation to the effectiveness of investment in the family. Investment in support of families multiplied by natural love and affection equals personal good quality care at low cost to the taxpayer.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, mentioned a number of the many excellent things the Government have done and I praise them for that. In the area of support and help for families and also in ensuring that agencies are playing their part, all governments need to think not merely in terms of sustaining what is there at the moment, which has been greatly cut back in the past 10 years, but also in terms of putting more resources and energy into support and help and into ensuring that agencies are doing their job. It means investing in families.

Finally, I thank all those who have spoken this evening. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.