HL Deb 24 March 1998 vol 587 cc1163-77

7.30 p.m.

Lord Northbourne rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what importance they attach to the role of grandparents in delivering their commitment to high quality, affordable childcare for all.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a truism to say that our society has gone through enormous changes in the past two decades. I am sure that none of us wants to look back; none of us wants to put the clock back. We must look forward. But in doing so, surely we must be concerned to ensure that vulnerable groups have not suffered, and are not suffering, from the changes that have taken place.

I wish briefly to refer to three of those changes. The first is the change to the extended family. As I shall show using statistics, the extended family is by no means dead. But it has changed its shape. That was particularly drawn to my attention by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, who was very sorry not to he able to be present this evening, but unfortunately he had to be abroad.

The noble Lord has pointed out that the extended family has narrowed horizontally, in that there are fewer siblings—fewer brothers and sisters are being born—but it has extended vertically, because people are living longer and having a longer active life, and in some cases taking retirement earlier. Today, there are 9 million people over retirement age; 29 per cent. of the adult population are grandparents.

The second change I wish to mention relates to the nuclear family. Fewer people are marrying and more are divorced. I shall not bore the House with the gruesome statistics. More fragile partnerships are being formed. It is important to note that 1.7 million lone parents are looking after children today, of whom two-thirds have at some time been married. It is worth noting that only 4 per cent. of them are aged under 20. One-third of all children will spend part of their childhood in a lone parent family.

The third point to which I want to draw attention is the change in the role of women in the family. Either because they wanted to, or because they have had to, many women have become providers as well as mothers. Today, more women go out to work than do not. In the past 30 years, the labour market participation rate of women with dependent children has risen from 30 per cent. to 70 per cent., and the Government are aiming for many more to follow them.

How do these changes affect vulnerable groups? Let me turn first to children. After shelter, food and clothing, the most important need of children is time—committed, loving adult time. Parental time is precisely the commodity which is in short supply as a result of the social changes that I have mentioned. Here, I divert slightly from the main line of my argument in order to make this point. Young children especially need dedicated time. Most authorities now agree that, if a child is to succeed in school, it needs to enter school with an appropriate level of emotional and social maturity, with the necessary self-confidence to enjoy learning and to succeed. Those qualities are built up in the home during the pre-school years. Sitting in front of the television all day, as, sadly, some young children do today, will not achieve that result. Older children, too, need support from parents and other adults. It has been shown that the single most important factor in success at school is parental involvement.

So where can that time be found? Who has the time to spare? The answer must be, in many cases, grandparents. Grandparents are retiring earlier and remaining active longer—what is now called the third age. Many grandparents want to help their children and grandchildren. They will willingly do so, and, if they can, they will do so at no cost to either the parents or the taxpayer.

The proof is that many are already doing so. A recent survey by Age Concern showed that 92 per cent. of grandparents have regular contact with their grandchildren; 47 per cent. babysit or offer childcare to their grandchildren. Sally Greengross, the director general of Age Concern, said in introducing the report: We found grandparents to be still very much part of the family".

The Government have so far chosen to solve the problem of providing care and dedicated time for children principally by throwing money at the matter, by providing a universal professional childcare service subsidised by the taxpayer. I do not for a moment deny that there is a need for a very considerable expansion in the professional childcare service. However, I cannot help wondering, if we rely entirely on that route, whether we shall not run into very great trouble, or else astronomically high cost to the taxpayer. A shortage in the supply of qualified childcarers, and pressure of demand, will force costs up. It takes a lot of money to buy the quality of care that most parents or grandparents are prepared to give.

I therefore proposed this short debate in order to urge the Government, in addition to providing professional childcare, to consider mobilising, enabling and supporting the enormous resource of goodwill represented by grandparents, who do have, if they want to, time, love and experience to offer to their grandchildren. If the Government were to take the view that this proposal was worth looking at, it would reduce costs to the state (funded childcare); it would give a fulfilling life role to many older people; and of course, grandparental care would be of enormous value in enriching the lives of children.

I now wish to turn briefly to a few of the things that the Government could do to help. The first is to bring about a change of heart. The Government ought to be leading the nation into recognising that the philosophy with which we have lived for several decades now—it has been termed the "me first" generation—is not working. "No man is an island". For people to live together, there must be a structure of interdependence and responsibilities as well as rights. The extended family is a key unit in that community of human beings.

The second thing that the Government ought to do is recognise and celebrate the important role that older people in general, and grandparents in particular, have to play. In this context, perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to Grandparents' Day, which Age Concern has declared for 27th September.

Then there are more practical things that might be done. For effective grandparental care, proximity is essential. Grandparents cannot support parents effectively unless they live nearby. It is rather like the Division Bell. Ten minutes' walking time is about the maximum time for effective grandparental care. It would not be difficult for local authorities to pay attention to that need when allocating public housing or making recommendations to housing associations as to the allocation of their housing resources.

Singapore does it. There, as soon as people retire, if they are in public housing, they are moved to an apartment or flat adjacent to or near to one of their children. Of course, in Singapore grandparents are expected to help with the childcare and the children are expected to look after the grandparents. I am not suggesting that the Government should go that far.

There was an extraordinarily innovative scheme invented by Nicholas Stacey, when he was head of social services for Kent. It was to have granny flat portacabins which could be winched into the garden by helicopter and connected to the services so that the mutual support services could be available. When granny died, the portacabin could be winched out and moved to another garden.

There are interesting features in the design of public housing which should be considered while the houses are being built. We should encourage planners to think in terms of providing a mixture of accommodation.

Employment is another matter. It is important to encourage employers to be sensitive to older people's needs as they reach retirement age so that they may be able to care for their grandchildren.

There are also financial considerations. At present 86 per cent. of children who are looked after by grandparents are cared for free. That represents an enormous subsidy to the taxpayer. If we could increase the number of grandparents able to give that kind of care, we would save an enormous amount of money. Is there a case for help for grandparents who cannot do without it so that they can have a little assistance, perhaps a tax credit, small capital grants for improvements or help with transport where proximity is not possible? Alternatively, should grandparents be eligible for the childcare subsidy? After all, why not? Why should grandparents be discriminated against? Perhaps grandparents should go through training. The question I wish to ask the Minister is: will they get credits for experience or will they have to sit through the same classes as a 16 year-old?

Most mothers prefer care by grandparents. They can offer continuity over a long part of the child's life, its childhood. This is particularly important where a family is breaking up or there is dysfunction in the family. A 1997 survey by the Children's Society showed that 78 per cent. of children considered their grandparents as important figures in their life. I hope that the Government will take seriously the potential of mobilising the extended family, especially the potential for supporting the role of grandparents, encouraging them to give help, time and care as well as motivation to their children.

7.42 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about the role of grandparents could not be more timely, following last week's Budget. The Government aim to make thousands of men and women better off through the new child care tax credit system. That will enable more families to afford childcare, thus enabling more parents to return to work.

However, that assumption rests on four principles, the first of which is the desirability of unemployed people returning to work, for example those with children. Secondly, the availability of suitable work for them to do. Thirdly, the provision of adequate support services to free them to do the work. Fourthly, the existence of a reward structure to make their work worth while.

The Government may well feel that they have addressed the reward structure, but I suspect that the desire to work and the availability of suitable work is still uncertain. My concern tonight is with the development of support services. The tax credit system will help many, but that is only one aspect of support. Another, I humbly suggest, is the wider family and, in tonight's context, the role of grandparents. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, 92 per cent. of grandchildren have regular contact with their grandparents.

The Government have clearly confirmed their wish to strike the balance between work and family responsibilities. In his Budget speech, the Chancellor spoke of the wider family and specifically mentioned the role of grandparents. That role is a special one which sometimes requires a direct "hands on" approach when grandparents have fully looked after their grandchildren. But for most it is an indirect way in which grandparents give their love and support, visiting them, listening to them, guiding them, giving them a sense of belonging to a wider family, participating with them in sharing school and sport and sharing other gifts, helping them overall with the teaching of life skills and the ability to learn to live and work together. At the end, there is the hope that those children will grow up in full independence and with good moral standing.

That support relays ideals and aspirations in an often uncertain world; it gives closeness and stability. That is especially true, when, sadly, break up of marriage occurs and the children are pulled between parents and often deserted by one or the other. How crucial is that wider stability at such times?

At later stages in childhood, as children grow up, grandparents act as an anchor, the person to whom grandchildren turn to bounce off ideas and question the reasonableness of problems. I suspect that grandparents often hear the words "It isn't fair". Access to grandparents cannot be underestimated; boys as well as girls will seek their guidance. In a previous debate, my noble friend Lady Macleod highlighted the importance of the male role model for children, particularly for those in single mother families. That importance cannot be stressed enough. It is interesting that some primary schools are making a move to encourage men to come and act as mentors to support that role.

The family unit is an important one and we believe that it should be encouraged. The Budget has given assistance to unmarried couples rather than married ones, where the married man's family allowance has been cut. That seems a retrograde step when we should be seeking to strengthen the family unit.

Bearing all that in mind, I ask the Minister whether the Government might consider ways in which grandparents could be dealt with, tax-wise, in the same way as other child minders. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, put forward that suggestion. I understand that at present grandparents rightly do not require any qualifications to look after their grandchildren. But in the same way, nor are grandparents able to receive any tax relief or financial support. A possible unintentional consequence of the new system could be that the state might end up subsidising people, supplanting the care that is now provided for nothing. Grandparents could find that their access to their grandchildren was reduced and that those close bonds evaporate.

Families today have become fragmented. Many live at great distances from their children and grandchildren, but a proportion still live near enough to help directly. That is why I posed my question to the Minister. Caring within families is not simply about a grandparent/grandchild relationship. It stretches much further. In caring for the younger generation, the grandparents feel that they are valued and intrinsic members of the family. In reverse, their sons and daughters are confident in the knowledge that their parents, probably retired, are not remote or lonely but are kept very much in touch with everyday life and family matters. People today are living longer. Whereas I had only one grandparent alive, and he died when I was four, that would be an exception today. Three and in some cases four generations are still living and provide an important network of care within their community.

It is natural and desirable that all should be able to play their part in raising the next generation—not to interfere, but to be there, giving valuable support. I hope that the Government will have a change of heart. Grandparents are a most valuable resource and the Government should do more to recognise that.

7.48 p.m.

Baroness Warnock

My Lords, I wish to support my noble friend Lord Northbourne in his suggestion that the Government should take seriously the role of grandparents in the provision of childcare, which is becoming increasingly important with the Government's new policies.

It is difficult to take grandparents seriously because the conventional image of grandparents is of funny little old people sitting side by side, smiling benignly when their grandchildren romp around them from time to time. Some grandparents may live up to that conventional stereotype, and they can be tremendously supportive. Indeed, if they still have their wits about them they may be useful in providing childcare, in helping children to read and other such supportive activities. But I should like briefly to concentrate on a different kind of grandparent.

I want to concentrate on what may be a numerically small class of grandparent but one that is of vast importance. I refer to the parent—usually the mother—of a young person, possibly 16 or 17 years old, who has become pregnant and decided to keep the baby. The grandparents of the baby are probably only in their 30s or 40s and may still have children of their own younger than the young mother. They will almost certainly be working people. I suggest that the Government consider giving such grandparents the regular kind of support that the mother can obtain.

It is paradoxical that, increasingly—as in the education Bill—parents are being held responsible for their children while they are still at school and are compelled to take on that responsibility. However, when a young person who may still be at school or in further education has a baby, the parents are no longer held responsible. I believe that the parents should still be expected to take responsibility for the girl and her baby; the odds are she will be a single mother. What is important is that the young girl who had the baby must be able to go back and complete her education; to take on further education; to be able to enter an apprenticeship or undergo training of some kind so that she will be able, under what is now strong pressure, to enter the job market. With the proper educational background she will be able to obtain a respectable and worthwhile job which will eventually help her to bring up her child.

I believe that a way should be found for grandparents of such young mothers to take on the responsibility of the child to enable the young mother to go back into education. It will make an enormous difference both to her prospects of obtaining a job and to her child in receiving a proper, intelligent upbringing. There is a great deal to be said for housing arrangements whereby care by the grandparents can be made easier. If a grandmother is prepared to devote herself to looking after the baby of a young mother, she should be deemed to have a dependant living in her home, even if the baby goes back at night to the mother's home. That would be of great value in helping a young mother to receive further education.

I urge the Government, committed as they are to continuing education, to consider the plight of young parents who have no chance to complete their education. Of all those who could help a young person in that situation, the grandparents are the best placed. That will not be possible unless financial arrangements are made whereby the grandmother can take over—almost as a surrogate mother—the care of the child, even if the care only takes place during the day. I believe that there are many women in their 30s and early 40s who are in that position and would willingly take on that responsibility if it was made financially feasible for them to do so.

If that happened, all the other benefits would accrue that have been mentioned such as the continuity in the case of the breakdown of a marriage or where a mother may drift from one relationship to another, resulting in a disruptive home life. Continuity would be assured, and we have good evidence that children who are excluded from school or who play truant are, to a large extent, the children of disrupted and disadvantaged backgrounds. We should concentrate on the role that grandparents can play to enable such children to have a proper chance and overcome their social disabilities.

7.56 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing the Unstarred Question this evening. Following the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, I should like to give an illustration, though it does not necessarily relate to a teenage mother. It is a story told to me this weekend by one of my daughters relating to an acquaintance of hers.

A young woman had a child by an unknown man. Subsequently she married a different man and the married couple then had two more children. There were then three children in that family group. The women left her husband and three children to move in with another man, by whom she is now pregnant with a view to having a fourth child.

Obviously the father who had been deserted by the mother had a problem in looking after the three children. The husband was responsible—two were his and one was not. The solution that they reached was that the mother's mother—the grandmother—gave up her work to look after the three children. I call that a valiant move on her behalf. Clearly it would be a help to that family if financial aid were available for that grandmother who has given up her paid employment in order to create a full-time home for those three young children.

There is great value in the role of grandparents for both their children and their grandchildren. Grandparents will often offer stability, patience, a sense of history and the sense of family that parents, in their rush for life, may not be able to give. The gifts of experience and time available often accrue to grandparents much more than to parents.

There is tremendous value in grandparents living nearby for mutual support. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, that is much more the trend in the East, where there is mutual support; grandparents look after grandchildren and grandchildren also look after grandparents. There is a great deal of danger in the mobility of employment that exists—less now than 10 years ago—which involves social fragmentation, and that is a great shame. Many older people feel that they do not see the qualities of life, youth and unconditional love that grandchildren can offer to grandparents. There is tremendous value in their role.

Secondly, grandparents can teach community and moral values, which again may be eluding the present parental generation. Grandparents have so much more experience of life. They have had an extra generation to acquire that life experience. Grandparents themselves need to muster compassion and courage to bring the different generations together. They are the people who can do it. Grandparents can bring all three and, as someone has already said, sometimes four generations together to avoid the polarisation of families which is such a sad trend today. It is great when grandparents can look beyond their own interests in order to keep the family together.

For instance, I have been told that in Pakistan they have a joint family system in which everyone, young and old, aunts and uncles, grandparents and grandchildren, belongs to a highly interdependent community and every member has a role and place. There is always a sense that one is inextricably connected to each other. That is my vision of what a family should be.

With this interdependence one avoids the lonely grandparent and one also avoids the unsupported parents and grandchildren. I do not think necessarily that grandparents should sit on top of the nuclear family all the time but they should be available. My own two grandsons live about 20 minutes away from us. It is wonderful. Sometimes we can be free of them but sometimes we love having them. They are coming to stay for a week before Easter, which will be a great experience for us. I hope it will also be for them. They will probably be more spoiled by their grandparents than they are by their parents. It is great having them with us.

Lastly, grandparents need to be told that they are valued and important. The Bible gives us all strength to say this because the Bible stresses time and again the immense value of generational integration. Part of this country's Christian heritage is that family integration. I would plead not only for occasional cash help for grandparents where it is needed but also for the Government to say, "Grandparents, come out of the woodwork. We need you. You are important".

8.2 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, it has now fallen to me to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, not only on having the luck to bring his Unstarred Question before us this evening but also on the figures he has given us, which I did not know about and perhaps other noble Lords did not know of them, either. It was a most interesting speech and I learnt a lot from it.

One has to ask oneself: is grandparenthood a privilege or is it just luck? Not every married couple wants children, and not every married couple can have children if they want them. So, as a grandparent, one is perhaps in the lap of the gods. My interest—one has to declare it in the House now—is that I am a step-great grandmother, which makes me feel very old.

This Question asks the Government what they intend to do about their commitment to affordable child care. We all know that care is very expensive and for a child it is also a very responsible job. Do grandparents come into this picture? They probably love their grandchildren and would like to look after them while the parents are at work; or perhaps they feel that they have done enough when bringing up their own children, who are the parents of their grandchildren.

The question also arises as to who will pay for the care and what calibre the carer shall be—whether the carer would be allowed to look after more than one child or whether the local authority or a member of the ever-increasing number of quangos will take it upon themselves to see that all was well. We have had some disastrous results which have been reported in the press recently. Those have often proved to be the fault of local authorities. Perhaps at such times grandparents can step in and bring a measure of hope for the grandchildren.

As I see it, the grandparent is a shoulder to cry on, a person who can be trusted with secrets, an older and wiser person, a person who can and does reprimand with well chosen words when it is needed, and above all by example show the precious grandchildren that life can be tough but it can also be fun.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Meston

My Lords, I entirely follow the spirit of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in asking his Question, although for a moment I had an alarming picture of my mother-in-law being winched into the garden in a Portakabin, which I think would cause her as much distress as perhaps myself.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, very properly reminded us that it cannot be right to stereotype grandparents. I have no clear recollection of my grandparents and I suppose that for my early life the thought of grandmothers at least was rather like those formidable characters who appeared in the Giles' cartoons. A practice in family law has taught me that there are all sorts of grandparents, many of whom have a great deal to offer. It is in that context that I wish to make a few remarks because very often grandparents are of most value to a family when things go wrong.

In passing the Children Act 1989, Parliament took a considered decision not to give any particular status to grandparents but to allow them a way in which they might participate in care proceedings, with leave of the court, if matters reached that stage. On balance, I suggest that decision was correct and that it has worked well in practice. It has ensured that grandparents with something useful to say or something useful to offer will be heard by the court, either as an actual party to the proceedings or at least as a witness. The courts are astute to ensure that grandparents are not treated separately as represented parties in litigation if their interests in that litigation are the same as those of the parents themselves. But even those grandparents who are less obviously involved should normally have a reasonable opportunity to express a view, directly or indirectly, to the court.

Outside the legal process the official guidance for social workers under the Children Act provides that possibilities for a child to be cared for within the extended family should have been investigated and considered as an alternative to the provision of accommodation by the responsible local authority. However, even when it has become necessary for the responsible authority to arrange provision of accommodation, placement with a relative will often provide the best opportunities for promoting and maintaining family links in a familiar setting.

Apart from the placement of children, there is a duty under the Children Act to promote contact between children in care and their relatives unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the welfare of the individual child. In practice, social workers are usually only too relieved to find that there is a grandparent who is ready, willing and able to assist. But as Professor June Thoburn points out in her book on child placement, one of the legacies of the Colwell report and the report into the death of Tyra Henry, has been a sense of unease about placements with relatives. In any case there has to be a realistic assessment of the grandparents' insight into what has gone wrong in the past and of the grandparents' ability to protect from future harm. It is a sad fact that sometimes the more extreme the mistreatment of the child or the risk to the child from the parent or parents, the more unwilling the grandparents can be to accept the position or to accept the need for vigilance.

The reality is that when family relationships break down or when local authorities have to intervene, there are, at one end of the scale, grandparents who are quite excellent at picking up the pieces, keeping open lines of communication and looking after the children either for short-term respite care or for longer-term periods. Professor Thoburn refers to research findings that placements with relatives are among the most successful, giving a child a greater sense of permanence than with other foster parents. But at the other end of the scale grandparents can make bad situations worse by interfering and being over-partisan and hostile. This adds more strain and complication and can de-stabilise placements of children, for example, with conventional foster parents.

Further, one cannot escape the fact that poor parents themselves tend to have had poor parents, and that child abuse in its different forms is all too often repeatedly inter-generational. But it is too easy to forget that family breakdowns involving children do not just affect the parents but often affect loving and anxious grandparents.

If I may remain with the legal context, but in the international setting, I recently read that the rights of children to preserve their identity was first expressly enshrined in the United Convention on the Rights of the Child as a result of the Argentinian initiative to prevent repetition of events in the so-called, "Dirty War" when some 170 children disappeared. Most of the 49 children who were traced, whether dead or alive, were traced by the brave group known as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Nearer home, a recent decision of the English High Court has recognised that grandparents can acquire rights of custody under the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction. Last but not least, there is the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8 of which provides for respect to family life. Marginal cases on Article 8 have attracted adverse comment and publicity, which is unfortunate. But the fact is that it reflects the point that Article 8 is concerned with some broader concept than the so-called conventional nuclear family. Indeed, in the leading case Marckx v. Belgium, the court at Strasbourg held that family life in the conventional context, included ties between grandparents and grandchildren since such relatives may play a considerable part in family life.

I have concentrated on the legal aspects of the rights and responsibilities of grandparents and the role they play in proceedings before our courts. I am conscious that this debate has occupied a wider range than the narrow concerns of a lawyer. Reference was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for example, to the importance of children, particularly in one-parent situations, to have a male role-model. That was a valuable point. There is of course a gender consideration here because where the burden does fall on grandparents more generally it means a burden on the grandmother who may well have sacrificed her own career to bring up her own children and who may again sacrifice an opportunity to return to work when she has to look after her own parents or her parents-in-law. But as is obvious from this debate, a further burden may still arise if the grandmother has to become, in effect, the surrogate mother.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, referred to the position of the relatively younger grandmother looking after her daughter's child who had a baby at a young age. At the other end of the spectrum I suspect that we may well have problems with the increasing prevalence of delayed child bearing, meaning that in some respects the grandparents may become more aged. A problem may arise in that situation. It is clear that there are problems ahead and that they are not easy to assess or predict. I look forward to the Minister's response.

8.16 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, like other speakers in this debate, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for tabling this Question. It raises a lot of very important issues. Families are the fundamental social unit in our society. I believe that every speaker in this debate has stressed that. They provide mutual support and self-fulfilment to individuals, as well as a strong basis for care and learning. Upholding and strengthening stable family life are the most effective means of bringing up our children and shaping the values of future generations. It is in this context that the Government want to do more to promote the best possible outcomes for our children by developing a national childcare strategy that will help parents balance family and working life.

The strategy is about making sure that children have good quality care which will enable them to thrive, with stimulating activities to help them develop and learn, and opportunities to mix with other children so that they can gain the social skills that they all need. All this will help them have a good start in life and be better prepared for performing well at school. The contribution of grandparents is vital to this aim.

The Government believe in supporting all families, whatever form they may take. We cannot ignore that social trends in deferred marriage, lone parents, separation and divorce mean that there is no longer a single typical family structure. Last week's Budget announcement set out how we intend to support families, through, for example, the new Working Families Tax Credit, which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned. But it is no less important for children to know the love and affection of their grandparents, as it gives them a sense of wholeness by knowing their roots and gives them a link into the past. This link must be maintained, whatever happens to the family, for it is of benefit to both the child and the grandparent. I know that, speaking from experience. We recognise that attitudes have changed, and indeed the world has changed. Multi-generation families in Britain also need to adapt to changing personal relations and lifestyles. As a part of that process, we want to encourage grandparents to play their part in children's lives. We also want to emphasise their value as sources of care and support to their families.

In that context, I very much agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, that we should salute grandparents and cherish the role that they play in their families. That is why we gave a commitment in our education White Paper, Excellence in schools, that we would encourage the involvement of grandparents in children's learning. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to that.

To that end, we have been working with Age Concern to provide supportive mentoring for children from responsible older people. The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, mentioned that not all older people are grandparents, but many older people who may not have grandchildren might like to be involved in such mentoring schemes. This year we have given Age Concern a grant for a feasibility study to test the possibility of extending its "Trans-Age" grandparent mentoring scheme to secondary schools. Depending on the outcome of the study, we will be prepared to consider making further funding available towards the costs of pump-priming a pilot project for secondary schools. Such programmes provide the opportunity for older people to enrich their own lives and at the same time those of young people. That is a most important combination. By contributing and sharing their life experiences, listening, caring and becoming a child's special friend, older volunteers can often provide a stability that might be otherwise lacking.

I did not know that Age Concern was introducing a "Grandparents' Day" and that it will be on 27th September. That happens to be my birthday, so perhaps I can have a double celebration this year of "Grandparents' Day" and my birthday with my grandchildren, although I have a horrible feeling that the Labour Party conference might get in the way!

We must remember that many grandparents also work and that they may not always be available to carry out the full-time care to which some speakers have referred, but that does not stop them playing a role in providing their grandchildren with love and perhaps a little part-time care. We must also remember that some grandparents may be looking after great-grandparents—not great-grandparents like the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, because she certainly does not need any looking after, although some great-grandparents may.

Many significant social changes have taken place which affect the way in which we live now. There are increasing opportunities for grandparents to be involved with their families when they retire early, and more people have been retiring early in recent years. With healthy life expectancy increasing, there is a greater chance of any child having an active grandparent than was the case for the noble Baroness, Lady Byford.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston, spoke about family breakdown and child abuse. He referred to children in care and the possible role of grandparents in placements. He rightly said that it is important that realistic assessments should be made, and are needed, before such placements are made, but loving grandparents can sometimes rescue children from the most terrible situations.

There is also an important role for grandparents as childcarers as part of the national childcare strategy on which we plan to launch a Green Paper after Easter. The aim is to have a range of good quality, affordable childcare provision in every neighbourhood, meeting the needs of the child, providing choice for parents and supporting the informal childcare sector. We recognise that many parents would prefer to leave their children with a close relative when they are not looking after them themselves. Grandparents often play a major role in the provision of such childcare within the family. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, referred to that in the context of very young single mothers.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked whether grandparents who were being trained for childcare would be given credit for experience. I am sure that any sensible training scheme would do that.

The 1994 British Social Attitudes Survey found that 75 per cent. of mothers used informal care for some of their childcare provision. Out of this 75 per cent., 62 per cent. of mothers used relatives, including grandparents, to provide childcare, while a further 13 per cent. used either friends or neighbours. It is right that parents should have this choice; and the national childcare strategy will not discourage these childcare arrangements. We do not want to fix something that already works. But we must also recognise that this choice unfortunately does not exist for many families where no grandparent is available to support their children by looking after their grandchildren.

As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, more and more women are working. Over 70 per cent. of the female population are economically active and the percentage is increasing. This is creating a greater need for childcare, especially where both parents are working. Four out of five non-working mothers in the UK say they would go out to work if they had the childcare of their choice. A quarter of mothers who work part-time say they would increase their working hours if they had the childcare of their choice. That is why we made a manifesto commitment to develop a national childcare strategy.

We have already set out the measure of importance we attach to delivering the strategy by committing £300 million to expand out-of-school childcare over the next five years to help up to 1 million children. From April the expansion will start with additional funding made available to the out-of-school childcare initiative. For 1998–99, this means that funding has more than doubled and will create 20,000 new places. The initiative has already created some 80,000 places.

Also in 1998–99 we will extend pre-school places and out-of-school care for four year-olds and expand the provision of childcare in FE colleges. That is important to the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, because young mothers need to continue their education and training.

The strategy will also provide support for those such as grandparents who look after children at home. We want to improve the skills of all who work with children, not just those in formal settings. For parents and grandparents who want to look after their own children, we want to make sure they have access to support and information to help them in this role. They will be able to choose to participate in local care activities, such as play groups, toy libraries and One O'clock clubs and to have access to other services which might be provided. We also want to try to encourage employers to have more family-friendly policies and we are taking a variety of initiatives in that respect.

To conclude, despite the range of public policies, the primary role for bringing up children rests with their parents, supported by their wider family, friends, neighbours and the community. The parental role, that of the extended family and that of the wider community are vital in identifying problems and providing the first resource for intervention. Nothing that government do should undermine that. We want to encourage working together to build strong communities with integrated services towards a socially integrated society which is inclusive rather than exclusive. We want to emphasise the nurturing role of families in the upbringing of children and the important ripple effect this has—one family more confident, secure, able to cope, reaching out to others to form the basis of developing a caring community. That is very precious and it is something that we must preserve.