HL Deb 23 January 2002 vol 630 cc1457-9

2.40 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the context of their initiatives concerned with the family, how they define the word "family".

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, families come in all shapes and sizes. However, support for children and parents is at the heart of the Government's initiatives to strengthen family life. Our primary aim is to ensure a good start in life for the next generation. That means ensuring stability for children and support for those who raise them.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for that reply and most heartened by the way in which the Government put children at the very centre of their family policy. Does he agree, however, that using such a wide definition of the family risks eroding the network of responsibilities that parents owe to their children? I know that the Government take the view that they should not tell adults how to live their lives, but, in fact, the Government do, of course, tell adults how to live their lives when the matter reflects upon the welfare of children.

Should not the Government be prepared to ensure that all parents and prospective parents know about the findings of recent research concerning the dangers of certain practices of parents? I have in mind, for example, excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy, domestic violence or the abandonment of a child by one or both parents. Should not the Government be prepared to ensure that all parents know about the risks to their children?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. Over the past few years, the Government have announced an enormous range of initiatives on family policy. Sometimes, they are directed at parents, but they also concern the role of grandparents in caring for children and the issue of financial support. Families are private affairs, but it is true that the Government will sometimes have responsibilities to parents. Sometimes, the concentration will be on mothers, sometimes it is on fathers, even if it is less up-front. We must not forget the role of fathers. We have projects for fathers around the country.

I have read the extensive briefing provided for such a wide Question. In 1999–2000, following the introduction of the family support grant, there was a concentration on initiatives for fathers. The projects included Fathers Direct, Families need Fathers, Investing in Fathers and Making Fathers Matter. There is a Dads and Lads project and a Superdads project. I could go into greater detail; the definition of Superdads may not be what noble Lords might think. It is an extremely worthwhile project. We have tried to concentrate on various areas right across the family that may have been somewhat neglected.

The Lord Bishop of Bradford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in a city such as Bradford, which has people of many faiths, cultures and races, the word "family" means various things. For some, it can be a casual, almost temporary arrangement; for most people of religious faith, it implies permanence, commitment and dedication. Would it not be helpful for people in cities such as ours to know precisely what the Government mean when they use the word "family"? Will the Minister give us that definition today, or, if he cannot, will he tell us when lie will?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the reason why I answered the Question on behalf of the Home Office in the first place is that the Home Secretary chairs the Ministerial Sub-Committee on Active Communities and Family Issues. I am carrying around enormous definitions of families. Families, as I said in my Answer, come in all shapes and sizes, by and large.

I have got some definitions of parents, who are one part of the family. They may not necessarily be the parents of the child; they could be people with parental responsibility. There are also definitions of parents for the purposes of education law in the Education Act 1996. Those definitions are different.

We all want to see happy, tranquil, peaceful and private families, wherever they live and whatever their faith.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, the inroads that the Government are making into child poverty are welcome. Can the Minister say how the Government balance measures to encourage lone parents into work with allowing lone parents with children under the age of two to choose to stay at home and give the children their undivided attention, if they wish to?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that is absolutely right for parents of children at that age. However, the Government have always taken the view that the best way out of poverty for any family is work. It is the role of government and society to facilitate work opportunities at a place and a time that is suitable to parents with caring responsibilities.

That has been a problem in the past. People have decided that work was not available and that they were stuck on benefits. They wanted to work, not to be on benefits, but the hours and the location were wrong, and there was no help to look after a child—may be the parent had no family or the neighbours were not that supportive. It is our job, through the host of projects that we have announced throughout the country in the past four years, to meet that desire. We are not forcing parents into work; it is simply that work is the best way out of poverty.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that any definition of family to be used by the Government must reflect the reality in our society? The Civil Partnerships Bill, which will be brought forward by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill on Friday, would help with that.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the Government have not taken a view on the Bill. Naturally, we will do so in due course. It is a formidable Bill and has obviously been drafted with considerable expertise and care on a very important area. There is a similar Bill in the other place. The Government announced in, I think, October or November that a unit in the Cabinet Office was considering the issue of civil partnerships. This country has probably been a little behind others in that regard.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, as a father of four, I should declare an interest. I do not know whether that makes me a dad or a superdad. Is the Minister aware that children are best nurtured in a family with a father and a mother? That being the case, what are the Government doing to ensure that children will, in the future, be brought up in traditional families with fathers and mothers?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I detailed some of the projects that concentrate on fathers. That was a somewhat neglected area. It is clear that, in the main, children are best in a family. However, how that family is constructed and how it lives together are, essentially, matters for that family. We are concerned about the children, and children are best with two parents. However, sometimes, that may not be the case, for various reasons. Parenting skills must be developed as they have been long-forgotten by some. The safety of the child is of paramount importance—hence the range of projects—but we do not prejudge individual private circumstances.