HL Deb 17 March 2004 vol 659 cc272-305

3.21 p.m.

Lord Northbourne rose to call attention to the role of marriage in securing the well-being of the nation's children and their parents in 21st-century Britain; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, last week I mentioned to an acquaintance that I was introducing a debate on marriage. He said, "Are you for or against?". My answer is that I am for healthy, happy marriages and I am against dysfunctional, unhappy ones. Healthy marriages are good for children, for parents and for society as a whole, whereas dysfunctional marriages are hell for everybody.

I am going to argue this afternoon that there are many things which can be done and should be done to help those who have made the choice to marry to have a more healthy and happy marriage, and to help those who are wondering whether or not to marry to make the choice wisely.

It is very much in the interest of us all that more marriages should be happy marriages, and that couples before they enter into marriage should understand what it is all about. Since I introduced a debate on marriage five years ago, the Government have said, in their consultation document, Strengthening Families: This Government believes that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships. This does not mean trying to make people marry, or criticising or penalising people who choose not to. We do not believe that government should interfere in people's lives in that way. But we do share the belief of the majority of people, that marriage provides the most reliable framework for raising children".

I agree. The decision to marry is a private one. But that does not mean that it is not one which has huge consequences for society and for the state, particularly where children are involved.

The state has a major stake in marriage. For example, a much higher proportion of single parent families than married families are on benefits. The cost of marriage breakdown is about £5 billion a year, and that is not to mention the human cost, which cannot be quantified. The state should encourage and not compel. It should provide practical help and not moralise. But it cannot afford to ignore the problem.

Marriage is a delicate subject to debate. I know many noble Lords have strong feelings on the subject. None of us wants to hurt or offend those whose lives have taken a different course to our own. I will do my best to present a balanced picture, but I hope noble Lords will have compassion on me—I have only 15 minutes.

Fifty years ago in this country marriage was the norm—at the very heart of family life. Children born outside marriage—and there were a tiny minority of them—were called illegitimate and they were stigmatised and disadvantaged. Although there were reasons for this, it was cruel for the children and often cruel for their parents. Also in those days, some children suffered because their parents were locked together in a miserable, confrontational marriage. Today all that has changed. There is no longer any stigma to being born of parents who are not married. Few parents today stay together in unhappy marriages. In 2002, 40 per cent of children were born outside marriage, and in the same year more than 147,000 couples divorced.

Alas, today we have a different set of problems. The sad truth is that still far too many of the nation's children are growing up in family circumstances which will deny them the chance to develop to their full potential, which will deny them equal opportunity in adult life. I hesitate to quote these educational statistics, but it is said that about 17 per cent of all children today leave school functionally illiterate, and last year only 55 per cent of girls and 44 per cent of boys got more than five passes at A to C level in GCSEs and GNVQs.

These statistics reflect not only on the schools but also on the families in which those children grew up. I believe that the time has come to have another look at marriage. I suggest that the mission for any review of marriage should be to see if we can increase the percentage of the nation's children who grow up in a family which enables them to develop to their full potential, while at the same time providing a fulfilling life for their parents.

I want to look at the needs of children. The physical needs of children and their parents are basic to wellbeing. Poverty, unemployment, inappropriate housing, inadequate services and so forth, all affect the ability of parents to give what they need to their children. This Government have boldly started to address many of these problems and I congratulate them on doing so. It has, however, to be said—which they realise—that there is very much more still to be done. However, due to the limited time this afternoon, I shall focus on the emotional needs of children which are also absolutely fundamental to children's well-being.

Every young child needs to grow up in a cocoon of security, based on a loving, long-term relationship with one or two or more adults. In the majority of cases that will mean parents. A child needs to feel safe as it gradually explores the world into which it has been launched by birth. Children need routine. They fear change because the unknown is threatening to them.

In the debate in 1999, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said: Disruption to family life and to the relationships which children have with the adult on whom they depend usually results in children becoming insecure and fearful of the future".— [Official Report, 24/3/99; col. 1324.]

To feel safe, a child needs guidance and boundaries, to know what is expected of him and a secure framework in which to grow up. A father's role in the home is important. Children thrive on the "father/mother" relationship. Every child will seek out male and female role models whom they can respect and learn from. Parenting is a tough job; it is easier if there are two to share the burden. All these things, and many others, point to the advantages for a child of having two parents working together in a long-term, stable, committed, harmonious relationship. It also emphasises the case for a structure within which that relationship can be sustained.

It is often said, particularly by the professionals and politicians, that family relationships matter more than family structures. Of course that is a perfectly true statement, but it is not the whole story. Committed relationships are very much more difficult to sustain without a structure of commitment and clear understanding by the parties who have entered into them. Today 50 per cent of all cohabiting couples with children part within 10 years, as against only 12 per cent of married couples with children.

In this country today—it may be a pity but it is a fact— the only legal structure that we have for formalising a long-term commitment is marriage. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, introduced the Civil Partnerships Bill last year which contained provisions for heterosexual partnerships. The government Benches shot those proposals down in flames, and as far as I can see the Government have now backed off from heterosexual civil partnerships, which means that for the foreseeable future healthy marriage seems to be the best chance to secure for more children the support they need for a good start in life.

In saying that, I acknowledge. of course, that marriage is not the only way. We all know of children who have grown up in single-parent families, cohabiting families and reconstituted families and have had a happy and successful life, but statistics show that, overall and on a range of measures, children brought up in a stable, happy, two-parent family will, on average, do better in school and in later life than those who are not. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, said: The research is clear. It tells us that children are best nurtured and cared for by two people living together in harmony on a long term basis".—[Official Report, 24/3/99; col. 1319.]

I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not advocating trying to persuade people to marry, if they do not want to. I am not advocating trying to persuade people to stay married, if they do not want to. I am advocating positive action to help those who are married to have a full, healthy and happy marriage and to give those who are considering marriage a sound understanding of the advantages and challenges. The United States Congress has just voted 1.5 billion dollars for a programme that will attempt to achieve exactly that objective.

I must admit that the social background in the UK today is not promising for a healthy marriage. Many young people today, especially young women, are unconvinced of the need for marriage. At the other end of the scale, uneducated and disadvantaged young women have trouble finding a decent man who will make a commitment. The father's traditional role in a low-income family as protector and provider has largely been taken over by the state. In 1999, David Sheppard said that if a father was excluded from regular employment, it had "crucial effects" on family life. He was also quoted as saying that he had been told that, in some disadvantaged communities, 'Men are regarded as redundant'—in the home as well as at work".—[Official Report, 24/3/99; col. 1298.]

I have more on that subject, but I will not delay the House. I will move on to what I have marked as the action plan.

I would not wish to end without giving the House some positive thoughts about things that could and should be done in this country today. Research over the past five years by One Plus One has shown that, by the time that a healthy marriage has degenerated into a dysfunctional marriage, it is usually far too late for intervention to be effective. Much more time and resources should be devoted to enabling young people to acquire the knowledge and the emotional and interpersonal skills that they will need before marriage, in the early years of marriage and at the transition points, before trouble sets in.

Action should be concentrated in five areas. First, I should mention the physical and environmental problems to which I referred briefly. I shall say no more about those; we all know about them. The second point is that we should define more clearly the respective rights and responsibilities of parents and of the state, in respect of parenthood and in respect of marriage. The Government should, after careful consultation, define more clearly the respective rights and responsibilities of parents and the state for the care and education of the nation's children. They should explore the idea recently canvassed by the National Family & Parenting Institute of having a parents' charter, compact or contract between parents and the state.

Many young people today are surprisingly ignorant about marriage and cohabitation. Research from 2002 shows that 50 per cent of the population incorrectly believe that unmarried people who cohabit have the same legal rights as married people. They do not. Government should take steps to correct young people's misconceptions about marriage. Marriage is not just an excuse for a party. Marriage is not a prop to shore up a failing romantic love affair. Marriage is not admitting defeat or sacrificing individuality but joining forces to be stronger together. It is creating a lifelong commitment with a partner, and it is a sign of maturity and courage. Marriage is a long-term committed partnership in which love can grow and mature.

My third point is that we should work with parents, not against them. Nearly all parents want the best for their child. The Government have—I must make a modest criticism— made a major mistake with regard to the family: they have inflated the value of direct state intervention and tended to undermine the influence and confidence of parents. I believe that we should all value, respect and empower parents more and recognise the sacrifices that they make and the tough job that they do raising the nation's children. The state should provide and procure support for parents where and when they want it. and we should find more effective ways to consult parents of all backgrounds and listen to their concerns. We should provide or procure affordable, universally available education in relationships and communication skills at school and later in life. We should provide or procure affordable parenting education and support for all parents where and when they want it, especially around the birth of their first child.

My fourth point is that the state and society should encourage and support healthy marriage. We should foster programmes to educate and help married parents to improve and enrich their relationships. We should foster programmes to inform young people about the nature of marriage and the sacrifices and advantages involved in a long-term commitment through marriage. We should support and encourage changes to make it easier for committed parents to reconcile family responsibilities and the demands of employment. We should find ways to support young men in becoming good fathers and contributors, not just financially but in an emotionally and morally supportive sense, so that their children can be truly proud of them.

Finally, I turn to what is, perhaps, a controversial point. Governments should send strong signals of support to those who serve society. If long-term commitment between parents is best for children and therefore for the nation's future, governments should support those who decide to make that commitment. Words are not enough. At the least, we should consider making personal tax allowances transferable and examine the possibility of some sort of tax breaks or support. We should do so not because it would make a huge financial difference but because it would show parents who had made a long-term commitment to marriage for their own sake and for the sake of their children that we wanted to support them because we recognised that they were doing good for all of us.

So far, I have referred only to the advantages to children and to the state of long-term commitment in marriage. There is another fundamental aspect: the spiritual strength and wholeness that it can bring to those who enter into the marriage commitment. I have run out of time, but I hope that the right reverend Prelates and other noble Lords will speak about the advantages of marriage for parents themselves. I beg to move for Papers.

3.37 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, noble Lords will be pleased to hear that my intervention will be brief. I intend to make only one point, and my purpose is to draw the Minister's attention to an injustice.

I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about the importance of bringing up children within a stable marriage, preferably, as he put it, in a long-term, committed and harmonious marriage. A long-term marriage or relationship benefits the adults as well as the children. There is plenty of research to show that people are happiest and healthiest in a long-term stable relationship. I imagine that that is because there are enough other unstable elements in our lives that we must put up with.

Within marriage, such long-term stable relationships are recognised in law and, to a certain extent, encouraged. They are encouraged by the state pension arrangements and by tax allowances between spouses, especially on death. Presumably, that is because they look after each other and are less demanding on the public services. What about long-term stable relationships outside marriage? Sadly, they are discriminated against and not recognised in law.

Noble Lords may remember the late Lord Montague of Oxford. He entered your Lordships' House in 1997. Sadly, he died three years later. He and his companion were wonderful friends of my family for 25 years. They had that special relationship with my children that adult family friends sometimes have—a relationship free of the baggage that exists between parents and children. Lord Montague and I both worked in business and frequently exchanged ideas. He built up a successful engineering business, which was quoted on the London Stock Exchange. We were both friends of the late John Smith, and we worked together to build up the relationship between the Labour Party and the business community. When Lord Montague died, he and his companion had been together for 32 years. A real "'til death do us part" relationship. But the tax and pension benefits available to a surviving spouse were not available to his companion. They were not available because his companion was male. The home they shared had to be sold, because death duties did not recognise the surviving partner.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords. I wonder if I could draw the noble Lord's attention to the fact that the Motion specifically refers to families with children. The object of that was to focus on families with children, rather than on the vexed question of homosexual partnerships and marriage, which I felt would distract from the particular, rather narrower, issue which I hoped the House might wish to debate.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I apologise if the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, feels I am trespassing on his debate, but I put my name down to speak and prepared this when the Motion on the Order Paper was just a debate about marriage. So I felt that it was relevant then. I would like to continue making this point because I have come to a point the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned in his speech.

These benefits were not available because his companion was male, and the home that they shared had to be sold because death duties and pension arrangements did not recognise the surviving partner. This is the injustice to which I refer. Does my noble friend the Minister not find this discriminatory, intolerant, lacking in humanity and perhaps a little bit mean spirited? Because I do. But it is not difficult to put it right.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, told us that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, introduced a Civil Partnerships Bill. It had its Second Reading in your Lordships' House on 25 January 2002. The Government indicated that they would introduce their own Bill, and so the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, did not proceed. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, there was some discussion about whether the Government's Bill would apply to same-sex partnerships or heterosexual partnerships, or both. I have established that the Department of Trade and Industry is handling the Bill. and it did briefly surface on 5 February this year in response to a Written Question to the Minster in another place, Jacqui Smith. She said that the Government hope to introduce the civil partnerships Bill into Parliament in this Session. The purpose of my intervention is simple. It is to try to speed it up.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on moving this debate. He has raised matters of enormous importance. Perhaps it might have been apt if I had said something about children who have been adopted by, or who are living with, same-sex couples. But my purpose is to try to shame the Government into speeding up the introduction of the civil partnerships Bill, because delay means that the injustice continues.

3.44 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject. I have been married three times and am still married, which does not make me an expert but does make me an addict. If I use the word "marriage" in this debate, I would personally intend it to extend to a civil partnership should we get a Bill on that subject, which I very much hope we will. The essence. to me, is of a public commitment made between two people: a commitment to sharing, to sacrifice when that is necessary and to accommodation with each other. All these words can be quite frightening if you have not experienced them at some stage. People can find commitment and sharing quite difficult, and the idea of sacrificing oneself so that someone else can succeed in something is, in some ways, quite alien to the spirit of our times. So if we are to encourage marriage, we ought to be looking for ways to encourage that sort of attitude in people. The best way to do that is to give people experience of it. The sort of place we ought to be doing that is at school.

I certainly do not mean adding a few days to PSHE lessons and rather dry, didactic teaching about what a marriage should consist of, but giving people actual experience. I suppose that it used to be thought that sports offered such an opportunity but today, by and large, even team sports tend to be looked at as collections of individuals rather than teams. One or two, like rowing, are quite clearly team sports where people do rely on each other enormously. But sports have become a very individual thing. The opportunity is much more apparent in areas like drama, public speaking teams and various other extra-curricular activities. There are some very good examples around, where pupils form small teams or groups and really rely on each other to make a success. Keeping the group together, supporting the weaker members of the group, taking your turn and the success of the group are what is important rather than the success of the individual. This is the sort of experience that you can gain from engaging in such activities. We could do more to support such opportunities in schools and make it easier for schools to find and participate in such events. The Department for Education and Skills website is really getting quite good these days. The web is probably the right way in which to go. It would make it easier for schools to find these things and to say "If you're organising something like this, put it up on the website". People will know where to get to it. If someone comes up with an innovative idea that requires a little starting finance to get it running, there should be schemes to allow that to happen.

I should also like to see the return of stories in schools, a long-time favourite subject of mine. I should like to see the return of teaching that is about people and the way people interact, react and behave. It used to be what history was about and, to some extent, what geography was about. Now it is not about people, it is about documents. You build up an understanding of how people are and, particularly, you build up an ambition to be like something, if you are learning about people. There is room for much more of the curriculum to have that slant, rather than a sort of pseudo-scientific approach to history. That has its function, perhaps at A-level, certainly at degree level. But most of us give up history at GCSE, and at GCSE it should be about people.

I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that we should make some public recognition of those people who make a public commitment as it is for the public good that they do such things. We should encourage that. There should be a definite advantage to being married in all its aspects. There should be small tax advantages. One way or another, you should be better off—not enormously, but you should be better off. Again, I would extend that to civil partnerships, as and when we get them.

Beyond that, we are looking at how we can support an environment from which children and parents, in whatever relationship they find themselves, can benefit. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, knows, I am very much in favour of parenting classes. Such things exist, perhaps, but I have never come across them. They are not part of the package you are given when you get a young child, and that is the point when you need to have access to them. I have learnt a great deal from watching on television the noble Lord, Lord Winston, in his programme "A Child of Our Time". It deals with the problems that occur when bringing up children and how to solve those problems when things go wrong. The web is the obvious route to have access to that advice in an easy way and to be able to know where to turn to.

The Government have produced an excellent service, NHS Direct, which I have used several times now. It is just easy. If there is a problem with the kid— it is developing spots or is behaving in a certain way—you ring up, you get treated well and you get an early diagnosis. The whole thing can be done without feeling you have to troop off to the hospital at two o'clock in the morning. You can do it while you are looking after the child in bed and your partner is getting some sleep. That sort of facility, which is easy to use, with someone helpful and interpretative at the other end. would be a useful way to go.

Something else we should try and spread the word about is the joy of parenting—the sheer pleasure to be had from bringing up a child. One thinks of this as a problem for men; indeed, in many cases it is a problem for young men, who do not understand that participating in bringing up a child can be immensely pleasurable. Particularly for those whom my wife spends her time working with in prison, it is a revelation when, in the course of the project that she organises, they come to realise what pleasure they might get from being involved in their child's upbringing and how they can do it well. The problem then is that their womenfolk have become so used to the fathers not being there that they rather resent them saying that they want a role in bringing up the children. None the less, we need to make progress in that direction.

Some good things are being done in schools, where the older children mentor the younger children and help bring them through education. In business life, many of us have been mentors to younger people who need some help making it in the world. But there is a gap; young people in their twenties never really get a chance to mentor school-age pupils, to learn the process of taking pleasure in looking after young children. We have become rather frightened by the prospect of paedophiles and pederasty. The immediate image that that sort of closeness conjures up is one of evil. There was a Coca-Cola cab parked outside the House of Lords when I arrived. It said, "Coca-Cola, the worldwide hug" and had a picture of a lot of people holding hands. If that is what "hug" means these days, we really are in trouble when it comes to understanding the pleasure that can be had with relationships between adults and children.

One way in which we might look at this issue is to give extra support to schemes that develop relationships between adults in this country and children in the third world. If they were supported and made easy, and young people were encouraged to get involved, it might give them—or some more of them—a taste of what it means to be involved in bringing up a child and sharing the pleasures of a child's achievements.

Finally, for people bringing up children on their own, it is an extremely hard and lonely business. We need to look at ways of making available to them the sort of support and community which they would get if they were part of a family network of a successful marriage. It strikes me that the people who really have this help to offer are the old. In many instances, the old are extremely lonely, but still quite capable of support and love. Something ought to be done in terms of the way we organise housing—we should not stick old people in ghettos where all they see are other old people just because it is easier that way. We ought to look at mixing communities, so that old people who are capable and willing to give support find themselves in close proximity to single parents of children, in particular, who would appreciate having that support. Perhaps in that way we can offer opportunities to recreate some sort of informal extended family.

3.54 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Northbourne for initiating this important debate, and for his persistence on this issue. He has dedicated his life to ensuring that as many children as possible in this country are truly wanted and receive the nurturing they need. Marriage can be a means to promoting that goal. If parents have a mechanism by which they can clearly establish that they wish to make a lifetime commitment to one another and to have a child together, the child's prospects must be improved.

This issue must be approached with great sensitivity, of course. Many parents choose not to marry; many children are not born to married parents; many married parents divorce; and many children whose parents are married have a very unhappy time, unfortunately.

Fortunately, the media do a very good job of promoting marriage. In HELLO! magazine, one sees each week so-and-so getting married, with lots of lovely photographs. This is show, I know, but it is popular and it promotes marriage. It is interesting that apparently, more middle-class couples are choosing to marry; it is becoming more fashionable to get married. That is good news.

What other means do the Government have to support parents, families and children? There are many roads, and the Government are vigorously following many of them. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill before the House is part of the Government's strategy to increase the numbers of houses. I believe that there are more families who are statutorily homeless than there were several years ago. When visiting families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, it is terrible to see the suffering they have to endure in those conditions. I welcome the Government's commitment to improving the supply of housing. I welcome what they are doing with Sure Start, intervening early to support families. I welcome what they are doing in investing in health and education. All this work is so important when it comes to improving outcomes for children.

My noble friend referred to a parents' charter. Are the Government being careful to engage with parents as far as possible? I know that Sure Start comes from what the local people in an area want, and I welcome that. However, I should like to highlight the danger of not making sufficient effort to consult with parents.

In other areas where adults take on the role of parents, we have often neglected that role. I am thinking particularly of residential childcare. Until recently in this country, 80 per cent of residential childcare workers, working in children's homes with children who have been neglected and abused, had no relevant qualification, and this was an important parenting role.

We have neglected foster carers for many years and I am very pleased that the Minister is making such determined efforts to improve conditions for them. We had a debate last week on conditions for elderly people with dementia, many of whom are in residential care. It was quite clear in that debate that the staff working in those homes were not adequately prepared for that work. This is an important parenting role, if you like: when people are coming to the end of their life, they are very vulnerable, and it is as if they are parented.

Your Lordships may be surprised at my bringing up the issue of prisons, but 10 per cent of children who go into care have some involvement in the criminal justice system, and more than 50 per cent have experienced abuse or neglect. I am sorry to bombard your Lordships with figures, but, sadly, 50 per cent of children in the criminal justice system have had experience of care, as have 25 per cent of prisoners in the adult population. For many male prisoners, their first experience of the father figure is their relationship with a prison officer. Those who are experienced in this area emphasise how very important those relationships with the prison officers are.

In this country, prison officers have nine weeks' training before they take up their job. Prison officers who work with children have three or four additional days' training. That is deplorable. In Norway, I believe that they have a year's probationary period, a year in a special college, where they study the theory and then they practise in a mock-up prison. They also have opportunities to travel abroad to see how people practise, in England for instance, before they are fully paid-up prison officers.

Martin Narey spoke to members of your Lordships' House yesterday evening. He was disappointed that prison officers receive only these nine weeks of training and pointed out that most probation officers have a degree and postgraduate qualifications. So what is going on here? That is my concern: that in the past these people, with this important parenting role, have been neglected.

I very warmly welcome the Government's child poverty strategy but there has been concern about the emphasis on getting mothers into work—even mothers with very young children. We know that is the best way to get children out of poverty but parents, especially those with very young children, need to be able to choose whether to go to work or whether to care for their children. There has been concern that such a choice has not been made as easily available as it should be, especially given the lack of availability of good-quality childcare. I note with interest that a forthcoming conference, run by the One Parent Family charity, will concentrate on this issue of parents having the choice of whether to go into work or to care for their children.

I recognise the commitment that the Government are making to this country's children, but I would be grateful if the Minister could offer an assurance that the Government really are seeking to engage parents as much as possible. Perhaps the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Northbourne, of a parents' charter. would be one way of encouraging engagement with parents. I thank my noble friend Lord Northbourne for calling this debate and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

4.03 pm
The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing a subject of such crucial importance to our society.

Our present society is characterised by a wide range of different kinds of relationships: single parents struggling, very often heroically, to bring up children on their own or people who are cohabiting for a variety of reasons. Some people do not feel quite ready to commit themselves fully; others have had a bad experience, either their own or their parents' experience, and they have been hurt; others are against marriage on principle; and, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, drew to our attention, there are people of the same sex in lifelong partnerships. Why any government should give the marriage relationship a special place in their policy is therefore a very serious, searching question.

The first and most prosaic reason, of course, is that it is good value for money. We know from the study undertaken by the House of Commons Library that in 1994 the cost of relationship breakdown, in terms of legal costs, court costs, benefit costs, and a whole range of other costs, was in the region of £4 billion. Compare that with the mere £5 million which is put into marriage and relationship support. Simply on economic grounds, therefore, it is clearly very wise and prudent of government to do all they can to prepare people for marriage properly and to support the marriage relationship.

Secondly, and more directly related to the debate, support for children, and more generally the family, crucially is provided through supporting marriage relationships. I am personally very glad to be associated with a number of organisations, such as our own diocesan organisation PACT—Parents and Children Together—the Family Nurturing Network, the Mothers' Union, and so on, all of which are fully committed to supporting good parenting and to supporting families.

We can all agree that children need to be supported in any way possible. That does not divide anybody in this House and I hope nobody in our society. We need to do all we can to support children, whatever the context in which they are growing up. However, research shows that a stable and loving marriage relationship has enormous benefits for the children. The effect of relationship breakdown is shown in the children's poor performance: at school very often: leaving school early; difficulty in getting a job; a range of illnesses; themselves getting married too young, and so on.

Under the present government arrangements, MARS—Marriage and Relationship Support — brings together family support and marriage support. The voluntary organisations can see many advantages in this, but it is very important, within that overall field, not to allow support for marriage in any way to be downgraded. As I have tried to suggest, supporting marriage is one of the very best ways in which we can actually support and help children to grow up with the kind of emotional, physical and spiritual health we would like for them.

As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has mentioned—I do not have time to develop the thought but I agree with a great deal of what he said— we cannot separate support for marriage from wider considerations of economic policy, social policy and political policy. in a whole range of areas. This is a subject which includes the whole gamut of government departments and government policies.

We need to do all we can to support those organisations, bodies and institutions which are trying not only to support family life but also to support committed relationships. I was very struck recently to read of a new initiative by One Plus One called "Couples Direct", which is an interactive Internet service. Its research has shown that marriage preparation and marriage support, whether done by Churches or anybody else, is extremely patchy. not always accessible to people, and that the vast majority of people who need it probably do not draw on it. They are therefore trying to make marriage support more accessible and more user-friendly through this interactive Internet service. It seemed to me to be a very valuable initiative.

First, there are therefore the economic benefits of supporting marriage and, secondly, the crucial importance as far as children are concerned of longterm, committed, stable, loving relationships.

I now come to my third point, which is a rather more difficult one to make. At the heart of marriage is the idea of a clear, public, lifetime commitment. From a Christian perspective, this commitment reflects a fundamental commitment or covenant between God and humanity. That is symbolised most beautifully in the Hebrew scriptures by the great overarching rainbow after Noah's flood. It is a sign of God's undeviating good will, unswerving love for humanity as a whole and a covenant into which the people of Israel consciously entered; and from a Christian point of view a covenant which comes to its focus in Jesus in whom earth and heaven are joined, never to be unjoined.

The Church has always held out the wonderful ideal that the relationships of men and women at their best should reflect that covenant of God and humanity that runs through the different marriage services. The marriage relationship is meant to reflect that covenant of God and humanity. I believe that it is right that the law of our country, or any country, should have a high ideal of that relationship expressed in one way or another through its public policy and through its laws.

A few years ago there was a famous debate between Lord Devlin and H.L.A. Hart, the philosopher, on the relationship between morality and law. Lord Devlin's point was that nothing in life is value-free or neutral and that the law of every country reflects, through its history, culture and religion, a particular understanding of marriage. So it is in this country.

I suppose the question arises of why we should continue to give marriage a very special place in our law and public policy. Marriage belongs to all human beings; it is not an invention of the Christian Church. In fact, the Church of England believes that when two people make promises to each other in public that brings about a marriage. You do not have to be in church to get married. Of course we would love everyone to come to church to receive God's blessing upon their marriage; and Jesus performed his first miracle at Cana of Galilee. As a character in one of Dostoevsky's novels said, Jesus performed his miracle to increase people's joy.

However, many people today get married in register offices. Of course those are valid marriages. From the Church's point of view I believe that we should support the work of registrars, who do all they can to prepare people for marriage properly and who also indicate to them the kind of help they can get. In that connection, I ask the Minister when we shall hear more from the Government about what is going to be asked of registrars under the new dispensation to Parliament of the regulatory reform order and explanatory document. The Church of England is also revising its laws on marriage and it would be interesting to know exactly where the Government stand on that. Therefore, whether marriages take place in a Church or in register offices we need to do all we can to support them.

I move on to a slightly more difficult point. I bear in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said. I totally accept that people of the same or opposite sex cohabit and live wonderfully mutually supportive and loving lives. There is absolutely no doubt about it. In many cases they put married relationships to shame. From a philosophical point of view, however, I would say that those relationships are in some way parasitic upon publicly stated vows, above all the vows of marriage. After all, when people enter into cohabitation, in their hearts in some way or another they want to make those kind of life-long vows. The fact is that most young people still want to get married. Even people who have divorced, although they have had a bad experience, still would like to find the right person to whom they can make a lifetime commitment.

So, I do not think that the Government should be timid or frightened about continuing to maintain in the law of this country a very special place for marriage. I do not think that it denigrates other relationships which in their own way can be very special, and from which we can learn.

4.14 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, we clearly all owe the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, our considerable gratitude for continuing to keep our minds on the importance of marriage for the family and children. Indeed, long before I was privileged to join your Lordships' House, I have since discovered that the noble Lord instituted many debates on marriage and the importance of the role of fathers and so on. Since I have been here, he has certainly continued to keep our minds firmly focused on these subjects through a number of different means.

If I look back over my lifetime—it is a shock to realise just how long that now covers—I am amazed at the changes that have taken place in the pattern of domestic family life. I refer not just to changes but also to diversification.

At the start of my adult life—now half a century ago marriage was certainly the conventional norm; the norm for young people from all walks of life, wishing to start a life together and raise children. It was the norm not just for them but for their neighbours as well and it lasted, in most cases, for the rest of their lives.

I was powerfully reminded of this the other day when I looked again at the 1957 seminal research by Michael Young and Peter Willmot, Family and Kinship in East London. Your Lordships will recall their brilliant description of the everyday built-in extended family support systems that then prevailed and the extent to which those were weakened as the younger generations moved out to the new housing estates in the suburbs. But what for me today is most significant about that book is that from beginning to end the term used is "marriage"—certainly not "cohabitation".

That is clearly not the case today. We seem to have moved from an almost total marriage convention—sustained by fairly draconian divorce laws— to a situation where far fewer young people actually marry; 13 per cent of women between 18 and 49 were cohabiting in 1998—up from 8 per cent 10 years previously. If they do decide to marry it will be considerably later—most probably only at the long delayed moment in their thirties and sometimes their forties when they decide to start a family. Even for those who do marry, divorce—with or without remarriage—is increasingly common, as we have already heard—and, all too often while their children are still young. Like it or not, the trend towards cohabitation and more frequent divorce is here to stay. Almost 30 per cent of children experience divorced parents by the time they reach 16 years.

Of course many factors have been at work to bring this about. The divorce laws have been relaxed considerably. The stigma of divorce that once kept many couples together has almost disappeared. Women, who in the "old days" more often than not had no other means of support for themselves and their children but their husband's income, are now a considerable part of the workforce and are either in jobs or able to return to employment relatively easily.

Since the 1970s and the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts women have far greater economic independence. "Women's Lib" really did liberate women in this country. Sadly, we have heard of other countries where it has not done so in the same way. It included liberation from the ties of broken marriages. That may be seen perhaps from the fact that women initiate seven out of 10 divorces.

Of course a number of other factors have worked in the same direction: the liberalising effect of the pill; the lack of social stigma in having children "out of wedlock"; the fact that many of the younger generation earn considerably more than their parents; and the fact that people now wish to "enjoy life" before settling down later than used to be the case—considerably later, incidentally. A great deal is explained, is it not, by some of those happenings?

Even so, we need to remind ourselves that by no means all those changes are bad. Your Lordships would not expect me to say they were, not least with my interest in equal opportunities over many years. In the past, there were far too many appalling cases of women locked into violent, nightmarish marriages who did not dare to complain. There were also cases of women who unwillingly had abortions or put children up for adoption. I listened to a number of those cases and worried about them. Women today can be spared that kind of anguish as a direct result of changes in attitudes.

Even so, many Members of this House, of which I am certainly one, continue to believe that the institution of marriage is the best way in which to bring up children and that it is the most likely way to succeed. We believe that it is the best way to provide the mutual love, support and background that are so important. for the development of young human beings.

However, we can, and should, do far more to promote the value of the institution of marriage to young people. The Government's 2002 report Moving Forward Together rightly makes clear their intention to improve the delivery of marriage and relationship support services. I believe that it identified 10 areas for future development and action. The Government's intention was confirmed in a reply to a Parliamentary Question from David Kidney MP in another place a little while ago. Perhaps when she replies the Minister will be kind enough to bring us up to date on what has been achieved so far.

In tackling this question, it is important to be realistic about the situation on the ground. Like it or not, the trend towards cohabitation and more frequent divorce is as I have already mentioned. So we should, and must promote—via parent contracts; citizenship classes; in schools, where action is possible very early indeed; and by other means— a true understanding of marriage as a long-term commitment and as the best possible way to bring up children.

It is also vital that we give far greater respect and priority to the important role of parents. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and other noble Lords have said, we need to listen to what parents want. It is very fashionable today to consult and listen to many groups including, rightly, children but, sadly, parents do not seem to be a high priority.

Far more authoritative research is needed on the effect of family break-up on children. There is not much research on that subject.

As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, also said, we are facing a long battle. We are not likely to turn back the clock completely, however long and hard we try. Above all, we must think about what else we can do to mitigate the damage that is beyond doubt inflicted by the family conflicts and poor parenting that can flow from the decline in the institution of marriage.

As I know all too well from my many years in juvenile courts, Moving Forward Together rightly identified family conflicts and poor parenting as key risk factors for adolescent problems of drug abuse, youth crime, school-age pregnancy, school failure, mental health problems and homelessness. In other words, we must try much harder to prevent the social exclusion of such young people. The Government want to achieve that; indeed, we all do.

A good start has been made by our increasingly firm commitment, as expressed by the Government on our behalf, to put the interests of the child first. We have excellent programmes such as Sure Start. As the Minster knows, I am enthusiastic about Sure Start and many other noble Lords are clearly enthusiastic about it too. At last, we have a Children Bill, even if that Bill does not yet contain all the powers that some of us hope for, and a proposed child commissioner for England.

But should we not now be looking harder for new ways of harnessing the extended family? As has already been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, we are all living much longer and healthier lives. The voluntary sector has long played a crucial role in sustaining cohesive communities. Today, those of us who have arrived at what might euphemistically be called "the retirement age" are, and should be, an increasingly obvious target for voluntary organisations to recruit to help to provide active and experienced support for failing families. Home Start is a good example of that.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, also mentioned grandparents—if he did not, I am sure that he intended to do so. It remains an absurd situation that grandparents, who are immensely willing to take charge of grandchildren in the sad event of a family breakdown, find themselves less adequately resourced to do that job than they would be as foster parents. With the right practical, as well as financial support, we know that many more grandparents would be willing to take charge of grandchildren.

Returning to the Wilmot and Young description of family life, surely what we need is a new form of extended kinship support. In some cases, perhaps we even need to be able to make use of the wider familial network that can arise as a result of several marriages and co-habitations.

Making it possible for parents to have time to spend with their children is, perhaps, most important of all. Here I am referring to the vital need to rearrange all working patterns in sufficiently flexible ways to allow parenting to be effective parenting. I refer not just to women's working patterns but to patterns for both sexes.

The future citizens of this country are our responsibility, whether we have children of our own or not. Above all, as we plan for the future, we need to remember that the UK is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and is therefore committed to work towards what is best for each child.

The institution of marriage is still the best, even if not the only, means of achieving that objective. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has done us a great service in reminding us of that principle. This should be our guiding principle in all that we try to do.

4.27 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, we must all be in a permanent state of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for yet again giving us an opportunity to emphasise the importance of marriage, the family and the upbringing of children.

Marriage is never easy. It is not always a bed of roses; there is the odd thorn. Sometimes it does not work out and that is a sadness for everyone concerned. There are many reasons why it collapses, but the trouble is that we are all human beings and none of us is perfect. Sometimes when everyone is trying hard, it still does not work out.

As a family, we have all been very lucky. My parents were happily married for 46 years, and at every anniversary my father would quote how long they had been married, and say, "In all that time we have had only one fight", and then he would add, "of course, we do have an armistice now and then". We celebrated their ruby wedding in this House in 1968 with a small party. Our ruby wedding was also celebrated here with children and grandchildren, pages and bridesmaids, and the best man. I made a three-tier cherry wedding cake but somehow I got the mechanics wrong and the top tier flew off to be caught by Miss McWilliam. My middle sister celebrated her ruby wedding on a cruise and we had a family ruby dinner for my youngest sister here last December. We went for gold in 1952, and so did my husband's parents in 1966. That is so much for which to thank God. If I did not collapse into sleep at night I would still be praying.

Families are at the heart of everything. They are that small warm place that you retreat to when you can think of nothing else. Those of us with happy childhoods and happy families always have some place that we can retreat to when all else goes wrong. The world can be a big cold place, and what everyone needs is one place where they can throw off their hat, take off their shoes and know that give or take, and despite all the criticism and advice, everyone is on their side.

There are fashions in morality, in commitment between two people. Fashions change just like clothes; they come and go like the tide. I read recently that today's teenagers are all for marriage, against teenage pregnancies and for children being brought up in a family. The tide is turning. For the tide is part of the sea and that does not change.

Marriage is like the sea, one of the eternal values, which does not change, though it has fashions like the tide. Better and worse tend to get mixed up. Richer must be nice, though poorer is what we usually end up with. With luck we have quite a bit of health, though sickness is always lurking round the corner. But for the mutual society, help and comfort one cannot beat marriage, nor as a means of bringing up children.

Marriage has been going on for a long time, as long as there were people. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford mentioned the marriage at Cana in Galilee. An old cousin, Albert Baillie, who used to be Dean of Windsor, said when he married us that it was no accident that the first miracle occurred at a marriage—at Cana in Galilee. It was simply putting the importance of marriage first.

The cycle of marriage is the cycle of life—you start as a child and grandchild, you end up as a parent and grandparent. But throughout life there is a commitment at both ends. Marriage anniversaries start close together with paper and flowers and wood, but after the 15th year with crystal and glass—very useful too after the wedding presents have all got smashed and there are no longer six of everything—they stretch out to every five years. Twenty is china, which fills a splendid gap. Perhaps they are celebrated every five years because time has already begun to whiz; you are always living through tomorrow before yesterday has even finished.

My husband and I are working up to 52 years and many of your Lordships have much longer to celebrate. When I go to the AGM of the War Widows Association at the end of this month, I am always conscious of how short a time of happiness they had together and it makes me count my own blessings. We have also been blessed with children who are nearly all married themselves and we have the joy of grandchildren. Many of my noble friends share this joy with grandchildren, great-nephews and great-nieces and godchildren. Happiness is hearing four year-old Alfred say: "Excuse me, Grandma, will you read me another story?". However, I have my fingers crossed for next Friday when my 13 year-old French granddaughter, Pelagie, is bringing 65 of her French school friends to tour the Palace of Westminster. Watch this space, as the advertisements say.

Last month, I was with the Arts and Heritage Group in the Royal Academy looking at 15th-century Flemish and Burgundian Books of Hours. There were many visions of people suffering the torments of hell. But there did seem to be one or two escape routes through purgatory for which I felt one might qualify: "The good but not so good", "The bad but not so bad" and "The long and faithfully married". I think there is hope for all of us there.

4.33 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Leicester

My Lords, I too welcome the opportunity for debate provided by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. He is right to say that healthy marriages are good for children and adults and to point to the importance of supporting marriage and enhancing awareness of its benefits. Whoever said that marriage was not so much a noun as a sentence got it badly wrong. Marriage remains the major institution of family life, upheld by the teachings of the Churches and other faith communities and the values of civil society. The Churches believe that marriage is a gift from God to the whole of creation, which enables the whole human family to flourish and not just those who are themselves married.

The Church of England in its response to the Government's consultation document Supporting Families recognised the lack of consensus in society about marriage and family life and the difficult task of helping government to forge constructive policies to support families. However, it went on to say this: We have argued that families are simultaneously public and private institutions … But it is simply not possible to have a 'value free' or neutral policy … An ideological commitment to pluralism, which rules out any possibility of one family form being judged better than another, provides an inadequate basis for developing a sound family policy. The response of the Church of England went on to, urge the Government to develop its family policy with a clear commitment to the support of marriage as its basis. There remains a reluctance to prioritise one family form over another. We face a problem here in perceiving as mutually exclusive support of marriage and other forms of family life, including individuals in situations of hardship. In reality, marriage needs to be supported alongside parental relationships outside marriage for the benefit of children and adults within all family situations.

We need a framework that recognises the institution of marriage and the reality of those who do not choose it, for both are part of the fabric of our society. We need a family policy towards children with clear commitment to supporting marriage as its bedrock while addressing the realities that we encounter in society. With its clear teaching on marriage and family life, the Church can be seen as standing for an ideal while at the same time serving in an enormous variety of ways individuals and communities for whom this is not an option. The Church is involved in supporting marriage and in working with those who are victims of broken relationships, both in marriage and other family patterns.

In a confused society there are three particular contributions which those of us outside government can make to the national understanding of marriage. First, we need better teaching about the nature of marriage. The bishops of the Church of England in their recent teaching document have said that there is a great deal in our culture which discourages us from making binding and public promises. That is undoubtedly a difficult thing to do and requires courage but the promises are an important part of entering marriage.

If love is to grow, it needs an explicit commitment of the couple to stay with each other through changing circumstances, through personal development and growth and through the process of growing older and approaching death. But the promises are also liberating. Through them we focus our intentions and offer one another a shared future in a way that we could hardly dare to do otherwise. By making our promises in public, we call on a community of well-wishers to support us in our resolve to be a couple, an important assistance in a culture that is generally unsupportive to any kind of commitment.

Secondly, there is much that many of us can do in contributing towards preparation of couples for the married state. The Church invests considerable resources in this kind of preparation for marriage and in supporting people in their married lives. Over 90 per cent of marriage preparation—a major aspect of relationship support and education—is conducted by the voluntary sector. A great majority of this is carried out by the Churches, including the Church of England, often in partnership with other agencies such as Relate. This provides secure, well-managed occasions for couples to discuss their subconscious impressions of' marriage implanted at an early age by their own parents. Such discussions are often a way to address relationship problems which can otherwise surface later in life in a much more troublesome way. This points us to the need not just for marriage preparation but also for marriage exploration—ongoing packages of support for people that enable relationships to last for a lifetime.

We need an understanding of marriage as a process not just an event. We may need to see that cohabitation might for some be part of that process by which couples explore marriage, demanding similar social obligations as a formally married couple. We need to recognise better the work of organisations involved in marriage and relationship support. Despite the increasing rise in the rate of divorce and the added choice couples now have on where they are married and by whom, the Church of England still conducts about 25 per cent of marriage ceremonies a year. In the year 2000, 65,000 couples were married according to the rites of the Church of England.

Thirdly, we need to do more to support the victims of relationship breakdown and especially of marriage breakdown. For example, the Children's Society estimates that some 100,000 children, some as young as six, run away from home or from care each year and risk being attacked on the streets. In partnership with the Churches, the Children's Society has established family mediation programmes and schools education packs to prevent children running away. It has developed outreach work and drop-in centres to get them off the streets if they do run. Safe emergency accommodation is available and missing persons interviews can be conducted when the police return children home to find out what made them run in the first place.

These are examples of practical support for children that go beyond gesture politics. Verbal support for marriage and the family is easily given but concern for marriage often comes too late. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford pointed out, the cost of picking up the pieces of broken relationships resulting from demands made on health resources, social security and social services, legal aid, court, tax and benefits, is enormous.

The crucial point that needs to emerge from this debate is the need for clearer government policy towards supporting married relationships. The bishops' teaching has stated: By marriage a new unit of society is created: a couple, stronger than the sum of its members, held together by the bond of domestic friendship. Together the couple can extend love to other people … Their love enables them to make a strong contribution to society so that the weakening of marriage has serious implications for the mutual belonging and care that is exercised within the community at large". It is, therefore, vital for all of us that the Government support marriage, as well as parental relationships more generally, because of its crucial role in providing a basis for bringing up children, as well as further benefits for the couple and for wider society as a whole.

4.43 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I should like to join with others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this very interesting and important debate.

I also have to declare an interest. I cannot claim 52 years of successful marriage, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, but I can claim 42 years of successful marriage. I am the product of a happy marriage that itself lasted for more than 55 years and provided a happy family background for four.

The debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, concerns the role of marriage in securing the well-being of the nation's children and their parents in the 21st century. As he said, he is not trying to persuade those who are not married to do so, but he nevertheless argued both that the framework of marriage provides a bulwark to support long-term relationships that are so important, and that the state might encourage marriage through tax incentives and similar policies of support for the process of marriage. That theme has been echoed by a number of speakers, including the two right reverend Prelates. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester has just said that the Government should provide a clearer. more overt policy to support marriage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, quoted from a publication issued in 2002 by what is now the Department for Constitutional Affairs, but was then the Lord Chancellor's Department, Moving Forward Together. A paragraph in that publication points very clearly to the importance for children of long-term stable relationships. The document states: There is a significant relationship between parental experiences and the outcomes experienced by children once they reach adulthood. In general, children brought up by birth parents experience the lowest levels of conflict and early difficulty. Children brought up by two birth parents until the age of 16 have higher levels of life satisfaction and more family support, fewer psychological problems and less conflict at every age". Conversely, the report concludes: Parental conflict is an important influence on a number of adverse outcomes in both intact and separated families". There are knock-on effects for children even in families that stay together if there is parental conflict.

The report continues: There is a greater probability of poor outcomes for children from separated families than others. Outcomes for children who have suffered disruption and multiple family structures are worse than for those living continuously with a lone parent or step family. Constant changes to residence and contact arrangements have a particularly negative impact. A 'bad' divorce or relationship breakdown is therefore particularly likely to affect children adversely". As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford stressed, the costs of family breakdown are substantial. The House of Commons Library put them at £4 billion to £5 billion a while back. In Greater London alone the cost for the police and social security services of responding to domestic violence is put at £278 million.

The position that these Benches adopt is that it is not for the state to lay down moral rules. The role of the state is to give people the opportunity to fulfil themselves in any way they choose as long as, in the process, they do not harm others. But what becomes clear from the debate that we have had is that in the process of marriage breakdown children may be harmed. That in itself provides a case for legitimate intervention on the part of the state. In that respect these Benches have backed a succession of children Acts from the 1948 Act onwards. I am delighted that we now have a Children Bill to bring these procedures up to date. These Benches support many aspects of that Bill.

It seems to me that in all respects the role of the state is to encourage but not to compel, to provide practical help but not to preach. Therefore, our emphasis is not on marriage per se but on the means of providing the safe, secure, loving long-term relationships that children need. It is the quality of the relationship that is the key issue rather than the precise legal institutional framework of that relationship.

That said, I think that one can perhaps exaggerate the degree to which there has been a breakdown of relationships. I was interested in evidence produced by Kathleen Kiernan of the Department of Social Policy and Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics in an article that appeared in Population Trends in the summer of 1999. On cohabitation across western Europe she stated: We found little evidence that pre-marital cohabitants in their first union are more likely to experience marital breakdown than those who marry directly. Pre-marital cohabitation may be an effective way of selecting out partnerships with an enhanced risk of breakdown … Undoubtedly. the evidence from this and other studies show that most European countries are experiencing changes in the ways that men and women become couples, but whether countries are on a trajectory to an ultimate destination where marriage and cohabitation are largely indistinguishable or even where cohabitation overtakes marriage as the dominant form of union awaits the future". On balance, the evidence still suggests that most people will spend most of their lives in a family environment. I will sum up some of the statistics.

There are 16 million families in Britain and 11.7 million children. Four fifths of those dependent children live in a family with two parents. Four out of 10 babies are now born outside marriage, but many of those parents go on to marry later. Two in five marriages are likely to end in divorce, but, again, people remarry. One in four children is likely to experience the break up of their parents' marriage by their 16th birthday. That statistic was quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. It is the most frightening statistic. If that break-up is violent and leads to distress, there are problems that knock on for the children.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester quoted the fact that each year 1,000 children run away from home because they are frightened of what is going on there. We know from the experience of Childline that many children ring up who are enormously distressed by their parents quarrelling with each other.

The problems caused by the break-up of relationships and the development of new relationships should also concern us. In the earlier quote that I gave, the problems of the multiple break-up and complex relationships should not be underestimated.

In a school where I was a governor for some time, we had a number of children from disturbed homes. I remember the reception class teacher talking to me about one young lad. She talked about school being an oasis of stability in a very turbulent little life, where the mother was likely to have different boyfriends from week to week and where the child was sometimes loved and sometimes not loved. We know that such relationships later on create children who are disruptive in school, drop out of school and cause all kinds of problems. If possible, we want to be able to intervene on such relationships and prevent those problems emerging.

Yesterday I attended a meeting organised by the group against corporal punishment. They had invited Professor Joan Durrant, a Canadian academic who has made a special study of the effect of the abolition of corporal punishment in Sweden. In this country we are experiencing an increase in hooliganism, youth theft, drug use and drug-related problems. If Professor Durrant's statistics are to be believed, Sweden has experienced a substantial drop in all of those over the past two years.

The most significant thing that she said was this: "Do you know that when a child is born in Sweden the parents are provided with an enormous amount of information and help with bringing up that child? When I had my first child, did anybody talk to me about how I should bring it up? Did the doctor or the midwife talk to me? No. You learn about the little baby, but nothing more—not about how to cope with the terrible twos, the seven year-old or the 13 year-old."

That struck a bell with me. Parenting classes need to be pursued when there is a captive audience. The right reverend Prelate is right. We need to teach people more about bringing up children—and this is the point when we should do it.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. We should put more effort into parenting and teaching parents about the importance of stable relationships.

4.55 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on instigating this highly valuable and significant debate. One cannot say that it is timely, because it is timeless and always of consequence and concern to many of us.

Marriage has been for me a wonderful experience and I have been blessed with 53 years of amazing happiness and contentment. I appreciate that I have indeed been fortunate, and I hope that it does not sound smug to say that both my sons have extremely happy marriages, and my elder son has passed the 25-year mark. I am therefore a strong believer in the institution and value the satisfaction that it can bring to all members of the family.

Some would say that, with such limited experience, I am not the one to speak on this subject. However, I am acutely aware of the difficulties experienced by those who have not been so lucky and find themselves having to raise their children alone.

I think that raising children with two "live in" parents in the same home helps to give children that stability which is, and has been throughout the centuries, essential to enable them to thrive and develop. I could weep for those children who live out of a suitcase, spending half of each week with one parent and the next half with the other. Often each parent has formed a new relationship, and there may be other children from different liaisons, so that the child can become bemused and disorientated as to where home really is. I cannot think of a more confusing background in which to grow up—being tossed from one to the other. Sadly, my father died when I was 10, so I grew up in a single parent family. I really believe that it was for me a more stable atmosphere than being pulled and pushed in all directions.

In July 1994, I had the privilege of piloting the Marriage Bill through this House, which allowed weddings to take place outside a conventional venue—though, as we stressed at the time, the location had to be appropriate and dignified. I enjoyed the experience and hoped that it would be a small gesture in bolstering the tradition of marriage.

Sadly, statistics reveal that today more than 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce, and in 2002 the number of divorces granted was 160,000, with the average length of the marriage only nine years. That says to me that in less than 10 years of marriage, 320,000 young people—bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of hope—have become disenchanted, and many, in spite of all the difficulties of caring for young children, have decided to lead separate lives.

Of course, the choices available to young people today are very different from when I was young. More women work, earn their own money and want to pursue their own careers. They are having children later in life, and fewer of them. For some, marriage does not seem to be such an obvious and desirable path as it once was.

I want to stress the idea of a stable family relationship being the essential environment in which to raise a child. Children from permanent, secure and strong family units are more likely to leave school with qualifications. They have the loving support of their parents to help them through school, university and perhaps even raising their families. This support is stronger when it comes from two parents who live together in the same house.

It is the breakdown of the relationship between parents, be they married or not, that causes unhappiness and distress for children. This distress can manifest itself in many ways. Of the 60,000 children living in care, 98 per cent are there due to family breakdown. Aside from the huge cost to the taxpayer, it is worth bearing in mind that 39 per cent of all male prisoners under the age of 21 have been in care.

At the same time, young people are maturing much more quickly. The number of girls having under-age sex in this country had doubled in the past 10 years and in 2000 there were 98,000 teenage conceptions. Abortion rates nearly doubled between 1971 and 2000. It seems to me that the quality of life for many young people today is poorer and certainly much harder than it was. Truancy is up, as well as anti-social behaviour, crime, drug addiction and violence.

Being a parent today is a tough and difficult task. One of the figures that I found shocking when researching this speech was that during May 2002, more than 900 "truancy sweeps" were carried out. Twelve thousand children were stopped and about half of these were accompanied by a parent. If parents actively encourage their children not to attend school, then perhaps it is because neither do they see education as important, nor the state as helping them or their children.

The rise in the number of pupils excluded from school is another area I would like to touch on as I feel that education is of absolutely vital importance to all children. According to figures from the Department for Education and Skills, released in May 2003, permanent exclusions in England increased by 4 per cent from 9,135 in 2000–01 to 9,540 in 2001–02. More parents appealed against expulsions in 2001–02 compared with the year before, but the proportion that were successful fell from 32 per cent to 24 per cent. We need to keep these children in some form of schooling and address the problems of disruption, violence and truancy by helping parents and their children to understand that education is crucial, rather than alienating them. Stable families are more likely to produce stable children and a strong parental influence will ease the burden on teachers, care workers and, therefore, the state.

I believe that we need to do as much as possible to make life as easy as possible for parents, as they face the daunting challenges of raising children. Times have changed and we have to be progressive and open-minded, but not at the expense of the wellbeing of children today. Relationships last longer when they are not put under pressure, whether financial or social.

I, too, want to mention taxation. Apart from anything else, our taxation system no longer favours married couples. The married couple's tax allowance was replaced in 2000 by a children's tax credit which enables people with one or more children under 16 to reduce their income tax bill by up to £520. There is, therefore, no financial incentive to be married, unless one has children. Of course, financial reasons should not be cause alone to enter into marriage, but, as my noble friend Lord Lucas said, any encouragement we can provide should not be ignored.

Finally, I feel I should finish on an upbeat note. Many speakers have looked at the surrounding problems of marriage. But my message is one of optimism and hope that with the right encouragement and support many more parents will be able to enjoy the contentment, companionship and pleasure of a long and flourishing relationship within marriage.

5.4 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate. I cannot compete with the longevity of your Lordships' marriages, but I declare an interest as a married woman, a parent and a stepparent. I hope that to that extent I bring a little experience to the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, covered a great deal of ground and, as always, he focused on his desire to support children. I pay tribute to him for that. Like him, the Government and I recognise that marriage is the surest foundation for raising children. The stability, love and support for children that we wish to see in all relationships between adults who have children should be paramount and we recognise the importance of marriage in that.

However, I noticed that the noble Lord also seemed to be saying that, on the one hand, the state needs to be part of the solution by providing the support while, on the other hand, criticising the state for taking away responsibility. I do not believe that we have taken away responsibility, but I accept that the support we provide is critical to enable our children to flourish.

My noble friend Lord Haskel spoke with passion and I will ensure that his comments are passed on. He will be aware that we announced in the Queen's Speech on 26 November our intention to bring forward a civil partnership Bill. I will ensure that his comments are taken forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who described himself as an addict, is a good example of someone who recognises the importance of marriage and I will pay regard to his comments about education as I continue my remarks.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the need to engage parents. That is a critical part of the agenda, and one we have neglected in terms of our development and thinking, which I am sure we will be able to debate more fully. The right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Oxford talked interestingly about the good value for money, with which I agree, that marriage brings. But there is also the recognition of marriage and relationship support and the role and work of the voluntary sector in particular. The right reverent Prelate asked me how we are going to make clear what we are doing in relation to the regulatory reform order on registrars. We are considering the consultation responses and we are putting proposals before Parliament to be in place before the Summer Recess.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, reminded us of the extended families and the work of Michael Young, taking us through the changes that have taken place since the 1950s and the vast range of experience that we now have of family relationships. She spoke also in the context of her own experience.

The noble Baroness, Lady Strange, spoke with emotion of what we all yearn for in marriage—that one place, the total support, the caring for each other, and the need to instil those values in our children. I offer her good luck when the 65 children come to the Palace of Westminster next week.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester spoke of the importance of the contribution of those outside government, in particular better teaching about marriage, preparation for marriage and support for victims of relationship breakdowns. I echo his sentiments in all of those areas.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, brings support from the Benches of the Liberal Democrats to the work we are doing on supporting children and recognises the role of marriage within that. The noble Baroness talked about the quality of marriage, which is critical. I, too, am interested in what is happening in countries such as Sweden. HomeStart is an interesting example of what is happening here and, in a sense, emulates what is happening in Sweden.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, raised in particular the difficulties for children in adapting to changes that happen in their life when there is a breakdown and the critical importance of stability. I could not agree more.

It is always an indication of the importance of the subject when one has the breadth of debate that we have had today. In response, I want to set out the Government's strong commitment to supporting our children and families. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, strong families are at the heart of our strong communities. Successful and confident parenting is essential if we are to create healthy families. We know the importance of good parenting and good family relationships to children's chances of success in later life. As I said, the Government believe that marriage is the surest foundation for raising children and it remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain.

Our aim is to make the support available for parents and carers at the heart of our approach to improving outcomes for children and of developing more and better universal services open to all families as and when they need it.

As the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Oxford and the Bishop of Leicester said, it is important. I hope that this investment, in combination with the integration of a wide range of family support services, will go some way towards widening access to support and removing the stigma of seeking help.

We recognise that parents are the most important influence on children and young people. Parenting, as noble Lords have indicated, can be challenging and the majority of parents want help at some stage. By enabling parents to access early support and deal with problems before they become acute we can improve outcomes. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about the need to involve parents in our discussions. Work is under way across the department to bring together our work with parents in the broadest sense, and to enable us to consult and discuss such issues more fully with them.

We share the belief that has been expressed in your Lordships' House, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said, that stability in a couple's relationship is the best foundation for raising children and protecting them from the wide range of risks and negative outcomes. We hope that by bringing together in one department, the Department for Education and Skills, responsibility for policy and services for children, young people and their families, the Government should now be able to respond more easily to the needs of children and families in providing appropriate, accessible and timely support at all of the key stages in the lives of families.

The Moving Forward Together strategy report for marriage and relationship support recommended supporting couples at times of challenge and crisis. Convinced by the evidence, leading researchers are now moving beyond the basic question of whether parents and their relationship affect their children's well-being, to questions about interventions and the impact they have on families as a whole and children in particular. For example, in a study by One Plus One, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Northhourne, the birth of the first child, while of course a time of great joy, can also be challenging. Existing research indicates an emerging trend that many couples report a drop in marital satisfaction upon the birth of their first baby. So, initiatives such as Brief Encounters, which trains and equips health visitors and midwives with the necessary skills to identify potential relationship problems during their statutory home visits—and act as a referral route to enable parents to access a range of support services at that early stage—are critically important in the support that we provide for families.

We recognise that the missing link in our preventive policies has been a serious focus on supporting families, relationships, carers and parents. We want to shift the balance towards prevention, through tackling child poverty, improving the work in early years' education and childcare, raising school standards and supporting families and parents. We know, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, that family relationships and parenting have a critical influence on educational potential and increasing a child's health chances.

But not enough attention has been paid to how the state, working with the voluntary sector—who are critical partners—can support families and parents. So, in the Green Paper Every Child Matters and our other work we have set out our objectives to ensure that every child can reach its potential, to build on the progress we have made and identify the main areas for further action to support our children.

We know that if family breakdown does occur it can have pervasive ill effects on children as well as having an impact on the wider family. It is a major cause of poverty, as noble Lords have said, inequality, ill health, and social exclusion. The outcomes for children who have experienced disruption and multiple family structures are generally worse than for those who live continuously with a lone parent or a stepfamily. We know that at least one in three children will go through parental separation before the age of 16. We also know that most of them will go through a period of great unhappiness. Many experience low self-esteem, behaviour problems and loss of contact with the extended family.

We also know that children can be helped by good communication with both parents and, fortunately, that both can be enabled to settle back into a normal pattern of development. We also know that there are different approaches to conflict and the extent to which it is resolved; and that those different approaches can have different outcomes for children. We know as well that persistent and intense marital conflict can erode good parenting. It therefore makes sense to help and support couples to promote stability in their relationship. However, the targeting of that support must continue to recognise the choice that couples make about whether they marry.

I was delighted when the Chancellor announced today a 17 per cent increase in the Budget for the Sure Start programme between now and 2008 and I was pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned that. It is at the heart of our strategy to support families and to give children, particularly those from disadvantaged communities, the best possible start in life. Its principles underpin the Green Paper. The combination of health, family and parenting support with early education and childcare is critical. We have 524 Sure Start programmes that touch the lives of 400,000 children under 4 years old and reach about a third of children living in poverty.

All of those programmes provide an element of parenting support. The nature of that support is determined by local needs—and rightly so. It includes drop-in sessions for families, parenting courses that have proved hugely popular, and specific support for fathers a point raised by both the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. We intend to build on that commitment by extending family support through our children's centre programme and through extended schools. Children's centres provide that combination of family, education and health support, accessible in a "one-stop" way, and extended schools enable, in partnership with other services, support for families in a site that is recognised as a place of education and where children can receive those benefits.

We recognise that the importance of that work is in the impact it can have in what happens to our children. Most parents strive to do the best for their children, but how they do that will depend partly on their own experiences. So it is important that we are there to give them that support when they need it. We know how important that is for children's life chances. It is perhaps summed up by Professor De Forges' work, commissioned by my department, which showed that good parenting in the home can make over a 10 per cent difference to children's outcomes at school. So programmes like Sure Start are critical.

Regarding the references to what happens in Sweden, and references by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to the HomeStart programme, noble Lords will know that we have outlined our intention to roll out nationally home visiting support to one in 50 families. The HomeStart programme particularly enables families with young children to receive that vital support at the beginning—which noble Lords have described as the joy of new parenting, which also brings challenges. The programme enables us to offer support to families who need it. That will be important.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has not come across parenting classes, but yesterday I received a leaflet from my children's school inviting me as a parent to go to parenting classes if I so wished. Although we are parents of teenagers, I may yet take it up. Having met the noble Lord's beautiful daughter, I suspect that she is teaching him everything he needs to know about parenting.

Both right reverend Prelates, the Bishop of Oxford and the Bishop of Leicester, talked about the voluntary sector and the need to engage other partners in our work. I believe that it is critical that we engage and offer direct support for the voluntary sector. We are establishing a framework to do that more efficiently and to recognise that we also need to facilitate public education, through best practice, in our work with the voluntary sector. Most organisations with which I have had the privilege to work recognise how important it is to work in partnership with us and to offer those special services to families.

In addition to Sure Start, we are providing funding through a number of grant programmes such as Family Support and the Parenting Fund. While we are debating this matter, the families division within the department is looking at the wider funding programme that we need to put in place to ensure greater cohesion and effective rollout of family related funds for the future.

Organisations such as Parentline Plus, Relate, HomeStart, Fathers Direct, 2as1 and the Asian Family Counselling Services work in partnership with government on evidence-based policy as well as providing family and relationship support services at a national and local level. That is critical to the work that we want to do.

Noble Lords referred to the importance of recognising the issues that concern our lone parents, many of whom are alone not by choice but by circumstance. They need help to enable them to support their families financially through work, where that is the right thing to do; they need support in childcare; and they also need help to enable them to get out of poverty, where so many of them are.

However, we also recognise that children are better in a stable, loving relationship with one parent than in an unhappy, chaotic or possibly violent relationship. That point was made clear by a number of noble Lords. We should not penalise such children and families; we should support them. Under no circumstances should we make ally child feel that his relationship is inferior, nor make any parent feel guilty.

Noble Lords raised the issue of fathers, and I have referred to that. It is critical that we engage fathers, particularly at a time when we see families changing and when fathers may not necessarily feel so sure about their role. Again, an important part of the Sure Start programme is engaging fathers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talked about the role of schools and education. I agree with what they said. I am pleased that the noble Lord likes the website and I shall feed hack that information. It is important that the curriculum reflects people, and I believe that it does. No doubt we shall engage in further discussions on that topic. I was particularly pleased that the noble Lord referred to mentors and the critical importance of role models. We know that to be very important in many of our schools where we have learning mentors. It is important that some boys have the role model of an adult male, who is perhaps the only role model that they have in their lives.

The noble Lords, Lord Northbourne and Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, talked about taxation. I acknowledge the replacement of the married couples' tax allowance with the child tax credit and the working families' tax credit, which are marriage blind. But the focus of these new tax arrangements is on tackling child poverty. We consider that to be critical, and it is more important than discriminating against children because of the marital status of their parents. As a government, we want to tackle social exclusion across all families. However, there continue to be substantial tax advantages for married couples in capital provisions and in death and inheritance arrangements. Those do not directly benefit children but they are a tangible recognition of the support of the state for married couples.

In conclusion, I want to make a few points on which I believe we all agree. We are all committed to supporting all children and all families, and we share the view that promoting family stability is essential if we are to achieve a better outcome for families and children. I hope that, having heard about some of the things that we are undertaking, noble Lords will agree that we are attempting to ensure the provision of better support.

We know that parents and families have a critical influence on a child's life and life chances and that, where children grow up in stable, happy family units, they usually do better in life. We agree that marriage can act as a bedrock for many families but, increasingly today, families take many forms: single-parent families; same-sex families; stepfamilies; and blended families. Children who grow up in all such stable, healthy families, enjoying the love and support of a committed parent or parents, thrive.

We are committed to supporting marriage but we are committed, too, to supporting all parents in building and maintaining stable relationships and a stable family life. We remain committed to saving marriages which can be saved but, where a marriage has irretrievably broken down, we feel that the best way forward is to support parents in establishing a good, ongoing relationship between themselves and their children.

Families are all different, whatever form they take, and their need for support varies, too. By bringing together into one department the different responsibilities for policies relating to services for children and young people and their families and, more importantly, by joining up those services on the ground, we believe that we shall be able to respond more effectively. We recognise the importance of our voluntary sector partners. We remain committed to investing in the voluntary sector, which remains an important and integral partner in our support for families.

We know that families and parents want the best for their children. Our job is to find the right support at the right time and in the right way. I hope that the work that I have explained this afternoon will help us all to be better able to support our couples, our children and our families and to recognise the importance of marriage.

5.24 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, what a joy it is to have a Minister who can speak with so much enthusiasm and genuine commitment on this issue, and what a joy it is to have a government who have done so much in this area. I believe that I have about two minutes in which to speak. I can see noble Lords who are to take part in the next debate watching me with eagle eyes, but I want briefly to make two points.

First, what has emerged from this debate is that we are talking about all kinds of different things when we talk about committed relationships, stable relationships and quality relationships and, in particular, when we talk about cohabitation. Cohabitation covers a whole spectrum. It may be worthwhile to think a little more carefully and to try to define what is and is not good for children, just as, if I may say, I have done in relation to marriage. If I may make so bold as to correct the noble Baroness, I am not talking about promoting marriage; I am talking about promoting healthy marriage, which is different. That is what I should like to see the Government do more of—if that is a legitimate use of the English language.

This debate is not about a nanny state and it is not about moralising; it is about the nation's future. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.