HL Deb 02 February 2005 vol 669 cc308-41

7.39 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

rose to call attention to the role of parents in the welfare of children and to the case for involving parents more in the design and delivery of services for children; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is my unpleasant duty to bring the mind of the House back from the sunrise over Africa to the sad and difficult problems of some families and children here at home.

In September 2003, the Government published a Green Paper, Every Child Matters. It was launched on the basis that it was a major new initiative to improve the lives of children. Chapter 3 dealt with support for parents. This evening, I want to look back at chapter 3 to see how far we have got down the road that it projected. Chapter 3 starts with these words: The Government intends to put supporting parents and carers at the heart of its approach to improving children's lives". The question is—is that heart still beating?

In this debate, I will use the word "parent" to include all those family members who take on a parental role from love, including birth parents, stepparents, grandparents and adoptive parents. They are the people who are most special in a child's world. Parents are the most important people in their children's lives. Why are committed parents so important? I cannot do better than to start by quoting Every Child Matters. Paragraphs 3.1 and 3.2 state: The bond between the child and their parents is the most critical influence on a child's life. Parenting has a strong impact on a child's educational development, behaviour, and mental health…In the past, public policy has paid insufficient attention to supporting parents and helping families find solutions for themselves". This view of the family is supported by a large body of good modern research, which confirms that children who grow up in a functional two-parent family are more likely to do better in school and in later life, judged by a whole range of relevant criteria. If any of your Lordships should want to follow that up, there is an excellent summary of 300 pieces of research on this subject by Cowan and Cowan in 2003.

For healthy emotional development, a young child needs secure, loving attachment to one or more adults who can be relied on to behave consistently, and who can teach the child by example how to love, how to forgive, how to trust, and how to interact with the outside world. A loving parent's instinctive affection builds a child's self-esteem. Adults available and willing to give this degree of commitment are hard to find outside the family. Healthy emotional and social development depends to a huge extent on parents and family.

Parenting also affects education. In a recent study Charles Desforges concludes: The most important finding from the point of view of this review is that parental involvement in the form of 'at-home good parenting' has a significant positive effect on children's achievement and adjustment, even after all other factors shaping attainment have been taken out of the equation". If committed parents are such a crucial factor in a child's early social, emotional and educational development, they are surely an important asset to the nation. Should we not be valuing them more?

There is another more sordid, but practical, reason why committed parents are so important. The cost to the taxpayer of raising the nation's children outside two-parent families is escalating, arguably out of control. I am told that the total cost of child-contingent support now stands at £20 billion a year. Most functional two-parent families provide a substantial part of the cost of raising their own child, and also provide much of the childcare themselves. By contrast, the cost to the taxpayer of a child in local authority care can vary from £15,000 a year to a horrendous £150,000 a year, which I know well, as I have been a trustee of the Caldicott community, which deals with some of the most difficult children.

In March 2004, there were nearly 61,000 children in local authority care. There is another problem. In many local authorities today, there is an acute shortage of social workers, childcare workers and health visitors, so costs are almost certainly bound to go up. As we shall be hearing in my noble friend Lord Listowel's debate next week, outcomes for children leaving care are far from good. Care is not only expensive, but the outcomes are often disappointing. Are we not beginning to overestimate the capacity of the state to rescue children living in precarious environments? Should we not rather be spending some of that money, some of that £20 billion, to improve those precarious environments and to support parents more?

Some 27 per cent of the nation's 10.3 million children now live in lone-parent households. That is a higher percentage than in any other European country and it is rapidly overtaking that of the United States. Although many lone parents do an excellent job, research shows that children in lone-parent families are likely to have, on average, worse social, educational and health outcomes, and are significantly more likely to suffer emotional problems, engage in criminal activity, and abuse drugs and alcohol when compared to children who live with both their natural parents. Lone-parent families also are a large and enduring customer base for income supplementation by the state.

A recent study by Jill Kirby for the Centre for Policy Studies, which has been challenged, has shown that to raise two children in a single-parent family may cost the taxpayer as much as £11,000 a year more than to raise the same children in an average two-parent family. The report also shows that the present system of taxation, benefits, and tax credits provides an incentive for young parents to live apart and not to marry. Is that not a dangerous and foolishly perverse incentive? All these facts and figures suggest that support for parents, if it can reduce the number of children in local authority care, or if it can reduce the number of single-parent families, is likely to be in the best interests of the children and also of the Exchequer.

I shall now look at the proposals that the Government made in chapter 3 of the Green Paper. In each case, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House what has been achieved and what is in the pipeline, and what funding, if any, has been made available for each project. It is a terrible task that I am setting him, but I gave him notice of the question. The proposed universal services were: a national helpline—we already have Parentline Plus, so what will be added by this additional helpline?; parents' information meetings at key transition points—an excellent idea, but who will co-ordinate these and how will they persuade parents to attend?; family learning programmes—the same questions apply; support to fathers—very important and a subject on which I wished to speak this evening, but I do not think that I shall have time; better communication between parents and schools—yes, of course; childcare, early years' education, social care and schools working more closely with parents—my goodness yes, but why have they not been doing it already?; joint training and development in behaviour issues for professionals, about which I do not know.

The tailored help and support suggested were: home visiting programmes for parents-to-be—I should like to speak for a moment later on what I found in Florida when I was there recently; parent education programmes targeted at the parents of five to eight year-olds; family group conferencing; family mediation services and stress and relationship counselling. All those are excellent and necessary ideas.

There is agreement that the voluntary sector is probably the best way of providing these services. Are the Government aware that it is going to be very difficult for voluntary providers of these services to operate these programmes efficiently on a long-term basis, unless there is some guarantee of continuity of funding, at least for those projects which are successful? To have to re-dress up each project every three years in a new set of clothes to get pump-priming funding is a waste of everyone's time. It is much better to follow your winners.

All these proposals are helpful, but do they really strike at the root of the problem? Surely what we most need is to increase the number of stable, happy, functional families. We can do that only by improving the environment in which families bring up their children—from housing to all sorts of environmental factors—and by giving more parents the knowledge and skills that they need to do the job.

I want to mention two or three additional ideas; that is all for which I have time. The National Family and Parenting Institute suggested recently that there is a case for a regular, in-depth policy review to reconcile different strands of government policy for families and children. It also suggested for consideration—it is an extremely interesting idea, although difficult—a statement of parental rights and responsibilities in the form of a parent's code. Some of our present difficulties arise from fairly large differences of opinion among parents and others about the responsibilities and duties of a parent. Perhaps that applies most of all to fathers.

Children need a stable family base. Family stability itself requires commitment and relationship skills to hold together the team giving that base. Many things can be done to increase the proportion of happy, functional two-parent families. One action that we could take is to change the tax and benefit system and housing policies, so that they send the message that society supports and encourages stable two-parent families.

My penultimate point is the importance of relationship education. Relate gave me a briefing that stated, and I believe it to be true: The five desirable outcomes which are listed in the recent Children Act can best be achieved through a Relationship education Programme in every school". That programme must be not only compulsory, but well taught by teachers trained for the job.

Young men and women today also need the opportunity to learn the knowledge and skills they will need to be good parents. That is often particularly welcome around the time that the first child is born. That brings me to the experience in Florida, which is also the stable families policy in 26 states of the United States. There is a voluntary scheme whereby all young mothers—either just before or just after they have their child—can opt to have a screening. If it is felt that they could benefit from help, they are offered help, for up to five years, of home visiting up to once a week by a professionally trained person. So far, the programme in Florida, where I talked to the workers, has been welcomed by the parents and seems to prove successful in improving the outcomes for children.

I should have liked to have spoken about fathers. In Every Child Matters, the Government promised, support programmes for fathers as well as mothers", and, parents' information meetings at key transition points". Those are important ideas. I hope that the Minister may be able to tell us more about them.

I want to finish with one point which I believe to be crucially important. In supporting parents, how you do it is just as important as what you do. People often ask me how you can provide support services to parents without being accused of interfering in the private life of the family or being a nanny state. The answer is really quite simple. Right from the start, you ask each group of parents what they want and what they feel that they need, and then you listen to them carefully and patiently. By doing so, you win their confidence, and then you work with them to develop a plan which meets their needs as far as possible and has their support and confidence.

That is known as the community development model. I think that it was worked out by Sussex University 20 years ago for work in overseas territories. It is tried and tested. It was the way in which Sure Start was introduced, which I am sure is one major reason why Sure Start was such a success. It was recently suggested by Norman Glass in an article in the social section of the Guardian that the Government were going away from this approach in launching children's centres. Is it the Government's intention that the 3,500 new Sure Start children's centres which they propose be developed on the community development model, with parents as partners, or are they to be introduced and run by professionals and officials directed by the local authority? If that is their plan, it is a mistake and I beg them to think again.

I shall end with two quotations. The first is from the NFPI, which said: A review of research from over 350 studies…in 1988 found that parents want flexible services which acknowledge that they lead busy and pressured lives. Parents place great importance on being listened to and treated with respect". Secondly, a 2004 study by David Quinton titled Supporting Parents: Messages from Research states: Whether they were talking about their relationships with their families, or their relationships with services, an abiding message from all the parents in these studies was, that they wanted to feel in control when they were trying to solve their parenting problems …Service professionals need to recognize the change in their role from providers of care to enablers of care, and to recognize parents as part of the team…It is crucial that support services for parents leave parents in control, listen to them and work with them in the design and delivery of services. If they do not their intervention will be resented, and mistrusted, and it will fail". Nothing is more expensive than projects which fail. I beg to move for Papers.

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I must begin with an apology. I have been caught up by the business of the House and its various timing alterations, and have another commitment in another part of the House. I shall therefore miss some speeches, but will be back as soon as I can.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for securing this debate and for presenting his case so passionately and posing so many interesting questions. He has long supported parental issues with great vigour. I am glad that he referred to Every Child Matters, which sets out intentions to consult parents and support them. Indeed, it has been most encouraging over the past few years to see so much structure being set up around parents and families—for example, the National Family and Parenting Institute, Sure Start and new opportunities with children's trusts. I have just been looking at the draft guidance on interagency co-operation for those, which must include: Child-centred, outcome-led vision…for all children, young people and their families. This must be informed by the views of local children, young people and their families". The guidance also states that delivery should be organised around the child, young person or family rather than professional boundaries or existing agencies. That is significant.

I am all for consulting parents; I am all for consulting any user of services of any kind. It is helpful to the user and to the professionals. It is often essential also to consult the young people who are at the receiving end of services, and it may sometimes be inappropriate to consult parents. I would put confidentiality for young people high on my agenda for delivering young people's services. It has been shown that when young people help to design services—for example, sexual health services—they are more likely to use them.

The role of parents in the welfare of their child may be to transfer some of the decision-making to the child—at an appropriate age, of course. Parents who are positive, confident and socially skilled are more likely to take a positive parenting role and to contribute to consultation in a proactive way. Does the Minister agree with me—and obviously with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne—that many parents need support, some more than others, to carry out their role of parenting? As most of us know, it is a difficult task.

As the noble Lord said, the quality of parenting can influence academic achievement, emotional stability, social skills, life chances, and the child's ability to make informed choices. Significant research also points to factors that predispose young people to take risks. Those include indifferent family environments, poor parental supervision, family conflict, parental condoning of bad behaviour, and a family history of problem behaviour. All are to do with the parenting role. Of course, a conflict can exist in two-parent families.

The quality of parenting also crucially influences how the next generation parents. Certainly, compensatory programmes can work. Sure Start, for example, involves parents and builds parenting skills. Good early years education programmes, mentoring, extra support in schools,a welcome re-emphasis on personal and social education and the National Healthy School Standard all impact positively on children and families. Parents who do not get involved may have intense problems of poverty, poor housing and lack of language, for example, and we need imaginative and sensitive programmes to help those parents.

I am a governor at a primary school where a proportion of children enter not knowing what a book is, not knowing what acceptable social behaviour is, or what a productive relationship with an adult is. Sadly, we have experience in my school of challenging behaviour by parents towards teachers. It is a small minority, but it is challenging behaviour none the less. That does not provide a good example for children. Of course, we have evidence of the support that parents need and of the kind of parenting that is beneficial for children.

Parentline Plus receives calls about how to handle challenging behaviour, isolation, talking to children about drugs and sex, and about child development. All these are very complex issues. In my role as chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, I have also seen parenting programmes in prisons, designed to help both men and women prisoners look at parenting issues and develop skills. All of that is welcome. But I sometimes wonder why we often leave it until a parent is in difficulty before we extend help.

I remember, many years ago when my own children were little, running a pre-school playgroup in the community where we lived. This involved compulsory parent help. A rota was set up for each week and two parents a day had to help with the children. It worked for parents, children and staff; and parents made friendships there which I know still exist. It was a real community. That is what seems to be lacking in so many instances.

I believe that parenting skills can be taught and that we should begin to teach them early. We now have citizenship education. What better way is there to be a good citizen than to be a good parent who is not afraid to seek help if required and who knows where to get help? Following my pre-school playgroup stint, I went back to teaching in a comprehensive school where one of the subjects I taught was child development. There were many challenging pupils in those classes. One girl used to specialise in pushing the RE teacher off the piano. But those girls did take child development seriously. I have no proof that they went on to become good parents, but I do know that some of them became nursery nurses. I suspect that their parenting skills were enhanced.

Of course I believe in a strong role for parents and in consulting them where appropriate. I believe that this Government have done much to improve the lives of families and children and are committed to doing more. We must all maintain a watching brief so that parents and children stay at the centre of our agenda and benefit from the structures and systems that we create.

8.3 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this important debate. It is about time that we looked back at some of those other aspects of Every Child Matters and the parenting issue remains important.

My children were born in the mid-1960s and we lived in south-east London. Early on, I became involved in campaigns to establish better nursery education in that area. One result of that was that the Plowden report became my bible. There were other reasons for that—I worked at the time as a social scientist at the London School of Economics, and it was one of those reports published in the 1960s which took social science seriously and began to develop evidence-based policy.

I was particularly influenced, when I read the Plowden report, by a volume that mentioned the Red House experiment, which was about disadvantaged families in a northern metropolitan town, where people had gone into the community and sought out those disadvantaged families whose children were not receiving proper love and attention. The parents were taught how to play with their children; how to sing, to read books to them and enjoy life with them—take them to the park to play with them. It struck me, because, in some ways it opened up my eyes to a world about which I knew little —although I had begun to rub shoulders with it in Lewisham. I thought that approach was sensible—that where there was deprivation, and we knew that the children responded so well, we should go out into the community with those measures and try to do something about the problems.

Out of that Red House experiment emerged another important experiment, which became Home Start. It was started by Margaret Harrison and others. We should also pay tribute to the late Lady Brigstocke, who was involved with Margaret Harrison at a later stage in extending that experiment to other countries. The key to Home Start was not only that it picked up the concept of getting out there into the community, but that it was voluntary. It used the young mums who had been helped by Home Start projects to go out to other homes and teach other mothers how to be good mothers. That was the essence of Home Start, which was the core upon which Sure Start has been built.

I came across a quotation from Margaret Harrison, who was looking back at the 25 years of Home Start and talking about rolling it out internationally. She stated: Irrespective of geography, education, economics, politics or culture, the needs of families remain the same. Parents, wherever they are, can feel isolated, overwhelmed, exhausted, unwell and inadequate. The power of friendship, of providing one close relationship and a network of friends, is, we are told by social psychologist, Michael Argyle, the best foundation for happiness". That has been an important point about Home Start. It has provided parents with friendship and networking as well teaching them how to play with and look after their children.

As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, the vast amount of research illustrates the importance of the relationship between children and parents. Good parenting results in better achievements in children. It was summed up by the literature review undertaken by Professor Desforges for the Department for Education and Skills: that after allowing for all the usual factors—social class, income, level of parents' education and so forth—parental interest in children's learning can make a huge difference to children's achievement and adjustment.

Some of the experiments that have taken place are very moving. There is the PEEP experiment in Oxford; the Peers Early Education Partnership. Its outcomes showed that, children in the PEEP made significantly greater progress in their learning than those in the comparison group, in areas of vocabulary, language comprehension, understanding about books and print, and number concept; in addition, the PEEP children had higher self-esteem in the areas of their feelings about their cognitive and physical competence as well as having higher self-esteem than comparable children whose parents did not take part in the project; the long term effects of PEEP are still unknown". It is still running and the longer term evaluation still has to be undertaken.

One of the issues I found interesting was illustrated by a good seminar held earlier this year by the National Family and Parenting Institute in Portcullis House. It presented work undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Council which pointed to the importance of transitions in the lives of young people. The really vulnerable times of their lives are when they transfer from home to school and from infant to junior schools and so forth.

I was struck in particular by what was said about adolescent transitions. I wrote notes after the seminar and found them when I was researching material for the debate. Transitions are difficult for parents as well as for children and it is not clear that enough advice is available either about school choices or career options, or to help parents cope with obstreperous youngsters. Why are parenting classes offered only after a young person offends? There is too little acknowledgement from the state that parenting is a tough job.

Some of the experiments in establishing parent information points are important. The National Family and Parenting Institute has been experimenting with this. It found that: Nearly two-thirds of parents rated the events as 'very helpful'. Nine out of ten parents said that they would recommend the events. The greatest impact was amongst those often described as 'hard-to-reach', e.g. minority ethnic groups and those on low incomes. Parents said that such events increased their: knowledge and awareness of family support services; knowledge of child development issues in general; willingness and readiness to access services; confidence in themselves as parents".

That is all so important. We must see such services carried forward and continued. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke about the family learning initiative. Indeed, such an initiative is promoted by the Campaign for Learning, the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education and the Learning and Skills Council. One of the recommendations to come out of the work is that there should be continuing courses and activities which encourage parents to value learning and gain confidence as co-educators. I hope that in response the Minister will tell us what is happening and what is continuing in these campaigns.

8.12 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Northbourne on securing this important debate. He has spent a considerable part of his life championing the vital role of parents and we owe him a great debt.

Most noble Lords will agree that being a parent is the most important, influential and, above all, satisfying job a person can assume in a lifetime. It is one of crucial importance not just for the parent and the child but for the community as a whole. Yet, sadly, the impression remains that the Government have not quite accepted the need for a full "partnership" role for parents. There was no mention of the role of parents in the Children Bill, for example, until an amendment was accepted in this House, and the Education Bill, which is currently before your Lordships, would appear to reduce parents' involvement in the governance of their children's schooling. But I do not want to sound unduly critical because the Government, to their considerable credit, have many good initiatives to help and support parents. Sure Start is a real key to the future. It is key because it is clearly a blueprint of considerable value if rolled out everywhere, but it is already seen as being very effective indeed in the most deprived areas.

Even more important for this debate, Sure Start is not just a partnership of the statutory and voluntary social service providers, vital though the Government's plans to achieve that are; above all, parents are the crucial part of the Sure Start partnership, and the variety in the individual local programmes reflects just that.

Indeed, several of the Sure Start centres are rightly presented by the Department for Education and Skills as shining examples of the successful engagement of parents. I shall not repeat something that I was intending to quote because it has already been said by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.

However, we should not forget the understanding and learning that parents gain from sharing problems with other parents and professionals. That is important, particularly where the local school is a Sure Start meeting place. Parents who might not have much enjoyed their own schooling can begin to see it in a more positive light. Sure Start is a programme that must continue. I, too, have heard the rumours that it is to end, and I can only hope that the Minister will tell us that I am mistaken.

Parental participation depends on just how far parents can make time for involvement. With men and women in Britain working the longest hours of any country in the EU, the chances of most parents being available are still fairly slim. More than 40 per cent of those at work are parents of children under the age of 19. Even more importantly, because women continue to be the main carers of children, in 2002 four out of five women whose youngest child was aged between 11 and 15 were at work. Indeed, half the women who work have children under the age of five.

Here, too, the Government have made some real progress. Equal pay and opportunities are a priority, and increased tax and other allowances for childcare, combined with plans for extended day schools, rightly have been warmly welcomed. But perhaps the Government should go a little further. Why can they not, for example—this has not been explained—include grandparents and other near family members among those eligible for allowances if they are capable of taking on the caring role?

One of the saddest issues facing us today—it is very much a ticking time bomb—is the increasing number of broken relationships involving children under 18. But, frankly, whether parents are together or separated, there is growing support for involving fathers far more in their children's upbringing and development. That, too, just makes sense. I suspect that we need a whole day's debate on this subject.

It also highlights the need for a sharing of household duties between the sexes to a point that is considerably more "equal" than the one that exists at present. I am very glad to say that today employers increasingly make part-time and flexible working arrangements available for a wide range ofjobs, including those at top executive level. The other recent government decision to give carers the right to flexible work arrangements, unless a convincing reason from the employer to the contrary can be advanced, will undoubtedly help to spread the practice.

However, the flexibility which does exist is still perceived as being for mothers and not for fathers. I insist that that, too, must change. In a world where technology facilitates a wide range of different work patterns, with longer working lives which sometimes involve caring simultaneously for elderly parents as well as children, sensible employers should be planning all employment on a flexible basis and making it available on demonstrably unisex terms.

Finally, it is important to end by stressing once again why supporting good parenting must be, and must be seen to be, a government priority. Quite simply, it is a matter of national self-interest because good parenting today helps to prevent the cost of social evils tomorrow. There is endless evidence that the "cycle of deprivation", with its huge social and financial cost, will continue from generation to generation unless successful break-in strategies, such as Sure Start, are devised.

However, a more encouraging stream of research shows that constructive parental involvement in a child's life—particularly in a child's school life—produces better grades, far less truancy, greater homework completion rates and, most importantly, a much improved attitude and better all-round behaviour.

So I end, as I began, by agreeing with my noble friend Lord Northbourne. We have to start the support very early in a child's life. He has made that point again and again on previous occasions. And the importance of the parental role needs to be reinforced throughout a child's schooldays.

Citizenship is now a compulsory part of the national curriculum. But is it helping both girls and boys early enough to think through how, when they themselves are parents, they will see the role and responsibilities, as well as the pleasures, of parenthood? I hope that the Minister can confirm that it is doing just that.

8.20 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who has once again called our attention to that most central element of our society: the role of parents in the welfare of children. It should be a truism that the role of parents is indivisible from children's welfare and therefore at the heart of all services for them. The reason that is such an important subject for debate today is because the role of parents is not apparent in the Government's recent plans for devising and delivering children's services.

In the Government's Green Paper, Every Child Matters, which has rightly been welcomed, there are a couple of pages that refer specifically to parents and, indeed, affirm that the bond between the child and his or her parents is the most critical influence on a child's life. It refers to a long-term vision and states that: The Government would like to develop more and better universal services, open to all families as and when they need them". However, in the extensive consultation period that followed the publication of the Green Paper, the only consulting that involved parents consisted of four focus groups.

In the subsequent Every Child Matters: Next Steps there is one small paragraph referring to parents, a few lines on page 6 which repeat, in précis form, what was in the original Green Paper. No explicit account is taken of the centrality of the role of parents in the range of proposed services. Parents have effectively been left out. Yet if services are to work for parents and carers, they must be developed through a partnership between the parent and the provider, whether government or otherwise.

The National Family and Parenting Institute—which has been much referred to this evening, and of which I am a patron—rightly proposes that there should be parent advisory groups in all local and regional children and family services and representation at strategic planning level. I hope that the Government will consider this seriously.

However, Sure Start, which now has 524 programmes targeted on the most deprived areas, has an emphasis on parenting that is greatly to be welcomed. I am repeating a question from elsewhere in the House, but I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the plans for 2,500 children's centres by 2010, to deliver a range of integrated services, will not result in a cut in local management or in per capita funding. The relationship between these centres and the Sure Start programmes is as yet unclear. Perhaps the Minister will clarify it when he comes to reply.

The point about parenting is that we all need help at one time or another. We can usefully remind ourselves that that applies as much to the most authoritative professional as it does to the most deprived single parent. The difficulty about seeking help is that parents feel desperately inadequate and anxious at such times, so getting help, even if a parent knows where to get it, can be extremely difficult. All services have to be delivered with sensitivity that does not usurp the authority of the parental role or its importance, and does not supplant it with some external professional authority. Having parental support generally and routinely available, regardless of a family's circumstances or background, is the ideal and, when it is made available on that basis, it is also often the best way of doing valuable preventive work.

The crucial role of midwives and health visitors here cannot be exaggerated. They have the best possible opportunities for picking up potential problems at an early stage. The support that they can offer is available to all, and the particularly vulnerable parent need not feel that she or he is being singled out. I am delighted to learn that the Chief Nursing Officer is undertaking a review of the health visiting service and I hope that it will he possible greatly to enhance this wonderful service where problems can be identified m a non-stigmatising and universal way.

Support to parents is most widely available in the early years, but becomes far harder to find as children get older. Yet any parent knows that the teenage years can be the most stressful and difficult of all. Yet any parent knows that it is the teenage years that can be the most stressful and difficult of all. The powerful peer/school culture can distance parents, and issues around drugs, bullying, relationships, pregnancy and running away can be deeply difficult. But, despite these almost universal worries, appropriate, accessible help is not always easy to come by.

The Connexions service could have a valuable role to play with teenage children at risk in developing appropriate family support models for parents and mentoring for children. That needs to be actively explored.

For the most vulnerable families there is a tendency for things to be left until real trouble develops, as has already been suggested, which may ultimately be with the law when the question of parenting orders may become the issue. For any parent, being the subject of such an order is really painful, and there are still not enough high-quality providers. Studies show that despite the punitive element the support is positive, but there is a lot of work to be done—and how much better it would be to prevent such situations by earlier intervention.

Where there are specific issues such as disability and/or mental illness—a growing problem and with increasingly young children—very specific provision is needed. It seems axiomatic that, in devising services to meet such needs, parents' advice should be sought, but that is rare. The evidence is that when parents are involved communication improves, treatment is more effective and efficient because professionals are helped to do their jobs better. The child development centre in Scarborough is one example where disabled parents have significantly improved local health facilities through a greater understanding of their children's needs. Facilities for this sort of dialogue should be routinely available.

Just under half of all services for children are provided by the voluntary sector; and I would like to pay tribute to the remarkable spread of work that is achieved by a wide range of organisations including, Barnardo's, with which I have been associated in Scotland, whose work with young people at risk I have mentioned many times in your Lordships' House. Its work nationally includes a range of parenting work, including courses, groups, one-to-one and community-based parenting programmes where events are organised with or by parents themselves and parenting orders.

Dietrich Bonhoffer said: The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children". Will the Minister confirm that in future parents will be consulted and involved so that we can all do the best for our children?

8.27 p.m.

Baroness Blood

My Lords, first I declare an interest as a trustee of Barnardo's, both in my own region and nationally. I also take the opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for raising what I consider to be one of the most important things we can discuss in the House—how parents can be involved with their children and with their children's lives in school and so on.

There is a saying: It is generally agreed that the impact of parenting is felt throughout one's lifetime and for succeeding generations. No other form of human interaction can boast such power". As has been said earlier tonight, bringing up children is perhaps the most challenging and important task that any of us could undertake. It is truly a job for life, and yet it is not always valued by society. Sometimes it is seen as peripheral to paid work or something we do in our spare time. We also often fail to invest in parents and in giving them the skills and training they need to make successful parents.

Here I would like to tell noble Lords a story. I had friends who were expecting their first child. They went to all the classes. They had taken in everything and were wild with excitement. The child was born and brought home. The door was closed and they were totally on their own. The child started to cry, and panic set in. What they had not been taught was how to deal with that situation. Within three days both mother and father were physical wrecks.

Children need so much from their parents—basic physical care, affection, security, stimulation of their potential, guidance and control, responsibility and independence. A child's development is dependent on the quality of the parent/child relationship.

Today's parents face many additional challenges. For example, children have access to computers, mobile phones and the Internet. All this brings with it its own risks and challenges, some of which parents struggle to understand. Barnardo's Just One Click report highlighted the risk to children from abuse and pornography on the Internet and the action that parents, the police and others need to take to address it.

In Northern Ireland, parents and children face changing social circumstances. Today in Northern Ireland, 22 per cent of all households with dependent children are headed by a lone parent. Many children belong to families where they have step-parents, step-sisters and step-brothers. In thinking about the role of families and the support that we give them, we must ensure that all families are taken into account. There is also a growing number of ethnic minority families in Northern Ireland. At the last census, 1 per cent of the Northern Ireland population was from an ethnic minority background.

Those changes in social circumstances mean that we need to listen to parents. Providing the advice and support that they need is all-important. Research has clearly shown that the resilience and success of children in very disadvantaged circumstances has often been due to child-centred parenting, where children are listened to, valued and enabled to overcome disadvantage. It has also shown that the quality of parenting is a highly influential factor in children's development. In 2004, research by the Campaign for Learning showed that parental involvement in children's learning had a bigger effect on their achievement than social background or choice of school.

However, in disadvantaged communities, such as the one from which I come, it is not always easy for parents to be involved. They may have had some negative school experience themselves; or they may be addressing so many other issues that school does not always seem to be the top priority. That is why organisations such as Barnardo's are working with many local communities to engage with schools and parents and support parents to enable them to be involved in their children's education.

However—I should like to hear the Minister's answer to this point—in Northern Ireland, we have just been informed that our Children's Fund will finish, with the loss of almost £25 million from work for children. The general cutbacks in children's service funding mean that its future looks very uncertain in Northern Ireland.

Given that our society expects so much from parents, it is crucial that we involve them in the key decisions that affect them and their children. Parents should be entitled to participate directly in the planning and delivery of services, because the evidence shows that that contributes to both the quality and the effectiveness of those services, as well as creating a sense of accountability among professionals. It is important that parents are involved in a variety of ways and at different stages. For example, parents and children could be directly involved in the service that they are receiving; through needs assessment to identify new services; or to shape the way in which an existing service is delivered.

However, it is also important that we undertake capacity-building with parents if we are to ask them to give their time, experience and expertise. Often the way that a meeting takes place may be strange to parents from the local community. We must give parents the skills to enable them to participate fully and effectively.

A model of that that has worked very well in Northern Ireland has been the group conferencing approach by Barnardo's. It has worked with the South-Eastern Education and Library Board to involve parents and children where school exclusion is threatened. Parents and children identify the issues and help to negotiate the outcomes and strategy to meet that. That has effectively ensured that the young person who would otherwise have been excluded has remained at school. Of the young people who took part in that initiative, 71 per cent felt that their behaviour at school was better; and 50 per cent now say that they have a better understanding of and relationship with their school. There are barriers to parental involvement that must be addressed. They sometimes include a poor relationship between service users and professionals. We need resources and funding to support parental involvement and not expect parents to provide all that free. Physical, language and time barriers can prevent parental involvement, and those should also be addressed.

I should also like to address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, about male parents. I am working on a programme at home at the moment, but we are finding resources for fathers very hard to obtain. We need seriously to consider that.

In Northern Ireland, a pilot scheme has been undertaken by one of the health and social services boards in which a group of disabled children and young people were supported to become involved in the children's service planning process. Some noble Lords may have met that group of children and young people when they came to your Lordships' House for the launch of the Barnardo's publication, Have Your Soy. They had some clear things to say about what would make their lives better. The challenge is to listen to those views and engage in a dialogue about how to respond.

Those who plan and deliver services to children and parents stand only to benefit from their involvement, from drawing on their valuable knowledge, and experience that can make services more effective. However, if that is to happen, professionals must acknowledge that parents and children have their unique experiences to comment on and that these can only increase the effectiveness of the service that they deliver. Also required are capacity-building for parents and children to enable them to participate and the resources to make that possible. Enabling parents and children to participate is not the cheap option, but in the long term it is the most valuable one.

8.35 p.m.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on this very timely debate. I want to concentrate on three interrelated themes about parenting: first, encouraging healthy lifestyles; secondly, the role of grandparents and wider kin; and, thirdly, Sure Start.

I declare an interest as a co-chair of the Alliance for Health & the Future, which is very much about young people's attitudes to health throughout life and as they get older. One cause of our ever-lengthening life expectancy is better health. But, as we know, some children could be the first generation to live for less long than their parents. This is the first time that that has happened for hundreds of years.

Recently I met Life Education Centres, which promotes healthy living to parents and their children, helping to tackle issues such as poor diet, alcohol abuse, drugs and smoking. It stresses the importance of role models, especially of parents to their children. Involving parents is essential; they must be involved in what their children are doing, learning and indeed eating, particularly at school.

I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on Grandparents and extended kin. I was very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, gave a very inclusive definition of parenting. We must remember the contribution of grandparents when we think about parenting because nearly half of all people aged 54 and over are grandparents, though many are younger. They may be grandparents while still parents of teenagers. About 65,000 are in that position.

Children, on the whole, look up to and value their grandparents. In a survey, 78 per cent considered them important figures in their lives. I rather hope that my nine grandchildren have that sort of view about me, but I am not sure. Sometimes grandparents can be very successful mediators or arbitrators between parents and difficult teenagers—that is just one job that they can do quite well. What is changing is that an increasing number of grandparents are parenting for a second time, often informally but also formally, following a court order or suchlike.

The Government and wider society must recognise that with a shift in policy. That is why I welcomed the DfES consultation last summer on extending protection and broadening support for childcare. But I was disappointed that the consultation made clear at the outset that the Government would not allow parents to pay their relatives using government child tax credits. That is short-sighted and unfair because the Government are precluding some parents from using the best people to look after their children: their own parents or other extended kin, who have, after all, direct and valuable personal experience of doing that job. Often those involved are on a low income; in such cases there is a social reason for giving them extra financial support.

I do not suggest that the Government should interfere with informal arrangements. Fifty-eight per cent of parents used grandparents for childcare at some point in the past year, and about a quarter of grandparents help on a weekly basis. We need to encourage and applaud that. According to the DfES figures, 93 per cent were unpaid, and I am sure that most would want to remain that way. But some grandparents or extended kin may be of working age, registered as childminders and meeting all the regulatory conditions, perhaps with the family on a low income. Is it not sensible in those limited circumstances to allow a parent to use the child tax credit to pay the grandparent rather than employ someone potentially unknown to them? It seems common sense.

There was an interesting item on "Woman's Hour" on 25 January. A lone mother of five children was interviewed. She did shift work for the Post Office and received £73 in child tax credit, which she spent on childcare for her two youngest children. The balance for childcare cost 30 per cent of her remaining take-home pay. Her eldest married daughter was expecting a baby. The mother in question wanted to look after the baby when it arrived, but she could not afford to because her daughter's tax credit could not go to her. The Minister's predecessor wrote to me on 31 July about this issue and made a very sound point. She said: the Government does not want to disturb family relationships". He said that it might, distort the pattern of care which is arguably not the province of government". However, I am proposing that this might happen only in very limited circumstances where the grandparent or extended kin is of working age and registered and where the family is on low income and needs additional support.

The Minister may say that it could be awkward if the Government declared a grandparent unsuitable to look after a child, but it might be worth that awkwardness. Should not the child's interests come first? I thought that that was what child protection was all about. I hope that the Minister can look on my suggestion a little more sympathetically and perhaps more flexibly than before.

My final point relates to Sure Start and links my first two points: healthy living, and involving grandparents and the wider family carers. I would like to see Sure Start's reach extended formally to include grandparents and wider kin. In answer to a Written Question from me on 13 December 2004, the Minister's department stated that it did not know how many Sure Start schemes formally involved grandparents, though it acknowledged that most probably did. Extending Sure Start's reach would build on the excellent work which has been piloted by the Grandparents' Association and which encourages grandparent and toddler groups. It is also the place in which messages about healthy living and successful parenting can be reinforced.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his choice of title for the debate. We must involve parents more in the design and delivery of services for children. That also means parents being able, should they wish it, to involve their parents, with appropriate support and information. That would help them to achieve the best for their children and indeed all our children. We have to change or adapt public policy to reflect today's reality.

8.42 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Northbourne for again calling our attention to the role of parents and the welfare of children. I shall concentrate on a matter that he has often raised in the past; that is, the development of children in their earliest years. We are learning more and more about the neurobiology of children and how their relationship with their mother in that first year or so of life can shape the way in which their brains function for the rest of their life. It is crucial that childcare at that time is of the right kind.

I welcome the aim of the Government's childcare strategy. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Children, address the All-Party Group on Childcare. Some of her comments struck me in particular. She wanted to see, in the early-year settings, a large proportion of workers with a qualification similar to that of a primary school teacher. That is an important step forward. She spoke of the pedagogic model that is used on the Continent—the social educator model—and of what she was learning from that area of work. Staff there have two to three years of training at a tertiary or university level to work in these settings. That seems very welcome.

I too welcome what the Government have done with Sure Start. We have heard about the successes of that and about some concerns about the future. Last year, I had the pleasure of visiting three nurseries in this local authority of Westminster. It was a great pleasure to see the good work that is going on, to meet the nursery workers, to hear about the training with which they were being provided and generally to talk to providers and to people who work in the media in this area.

It was clear that there is a deep concern, which is recognised in the Government's childcare strategy, that much childcare provision is not very good. The childcare workforce consists mainly of young, unskilled, poorly paid women, who have had little education. Of course, the childcare strategy seeks to address that. Currently, regrettably, much available childcare is not of a quality that we would wish.

Last year, I had the pleasure of watching a video, which showed best-quality childcare in a therapeutic setting. A young three year-old boy arrived in a kindergarten. He had been neglected over a long period of time. He drove his tricycle into another child, was a menace and a terror and was disliked by all the other children. I saw the work of the highly-skilled nursery teacher, who constantly set boundaries and worked with the child. She presented his case to a group of approximately 10 childcare specialists. She spoke at length about how he was doing and what they were hoping to do further with him. She gave much thought to the quality of care that the child needed to progress. By the end of his stay at the kindergarten, he was the most-liked child in the group and he was thriving.

My concern is to get the balance of childcare right. We know that too many children arrive at school hardly able to speak. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, some children may have never seen a book in their lives. We know that if parents are in employment, it is more likely that their children will be in employment when they reach that age. So there are positive reasons to encourage parents into work and, of course, children will also be taken out of poverty.

As much available childcare is of a poor quality and a good childcare experience in the first one or two years of life is of crucial importance, one wants to be very clear about the messages that are being sent out. One wishes to avoid giving any impression to parents that perhaps they may be better in work than caring for their children. Some parents obviously lack confidence in their parenting. It is very important to avoid inadvertently reinforcing that.

J Belsky, an eminent academic in this area, was involved in the evaluation of the Sure Start project. He considered the American investigation of early child care by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a study which longitudinally followed 1,300 children and their families in 10 different American communities. It states that, a variety of features of care…increased the rate of insecure attachment. These included more than 10 hours of care per week, more than a single child-care arrangement across the first 15 months of life, and lower quality child care". The risks associated with that relate to, adjustment, particularly aggression and non-compliance, during the toddler, preschool and early primary school years". Belsky made the comment that, even small effects, when experienced by many children, may have broad-scale consequences".

Therefore, it is important to get the right balance between encouraging parents into employment and making it possible for those who wish to be in employment to be employed, while valuing their role as parents. Most primary carers are mothers, who should be valued as mothers as well. In the first year of a child's life, of course, some mothers need to work for various reasons. I should like to ask the Minister for reassurance that there will not be a sense of them being particularly encouraged to do so.

My noble friend Lord Northbourne referred to Relate, a charity that does very important work with couples and families. It faces a difficult problem because its sessions incur costs of £40 an hour, but it gets back on average only £14 an hour. It wants to reach out to poorer families, who can perhaps provide only £4 or £5 an hour. I will write to the Minister, who I hope will be able to look at this matter.

8.50 p.m.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, I join in the thanks to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for introducing this debate. Such well researched contributions serve this House well. It will be no surprise to noble Lords that I wish to concentrate my remarks on the parental contribution to education. I know that the Government recognised its importance in their first year in the document, Excellence in Schools: Parents are a child's first and most enduring teacher". Last year, in Every Child Matters: The Next Steps, they continued that theme with the words: Parenting is the most important influence on children and young people's outcomes". The document set out a timetabled list of actions, not the least of which was the provision of £25 million for a parenting fund. There is also no doubt that all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate are saying to the Government, "We are with you on this". My comments seek to help a little to maximise the effectiveness of what the Government are aiming to do.

My first point relates to the importance of an adequate research base on which to formulate policy, a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. I know that this is a point of concern for the Government because they commissioned two studies, one published in 2003 by Professor Charles Desforges, to which my noble friend Lord Northbourne has already referred, and the second published last year by the Policy Research Bureau. Both studies reflect very detailed research.

Somewhat to one's concern, Professor Desforges summarised his observations by saying: We seem to know as much in principle about parental involvement and impact on school achievement as Newton knew about the physics of motion in the 17th century. What we seem to lack [and what he lacked at that stage] is the engineering science to put our knowledge into practice. We need urgently to learn how to apply the knowledge we already have in the field". He goes on to suggest that there has been a lot of creative action and commitment that is greatly appreciated by clients, but that, the evaluations [of them] are so technically weak that it is impossible on the basis of publicly available evidence to describe the scale of impact on pupils' achievement".

A year on, the Policy Research Bureau is more reassuring, but from memory I think that it identified some 15 items where the research basis for policy was still lacking. So I urge the Government to get on with it, but make sure every time that there is a basis for evaluating the effectiveness of any initiative.

My second point is to stress the need for the Government to concentrate action where it is most needed. From my reading of the five-year strategy, which is quite moving on the subject, I am sure that they will focus on areas of social deprivation. Professor Desforges says in his evaluation that the impact on educational achievement of different levels of parental involvement at primary school is much bigger than differences associated with variations in the quality of schools. The extent of parental involvement is strongly correlated with social class, and that in turn the level of that parental involvement is reinforced by the child's level of achievement. The risk is all too obvious of a downward spiral of low involvement leading to low achievement, leading in turn to even less involvement. That may be reinforced by parents' low aspirations affecting how children do in school.

In his report published yesterday, the Chief Inspector of Schools emphasised the correlation between social class and achievement. He has compared us with other countries and concluded that, sadly, the correlation is too strong.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, referred to parents living in poor housing, in receipt of low and insecure incomes, and perhaps facing unemployment. We must ensure that money is provided where it is most needed, so that parents are able to give to their children what they want to give.

My third point begins with a quotation from the five-year strategy: Social care, childcare and education have not been thought of as an integrated approach to helping children to do well…Children do not distinguish their need based on which agencies run which services—neither should we". I cannot forbear to pick up on a point made during the Committee stage of the Education Bill. One was commenting on the wisdom of the Government erecting a strong ring-fence around the government money made available to local authorities for education.

Recognising what the Government say in their own five-year strategy, is there not a case for making possible some breaches in the ring fence so that a holistic approach can be adopted in areas of social deprivation, possibly with the direct approval of the Secretary of State? I know what the Government want to do—they want to make sure that the money for education goes to it—but if the problem is fundamentally also a social problem there must be a holistic approach.

My associated point is that I urge the Government, in thinking through their policy of facilitating the expansion of successful schools, to weigh the effect that could have on schools that may not be doing well in areas of social disadvantage. If we are to have a holistic approach to the education of children and young people in such areas, we need to have schools in the midst of communities, familiar to parents, where they rub shoulders with other parents with whom they empathise and feel at ease.

Busing the children to a successful school in a middle-class community is not the best answer. Bringing excellence to the people is a much better approach for the well-being of the communities and for the cause of effective parental involvement in their children's education.

To sum up, the Government have got the right intentions: secure the research base of policy; concentrate the money where it is most needed; and adopt the holistic approach advocated in the Government's five-year strategy.

8.57 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and congratulate him on introducing this important debate, which has been both interesting and very wide-ranging. It has demonstrated the wide range of interests and expertise around the House.

The noble Lord and my noble friend Lady Linklater quoted the Government's statement in Every Child Matters that the bond between the child and his or her parents is the most critical influence on a child's life. I am sure that all of us here agree with that. It has underpinned the debate today.

It is all the more important, therefore, that all parents are supported and consulted in every matter relating to their children. Not all parents have the advantage of turning to their own parents—the grandparents—for their support, and so they need to get help from somewhere else. I recognise the important points made about grandparents by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross.

Some people believe that just because most of us are biologically capable of becoming parents we all know how to do it well. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in a situation where our children are growing up in a world very different from the one we knew as children, particularly with regard to the freedom to go out to play safely. My noble friend Lady Sharp has emphasised the importance of play.

However, no one knows a child better than its parents and no one is better placed to ensure its welfare. Therefore the state should be a benevolent guardian angel—an enabler, a supporter—but should never compel or take over the parenting role except where the child needs the state's protection or the parent is unable to fulfil the usual parental role.

As we all know, sadly, the state does not make a very good parent anyway—reference the terrible educational outcomes for children in care and the number of them that land up in trouble with the law, as mentioned by several noble Lords. Therefore it makes sense to do everything possible to keep a child with its parents and stop it having to go into care in the first place.

We must therefore do two things. The first is to try to ensure a good start for every baby and its parents; and the second is to support families, especially when they are having problems. To do all this well you need to involve and consult parents, and my noble friend Lady Linklater has proposed a structure for doing this at local level.

I cannot stress enough the importance of starting well—the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, made the same point—and that is why my party has recently published its proposals on maternity pay; to pay every first mother the equivalent of the minimum wage for the first six months of her maternity leave if that is more than she is already entitled to. This will enable more new mothers to take their statutory leave and to spend that first vital six months or more bonding with her child with less financial stress. Of course, it has long been our policy to allow couples to share their parental leave between mother and father, even if the Guardian newspaper has not noticed.

My noble friend Lady Sharp mentioned the PEEP project. The early years of a child's life are so important, and investment in them is cost-effective for the state as well as civilised and humane for children and their parents. That is why we applaud the Government's Sure Start scheme and welcome its rollout, if that is to be so, as well as the excellent work done by the voluntary Home Start programme, about which my noble friend Lady Sharp spoke so passionately.

However, we take issue with the Government's children's trust fund scheme, believing that the £250 or £500 per child would be much better invested in the early years to reduce class sizes to 20 at key stage 1. That is much more cost-effective than giving an 18 year-old teenager a gift which will be a drop in the ocean when you consider what his further education will cost him. Children are all so different. They need more personal attention when they are young. I know that the parents we consulted when developing this policy agreed with its wisdom.

We also agree with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about the importance of well trained childcare and early years workers. When a child goes to school, there is a tendency to say, "Now it's the job of the teachers". But it has been emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that the schools that are most successful are those where the parents are vitally concerned with the children's education and which make every effort to involve and consult them. That is why I regret the Government's intention to scrap the annual parents' meeting and report. We must have, in education legislation, at least a minimum that schools must do to encourage parents to take part in the life of the school, become governors, and so on. We do not need to worry about the ones which do it well but the ones which need to be told the minimum they need to do.

Talking about schools, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that we could do more in the curriculum to prepare young people for relationships and parenthood, when it eventually happens. Glossy adverts for baby products showing happy bouncing babies and beautiful unstressed mums with hands as soft as their face give the wrong impression of how hard, but worth while, the job is. The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, told us about some parents who were physical wrecks after only three days.

Teenagers need to know how tough it is to bring up a baby, especially alone. If they did, there might not be quite so many unwanted teenage pregnancies, and young parents might be better prepared. Young parents living locally could be involved in this sort of personal and social education; I know that that happens here and there.

However, we need resources diverted from areas that are not such a good investment into early years and universal support for parents. My noble friend Lady Linklater called for this as well. We say "universal" because problems within families are not restricted to those suffering some disadvantage. If parental support services were widely available and used by all parents, as they are in Sweden, there would be no stigma and enormous benefits to families and the nation. But we must be sure not to fall into the trap of being too prescriptive about good parenting. There are as many models of good parenting as there are happy families.

As with Sure Start, multi-agency working is by far the most effective approach in relation to these services. In developing them, we must make sure it is a bottom-up process, and ask parents what they want and need. It is striking that some parents who have had to undertake parenting classes as part of a parenting order, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Linklater, are delighted and ask, "Why did things have to come to this before I got this sort of help? Why couldn't I have had it before everything went pear-shaped?". They are also surprised at how inclusive such classes often are. It is more about parents sharing their problems and working out solutions rather than having some so-called expert tell them what to do with their children. We need more of that, and we need it earlier.

It is very important that parents know what is available, so widespread dispersal of information is essential. I look forward to the Minister's response to the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on that subject.

I know that when resources are short, it makes most sense to target them towards the most difficult areas. That is why support for parents having relationship difficulties should be a priority. Apart from the human cost, we all know how costly to the taxpayer are services to support families that have broken up. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, pointed that out. When a family is on the verge of break-up, relationship counselling, mediation and family group conferencing, where the children too may be heard, are vital and may even prevent the break-up. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, reminded us once more of the importance of consulting children in those situations.

If a break-up does occur, the welfare of the child must be protected. Nothing is more stressful for a child than the break-up of its parents, and nothing contributes more to child poverty. That is why the Child Support Agency needs to be scrapped forthwith and the responsibility given to the Inland Revenue. If the Government really want to involve parents, they should ask those who have had dealings with the CSA how good it is. If the Government listen to the answer, they will surely scrap it tomorrow.

In relation to child contact, parenting plans are a good idea, but the Government need to take a lead from practitioners such as Parenting 2000, which is made up of experienced parent practitioners, and pay more attention to the success of that restorative practice approach.

I believe that none of your Lordships has referred to the need for inclusion of the parents of disabled and SEN children. I have received a briefing from the groups that represent those families; they point out that disabled children are often excluded and draw attention to the fact that if you get it right for disabled children, you are more likely to get it right for all children. I was particularly struck by their plea to involve fathers in service planning. Meetings too often take place during the day when fathers are at work, so they feel peripheral to the whole process. The noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Blood, both made appeals for the involvement of fathers in general.

In genuinely congratulating the Government on what they already do to involve and consult parents, I hope that we will be forgiven tonight for highlighting where more needs to be done, and for asking for more to be done.

9.7 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for instigating this extremely important debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has said, there have been some excellent contributions, which have been as wide-ranging across children's affairs as children have interests.

All noble Lords who have spoken have been conscious of the importance of a cohesive family life and the vital role played by parents in providing the love, stability and support for their children as they grow through their various stages to independence. We all appreciate the enormous pleasure derived from our children, their ups and downs, their development, their social lives, their educational achievements, the fun associated with them and their friends—and we usually get to know a lot of those—as well as the heart-stopping moments when things go wrong.

As the former chairman of a social services committee, and currently as a family panel magistrate, I know that not all families are able to provide the care that children need. In some cases, they wittingly or not positively blight their children's lives, health and future. The latter is the more extreme area, and the one in which statutory support and intervention is most often needed and in which the state, in the form of local authorities, comes to share responsibility for the upbringing of a child or children. While many of these children will stay at home with their families, some need the care of foster parents and some are ultimately adopted. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, pointed out, adoptive parents are parents—and I could point out that foster parents are parents, too. Therefore, we must include all those in our definition of parents.

These children are, fortunately, in a minority. Families, however defined in general, have very differing requirements and needs throughout their children's young lives. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has drawn attention to the Government's children's strategy, Every Child Matters. Indeed, other noble Lords have referred to it, too. It is an excellent title and one with which few would disagree. The noble Lord invoked research which backs up the widely held view that children need a strong family life, that the bonds and loving attachments help them fulfil their potential, and that those from homes with two parents are often more successful than where there is just one mother or father trying to fulfil all the tasks which are more easily and readily done by two.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, pointed to the high percentage of single parent families in Northern Ireland. However, that does not apply to Northern Ireland alone but to this country as well, although I believe that here the relevant figure is about 18 per cent. That situation brings its own problems.

As I have suggested, some families require more help than others. Some are completely self-sufficient, but others less so. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, spoke of the complications caused by non-involved parents. Those with children with disabilities, for example, need special consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, rightly raises the question of what means are best adopted to assist those who need them to access services the state can provide. I am sure that the Minister will answer him but I want to raise the question of what is the role of the state in providing flexible support for families, perhaps in the instance of one parent staying at home to look after his or her child and finding that an economic struggle, or parents who must go to work either for economic or personal reasons and need care for their children. Should the state be the provider of resources, financial or facilities?

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, spoke of HomeStart. To some extent the Government have answered the question that I asked through their Sure Start programme. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked the Minister whether Sure Start would continue. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and other noble Lords, drew attention to the great importance of the whole Sure Start programme. However, it seems to me certain from the announcements that have been made that while Sure Start may continue in some form it will be scooped up in the Government's unnerving proposals to make universal childcare a new arm of the welfare state, with extended school places from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., the creation of children's centres, early education for all two year-olds, free nursery education for all three and four year-olds and much else of an interventionist nature.

Jill Kirby from the Centre for Policy Studies, the author of, Choosing to be Different—Women, Work and the Family, has raised the question whether that strategy is in the best interests of children, and particularly whether the rationale behind the Chancellor's policies—for, strangely, this policy on childcare came from the Treasury—is to get more mothers of young children into full-time employment. It is a strategy which, while in the best interests of some children and families, may not be in the interests of others.

Research undertaken by the Government-sponsored project on the effective provision of pre-school education, cited by Jill Kirby, shows a complex picture but suggests that those children who have experienced high levels of daycare, either in a nursery or by a childminder, before the age of three were more likely to have behavioural problems than those cared for within their families. As the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, pointed out, the engagement of parents in education and constructive activity is the most important determinant of a child's outcomes, irrespective of social background, and the best pre-school experiences are those with a high level of parental involvement.

As has also been demonstrated, the corollary to this is that children who suffer parental neglect can benefit from being placed in daycare facilities, as do those who are deprived of attention and stimulation in their own homes, or where their mothers are failing to cope. So there is justification for the view that provided care is appropriate in some circumstances.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, pointed out, Sure Start programmes have demonstrated that parental involvement, both in their activities and in their governance, is crucial to their success. A number of noble Lords referred to the success of Sure Start. It is depressing that parental involvement in the governance of children's centres does not seem to be part of the protocol.

Good staff are no substitute for parental care; and as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, pointed out, in many cases the standard of the staff is not appropriate to the care that they are being asked to give. The choice of where a child spends their early days—at home or in nursery—may be limited by circumstances. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, pointed out, the state should stay at arm's length from that: a help if needed; a friendly shoulder if needed; but not a director. For those who must work, perhaps the Government should wonder whether taking rather less of their taxes and leaving them to make decisions about what they do might be a sensible way forward. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, drew attention to the tax credit scheme, which could be turned and used for care by grandparents, which is a vital area that has been largely ignored.

Good parental involvement in all aspects of children's lives is fundamental to their future. Before closing, I want to reinforce the matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in the brief that we were sent by Mencap. Unusually, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is not in his place, so we must carry the torch for him today. It is relevant to this debate. There is a necessity to involve parents in the design and delivery of services for disabled children. It is as true of other children as well, but disabled children require special consideration to ensure that they receive prompt healthcare assessments and treatment. The inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream provision, and an assessment of its advantages and limitations, is another area where parents must be involved.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to ensuring that fathers are included, and that was one of the main concerns in the Mencap brief, that sometimes fathers believe themselves to be "peripheral parents". It is sad that any father should feel excluded in any way from discussions on, or details of, the care of their child. This is an area in which the state has a perfectly proper role to play, but it must be sensitive and responsive to individual needs.

In Sure Start, children's centres, extended school hours, care provision, children's trusts, the Children Act, the Children's Commissioner and the child trust fund, the Government have embarked on a huge and unprecedented programme of intervention in childcare. Today's debate has demonstrated, if it needed to be, the profound importance of families in the large picture. I hope that the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, will receive answers with which he will be satisfied, and that the Minster and the Government will take notice of the many important things that have been said tonight.

9.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, secured this debate for us, because it gives me an opportunity to engage with him, and with the House, hopefully in confidential fashion, with where we are in responding to the question that was explicit in his speech. Every Child Matters made the clear statement of how central parents are to good outcomes for children. The noble Lord was essentially asking how that story was being developed and delivered in practice. I will try to engage with that question in my response.

First, we started—as the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, would want us to—by asking the researchers to tell us what we know from research about where parents have the most impact on those five outcomes. Officials have done a very good review of that for me internally, which is pretty clear in a number of areas. In terms of safety, it is pretty obvious where parental behaviour interconnects; we know that without me labouring it. The research evidence on health—on the influence of parents on eating, smoking and alcohol use, and of parents' mental health on that of children—is massively strong about the connection.

On enjoyment and achievement—I hope that I can use those shorthand terms; many noble Lords will know what I mean by them—the parental involvement in children's education has a strong and lasting impact. There have been a number of references to Charles Desforges's quite brilliant summation of research. To talk to him about that research is equally stimulating. He is very clear about how powerful parental involvement is. We know that economic well-being, in terms of parental attitudes and expectations through the medium of educational attainment and the ambition of the child, has an enormous impact.

I shall come back later to making a contribution. The influence of parental behaviour and circumstances—particularly maternal—during very early life stages has a strong effect on the development of anti-social behaviour patterns. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is right about the importance of secure attachment in those very early months, and what it does to the life chances of the child. I cannot do that justice in the limited time that I have. We also know that other wider-ranging factors affect parents' ability to parent—poverty, adult relationships, substance misuse and their own mental or ill health.

Next, we have researched what parents want. We know that they do not only want help in a crisis—when they are screaming for it—as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and others have said. They want preventive help as well. They want to be treated with respect, as partners, and as the shapers of services rather than simply passive recipients. They want services that listen to and involve them, and want fathers included as well as mothers. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others are absolutely right on that—how it is done is important, as well as what is done.

I shall spend a few minutes on what we already have in place and what is planned. Then I shall seek to answer a number of questions, although not all of them, and focus on the kernel of the key matters on which we are focusing. There will be an opportunity for the House—not now, but later—to ask whether we are right on those focuses, and whether our mindset on them is right.

The contribution of the voluntary and community sector is massively important, as has been signalled by a number of noble Baronesses. We currently spend about £58 million in the Family Division on a range of services and support. Most of that finds expression into the voluntary sector. For example, the parenting fund supports 139 different projects. One of them is Parentline Plus; most of us recognise its excellence.

I shall talk about what has already been planned. The five-year strategy for children put up clear markers about the centrality of parents in children's centres and extended schools, developing more coherent services to support and involve them. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and others signalled, the workforce must be properly trained to involve parents in service design and delivery. That is in place, and before long we shall publish a children's workforce strategy that will start to put some flesh on those bones.

A number of noble Lords referred to Every Child Matters, which again acknowledges the central role of parents. It promotes a way of working that emphasises listening to children, young people and their families. It is quite hard work to shift public services so that they understand and internalise that, because it is not in the top-down traditions of much service delivery. We have one superb example in the department, which is the early support programme for families with disabled children. It has been developing a model of working with parents and getting them to articulate what package of support they want for themselves and their children, better to address their disability. The early evidence of that is superb, but we need to roll out that methodology and way of working wider.

Let me race on. Regarding the voluntary sector, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, stability of funding and good commissioning is crucial to maximise the contribution that they make.

I shall not address all of the questions put by noble Lords, or I shall not do any of them justice. Is the objective to make parents work or to raise their children? I do not mean to be glib, but, essentially, we are helping families to choose how best to balance work and family life. Some of the actions we are taking increase the power of those choices. Fathers now have more choice and more support than ever before in balancing childcare with work. They have a right to two weeks' paid paternity leave. Fathers of children under six and of disabled children have a new right to apply to work flexibly. That point addresses one of the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. Critically, we have also announced, certainly to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and others, our intention to introduce 12 months' paid maternity leave for all mothers by the end of the next parliament, if we are spared. That would be partly commutable to a father if they wished. We could not be clearer on that commitment.

We certainly do not intend to make relationship education compulsory in all schools, but personal, social and health education (PSHE) courses about the different styles of relationship can be taught at key stage 2, about the role and feelings of parents and carers at key stage 3 and about the nature and importance of marriage for family life and the upbringing of children at key stage 4. We have significantly increased funding to Home Start and home visiting programmes for parents who have at least one child under five.

There were many questions about Sure Start. Could you conceive that we would seek to damage or reduce Sure Start, which has been one of the brilliant jewels of success for the Government and has been recognised by families? We do not intend to do so, thus I hope that I can set at rest the minds of the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Linklater, and a number of other speakers. Sure Start's budget will more than double between now and 2007–08. One of its key principles is that parents and children should have access to services that are tailored flexibly, according to their needs and circumstances. We want parents to continue to be involved in the running of the services, with governance arrangements to reflect that. Perhaps I may send noble Lords a further note on that matter.

The involvement of fathers and the shift in society that makes fathers more actively and emotionally involved with their children is among the great, positive movements of our society. We see the down side of that in the increase in rows about contact, but paternal involvement is an enormous, positive asset. Therefore, Sure Start local programmes have a strong emphasis on engaging fathers, and some of the paid paternity leave measures are part of that. That is a theme of government policy. We must continue to recognise that one should not gender stereotype—there are two parents and each can contribute more.

I shall irritate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, and apologise to them for doing so. I shall not engage in a debate on the Education Bill here and now. I am delighted to say that we shall have many other happy days and opportunities to do that. I am not being flippant and they will understand why, because time is so limited and there are further important matters that I wish to address.

Similarly, I shall write to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, regarding the important points she made about grandparents. I wish to reflect on them, but I do not want to raise her hopes that she will get a different answer than last time, but at least I shall do her the justice of reflecting a little on that. Regarding the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about adoptive parents and foster parents—they are part of the definition of parents to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred, and they must be within our mindset. It should not relate only to blood parents, for very good reasons.

I should also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that we are actively involving practitioners in parenting plans. I had a superb meeting with about 20 of them this morning for about an hour and a half and I have threatened them with another meeting in about a month's time, so they will not get away lightly.

I have outlined what we have done so far and what we have signposted. But the heart of the question is: what else needs to be done over and above all of those things? Perhaps I may leave with the House three questions upon which we are focusing and noble Lords can tell me whether they are right and—even better—what the answers might be. The first question is: knowing that virtually all parents need access to advice and information at some stage of the difficult and exciting job of bringing up a child, what should be the nature of information and advice to parents, with particular focus on transition points? We know that good things are already being done. Parentline Plus is a clear example, but 100,000 calls a year must be required, given that there are about 40 million parents. In response to the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Linklater, one question we are struggling with and engaging in is the nature of information and the provision of advice and support at national and local levels. We want to do that without moving into the silly nanny-state nonsense.

Secondly, there is the Charles Desforges question, which is one of the reasons I have been pleased to talk and listen to him. If we know that some parents' parenting style—their behaviour, ambition and parenting pattern—so affects the intellectual development and ambition of the child in education, more so than the differences between schools, to have a model of educational improvement which is solely focused on the production plant of schools is self-evidently lopsided. The question with which we are struggling, therefore, is: how could one help some parents to be better at parenting? Unless we answer that, we shall never fulfil our ambition to close the educational attainment between different social classes in our society. What we are seeing—and I know that one is not allowed to use hand signals for Hansard—is that happening and not that happening. That will fool them, won't it? That matters because it is obviously central to our ambition and the work of Charles Desforges is crucial there.

Thirdly, one of the most interesting and difficult issues is the convergence of research and knowledge recently on what happens in the early months of life. By that I mean the convergence between the child development and attachment work; the psychotherapeutic knowledge and insights; and the neuroscience understanding of what happens to the brain's development and the development of the social brain. In other words, in the first 12 months of life, the child's patterns of behaviour to other human beings and their own feelings are massively influenced by the ways in which the parents behave towards him. That is not just some psychoanalytic theory; the neuroscientists know it and they can track it and the evidence is there scientifically.

What we also know, and what I am engaging on in discussion with academics and practitioners, is when the parenting is not "good enough", to use the John Bolby phrase, the impact of that on some significant patterns of the child's behaviour. That focuses more on hard-end rather than on the mass. Clearly, there is evidence that if the early behaviour relationship between the child and the mother is dysfunctional so that the child does not have good emotional development, it affects the propensity to behaviour problems in school and to the propensity to a pattern of behaviour in school which leads to poor learning and exclusion and therefore educational failure. These things increase the propensity that the child will display anti-social behaviour in wider society and a potentiality for drifting into criminality. It is not a crude but a complex and varied problem, and there is a relationship between what happens in these situations. Obviously, so much of what the state does focuses on dealing with the symptoms of problems when they manifest themselves either in the classroom, or in the neighbourhood, or in the criminal justice system. We must have an understanding of and reflect on some of the earlier causations in the first 12 months and in the early years.

We will not find simple, clear scientific answers to this because the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, is right. The longitudinal studies have not been done, and Charles Desforges is rightly scathing about the fact that we innovate but we do not track.

In that situation, when we will not be able to know exactly which interventions will work, it seems to point to an argument for some serious forms of pathfinder experimentation. One then at least constructs some views which seem to be plausible in terms of what might help shift behaviour. One does so in a controlled way, studies it and afterwards evaluates it. One then tries to build on that to move forward.

I do not want to raise hopes that we are suddenly about to crack mental health, anti-social behaviour, crime and disorder and so forth. On the other hand, to have no thinking about what happens in the relationship between the parent and the child and the influence of that relationship on those issues would clearly be a lopsided policy perspective on the part of government. That is why I, my officials and my ministerial colleagues are so interested in reflecting on these issues at present—perhaps around the three areas that I have indicated.

I am in serious danger of doing something that I have never done before, which is to come to the end of my speech in good time. I think that I shall cut and run at this point, hut I should be pleased to have further discussions on these issues with any Members of the House if they would be interested in doing so. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for stimulating a very interesting and important debate.

9.35 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister and to everyone who has spoken this evening. I shall speak for only about one minute because I can see that the vultures are there waiting for us to go away.

What fascinated me about the debate was that we were all singing from the same hymn hook. It is exciting to find in this Chamber so many experts, coming from different backgrounds, who see the picture in the same way. It is particularly delightful to find that, on the whole, the Minister is thinking along the same lines.

I was particularly interested in the concept of the development of the social brain. If any of your Lordships are interested in the development of the social brain of middle-class teenagers, I commend a programme called "Brat Camp" on Monday evenings on Channel 4. Not only is it very funny, it is also quite interesting.

I shall not try to answer any of the specific points raised except to say how delighted I was to hear the Minister talk about the thought that has obviously been given to the convergence of the research on the development of the brain and the ways in which we can apply that in the early years to improve outcomes for schools. There is distress at the imbalance that exists in the Government's present policy because we do not know where we are going in that area. In my view, we are putting too much emphasis on bringing pressure on schools and not enough on helping parents in the early years.

I am most grateful to noble Lords and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.