On 3rd June 2015, during the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke on the need to provide good quality childcare, alleviate child poverty, and fully address the complex needs of families, in order to enable equality of opportunity at the start of life. The text of his speech is below and can be watched here:
“give all children the best possible start in life”.
Of course we all want this, so we must scrutinise carefully whether the proposals on adoption will produce it for children for whom adoption is the best route. Given that some of the most successful adoption agencies are small, localised ones, care will need to be taken in any move to regional agencies—which certainly has its strengths—so that the smaller agencies’ special skills and experience are not lost, particularly as they are often the most effective at placing and maintaining adoptions of the most hard-to-place children. Durham Family Welfare in my own area is a fine example.
Childcare, we all recognise, is vital to ensure the best start in life. For most children, the very best childcare in the early years is given by the child’s own parents. The bonding and trust that is built is vital to long-term well-being. Nothing replaces the love of parents in the healthy development of a child. The extension of childcare offered to 30 hours a week must not create the impression that both parents, or the single parent, must go out to work. There is no harder, more socially valuable or more important work given to those able to have a child than raising that child well.
For many, though, work will be wanted or necessary, so increased provision in childcare is welcome, provided that the quality of what is offered is high. This can happen only with properly trained staff paid at a decent rate. The living wage for childcare workers needs to come in soon. It will be important, too, that the wide range of provision available is not reduced by the 30-hour allowance. Much childcare is provided in premises such as church halls, where an extension of hours by this much may not be possible. We need to take care that some of the highest-quality provision does not get lost in the extension of hours. I also ask whether it is appropriate for extended provision to be free for those on higher wages, who are well able to afford their childcare.
I welcome the inclusion, in the full employment and welfare benefits Bill, of the troubled families programme. Its success in helping families and children in difficult circumstances has been impressive. Since the programme also appears to deliver savings to the public purse, the case for its continuation is strong. Indeed, I urge Her Majesty’s Government to adopt a similar joined-up, personalised approach to helping individuals with multiple and complex needs.
Some of the preparatory work has already been done. Simple Change for Troubled Lives, rather than troubled families, is a recent publication by Framework housing association. It offers a blueprint for a troubled lives strategy. I commend it to your Lordships as a document that can be read quite quickly and summarised in five key actions: first, the extension of the troubled families programme to at least 60,000 individuals with most complex needs who need intensive long-term assistance; secondly, to ensure that others with multiple and complex needs have full assessments under the Care Act; thirdly, to ensure that people with multiple and complex needs have suitable housing; fourthly, to engage them in structured activity, leading wherever possible to paid work; fifthly, to align the various activities of government in this area so that they complement, rather than conflict with, each other.
The coalition Government made firm commitments to improve the help offered to people with multiple and complex needs as recently as the 2014 Autumn Statement and the 2015 Budget. I hope and pray for a strategy to deliver.
I have to express concern that the best start in life for every child will not be best served by freezing child benefit and child tax credit for the poorest families, particularly those in low-income work. Therefore, I support the proposal from the Children’s Society and others that child benefit should be excluded from the benefit cap as it is intended to support the costs of raising the child; it is not simply income to the parents. I also fear the long-term impact of more children being moved into poverty through the benefits freeze.
Child poverty has long-term impacts on the health and development of those children, creating long-term increased costs for the whole of society. There is a danger of achieving short-term gain but long-term cost.
Child poverty is not remedied simply by child benefit, of course, but it is one important brick in the wall alongside preventing family breakdown, good education, helping people into good, meaningful work and tackling debt and addiction issues, which are recognised as critical to eradicating poverty in which children are caught. We all want the best start in life for every child in our nation. There is much to scrutinise in the proposals in the gracious Speech that affect the lives of children. We need to be assured by the Government that their proposals will truly give the best start, when it appears on first reading that some may well do so while others may actually harm children.