For many people raising our children is the most worthwhile thing we do. Raising a family can give new purpose to a marriage, dignity to work and delight to a home. It rests on deep-seated and admirable human instincts. And it is truly democratic as well – you can mess up despite great privileges or you can do brilliantly despite great adversity. A stable loving home is just about the greatest single advantage a child can have.
For many people the family matters far more than politics ever could - ask them about the events which have meant the most to them over the past year, the highs and the lows, and they won’t talk about politics but family holidays, the death of a relative, children’s birthdays. We Conservatives understand that government can be like an unwelcome gate-crasher, intruding on these deeply personal things. Even when it tries to help, it can be horribly clumsy, all fingers and thumbs. And we politicians must not set ourselves up as morally superior when our own failings have been all too painfully on view again this year.
But we cannot sit back and do nothing. Things are going deeply wrong with our society that need to be set right. People ask what is broken about our society. Here are two contrasting snapshots of Britain today that show how our country is going in the wrong direction.
A school dinner lady tells parents, who are friends of hers, that their seven-year old child has been assaulted at school. She gets sacked for her misdemeanour.
A single mother takes her own life and the life of the disabled daughter she cares for because she can’t take any more harassment from a gang of youths. Despite her desperate appeals, no action was taken, no protection was offered. Nothing for that family.
This is what is going wrong with our Government – it is intrusive when it should stay out of the way and nowhere to be found when you really need it.
Every one of us can add to the list from our own experience:
The woman who jabbed her finger at a young person harassing her and who was then prosecuted for assault.
The teacher’s career blighted by a false allegation.
The man who tries to stand up to a gang and then is charged by the police himself.
These are more than individual incidents; there is a pattern behind them. A breakdown in trust.
First, the confidence of adults in each other is being eroded.
Secondly, adults are afraid of children, knowing that one allegation, even if it’s false, can do enormous damage.
And thirdly, children have come to believe that adults are powerless.
As a result, it is harder than ever for adults to exercise authority over children, however informal and sympathetic.
This is what is happening in our country now. But it is not inevitable. It need not be like this. It can be changed.
For a start it is not like this in other Western countries.
I am going to read from an opinion poll – no not one of those political polls! This asks adults in different European countries a very simple practical question – if you saw a teenager painting graffiti on a bus shelter, would you intervene? In Britain, we are less willing to respond than in the rest of Europe.
For us Conservatives society means everything between the individual and the state. It is what gives life so much of its value and meaning. In particular it means older generations investing in the care and upbringing of the younger generation. It’s what we do for the future. And it goes far beyond the early years. We all know where babies come from. But this is about where adults come from too.
When adults steer clear of children, children are left without the guidance they need. The scouts have 30,000 young people wanting to join but without places for them. But those who do volunteer really make a difference. There is a voluntary boxing club in Havant run by a tough old boxer. George is his name. A lone parent brings her twelve-year old son along. The boy is rude to his mother. George tells him not to be. The mother comes up to him afterwards and thanks him: ‘That’s the first time any man has ever told my son not to treat me like that.’ Small exchanges like that can make a big difference. Think what we can achieve with more volunteers like that.
There are professionals who can contribute too. Health visitors can really help a family when the children are young. But they have been undermined by this Government. Labour say we will scrap Sure Start. That’s not true. We will keep Sure Start. We will improve it. And we will refocus some of its budget to provide 4,200 extra health visitors. Too many young people are lost and drifting because nobody has taken the trouble to find out what their aspirations are and give them the route map to fulfilling them. They need professional careers advisers. But, under Labour, they’ve disappeared into the inadequate Connexions service. We will once more give young people the guidance they need. We will make sure young people get proper careers advice. We can get our young people back on track. And we will.
This weakening of all those other adults puts enormous pressures on families. You are on your own. Parents bear a heavy burden of bringing up their children in a hostile environment where nobody is to be trusted. Parent used to be a noun. Now it is a verb. Parents feel harassed, pummeled, and pressured like never before.
We know there are a minority of families who are defeated by these pressures. They are completely failing to raise their children – perhaps because of problems with drugs or drink. Their children’s lives are blighted and so are many others. These families can destroy neighbourhoods. At the moment, the main option is for local authorities to put the children into care. 23,000 children are taken into care every year. But the state is a very bad parent. 1 in 4 teenage girls leaving care are mothers or mothers-to-be within a year. People who have been in care make up less than one in a hundred of the population but they are a third of people in prison. This is a national scandal. It must not be like this. We can do better.
For a start, we should be far more ready to turn to kith and kin if disaster strikes, and a child loses his or her parents. There are grandparents who would willingly take on responsibility for their grandchild in those tragic circumstances. But only 1 in 6 foster care placements are with family and friends. Only half of local authorities have a stated policy that family and friends should be considered a first option before fostering or taking a child into care. Family and friends, especially grandparents, must have a right to be legal guardians of the child. I pledge today a fair deal for grandparents.
Another way forward is practical help for the whole family, helping them to stay together and manage their behaviour. We will see a film later of a fantastic scheme, Save the Family. It does not split the family up but tries to help them as a family unit. They are successful with nearly all of the deeply troubled families they help. That is the sort of voluntary sector initiative which we back as an alternative to putting children into care. And it’s more cost effective too. That scheme has been supported by Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice. Iain inspires us to be true to the Tory belief that, working with the voluntary sector, we can tackle these social problems. We are all in Iain’s debt – and all our good wishes go to Betsy too.
Another way we can help families is by recognising marriage in the tax system. When people make a public commitment to support each other it is right for the tax system to recognise it. Some countries do treat us just as individuals for income tax purposes. That is what they do in Turkey, oh yes, and in Mexico too. Labour may believe in the Turkish-Mexican model but most other advanced Western countries do recognise marriage in the income tax system. That’s what they do in France. That’s what they do in Germany. That’s what they do in the USA. And that’s what we’ll do too.
This is our approach to families. We are not going to berate them. We are going to help them.
Last week at the Labour conference there was a different approach. Gordon Brown wanted to sound tough. So he talked about putting 16 and 17-year old mothers into hostels. He has not got the money or the will to make that happen any more than Tony Blair did when he announced the same policy 10 years ago. It was just said for effect. Why didn’t he go the whole hog and call his hostels workhouses? Just like Oliver Twist with Gordon Brown as Mr Bumble the beadle. It’s a change from being Mr Micawber.
Afterwards he claimed to have been referring to a charity for homeless young people, Foyers. I have visited their projects; they are excellent. They help young people fleeing homes where they may have been rejected. But in that case why did Gordon Brown have to pretend they were punitive hostels for young parents when they aren’t? He was taking a worthwhile initiative by an excellent charity and deliberately making it sound harsh. This is a man so desperate that even compassion has to be presented as severity: he has indeed lost his moral compass.
We will not lose ours. And we have the common sense and experience of this great party to draw on. There are people in this hall who wrestle with these problems in your community - who help with Homestart, who volunteer with the Citizens Advice Bureau, or who are governors of schools. It’s what makes this country great.
A UNICEF report showed Britain at the bottom of the league for the well-being of our children. It touched a raw nerve. We are failing to pass on to the next generation the values, the knowledge and the skills which will enable them to thrive. But it need not be like this. There’s not just a budget deficit. There’s a parenting deficit. And we can tackle that too.
Whatever the perils facing Britain, we have never been the party of defeatism. We turned our economy around when we were the sick man of Europe. We can do the same for our society too. We can do it. We must do it. We will do it.