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Chris Grayling: 'Shameless' parents must not become the norm

Poverty is a tragedy not a statistic.

Asking people in some parts of Britain what poverty is like asking what air tastes like - it's the norm, it's the way that lives are lived:

In some parts of Britain 80% of people are living on out of work benefits;

child poverty is rising;

severe poverty has risen by 600,000 since 1997;

social mobility is declining;

and Britain has the lowest level of child well-being in the developed world.

Under David Cameron's leadership, we have shone a light on the ruins of Labour's anti-poverty measures.

In January I gave a speech about the Inequality of hope in our poorest areas. In that speech I argued that poverty has many causes and many symptoms. I argued that there is now a generation of young men, the Jeremy Kyle generation, who are disengaged from society and have become strangers to responsibility.

Today I want to consider what is happening as they grow up and become parents themselves.

It's always dangerous for politicians to future gaze but I think the loss of parenting skills is too important an issue to avoid.

In too many parts of our society responsible parenting and good parenting experience is disappearing.

I want to make something crystal clear. This speech is not about lone parents.

Sometimes over the past twenty-five years the Conservative Party has seemed to be at war with lone parents. That should not happen again.

There are millions devoted lone parents delivering the care and nurture children need, often in challenging circumstances. We want to help lone parents build their lives, not stigmatize them.

But when those families breakdown it is tough. There are tragic cases of abandoned parents who have been treated appallingly by their former partner. But more often separated parents are struggling to do the right thing in the face of the financial and emotional challenge of the costs of a broken home. No MP who sees regular CSA cases in their surgeries could ever doubt this.

In Government we will have a job to do to ensure that the reforms to the Child Support Agency really do deliver a better outcome for parents.

And surely no one who sees the human cost of family breakdown in those CSA cases could disagree with the need for a policy approach designed to do everything we can to help stem the tide of family breakdown.

***

I think the parenting challenge we face is much more complex than family breakdown alone.

Nor is it simply about hard pressed parents trying to balance the challenge of work, paying the mortgage, and looking after the family at a time when there often don't seem to be enough hours in the day.

We've all been there and it's tough. We've all felt as parents that, at times, we're winging it. Trying our hardest, and hoping for the best.

But I think many parts of our society no longer know how to bring up children. We live in a country where in many places Frank Gallagher style parenting has become the norm and not the exception. Frank's kids might have turned out alright but that was more luck than good judgement - and no thanks to him.

There are too many communities where parents no longer know what good parenting is.

Where children are largely left to their own devices as they grow up.

Most people learn their parenting skills from their own parents.

As we get older, the things that infuriated us about our childhood begin to make sense. How many people as parents suddenly realise that they are doing exactly the things that their parents did - and infuriate their own children in turn.

Who else but from your own parents do you learn how to say no.

Or when to punish.

Or when love and affection is needed.

But what happens if that inherited knowledge simply isn't there.

What happens if your own parents lacked parenting skills?

And those skills can quickly disappear.

In many of our most troubled areas, the generations pass pretty quickly.

30 year old grand parents and 45 year old great grand parents are far from unusual in today's Britain.

And when you overlay the challenges that many people in our most deprived areas face in their daily lives, then good parenting skills can disappear very quickly.

For many families, worklessness caused in the last century has become dependency in this one.

Take the example of Caerphilly, which I visited in March: in parts of the town more than half the working age population is claiming out of work benefits.

But Caerphilly today is not a town without economic prospects. Instead it is a place that has seen new business and new investment. It is also a place where hundreds and hundreds of people from countries like Poland and Portugal have come to find work in recent years. So the jobs have been there.

But, if you have been brought up knowing only workless poverty then a job can seem a remote thing, a thing for other people. If the familial customs of work aren't there how would you know what to do? I've heard of people who lost their first jobs because they didn't know that you had to let your boss know if you aren't coming in because you were unwell.

Who else but from your parents do you learn about getting up and going to work each day?

Who else but your parents is there to push you through school and into a career after?

But in many places it is just not happening.

And it can't simply be explained by economic deprivation. There was mass unemployment in the 1930s, but it did not lead to an evaporation of the basic skills of work among families.

But today it is different. A culture of dependency is being passed on from parent to child, a culture becoming deeply ingrained in many of our most deprived communities.

At the moment a team of researchers in Liverpool is working on a project looking at the whole issue of deprivation in and around the City. The Health is Wealth project has been talking to people from a wide variety of walks of life who see at first hand the deprivation that exists in the City. They have just published an interim report and one of the comments in it leaped off the page at me.

"There is a post-working class culture which wasn't around when I was growing up….my mum and dad and all my friends' mums and dads went to work….there is an issue that is post-that that's made benefits the norm...and somehow people have to be re-engaged"

It's a pretty bleak portrayal of what is happening in many places today, but it is no less real for it.

Last year I spoke to a teacher about the problem. She had asked the parent of a former pupil how he was getting on. "He's doing really well," she said. "He's got himself on the sick".

I can think of no better example of the poverty of aspiration that exists in so many areas. Small wonder that in today's fast moving generations, too many people, experiencing that lack of ambition from their own parents, have so little ambition for their own children.

But the problem is far broader than the issue of worklessness.

I remember a head teacher in an old Somerset mining town explaining the challenge to me in the starkest terms.

"I have," she said, "many children coming here who can barely string a few words together because no one has ever really talked to them. I have children who've never had a proper meal, or eaten with a knife and fork, or sat at a table."

We know of schools having to deal with children arriving in nappies.

And Iain Duncan Smith has highlighted shocking medical research which shows that children where good supportive parenting is not present in early years mentally and physically underdeveloped when they arrive at school. They've missed out on things like early conversational development. It's a real and genuine developmental consequence which will more often than not leave them behind for all of their school lives.

But if your parents never really talked to you about your surroundings in your childhood, would you know to do that for your children. Asking questions like "where's the light" or "what colour is the floor" are all a vital part of early learning.

If you never had a book in your house as a child, would you have one as a parent? So how would you help children start to identify letters or words.

If you were brought up never eating meals at a table, or never experiencing a properly cooked meal, would you have the knowledge to bring cooking and family mealtimes to your household?

And if your parents never really bothered to send you to school, would you bother to send your children to school regularly.

I met a 14 year old truant in Wythenshawe who, when I asked him why he wasn't at school, said that his Mum hadn't got up that morning, and so he hadn't bothered.

I met a 27 year old drug addict in Caerphilly who said he had never worked and had not really bothered to go to secondary school. When I asked why, he said that his parents had been "liberal" about school.

Some schools in Merseyside say that each year they have a number of pupils on the roll who simply never turn up to join the school. More often than not, parents who never went to school themselves, just don't bother to send their own children.

As the generations pass, less than two decades at a time, so the family experience of education and its purpose becomes more and more dissipated - and the chance of social mobility among the most deprived in our society becomes more and more remote.

But the parenting issue goes much further than its impact on work and education.

In a disturbing number of homes in our most deprived areas, addiction is a way of life. Much of the family's income disappears to fuel a drug or alcohol dependency. Indeed this is one of the biggest flaws in the Government's two dimensional approach to child poverty. Their only benchmark is whether or not a family has been dragged a few inches beyond the financial level at which the poverty threshold has been set.

Of course money matters and money can make a difference. But all too often extra money will do little to help the children of a home where addiction has taken root. Extra cash through the benefit system won't be sufficient to deal with the real problems. In many households those few extra pounds will find their way to the local drug dealer, and not to the welfare of children.

Iain Duncan Smith spoke movingly recently of households where there is literally nothing in the fridge most days, and where often young children have few clothes to wear. All because of the blight of addiction.

Addiction kills good parenting, leaving children challenges that no youngster should have to live with.

And like so many other of the social challenges we face today, addiction seems to rush headlong from generation to generation.

So how do we break families out of this generational cycle?

How do we imbue communities that are losing a sense of good parenting with the knowledge and ambition that future generations so desperately need.

Firstly, let's recognise the limits of politics. You can't just pass laws instructing parents to be good at their job. That doesn't mean that the state is impotent but that cash transfers alone cannot get rid of poverty.

But there are some areas where we can and must seek to make a difference.

I think there are four priorities that must head our response to the challenge.

To start with, we have to end the blight of generational worklessness. We have to tackle a world where your parents and your friends' parents all stay at home and don't go to work. Work brings a sense of structure, purpose and responsibility to a household. And creating a greater sense of responsibility will serve to generate a sense of responsibility for the next generations as well.

That's why we published in January plans for the most radical reform to the welfare state for half a century. We aim to dramatically improve the support people get when they seek to return to work, but we will also remove entitlement to out of work benefits for those who refuse to take responsibility for their own fortunes and who refuse to take part in the return to work process.

Secondly, we need zero tolerance of truancy. Allowing children to abandon school when it suits them effectively condemns them to a lifetime of failure and will generate an environment that is more likely than not to lead to failure for their children. Failure to send your children to school must become an absolute taboo in our society - and be one where children can quite clearly see that there are serious consequences for both them and their parents of absence from school.

But that zero tolerance has to be about much more than simple action against truancy when it happens. Last November Michael Gove's Green Paper on education reform set out plans to tackle the potential for failure early on - particularly for those children who come from difficult backgrounds and risk becoming alienated in later life. Early intervention to help children like those at that Somerset school is vital to reduce the likelihood of failure and truancy later in their school lives.

Thirdly, we need a welfare support and benefits system that protects families' stability. The tax credits system should not make it more financially attractive for some couples to live apart rather than together. That's why we will end the couple penalty in the tax credits system, which will lift an estimated 300,000 children out of poverty. My view is that married couples on low incomes bringing their children up well should not automatically find themselves at the back of the queue for affordable housing. And there are other changes which are necessary which we will bring forward in the coming months.

Finally, we need to recognise the limitations of politicians, and place more responsibility in the hands of local communities and the voluntary sector to tackle the challenges we face.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by that. When I first became an MP, the Home Start charity provided a valuable mentoring service to young families about parenting issues on one of the estates in my constituency. They did it through a team of volunteers, co-ordinated from a small office by a part time member of staff. They were funded by a collection of small grants.

Very quickly those were threatened from the funding pressure on the public sector organisations that provided them. The Charity's trustees had to scramble around trying to keep their small operation going. Yet the government was pressing ahead with its own state run projects to provide similar support.

Is it really beyond the wit and wisdom of Government to lock into the voluntary sector networks that already exist to do the job that needs to be done. My colleague Liam Fox told me a similar story about the voluntary sector drug rehabilitation service in his constituency. When the local authority decided it needed to take over the provision, the network of volunteers that had previously existed rapidly dissipated, leaving a service that cost more, and had fewer people than in its previous voluntary sector guise.

***

Politicians have to remember that we can't do everything. That doesn't mean laissez faire abandonment, as the Labour party would have you believe.

It means well designed and accurately targeted interventions to help the communities who need it most, not grand, unattainable national targets.

Poverty creates the conditions for social breakdown and social breakdown creates the conditions for poverty. We have recognized this in the work we have done on our broken society.

Labour's response, however well intentioned, has failed to break the cycle of poverty. Labour is again having to deal with the consequences of papering over the cracks. This is why the government seems to be busily engaged in nationalizing parenting, I don't want that to happen.

You can't design an institutional solution to bad parenting. You have to recognize that this problem is a societal failure not a systems failure.

We cannot afford to let this generational cycle continue in many of our most deprived communities. The longer we wait to try to turn the tide back again, the more difficult it will be to change things.

If we are to tackle the endemic problems in too many parts of our towns and cities, then better parenting will be a vital part of the solution.

Good parenting must be a part of their future and not just of their past.

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