Children’s Rights: Digital Environment

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Excerpts
Thursday 1st July 2021

(3 years ago)

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Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reference to the exceptional record this country has in protecting and promoting the rights of children, and I am delighted to confirm that a meeting will be arranged for noble Lords, which will be led by my noble friend Lady Barran.

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
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My Lords, the online safety Bill talks about protecting

“rights to freedom of expression”,

but nowhere does it refer to children’s rights to grow up in a healthy digital environment. Can the Minister give assurance that this will be addressed?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, the key point around the protections we are putting in place and why the strongest protections are for children, reflected in the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance, is that we want children to benefit and flourish using digital technology but to be kept safe online.

Covid-19: Education Attendance

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Excerpts
Thursday 1st July 2021

(3 years ago)

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Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, there has been increased reporting of children being electively home educated through surveys from directors of children’s social care. But there is this other group of children missing an education—those not on the school roll and not being electively home educated. There are specific officers in every local authority who should make inquiries to track down those children and make sure that they have appeared on the school roll in another local authority area in England or one of the other three devolved nations.

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
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Throughout the pandemic there has been a noticeable lack of briefings aimed specifically at children and a great absence of their voices. I was glad to host an event for MPs and key leaders in Gloucestershire where all the input came from young people. Can the Minister give an assurance that, in looking at the impact of Covid on the lives of children, it is they who will be asked and heard?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, one interesting feature of the consultation that we recently conducted on exams was that over 50% of the responses were indeed from students. We have been pleased to hear their voices throughout this and have sought to communicate directly with them. I also draw attention to the very successful Big Ask, run by the Children’s Commissioner, to which over 500,000 children and young people responded.

Covid-19: Early Years Sector

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Excerpts
Wednesday 20th January 2021

(3 years, 5 months ago)

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Asked by
Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the wellbeing of children under five affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; and what steps they are taking to support the early years sector affected by the pandemic.

Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, the department is monitoring the impact of the pandemic on children and Ofsted has reported on the effects of Covid-19 on the early years sector. Early years are crucial for child development, so the Government are prioritising keeping these settings open. The Chancellor announced a £44 million investment in 2021-22 for local authorities to increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers for the Government’s free childcare entitlement offers.

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester [V]
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. The pandemic has deeply impacted the early years of many children’s lives. Given that pre-pandemic work by the Children’s Commissioner identified a need for strong connection across health, education and social care, will Her Majesty’s Government consider a Minister for children and young people at Cabinet level as a matter of urgency as we emerge from this pandemic?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is correct that there is a cross-departmental approach to this. She will be aware of the proposals for family hubs, which should provide families with access to all those services on the ground. I assure her that the Secretary of State for Education is prioritising policy on children at the request of the Prime Minister.

International Women’s Day

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Excerpts
Tuesday 10th March 2020

(4 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
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My Lords, it is a privilege to participate in this debate, although I am disappointed not to be in New York at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which was cancelled last week. This event was to celebrate the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, published 25 years ago, which saw countries agree to dedicate themselves unreservedly to addressing constraints and obstacles to gender equality, thus enhancing the empowerment of women and girls all over the world. There is still much to do.

Our Government’s commitment to advancing equalities for women and girls worldwide is laudable, and I too want to welcome the new role of the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg. The UK has a strong role to play, not least regarding the vital issue of girls’ education. Last year I had the privilege of visiting Egypt with the charity Embrace the Middle East. I visited some inspiring community projects, enabling women and girls— Christian and Muslim—to be educated, not only in literacy but on issues of health, including the prevention of FGM. Girls’ access to education is crucial and empowers women and girls to be agents of change in their communities, which benefits everyone.

Women and girls are also agents of peace across our world; again, there are many examples. Last summer I visited a project in Israel, where Jewish and Arab women are working together to produce olive oil and other products. They demonstrate that business and relational concerns enable people, often led by women, to rise above division amid political negotiations.

When we consider advancing equality, it is not only about women achieving positions in institutions designed by and for men, but about wider society being shaped by women’s voices and experiences. It is also about men and women working together as equals, with every person having equal value and the opportunity to achieve their full potential; this benefits everyone. This commitment to justice and human becoming is core to Christian belief and faith. However, sadly this is not reflected in the continued prevalence of domestic abuse across our world, here in the UK and, indeed, among people of faith and no faith. It is abhorrent, and I declare an interest as an ambassador of Restored, a charity that campaigns against violence towards women.

Violence against women affects every sphere of life, as we have heard. There are many groups, across different faiths and around the world, committed to gender justice and using their voices to be part of the solution, such as Side by Side, a growing global movement. Just last week, I was delighted to be alongside a passionate group of women—including Nicole Jacobs, the domestic abuse commissioner—at the launch of the Faith and Violence against Women and Girls Coalition, here in the UK. I am looking forward to the introduction of the Domestic Abuse Bill in your Lordships’ House, and to constructive discussions about that legislation, including proper intervention support for children of domestic abuse and migrant women. Anyone of any age and in any circumstances suffering domestic abuse deserves appropriate support and a path to safety. Much of what we are talking about today is rooted in women and girls being valued and being able to value themselves.

Before I finish, I want to touch on one final area: women in the criminal justice system. A high percentage of these women have experienced some form of abuse themselves. Self-esteem is usually very low, and we know that for many of these women, specific provision in the community—particularly in women’s centres—is far more effective in the transformation of lives and reducing crime.

As I have said in your Lordships’ House before, I serve as bishop to women’s prisons and am president of the Nelson Trust. I welcome the Government’s production of a female offender strategy in June 2018, which encouraged trauma-informed and gender-sensitive provision. None the less, the strategy is grossly under- funded and the £5 million of funding for community provision over two years will run out in June. I hope the spending review takes account of the potential financial benefits of community alternatives to custody for women, notwithstanding their effectiveness for rehabilitation and wider society.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us celebrate the progress made but not lose sight of the work still to be done. That takes me back to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years ago. I look forward now to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ranger.

Children and Families: Early Years Interventions

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Excerpts
Thursday 27th February 2020

(4 years, 4 months ago)

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Moved by
Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
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That this House takes note of the case for improved early years interventions to support children and families.

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
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My Lords, it is a great privilege to initiate this debate today on early years intervention. My interest in this subject comes from my experience as a paediatric speech and language therapist, then in parish ministry and now as a bishop committed to the flourishing and well-being of diverse individuals and communities. In light of that, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the register of interests.

The experiences we have as children, and in particular as young children, shape the rest of our lives. A child’s development score at just 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26 years. Adverse childhood experiences—ACEs—have significant public health and social consequences. Having had four such experiences is associated with poorer physical and mental health, drug and alcohol abuse and inter- personal and self-directed violence. There are stories up and down the country, including those I hear in prisons and women’s centres, about those who are now adults who were deprived of appropriate early years intervention, and about those who are turning their lives around for their children and their families as a result of receiving early intervention for their children and for themselves as parents.

My intention in tabling this debate today is to reflect on how government, both centrally and locally, can work with families and communities to support children’s well-being, particularly at the start of life—I deliberately use the word “with”. The Government have plenty of evidence that early interventions are not just good for children’s life chances, they are also sound financially. The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, rings true here. Despite this, the Children’s Society estimates that local authority spending on early intervention services for children and young people fell by 49% between 2010 and 2017.

Health visitors are a highly effective intervention and support for all babies and families across the social spectrum, yet their number is falling. Similarly, most areas in England have experienced a real-terms reduction in reported spending on speech and language therapy over the last three years, despite the fact that children with poor vocabulary skills at the age of five are three times as likely as their peers to have mental health problems in adulthood, and twice as likely to become unemployed.

For those in government concerned about money, it should be enough to point out that, when we provide early support and catch problems early, intervention is far less expensive. However, we have to be able to do this. The Government’s troubled families programme comes too late. The families it supports are already in trouble, not simply struggling or at risk.

Increases in government spending on children’s services have been largely a result of the increased number of looked-after children and the Government’s expansion of free childcare hours, while spending on children’s centres and provision for families has decreased, particularly in the most deprived parts of the country where they are most needed to address inequality. In the case of looked-after children, this is by far the most drastic and expensive intervention the Government can make in a child’s life. What assessment have the Government made of the causes of this rise?

On childcare, academic research shows that pre-schooling and paid childcare improve children’s outcomes only if they are of high quality. Where children are looked after by private providers, vital links with local authorities can be missed and staff may not have the specialist training required to spot early issues. Research done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that the free entitlement for three and four year-olds does not effectively target the most needy and at risk. What assessment have the Government made of the quality of this provision and its effect on early years outcomes for children?

Child poverty has a strong link with child development. Children who have lived in persistent poverty during their first seven years of life have cognitive development scores on average 20% below those of children who have never experienced poverty. The Millennium Cohort Study shows that poor children are four times more likely than rich children to develop a mental health problem by the age of 11. Gaps in achievement open up early on, and by the time they start school the poorest children are already 11 months behind their more advantaged classmates. Overcrowded, poorly maintained housing can lead to children sleeping in living rooms or with parents, which has consequences for physical and mental health. Poverty puts families under pressure, and that stress can be a source of ill health and family breakdown, leading to expensive work by public authorities further down the line.

Simply expanding both entitlement to free childcare for disadvantaged two year-olds and the number of free hours that older children are entitled to is unlikely to counteract the effect of benefit changes and the two-child limit. To put it simply, incentivising single mothers to work is not a panacea for their child’s development. Can the Minister explain what analysis the Government have made of the impact of DWP changes on child poverty, particularly the two-child limit, and any impact assessment of the effect that this will have on children’s life chances and well-being?

We also know that worklessness is no longer the root of poverty. Seven in 10 children in poverty are now in a working family. Part of the problem is that families have to pay the entire cost of free childcare up front before they can claim back the 85% that the Government will cover. Many low-income families do not have the capital to pay this up-front cost or risk going into debt. Moreover, childcare support has been capped at £175 per week since April 2016, while childcare costs continue to rise. The deep irony of this situation is that most childcare workers are themselves women on low pay, and 44% of childcare workers claim state benefits or tax credits.

To paraphrase the Sutton Trust and the Marmot review published earlier this week, it is difficult to see how even well-designed policies to support parenting and ensure access to high-quality early education can have the optimal impact against a backdrop of a sharp increase in child poverty.

Furthermore, navigating the benefits in the childcare system is hugely complicated, especially as families begin to migrate on to universal credit. Anecdotally, we hear that this is something that churches and toddler groups help with around the country. Toddler groups —many provided by churches and other community-based groups—do a huge amount of early intervention and signposting work, informally across the country. It amounts to thousands of hours each year. Often, these are the only places in a community where children from different backgrounds mix and parents and care givers are provided with support. Yet toddler groups are almost invisible in impact studies and government reports. They are a tremendous asset to the country, provided by hard-working, committed volunteers. We want to encourage this sort of expression of civil society, but the Government must partner with the community to make sure that local services are joined up, holistic and sufficiently funded. This work cannot simply be outsourced to stretched volunteers.

While I welcome the Government’s commissioning of research on family hubs, surely the case for children’s centres is already well known. For each Government to have to learn the benefits of early intervention for themselves is frustrating and a poor use of resources. One of the most important parts of Sure Start was co-creation with the local community—a bottom-up approach that listened to the needs of service users. Will this happen with family hubs? What support will the Government provide for children and their families from all walks of life to ensure that parents who have concerns about their child’s welfare and development have somewhere to turn?

If I had longer, I would have liked to say something about families of children who have a disability. The long-term well-being of such children and families is about not only access to early diagnosis but appropriate early intervention. Early intervention by definition needs to be made early, and I hope that the Minister, in her reply, will explain how the Government are working across departments to improve early years policy, given that the interministerial group on the early years has been disbanded. Will the Government introduce a cross-departmental early years strategy as part of the plan to level up Britain, and ensure that every child can achieve their potential? What attention have the Government paid to the work of the Early Intervention Foundation and its analysis of what works as effective interventions? Will the Minister assure the House that local authorities have sufficient ring-fenced funding to deliver them?

There is an urgent need for join-up. At present, we do not have a single framework, even across health and education, to assess and support the development and well-being of every child. This is more than join-up across health and education—although that would be a good start. This is about every aspect of life if we are rightly to look at the whole child in the context of the family.

In this debate, we are not simply focusing on little people. We are talking about investment in the start of life, which affects the long-term well-being of individuals, families, households, communities, our country and beyond. There is a very strong case for improving early years interventions and having a clear and joined-up strategy for doing so. I look forward to hearing the contributions of other Members on this topic today.

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Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
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I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response and all those who participated in this excellent debate. I do not have time to mention everyone, but I thank those who shared personal and professional experiences. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, feels he has heard another bishop say, “It’s all down to the state”, particularly as that was not what I was saying. I am passionate about community engagement and how we enable that, not least through our churches, our faith groups and all sorts of charities and communities. In order to enable that, we need a comprehensive, joined-up early years strategy and I am glad that that point has been clearly heard. This is about how we are investing not simply in small children but in children who grow up to be adults: we are investing in families for long-term impact, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, that this is about the impact on our communities in the long term.

Motion agreed.