NFPI Speech: an Ethic of Care for Parents and the Family

I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude to the National Family and Parenting Institute.

It is a pleasure to take part in the Parents Meet the Politicians series, and I look forward to hearing your views and answering your questions.

The NFPI fills a unique role in our society.

It exists to identify the needs of parents and families, to raise awareness, and to press for change.

And that role is a relatively new one.

Fifty years ago, who would have imagined that this organisation would exist?

At that time, society was more conservative.

Family affairs were a private matter.

Parenting was seen in traditional terms.

And state intervention was a final and unusual resort.

Change has come about because the nature of our society has moved beyond recognition.

Today, parents and families are more diverse than ever before.

The universal image of a happily married couple, with 2.4 children is a thing of the past.

Marriage is still a choice that can work well for the millions of people who choose it.

But families exist without marriage too.

Today we see a wide variety of family arrangements.

There are families of varying views and perspectives; of all faiths, and none.

Diversity defines Britain today.

And raising children has never been more difficult nor more complex.

This brings its own set of complexities and challenges.

What are the needs of families and parents today, and how can they be met?

It strikes me that there is a basic principle that we should all accept.

That principle is this:

In a diverse and changing society we must all recognise a duty to protect the vulnerable, to promote their welfare and to secure their long-term interests.

That can be described as the Ethic of Care.

And small things make a huge difference.

For example, local authorities are under no obligation to provide suitable luggage or suitcases to looked after young people when they move from one foster home to another.

Black bin bags are often used instead.

Black bin bags to transport the personal possessions of our most vulnerable children.

Liberal Democrat run councils have banned this practice.

And rightly so.

Children need to feel cared for and supported.

They need to feel valued as individuals.

This is not about the nanny state.

I have no wish to tell people how they should live their lives.

But I recognise the unique value of every citizen, young and old.

So I believe that, as part of the ethic of care, all of us have a duty to protect young people and to ensure that they have every opportunity to prosper.

And opportunity should not be an accident of birth.

It should not rely on being born into a family that can provide it.

I want to look today at three key areas of policy and to expand on them a little.

Strengthening family relationships.

Coping with family breakdown.

And raising the standard of childcare provision.

Strengthening family relationships

Academic studies have an uncanny knack of proving what we already know instinctively.

Strong family bonding – and the earlier the better – is vital for childrens’ chances in life.

When a child feels loved by a parent and when the relationships within the family are strong, statistics show that a child has a head start over others.

The younger the child, the truer this is.

Children who come from families where there is instability show lower levels of educational achievement and capacity for learning.

In later life, they are also more likely to develop mental health problems and to commit crime.

Too often in the past, politicians have rushed to make judgments about this.

They have rushed to judge parents and families, and to prescribe how they should live their lives in an attempt to engineer more secure family units.

Society cannot be bent to the will of politicians.

People should be trusted to live their lives as they see fit – to choose the life they want.

When people enter relationships, and start a family, they look for a secure and happy life.

The kind of life in which children prosper.

Government should play a role in encouraging stable relationships and securing family life.

Families in the twenty first century economy face demands on their time and resources that previous generations have never experienced.

The majority of single parents – mainly women – are in employment.

The number of families where both partners work has risen dramatically over the past twenty years.

The majority of those relationships report one partner would have wished to spend more time at home looking after their children.

The hours that parents work are also increasingly unsociable.

This places a real strain on family life.

We need to give parents genuine choice – the freedom to work if they wish, but also the opportunity to spend more time at home.

So they can invest in their family life, as well as their professional life.

We cannot simply reverse the trends or ignore the financial realities of modern life.

But we can use government policy to make work more flexible and to make time spent at home more affordable.

And this is critical at the point where partners become parents.

We should introduce a Maternity Income Guarantee for the birth of a first child.

This would increase statutory maternity pay to £187 per week – the same level as the national minimum wage – for the first six months.

We should extend this to nine months as from 2007 and to twelve months in line with the Government’s plans to apply their maternity allowance of £109 per week over the same timescales.

This would be particularly valuable for low paid families who struggle under the current arrangements.

Other changes which should be considered include replacing maternity leave with parental leave and pay that mothers and fathers can share.

And establishing a one month period of paid leave for fathers, so that they can share the experience of early parenthood, and be more supportive to their partners.

This is the ethic of care in practice.

Parents of older children should be able to spend time with their families too.

The government’s Work and Families Act is a welcome step towards this.

It allows those with sick and disabled relations to ask their employers to consider allowing them to work flexible hours.

Until now, this has applied only to parents.

The majority of employers have agreed to these requests, but they don’t have to do so.

I want to go further.

I want the right to request flexible working hours to be extended to cover those with children up to the age of 18.

And I want businesses to be even more imaginative about the flexible working hours.

Time account schemes are a good example of this.

This scheme is popular and effective in other European countries, including Germany.

Total annual leave can be pooled under a time account agreement, and taken flexibly to allow more family friendly hours.

But money is important here too.

Because poverty takes away choice.

It denies opportunity.

And it places great strain on families who struggle to make ends meet.

That is why our new tax policies – approved at our party conference in Brighton – are designed to put money back in the pockets of our hard-working families, so that they can afford more for their children, and make life easier for themselves.

Twenty-eight million lower and middle income earners will see their national income tax bill cut.

Two million will be taken out of that tax, altogether.

These changes will provide more money and more choice for families throughout this country.

We need to ease the stresses of modern family life, and help to promote greater stability and happiness within family units.

This is the ethic of care in practice.

Coping with family breakdown

We should not be naïve about the ability of government to keep families together.

Sometimes families face problems that they simply cannot overcome.

Where that happens the major concern for all of us should be the welfare of the child.

And in those circumstances where a family breaks up, the state does have a role in settling conflict between family members and ensuring that children in that family are cared for, where families are unable to settle these things amicably and fairly for themselves.

In those cases the state must put care for family members – such as vulnerable children – at the heart of its approach.

Families are not statistics.

They are unique units and unique individuals, and due care must be paid to each and every one.

And that means reform of the current family law system.

We need a greater role for mediation.

This should not be compulsory, but should be automatic for parents who seek a court hearing – they must opt out of it, rather than opt in.

We should try to reduce the stress, hostility and expense that comes with formal court proceedings.

Stresses which undermine family relationships, and cause tensions that do great damage to the security and happiness of the child.

This approach to mediation was tried in New Zealand.

It reduced the number of contested cases by 90%.

Courts are adversarial by nature – and where they can be avoided, that is certainly in everyone’s interests.

But the courts need not be quite so formal and adversarial as they currently are.

That is why we need reform of the legal system, so that residence and contact disputes are heard in a less formal manner.

I also support giving the child more opportunity to make his or her views heard – something which is easier to achieve in an informal court setting.

By making courts less austere and less intimidating we can create a more positive environment for those cases that must be settled there.

We need a family law system that cares for the individual child.

This is the ethic of care in practice.

In the most difficult cases of family breakdown, it can become impossible for a child to stay with parents.

In some cases, those children are then looked after by members of their families – often by grandparents.

There is strong evidence to suggest that by keeping a child within a close family network, you can minimise the disruption and upset that comes with moving them into completely new surroundings.

That is why I want to promote kinship care.

If a child has to be looked after, other than by parents, there should be proper consideration of whether close members of the family network would be able to fill the role.

It costs £40,000 a year to look after a child in the care of local a local authority.

Much of that money is saved when a close family member takes the caring role.

The government is looking at salaried foster parents, but we should not disregard the financial needs of family members who look after children.

They are paid small amounts, on an ad hoc basis, and funded by social services.

The Government should investigate ways of making more appropriate financial support.

The object is to enable family members to look after their young relations and keep them within familiar family structures that produce long-term benefits.

This is the ethic of care in practice.

Raising the standard of childcare provision

For the majority of parents and carers – no matter what their circumstances – access to childcare is a real concern.

That concern involves cost, access, proximity, and a host of related issues.

I applaud the progress that the government has made in tackling these issues since 1997.

But there is a real issue of concern.

Parents worry about the standards of their children’s care.

Parents have a right to know that when they entrust others with the welfare of their child, that child will receive the stimulation, the encouragement and, above all, the care that they would wish to provide at home.

That is why I support new national standards for quality childcare.

In Denmark, those working in childcare need a degree.

In Britain, they need no qualifications at all.

And that is not acceptable.

Because childcare is more than just babysitting: it is a career choice…a profession.

And that means that it should be treated as such.

We should require all childcare staff to gain at least an NVQ qualification.

We will require teachers for the Foundation Stage to undergo training.

And we will require those seeking specialist skills to train as Qualified Early Years Teachers: a new qualification that we will establish.

We will also establish a professional body to cover all early years professionals.

By professionalising childcare provision, we can raise the standing and the standard of the service.

We can create a career structure that will attract and retain talented staff who can build on their skills, and who will therefore feel valued and committed to their jobs.

And we will also introduce regular and robust inspections in order to make sure that high standards are maintained.

We pay a great deal of attention to police checks on those involved in childcare, but too little attention to checking the quality of the care that they provide.

Parents should be confident that their children will be well looked after, and equipped with the skills and the values that will make them well-rounded individuals.

And how should those skills and values be determined?

Our policy is that England’s Childrens Commissioner should have greater powers – as is the case in many other European countries, including the devolved nations of the United Kingdom.

And I believe that an empowered Childrens Commissioner should be tasked with developing a mission statement for the care of children.

This could certainly be adapted to local requirements, but it should have a core of universal values.

Children should be encouraged.

Children should be stimulated.

And above all, children should be cared for.

Because if we want our children in turn to pass on these values, they must grow up recognising the worth of these values.

We need high standards from our childcare system in order to achieve that objective.

This is the ethic of care in practice.

Conclusion

Family life has changed beyond recognition in this country.

But families are still made up of individuals with common needs.

Family members need to feel loved, appreciated and cherished as individuals.

And this is especially true for children.

The truth is that our chances in life are determined more by family background than by any other factor.

Politicians are not well-equipped to lecture on how people should raise their children.

But where the state plays a role in family life, it must do what it can to help parents build a stable environment for themselves and for their children.

And to help them give the best possible care.

If we are serious about doing that, we need strong policies, not soft words.

Parents should have the chance to spend more time at home, to nurture their children and to bond with them.

Families that break down should be supported by mediation, and treated sensitively by the courts.

We need excellence in the childcare system, with a professional and regulated service.

But most of all families need love, support and encouragement.

Tomorrow’s adults will only be happy and secure citizens if we nurture them today.

We have a duty to treat our children in accordance with the ethic of care.

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2 Responses to NFPI Speech: an Ethic of Care for Parents and the Family

  1. “The truth is that our chances in life are determined more by family background than by any other factor…..Politicians are not well-equipped to lecture on how people should raise their children……When people enter relationships, and start a family, they look for a secure and happy life…….The kind of life in which children prosper. Government should play a role in encouraging stable relationships and securing family life.”

    Ok, so what precisely are the LibDems suggesting for “encouraging stable relationships”, besides warm words?

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