October 2nd 2017 – Parliamentary Debate
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on so ably introducing the debate. I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, to his new role and look forward to his maiden speech.
I particularly welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, said earlier about the importance of family impact statements, something I have supported for many years, and hope the Government take note of that. I also strongly endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, said about the role of grandparents. I declare a recent interest in this. The Government’s housing strategy in particular should look at intergenerational housing, ways in which families can be united and the role that grandparents can play.
My brief remarks will focus on the mental health of children caught up in toxic relationships, not least because the mental health charity, YoungMinds, says that one in 10 children has a diagnosable mental health disorder, which the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, referred to. That is the equivalent of three children in every classroom.
Early onset of mental illness suggests a strong correlation with family circumstances, and that is borne out by the evidence. Around 1 million children grow up now with no contact with their father. Common sense tells us that that is bound to impact on their emotional well-being but the empirical evidence bears it out, too. In a review of 18 international studies, the University of Sussex found that family breakdown is consistently linked with higher risks of depression in children.
Speaking on behalf of the Government, and in a recent answer to a question in your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, said that,
“good relationships are very influential on young people’s mental health”,
and are a,
“positive benefit in reducing parental conflict, which is, of course, one of the causes of mental illness”.—[Official Report, 30/10/17; col. 1160.]
The Prime Minister says that this,
“demands a new approach from government and society as a whole”,
and we are told—and I welcome this—that the forthcoming Green Paper on children’s mental health,
“will tackle mental health through early intervention”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/10/17; col. 151.]
Currently mental health trusts and local authorities do not routinely collect information about the family circumstances of children presenting with mental health problems. That should change. The DWP’s Improving Lives report begins to recognise this, as do plans to put £30 million into a programme to help workless parents resolve conflict through independent providers. But the need extends way beyond workless parents. In tackling mental health issues, it is of fundamental importance that the whole family and not just the child are incorporated into the new approaches proposed by the Government.
The Manifesto to Strengthen Families championed by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and the admirable Fiona Bruce MP, calls for the provision of couples counselling by children and young people’s mental health teams as a matter of course. This and the rollout of family hubs would be a very welcome outcome of today’s debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Nash, that some pilot schemes, at least, would be extremely welcome if that were to be the case.
Prevention and earlier intervention make financial and social sense. Instead of firefighting the symptoms, we need to tackle the root causes, which surely must mean strengthening families.