§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]
§ 10 pm
§ Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)
I wish to thank Madam Speaker for selecting this subject for the Adjournment debate tonight. The subject is described in broad terms on the Order Paper as "Government support for young people from underprivileged families", but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be aware that I wish to focus on one organisation that supports young people from underprivileged families. It does not yet exist in this country, but is one of the biggest charities in north America, where it has become famous for one specific service—the provision of mentors for children from one-parent families.
The organisation is called Big Brothers and Big Sisters. It has been going for 96 years in the United States of America and for 84 years in Canada. It is the Canadian organisation that has franchised its former national director to try to repeat its success in this country. The organisation has a base in my constituency and I am proud to act as its big brother on this occasion.
The organisation has already won a grant from the national lottery to help it start up and has attracted big donations from the business world. However, it knows that it is in the nature of its business that it cannot get anywhere without the active support of the Government, starting with the Department of Health. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has responsibility for family policy, will reply tonight. His Department is considering an application from Big Brothers and Big Sisters for a grant under section 64. I mention that only to make it clear that it is not the purpose of this Adjournment debate to lobby him about the grant, which must be decided on the same criteria as every other application. I am sure that it is not right for a Member of Parliament to try to influence the allocation of grants. My purpose is to draw attention to the work of Big Brothers and Big Sisters, which I am sure my hon. Friend will find fits in well with his approach to family policy. I also wish to ask his Department, and other Departments, to give every encouragement to the organisation.
When it is up and running, Big Brothers and Big Sisters will be able to provide mentors for children mainly, but not only, from single-parent families who approach it. The mentors will be expected to spend about five hours a week, on average, with their little brothers and sisters, but not to spend any money on them—just time.
A number of mentoring organisations already exist in this country. What is new about Big Brothers and Big Sisters is the scale of the operation. In the United States, it has had nearly 1 million volunteers and it operates through 800 affiliated agencies. When it launches in this country, it hopes to grow rapidly. The key to success is to have a sufficiently large reservoir of volunteers to provide ideal matches between big and little brothers and sisters, and to achieve economies of scale. To do that, it will need to reach a critical mass that will provide it with the advantages of scale so that it can operate cost effectively.
1131 Although the mentors will be volunteers, the organisation's franchise agreement requires it to employ professionally qualified and experienced personnel as local agents. It will not make any matches until and unless it has sufficient funds to do so.
We will also need a sophisticated system of screening volunteers. In the United States and Canada, there is a centralised screening system linked to police and other official records. They carry out their own local screening and home visits to all potential volunteers to create a triple lock of security. I am sure that I do not need to spell out why this is such a sensitive issue—suffice it to say that Big Brothers and Big Sisters is very aware of the importance of getting it right. Big Brothers and Big Sisters has enlisted the support of a large computer company which is willing to provide software for a screening system. It has been in touch with the Home Office, as I have, who have been helpful. We will meet the Home Office at an official level to discuss this matter.
The effectiveness of mentoring has been well demonstrated in the United States. A study by an independent research organisation, carried out at a cost of $2 million, compared 500 children placed with a big brother or a sister with 500 who were not. It showed that those placed with a mentor were 27 per cent. less likely to have used alcohol, one third less likely to have shown aggression, 46 per cent. less likely to have begun using drugs and 57 per cent. less likely to have played truant. They were more confident in their school performance and achieved better relations with their own families.
The parents who want big brothers and sisters are not necessarily underprivileged—not in an economic sense, as the title of the debate implies. They include families where the husband is absent for work reasons—including oil workers or service men. The organisation works on the premise that a parent absent for whatever reason presents problems for a child and the parent still at home. It is described as the lack of a suitable role model, but so many different functions are performed by parents and older brothers and sisters within a family, it is often difficult to predict what effect the lack of one of them will have on the children.
As an organisation, Big Brothers and Big Sisters has gone to great lengths to avoid patronising children and single parents. The image that it projects is one not of good works or charity, but of friendship and self-help. Although many of the children are from low-income families, it does not talk much about poverty. The organisation does not raise money by flag days—more likely, it raises money by Hollywood black tie events, as much of its support comes from some of the biggest names in Hollywood. President Clinton is the organisation's patron, and Hillary Clinton is its chairwoman. The organisation is required by its constitution to be totally non-religious and non-political.
Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Britain will not be a replica of the United States organisation. It is inspired by the Canadian example, but it intends to use the expertise and professionalism gained in 96 years in the United States to create a organisation in this country that is large enough to make an impact not just at a local level, but a national one.
An organisation such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters could play an important part in realising the Government's family policy in helping single parents, and 1132 in our youth justice policy. Many young offenders come from one-parent households and it is precisely the lack of role models and encouragement—an adult with whom one can talk things over—that is often the cause of young offending.
Once a young person commits an offence, he meets other young offenders and, in the absence of any alternative, those offenders become role models. Mentoring has a simple solution to the problem—give the young offenders role models who are not themselves offenders. This tackles the problem of youth crime at its very root, before it happens.
The idea of mentoring is as old as the hills. The word "mentor" comes from Greek mythology—it was the man who was a true friend to the child of Odysseus when he was away on his Odyssey. But it has equal relevance in the modern world—one could argue more relevance. Parents spend more and more time working, and sometimes more and more time watching television. The divorce rate is climbing, and fewer and fewer parents are staying at home with their children.
Mentoring provides a way of reconciling the conditions of modern life with what we all know about the importance of the family in a child's development. It depends on the dedication and selflessness of volunteers and will happen on the scale that we need only if we have a modern, cost-effective organisation such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us that the Government will give that organisation and others like it all the help that they can.
§ 10.9 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Paul Boateng)
The House owes my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) a debt of gratitude for raising this important issue: the future of our young people and the need to ensure that those who are underprivileged, for whatever reason, get the best possible start in life. We must mobilise the whole community to ensure that they do.
Young people are our future and we cannot afford to have them neglected. The Government put a premium on our youth. We recognise the role of voluntary organisations in partnership with the Government, both nationally and locally, in ensuring that young people get the best possible start.
My hon. Friend has drawn on his considerable experience in addressing the issue and mentioned the contribution of Big Brothers and Big Sisters, which has developed, through befriending and mentoring in the United States and Canada, what has proved to be a very effective model of harnessing and mobilising community resources in support of the young. The Government very much welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has drawn its success to the attention of the House. We believe that it has a role to play in advancing our national agenda on the matter.
Young people thrive best when raised by loving parents living in stable relationships. Indeed, when parents are together and have an effective partnership, they are most likely to be able to provide for young people a context in which it is possible for them to grow, thrive and prosper. We must recognise that for a variety of reasons it is not always possible for that to be the case. My hon. Friend, in his excellent speech, gave several examples of why that 1133 may be. He is right to point out that a child is not necessarily underprivileged simply through the lack of wealth or the absence of material benefits. A young person may be underprivileged as a result of the absence of a father out working anti-social hours, or the absence of a father from the domestic scene altogether.
Young men benefit especially from a male role model. Some of the worst examples of bad and anti-social behaviour by young people arise when they have been brought up without a stable and responsible male role model. We, as men, have a responsibility to be there for our children. We have an especial responsibility to be there for our sons. We would all want, as men, to be responsible fathers.
Where, for whatever reason, a stable and responsible figure is not present in a young person's life, there is certainly a role for mentoring and befriending projects such as those outlined by my hon. Friend and provided by Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
The organisation does not work solely with young men, but it has found, in developing its role in the United States and Canada, that it is young men to whom it has to devote most attention. All too often, it is the contribution of young men to anti-social behaviour that has to be addressed. In the United States, Big Brothers and Big Sisters and other such schemes have been subject to rigorous evaluation that has shown that educational outcomes are much better when such organisations are involved.
Mentoring and befriending organisations have an important role to play in the project that the Prime Minister has got under way with the establishment of a unit in No. 10 to tackle social exclusion. That is why we give this organisation a particularly warm welcome for its potential to contribute to the battle against social exclusion. Of course, we must recognise that if social exclusion is to be effectively addressed, it will require more than simple mentoring and befriending. As a society, we must tackle a range of issues, not least the inequalities that bedevil society. We must ensure that we are effectively moving our citizens from dependence and being without work into being self-sufficient and self-supporting, with all the self-respect that comes from getting back into the world of work.
It is important that we recognise that the battle against poverty, which is contained in the move towards the creation of jobs and training opportunities, is part of the project, as is the need to address inequalities in housing and education. In all those areas, there is an important role for voluntary effort. There is a need to ensure that the whole community is mobilised around the project. It is important to recognise across the Government the need to ensure that housing, education, employment and health services work effectively together. That has to be mirrored by partnerships between local authorities and the voluntary sector, and between health and local authorities, all focused on delivering to families and children and recognising the essential role of families and family life in building a nation.
At our party conference in Brighton this year, the Prime Minister said:we cannot say we want a strong community and secure society when we ignore its very foundation: family life.
Mentoring and befriending have a role to play in that contribution to building strong, successful families. We recognise that and are determined to ensure that 1134 mentoring and befriending play their proper part as we develop and take forward a programme of work designed to support and enhance family life and to combat social exclusion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea rightly drew attention to the importance to Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the voluntary effort of citizens drawn to offer their services out of a desire to improve and enhance their community. He rightly drew attention to the importance of ensuring that those who volunteer do so out of the best of motives and have no ulterior motive. It is a sad reflection on the times in which we live that it is necessary, particularly in relation to children, to take the utmost care to ensure that those who volunteer to make such a contribution do so because they genuinely care about children, not because they want to abuse or exploit them in some way.
§ Mr. Linton
Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Department of Health will work closely with the Home Office on screening, as envisaged in the Police Act 1964? The resources will then be found to enable organisations such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters to undertake the enormous job of screening the many thousands—potentially eventually tens or hundreds of thousands—of volunteers. They must be vigorously screened, not only through police records but through all available records, before such organisations can confidently use them for mentoring much younger children.
§ Mr. Boateng
We are working closely with the Home Office and other interested agencies to ensure that we develop a framework of appropriate protocols and legislation to put in place the necessary safeguards to ensure that young children's interests and welfare are protected. I am delighted to learn that Big Brothers and Big Sisters will seek advice and assistance from the Home Office in that regard.
When encouraging mentoring and befriending, we must ensure that organisations such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters which, through voluntary effort, have the potential to do much good, gain access to the pool of talent, expertise and wisdom that exists among our fellow citizens who are looking for ways to help. We are lucky to live in a time when people, once again, have discovered the will to care. As a result of the tragic events in the life of our nation in recent weeks and months surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, we have seen a great upsurge in the spirit of caring, concern and commitment to the well being of others. This is therefore a propitious time for an organisation such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters to begin its activities in this country.
Of course, the organisation is by no means alone: already we have throughout the country excellent examples of the tradition of volunteering in support of children and young people. One thinks of Home-Start, which mobilises the commitment and experience of successful older parents who are prepared to range themselves alongside others who, for one reason or another, feel in need of support in parenting.
These are excellent organisations doing good work, but there are other individuals and groups working through other organisations in support of young people. We all know those individuals in our constituencies and it is 1135 always good, as Members of Parliament, to be able to do what we can to support them in their work. Big Brothers and Big Sisters will provide yet another opportunity for people to give of their time and energy at a time in our nation's history when their work is much needed.
Studies suggest that mentoring, of itself, is not to be seen as a substitute for quality social services, education and employment programmes. That is why we as a Government see it as but one strand of an overall and overarching programme across Government designed to support and sustain children and young people. It is, nevertheless, an important part and, in welcoming my hon. Friend's initiation of tonight's debate, let me tell him that I am happy to be able to announce that the Department of Health is to second a member of staff to Big Brothers and Big Sisters and contribute up to £10,000 towards that person's salary to show our support for the work of Big Brothers and Big Sisters and to ensure that best practice is followed in the screening process my hon. Friend mentioned.
We also believe that it is vital that we learn from Big Brothers and Big Sisters to see how best the experience gained in the United States and Canada can be utilised, not only through that organisation's operation in this country, but throughout the voluntary sector. Big Brothers 1136 and Big Sisters has considerable experience not only of mobilising voluntary activity in the community, but of gaining access to funding and to expertise that would be of value to the voluntary sector generally.
Volunteering and the voluntary sector play an important part in the development of successful community-led initiatives. They are the cement of thriving civic societies. They enable us to make the early interventions in the life of children and young people that are the most cost-effective way of ensuring that they go on to prosper, grow and overcome the risks and problems that all too often threaten some of our most underprivileged young people in hard-pressed communities. We believe that that will pay huge dividends in the struggle to create safe and secure communities and that it will bolster up that which we are seeking to achieve in terms of the criminal justice system. We believe that it will make our families strong so that they may be successful and provide the building blocks of a strong and successful nation as we move into the new millennium.
The House owes my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea a debt of gratitude for raising this issue. We will work to carry forward the interests of children and young people.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.