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George Thomas Society lecture, London 1990

Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)

Location: London

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, for that wonderful speech. You will hear some of the same sentiments from me during my speech, but if a thing is worth saying it is worth saying more than once.

 

It is a great privilege to be invited to deliver the inaugural lecture of a society founded by the National Children's Home, especially one concerned with tackling child abuse but when that society bears the name of George Thomas, it is also for me a great pleasure and a very great honour.

 

George Thomas is admired and loved throughout this country. As Mr. Speaker, his voice became known in every home. His life has been dedicated to the service of people and especially, through the National Children's Home, to children. He has never ceased to proclaim the importance of Christian values in family life and there have been times when that has taken quite some courage.

 

George has always believed that children must come first because children are our most sacred trust. They also hold the key to our future in a very practical sense. It will be their ideas and their resourcefulness which will help solve such problems as disease, famine and the threats to the environment and it is their ideas and their values which will shape the future character and culture of our nation. We need to do all we can to ensure that children enjoy their childhood against a background of secure and loving family life. That way, they can develop their full potential, grow up into responsible adults and become, in their turn, good parents.

 

But it is a sad fact that throughout history some children have been neglected, exploited and cruelly treated. So it was in the mid-19th century in England. Dr. Stevenson (phon), the founder of the National Children's Home, was born when Lord Shaftesbury was campaigning to reform the appalling conditions in which children were made to work in factories and mines. It was a time when Charles Kingsley described the plight of child chimney sweeps in the "Water Babies" and Charles Dickens that organised juvenile crime in "Oliver Twist". It was a world in which many children were neglected and even rejected and thrust into a life of crime, violence, exploitation and poverty, yet by the reformers' response to these conditions, that period also stands out in English history as a period of social progress based on Christian belief.

 

People like the Earl of Shaftesbury campaigned for laws to protect children; Robert Raikes started the Sunday School Movement, Dr. Barnardo established his famous homes, Prebendary Ruolf (phon) founded the Church of England Children's Society, Benjamin Warr (phon) started the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Margaret MacMillan founded nursery schools and, of course, Dr. Stevenson founded the first National Children's Home in South London—a remarkable period—and all of this was done because those people felt impelled to care for the needs of these children.

 

May I just comment on three aspects of those reforms?

 

One is the tremendous amount which was achieved by so few people. It would be easy to say: "What can one person do?" The answer is given by their example. A commitment of one person inspiring many helpers can change the world.

 

A second aspect of these problems is the power of voluntary societies to pioneer new ventures. Voluntary societies like yours can respond quickly to meet changing needs. They are run by people with a commitment to building genuine relationships with others and not simply to introducing programmes.

 

A third aspect of these reforms is that the early reformers were almost all Christians who saw such duties as an expression of their faith.

 

The pamphlet which was drawn up describing the first children's home in 1869 set out its objective quite clearly. It was: "To rescue children who, through the death or vice or extreme poverty of their parents, are in danger of falling into criminal ways." But it then expanded the meaning of rescue in greater detail: "To shelter, feed, clothe, educate, train to industrious habits and by God's blessing lead to Christ." Dr. Stevenson was as energetic in evangelism as he was in providing practical help to the children he saw as his parish. He knew that practical help was vital but in itself was not sufficient. He knew that people have a spiritual as well as physical needs and that these require a spiritual as well as a material response.

 

I have a special reason to be reminded personally of Dr. Stevenson's contribution. After his retirement at the turn of the century, he settled very wisely in what is now my constituency (laughter) and to this day, there is an inscription on a pew in Finchley Methodist Church, Ballards Lane, which reads:

 

"The Rev. Dr. Beaumont (phon) Stevenson, founder of the Children's Home and Wesley Deaconess Institutes, here sat and worshipped with profit and delight during the closing years of his life."

 

The great 19th century reformers who responded to the neglect of children recognised that the background of values against which children grow up is of fundamental importance.

 

In recent years, many of us have become deeply concerned about the problems we face in our physical environment; they are serious and could jeopardise the life and wellbeing of our planet and we are tackling them, but of equal if not greater importance to the future of our country and our world is that other environment created by the values, standards and rules on which we base our lives:

 

first, that each person matters in God's sight and is therefore worthy of respect;

 

second, the acceptance of those principles of right and wrong which are the foundation of the laws of this country, indeed of our whole way of life; and

 

third, meeting our responsibilities to care for those in our trust and especially for those in need.

 

And just as we have a duty to preserve the quality of life associated with our physical world, so we have an equal duty to preserve and protect the environment of values. That presents us with an even greater challenge and needs a united and universal effort.

 

Such an environment is not bleak or forbidding. To observe the rules and courtesies of life is to show respect and consideration for all other people, each and every one. This environment starts in the family, for the very foundation of human happiness lies in the development of secure emotional relationships within the home, but far too many children are denied a secure and affectionate family and that is the greatest deprivation of all. Alas, today, that truth is not universally accepted and it is the children who suffer.

 

I believe that in the 1960s, far too many young people were ridiculed out of their true beliefs by the proponents of the permissive society who believed in precious little but themselves. They talked a lot about "rights" yet they gave away the fundamental right of a child to be brought up in a real family and now we are reaping the harvest.

 

There are, of course, some who blame all our social ills on poverty and others who think that affluence is the cause. Certainly, young people who nowadays have more money and more freedom, also have more opportunity to misuse them and some do, but do not blame freedom and prosperity for the faults ingrained in human nature!

 

It was John Wesley who made the point that "the fault does not lie in money but in them that use it" and in his "Sermon on the Good Steward" he urged his congregation to be wise and faithful stewards of money as, indeed, he and Lord Shaftesbury were, both using many of their resources to relieve poverty, but as they knew, it is far easier to provide the material needs of life than to overcome the basic flaws of human character.

 

Ours is a very different world from that in which the Children's Homes were founded, but cruelty to children is still with us and the breakdown of so many families adds to the deprivation which children suffer and brings with it a new problem of teenage homelessness to which, Mr. Chairman, you have referred, and I will talk about these problems in that order.

 

Over eighty children a year have died at the hands of a parent, step-parent or connected adult and there are thousands more who suffer. Even though child abuse is now more widely reported, it is very disturbing that at any one time about 40,000 children in England alone are registered as needing protection. Tragically, the case histories from a variety of backgrounds suggest that many of those who ill treat their children have themselves, when children, been ill-treated. To use children for sexual purposes, whether through the wicked perversion of sexual abuse or through fantasies induced by child pornography, must provoke the strongest outrage and reaction from individuals and Government alike.

 

The Government has increased the penalties for child cruelty and tightened the law on child pornography by making possession of this material an offence but I am very concerned by recent reports of what is still occurring.

 

Another area of danger is where children are deprived of the emotional and practical support which they should expect from belonging to a family. Of course, no family is perfect and all families experience the typical stresses which life brings and in our country today most children are brought up in secure, stable homes though there are far too many who are not. One out of every five children experience the break-up of their parents' marriage before they are sixteen and one in every four children are now born outside marriage.

 

Early in the New Year, when I was doing some visits. I was told by a doctor of a housing estate in his practice where over 60 per cent of the families were headed by single parents. Against such a background, children are in danger of seeing life without fathers not as the exception but as the rule and recently, I read of a school attended by so many children of single mothers that one child whose father had come to see the school play was so embarrassed at being different that she asked him not to come to her school any more. This is a new kind of threat to our whole way of life, the long-term implications of which we can barely grasp.

 

Lone parents have added problems in bringing up children. Given sufficient reserves of love and courage and enough support, they may and can do perfectly well but the difficulties they face in having to shoulder so many more responsibilities alone are far greater than in a normal family and so the risk that the children will suffer disadvantage is that much higher; and sadly, a significant proportion of child abuse is in households where the father has been replaced by someone else.

 

As most parents know, raising teenage children is a demanding task, even with two parents together and actively involved and with the best will in the world things can go wrong. That's life, to coin a phrase (laughter) but when one of the parents not only walks away from marriage but neither maintains nor shows any interest in the child, an enormous unfair burden is placed on the other. Nearly four out of five lone mothers claiming income support receive no maintenance from the fathers. No father should be able to escape from his responsibility and that is why the Government is looking at ways of strengthening the system for tracing an absent father and making the arrangements for recovering maintenance more effective.

 

Another area of children in danger is teenage homelessness. The problem is not confined to London but it receives most publicity in the capital. We are not talking about teenagers who leave a perfectly good home voluntarily but about those who leave because of the breakdown of the family and the fact that they do not get on with the new step-father or mother. Sometimes, violence and sexual abuse may also be involved.

 

Other teenagers come out of Local Authority care with nowhere to go and without being given any proper training in how to look after themselves. I know that in some cases social services departments will find lodgings or a family to which the children can go and that is right because these young people are in special need of someone who cares about them personally.

 

Most of us have no personal experience of what it is like to have no one to turn to. It is not surprising that such young people become very vulnerable and can easily succumb to those who would exploit them quite unscrupulously.

 

You will ask, of course: "What is the Government doing about these things?" and I am sure you will not mind if I tell you! (laughter)

 

First, action on teenage homelessness—and I am afraid here I must refer to some statistics.

 

First, our initiative on more hostels in partnership with the voluntary sector has produced an extra 21,000 hostel beds in the last eight years and in total, there are now a similar number in London alone and a further 31,000 hostel beds in the rest of England.

 

Second, we are spending an extra £250 million in the next two years on rented accommodation for homeless people, which will provide an extra 15,000 homes; and through housing associations—a marvellous invention—we are increasing spending on rented property in general from £818 million this year to £1,700 million by 1992 and a quarter of that will be for those with acute housing needs.

 

I think that is the end of the statistics, otherwise it will sound rather like "Question Time" tomorrow in the House of Commons!

 

As I indicated earlier, not all teenagers who choose to come to London are homeless and we must try not to pursue policies which have the effect of encouraging still more young people to leave their own home for our large cities without any idea of where to live or what to do.

 

This year, we are increasing from £600,000 to £2 million the support we give to voluntary organisations who help and advise the homeless. Much of this money will go to advisory services, so that fewer young people leave home without making proper arrangements about where to live.

 

But, of course, we have to provide for those who are already here and that is why we want to see more halfway houses—that is temporary accommodation where there is help and guidance available from a skilled, resident warden.

 

Recently, there has been a lot of comment about social security benefit for sixteen and seventeen year-olds. May I have a quick word about that!

 

Most people agree that sixteen and seventeen year-olds should either be in school or college, in work or in training and that unemployment should not be an option for them and I think that our system, with that in mind, is working well for most young people. Already, we have a large surplus of training places so there is no excuse for anyone to be unemployed. Indeed, when I enquired just before I went into the House on Tuesday, there are some 126,000 training places vacant at present, there are vacancies in every region, but there are some young people who for one reason or another have to move away from home because they are genuinely estranged from their parents and therefore cannot take up a place locally. Since last July, we have arranged that these young people should receive extra help from income support and housing benefit, but the real personal help they need so often comes from volunteers who take a real interest and slowly restore their self-esteem, bringing hope and help into their young lives.

 

As well as responding to the problems of homelessness, we in Government have also been especially concerned to do our part to improve the care and protection of children. As a politician, I first came into contact with the problem of child abuse when I was Secretary of State for Education and Science. I used to ask young teachers to come and talk to me about their work. A few told me of children who at the end of the week would cling to their teachers—they were not wanting to go home themselves. What should the teacher do in those circumstances with a child clinging to her? Should she walk home with the child to see the parent or would that bring down the wrath of the parent on the child later? Should they report the incident? Should they call in the social worker or should they even alert the police? To those who would criticise their hesitation, I have frequently said: "Well, what would you do under those circumstances?"

 

Teachers and social workers and others working with children must have enough confidence to know how to respond. That means proper training for all of those who come into contact with children and everyone must know the circumstances in which the social services or the police have the power to take a child into their protection.

 

So last year and this year, we are making £7 million available to Local Authorities to train those involved in caring for children, particularly social workers, and student teachers are now taught about child abuse as an essential part of their preparation for teaching.

 

We are making the largest ever grant to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to help them to establish their new training centre.

 

We have also, as you mentioned, Mr. Chairman, reformed the law so that it is clear, effective and fair. The Children Act of 1989 is the most comprehensive piece of legislation about children ever enacted in this country; it draws on the experiences learned in Cleveland and through the tragic deaths or abused children such as Kimberley Carlisle, Jasmine Beckford and Tara Henry. Above all, the Act seeks the right balance in protecting those too young and vulnerable to protect themselves while preventing excessive and over-zealous intrusion into family life by the State; and in 1988, the maximum penalties for child cruelty were increased from the previous two years to ten years—and rightly so!

 

Some of these matters, to which we have all had to respond, reflect the darker side of human nature and in tackling them our greatest source of strength comes from that other side of human nature—the reserves of sheer goodness and goodwill which find practical expression every day.

 

Mr. Chairman, all the voluntary helpers of the National Children's Home and other similar organisations and all those who give to their work are just such people. Nearly a third of your income of £37 million comes from private individuals and companies and we would like to thank them very much indeed. Truly, this country has become an active and generous society and I know that you, the National Children's Home, have played an important part in developing new ways of alleviating distress such as "Touchline", the telephone counselling service for sex abuse victims in Leeds, which is similar to the wonderful work of Esther Rantzen—she is here and we would like to pay tribute to her work too! (applause) Also, the new facilities you are pioneering through the George Thomas Society to overcome the consequence of sex abuse and the programme for sixteen to nineteen year-olds in Wales and for those who are needing care in Calderdale (phon), to equip young people with essential skills such as budgeting, shopping, cooking and housework. Once again, a Methodist Foundation is showing by example that common faith is the best basis for common effort to build a better life in every sense of the word.

 

Mr. Chairman, your new Society has been formed particularly to deal with child abuse. Neither material progress nor more Government intervention—although both are being provided—are sufficient answers in themselves. The task we face is just as[fo 14] great as that of the 19th century reformers—the Shaftesburys and the Stevensons. They saw the needs of their times and because of their faith they responded through their works. They challenged the Christian conscience and brought joy out of despair. As we reach the end of the 20th century, our task is to find a way of responding to the needs of our times as fully and effectively as they did to theirs. They knew—and we dare not forget—that children cannot flourish unless they learn to distinguish right from wrong and have respect and thought for others.

 

I detect that the climate in Britain is changing; increasingly, people are taking these issues seriously and as the great reserves of concern and goodwill in our people are harnessed, we will halt and reverse the trends which have weakened family life and harmed so many children.

 

When we have all done our best to repair the broken lives of children, we must also keep in good repair that foundation of standards and values which, like the global environment, we must hand on intact to future generations. That way, we can best emulate and honour John Wesley, Lord Shaftesbury—the poor man's Earl—Dr. Stevenson, the founder of the National Children's Home, and George Thomas—the children's Viscount—whom we honour tonight (applause).

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