Thanks Mark for that introduction and thanks to the FPI for inviting me along this morning.
And thanks Mark for reminding us that families come in all shapes and sizes and Government absolutely has to take account of that.
And it’s wonderful to see this event so full, with so many people from across the sector.
I’d also like to say, that it was a pleasure to meet Dr Katherine [Rake] recently. While in opposition, I had great admiration for her in her time at the Fawcett Society, and she has brought the same energy to families.
And I’d also like to pay tribute to the Family and Parenting Institute. For ten years now, by spreading effective practice and through managing the Parenting Fund, you’ve supported hundreds of voluntary sector organisations and tens of thousands of practitioners. And you’ve enabled them to deliver help that’s made a real difference to parents and families across the country.
And of course, to all those other organisations here today - who provide vital support to our parents, grandparents, and children - to our babies, toddlers and teenagers - and to the most vulnerable in our society.
I am truly honoured to be able to work alongside all of you. And I hope that in the months and years ahead, we can make a positive difference for some of the great challenges this country faces.
And let me assure you, from the outset, that the renaming of our Department does not represent a shift in priority away from working with you and away from our children or families - in fact, in many ways, family policy has taken on greater priority in Government because of the Prime Minister’s Task Force, which I’ll speak more about later.
And it’s so important because we all know the scale of the challenge we face. Despite the best intentions of the previous Government, and despite all the hard work that you, and frontline staff up and down the country do every day, our society is still deeply unfair.
A fairer society
In this country, over two million children live in poor housing, in crowded rooms and squalid conditions.
Out of every five children, one is living in poverty.
Just 21 per cent of children in care achieve 5 or more A to C grades at GCSE - compared to an average of 70 per cent.
And, young people from poorer backgrounds are less than twice as likely to go to university than those from richer backgrounds.
I see it for myself in my own constituency, just a few tube stops away in North London, where the consequences of that inequality, with wealthy and poor families living in the same area.
I’ve seen how some families have struggled to cope with the recession, and the rising anxieties about young people and their future.
And it is absolutely unacceptable that a child from Harlesden, in my constituency, is expected to die more than ten years before one born in nearby Kensington.
Now these are shocking facts and statistics. And we have a moral duty to do our utmost to change this situation, to narrow the gaps between rich and poor and to work as hard as we can to make our society fairer.
But sadly, today we also have another moral duty, which has to be a priority for this Government.
We have a responsibility to all our families to deal with the deficit now, and not let our children shoulder the burden for past mistakes. So we need to reduce the deficit and return this country to a sound financial position.
But it makes no sense - economically, socially or morally - to abandon poorer children along the way. To abandon families in need. To abandon hope for a better future.
So as a government, we are committed to working with you to bring about sustained improvement and to make this country fairer.
That’s why we’ll be refocusing Sure Start, ring-fencing its budget for this year and introducing extra health visitors, dedicated to helping the most disadvantaged families.
That’s why we are introducing the Pupil Premium - money targeted specifically to disadvantaged school pupils, to offer them that little bit of extra help for them to fulfil their academic potential.
And that’s why we’ll be extending free child care for three- and four-year-olds to 15 hours a week and we’ll fund early learning for more than 20,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds.
So we remain committed to improving the lot of those in need in our society and dedicated to a vision of a country that is fair, free from debt and family friendly.
Removing barriers for families
And we are doing this because we understand just how important families are. They are the bedrock of our society.
Evidence shows that the family setting has the biggest impact on children and their outcomes.
And we believe that families need the freedom to live their lives as they see fit. They don’t need Government to burden them with regulation after regulation, and restriction after restriction.
Government’s role, we believe, is to help foster the right environment in which families can thrive - to empower them and help reduce the pressures and stresses they may face.
And we know that families consistently say, that friends and neighbours are the essential support. We know that informal support, and informal networks are just as vital - and Mark, you mentioned intergenerational support, which is absolutely vital too.
And that’s why the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have set up a Childhood and Families Task Force. To tackle the barriers that prevent a happy childhood and a successful family life.
The Task Force will be meeting for the first time, this week, to agree its programme of work so I don’t want to pre-empt that. But to give you a flavour, the Deputy Prime Minister identified the sort of issues it could look at when he announced the Task Force a few weeks ago.
For example, parents often say that they don’t have enough time to spend together as a family. Many feel they still don’t have their preferred working arrangements, and some are concerned that asking to work flexibly may have an adverse impact on their career.
We’re already committed to looking at a system of shared parental leave and extending the right to flexible working to all.
We have work to do in terms of relationship support - helping families going through breakdown and supporting them in times of need. And also to support families with a disabled child. I know that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have a strong commitment to look hard into these challenges.
So from the very top of Government, we are committed to tackling those barriers and restoring the culture of community and responsibility that is so crucial to the safety and success of our children and families.
Working with you
But of course, we know that Government alone cannot solve all of society’s ills.
And the Report Card published today, shows that clearly.
It shows the importance of the neighbourhood and of the experience families have in their area, and is an example of just how important voluntary sector organisations are in boosting family relationships in the community.
Because we cannot tell families how to lead their lives.
And in this time of financial strain, we need to find creative methods to achieve our ambitions.
So, we need to work even closer with our partners. We need to learn from your experience, your ideas and your expertise.
We need to make it easier for those local experts and voluntary organisations which already do such great work, to play a bigger role, to work together with statutory agencies and make even more of a difference to families around the country.
Because you here represent the very best of our vision for a Big Society - a society in which more people play their part and take responsibility for each other.
So we recognise the need to work with you and to really, honestly, listen to your experience and your ideas.
So I very much look forward to working with all of you in the months and years ahead, and I particularly look forward to reading the report FPI will produce as a result of this conference, and which they have promised to forward to me soon.
I hope that together, we can see some real change for the better and create a fairer, stronger, safer society. Where those gaps we all talk about are narrowing, not widening. And where our families can prosper, even in difficult times.
So in closing, let me say thank you for having me here today. Thank you once again for all the good work that you do for children and families in this country. And thank you for listening.