David Burrowes is MP for Enfield Southgate.
“Whether it’s tackling crime and anti-social behaviour or debt and drug addiction; whether it’s dealing with welfare dependency or improving education outcomes – whatever the social issue we want to grasp – the answer should always begin with the family.” David Cameron, 18th August 2014.
Maybe it’s because my son has just done his Chemistry GCSE that I’ve got litmus tests on my mind. But it is vital we ask ourselves as we enter the first stages of a majority Conservative Government: what is the litmus test of success.
The early rhetoric is all about being ‘One Nation’. Good. Now how do we prove it?
Well, the Prime Minister reminded us last August that “the answer should always begin with the family.” It’s an answer you won’t hear from any of the Labour leadership candidates. Those squabbling amongst themselves for the honour of leading Labour to its next defeat may talk about poverty and inequality, but it is Conservatives who recognise the central importance of the family in delivering social justice.
As Cameron said to the Conservative Party Conference in 2009, with words that prompted the longest of standing ovations: “..It falls to us, the modern Conservative Party to fight for the poorest who you (Labour) have let down. We’ll start with what is most important to me – what is most important for the country – families.”
Conservatives instinctively get the family because we understand that a strong society needs strong families, rather than a strong state.
Strong families are better carers than the state of the young, the sick, the old and the disabled. Strong families produce good neighbours, volunteers and community activists. Strong families instil values of trust, responsibility, authority, justice and compassion. Simply put: strong families help solve problems which the State can never fully reach – loneliness, mental illness, delinquency, criminality and educational failure.
The state can try and step in but it will often be too little and too late, and always at greater cost. Governments and politicians will instinctively try and legislate their way out of problems. This delegates responsibility for social problems to agents of the State when we should first be examining the role of the family.
Indeed, one of the biggest nationalisations that successive Governments have overseen has been what Jonathan Sacks described in his 1990 Reith Lecture as the “nationalisation of responsibility”.
The challenge facing us is huge. In the UK by the age of 15, almost half of all children are no longer living with both their parents. In the poorest 20 per cent of society it rises to two thirds of 15-year-olds who no longer live with both parents. A million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers.
Of course we need to avoid stigmatising single parents who do a great job. But which would we prefer? Would we rather the Government be accused of being judgmental? Or would we prefer to risk being judged as a Government which neglects the family? If we want to be the workers’ party, we should stand up for the workers’ families.
It means support for parenting and relationships: As Steve Hilton writes: “We now know that the quality and style of parenting received by a child is a better predictor of success than anything else – including the economic circumstances of the family.” The Tavistock Centre has reported on the strong link between couple relationship quality, parenting and children’s outcomes.
The Prime Minister recognises this – having doubled the financial commitment to £20 million for relationship support. The money is well used by the Relationship Alliance, which has developed expertise in supporting relationships which go beyond marriage guidance and range from universal prevention to specialist and targeted support at a time of crisis.
Why not follow the Centre for Social Justice recommendation to make the support more accessible by extending children centre remits to family hubs?
It means early intervention: The great work of Labour MPs Graham Allen and Frank Field, as well as the 1001 critical days work of Andrea Leadsom and Tim Loughton, need to be taken forward. Serious social investment is needed in these long term projects.
But unless there is a strategy in place now, local authority cuts will limit progress over time. When the choice is between the spending axe falling on pressing adult social care or early intervention, it’s pretty obvious that the next generation will lose out.
It means increasing financial support for marriage: We have finally reintroduced the transferable marriage tax allowance and joined most other developed countries in recognising marriage in the tax system. Now we are free from the anti-marriage shackles of the Liberal Democrats we need to increase the paltry £212 allowance to a fully transferable tax allowance for all married couples.
The Government should not rest on its family friendly laurels of £2000 worth of free child care. Evidence tells us that it is in a child’s best interests, particularly at a young age, to have married parents. The early years are most important for a child’s development – a time when family budgets are likely to be under particular pressure.
So if we are going to increase financial support for marriage, let’s focus on married couples with young children.
It means housebuilding: Any MP hearing constituents’ housing complaints after a typical advice surgery will tell you that cramped insecure accommodation puts a huge strain on family relationships. So we need a major housebuilding programme with more family sized houses.
How will we know if the Government has passed the family litmus test? Maybe in the same way that the Government has child poverty targets, it should set itself a family breakdown target. Such a target would hold the Government to account and allow Parliament and the public to assess progress.
Even a small dent in the family breakdown bill, which has been estimated at between £46 and £100 billion, would have significant social and financial benefits.
The Prime Minister announced last August that “every government department will be held to account for the impact of their policies on the family”. So this last month I have tabled written parliamentary questions to all departments asking what steps they have taken to implement the family test. The answers from ministers have been decidedly mixed.
The family test was never intended to be simply another impact assessment to fill a bureaucrat’s tray, nor was it supposed to be an irrelevant box ticking exercise. As the Prime Minister said, “to really drive this through, we need to change the way government does business.”
So we need leadership to make this happen, and the machinery of Government must take the family more seriously. At Cabinet level we should have a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for the Family. At Cabinet Committee level the cross cutting nature of families should merit a committee or at least an Inter-Ministerial Group.
We may not have the newly-discovered family champion Steve Hilton to bash down Whitehall doors in his socks, but we do have the more cerebral but just as effective Oliver Letwin, whose Business Plans could hold departments to account. Oliver would be well placed to ensure that the family test had real meaning and value in Government.
Only then will we be able to judge whether we are truly a Party of the family, and therefore a Party and a Government which deserves the title of ‘One Nation’.