John Ashcroft

John Ashcroft is Research Director at the Relationships Foundation.

It is good that family policy is now championed for reasons of political philosophy (the Burkean platoonists) or to achieve ‘one nation’ goals around inequality and social mobility. But we will only have a fully integrated family policy when it is owned by the pragmatists who realise that at a time of fiscal constraint, all our resources – not least our social capital – must be stewarded and marshalled to best effect. To leave it idle, impede its operation, or even to undermine it will not bring lasting prosperity in any sense of the word. Any government facing both public expectations of improved public services and challenging fiscal constraints cannot afford to disregard the implications of changing family relationships.

This means that family policy cannot continue to be seen only as a discrete issue, the concern of social conservatives that embarrasses their more libertarian colleagues, or the focus-group-defined priorities of those ‘hard-working families’ to which any government must be seen to have proffered a solution (eg, more affordable childcare). Every area of government must pay heed to the social capital on which it relies, how this is fostered across all areas of government, and the pressures on public spending that are created when social capital is eroded.

Despite considerable rhetoric about family friendly policy the UK government does not have any official figures on the cost of relationship breakdown, they do not inform budget projections, and with no clear responsibility for over-arching family policy there is no effective mechanism to ensure coherence of family policy across government. As a government minister, Lord Freud, noted in a House of Lords debate when asked about the costs of breakdown:

“My Lords, I am unable to give an official figure. A number of organisations have produced estimates – for example, the Relationships Foundation, at £45 billion-odd – but there is no consensus. The social security spend on lone parents and collecting child maintenance is just under £9 billion, but we must acknowledge that there are wider societal costs.”

The costs of breakdown affect such areas as health, social care, welfare, housing, education and justice. The Relationships Foundation published our first estimate in 2009 as an invitation to debate and have updated it annually since then. It’s a broad brush, but plausible, estimate but it would surely be preferable if the Treasury took the issue sufficiently seriously to produce its own figures. We expect much of our families: the mutual provision of financial support, care in sickness and old age, and nurturing children through to adulthood. When relationships go right we all benefit; when they go wrong we all pay a price.

Measures to support families, or avoid undermining them, will often have costs. Providing access to relationships education and counselling, support for family finances through the tax or welfare system, help with care responsibilities, family support workers to work with troubled families, maternity and paternity leave provisions, or restrictions on working long or unsocial hours may all have some costs – directly on government, or sometimes on business. Understanding the costs of relationships breakdown, and the potential for government action to influence the rate of breakdown, is therefore essential in demonstrating the benefits of investing in that support. So, for example, funding for action to reduce the numbers of children being taken into care is informed by knowing that residential and foster care costs between £29,000 and £135,000 per child, per annum, according to the National Audit Office.

If we look at health, the evidence on the impact of relationships on health is well established. The influence of social relationships on the risk of death has been found to be greater than that of physical inactivity and obesity and comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol. The mechanisms by which relationships affect health are well understood. Relationships either buffer or increase the effects of stress on the immune system.

People with high levels of social support have improved recovery rates. Relationship distress and depression are linked – in fact it is estimated that 60 per cent of those with depression identify relationship problems as the main cause for their illness. Relationships also influence healthy or unhealthy behaviour including willingness to seek medical help, alcohol (and other drug) abuse, or sexual health. It is not just family relationships are important, but they are a vital component of what Relate have termed ‘the best medicine’.

We also rely on family and other relationships for social care. The value of care for older people provided by families is estimated to be £119 billion a year. The current generation of ‘baby-boomers’ will enter into old age with a much greater history of relationship breakdown than previous generations and it is not yet clear to what extent that will affect the willingness or ability of family members to provide care. The changing contribution of family carers may not, for example, lead to higher state spending but rather to more loneliness and lower wellbeing. The Campaign to End Loneliness, for example have found that over one million older people in the UK describe themselves as ‘always’ or ‘often’ feeling lonely.

Similar arguments may be made with respect to welfare, education, criminal justice and other policy areas. The tax and benefits system is significant because, after the breakup of a relationship, at least one party ends up financially worse off and more likely to need support. Forming two households increases the costs, whilst it is hard for one person to take on all the responsibilities of work and care. Housing increasingly relies on two incomes so it is no surprise that lone parents are more likely to receive housing benefit. Debt and money worries put relationships under pressure, whilst relationship breakdown can increase poverty. If this spiral is not broken, all pay a price.

This is one reason why the ‘Family Test’ on policy, introduced last year, is so important. If Government does not consistently consider how it is influencing family relationships and create a more supportive environment these costs will continue unabated, the capacity of families to contribute will be constrained and attempts to ‘balance the books’ in ways that meet our aspirations for social and economic progress will fail. And all this before one moves on to consider the private tragedies and the broader human and emotional costs of relationship breakdown.

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