Lord Farmer is a businessman and a former Treasurer of the Conservative Party.
This week, the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is going through its committee stage in the House of Commons, sets out to replace the Child Poverty Act’s income targets with more effective ‘life chances’ measures. From this point, the giant tanker of Government effort and resource previously focused on ensuring that ever-greater numbers of children grow up in households above a certain income line – regardless of the wider context of their lives – is being turned round. The Bill will address instead the worklessness and educational failure that always threaten to undermine children’s life chances however much money parents have coming in.
I greatly welcome these provisions of the Bill – but am concerned they fall short by not recognising and tackling that particularly potent driver of poverty: family instability. The current lack of agreed measures for family breakdown does not justify inactivity, but there are other reasons why previous governments have preferred to sit on their hands instead of making it an explicit priority to boost family stability.
Despite the considerable cost to the public purse when families fail (£47bn per annum), there is understandable nervousness about the use of government funding to keep families together when the relationships within them are potentially not just poor quality, but downright abusive. One in four young adults recall witnessing abuse in their childhood homes – a sad indication of the prevalence of this issue.
Yet when almost half of all children are no longer living with both their parents by the time they sit their GCSEs, we have to find a way through which recognises that sustainable efforts to ensure that more children grow up in strong and stable families hinge on tackling domestic abuse effectively. These are not opposing policy priorities, but two sides of the same coin.
A government wanting to make progress on both these fronts should be aware of an encouraging paradigm shift that is happening right now in domestic abuse services, and make sure policy follows suit. Leading organisations such as SafeLives are strongly endorsing a shift towards early intervention, prevention and a family-based emphasis in domestic abuse work in order to break the violent and abusive cycles that so many are caught up in. Childhood exposure to domestic abuse is one of the most powerful predictors of becoming a perpetrator – and a victim – as an adult. With this in mind, organisations are increasingly grasping the urgency of working across the whole family – with victim, perpetrator and children – so they can all move on, with safety still the top consideration.
Atal Y Fro, for instance – Welsh for ‘Safety in the Vale’ – was formerly known as the Vale of Glamorgan Women’s Aid. The name change reflects a broader base of work. After years of working solely with mothers and children, Atal y Fro became convinced that such an approach puts little more than a sticking plaster on the problem, given the complexity of what is going on in many households where there is violence.
Research over the last two decades has established that the reasons underlying abuse vary greatly, and different types of abuse require different solutions. Coercive and controlling abuse, or intimate terrorism, is not the same as situational couple violence (typically when arguments get out of hand), violent resistance or separation-instigated violence.
Frequently, there is not a clear victim or a clear perpetrator: Professor Murray Straus’s research revealed that violence is often ‘mutual’, and a surprisingly similar proportion of women and men use violence against their partner. Crime statistics show that one in seven men are abused by a partner or ex-partner (although since men are usually stronger than women, they tend to inflict far greater physical harm).
I want to suggest four ways in which domestic abuse policy can support this shift towards early intervention, prevention and whole-family work in a way that is compatible with preventing family breakdown more widely.
First, family support should be universally available in the same way as healthcare and education. Obviously, many parents are able to draw on their networks of relatives and friends, but others would greatly appreciate help in building strong family relationships both in the early years and as their children grow older.
Should this sound as if I am suggesting drastically increasing the reach of the state, it is worth grasping that such support is very often delivered by the voluntary sector where so much expertise lies, but its availability depends on parents knowing where to go. That’s why we need community-based Family Hubs, so that people have a tangible front door to walk through, behind which there will be someone to point them in the direction of the best local help available.
Second, it is essential to encourage positive relationships in schools by building supportive school cultures, and providing effective relationship education. The Coalition Government acknowledged the very high prevalence of adolescents in abusive dating relationships by including 16 and 17 year-olds in the new definition of domestic abuse. Worryingly, patterns set in adolescence can define relationships in adulthood. This Government should make relationship education mandatory and call it that, and teach the biology of sex – already mandatory – separately. Teachers often find relationship education very hard to deliver, so again schools should draw in the voluntary sector as its outsider status means it can add real value.
Third, there should be help for high-conflict and otherwise risky couples going through key transitions such as pregnancy, early years of parenting, or when parents decide to separate. Couple relationship education programmes need to be routinely offered in the community and again, ideally, accessed through Family Hubs.
Fourth, prevention of ongoing and future abuse can sometimes be achieved by helping couples explore if and how they can stay together. A Centre for Social Justice/YouGov survey found that three-quarters of the public agreed services should be available if couples for whom violence is an issue want help to stay together. Increasingly, and very carefully, mainstream counseling services no longer assume the break-up of the abusive relationship is the starting point for helping couples where poor anger management or other aggravating factors such as addictions or stress are the drivers. However, couple counselling can be positively dangerous where there is coercive and controlling behavior.
Many on the receiving end of domestic abuse desperately want to keep the family together, but know that this can only happen if the abuse stops. If both partners have a strong desire to work issues through, and whoever is being violent is taking full responsibility for their actions, therapeutic support can help end abusive behaviour. Obviously couples sometimes still split up – but hopefully less explosively. Troubled Families programmes must also include help for couples, where appropriate, as part of their drive to equip parents to provide safe, stable and nurturing relationships for their children.
An exemplar of the above approaches, Atol y Fro saves the Vale of Glamorgan around £1.4 million per year by helping families with medium to low-risk abuse to reshape and restore their lives. It has helped two-thirds of families stay together safely through a strategy of education, prevention and intervention in the community through evidence-based perpetrator programmes, a healthy relationships programme in every school in the Vale of Glamorgan, and couples work.
So in summary, domestic abuse cannot be ignored in the drive to improve family stability, but neither should it be treated as the deal-breaker it once was in policy and practice. We have to ensure that all who need it have access to local family support; that schools supplement what happens inside families to prepare the next generation of parents to be ‘relationally capable’; that those couples who are clearly at risk of conflict escalating into violence get early help and, finally, that counseling to work through problems is available, where appropriate, even if violence has already erupted in a couple’s relationship. There is a way through.