Samantha Callan is a Parliamentary Adviser to Lord Farmer and a former adviser to David Cameron on family policy.
Last week, the Prime Minister laid out the principles that will guide his mission to transform the life chances of the poorest in society and ‘offer every child who has had a difficult start the promise of a brighter future’. At the heart of his speech was a welcome reassertion that strong and stable families are of prime importance if children are to realise their potential and overcome adversity. By signalling that policy to strengthen families will play a central role in the Life Chances strategy to be unveiled during the spring, David Cameron has raised expectations that his ‘comprehensive plan to fight disadvantage and extend opportunity’ will be bold and ambitious in the all-important area of family stability.
Looking across the whole population, almost one in two children are no longer living with both their parents by the time they sit their GCSEs. If that wasn’t concerning enough, the picture is far worse for children in the poorest 20 per cent of households. By the time they start primary school, half of these five year olds will have already seen their parents part and a staggering two-thirds will be living with only one birth parent at the age of 15.
As the Prime Minister pointed out, a million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers. This represents an enormous depletion of social capital, particularly when compounded by, all to frequently, paternal grandparents seeing little or nothing of their sons’ children when parents part. But family breakdown is not just about father absence and parental splits. It is also about relationships that have gone very badly wrong between parents and their children, so Cameron’s renewed emphasis on parenting is well-placed.
For one reason or another, instead of being part of a warm and secure web of relationships, too many children are growing up in tense and unhappy homes. Although they are in no way responsible for the stress they live in, they ‘self–attribute’, or blame themselves. Research shows that this is where so much of the harm lies in parental separation and chronic conflict. The Prime Minister’s commitment to improve mental health services for children and young people is incredibly welcome, but the strong link between family and relationship breakdown and poor mental health and wellbeing in the next generation should not be downplayed or ignored.
The Life Chances strategy must acknowledge such links and ensure policy is joined up across departments – the Social Justice Cabinet Committee is an ideal vehicle to drive the coordinated approach that is so sorely needed. If this Government is to take great steps forward in strengthening the nation’s families, it needs to do four things well.
1. Build the case for universal access to family support.
Just as we have universal access to education and healthcare in this country, regardless of people’s ability to pay for these social goods, we also need to ensure that all parents who are struggling – in their relationships with each other or with their children – can access the help they need, as early as possible.
Polling from the Centre for Social Justice suggests the Government may be pushing at an open door in this area: almost 90 per cent of people agree (over half strongly agree) that family and parenting is where we have to start if we want to mend what is broken in our society.
2. Work with the relationships sector to develop a small basket of meaningful life chance measures that will drive action at a national and local level to deliver universal family support and improve family stability.
These measures will need to pay attention to the kinds of families children are growing up in as well as the quality of relationships within them. Given the negative consequences, including financial poverty, that can flow from children experiencing the breakdown of their parents’ relationships, the measures will need to include data on children growing up in single parent and step-family households and on those who go through ‘multiple transitions’ in which mum or dad re-partners several times. Research shows this ‘serial instability’ can be particularly harmful to children.
3. Provide leadership by promoting Family Hubs.
That’s to say, infrastructure that can deliver universal access to family support and make it especially accessible to disadvantaged families where, paradoxically, the stigma of looking for help might be most keenly felt.
There are clear examples emerging of local authorities transforming their existing provision, particularly their Children’s Centres, into a wider offering that includes, but goes beyond, help in the early years and meets the full range of family challenges right up the age range. Councils could learn an enormous amount from the Isle of Wight, Hartlepool, Manchester and others who are early hub adopters. A dedicated Family Hubs team in the Department of Education needs to give guidance and promote good practice in much the same way that the Troubled Families team in central government has helped local authorities deliver specific outcomes: trusted advice on tap, without being prescriptive.
4. Finally, keep building on existing policy and not get complacent:
- A marriage tax allowance that recognises the greater stability explicit commitment tends to bring has to be worth more than £200 a year if it is to send a strong signal.
- The Department for Work and Pensions should remain the responsible department for relationship and parenting support, given its work with over a dozen local authorities pioneering a ‘local family offer’ which integrates both these aspects of family support. Parenting programmes that also help parents in their own relationships can be more effective than those which only look at what is happening between parents and children.
- The Government should add a Centre for Relationships and Family Support to its world-leading ‘What Works’ network of evidence powerhouses.
Such an approach to family policy would be a fitting legacy for a Prime Minister who has repeatedly asserted his commitment to strengthening families. More importantly it would incalculably benefit children, their parents and wider family and the entire country.