Caroline Ansell is Conservative MP for Eastbourne.
“If it hurts families…we shouldn’t do it.” These were the bold words of the Prime Minister when he launched the Family Test back in October 2014.
I agreed wholeheartedly, and continue to share his view that ‘whatever the social issue we want to grasp – the answer should always begin with family’.
However, as those who have read my previous blogs on the topic will know, it is my view that these laudable intentions haven’t always been matched with the necessary action to deliver on them.
The introduction of the Family Test was a fantastic step in the right direction, but as I settled into the green benches and observed the policy-making process at close-hand I became concerned that it didn’t have the weight that is needed to really make an impact.
So while the findings of the latest report from Relate, the Family and Childcare Trust, and Relationships Foundation on the implementation of the Family Test so far are disappointing, sadly I can’t say that they come as much of a surprise.
These organisations, along with a long list of other charities supporting families and relationships, wrote to every government department to ask about their use of the Family Test so far. Of the fourteen departments that they wrote to, only four were able to come back with specific instances in which the Test has actually been applied.
Concerningly, four departments failed to provide a meaningful response at all about how (or if) they are using the Test.
But there are some glimmers of hope in a report that otherwise offers fairly bleak reading.
Several departments did provide good examples of how they have pro-actively implemented the Family Test: for example the Ministry of Defence is developing an armed forces strategy using the principles set out in the Test, and the Department of Work and Pensions has taken a range of steps to support the implementation of the Test across government.
I had assumed that those departments whose policies had the more obvious impacts on families might have made the most progress in implementing the Test (for example Health and Education), but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
While the Department of Health failed to meaningfully respond to the charities’ questions, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (whose work has important, but less obvious impacts on families) both published a Family Test assessment and identified clear steps that the Department has taken to embed the Test into its own processes.
So while it’s clearly possible to embed the Family Test properly, we’re not there yet and there is more that can be done to ease the process.
Many of the report’s recommendations echo those in my Private Members Bill on the Test debated back in December; for example, calling for the Test to be put on a statutory footing, requiring publication of Family Test assessments and examining the feasibility of a local Family Test.
In addition to these steps though, it’s clear that for the Test to be really effective it needs to be championed at every level of government. I suspect the main thing that makes the difference between those departments that have embraced the Family Test and those that haven’t isn’t evidence, tools or guidance – it’s people.
Having the right people in place to champion the Test at every level of seniority and in every department will make more difference than any toolkit we could produce.
Iain Duncan Smith has personally championed the Family Test at a ministerial level, describing it as ‘a clear and unqualified commitment to strengthening and supporting family life’.
Last summer he said, in answer to a question in Parliament, that the implementation of the Test ‘will be reviewed through the Social Justice Cabinet Committee’ which he chaired until his recent resignation. The next chair of this committee has yet to be announced, but I hope that they accept the challenge of picking up where their predecessor left off.
As the report itself says ‘these findings should not be interpreted to indicate that the Family Test is failing… there will be an inevitable period of bedding in’.
I, along with the voluntary sector organisations who produced this report, will certainly be keen to offer our assistance to the new chair and to the new Secretary of State, to help them ensure that when we look again next year, the ‘bedding in’ process is complete and the Family Test scores top marks.