J.F.Kennedy used to say that a rising tide lifts all boats – a maxim full of the optimism of the 1960s, suggesting, as it does, that growth and prosperity will benefit everyone. The usual belief on the right is that these are best brought about by a smaller state and balanced budget, just as its counterpart on the left is that they will be ushered in by a bigger state and higher taxes, or by more borrowing, or both. But what if the boats are damaged? What if they are so fissured by holes or full of water that they cannot rise?
This is a question that David Cameron, pre-referendum, became preoccupied by. As soon as last year’s election left him able to lead a majority Conservative Government, he dropped the simple slogans about “hard-working people who play by the rules” that had sustained him during the election campaign, and pushed a One Nation message that was largely absent during the immediate run-up to last May, with a new stress on helping the most disadvantaged to help themselves.
His first major domestic policy speech post-election addressed the issue by telling a story – of how the route to good jobs travels via good schools from strong families. The causes of stalled social mobility, he said, are “family breakdown. Debt. Addiction. Poor schools. Lack of skills. Unemployment”, which leave “people capable of work, written off to a lifetime on benefits”. If a man is addicted to drugs, or lacks the skills that school should have given him, or has been unemployed for so long that his skills are outdated, that rising tide of growth won’t sail his boat.
Government necessarily intervenes in the world of work, not only because it will always be a big player in shaping the economy – even if the state were much smaller – but because of the programmes it runs to help get the long-term unemployed into work. And it has been intervening in education in a major way since the nineteenth century: indeed, it was a Conservative Government led by Balfour, during the last one, that extended the role of government by rationalising the way in which church and other schools worked.
Intervening in family life is more controversial. We are used to the state rolling forward into schools. We are less comfortable about it rolling on into homes, not least because the state is such a shocking parent itself. The Prime Minister cited some of the tragedies: Victoria Climbié, Baby Peter, Daniel Pelka. But Conservatives are institutionally nervous about familes policy for another reason. The Party is haunted by the long shadow of the “Back to Basics” scandals of the 1990s, in which Tory rhetoric about family life was contrasted with Tory misdeeds (real and alleged).
Cameron said that non-profit trusts or other local authorities will move in if a council’s childrens’ services fail. He also referenced the Troubled Families programme. In a big speech on life chances, made earlier this year, he pledged more support for mental health provision, engaging poorer children with sports and the culture, mentoring, relationship support, and saving. But at the core of the section within the speech on families was a section on the role of parents, as follows:
“One study found that by the age of 3, some toddlers might have heard 30 million more words in their home environment than others. That is a staggering statistic. The more words children heard, the higher their IQ, and the better they did in school down the track. So mums and dads literally build babies’ brains. We serve, they respond….The closeness of contact – strengthening that lifelong emotional bond between mother and baby. This all matters so much for child development: the biological power of love, trust and security.”
David Burrowes took up the same theme in his article for this site yesterday on a long-term social justice plan: “a continued and enhanced commitment to relationship and parenting support from the time of pregnancy through the early years, as set out in the 1001 Critical Days Report, is foundational and crucial to our social justice mission”. Only by providing it can government “reduce the current estimated £2 billion per year bill of social failure”. Burrowes was writing in the context of the Queen’s Speech, which takes place next week, and this series of pieces about it.
It would be astonishing if there were nothing in that speech at all about improving life chances – not necessarily a bill (who really needs yet more laws?) but at least a section in it on how the Government’s plans will be drawn together. The 1001 Critical Days Manifesto argues that the period between when a child is conceived and when he or she reaches the age of two is crucial to its development. Tim Loughton is the Conservative representative on the cross-party group that supports it. Andrea Leadsom launched it at Party Conference in 2013.
Leadsom has a detailed plan for what government support for such a manifesto might look like. It involves ante-natal support for mothers, Citizens’ Advice engagement to help reduce debt, and registering birth at children’s centres. Structural change would be needed to deliver this, which would mean Children’s Centres being put on the same statutory basis as schools, the Department of Health taking lead responsibility (no single department is fully in charge at the moment), and local authorities taking responsibility for the provison of services.
This site supports Children’s Centres and Family Hubs, and Number Ten should be looking at these and other proposals closely, as it should at Burrowes’s case for making the Family Test more rigorous. But government also has a responsibility to mind taxpayers’ money carefully. Spending it on projects such as these will inevitably raise questions about delivery, results and value for money, just as it already has in relation to the Troubled Families Programme.
These medium-term programmes need to march in step with longer-term measures. Supplying measures to help is essential, but reducing demand for them is even better. There has been a growing consensus for decades that a child is most likely to prosper if brought up by two parents, and that marriage is most likely to keep those two parents together. There is now a transferable tax allowance for married couples. Increasing its value wouldn’t help all of them, but a rise would help many, as Nola Leach has argued on this site.
The Chief Executive of CARE was making her case in the context of some families losing out when Universal Credit comes fully in. Were ring-fencing to be ended, as we argued yesterday, the transition could be eased. But the Government seems to be uneasy about increasing the transferable allowance – and about the M-word more broadly. Cameron is happy to deploy it. But George Osborne has never been an enthuasist for the allowance. Stephen Crabb was reported to have cut references to marriage from a speech made after his recent promotion.
This is important because Work and Pensions is where responsibility for family stability sits easiest: Iain Duncan Smith was poised to broaden his remit before he resigned. But perhaps same-sex marriage has opened a door to propounding the benefits of marriage and introducing measures to support it. This site didn’t support the change in the law. But now it is up and running, Conservatives should make the most of it (so to speak). The time is right for the Prime Minister to take more risks in supporting marriage through public policy than he is doing at present.