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Harry Benson runs Bristol Community Family Trust, a local charity that
is pioneering short relationship courses that teach couples how to stay
together, and was deputy chair of the family policy group that produced
Fractured Families and Breakthrough Britain.

On Thursday I went to the high profile DCSF “relationship summit” introduced by Ed Balls, Beverley Hughes and PM’s wife Sarah Brown. The one day conference was a response to the “Kids in the middle” campaign, about the need to support children and parents experiencing problems, separation and family breakdown.

DCSF have launched an accompanying paper Families in Britain: an evidence paper, which the Daily Mail was quick to pounce on as “Labour finally admits married parents are better for children”. Not surprisingly, much of the content and conclusions of both paper and conference mirrors the analysis and conclusions reached by the various CSJ family reports, produced by Dr Samantha Callan who attended the day with me. However there are also fundamental differences.

The relationship summit made lots of good noises. And whatever preconceived notion I might have had from his media exposure, Ed Balls spoke extremely well about his personal experience of family life and about the importance of both prevention and support.

Of course we’ve had good noises about family policy before. The Home
Office paper Supporting Families in 1998 and the AGMARS advisory group
paper Moving Forward Together in 2001 both made limited but sensible
family policy proposals, especially emphasising the need for prevention
and early intervention. But government actions have fallen well
short of these fine words. Throughout the last decade, the dwindling
level of support there has been for couples has focused on treatment of
problems – couples splitting up, parents with difficult children or
circumstances – rather than to prevent problems happening in the first
place. To give an idea of the scale of the imbalance, for every £1,000
the taxpayer spends on picking up the pieces of family breakdown, less
than £1 is spent on supporting couples or parents. Only a fraction of
this £1 reaches organisations that try to help strengthen families and
reduce family breakdown or prevent it from happening in the first place.

It’s remotely possible that the high profile
nature of this launch heralds a new and serious Labour family policy.
Good, I say. However (and it’s a big however) the two giant flaws
remain their failure to recognise that marriage itself is a social good
– the evidence cited by DSCF is somewhat creative – and the failure to
emphasise prevention.

First, marriage and family structure is always going to be a thorny
issue. Regardless of hard evidence, our own personal experience will
always carry a great deal of weight. And most opinion-formers –
politicos, journos, academics, think tanks – are further cushioned from
many of the biggest family risks through their higher income. Income is
indeed a strong predictor of family stability, but not the main factor
that the DSCF paper claims. My own study of 15,000 mothers with three
year olds
, using up-to-date Millennium Cohort Study data, showed that
marriage is the number one influence on whether parents stay together
or split, above and beyond any influence of age, income, education,
ethnic group, benefits receipt, or birth order. In every income group,
from poorest to richest, cohabiting parents were 2-3 times more likely
to split up compared to their married counterparts. A 2003 DWP study,
using Families and Children Study data, reached much the same
conclusion.

Most damningly, the DCSF paper completely ignores the source of most
family breakdown involving young children. Only one third of cases
involve the divorce of married parents whereas two thirds involve the
separation of unmarried parents (my latest analysis using Millennium
data).

Whilst nobody will ever be able to prove that marriage itself causes
benefits and protections, and unmarriage itself causes additional risk,
selection is an inadequate explanation. There are lots of good reasons
why cause is likely to play a significant role. Inconvenient findings
that highlight the inadequacy of selection or likelihood of some causal
influence were disregarded in the DCSF evidence paper.

Plus ca change …

Second, policies that might strengthen families and reduce or
prevent family breakdown are also given lip-service. The main pointers
in the DSCF report involve supporting couples when relationships are
formed or when a baby is born. In practice, this simply does not
happen. Voluntary sector organisations that do run effective
relationship education courses – such as National Couple Support Network for couples getting married and Time for Families for prison couples – generally encounter a lack of official support and occasionally even active resistance.

My charity has pioneered a relationship programme called Lets Stick Together
run through ante-natal and post-natal clinics without official support
but with the active help of NHS health visitors. We ran 90 of these
seminars in Bristol this year for 850 parents, teaching simple but
effective relationship skills to one in every four new mothers. Both
mums and dads love it. Watch these STOP videos
for a good idea of what I’m on about! With a bit of government support,
all of these kinds of programmes could be run cheaply and easily
throughout the country as genuinely preventive programmes.

Is DCSF serious about a new family policy? Will actions finally
match the fine words? I very much hope so. Despite the two glaring
errors above, there are lots of good things that could come out of this
launch for supporting parents and children who are facing problems. But
any family policy will only be really effective if it not only
strengthens the huge effort spent on mopping up the flood of family
breakdown but also invests a little energy on trying to turn off the
tap.

Pretty much every year for the last forty years, a net 40,000 new
families have joined the ranks of lone parents and needed extra
support. Every year. Family policy hasn’t worked. So long as any
government dismisses marriage and overlooks prevention, the tap will
keep on running.

PS –  For some helpful ideas on how to help your own relationship survive Christmas, click here!

2 comments for: Harry Benson: Labour’s family policy – new beginnings or same old hang-ups?

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