Christian Guy is Director of the Centre for Social Justice. He is the author of “This is how we live – fear and hope on the margins of British society“.
Whenever I see David Cameron I’m reminded of trees. Bear with me. They actually featured in one of his most compelling speeches. In the peroration of his 2013 party conference address he came back to mission. It’s worth re-reading his final few lines.
‘…Country first. Do what’s decent. Think long-term.
There’s an old story that’s told about a great hall in Oxford, near my constituency.
For hundreds of years it’s stood there – held up with vast oak beams. In the 19th century, those beams needed replacing.
And you know what they found?
500 years before, someone had thought … those beams will need replacing one day … so they planted some oak trees.
Just think about that.
Centuries had passed … Columbus had reached America … Gravity had been discovered … and when those oaks were needed, they were ready.
Margaret Thatcher once said: “We are in the business of planting trees for our children and grandchildren or we have no business being in politics at all.”
That is what we are doing today.
Not just making do and mending … but making something better.
Since I got to my feet, almost a hundred children have been born across this country.
Children of wealth – and children of none.
Children of parents in work – and children of parents out of work.
For every single one of those newborn babies let us pledge today that we will build something better … a land of opportunity…’
To the derision of the (defeated) Left, the Prime Minister has become evangelical about his long term plans – economic or otherwise. Whether it’s deficit reduction, a budget surplus, reforming welfare, creating jobs to fight poverty, transforming education, generational infrastructure investment or even a reluctance to reshuffle, Cameron seems more focused on solid foundations than short-term hits.
Of course mistakes have been made but that lengthier outlook, that sense that it is the job of a Government to make decisions it might never get the credit for, is to be admired. Especially in modern politics.
That is why the anomaly that is the absence of meaningful family policy must be dealt with fast. That is not to say it needs inventing. We already have the plan we need. Ten years ago Cameron asked the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) to recommend ways in which two nations – the poor and the rest – could become one. What emerged was, in part, a radical plan to increase family stability.
By replacing the Right’s moralising and the Left’s fear, both dominant within the family policy debate when it surfaced, the CSJ presented evidence about family breakdown’s clear and present danger to the life chances of adults and children. We also demonstrated – through the work of remarkable charities, intervention projects and positive incentives – that the prolific levels of domestic trauma Paul Goodman cited on this site earlier this week are not inevitable. In other words, for the long-term good of our country and its people, Governments, in partnership with local services, employers, charities, schools and parents, could turn the tide of family breakdown.
In 2010, those arguments were young. It was unsafe territory for a party desperate for power. Flashes of commitment came, but so then did a hung Parliament and the Liberal Democrats. Some bright spots are worth honouring, such as the Troubled Families programme, the commitment to reduce the welfare system’s couple penalty and a baby-step towards backing marriage in the tax system (even though the imbalance between one earner and two earner households remains unjustifiable). But, as is now well-rehearsed analysis, radical family policy sank between 2010 and 2015; a casualty of coalition and endless behind-the-scenes bartering.
Today, with a majority, it can be different. Swelling support for action on the family within Conservative parliamentary ranks means the shackles are off and the excuses are gone. To borrow Cameron’s analogy, this Government has a unique opportunity to plant trees. The following plan would be a decent beginning:
- Leadership for families to mobilise Government – ideally a Cabinet-level minister with resources and responsibility to strengthen family life. Even Labour had ‘family’ represented at that level.
- Early intervention, as Graham Allen and Samantha Callan have written about this week. Start by converting Children’s Centres to Family Hubs.
- Family friendly tax and benefit changes. David Burrowes MP wrote persuasively about that on Tuesday.
- Fathers more involved, including by allowing them to register on birth certificates without mothers’ approval. Labour tried this in 2009. Obviously, vital exemptions are required but this would make a difference.
- Putting a support plan in place to prevent breakdown of kinship care arrangements. Grandparents and others can play a crucial role, with help.
- Build the houses Britain needs. Poor conditions and insufficient development undermine family life, especially in the toughest neighbourhoods. There’s also a watertight economic case for such infrastructure investment.
And one final plea. Help people to find a better balance between work and family. That’s extremely difficult to engineer, but integral to David Cameron’s pledge to convert a strong economy into ‘the good life’ for the British people. We all know GDP has its limits as a health check.
I think of a man I met recently who is paid to drive through the night, normally seven nights a week. His wife works long day shifts. Somehow they get the kids to and from school but they rarely see each other. That doesn’t feel much like family to them. But he didn’t want to go on welfare – work gave him dignity and his children role models, even if not much of a life at the moment. Like many other families they need breakthrough breathing space.
Where other good people share this family mission, David Cameron should unleash them to deliver. For unless we act, half of the 2,000 children born in our country today will have seen their parents split by the age of 16. No longer should we shrug our shoulders about family breakdown. If the Prime Minister wants One Nation he should plant some more trees.