Caroline Ansell is the MP for Eastbourne.
As I approached it, the sign on the tea shop read: ‘Quiet children welcome’. I laughed: message received and understood – and I backtracked with my brood. This establishment, while serving possibly the finest Victoria sponge in the known world, had failed the Family Test.
Perhaps having been recently in Spain, it felt most especially cold. As the youngest of four daughters, I’ve grown up in a big, noisy family. Collectively, we’ve been through pretty much everything but somehow weathered the storm of life, clinging to the mast and each other. Looking back, having a 1930 vintage Scottish matriarch may well have been significant to my own situation but looking forward, growing up in a society which values, celebrates and nurtures ‘family’ – or doesn’t – will be defining to my children and their generation.
Research suggests we are world leaders in family breakdown – perhaps more troubling (and damaging) though, is that in the current climate, it’s probably counter-cultural, anti-progressive and asking for trouble to call it that: say, rather, ‘choice’ and ‘personal freedom’.
Yet the research around the effects of family stability and life chances couldn’t be more compelling. According to a Centre for Social Justice report, ‘Fractured Families, the Consequences of family breakdown,’ a child of separated parents is more likely to:
- Grow up in poorer housing, and leave home at a younger age;
- Have behavioural issues and report more depressive symptoms;
- Gain fewer educational qualifications and under-perform at school, before leaving education at an earlier stage;
- Require more medical treatment;
- Become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age; and
- Admit to higher levels of drug usage during adolescence and adulthood.
Small-c conservative estimates show that family breakdown costs the Treasury around £46 billion; other estimates suggest that that figure is closer to £100 billion. To put those figures into context, as commentators have noted, the former is larger than the entire spend of the Scottish Government, whilst the latter is almost as large as the NHS budget.
For all these reasons when, ‘lottery-style’, my number came up for the rare opportunity of putting forward my own little piece of legislation – a.k.a the Private Members Bill Ballot – championing the family had to be at its heart; and ‘The Family Test’ its focus.
The objective of my Bill, Assessment of Government Policies (Impact on Families) is to introduce a family perspective to the policy making process in our nation. The Bill will ensure that Ministers and departments recognise and make explicit the potential impacts on family relationships in the process of developing and agreeing new policy and new legislative proposals.
The current proposal to further relax Sunday Trading Laws is a case in point, variously described as potentially, “causing irrevocable damage to our lives as citizens” and “the sacrifice of family life on the altar of profit”. I have concerns for small, independent (often family run) businesses in my constituency too.
I am a small state, ‘Big Society’ Conservative, so the irony of focussing on government, national and local, to strengthen family is not lost on me! The State will never love you back, it’s true, but government can set the mood music and, by virtue of its priorities, policy and pounds, can wilfully or otherwise strengthen or undermine family stability. It should use every means at its disposal to do the former.
We’ve seen where family breakdown can cause life-lasting disadvantage but, as with marriage, family relationships are for better or worse, richer or poor, sickness and in health. Family can be the ultimate force for good.
It is the family that instils in children character, values and responsibilities; it is the original and most effective safety-net, capable of reaching people that the state cannot, capable of helping people in a way the state is not able, capable of rehabilitating people in a way that the state can only dream of.
Whether it’s tackling crime and anti-social behaviour or debt and drug addiction; whether it’s dealing with welfare dependency or improving education outcomes – whatever the social issue we want to grasp – the answer should always begin with the family.
The last Conservative-led government has been recognised as doing more by way of actions and spending to tackle family breakdown support than any other administration. There have been many encouraging signs on which to build in the last few years, and I’m encouraged with the direction of travel: we’ve made adoption simpler, helping loving families share their affection with children in need; early years accessibility has been improved and expanded and shared parental leave are all steps taken in the right direction – but what now and what next?
Sure Start Childrens Centres were ground breaking in their time and their work invaluable, particularly around preparedness for school, but if we are now to understand a child’s best interest to be in family relationships – to pass a figurative Family Test – do centres need to move to the Family Hub model? Yes, in my estimation – to provide relationship support, family support beyond the 0-5s and partner with parents through childhood and adolescence; extend their reach, as some already do, to grandparents; and to really pull in the dads. For this, operating hours, co-location and joint working with the voluntary sector will all need to be considered.
The family is a micro-community, and the bridge between individuals and a wider society; families are the building blocks of society itself. The two are inextricably linked and mutually dependent; what affects one, will have a profound effect on the other. It’s a mistake to ignore this.
The Conservative Party has traditionally been the party of the family, and it now has an unparalleled opportunity to build on that reputation. This is our very own ‘Family Test’. Will we, as the government of the day, seize the day and the agenda?
It’s been said, “championing the family is not for the feint-hearted’’ so this will be a test for me too as a new Member of Parliament but if a step change in this area of policy will not only benefit the public purse, but much more importantly, the life chances of all, and especially the most vulnerable, could there a more worthy calling?