Caroline Ansell is Conservative MP for Eastbourne.
It’s hard to believe that it’s only a year ago that I was knocking on doors and speaking at hustings in the run-up to the general election. In many ways the hard work, blisters and bruising debates now seem like a distant memory.
However, as any new MP will tell you – being elected to Parliament is only the beginning; it’s when you take your seat on the green benches that the hard work really begins.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t daunting, and the number of worthy causes that I could give my time to quite overwhelming.
However, before too long it became clear to me that my heart really lies in one particular area of policy: the family.
Whether you look at outcomes for children, physical and mental health, productivity at work or even criminal justice – central to all of them is the role of the family, and strong, stable relationships in particular.
What I hadn’t realised was quite how contentious this might be. Despite clear evidence for the impact of strong and healthy relationships on such a wide range of policy outcomes, talking about family life in politics is not always a popular move.
Despite the profound consequences for public services and the public purse of family breakdown or poor quality family relationships, many still hold the belief that what happens within a family is private, or that it’s not possible to talk about couple relationships without moralising.
Which is why I was particularly pleased to attend the Relate Lecture this week, where the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, gave a keynote speech on the importance of family and relationships and his commitment to strengthening them.
At the event Relate launched their new report, All Together Now, which sets out an ambitious vision for relationship support over the next ten years.
The charity’s CEO, Chris Sherwood, set out the need for relationship support to move from the ‘margins to the mainstream’, with a full spectrum of support available to everyone who needs it, without cost, accessibility or stigma getting in the way. The report was welcomed by Duncan Smith, as well as by a wide range of MPs, peers, and experts from within the room.
I can’t recall a Government before this one whose senior cabinet members were so committed to this important area of work, demonstrated through policies like increased funding for relationship support, shared parental leave and increased support for separating couples.
The Secretary of State’s personal commitment to this issue came through in the speech last night as he outlined his plans to strengthen relationships through all touch points with public services – whether that’s children’s services, mental health support, prisons or education.
I was particularly encouraged by the announcement of an expansion of the Government’s ‘Local Family Offer’, the scheme through which 12 local authorities have been allocated a small pot of funding and support to develop effective strategies to strengthen couple and family relationships locally.
This recognition of the role of local government to support families and relationships is extremely welcome, and is something I raised in my own Private Members Bill on the Family Test before Christmas.
The Family Test is the impact assessment that all Government policies must be submitted to, and I – alongside a broad coalition of MPs and experts in the family and relationships sector – have been calling for it to be both made statutory and applied at a local level.
I hope that the routine application of the Family Test is something that will be required by all local authorities receiving funding through the Local Family Offer in future – as the impact of local policies and spending decisions on families cannot be underestimated.
I also continue to call for the Family Test to be given ‘teeth’, so that all departments have to both use it and publish their results.
This government is doing some fantastic work to support families and relationships, I want the Family Test to be a tool to evidence that impact, as well as to highlight the areas where adjustments to other areas of policy could bring significant benefits for families.
So overall, my review of last night was positive – although there of course remains much to do to work towards that 2025 vision that Relate set out so compellingly in their report.
It was refreshing to be in a room full of people who, like me, are absolutely committed to the value of couple and family relationships – not just for personal wellbeing but for their impact on just about every area of policy.
Over the last year speaking out about strengthening families has sometimes felt like quite a bold move, but last night I was among friends – and it’s certainly true that it helps to have those friends in high places.