Frank Young is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice.
In the coming weeks, the Prime Minister has an opportunity to set out a bold prospectus for a socially reforming Conservative government.
With an unprecedented lead in national opinion polls, and even higher personal approval ratings, she can afford to be bold.
When Theresa May first stood in front of the nation as Prime Minister she told us her Government would be committed to tackling ‘burning injustice’. A manifesto with added ‘burning injustice’ needs to find its voice on family breakdown.
The costs of family breakdown fall disproportionality on poorer children. By the age of five, almost half of children in our poorest areas have seen their families break apart- compared to only 16 percent of children in middle class homes. Your chance of seeing your family break apart shouldn’t be defined by birth or circumstance, but too often it is. This is one ‘burning injustice’ that May should address.
Almost every part of her ambition to be a social reformer comes back, one way or another, to stronger families. Government poverty statistics reveal that just under half of lone-parent families are workless, compared to around six per cent of couple families. Children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to experience poverty as those whose families stay together and in our classrooms, the outcomes for children experiencing family breakdown are just as bad. All in all, it is hard to ignore family break up if you want to reform society.
If we want to tackle this injustice the current Prime Minister should be unafraid of finding a strong, confident voice on the family and articulating the important role of families in supporting her vision for a ‘fairer society’.
It shouldn’t be a political taboo to talk confidently about how we can support families to stay together, especially for those who have few other advantages in life. In a Centre for Social Justice survey, over 80 per cent of parents from social class DE (where levels of family breakdown are highest) agreed that the Government is right to say that stability matters for children. Even lone parents overwhelmingly agreed it was an ‘important’ message.
If the manifesto scribes are looking for an eye-catching family policy, they should set out a plan to reduce the so called ‘couple penalty’, by which it pays more for those in receipt of tax credits and benefits to live apart than together. When every penny matters,putting financial barriers in the way of forming a family makes little sense. Too often our welfare system does exactly that.
The Conservative Party should find room in the manifesto to focus the £400 million it spends on the Marriage Allowance to those who need it most.
The Marriage Allowance should automatically be paid to couples in receipt of Universal Credit, and the Chancellor should look at how it could be targeted to those on the lowest incomes to make the couple penalty a thing of the past. This would be a straightforward commitment without making additional demands on an already stretched Exchequer.
The Government is almost completely silent on marriage. A manifesto commitment to reform the Marriage Allowance would put this right. A UK child born to cohabiting parents is 94 per cent more likely to see their parents break up before they reach their 12th birthday, than a child born to married parents. If you are a teenager studying for your GCSEs and you have two parents at home, it is statistically almost certain they will be married.
Poorer children overwhelmingly miss out on the stability of marriage, with fewer than one in four low earning couples getting married, compared to almost nine out of ten couples earning over £43,000. It’s hardly surprising couples on low incomes choose not to get together and get married if it ends up making them worse off. A strong, stable Government should be able to find the words to promote strong, stable families. In our poorest areas we could do with both.