Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton and Chair of the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission.
This summer has brought a spate of sobering statistics. Action for Children estimate that 140,000 children affected by domestic abuse, parental drug abuse and neglect are not getting help to prevent further harm. The NSPCC report a rise in child neglect cases by more than 60 per cent in the last five years. Calls by MPs for government to address the escalating problem of poor mental health in children and young people have become louder and more frequent.
Over a million children and young people have negligible contact with their fathers as they grow up, and the Government’s own statistics state that nearly half of all children are no longer living with both their parents by the time they sit their GCSEs.
A new approach is desperately needed.
While children from every social background experience family breakdown, it hits the poorest the hardest. The Government’s own data uncovers an alarming social gradient in family splits: by the age of five almost half of children in low-income communities have seen their parents break up compared to only 16 per cent of children growing up in leafier suburbs.
That is why over 40 MPs and many Peers have signed up to a Manifesto to Strengthen Families which will be launched in the Commons this week. Every day this week on ConservativeHome, Parliamentary colleagues will highlight some of the very workable policies we are advocating in it.
MPs in their constituency surgeries encounter many difficulties which have their origins in relationship problems – challenges accessing benefits, child maintenance or contact, and housing issues – but so often we see just the tip of the iceberg of human misery that is family breakdown.
Teachers, social workers, the police, health care workers and others on the frontline see far more and, from what I hear, would dearly like politicians to show leadership in addressing the devastating effects of fractured families which they pick up further downstream. They are as aware as us that there are sensitivities: no one wants to point the finger, criticise parents or stigmatize any type of family.
However, we cannot ignore the very many children growing up in fractured and conflicted families, where there is violence, mental illness, substance misuse, and where no one ensures their safety. Similarly, in families where no one nurtures and cherishes them, children and young people are far more prone to lack of self-worth or even profound self-harm, with damaging consequences for their education and employment prospects.
The ramifications of adverse childhood experiences are often lifelong. We will never see the fairer society the Prime Minister envisaged when she first stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street without government grasping the nettle and, finally, developing a comprehensive, preventive strategy to strengthen and stabilise families.
This is the aspiration behind the Manifesto to Strengthen Families that we are launching this week. This will require all departments of government to pull together, which they have done successfully before, for example in developing the Care Leaver Strategy. Given the even bigger scope required here, a Cabinet Minister should be appointed with responsibility for supporting families.
In the same way that the Secretary of State for Education also holds the Equalities brief, another Secretary of State with a cross-governmental brief, or one of the larger departments such as Work and Pensions or Communities and Local Government, should also bear named responsibility for Families. They would require an equivalent body to the Government Equalities Office based in DfE: a dedicated budget and civil service team to enable the prioritization and coordination of family-strengthening policies across government.
As an example of a policy that would require effective joint working, the Department for Education has said it wants to do more to enable councils to support children growing up in the harmful family circumstances highlighted in Action for Children’s report. Moreover, at the recent general election, the Conservatives pledged to look at how we might augment support for these so-called ‘children in need’.
In our Manifesto to Strengthen Families, we are calling on the Government to encourage every Local Authority to work with voluntary and private sector partners to deliver Family Hubs: readily accessible centres where families in difficulties can go where someone will help them find solutions. Over the last decade, parliamentarians in both Houses, the Children’s Commissioner, the Centre for Social Justice and other respected organisations have all repeatedly highlighted the need to develop these Family Hubs.
The Isle of Wight and some other councils have transformed their Children’s Centres into Hubs which offer good early years health and other services, co-located with voluntary sector and other help for struggling parents with children aged 0-19. They managed to do this within current budgets, including their Troubled Families money, and other Local Authorities are slowly following suit.
The Manifesto to Strengthen Families recommends that Government speed up the creation of Family Hubs nationwide through a transformation fund to which aspiring pioneer Councils can apply. This need not cut across localism: every area will have the freedom to develop infrastructure and services in the bespoke way that best meets local needs. However, given that well over a hundred thousand children currently needing help are not getting it, per Action for Children’s research, this problem is too big and pressing to allow the solution to be haphazard.
This is just one of our proposals. Over the rest of this week colleagues will lay out other recommendations from our Manifesto to Strengthen Families: the conviction of all those who have signed up to it is that such a strategy must be an urgent priority of this Government’s programme of social reform. To those who are wary of intervention we simply say: we don’t want a nanny state, but a canny state. The cost of family breakdown in terms of human misery, lost productivity, higher welfare payments and educational underachievement will continue to rise unless we are bold in tackling it: a laissez-faire approach will not produce the human flourishing that politicians enter Parliament to help deliver.