Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton and Chair of the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission.
A little over two months ago, I co-authored a Manifesto to Strengthen Families, about which I wrote on this site, which set out 18 practical policy ideas to reduce family breakdown. This policy programme has now been backed by one in four backbench Conservative MPs and has received strong support from the Government at all levels.
Unlike many documents of this sort, the manifesto was never intended to simply be a paper that was published and left sitting on a bookshelf. We purposely set out to build a campaign around the policy ideas and political support from colleagues to tackle this issue practically, constructively and above all meaningfully for the lives of vulnerable children affected by family breakdown. It also has the advantage of being a current manifesto which Conservatives can deliver.
The manifesto is unashamedly about strengthening families, but it is not some moral crusade. It is an evidence-based recognition that stronger families are vital if the Government is to achieve its ambition of social mobility and social justice, by making Britain a country that works for everyone, not just a privileged few. It is the impact on vulnerable children, who lack safe, stable, and nurturing relationships which unites and drives us. It is also the impact on our economy from the enormous costs of family breakdown which brings the forthcoming Budget into view.
The 50 or so Conservative MPs signed up to the manifesto (and many more who haven’t) will be looking to the Budget to make a clear business case for ensuring policies to strengthen families become embedded in the machinery of government. Family impact assessments need more teeth to ensure that all policies across Government strengthen families. A Treasury-proofed assessment tool is required to help local and central government make decisions which support families in the same way that we have a UK National Eco-system Assessment. If it is good enough for the natural environment, it should be good enough for the family.
There are two specific things the Chancellor could easily do in his Budget to tackle this issue using money from the historic underspend in the Marriage Allowance. Recent calculations by the Centre for Social Justice suggest that there is over £280 million of underspend sitting in Treasury bank accounts, some of which could be used to increase Marriage Allowance for poorer families.
The first is to target an increase in the value of the government’s Marriage Allowance on low-income married couples and civil partners with children. Universal Credit should be used to enable the marriage allowance tax break to be received automatically, and target those who need the money most. The Chancellor should use the opportunity to reduce remaining couple penalties in the welfare system, which creates disincentives to low income couples getting together and staying together. The Chancellor could commit to making the next phase of Universal Credit reform about stabilising families on low incomes. The money is already there waiting to be spent. If it is going to make a real difference it needs to be targeted better.
Secondly, he should encourage and enable local authorities to deliver Family Hubs to strengthen families in difficulty and improve family stability. If we are going to support families, we need local authorities to roll out Family Hubs in every area. Family Hubs offer support for families from the earliest days to those difficult teenage years. They offer support for parents and help couples who are at risk of splitting up. Just as urgently social care services are faced with unremittingly high numbers of ‘children in need’, on child protection plans, and coming into care all of which can be helped with the national roll out of Family Hubs.
The good news is that a number of local authorities are already moving over to a family hubs model because their present stock of Sure Start Children’s Centres are no longer affordable, and the required early intervention approach is impossible to deliver without a significant shift in how services function within communities. However, progress is slow, and leadership is required from central government to improve outcomes, particularly for ‘children in need’.
The Prime Minister responded positively at PMQs last week to my call for a roll out, and now we need to put some money where our mouth is. The Chancellor should commit to a Family Services Transformation Fund of £100 million over four years to help local authorities with a taskforce of senior officials to re-configure existing services, the development of missing services, particularly relationship support and post-separation support and sharing good practice from areas where this is working well. £25 milliom per annum could draw in 40 (a quarter of) Local Authorities with an average award of £625,000 per authority and incorporate a ‘test and learn’ approach to incentivise what works.
These two ideas, are simple to implement and cost no extra money on an already over stretched government purse. Tackling family breakdown and strengthening families must feature in the Budget if we want to get serious about the severe social and economic impact of family breakdown.