Michael Tomlinson is MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole.
Paul Embery set a fair challenge in a recent piece on Unherd: ‘Why won’t our spineless politicians stand up for the family?’. He rightly notes that we have one of the highest percentages of lone parents in Europe, and that over a million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers. Indeed, across the UK 2.7 million children have no father figure at home, representing almost one in five of all dependent children. He could have also added that you are more likely as a teenager to own a smart phone than live with both parents.
But he is wrong to accuse all politicians of being lily-livered and failing to talk about this social catastrophe. Or perhaps that comment was aimed at politicians on the Left? For as recently as February, there was a full afternoon’s debate in Westminster Hall, called by my colleague Fiona Bruce on Strengthening Families. There was a leading contribution from Iain Duncan Smith, the founder of the Centre for Social Justice, which Embery rightly cited in his article. The CSJ are doing yet more ground-breaking work in this area, twelve years on from their devastating report Breakdown Britain.
Perhaps some politicians do feel nervous speaking about the family. Maybe they are concerned that their enthusiasm for the family will be mistaken for an attack on single parents, many of whom work extremely hard to bring up their children. However, family life is too critical a topic to steer away from. It is vital that as a society, and indeed as a Government, we commit to strengthening and supporting parents both in their relationships, and in their parenting, to the benefit of whole communities. Especially when we remember that government accepts that family breakdown is a key driver of future poverty.
Stronger families are vital for social mobility. The stability which they provide gives children the security that they need, which in turn helps to safeguard their mental and physical health, and by extension their behaviour and academic achievement. We have a social justice imperative to help enable each child to flourish; as well as an economic incentive. The financial – let alone the health and heart-breaking emotional costs of family breakdown – has been estimated at £51 billion. These record rates of family breakdown present a societal problem which must be tackled from every angle. All must play their part. Individuals must take personal responsibility, and government must ensure that systems are not stacked against family life.
Just look at the life chances of children in care, and at care leavers. It is a matter of vital importance and social justice that we reduce the number of children and young people who have had contact with the care system. The Government has identified that we must seek to change these statistics, which tell us that care leavers are more likely to get into trouble with the police, and to be at risk of poor educational outcomes, unemployment, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health issues.
But it is not simply the statistics that we must change. It is the life chances of these children, and it is incumbent on everyone to ensure that those who have had the most difficult starts in life should still have the opportunity to flourish and fulfil their potential.
Whilst there is and can be no ‘one size fits all’ solution, we must seek to provide a nurturing environment in which families can flourish, enabling children to reach their full potential as they grow to adulthood and actively participate in their communities and society at large. This is especially true in the poorest communities. Bruce and Lord Farmer set out in the Manifesto for Families that we need “to ensure children get the best possible start in their early years, address the impact of family breakdown, and recognise the importance of supportive and nurturing family relationships in boosting life chances.”
Local authorities must continue to invest in and encourage third sector support for families. This may be through community initiatives such as baby and toddler groups, which are often a lifeline for parents of young children, who may feel isolated and be in need of extra support. These should also include training offers such as parenting courses; equipping parents with the tools which they need.
The Government is uniquely placed to safeguard and strengthen family life. We saw a formidable example of this in Lord Farmer’s landmark review published last summer. This described the importance of family and other relational ties for prisoners, and concluded that family relationships are the “the golden thread” to help reduce reoffending and reduce the intergenerational transmission of crime. Similar reflection should be taking place across every department, from Health to Education, from the Home Office to the Government Equalities Office. Policies right across the board impact on the lives of families everywhere.
After all, what is it that vast majority of our constituents actually want? A secure home. A job. A family. A sense of community and belonging. Good schools for our children and opportunities for the next generation. And there is such a thing as society. It starts with the family, which has been throughout history and remains the core unit in every society on earth. Politicians of all shapes and sizes should stand up for the family, which is there to pick up the pieces when things go wrong, and to celebrate when things go well. That is why the Government should focus on policies which promote family life, and the Prime Minister must ensure that each Secretary of State in every department examines the impact of their department’s policies on the family.