Helen Barnard is Deputy Director of Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Do you remember David Cameron’s ‘Family Test’? Probably not. It was one of those policies that wonks roll their eyes at and no one else even notices.
But we do remember the Cameron government’s introduction of shared parental leave, equal marriage for gay couples, the marriage tax allowance, 30 hours of free childcare and the Troubled Families programme. Margaret Thatcher’s belief in traditional family values and John Major’s Back to Basics campaign were as important to their political brand as privatisation and the small state.
By contrast, it’s hard to discern what today’s Conservative Party thinks about family, or if it thinks about it very much at all.
The 2019 manifesto had 14 mentions of the word ‘family’, several of which are merely sprinkled onto more general sections (faster GP appointments ‘for you and your family’ etc). When you search for the substance, for policies that show the party’s appreciation for the centrality of family to our lives, it’s even harder to find. Passing mentions of family hubs, a dollop of funding for childcare, a consultation on flexible working. Nothing eye-catching or memorable. Nothing voters would remember as symbolising the party’s vision for families. No retail offer to attract parents.
The manifesto’s 14 mentions was, however, an increase on the 11 in the 2017 manifesto. When the BBC wrote up the key points from that manifesto, it included the heading ‘Families and Communities’ and then clearly struggled to find anything to list underneath, falling back on a big picture of a baby and the breathing space’ scheme to help people in debt.
The consequence of the party’s dislocation from family is that it has no guiding star to follow through the ups and downs of political debate on the challenges facing families. That has been painfully clear during the battles of the past eighteen months.
The campaigns led by Marcus Rashford over free school meals and other support for families during lockdowns and school holidays have repeatedly put the government on the backfoot. The rows over Universal Credit have been deeply uncomfortable for many conservatives, who recognise that adequate social security is an inherent part of an effective family strategy. They are frustrated that the party doesn’t have a stronger story to tell, a strategy to point to which would guide and put into context the individual decisions it makes. Too often, they find themselves boxed into defending a position which it is too easy to characterise as being ‘against feeding hungry children’ rather than for an alternative vision of how to support families, especially those on low incomes.
This tin-ear for family has also emerged in more subtle ways. When schools and childcare closed, many parents faced losing their job or cutting their income because they couldn’t work their usual hours and home school their children. But there was confusion about whether their employers should use the furlough scheme to support them. At times it seemed that no one at the Treasury had even thought about it.
As the pandemic receded, the Government urged workers to return to their offices and save Pret a manger. There was no hint of awareness in the pronouncements of Prime Minister or Chancellor that many parents, especially fathers, had relished being able to be more present at home – to be there for bath time and bedtime. It would not have been difficult to promote the benefits of getting back to the office whilst acknowledging that employers could build on changes during the pandemic to better support family life.
The party should not head into a third election without reconnecting with its commitment to family. It should take the chance now to develop a new vision for family in post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain. There is already a strong focus on the cost of living. This needs joining up to a strategy for families and a coherent approach to tackling child poverty.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing many families is the struggle for parents to make a decent living and care in the way they want to for their children (and often for elderly relatives as well). The party is rightly proud of high employment rates, especially among groups often shut out of the labour market previously, such as lone parents. But there is a growing army of parents juggling insecure jobs with unpredictable shifts and low pay, struggling to pay their bills and keep up with sky high rents, unable to either find childcare that matches their work hours or afford it if they could.
Where could the party start in developing this vision?
First: Grasp the nettle on living standards. Money worries and debt are the leading cause of couples rowing. Families under serious financial strain also have strained relationships. The party needs a positive approach to counter the negativity generated by Universal Credit rows. Maintaining the additional £20 in Universal Credit should have been a given. For the future, a boost to child benefit would provide a strong retail offer. Using the child element in Universal Credit would be less pricy. A more imaginative option would be to concentrate on giving very young children a good start. A new Baby Tax Credit would support families when children are very young, and there is the strongest case for at least one parent to be able to stay at home without dragging the family into debt and hardship.
Second, childcare. The UK’s childcare system is a mess. We spend £5.4 billion of public money on it. But parents still find it prohibitively expensive. It fails totally for most people working atypical hours. There’s little really high-quality care that improves children’s outcomes. And lots of providers exist on the verge of going under. A rethink is well-overdue. For hard-pressed parents on lower incomes, two fairly small changes would go a long way to easing things the immediate pressure: raising the cap on the level of childcare costs Universal Credit covers and changing the absurd requirement for them to find hundreds of pounds upfront and then clam it back.
Third, do more to encourage employers to help parents work and manage family life. The long-promised Employment Bill is a chance to show that the government is on the side of working parents – and values both their work and their parenting. Increasing security and predictability for those at the bottom and following through on the promise to make flexible working the default would demonstrate that commitment.
Fourth, breath fresh life into relationship and family support, perhaps through a more significant commitment to the Centre for Social Justice’s Family Hubs. There were nods to this in the 2019 manifesto and since then a National Centre and some small scale projects have been set up, but it has hardly been a main plank of government policy or rhetoric. Boosting the Family Hub network, combined with some bold moves to support mothers’ mental health, would revive the party’s connection with the fundamental place of relationships and supportive families in our national life.