Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
When the Centre for Social Justice published the report Breakthrough Britain in 2007, we looked at the five pathways to poverty: Debt, worklessness, addiction, failed education and Family breakdown and produced an in depth report on each. Taking extensive evidence from those organisations, particularly the voluntary ones which worked to help counter these problems as they occurred, we set out a significant number of policy options for the Government.
The paper on family breakdown made a number of recommendations. Amongst them, and perhaps the least noticed, was the finding that a significant number of couples, including married couples in difficulty, could stabilise and improve when supported by proper counselling. Whilst not the most exciting to the media, the consequences of family instability are enormous in terms of its effect on the wellbeing of the nation.
Yet as we run towards the budget, I am told that the Government is reviewing this commitment, with Civil Servants tasked with drawing up plans to cut the existing funding going to marriage guidance and other relationship counselling. I strongly believe this would be a retrograde step as the already damaging effects of family breakdown would only get worse without such support.
In case the Government hasn’t put this money in context, the following makes the scale of the problem clear and, with it, how marriage guidance and relationship support have helped re-stabilise so many families.
In pure financial terms, the cost of family breakdown to the UK has been estimated conservatively at £48 billion per year. However, less well known is that the risk of poor health from conditions such as coronary heart disease and raised blood pressure increases dramatically – the overall effect of family breakdown on health outcomes is equivalent to smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. It is now well charted that the effect on children from such avoidable break-up can be devastating, not just due to the lowered educational outcomes but often through mental illness. Sadly, the scale of the problem is enormous – for even now, as you read this, 65 per cent of children aged 12–16 in low income households do not live with both birth parents, and some three million people are in relationships in such difficulty that they are in serious danger of breaking up.
As far back as 1947, the report of a Committee of Inquiry on Procedure in Matrimonial Cause, chaired by Lord Denning, noted that “it should be recognised as a function of State to give encouragement and where appropriate financial assistance to marriage guidance as a form of social service”. Successive governments failed to see this as a vital area until David Cameron’s administration in 2010, when we put extra money into support for those engaged in counselling families.
In 2015, it was agreed to double this funding to £70 million. This was based on firm evidence of the effectiveness of the work carried out with this money. The Government’s own evaluation shows that every £1 spent on relationship support saves the state over £11, not to mention the improvement in life chances for those involved. Even the adults were found to benefit significantly in unexpected areas as, for example 35 per cent of those using Relate’s Couple Connection website no longer needing to see their GP as such counselling was found to improve the quality of couple relationships and, importantly, individual mental health. The studies have found that families with strong relationships are 50 per cent more likely to survive life-threatening illnesses than those with weak ones.
Other leading countries continue to recognise the importance of investing in family stability. For example, in Australia, Family Relationship Centres offer services helping families at all stages of their life, including people starting relationships, those who want to make their relationships stronger, people with relationship difficulties and families who have separated.
The reason I am writing this is because I worry that this is an area not much understood, or even cared about, by opinion formers when ranged against other, much more expensive and high profile, areas of expenditure and thus its loss would not be noticed. However, it should instead be seen as an investment in early intervention, that – day in, day out, year in, year out – saves families from the damaging effects of break-up that cost the country so much in money and broken lives. For without this funding, innumerable families and couples will no longer be able to access marriage and relationship support, particularly those on low incomes and vulnerable groups who often need it the most.
In 2015, I was enormously pleased when we increased the spending on such counselling but always hoped that, given the evidence of its effectiveness, more money would be found in due course. I am therefore worried that we may be about to head in the wrong direction. This is why I urge my colleagues that instead of looking to reduce such investment in this budget, we should look to increase the reach of such services, for the wellbeing not just of those families directly affected but of the whole country.