£46,000,000,000 is so humongous a sum of money as to be almost unimaginable: I have piled on the noughts, rather than write the usual word “billon”, in order to project some impression of its scale. It is a larger sum than the spend of the whole Scottish Government.  It is bigger than the spending of some UK government departments – indeed, it is larger than that of the Home Office, Transport and Justice departments rolled together.  It is more than is expended on the defence of the realm.  It is not far off the annual cost of serving Britain’s debt, a matter which understandably preoccupies so many of us on the centre-right.

As recently as March, Lord Freud set out the Coalition Government’s view in Parliament: that the cost of family breakdown in Britain today may reach the £46 billion figure given by the Relationships Foundation and restated by the Centre for Social Justice.  Indeed, it may be higher: another estimate is £100 billion – which would see family breakdown costs snapping at the heels of the entire annual NHS spend.  As Full Fact starkly puts it: “no-one knows… include indirect costs and [researchers] will almost certainly be wrong, or exclude them and be left with a limited estimate that doesn’t capture the whole issue.”

So much for the financial costs.  But if we’re not to know “the price of everything and the value of nothing”, as Oscar Wilde put it, we must acknowledge social costs too, and they are stretch even wider – emotional damage, lost opportunities, poorer life chances.  And there’s a feedback loop as the social costs drive up financial costs, with the state stepping in to support children who struggle to learn and adults who have difficulty finding and holding jobs – who, in the course of time, become pensioners with their own needs. In his new book, More Human, Steve Hilton gets to the heart of the matter when he describes how some children lose out from the moment they are born.

Parent engagement, conversation, nurturing, attention, guidance about how to treat other people, responsibility, and the difference between right and wrong: no child should be denied these goods.  But many are – and that’s before one gets on to benefits that have more relation to income, such as travel, extracurricular activities, even exercise and bedtime stories. (You can’t read to your child if you’re working night shifts.) “We now know,” Hilton concludes, “that the quality and style of parenting received by a child is a better predictor of success than anything else – including the economic circumstances of the family.” In short, family breakdown is a social justice issue.

One can glimpse amidst the lost opportunities, heartache and welfare costs a glimpse of something that is, literally, richer – and which ought to bring Left and Right together in a kind of grand bargain.  For many on the Right, the driver of family breakdown is the decline of marriage.  For most on the left, it is the rise in inequality.  There is the ghostly outline of a trade off here, by which the Left accepts that children’s life opportunities are boosted by growing up with two parents, and that marriage is the best known means of keeping those parents together; and the Right accepts government policy should strive against the unjust inequalities of opportunity and outcome that family breakdown helps to drive.

This is a bargain that won’t be struck, (at least in the short-term).  For most of the Left, recognising the benefits of marriage, and backing it up through public policy, would undermine the counterculture which has underpinned its foundations for the past 50 years.  For most of the Right, any acknowledgement that inequality can ever cause social problems is an intellectual bridge too far.  This concern is reasonable.  Even those on the Right who believe in equality of opportunity recognise that it can never be fully realised, since nature as well as nurture prevent it.  And the proof of the last century is that aiming to level inequalities of outcome causes more harm than good, to put it mildly.

None the less, public policy should surely work against unjust inequalities of outcome – not by chasing the illusion of outcome equality, but by seeking to curb injustice and spur opportunities.  This is a principle that most on the Right accept: hence the growing belief that crony capitalism – monopolistic energy companies, bailed-out banks, state-subsidised lobbying – is an enemy.  At the moment, the buzzword for more opportunity is Aspiration.  And the biggest barrier to aspiration in modern Britain is family breakdown.  But this One Nation Government has no policy to help lower the barrier – or, rather, it has a mass of policies that affect families, and no-one in charge of making them cohere.

There is a childcare policy, which advantages richer people over poorer ones, and helps parents whose children are cared for by others, but not those who are cared for by their own parents.  There is a policy for helping troubled families, which sits in CLG.  There is a Minister for Children and Families, the excellent Edward Timpson – but he is based in another department, Education, and his remit doesn’t extend beyond adoption and fostering.  Work and Pensions has responsibility for Family Stability, and will publish a review into it “later this year”.  Above the whole lot sits the Treasury, presided over by George Osborne, who is resistant to the pro-marriage tax policy for which he is responsible.

The best place for families policy to sit is Work and Pensions – under Iain Duncan Smith, who set up the Centre for Social Justice and who has acquired over ten years worth of expertise.  Initiatives to help troubled families should really sit in that department, as should a Minister of State responsible for families policy as a whole.  Part of the point of the Gove reforms was to make the Education Department one that sticks to its last – in other words, schools – rather than one with the remit for families that Labour introduced.  I understand that Oliver Letwin – now the third most powerful Minister in the Government, as John Rentoul recently pointed out – is looking at all this carefully.

This ought to be music to David Cameron’s ears.  Boosting marriage and strengthening families was a core element of his early years as Conservative leader.  Last summer, he said that all Government policies must pass a “family test” – announcing that online music videos could be given age ratings, the doubling of the budget for relationship counselling, the expansion of the troubled families programme, and an increase in funding for councils who want to speed up adoptions.  How should this “family test” be applied?  Here are seven policy areas it should look out for especially – to help ensure that our children are no longer among the unhappiest in the world.

  • Early years.  Duncan Smith and Graham Allen, the Labour MP, worked together with the Centre for Social Justice to stress the importance of Early Years – the need “to intervene as early as possible in a child’s life to break the circle of disadvantage and underachievement to help each child fulfil their full potential”.  There are a mass of different projects with different aims. There is OXPIP, which helps to strengthen relationships between mothers and babies: see Andrea Leadsom’s piece on this site.   There is the Bristol Community Families Trust. There is Allen’s own early intervention work in Nottingham.  A centralising government would seek to impose projects like these on local authorities.  In the more decentralised Britain that is taking shape, it should encourage and incentivise them to pick from the best.
  • Tax and benefits.  The building-block of the tax and benefit system for families is child benefit.  The Chancellor cut it back for families paying the higher income tax rate – another blow to single-earner couples.  Duncan Smith has waged a long campaign to limit it to the first two children – part of his response to the challenge of having to find £12 billion worth of spending reductions.  Cameron is nervous of voter response to child benefit changes, which is why he ruled out major changes to it before the election.  A decision should be made.  If Britain is to give up on family allowances altogether, it should be rolled into the Universal Credit.  ConservativeHome doesn’t believe that it should and therefore doesn’t think this should be done.  If family allowances are to stay, the best option might be to concentrate child benefit on younger children – since early years are when needs are greatest.
  • Childcare.  The childcare policy is essentially a Gordon Brown policy writ larger – that’s to say, an ever-increasing number of hours for “free” children, restricted to parents who work in the labour market only.  There is an equity problem at the outset: unlike child benefit, this help is available to parents who pay the higher rate of tax.  Furthermore, no Government service is ultimately “free”, and there is thus toing and froing between government, providers and parents about “funding shortfalls”.  The policy has been elegantly pulled apart by Ryan Bourne on this site: he dubs it “the nationalisation of childcare”, pointing out that it has led to “high out-of-pocket costs and high levels of state subsidy”.  A more balanced childcare approach would, on the demand side, concentrate on family allowances – thus boosting choice – and, on the supply side, introduce the kind of degulatory allowances once championed on ConHome by Liz Truss.
  • Marriage.  Politicians can go on and on and on about it.  Or they can quietly focus their efforts on ensuing that the tax system supports it – and that there are no “marriage penalties” in the benefits and tax credits system.  We prefer the latter approach.  An important means of achieving it would be the transfer of the full value of the personal allowance between married couples, which would be particularly helpful to poorer one-earner families.
  • Girls.  Employment rates and opportunities for women have risen, but a raft of problems none the less exists for girls that seem to be relatively new, at least in scale – anxieties about body image, school performance, and balancing family and work life. A very recent estimate is that one in five teenage girls suffers from emotional problems.  One should be very careful with claims such as these, but the trend is striking.
  • Boys.  The pressure on marriage is not solely – or even mainly – a consequence of the whittling-away during the post-war years of the value of family allowances.  Rather, it is mostly a consequence of developments in the workplace to which that change has been a gradual response.  As a mass of writing on the matter has argued – not least from David Willetts in “The Pinch” – there has been a decline in what’s sometimes called “the pool of marriageable men”: that’s to say, men with good incomes who can help provide for families.  The old heavy industrial jobs of the post-war years won’t come back – these were in decline well before the Thatcher era – but the education system must better prepare boys for the workplace of the future.  That’s what the Gove reforms were all about: in particular, helping the white working class boys and girls who are among the biggest losers.
  • Work.  The three foundations of opportunity are home, school and work – all three of which self-reinforce.  (“Home” is also a reminder that countries without housing for younger people are unlikely to have flourishing families.)  The Government has poured money and effort into apprenticeships – precisely in order to help provide jobs that raise incomes and help to make men more marriageable.  As a next step, this site favours the transfer of money and resources from universities to vocational education that was outlined in the ConservativeHome Manifesto.  Some of those familiar with the Government’s Work Programme also believe that the main gap in it now is the provision of special help for men with low educational attainment, learning disabilities, a broken work record and in many instances drug and alcohol abuse problems.

During the course of this week, ConHome will be running a series on how this missing link in Cameron’s aspiration policy can work.  One way in which he could further it is to make more use of Tory MPs with a special interest in families policy, such as Leadsom (in government) and Fiona Bruce (outside it).  Tomorrow, David Burrowes, another MP with expertise in the area, will write on this site.