Always look on the bright side of life. Nadhim Zahawi can console himself this morning, as he ponders the papers, that more people are across his line of work. Very few will have grasped, before the events following his attendance at the President’s Club dinner, that he is Minister for Children and Families. A bigger slice of the great British public is now in the know.
Some will say that his attendance at that lubricous and deplorable event shows why no Minister should hold the title at all. The risks of embarrassment, they will argue, are simply too great (even if they believe, as we do, that Zahawi should not be forced to resign, on the basis of the account he has given). Sex and Tories don’t mix, it will be said: remember Back to Basics. Others will add that the Government shouldn’t have a families policy in the first place.
In practice, though, it will always do so – like all its predecessors. Whether it draws up its tax, spending and regulatory policies with families in mind or not, they will always be affected by these in one way or another. Last summer’s Conservative Manifesto mentioned three policies: childcare for working parents, improving young people’s mental health and protecting vulnerable children.
The background against which these must be set, according to the Centre for Social Justice, is that we are a leader in family breakup. A child in Britain is more likely to experience family breakdown than almost anywhere else Europe. Only a Latvian one is more likely to grow up in a home without both parents. This has consequences. A one parent household can pool neither its income nor its time, in the way that two parent households can. The effects are inextricably bound up with problems that government wrestles with, from the demand for high-quality childcare at one end of the life cycle to that for residential care at the other. Meanwhile, pressures on housing are driven by family change as well as mass migration.
Last September, we published a five-part series about a Manifesto to Strengthen Families. Fiona Bruce called for family hubs. Maria Caulfield said that young peoples’ mental health problems are often connected to their family experiences, and called for more family-based interventions in mental health provision. Andrew Selous championed relationships education. Derek Thomas urged that all fathers’ names be on birth certificates. Michael Farmer wrote that stronger family links can help break the cycle of crime – thus reducing another significant social and taxpayer cost: that of prisons.
It will be said that it would be better to reduce demand for these new services than to have to increase their supply. Those who do tend to stress the role that marriage plays in keeping families together, and support increasing the transferable tax allowance for one-earner couples.
Which is fair enough. But while married couples remain the most common family type, the number of cohabiting couples continues to rise rapidly. Whether you agree with the families manifesto or not, government should work away to ease the pressure on all families. That might be through policies to widen choice in childcare. (Present policies are focused entirely on two-earner couples.) It could be through tax incentives to house ageing parents. It might be through the programmes that our five authors set out.
Here is work to keep Zahawi very busy indeed. We apologise for writing about government policy rather than the President’s Club – which would have allowed us to join others in repeating horrified condemnations of the dinner while sparing our readers no salacious detail. (Find the hostesses! Get pictures of the dresses! Dig up last year’s attendance list! Where’s Michael Gove?)