Assessment of Government Policies (Impact on Families) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:17 pm on 4 December 2015.

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Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) 2:17, 4 December 2015

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The marriage tax allowance is a good example of the Government’s commitment to families. As he says, the Treasury supported the introduction of the policy. It is a good, positive contribution and a step forward in support for families.

Placing the family test on a legislative footing, however, runs the risk of turning the test into a tick-box exercise across Government Departments, when our ambition is to work across government with Departments to embed the benefits of thinking about policy from a family perspective at all stages of policy development, not just complying with legislative requirements.

There are many areas, some of which have been highlighted by my hon. Friends, where the Government are focusing on supporting families, beyond introducing the family test. We mentioned the marriage tax allowance, which will benefit over 4 million couples. We have the ever-expanding troubled families programme, which helps families where no adult in the family is working, children are not attending school, and some family members are involved in crime or antisocial behaviour. The troubled families programme has gone a long way to helping local authorities, stakeholder and third-party community groups, organisations and their partners to develop new ways of working with families to achieve lasting change.

The hon. Lady mentioned childcare. We are doubling the amount of hours for free childcare to 30 hours for three and four-year-olds. We have committed to childcare support for disadvantaged two-year-olds. The tax-free childcare policy will benefit families with children, and give parents more choice and flexibility with their childcare arrangements.

The proposal to introduce indicators for family stability is being addressed, as my hon. Friend highlighted, through the Government’s life chances strategy. The new life chances measures will focus on the number of children in workless households and on the levels of educational attainment. We are so focused on the life chances measures and family stability indicators, because we are no longer committed to chasing what we consider to be arbitrary targets. They were the focus of previous Governments’ policies and approach. Our focus is on the root causes of family breakdown—worklessness and poverty—and not just the symptoms.

The Government are committed to introducing a new and strengthened approach to tracking the life chances of Britain’s most disadvantaged children. Evidence suggests that frequent and intense child-related poorly resolved inter-parental conflict has terrible and negative outcomes for children. Couples with children experience greater levels of stress during separation. It is that negativity that affects the outcomes of children. For families that separate, evidence suggests that good relationships between parents and positive involvement from both parents in a child’s upbringing have long-term beneficial outcomes. These are the areas on which we are focusing.

As I have said, we are clear that strong families give children the best start in life and that good measures can help Government to formulate policy across Departments and drive action where it is most needed. It is worth highlighting where we can work with other Departments. I have already mentioned educational outcomes, and naturally we are working with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to raise educational attainment and improve life chances. In this way, we can also tackle areas of social justice and provide support for families or individuals who have experienced debt issues, addiction or alcohol or drug misuse. A combination of those factors can have a negative impact on families and result in family breakdown.

We have also committed to introducing a wider set of non-statutory indicators, including a measure of family stability, and we are engaging with experts in the field, third-party stakeholders, partners and specialist organisations to ensure we strike the right balance and develop policy that is in line with the most up-to-date research and the most robust evidence. We already measure family stability as part of the social justice outcomes framework, which reports the proportion of children living with both birth parents at birth and then every year until they are 16.

We discussed many of these measures, particularly those on life chances, during our deliberations on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, under which we are introducing two statutory measures—on children in workless households and children’s educational attainment —to drive action on improving children’s life chances. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has committed to introducing a life chances strategy setting out indicators on the root causes of child poverty, including family stability, as well as on problem debt and addiction.

I have touched on many areas in which the Government are supporting families. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne spoke about relationship support and the impact of family breakdown. In the last five years, the Government have invested about £38 million in relationship support services, but this is increasing, and we are investing about £8 million in relationship support provision in the 2015-16 fiscal year to provide support for couples and parents and to encourage the take-up of face-to-face, telephone and online relationship support services.

The marriage tax allowance, which my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh mentioned, demonstrates the dynamic nature of Government policy and the way we are working across Departments on family stability to provide the right support, whether for children or parents, including relationship support. We are using existing indicators as well. The NHS—so again working across government—is providing early intervention and education, and we are piloting relationship education in perinatal classes to prepare expectant couples for the changes that having a baby will bring to their relationship.

We are providing guidance and training for health visitors on spotting signs of relationships in distress and how to respond. We have had many debates in the House about the role of health visitors and how we can elaborate on that through the provision of guidance and support for new parents. All new parents recognise the challenges of being a first-time parent. We are testing ways of maximising the role of local authorities in providing family-centred services with a focus on supporting and strengthening couples and co-parenting relationships as well.

My Department has a strong track record and is working actively with local authorities to strengthen the services they provide to couples and co-parents in families by providing extra funding and, importantly, expertise for the 13 local authorities in our local family offer trial. We are exploring ways to expand that approach and encourage local authorities to take that leadership role at a local level in supporting people in the community and promoting greater family—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Monday 7 December.