I congratulate Sarah Owen on her speech. It was a pleasure to listen to such a clearly articulated speech by a new Member, with humour thrown in. I am sure she will be a very caring and committed Member of Parliament for her constituency.
I am delighted that this one-nation Conservative Government want to level up opportunity across our country, particularly in areas like Burnley, where I grew up and where we now celebrate a new Conservative Member of Parliament. I welcome the words of Her Majesty in the Gracious Speech:
“A White Paper will be published to set out my Government’s ambitions for unleashing regional potential in England”.
In order to truly release the potential of all our communities—to promote healthy, caring and resilient communities—we need to strengthen families. Colleagues may not be surprised to hear me say that.
The Conservative manifesto said on page 14:
“A strong society needs strong families. We will improve the Troubled Families programme…to serve vulnerable families with the intensive…support they need to care for children—from the early years and throughout their lives.”
I believe we need to do much more than support troubled families, not that the news two weeks ago of a £165 million boost to extend the troubled families programme is unwelcome—it is welcome. We now need to build on the good work of the previous Conservative-led Government and broaden our commitment to help strengthen families. Indeed, why not rename the troubled families programme as the wider “strengthening families programme” that it should be? Every family goes through challenges, and every family needs support at some time.
I also welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment at last week’s PMQs to champion and support family hubs, which every Member of Parliament could similarly promote and champion locally. Family hubs are a practical way to help strengthen families, with a place in every local community offering help to families as and when they need it. More of that shortly.
Building a stronger, healthier society surely starts with the family, the basic building block of society. When we fall on hard times or become seriously ill, our family is often the first port of call. Our family, at best, teach us our values, shape our identity and nurture our sense of responsibility to society.
Weakness in our family units—when they are dysfunctional, when they disintegrate or when our closest relationships do not work and we become distressed about them—has repercussions in so many ways. It can increase children’s mental ill health and insecurity, preventing them from attaining their best education and employment potential. It puts pressure on GP surgeries through increased rates of depression, addiction and other ailments. It puts a strain on housing provision when families split up, and it increases work absenteeism, exacerbates loneliness in old age and makes state provision for elderly care completely unsustainable. In other words, it makes not just our families, but our wider communities less cohesive, less healthy, less productive and less resilient to the inevitable shocks that life throws at us all.
If we really mean what we say about levelling up those parts of our country that feel they have been neglected, we must realise that we will never achieve that simply by repairing neglected physical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, good as that is. If we are really to make a local-lasting, generational difference in the lives of people who feel left behind, it must surely also mean helping them to strengthen local communities where relationships have fractured. That should mean, as a priority, strengthening families, so that they can not only flourish but contribute positively to those local communities going forward.
Family breakdown is serious, socially, culturally and economically, and this country has one of the highest rates of it among 30 OECD countries, yet successive Governments have shied away from accepting and addressing this. Let this Government be bold and different. Why? Because the young, the poorest and the most vulnerable pay the highest price when family life fractures, with children from fractured families being twice as likely to develop behavioural problems and being more likely to suffer depression, turn to drugs or alcohol, or perform worse at school and not achieve their job or life potential. There is an increased chance of their living in income poverty in the future and of their own relationships being less stable in adulthood.
It is not just children who suffer from family collapse. Divorce and separation have led to increasing estrangement between elderly parents and older children in later life, with growing loneliness among older people. More than a quarter of a million people over 75 in this country spent this Christmas day alone. This epidemic is causing widespread misery and impeding the life chances, health and wellbeing of millions of people. It is a national emergency that should warrant the same level of concern and attention as climate change. It should warrant the Government reshaping their Departments, for it affects almost all of them. It requires a Cobra-style committee to pull together across Government to champion families and not condemn another generation to the destructive effects of dysfunctional family relationships. At its worst, we see that in people’s involvement in county lines; reportedly, it involves as many as 10,000 young people, with many seeking the comfort of a gang to replace that of a family.
It is a tragedy that more than a million children in this country today have no meaningful contact with their father. The poorest and working-class families are bearing the brunt of family breakdown most. Such families are more prone to break up and they are less resilient when it happens. Greater financial security inevitably allows for insulation from some of the pressures that often drive poorer people apart or result from their splitting up.
What should be done? First, we need to champion the strengthening of families right across Government and as individual Members of Parliament. The public want us to do that. Recent polling by the Centre for Social Justice shows that 72% of adults believe that family breakdown is a serious problem in Britain and 81% think that strengthening families is important in order to address our current social problems. That should start with focusing on communities that feel they have been left behind and that feel dislocated, with a loss of belonging, where there has been a rise in poverty and street crime.
We should focus on places where people feel unequal and where there are high levels of children in care and a large proportion of isolated adults. Government must champion the family—that must be central to the way that every Department thinks, because family policy does not fit neatly into a single Department. There should be a Cabinet lead and an office for family policy, and every Department should develop a family strategy. The family impact assessment—also known as the “family test”—should be put on a statutory footing. We could do worse than to have one of the Members successful in last week’s ballot pick up the oven-ready Bill that I introduced on this issue in the last Parliament.
However, I am delighted that the Government are committed to championing family hubs, as those are one way in which we can all help to strengthen our local communities and family life within them. What are family hubs? I will not take much longer, Mr Deputy Speaker, but let me say that they are one-stop shops offering a range of support and specialist help to parents, couples and children, aged nought to 19 and beyond. That can include relationships counselling and mental health services, childcare, early-years healthcare and employment support. They provide help with a troubled teen or a carer, and much more. They are backed by the local authority but they work in conjunction with charities and local businesses. They bring together statutory and voluntary approaches and are currently developing in half a dozen towns across the country.
The hubs are proving that they can have significant outcomes, with children and young people feeling safer; families being helped to improve parenting and children’s behaviour; mothers and children having better emotional wellbeing; good lifestyle choices being made; and families being more resilient when shocks occur. We need more of these hubs. Let us avoid the trap of previous Governments, where families remained everyone’s concern but nobody’s responsibility. Let us take up our responsibility as a one-nation Government to fulfil our manifesto commitment to strengthen families and strengthen society.