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My Lords, it is with a great sense of purpose and, indeed, determination that I open today’s debate on A Manifesto to Strengthen Families. It has over 50 signatories from honourable Members on Conservative Benches in the other place and a solid showing from noble Lords here, many of whom are speaking today. I am sure that all will wish to join me in welcoming my noble friend Lord Agnew to his place on the Front Bench. Given his outstanding track record in business and educational improvement, he will, I am sure, rise admirably to the considerable challenge of making his maiden speech while responding for the first time to a long debate as a Minister. He is very well placed to do so, given his evident passion for tackling disadvantage.
I am grateful to him and all noble Lords who have taken the time to contribute to our deliberations today. They are long overdue: it is almost 10 years since my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes led the last debate on the importance of strengthening families, following the launch of the Centre for Social Justice’s landmark report Breakthrough Britain. It is fitting, therefore, that my noble friend Lady Stroud is here to add her considerable weight to our debate—I trust she will take that in the spirit intended—as she was instrumental to this report’s delivery.
Published mid-2007, Breakthrough Britain highlighted the role family breakdown plays in driving poverty and further entrenching disadvantage. Prior to it, our social and political commentary had become stuck in the groove of orthodoxy that said financial hardship caused families to fall apart and, as a result, family policy had been reduced to a three-word slogan, “End child poverty”. Yet shortly before the Labour Government came to power, Tony Blair told his party conference that a strong society cannot be morally neutral about the family, and referred to:
“The development of an underclass of people, cut off from society’s mainstream, living often in poverty … crime and family instability”.
He described this as a “moral and economic evil”. The first ever Green Paper on the family, Supporting Families, published shortly after Labour came to power, did not shrink from addressing family instability, to Labour’s great credit. However, policy proposals to tackle relationship breakdown within it were largely abandoned and family stability became the elephant in the room of social policy, despite it being a root cause, as well as an effect, of poverty. It hits the poorest the hardest, compounds existing disadvantage and is a potent driver of wider social breakdown.
My own involvement with the Centre for Social Justice, and my work in this House, are deeply rooted in a desire to address root causes of disadvantage, and I am encouraged that current government policy is pushing in this direction. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Freud, when he was Minister for Welfare Reform, committed the Government to developing,
“a range of non-statutory indicators to measure progress against the other root causes of child poverty, which include but are not limited to family breakdown, addiction and problem debt. Anyone will be able to assess the Government’s progress here. The Government are saying, ‘Judge us on that progress’”.—[
In April, several family indicators were published, including parental conflict, parental worklessness and parental mental ill-health. These are all essential for building a picture of the number of children growing up in families where relationships are under such strain that children are highly likely to suffer ill effects. Certainly, that is what research on the outcomes of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, on later life teaches us. However, there is one ACE, parental separation, that used to be captured in the family stability indicator but seems to have been quietly dropped. How can we judge the Government on their progress against family breakdown as a root cause of child poverty when we no longer measure it but instead use the proxy of parental conflict? Will the Minister explain why the family stability indicator does not sit alongside the other parental indicators?
The manifesto we are discussing today makes it clear that parental conflict devastates a child’s emotional world and is a cause of mental ill-health, even if it manifests itself not in violence or verbal aggression but in a pervasive and permanent atmosphere of coldness, indifference and hostility. Couple counselling should be available through children and young people’s mental health services if parental conflict lies behind children’s mental illness.
However, research by Amato and Booth shows that low-conflict divorces can be as harmful to children as high-conflict but stable relationships. Children do not understand why a split has happened. They blame themselves and assume that relationships are inherently unreliable. Additionally, they almost invariably lose daily contact with one of their parents and, if they stay with their mothers, their incomes are more likely to drop. The first Children’s Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley Green, said that children’s biggest fear was that their parents would split up. We have one of the highest divorce and separation rates in the OECD and one of the highest rates of children growing up without both birth parents. These truths make us very uncomfortable. They also make us very uncompetitive. Rightly, we have a Chancellor who is determined to boost our nation’s productivity and ability to live within our means. Well-functioning families are wealth generators, which make a considerable contribution to society. However, when families falter they often become welfare consumers, and relationship difficulties that affect mental and physical health can make it incredibly hard to perform well at work.
The cost of family breakdown has been set at a shade under £50 billion per annum. However, many indirect costs accrue to every department of government. For example, high demand for local authority care has an impact on prison budgets, as a quarter of prisoners were looked-after children. Some of the greater need for counselling in schools, children’s mental health services and housing stems from fractured families. They will also be less available to supplement social care for elderly people.
These costs are ultimately borne by the Exchequer, so the Chancellor has the greatest interest in demanding that each Secretary of State brings forward plans to strengthen families. Government-wide challenges need cross-departmental co-ordination. Our manifesto recommends that a senior Cabinet Minister take responsibility for driving family policy in the same way that the Secretary of State of a big existing department champions qualities across government as part of their wider brief, is aided by an equivalent to the Government Equalities Office and has a dedicated budget.
To change the structure of government in this way would be a clear signal that this country no longer pays lip service to the importance of families. At every election there are warm words on the subject from across the political spectrum but, to date, Governments of all colours have delivered very little when they hold the reins of power. This week, the President of the Family Division of the High Court pointed out that too many Whitehall departments were responsible for children and that,
“there is no department and no secretary of state whose title includes either the word ‘families’ or the word ‘children’”,
and implied that the current structure was failing those who needed it most.
We have been encouraged by the response from Ministers since the manifesto was launched, and I think they have got the message that we are not going to go away. David Burrowes, the highly respected former honourable Member in the other place, has been appointed executive director to ensure take-up of the manifesto recommendations, whether at a national or local government level. There will be an annual progress update and, as policies are implemented, we will add more to a rolling programme of family-strengthening measures.
The input of noble Lords to this process would be very much appreciated. In the process of rallying support from our Benches, the ideas were sharpened by signatories’ decades of government and front-line experience. Now they are published, all those involved in the manifesto are keen to draw on cross-party expertise. Reversing our damaging family breakdown trends will not be achieved by one or two terms of government—it will take a generation.
I conclude my remarks by focusing briefly on three areas in the manifesto in which I am personally much invested. First, in this Session I will bring forward a Private Member’s Bill, the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill, which will make it a statutory obligation for all government departments to carry out a family impact assessment on all their policies and expenditure. At present, we have the non-statutory family test, introduced during the coalition years. I have found a lack of clarity in some departments about whether this is still government policy, so it has by no means become embedded. Moreover, officials are under no compulsion to publish the results and findings from impact assessment exercises, which makes a mockery of transparency and accountability.
Secondly, the manifesto refers to family hubs, about which I have spoken several times in your Lordships’ House, the introduction of which was Labour Party policy just before the 2015 election. Family hubs are local one-stop shops that particularly help children in need, offering families with children aged from nought to 19 early help to overcome difficulties and build stronger relationships. Such provision is typically co-located with superb early years healthcare and support, such as in transformed children’s centres, supplementing and not supplanting those vital services.
We have recommended that the Government put in place a transformation fund and national task force to encourage local authorities to move towards this family hub model, working closely with charities and local businesses. These should build on the experience of councils, such as on the Isle of Wight, that have pioneered family hubs effectively. Barking and Dagenham is also making hubs part of a major local authority reorganisation, in which housing and other departments have been subsumed into a community solutions department that draws in community assets—not “doing to” people but “doing with” people.
Finally, policy 14 encourages police and crime commissioners to work with local schools to ensure that any child who experiences domestic abuse gets the support they need, after a bad night at home, from the minute they go through the school gate. In his book Blue, former borough police commander for Southwark, John Sutherland, recounts how for those young men who go on to cause serious harm,
“it all began behind closed doors—hidden in their homes and their childhoods. It’s one of the undeniable conclusions of my professional life”.
Gang formation is partly driven by children and young people seeking out comfort and security from their peers because they did not find it among the adults in their lives. Schools are ideally placed to offer that but, unless children’s emotional pain as a result of experiencing or witnessing abuse at home is picked up early in the school day, it can result in inattention in class, other forms of disengagement and, at worst, them mimicking that abusive behaviour. Instead of experiencing care and sympathy, they will likely be reproached and feel rejected.
Over 25 police forces have adopted this Operation Encompass model, which requires them, after a call-out to a domestic violence incident, to share data in a timely way with schools. It needs to be every force and every school, with the ultimate aim of stamping out domestic abuse for good.
In summary, this Government urgently need to develop a strategic approach to strengthening families. We recently heard in this House that the Farmer review recommendations in this manifesto are already being implemented by the Ministry of Justice. Can the Minister encourage us that this welcoming spirit towards similar policies will be evident from all government departments?