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My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to his new appointment. I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and his colleague in the other place, Fiona Bruce, for drafting the manifesto. It presents a very depressing picture of what is happening to family in our country. We are almost a world leader in family breakdown, and in economic terms the estimated cost of family breakdown is about £48 billion. By the age of five, around half the children in low-income families have seen matrimonial breakdown. That leaves deep scars. So in addition to the economic consequences there are psychological and moral scars on people growing up. The question is: what do we do about it?
The manifesto points out several reasons why this happens, including poverty, fathers not being involved in the raising of a child, domestic violence and poor ability to manage relations—all those factors are responsible. In the 18 policies that the manifesto articulates, these problems are addressed.
However, in the minute and a half that is left to me, I want to concentrate on two major difficulties that I have with the report. First, I began to ask myself what kind of family the report is talking about. Family is an abstraction. There is one structure of family among Afro-Caribbeans, another among the south Asians and a third among the white community. What kind of family model did the manifesto’s writers have in mind?
If you look at the manifesto closely, it is striking that the ethnic-minority family is virtually absent. For that family there are certain peculiar problems. Parental pressures can be exerted over children asking them to perform, sometimes beyond their capacity. There can also be cultural conflicts, with children going out to school and bringing back certain cultural mores and customs that parents are unable to cope with. There can even be linguistic and conceptual problems, where parents are unable to communicate with their children. A few years ago I was part of a BBC film called “I Can’t Talk To My Parents”. It focused on a girl who wanted to go to university in another town, but her parents could not understand why she wanted to do that and not stay at home with them and study. She said that she wanted to explore herself, but she did not have the language to explain that concept to her parents—neither the parents nor the child could explain to each other what they meant. The report does not fully take care of Asian families and others.
The other difficulty is that the report talks about strengthening families. I always worry when I see normative concepts such as “strengthening”. In many cases, for the south Asian family it is not a question of strengthening the family bond but of it being too strong. There are occasions where children are very deeply bonded to their parents and unable to exercise autonomy and independence, especially girls. In that situation, what does strengthening the family mean?
I have several difficulties of this kind. However, I simply intend to alert the writers of the manifesto to the problems that this will create and not at all to detract from the considerable merit of the manifesto.