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A Manifesto to Strengthen Families - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:49 pm on 2nd November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 5:49 pm, 2nd November 2017

Noble Lords know what I mean there.

The enormity of the consequences of breakdown of so many families has been well documented in our debate today. We all know from personal experience, and from the statistics that are so readily available, the misery and long-term damage that this can cause, particularly to children. Therefore this debate is timely and welcome. One symptom of this was a briefing we had this morning from the Children’s Society which detailed the 72,000 children in care in England and Wales. We know from previous debates—the noble Lord, Lord Nash, in particular focused on this—about the poor outcomes of so many children in care, whether one looks at mental health, their employment prospects, or simply the statistic that 34% of care leavers were not in education, training or employment at the age of 19 compared to 15.5% of the general population.

The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has explained the background to the manifesto, which was published by a group of Conservative MPs and Peers. I agree with a number of recommendations. In particular, he is right to say that at heart, creating a Government who are focused on families would be a good start—although I agree that it is not everything. I also welcome the recommendation to remove financial disincentives for those on low incomes, promoting healthy relationships to tackle the country’s mental health crisis, and helping prisons to put the role of families at the heart of efforts to reduce reoffending. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, underlined the importance of that.

However, a manifesto produced by one political party might have had somewhat more credibility if it had not rather ignored some of the damage being done to families by so many current government policies. I also share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that in emphasising couple relationships we need to be careful not to stigmatise one-parent families, and we need to acknowledge that there are different families today. That goes to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, made; we are in a different situation than many generations ago. My noble friend Lord Parekh and the noble Lord, Lord Popat, spoke about some of the cultural dynamics in families of different ethnic groups. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned.

In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, made some interesting comments about the link between poverty and family breakdown. In fact, he was cautious about it. I understand that; as regards what makes families strong, there are clearly much wider elements than that. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, was very interesting when he talked about a sense of belonging. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, suggested that if Government were prepared to invest more in preventive programmes up front, that would have a beneficial impact on downstream welfare benefit payments and other government expenditures. We cannot ignore the impact that poverty can have on family relationships. Work done recently by Relate, Relationships Scotland and Marriage Care found that a significant number of respondents cited financial matters as the key strain in terms of breaking up long-term relationships. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is right.

The last Labour Government took hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, but new research published today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the number of people living in poverty will soar to a record 5.2 million over the next five years because government welfare cuts are biting deepest on households with young families. As the IFS said, freezing benefits, the introduction of universal credit and less generous tax credits will mean a surge in child poverty, and the steepest increases will be in the most deprived parts of the country. That must have some impact on family cohesion and relationships.

As Polly Toynbee wrote last week, universal credit was introduced as a strong incentive to go to work. However, the taper rate means that claimants lose 63p for every pound they earn. That, to me, is not a work incentive. On top of that, the cruel six-week payment delay is going to leave those without savings in debt and trapped in rent arrears, and many will be forced to go to loan sharks or food banks. I cannot see how that supports families. It would certainly be a very good introduction to ministerial life if the Minister made the triumphant statement today that the Government are not going to introduce universal credit throughout the country and that the six-week delay will be done away with. However, perhaps that will not happen.

I can see why family hubs are supported by many noble Lords. I would have been interested to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, how he thinks that they might impact on and relate to Sure Start centres. I have to say to him that the closure of more than 1,200 centres as a result of a £437 million budget cut has had a very disadvantageous effect. I believe that Sure Start centres have benefited hundreds of thousands of young children and their parents, particularly those from a poorer background.

It is right to welcome the increased number of people in work but the fact is that for many, work is very insecure. The problem of low pay and the iniquity of zero-hours contracts are the reality for hundreds of thousands of people. That must have an impact on the way that family life works.

The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, wants to see the appointment of a Secretary of State for government responsibility and organisation. I can see exactly why he would want that and why family impact assessments might work. However, all experience shows that, unless that Secretary of State has a strong departmental responsibility, they will not have the influence required to make such an appointment work. All my experience of government is that, if you give a Minister or a Secretary of State responsibility for cross-government working, unless they have the support of the Prime Minister, and indeed the Treasury, and unless there are targets that other departments have to meet, it might sound good but in practice it does not work. It would be interesting if some further work were done to see how that office could be enabled to work effectively.

The same applies to family impact assessments. If they simply become a tick-box exercise, they will, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, knows from experience, simply be a waste of time. Officials can produce impact assessments till the cows come home. They produce equality impact assessments and other sorts of assessments, but at the end of the day I do not think that they have any impact whatever on how a government department does its work. You have to combine tough impact assessments with a policing role in central government to make them effective in the way that the noble Lord would like.

This has been a fascinating debate. I am sure that the preventive measures that many noble Lords have suggested are well worth pursuing, although, like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I have some reservations about tax benefits for married couples, and I should place that on the record. However, I do not think that we can ignore the impact of government policies, which I am afraid in many ways are working against families at the moment.