My Lords, I am heartened by the healthy number of speakers for this debate—although I notice noble Lords disappearing—and appreciate very much the effort that they have made. I greatly look forward to hearing noble Lords’ contributions.
This Bill would, if passed, ensure that all proposed changes to government policy are systematically assessed for their impact on family relationships, so they are supported rather than weakened. I will explain why policy should support families and what that will require, and summarise where we are now in terms of the family test introduced three and a half years ago. While it was a welcome forerunner to what my Bill proposes, there are strong indications that it is underperforming, and my Bill would remedy that.
In my briefing to accompany this Bill I outlined its purpose as follows. Policymakers do not habitually consider, in a systematic way, if and how policies support family relationships. It is as members of families that people usually experience the effects of policies and engage with public services. Families are impacted by policies and influence their effectiveness. Yet the focus of policy is typically on individuals. It is therefore essential to ensure that a family perspective is consistently applied to policy-making. In October 2014 the Government issued guidance for government departments on the application of the family test, which was an important first step. Departments are advised to think about family impacts in a similar way to how they consider impacts on equality to fulfil the public sector equality duty. However, equality—but not family—considerations are required by law. Moreover, departments are advised only to consider publishing assessments. The Bill would put family impact assessments and their publication on a statutory footing and require the Secretary of State to report annually on progress towards family stability targets and objectives.
I shall quickly acknowledge some of the people and organisations in this country who have consistently argued for family impact assessments: the Relationships Foundation, the Centre for Social Justice, Relate, the Family and Childcare Trust, Care and my noble friend Lady Stroud, who I am very glad to see here today. When they were in government, she and my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith ensured that the family test introduced in 2014 focused on family stability and the quality of relationships, not simply on family finances. While these are obviously very important, we in this country have a long track record of tracking household incomes and other indicators of disadvantage but we have been singularly bad at keeping our finger on the pulse of family breakdown. Indeed, the Centre for Social Justice’s 2007 Breakthrough Britain report highlighted that although the last Labour Government recognised eight domains of social exclusion, they collected data on only seven; the eighth, family breakdown, was ignored.
This Government are not doing much better. They last published the English indices of deprivation in 2015, the seven domains of which map loosely on to the former domains of social exclusion. Again, these make no reference to the breakdown of family and other relationships. The Department for Work and Pensions’ workless families strategy introduced new indicators last year. These include the proportion of children in families headed by couple parents who report relationship distress and the proportion of children in separated families who see their non-resident parents regularly. However, the social justice framework included family stability indicators: the percentage of all children not living with both their birth parents and the percentage of poorer children not living with both parents, compared to those in middle-income to higher-income households. These have completely disappeared.
In Committee on the Welfare Reform and Work Act, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, committed the Government to developing:
“a range of non-statutory indicators to measure progress against the other root causes of child poverty, which include”,
“family breakdown … Anyone will be able to assess the Government’s progress here. The Government are saying, ‘Judge us on that progress’”.—[
As I have said before in this House, we cannot 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. The DWP has given with one hand and taken with the other.
That makes no sense. We cannot ignore the importance of children being raised by both their birth parents where possible. There is the pain of losing daily contact with one of them, the blame that many children take upon themselves for the separation and the implications for financial hardship of raising children alone. One-third of children living with a working single parent live below the poverty line. Of course the quality of relationships is important but this is only half the story. Moreover, and rightly, the current family test asks questions about family stability and relationship quality.
Why should the Government support families? Well-functioning and stable families are important to all societies because of the considerable contribution that they make in, for example, generating productive workers, caring for family members and ensuring healthy child and youth development. It is always prohibitively expensive for the state to replace the functions that families perform, so Governments have both an altruistic and a vested interest in strengthening them.
When we neglect families, there are enormous fiscal and social costs. The Relationships Foundation recently published an updated headline cost of family breakdown of £51 billion. In previous years, about one-third of the overall cost was due to extra tax credits and benefits; one-third to extra health and social care costs; 15% to housing; a similar proportion to civil and criminal justice; and 5% to additional education costs. However, the sum of human misery is much harder to quantify. To take just one area, the charity Addaction found that more than half the children it was treating for serious drug and alcohol problems were from families that had split up.
The political philosophers Brighouse and Swift point out that,
“all the major political parties in the UK seek to present themselves as pro-family”.
At every general election it is “family, family, family”, but nothing significant appears to get done. All the major parties continue to allow the relentless trend of family breakdown to continue. As Professor Karen Bogenschneider observes, there is typically,
“a feast of family rhetoric but a famine of attention paid to the family concept. It remains one thing to endorse the important contributions families make to their members and society and quite another to systematically place families at the centre of policy design … and implementation”.
We need policies with the explicit end goal of supporting families, so I and colleagues published A Manifesto to Strengthen Families to counter the lack of activity that we have seen heretofore, which is generating some real anger on my party’s Benches. Around 60 MPs have signed it. We are not going to let this agenda go away.
However, Bogenschneider also refers to implicit policies that are not intended to affect families but have indirect consequences for them. The current family test aims to lay bare those indirect consequences so they can be mitigated where necessary. However, here again the Government could be accused of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Departments are not statutorily required either to carry out the test or to publish the findings of the assessment process. The guidance only obliges policymakers to make a judgment as to whether the five questions in the test should be applied and whether the details of any assessment carried out should be published. While they must document the application of the test “in an appropriate way”, ostensibly to build an evidence base about how policies impact families, that documentation seems to be available only to other civil servants. Its operation seems to be shrouded in some secrecy. An evidence base must be accessible if sedimentary layers of knowledge are to be added to it.
A review of progress in implementing the family test one year after its launch found that only four departments could cite specific instances when the family test had been applied, while a further four did not provide a meaningful response about how or whether their department was implementing it. More promisingly, the review outlined the many steps that the DWP was taking to ensure that officials in other departments were better able to assess family impacts. These included information exchange sessions and a policy profession course on implementing the family test across Whitehall. I would be obliged if my noble friend the Minister could inform us how many of these sessions and courses have taken place over the last two years, as such training must surely need to be ongoing, given the inevitable churn of personnel.
In response to Written Questions submitted in the House of Commons in December 2017, asking the Secretary of State in 15 different departments to which legislation his department had applied the family test, more than half provided a standard and completely opaque response:
“The Government is committed to supporting families. To achieve this, in 2014 the”,
“introduced the Family Test, which aims to ensure that impacts on family relationships and functioning are recognised early on during the process of policy development and help inform the policy decisions made by ministers. The Family Test was not designed to be a ‘tick-box’ exercise, and as such there is no requirement for departments to publish the results of assessments made under the family test”.
Such responses characterise the family test as highly discretionary, voluntaristic and opaque in its operation. Policymakers need neither apply it, document why they have not done so, nor publish documentation when they do carry it out. Accordingly, the family test is unlikely to achieve the cultural change in policy-making that was its original intent.
Also, language matters. The phrase “family test” is unfortunate because it implies that carrying it out will produce a pass or fail judgment on a government policy instead of a careful assessment of its effects on families in the round. It might unhelpfully disincentivise publication. Hence, the Bill would make it a legal requirement for government departments to carry out and publish family impact assessments where appropriate, using similar questions to those in the existing family test guidance. Family impact assessment is an internationally recognised concept with much good practice to learn from. The Bill would also explore the benefits of extending the requirement to local authorities and ensure that the Government act in a concerted way to address family instability by publishing family stability objectives and targets, and their proposals and policies for meeting them.
Almost half of all children are no longer living with both their parents by the time they are 15 years old. Family instability is undermining our economy, our children and young people’s mental health and our ability to tackle many of the major problems facing the Government, such as housing and social care crises. Addressing it directly is a priority, but so too is ensuring that government action is not indirectly making a bad situation worse. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and I thank him for introducing the Bill so cogently. Noble Lords may be encouraged to know that I shall not be looking at the impact of Brexit on families: I think we deserve a little Brexit relief after this week.
Families in the UK have changed significantly from when I was growing up. We are now a society with different faiths and cultures and different views on family relationships. We have more single-parent families, we have same-sex partnerships, we have more formal childcare, and so on. Families are what they are, and some families need support in their relationships.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, described well the thrust of the Bill, so I shall not repeat that. Of course, these issues have been debated before, notably in another place on
As the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, said, and I repeat, policymakers do not habitually consider in a systematic way how policies support family relationships. We should remember that individuals, with all their individual needs, make up families. I wish that we would concentrate more on what factors make things go right for families and people, rather than just carrying on about what is going wrong. I wish that we shared insights into what goes right with families.
Families have been high on the political agenda for many years, and rightly so. Issues such as parental leave, laws to protect children and victims of domestic violence, support for disability in families and the teaching of relationships in schools have all emerged. Trying to improve people’s lives, especially children’s lives, is not only admirable but makes economic sense—as the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, said.
I turn to the Bill, which suggests that we need to look at the impact of policies on families. I agree, but how do we do this without having a reverse effect or no effect at all? Let me briefly relate two anecdotes from my experience which taught me a lot about assessment.
I was once part of a project which looked at child impact assessment on a limited number of Bills in Parliament. Ideally, looking at the potential impact of policy is important before the impact is felt. I also suggest that it is important to include in planning assessments those on whom the impact will fall, such as children and families.
An example might be designing a family-friendly transport system. Any mother, father or grandparent—or anybody else—trying to balance two children, a pushchair and shopping knows how unfriendly transport can be, in both frequency of service and facilities. In the impact assessment project, we quickly realised that a Bill without the word “child” might still profoundly affect children. It is the same with families. Almost any policy from any policymaker in any field will affect families in practice.
The lesson here was about the need for early consultation before designing any intervention for children and families, and the need for agencies to collaborate to effect change. All of that is relevant to the Bill.
Another experience was when I served as an advisory teacher across London schools. I, and others in the same role, went into schools, usually at their request, to examine programmes of health education, offer training to teachers and deliver more effective programmes. It worked. When the role became more inspectorial, ticking boxes to say that such and such was or was not being delivered, it all fell apart.
Entities such as schools and families grow and develop from within, with support and encouragement from outside. We cannot simply judge them. People know that they are being judged and often act in ways contrary to what is intended. Families often need support, not just assessment and data. Many projects I know consult and involve families and communities thoroughly.
At the heart of all laws, policies and practice must surely be early intervention. It has often been said that most young people will become parents. They may or may not marry. What we do know is that the breakdown of relationships is common. Children can be encouraged to develop good relationships from an early age. Most, thankfully, learn this at home. Sadly, some do not and, unless there is intervention, they will continue a cycle of being ill-equipped to pass on those skills to their children. There is much excellent practice in schools, where good relationships between children and children and staff and children are encouraged and an ethos is developed in which consideration for others is paramount.
We probably all agree on what a good, functioning family might be. It begins with the parents and, usually to a lesser extent, other members of the family. Those parents have a right to be taught the skills of good parenting, inside and outside school. Most are not: most rely on instinct and example. I suggest therefore that Clause 2(b) on family formation should include the word “education”.
It is a good idea to have someone responsible within a department who has oversight of family welfare; it is also important that local authorities, which know their populations best, are enabled to do a good job. Sadly, cuts in services have affected this ability. I wonder how serious the Government are about supporting families when there are unacceptable levels of family poverty and unacceptable cuts to local services such as Sure Start, library services and recreational services. Families grow because they do things together and can afford it. The other government flagship, social mobility, is not going to happen without strong and stable families that support and encourage young people to aspire. We know that unemployment can create generations of unemployment, sometimes in very specific deprived geographical areas of the country.
I was interested that the troubled families programme which, in phase 2, had 60 outcomes across, for example, crime, education, employment, health, domestic abuse and child safeguarding. That is all very well; these issues tear families, communities and society apart. I note that comparisons were to be made between councils, as they should be—but, on a positive note, I feel that comparisons should be about sharing good practice and not just making comparisons.
In October 2014, the Department for Work and Pensions published guidance for government departments on the family test, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, which assesses the impact on the family of every single domestic policy. But I have the impression—and I get the feeling that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, shares it—that, despite good intentions, this task is super-complex, with nobody really pulling the whole thing together. How are the Government going to make family policies transparent to decision-makers, families and the public, and how will family policy be made a genuine concern across all departments and at a local level? What are the implications of this initiative for budgets at national and local level?
I admire the dedication shown by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, to improving family relationships. The Bill is an honest attempt to do just that. I would like to further discuss some of the issues, such as the role of assessment, with him and others.
My Lords, it is a pleasure but a rather daunting task to follow the two such erudite and knowledgeable speeches made so far on this Bill, and I congratulate the noble Baroness for bringing her wealth of knowledge and teaching to bear on it. I strongly support my noble friend’s Bill and the dedication that he has shown to this issue over many years.
I want to work backwards in the Bill and start with Clause 3, which sets targets for family stability and asks the Government to publish objectives and targets and proposals and policies to meet those targets. I assume that by targets my noble friend does not mean numerical targets—that X% or Y% of families must reach certain goals—but targets more in the sense of objectives. I want to take a step back behind the Bill and ask why it matters. What is the point of having strong and stable families? Why is it important?
I discovered many years ago in the Home Office, as Criminal Justice Minister, some fascinating statistics on how the level of criminality among young people depended on the strength of the family relationship. I am absolutely certain that that has not changed one iota over the last 20 or 30 years; we still get the same statistics and trends coming through. I choose my words very carefully here, as I do not want to be misconstrued, but it would seem that in a strong family certain factors are present, while in a weak family certain factors are lacking. A weak family is one where a single parent is trying to bring up children on his or her own. Usually, that single parent will be a woman, not through any fault of her own, but because the father has cleared off and abandoned his responsibilities. A more difficult factor is when the person is trying to bring up two or three children who, increasingly, may have different fathers, and she is struggling on her own.
The statistics also show that, if a factor is present where one or more of the parents or close relatives have been engaged in criminality, the children of that family face another uphill task to be on the straight and narrow. When there is one or more person unemployed, that is another, additional factor bearing down on a family. When the children are truanting and no one is doing anything about it, or when they are not in a loving or caring relationship, those are further negative factors.
I am not suggesting for one moment that, in any family where one or a couple of those factors are present, the children inevitably will go on to a life of criminality, but all the statistics bear out the facts that, the more of those negative factors are present, the greater the chance that the children of that family will themselves not have stable families in future, and the children themselves may go on to a life of criminality. I am making no judgment at all on the sex of the parent; that is irrelevant for these purposes. Two people bringing up children is more than twice as good as one person trying to bring up children. That is why strong and stable family relationships are important and why my noble friend’s Bill is important.
I move on to Clause 2. I am so pleased that my noble friend has suggested in the Bill that the Secretary of State must carry out an assessment before extending it to local authorities. That is the right thing to do. I am worried that we should get this right in central government first, before we extend it to local authorities. We all know that there are some excellent and brilliant local authorities out there, but there are some pretty daft ones as well—and I can imagine some of them carrying out a family impact assessment when it is quite unnecessary, wasting money and discrediting the whole thing. I can imagine, when a local authority decides to change the colour or shape of the recycling bins or boxes, it could waste months doing a family impact assessment that is not necessary.
However, in housing policy a family impact assessment is absolutely vital, as it is with planning policy. I am appalled with the number of houses that are built without gardens these days. It is bad for the environment—no food for the hedgehogs or blackbirds—but it is appalling for the children to have no play space. I have seen that around the country. So, yes, planning policy impacts families, not just whether you have bungalows for older people or enough bedrooms for children but whether you have a play space as well. So that is an area where it may be appropriate.
That brings me on to suggest that, before we extend this to local authorities, we would need a sort of checklist for them—things to think about that may impact on families. If there is just a general obligation for local authorities eventually to carry out a family impact assessment, that could damage the policy because they would be missing out in some areas and doing it improperly in others. So a sort of checklist may be helpful. Obviously, it should include education policy, social security and housing policy, as well as health policy when it is done locally. But what about care homes for the elderly? What does that have to do with families? Well, if they are separating a married couple who have been together for 50 years, that is a family. That is a grey area that needs to be thought about. So it is worth while doing an assessment and carefully thinking it out before we extend this to local authorities.
That brings me on to central government. In the briefing I read, I was surprised to see that only three departments—the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Defence—referred to specific instances in which the family test has been applied. Noble Lords may ask what it has to do with the Ministry of Defence. There are two very important issues. First, the Ministry of Defence faces a problem at the moment with a shortage of money—it will always be short of money—and of recruitment. You cannot have an Army based on young, single men and women. We are losing married people from our Armed Forces at a rate of knots. Why are we losing them? Because the Ministry of Defence housing for our soldiers, sailors and air men and women is an absolute disgrace. It always has been and, at the moment, it looks like it always be.
In the press this morning, I read two Ministry of Defence stories—the first about the disgraceful treatment of a brave and heroic Army major who has been investigated for the seventh or eighth time for alleged offences in Iraq. It is an absolute disgrace that we have not stopped that. But the bigger story was about the number of people resigning from the Armed Forces because the accommodation in Aldershot—and Aldershot is not any worse than the rest—was so deplorable. As one woman said, “My tent in Afghanistan was better than the housing I got from the Ministry of Defence in Aldershot”. Without going further down that route, I would love to see the Ministry of Defence’s assessment of its housing and an impact assessment on families. If it could get it right for families, it would solve an awful lot of its other military problems.
Five departments said that they produced tailored guidance or tools for applying the family test, which I take to be a sort of checklist, and that brings me on to my point about a checklist for central government. If these departments have produced a checklist—which I assume will say, “If you are going to have a policy in areas X, Y and Z, apply the family test; these other areas are irrelevant and nothing to do with families, so you do not have to do the test”—that would be a very worthwhile tool and would make it more difficult for the Government to refuse my noble friend’s Bill.
I was delighted to read this morning that my right honourable friend Michael Gove is planning to put in place a deposit scheme for plastic bottles. He is going to tackle the plastic bottle scourge, and rightly so, but I hope that he would not have to do a family impact assessment on that, because it is an area that seems quite irrelevant to families, although I remember as a boy making a lot of pocket money—threepenny bits at the time—collecting glass bottles, the ones with the screw tops. I hope that Michael Gove’s scheme will allow kids to collect all these bottles and get 20 pence for them; that would really clean up the countryside.
I am being slightly facetious there, but we need to make sure that central government does not obviate its responsibilities here by saying, “The Bill is too wide-ranging; we cannot have a family test for everything—some things are irrelevant to families”. Yes, some things are irrelevant to families, but let us come up with the checklist of things that are relevant, so that government departments cannot get round them. The Bill can of course have a regulation-making power to make sure that, if a new area crops up in future, it can be added to the checklist of things that government departments must do. We could make the case that a whole range of things tangentially affect families—cycling, climate change, overseas aid—but let us concentrate on the key areas and the key departments first.
It is vital for the Department of Health, social security and the Home Office. The Home Office has apparently not done any of this, but it must do family impact assessments. With its policy on law and order, crime and policing, it is one of the key departments affecting families. I had not thought of transport until the noble Baroness mentioned it. Getting on and off buses with prams and pushchairs and so on affects families. We should find the key government departments that make the biggest impact on families and make sure that, through this legislation, they are doing family impact assessments in the areas where families are affected. Then, if we get it working in the key departments of central government, in due course it can be extended to the other departments and then to local authorities.
With those little caveats, I strongly support my noble friend’s Bill and I wish him all success. I know that the Minister will have to give the sort of generic speech that every Minister gives, probably rejecting the Bill—as we heard for the last Bill a few moments ago and as I heard for my Private Member’s Bill; there is a market for coming up with a generic ministerial rejection speech—but I hope that is not the case today. I hope I am proven wrong.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra; his ministerial experience is of great value to the House and I look forward to studying his speech in more detail in the Official Report. I am delighted to be here. My idea in coming was to support the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, in his consistent and long-established quest to make improvements in this important area of public policy. He has done an enormous amount of work behind the scenes, and this Bill is part of that. He is right to say that he should be pleased with the turnout that he has got this morning; the House will value his continuing work in this important area. I do not think anybody is going to say anything critical about this Bill, except that maybe we should have more of it, and faster.
I have a small niggle, however, on the Long Title of the Bill in that it refers to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State is referred to all through the Bill. I assume this is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but there is an ambiguity there and, if we get to Committee stage on this important Bill, I will move an amendment to clarify that point—that is also to demonstrate to noble Lords that I have read the Bill.
So, we are all agreed about that. I am now looking at new departments and new Secretaries of State with enthusiasm and I am glad the point has been clarified; I will go home a happier man.
Family impact assessments are a very valuable tool and we should be developing them. As this Bill makes quite clear, they allow for some perspective and anticipatory thinking at the policy-making level. I can see the effect of this; I serve on the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and government departments are now getting much cleverer about impact assessments supporting, in terms of statutory instruments, the primary legislation that spawns the orders. What we should be doing here, and what I think the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, is trying to do, is to change the culture in departments so that they are always thinking about how this will work through the policy development. If they are doing that right at the beginning, it makes it much easier to get the policy right.
I think that departments—from an opposition point of view, this might be an unusual thing to say—should be braver about talking about the real costs of some of this policy. I was looking recently at some of the predictions and forecasts—we can never be sure that they will happen that way—and, frankly, in the next 20 years, when you look at the demographic change that this country is facing and all the other problems such as climate change, the resources available to do this family support work will get harder and harder to find. In telling the unvarnished truth, nobody wants to frighten anybody about all this, although some of the forecasts are really quite depressing, but we have to be realistic.
I agree very much with what the noble Lord is saying, and I am following his speech with great interest. He is talking now about costs, but does he not think it is worth considering that, if the family stay together more, the likely result of that is an enormous cost saving, both in money and other ways?
That is a helpful intervention, because I absolutely agree with that. Family impact assessments are an important tool in getting to that point. That was the point I was going to make.
We need to look not only to local authorities—as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, mentioned—but to try to capture some soft support systems in neighbourhoods and communities in future. That is new for me; I look to the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, when I say this, but I have always kept a bit of distance from the agenda that she has been very positively promoting in her own way, because I always had a suspicion that Conservative Governments and Conservative Chancellors in the past have sometimes used it as a way of saying that we do not really need to keep up the benefit expenditure. I am in favour of individual entitlements to benefits, and when you look at the cuts, freezes and caps, that has not been made any easier. But even I—if I can put it that way—am now thinking that we really need to look at some of these symptoms that the Centre for Social Justice and others have been looking at, as additional methods of support. We can make it more cost-effective if we have more effective family policy, and I think that this Bill does that, particularly in setting up objectives and targets, looking at reporting and being transparent and honest about that reporting.
I have a couple of points to contribute to the debate. The DWP has an enormous amount of data. The quest of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, could be assisted considerably if some of the really clever people in the research department there thought about how to cut across and tabulate some of the real-time information. There is a minefield—no, not a minefield, a mine. What am I trying to say?
Ministers have their uses. There is a mine of information in the DWP, and Ministers should go back and ask whether some assistance can be given to this kind of policy programme. The data needs to be made available to local authorities, although you obviously have to be careful about data protection. There are rules about that, but you should be testing them to the limit of what is useful if that makes a difference to identifying some of the anticipated problem families. Big data is now so clever that you could begin to get, not algorithms but almost algorithms, which would anticipate where the problems were. You could make available the priorities in terms of the spatial dimension in deprived areas; and professionals in the department, and in local authorities, could start to be provided with data on circumstances that would help them to anticipate where future problems would arise. In support of family impact assessments, the department should do a little bit of work to see whether any help could be provided in that direction.
I spent a very interesting morning at the universal credit centre in Dover, where I observed two applications. I am saying this against myself—I was really looking for problems that I could come back and attack the DWP about, but they both went swimmingly well. It was clear that the job coaches were signposting people who had individual problems. That is what they should be doing, but they could be doing more of it. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, rightly said that policy is pointed at individuals. Universal credit is actually pointed at households. The claimant commitment could go as far as saying to people coming on to universal credit for the first time that, if anyone who has signed up to it sees problems arising in their household that might lead to family breakdown, they could phone. The “Ghostbusters” number should be that of the universal credit coach who could hold the ring and say, “Let’s see what we can do”. I know that they have only got a certain amount of time available and they are not looking for things to do. However, in the course of these interactions with people coming on to universal credit, we might start to look at family problems a bit more broadly. That is a good place to start the discussion.
Finally, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, that if this does not work, we should think about getting more robust about enforcing it. If the DWP cannot do it, it should go to the Cabinet Office or to somebody who has control of all the Secretaries of State, now that I hear they are all in play—I hope that includes the Treasury. In the course of discussing the Bill, I hope that this House will send a clear signal to central government that we are not going to allow the family test failure to happen again on this Bill. If they do not get it right, we will come back looking for more and we will not be long in doing it. I support the Bill and encourage the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, whom I thank for the opportunity for this debate. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with him in his future work in this important area.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Farmer on securing a Second Reading of his Bill. The subject matter could not be more important, for the simple reason that without families there is no sustainable society. A breakdown in family relationships leads to, as some would say we are witnessing, a breakdown in society with massive, indeed unsustainable, financial, social and painful human costs. My noble friend Lord Farmer has already outlined this and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, alluded to it.
As I said in my noble friend’s debate on strengthening families in November 2017, I was delighted to be a co-signatory to A Manifesto to Strengthen Families. The measures that it advocates, of which this is one, are not just eminently sensible but essential. The family impact assessment is particularly important because, as has been explained, the voluntary nature of the family test and the rather haphazard way in which it has been applied suggest that it is unlikely to achieve the cultural change in policy-making that was originally intended.
That is surely the key point. We are embarking on positive, beneficial and non-judgmental cultural change, which recognises the family’s pivotal role as the foundation of a stable society. I stress that I completely accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, that families now come in all shapes and sizes. That is covered by paragraphs (a) to (g) of Clause 1(5) and by Clause 4. For the reasons set out, this Bill provides a crucial cornerstone to that process of cultural change because, without family impact assessments being conducted consistently across central and local government, establishing a cross-government family strategy, which is fundamental to strengthening families, is just not possible
The question is not so much why we should have family impact assessments on a statutory basis. It is, surely, why not? Indeed, how can we make measurable, cost-effective and sustainable progress towards stronger families and the stability that they bring without the measures proposed in the Bill? We only have to look at, for example, the mental health costs to teenagers of family breakdown to see that the growing instability caused by a systemic devaluation of the family comes at an extortionate price. The figure of £51 billion was mentioned by an earlier contributor to this debate. On the other hand, reversing that trend by strengthening families would be an extraordinary prize, which I thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for pursuing through his Bill. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The Bill deserves our wholehearted support.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity to support the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. He has done the whole House a great service by eloquently setting out the details of the Bill and the history of the currently inelegantly and, in his phrase, unfortunately named family test, which has clearly not achieved all that was originally hoped for when it was introduced in 2014. It is because the family tests are not shaping policy-making in the way that was hoped for that I agree with the noble Lord that statutory family relationships impact assessments and targets should be published.
I will say why the impact assessments are needed and why it would be best if that were a statutory provision. My remarks are predicated by my belief, which I share with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, and others, that the family is the building block of society. That view is completely at variance with that expressed in the third Reith lecture, as long ago as 1967, by Edmund Leach, the British social anthropologist, when he famously excoriated the family by saying:
“Far from being the basis of the good society, the family ... is the source of all our discontents”.
In reality, the breaking up of stable families is a far greater contributor to instability, unhappiness and discontent.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, reminded us in their thoughtful remarks, families come in many shapes and sizes. Although some may resemble war zones, at their best they provide stability, love and a network of care to face and deal with the many challenges and misfortunes of life. I cut my own teeth representing a community where half the homes had no inside sanitation, running hot water or bathrooms, but where the open doors of people’s homes in back-to-back terraced streets, populated by aunts and uncles, grandparents, parents and children, were places where burdens were shared and where an elderly person would never have been found weeks after their death and no one any the wiser. It is instructive that, with the breakdown of families and communities, it is said that some 1 million elderly people do not see a friend or a neighbour during the course of an average week.
However, the costs of family breakdown are not simply social. Yesterday, I met Michael Schluter, one of the founders, in 1993, of the Cambridge Relationships Foundation, to which the noble Lord and others have referred. In a report published a year ago, it put the figure at £48 billion—updated, as the noble Lord told us today, to a staggering £50 billion—as the cost of family breakdown. Put another way, the cost to the average taxpayer is around £1,820 a year. But of course this is about not just money or economics. How do you put a price on the often intense pain and suffering felt by those experiencing family failure, especially when there are children involved? With children now only having a 50:50 chance of living with both of their birth parents by the time they are 16, we have far too little understanding of the sheer scale and extent of the emotional costs. Too often, it is this that is the real source of distress and discontent identified half a century ago by Edmund Leach. So what might we do? Back in 1996, in another place, during the passage of the then Family Law Bill, I argued for anniversary tax allowances: tax breaks that might be given incrementally as wedding anniversaries occur. I also argued for family impact statements and, among other things, in a book, Citizen Virtues, I suggested that,
“these should be attached to every new Government policy, just as local authorities attach environmental impact statements to planning applications and policies”.
That brings me to the two reasons why I support the noble Lord’s Bill. First, why are impact assessments needed? Governments rely on families to achieve many of their most important goals, yet neither the nature and extent of that reliance, nor the ways in which that contribution may be fostered or compromised by the actions of government, are clearly set out. Let us consider one example of the way in which policy goals rely on families: the hugely important question of social care. Carers UK reports that the number of people providing unpaid care of 50 or more hours a week has increased by 26% in the past decade. The UK’s 6.5 million unpaid carers provide care valued at an estimated £132 billion a year. Without that contribution, the pressures on social care, and thus the National Health Service, would be even greater than they already are. Yet the ways in which housing policy, which has been referred to in this debate, may influence the ability of families to co-locate to provide care, for example, are simply not reported. The generation of baby boomers comprises the largest block of people ever to enter old age in the United Kingdom. Their couple and family relationships have generally been characterised by greater fluidity than those of the generation before them, with more step-families and more single people in old age. The full implications of changes in family stability for the family provision of social care are yet to be seen. There are many areas of policy that may influence the motivation, opportunity or capability to provide care but, without the assessments and indicators that this Bill calls for, they will remain hidden from view.
The mental health of both adults and teenagers, their physical health, the educational outcomes for children, the likelihood of needing welfare support, all these and many other policy goals are influenced by what happens in families, yet this vital resource is neglected in our policy-making. The noble Lord’s Bill rightly recognises that it is not just primary legislation that should be assessed for its impact and that assessments should be complemented by family stability targets and proposals for how those targets should be met. It has long been a concern that there is no adequate mechanism for coherence to support families across all areas of government. All government departments rely on families and all influence them. Without a broad overview of how government is fostering a climate in which families can thrive and fulfil these responsibilities, family impact assessments will lack the necessary context. Equality and environmental assessments have worked because the context is understood and deeply embedded within the policy-making process. The current experience of family tests on policy suggests that the social capital of families is something of an orphaned asset as far as government is concerned.
Secondly, why should this provision be made statutory? The Bill rightly seeks to build on the existing patchily implemented family test and seeks to put it on a statutory footing to ensure that it becomes more deeply rooted in policy-making, influencing the culture of departments right across the piece, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, told the House a few minutes ago. The fact that the current non-statutory approach plainly is not working was made very plain by the series of Written Questions that have been referred to, which were put to multiple departments in another place in December. Like other noble Lords, I have looked at those Questions and the replies. Eight government departments provided an identical response, which was deeply troubling in two respects. First, that standardised reply did not even attempt to answer the basic question about what legislation the family test had been applied to since 2014. To the extent that departments are normally happy to admit when they have done something that you want them to have done, the complete failure to reference any specific application to any legislation makes me doubt that the departments in question had applied the test at all. Secondly, the Answers all contain the following words:
“The Family Test was not designed to be a ‘tick-box’ exercise, and as such there is no requirement for departments to publish the results of assessments made under the Family Test”.
That is risible. The rather ridiculous inference of this statement is that all other impact assessments that result in published reports are just “tick-box” exercises. None of us believes that. If it were the case, the logic would be to scrap environmental impact assessments, child rights impact assessments, regulatory impact assessments and equality impact assessments, and I am not arguing for that. No one is interested in some bureaucratic box-ticking exercise. As other noble Lords have said, what we need is transparency, accountability and a strong incentive for government departments to take this seriously. If assessments are not published, there is no adequate mechanism for highlighting the missed opportunities, costly omissions or unintended consequences of failing to consider how the vital contribution of families may be supported or undermined.
In conclusion, I say to the noble Baroness, who I know is deeply committed to this issue, that government has made commendable efforts in seeking ways to enable policymakers to consider a range of factors in policy-making. I note, for example, the recent report from the Office for National Statistics on natural capital, which said that,
“by providing valuations of the UK’s natural capital, decision makers can better include the environment in their plans to allocate resources to develop, and promote the growth of, the economy”.
If we can factor in and report on the natural environment in our policy-making, as we should, surely we can and must do far better in assessing both the value of and our impact on the most important element of the social environment: our families. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for his diligence and assiduity in pursuing this issue with such dedication and passion and I wish his Bill every possible success.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for his tireless work in bringing the Bill before the House. The first time he and I met, we talked about his commitment to the family, and he has never wavered from fighting to see family life stabilised in this country, particularly among the poorest.
The Bill matters. Family stability in this country is in crisis. The UK has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe, and the fact that, as we have already heard, almost half of the nation’s children are not living with both birth parents by the time they are 15 should be a source of serious concern to us. Almost half of children in our poorest communities have seen their parents split by the time they start primary school. These statistics matter, because each one represents a personal story of human pain. They matter because family breakdown entrenches poverty: poverty levels for children growing up in lone-parent families have almost double the “poverty risk” than children living in couple families. They matter too because they affect children’s life chances, as we heard. Children who experience family breakdown perform less well at school, gain fewer qualifications and are more likely to be expelled from school.
But it is not just the nuclear family that is impacted by family breakdown. In the UK, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, more than 1 million older people say that they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member, and more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone. According to the 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than 9 million people in the UK often or always feel lonely.
David Cameron said:
“Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one”.
He said that,
“if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start … So: from here on I want a family test applied to all domestic policy. If it hurts families, if it undermines commitment, if it tramples over the values that keeps people together, or stops families from being together, then we shouldn’t do it”.
The step that he took, as we have already discussed this morning, was the creation of the family test, an excellent way to ensure that issues affecting families are assessed and addressed. But the family test at present is not effectively applied across departments and is not applied in a uniform way.
The Bill seeks to address that by doing two things. First, it would require the Secretary of State to publish objectives and targets for promoting “strong and stable families” and for the Government to report on their progress towards meeting these objectives. Why is this so important? In policy terms, government machinery has little idea how to support family stability, let alone what approach would promote strong and stable relationships. It was my experience from five years serving in the DWP that politicians and civil servants were comfortable talking about childcare, parenting, or flexible parental leave, all badged under supporting families, but not about how to support the adult relationship that is at the heart of a family and from which family stability is achieved. I can remember the negotiations required within the coalition just to be able to collect and report on family stability data, and the moment we left the DWP, as my noble friend Lord Farmer said, the statistical set was discontinued.
The requirement in the Bill provides an opportunity to reverse some of the human pain that comes from the breakdown of the family, and improve the life chances of many, and will give civil servants the opportunity and mandate to gather the evidence base for recommending the best policy interventions from around the world that really support and move the dial on family stability. There are reasons why the UK has the highest levels of family breakdown in Europe, and we do not need to accept that this has to be the case.
Secondly, the Bill requires government departments to publish family impact assessments, setting out an assessment of the impact of a policy proposal on families and family relationships. I welcome the clarity that my noble friend Lord Farmer has introduced in defining the specific areas of impact that he is calling for. This provides clear benchmarks by which civil servants can undertake an assessment. He calls on government to consider family stability factors ranging from a person’s ability to play a full part in their family’s life through to factors that impact on the family formation, and from families undergoing transition such as the birth, adoption or fostering of children through to families where relationships are fragile.
For an impact assessment to be applied, Ministers and officials need clarity. This is by far and above the hardest judgment area for a civil servant. I can remember our work in the DWP when considering the family test on welfare reform. It was complicated. Would increasing the work requirement on a lone parent lead to better life chances for a child or increase stress at home? What was one measuring? Would the benefit cap lead to increased incentives to partner with the father of one’s child or to a greater likelihood of relationship breakdown? These are not simple areas. We also found that civil servants and Ministers were quick to equate more money with greater family stability and less money with greater vulnerability, rather than drawing from an evidence base of what factors strengthened and stabilised vulnerable families.
It was my observation that officials who applied the family test needed better evidence of what strengthens and what weakens families, and that departments needed to be helped to use this evidence base when preparing, designing and delivering policy rather than treating an impact assessment as a means of checking policy once it had been decided.
The strength of this Bill is that it clearly provides a definition of strong and stable families as those that have relationship qualities that contribute to the emotional health and well-being of the family, including that the parents or guardians with whom a child lives remain consistent over time. It clearly lays out the requirement for the Secretary of State to publish objectives and targets for promoting “strong and stable families” and for the Government to report on their progress towards meeting these objectives. It then clearly provides guidance on which areas need to be reported on for impact. This is all hugely helpful.
If we really believe that families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented and that they are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one, let us ensure that it is not government policy-making that undermines this key building block of a healthy society, and let us do everything we can to ensure that this valuable and precious unit of love, care, affection and identity is protected and supported with all due care.
My Lords, I am very pleased to be part of this interesting debate and, in particular, to speak in support of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. The value of happy families is hard to quantify. Although it extends far beyond mere economics, it none the less has a profound impact on our economic life. The cost of family breakdown, for example, is extraordinary and continues to increase, as documented by the Relationships Foundation, rising from £37 billion per annum in 2009 to £48 billion in 2015. That, as we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is equivalent to £1,820 per taxpayer.
In that context, quite apart from broader well-being considerations, it makes complete sense that the Government should take care that the policies and legislation that they develop do not have negative unintended consequences for family life. Indeed, such is the importance of this commitment that it should not merely be an aspiration but a fundamental discipline of government.
“I said previously that I wanted to introduce a family test into government. Now that test is being formalised as part of the impact assessment for all domestic policies. Put simply that means every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family”.
“In addition, the new Family Test, announced by the Prime Minister on
“‘From October 2014, every new domestic policy will be examined for its impact on the family”.
The commitments made between August and October 2014 quickly broke down. It was later in October 2014 that the Department for Work and Pensions issued guidance on the family test for the whole government. It highlighted two crucial failings, one of which was the narrowing of the scope. In the first instance, the Government U-turned on their commitment to review every domestic policy. The guidance stated:
“Policy makers need to make their own judgements about how they apply the test in a sensible and proportionate way at each stage of the policy making process ... While public policy by definition impacts the lives of individuals, families, communities and society as a whole, there will be policies, which do not have any impact at the level of the family per se, or where the impact is small and indirect, or temporary in nature. Where that is the case it may not be sensible or proportionate to apply the test”.
Central to the rationale for the family test was the idea that, because the family is at the heart of the social environment, policies that are not developed with the family in mind can none the less end up impacting it. To this end, I am concerned that the guidance rather infers that it is obvious when the family is engaged and that, where the impact is small and indirect, it can be forgotten about. This is clearly seen in the Answers to Written Parliamentary Questions in which entire departments suggest that the policies and legislation they are working on are such that the family test is not engaged. The only department to provide detail about the implementation of the family test is the Department for Education in relation to policy areas that so obviously impact the family one is tempted to say that it should have been thinking of the family anyway, even in the absence of any new family test discipline.
The second area is optional testing and recording. DWP guidelines make it plain that the family test will be optional, that there is no requirement to conduct it and that there is no penalty for not doing so. The guidance, however, encourages the recording of assessments when they take place. It states:
“It is important that the application of the Family Test is documented in an appropriate way as part of the policy making process. Where a detailed assessment is carried out, departments should consider a standalone document to bring together their analysis. Departments should consider publishing assessments where they are carried out, and where policy is being submitted for collective agreement through the Cabinet Committee process, the assessment should be included alongside other policy documentation”.
However, once again, there is no legal requirement to record an assessment and no legal requirement to conduct it.
Answers to some of the most recently asked Parliamentary Questions make it clear that, for the most part, no records of when or where the family test was conducted are published. Interestingly, the Answers all contain identical words, suggesting a cross-departmental stonewalling policy. One Answer stated:
“The Government is committed to supporting families. To achieve this, in 2014 the Department for Work and Pensions introduced the Family Test, which aims to ensure that impacts on family relationships and functioning are recognised early on during the process of policy development and help inform the policy decisions made by ministers. The Family Test was not designed to be a ‘tick-box’ exercise”— we have heard that mentioned before—
“and as such there is no requirement for departments to publish the results of assessments made under the Family Test”.
When introducing the family test guidance, the Department for Work and Pensions stated:
“It is important that the application of the Family Test is documented in an appropriate way as part of the policy making process”.
It is striking, therefore, that even that department now provides Answers to Parliamentary Questions that excuse the absence of any published reports, with the statement that,
“there is no requirement for departments to publish the results of assessments made under the Family Test”.
“Since 2010, the Government has been at the forefront of opening up data to allow Parliament, the public and the media to hold public bodies to account. Such online transparency is crucial accountability for delivering the best value for money, to cutting waste and inefficiency, and to ensuring every pound of taxpayers’ money is spent in the best possible way”.
The Statement also refers to “the sunlight of transparency”, and critiques,
“more bureaucratic processes … which were time consuming for public servants and opaque to the outside world”.
It goes on to describe how,
“Single Departmental Plans … allow the public to track the Government’s progress and performance”.
Of course, the strength of the sun’s light differs year-round, and so, it seems, does the Government’s commitment to transparency. I have seldom encountered a less transparent process than the family test.
If one takes time to scrutinise the Answers to Parliamentary Questions, one is left with the question: is the family test actually happening? I have to tell the House that, with the exception of the Department for Education which has published four reports, your guess is as good as mine. This is surely no way to conduct government in the 21st century.
To this end, I strongly welcome the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, which makes conducting the family test and publishing its outcomes a statutory requirement. It is a very moderate piece of legislation that does not hold to the original “every domestic policy” commitment. Clause 1 gives departments the opportunity to determine that some policy initiatives are sufficiently removed from the family and that the family test should not be applied. Crucially, however, thinking the issue through is required and any decision not to apply the family test must be accompanied by a published reason for not applying it.
If it becomes law, the family test will be bathed in the sunlight of transparency, as it should. If it does not, I fear it will become little more than a joke. That would be funny if it was not so serious. I hope very much that the Government will support the Bill, because the current arrangement is completely unsustainable.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, whose knowledge of this subject is second to none. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Farmer, who is a great champion of the family. We should all be extremely grateful for his tenacity and belief in what he is trying to do and what we want done.
Every speaker in the debate has said this, but it is none the less true that there is growing concern about the fabric of our society, and many of the problems can be traced back to the weakening of the family unit. Over the past few decades, Governments of all colours have made lots of huge and silly mistakes, but none has been greater than the failure to acknowledge and stand up for the importance of the family, with all the consequences which have flowed from that. Strong and stable families are absolutely essential to the maintenance of a strong and stable society, and they are vital for the safe and secure care and upbringing of our children.
Why is there this ridiculous and almost fanatical desire on the part of many in our pseudo-intellectual and supposedly opinion-forming circles to deny this? Perhaps acknowledgement of the value of the family by these people would be accompanied by the need to admit personal responsibility and guilt, not just in their own lives but for the lives of those who have been affected by the views they have held and the decisions they have taken. Even our language about families seems designed to confuse. We used to have widows and widowers and we used to have unmarried mothers. Now we have single-parent families. What does that mean? Does a family have to have a husband and wife? Of course it is not essential or for obvious reasons always possible, but history shows it to be the most stable and, for children, the most supportive system. Why should we have to justify it? It has been the same for thousands of years without dispute, so why did we decide to downgrade it? It should not be necessary to bang the drum for the family, but bang it we must.
I am sorry that the Church does not have more to say about the role of the traditional family. I do not understand its reticence. By displaying openness and tolerance to other relationships and unions, traditional marriage has perhaps been weakened by neglect. As has been referred to in the debate, over the years we have seen a huge increase in the divorce rate. Divorce is devastating for children. We are dishonest if we deny this to ourselves or to society at large. Financial arrangements may be made and plans for dividing time together put in place, but for the children concerned the effect is almost always absolutely devastating, and the damage done remains with them to a greater or lesser extent for the rest of their lives. That is true—uncomfortable, but true. Single parenthood from choice may work for the individual who chooses, but the children have not been given a choice. All the evidence shows that two parents give each other strength and support, and children of single parents start life at a disadvantage, obviously through no fault of their own.
Nothing undermines family life or parental responsibility more than the evils presented by the internet. It takes children to places where their parents cannot follow and they have absolutely no idea who their children are meeting or what they are doing. It is dangerous, pernicious and has rapidly taken over the lives of many of our children for whom even rapid reform will come too late. We now have cyberbullying on a massive scale. I was devastated to find that thousands of primary school children are watching hard-core pornography. It is harder for an underage child to place a bet on a horse than to watch hard-core pornography. It is vital that the Government take the toughest possible action on this as a matter of the greatest urgency.
Sadly, just a few days ago, two young men were murdered. They were knifed to death in separate incidents within a few hours of each other just a short distance apart in the London Borough of Camden. As I drove home that evening, I happened to tune into a radio programme about it. The presenter was pleading with his listeners to phone in with their ideas and possible solutions and attempting to understand what had happened. I heard an expert on youth activities and members of the public all discussing reasons or possible solutions. They mentioned government and local government responsibility. They mentioned a lack of funding, counselling, youth organisations, youth groups and sport. One word they never mentioned in all the time that I listened was “parents”. What is the key to this problem? It is parents and parental responsibility.
The longer this debate has gone on, I have slowly come to the conclusion that what has changed more than anything else over the years as far as keeping families together is not just love, because one hopes that love is always there, but other things. The financial need to stick together has gone, although not completely. Shame has gone too. I do not know what the answer is. It is tragic to have to admit that the only way we can keep families together is to make them poor again or reintroduce shame. That is a conundrum for us all that we must try to work through. I am sure that personal and perhaps selfish choice is, in many ways, at the heart of this. To a great extent we have lost the knowledge and the joy that is brought by putting yourself second in a family context.
The thread running through so many of the problems that I am talking about is the family, and the beginning of a solution to them is, without any doubt, the protection and reinvigoration of family life. My noble friend’s Bill puts responsibility on the Government to play their part in this revival and it has my fullest support.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the powerful and compelling speech that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on securing a Second Reading of this very important Bill and I pay tribute to his sterling and unstinting work as a champion of family policy, which is so often the Cinderella at the policy ball. I also draw attention to my declared interests in the register.
Today’s debate has been primarily about aligning the widespread concern expressed across the House to ensure we do more to strengthen family life and family relationships, with the maxim that “what gets measured gets done”. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to be doing an awful lot more to support family relationships, recognising, as I know we all do and as many across the House have emphasised, that modern families come in all shapes and sizes.
I had the privilege of being the chief executive of the charity Relate for a number of years. During that time, I came to understand the huge importance of the quality of family relationships and how much it matters. That is what I focused on and what I will focus on today. I also came to understand during that time that where family relationships are under strain it is children who are very likely to suffer the ill effects. More recently, as chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service for six years, I have particularly learned the adverse impact that high levels of parental conflict, as well as witnessing or, indeed, experiencing domestic abuse, has on children’s emotional and mental health and well-being. The evidence is also very clear, as we have heard this morning, that outcomes across the board for children are better for children who come from strong family backgrounds.
If we ask ourselves why all of this matters to government and whether it is not just a matter for families, the answer is very simple if one looks at some of the Government’s stated priorities, which also happen to be key policy interests of mine. When it comes to the worrying increase in childhood mental health problems, we know that family life and secure and loving relationships play an important role in the mental well-being of children.
Turning to another area, social mobility, which is known to be a personal passion of the Prime Minister—it is also passion of mine—as co-chair for a number of years of the All-Party Group on Social Mobility I was very pleased in 2015 to chair a parliamentary inquiry into parenting and social mobility. I have even brought the report with me. Two key points emerged from that inquiry after looking at all the evidence. First, the point of greatest leverage on social mobility is what happens between the ages of nought and three, particular in the home. Secondly, whatever the effort and resources the Government put into formal early education—something I hugely and strongly support—its impact will always be limited if it is not combined with a good and strong family home environment.
I will mention one other area of policy, which is the issue of the pressures of intergenerational fairness. It is a relative newcomer on the policy block but it has a lot to do with families. We have heard quite a bit about some of the housing issues and how the lack of affordable housing, and in particular the lack of the right type of housing for families, makes it a lot harder for the younger generation, particularly new families, to get their foot on to the housing ladder. These things really matter and policy needs to take account of them.
I also mention the late Jo Cox’s commission’s report on combating loneliness, which the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, also referred to. That report emphasised the value of the family test in strengthening intergenerational relationships within families and reducing the potential for animosity between generations stemming from what many consider to be real generational inequalities.
All these things matter and are big issues. They matter in their own right and they demand a serious family-based response. Yet too often family policy is the one area that is overlooked as policymakers look for the appropriate policy levers to pull. In short, the focus of policy, as we have already heard, is too often on individuals rather than on families and the communities in which they live.
Family is arguably the most homeless of political issues. Strengthening families and developing policies to support families to care for each other, including for children, older relatives or family members with long-term health issues or disabilities, is a very important social policy objective. It is critical to social care, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Our social care system, in as fragile a state as it is, would collapse completely without the contribution that family members make. Where does responsibility for family policy actually sit within government? I argue that it sits both nowhere and everywhere, and that is a real problem. As an issue, it feeds into almost every area of government policy-making—although not every single one, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, made clear—which means that a single Minister or department will never be able adequately to address the issue.
A consortium of charities and other organisations involved in family support, called the Relationships Alliance, which includes Relate, recently wrote a very thoughtful report assessing progress a year after the family test was implemented. It states the current situation well:
“The absence of a transparent mechanism to record when the Test has been applied means that it is impossible to accurately assess how successfully the Test is being incorporated into the policy making process. There is little information available to the public about a process and little accountability for implementation of the Test. Whilst the Government rightly wishes to ensure that the Test does not become a ‘tick box’ exercise, this does not preclude recording and monitoring of its use”.
It is also apparent, as we have heard, that only a very small proportion of departments have produced tailored strategy, guidance and tools to support the implementation of this. None of the departments that have not produced tailored guidance have referred to plans to do so. The work of the Department for Work and Pensions to support cross-government implementation of the test is valuable, but it is not a suitable substitute for a tailored implementation strategy within each department. Will the Minister inform the House how many departments have now produced a tailored implementation strategy? I share the concern already expressed, in the light of the inadequate responses to various Written Questions in the other place, that the Government seem to be so focused on not turning this into a tick-box exercise that they have lost sight of what it is about, which is to ensure that an assessment is actually carried out within departments of the impact of policies on families. This is not rocket science.
As things stand, it is hard to have confidence that the process is being followed from the outset of policy design, let alone at the end point when policies are being signed off across government. Imperfect though it may be, the statutory need to demonstrate compliance with the public sector equality duty, as already referred to, has helped to drive a culture of equality awareness in government, the key point being that it is statutory and not voluntary. We need a similar imperative for family impact assessments so that policymakers, Ministers and civil servants, learn to think about it so that it becomes intuitive to “think family” when policy is being designed.
I have long argued, based on my experience of working at Relate and at Cafcass, that the structure of government does not seem to recognise the fundamental importance of family relationships. There is at present no Cabinet lead for families, as was recommended in a number of important reports, both recently and less recently by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in his report following the shocking death of Victoria Climbié. To be frank, we seem to be going backwards: until 2010 there was a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Families, Children and Young People, and during the coalition years the importance of families was recognised in the Cabinet Committee on Social Justice. As far as I can see—and I am very happy to be corrected if I am wrong—this is now taken forward and co-ordinated by a junior Minister in one department. What sort of message is that sending? A Cabinet lead would really help to drive implementation of these assessments. Back in 2016 it was clear that the Cabinet Committee on Social Justice was taking that lead. So will the Minister inform us which body has taken over from that committee?
The recommendation of the Relationships Alliance, which I have already mentioned, that as decision-making is increasingly devolved to local level, the Government should carry out a cost-benefit analysis of supporting local authorities and NHS bodies to carry out equivalent tests on policies is very well made, and I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, included it in Clause 2.
On Monday I had the privilege of visiting the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, which is working with parents with a lot of problems, particularly with drug and alcohol dependency, who need to turn their lives around before they can parent effectively again. Yesterday I had the real pleasure of visiting the Pause project in Hackney, which is working with mothers who have had more than one child taken away from them into local authority care, again to try to help them turn their lives around.
This sort of work is so important. I was shocked to the core, to be honest, to hear from one of the workers at the project about a case where there had been no such help or intervention for mothers in this situation and one mother had had 13 children removed from her and taken into local authority care. I know that that is an extreme example, but it shows how important family support and help that the various projects and initiatives that I and others have mentioned can provide. Many of these are under threat as local authorities and the NHS are really struggling with finances and having to make cuts. That is why I think it is so important, when these decisions are being made, that these tests are carried out at local as well as national level.
Although many of us in this House, myself included, welcomed the introduction of a family test and the stronger focus on families it was meant to give to government policy-making, it is very clear from the debate today that it has not lived up to its early hype. So it is time for this House to do what it often does best: improve both legislation and policy-making as the Bill passes through the House. I strongly urge the Government to support it. I support it very strongly myself and hope that at the end of the debate we do not get the standard rejection speech from the Minister, because the support across the House has been overwhelming.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and benefit from her expertise in this area. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that this has been an interesting debate. We should thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for introducing it. Of course, the subject has been aired at both ends in recent times and the noble Lord has been true to his word in promising a Private Member’s Bill when the Manifesto to Strengthen Families was debated in November last year. In doing so, he instanced what he saw as the inadequacy of the non-statutory family test and the potential benefit of family hubs and local one-stop shops to help disadvantaged children.
As we have heard, the family test was introduced as far back as August 2014, with the enthusiastic backing of David Cameron. But, as we now know, not all of his initiatives turn out well. The test comprises five questions that policymakers need to consider, including the impact of a policy on families, their formation and their sustainability. As the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and others have said, publication of the outcome of such tests was not mandatory and few have been published to date. This issue was the focus of attention of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, a long-standing campaigner on this matter, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, who took us for a brief walk down memory lane to the days when you could get 3p on a recycled bottle—I think it was a Tizer bottle, that was the premium rate you could get.
So that we can get a better assessment of the consequences of the provisions in the Bill before us, can the Minister confirm on the record how many tests have been carried out or are under way, and precisely why the outcomes could not be published? Indeed, what is the Government’s view of the future of this test?
Although the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has previously acknowledged that Tony Blair was there first, we know that much of the current thinking on the role of the family emanates from the Centre for Social Justice. We have heard authoritatively today from the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, who is a strong campaigner on this issue, as well as from the noble Lord himself. Their focus is on the scale of family breakdown in the UK, with the assertion that it plays a role in driving poverty and further enhancing disadvantages. It follows, they argue, that family breakdown is an issue for society itself, not just individual families, and that it is necessary to have data to begin to build a picture of this and to test policies against. I think that view was shared by many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Shinkwin and Lord Alton.
We should be clear that this is not exclusively a Conservative agenda. We on these Benches share an analysis which says that family breakdown and parental conflict can contribute to driving poverty, and that policy-making should encompass an assessment to avoid such outcomes. Where we would differ, I suggest, is in our asserting that lack of income is the fundamental cause of poverty. Research by the Tavistock Institute confirms that family separation can cause or increase family poverty and that the Government’s emphasis on improving the quality and stability of family relationships is an important anti-poverty measure to help avoid relationship breakdown, or to ensure that it is better managed when couples part. However, it says the evidence is clear that incomes matter and that poverty and lack of money is in fact a major cause of relationship breakdown, as well as a consequence of it.
The Bill’s requirements for the scope of a family impact assessment are potentially very wide and not without resource implications. Given the context of the Bill, one would have expected it to come with an impact assessment. Can the Minister say whether there is one and if not, why not? In particular, the definitions of family and families are commendably wide, including civil partners, a range of carers, children and grandparents. This begs the question of who would not be covered. Perhaps the Minister or the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, might give us a view on this.
To the extent that individuals and relationships are not included in this wide definition, we would need to be satisfied that their exclusion does not disadvantage them and that by focusing on some, others should not be allowed to slide into poverty. But we should be clear that we do not see these approaches as overriding the need to address income poverty—the fundamental issue, in our view. The Bill espouses lofty ideals of how families can be supported; at the same time, the Government have visited horrendous cuts on a range of social security provision. The Bill is about impact assessment but we have struggled to get from government a cumulative impact assessment of a decade of cuts to social security on the incomes of families with children. How have these matters featured in the family test so far? To what extent are the “Targets for family stability” required by Clause 3 to have an income component?
The CPAG has looked at these matters and concluded that the cuts to the legacy social security system—benefits and tax credits—and the effects of universal credit will lead to alarming losses, which will damage the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children. Families already at greatest risk of poverty will lose most; I think the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, alluded to this. This is not just lone parents but families already on low incomes, larger families, families with young children and families where someone is disabled. It calculates that families with four or more children will be more than £4,000 per year worse off because of the cuts to the legacy benefit system, and more than £5,000 worse off following the cuts to universal credit.
Just consider some of the policy changes since 2010: the health in pregnancy grant abolished; child benefit frozen for three years; uprating of most working-age benefits restricted to 1%, and then frozen for four years; restrictions on the Sure Start maternity grant; the baby element of child tax credit abolished; the benefit cap introduced and then reduced; the two-child limit introduced; local housing allowances cut; and much more.
What possible countervailing policies to promote strong and stable families could wipe away the negative effects of all this? The Bill proposes that the Secretary of State must publish a report no later than six months from the coming into force of the legislation setting out the costs and benefits of extending the requirement for a family impact assessment to local authorities. Will the Minister say whether central government would be prepared to fund such engagement by local authorities should there be a decision to proceed? She will be aware that no new money was made available for public services in the recent local government settlement and that local authorities face a £5.8 billion shortfall by 2020. Of particular concern is the need for £2 billion to plug the gap in the shortfall in children’s services, again needed to support the most vulnerable.
The Bill invites the Secretary of State within nine months to set out objectives and targets for promoting strong and stable families, and proposals and policies for meeting them. Should that come to pass they should presumably be informed by a consultation exercise. My noble friend Lady Massey produced some valuable insights for us from her experience, the lesson being the need for early consultation before designing any intervention for children and families and the necessity to cross barriers if change is to be delivered. In responding, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, will share with us what he considers should feature in those objectives and targets.
On previous occasions the Government have declined to accept that family impact assessments should be put on a statutory basis. Given the passion displayed by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and others, we look forward to hearing whether the position of the Government has changed.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Farmer and congratulate him on securing a Second Reading debate on the Bill. I also thank all noble Lords who have participated in today’s excellent and thoughtful debate. My noble friend has worked tirelessly to strengthen families. This is evident both in this debate and beyond, in particular through his work to strengthen the family relationships of prisoners, who are often the most in need of a supportive family environment. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, and my noble friends Lord Framlingham and Lady Stroud that we value his work and the message to him is: please keep going.
The Government have a critical role to play in supporting families. Strong families, in all their forms, are critical to our success as individuals and as a society. I am pleased to see, and to learn from having been in the Department for Work and Pensions for several months, that families have been climbing the political agenda in recent months with debates being held on how the Government can support families and on the critical institution of marriage and its place in government policy. However, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that we need to do more.
It is right that the Government continue to champion the family as the bedrock of a strong society. The family test, which has been in place since 2014, has helped policymakers to put families at the heart of policy development. We developed the current family test in conjunction with the Relationships Alliance, a group of expert organisations with a rich depth of knowledge about family relationships and functioning. Led by the Department for Work and Pensions, we continue to engage with other government departments to help them to implement the family test, and by doing so, ensure that families are considered early in the policy-making process.
Yes, families come in all shapes and sizes, in the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Shinkwin; that is a critical point that should be made. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that there is no question but that, for example, the Cabinet Office is looking very closely at how we can do more to strengthen policies in support of the family, as indeed we are across government.
“Within the Cabinet Office, we are continually looking at ways to measure the impact of policies in relation to the family. We currently analyse that impact through mechanisms such as the implementation unit, which falls within my brief. That is a central part of the initiative”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/18; col. 659WH.]
I should explain to noble Lords that the implementation unit is a cross-governmental unit to support departmental capability and public service reform.
With regard to the statutory basis for the family test, I reassure noble Lords that the Government continue to be committed to the family test and the benefits that it brings by ensuring that families are central to all the policies that we develop. The family test and the five questions within it are intended to comprise a broad and flexible tool that encourages consideration of the family from the first stages of policy thinking and throughout policy development. Good policy-making requires giving consideration to a range of important factors, and the family test is a tool to assist policymakers to take into account impacts on family relationships and family functioning.
I am pleased to see that the proposals for the family impact assessment laid out in the Bill take into account all the factors that we consider as part of the current family test. Indeed, we agree that the Government should consider these factors, and the family test already supports this to happen throughout government. However, we are concerned that placing such an assessment on a legislative footing could risk losing the flexibility to adapt and change. I have been very struck by a number of the ideas and suggestions from noble Lords in today’s debate. Embedding such an assessment within primary legislation would mean that we lost that flexibility, which is an important feature of the current family test.
Noble Lords have made reference to the use of different language and talked about a different narrative and changing the culture. I believe it is very difficult to change culture. I say that as a lawyer; indeed, as a lawyer I am rather cynical that embedding policy in primary legislation can always succeed in changing culture. I am sure all noble Lords present will know that the recent report from the Jo Cox Foundation recommends that the Government should consider amending the family test to consider the matter of loneliness, which we know is a significant problem for many people across this country. Indeed, I would see loneliness in a sense as a subset of family and the breakdown of family, and that is something that we should consider in the round.
My noble friend Lord Framlingham spoke passionately about the impact of the internet on children and their response within their family and beyond. This is where, I fear, the truth is that legislation is a double-edged sword. It is easy to exclude if it is not on the list; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made reference to the list of what constitutes the structure of a family. We have to take great care and think about future-proofing. However, that is not to say that we disregard much that is in the Bill or the spirit behind it with regard to the development of our policy.
The Bill also raises the matter of reporting on the costs and benefits of extending family impact assessments to local authorities—something raised by several noble Lords. We know that local authorities and the wide networks of partner organisations they work with are best placed to understand the families living in their areas, which is why central departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, work closely with local areas on a range of family issues.
My noble friend Lord Farmer asked how many information exchange sessions and courses on implementing the tests had taken place over the past two years. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also referenced the tests and the number of courses. When the family test was first introduced four years ago, the Department for Work and Pensions ran a number of seminars and sessions and supported departments with evidence packs and guidance. We continue to support departments to build capability of their own in this area, although I noted noble Lords’ emphasis on the importance of consistency across departments.
The work being carried out at the moment at the Department for Work and Pensions includes the new reducing parental conflict programme, in which I know my noble friend Lord Farmer has taken a keen interest. Since today’s Bill was laid last June, we have seen an increase in the total funding available for this vital work to up to £39 million. I note what the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, said about cuts, but in many instances they have been accompanied by other support systems for the family. We are very careful to ensure that what we do does not drive breakdown in family relationships through income poverty, which he referenced. We understand, appreciate and accept that that would be entirely counterproductive.
Noble Lords have all stressed that it takes a lot more than money, critical though that is, to support the family. Through our new programme, we are actively supporting local authority areas across England to embed proven parental conflict provision into their mainstream services for children and families, as well as building and sharing the evidence base for what works to improve the quality of interparental relationships.
As we work with local areas on these critical issues, we will be able to gain a greater understanding of what support and guidance local authorities need in order to best consider the impacts of policies on families. Local authorities also need to retain flexibility to adapt and change how they assess impact on local families, including the ability to take local factors into account.
I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said about his visit to Dover, which I have read all about. I am pleased that he found it a positive experience attending the jobcentre there. I am also pleased to be able to say that as work coaches in jobcentres become more familiar with the system of universal credit, they are enjoying and getting great satisfaction from, in a sense, going beyond their brief to support in a more holistic way the welfare, in the biggest use of that word, of those in front of them. I will also take what he said back to the department, because he is absolutely right: all the time we must think about ways in which we can so easily add to our support to the family through communication and signposting, which is so important.
I turn to the issue of family stability and the provision in the Bill which would require government to establish objectives, indicators and targets for promoting strong and stable families. We believe that families are vital. Not only are they the basic building block on which we build a successful economy and a stable society, but growing up in a loving family environment helps children develop into successful adults.
As my noble friend Lord Shinkwin said, without families there is no sustainable society. I was also struck and concerned when my noble friend used the words, “systematic devaluation” of the family, which was very much echoed in the speech by my noble friend Lord Framlingham. That is something that we should take great care of when thinking through our policy: how we respond to that idea of systematic devaluation of the family. But I was also struck by what was said in response to that, in a sense, by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who has spoken on this subject for so many years in your Lordships’ House, with such eloquence, expertise and experience—and I so welcome her contribution today. She suggested that we should ask what makes a family go right, and she is absolutely right. It is really important to think about what lends stability to a family. That is a very different experience, in many ways, from the experience and extraordinary expertise of the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, in the work that she has carried out on all the evidence of what lends to the negative impacts of family breakdown.
To demonstrate our commitment to these key issues, last April we published Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families. This, with its accompanying analysis, set out nine national indicators designed to track the Government’s progress towards tackling the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. It includes the new relationship distress indicators, which measure elements of parental conflict in both intact and separated families. This was based on recent evidence, which shows that, when it comes to the critical issue of improving children’s outcomes, the quality of the relationship between the parents is far more important than the structure of the family. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Stroud referenced adult relationships, and we cannot underestimate their importance. As I mentioned, we are beginning to tackle the problems faced by workless families, who are three times as likely to experience parental conflict, through our new reducing parental conflict programme.
My noble friend Lord Blencathra referenced the Armed Forces and the importance of supporting them in this area. As the Department for Work and Pensions representative on the newly formed Armed Forces Covenant and Veterans Board, I reassure my noble friend that I am very much focused on the welfare of veterans and of our serving personnel. We are constantly looking at the range of extra support we provide to our Armed Forces families. Apart from anything else, as my noble friend said, retention of our Armed Forces personnel and their welfare is of vital importance.
I know that all the noble Lords present understand the importance of supporting families, and the benefits that strong family relationships can bring to us all. My department will continue to encourage active use of the family test, and continue the discussions across Whitehall, which will include the need for policymakers to consider whether any new policy supports strong and stable families or undermines these vital relationships. On a personal level, I am particularly keen to work with colleagues across government to reassess, perhaps, some of the narrative. A number of noble Lords today have referenced the use of language—how we explain what we are trying to achieve. Why do we use the term “conflict”, for example? It sounds more like a war zone—and, yes, is “test” the right word that we should use? We should not be afraid to revisit that issue.
I thank all noble Lords who have participated in today’s debate. I shall write to those to whom I have been unable to respond. I look forward to working with all noble Lords, because this is more than a Conservative Party issue—it is cross-government and cross-party. It is too important to be part of politics. So I look forward to working with all noble Lords as we strive to build a society that works for everyone, with the family at its core.
My Lords, I have been hugely impressed by the contributions from all noble Lords today. There have been some extremely powerful speeches. Perhaps the Minister can encourage all government Minsters, particularly those at Cabinet level, to read Hansard today and get into their hearts and minds the spirit and power of the arguments that we have heard.
I am conscious of time; there is another debate after this. We have been powerfully involved in this, so it has taken longer than probably anticipated. I will just say that I am extremely grateful to everybody; we have made a powerful argument and there has been broad support. I will not attempt to summarise—as I know some people do at the end—all the excellent points that have been made but, if Cabinet Ministers do read this debate, I just note that we have recently had a Minister appointed for loneliness, as has been mentioned today. Loneliness is very much a part of families, and it would be much better to have a Cabinet-level Minister for families rather than for loneliness. Loneliness often comes particularly in old age, when people no longer have families, perhaps because of a family rift or something. It is a family Cabinet Minister who should address that.
I would like, however, to express my complete agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others that the Government are in danger of being so obsessed with the family test not becoming a tick-box exercise that the right mechanisms will not be put in place to ensure it happens at all, or that it will be carried out in such a way that learning and cultural change—which is what we are talking about today—take place. Given that these are the bigger prizes that the test seeks to deliver, we all agree that it cannot simply be a hurdle for policymakers to jump over—I am sure all noble Lords can see how self-defeating this would be. I agree that passing laws is not always a panacea but, when the Government say that they are not minded to make family impact assessments a statutory requirement, the onus is very much on them to explain how they will boost and monitor the performance of the test. I underline again that the word “test” is a problem; I think “assessment” is a far better description of what is required.
As I have mentioned, there are several respected organisations—which the Minister also mentioned—which not only co-designed the original family test but are also highly motivated to continue helping the Government to improve their operation. Their ongoing involvement is essential. The role that well-functioning and stable families can play in delivering departmental priorities was also made clear, for example by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, regarding social care. At best, family impact assessments will not just reveal how to protect families from unintended consequences of policies, but how families can work in partnership with government to deliver the best outcomes for those policies.
I thank the Minister for her supportive response and her encouragement to keep going. I can assure her that I will, as will many colleagues, I am sure. So, much like a good Boy Scout, she should be prepared. All that remains is for me to thank again everyone who has spoken—it has been a terrific debate—and to ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.