Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:29 pm on 23rd February 2018.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 12:29 pm, 23rd February 2018

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.