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.