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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:48 pm on 23rd February 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 12:48 pm, 23rd February 2018

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.

Mindful of that, I was delighted when on 18 August 2014, as has already been referred to, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the introduction of the family test. He stated:

“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 Answer to a Written Question in the other place in October 2014, the then Education Minister, Edward Timpson, said:

“In addition, the new Family Test, announced by the Prime Minister on 18 August 2014, will also mean that every new domestic policy will be examined in terms of its impact on families”.

In another Written Answer given in the other place in the same month, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland stated:

“‘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”.

On 14 December 2017, in the very week that some of these Answers were provided, breaking new records in government opacity, the Minister for the Constitution issued a Written Ministerial Statement in the other place, which the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, provided to us. The Statement began:

“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.