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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:22 pm on 23rd February 2018.

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Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 1:22 pm, 23rd February 2018

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confirm on the record how many tests have been carried out or are under way, and precisely why the outcomes could not be published?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.