I beg to move,
That this House
has considered strengthening families.
I am very pleased to have secured the debate, with the support of my right hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) and for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Telford (Lucy Allan), for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) and for Woking (Mr Lord). I also had the support of the right hon. Members for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and the hon. Members for Luton South (Mr Shuker), for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, and for the cross-party support the debate has gained, although I recognise that its timing has precluded many hon. Members from contributing. There is much interest in the subject across both Houses. More than 60 right hon. and hon. Friends and peers have signed up to the “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which forms the foundation of the debate and which can be found online at strengtheningfamiliesmanifesto.com. Some 25 peers took part in a similar debate in the other place in the November, led by Lord Farmer, who co-authored the manifesto with me.
I commend my hon. Friend on her work in producing this excellent manifesto. It is good to know that more than 60 Members support it. I hope that number is actually greater—I am sure many Ministers would put their name to it were they able to. Strengthening families is a wide issue, which involves more than Government Departments; local authorities are also a vital part of the operation. Can my hon. Friend assure me that she has been in contact with local authorities, and that she has had some positive feedback?
I can inform the House that, just last week, Westminster City Council expressed full support for the manifesto through its leader, Nickie Aiken. It is looking at how it can implement the relevant policies there —particularly family hubs, which I will speak of later.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this subject, which is vital to the nation’s economic and social welfare. I welcome the Cabinet Office Minister to the debate. I recognise that the subject of the debate—strengthening families—has already caused quite a debate within Government this past week about which Department should respond. In fact, such an internal debate has already served one main purpose of my speech, because it has highlighted the question of whether responses should come from the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions or the Home Office. Looking at the manifesto’s policies, we could add the Treasury, the Ministry of Justice, the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department of Health and Social Care or even the Ministry of Defence to those. All those Departments are affected by family breakdown and have a stake in strengthening families. What is needed, and what is at the heart of my speech and my plea to the Government, is a co-ordinated cross-Government approach and response to the biggest social problem affecting our nation today, although it is not recognised as such.
In the absence of a Cabinet Minister responsible for families, with a dedicated budget and civil service team to prioritise and co-ordinate family policies across Government, much in the same way as equalities policies have been over the past few years, it is to the Cabinet Office that we look to ensure the effective running of Government and to answer the question at the heart of the debate: how effective are the Government at supporting families, and how can they be more effective still? That is why I am so delighted to see the Cabinet Office Minister in his place.
May I be helpful to the Minister? On his Department’s website is a statement of what the Cabinet Office does. It says:
“We support the Prime Minister”.
So do I—very strongly, particularly as I am aware, following meetings I have had at No. 10, including with the Prime Minister, about the strengthening families manifesto, that she is leading a review within No. 10 of how the machinery of government can better support families. I am sure that the Minister will say that the Cabinet Office supports that.
While in this generous mood, I thank the Government for a number of the steps they have so far taken to combat family breakdown and for the commitment they have expressed to strengthening families. Several Ministers have recently stated in the House their desire for some of the policies to strengthen families developed in the manifesto to be implemented. Only last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, said in this Chamber:
“The Government are committed to supporting families”,
and that the Government’s view is that
“families are fundamental in shaping individuals and that they have an overwhelmingly positive effect on wider society.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 635, c. 285-6WH.]
Those warm words have been matched with long-term funding to support family stability. In November’s Budget, the Government announced an additional £15 million for relationship support over the next two years to help keep families together and reduce parental conflict, which we know has such an impact on children growing up. That is in addition to the £30 million earmarked for relationship support between 2017 and March 2020, which was announced last spring in the DWP’s paper, “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families”.
I also welcome the Government’s response to a recent written question on the family test, restating their aim 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 Minsters.”
The current No.10-led review of the efficacy of the family test is also welcome, as we look to its becoming more than just a box-ticking exercise and one that truly supports family stability.
I have been hugely encouraged by the Government’s commitment to the implementation of the Farmer review on the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties, to prevent reoffending and to reduce intergenerational crime. I am particularly encouraged by the support given in October by my hon. Friend Mr Gyimah—at the time, an Under-Secretary of State for Justice—who told the House:
“The family is the most effective resettlement agency that we have. That is a view shared by the prisons inspectorate, the probation service and Ofsted. The time to work on those relationships is from the moment an offender is sentenced to jail. To leave it longer is to leave it too late.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 630, c. 686.]
He went on to welcome the “excellent” review by Lord Farmer. I thank the Government for “working to implement” every single one of the review’s recommendations. Indeed, that is one—just one—of the policy recommendations in our family manifesto. I am delighted that we can now say that recommendation is being implemented.
I am particularly concerned about the impact of family breakdown on children’s life chances. Children are often the worst victims of family breakdown, and I therefore welcome the inclusion of
“better support for families with children and young people at risk of developing mental health problems” in the recent Green Paper, entitled, “Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision”. The paper pledges to commission further research into interventions that support parents and carers.
There is a core team of us working on the family manifesto, including Dr Samantha Callan, who worked for many years on strengthening families, including for the Centre for Social Justice, and the former hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, David Burrowes, who has done such sterling work over many years with parliamentary colleagues on this issue. He is currently the executive director for the manifesto, and I am pleased to say that he is working weekly and tirelessly on it.
As I said, the Green Paper pledges to commission further research, and I thank the Government for that positive step in relation to the benefits of stable families for children’s mental wellbeing, which all of us in the House recognise is such a major problem in this country today. All those warm words having been said, it will not surprise the Minister and other hon. Members to learn that I am pressing for more action to strengthen families. In fact, the Prime Minister agreed to that, as she told the House at Prime Minister’s questions in October that the Government are
“looking into what more we can do to ensure that we see…stable families”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 629, c. 846.]
It is an essential part of the passionate commitment that she made on the steps of Downing Street on becoming Prime Minister. She expressed her desire to fight against “burning injustice” and
“to make Britain a country that works for everyone”.
For that to happen there must be, as part of that fight, further real work to strengthen and support families. Indeed, this is a poverty-fighting tactic. In so many cases, family breakdown is a root cause of poverty. To give just one example, it stands to reason that if a family breaks up and one wage packet suddenly has to cover the cost of two homes, there will be less money to go round.
In committing to nurture stable families, the Prime Minister recognised the wide range of benefits that committed family relationships can bring, including improving wellbeing and reducing both poverty and Government spending. As the “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” report states,
“For most of us, family is the bedrock of our lives. Acute parental conflict disturbs this foundation. It is important to help parents develop strong relationships so that they can better support each other and their children.”
The “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, published in September, contains 18 specific policies that are the fruit of many years’ work by a number of people from both inside and outside this place. We published that to give the Government some practical ways in which families can be strengthened. When it was published, we had the support of about 40 Back-Bench colleagues; we now have the support of more than 60. Indeed, even this week, colleagues who have heard about it have come up to me and asked for their names to be added. I can think of no Government Member who opposes the principles of the manifesto.
The impact of family breakdown concerns not only Members of the House, but the entire nation. Centre for Social Justice polling reveals that 89% of people agree with the following statement:
“If we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start.”
The sad but undeniable truth is that Britain is one of the world’s leading nations for family breakdown, and the trend shows no signs of abating. It was highlighted by the CSJ in its report entitled “Breakdown Britain” in 2006, in “Breakthrough Britain: Every Family Matters” in 2009, and in “Fractured Families: Why stability matters” in 2013. For us in this place to hold back from acting for fear of being misrepresented as judgmental is selfish: many of us enjoy strong family lives.
In his excellent speech on family policy in 2014, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke about the fear of being judged and said that
“we should never let this stop us saying loudly and proudly that strong families matter.”
Otherwise, we are saying that our reputation and our fear of being judged in the press or in this place matter more than the millions of children who are growing up challenged by 21st-century problems, which stronger families could help them to combat. I am talking about problems such as pornography on their phones, bullying in school, being over-sexualised by the media, being confused about personal relationships and being at risk of self-harm—indeed, many are self-harming. Those modern-day problems affect modern-day families, and they need to be supported to tackle them. Not to support families is not social justice.
As well as the substantial personal impact on individual lives and the wider family, the fiscal cost of family breakdown has been variously reported to be about £50 billion a year, but I think that a vast underestimate. It does not include the indirect costs, such as local authority care costs and prison budgets, given that one quarter of prisoners were looked-after children. Indeed, it is estimated that up to 60% of prisoners’ children grow up to offend and enter prison themselves. The figure does not include the costs of treating addiction: this country has a major problem with alcohol, particularly among older people, many of whom are lonely and use it as a source of comfort. The figure does not include the costs of working days lost, the effects of loneliness in old age, which I have mentioned, and a host of other costs.
According to research published by the CSJ, the number of lone-parent families rose by 130,000 between 2006 and 2012. By the age of 16, nearly half of all children do not live with both parents. A million boys are growing up without their fathers. One of the most moving statistics that I ever heard our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, cite was that a teenage boy growing up in this country today is more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home.
Research from the Social Trends Institute into families with children under 12 shows that Britain has the highest level of family instability in the entire developed world. Family breakdown has reached epidemic proportions. If it were categorised in health or environmental terms, it would be a national emergency. David Attenborough might well make a visually dramatic BBC documentary about it. News bulletins and front pages would demand urgent action. Urgent questions would follow, and the Cabinet Office would be engaged with Cobra meetings to co-ordinate a response. But the Government are challenged even to provide a co-ordinated response to this debate.
I pause at this point to recognise that politicians, as I have said, often shy away from debates and policies on supporting families. This is not some moral crusade or a demand to impose a one-size view of family life. It is about strengthening all families. There are of course difficult cases in which it is better for a child not to be in the same home as one or other of their parents. In addition, as we always say in the many debates on this issue that we have had in this place over the years, many single parents work tirelessly and successfully to ensure that their children flourish and have a positive future to look forward to, and many find themselves single through absolutely no fault of their own. However, we must respond to the evidence.
We talk in this place about evidence-based policy making, and the evidence shows that single-parent families are the most likely household type to be living in financial poverty. Lone parents are 2.5 times more likely to be living below 60% of median income than couple parents. In 2011, 41% of children from lone-parent families were in households living on less than that after housing costs, as against 23% of children from two-parent families. In contrast—this is the good news—children from low-income households with an active father are 25% more likely to escape the poverty that they grow up in.
Family breakdown has an impact not only on financial wellbeing, but on long-term life chances. The importance of family stability to children’s educational outcomes is seen most strikingly among looked-after children, only 15.5% of whom pass both English and mathematics GCSE, compared with the national average of 58.7%. Children’s life chances rest not only on their educational attainment but, as I have mentioned, on their mental health. Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the first Children’s Commissioner for England, said that children’s biggest fear was their parents separating. It is the case that 50% of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14, and 75% by age 18.
I am a patron of a mental health charity in my constituency, Visyon, which specialises in counselling young people—children as young as four. It is overloaded with counselling requests. Not long ago, I asked the chief executive officer, “How many of the children and young people you help to counsel have problems as a result of dysfunctional family relationships at home?” He looked at me as if to say, “Do you really have to ask that question, Fiona?” and then said, “Fiona, virtually all of them.” Yet what attention is given by children and young people’s mental health services to family relationships when they are helping young people with mental health problems?
A freedom of information request was sent to all mental health trusts and local authorities this year regarding their CYPMH services. The result found that workers did not routinely collect information on the background family circumstances of children presenting with mental health problems, and those that did did not specifically ask about exposure to parental conflict or family breakdown. That is a serious omission, which has to be addressed, as our strengthening families manifesto states. Local authorities should be required to collect information about family breakdown as a key poverty-fighting tactic. Those who counsel young people with mental health problems should also be trained to help counsel their parents.
In a recent survey of over 4,500 children across 11 local authority mental health services areas, family relationship problems were reported by clinicians to be the biggest presenting problem. Last week, Professor Tamsin Ford, who is professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Exeter medical school, told the joint meeting of the Education Committee and the Health Committee that
“support for families is key” in tackling children and young people’s mental health.
As demonstrated by our manifesto, there is no lack of effective, practical and possible policies that the Government could employ, and no lack of hon. Members in all parts of the House who would like to see them implemented. If the Government wish to be defined by fighting the “burning injustices” that the Prime Minister highlighted on the steps of Downing Street, they must take a lead and drive forward this raft of policies to support children and families. They must lead on strengthening family stability and combat the impact of family breakdown. These are policies that will improve children’s life chances, benefit their mental health and help to alleviate a number of other pressures we face—in housing, for example. We must create a Government who are forensically focused on practically supporting today’s families, with all the modern day pressures they are under.
The family test for all policies is welcome, but it is reactive to the proposals of other Departments, rather than proactive in forming a family-strengthening approach across all areas of policy. Government Departments need to be co-ordinated to be proactive. If successive Governments can work up a Treasury-approved assessment tool for the natural environment, surely they can do the same for the family. As the Chancellor has stated, this country faces a productivity crisis and strengthening families will improve our nation’s productivity, so the Treasury itself will benefit. To provide such an approach, I ask the Government to appoint a champion for families at Secretary of State level—a Cabinet Minister responsible for families. He should be supported by every Department, each of which should have a Minister responsible for ensuring that policies aimed at strengthening families are delivered as part of their Department’s policy-making process.
“there is no Department and no Secretary of State whose title includes either the word ‘families’
or the word ‘children’”.
Following the latest reshuffle, we have only an Under-Secretary of State with children and families in his brief. The only other Minister with family support in his brief is the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire. In a debate in the House just last week about Government policy on marriage—a number of colleagues here were in that debate as next week is Marriage Week— he said:
“it is right to draw attention to an issue that affects a wide range of Departments”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 635, c. 285WH.]
Without co-ordination across Departments, this will always run the risk of being a piecemeal and fragmented issue. It needs high-level co-ordination.
One example of the risk of lack of co-ordination involves the website DAD.info, which provides focused advice and support for fathers. There are over 35,000 users on its interactive forum. It is run by the Family Matters Institute, which has developed it into the largest interactive parenting network for fathers in Europe. It is being funded by the Department for Education, but only until the end of next month, because the support it provides goes beyond the reach of one Department, covering debt, child maintenance and legal advice, and relationship advice. I ask the Minister to look into this pressing issue.
We know that, at a local level, family support works best when it is co-ordinated. I want to talk a little about family hubs. They are a key aspect of our family manifesto. They offer a way forward, and the Government have the opportunity to play a leading role in their roll-out across Britain. As I understand it, there are about 1,000 children’s centres across the country—there is an estate there already—but children’s centres have traditionally offered support chiefly only for families with children up to the age of five. Why not extend this to the wider family? Why not have family hubs in local communities right across the country giving relationship support and education at all life stages? That could support couples in their own relationship, as parents or as grandparents. I know from the Minister’s question to the Prime Minister last November that that is a particular concern for him. Family hubs could also support couples in marriage preparation, strengthen father involvement, and support families as carers for elderly relatives or when specific life shocks or challenges occur. Family hubs could be local nerve centres co-ordinating all family-related support.
Many Sure Start children’s centres are currently under-utilised. There are already councils pioneering family hubs. Westminster City Council is looking at this now. Isle of Wight Council has good practice that others could look to and build on. Chelmsford City Council is launching its family hub next month. Aware of this debate, the leader of Westminster City Council, Nickie Aiken, has sent the following message:
“The Manifesto to Strengthen Families clearly understands that to ensure all children have the best start in life we must take a whole family approach. Westminster City Council has a strong record of innovation working with vulnerable families launching our Family Recovery programme in 2008, which was the foundation for the Government’s troubled families agenda. We have continued to innovate with introducing family hubs. I welcome this Manifesto and believe that if introduced, it would support more children to reach their potential.”
The reality is that many couples do not have anywhere to go when early challenges within their relationship present themselves. The period when children are aged nought to three is a particular problem period or pressure point in a relationship. We are all aware of the importance of early intervention in a child’s early years and how that can be so effective for a child. Let us support early intervention in couples’ relationships when they have challenges. Many cannot, in a timely way, get to Relate, which is one of many organisations that family hubs could host or help families to access far earlier, before they think of going either to one door to see Relate or to another to see the solicitor about divorce.
Family hubs can be a mix of statutory and voluntary services. They could be a real base for many local community organisations, enabling them to flourish and strengthen what they provide. To ensure that as many parents as possible know what is on offer at a family hub, local health commissioners need to ensure that all antenatal and post-natal services are co-located there. Each local area will have its own way in which to develop family hubs that suit that particular community—that is the beauty of this proposal—but at the same time there will also be best practice right across the country, which the Government could help promote.
As part of the Government’s consideration of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, will they consider placing a statutory duty on local government authorities to make fathers’ names compulsory on birth registrations wherever practicable and possible? That would provide an opportunity to signpost new parents to support services. Through structured, relaxed conversations at family hubs, families could be identified who might need support or where there are early warning signs of relationship distress. We also need family hubs because we need places in every community where people can go with relationship problems and not be seen in a judgmental way. Over the years, every family will have its challenges. Nobody judges if someone goes to the citizens advice bureau or the doctor. Let us normalise getting help to strengthen family life, just as we get help to maintain our health in other ways, whether physical or financial.
In this House we raise many challenges for which support could be provided through family hubs: not just mental ill health, but obesity, addictions and loneliness. Therefore, will the Government look at putting in place a transformation fund and a national taskforce to encourage local authorities to move towards the family hubs model, and at best practice where that exists? Our group is doing research on best practice, which I would be happy to share, but I know what the Minister will think: how to fund it? We have looked into that. The Government could earmark some of the £90 million in dormant accounts, which I understand is to be targeted to help young people.
This change of focus, to support families more holistically in local authorities, is also needed in mental health care provision. Incorporating couples therapy into NHS provision would not siphon off funds from where they are most needed but redirect them to where they could be most effective. That is why policy 13 of the strengthening families manifesto proposes the inclusion of couples counselling within children and young people’s mental health teams locally.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alcohol harm, I am familiar with the impact of addiction on families. Addiction’s intergenerational and immediate damage is major and getting worse. In 2016 there were 7,327 alcohol-specific deaths in the UK. Finding more effective ways of preventing and treating addiction, and protecting families from addiction developing within them, is essential. In line with the manifesto, I ask that the drug strategy board looks at how parents can be supported to prevent addiction from developing not only within families but among young people. There is not enough support for those seeking to support family members—they are, after all, probably the most effective at it—when there is addiction within a family.
Marriage has an instrumental role in promoting the stable relationships that support life chances for couples and their children. It helps with children’s educational attainment and future employment, boosts mental health and reduces the risk of addiction in later life. I am sorry to quote statistics, but if we are to make evidence-based policy, we do need them. Research shows that by the time children take their GCSEs, 93% of parents who have stayed together are married. In last week’s debate on marriage, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire, recognised the opportunity that Marriage Week provides to
“celebrate the commitment and connectedness that a stable relationship brings to a family.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 635, c. 285WH.]
I want to thank the Government for the introduction of the marriage allowance, which a number of us in this place, including my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), pressed the Treasury over a number of years to bring in. However, the low level of uptake reveals that it has not been as effective as intended in redressing the unintended discrimination in the tax system—a discrimination that militates against stable families.
That is why I ask the Government to continue to look at removing the financial disincentives for the poorest—those on low incomes—to form lasting couple relationships. It cannot make sense that a household can acquire more money in benefits if they split up than if they stay together. We want the Government to enable those who are on universal credit and entitled to the marriage allowance to receive this tax break as an automatic part of their claim, and to ensure that it does not taper away. To repeat a request that has been made many times, but is none the less still valid, will the Government consider increasing the value of the marriage tax allowance for low-income married couples or civil partners with young children to combat the in-built penalisation of marriage? I believe that would boost uptake and, in turn, family stability.
We should be unashamed of educating our children on the value of marriage—doing so sensitively, recognising the difficulties that individual circumstances can present, the courageous achievements of those who have experienced relationship breakdown and the pain that many have suffered. I could not say it better than my right hon. Friend Justine Greening, who said in this House, when Education Secretary, that it was “exceptionally important” to include marriage in relationships education because at
“the heart of this is the fact that we are trying to help young people to understand how commitments and relationships are very much at the core of a balanced life that enables people to be successful more generally.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 630, c. 1189.]
It is not only that we want an opportunity to teach children the benefits of committed relationships, including marriage; actually, we have a duty. In fact, it is a legal duty under section 148 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 that pupils learn about the
“nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”.
Will the Minister confirm this requirement with his colleagues in the Department for Education and ask that it be retained when the Government lay regulations in relation to relationships education in primary schools and relationships and sex education in secondary schools, following the consultation on this issue, which closes on
Many colleagues, some of whom cannot be here today, spoke in last week’s debate on this subject. I believe that we represent people across the country who are concerned with ensuring that the benefits of marriage are reflected, not omitted, when we talk to our children. It is interesting to note that when we talk to young people in their teens, they aspire to be married; there is, within us all, this deep desire for a fulfilling, long-term, committed, close relationship in life, and they recognise that marriage is a way to achieve that.
Marriage can help to combat loneliness in old age, reduce the pressure in terms of GP visits because of depression and reduce work absenteeism. It benefits the public purse. The strengthening families manifesto therefore suggests that high-quality marriage preparation be encouraged. One way to do that is by waiving marriage registration fees for couples who take part in an accredited marriage preparation course. If some of them take part in that course and decide that they have different views on finance, bringing up children or who will work or not work if a family comes along, and they decide not to marry, that is a positive outcome. At least people will go into that relationship with their eyes open rather than closed.
As the Centre for Social Justice’s report “Breakthrough Britain” highlighted, family breakdown plays a part in driving poverty and disadvantage. Almost half the nation feels the effects of family breakdown by the age of 16. That is a huge statistic. As we have heard, children’s health and wellbeing are fundamental to their educational attainment and their ability to thrive in the workplace. The health and wellbeing of society as a whole rests on their benefiting from safe, stable and nurturing relationships in their early years. For most of them, that means their family.
Many families today do not have role models on which to base a successful family life, as the troubled families programme has shown. However, it has also shown that, although complexities can ensue if families are not equipped to make a go of it, there are also ways that they can successfully tackle them. I pay tribute to the Government for persevering with and investing in the troubled families programme, but we need to do more than help troubled families; we need to help every family.
The need to strengthen families simply cannot be ignored any longer. It cannot be lost anymore due to reticence, indifference, embarrassment or the battles of party politics; it is just too important. Nearly 90% of those surveyed by the Centre for Social Justice agreed with the statement that
“if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start.”
Broken families are the root from which so many other burning injustices can grow. If we do not seek to strengthen the bedrock of our nation, we start on the back foot with many of the other injustices that the Government are so admirably seeking to address, such as housing. I go so far as to say that they will never be able to address the other injustices successfully unless they address strengthening family life. It is our children and the poorest and most vulnerable who will pay the highest price.
There is a moment for Government to address the issue. That moment is now, and that Government is this one. We have much cause for optimism that the Government will continue to champion and encourage stable families, as they recently stated they would. The Minister’s Department likes to talk about transparency; I urge the Government to consider making an annual statement on the progress across Government on strengthening families.
When families are strong, they contribute to society by producing a competitive labour force and caring for family members across generation. They play a key role in the development of healthy children and young people, and a central role in strengthening local communities. However, there are profound social consequences when, for whatever reason, families fail. We need to match the warm words from Government and the promises made on economic support for families with more practical policies not only to prevent family breakdown but to promote healthy relationships.
I welcome the steps that have been taken by a number of Departments to strengthen families, because the issue touches all areas of life. I welcome the fact that numerous Departments are already engaged, but the Government as a whole cannot afford to drag their feet. There is much more that they need to do. If the Government are to honour their commitment to support families, we need a cross-departmental approach, and we need a Cabinet Minister.
This is not a moral agenda; it is a social justice issue. The Government claim to recognise the importance of stable homes and strong couple relationships to the success of our nation and the next generation. The Prime Minister wants to address burning injustices. Now the Government must back up their words with action, and my 60 colleagues and I will ensure that they do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce on a comprehensive and courageous speech, and for trying her best to solve what she described as one of the greatest epidemics facing our country. The strength of the epidemic and the misery that it causes seem to go beyond any solution that one could possibly dream up. In so many areas of Government, from the Ministry of Defence to the Department for Education, when we identify a problem, we have an idea of what we can do to counter it, but this is such an epidemic and it goes so much to the root of society that it is hard to know whether just appointing a Cabinet Minister for families, although a worthy aim, would keep families together.
However, at least my hon. Friend is trying to identify the problem. As she said, if there were other issues costing the nation, not £10 billion, £20 billion or £30 billion, but probably £40 billion or £50 billion, and that caused so many obvious problems, it would be considered a national emergency, but the problem is that society has so changed over the past 50 years and marriage has been so downgraded that Governments—Labour Governments, Conservative Governments, Scottish National party Governments in Scotland, French Governments, Italian Governments—have scratched their heads and wondered what they could do to resist the problem.
It is a pity, because all the evidence—I will not take a lot of time to go through it—is clear. There is an absolute wealth of evidence on the importance of marriage to the welfare of children, and a wealth of evidence that marriage works, in that couples are much more likely to stay together. It is all published, and one could go on and on.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that parents who cohabit are approximately three times more likely than those who are married to have separated by the time the child reaches the age of five. A 2009 report by the Department for Children, Schools and Families found that a child not growing up in a two-parent family is more likely to grow up in poorer housing, experience behavioural problems, perform more poorly in school, gain fewer qualifications, need more medical treatment, leave school and home while young, become sexually active or pregnant or become a parent at an early age, and report more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence and adulthood. None of that is to gainsay the fantastic job done by tens of thousands of single parents, many of them single parents through no fault of their own, but every study shows that marriage works.
I will mention one issue that has not yet been discussed. People are now saying that they want no-fault divorces, and that it is a charade that people must claim a reason for getting divorced. They say that it is a matter of tidying up expensive and messy legal paperwork and that such couples are totally irreconcilable anyway, and ask why we are going through with the sham of our divorce laws. They say that we should have a simple legal system—“I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you”—and that is that. However, I think that making life cheaper and easier for such couples would also send a profound, wrong message and would make it easier for hundreds and thousands of other families to break down. It would proclaim from this House that marriage is just a legal device, like buying a home or selling a company, and that we therefore want to get rid of any kind of explanation for why people want to get divorced. Producing that reform would be saying to the nation that encouraging couples to stay together in marriage is not our first priority.
Again, repeated studies have shown that 90% of couples who manage to stay together until their child is 15 will stay married. We know from all those studies that family breakdown is a key driver for poverty among women in particular, with half of all single parents living in poverty. Those are the factors for which datasets are increasingly allowing us—I hope—to understand the situation. We do understand the situation: we understand that marriage works and that the breakdown of marriage, or indeed marriage not taking place at all, drives many people into a poorer outcome for life.
My hon. Friend is leading the campaign, and we are encouraging her. We all want better educational treatment for our children and a decline in juvenile criminality; we want families to stay together. She is right to say that, despite the appalling complexity and strength of the problems, Government can at least attempt to be a facilitator of families and married people staying together, rather than an enabler of breakdown.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the steps that some authorities are taking, such as family hubs. Benjamin Adlard Primary School is in Gainsborough south-west ward, which is one of the 30 poorest wards in the entire country. The headmaster, Sam Coy, runs the school, and I have visited it. So many of the problems that his children exhibit are due to family breakdown. I am delighted that he is leading the campaign to have a family hub in Gainsborough. Of course, having a family hub that gives help will not solve the problem—local authorities taking an interest will not prevent societal trends that have been so apparent for decades—but it is an attempt to do something. Brave young headteachers such as the headteacher of Benjamin Adlard Primary School should be given our encouragement.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the marriage allowance. A lot of people sneer at the marriage allowance and say, “It’s just ridiculous. Families don’t come together or split apart because of some change in the benefit rules,” but most developed countries and OECD members recognise family responsibility through family and marriage allowances.
Given that the cost of family breakdown is £47 billion, as my hon. Friend has explained, I do not believe that it is too much for the Treasury to recognise marriage in the tax system through a marriage allowance, for which I have campaigned for years. We are not trying to use the tax or benefit system to try to get people together or to stay together. All we are saying is that if one parent in a two-parent, married family wants to stay at home to look after the children full time, that should not be discouraged in the benefit system—that is a profound injustice.
We had to drag the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer kicking and screaming to bring in the allowance. He brought it in at a very low level and it has never been pushed properly. There are still many people inside Government and the civil service who do not like it and would like it to fade away, but all it is trying to do is right an injustice. If one person in a married couple wants to stay at home to look after the children full time, they should not be financially disadvantaged by the tax and benefit system.
Marriage rates among the better-off are still very high, but at the less well-off end of the spectrum they are much worse. Journalist Ed West noted that research for The Spectator showed that, in 2000, someone in the top socioeconomic class was 22% more likely to be married than someone in the lowest socioeconomic class. By 2017, that division had risen to 48%, and the crisis is growing. More needs to be done.
There are lots of sound recommendations in my hon. Friend’s manifesto, and she should be congratulated on putting pressure on the Government. Relate has written to us about a report it produced with Professor Lord Layard. He observed—this is such obvious common sense—that:
“In every study, family relationships are more important than any other single factor affecting our happiness…Of all the factors that affect happiness, your family life or other close relationship comes first.”
We all know from our personal lives what a blessing a long and happy marriage is. It is the most important thing in our life. Although in many ways society is infinitely more prosperous than when I was born in 1950, is not a happier place in many respects. That is nothing to do with the size of someone’s bank balance, the size of their overdraft or where their children go to school; it is to do with a sense of belonging in a marriage that lasts.
I sympathise with the Minister. His civil servants will have done their best, and no doubt he will say some warm words at the end of this debate. However, it is incumbent on us to have some courage when we debate this subject, not just to talk in simple terms about a new Cabinet Minister or something of that sort, although that is a good step, but to say that there is something profoundly wrong in society and that one of the reasons why society is an unhappier place now is the massive breakdown and decline in religion, which did and does allow people to raise their eyes above their present circumstances and gives them some support.
That massive decline is never mentioned by politicians, because we are afraid that we will be seen as putting ourselves on a soapbox and proclaiming that we are better than other people, or that people will say that the decline in religious observance and that sort of thing is a private matter. It is all far too difficult, but occasionally we have to have the courage to say what we believe in.
My hon. Friend is quite right. She gave a comprehensive speech. In the Minister’s response, I hope he will raise his eyes from his civil service text for a few moments, speak from the heart, and give a clue of how we can begin to address and be honest about the greatest problem facing our society today.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to follow my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce on her manifesto, on securing this debate and on her powerful speech.
My hon. Friend mentioned a new Cabinet Minister. I warmly welcome the Minister to his place, whose ears may have pricked up at the thought of a new Cabinet post—a cross-departmental role—suitable for somebody young, eloquent and forward-thinking. I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will have listened intently, especially to that point.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the family or of consistent and unconditional loving support. Facts and figures can be bandied around. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough was right to highlight certain facts and figures, and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton was also right to say that we must have evidence-based policy.
Each of us instinctively knows the importance of family, whether we have benefited from it ourselves or not. I grew up in a family that was not materially wealthy, but rich in love and support. As children growing up, we knew that we could make mistakes through trial and error and still have the support of a loving family. Now I have a family of my own, I know the difficulties, stresses and strains—and the sheer hard work—that it takes to hold it all together. Given that, I am delighted to support the manifesto and the debate.
In my brief contribution, I will tackle a specific aspect, which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. An overlooked part of ensuring that families are strong is the support given to families involved in the criminal justice system. The excellent Lord Farmer review looked in detail at the impact that good family work in our prisons can have on prisoners, their families and society at large through a reduction in reoffending rates.
This is one of two statistics that I will give during my speech: for a prisoner who receives a visit from a partner or family member, the chances of reoffending are 39% lower than for a prisoner who does not have a similar visit. Support needs to be given for the benefit of the prisoner and their family. If prison is truly to be a place of reform, we cannot ignore the reality that there must be a supportive relationship to help to achieve rehabilitation. The estimated cost of reoffending is in the region of £15 billion a year, so it is essential to find new ways of rehabilitation and of supporting and cutting down those high rates of reoffending.
This is the second statistic that I will give. My hon. Friend mentioned a figure of 50%, but one study shows that 63% of prisoners’ sons go on to offend and commit crimes.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have also seen a figure of 63%, which may even be from the same study. Access to organisations and services with proven expertise in helping families that have members inside prisons is vital for protecting children’s life chances.
The Farmer review makes a lot of sensible and achievable recommendations. To give one simple example, today is the last sitting day before recess. Many families will be considering going on holiday over half-term, and some will even pass through an airport. The prison experience for visiting families should be treated in a similar way to airport security: it should be marked by courtesy, a customer service mentality and empathy for vulnerable and older people, for parents struggling with a young family and for children themselves.
I could not agree more. I could mention two local examples from Dorset and the south-west—the Footprints Project and Clean Sheet, a national organisation that operates in Dorset—that do exactly that volunteering work in prisons. We should also mention prison chaplains, who do so much in that area.
I am pleased that the Government have committed to supporting the Farmer review. I do not expect the Minister to respond to it in detail, but I look forward to the new prisons Minister, my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, grasping and tackling the subject, as I know he will, and updating us in due course.
I have two final points to make. First, greater emphasis and training should be given to prison staff, who should be encouraged to build personal relationships with prisoners and their families, and to encourage prisoners in turn to build their own relationships with families and significant others. Secondly, when considering a prisoner’s application for release on temporary licence, family ties and supportive relationships should be a consideration. It should be a priority to ensure that an offender can improve family relationships ahead of release when it is safe to do so. A linked issue is the location of our prisons; we should ensure that prisoners are located as close to home as physically possible.
Families come in all shapes and sizes, but the evidence is clear. We know instinctively the importance of the family. I ask that the Government’s good work continue and that families’ importance be recognised, even within our criminal justice system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, particularly since by allowing me to leave the debate early you have shown your appreciation for my family’s importance to me.
I thank Fiona Bruce for her considered and comprehensive speech. I agree with much of what she said. In preparing for the debate, I read the strengthening families manifesto and was surprised to find myself agreeing with much of that as well. I would like to highlight a couple of points in it.
The manifesto discusses forces life. I have lived through forces life; as some hon. Members may know, my husband was an officer in the Royal Navy for 17 years, and for much of that time we struggled through forces life as a family. I appreciate the fact that forces life is mentioned in the manifesto, although I take issue with one comment:
“Life in the Forces holds advantages for families”.
I struggle to find any advantages for families, to be perfectly honest—it was a very difficult time in our lives. However, it is important that the manifesto recognises the additional pressures and challenges imposed not just by separation but by the difficulties of living away from home. I hope that the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act 2018, which has just been passed, will allow service personnel to consider flexible working in some roles, which may improve the experience for families in service life.
I was also pleased to see the importance that the manifesto places on fathers. It is crucial that the positive involvement of fathers is recognised and supported in society. Fathers should be able to participate fully in their children’s lives from day one. Earlier this year, the Scottish Government published a review of maternity and neonatal services in Scotland, which sets out a future vision of maternity services in which fathers, partners and other family members are encouraged and supported to become part of all aspects of newborn care. It is important that we acknowledge fathers, who often feel excluded from the experience, even if they are present at the birth.
The Women and Equalities Committee has done some work on encouraging men to take a more active role in parenting from the very start. If we can get to a position where people do not automatically assume that parenting duties rest with women, society will benefit incredibly and women will have greater opportunities in employment.
Absolutely. We are moving in that direction, but a huge amount of work still needs to be done. The Scottish Government support policies that encourage flexible working and free flexible childcare, to help to tackle the stigma affecting fathers who take on caring roles and to encourage a work-life balance for parents. Embracing flexible and family-friendly ways of working is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do, because it allows employers to retain talented, productive staff. A 2014 study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research revealed that a “work from anywhere” culture could add an extra £11.5 billion to the economy.
The hon. Member for Congleton spoke passionately about improving a child’s life chances, and I believe she spoke from the heart. However, she said that family breakdown was the root cause of poverty, whereas actually—statistically—poverty is the root cause of family breakdown, and we must recognise that. While the Government remain wedded to austerity, they can do little to alleviate the real problems that households across the UK face. Of course a low-income household can be a very happy one, but the reality is that anxiety about money can place enormous strain on relationships.
I must also mention the two-child limit on child tax credits, which according to analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies will result in 600,000 three-child families getting £2,500 less a year, and 300,000 families with four or more children getting £7,000 less. That really will push people over the edge and into poverty. We need to consider what we are doing. The Scottish National party strongly opposes the cap, just as we oppose the removal of the family element of universal credit, which is causing households to fall into poverty. The policy has a particular financial impact on members of faith communities who are more likely to have more than two children and therefore more likely to struggle financially. Is the Government’s intention really to punish people of faith? I believe that all children should be treated equally and that families should be financially supported to raise our future citizens. That can take place only if we value the child from birth and value the benefits that they can bring.
Immigration also threatens families. Every week at my surgeries, I deal with issues related to immigration and family reunion. I will mention two particular cases. One involves a gentleman in my constituency who met his wife while she was working in Glasgow on a short-term work visa. They married, she went back to the States and found she was pregnant. She had the child in the States, but because my constituent is self-employed he has not reached the salary threshold for bringing her here, his wife and their child are still in the States, and they cannot all live as a family. Another of my constituents is a gentleman who met his wife when he was working in Saudi Arabia. She is from the Philippines. They lived for a number of years in the Philippines very happily, but then his father became unwell and so he travelled back to Scotland to look after his father. He described being a “Skype family” for two years, until his son came and joined him. Unfortunately, and again because he is self-employed, he has not reached the salary threshold and cannot bring his wife over. So they are still a “Skype family”, although the child is in a different location.
The policies I have mentioned are very real ones that are causing damage to families all across the UK. We need to think about how we are going to support families. Yes, the intention of this manifesto is good and, yes, there is lots of good stuff in it, but there are also very damaging policies in Britain that are affecting families up and down the UK.
I will conclude there, Mr Bone. I thank you once again and I thank the other Members who are here for allowing me to speak at this point.
I entirely agree with the case that has been made for the manifesto, of which I am a supporter. I will draw to the attention of the Minister—in so far as it has not been drawn to his attention already, because it most certainly has—the magnitude of the problem we face. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce drew attention to the quite shocking statistic that this country has the most volatile family life of the entire developed world for children under 12, and that comes with huge consequences.
Tomorrow I will hold a surgery, and the 10 or so people who attend will have a range of problems. Some of them will come and tell me about their debt, with the perhaps unrealistic expectation that there is something I can do about it. Equally, there may be a problem with housing—perhaps the completely inadequate nature of someone’s housing, which may be too small, or too damp, or bed and breakfast accommodation, or indeed appalling neighbour problems. It might be to do with schooling—not being able to get their child into the school of choice, the school not being near enough, problems with getting the child to the school, problems with the child’s performance at or behaviour at school. For children in my part of the country, the problem might be lack of access to mental health provision. It might be some other aspect of poverty, such as having to use food banks or whatever. But scratch the surface, and one finds that however that problem may have presented, for nine out of 10 of the cases that came through the door, the cause will have been family breakdown. It is the surest way to poverty and it is for that reason that I support my hon. Friend and this manifesto. Family breakdown is costing us billions and we have to make sure that, across all of Government, we pursue policies that will deal with this epidemic—and it is an epidemic.
Let me draw attention to two particular areas. We had a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday last week on marriage. In summing up, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, slipped into what I hope the Minister who is here today will not slip into—indeed, my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh warned him not to. I mean that habit of quoting civil servants, or whatever. The Under-Secretary responded to the debate by saying, “Well, of course, of course, families come in many shapes and sizes.” I intervened and asked him, “How many? How many shapes and sizes?” and I challenged him, saying, “A family is not just any collection of people who happen to share a fridge!”
When it comes to this education consultation that is going on at the moment with respect to relationships, I do not believe that it is satisfactory to say that, whatever the continuing education requirement is, relationships education must include family life. Actually, it is the other way round. The law now is clear—the education must be about marriage. Of course, we want relationship education—the strength of relationship education—to be about marriage and other relationships, not relationships including marriage. The emphasis is the other way round, which brings me neatly to the Bill that passed last Friday promoted by our hon. Friend Tim Loughton.
That Bill seeks to make civil partnerships available to mixed-sex couples. Civil partnerships were introduced in 2002 only for single-sex couples—same-sex couples—because marriage was not available to them. His intention is that civil partnerships should be extended; there should be equality and they should be extended to mixed-sex couples. I understand that the Government’s intention is that the Bill will be amended in the Bill Committee so that there is a review of whether there should be such an extension. I have an open mind. I was accused of seeking to undermine marriage by my support for the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013; my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham accused me of that in the Bill Committee. My fear was that introducing some sort of step-down marriage is the danger that will undermine marriage. However, I have an open mind about what a review under the current Bill should look at.
It seems to me that there is a possibility that extending what is a clearly protected, committed, legal relationship to people who would not otherwise have entered into one may actually be a significant advantage. Equally, it may be that, by introducing some form of “marriage-lite”, we actually undermine marriage, by persuading people who do not feel that they could go for the full-fat version that they can enter a civil partnership, on the basis that it is not quite the real deal. In fact, it is: the legal obligations and protection that provide for civil partnerships are identical to marriage in almost absolutely every respect, and I think it would be a mistake to persuade people that somehow they were entering into a relationship that was less committed if they were to enter a civil partnership.
I intervened on our hon. Friend Tim Loughton last Friday, saying that there are unintended consequences to consider. I made the point that if he gets his way, everybody, of whatever sex, will be able to marry anybody they like, or have a civil partnership with anybody they like. The only people who would not be able to have a civil partnership are siblings.
I raised this issue in 2004, when the first Act on civil partnerships—the Civil Partnership Act 2004—got through. I had been written to by two sisters who had lived together all their lives, but when one dies the other one will be forced from their home. Like my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne, I have an open mind on this subject, but if we are going to reform the law we have got to think of the unintended consequences. It would be fatuous if anybody can have a civil partnership or marriage apart from siblings.
My hon. Friend draws a very important and powerful corrective to proceeding with that Bill, certainly in its current form.
I am very glad that Carol Monaghan spoke earlier. I draw attention to what she said about service life. Those of us who have experienced service life and who have a constituency with a large number of service personnel will know that the statistics for marriage breakdown are much higher and much worse for military families. That is largely as a consequence of the pressures of having to deal with prolonged absences and the whole operational cycle. I put that to the Minister in the hope that he will draw it to the attention of Defence Ministers.
There certainly is scope within such institutions as the armed forces to provide training courses that will help with family breakdown. There are all sorts of courses available that help people to strength their relationships, and I have experienced them myself. I suggest that within a military environment there is scope for making such courses available to both partners—not just the serving partner—in a way that would not be available in civilian life. After all, those of us who have served did our MATTs every year. I have long ago forgotten what that stands for, but as well as the ordinary battlefield drills, skill at arms, and nuclear, biological, chemical and battlefield first aid, part of it was about standards and values, and it strikes me that there is scope under standards and values to strengthen relationships.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to follow so many excellent speeches. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, with whom I share an office, for all the work she has done on this issue. I also pay tribute to our former colleague David Burrowes for the tremendous work that he continues to do in this area.
I want to comment briefly on two matters that have already been raised by Members. First, my hon. Friend the Member for somewhere in Dorset—I never quite remember where—
My hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson—it is south of Watford, anyway—spoke about prisons, which are an incredibly important matter. As I mentioned in an intervention, Stafford prison is in my constituency, and I had the privilege of visiting there at some length last Friday. I saw the excellent work that prison officers do with vulnerable prisoners and their families. It was a humbling experience to see the tremendous work that goes on there and the commitment and dedication of the officers, chaplains, staff and volunteers who put so much time into that. I am sure that outcomes would be considerably worse were it not for that dedication.
I would also like to follow on from what my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne said about the need for support for military families. I have well over 2,000 serving personnel, three Signals Regiments and the Tactical Supply Wing of the Royal Air Force in my constituency. I see the commitments that they make and the pressures they face. I also see the pressures put on families, particularly in Signals, where they are often sent on fairly small missions to all parts of the globe, whether the Falklands or the middle east. The same is true of the Tactical Supply Wing of the RAF. I draw attention to policy 5 in “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which states:
“Parenting and relationship support should be made readily available for military families. Life in the Forces holds advantages for families”—
Carol Monaghan questioned that, which I can understand—
“but it can also impose unique and significant pressures.”
I welcome that policy and urge the Government to implement it.
I want to concentrate on mental health, which is increasingly spoken about in Parliament, which I welcome. The subject is sensitive to most in the House, given the prevalence of mental health problems in many families. According to the charity YoungMinds, one in 10 children has a diagnosable mental health disorder—that equates to three children in every classroom—and that statistic increases to one in five for young adults. That is a profound hardship for individuals and their loved ones. Due to its significant adverse effects on income, wages, employment and social mobility, poor child mental health has been calculated as having a lifetime cost in lost income of as much as £388,000, and that is just the monetary cost—we also have the more significant social and personal costs.
The Prime Minister has recognised that inadequate treatment for those suffering from mental health problems in Britain amounts to a
“burning injustice…that demands a new approach from government and society as a whole.”
Given that 50% of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14 and that 75% manifest by age 18, logic and evidence point to family circumstances being a hugely significant factor. That is why I wish to commend my hon. Friend for Congleton on securing this debate, which enables me to speak about a subject that needs more attention: the role that families play in a child’s mental health. I wish to make it clear that mental health can impact the most loving family, as well as the most challenged family. However, as ever in social policy, we need to follow the evidence and take appropriate action.
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
The Early Intervention Foundation review commissioned by the Government concluded that inter-parental relationships are instrumental in determining a child’s mental health. Children of separated parents or in challenged families have been shown to be 50% more likely to fail at school, have low self-esteem, struggle with peer relationships and have behavioural difficulties, anxiety or depression. That is supported by a review of 18 international studies that was published this year by the University of Sussex. It found that family breakdown is consistently linked to higher risks of depression in children. I draw attention to the fact that those are international studies; they are not just about the United Kingdom.
New research recently published by the Marriage Foundation uses the latest data on 14-year-old children in the millennium cohort study. It found that family breakdown is a major driver of teenage mental health problems. It is in stable homes with nurturing relationships that children have the best chance to thrive. Sadly, that is a far cry from many children’s experience. The recent Department for Work and Pensions report, “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families”, found that by the age of 16, 47% of all children do not live with both birth parents. That statistic has been referred to before, but it is well worth repeating. Indeed, between one and three in 10 children live in families where their parents say they are in unhappy relationships. The Early Intervention Foundation recently concluded that
“childhood mental health...may be improved by working to promote the quality of the inter-parental relationship.”
Couple therapists who work for Tavistock Relationships have witnessed the reality of that at first hand. They reported that the mental health difficulties of children of couples with relationship problems were significantly alleviated if they engaged in couples therapy. That is a blind spot in current health care provision.
A child interviewed by Common Room Consulting described their experience of therapy. They said:
“The main focus was on me, and changing my behaviours and thinking patterns, not on the causes. I tried to tell people that home wasn’t good on a few occasions, but they didn’t seem to have the time or the space for these discussions to happen...the focus was on the impact of my behaviour on my parents and sisters.”
A couples therapist based in a children and young people’s mental health team stated that she was unaware of any other multidisciplinary teams nationally that provided the service as part of their approach to tackling children’s mental health. That needs to change.
My hon. Friend is making some powerful points. Would he join me in commending the work of Keith Simpson, the headteacher at Middlewich High School in my constituency, who is a lead on the Emotionally Healthy Schools project? Wherever possible, when a child has difficulties at school, he not only works with the child to provide support, but will contact the parents and ask whether they would like to come in or would like some support themselves, so that the whole family gets the support that will ultimately benefit the child and their education.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Given that Middlewich is not too far from where I live and where I represent, with her permission I would like perhaps to come and talk to that headteacher, to see what I can learn from the school in her constituency.
As I say, the situation needs to change, and the Department for Work and Pensions has begun to recognise that. The “Improving lives” report announced plans to put £30 million into a programme to help workless parents to resolve conflict through independent providers. However, that provision does not go far enough, because the need is not just among workless parents. A far-reaching, holistic, family-based approach to tackling children’s health is needed, as the example in Middlewich shows.
The recent Green Paper on children’s mental health is an important step in the right direction, and for the first time recognises the importance of parental relationships on children’s wellbeing and mental health, but we need to do more to support families. By incorporating couples therapy into NHS provision, children and young persons’ mental health teams would not be syphoning funds from where they are most needed, but redirecting them to where they will be most effective. Training would be required to enable professionals and frontline workers to be confident in identifying and treating the needs of the couple, alongside an efficient system of referral. The roll-out of family hubs would facilitate a collaborative and consistent provision of couples’ support in addressing children’s mental health. Alongside providing for those affected by mental health problems, that would also help to prevent the mental health problems from arising by providing relationship support and encouraging the involvement of fathers in the family.
Sometimes there is a reluctance to make such points. My hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh talked about the reluctance to refer to faith and religious belief. I entirely support what he said, but also, in our western, perhaps individual-focused society, we do not recognise enough the support that the wider family, indeed the community, can give to families. When I was living with my family in Tanzania, we often came across a proverb that was originally in Igbo, a Nigerian language, but in Swahili is, “Inachukua kijiji kizima kumlea mtoto”, which means: it takes a whole village to raise a child. If we view a village as our community, we should not shy away from recognising that families cannot do everything, as I know from my own experience. They come under great pressure at various times. Parents are otherwise engaged, perhaps going through crises themselves. It takes a community.
In my constituency, and many others, we have an organisation called Home-Start, which works with troubled families. The problem is that Home-Start relies on volunteers who give their time. It takes professional co-ordination, but we find that the funding for that, which is frankly peanuts when one considers what else we spend money on, is often the first to be cut, as I found in my constituency. Local authorities who were very generous have been put under pressure and, because it is not a statutory requirement, will remove the funding. As a result, the whole service is put under pressure, and may even disappear. These are people working on a voluntary basis with families that are under pressure, and saving the state huge amounts of money, because those families might otherwise fall into needing extremely expensive services. In addition to the issue of mental health, which I have spoken about at some length, I ask the Minister to look at the possibility of making relatively small amounts of funding available to schemes such as Home-Start. We are talking about a few thousand pounds, or tens of thousands, in a whole local authority area. The total cost for the country would be pretty minor, and the savings substantial.
Finally, colleagues may disagree, but I have found the value of family time at meal times very important, as well as the value of not having television. I have never had television, either as a child or an adult, but if people do have a television, there is value in saying, “Well, it has its place, but it shouldn’t be the centre of family life, because it takes up so much time and stops people talking to one another.” I think we can extend that to social media. I was very encouraged to read in The Evening Standard last week of a school, I think in London, which has 10 commandments about the use of social media. That school is really improving the lives of the children, not by forbidding access to social media, but by saying, “Let’s put less emphasis on social media, and spend more time interacting with one another personally, face to face, rather than via small screens.”
We ought to spend more time together as families, and play more games together. Despite my distaste for games that take longer than half an hour, I have discovered a great game called Bananagrams, which is brilliant for families that enjoy that kind of thing. It is not something that the Government can get involved in, but schools and other organisations can provide opportunities and suggestions for families.
At the moment, I think one half of the Cabinet would be playing Bananagrams, the other Scrabble, but it absolutely would help unity. I would love the Cabinet to play Bananagrams together; it might be more productive than some of the conversations that are had from time to time.
In conclusion, the impact of positive family relationships and of family breakdown on mental health is a vital issue. I urge the Minister to look at the big picture on mental health, and at the relatively small initiatives that are locally based and enable communities to do their best through volunteering to support families that are under pressure.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate Fiona Bruce on securing the debate. It is a great pleasure to speak for the Opposition in what has been an interesting discussion covering a wide range of important issues. I was particularly pleased to hear many speakers talk of the importance of the role of fathers and the value to families of supporting prisoners.
Jeremy Lefroy focused on child mental health provision, describing its inadequacy as a “burning injustice”. It was interesting to hear him talk about his childhood experiences and the phrase, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” That very usefully broadened the discussion out, away from a focus purely on families and on to the broader range of support that is needed.
I was somewhat surprised by the claim made by the hon. Member for Congleton that family breakdown is the root cause of poverty. As Carol Monaghan explained, poverty is the root cause of family breakdown. It is important that we keep that in mind.
The problem is that, for too long, successive Governments have ignored the fact that family breakdown is a root cause of poverty. We have given many examples of that today, and we cannot get away from that fact.
I notice the hon. Lady says it is “a” root cause, which is a helpful context, but we cannot get away from the power of poverty to damage family relationships. We all know that from our own lives and our surgeries, and it is important that we bear that in mind.
“A Manifesto to Strengthen Families” was published by a group of Conservative MPs and peers in September 2017. I agree with some of the recommendations of course—who would argue against the Government focusing on promoting healthy relationships as one way to tackle the country’s mental health crisis? Of course that is important, as is the proposal to create family hubs to co-locate superb early years health services and services that offer help for parents with children across various age ranges. That is exactly what the highly successful Sure Start programme, introduced by the previous Labour Government, does. Why, then, have more than 1,200 Sure Start centres been closed since 2010? That is a severe reduction in essential support for many parents. Do the Government recognise that the closure of Sure Starts was a mistake? Perhaps they are too embarrassed to say so and want to introduce them under another name. If they do, that will be fantastic. Please do.
The manifesto might have more credibility if it were not for the damage being done to families by the Government’s policies. For example, the manifesto calls on the Government to encourage every local authority to work with voluntary and private sector partners to deliver family hubs. However, local councils are being forced to cope with deep cuts to their budgets, and the cuts are having a detrimental effect on family life. Children’s services will face a £2 billion funding gap by 2020, yet in the recent draft local government finance settlement, no extra money was committed for children’s services, despite a 124% rise over the past 10 years in the number of inquiries where local authorities believe a child may be suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. The number of children needing child protection plans has increased by more than 23,000 in the same period.
In my own area of Merseyside, local authorities in Liverpool, Wirral and Knowsley have worked with the Merseyside police service to establish early health hubs to support families with complex needs. However, the police service is concerned that the level of cuts it is coping with means that it is becoming increasingly reactive rather than proactive.
It is important that we think carefully about how we talk about families, when we consider the many types of families that exist: single parents, widows, widowers and kinship carers, for example.
I want to be absolutely clear that when we talk about family hubs, we say that they should be open to all families. There is no exclusivity. It is really important to make that clear in this debate.
I thank the hon. Lady for her clarification.
The coalition Government introduced the marriage allowance in April 2015, supposedly to support families. Couples with an overall income of more than £55,000 can benefit from the marriage allowance, but is that a priority when there is so much need elsewhere? Child poverty is increasing, 4 million children are growing up in poverty and two thirds of those are in working households. In some parts of Birmingham and London, more than 50% of children are growing up in poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that the cuts to universal credit will push 1 million more children into poverty by 2020, along with an extra 900,000 adults.
The coalition Government abolished the statutory targets for reducing poverty set by the previous Labour Government, along with the child poverty unit that the Labour Government set up to co-ordinate policy across Government to meet those targets. Instead, the coalition substituted measures of life chances. The Work and Pensions Secretary at that time repeated in February last year his belief that
“family breakdown is a big driver of UK poverty as children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to be living in long term poverty. When couples break up, children suffer and poverty in the family is often not far behind.”
That ignores the reality that, in many families, poverty places great strain on relationships. Research by Relate, Relationships Scotland and Marriage Care found that a significant number of people cited financial problems as a reason for the break-up of long-term relationships. Debt creates real problems for families.
A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that one in four of Britain’s poorest households is falling behind with debt payments or spending more than a quarter of its monthly income on repayments. That is why the Opposition strongly believe that families in debt should be given breathing space to sort out a debt problem once they contact an agency such as StepChange to ask for help. We will press that as an amendment to the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill.
It is hard to credit that after repeated cuts to social security since 2010 the Government could seriously claim to support families. Child benefit, like most working age benefits, is frozen until 2020, yet inflation is over 3%, and food prices in December were over 4% higher than a year earlier.
The families manifesto calls for the marriage allowance to be increased for lower-income couples with children. It calls for those claiming universal credit and entitled to marriage allowance to receive the allowance automatically, and for the remaining couple penalties in universal credit to be removed. Is that really a priority when a fifth of people claiming universal credit still do not receive payment in full on time, and when more than one in 10 do not receive even partial payment on time?
Parents who find their claim for childcare delayed because the universal credit online system cannot validate the notepaper used for receipts might wonder how serious the Government are about supporting families and children. Parents with two children claiming tax credits, or the equivalent in universal credit, who find that a new baby is on the way and who will not qualify, will similarly be surprised at the Government’s claims, as will families claiming universal credit and earning more than £7,400 a year, whose children will no longer qualify for free school meals. That £7,400 is hardly a high income.
Only last week new Government statistics on the benefit cap revealed that 72% of households capped were single parent families, and 77% of those families had a young child under five. So will the Minister explain how the Government will support those families, who will doubtless experience increased difficulties in paying their bills as a direct result of Government policy?
The High Court ruled in July that imposing the benefit cap on single parent families with children aged two or under was unlawful. The judge in that case said that the mothers are not workshy,
“but find it, because of the care difficulties, impossible to comply with the work requirement.”
He went on to say,
“Real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”
It is clear that that is not supporting families.
Single parent families have been hit especially hard by cuts to social security since 2010, delivering real hardship to parents and their children. An independent study for the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the long-term impact of tax and welfare changes between 2010 and 2017 found that lone parents are set to lose around 15% of their net income on average: almost £1 in every £6. It is important that the Government recognise and value all family types. One in four families in the UK is a single parent family, so it is important that they are valued as much as any other family. Stigmatising single parent families is unacceptable and highly damaging.
Social policy needs to take into account all the family types that I have mentioned. The Government have failed to do that in the case of the bedroom tax, for example. Where parents have separated or divorced, the parent who is not the main carer is not allowed to claim for an extra room for children. Fathers are particularly badly affected by that. Labour would abolish the bedroom tax. I know that that is not the Government’s position, but will the Minister look at addressing the impact of the bedroom tax on separated and divorced parents and their children as a matter of real urgency? Many Members have spoken about the importance of fathers, but if a father cannot spend quality time with his children at the weekend simply because somebody has to sleep on the settee, that is not good enough.
Where relationships unfortunately break down, it is clear that the changes to the child maintenance system have not succeeded in supporting parents caring for children or in enabling parents to reach agreement themselves.
The families manifesto calls for the Government to promote healthy relationships to tackle the country’s mental health crisis, yet we know that mental health services are under extreme pressure and that trusts are finding it difficult to recruit key mental health staff. According to a study by the King’s Fund published in January, approximately 10% of all posts in specialist mental health services in England are vacant. Its survey of trusts found a pattern of high vacancy rates, with difficulties recruiting child and adolescent psychiatrists in particular. High staff turnover is currently leaving 4% fewer mental health nurses employed each year. All MPs are aware of the strain that child and adolescent mental health services across the country are under and of the impact that that has in terms of our young people not being able to access the support that they need and being asked to wait for an exceptional length of time and, in some instances, to make unacceptable journeys to get help when it becomes available.
The hon. Lady omits to mention the recent announcement made by the Government to invest substantially in mental health support, including for school-age children, through schools.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention.
The families manifesto also states that the drug strategy board should look at how parents can be supported to prevent addiction to drugs and alcohol from developing in young people. Obviously, we all want to support people going through such difficult experiences in their families, but the families listening to this debate who live in areas where drug crime is a real problem will be distraught at the Government’s failure to provide adequate funding for our police and will be acutely aware of the loss of the 21,000 police officers and 6,000 police community support officers since 2010.
It is very depressing to see the hon. Lady in splendid isolation reading out a party political rant. It is tempting to step up to intervene. She and her party voted but yesterday against a £450 million increase for our police officers and yet she continues to read that out.
Our position was that the money the Government are providing is not nearly enough. That was the point. [Interruption.] I am very unhappy that the hon. Gentleman is not even looking at me when I respond to his point. He says I am making a party political point, but I can tell him that I can think of areas in my constituency where people are really frightened about drug problems. They speak to me about the loss of police and police community support officers. It is a real issue. The lack of funding to police forces is devastating. We have lost 1,000 police officers since 2010 on Merseyside; that is 1,000 police officers no longer on the beat. I think I am entitled to make the point that the Government should fund the police properly if we are to support families in supporting people at risk of coming into touch with drugs and alcohol—and particularly with drugs and illegal substances. Families in the areas concerned desperately want the police to be properly funded so that they can feel safe in their own homes.
Reductions in local authority funding have also meant that youth services, for example, have been decimated. Parents in my constituency say to me, “Where are the youth services? We need them. Why are the Government cutting funding for those things?” It is important that there are activities for young people to do.
The hon. Lady is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The whole point of what we are talking about is prevention—strengthening family life to reduce the drug-related problems that the police would have to deal with. It is about encouraging families to relate to one another and their young people, so that young people do not always have to look outside the family for enjoyable activities—although I do not say they should not do that. The Labour party always talks about dealing with problems after the event, rather than getting to what I repeat is the root cause. Strengthening family life would prevent problems from occurring in the first place.
I understand the focus on family life, but it is acceptable to look at the effect of policing cuts. When constituents are going to their MP and pleading for support, saying they do not feel safe, we have a duty to reflect that. It is important.
The Labour Government took hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, but research published late last year by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the number of people living in poverty will soar to a record 5.2 million over the next five years because the Government’s social security cuts are biting deepest on households with young families. As the IFS said, the benefit freeze, the introduction of universal credit, and cuts to tax credits will mean a surge in child poverty, and the steepest increases will be in the most deprived parts of the country. That will have an impact on family cohesion and relationships.
Universal credit was introduced to smooth the transition into work and lift people out of poverty, but since 2010 work allowances and the taper rate have been cut. Today the Work and Pensions Committee report on universal credit has highlighted the Government’s inability to provide evidence that universal credit will enable more people to find work. I am talking about the full range of people: not just single unemployed people, but disabled people, single parents, carers and the self-employed, who are now claiming universal credit as the full service is rolled out. Ministers continually refer to statistics that cover only single unemployed claimants with no children; that is a strange focus if the Government are committed to supporting families.
It is important to consider the impact of the cuts to work allowances, because so many people on low incomes are in insecure work. Low pay and zero-hours contracts have an impact on the family life of hundreds of thousands of people. They make life extremely difficult for parents who have to pick up children from school or childcare, or arrange childcare in the first place. It is difficult to do that if someone is on a zero-hours contract. It is easy to highlight the importance of active fatherhood in a child’s life, as the manifesto does, but research by the TUC, published last summer, showed clearly that some employers seek to prevent fathers and mothers from taking time off for family emergencies.
I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Congleton claim that family breakdown is the biggest social problem affecting the nation today. I would suggest that there are a number of contenders for that. My personal view is that the Government’s privatisation of the national health service will lead to the biggest social crisis in this country within memory. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may groan or laugh, but that is the case. There is so much evidence. I wish that they would look at what is happening in their constituencies, to verify it. The Government are also failing to tackle the housing crisis. Young people in their 20s and 30s are reluctant to start their own families, because they cannot find anywhere to live, and still live with their parents. In addition there is the Government’s failure to tackle the scourge of low pay and insecure work.
To conclude, there have been some sensible suggestions in the debate, which I welcome, but there is a danger, in focusing on couple relationships, of ignoring the reality that there are many different types of family—and Government policy must reflect that.
No. I have given way plenty, thank you.
The manifesto has some important threads to it, but in some places it reads like some sort of fairy tale, ignoring the impact of Government policy since 2010 and the way it has made life so much harder for many families, especially those on low incomes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, and it was a pleasure to have Mr Bone as our Chair prior to your arrival.
When we go to someone’s funeral, it is rare that people talk about that person’s educational or career successes. They certainly, as my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh said, do not talk about the money that person made during their lifetime. Almost always, the eulogy centres on the family. People want to be remembered for the family—for their contribution to family life and the stable family life that they built. Families are at the centre of all our individual lives. They provide us with a sense of stability, security and purpose, sustaining us through times of emotional, health and financial difficulty, and providing us with a sense of place and fulfilment. We all experience families in different ways throughout our lives, as children to our parents, as parents or indeed grandparents as we grow older, as partners or through our extended relationships. To answer a point made by my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne, of course we all know that modern families are not all two parents with two children. It has been established during the debate that it is not helpful to stigmatise people who do not conform to that measure, and I do not think anyone suggests we should do so.
As a dad with two young children, I know the importance of strong families and the role that families play in children’s development—not only physical development but cognitive, emotional and social development. I completely agree with the attitude of my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy towards television and social media for children. The decline in the practice of children sitting at the table to eat with the family has profound consequences. When children eat with the family they learn many soft skills such as conversational ability and table manners that put them at an advantage and help them succeed throughout life. I certainly agree about playing games: my family like Articulate! My six-year-old already beats me at Cluedo so I am giving up on that one. I shall resist the temptation to speculate on games that members of the Cabinet might choose to play.
For all the reasons I have given, it is, for me and certainly for my party and the Government, families and not the state that form the cornerstone of our society. That is why families are at the heart of Government policy and why I am so pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the debate on behalf of the Government. It is an important issue, and, as my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce said, it is also a cross-cutting issue where responsibilities lie with a number of different Departments. As a Minister in the Cabinet Office, which has responsibility for co-ordinating cross-Government work and policy, I am responding to this wide-ranging debate on behalf of the 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.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I know what a strong campaigner she is on the importance of families, and how much of her parliamentary career she has devoted to championing the cause. That was demonstrated once again by her passionate speech today. I also pay tribute to all hon. Members who were involved in drawing up the “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. I know that she chaired a roundtable on Tuesday with our hon. Friend Andrew Selous and David Burrowes. I join my hon. Friends in paying tribute to Mr Burrowes. He was a neighbour when he served as Member of Parliament for Enfield, Southgate and he is completely and passionately committed to this cause.
I am very familiar with this cause from my time working for the former Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned “Breakthrough Britain”. I well remember that report and its impact and the significant contributions, not just from David Burrowes, but people such as Dr Samantha Callan, who are very committed to this project. For me, the statistic that brought it home during the debate is that children are more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home. What does that say about our values as a society if that is the case?
When the Minister is talking about values as a society, will he set out for us what his Government are going to do to tackle child poverty, which is set to rise to 5 million?
As the hon. Lady has raised the point now, I am happy to talk about it. It was certainly my experience growing up that my dad losing his job at a wire factory had the single biggest impact on our family finances and our family life. It put the greatest strain on our family. I am very proud to serve in a Government under which more than 2 million new jobs have been created—that is hundreds of thousands of households where children grow up seeing their parents going out to work and having the stability and security of a wage packet.
That achievement stands alongside a range of measures that we have taken—for example, we are the first Government to introduce a national living wage. We are also cutting people’s taxes so they keep more of what they earn. We have essentially doubled the tax-free allowance, meaning that anybody working 30 hours a week on the minimum wage pays no tax at all. In addition to that, universal credit reforms pioneered by my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, have had a tremendous impact. When I visit jobcentres in my own constituency, I see the enthusiasm that people working there have because they know that we finally have a policy that genuinely incentivises people from welfare into work. We have a record of which we can be proud.
I did not want to descend into party political points at this early stage, but I would note on the issue of the so-called privatisation of the health service that I do not see how that accords with the tremendous increase in funding we have provided for the NHS.
I will give way in just one moment. Record numbers of operations are being performed on the NHS, record numbers of people are seeing GPs, and record numbers of people are being seen in A&E. We have committed an extra £8 billion in this Parliament and another £6 billion was committed in the Budget to the NHS. I will give way, and then I must move on.
I thank the Minister for giving way and I take on board your comment, Ms Buck, but I would say that the debate is cross-departmental and the document does refer to health. Accountable care systems or integrated care systems are suggesting bundling together budgets for the hospitals, the GPs, community health, public health and local authority spending of one area—Wirral, for example—and potentially giving that to one private provider. We have seen what happened with Carillion, so there is clearly a huge risk in taking that kind of approach. I would say that if that leads to the privatisation of the national health service, it will have a devastating effect on families.
I thank you for that warning, Ms Buck. I will deal with the comment in one sense and move on to the substance of the manifesto.
There is virtue in integrating services, The sort of thing that is being pioneered in Manchester, where we bring together different services—it is in fact being pioneered by a Labour Mayor, in conjunction with the former Chancellor’s measures—is, I think, a way of improving health outcomes.
I will now move on to the specific measures in the manifesto, which form part of broader Government policy. For example, there is the important matter of education. There are now 1.9 million children in good or outstanding schools, which is a record number. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford raised some important points about mental health. As was recognised, we are investing £1.4 billion in mental health services for children and young people, and we have set up a scheme in schools to raise awareness and help them to know how to deal with individuals in schools suffering from mental health issues. We have published a Green Paper to set out our plans to transform mental health services in schools. My hon. Friend made an important point about the need for a holistic, family approach to mental health, and hopefully the Green Paper will be a starting point.
As I said, a route into meaningful work is very important for improving children’s life chances. We now know that nearly three quarters of children from workless households moved out of poverty when their parents entered full-time work. That means 608,000 fewer children are living in workless households.
Before moving on to the contents of the manifesto, I would like to try to address some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. The importance of champions for the family in Government was raised by several Members. As a starting point, I know that the Prime Minister is personally committed to this—she is the principal champion of families. We have already discussed the other Ministers with family responsibilities, but I have certainly heard the point about a specific, designated family Cabinet Minister loud and clear, and I will relay that to my colleagues in Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised the DAD scheme. I understand from my officials that the Department for Education has funded a range of family advice and support services since 2008, including Family Matters, which runs the website called DAD. The service is well used and is valued by its users. Ministers at DFE are considering the future requirements for the next financial year, so it is under active consideration. I am sure the representations made by my hon. Friend will have been heard loud and clear. On children’s centres, an important point was raised about family hubs. Clearly, local authorities have responsibility for children’s centres and they are free to pioneer family hubs. As my hon. Friend said, a great number are already doing so. She highlighted Westminster and the Isle of Wight. I would urge other councils to consider doing so.
My hon. Friend made an excellent representation on a transformation fund. Sadly, it is entirely beyond my remit to make public spending commitments, but I am sure the Chancellor will take note, particularly regarding the £90 million in dormant bank accounts. On the statutory duty to have the father’s name on birth certificates, it is worth noting that 94% of birth certificates already have the father’s name there, so we are making progress.
On relationships education, which came up in a number of contributions, the call for evidence is out at the moment. Some passionate pleas were made. I would urge hon. Members to respond to that call for evidence—I believe it closes on Monday. That is the route for formulating policy in that area. Again, I think a valuable point was made about the need for an annual statement on strengthening families and that is again something I will relay to my right hon. Friends in Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford talked about Home-Start, which is very important. I have looked into it very briefly, and I believe that comes under the local transformation plans that we put in place in 2014-15. There is an opportunity, as part of those plans, to provide for such schemes, but I will write to him further on that point.
Let me turn to the substance of the debate: this excellent manifesto. The Government introduced the family test in 2014 to bring a family perspective into policy making. It helps to ensure that the impact on family relationships and functioning, both positive and negative, is recognised in the process of policy development, and it informs policy decisions made by Ministers. We introduced the test to ensure that, across Government, we think carefully about the potential for new policies to support or undermine family relationships. The Implementation Unit has a role in ensuring that the family test is implemented. The test means that families are considered at the start of any new policy development.
The whole point of the two-child policy is that people on benefits should be subject to the same restraints as people who go out to work. Anyone who goes out to work has to think carefully about whether they can afford to have more children, and many people choose not to have a third or fourth child. All the policy does is to replicate that in the benefits system by ensuring a cap at two children. It is a perfectly sensible policy with which many members of the public completely agree.
I really need to make progress, and I do not want this to become a two-way, Conservative-versus-Labour debate.
On the point about spending on childcare, I have already talked about the role of parents in children’s development. Children from less advantaged backgrounds are already behind in their learning by the time they start school, and high-quality early learning from the age of two can help us to close that gap. Parents have a vital role to play in their child’s development. Evidence suggests that, aside from maternal education, the home-learning environment is the single biggest influence on a child’s vocabulary at the age of three. That is why we have committed £5 million to trial evidence-based home-learning environment support programmes in the north of England—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton referred to them. They will focus on early language learning and literacy. We are currently running a procurement exercise to identify an external organisation to work with us in delivering that trial.
The primary purpose of providing free early learning places for two-year-olds is to improve outcomes for children. We want to make it as easy as possible for children to benefit from early education. One of the interesting initiatives in that area is community-based nurseries, at which parents volunteer in return for lower childcare fees. Disadvantaged families are helped through the lower cost of childcare, and they learn parental skills by working in the nurseries. A number of those trials have already happened with voluntary organisations, and they have had very positive outcomes.
The “Manifesto to Strengthen Families” also recommended that relationship education should be extended online, with a dedicated campaign and virtual platform. The Government want to help all schools to deliver high-quality relationships education and relationships and sex education to ensure that pupils are taught about healthy and respectful relationships, and that they stay safe and are equipped with the knowledge they need to prepare for adult life. I completely agree that it needs to cover concepts such as commitment, respect and safety. Of course, marriage is a perfect example of all those things. I urge hon. Members to make sure their views are heard as part of that consultation process, because that evidence will shape draft statutory guidance and regulations, which will be subject to further consultation later this year. There will be many opportunities for hon. Members to have an input into that process.
In December, the Government published our social mobility action plan, which set out our ambition to close the word gap in early years. It is a clear direction for all those that have a part to play, including children’s centres. Our focus is on delivering that ambition. We welcome the development of family hubs as one way to meet local needs. We believe that local councils are best placed to understand local needs, so if they believe there should be a family hub, they should be free to set one up.
This excellent manifesto also focused on health. The Government are already working to reduce health inequalities by addressing the social causes of ill-health, promoting healthier lifestyles and tackling differences in outcomes of NHS services. We are doing that in a number of ways. We are investing more than £16 billion over the current spending period to support local public health services. That action is being led locally to ensure that the solutions reflect the needs of individual communities. Local authorities can also commission a range of children’s public health programmes that support women in pregnancy through childbirth and support children from early years through to adolescence. Clinical commissioning groups and local authorities are responsible for commissioning services to meet the needs of their local populations. As part of that, we also need to look at mental health. The Government are committed to parity between mental and physical health, which has been one of the challenges in our health service for successive Governments.
The manifesto contains an excellent recommendation about maternity services and maximising the involvement of fathers. Perhaps I can call myself a new dad—I was certainly there at the birth of my two children. There really are some excellent maternity services now. I was at a midwife-led unit at Watford General Hospital, just outside my constituency, and I saw how helpful it is to have a dedicated room in which the birth takes place with en suite facilities. That helps the father to be involved. That is why the Government have provided more than £37 million of capital funding since 2013 to support maternity services and to create safe, family-friendly environments. That includes increased provision of facilities in labour and post natal units, such as double beds, reclining chairs—which can be converted to beds for partners to rest in, especially overnight, and remain with their partner and new-born children—en suite toilets, new birthing pools, and dedicated family rooms.
The manifesto also raised the important issue of couples therapy. When children arrive it is a time of great happiness, but it can put a tremendous amount of strain on relationships, so it is important that we focus resources at that stage. The NHS already offers couple-based therapy as part of its Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme.
On drug addiction, many hon. Members eloquently made the point that families play an absolutely central part in helping people through that very challenging time in their lives. At a national level, we have extended the troubled families programme to help local areas to ensure that their services have an integrated, whole-family approach. The programme now specifically supports families with younger children and those with a broader range of problems, including substance misuse, mental health problems and domestic abuse.
On the point about police and crime commissioners working with schools in which domestic abuse issues are prevalent, the Government are fully committed to tackling domestic abuse, and we will shortly be launching a consultation on the landmark domestic abuse Bill to improve protection and support for victims, to strengthen the focus on perpetrators, and to recognise the lifelong damage that domestic abuse does to children. The evidence on that front is completely overwhelming.
My hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson made a passionate speech about the prison system and the role of families. I was particularly struck by his statistic that reoffending rates are 35% lower if partners and families are allowed to visit. That is also borne out by other studies. The impact of imprisonment on a family is likely to be long term, especially if the main breadwinner of a family goes to prison—the problems back home build up, with rent or mortgage arrears going up, and social stigma and loneliness for the family left behind.
While offenders are in custody, therefore, we have an opportunity to support them in changing their values and perspectives on their roles and responsibilities. As a Government, we believe that prisoners who are in touch with their family are likely to be more settled while in jail. Multiply that improved mood among prisoners, and we see a transformation in prison conditions. As we have heard, on
On the military covenant, the case was well put by Carol Monaghan —sadly, she is no longer in her place. We all know, and I certainly do from my previous role as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Defence Secretary, the huge sacrifice made not only by our armed forces, but by their families. That is often under-reported, with the families often the ones who take the strain of prolonged periods of absence and moving around, so it is important that we support those families under the military covenant, which is exactly what we have done.
The Ministry of Defence launched its first ever UK armed forces families’ strategy in 2016, which focuses and co-ordinates activity to support service families. The single service welfare organisations provide a flexible and inclusive network of welfare support to service personnel and their families. Defence also rightly works hand in glove with the principal service charities and organisations such as Relate to provide specialist support to families. In addition, we have launched a health and wellbeing strategy to improve mental health, and developed a memorandum of understanding with the Royal Foundation. As part of such efforts, I certainly take on board the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West about ensuring that we include training courses.
I thank hon. Members for allowing me to speak for some time. I wanted to cover all the points included in the manifesto, as well as the other matters raised. If Members feel I have left anything uncovered, I undertake to write back to them. I believe that as a Government we are working towards a shared goal of putting family at the heart of policy making. I hope that we will continue in that vein, because all the evidence shows the value of families to our national life.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, and who have stayed the course in our final debate before we break for our recess. That demonstrates the commitment of colleagues to “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”.
I thank the Minister for his response, which showed his personal interest, his genuine concern and his desire to see families strengthened in this country. We appreciate that very much. We appreciate, too, the fact that he represents the Cabinet Office, which indicates a recognition by Government that this is a cross-cutting issue that needs a degree of oversight by one Department, across the many Departments that we have referred to as being affected by the policies in the manifesto that we want to see implemented.
I have one further request of the Minister. So many issues have been raised today and so many have to be taken back to other Departments that, on behalf of my colleagues who have spoken, I would ask him whether he will meet us in a few weeks’ time for a further discussion of how the policies in the manifesto can be taken forward.