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.