“Long before you get to the welfare state, it is family that is there to care for you when you are sick or when you fall on tough times. It is family that brings up children, teaches values, passes on knowledge, instils in us all the responsibility to be good citizens and to live in harmony with others. And so for someone from my political viewpoint who believes in building a stronger society from the bottom up, there is no better place to start than with family.” - David Cameron, 18th August 2014.w
Back in June, I wrote a piece for Conservative Home arguing that family policy must be the litmus test of success for this Government. The Conservative Party is the only party that truly recognises that a strong society needs strong families, not a strong state. The Government showed its clear intent when, just over a year ago, it published the Family Test. The Prime Minister’s aim was for “every Government department to be held to account for the impact of their policies on the family”, ensuring that “every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family”.
Since the summer, there have been increasing calls for this narrative to be translated into practical action in the area of family policy. From a range of articles on this site, through to packed events at Conservative Party Conference, the debate on Sunday Trading, the upcoming Private Members Bill from my colleague Caroline Ansell and a rising number of parliamentary questions on the application of the Family Test, there is an increasing sense of the need to treat strong families and relationships as an end-goal of policy in themselves.
After that June article, I set out what I thought it would mean for a Conservative Government to really put the family at the heart of policy, including support for parenting and relationships, early intervention, increased financial support for marriage and housebuilding, among other things. Some of these we have made progress towards, others less so – but, as Cameron said during his conference speech, the family is central to the Government’s all-out assault on poverty. We need to tackle the root causes of poverty – homes where nobody works; addiction, mental health problems, abuse and – most of all – family breakdown. As the Prime Minister said: “Today, a teenager sitting their GCSEs is more likely to own a smartphone than have a dad living with them.”
There will always be a debate about the best ways to support families. But the beauty of the Family Test is that it is not a policy prescription but, rather, an important invitation to pause and consider fully the consequences of the policy on families, so that unintended consequences can be avoided. And that’s why I strongly believe we need to be brave enough to publish the results of every Family Test – so that we can learn from what works, and what doesn’t work.
It’s vital that the overall direction of Government policy is one that supports families and the relationships that make them up. The Family Test impact assessments of individual policies are important, but the real test will be found in Wednesday Spending Review, where there is a real opportunity to highlight this Government’s commitment to family and relationships. I would like to see a Spending Review with families at its heart, and that means both robustly applying the Family Test to the Review itself, and publishing the outcome of the assessment. Sound family finances are vital, but the success of this Government in terms of supporting family life cannot be measured solely by the money that families take home at the end of the month: we need a more well-rounded approach.
A Spending Review for families would demonstrate support for parents to balance work and family life; it would enable people to live in houses that support rather than hinder family life; support people to stay healthy; recognise the importance of good relationships to help us stay well and provide support when we do become ill, and it would provide crucial support for those whose relationships are under strain – such as that offered by such charities as Relate and Marriage Care.
Why is this needed? Relationship breakdown has enormous cost implications for our economy and society as a whole. The Government has stated its ambition to address this, recognising it as one of the five ‘pathways to poverty’. However, this will continue to be an uphill struggle while we fund relationship support at its current level – a mere £7.5 million, compared to the staggering £47 billion annual cost of relationship breakdown.
This is a point made powerfully by a recent joint letter to the Daily Telegraph from over 70 organisations and public figures who work to support families and relationships. Together, they called on the Government to treble relationship support funding to £22 million, as part of a wider Spending Review focussed on supporting families. I’m proud that the leadership of our party is dedicated to family and relationships, but let us really mean it when difficult decisions have to be made on Wednesday. The Family Test is a powerful tool to showcase this Government’s commitment to family, and to help focus our minds on concrete proposals that will really deliver results. So I will be looking to see a Spending Review for families – with a Family Test assessment, which says it does just that.
This article was first published in ConservativeHome.
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