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Harry Benson: Labour’s family policy – new beginnings or same old hang-ups?

Picture_7 Harry Benson runs Bristol Community Family Trust, a local charity that is pioneering short relationship courses that teach couples how to stay together, and was deputy chair of the family policy group that produced Fractured Families and Breakthrough Britain.

On Thursday I went to the high profile DCSF “relationship summit” introduced by Ed Balls, Beverley Hughes and PM’s wife Sarah Brown. The one day conference was a response to the “Kids in the middle” campaign, about the need to support children and parents experiencing problems, separation and family breakdown.

DCSF have launched an accompanying paper Families in Britain: an evidence paper, which the Daily Mail was quick to pounce on as “Labour finally admits married parents are better for children”. Not surprisingly, much of the content and conclusions of both paper and conference mirrors the analysis and conclusions reached by the various CSJ family reports, produced by Dr Samantha Callan who attended the day with me. However there are also fundamental differences.

The relationship summit made lots of good noises. And whatever preconceived notion I might have had from his media exposure, Ed Balls spoke extremely well about his personal experience of family life and about the importance of both prevention and support.

Of course we’ve had good noises about family policy before. The Home Office paper Supporting Families in 1998 and the AGMARS advisory group paper Moving Forward Together in 2001 both made limited but sensible family policy proposals, especially emphasising the need for prevention and early intervention. But government actions have fallen well short of these fine words. Throughout the last decade, the dwindling level of support there has been for couples has focused on treatment of problems – couples splitting up, parents with difficult children or circumstances – rather than to prevent problems happening in the first place. To give an idea of the scale of the imbalance, for every £1,000 the taxpayer spends on picking up the pieces of family breakdown, less than £1 is spent on supporting couples or parents. Only a fraction of this £1 reaches organisations that try to help strengthen families and reduce family breakdown or prevent it from happening in the first place.

It’s remotely possible that the high profile nature of this launch heralds a new and serious Labour family policy. Good, I say. However (and it’s a big however) the two giant flaws remain their failure to recognise that marriage itself is a social good – the evidence cited by DSCF is somewhat creative – and the failure to emphasise prevention.

First, marriage and family structure is always going to be a thorny issue. Regardless of hard evidence, our own personal experience will always carry a great deal of weight. And most opinion-formers – politicos, journos, academics, think tanks – are further cushioned from many of the biggest family risks through their higher income. Income is indeed a strong predictor of family stability, but not the main factor that the DSCF paper claims. My own study of 15,000 mothers with three year olds, using up-to-date Millennium Cohort Study data, showed that marriage is the number one influence on whether parents stay together or split, above and beyond any influence of age, income, education, ethnic group, benefits receipt, or birth order. In every income group, from poorest to richest, cohabiting parents were 2-3 times more likely to split up compared to their married counterparts. A 2003 DWP study, using Families and Children Study data, reached much the same conclusion.

Most damningly, the DCSF paper completely ignores the source of most family breakdown involving young children. Only one third of cases involve the divorce of married parents whereas two thirds involve the separation of unmarried parents (my latest analysis using Millennium data).

Whilst nobody will ever be able to prove that marriage itself causes benefits and protections, and unmarriage itself causes additional risk, selection is an inadequate explanation. There are lots of good reasons why cause is likely to play a significant role. Inconvenient findings that highlight the inadequacy of selection or likelihood of some causal influence were disregarded in the DCSF evidence paper.

Plus ca change …

Second, policies that might strengthen families and reduce or prevent family breakdown are also given lip-service. The main pointers in the DSCF report involve supporting couples when relationships are formed or when a baby is born. In practice, this simply does not happen. Voluntary sector organisations that do run effective relationship education courses – such as National Couple Support Network for couples getting married and Time for Families for prison couples – generally encounter a lack of official support and occasionally even active resistance.

My charity has pioneered a relationship programme called Lets Stick Together run through ante-natal and post-natal clinics without official support but with the active help of NHS health visitors. We ran 90 of these seminars in Bristol this year for 850 parents, teaching simple but effective relationship skills to one in every four new mothers. Both mums and dads love it. Watch these STOP videos for a good idea of what I’m on about! With a bit of government support, all of these kinds of programmes could be run cheaply and easily throughout the country as genuinely preventive programmes.

Is DCSF serious about a new family policy? Will actions finally match the fine words? I very much hope so. Despite the two glaring errors above, there are lots of good things that could come out of this launch for supporting parents and children who are facing problems. But any family policy will only be really effective if it not only strengthens the huge effort spent on mopping up the flood of family breakdown but also invests a little energy on trying to turn off the tap.

Pretty much every year for the last forty years, a net 40,000 new families have joined the ranks of lone parents and needed extra support. Every year. Family policy hasn’t worked. So long as any government dismisses marriage and overlooks prevention, the tap will keep on running.

PS -  For some helpful ideas on how to help your own relationship survive Christmas, click here!


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