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Harry Benson: Where is the Government's family policy?

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.

Family breakdown now costs £42,000 million every year, according to a new study from the Relationship Foundation. By far the biggest contribution to this is support for lone parents. One pair of hands means fewer resources and greater needs. It should be no surprise to learn that over 50% of all lone parents receive housing benefit and council tax benefit and 50% also receive out of work tax credits.

Such an enormous bill to the taxpayer surely demands a serious and urgent policy response. It’s been nearly a year. But there is still no sign of a coherent family policy from the coalition. At least the first Blair government released a green paper “Supporting families” in 1998, even if its more interesting policies were subsequently ignored.

In its widest sense, family policy could encompass virtually anything from tax to education to employment. But I’m talking about family breakdown where the key issues are treatment – how to manage the costs and consequences of family breakdown – and prevention – how to stop it from getting worse. For decades under all governments, the emphasis has been almost entirely on the immediate need for treatment whilst ignoring the potential for prevention.

When the room is flooded, it’s no good spending all your resources on mops. This is a £42,000 million flood. Somebody needs to think about turning off the tap. There has to be some level of investment in what works.

The good news is that research on what works has moved on apace in recent years. Although a healthy debate continues as to why married families tend to have better outcomes, it is no longer tenable to argue that selection is all. Commitment theory and research draw together the importance of both family structure and quality of relationship for healthy stable families. Studies of relationship education programmes also show that great relationships can be taught and learnt, knocking one third or more off breakdown risk. It’s what my charity does really well, for example, even if we only scratch the surface.

Let me just highlight one especially promising new area of research from the US on stability amongst unmarried couples. This is important because the main driver of UK family breakdown since the 1980s has been precisely the collapse of unmarried couples. The early findings from this new research show that certain acts – such as taking out a joint club membership together, getting a pet together, buying a home together – tend to distinguish who stays together and who splits up. These “acts of dedication” all represent deliberate decisions that reflect future intent as a couple. Living together and having a baby together do not have such predictive value. Couples can “slide” more than “decide” through these transitions. The importance of decision-making on subsequent behaviour is one plausible explanation for why almost all intact couples with 15 year old children are married. The deliberate decision to marry represents the ultimate “act of dedication”.

So here is my serious and urgent question to the government. Where is your family policy?

You’ve been running the show for nearly a year. You must be aware of the gigantic and rising bill associated with family breakdown. £42,000 million every year. Through a variety of channels (including the independent ”Breakdown” and “Breakthrough” Britain family policy papers that you yourselves commissioned) you’ve been shown the evidence that it is not divorce but the collapse of unmarried families that is the driver behind rising family breakdown. Yet, aside from the solo efforts of Iain Duncan Smith, you have barely acknowledged the nature and extent of the problem, let alone policy solutions.

Part of this policy should involve family structure. The Prime Minister’s verbal support for marriage is confused by contradictory actions. The Department of Work and Pensions is reintroducing marital status into their research programmes. The Office of National Statistics is eliminating marital status from their future birth data. The recent Field poverty review and Allen early years review blindly and irresponsibly ignored any mention whatsoever of the impact of family structure. Elimination of the couple penalty is the most positive policy to date but will probably reduce fraud more than family breakdown. The trend away from marriage began twenty years before tax credits added their disincentive to family formation. The Prime Minister has research on his side. Government should be sending clear and unequivocal signals about the protective benefits of marriage.

Part of this policy should also involve family relationships. Despite pronouncements about the importance of relationship quality, you have no explicit policy on preventive relationship education programmes that offer the best chance of doing anything about this. Less than half of the newly awarded £7.5m annual funding for “relationship support” might be considered preventive. Even if all were preventive, this fund would still only represent £1 spent on turning off the tap for every £5,500 spent on mopping up the mess. It’s hardly a determined effort to get to grips with the serious problem of family breakdown.

What might a determined effort look like? Let me reiterate the enormous costs that we pay already. £42,000 million every year. A great deal of family breakdown is utterly avoidable. If that weren’t the case, relationship education programmes would have no impact. What would you spend today to try to reduce this bill tomorrow? £40 million could kick start a national rollout of relationship education. That’s still only a tiny 0.1%. If it proves fruitful, you should be far more ambitious.

So where is your family policy?


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