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Samantha Callan: The Government is missing a coherent policy to challenge family breakdown

SamSamantha Callan is a policy expert at the Centre for Social Justice.

Yesterday the Prime Minister earmarked hard cash (£448 million) in a bid to come good on his riots pledge to turn around every troubled family in England. Whilst this is certainly a step in the right direction, we must ensure that the work of our valuable voluntary sector is protected and the broad strategy is driven by an identifiable and coherent family policy.

The ‘troubleshooters’, employed to act as a broker between families and services, can come from the voluntary (and private) sector. This already marks a more enlightened approach than the previous government's family intervention projects which, in many communities, simply delivered a better co-ordinated State offering.

Family ‘troubleshooting’ is labour-intensive work that hinges on building good relationships over the mid to long term and many voluntary sector organisations well-placed to help families change profoundly. But they cannot do it on fresh air or starvation rations. We have to look very carefully at the level of spend per family, because the complex problems that have dogged them to date will not be fixed by a short-term, programmatic approach. And while we welcome the payment by results approach, the way contracts are structured has to reflect these realities.

Precisely because it’s outcomes that matter, not inputs, the ambition has to be nothing less than transformed lives, as the Prime Minister himself said this morning. Just as the national poverty strategy has to be about far more than getting people across a fairly arbitrary income line, the troubled families programme has go beyond ensuring families slip below measurable thresholds of need which fool us into thinking we can tick the box that says they’re fixed and forget about them.

The hallmarks of changed lives need to be visible to ‘heal the scars of a broken society’. Rather than decreasing total annual days of truancy, we want to see young people engaged and achieving in education because they have ambition for their lives. Aspiration is the best contraception, so levels of teenage pregnancy should plummet. Anti-social behaviour should wither as parents become increasingly confident about how they can raise their children well. And, as couple relationships and family stability have such a significant impact on children’s achievements and sense of wellbeing, lower levels of relationship dysfunction and breakdown must also be seen as an attainable goal.

This is usually the vital missing ingredient in any concerted effort to strengthen the family, decreasing the strategy’s overall effectiveness as a result. Given its pro-family rhetoric, this Government should be the exception, yet almost nothing has been said or done to date about tackling family breakdown, the elephant in the family policy room. It’s a neglected but powerful driver of poverty and the inability to make relationships work is very often at the heart of the problems these ‘troubled families’ face.

Yet there is an even bigger gap in this Government’s overall strategy for social recovery which is any kind of identifiable and coherent body of family policy at all. Perhaps this lack is in fact driven by their inability to take on the challenge of family breakdown, given the Conservatives' pro-marriage rhetoric in Opposition. A comprehensive family strategy would be unable to ignore the role of explicit commitment and the need to stimulate a wide range of initiatives to help couples work through difficulties when almost half of all children born today will not grow up with both their parents.

Although turning troubled families around is very hard work, it is politically much easier to argue for this than for policies that suggest family breakdown is avoidable given that one third of all families have been directly affected by it. Yet finger-pointing is wholly avoidable; we should follow the lead of countries like Norway who have embedded couple support in their public health strategy. We need a cultural change around seeking help with family life in general and relationships in particular, with the knock on effect that this will reduce the stigma felt by many of these most troubled families. Greater family resilience is something we should all be aiming for.

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