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Jill Kirby: Will it be left to Ed Miliband to speak up for families?

Kirby-Jill By Jill Kirby

As Ed Miliband finally confirms his plans to marry the mother of his children, the Office of National Statistics has released provisional figures showing marriage rates in England and Wales declined steeply through the Labour years, with fewer weddings taking place in 2009 than at any time since 1895. 

But does the Coalition have any aspirations to halt the trend away from marriage, or to boost the couple family? The Government’s failure to develop a pro-family narrative has been under fire from all sides lately.

On Monday the Fabian Society berated George Osborne for Budget changes that will push low and middle-income families further into tax, chiming with criticisms previously levelled by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Last month’s annual review of comparative family taxation by Christian charity Care showed that the UK tax system is still the most anti-family in Europe, with a bias against families that is growing, not shrinking; the Budget has widened the gap.

In Tuesday's Telegraph Mary Riddell launched an all-out attack, asserting that David Cameron has “turned his back on the family.”  Riddell’s opening claim, that the presence of parents with young children on Saturday’s protest march represents a tipping point, is simply fanciful. But the danger for the Coalition is that a story is developing in both left and right-wing press which may prove difficult to dispel.

In fact, a number of pro-family policies are being enacted by the Coalition, such as the provisions in the new universal credit to reduce the couple penalty in the welfare system. And contrary to Mary Riddell’s claims, changes to child maintenance in the welfare bill are a long-overdue attempt to strengthen parental responsibility: in a significant change of emphasis, the onus will be on separating parents to agree a maintenance regime for their children, rather than simply assume that the state will take care of it.

Pro-family policies should not rest on state handouts, particularly if those handouts undermine a father’s role. Over at the Department of Education, Tim Loughton has also been working steadily to reduce the tangle of bureaucracy and interventionism which has done so much to undermine family life; today’s reports of proposals to pare down the ludicrous “Nappy Curriculum” are at least moving in the right direction.

But the picture remains very mixed, with ministers apparently holding back on some key initiatives. One of these is joint registration of births: the Fatherhood Institute recently expressed concern at the Government's failure to implement provisions enacted by Labour in 2009 requiring both parents to be registered on a child's birth certificate. This is an essential first step in ensuring that fathers do not walk away (or get excluded) from their responsibilities - surely a necessary underpinning of the Coalition's child support reforms? The Department of Education must clarify its position on this. And as Harry Benson recently pointed out here on ConservativeHome, since last year's election the Government has had very little to say about the importance of marriage and the value of family stability.

After thirteen years of anti-family policies from a Labour government, is the Coalition really going to let Ed Milband and his supporters become the voice of the British family? David Cameron may feel he has quite enough on his plate, but it’s time for his government to seize back the initiative, hone its message and send out some clear and consistent signals. Such as how and when it will start to redress the anti-family bias in the tax system, flagging up (and following through on) joint parental responsibility, endorsing effective relationship education and of course speaking up for marriage. If not now, then when?


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