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Jill Kirby

Jill Kirby: The benefits of a family-based social policy

When the Tory faithful last met in Birmingham, two years ago, an audacious announcement by George Osborne on breakfast TV dominated the headlines. In a bid to show that the middle classes would share the pain of a fiscal squeeze, the Chancellor declared that any family with a 40% taxpayer would cease to receive child benefit. The sting in the tail of this particular cut was that it would spare many comfortably off dual-earner households whilst penalising families with just one breadwinner. Coming from a party that once promised to introduce transferable tax allowances and remove the “marriage penalty”, this was a startling turn of events.

Amid the resulting furore, the Treasury agreed to lift slightly the threshold for the child benefit withdrawal, but the one-earner penalty remains. As the policy comes into effect this tax year, all taxpayers earning £50,000 or more must be quizzed on their family circumstances, to find out if they are living with someone in receipt of child benefit, which will then be clawed back through a new tax charge. This is fraught with problems, particularly in cases where families break up or new relationships are formed. All couples living together with children will be obliged to disclose their financial affairs to each other, and the tax system will take on complexities and hidden penalties formerly confined to the welfare system. One thing is clear: married couples will be first in line to suffer the clawback, because their relationship is on the record. Just as in the welfare system, looser forms of relationship will be much more difficult to define and capture.

How did a supposedly pro-family Conservative party find itself advocating a new form of marriage penalty? We have come a long way since David Cameron put marriage at the top of his personal policy agenda. And it's too easy to blame the constraints of coalition government for the failure to assert a distinctive family policy as part of the Conservative worldview. Conservatives in government have simply failed to identify and promote this building block of the strong society.

Of course the coalition's record on social policy is not all bad. It has taken some important steps to improve children's lives: insisting on higher standards in schools, speeding up adoption, reducing bureaucracy for social workers to give them more time on the front line, demanding better value for money from Sure Start spending. Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms should create better incentives for families to work their way out of poverty - although the couple penalty in welfare will largely persist in the new system. But one of the most important predictors of children's life chances is growing up in a stable family. As the Centre for Social Justice pointed out in its recent “report card”, the government has failed to introduce any policies to help keep families together, or to support that most important factor in determining family stability, the decision to marry.

When Nick Clegg makes one of his speeches characterising marriage as an outmoded institution, conjuring up images of 1950s housewives at the kitchen sink, he makes clear his disdain for the marriage-based family. Despite his own happy marriage, he prefers to ignore the weight of evidence showing how marriage improves children's lives, and how this institution remains the most popular lifestyle aspiration for young people. But the curious thing is that David Cameron never seems to feel the need to rebut the Deputy Prime Minister's assertions with a more positive narrative of his own. Back in the early days of Mr Cameron's leadership, as he sought to define himself in the public eye, I had a conversation about family policy with one of his closest allies, now a senior minister. He told me there was no chance that David Cameron would waver in his support for marriage. It was, he insisted, a defining issue, something he would stand by even if it made him unpopular in some quarters. Voters would see that he felt passionately and personally about it.

What happened to that passion? It's still abundantly clear from the Prime Minister's demeanour, his evident attachment to his wife and children and his prioritisation of home life, that his marriage and family are the most important things in his life, providing him with resilience and enabling him to cope with personal tragedy. Yet in government he has seemed unable to articulate his earlier beliefs, least of all to apply them to a programme of policy. The only occasions on which he has spoken with passion on the subject of marriage have been when he has pledged to redefine the institution in order to include gay marriage. But in terms of repairing the social fabric and giving children a better start in life, the ability of gay couples to marry rather than enter civil partnerships is irrelevant. It is therefore baffling, as well as disappointing, to many Conservatives that the Prime Minister has chosen to expend so much energy, and to court controversy, on this issue. Rather than building support, it has created unnecessary divisions: setting up antagonism between family campaigners and gay people, alienating many Tory voters and party workers, and setting churches and faith groups at odds with the Conservative party.

In the meantime, the party lacks a distinctive and coherent social agenda. Apparently lacking ideas of its own, the coalition has chosen Tony Blair's respect tsar Louise Casey to supervise a £450m scheme to transform the lives of Britain's 120,000 “Troubled families.” Her report on the problems besetting these households is depressingly familiar: shifting relationships, family breakdown, dysfunctional parenting, teenage motherhood, drug and alcohol abuse. But a long line of reports on the causes of the broken society, including Oliver Letwin's Conveyor Belt to Crime back in 2002 and the CSJ's Breakdown Britain in 2006, had set out precisely the same problems. Unlike the authors of those reports, however, Ms Casey has made no policy recommendations for stemming the tide of family breakdown or breaking the cycle of casual relationships. Her proposals for intensive intervention with a small number of families may briefly staunch the wounds of the most damaged families but will not stop the conveyor belt, or cut off the routes into delinquency. For as long as welfare payments continue to pave the way to young single motherhood, to relieve families of the need for a father's support, and attach no conditions to the use of those payments, children will continue to be raised in chaotic homes.

One theme which quite clearly unites the coalition partners is the desire to promote social mobility. It is an issue to which the Deputy Prime Minister frequently returns. Yet the single biggest factor in determining educational success is parental input; research shows that it is the time, commitment and involvement of parents that most influences a child's level of attainment. School reform is vitally important, but its effects will be limited unless attention is paid to strengthening families.

The benefits of a family-based social policy do not stop with children. Daunted by the cost of looking after an increasingly elderly population, the government is understandably reluctant to make expensive new commitments on social and residential care. But a pro-family tax policy, such as the transferable allowance proposed by Allister Heath's 2020 Tax Commission, could be used to help families  care for their elderly relations. Indeed, almost any measure taken to strengthen family relationships will carry a pay-off through to old age.

David Cameron has long understood that his party must offer much more than deficit reduction if it is to win the country over to Conservative values. But the messages he has sent out from Downing Street on social policy issues, from saving the NHS to building the Big Society, have been sporadic and disconnected. Recovering his confidence to talk about strong families, as the heart of a strong society, would enable him not only to connect up a range of government initiatives, it would also enable him to connect with an audience who still don't know where a Conservative government might lead them.


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