It was a big ‘One Nation’ speech yesterday from the Prime Minister. He set out his vision for education and plans for welfare reform while visiting the Ormiston Bolingbroke Academy in Runcorn. The press inevitably made a big deal of his “ridiculous” welfare merry-go-round comment and what that might mean for the future of tax credits, but there were other mostly overlooked areas of the speech which were actually far more significant.
The speech focused on the Conservative ‘One Nation’ ideal – where we all get the opportunity to live a “good life” – and it had plenty to say on the subject of child poverty, marriage and the consequences of family breakdown. For David Cameron, the state has a manifest role to play in encouraging strong families to give children the best start in life.
This is a big deal because the Conservative Party has been rather mute on this matter as of late. Their 2015 General Election Manifesto squeezed in a paragraph on support for families that did little more than mention the marriage allowance and some funding for relationship support. Back in 2010 things were considerably different, when they dedicated three whole pages to families, including this:
Strong families are the bedrock of a strong society. They provide the stability and love we need to flourish as human beings, and the relationships they foster are the foundation on which society is built. The warmth of a child’s parenting is as important to their life chances as the wealth of their upbringing.
Labour’s complacent attitude to commitment has done untold harm, and their narrow approach ignores the importance of strengthening the relationships between all family members – children, parents, grandparents and the wider family. As a result, Britain is one of the least family-friendly countries in the world.
This will change with a Conservative government. We will help families with all the pressures they face: the lack of time, money worries, the impact of work, concerns about schools and crime, preventing unhealthy influences, poor housing. We will not be neutral on this. Britain’s families will get our full backing across all our policies.
Then, in August of last year, David Cameron introduced the ‘family test’ for all government policies. He explained:
“Whether it’s the benefits system incentivising couples to live apart or penalising those who go out to work or whether it’s excessive bureaucracy preventing loving couples from adopting children with no family at all.
“We can’t go on having government taking decisions like this which ignore the impact on the family.
“Put simply that means every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family.”
This is the attitude which any sensible government ought to have toward family stability, so for David Cameron to be back ‘on message’ is something of a relief.
There are two main reasons why putting meaningful family policy at the top of the agenda is of profound importance to government. Firstly, there are the financial implications of family breakdown.
Last year the Relationships Foundation estimated that the annual cost of family breakdown in this country is £46 billion. This is an eye-watering amount, and not far off the government’s entire education budget. It is also a fairly conservative assessment: others have put the figure at as much as £100 billion. These costs include increased benefits payments; treatment for related physical and mental health problems; social services and care; civil and criminal justice costs, and educational costs including dealing with behavioural problems, free school meals, and funding for looked-after children. Any government investment that keeps families together will be money well spent. For example, it is estimated that each pound spent on relationship support leads to between £8.60 and £11.50 of societal benefit.
Important as the financial aspect is, it pales in comparison to the human cost of broken relationships. Emotional security, financial well-being and life chances are far more likely to deteriorate when children are brought up without secure and stable environments. Family breakdown is a matter of social justice. It is inevitable that strong, secure families build a stronger, more secure society.
By their fifth birthday, children are three times more likely to see their parents separate if they are cohabiting rather than married. By the time they reach 15, the disparity is more pronounced: approximately 70 per cent of married parents will still be together, compared to 20 per cent of cohabiting parents. If you want stronger, more secure families, all the data and research suggests that the most effective way to see this happen is to value and invest in marriage. Every pound spent on marriage preparation has been found to lead to around £11.50 worth of societal benefits. Lone parents have been the focus of much government support in recent years, but irrespective of how unpopular it might be in some sections of society, it makes sense for governments to make a significant effort to encourage couples to marry and stay together.
Having said that, and bearing in mind David Cameron’s ‘family test’, there is undoubtedly still a great deal to do to get anywhere close to this ‘One Nation’ ideal. Our tax credit system still has a significant and perverse couple penalty. In a family with two children, where the mother earns £10,000 and the father £25,000, they would be better off by £9,417 if they lived apart. This figure is £110 higher than it was before the 2014 Autumn Statement, which doesn’t really cohere with a functioning ‘family test’.
There is a whole raft of policies which could be put in place to do more to support families. Conservative Home has devoted this week to the matter, and a number of commentators and analysts, including David Burrowes MP and Christian Guy, Director of the Centre for Social Justice, have proposed a wide selection of tax and welfare reforms that would be both workable and effective.
It is impossible, though, for the tide to turn through government action alone. Governments can do much to inculcate a good work/life balance, and even more to ensure that regimes of taxation don’t discriminate against families where one parent stays at home to look after their children. But societal attitudes are harder to change, and relationship difficulties are not fixed by political policies.
This is where the Church has a role. Marriage and the family are key concerns for Christians, and the churches should hold governments to account where they see that families are not being served well. But they should also encourage a government when it gets it right. Churches are in a unique position to offer help to those around them, whether they be families, young mothers or lone parents. Marriage and money courses, toddler groups and foodbanks are already widespread. But relationships support and counselling, along with investment in children and family workers, are areas ripe for growth. Tackling the barriers to marriage, such as the high costs of a wedding, are just as vital. The continuing fracturing of the family unit is only inevitable if we fail to make the effort to counsel, support and heal. If we allow the same mistakes, habits and lifestyles to carry over from one generation to the next, the cycle of breakdown becomes inexorable.
So, well done, Prime Minister, for speaking up for what is good and virtuous. Please listen to those who support you in this and are offering well-grounded ideas and advice. Be brave and do what is right. Make the changes needed to put families and their security first. You may not see much reward during your term of office, but even if others reap what you sow it will be a powerful legacy which will continue to bear fruit for decades to come.