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Fully Committed? How government could reverse family breakdown

July 2014

Full Report

Executive summary

Press release

This report has been written because we believe the instability threatening many families in our country is not inevitable and cannot be overlooked. It has been published because fewer children and adults should bear the scars of broken homes. It is presented to all political parties in the hope they might take the action necessary to stem the tide. 

The inconvenient truth, as the Centre for Social Justice and others have demonstrated, is that Britain is now a world-leader when it comes to family breakdown. Only around two-thirds of all our children are in intact families compared with countries such as Finland where over 95 per cent of children under 15 live with both of their parents (the OECD average is 84 per cent).

Furthermore there is compelling evidence that this breakdown and instability is especially acute in the most deprived communities. Poorer parents are 50 per cent less likely to be married (the most stable family form for children) and over four times as likely to be single parents than those from wealthier backgrounds.

So while almost 40 per cent of 12–16 year olds in better-off households no longer live with both their mother and father, this proportion rises to two-thirds for poorer children. And almost half of the poorest children begin school living in broken homes – this is seven times the number of those in the richest households.

Increasingly, therefore, we can see how stability at home is a preserve of the better off and how family breakdown causes, as well as is caused by, poverty. This matters because many people in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods lack the resilience, networks and capital which help many people in the better off areas to withstand and recover from family breakdown. That is why this is a social justice issue.

In response some people dismiss the claim that family breakdown damages society, often arguing that it tends not to hold people back or create lasting damage. Others claim that although family breakdown hits hard, there is nothing we can do to reduce it and even if there was, Government has no right to intervene. Some even argue that family breakdown does not cause poverty – instead they claim it is only the pressure of low income which causes family breakdown.

However well-intended or sincerely-held these views may be, they are misguided and must be challenged. That is what we have attempted to achieve in this family policy review – through its interim paper Fractured Families and this one – as well as a through a decade of wider research and policy recommendations. In partnership with numerous families, charities, academics and professionals we have established a body of evidence which, for anyone willing to consider it rationally, establishes family instability firmly as an urgent social justice concern for public policy makers.

Some very important progress has been secured under the Coalition Government as we recognise in this report, but those responsible for the success stories would be the first to argue that we are still at the beginning of what is necessary.

What we present in this report and our wider work amounts to a comprehensive, exciting and realistic programme to prevent and reverse family breakdown in Britain. Contained here are ideas to support couples, to strengthen society’s support for marriage, to re-cast Sure Start, to reform child maintenance and to improve the way complex families are assisted. This has been made possible by the work of a dedicated team of volunteer experts and a team at the CSJ. In particular my thanks go to Avril McIntyre MBE who has led her working group with tremendous enthusiasm and integrity, and to the members of the group who have offered invaluable input throughout. They have been supported superbly by David Marjoribanks and Dr Samantha Callan, as well as Alex Burghart. 

In essence this work amounts to a call on whichever group of politicians enters office next year to commit to being the first Government in history to reverse the traumatic rise of family instability. It is possible and it is essential. It will require political boldness and fearless leadership in the face of some disappointing apathy about these issues in Westminster. But our country would benefit immeasurably and the CSJ stands ready to support those who will make these vital decisions.