David Cameron has pledged to make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe. To achieve that, the Government will have to expend the necessary political capital to tackle the ‘elephant in the room’ – family breakdown.
There has, over the last 40 years, been an escalation in family breakdown (divorce and separation, father absence and dysfunctional relationships). One out of two children born today will not grow up living with both their parents. Family breakdown costs the country £46bn a year (£1,541 to every tax payer) and Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) research has shown that it is our poorest communities – and children – that have been most affected.
Family and social relationships are among the most important factors contributing to wellbeing, yet there does not seem to be anyone with Cabinet-level responsibility waking up every morning thinking about how to ensure families are markedly more resilient when the Coalition leaves office.
Other countries and states have ministries or even government departments focused on strengthening the family – for example British Columbia, Kansas, Germany and Spain.
In the UK, family policy has always been an easily evicted squatter in other departments. Initially there was a Family Policy Unit in the Home Office which was then relocated to the Department for Education (DfE). Shortly after gaining formal acknowledgment in the Department for Children, Schools and Families (a large department in which family policy was often muscled out by education), it lost its explicit recognition once again in the DfE. Without a responsible minister, at cabinet or other level, it has taken to lurking somewhat apologetically in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The reason often cited for not having such a ministry in the UK is that the family is a cross-cutting issue. Yet families are foundational to all other areas of social and economic life. Family breakdown particularly affects high spending departments such as health – and complex issues like the lack of housing – but this is rarely made explicit and prioritised accordingly.
The Office for National Statistics recently highlighted a large increase in the proportion of one-person households, a key driver of the rising cost of housing and the need for more properties. Fewer people in mid-life are married while more are divorced or seperated. In 2010, 10 per cent of adults aged 25 to 44 were living alone, compared to just 2 per cent in 1972.
There are plenty things this Government can do to help support and strengthen families. We need marriage to be recognised in the taxation system and the importance of families and relationships to be acknowledged in public health. But we also urgently need a Department for Families that will take a firm grip on a range of issues spread across different parts of the Government and provide a strong strategic lead within the Cabinet.
As suggested in the CSJ report Forgotten Families, these could include: family law and relationship support; Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcas); child protection and social services; domestic abuse; youth justice and the wider youth agenda; families’ and children’s mental health; and issues relating to older age.
Transforming the machinery of government in this way is a vital first step for enabling significant progress to be made in improving the ‘family-friendliness’ of the UK; sending a huge signal while incurring a relatively low cost.