A Martini moment for DWP?

Good news.

A couple of weeks ago, the Department of Work and Pensions noted that 250,000 more children – especially those in low income households – were being brought up in two parent families.

Rather unwisely, DWP went on to link this to government policy. The BBC’s Mark Easton exploded the claim. Quite simply, the change took place before government programmes were implemented. Even then, the scale of government intervention is nowhere near wide enough. The number of couples reached by preventive relationship programmes runs to the mere thousands. And the 120,000-strong so-called “troubled families” programme would have to turn all into “untroubled families” overnight – and re-establish co-parenting with both natural parents – which isn’t going to happen.

However Cupid, in the shape of Iain Duncan Smith, may be about to put in a long overdue reappearance.

According to the Telegraph, a new initiative is due to be unveiled this summer that will offer services to couples through midwives, GPs, and registrars.

As a general principle, this is smart.

Half of all family breakdown takes place in the first two or three years of parenthood. Given that the cost of breakdown is estimated at £46 billion a year – more than the defence budget, as I constantly remind anyone who will listen – any initiative that attempts to reduce the huge scale of family breakdown in these early years is welcome.

So what will these initiatives look like?

The sort of thing that works really well is a post-natal relationship session I developed in the mid-2000s and ran in Bristol. Called Let’s Stick Together, and now being rolled out nationally by the charity Care for the Family, it contains three simple evidence-based ideas that strengthen relationships. Easy to teach. Easy to understand and apply.

Over a period of six years, along with my team of volunteers, I managed to teach this programme to 4,000 new mums and 1,500 other parents just in Bristol. Despite the session lasting only an hour, a recent DfE-backed evaluation found that “many participants reported positive impacts of attending several months afterwards”.

The success of Let’s Stick Together is because the programme goes to the people rather than trying to persuade the people to come to the programme. This is where midwives, health visitors and Surestart managers come in. All run groups attended by large numbers of new parents. In Bristol, we had to chat them up one by one.

A national government-backed programme should be able to open the door even more easily. It will do even better if it persuades the NHS to move all ante-natal programmes into Surestart – at zero cost – which will then encourage many more mothers to stay on for post-natal programmes. Unbelievably, this rarely happens.

There’s no doubt that longer relationship education programmes – such as the pre-marriage courses run by Relationship Central or Marriage Care – are far more effective. The same DfE-run evaluation found that marriage preparation programmes produce “positive changes in relationship quality” and provide “substantially greater savings to society than they cost to deliver”.

The problem with longer courses, as all providers are well aware, is that it is extremely hard to attract people to courses that they don’t know they need.

Back in Bristol, I ran a one day marriage preparation programme that regularly reached just 3% of couples getting married within the Bristol area. Contrast that with the 25% of first time mothers I accessed through the one hour programme Let’s Stick Together.

This is why DWP are so keen to see relationship courses offered routinely through ante-natal and post-natal services.

It’s the right time and the right place.

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