Our ‘leaders’ are really ‘followers’

Yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron gave his first speech in a while on the importance of family. At a meeting held by the Relationships Alliance – the four biggest relationships organisations funded by government – he talked about his own family and how strong families in general mean less need for government.

Mr Cameron said several things that show he knows what the problem is. He talked about the £44 billion cost of family breakdown (latest figure from Relationships Foundation is actually £46 billion). And he talked unashamedly about the importance of commitment through marriage. Combine those two statements together and he has the foundation of the first ever pro-marriage policy that has a chance of turning back the terrible rising tide of family breakdown.

Instead, he stopped short. He talked about ‘problem families’, support for adoption, and maintenance of the £7.5 million funding that goes mostly to the Relationship Alliance. His big new initiatives are a new ‘family test‘ on all government policies and a very sensible change of responsibility for family support to the Department for Work and Pensions. After all, DWP spends the bulk of the money on benefits and tax credits so has the most incentive to control costs.

None of this is in any way bad. It just doesn’t begin to deal with the sheer scale of the problem. For example, spending on relationship support equates to 1.6p for every £100 on family breakdown. Frankly, that’s really not going to make a lot of difference, more so as most of the money goes on counselling couples in trouble rather than avoiding problems in the first place. Nor does it deal with the primary driver of family breakdown which is the trend away from marriage. Half of all breakdown now comes from unmarried couples despite only being one fifth of parents.

Coalition flagship policies that pay couples £7,100 more in tax credits if they live apart than together, that pay parents to put children in childcare and tax those who leave one parent at home, and that ask couples if they are ‘living together as if married’, might pass a ‘family test’. But they certainly won’t pass a ‘family breakdown test’.

The PM is clearly getting excellent input on the problem from some of his MPs and from organisations like the Centre for Social Justice. Nor can he have missed the extensive media coverage of Marriage Foundation research over the past couple of years showing the evidence for why marriage is so essential to stability.

And yet there is still no sign of a willingness to embrace a solution. It feels a little like the 1970s when the science had found a link between smoking and cancer … and yet everybody smoked. Then it was hard for politicians to set policies that discouraged smoking. Today of course, we’ve bitten that particular bullet.

With family breakdown, it’s as if we’re still stuck in the 1970s. We have all this evidence that the act of cohabitation itself can trap fragile relationships onwards into even more fragile childbirth and that the act of marriage itself represents a decision that removes ambiguity. The result is that almost all couples – 93% – who stay together until their children are teenagers are married.

Yet the ubiquity of cohabitation seems to blind politicians to this. When Mr Cameron talks about marriage, he quickly qualifies his statement with a proviso that we need to support families of all types. That’s wise and compassionate in terms of avoiding dogma about the present generation of families. But it’s neither wise nor compassionate in terms of setting the boundaries within which future generations of families have their best shot at remaining intact.

My confidence and hope is that the evidence will always win through in the end. With smoking, it was public opinion that eventually led the politicians to act. The same is bound to happen with cohabitation. Eventually the evidence will filter through to public opinion. And then the politicians will act.

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