Well, well, well!
After many years of being quite cross with government for its lamentable absence of any kind of policy to reduce family breakdown, I am delighted to say that government has at last come up with a policy that really could turn out to be quite good.
The new ‘family test‘ is really five tests that civil servants are supposed to ask of every new policy before it gets anywhere near a minister. If this policy is introduced into law and therefore has real teeth and real consequences, it could actually make a difference.
For that I congratulate Iain Duncan Smith and his DWP team who drafted it. And just a matter of days after the launch of their bland and insipid ‘Relationship Manifesto‘ that failed to address family structure at all, it seems the ‘Relationship Alliance‘ have achieved something really good in providing DWP with advice. So well done them as well.
Here are the five tests and why I think they are so interesting:
- What kind of impact might the policy have on family formation?
- What kind of impact will the policy have on families going through key transitions such as becoming parents, getting married, fostering or adopting, bereavement, redundancy, new caring responsibilities or the onset of a long-term health condition?
- What impacts will the policy have on all family members’ ability to play a full role in family life, including with respect to parenting and other caring responsibilities?
- How does the policy impact families before, during and after couple separation?
- How does the policy impact those families most at risk of deterioration of relationship quality and breakdown?
The mention of ‘family formation’ is a massive one. Government, so far as I know, has never had much to say about this, preferring to concentrate on making soothing and meaningless noises about ‘hard working families’. But just asking the question should make the government think about how couples form their relationships through cohabitation and/or marriage.
- Will a new policy make it more likely that couples ‘slide’ into living together (less likely to be stable) or ‘decide’ to begin a family as an intentional act (more likely to be stable)?
- Will the government now be forced to question the ludicrous policy (known as the ‘couple penalty’) whereby couples with children receive up to £7,100 per year more in tax credits if they live apart, or pretend to live apart, as at least 300,000 couples already do?
I also like the mention of ‘family transitions’. These are amazing access points for all sorts of interventions. I hope I can see the influence of the Breakdown Britain and Breakthrough Britain papers I co-wrote under the leadership of the formidably wonderful Dr Samantha Callan at the Centre for Social Justice back in 2006 and 2007.
The test on ‘family members’ ability to play a full role’ implies that government should be interested in helping families remain intact. When families split up, fathers in particular become much less likely to be involved. If you want couples to stay together, that necessarily means marriage. Few couples – less than one in five – who never marry will stay together. The result is that 93% of all intact couples with teenage children are married.
- So does this mean the government will now be forced to back marriage?
For me, the fourth point on separation is the least compelling. Most of what influences whether couples separate is the sheer complexity of disentangling two private lives and in finding some sort of alternative arrangement. There’s already an entire legal and social edifice on sorting out the mess afterwards. So I’m not sure what this point adds. But hey, it’s a red letter day. So I’m happy to let this one go!
The final test on ‘families most at risk’ is, for me, the most interesting. There are plenty of studies that identify the risk factors for relationship breakdown. These include age, income, education and mothers’ background. Policy is either well-engaged or can’t do much about most of these areas anyway. They are in effect ‘static risk factors’ that are hard to change. What is changeable, and therefore a ‘dynamic risk factor’, is the single biggest risk factor of all. Whether couples marry or not.
Depending on the extent to which this new five pronged ‘family test’ has teeth – ie can be legally enforced, legally challenged, and have serious consequences for government policy – could it be the case that government has accidentally let in a first ever pro-marriage policy by the back door?