This is my second post reviewing the new government paper entitled ‘Social Justice: Transforming Lives’ launched by Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith. The first post is entitled: The breakdown of our society in numbers.
Social Justice: Transforming Lives seeks to address the challenge of lifting families and individuals out of poverty in our country. In particular it is attempting to find ways to meet the Prime Minister’s ambition to turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families by the end of the Parliament.
Iain Duncan Smith, in his foreword, outlines the two main principles that are driving his strategy. Firstly, prevention, i.e. intervening in lives from an early age onwards to stop individuals falling off track and into difficult circumstances. Secondly, the concept of a ‘second chance society’ where anyone who needs a second chance in society should be able to access the support and tools they need to transform their lives.
So far, so good. Mr Duncan Smith admits that this is not a new challenge, but believes a new approach or ‘vision’ as he puts it is required to see this achieved. What the report quite rightly identifies is that is that to measure poverty in purely monetary terms, is to not truly understand what poverty entails. You can hand out enough money to someone to raise their income above the poverty line, but if they don’t know how to use that money to improve their living standards and raise their quality of life, how much better off are they really? Poverty goes beyond income. Many people suffer from poverty of aspiration, of hope, of belief, of worldview. These may be harder to define, but they need to be addressed as seriously if certain sections of our society are going to break away from the deprivation, apathy and brokenness that continually hold them back.
The document identifies five areas the government needs to address effectively if it is to succeed in its objectives:
• The importance of the family as the first and most important building block in a child’s life.
• Focusing on the role of schools in preventing disadvantaged children falling out of the mainstream – through truancy, exclusion or from coming into contact with gangs or the youth justice system.
• Ensuring that once young people leave education, they are met by a system which is supportive and incentivises work.
• Supporting the most disadvantaged adults in society whose life has gone off course.
• Using the best organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors at a local level to change the lives of the most disadvantaged individuals and families in the UK.
These are all commendable, if somewhat obvious goals. Later on the report does flesh out considerably how the Government proposes to make these happen with some sensible ideas and intentions. The final point, in particular, although not specifically mentioned in the detail appears to be showing that the Government will be looking towards faith groups and organisations to work with them to deliver the services needed. This ties in with the Government’s talk of encouraging Churches and Christian organisations to be one of the main driving forces behind its vision of the ‘Big Society’. It’s early days at the moment, but the right noises continue to be made advocating the role of churches and Christian groups in our communities.
The part of the report that caught my eye the most was the section on families and the best environment for children to be brought up in. These are direct quotes:
‘The family is the first and most important building block in a child’s life and any government serious about delivering Social Justice must seek to strengthen families.’
‘Outcomes are better when relationships don’t break down. So if we are to improve outcomes both in the early years and in adulthood, we need to support couples in forming strong and lasting partnerships and in providing the stable family environments that are best for raising children.’
‘Given that married relationships tend to have greater longevity and stability than other forms, this Government believes marriage often provides an excellent environment in which to bring up children. So the Government is clear that marriage should be supported and encouraged.’
‘This is not to say that lone-parents and step families cannot provide high levels of love and support for children – all types of family structure have the potential to provide the stability that is vital for enabling good outcomes. But – whilst this is not the case in every situation – we should recognise that the impact of multiple relationship transitions and changes in family structure are particularly detrimental to children. So, where it is practicable and safe, the presence of the same two parents in a warm, stable relationship throughout childhood is particularly important.’
This is good news! There might be a debate raging at the moment about the Government’s intentions to legalise same-sex marriages, but whatever your viewpoint is on this, it does show that the Government wants to encourage marriage. The report goes on to identify ways in which current Government policy goes against the support of marriage:
‘But we also know that past government policy across a range of areas, from welfare to the legal system, has exacerbated the rising trend in family breakdown:
• The couple penalty in the welfare system: The way that benefits and tax credits are paid in the current welfare system means that many couples are better off living apart than if they choose to live together.
• Treating symptoms not causes: There has been a failure in recent years to give sufficient focus to the prevention of relationship breakdown, with resources overwhelmingly focused on dealing with the consequences of that breakdown.
• An antagonistic child maintenance system that does not encourage people to make family-based arrangements: The current system is not working – only around half of children in separated families benefit from an effective child maintenance arrangement. Too often the system pushes families down the inefficient and expensive statutory route by default, which takes responsibility away from parents and can cause conflict and hostility.’
I have to say that on the whole I agree with this analysis. I don’t want to blame the previous Labour government for all of this as marriage has suffered from a loss of respect for many years, but there are clearly failings in the system that ignore the benefits of stable family relationships, especially for the children. There are so many reasons to support marriage. We must always look to do what we can to support the upbringing of children whatever their family situation and I don’t want to condemn those who don’t fit into the traditional family within marriage mould; everyone needs to try to make the most of whatever position they find themselves in. However, when you look at the hard evidence, stable parental relationship is always what we should be striving for and marriage is evidentially the best form of this.
The Social Justice: Transforming Lives report attempts to tackle some incredibly complex and deep seated problems. There simply are no quick fixes to these issues. Reading the report, it does appear that Iain Duncan Smith is thinking deeply about how we can try to turn things around. He realises that government can only do so much and that many of the beliefs that Christianity holds about how we should live our lives need to be taken on board. He doesn’t put it in these words, but it still comes across in the subtext. He is a Christian and his beliefs are clearly having an impact on how he is shaping policy in his department. He may not have been the right person to lead his party, but hopefully through his policies at the Department for Work and Pensions some good will come and we should be thankful that there are some people running the country like him who are looking at their roles through the lens of their faith and allowing it influence their work for the better.