“Family comes first.”
That was a key message of yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister at the Conservative Party conference. He expanded on this statement further:
“These are difficult times. We’re being tested. How will we come through it? Again, it’s not complicated. Hard work. Strong families. Taking responsibility. Serving others.
“Can we – the people who invented the welfare state in the first place – turn it into something that rewards effort, helps keep families together and really helps the poorest with a new start in life. Yes.”
I sincerely believe that addressing family breakdown and its effects on individuals and society is one of the most (if not the most) pressing and important issues we currently face in our country. If we’re going to tackle welfare dependency, mental health issues, education, aspiration and a host of other things, we can’t ignore the quality of upbringing that our children face and that very much includes the state of our families. If we want to see a tangible outcome of our nation turning away from biblical values over the last few decades, then the erosion of stable families and the increase in our inability to form strong and long lasting relationships is a prime example.
I’m not alone in believing that this is a major issue that urgently needs addressing. Although the Government can play its part, it’s not one that we can expect them to sort out; it goes far deeper than that. It’s a moral, cultural and spiritual one. and the statistics of it all can still shock.
The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which is an independent think tank, released a new policy paper on Monday entitled ‘Forgotten Families: The vanishing agenda’. Through it’s research it paints a troubling picture of the state of family life across our country. The introduction sets the scene:
Thriving families and stable childhoods should be the foundations on which we build a better Britain. Strong families are the seedbed in which other reforms can take root. Yet there has, over the last 40 years, been an escalation in family breakdown (divorce and separation, father absence and dysfunctional relationships) and our research has shown that it is our poorest communities – and children – that have been most affected.
While they were in Opposition, the Conservative Party repeatedly talked about the importance of the family, how they would prioritise family strengthening policies if elected and the need to support marriage and commitment and tackle family breakdown. David Cameron has reiterated this as Prime Minister:
‘I have always made it clear what I think about the family. I think families are immensely important. I am pro-commitment, I back marriage and I think it’s a wonderfully precious institution… Strong families are the foundation of a bigger, stronger society… There’s a whole body of evidence that shows how a bad relationship between parents means a child is more likely to live in poverty, fail at school, end up in prison or be unemployed in later life… Unlike the last government that focused almost exclusively on children, we have had the courage to say loud and clear that if you want what is best for children you have to address not just children but families and relationships too.’
Despite popular support for this emphasis – half way through the Parliament it has disappeared almost without trace. This has happened before.
Many have forgotten that at the 1995 Labour Party Conference Blair said ‘a strong society cannot be morally neutral about the family’ and in 1996 he referred to ‘the development of an underclass of people, cut off from society’s mainstream, living often in poverty, the black economy, crime and family instability’ as a ‘moral and economic evil.’ Not long after he came to power, however, family instability, the hot potato of social policy and arguably the root cause of wider social breakdown, was dropped from this formula.
The paper opens with these social indicators that point towards more, not less, unstable families:
- 48 per cent of all children born today will see the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.
- In 2011 two-thirds of the UK’s families were made up of married couples, a drop of five per cent since 2001
- There has been a three percentage point rise in cohabiting couple families – up from 16 per cent in 2001 to 19 per cent in 2011 – and a rise of two percentage points in loneparent families (from 14 per cent to 16 per cent)
- These increases are related: cohabiting couple families are less stable and more likely to result in children growing up in a lone-parent household
- It is the breakdown of unmarried parents’ relationships that is the biggest problem: the number of divorces has been declining since they peaked in 1993
- Without addressing these trends, only 57 per cent of families would be headed by married couples by 2031, with 22 per cent by cohabiting couples, and 20 per cent by lone parents;
- if this rate of change were sustained, married couple families would become a minority within 35 years.
The scale and cost of family breakdown in this country and is one of Whitehall’s best-kept secrets.
Family breakdown costs society £44 billion a year and is associated with a range of poor outcomes for adults and children: educational failure, mental and physical ill-health, likelihood of becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol, and living in debt and poverty. Many commentators would agree that poverty contributes to family breakdown but they are less comfortable about acknowledging the converse – that family breakdown leads to poverty.
- Children in lone parent families have a much higher risk of living in poverty than children in couple families. 41 per cent of children in lone parent families live in households with the poorest 20 per cent of incomes, compared to 22 per cent of children in couple families.
- 28 per cent of children in lone-parent families live in relative poverty, in households earning less than 60 per cent of median income, compared with 17 per cent of those in couple families.
Children of separated parents (in comparison with those whose parents remain together) are at increased risk of:
- Growing up in poorer housing;
- Experiencing behavioural problems;
- Performing less well in school and gaining fewer educational qualifications;
- Needing more medical treatment;
- Leaving school and home when young;
- Becoming sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age;
- Reporting more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence and adulthood.
The disadvantages of one generation tend to be reproduced in the next. The children of divorced parents are estimated to be twice as likely as children of non-divorced parents to experience divorce themselves.
After more statistics that I don’t have space to repeat here, the paper moves on to highlighting the benefits and importance of marriage:
If the Government is to be effective in emphasising stability and the importance to children of growing up with both parents, it cannot afford to be neutral or non-committal about marriage:
- 97 per cent of all couples still intact by the time a child is 15 are married;
- Fewer than one in ten married parents have split by the time a child is five compared with more than one in three who were not married. Where parents were not living together when a child is born, the break-up rate (five years later) is a staggering 60 per cent;
- 75 per cent of family breakdown involving children under 5 results from the separation of unmarried parents.
The ‘selection effects’ argument (i.e. that those who marry tend to be better able, from the outset to make relationships work, because they have higher incomes, better education, more social support etc.) is inadequate to explain these significant differences in outcome. Moreover, marriage is a social justice issue; aspirations to marry are similarly high across the social classes but further down the ladder it becomes harder to realise those aspirations for economic and cultural reasons.
This recognition of marriage gives another example of how the Bible gets these things right despite what some may say. Although, as I believe, stable marriage is by far the best situation for children to grow up in, we know that life isn’t always that simple and things go wrong in relationships. At the same time we should welcome anything that can be done to keep families together and that encourages strong marriages to be built and maintained. I recently heard of a church in a deprived part of Liverpool that found that local couples often were not choosing to get married because they could not afford the ceremony. They decided to buy wedding outfits that could be lent out and helped couples arrange weddings on a small budget. As far as I’m aware the initiative has been a huge success.
The CSJ paper ends by giving a range of proposals of how the Government should move to further support families. Its key recommendation is that a Department for Families should be established:
We believe that families are the bedrock of strong societies. In order to recognise this and truly champion and support family life, we believe that the Department for Children, Schools and Families should be divided into the Department for Families and the Department for Education.
Such a Department would take a firm grip on a range of issues currently spread across several different parts of government and provide a strong strategic lead within Cabinet. These could include, for example: family law and relationship support; Cafcass; 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. This would be the ideal department in which a Minister for Older People would operate, given the strong link our recent Older Age Review established between family breakdown and poor outcomes such as isolation, loneliness and pensioner poverty.
Basing all these policy areas in a Department for Families would better enable issues to be dealt with by taking a family perspective. Our research suggests this would be more effective than current approaches in which individuals are often treated in isolation.
I’m really impressed with what the CSJ has to say on this whole area. The problems are clearly highlighted and the proposals look to be sensible and potentially effective. We can’t carry on as we are without there being further detrimental consequences to our society. David Cameron has done the talking but he and his government can’t afford to allow this state of affairs to carry on unaddressed.
All those who believe in the timeless value of marriage and the need for healthy, stable families including the Government and churches need to be proactive taking action to promote and support them beyond just voicing concerns. Families are struggling across our country and if action can be taken to improve the state of play, then to ignore it and do nothing fails us all.