Family Policy: where next?

By August 18, 2014News

We are delighted that today the Prime Minister has announced the implementation of a ‘family test’ to examine all domestic policy for its impact on the family. His speech today is a welcome step in addressing some of the coalition government’s failures to develop and implement a coherent family policy. The Relationships Foundation has been making the case for more effective family policy since the run up to the last election — click for our family-proofing policy papers, making the case for family-proofing policyassessing the international impact of family-proofing policy and creating a conceptual framework for family-proofing policy

Our briefing note on the speech is below. Click here to view the briefing note as a PDF.

The Prime Minister’s speech on families and relationships today is a welcome step in addressing some of the coalition government’s failures to develop and implement a coherent family policy. Increased funding for relationships education is welcome. We are also pleased to see the promise of a ‘family test’ for all policy – something we have frequently called for. A family test has, however, been promised before (in October 2011) so it is essential that this time the government clearly set out how, and by whom, it will be done.

Relationships Foundation have been making the case for more effective family policy since the run-up to the last election, so this is an opportune time to review progress and highlight some key challenges for the next government.

The Relationships Foundation has published three papers on the subject of family-proofing policy, setting out the case for family-proofing of policy, assessing the international experience and laying out a conceptual framework for its implementation. You can see these papers here:

  1. Progressive Families, Progressive Britain: Why Britain Needs Family Proofing of Policy
  2. Family Proofing Policy: A Review of International Experience of Family Impact Assessment
  3. Towards a Conceptual Framework for Family Proofing Policy

In 2009, the year before the election, Relationships Foundation set out the basis for its approach to family policy in three main arguments:

  1. Families are influenced by policy in many areas and in turn influence progress in those areas.[1] Family policy should not therefore be seen as a narrow agenda, but something that encompasses policy in all areas. It remains a scandal that government departments are not clear and explicit (or worse, unaware) about the extent to which they rely on the contribution of families to achieve their policy goals. Health, social care, education, welfare, crime, housing and environment all require the contribution of families, so there should be a clear cross-government strategy to support and strengthen family relationships.
  2. Policy should be subject to a Triple Test – economic, environmental and social.[2]The social dimension of national wealth and progress is too often ignored. Without close attention to the state of all the relationships on which progress depends they risk becoming a by-product of policy driven by other priorities.
  3. Government should recognise the value of strong relationships and support them through careful attention on how the motivation to form and sustain relationships is influenced, the opportunities to do so enabled, and the support for weaker relationships provided. Equally, the cost to society of relationships that break down (£37 billion in this first assessment) must be recognised and action taken to reduce it.[3] This assessment has been updated annually and now stands at £46 billion. The poverty and incoherence of the government’s family policy is indicated by its failure to produce its own assessment of the cost of breakdown, though we welcome the fact that our figures are increasingly quoted and used by government.

Immediately after the coalition government was formed we proposed to the Cabinet Office a strategy to take forward the government’s family pledges. As part of its responsibility for overseeing the ‘Big Society’, and in tandem with its programme on community and civil society, we suggested that the Cabinet Office should establish at an early stage clear responsibility for the oversight of how the work of all Government departments contributes to the task of ensuring that strong and stable families are the bedrock of a strong and stable society. The development of a clear family policy should, we suggested, include four key actions:

  1. New overall measures of national progress should include social, as well as economic and environmental indicators
  2. Where specific policy goals are being reviewed these should include assessments of the extent to which family relationships are either intrinsic elements of those goals, or important means to achieving them.
  3. Government should consider tracking the capacity of family relationships to support desired policy outcomes more systematically, using this data to inform projections about future service demand pressures and outcomes, as well as needs for support.
  4. Increasing the relational literacy of policy-making (in the same way that basic economic literacy is presumed), reviewing the impact of key influencing factors on the family and proofing individual policies for their influence on the family.

Following on from this we demonstrated how families in the UK were amongst the most pressured in Europe (particularly in terms of debt burdens, housing costs, and care costs and pressures)[4], set out a model for family proofing policy[5] and called for a ‘family deal’ so that there was a clear understanding about expectations of the responsibilities of families, their contribution to social and economic progress, and the support they are entitled to expect.[6]  Recognising that couple relationships had been neglected by policy in comparison to parenting relationships, and that the public, legally-recognised intentional commitment of marriage risked being subsumed into a generic focus on couple relationships, we also provided practical advice and support for the launch of the Marriage Foundation[7] by the high court judge Sir Paul Coleridge. More recently we have been advising a group of MPs on the Social Capital Commission as they make the case for support for family and community relationships to be at the heart of the policymaking process.[8]

How the government has fared

The Conservative Party entered the 2010 election with strong pledges on how to ‘make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe’.  Recognising that ‘strong families are the bedrock of a strong society’ they promised to ‘help families with all the pressures they face’.  The bottom line of this was ‘Britain’s families will get our full backing across all our policies’.

The Family Friendly pledge survived into the Coalition Agreement: ‘the Government believes that strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of a strong and stable society. That is why we need to make our society more family friendly.’ After the coalition agreement was signed, David Cameron wrote in the Daily Mail that ‘making Britain more family-friendly is still a crucial objective of this coalition government’ (21 May 2010).  On 25th November 2011 David Cameron launched the Wellbeing consultation stating ‘I want every decision we take to be judged on whether it makes our country more or less family-friendly, and this new focus on wellbeing I believe will be an important part of that’.

The constraints of coalition, the struggle to make the ‘Big Society’ work as a narrative for government, and perhaps above all the priorities of deficit reduction and restoring economic growth, squeezed out much of the early optimism of social reform.  With household incomes under pressure, the most important support for families became support for their incomes. ‘Winning the global race’ and dealing with the fiscal deficit became the driving narrative of government. ‘Green crap’ that was seen as acting as a drag on growth was questioned, whist some aspects of family policy were more politely sidelined.

With families in the UK facing some of the most expensive childcare and housing in Europe, and with wage increases failing to keep pace with inflation, focussing on family finance was not unreasonable. And there has been some welcome action: funding for relationships education, more integrated support for troubled families, recognition of the importance of relationship stability in both the Social Justice Outcomes framework and in the Family Stability Review. Even the pledge to recognise marriage in the tax system has been belatedly fulfilled, though single earner couples will still find the  UK tax system to be particularly unfavourable to them in comparison to other countries.

Reflecting on the government’s work so far, and looking to the future we can identify a number of key mistakes and changes needed for the future.

1. A lack of clear responsibility for family policy

An early mistake was the lack of clearly designated cabinet level responsibility for family policy. This was partly a consequence of the Department for Children, Schools and Families changing to a more focused Department for Education. Family policy was also a casualty of coalition politics meaning that rather than clear leadership, responsibilities became dissipated across a number of departments. While the Social Justice cabinet committee has brought some integration, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has at times flexed his muscles, coherence across government is still limited.

2 Lack of Treasury support

Whilst the Prime Minister has made his support for family policy (and marriage) clear in many speeches[9], the Chancellor of the Exchequer is seen as less instinctively supportive. This hampers the development of a coherent family policy.

The government has not produced its own assessments of the costs of family breakdown. Given that this is such a significant area of spending, and the government’s desire to seek long term reductions in spending demands, this is quite extraordinary. Given the overwhelming evidence on the importance of relationships for public health (and thus demand pressures on the NHS), the role of families in social care (again a growing demand pressure), welfare dependency and the need for housing support, the much vaunted long term economic plan has a yawning gap. A globally competitive low tax economy that enables aspiration to be fulfilled simply cannot be achieved without a strong positive contribution from families.

The commitment to value and protect our natural capital illustrates the risks of lacking whole-hearted treasury support. The Natural Capital Committee[10] was established in 2012 to provide expert, independent advice to Government on the state of England’s natural capital. It was set up following  a commitment in the landmark 2011 Natural Environment White Paper, which was titled The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature. At the time we commented that is wrong for the government to measure the value of parks, not the families who play in them. But leaving aside the failure to measure, nurture and harness our social capital, the impact of such initiatives is highly dependent on the extent to which the Treasury recognises such issues as proper determinants of policy and indicators of progress.

3.Modern family policy should champion aspiration

Too often a fear of being seen as judgemental leads to timidity or neglect in family policy. Yet to support marriage is simply to support the hopes and dreams of the majority of people. Survey after survey shows that young people and cohabiting couples aspire to marriage. What happens in couples affects children, their development and life chances. Parenting does not take place in isolation.

The Conservative Party has long combined liberal elements with an emphasis on responsibility and the importance of institutions. At its best it cherishes the past and relishes the future, recognising that continuity is best served by well-managed change.

So what next?

There are many welcome recommendations on how to support relationships from the Relationships Alliance, Marriage Foundation, Centre for Social Justice and others. We hope these calls will be heeded by all parties.

Relationships can be strengthen by helping people develop the skills – access to high quality relationships education, particularly in the riskier early years of a relationship but also at times of transition is essential.

The way in which relationships are formed makes a difference. The Marriage Foundation has highlighted the dangers of ‘sliding’ into a relationship rather than deciding.[11] IPPR, amongst others, have highlighted the importance of commitment.[12]

The context for families also matters. We can create a climate that supports families. Or put them under intolerable pressure. Policies on debt, housing, social care, welfare, employment, among others can all change the way in which key factors such as time, finance and place shape relationships.

It is for this reason that family policy must be an integral part of the policy ‘big picture’. Without strong and healthy families making a positive contribution policy goals in many areas will be more difficult to achieve. And if families are simply the neglected by-product of policy driven by other priorities they will be more likely to break down with all the attendant emotional pain and economic costs.

As all the political parties consider their manifestos for the next election we hope that they will be clear about who will be responsible for family policy, how the vital contribution of families to policy goals will be acknowledged, and how a more supportive climate for families will be built.

Manifestos count for little after elections so we seek down payments of good intent. The Prime Minister’s speech today was a welcome start. We expect to hear more in the Chancellor’s autumn statement.





[1] The Penumbra Effect

[2] The Triple Test

[3] When Relationships Go Right / Go Wrong


[4] The Family Pressure Gauge

[5] Towards a Conceptual  Framework for Family Proofing Policy

[6] The Family Deal



[9] David Cameron’s party conference speech in 2006 set out his stall very clearly