I beg to move,
That this House has considered the application of the family test.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am delighted to have secured this debate and to be introducing it; it is a refreshing change to be in this Chamber talking about something other than Brexit.
I secured the debate because this year marks the fifth anniversary of the family test, which was introduced when David Cameron was Prime Minister, so I felt it would be an appropriate time to review the test’s application across Government. While conducting my review, I was intrigued to learn that almost 150 parliamentary questions had been asked on the topic since the test’s introduction. There is significant interest in its application—particularly among my Conservative colleagues, if I may say so.
I am pleased to present to the House the review of the family test that I conducted with the Centre for Social Justice—I have a copy here. I place on record my thanks to Frank Young of the CSJ for his work with me on producing it, and to my parliamentary assistant Sam Yung, for his very hard work. As an elected Member, I get the credit for the report, but I should acknowledge that, as usual, other people have done most of the hard work to produce it.
I hope that the Minister will read the review and consider its recommendations; I know that he has already had a look. It was carried out with the intention of providing the Government with constructive and practical recommendations for improving the application of the family test, so I hope that he and his officials will take that on board when they consider it. I welcome the Minister for the Cabinet Office’s comment:
“We know that there is work left to do in order to ensure that the Family Test becomes fully embedded in every department.”
We are sympathetic to the view expressed by Ministers and officials that making the family test a statutory obligation would create a tick-box culture, contrary to the test’s intentions. We have tried to avoid repeating the argument for making the test statutory, following oral evidence to us that suggested that doing so would make the test “a political football”.
Strengthening family life should always be a Government priority. Stronger families improve outcomes for children, while the break-up of family relationships is often the quickest route into poverty. Poverty figures show that children in families who break apart are more than twice as likely to experience poverty as those in families who stay together. The consequences of families breaking up and the role of stronger families find their way into every part of Government, which is why the family test is so important.
New polling evidence from the Centre for Social Justice shows that
“the general public support a government prioritising family within its policy making and rhetoric… Approaching three in four (72 per cent) adults in Britain think that family breakdown ‘is a serious problem and that more should be done to prevent families from breaking up’… More than eight out of ten adults…think that ‘stronger families and improved parenting are important in addressing Britain’s social problems’.”
The review is also intended as a reminder that the test will be important if the Minister shares my ambition for the Government to do everything they can to strengthen families as part of a wider approach to policy. I regret that my review shows that such a commitment is not shared by all his ministerial colleagues; I say that as someone who supports them and is willing them to be more ambitious in their approach to social reform. However, I commend the Departments that are clearly taking the issue seriously and that came out well in our research: the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Care were able to provide very detailed examples of the use of the family test and its application to their work.
By its very nature, family does not fit neatly into a single Government silo, which is one reason why the Government-wide family test was introduced in the first place. Family can also be a challenging subject for officials to consider, particularly the practical relevance of family breakdown. That is clear from some examples of bespoke guidance to officials on the test’s application, in which the guidance is technical in nature and provides no clear evidence base or clarity about how family applies to a particular Department, or about the consequences of family breakdown for its work.
My first recommendation and request to the Minister is, I believe, simple: each Department should appoint a named senior policy lead, as the Cabinet Office has done, who would be tasked with strengthening the family test network and spreading expertise within the Department. They would amend departmental business plans to include the family test, the Department’s objectives that relate to the family and the impact on families of its work. I do not believe that that would be particularly challenging to the Government, but it is one change that could be made immediately. I hope that the Minister might lead on the matter and ask Departments to appoint a lead. I put him on notice that in six months I intend to return with parliamentary questions on whether that has been delivered.
Saying that, may I praise the work of officials in the Minister’s Department on promoting the family test across Government with a new family test network? I know that he and they are looking to refresh guidance to Departments; I ask that he consider conducting a formal Government-wide review to mark the fifth anniversary of the test. That does not need to be a difficult exercise, and it would renew the Government’s stated commitment to family policy. I recommend that the review be led by someone outside the Department who can bring an external perspective.
External advice can be helpful to the Government in building the evidence base for the impact of family on Departments. The issue of evidence is particularly challenging, so wise counsel is needed. We recommend that the Government make
“better use of external expertise (for example, the Relationships Alliance) by creating an expert reference group. This group should be formalised through a paid expert chairperson who would act as a lead to the group. The group would assist with difficult policy questions relating to the Test… The group would also help each department establish an evidence base on issues relating to the family.”
Our review involved writing to 14 Departments with a series of questions about their implementation of the family test almost five years after it was introduced, supplemented by written questions to all those Departments in the other place. The responses from Ministers were revealing and, in many cases, concerning. Not a single Department, including the Minister’s, routinely records the application of the test, so none of them could tell me or CSJ researchers how many times it had been applied—despite his Department’s clear guidance:
“It is important that the application of the Family Test is documented in an appropriate way as part of the policy making process.”
We uncovered some good examples of Departments that were able to evidence the application of the family test and its impact on policy making. Others, astonishingly, claimed that family had no relevance to them. In answer to a written question, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy claimed:
“The majority of BEIS policy areas do not have a direct impact on the formation, make-up, or breakdown of families.”
I am not sure that working parents struggling with work and family life would agree. Surely the Government understand the connection between work and stronger families.
A lack of transparency about the application of the family test has led to concern that it is not being applied across Government in the way that was intended. Since the introduction of the test in 2014, 149 parliamentary questions have been asked in both Houses of Parliament about it. The Centre for Social Justice has taken oral evidence from MPs who regularly ask parliamentary questions on the application of the family test, and who have criticised Ministers’ responses, which are opaque because no record of the test is kept; there is no statutory requirement to do so. That should not be something to hide behind.
There is good reason not to make the family test a statutory requirement, but equally we need to improve transparency around the test and confidence in its successful application. Although I understand that the intention of the family test is not, and never should be, to reduce family life to a tick-box exercise, there is plenty of evidence in the review that more could be done to record its consideration separately from any requirement to publish that deliberation. We have called for a duty to record. The Minister, as the Government’s lead on this, could make it part of his work to ask Departments to record the number of times the family test has been applied, and to what areas of policy, and to publish that information with an annual statement. That would help to ensure that the test’s prominence is assured across Government.
We have heard of examples of Ministers rejecting advice or proposals if the test had not been applied. We would like that practice extended. Any review of the family test should simply advise Minsters routinely to reject proposals that do not come with a clear statement on the family test. We are told over and over again that the Government are committed to strengthening families, but when we ask if the family is being properly considered in the work of Departments, they cannot even tell us if they have applied the Government’s own family test. The review should make Ministers stop, think, and tell officials clearly that they simply will not consider any ideas unless there is clear evidence that the impact on family life has been thought through.
In coming months, I will challenge the Government to up their game on strengthening families, as I am sure other colleagues will. A Government review would be welcome, to complement the work done by the Centre for Social Justice. I ask the Minister to meet me and other interested colleagues very soon to discuss the family test and how we can work together to help improve its application.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for bringing forward this debate, and the work of the Centre for Social Justice over many years on this issue. My hon. Friend quite rightly said that it is refreshing not to be speaking about Brexit in a debate, but over many years, many of us—particularly those sitting here—have spoken often about strengthening family life. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that much more needs to be done, and to be done by this Government.
In December 2017, I submitted written questions to every Department—15 of them—asking how they had applied the family test. More than half provided an identical and completely inadequate response:
“The Government is committed to supporting families. To achieve this, in 2014 we introduced the Family Test, which aims to ensure that impacts on family relationships and functioning are recognised early on during the process of policy development and help inform the policy decisions made by Ministers. The Family Test was not designed to be a ‘tick-box’ exercise, and as such there is no requirement for departments to publish the results of assessments made under the Family Test.”
That is very ironic, given that it is something of a ‘tick-box’ reply, and only really restates the importance of the question.
Several other Departments provided equally inadequate replies or replies that lacked any information. I will share some of them. The Attorney General Office’s reply was one line long:
“The AGO has not been the sponsoring department for any legislation in this session.”
Officials must have—or should have—considered the issue during the Session.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said:
“Although not a statutory requirement, the impact on families is considered as part of the Department’s compliance with the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty as specified in the Equality Act 2010.”
That does not tell us anything about what the Department did.
The clear contrast between the duty under equalities legislation and this legislation is interesting. A clear duty is being properly and systematically applied and honoured under equalities legislation by every Department; they look at legislation in that context in a way that they do not in the context of strengthening families.
The Cabinet Office’s reply was three and a half lines long, and we should bear in mind that the Cabinet Office is the responsible Department for having a broad overview of how Departments apply legislation. Its reply was much the same:
“The Government's guidance on the family test is available on Gov.uk and provides that the test should be taken into account, if sensible and proportionate, when considering all new policies that might have an impact on the family, including those set out in legislation.”
It took three months to reply, but it was not the worst. I had to issue a reminder to the Home Office, which took six months to reply to my important question.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said, ironically, the Department that provided the best and fullest answer was the Ministry of Defence. I cannot possibly read the whole answer, but it provided the kind of reply that I had hoped to receive from every Department. Among other things, it says:
“We recognise the vital role that their families play...we are developing flexible engagements for those who wish to vary their deployability to better fit their Service career around family life, all of which aims to contribute to increased family stability. A key component of the Families’ Strategy is to ensure that Service families are considered in people policy development, supporting the principles outlined in the Family Test. This is achieved through consideration of the Service family as part of each relevant submission or policy discussion, and through regular engagement with the single Services and the three Families’ Federations who represent the needs and views of Service families. The Department also monitors the development and implementation of policy to assess the impact on families.”
That is the kind of response that we hoped for, and which we deserve, from every Department.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting point about the Ministry of Defence. It is very good that it has policies of that kind, but, in practice, I have a constituent who is looking for flexible working—she is looking to support her poorly mother and a child. She is getting absolutely stonewalled by the Ministry of Defence. Does the hon. Lady agree that policies are good, but they have to be put into practice and they have to work on the ground?
Absolutely. I recommend that the hon. Lady points her constituent to that reply and challenges the Department accordingly. That is one of the reasons that we raise such questions.
Having well over 2,000 serving defence personnel based in my constituency, I wanted to comment on my hon. Friend’s important points about the Ministry of Defence. Does she agree that rather than being seen as a kind of hindrance, a pro-family policy is incredibly important for morale, not just for the armed forces but right across the civil service and across the country? It should be looked at as a positive thing, and not as something that somehow gets in the way.
As so often, my hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. We need to ensure that strengthening family life is embedded within our policy making, because it is good for the individuals involved, but also because it is good for the country. I am convinced that our productivity levels, which are lower than they should be compared with many other developed countries, have some connection with the fact that we also have one of the highest levels of family breakdown in the developed world. People need to be supported and secure in their home life, from which they can then go out to work and be fulfilled.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay who introduced this debate said, we all pay the price if we do not have strong families. There is pressure on housing, because families are divided. There is also addiction, underachievement at school, mental health problems among young people, pressure on GPs’ surgeries because of depression, and, as I have said, underperformance at work. All that adds up to far more than the £51 billion cited in one assessment—I think it was by the Relationships Foundation. We need to look much more closely at underproductivity; it will cost our country dearly if we do not. Clearly, those who are responsible for safeguarding the security of our nation—working in defence—deserve that to be addressed more than anyone.
The Government Equalities Office sent an amusing reply:
“The family test was not formally applied to any of our regulations, as they do not have a direct or demonstrable impact on family relationships.”
It quoted three such regulations, including the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017 and the Equality Act 2010 (Equal Pay Audits) Regulations 2014. If they do not have an impact on families, what does?
I will pass over the Department for Exiting the European Union’s tick-box response. I am sure that we all agree that Brexit will affect every family in the land, if it does not already. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave a one-and-a-half-line reply:
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not applied the family test to date, as it applies to domestic policy only.”
The Department of Health and Social Care replied with only four and a half lines, stating:
“The Department does not keep a formal record of the legislation to which the family test was applied.”
That is really important, because it is the exact point we are making: given that there is no requirement to record any assessment, there is no evidence of it being done, which is not satisfactory.
As I said, the Home Office—after a reminder—sent a reply six months later, which was three and a half lines long. It said:
“The Government’s guidance on the family test is available on gov.uk…The Home Office will apply the family test if sensible and proportionate.”
It gives no further information at all. I could go on, but I think colleagues get the gist.
What do we do about this? We need to ask the Government not just to take action, but to take on board the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill. It is a draft Bill that was introduced in the Lords by Lord Farmer, and which I introduced in the Commons in May 2018. I would like the Minister to explain why nothing has happened about the Bill. It addresses the concerns that we are talking about today. The Bill would require
“public bodies to accompany any proposal for a change in public expenditure, administration or policy with a family impact assessment”.
We felt that “family test” was perhaps not the best term, because it implies a pass or fail. By contrast, a “family impact assessment” is a broader exercise. The Bill would also:
“require the Secretary of State to report on the costs and benefits of extending family impact assessments to local authorities”
within six months of passing the legislation. We wanted to press for that because local authorities keep virtually no data on the extent of family breakdown in their areas. If we do not have the information, how can we start to address an issue?
It is very interesting that a number of local authorities are actively addressing this issue in a way that those of us who work on strengthening family life have recommended to Government in our policy paper, “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the document, but I never miss an opportunity to pass a copy to a Minister in such a debate. The document is now supported by about 70 Members of Parliament and contains several policies to strengthen family life.
It is disappointing that the Government have not collectively embraced the policies in the manifesto. Ideally, we would like to see that done through the leadership of a Cabinet Minister for families. That is not in any way to denigrate the work or enthusiasm of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). I know that he is interested in this subject, because he has told me so. However, if we are to make real headway on this issue, we need to have a Secretary of State who is responsible for strengthening families. Once again, I ask the Minister to take that message back—it is a key ask in the manifesto.
Another key ask is the development of local family hubs. These would not be Sure Start centres, which are just for pre-school children. The Minister might tell us something about the working group on young children, of which he is a member, and we support that. However, in each community we need a family hub where people can go if they have family difficulties and challenges regarding children of all ages, couple relationship problems or problems caring for an elderly relative. People need somewhere to go to get support on all those issues.
It is very interesting—this will bring me back to talking about the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill—that many local authorities are setting up family hubs, despite the national Government not providing any particularly strong incentive for them to do so. Across the country, we are getting such hubs set up. In fact, we will hold a family hubs fair in the Jubilee Room on 5 June, and I invite the Minister to attend. There will be examples from all over the country of local authorities that aim to strengthen family life. As I said, without the requirement for data to be produced by local authorities so that they can understand the extent of the issue in their area, how can they address it? That is why the requirement is in the draft legislation.
We also state in the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill that we want there to be proper evaluation of “progress towards family stability”. The Secretary of State in each Department should publish an annual report on progress towards stabilising families within the Department: what action have they taken? The family impact assessment would then begin to gather together information, recording how policies ultimately have a negative or positive impact on families.
When Lord Farmer introduced the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill in the Lords, he quite rightly said we need it because there is no systematic way that policies are developed to support family relationships; there are only individual Ministers doing this. It is interesting that the Department of Justice gave a tick-box reply, because it has actually taken up strengthening family life with great gusto. It indicates that the dots are still not being joined up within Departments regarding officials’ work on this issue. I commend the Department of Justice for the way it is developing the Farmer review, but we need to do more.
Our Bill would put family impact assessments and their publication on a statutory footing and, as I have said, require the Secretary of State to report annually on progress. The Government need to do much better. Some of us have been speaking in this place about the matter since this Government came to varying forms of power. It is now almost a decade. We will shortly enter our tenth year—that is half a generation that we have now lost, when we could have taken action to help children who are growing up in dysfunctional families.
We talk about how we will be held to account for the way that we address Brexit, but those children are not able to hold us to account. They cannot go to the ballot box next year or the year after, but they are being dreadfully impacted by the fact that we are failing them and failing to look at how we can strengthen family life in this country. If I am right, there are now 27,000 children involved in gangs. What are gangs if not substitute families? Those children are looking for somewhere to belong, and we must do something urgently to address that. The Government must get a grip on this issue. The responses to our questions about the family test show that that is simply not happening.
The Government should adopt our draft Bill and get on with it. Will the Minister please explain why that has not happened? The whole point is to highlight the importance of the family perspective in policy making. Perhaps one of the problems is that officials and Ministers need training. Perhaps we need to help them assess the impact of policies on family life. We expect them to do it, but perhaps we need to help them by giving them training. As a comparison, we all agree that antisemitism is a concern. Officials are rightly being given training in how to address it, and I believe that the Government have allocated more than £14 million for that. That is positive, but how much is being put in to strengthen family life holistically? Which Departments have sent anyone on courses to train them in how to assess family impact? If that has happened, who was sent, where did they go and what was the outcome? If it has not, why not?
Please let me know if I am speaking for too long, Sir David. I will conclude shortly, but I would like to turn to the loneliness strategy.
We have until 11 o’clock. I will call the Front Benchers at 10.30 am.
And I believe there is just one other speaker.
Plus the Front Benchers, obviously.
The loneliness strategy, published in October 2018, states:
“Family wellbeing is crucial for preventing loneliness.”
“Government’s intention is to embed consideration of loneliness and relationships throughout the policy-making process. Government will explore various mechanisms for doing this and will, for example, include it in guidance for the Family Test.”
We are six months on. Will the Minister tell the House what action has been taken to fulfil that commitment? If he cannot do so today, will he write to us? The strategy also commits to a cross-Government approach to be led by the Minister for Sport and Civil Society. What steps have been taken across Government to fulfil the Government’s commitment to
“developing and improving its approach”?
The Minister is from the Department for Work and Pensions. Is this on his desk? I believe that he has families in his job description. If not, could he find out what stage this is at? The fact that this is on the desk of the Minister for Sport and Civil Society shows that this issue ends up being split into silos if we are not careful. There is not an overarching senior Minister responsible for it. Whose desk is this on, given that the Minister is from DWP? Could he find that out and ascertain how the Cabinet Office is ensuring that this issue is being taken forward in a cross-departmental way? How many Departments have highlighted the progress they are making on addressing loneliness through their 2019-20 departmental plans? I hope they have them now. Any efficient small business would. How many have published an annual progress report on the loneliness agenda, as set out in the strategy?
The strategy says:
“More research is needed in this area. But current evidence suggests that frequent loneliness and its wider impacts are costly for society as a whole as well as for individuals. Supporting people in this situation to become more connected to their families, friends and wider community also links to government’s aim to promote a more integrated and productive society.”
That is very interesting. I refer back to my question about the connection between family breakdown and productivity. If more research is done on that, we might be able to persuade the Treasury that investment in strengthening family life would be well made.
When the loneliness strategy was launched, I asked the then responsible Minister whether she agreed that one of the greatest antidotes to loneliness is stronger families. She agreed and said:
“We recognise the importance of families in tackling loneliness…we can quite often forget members of our family, so all that is at the heart of the strategy.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 460.]
The Government have a poor history of applying the family test. I will give a specific example, which I thought was an affront. The first family test published was on the Enterprise Bill and the issue of Sunday trading. Several of us had to press Ministers to get it published, despite the fact that the Bill would surely affect every family in the country. In the end, it was begrudgingly published on the day that the debate was taking place in the House of Commons, and the piece of paper was brought into the Chamber. That was completely unacceptable.
Subsequently, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who was the responsible Minister, said that she would encourage Departments to publish family tests. That was in response to a question from our former colleague David Burrowes, who is now executive director for the manifesto for strengthening families and still works on this issue continuously. We very much hope we will see him back in this place very soon so he can continue his excellent work in the House.
This is not just a tick-box exercise. It is not just about keeping bureaucrats in their jobs or creating red tape for the sake of it. It matters. It is about people’s lives. It is about saving relationships. It is about preventing addiction. It is about reducing loneliness. It is about addressing mental health problems. It is about improving life chances. It is about improving education and employment opportunities. It is about tackling homelessness. It is about poverty. It is about productivity. Why has this important exercise never been properly embedded in the Government’s thinking or procedures? What is the Minister’s answer to all that?
I thank my Cornwall colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for securing this really important debate. It is good that we continue to return to this subject. I know the Minister to be a man of compassion and empathy who wants to do the right thing in this area.
I would like to think that I am a Back-Bench Member of a progressive Government. At the moment, it might be difficult to see signs of that. I listened to the responses that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) received from different Departments, and there seems to be a real lack of enthusiasm about applying the family test. I absolutely support the creation of a Secretary of State in this area, which would be important for the wellbeing of our great nation, and the establishment of family hubs.
A great number of topics have been covered already. I will touch on some specific examples of where we are failing families, and where there is evidence that the family test is needed. The review of policy is not helping but hindering family units. The establishment of a one-stop shop where families can go to get help and support whenever things arise would be very welcome. I was very pleased to put my name to the “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. I often look at what progress we are making in delivering those outcomes.
It is just common sense to apply the family test to legislation. Doing right for families in Government policy has to be the most effective way of creating stronger, healthier communities that feel well, cared for, valued and empowered to play their part in caring for each other. The issue concerns not just people in families, but those who are not, because strong families are a very important part of addressing isolation and loneliness for those who do not have loved ones.
I will mention a series of examples. I have not plucked them from the media or social media; they are examples from my constituency that show where we are failing families, often through policy and its implementation. The Home Office has been mentioned, and I have been working with the Home Secretary on one particular case.
As part of our immigration policy, we welcome people from the Commonwealth to work in our armed forces—this year we are increasing their number to 1,000. For various reasons, they tend to do jobs that are not significantly well paid. I had one such case, which has now been resolved through some clever working of the law. These people are not allowed to bring their loved ones, including their children. They are not allowed to do other jobs because their visa and their commitment to the Ministry of Defence mean that they cannot top up income and reach the threshold that allows them to bring over their wives and children.
The crazy thing about that particular part of immigration policy is that there is no risk that the people will disappear, because they have fixed contracts with the MOD and have to return to their original countries when they finish their contracts, which, in this case, are 12-year contracts. They are provided with housing and there are no concerns about their being a burden on society, so it is a bizarre breakdown of immigration policy and concern for families. Fortunately, in the case I mentioned, we have found a way for this particular individual to come over, but among the 1,000 people who will come from the Commonwealth this year, a number of men and women will not be able to bring their husbands, wives or children.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on brain tumours. We have seen great progress in the diagnosis, treatment and removal of brain tumours in this country, but for children that progress has been poor. When they survive a brain tumour—I was pleased to be able to mention this at Prime Minister’s questions last week—they are left with an injury and we fail them because we do not put in place the available therapies and care, which would be available to a stroke patient with a similar type of injury. We do not do that for those children. Families are put under incredible pressure because we do not support them in supporting the child to have the best life chances. As a result, families spend a lifetime receiving support from social services and the NHS, which could be avoided—that is proven.
Another area where we fail families and that the family test and application of Government policy should address is special needs education in schools. Schools are now under enormous pressure and unable to provide the necessary support to children with special educational needs. The impact on family is not the breakdown of relationships between the child, the family and the school, but the child’s removal from a school that is unable to provide adequate support, however hard it tries. That means that families suddenly become isolated and lost from the system as they try desperately to give their child the best start.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this relates not only to education, but to the huge burden faced by families with children with special educational needs during school holidays, when all the support on the education side is taken away? Will he join me in commending the Cornwall Accessible Activities Programme, a local charity in Cornwall that provides support to parents with children with special educational needs during the school holidays?
Absolutely. It was really good to have a debate in the main Chamber recently about the work of voluntary organisations in supporting families in that very situation. The Government still have responsibility and we should look at how Government policy helps or hinders the lives of families.
Another example from my constituency is a family with two children in separate schools—they were doing well, having moved from other schools. Because of a situation at home, they were evicted and the council’s response was to move them out of the area, away from their schools. Suddenly, through a breakdown of proper legislation and support, the family was ripped out of their local community and support network, and the children were ripped out of schools in which they had become established and were beginning to do well. That is another example demonstrating that the family test is either not considered or not applied and that we are failing families.
As well as the issue of special educational needs, another problem is what the Department of Work and Pensions calls “natural migration” to universal credit—the Minister will know about that. Natural migration sounds very easy, straightforward and normal, but it is not at all. People who naturally migrate on to universal credit have quite often had devastating changes to their lives and situations—for example, a loved one who is the household earner suddenly developing an illness, a significant health problem or another reason why they can no longer be the breadwinner, meaning that they move on to universal credit.
As support mechanisms and transitional arrangements are not being introduced until next year, that change is proving difficult and causing real hardship for families. I have met the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about this. She explained that work coaches should be sensitive to the issue and should not pursue natural migration, but I know from constituents that that is not the case.
Natural migration happens when someone loses a loved one. In those situations, families are broken apart through circumstances beyond their control, and without even realising, they are suddenly subject to the welfare system. When universal credit is eventually complete, that system will probably be better for them—I am not opposed to it—but natural migration to universal credit is causing hardship for many people. Many find that it works when their circumstances change for positive reasons, but for those who fall through a disastrous net—or, dare I say it, over a cliff edge—we must intervene quickly.
On mental health, I have a case in which loving parents are at the absolute end of their resources and energy because of a very unwell 13-year-old daughter. The problem is that, despite the involvement of lots of agencies, the people from them go home at the end of the day and leave the parents to do what they can with a very unwell young lady. Having worked on and watched this situation closely, I can say that we are not providing the right support, empathy or care for families in which young ones have mental health problems.
An issue that I have raised many times is fuel poverty. Government policy should look at how we improve people’s homes. With poor-quality homes and fuel poverty, children do not attain what they can, do not reach their potential in education, and their homes are not as productive as they could be. The older people in those homes find that they enter into social services and NHS care far more often than they would otherwise. It is a massive issue for places in this country, including my constituency, where homes are not of the standard they should be: they are leaky and fuel-poor. Since I was first elected, I have argued that Government could use infrastructure money to address that situation, and that doing so would be a cost saving to Government. I have yet to hear a serious response from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
It is absolutely right that the family test should apply to new legislation. That is good and necessary, but I would also like the Minister to consider how we can review existing legislation and the examples I have given, to look at what the Government can do to ensure we are on the side of families and avoid some of the issues that I have set out. That would be a win for Government; there is huge support across the country for strengthening families, and for Government policy to support families.
We must show a commitment to families, make life easier for them where possible, and remove the unnecessary barriers and unintended consequences that Government policy is causing for our families. Communities are so much stronger when families work well. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to speak in this debate.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I am glad to be able to sum up for the SNP this morning.
I give credit to the hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who secured the debate. Their commitment is honourable, but the reality of the family test is that it is barely worth the paper that it is written on. The answers that the hon. Member for Congleton received from all the different parties indicate that. The Government say that the test is not designed to be a tick-box exercise, but in reality it is no kind of exercise at all. It is perfectly clear from cases that I deal with in my constituency that the Government are not applying the test to the policies that they come up with, either in theory or in practice.
On 30 January last year, in a debate on marriage in Government policy—hon. Members may have been there—the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), speaking from the Conservative Benches just there, said this of the time before he left Government:
“I was nominated to construct the family test against which everything was going to be measured. When I finally left—of my own volition, by the way—at no stage had I managed to get agreement from any of the key players about what it would consist of. While there was a principle, which was that the Prime Minister wanted a test that all decisions would be set against, the reality was that the Treasury in particular was not keen on any of it. I urge the Minister to press for a definition of the family test, by which all the effects of policy decisions could be looked at to see whether they would damage the family or make things more difficult. That would make logical sense.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 271-272WH.]
That was last year, and nothing has changed. The policy might exist in some form somewhere, but it is perfectly clear that its application is non-existent. It is utter escapism, and full of contradictions.
I have campaigned on a lot on the first issues that I will discuss, which are to do with child poverty and austerity. The family test has no relevance at all to the two-child policy; I know because I asked Ministers about that when they were talking about bringing the policy in. I have raised the policy at least 60 times in this Chamber and the main Chamber, asking questions about it and campaigning on it. It is completely destructive of families for many different reasons, not least because it moves children into poverty, making it far more difficult for their families to cope and survive.
The two-child policy has been condemned by Professor Philip Alston in a recent UN report, and just this week by CEDAW—the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women—which recommended scrapping it. On Monday, I met a range of organisations, including the Church of England, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, representatives of Scottish Churches, the Child Poverty Action Group, Turn2us, Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis—I have heard from the Scotland, England and Wales, and Northern Ireland equivalent organisations—and Refuge; all of them, as well as the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, condemn the policy, because they know that it is damaging to families and meets no aspect of the family test. It means that families will be at least £2,780 worse off per year, which makes it far more difficult for them to survive.
The first element of the family test is:
“What kinds of impact might the policy have on family formation?”
The two-child policy deliberately encourages families to have fewer children—that is its stated purpose and aim. That is inimical to family formation. The policy also discriminates against families who wish to come together from two previous relationships. In blended families, where someone has two children from one family and wants to marry and have a third child, or another child comes from the other family, the impact is that families lose out. The policy does not meet that aspect of the test.
The second question of the test is:
“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?”
The UK Government had to be taken to court, and an element had to be added. A woman who had taken on caring responsibilities for her two siblings lost out when she had a child, so the Government were taken to court—and lost, because the policy is unfair; they had not taken into account the impact on those with caring responsibilities.
There is also an impact on bereavement. Say a family had three children, and everything was fine because they could well afford those children—the Tories often say that people should only have the children they can afford. All of a sudden, one of the partners dies; the other has to claim universal credit and reduce their hours worked. The two-child policy does not meet the second aspect of the test, because it deliberately punishes people who end up in those circumstances, which they could not reasonably have predicted.
The third question of the test is:
“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?”
Again, the two-child policy means that anyone who has three children but whose circumstances change will struggle to play a full role in family life. They would not have enough money coming in, or would have to work longer hours and so would have less time with their children, who, as the hon. Member for Congleton suggested, might look to other sources of support, such as gangs. There is a huge impact on the ability to play a full role in family life, not least because of the poverty aspect.
“How does the policy impact families before, during and after couple separation?”
The two-child policy has an impact on that as well, because it creates a perverse incentive: people with three children will get more money if they separate their family, becoming two single parents—a family with two children over here and a family with one child over there. That is the incentive under the policy; the Government cannot deny that.
The final question is:
“How does the policy impact those families most at risk of deterioration of relationship quality and breakdown?”
As I say, families are incentivised to stay apart, rather than to stay together. The Government have not recognised that in any part of the two-child policy.
As Conservative Members present will know well, the policy also has a disproportionate impact on people of religious faith—those who will not use contraception or do not believe in abortion. People who have four children and are affected by the policy lose out, and that disproportionately affects those of religious faith, including the Jewish community, who have spoken out against the policy—as has the Church of England—and those of Muslim faith. That is out-and-out despicable. The Government do not accept that, but it is absolutely true. Furthermore, the two-child policy will have a chilling effect as it impacts on thousands of families throughout the country. People will lose out on their entitlement and on their ability to support their family, which is ridiculous.
In my constituency, I have many cases of families affected by Home Office issues and by Government policy on how they can live their lives. There are people who cannot afford to live as a family, because of the £18,600 threshold that has to be met before someone can bring a spouse over to this country. People who desperately want their partner to come here and to be reunited with their children cannot do that because of an arbitrary figure. I have constituents who lost out by a couple of pounds, and so were not allowed to bring family members into the country. What impact does that have on family life? Where does that fit with the family test?
The minimum income threshold also puts huge pressure on earners in the family. I have a constituent who works two jobs. He works as a bank clerk—a mortgage adviser—and at night, stacking shelves in a supermarket, so that he can bring his family here. That has a huge impact on his mental health and wellbeing; he has to work all the hours he can to get his family in. The Home Office is still making that incredibly difficult for him.
The Government policy of no recourse to public funds also has an impact. People have come to this country and been granted their status, but the Government have decided that they are not entitled to any working-age benefits at all. I have a constituent, case No. 3 in my books—the third from when I was elected in 2015—who still has no recourse to public funds. She is almost destitute. Every year, she has come to my office, looking for support for school uniforms or Christmas presents for her children, because despite the fact that she is working, she cannot afford them. She is working all the hours that she can, but under this Government’s cruel policy of allowing no recourse to public funds, she cannot earn enough to live on. It is heartbreaking. I had her and her daughter in my office at Christmas time, and her daughter came back into my office after she and her mum had left and said, “Alison, why have we not got any money?” I cannot answer that question. It is for the Minister to answer why he wants to put families in a position in which their children are heartbroken and in poverty, and are judged by their friends, and do not have any kind of a life because of the Government’s cruel policies.
Home Office policies such as the hostile environment make it very difficult for people to carry on family life. There is the impact of policies that prevent people from staying in this country. I will give an example. At my surgery one Friday, the first of a number of people to see me were a couple. The wife was a British citizen and the husband was from another country. They had been told by the Home Office that they both had to leave and go to the country where the husband was from because they had no family ties here. They did not have any children, so they could go and live there, and that would be just as easy for them as staying in the UK—there would be no problems there. They asked me, “Alison, would it make any difference if we had children? Would we be able to stay if we had children in this country?” I said, “Probably not. This is just the way the Home Office does things,” and I offered them support.
The next couple, who came in straight after, had quite a young baby and a toddler. They were in much the same circumstances: they had been told by the Home Office to go back to some other country to live, and that it would not make any difference because their children were young and would not know any better. They asked, “What can we do? We have family ties here.” The Home Office computer still said no. That is a huge insult to people who want to come here and do us the honour of choosing to live in this country. We tell them, “No, go and contribute to some other country, because we do not want you here.” That is despicable; it is against everything that the family test ought to stand for.
The family test is not worth the paper it is written on. I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Congleton says that it took the Home Office six months to reply. She is lucky; in many of my cases, it has taken much longer. The Home Office does not care how it treats people. A family with three children who were due to report to Brand Street as part of their obligations under the Home Office’s hostile environment policy had to take one child out of nursery and the other two out of school, and did not know if they would be able to go back afterwards. They did not know if they would be removed and sent to Dungavel. What kind of family test is that? What kind of impact will that have on family life—the stress, the distress and the indignity of being forced to report to Brand Street without knowing if they would go home afterwards? It is utterly despicable.
I talked about the impact of people living on low wages having no recourse to public funds; I would like to talk about the Government’s pretendy living wage. They know that it is not enough for people to live on. That has an impact on family life. People who are working away without enough to live on will struggle to maintain a family life, to do all the things they would like to do with their family, such as going places, and to pay for things such as schools trips or books, which would make for a better family life. It is worse for parents under 25, because they are not entitled to the Chancellor’s pretendy living wage. There is a growing gap for those under the age of 25, who are entitled to much less but may have exactly the same obligations. They may have children to support. They have different lives to lead, and they do not get a discount on their rent for being under the age of 25. The Government need to recognise that and ensure that a fair day’s pay is earned for a fair day’s work, which is not the case in this country.
Under the family test, there is no protection for families when people reach old age. I refer to the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign; those women have worked their whole life, and sacrificed their time with their family, only to find their retirement cruelly stolen from them. That has an impact on the family; often they are expected to look after their grandchildren, but cannot, because they have to keep working, and the mums have to keep working to pay the nursery fees. That has a detrimental impact on family life.
I want to talk about Brexit. The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned it briefly, but it will have a hugely detrimental impact on family life. Those people who have chosen to come and live in this country now feel that they have very little option. Some are leaving the place that they called home because they no longer feel welcome. They are giving up the links that they made here, and they are disrupting their family life. There is probably nothing that covers that in the family test, but Brexit has a real impact on families right across these islands. It is hugely sad that the Government are pursuing it, and it will mean that EU nationals in this country will be forced into the same kind of hostile environment that the Home Office applies to everybody else, causing the problems I have outlined.
In Scotland we are doing our best; we are trying to provide baby boxes, and grants for families to support children in the early years, so that they have the best place in the world to grow up in, but we are hampered by the policies of this Tory Government and by the decisions of Westminster. I firmly believe that if we were an independent country, we would make it true for everybody that Scotland was the best place in the world to grow up in. Proper family tests—not something that is barely worth the paper it is written on—would be applied to all our policies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this debate. He rightly pointed out the importance of families and parenting. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) told us that the Government have a poor history of applying the family test. She spoke of the impact of family life on productivity; I wonder whether she would support Labour’s policy of ending zero-hour contracts, to improve the quality of family life. The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke thoughtfully about a number of areas where policy is failing families, and particularly about the impact of natural migration to universal credit, which is causing hardship for many families. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke passionately about poverty and austerity, and the impact of the two-child policy.
The family test has admirable aims, but this Government have not quite followed through on it in full. It is not clear whether the initiative has made a significant impact. When it was introduced, it was not made mandatory to publish the outcomes of the test; to date, few have been published. Could the Minister tell us how many tests have been carried out or are under way? Will he commit to publishing them in full?
In 2015, the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), said that the Social Justice Cabinet Committee would take the lead in ensuring that the family test was properly applied across Government Departments. Will the Minister confirm whether the committee still exists, and when it last met?
The family test was introduced to provide a family perspective in the policy making process. While that is a laudable objective, it is clear that Government policy since 2010 has completely undermined that aim. Families across the country have suffered the impact of this Government’s austerity measures, particularly through cuts to social security. One only has to think of the upheaval and misery caused by the bedroom tax to see that; families were uprooted from their community because of an ill-considered and heartless policy.
The test includes five questions to consider when making policy, including assessing what kind of impact the policy might have on family formation, families going through key transitions such as becoming parents, and all family members’ ability to play a full role in family life, yet Government policy appears almost designed to disrupt and interrupt family life. Indeed, they have made it much harder for parents to secure a safe and happy upbringing for their children. When Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the UK last year, he lifted the lid on a national crisis. He said:
“People I spoke with told me they have to choose between eating and heating their homes, or eating and feeding their children. One person said, ‘I would rather feed my kids than pay my rent, but that could get us all kicked out.’ Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry.”
There is no use speaking about the family test while ignoring the growing stark reality of people’s lives. More than 14 million people in the UK are in poverty, including more than 4 million children. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that figure will rise to more than 5 million by 2022. No child should have to go to school hungry, or go without heating or clothing, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported last year that more than 300,000 children had to do just that. Its report found that 365,000 children experienced destitution in 2017. Shockingly, 131,000 children woke up homeless on Christmas day last year, according to Shelter. Most people would consider that completely unacceptable in 21st-century Britain.
The Library recently analysed the extent of the cuts to working-age social security, and found that £36 billion has been cut from that budget since 2010, including nearly £5 billion from social security. That has made it extremely difficult for many families to pay the bills. Two years ago, we asked the Government for an impact assessment of the cuts on women, after we published Library analysis showing that 86% of the impact of austerity had been shouldered by women, yet despite their supposed commitment to the family test, the Government still refuse to publish an impact assessment of the cuts on women.
The family test was introduced in 2014. I take this opportunity to examine the policies introduced since then and their effect on families. The two-child limit, which has been mentioned, is expected to push 200,000 additional children into poverty by the time universal credit is fully rolled out. The policy breaks the vital link between what families require to meet their daily needs and their entitlement. The Child Poverty Action Group says that the policy means that
“some children are held to be less deserving of a decent standard of living than others, simply because they have more siblings—a circumstance which they cannot control.”
It was described as “fundamentally anti-family” by the UK’s foremost religious leaders.
The family test asks policy makers to assess the impact of policy on family formation. The Child Poverty Action Group says the two-child limit
“risks creating incentives for larger families to separate, and could discourage single parents from forming new ‘blended’ families. It could also penalise children in separated families who switch the parent they live with—for example to be with siblings, or to remain in their school if one parent moves away.”
It goes on to say that the policy
“may also leave women who become pregnant with a third child, for example through contraception failure, with a difficult choice between moving into poverty and having an abortion.”
Clearly, that is extremely shocking. The two-child limit completely undermines the aims of the family test and the fabric of family life. Can the Minister confirm that it was subjected to the family test? Will he make that assessment public and explain how the policy passed all five tests?
Another policy introduced in 2015 was the freeze on social security, which quite simply increases poverty. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, almost half a million more people will be driven into poverty by 2020 as a result of the freeze, which it says is the single biggest driver behind rising poverty. The Secretary of State sought to reassure the public that the benefits freeze would not be extended beyond next year, but that is not soon enough. The value of working-age benefits is expected to be cut by £1.5 billion over the next year. We have repeatedly called on the Government to end the benefits freeze immediately. Ahead of today’s spring Budget, we say it is not too late for the Government to stop the freeze. The Government have the opportunity to lift 200,000 people out of poverty altogether by ending the freeze, so will they take action?
Since its introduction by a Labour Government, child benefit has been a vital means of supporting families. It is now frozen, having been cut repeatedly since 2010. According to Unison, a family with two children is £450 a year, or £8.67 a week, worse off than it would have been in 2010. Unison analysis shows that, at current prices, that would buy 1 litre of skimmed milk, 15 medium eggs, a Warburtons medium white sliced loaf, a bag of straight-cut chips, washing-up liquid, pork loin medallions and eight sausages—clearly, all things that families could do with. Again, can the Minister confirm that the social security freeze was subjected to the family test, and will he make that assessment public and explain how the policy passed all five tests?
Universal credit has undergone rapid expansion in recent years. However, its roll-out has been chaotic and hampered by cuts—especially those made in the 2015 summer Budget. Universal credit is not working for families, and it is driving many people into poverty, debt and rent arrears. The five-week wait, which was originally a six-week wait, is unrealistic for low-income families. It is difficult to see how families are supposed to survive for five or six weeks without any payment at all when children need to be fed and clothed. The Government say universal credit is linked to food bank use, yet they have failed to address that issue competently and have offered people loans instead. Once again, can the Minister confirm that universal credit—in particular the 2015 cuts and the five-week wait—has been subjected to the family test, and will he make that assessment public and explain how the policy passed all five tests?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am very short of time, so I will continue.
Sadly, Government policy is putting intolerable strain on some families. Under this Government, mixed-age couples will be denied pension credit and forced to claim universal credit instead. What is more, younger partners will potentially be subject to the sanctions regime, too. Some families are set to lose as much as £7,000 a year. There have been reports of couples who have been together for more than 20 years considering separation as a result. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of that policy on families? Does the Minister believe it meets the five tests?
There are many more areas that betray how Government policies have undermined the interests of families. Cuts to local government are forcing councils to overspend on their children’s services and social care budgets and run a huge deficit in their reserves for schools. As many as 1,000 Sure Start centres may have closed because of Government funding cuts, and the Government’s change to the threshold for free school meal entitlements could leave 1 million children without a hot meal at school.
We believe that when we all get old or sick, or we have a family, our public services should step in—they should help families remain secure and avoid poverty—but austerity is making that much more difficult to achieve. Indeed, the policies I have mentioned would, in my opinion, demonstrably fail the family test. I hope the Government listen to the points I have made, end austerity and develop policies in line with the stated aims of the family test.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, in this very calm and sensible week for Parliament. I am sure all eyes will be focused on this very important debate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for securing the debate. He has an exceptional track record in this important area; it is a real credit to the work he has done that he has so much support from the colleagues who attended the debate. I pay tribute to his work alongside the noble Baroness Eaton with the Centre for Social Justice, which culminated in its recent report on the family test. That excellent piece of work was a really good way to focus minds—not just in my Department, but across Government. I will go into more detail about that.
I also thank all the other Members who contributed, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I will cover many of the questions raised, but let me say two quick things before I forget. I would be delighted, diary and parliamentary duties permitting, to attend the family hub event, so I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton to make sure I have all the details of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives has done fantastic work as an MP to support those with special educational needs, using his wealth of experience from his work prior to arriving in the House. I recognise his point about supporting families with special educational needs children.
I pay tribute to one of my local special educational needs schools, the Uplands School, which has made a very small change that could easily be adopted by all schools and is making a huge difference. Like all schools, it has parental support classes, which offer peer-to-peer support—parents get together over cups of tea and talk about the challenges they are facing and how they can support one another. The headteacher, Jackie Smith, has ensured that parents get an invite to those support classes once they know their children will end up at the school, rather than having to wait until the day they come. That ensures that peer support is provided from the very early days, which is making a huge difference.
We also had a contribution from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who perhaps stretched the intention of the debate—most of her comments were probably better suited to a Home Office debate. I am sure there will be opportunities for Home Office Ministers to respond in the future.
I thank the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for welcoming the principle of the family test. I appreciate that, but she then applied a series of political statements loosely to the principles of the family test. It would be remiss of me not to correct some of the points she made. For example, under this Government there are now 500,000 fewer families on the housing waiting list. Food affordability—the measure of whether families can afford the basics in terms of food—has almost halved in just under five years and is 2.5% lower than the EU average. Material deprivation has never been lower. Income inequality has fallen under this Government, having risen under the last Labour Government. There are now 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty. Welfare spending under the last Labour Government—
Will the Minister give way?
The hon. Lady was not willing to take interventions from colleagues who actually stuck to the principles of the debate, so I will not.
Under the last Labour Government, welfare spending rose on average by £3,000 per house. Imagine the impact on hard-working families.
Will the Minister give way?
I will shortly. The Opposition voted against income tax threshold changes that have given families an additional £1,200 a year. Our spending on childcare will have risen from £4 billion in 2010 to £6 billion by 2020—a 50% increase—and we are delivering record employment in all regions of the UK, yet again supporting families. I give way to my hon. Friend.
The Minister has actually made my point for me. The speech by the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) highlighted the fundamental difference in the way we approach this issue. The Opposition’s solution to so many social problems is throwing more money at them. There was no money left when they finished in government.
We are saying that if we strengthen family lives, just like the teacher the Minister mentioned, we will prevent those problems—mental health problems in school, addiction, people going to GP surgeries with depression and losing work days, and so on—from arising in the first place. That is the fundamental difference. That is why we are pressing for the Government to strengthen family life: because we believe that prevention is far better and cheaper than attempted cure.
My hon. Friend is spot on. It was clear from my colleagues’ speeches that they have a constructive, proactive and real focus on the absolute principles of the family test, and I shall now turn to that.
Many hon. Members have underlined the importance of the family test, and I am pleased to see sustained interest in that test among colleagues. I restate the Government’s commitment to the family test, which was introduced in 2014 to help put families at the heart of policy making. In designing the test, alongside the Relationships Alliance, we wanted to help policy makers understand how policies might, positively or negatively, affect families.
We want potential impacts on families to be considered early so that they can shape proposals, rather than at the end of the process when we are preparing to announce and implement any changes. That point is key, and the test helps to ensure that potential impacts are properly considered in the advice that Ministers receive. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay was spot on when he said that such issues must be embedded into that early thinking.
Will the Minister give way?
I will respond to the thrust of the debate. We want the family test to be broad and flexible, reflecting the nature of 21st-century families. The test already encourages policy makers to consider a wide range of impacts, including on family formation, families going through key transitions, the ability of all family members—dads, mums, and the extended family—to play a full role in family life, families who have separated or who are undergoing separation, and those families most at risk of a deterioration in relationship quality and breakdown.
I acknowledge that some would like the family test to be a statutory obligation, but feedback from policy makers, and points highlighted in speeches today, suggest that a statutory test could risk becoming a box-ticking exercise at the end of a policy process, with pass or fail outcomes, rather than something embedded at the beginning of the process, which is key. A legislative test would also risk losing the flexibility to adapt and change.
I welcome the review of the family test by the Centre for Social Justice, and I thank it for highlighting these important issues, many of which my officials have been working to address with the relevant Departments. There is a strong alignment between the report’s recommendations and our approach to strengthening practice in the use of the test. I agree that individual Departments should take responsibility and ownership of their application of the family test—interestingly, the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton highlighted both good and bad practice.
There we are—it is on the record, and those Departments will no doubt be held to account. The Attorney General’s response is probably the shortest that I have heard from any Department, and I know my hon. Friend will scrutinise it carefully.
We are working with a network of representatives from all domestic policy Departments to develop tailored resources to help officials apply the test in their unique policy contexts, and ensure that advice to Ministers reflects the impact on families. That will be underpinned by refreshed central guidance for officials, which we expect to publish this summer—I will return to that important work at the end of my remarks, with a request for those Members who have demonstrated passion about this issue to ensure that we get it right. My Department will actively consider including the family test in the DWP business plan.
I am pleased to be part of the inter-ministerial group that is focusing on how to improve support for families in the first 1,001 days. Another of the report’s recommendations is for Ministers to take a more active role in ensuring that the family test is applied in their Departments. I have raised the family test with that inter-ministerial group, and I will ask Ministers actively to consider whether the test has been considered in all the advice they receive, on any topic, in their Departments.
The excellent report by the Centre for Social Justice builds on important issues raised by colleagues who published the “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. It also highlights examples of where Departments have used the family test, and where that has made a difference to the policy making process. We recognise, however, that more progress can be made to ensure that the test is robustly applied to all domestic policy. That is why my Department, which has the cross-Government lead on the test, has been taking action to strengthen its implementation across Government.
Each Department has a nominated representative on the new family test network—my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay highlighted the importance of that—and the network is identifying, developing and sharing best practice on applying the family test. That helps us to deepen our understanding of how the test is applied across Government, and what further support officials need to embed it fully as part of any considerations made when formulating policy.
The network pays particular attention to the need highlighted in the report to build evidence, and we are currently exploring ways to support Departments in that. We will continue to encourage and support Departments to apply the family test, and to make their own judgments on whether and when publishing assessments is appropriate. We will consider whether more can be done to improve transparency, which includes reflecting on the report’s recommendations. It is unclear, however, whether knowing how many family tests a certain Department has applied would bring much greater or more meaningful transparency.
I am keen to avoid introducing layers of unnecessary bureaucracy to the policy making process, but I understand the thrust of the point being made. Insights from the family test network are driving our review of family test guidance, published on gov.uk, which helps officials to understand why, when, and how they should apply the test. Revised guidance planned for summer 2019 will better reflect the needs of users.
We are helping Departments to develop a toolkit of resources for officials to improve consistent and meaningful family test application across Government. Given that effective implementation of the test is fundamentally an issue of capability, we are also working with Civil Service Learning and the Policy Profession unit, to consider how best to support policy makers to apply the family test effectively.
Let me share some examples of how the Government are actively working to make lives better for families, and how our policies are responding to the key questions and evidence set out by the family test. My Department is currently implementing the Reducing Parental Conflict programme, which is backed by £39 million. That programme helps councils across England to recognise the evidence about the damage that parental conflict can do to children’s long-term outcomes. It will soon provide evidence-based, face-to-face support for parents in 31 English local authorities. I attended an important roundtable with those local authorities, and there is real enthusiasm to deliver this programme and build that tangible constructive evidence.
I welcome this programme, but an integral part of it needs to be a focus on strengthening couple relationships, not just parent-child relationships. Will the Minister look into that?
We are digesting all the successful bids for the various strands of that programme, and I am sure that many organisations will have a proven track record in that area. I am happy to consider that specific issue in greater detail in a meeting on the programme.
We want face-to-face support to be available to those families who need it most. This is why we will prioritise help for workless and disadvantaged families, and why we are exploring how to ensure that those eligible parents with whom we are already working, through Jobcentre Plus and the Child Maintenance Group, are able to access such support as early as possible.
All local authorities can access funding to increase their strategic capability to address parental conflict, as well as training for frontline staff. We are funding even more innovation through our joint work with the Department of Health and Social Care to support children of alcohol-dependent parents, and with our new £2.7 million Reducing Parental Conflict challenge fund. A number of Departments have highlighted that fund to their stakeholders to ensure good engagement.
The principles of the family test are visible across the Government. The Department for Education recently announced that all children and young people will soon be taught about the importance of healthy relationships, including marriage and family relationships. I welcome the positive comments from my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay about the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Ministry of Justice is also considering how we can reduce conflict in families that are going through a divorce. The Troubled Families programme is driving better ways of working around complex families, improving outcomes for individuals and reducing their dependency on services, and delivering better value for taxpayers. That programme aims to achieve significant and sustained improvement for up to 400,000 families with multiple high-cost problems by 2020—something I passionately support.
In conclusion, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the thrust of this debate—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, who has been a real champion in this area. We welcome the continued constructive work by the Centre for Social Justice, and its review of the family test, and we are actively considering its recommendations.
The importance to our society of strong families cannot be understated, and we look forward to working with all hon. Members as we continue to strengthen our use of the family test and make a difference for families. I would greatly welcome the opportunity to meet my hon. Friends from the Centre for Social Justice and have a deep-dive look at the recommendations in their respective speeches and the recent report.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions to this good debate. We may have differences of opinion on how to address this issue, but it is encouraging to hear that everyone has recognised the importance of strengthening families and the role that Government policy can play in that. I welcome the Minister’s response. We are encouraged by his clear commitment to ensuring that the family test is applied consistently and meaningfully across Government. He will find that many hon. Members, particularly on the Government Benches, are ready and willing to work with him, to ensure that the policy works as best it can to benefit families up and down the country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the application of the family test.