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Welfare: Cost of Family Breakdown

Volume 752: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the cost of family and relationship breakdown to the welfare budget.

My Lords, I am unable to give an official figure. A number of organisations have produced estimates—for example, the Relationships Foundation, at £45 billion-odd—but there is no consensus. The social security spend on lone parents and collecting child maintenance is just under £9 billion, but we must acknowledge that there are wider societal costs. Government have an important role to play in supporting families and working to ensure stable futures for children.

My Lords, if the figure of £45 billion or £46 billion given by the Relationships Foundation is even remotely accurate, that illustrates the cost of family and relational breakdown, which cashes out at about £1,500 each year for each taxpayer in our country. What more do the Government propose to do to support and strengthen family life and relationships in our country, which must somewhere include supporting the institution of marriage?

My Lords, the Government place the importance of sustaining relationships and families high up on their agenda and have a number of programmes to encourage that, which include extending childcare, tax-free childcare, and flexible working for both parents. We have worked on support for relationships and for parenting and have introduced a marriage tax break. We are looking at this whole area in our family stability review, which will be published later this year.

My Lords, I would like to turn the Question around and ask the Minister of his estimate of the cost to family relationships of cuts to social security, which are forcing some families to move, breaking up their family and social relationships, and of the cost to them of ever increasing punitive sanctions, which are driving more and more families to food banks. Both these trends are leaving families under more and more stress, leading, potentially, to the break-up of relationships.

My Lords, on the issue of food banks raised by the noble Baroness, which we have discussed several times in this House, clearly nobody goes to a food bank willingly. However, it is very hard to know why people go to them. The Defra report said that there was a lack of systematic peer-reviewed research from the UK on the reasons or immediate circumstances that lead people to turn to food aid.

Is the Minister aware that cohabiting relationships form a disproportionate amount of the relationships that break down and that cohabiting parents are three times as likely to split by the time their child is aged five as are married couples? Will the Government therefore refrain from further normalising or approving cohabiting relationships as a form of parenthood?

There was a very substantial long-term jump in the number of cohabiting relationships. It went up over the last Government from more than 600,000 to 1.1 million. It is somewhat flattening now; it currently stands at 1.2 million. The noble Baroness is right in that the actual figure is that those couples are four times more likely to split when their child is under three than if they are married. However, there are some structural and major societal changes behind those trends, and it will take an enormous amount of effort to start putting marriage back into its rightful place. That is exactly one of the things that we are looking to do with the family stability review.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister have a breakdown of the amount of funding that the Government give to those charities that help families in difficulty to prevent the partnership breaking down? Can he say whether there is a role for the Family Nurse Partnership in helping families stay together?

We are running two immediate programmes. The first is to provide help and support for separated families, running in SR10 at £14 million, £10 million of which is spent on an innovation fund that tests various interventions, involving 17 different voluntary and private groups. The other aspect is the relationship support interventions, on which we are spending £30 million. There are three main areas—something called Let’s Stick Together, marriage preparation and couples counselling.

I would like to return to the answer that the Minister gave my noble friend Lady Lister. If the Minister does not know why people go to food banks, I commend to him the “Panorama” programme shown on television last night about food banks. Among other people, they interviewed a mother who described the fact that her benefits had been wrongly sanctioned for three months and that they had so little to eat that her milk dried up while breastfeeding.

I have two questions for the Minister. First what is the current success rate of appeals against sanctions on benefits? Secondly, what does he make of the pictures shown in the “Panorama” programme last night of the jobcentre that put up charts to show its staff how much money could be saved to the department by sanctioning people for a range of times?

I must emphasise to noble Lords that we absolutely do not have targets for sanctioning. We have looked into this matter, and we do not have them—we do not run them. When there are exceptions, we stop it. That is not the purpose of sanctions; the purpose of sanctions is to run a system in which we provide some £85 billion to people who need it. It is our safety net to make sure that we give that properly and that people comply with the conditions required to receive that money.

My Lords, would the Minister care to inform the House why, in his opinion, the Government of whom I was a member were responsible in some way for the increase in cohabitation? Would he be prepared to point out that many cohabiting couples make very good parents to their children?

There seems to be a difference between the two sides of the House on the importance of marriage. This side believes that marriage is a valuable institution and we are going to support it with a marriage tax break.

My Lords, I believe that the Government are increasing the work they are doing with the country’s most troubled families, getting some of those families into work for the first time in generations. What does my noble friend the Minister expect that to do for family stability?

My Lords, it is vital that people get into work where they can. That is the only way to solve poverty in the long term. We have managed to get more families into work—under this Government, 300,000 more have gone into work. I should also point out that fewer families with children are in poverty under this Government. That figure has gone down by 100,000 since we came in.

My Lords, in answering my noble friend Lady Sherlock, the noble Lord was unequivocal that the Government do not have targets on sanctions. Will he, therefore, instruct government offices which have charts on their walls, such as my noble friend Lady Sherlock described in asking her question, to take them down?

If it is established that there are charts of that nature, I will instruct them to be taken down.

My Lords, would the Minister care to answer the other question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, about the rate of successful appeals against sanctions?

We support a number of charities supporting marriage. I do not think that I have to hand the exact level of that support in monetary terms. However, the figure is available and I shall write to the noble Lord to provide it.