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Manifesto to Strengthen Families

Volume 791: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the policies recommended in the Manifesto to Strengthen Families, published on 6 September 2017; and what steps they plan to take in response to those recommendations.

My Lords, it is crucial that we seek to ensure that all children grow up in stable, nurturing families. As my noble friend knows, this is a wide-ranging, cross-cutting area. This Government have a broad set of policies to support families, including our childcare and early years offers, through to the DWP’s programme on parental conflict. We are considering the manifesto’s recommendations and will respond in due course.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I know he is enthusiastic about family support. He spoke about it in his maiden speech during the debate on it. In my efforts to rally support for a strengthening family strategy, I have had several conversations with Ministers and civil servants who have expressed frustration at the lack of clarity about who leads this vital agenda. They are concerned that they are stepping on to other Ministers’ territory, which is preventing any real progress being made. When will the Government appoint a Cabinet-level overlord who can co-ordinate family policy across government?

My Lords, as I mentioned, the Government are actively considering the recommendations set out in my noble friend’s manifesto. In my preparation for this Question, I spoke to an official in Downing Street who had had at least six conversations with my noble friend. Officials are treating this very seriously. The model of a specific brief—such as an equalities brief—being attached to a Cabinet Minister is a good one and deserves careful scrutiny. We shall continue to engage with my noble friend on this issue. I know he has also recently met my honourable friend the Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi and discussed elements of the recommendations with him.

My Lords, we know that the stress created by poverty and hardship can undermine families. Can the Minister explain what the Government’s policy of abolishing benefits—tax credits and universal credit for children after the second child—will do to strengthen families?

My Lords, since the coalition and this Government took office, we have focused on the more disadvantaged families. For example, the troubled families programme is budgeted to spend £920 million helping nearly 290,000 families in most need. What is interesting is that the number of children defined as children in need has declined by 14% after they have been involved in this programme for 12 months.

Will the Minister say what specific steps the Government propose to take to support the mental health and well-being of children affected by high-conflict parental separation, particularly those who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence and abuse?

My Lords, this Government have committed £1.4 billion to the mental health of families and children. We know that this is extremely important. Parental conflict is three times more likely to occur in poorer families than in those who are better off. This is why we are focusing on this area.

My Lords, prior to publication of the manifesto, the previous Prime Minister declared that a family test would be applied to all government policy. Would this not require not just a Cabinet-level overseer but for each department to have someone responsible for applying the family test? Does that exist?

My Lords, the family test was introduced in 2014. It includes five questions. I will not go through all of them but I will mention a couple just to illustrate what we are trying to do: first, what kind of impact might the policy have on family formation; and, secondly, what kind of impact will the policy have on families going through key transitions such as becoming parents, getting married and so on? So the test is already operating on a voluntary basis. We are cautious about making it statutory because that would very much remove flexibility in how it was used.

My Lords, the document in question seems to yearn for a return to an age when the nuclear family was ubiquitous. Social norms have moved on a bit in the past 50 years, and to advocate, as the document does, tax benefits for married couples alone unfairly stigmatises not just single parents but the children in such families. The manifesto of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, also advocates family hubs. These already exist; Labour created them with the Sure Start programme, and by 2010 there were some 3,600 children’s centres, reaching almost 3 million children and their families. Those figures are now halved as the result of a succession of budget cuts. Will the Minister explain how that squares with the Conservatives’ claim to be the party of families?

My Lords, we recognise the value of family hubs. We have perhaps slightly shifted the emphasis with, for example, the introduction of 15 hours’ free childcare for the most disadvantaged children in this country. In the last two years participation has gone up from 58% to 71%, and 500,000 children now benefit from it. We believe that is a very effective mechanism to work alongside children and family hubs.

My Lords, do the Government recognise the need for an alcohol strategy as part of maintaining family integrity, given the figures showing that when there is dependency there is physical abuse in over one-third of families, which falls to 10% during recovery programmes, while mental health issues in other family members presenting to clinical services fall from two-thirds of families to one-third when there are adequate programmes in place?

My Lords, we recognise the damage that alcoholism can do to families. We estimate that there are some 200,000 children living in households where alcohol dependency is a problem. We have launched a number of initiatives: the DWP has announced a £4.5 million innovation fund aimed at local authorities to support them in implementing evidence-based interventions; there is a £1 million fund for the voluntary sector and not-for-profit organisations to take forward projects to build capacity nationally; and there is a £500,000 fund for the expansion of an existing helpline to increase the support available to children with alcohol-dependent parents.