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Cross-Government Policy to Strengthen Families

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether a Cabinet-level minister has been appointed to coordinate cross-Government policy to strengthen families; and if so, (1) who is that minister, (2) when they were appointed, and (3) what policies they have coordinated to date.

My Lords, families have a critical role in caring for and educating their children. The right honourable Gavin Williamson has therefore been asked to drive forward family policy. He aims to use this role to protect vulnerable children and give children the best start in life. To work towards this, the Government have announced £2.5 million to research and develop best practice on how best to integrate family services and support vulnerable children.

I thank the Minister for her Answer and for its clarity. Our high levels of family breakdown require a strategic approach to strengthening families and therefore cross-government policy co-ordination. My review on strengthening female offenders’ family relationships required several departments to work together to implement recommendations. Co-ordination requires resource. The Cabinet-level family lead is modelled on the Equalities Minister. Will that family lead therefore have a dedicated budget and Civil Service team per the Government Equalities Office?

My Lords, the Government are grateful to my noble friend for his work in this area. He is of course correct that the Government’s policy on families requires co-ordination and resource. That is why the Prime Minister has entrusted the family policy brief to the Secretary of State for Education to reflect the need for cross-government collaboration on this issue. On resources, I reassure my noble friend that they are there from investment in free childcare and early education to the troubled families and reducing parental conflict programmes, and of course our commitment to the family hub model, where next month we will start the procurement for research and development of best practice on the integration of services for families.

A Question about the centrality of the family gives me my first opportunity in this House to pay tribute to my noble teacher, the extraordinary man and leader, Rabbi Lord Sacks. Zichrono livracha—may his memory be for a blessing. His death is a huge loss to us all. He wrote and spoke extensively on spiritual and family issues. Does the Minister agree with the sentiments written by Lord Sacks in his book Faith in The Future? He wrote:

“It is within the family that the three great ethical concerns arise: welfare, or the care of dependents; education, or the handing on of accumulated wisdom to the next generation; and ecology, or concern with the fate of the world after our own lifetime.”

I take the opportunity to agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend and indeed with those written by Lord Sacks. Indeed, as he said in another of his works:

“If we care about the common good, the cohesion of society and the support it gives to individuals, the family must be at the very heart of our concern.”

I associate myself with those remarks. If the late and much-missed Lord Sacks were here, he would have spoken out about the huge financial and emotional costs of family breakdown and the rising divorce rate reported this morning. We have a real crisis now of children and money amid fears that the system will collapse under the huge weight of cases and lack of legal aid. Will the Minister heed the recommendations of the Family Solutions Group report What About Me? It highlighted the need to reduce aggressive litigation over money after divorce, which it said harms children’s welfare, by progressing the reform of our financial provision law to make it focus on support for children, less expensive and in line with nearly every other European country.

My Lords, I will certainly go away and look at the findings of that report. Of course, the Government have introduced no-fault divorces to try to reduce conflict through that process and make it more constructive, particularly with regard to the position of children in those circumstances.

My Lords, as the much-lamented Lord Sacks would have said, family, as broadly defined, is the bedrock of society. Will the Minister say that all Ministries, particularly the Treasury in terms of fiscal policy, should be at the forefront of promoting families? Will the Government consider relevant initiatives, such as attaching a family impact assessment to each Bill?

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly that support for family policy is a cross-government endeavour. I think the noble Lord will know that within government we have the family test, which is a resource that policymakers can use to ensure that the needs of families are considered at the heart of policy-making.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred to the state of crisis in many families, and that has been dramatically worsened for very many families during this year as a result of the Covid crisis. The Government’s reaction and policies on Covid have tended to rely on three pillars: medical, economic and educational policy. Is it not now time to put much more emphasis on social policy, and in particular on the health, welfare and well-being of families of all kinds and their members of all ages?

My Lords, the Government have put a huge amount of support into health policy during this crisis and policy to support the well-being of families. That has included additional support towards mental health, making sure that social services have the resources they need to continue their important work during this time and ensuring that both schools and early years settings have the resources they need to provide support to children and young people.

My Lords, I, too, endorse the comments made about the late Lord Sacks. What a wonderful man he was. Will the Minister say how the Government plan to help parents whose children’s development has been negatively impacted by the recent closure of nurseries and schools, as evidenced in Ofsted’s national inspection report?

My Lords, the key thing has been to keep vulnerable children and young people in school or to get them back to school if they did not go there during the first lockdown. We kept those settings open for children, and the vast majority of children are back, but we are encouraging schools to reach out to parents who have not returned their children and to provide them with reassurance if they have concerns. We have also provided the catch-up fund, worth £1 billion, to include tutoring for disadvantaged pupils and £9 million specifically towards improving the language skills of reception-age children who need the most support.

My Lords, the Minister may have seen research by Action for Children that was published in September and showed that the pandemic caused financial pressures on more than one-third of all families due to the associated additional household costs of having the whole family at home full time. The Government’s reluctant U-turn, which has produced the continuation of holiday activities and the food fund until May next year, was welcome. However, it was an admission that disadvantaged families indeed need additional support during school holidays. What assessment have the Government made of the number of families that were pushed further into poverty as the result of the Government’s determination not to give free school meals during the recent October half-term holiday—a decision I am absolutely certain Lord Sacks would not have approved of?

My Lords, as the noble Lord has recognised, the Government have taken action by introducing the Covid winter grant scheme for this winter holiday and then the holiday activities and food scheme. However, that is not the limit of the Government’s support to the most vulnerable families during the period of this pandemic. We have increased universal credit by £20 a week and the value of local housing allowance, which is £9 billion more welfare into the system. The analysis shows that those on the lowest incomes have received the most government help as a proportion of their incomes because that is where our concern lies during this pandemic.

May I ask the Minister to ensure there are sufficient resources to give appropriate help to children in households where there is conflict between the parents, both for counselling and for mental health support?

My Lords, I can reassure the noble and learned Baroness that the Government are putting in place this kind of support. We have put in place the Wellbeing for Education Return programme, which is backed by £8 million to support staff working in schools and colleges when responding to the additional pressures some children and young people may be facing during the pandemic, including spending time at home, where conflict may have been higher. We know that parental conflict is difficult for all involved, and that is why the Department for Work and Pensions has a £2.7 million fund to increase support for disadvantaged families at risk of parental conflict.