Skip to main content

Family Policy

Volume 811: debated on Monday 19 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the remarks by the Lord Chancellor on 17 June 2020 (HC Deb, col 902), what progress they have made towards joining up family policy across government so that it is “fit for the 2020s”.

My Lords, families play a primary role in caring for and educating their children. The right honourable Secretary of State for Education is charged with driving family policy across government. The Government announced £27.3 million for the family fund in 2021-22 to support over 60,000 families on low incomes raising children with disabilities and serious illnesses. We are also investing over £14 million to champion family hubs.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her reply. The Lord Chancellor was referring to current lack of support for separating couples, whose conflicts may be amplified by 2020-style no-fault divorce reform, which legalises one party unilaterally leaving the other without recourse. Mr Justice Cobb’s Family Solutions Group highlighted the role of family hubs, a classic cross-departmental policy in supporting separating couples. Can my noble friend say what progress has been made in providing such support in readiness for these legal changes to divorce?

My Lords, we are creating the new national centre for family hubs to provide expert advice, guidance and advocacy to support local councils in developing those family hubs. They will be very much locally grown and locally specific and should be part of the relationship support network for families who need it.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that all government departments should recognise the vital importance of family to the well-being of society, particularly of course in the field of taxation policy? To that end, will the Government consider the case for including in all draft legislation of relevant departments a family impact assessment?

My Lords, indeed, since 2014 there has been the family test, which I believe is led out of the Department for Work and Pensions, which asks government departments to consider the impact of their policies on families.

My Lords, strong families are the bedrock of a strong society, and we need to ensure, especially now, that families get the support they need at the time that they need it. Can the Minister outline what further help will be given to fund support for relationships, marriage and reconciliation, especially for those who do not have support networks such as other family members to rely on for help and advice?

My Lords, that is precisely why the Government committed to championing family hubs to provide a locally based—through local authorities—support network. The noble Lord may be aware that the family justice reform group is also looking at matters for those families to try and avoid, if at all possible, people coming through the family justice system and encouraging them to resolve things amicably.

My Lords, the troubled families programme is a commendable example of the benefits of a cross-government approach to policy. However, there is still insufficient co-ordination of support across departments for families to ensure that children and young people achieve better outcomes. In which specific cross-departmental policy areas is the Cabinet-level lead for families, the right honourable Gavin Williamson MP, bringing together ministerial colleagues, and what progress has been made?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct: what has now been renamed the Supporting Families programme has been successful at supporting families with some of the most complex needs. It has shown that they can avoid the need for further statutory services and for some of their children to go into care or the criminal justice system, as a result. There are various cross-government issues which are dealt with and led partly by the Secretary of State for Education, such as the care leavers board, which he chairs jointly with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. Given that the adversarial nature of the family law courts is unhelpful in many cases, and that separating couples often need much earlier help addressing emotional distress and practical issues to encourage effective co-parenting after separation, as well as ensuring that children’s needs remain centre stage, could the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to ensure a closer link with, and easier access to, relationship support in the family justice system?

My Lords, as I have outlined, the family justice system currently has a review into these matters, looking at a potentially more investigative approach to family justice. We also hope that the family hubs will give local authorities the option to bring together not just statutory services but the charitable and voluntary sector, which often provides support in the circumstances that the noble Baroness outlines.

I commend the Government on their Supporting Families programme. Could my noble friend tell the House what is being done to help families whose children have missed out on education during the pandemic to catch up, and whether the Government would consider building grandparents into family policy, as wider families can often help with dysfunctionality?

My Lords, the catch-up in the education section of building back after the pandemic is focused on children catching up their education, but particularly disadvantaged children. On many occasions, noble Lords have asked about the laptops that they have received, and a specific element, £302 million, is a Covid catch-up premium built on the pupil premium. She is right that, in considering family policy, we changed the coronavirus regulations to recognise informal childcare support bubbles, where grandparents and others are giving support.

My Lords, during a debate on family food banks earlier today, a local government spokesperson said that the priority seems to be just getting the money out of the door and bemoaned the lack of consistency and equal standards across the country. Does the Minister agree that budgets could be immeasurably more cost-effective, if administered and monitored by a senior-level Minister, with the department able to provide guidance on, and fair distribution of, the available government funds?

My Lords, getting the money out the door is very important, but I take the point that the noble Baroness makes. As the Minister responsible for the efficiency and commercial function of the department, we rely on and give grants to local authorities. We then trust them on the ground. For instance, we have given an additional £40 million to the Covid-19 Support Fund. However, when it comes to contracting with providers, there are procurement processes and contract monitoring, which is an increasingly professional function of the department.

My Lords, until January 2018, there was a Minister of State for Children and Families with the right to attend Cabinet. The post was then downgraded to Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, which does not give the current holder the necessary clout either to be heard or to be properly effective. Many parliamentarians have today added their names to a letter from UNICEF UK to the Prime Minister, calling for the reinstatement of the Minister for Children and Families with the right to attend Cabinet, and urging him to deliver a national address directed to children and families to set out his vision of what building back Britain means for them. Does the Minister support these suggestions?

My Lords, the current Minister for Children and Families, the right honourable Vicky Ford MP, works across government on many issues—for instance, online harms, at the moment, and the issues that have been raised by Everyone’s Invited. The independent Children’s Commissioner today launched her Big Ask to talk to children about their experiences. The group that the noble Lord outlined will get a reply from the Prime Minister, but it is beyond my pay grade to comment further.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a degree of confusion about who takes the lead in various family issues? What decisions will be made about which departments lead on certain problems? For instance, if it is finance, will the Department for Education or the DWP lead? What is the process by which that decision is made?

My Lords, decisions are made on an issue-by-issue basis. As I outlined in terms of care leavers, the dual chairmanship of that is clear. It is important there is also a degree of flexibility so that, as issues arise, a responsible Government are able to work across departments. For instance, the Home Office, DCMS and the Department for Education have been meeting in regard to safeguarding in schools. I have a meeting with the Home Office on violence against women and girls this afternoon.