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Assessment of Government Policies (Impact on Families) Bill

Volume 603: debated on Friday 4 December 2015

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

“Whether it’s tackling crime and anti-social behaviour or debt and drug addiction; whether it’s dealing with welfare dependency or improving education outcomes—whatever the social issue we want to grasp—the answer should always begin with family.”

So said the Prime Minister, and so it is.

As I am following my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg), a former history teacher, I feel that it is incumbent on me, as a former French teacher, to look to Paris, where climate change is being debated. The world needs to recognise that some very necessary changes must be made to safeguard our greatest natural asset for generations to come. I put it to the House that the family is the social fabric of our world and that we, likewise, need to safeguard that social fabric for the next generation and the next.

Why is the family so seminal? It is in the family that we find identity, wellbeing and esteem. It is in the family that we learn right and wrong.

Thank you kindly. It is in the family where we thrive. The family are the best carers, the best nurturers and the best teachers.

I am so proud of my country. We lead the world in so many ways, but one of the ways in which we lead it is a cause of deep disappointment and huge concern to me: internationally, we are fourth in terms of family breakdown. Let us look at the cost of that breakdown to the person and the child who has experienced it. According to the Centre for Social Justice, they are more likely to grow up in poorer housing, leave home at an earlier age, have more behavioural issues, report more depressive symptoms, become sexually active earlier, become pregnant and a parent earlier, leave school with fewer qualifications, and leave school earlier. A conservative estimate of the financial cost—£46 billion, which equates to the entire spend of the Scottish Government—shows us that family breakdown costs and costs. That is why it is so right that family policy has its place.

Under the Prime Minister’s leadership, we have seen excellent innovation, with new support for relationships, re-recognition of marriage in the income tax system, shared parental leave, the troubled families initiative, and now a new, ambitious programme around house building—excellent. A particularly important moment in the development of the Government’s family policy came in August 2014, when the Prime Minister addressed the relationship summit and announced the introduction of the family test. He said:

“The reality is that in the past the family just hasn’t been central to the way government thinks. So you get a whole load of policy decisions which take no account of the family and sometimes make these things worse. Whether it’s the benefits system incentivising couples to live apart or penalising those who go out to work—or whether it’s excessive bureaucracy preventing loving couples from adopting children with no family at all.

We can’t go on having government taking decisions like this which ignore the impact on the family.

I said previously that I wanted to introduce a family test into government. Now that test is being formalised as part of the impact assessment for all domestic policies. Put simply that means every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family.”

The Prime Minister’s speech was followed in October that year by the inauguration of the family test guidance produced by the Department for Work and Pensions under the sterling leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). The family test guidance has now been in place for over a year. It is a milestone, an anniversary—perhaps not a coming of age, but a good point at which we could look at this prism of the family test and its impact on policy.

In that light, a whole host of questions have been put to Departments. They ask the Minister how many of his or her Department’s policies have been assessed against the family test and what steps have been taken to publish the outcome of such an assessment. I regret to say that the answers to those questions have been rather limited. In many instances, the response was that the guidance urges only a consideration of publication, and therefore no publication had followed. There have been good examples of the assessment in relation to the Childcare Bill and the Education and Adoption Bill. However, the potential within the family test is as yet unrealised.

Therefore, my Bill looks to give the family test more authority, more influence, and more reach. Clause 1 defines the family test. Clause 2 introduces the central component of the Bill by making it a statutory obligation. Clause 3 applies the test to all Departments. Of particular importance given the perhaps as yet limited understanding of how the test has had an impact, clause 2 requires that the assessment be published.

Clause 4 requires that an assessment be made as to whether the family test should be applied to local government, given that so many of those policy decisions touch on family life. It also makes provision for the Secretary of State, through regulation, to subject any other public body to the family test as they see fit. Clause 5 provides greater clarity on the policy objectives that inform the family test, requiring the establishment of indicators for the Government’s work in promoting strong and stable families.

Nobody supports the family more than me, and my hon. Friend is arguing her case well. How does she avoid this becoming an apple-pie and motherhood Bill? How does she avoid adding more and more regulatory burdens on the Government, as on a Christmas tree? If the Government have any sense at all, surely they will instinctively produce Bills, regulations or whatever, to support the family and the nation. That is good sense and good governance.

I thank my hon. Friend for that fair comment. We do not want to increase regulatory compliance or render this Bill another checklist for Governments and policy makers to establish. The environmental impact assessment might have started out life in the same guise, but it is now inherent to our thinking and therefore second nature to policy makers. I believe it is important to bring this issue to the fore, so that it informs policy makers and is deliberately made explicit in that process. History shows that Bills can have unintended consequences that impact on family stability, so this provision is important.

This is not a pass and fail test; it is more the opportunity to understand what the impact of a policy on families could be. It is a prompt to mitigate potentially negative effects and maximise positive effects, and we want it to be used in a genuine, meaningful and practical way to benefit families. It is not a blunt instrument to criticise policy.

I hope that the Government will welcome this Bill and look on it as a recognition of the work that they have instituted, and as a means to progress that and raise it to a new level. I thank all community groups and organisations that backed the Bill. The list is too stellar and too long for me to do justice to it in the time available, but I thank them for their contributions, and more broadly for everything that they do across their communities and in our country to promote family stability, with everything that means for people’s life chances. That is central to everything that family stability means.

I know that we cannot legislate strong families into being, but we can ensure that legislation in no way undermines those families, and only strengthens them. I believe that the future of our society rests on that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on bringing forward this Bill and on calling on the Government to make the family test a statutory requirement when taking account of the impact on families of new laws and policy. If the Bill is passed it will

“require Ministers to carry out an assessment of the impact of Government policies on families by giving statutory effect to the family test; to place a duty on the Secretary of State to make a report on the costs and benefits of requiring local authorities to carry out equivalent tests on their policies; to require the Secretary of State to establish, and make an annual report on, indicators of and targets for the Government’s performance in promoting family stability; and for connected purposes.”

The family test introduces a family perspective to the policy-making process in England and across Departments. It will ensure that Ministers and Departments identify in advance, and make explicit, the potential impacts of policies on family relationships. We support the family test, but as the hon. Lady said, its implementation varies across Departments. In response to a topical question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General said:

“The family test is routinely applied and considered when all policy is developed. Government policy as a whole has to go through a series of checks”.—[Official Report, 21 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 945.]

He said that one of the things the Government do is apply the family test. However, that is not borne out by the evidence.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne said that there are good examples of the family test being used, and she gave the Childcare Bill as one of them. When it was introduced in the Lords, it stated that parents who worked more than eight hours a week would qualify for 30 hours of free childcare. With a sweep of his pen last week, the Chancellor increased the threshold to 16 hours, thereby removing 1.4 million families from eligibility. If that is an example of the family test working well, I would not like to see where it is working badly.

Some training and awareness-raising does appear to have taken place in Departments, but so far no published outcomes have been seen. Relate, the Family and Childcare Trust and the Relationships Foundation have said that it is important that there is a transparent and routine process through which the Government’s record on supporting family relationships can be assessed. They say that it should be more than just the sum of multiple family test assessments, and should include reliable and holistic data.

Those organisations, which support the Bill and call for an annual report on the Government’s progress in meeting the objectives of the family test, want reliable and holistic measures to be put in place to make assessment possible. They believe that should be possible, and that it should be done on a statutory basis, and we share that aim.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne on introducing the Bill, which is a useful step forward. Along with organisations such as Relate, the Family and Childcare Trust, the Relationships Foundation, the Association for Family Therapy, Grandparents Plus, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, Unison, 4Children and many others, the Opposition support the Bill and wish it a fair wind.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for her interest in the family test and welcome the focus that the Bill puts on that test and on family stability, both of which are key priorities for the Department and the Government both now and in the future. Although I welcome the spirit in which the Bill has been introduced and some of the comments that have been made, I recommend that the House opposes it for the reasons that I will set out.

Family stability is at the heart of the Government’s approach, and families are the foundations of society—not only because, as my hon. Friend highlighted, the estimated cost to Government of family breakdown is as much as £46 billion a year, but because strong and stable families can hugely improve our children’s life chances. We know that to build a stronger society we need to support families, and by focusing on the family we can create better outcomes for our children and wider society. We cannot afford to overlook the importance of the family as a basic building block in a successful and stable society.

We know that children who grow up in workless families have much lower life chances than those brought up in working families. As my hon. Friend highlighted, the Prime Minister announced the family test in August 2014, rightly citing his commitment to family stability and recognising its significance in policy development. The Department for Work and Pensions has been working across government to aid the implementation of the test. Although that cross-Whitehall approach will inevitably take time to embed, the new policy’s impact on family functioning and stability is being measured. We are starting to see its impact on early policy development, which we believe will have positive ramifications and outcomes for families in future.

How does the test apply to the policy on stamp duty penalties that the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement? That policy means that a married couple will be penalised if they buy a second home, but a cohabiting couple will be able to buy two homes without any penalty.

My hon. Friend raises important points. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor highlighted what more he is doing to enable families to get on to the housing ladder. Housing contributes to a stable foundation in family life, particularly for young families who are starting out.

The Minister mentions young families. Young families must be able to have a choice. If a young mother wants to stay at home to look after her young children, which is entirely natural, the family often suffers under the tax and benefit system. That is why we brought in the marriage tax allowance. Will she confirm that, although the allowance is quite low at the moment, the Treasury is open-minded about increasing it gradually over the years and making it more effective? That will not just save marriages, but help people who are married and bringing up young children.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The marriage tax allowance is a good example of the Government’s commitment to families. As he says, the Treasury supported the introduction of the policy. It is a good, positive contribution and a step forward in support for families.

Placing the family test on a legislative footing, however, runs the risk of turning the test into a tick-box exercise across Government Departments, when our ambition is to work across government with Departments to embed the benefits of thinking about policy from a family perspective at all stages of policy development, not just complying with legislative requirements.

There are many areas, some of which have been highlighted by my hon. Friends, where the Government are focusing on supporting families, beyond introducing the family test. We mentioned the marriage tax allowance, which will benefit over 4 million couples. We have the ever-expanding troubled families programme, which helps families where no adult in the family is working, children are not attending school, and some family members are involved in crime or antisocial behaviour. The troubled families programme has gone a long way to helping local authorities, stakeholder and third-party community groups, organisations and their partners to develop new ways of working with families to achieve lasting change.

The hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) mentioned childcare. We are doubling the amount of hours for free childcare to 30 hours for three and four-year-olds. We have committed to childcare support for disadvantaged two-year-olds. The tax-free childcare policy will benefit families with children, and give parents more choice and flexibility with their childcare arrangements.

The proposal to introduce indicators for family stability is being addressed, as my hon. Friend highlighted, through the Government’s life chances strategy. The new life chances measures will focus on the number of children in workless households and on the levels of educational attainment. We are so focused on the life chances measures and family stability indicators, because we are no longer committed to chasing what we consider to be arbitrary targets. They were the focus of previous Governments’ policies and approach. Our focus is on the root causes of family breakdown—worklessness and poverty—and not just the symptoms.

The Government are committed to introducing a new and strengthened approach to tracking the life chances of Britain’s most disadvantaged children. Evidence suggests that frequent and intense child-related poorly resolved inter-parental conflict has terrible and negative outcomes for children. Couples with children experience greater levels of stress during separation. It is that negativity that affects the outcomes of children. For families that separate, evidence suggests that good relationships between parents and positive involvement from both parents in a child’s upbringing have long-term beneficial outcomes. These are the areas on which we are focusing.

As I have said, we are clear that strong families give children the best start in life and that good measures can help Government to formulate policy across Departments and drive action where it is most needed. It is worth highlighting where we can work with other Departments. I have already mentioned educational outcomes, and naturally we are working with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to raise educational attainment and improve life chances. In this way, we can also tackle areas of social justice and provide support for families or individuals who have experienced debt issues, addiction or alcohol or drug misuse. A combination of those factors can have a negative impact on families and result in family breakdown.

We have also committed to introducing a wider set of non-statutory indicators, including a measure of family stability, and we are engaging with experts in the field, third-party stakeholders, partners and specialist organisations to ensure we strike the right balance and develop policy that is in line with the most up-to-date research and the most robust evidence. We already measure family stability as part of the social justice outcomes framework, which reports the proportion of children living with both birth parents at birth and then every year until they are 16.

We discussed many of these measures, particularly those on life chances, during our deliberations on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, under which we are introducing two statutory measures—on children in workless households and children’s educational attainment —to drive action on improving children’s life chances. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has committed to introducing a life chances strategy setting out indicators on the root causes of child poverty, including family stability, as well as on problem debt and addiction.

I have touched on many areas in which the Government are supporting families. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne spoke about relationship support and the impact of family breakdown. In the last five years, the Government have invested about £38 million in relationship support services, but this is increasing, and we are investing about £8 million in relationship support provision in the 2015-16 fiscal year to provide support for couples and parents and to encourage the take-up of face-to-face, telephone and online relationship support services.

The marriage tax allowance, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) mentioned, demonstrates the dynamic nature of Government policy and the way we are working across Departments on family stability to provide the right support, whether for children or parents, including relationship support. We are using existing indicators as well. The NHS—so again working across government—is providing early intervention and education, and we are piloting relationship education in perinatal classes to prepare expectant couples for the changes that having a baby will bring to their relationship.

We are providing guidance and training for health visitors on spotting signs of relationships in distress and how to respond. We have had many debates in the House about the role of health visitors and how we can elaborate on that through the provision of guidance and support for new parents. All new parents recognise the challenges of being a first-time parent. We are testing ways of maximising the role of local authorities in providing family-centred services with a focus on supporting and strengthening couples and co-parenting relationships as well.

My Department has a strong track record and is working actively with local authorities to strengthen the services they provide to couples and co-parents in families by providing extra funding and, importantly, expertise for the 13 local authorities in our local family offer trial. We are exploring ways to expand that approach and encourage local authorities to take that leadership role at a local level in supporting people in the community and promoting greater family—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Monday 7 December.