Family problems?

19 Aug


I should be delighted at the new focus of our Government on being ‘family friendly’, and at the announcement of a ‘family test’ for all domestic policies – except that I have a strange sense of déjà vu ….

If you do follow this policy area, yesterday’s speech from David Cameron does not sound new. ‘Family friendliness’ has been mooted as a concept, and as a more concrete policy commitment, repeatedly over David Cameron’s premiership: in the Coalition Agreement there was a desire to ‘make our society more family friendly’; in the 2012 Queen’s Speech, there was the announcement of the Children and Families Bill (now Act) some of the aims of which – faster adoption; support for couples experiencing relationships problems – were reiterated yesterday; addressing inequalities in marriage has been another theme (gay marriage; more flexible parental leave structures; new proposals to put mothers on marriage certificates as well as fathers).

But the Government has delivered policies with families at the centre, which suggest a focus on ‘some families rather than others’. The changes made to Child Benefit, turning a universal benefit into one based on income thresholds for individual parents is arguably the opposite to being ‘family friendly’ in general – put simply, family income is not considered relevant in distributing support to children – and higher earning lone parents lose out relative to couples with the ‘right’ earnings balance. Yes, it’s complicated, and it’s difficult to make sense of it.

More important, perhaps, is what happens for the poorest families. Benefit caps, the bedroom tax, and cuts in public services all affect the most disadvantaged families most. It is unlikely that ‘family friendliness’ shall be applied retrospectively, and with little policymaking scope left in this Parliament, the status of the ‘family test’ is questionable. Early in this Parliament there was mention of family impact statements which fell by the wayside until mention of the ‘family test’, and a Childhood and Families Taskforce appears to have fizzled out …

And the big response to disadvantage – as re-stated yesterday – is the Troubled Families Initiative which targets intensive support at families with multiple problems. However, this initiative has been criticised from the start for being based on what the New Statesman has called the ‘zombie’ statistic of 120,000 families to be targeted. This figure was arrived at from statistics around deprivation collected under Labour, and re-framed to encompass families with anti-social behaviour and truancy problems. The basis for the figure is therefore unclear. Furthermore, yesterday on Newsnight, Louise Casey, the tsar with responsibility for the Troubled Families initiative, admitted that the widely publicised figure of 53,000 families having been ‘turned around’ did not equate to these families no longer getting help from intervention services. She justified the low figure for getting parents in troubled families into work (4,500 out of the 53,000) in terms of the long distance many of the families have to come in order to achieve employability. In an Orwellian turn, it transpires that ‘turned around’ means sufficiently achieving against outcome targets so as to trigger payment-by-results fees to Local Authorities. ‘Turned around’ does not mean that a family’s multiple problems are solved, it means that Councils can be paid for dealing with them up to a point …..

The Prime Minister went out of his way yesterday to praise lone parents for the splendid job they often do in raising the next generation. And now the Troubled Families initiative is to be rolled out to address half a million families, based on current successes. Meanwhile, the ‘family test’ will be overseen by Iain Duncan Smith, whose Universal Credit proposals have been criticised for penalising second earners in couples, and whose rhetoric has often been viewed as less accommodating to non-traditional family structures than the Prime Minister’s words.

Louise Casey said that dealing with the complex issues in the most disadvantaged families was extremely challenging, and that progress had to be seen in the context of families who sometimes had as many as 9 major problems. Many of these issues seem to be related to poverty and poor mental and physical health, and limited sources of support. Intensive intervention may work to alleviate these, and it is in all our interests for such problems to be solved. But to discuss this with couple support, as a part of being ‘family friendly’, seems to disguise underlying economic problems. To paraphrase the famous rap song, these interventions are aimed at people who ‘got 9 problems but ‘the family’ ain’t one’.





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