Thursday, January 21, 2010

Conservative Party Family Policy; what does 'Family Support' really mean?

Our marriage preparation course starts in a couple of weeks time, so I'm a bit more tuned into political debates on the family and family support than normal. Yesterday the Conservatives published their 'Draft Manifesto on the Family'. That's not quite as grand as it sounds - a 4-page excerpt from their draft manifesto, which is been released in bite-sized chunks on what seems like a daily basis.

Here is what I understand to be the aspirations, and concrete Conservative policies, for families. Some of this is a direct cut and paste, so my apologies if the grammar doesn't quite work. A few comments in brackets:

- Ending child poverty by 2020
- “Britain is one of the least family-friendly countries in the developed world. This will change with a Conservative government.”
- Support the provision of free nursery care for preschool children and we want that support to be provided by a diverse range of providers.
- Ensure that the public sector becomes a world leader in flexible working.
- Make sure couples are given greater encouragement to use existing relationship support (what does this mean?)
- “A Conservative government will help families with their finances”

Policy Commitments

- End the couple penalty in the tax credit system
- Recognise marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system in the next Parliament. This is as much about ‘sending an important signal that we value the commitment that people make when they get married’, as it is about personal finance and taxation.
- Freeze council tax for two years, in partnership with local councils (? Isn’t that taxation policy?)
- Reform the administration of tax credits to reduce fraud and overpayments

Sure Start/family support/childcare
- Take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention, increase its focus on the neediest families, and better involve organisations with a track record of supporting families. (new providers to be paid on results)
- Provide 4200 more Sure Start health visitors, giving all parents a guaranteed level of support before and after birth until their child starts school. (to provide advice on physical development, and support for emotional health of whole family – particularly the relationship between parent and child, and parents themselves)
- Bring all funding for early intervention and parenting support into one budget, to be overseen by an Early Years Support Team within the DCSF. Currently spread across many sources and departments.
- Review the way the childcare industry is regulated

- Funding for relationship support on a stable, long-term footing through multi-year funding settlements

Workplace practices
- Extend the right to request flexible working to every parent with a child under 19
- New system of flexible parental leave – i.e. making maternity leave transferable within a couple

1. What do they mean by ‘relationship support’? Relate? Sure Start health visitors? Marriage and relationship preparation through civil and church registrars? I'd like to hear a bit more about what this means, and what it would look like in practice. It sounds good, but what is it?

2. Health visitors are a good thing, but it might be worth looking at their job remit. The giving of information and options to a stressed new mum when she actually wants advice and wisdom is sometimes worse than useless. If health visitors are actually able to mentor new parents, and pass on wisdom about parenting and relationships, then they will be a lot more use. It sounds like the Conservatives do want to raise the bar on Health Visitors to make them a bit more proactive. But that more 'directive' approach carries its own risks, and involves a lot more input. 4200 extra health visitors will only scratch the surface. However, targeting them at the most dysfunctional families might make some headway, provided they are well prepared and resourced.

3. Flexible working is all very well, and will help, but one of the key pressures on families at the moment is the culture of debt and overpriced housing. It’s a generation and a bit since a mortgage could be supported on one income, families are now under pressure to have two earners, and juggling this around young children means that Mum leaves for her evening shift on the ASDA checkout 5 minutes after Dad gets home from the works. That’s not conducive to a stable relationship. The logic of that tax freeze on local authorities needs to be extended to the whole economy. A low-debt economy where value is placed on family, community, and non-material goods is needed as a counterweight to consumer capitalism, which drives families into overwork, overconsumption and debt, with all the associated stresses. Debt is a factor in a significant number of marriage breakups - I think the figure is about 25-30%.

4. The really thorny issue is how you intervene in the parenting of small children. It's widely recognised that the early years are crucial in how a child learns to see themselves, others, and the world, in how much they develop emotionally, intellectually and socially, and whether they're able to go on to form stable loving relationships themselves. How much tough love is required to intervene in chaotic families with a merry-go-round of partners and deskilled parents who've never been mentored into good parenting and relationship skills themselves? And what kind of 'intervention' would work without being oppressive? To what degree can the rights of parents be infringed to protect the wellbeing of their children?

5. That probably requires some joined up thinking with the education system. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be anything in the draft Education Manifesto which addresses relationship skills. There is no point trying to tackle low attainment if that's just the symptom of a chaotic and dysfunctional family background. I know of a local school which wrestles with this as a key issue: the school feels that it's struggling against the background that many children come from, and providing security, love and encouragement is just as important as helping children to learn the basics. Is there a place for relationship education and parenting skills on the school curriculum? If education is about what can't be left to chance*, then can we afford to leave to chance the basic life skills which will make a crucial difference for the families which schoolchildren go on to have? It's not failsafe, but isn't it worth a try?

6. Who are these 'organisations with a track record of supporting families'? Is that folks like Relate, NCT etc., or more voluntary, community-based groups? What kind of stuff is going to be farmed out, and with what sort of strings? Will Sure Start be subcontracting?

I'm glad the Conservatives have kicked off this debate, and I hope that the parties can all recognise that we have a serious problem here. A proper debate, rather than simplistic call-and-response politicking, is what we need.

I'm well aware that 5 sessions of marriage preparation is a drop in the ocean for the couples who'll be coming along next month, but it's more input than many recieve. No organisation, be it church, government, voluntary sector, Relate, Sure Start or whoever can carry this ball on their own. On that level the tax break for married couples is right: we need to address the culture around families - there's no point them being propped up by one or two structures if culture and society as a whole is toxic to committed relationships and the raising of children in a loving stable home. That's more than policy.

*source: Christina Baxter, head of St Johns College Nottingham, it's a definition which has always stuck with me.

Update: its very interesting to compare these policy proposals with the actions proposed by this Demos report into childhood and character. There's a lot of overlap, though the more concrete interventions to support struggling families proposed by Demos aren't mentioned in the Conservative proposals. And look who's in the picture for the launch of the report....

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