Today, I want to talk to you about the importance of family.
There is absolutely no doubt that family life has a huge influence on the very foundations of society - just how important is a sociological lesson we have learned the hard way over the past 25 years.
That is why supporting families sits high on this Government’s agenda.
Indeed, just this Monday evening, I sat down with David Cameron and the Deputy Prime Minister to discuss what more we can do to help through the Ministerial Taskforce on Families and Children - so this is clearly an issue that is taken extremely seriously right at the top of Government.
We are well aware that every family is different.
As a Government, we should not be in the business of prescribing how people live their lives.
Yet we cannot ignore just how crucial families are to both the life chances of an individual and the social fabric of the nation.
So it is right that this Government is committed to supporting people’s desire to build strong, stable families through practical policy measures.
And it is important that we recognise the role of marriage in building a strong society, especially if we want to give children the best chance in life.
We all know that commitment gets tested regularly in every family.
And all the evidence shows that couples who persevere emerge with stronger relationships.
But it can be hard to get through every test without support, which is why I’m delighted to be here today to support the tremendous work done by Relate.
Define the Problem
All the evidence shows that family influences educational outcomes, job prospects, and even life expectancy.
That means that positive, family-friendly policies can bring wide-ranging benefits to society.
But when government abandons policies that support families, society can pay a heavy price.
- lone parent families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than two-parent families
- children from broken homes are 9 times more likely to become young offenders
- and only 30% of young offenders grew up with both parents.
And overall wellbeing:
- Children in lone-parent and step-families are twice as likely to be in the bottom 20% of child outcomes as children in married families
So this is not some abstract debate.
Family life affects all of us - what happens on our streets, in our communities, and in our economy.
What you learn from a very early age has a great deal to say about the person you will eventually become and the life you lead.
That is far from saying that your life is determined by your family circumstances.
Many people overcome early difficulty to achieve great things.
But we would be foolish to ignore the weight of evidence that shows just how influential family can be to life outcomes.
Cost of failure
That is why, as the Centre for Social Justice estimates, the cost of family breakdown is £20-24 billion.
And the Relationships Foundation puts the figure at nearer £40 billion.
The fact remains that these are huge numbers - yet they represent just the direct costs.
The costs to society as a whole through social breakdown, addiction, crime, lost productivity and tax revenues are very difficult to quantify - but research suggests they could be up to £100 billion.
Yet, according to research by the Centre for Social Justice, what we spend on the prevention of family breakdown is only around 0.02% of what is spent on dealing with the consequences.
This is something which you at Relate know only too well.
In an era when we are constantly challenged by social breakdown, the family must be placed right at the heart of our solutions.
The real price of family breakdown is measured in the human costs - which is why it is critical we get the right policies in place to support the desire everyone has for a strong, stable family.
That is why we cannot go on ignoring the evidence that working with couples before they break up brings great benefits to their families and society.
People’s expectations of marriage are unsustainable. We have seen expectations rising but understanding falling.
There are people who don’t marry because they cannot afford a ‘fairytale’ wedding. Their attempts to do so can lead them to start their lives together in debt - often a precursor to failure.
There is a need for help to be available to people both pre- and post-marriage.
Which is why I want to pay tribute to you here at Relate and the other guidance organisations who provide such vital services.
The scale of the challenge is huge:
- Britain now has amongst the highest divorce and teenage pregnancy rates in Europe
- a recent OECD report, “Doing Better for Children” showed that despite having higher than average family incomes, outcomes for children in the UK are among the worst of all OECD nations
- it also showed that the UK has some of the highest levels of lone parenting and family breakdown
- and the report highlights the very high levels of alcohol and drug consumption among our young.
In 2008/09 we spent over £35 billion on financial support for children and yet 2.8 million children were still living in poverty.
What this tells us is that throwing money at the problem will not solve it.
Overcoming child poverty requires a more strategic approach, where parents, families and their communities are provided with the means and incentives to help themselves out of poverty and give their children the very best start in life.
This is why we need to look more closely at the underlying issues.
The family agenda is being driven by the Prime Minister right from the heart of government.
David Cameron chairs the Ministerial Task Force on Children and Families, working closely Nick Clegg and others, including myself.
All of us across Government are working together to support families and family-friendly Government.
And we are already making progress on many of the Coalition’s commitments:
- raising the income tax personal allowance so families can keep more of the money they earn
- taking Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention to help parents who are struggling and increasing its focus on the neediest families
- and putting £7 billion into the Fairness Premium to support the educational development of disadvantaged pupils.
I can tell you that allowing families to take greater control and encouraging people to take personal responsibility is a feature that echoes right across Government policy.
Levers for Change
In my own Department, for example, we are tackling welfare dependency through the Universal Credit system and the new Work Programme to help more people escape the poverty trap.
Welfare dependency is a huge problem in this country.
We have one of the highest rates of workless households in Europe and 2.8 million children living in poverty.
Many of the children growing up in these households without a proper role model simply don’t know what it is to aspire to work - one of the surest routes out of poverty.
As a result, their life prospects are severely curtailed and so the cycle of dependency repeats itself across the generations.
I am determined to help people break that cycle by reforming the welfare system.
Because we can only get to grips with the underlying problems by tackling the pathways into poverty:
- worklessness and welfare dependency
- educational failure
- and family breakdown.
In each of these areas, families lie at the heart of our policies.
Families are also central to our thinking when it comes to the Cabinet Committee on Social Justice, which I chair with the support other senior Cabinet members.
We have already commissioned two Labour MPs to carry out work for this Committee:
- Frank Field on Child Poverty and Life Chances, and
- Graham Allen on early intervention.
We know that progress in these areas will translate into real benefits for other areas of society.
Frank Field is looking at a wide range of issues, including how to help stop poverty becoming ingrained.
He is also looking at how we measure poverty as well as how we address it.
What I can tell you is that many people have told Frank about the importance of preventing family breakdown in the fight against poverty.
I am also looking forward to Graham Allen’s report on early intervention. I know this is something he cares deeply about, because I worked with him on this when I was in Opposition.
What is clear is that the earlier we address the life challenges people face, the more likely we are to solve them.
So Graham will be producing a report about best practice in January, followed by another in May on how to fund Early Intervention programmes.
- Here again, when we receive the final reports I hope that we will be able to demonstrate that we are addressing the underlying issues that impact family life - not just the symptoms.
We have to do much more to support families in other areas such as:
- relationship support
- parenting support and education
- family and couple therapy
- therapeutic interventions, for example therapy for post-natal depression, debt counselling and mental health support
- family law advice focusing on prevention, child support and child contact
- helping parents reach their own financial and care arrangements for children following separation
- teenage pregnancy, and
- tackling domestic violence and violence towards women, where a report will be published shortly.
These are all issues that we will be looking at through the Ministerial Taskforce on Families and the Cabinet Committee on Social Justice.
But Government cannot do everything on its own.
We all need to work together on this - faith groups, voluntary organisations, health services, Police, community workers, and all the groups represented here today.
We need your continued support, working with us to build stronger families and communities for the future.
Because if there is one message to take with you today, it is this - no Government can ignore the importance of healthy families.
So we will strive to deliver the family-friendly policies this country needs right from the heart of Government.
I know you have expressed concerns about the ending of the Children and Young Persons Strategic Grant. However, as I said before we want to ensure that our focus is on families.
And the Families Task Force will come forward with suggestions for how we best do that.
In the meantime we have allocated £470 million to support civic society.
We are also reforming the welfare system to make work pay, as well as introducing reforms to pensions and Housing Benefit.
If you accept - as I do - that Government has a role to play, then we must also support the best solutions for families:
- committed, stable relationships with two parents that produce the best outcomes for adults and children
- unapologetic support for marriage, recognising that this provides a sound basis for the majority of long-term relationships, and
- proper support for families under stress to minimise the risk of family breakdown.
This is how we support the strong stable families that strengthen communities and forge a better Britain for everyone.
And Relate must be at the heart of that.