Speech on families and relationships

A transcript of a speech given by Prime Minister David Cameron to Relate in Leeds about families on 10 December 2010.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Cameron

Thank you to Relate for hosting this event.

Two years ago, when I was in opposition, I gave the Relate Institute Lecture and set out our family-friendly reform agenda.

Now, we are in government - and I’m here to tell you: that our commitment to families still stands, what it means for government policy and how we want to work with organisations like Relate.

Politicians talking about families are often met by a couple of reactions: disapproval and defeatism.

Disapproval because some people say that government should concentrate on more important matters - that in public policy terms, family matters are a bit fluffy and ephemeral.

Defeatism because some say that however important families are, there’s little that government can practically do to help. I think both are wrong.

As I’ve always said, families are immeasurably important. And when I talk about families, I don’t just mean the married with two children model. Yes, I am pro-commitment, back marriage and think it’s a wonderful institution. But to me, a strong family is defined not by its shape, but by the love and support that’s in it - and we need to be there for all of them.

It’s not just that family is so important to our personal life - which most of us feel in our gut - it’s that they are so important to our national life too.

The seeds of so many social problems - as well as success stories - are sown in the early years. Family is where people learn to be good citizens, to take responsibility, to live in harmony with others. Families are the building blocks of a strong, cohesive society.

This isn’t a hunch. A whole body of evidence backs it up.

When parents have bad relationships, their child is more likely to live in poverty, fail at school, end up in prison, be unemployed later in life.

It would be wrong for public policy to ignore all this.

No one who wants to tackle some of our deepest social problems - and the massive economic costs they bring - has a hope unless they understand the importance of family.

So I reject the disapproval and I reject the defeatism too.

Look, I’m as aware as anyone about the limits of what government can do in this area. I believe there are personal areas in our lives where it couldn’t and shouldn’t go. I loathe nanny-statism.

But I wouldn’t be in this job if I didn’t believe government - and what it does - can make a positive difference to people’s lives.

We just need a realistic and sensible approach. We have that. It involves a long look at where government’s attention should be focused. A hard look at how government action can affect families and relationships. And the development of a range of practical policies to make sure that its impact is positive rather than negative.

So: where should government focus its attention?

The last Government concentrated its family support on children. This resulted in a great innovation - Sure Start. But it also meant they shied away from saying anything meaningful about the family as a whole - and in particular, the vital relationships within a family: the ones between parent and child and parent and parent.

All the evidence also shows that the strength and stability of adult relationships are vital to the well-being of children. If the relationship is strong, then the adults are more likely to support each other through whatever challenges they face - including approaching parenting with confidence. And if they are confident parents, then their children are more likely to succeed.

If the relationship is weak, then sadly, the opposite is true.

Indeed, so strong is this link, that the quality of parenting is the single-most important determinant of the life chances of a child.

Let me be clear: this is not about singling out one type of relationship over another.

There are millions of separated and divorced parents who continue to have a really good relationship just as there are married couples who go through real difficulties.

But the point is that relationships really matter for children, whether their parents are together or not.

Of course, this insight is nothing new to Relate, or to society either.

Today, people take a huge interest in relationships. It’s our politics that’s been left behind. For years, government hasn’t talked about families, hasn’t understood the importance of support at the vital times, hasn’t valued commitment.

And that’s why it’s been guilty of adding to, indeed at times creating, an environment for relationships which is all too often incredibly difficult.

If we’re serious about supporting families, this is what needs to change.

What does that mean in practice?

Now, as I said, I am not proposing heavy-handed state intervention.

Instead, I believe government should keep itself to asking a series of simple questions: What is that government does which is good for families and relationships - and can we do more? What does it do that’s bad - and how can we stop it? What would strengthen families and make it easier to bring up kids - and how can we support that?

It’s by asking those questions that you arrive at our family-friendly reform agenda.

Not laissez-faire: just leaving families to get on with it in a hostile world. Not nanny-state: some bureaucratic system telling parents what to do.

Just thoughtful, sensible, practical and modern support to help families with the issues they face.

Foremost among those issues are financial worries.

A lot of families and relationships come under stress as a result of money problems - and government can help here.

At a time of spending cuts, this isn’t easy. We’ve had to take an incredibly tough decision on child benefit for higher earners. But we took that decision, in part, so we could target support elsewhere.

I think it’s wrong that after the withdrawal of benefits and tax credits, some low-income families keep just four pence of every extra pound they earn.

So we will introduce a universal credit and really make work pay in this country - and that’s going to make a difference.

And yes, I also think it’s wrong that we’re one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t properly recognise marriage in the tax system - and I want to see that change.

Of course, I know not everyone agrees with this proposal - and as part of the coalition agreement, we have agreed with the Liberal Democrats that they will abstain on any budget resolutions on transferable tax allowances for married couples.

But my view remains that we should recognise and value the commitment that people make to one another. And by the way, that’s whether it’s between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and another woman.

Another big worry for parents is time.

Whether it’s the way we live or work, it can often seem the modern world is geared towards stopping families from seeing each other.

Again, I believe government can help out here. Directly, by extending the right to request flexible working to every parent with a child under the age of eighteen and indirectly too, like investing in our transport system, so it’s more reliable and gets people home before the children have gone to bed.

But all the evidence shows there are particular times in a family’s life that put extra pressure on relationships.

When a child is born is a good example. As I am experiencing all over again, it is a magical time. But it can also be incredibly stressful - not just the sleepless nights, but the worry if you are doing things right.

The evidence is clear: more parents split up in the first years after a child’s birth than at any other time.

Of course, government can’t make couples stay together, but it can take away some of the strain.

A Swedish study has shown that couples are almost a third less likely to split up when the father is involved early on. So we will be consulting on a system of flexible parental leave, to enable mothers and fathers to share childcare during that important first year.

We will also increase the number of Sure Start health visitors by 4,200, re-orientating them from an exclusive maternal-child focus to one where they support the whole family.

Crucially, they will act as a trusted gateway to other services a family might need - including, if necessary, relationship support.

And as children get older, we are developing childcare policies that recognise the needs of families.

Whether people decide to stay at home or go to work, use Sure Start or trust their wider family, government should be there to support the choices families make.

There’s something else that is the source of a lot of stress for parents nowadays.

It’s the feeling that modern life makes it harder to raise their children with the right values, that once their child is out of their sight there is no telling the kind of influences they are subject to - on television, at school, when they are out and about.

I get that. So we’re taking practical steps to send out the right messages to our kids.

That’s why we have given head teachers control over discipline in their schools, so boundaries are set outside the home as well as within it.

We are developing National Citizens Service for sixteen-year-olds, so we help instil an ethic of responsibility in young people.

And we are reforming the great knot of rules and regulations that stop adults from volunteering with children so parents don’t feel parenting is all down to them.

We are also using the influence of government to ask business to do the right thing.

The music videos they make, the songs they sell, the magazines they write, the adverts they create - these have a massive influence on family life and they need to understand that.

So we have asked Reg Bailey of the Mothers’ Union to lead an independent Review into the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood. He will examine all the evidence, and work with parents, business and regulators to see how we can reduce the pressure on children to grow up too quickly.

This will help all families. But we also need to recognise some families need extra help.

For years we’ve known that a relatively small number of troubled families are responsible for a large proportion of the problems in our society.

Maybe the parents have an addiction or have never worked in their life. Maybe there’s domestic violence. Often the children are completely out of control.

If we’re honest, people’s first instinct with these troubled families is to turn their backs on them. But that’s self-defeating. The problems get worse. The misery increases - for them, their neighbours and society as a whole.

Let’s not forget that children are being brought up in these homes - children who through no fault of their own have inherited a life of despair.

And let’s not forget these families cost us a fortune - in benefits, social workers, police time and places in young offenders’ institutes and prisons. Indeed, some estimates suggest that just 46,000 families cost the taxpayer over £4 billion a year - that’s nearly £100,000 each.

Take action now and we could cut these costs, turn lives round and sort out our neighbourhoods’ worst problems.

The previous Government, for all their interventions and initiatives, never got to grips with troubled families. I am determined that we will.

That’s why we are not only protecting funding for Sure Start children’s centres, but increasing their focus on the neediest families.

And today, I can announce a further step we are taking to turn troubled families around.

All the evidence suggests that it’s no use offering a range of different services to these families - the help they’re offered just falls through the cracks of their chaotic lifestyles.

What works is focussed, personalised support - someone the family trusts coming into their home to help them improve their lives step-by-step, month-by-month.

Emma Harrison understands that. She refuses to believe some people are lost causes and has a proven track record of turning lives around. Her approach is the complete opposite of the impersonal, one-size-fits-all approach that has failed so many families - which is why I have asked her to come on board to help us.

So, to start off with, we will be making funding available for innovative work with up to 500 troubled families in different local authorities. Emma and others will be helping to pioneer a new way of doing things: less bureaucratic, less impersonal, more human, more effective. Above all, treating the whole family as a unit, not just a collection of individuals.

Our side of the bargain of this: we will strip away the bureaucracy and give her, and the many others who we hope will follow her lead, the freedom she needs to make a difference. Her side of the bargain: to get these families back into work and on their feet.

I really believe we can make a difference this way. Indeed, I set this ambition: by the end of this Parliament, I want us to try and turn around every troubled family in the country.

Because the way I see it: no family is beyond hope and no family should be beyond help.

Help with money, with time, in the early years, with our culture, for troubled families.

There’s one other area which family-friendly reform should touch - and that is relationship support.

This is an incredibly tough issue for politicians. Our relationships are fragile and break down just like other people’s. These issues are very personal - and some might say we should stay clear.

But I think that’s a bit of a cop-out. The whole country pays the price of failing relationships, so discussing the issue should be part of our politics.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that while people initially look to families and friends for help with any problems they face, when things get really tough they do want more expert advice.

Indeed, two-thirds of people who have separated, one-half of those who plan to separate, and even one-in-five people in a stable relationship say they would like more direct help with relationship problems.

What’s more, as you well know, when couples are helped through their problems, relationships can be revived and if not, breakdown managed in a way that ensures the best possible outcome for children.

Put simply: relationship support is what some couples want and what, at times, can work.

Indeed, this morning, I met the campaign organisation Kids in the Middle, an extraordinary coalition of voluntary groups and agony aunts and uncles who help families with relationship troubles - and some of their success stories were inspirational.

Now, government could ignore all this. Or it could see if there’s anything we can do to help Kids in the Middle, Relate, the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, One Plus One and all those other organisations that provide relationship support. That’s what we’re doing.

One big problem organisations like you face is a lack of resources. I can announce today we are going to put funding for relationship support on a stable footing. From now on, we will dedicate £7.5 million a year to supporting relationships and this will give you, and other organisations working hard to support families, the certainty you need to plan for the future.

I can also announce that we will offer up space in government buildings after hours so you can cut your waiting lists and see more couples.

Another area where we can help is in fighting the stigma against seeking relationship advice.

It’s a tragedy that so many couples feel they can’t seek help because of what others think. Government can take a lead here.

We are reviewing sex education in schools, so young people learn about the importance of relationships early on.

And we are working with business and the media to see what they can do - in the products they create and campaigns they run - to de-stigmatise relationship support.

A third way we can help is by acting as link between yourselves and those families who are in most need of help but are the hardest to reach.

Here, health visitors and our re-focused Sure Start will be crucial - if they spot problems, they will offer advice and support, and where appropriate, point people to organisations like Relate.

And more generally, I see an important role for GPs, teachers, registrars and Job Centre Staff in improving information about the availability and benefits of relationship support.

So mine is not a vision of government dispensing relationship advice - far from it. It’s just one of sensible, practical support for organisations - like Relate - which people trust.

So these are some of the ways we can make Britain more family-friendly today.

This is not about creating a perfect world. It’s not about government interfering in people’s lives. It’s not about thinking government can fix everything. It’s not even about thinking that we should try and fix everything. It’s just a realistic, reasonable and sensible approach to supporting what I believe is one of the most important things in our national life: families.

Over the next few months, we will be developing further plans, especially on the foundation years. These years are so important to life chances - either entrenching disadvantage or putting children on the path to success. So, with a laser-like focus, we will be looking to see how we can help parents give children the best start in life.

The challenge ahead of us is huge.

Research carried out earlier this year found that only six percent of families agreed that Britain was very family-friendly. Turning this situation round and convincing the other ninety-four percent is going to take one of the biggest changes in our national culture for decades.

From one that ignores the power of strong relationships, to one that values them.

From one that undermines families, to one that strengthens them.

But together - business, media, the voluntary sector, communities, and yes government - we can do it.

Published 10 December 2010