Baroness Tyler of Enfield (LD)
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the powerful and compelling speech that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on securing a Second Reading of this very important Bill and I pay tribute to his sterling and unstinting work as a champion of family policy, which is so often the Cinderella at the policy ball. I also draw attention to my declared interests in the register.
Today’s debate has been primarily about aligning the widespread concern expressed across the House to ensure we do more to strengthen family life and family relationships, with the maxim that “what gets measured gets done”. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to be doing an awful lot more to support family relationships, recognising, as I know we all do and as many across the House have emphasised, that modern families come in all shapes and sizes.
I had the privilege of being the chief executive of the charity Relate for a number of years. During that time, I came to understand the huge importance of the quality of family relationships and how much it matters. That is what I focused on and what I will focus on today. I also came to understand during that time that where family relationships are under strain it is children who are very likely to suffer the ill effects. More recently, as chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service for six years, I have particularly learned the adverse impact that high levels of parental conflict, as well as witnessing or, indeed, experiencing domestic abuse, has on children’s emotional and mental health and well-being. The evidence is also very clear, as we have heard this morning, that outcomes across the board for children are better for children who come from strong family backgrounds.
If we ask ourselves why all of this matters to government and whether it is not just a matter for families, the answer is very simple if one looks at some of the Government’s stated priorities, which also happen to be key policy interests of mine. When it comes to the worrying increase in childhood mental health problems, we know that family life and secure and loving relationships play an important role in the mental well-being of children.
Turning to another area, social mobility, which is known to be a personal passion of the Prime Minister—it is also passion of mine—as co-chair for a number of years of the All-Party Group on Social Mobility I was very pleased in 2015 to chair a parliamentary inquiry into parenting and social mobility. I have even brought the report with me. Two key points emerged from that inquiry after looking at all the evidence. First, the point of greatest leverage on social mobility is what happens between the ages of nought and three, particular in the home. Secondly, whatever the effort and resources the Government put into formal early education—something I hugely and strongly support—its impact will always be limited if it is not combined with a good and strong family home environment.
I will mention one other area of policy, which is the issue of the pressures of intergenerational fairness. It is a relative newcomer on the policy block but it has a lot to do with families. We have heard quite a bit about some of the housing issues and how the lack of affordable housing, and in particular the lack of the right type of housing for families, makes it a lot harder for the younger generation, particularly new families, to get their foot on to the housing ladder. These things really matter and policy needs to take account of them.
I also mention the late Jo Cox’s commission’s report on combating loneliness, which the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, also referred to. That report emphasised the value of the family test in strengthening intergenerational relationships within families and reducing the potential for animosity between generations stemming from what many consider to be real generational inequalities.
All these things matter and are big issues. They matter in their own right and they demand a serious family-based response. Yet too often family policy is the one area that is overlooked as policymakers look for the appropriate policy levers to pull. In short, the focus of policy, as we have already heard, is too often on individuals rather than on families and the communities in which they live.
Family is arguably the most homeless of political issues. Strengthening families and developing policies to support families to care for each other, including for children, older relatives or family members with long-term health issues or disabilities, is a very important social policy objective. It is critical to social care, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Our social care system, in as fragile a state as it is, would collapse completely without the contribution that family members make. Where does responsibility for family policy actually sit within government? I argue that it sits both nowhere and everywhere, and that is a real problem. As an issue, it feeds into almost every area of government policy-making—although not every single one, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, made clear—which means that a single Minister or department will never be able adequately to address the issue.
A consortium of charities and other organisations involved in family support, called the Relationships Alliance, which includes Relate, recently wrote a very thoughtful report assessing progress a year after the family test was implemented. It states the current situation well:
“The absence of a transparent mechanism to record when the Test has been applied means that it is impossible to accurately assess how successfully the Test is being incorporated into the policy making process. There is little information available to the public about a process and little accountability for implementation of the Test. Whilst the Government rightly wishes to ensure that the Test does not become a ‘tick box’ exercise, this does not preclude recording and monitoring of its use”.
It is also apparent, as we have heard, that only a very small proportion of departments have produced tailored strategy, guidance and tools to support the implementation of this. None of the departments that have not produced tailored guidance have referred to plans to do so. The work of the Department for Work and Pensions to support cross-government implementation of the test is valuable, but it is not a suitable substitute for a tailored implementation strategy within each department. Will the Minister inform the House how many departments have now produced a tailored implementation strategy? I share the concern already expressed, in the light of the inadequate responses to various Written Questions in the other place, that the Government seem to be so focused on not turning this into a tick-box exercise that they have lost sight of what it is about, which is to ensure that an assessment is actually carried out within departments of the impact of policies on families. This is not rocket science.
As things stand, it is hard to have confidence that the process is being followed from the outset of policy design, let alone at the end point when policies are being signed off across government. Imperfect though it may be, the statutory need to demonstrate compliance with the public sector equality duty, as already referred to, has helped to drive a culture of equality awareness in government, the key point being that it is statutory and not voluntary. We need a similar imperative for family impact assessments so that policymakers, Ministers and civil servants, learn to think about it so that it becomes intuitive to “think family” when policy is being designed.
I have long argued, based on my experience of working at Relate and at Cafcass, that the structure of government does not seem to recognise the fundamental importance of family relationships. There is at present no Cabinet lead for families, as was recommended in a number of important reports, both recently and less recently by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in his report following the shocking death of Victoria Climbié. To be frank, we seem to be going backwards: until 2010 there was a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Families, Children and Young People, and during the coalition years the importance of families was recognised in the Cabinet Committee on Social Justice. As far as I can see—and I am very happy to be corrected if I am wrong—this is now taken forward and co-ordinated by a junior Minister in one department. What sort of message is that sending? A Cabinet lead would really help to drive implementation of these assessments. Back in 2016 it was clear that the Cabinet Committee on Social Justice was taking that lead. So will the Minister inform us which body has taken over from that committee?
The recommendation of the Relationships Alliance, which I have already mentioned, that as decision-making is increasingly devolved to local level, the Government should carry out a cost-benefit analysis of supporting local authorities and NHS bodies to carry out equivalent tests on policies, is very well made, and I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, included it in Clause 2.
On Monday I had the privilege of visiting the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, which is working with parents who have a lot of problems, particularly with drug and alcohol dependency, and who need to turn their lives around before they can parent effectively again. Yesterday I had the real pleasure of visiting the Pause project in Hackney, which is working with mothers who have had more than one child taken away from them into local authority care, again to try to help them turn their lives around.
This sort of work is so important. I was shocked to the core, to be honest, to hear from one of the workers at the project about a case where there had been no such help or intervention for mothers in this situation and one mother had had 13 children removed from her and taken into local authority care. I know that that is an extreme example, but it shows how important family support is and the help that the various projects and initiatives that I and others have mentioned can provide. Many of these are under threat as local authorities and the NHS are really struggling with finances and having to make cuts. That is why I think it is so important, when these decisions are being made, that these tests are carried out at the local as well as national level.
Although many of us in this House, myself included, welcomed the introduction of a family test and the stronger focus on families it was meant to give to government policy-making, it is very clear from the debate today that it has not lived up to its early hype. So it is time for this House to do what it often does best: improve both legislation and policy-making as the Bill passes through the House. I strongly urge the Government to support it. I support it very strongly myself and hope that at the end of the debate we do not get the standard rejection speech from the Minister, because the support across the House has been overwhelming.