Sometimes it pays to lift our eyes and pay attention to politics south of the Border. However much we’d like to pretend that what they get up to at Westminster is increasingly irrelevant to our lives and that all the important decisions and policies are taken and made at Holyrood, we’re kidding ourselves on. What the Tories are up to on welfare and family policy affects us all.
No one harbours an irrational hatred for messy, complex family relationships like the Tories. And fear and loathing on all things family which do not result in a neatly ordered two parent presence in children’s lives is pre-eminent in their approach to family matters.
Last week, the UK Government launched its Social Justice Outcomes Framework with indicators and measures for its five key themes on social justice. First up is supporting families and the UK Government intends to measure the proportion of children who have a stable family free from breakdown, and the proportion of such families that report a good quality relationship.
The framework is silent on how less family breakdown will be achieved. Previous social policy documents have made the links between poverty and its attendant symptoms of substance misuse, ill health, poor mental health, crime and violence and clearly, there is evidence that families are inherently unstable in such circumstances. But the evidence also shows links between relationship breakdown and unemployment and money worries and there is little sign of this UK Government doing anything about either of these two latter issues.
So what else are the Tories up to on “families”? Well, there is the bizarre intention to limit child benefit to two children(and for an outstanding and excoriating take on it, read Edinburgh Eye.) We know they are trying to drive the welfare budget down, but the saving here is inconsequential. And most of us suspect that hurting poor people to protect the rich is so woven into the Conservatives’ DNA as to make rational policy making impossible. But still. The numbers of families affected is so small as to be meaningless, so what could this be aiming to achieve? Could it be part of the aim to create more stable family units by limiting the size of families in the first place?
Here’s another family-related policy, which for some reason, is the part of welfare reform slinking through under the radar with potentially devastating consequences for many families. The Tories are dumping the child support policy its government created in the 1990s and relinquishing the state’s role in insisting that absent parents contribute financially to the upbringing of their children. In future, parents will be expected to reach voluntary arrangements which is fine in principle, if it worked. But it doesn’t. Which is the reason the Tories created the Child Support Agency in the first place.
Worse, where voluntary arrangements cannot be arrived at, a parent with care who asks the government to intervene will have to pay an upfront fee. Moreover, if the absent parent refuses to pay up and the government needs to get involved, 7% of every payment obtained will be deducted before it reaches the family. Bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of stealing bread from the mouths of babes.
There is no denying that the current system was broken: few policies in recent times have proven so divisive nor kept MPs so busy. But to take us full circle on a journey begun by the UK Labour Government with its measures to be “fairer” to absent parents, allowing them to deduct housing costs and pension contributions from their disposable income and fixing a maximum contribution to be paid from this limited pot per child, back to where parents can walk away from their continuing financial responsibility to their children is remarkable. Particularly when the government doing this intends to measure the quality of ongoing relationship in families which have “broken down”. Why when it intends to get so hands on in other areas of family policy, are the Tories going all laissez-faire on the key aspects of hostile relations, namely children and money?
Unless it is not just about removing a costly irritation from the UK’s balance sheet, but also about trying to prevent families breaking up in the first place. How else to explain why the Tories think this is a good idea, when its own government agency fails year on year to collect billions from enterprising and devious absent parents who go to extraordinary lengths to avoid their responsibilities to their children?
Fanciful? Perhaps, but ten years in the policy world, trying to ascertain the motivations of and understand the workings of politicians, tells me there are few coincidences in the timing of policy announcements and few measures stand in glorious isolation. The obvious thread to recent proposals is the need to save money and reduce public spending, but this outcomes framework shows that the real intention behind it all is a desire to deliberately engineer and refashion family policy.
What else can we expect in the coming months? An assault on divorce law in England is likely, which thankfully can be ignored up here. It is a widely held, utterly misinformed belief in Tory circles that the ease with which divorce is come by is a key reason for relationship breakdown, making the fatal mistake of muddying cause and symptom. Financial incentives are also being dangled to organisations which work to support and counsel families in difficulty to reduce the number which break up. Save more families from themselves and earn: now wonder Armando Iannucci has decided current politics is beyond satirising.
This back to basics approach on families ignores the elephants in the policy room. There is precious little announced to date or on the horizon which will address the causes of poverty; indeed, actual economic policy has resulted in the numbers of children growing up in poverty rising. Expect these appalling family-oriented measures to add to the tally.
And the lack of an economic growth strategy and continuing high levels of unemployment mean more relationships, not fewer, will come under intolerable stress. Relationship breakdown among “squeezed middle” couples coping with job losses, pay freezes, negative equity and personal debt is likely to rise not reduce if the UK Government continues to do nothing to ease such pressures.
Which is ironic really, given that the measures announced to date appear to be aimed at forcing poorer families to stay together. The indicators might be able to point to a reduction, through enforced necessity, of more children being raised in the flawed idyll of a two parent family at the lower end of the income scale at exactly the same time, Tory economic policies are contributing to a rise in family breakdown further up the scale.
And goes to show that any attempt by government to implement social eugenics is not only misguided and dangerous, but is also doomed to fail.