The state needs to define its role in supporting the family in the face of social changes
For an institution whose death has been so widely and frequently predicted, the family is displaying an extraordinary resilience, ingenuity and a capacity to modernise for the sake of its own survival. Last week, for instance, the government revealed its controversial gay marriage bill, permitting same sex couples to say “I do”. A historic event. The family is nothing if not wedded to metamorphosis.
The practices and philosophy of parenthood are adjusting as rapidly. Last week, the Office for National Statistics revealed a significant increase in women becoming mothers in their 40s while “stay at home” fathers now amount to 10% of full-time carers. Whether this growth is a matter of choice or of necessity dictated by unemployment or cost of childcare or both, what is lagging desperately behind is the ability of the modern state to define what role it should play in supporting the family faced with this accelerating social change. What kind of ethos will most effectively shape family policy in the 21st century?
On Tuesday, 14 charities and organisations, including 4Children and the social networking site, Netmums, provide their own answer. They are calling on the chancellor, George Osborne, to treat families in his forthcoming comprehensive spending review as a special case. They rightly argue that families are facing an unprecedented squeeze as a result of benefit cuts, rising food and fuel prices and childcare costs. The Fair4Families campaign is asking Osborne for a “triple lock”, similar to that which pensioners currently enjoy. The triple lock for families consists of no further service cuts, no further benefit reductions and policies that put families at the heart of growth strategy. It is very likely that Mr Osborne will deal with Fair4Families in much the same way as many traditional fathers behaved towards their children: seeing but not hearing.
From the 20th century on, the state has had a permanent seat at the family table while never properly clarifying what its role should be. Nanny? In loco parentis? The right can view the state as an intruder. The left can expect the state to be a protector against the family’s worst excesses. In 1998, for the first time, government tried to carve a middle path. In a green paper, Supporting Families, a Labour government promised advice, a reduction in child poverty, a better balance between work and home, and a pledge to tackle domestic violence, truancy and school-age pregnancy. In some areas, it made headway, in child poverty and teenage pregnancy, for instance. In others, it failed, in part because of two major weaknesses, which continue to dog family policy today.
The first is to do with paid work and “light touch” timidity towards those in business and industry who refuse to modernise their attitudes about the kind of workplace arrangements they encourage and the impact they have on family life. As Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “We all know about the overt discrimination, the lack of flexibility.”
We know, but since the 80s too little has changed. Fathers are still written off if they seek shorter hours, while women could be sacked in pregnancy. Companies such as the National Grid, Barclays and BT manage to flourish while moulding work to family life, so why not others?
The second challenge is the paternalism of the welfare settlement, unchanged for several decades. Ed Miliband is said to be interested in what is called “the relational state”, a philosophy that requires the public sector to work collaboratively with families and not treat them as children, constantly told what to do and encouraging dependency. A relational approach means assessing a family’s capabilities long before their “failings” – failings often triggered by practical issues such as lack of income and unemployment.
Hilary Cottam, founder of Participle, a company involved in public service reform, has described what this traditional toxic approach meant for working with “troubled families” in Swindon. These were in receipt of 73 services from 24 different departments yet social workers spent only 14% of their time in practical help and 86% of their time on paperwork. The family “cost” taxpayers £250,000 a year, but Cottam points out not “one penny of the money actually supports change. The system is a costly gyroscope that spins round the families, keeping them at the heart… stuck exactly where they are.” This form of crisis management, expensive and frequently ineffectual, dominates much of family policy, whether it’s support for a couple bringing up a severely disabled child or an older person, housebound, and many miles away from his or her extended family. What families need instead is proactive, early help combined with service inventiveness, fewer professional silos and more pooled budgets.
Family policy in the 21st century has to be part of a new welfare settlement similar to that which in 1945 heralded the NHS. For that to happen, innovation has to be welcomed. Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary, should have been applauded therefore when last week, he initiated a debate on a unified service that elevates prevention and combines health, mental health and social care into a streamlined single service. The cross-party talks that marked his first attempt to broach this vital issue should be revived. Universal free childcare has to be championed by Labour as the central plank of a prospering society.
Today, the mosaic that is family life has never been richer or more diverse. It includes, for instance, mothers who have never lived with the father of their child; septuagenarians newly divorced after 40 years of marriage; gay parents; teenage dads shamefully ignored by services; cohabiting stepfamilies born of love but mourning loss, and sixtysomethings with teenage children and the demands of their own parents, potential centenarians.
In 1977,the American writer Christopher Lasch wrote: “The modern world intrudes at every point… the sanctity of the home is a sham in a world dominated by giant corporations and by the apparatus of mass promotion … the same forces that have impoverished work and civic life invade the private realm and its last stranglehold, the family.” The miracle is, that no matter what its make-up, however inadequate the support, the family resists and lives on. Given the right tools, it can even thrive.