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How Labour will strengthen family life and relationships

We are developing a whole family approach to policy making that puts equality, relationships and mutual self-help at the centre of preventing social problems.

A whole family approach to policy making.
Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour's policy review. Photograph: Getty Images.

Today, Labour’s Policy Review is running a symposium on family life and relationships. In this period of austerity, we need to support families, and use the power of their relationships and the networks they create to help strengthen people’s capacity for resilience,  care, and good neighbourliness.

We are building on the pioneering work of women in the feminist movement and the Labour Party who, along with men like the late Malcolm Wicks, redefined family policy. It was their work that established childcare as a major political issue. Women’s aspirations for work and a career were pushed onto the economic and social policy agenda. Labour argued for longer maternity leave and higher maternity pay to protect women from having to go back to work too soon.

In the symposium, Harriet Harman will set out our good record in government. Our National Childcare Strategy included Childcare Tax Credit, funds to councils for childcare and Sure Start Centres.  We doubled maternity pay and maternity leave.  We introduced paternity leave for the first time and gave a right to request flexible working for those with family responsibilities. Labour took up feminist arguments for greater equality between men and women and they resulted in major gains for women and children.

Today, families come in different shapes and sizes but they are all under pressure from the cost of living crisis and the demands of care. Many are left feeling insecure and vulnerable. At the same time, family life is changing. In 1996, 71 per cent of families with dependent children were headed by a married couple, by 2008 it was 60 per cent. The expectations of men and women are changing too. Most men no longer earn enough to fulfil the traditional male role of family breadwinner. The norm is increasingly both parents earning. A third of all mothers with dependent children - over 2 million - now earn the majority share of household income.

We need a national conversation about family life and relationships which includes both men and women. The task is first to identify the social and economic forces that stop some mothers and fathers balancing work and family life and doing what they think is best for their children. And second to devise policy where these forces are amenable to change.

Family relationships are the bedrock of society. Children need good family relationships to develop feelings of safety and belonging, and to know they are worth being loved. Family relationships are also important for economic development. Inequality in the home limits women’s access to employment and opportunities and so has a negative impact not only on their own lives, but on the increase in productivity and tax revenue we need to build a better society.

Men want fulfilling home lives and women want fulfilling working lives, but policy still pushes mothers into the home and fathers into work. Our employment practices, public services and institutional arrangements treat men, women and children as if they exist in separate silos and not as part of a whole family.  Families thrive when there is a partnership and teamwork amongst adult relations. Policy needs to use the power of relationships to help strengthen the resilience of men, women and children to withstand adversity and to facilitate their readiness to take up opportunities. The best way of preventing social problems from developing is to support social, couple and family relationships.

Poor relationships in childhood leads to poorer employment outcomes, higher levels of unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, substance abuse, and over eating, and poorer mental health. Children who suffer poor parenting have a struggle in life. We know that poor attachment or traumas in childhood such as cruelty and domestic violence does long term damage to mental health. Children who have these bad experiences can grow up struggling to cope with life’s stresses and they can find it difficult to make good relationships. Over 30 per cent of young people under 25 suffer from one or more psychiatric illnesses: 1 million children and young people are mentally ill.

This is a very high cost to pay for the failure to deal with problems early in families and in a child’s life. We need to do more to support couples, and more to strengthen the bonds between parents and also between fathers and their children. By the time British children are 16, around half no longer live with their father and a third do not see him at all. We know that those who grow up with involved fathers do better than those who do not. Boys without fathers are more likely than their peers to be involved in crime, heavy drinking and drug use. And both boys and girls are more likely to have low educational attainment and suffer low self-esteem.

This government is wasting money on reactive high-cost services because it is failing to fix social problems earlier on. In contrast, Labour is developing a whole family approach to policy making that helps to build inter-dependence that is fair and maximises the care that children receive within the family and its networks. Helping people to help themselves, not abandoning them, is the best way to reduce dependence on services provided by the state.

Prioritising relationships means taking equality seriously. We will value a father’s family role as highly as his working role, and a woman’s working role as highly as her domestic one. Fathers are good for children and shared parenting is good for mothers. We will actively encourage women into work and actively encourage the involvement of fathers in the care, education and health of their children. We will do more to tackle  violence in the home, for example, with compulsory sex and relationships education in schools. 

The Policy Review is working alongside Ed Balls and Chris Leslie and their Zero-Based Spending Review to incorporate the principle of prevention into spending on public services. Investing in prevention in this context means reforming services to unlock the potential of relationships as powerful catalysts of change, alongside professional resources. Labour’s Local Government Innovation Task Force has published its first report setting out a framework for this approach.

The excellent Troubled Families programme run by Louise Casey through local councils is pioneering work of this kind. Greater Manchester’s scheme reports significant reductions in levels of anti-social behaviour, improvements in school attendance and reductions in exclusions and a five year saving of £88.7m against costs of £62m. Nottingham Council and local MP Graham Allen have championed the early intervention approach. Shifting the focus from crisis intervention with troubled children and families to building their capacities to make good relationships and break cycles of deprivation. The voluntary sector is innovating new approaches. For example,the Home Start project runs in local authorities across the country. It matches young single parents with experienced parents from their own community for practical help, and as a source of comfort and reassurance. 

Emotional life lies at the heart of the bonds that bind a society together and policy has to be attuned to it if we are to succeed in building a better society and solving some of our more complex and intractable social problems. Labour is developing a whole family approach to policy making that puts equality, relationships and mutual self-help at the centre of preventing social problems through early intervention. The politics of One Nation begins with family, offering the world equally to daughters, and teaching sons that courage in love and relationships is a sign of a man's strength.