David Cameron wants every single domestic policy in the future to go through a "family test". Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why does the PM now want to apply a "family test" to every future domestic policy?

The Prime Minister will make a speech today saying all domestic policies should be examined for their “impact on the family”.

With the barren policy landscape of summer recess, the election just nine months away, and military involvement in a foreign conflict to be evasive about, David Cameron’s planned announcement for today makes perfect sense.

Introducing a new package of “family friendly” measures, he will assert that every new domestic policy “will be examined for its impact on the family”. His idea is that, come the return of policymaking in October, every new proposal should be put to a “family test”.

This is at once an oddly prescriptive and entirely vague measure, and one that has already been garnering some cynicism among the commentariat. For example, Sky News’ Anushka Asthana tweeted this morning, “Is it just me or are they bringing in the family test for policy, after all policymaking done?”, and Josh Lowe of Prospect magazine was more forthright: “How in Christ's name do you apply a family test to ‘every single domestic policy’?”, he asked in a tweet, “‘Well, this new pesticide might be safe and effective, but how can I licence it until I know how it will affect the sanctity of marriage?’”

Cameron is expected to suggest that government departments up until now have not focused enough on the impact on families that their policies would have, and will declare that from now on, “every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family”.

He will say in a speech:

I want every government department to be held to account for the impact of their policies on the family…

You get a whole load of policy decisions which take no account of the family and sometimes make these things worse.

Whether it's the benefits system incentivising couples to live apart or penalising those who go out to work or whether it's excessive bureaucracy preventing loving couples from adopting children with no family at all.

We can't go on having government taking decisions like this which ignore the impact on the family.

I said previously that we would introduce a family test into government. Now that test is being formalised as part of the impact assessment for all domestic policies.

His new “family-friendly” programme will also involve doubling the relationship counselling budget to £19.5m, the expansion of assistance for families struggling with unemployment and debt, and increasing funding for councils to help them speed up the adoptions process.

As the BBC’s Iain Watson points out in his report, the PM knows that not enough voters see the Conservative party as family friendly, and also that his party is less popular among women.

Clearly Cameron’s current focus on the family is from thinking electorally, as why apply a “family test” to policy when this parliament’s legislation-making days are pretty much over?

There is also an irony here that if he were to apply this new assessment to some of the coalition’s existing policies retrospectively, then they wouldn’t pass – the “Bedroom Tax”, for example.

Also, as the test will apparently be a formal responsibility of government departments, is this not just another bureaucratic headache for Whitehall officials to add to their load?

Cameron’s attempt to win support from families may be a direction taken out of political expediency, but the “family test” is just an absurd bit of summer recess stalling.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.