Family fortunes

The family is a key issue for the forthcoming election,
and it has been at the heart of many of the outgoing government’s
high-profile initiatives. Frances Rickford examines whether
families have found themselves better off under New

Plaid Cymru’s election manifesto had one very distinctive
feature. It didn’t mention the family. Children, women, working
hours, pay and benefits were all in there. But the Welsh
nationalists decided to stay out of the contest so fiercely fought
by the main English parties to claim the family ground.

For New Labour, the family is much more than a buzzword. From
before the last election it was emerging as a key issue for party
ideologues – the source of either social cohesion or social
dissolution. Heavily influenced by the American Communitarian
movement, New Labour concluded that society was paying a high price
for the pressure it had loaded onto on family relationships. With
poverty, long working hours, dismal housing, unemployment, the
consumer culture and rapidly changing life expectations, families
were struggling on every front and in many cases going under.

Of course the reason families were important to the
Communitarians, and to New Labour, was because children live in
them, and are shaped by them into the adults they become.

One of the conundrums for politicians was what to say about
changes in the way families are formed. With a large and growing
proportion of children living in one-parent families and a growing
number of voters themselves lone parents, it’s a sensitive subject.
Previous Labour administrations had not thought it their business
to tell people what was best for them and their children, but New
Labour felt it had to take a stand.

Taking his cue from right wing social commentators like Charles
Murray (who first coined the term “underclass”) and Patricia Morgan
of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Blair told The Sun
newspaper back in 1995: “Children raised by two parents in a
stable, loving relationship do get a head start. But saying that
‘Blair Backs Two Parent Families’ does not mean that ‘Blair Blasts
Single Parents’.”

The problem is this: if A is better than B, how can B not be
second best? Research has shown that the different outcomes
experienced by children in two-parent and one-parent families are
entirely accounted for by income differences. But when Labour came
to power it backed its own ideological preference for the
traditional family by taking money away from single parents by
cutting the lone parent premium on child benefit. This caused a
backbench rebellion and the government has been more careful

The main thrust of its policy towards lone parents has been to
get more of them into work – ostensibly to pull them out of
poverty. The working families tax credit which replaced family
credit, aimed to enable more parents to work by reducing the
poverty trap. According to the government, it is worth an average
of £30 a week more than family credit and covers 300,000 more
families. It also covers limited child care costs.

Critics point to the fact that because working families tax
credit is paid through the wage earner’s pay packet rather than
directly to the mother, parents (especially fathers) may treat it
as their own money rather than spending it on the children.

But for single parent Paula and her daughter Mia, six, it has
fulfilled its promise. Paula had studied for four years to become a
speech therapist when Mia was a baby, her student grant topped up
with income support. When she qualified she wanted to work
part-time while Mia was young. She found a three day a week speech
therapy job, but she could barely afford to take it because the pay
was not enough to replace the housing benefit, free school meals
and income support she would be losing.

When working families tax credit was introduced she was not only
£140 a month better off but she was also reimbursed for her
child care costs. “I’m as cynical as they come about the government
but if it wasn’t for WFTC, I’d probably be on income support. As it
is I’ve been employed for three years and now earn too much to be
eligible. Which is great.”

The government has also raised child benefit to its highest ever
level in real terms and replaced the married couples’ allowance
with the children’s tax credit – of most benefit to parents on low
and middle incomes, rather than married men on high incomes. There
is also planned expansion of child care places for three-and
four-year-olds, and of after school and holiday child care for
school-aged children.

Critics have questioned the sense of providing so many
incentives to parents of young children to go out to work while
they leave their children with someone else – when the someone else
will have to be paid for by the taxpayer. But whatever the logic,
welfare to work looks set to remain at the heart of Labour’s social
policy. Election campaign rumours that another Labour government
will impose benefit penalties on lone parents who refuse to take a
job have not been denied, suggesting that Labour is determined to
decisively reduce the number of children growing up in workless

Another aspect of Labour’s family policy is its enthusiasm for
adoption, again influenced by the Institute of Economic Affairs’
adoption champion Patricia Morgan. The outgoing government
effectively reversed the emphasis in the Children Act 1989 on
keeping children in their birth families wherever possible by
setting adoption targets for local authorities. Britain already has
the highest rate of adoption in Europe as the adoption review

Families are affected by most of the things governments do in
one way or another, and to co-ordinate policy Labour established
the family policy unit at the Home Office, which in turn set up the
semi-independent National Family and Parenting Institute. The NFPI
has established its independent credentials by publishing a
manifesto for the incoming government.

It calls for non-stigmatised universal family support services
and expanded parent education, more family input into the planning
of other services such as transport, better parental leave,
flexible working for parents of young children, more generous paid
maternity leave, and a whole new government department for
Families, Work and the Community.

And for the two million children without basic
necessities1 Labour has repeated its commitment to halve
child poverty in 10 years. How well it has done so far is largely a
matter of definitions and statistical interpretation. Baby trust
funds may help a generation with their college tuition fees, but no
government can make serious inroads into child poverty while it
denies parents who cannot or will not find jobs adequate means
through the benefits system to care for their children.

As Plaid Cymru might say – in Welsh of course – it’s the
inequality, stupid.

1 David Gordon et al, Poverty and Social
Exclusion in Britain
, Joseph Rowntree Foundation,

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