November 15, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
Conservatives, and by that I mean those who hold the ideological beliefs, not just those who are members of the political party, have always held store by the importance of traditional institutions. In an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it way’, numerous conservative thinkers have argued that there is a reason why institutions exist and have worked, and if they work we shouldn’t try and cange them just for the sake of it. By ‘institution’ I mean a variety of different things, from the church, to the House of Lords, to the traditional family unit. All of them are institutions around which society coalesces. The family unit, in particular, is a subject that exercises conservative minds. Families have existed for an enormous amount of time, providing support to those within them, and providing a stable rock of an institution to which people can belong. It is in this context that the Conservative Party’s announcement that all government policy will be put through a “family test” should be looked at.
In an article to mark the launch of the ‘family test’, Iain Duncan-Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, wrote that of families as the “foundations of society”, and that a strong, stable family “improve(s) the life chances of our children.” He continues that “the tendency has been to look at individuals, and to try and solve the individual problems they face. Too rarely did anyone consider the family as a whole. As a result, while Government might have treated the symptoms of poverty and disadvantage, there was no vision for keeping families together and helping transform their lives.” Duncan-Smith goes onto suggest that it had been an area in which politicians had feared to tread because they were worried about “being thought judgemental.”
Yet to improve societal outcomes, the family unit needs to be, if not ‘helped’ but ‘supported’ by policies. A policy that weakens the family is not something the Conservatives argue they want to be behind. This is partly for the benefit of individuals, because, as Duncan-Smith argues, “too many children suffer poor outcomes due to the instability of their families. Problems with mental health, alcohol, and lower attainment at school are all linked to negative experiences of family relationships, ” but also because “family breakdown comes at a huge cost to taxpayers, with the Relationship Alliance estimating that picking up the pieces costs the Government around £46billion a year.”
The temptation of critics of this idea will be to say that, “yes, but it depends what a ‘family’ looks like to a conservative, and many families are not a man and a woman with 2.4 children.” The Tories have thought of that, and have tried to define a family in modern day terms. Their explanation document calls a family as follows:
– Couple relationships (including same-sex couples) including marriage, civil partnerships, co-habitation and those living apart, together
– Relationships in lone parent families, including relation between the parent and children with a non-resident parent, and with extended family
– Parent and step-parent to child relationships
– Relationships with foster children, and adopted children
– Sibling relationships
– Children’s relationship with their grandparents
– Kinship carers
– Extended families, particularly where they are playing a role in raising children or caring for older or disabled family members
As for what the ‘family test’ actually is, the questions that they would like asked are the following:
1. What kinds of impact might the policy have on family formation?
2. What kind of impact will the policy have on families going through key transitions such as becoming parents, getting married, fostering or adopting, bereavement, redundancy, new caring responsibilities or the onset of a long-term health condition?
3. What impacts will the policy have on all family members’ ability to play a full role in family life, including with respect to parenting and other caring responsibilities?
4. What impacts will the policy have on all family members’ ability to play a full role in family life, including with respect to parenting and other caring responsibilities?
5. How does the policy impact those families most at risk of deterioration of relationship quality and breakdown?
All of these may make sense, but what happens when a Conservative policy actively fails the ‘family test’? For instance, take the infamous ‘bedroom tax’, which is where someone in social housing has benefits docked if they have a spare room in their property. This has hit some families hard, and in ways that would surely not pass the family test. At least one of parents who have separated for instance, will need to have a spare room in which their children sleep when they come to stay. But the bedroom tax doesn’t take account of that, so their benefits are docked. That said, anomalies like that require policies to be amended, rather than scrapped.
All in all though, who would really argue with the ‘family test’?