Silent witnesses

PhilHunt2015.jpgPhilip Hunt on an important report that remains silent about the damaging impact of government policies on children and families

The dreadful consequences of family breakdown, including the long term damage to children, is well documented. It is also the theme today of a House Lords debate today. The debate, led by Lord Farmer, is aimed at promoting a Manifesto to Strengthen Families produced by a group of Conservative parliamentarians. Unfortunately, sensible suggestions are undermined by a glossing over of the damage done by their colleagues in government.

There’s also a risk that in emphasising couple relationships, their recommendations stigmatise one parent families and completely fail to acknowledge the different types of families that exist. The charity Stonewall has estimated that today, approximately 20,000 children have same-sex parents and many more have an LGBT family member.

While the last Labour government took hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, the current Conservative one has put 250,000 back. This is bound to impact on family relationships. A national survey carried out by Relate, Relationships Scotland and Marriage Care, found 26% of respondents citing financial matters as a strain on long-term relationships. Meanwhile, council leaders have reported that spending on children’s services have fallen by 9% since 2010, even as the number of children in need has increased by 5%. This clearly makes it harder for some families with the greatest difficulties to access the support they need.

Ministers makes much of their policy of 30 hours free childcare for the three and four year old children of working parents. But it is chronically underfunded, with provision patchy and hard to navigate. Plus it doesn’t actually extend to over 100,000 children whose parents are on very low incomes. More generally, the cost of childcare has risen more than twice as fast as wages since 2010, making it increasingly difficult for many working families to access what they need. And many parents will actually be worse off upon returning to work, because they aren’t able to earn enough to cover the fees.

The manifesto promotes the use of ‘Family Hubs’ to help children in need. But there is silence on the impact of closing 1,200 Sure Start centres in the past five years. One of the greatest achievements of Labour’s time in government, these centres benefited hundreds of thousands of young children and their parents – particularly those from a poorer background.

There is silence too, on the freezing of benefits. As my colleague in the Lords, Ruth Lister pointed out in the chamber earlier this week, independent assessments of the four year freeze indicate losses of over £800 a year for many two child families (both in and out of work), and significantly worse poverty, inequality and homelessness.

Then there’s the bedroom tax and the much vaunted Universal Credit system. As Polly Toynbee has observed, for all the promise of strong work incentives, the taper rate was always going to see claimants lose 63p from every pound earned. And the cruel six week payment delay leaves those without savings, both debt ridden and trapped in rent arrears, with many forced to use loan sharks of food banks. Hardly a way to strengthen families.

The manifesto is also silent on the insecurity of many parents at work. The problem of low pay, weak contracts and zero hour terms are the reality for hundreds of thousands. I am sure Lord Farmer and his Conservative colleagues are genuinely concerned to support families. Their case would be more convincing however, if they showed some understanding of the devastating impact of their own government’s actions.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is a member of Labour’s frontbench in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum

Publishing 2nd November 2017

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