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Leading the debate on the family

Outlining the points made in CSM's Tawney Dialogue by a cabinet minister and others

CSM’s Tawney Dialogue this month continued the debate on the family that we began in our magazine, The Common Good. We asked the question, ‘Will the General Election make any difference to the family?’ Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls joined the discussion with Canon Dr Ann Holt of the Bible Society and theologian and broadcaster Dr Elaine Storkey.
A Comres poll for CSM and the Bible Society, published ahead of the event, showed that 79% of people believed it was best for children to be in two parent families.
The three speakers each made opening comments before discussion began. Ann Holt stressed that to most women, talking about the family means talking about the whole social agenda. She argued that government had a role to both help families overcome difficulties, particularly when bad things happen, and to hold up and promote an ideal by providing incentives for good practice. The State should help support stable families. She welcomed the government’s Green Paper on the family but asked whether it went far enough. New policy should come with family impact statements as advocated by the Relationships Foundation. She thought there was a reluctance to promote particular types of relationship , such as marriage.
Elaine Storkey suggested that two approaches to the family dominated debate: an individualistic approach stressing free choice and a functional model of the family, stressing what the family does or helps with (eg social stability, education). Both were inadequate ways of thinking about the issue. The Christian view of the family cannot be packaged as conservative – it was more radical. We should recognise the enormous amount of care in families in this country. Government cannot redeem the family; only God can do that.  But government can and must create the framework and conditions in which redemption can take place. We also need as a society to avoid the kind of political correctness that means people refer to partners rather than husbands or wives.
Ed Balls quoted RH Tawney, “what a wise parent would desire for his own children, that a nation, in so far as it is wise, must desire for all children.” (‘Equality’) Labour’s family policy had been very child-focused and Labour politicians had at times not been willing to talk about family units, perhaps attempting to avoid sounding judgemental. The focus has been on early years eg through Sure Start, and on child poverty by supporting families on low incomes. This was right but the evidence also showed that the strength and stability of adult relationships in a family were vital to the well-being of children. We had to see families in the broadest sense too, including grandparents (the average age of grandparents is 46 years). When you accounted for the age and income level of parents, the effect of marriage was not strong. As a married person he was in favour of marriage but very wary of telling people what they should do. What should be advocated however were stronger and more stable relationships.
Ed Balls criticised Conservative plans to promote marriage through the tax system. They would disadvantage a woman leaving an abusive marriage, or a widow or widower, for example. David Cameron’s hesitation on this issue showed what happens when you go down that road, because you do not actually want to disadvantage people. The most critical time for a relationship is when the first child is born, so families need support at that time. Labour also supported family intervention policies, bringing relationship teaching into sex education, and helping the work/life balance with flexible parental leave.
Part of the subsequent discussion focused around perceptions and statistics. For example, Ed Balls quoted Office of National Statistics data showing that under-18 conceptions fell by 10.5% between 1998 and 2007 and teenage births fell by 23.3% to the lowest level in fifteen years. The average age of a single parent is 36 years. The family Green Paper contains these and other statistics about the family. I argued that we must not forget that unemployment is a major cause of family stress and breakdown. The last Conservative government regarded unemployment as ‘a price worth paying’. The price was paid in large part by families. A government not focused on keeping unemployment down is a government not thinking deeply enough about families, whatever its rhetoric.
Common ground emerged from this Dialogue. As argued in CSM’s latest magazine, this focused around explicitly promoting family stability. It is about valuing all families – while not forgetting to focus help on those most in need. This is where churches and faith groups can work well together with Labour, as many have found.
This article was published on the CSM website.


CSM 23 March 2010, 23/03/2010

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