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At last, a political battle about the family. And not a moment too soon

At last, a political battle about the family. And not a moment too soon

22 November 2006

5:36 PM

22 November 2006

5:36 PM

Since Labour came to power, there has been a hugely important social trend that almost no one mentions. The institution of the two-parent family — whether married or unmarried — has been disintegrating at a speed seen nowhere else in Europe. The proportion of children living with lone parents was 19 per cent when Tony Blair first entered Downing Street. Today it stands at 24 per cent. Between these two statistics lies a social revolution, in an area that no party has dared to talk about. Until now.

Mention the family, and trouble soon follows. It is a political minefield, strewn with the body parts of John Major’s government and a handful of reformist Labour ministers. Yet in the dying days of his premiership, the Prime Minister wishes to cross what he regards as a final frontier for the government. It is time for the state to identify bad parents, to correct them forcibly, to intervene and look after their children.

‘For me, it is not a question of whether the state should intrude in family life,’ declared Margaret Hodge when she was children’s minister, ‘but how and when.’ It has taken two years for the Prime Minister to show what this means: a new agenda of early intervention. ‘Supernannies’ will be dispatched to 77 parts of England, teaching parents how to raise their children. There will be obligatory classes, a new wave of Sure Start ‘super-nurseries’. Labour is unabashed in its plan for the state-as-parent.

‘Give me a child,’ runs the apocryphal Jesuit saying, ‘and by the age of seven he will be mine for life.’ On Monday Beverley Hughes, the children’s minister, told MPs that she has the age of two in mind. This is when she proposes that children from deprived backgrounds be taken to the more ‘stimulating’ environment of the classroom. ‘We may be attacked for this,’ one Cabinet minister explains. ‘But we have tried money. It doesn’t work. When we try early intervention, it does.’

In Labour circles, Sure Start nurseries are not just admired but revered. They embody the proposition that spending enough money on children from deprived backgrounds can change the trajectory of their lives — the state succeeds where feckless parents fail. A fine proposition, no doubt, but one which studies have proved to be untrue for a simple reason: what the child experiences at home eclipses whatever is taught at nursery school.

American researches into the original Head Start scheme show that whatever progress is achieved early on vanishes by the secondary school stage. A £16 million British study was even more damning: looking at 8,000 under-fives, it found no discernible developmental, behavioural or language differences between those who attended Sure Start and those who did not. But both Gordon Brown and Mr Blair are so bewitched by the principle of Sure Start that they have pledged 3,500 such centres by 2010. The rise of parenting orders (which oblige parents to bring their children under control) and ‘supernannies’ are offshoots of this agenda.

What is glaringly absent from Labour’s agenda is any value judgment about different kinds of family structure. Two decades ago the American Left accepted that the two-parent family was a fundamental tool in reducing poverty. Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform was explicitly based on the two-parent family. Yet the British left is quite unmoved by this consensus on the other side of the Atlantic.

One official — at the very top of the policymaking process — told me that ‘two-parent families can often be part of the problem because the child has conflicting advice’. The boom in lone parenthood is seen as just a symptom of modern times; any emphasis on two-parent families is seen as utterly anachronistic. Louise Casey, the antisocial behaviour tsar who is behind the new parenting initiatives, says she knows of no study which suggests children from lone parent families suffer by comparison with those raised in two-parent homes.

She would do well, then, to consult the Home Office’s own research which has found that 70 per cent of offenders identified by youth offending teams are from lone parents. Children who do not live with their biological father are twice as likely to secure no qualifications at school, twice as likely to use drugs, three times as likely to be expelled and twice as likely to be imprisoned before the age of 30. The list goes on.

The patterns are not so obvious among middle-class lone-parent households, where there is often extended family support and financial help not available to children on sink estates. It is among the poorest that the effects of family break-up are most sorely felt. Study after study shows the two-parent family to be the most powerful poverty-fighting weapon ever invented: it is the first, best and cheapest source of health, wealth and education. Yet it is a weapon that Mr Blair and his ministers choose not to recognise, far less to support and encourage.

Herein lies an extraordinary opportunity for the Conservatives. David Cameron’s march on to the minefield of family politics was signalled inadvertently a fortnight ago when he declared that antisocial behaviour can be explained by a lack of ‘love’. His remarks were largely misunderstood to be another outburst of ‘hug-a-hoodie’ woolliness. In fact, his intention was much steelier: what he meant was the absence of a functioning family, and he will soon return to this theme — being bolder, I am told, than even Margaret Thatcher. Is this talk all hot air? His advisers think not. ‘I would not be working for him if I didn’t believe he will do this,’ one tells me.

An easy starting-point for the Conservatives would be to reverse the tax and welfare incentives that are the exact opposite of the pro-family measures employed on the Continent. Jill Kirby from the Centre for Policy Studies has calculated that if an average family splits up, its income rises 35 per cent to £301 a week. It is against this backdrop that fathers drop out of the picture: for those in low-income families, the man’s presence can actually be a financial burden. Insanely, our welfare system has deprived the low-income family of its economic viability and created fiscal incentives for it to break up.

A clear task for the Conservatives would be to tear up this policy, and promote marriage. The work Iain Duncan Smith is doing with the Centre for Social Justice will, I believe, be the most valuable and radical of all the policy reports commissioned by Mr Cameron. Liam Fox’s Tory leadership campaign was based on the proposition that Labour has left Britain with a ‘broken soc-iety’ just as it left a broken economy in 1979. This agenda is not the monopoly of the Tory leader: Conservatives, as a movement, see a clear mission ahead of them.

As does Labour. Eradicating poverty is at the centre of Mr Brown’s agenda — and you can be sure he will continue the Sure Start and pro-intervention strategy. Herein lies the basis of a genuine clash in a Westminster all too often driven by political androgyny and consensus. After a decade avoiding the subject of family life, the two parties are ready not only to venture on to this territory but to do battle on it.

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