The Conservatives have historically positioned themselves as the party of the family. After becoming leader, David Cameron re-asserted this claim in a speech to the Welsh Conservative conference in Cardiff, stating: “Families are the most important institution in our society. We have to do everything in our power to strengthen them.” He said the restoration of “family values” and a new commitment to economic and social responsibility were essential to repairing “broken Britain”.
How has this translated now the party is in power? In some areas a shift has taken place that moves the party beyond their more traditional approach to the family as a couple, in work, raising (not too many) children within a lifelong marriage. Equalities minister Maria Miller made a spirited speech to this year’s Conference in support of gay marriage, indicating the party leadership’s commitment to the policy in the face of criticism from party activists. However at the same time she supports a reduction in the abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks (with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt indicating he favours an even sharper reduction to 12 weeks), while Cameron’s calls to remove or restrict some benefits from out-of-work families with large numbers of children suggest that these familes go beyond a norm that the state is willing to support.
These apparent contradictions within the party are not surprising given that ‘family values’ is such a slippery field. Families are complex and not uniform. They are made up of individuals with different needs, aspirations and opinions, requiring different kinds and levels of support, which can be contradictory. Promoting one model based upon a nuclear family with a married couple at its heart is also risky for politicians who may not themselves live up to this ideal, as the previous Conservative leader John Major found in the debacle that followed his ‘Back to Basics’ campaign with his government mired in sex and corruption scandals.
Of course, in office, Conservative family policy has been tempered by the Liberal Democrats. Still, Tory views of the family underlie the section on Families and Children in the coalition agreement: “The Government believes that strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of a strong and stable society. That is why we need to make our society more family friendly”. Has this objective been realized? Here’s a brief look at some of the party’s commitments and their results in office.
- Ending child poverty
The first of the coalition’s pledges in respect to families is to maintain the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020. This is already under threat. A report published in June 2012 by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Ending Child Poverty by 2020, indicates that real gains made under the previous Labour administration are in danger of being reversed by coalition policies, particularly in welfare: “given the coalition government’s desire to close the fiscal deficit chiefly through spending cuts rather than tax rises, it should not be a surprise that the prognosis for child poverty over the current decade is so bleak.”
Don’t penalize couples, reward them
The coalition agreement states the government will reform the administration of tax credits and reduce the ‘couple penalty’ in the tax credit system. The Conservative flagship married couple’s allowance has been blocked thus far by the Liberal Democrats. It is difficult to see how other reforms will benefit families. In a recent report the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculated that households with children would be the worst affected when cuts to child tax credit, working tax credit and other fiscal reforms are taken into account. A typical family can expect to be £511 a year worse off by April 2014, in contrast to pensioners who will lose £315 a year.
Providing for the very young
Early years’ provision forms an important part of the coalition’s family policy. The coalition agreement supports the provision of free nursery care, whilst at the same time proposing to scale back Sure Start. Since they took office, more than 125 Sure Start children’s centres have closed, with many others under threat. The money saved is being used to fund the free nursery scheme for two year olds, although some working in early years have expressed serious doubts about the change, as Patrick Butler sets out.
Still the party of the family?
What does the future hold, then, for families in Britain under the coalition? Undoubtedly they face a testing future with economic insecurity, cuts in welfare, and the reorganization of health, education and other services. Amidst this uncertainty David Cameron and Nick Clegg have promised “unprecedented support for parents”. A new Children and Families Bill, proposed in the 2012 Queen’s Speech, will include plans to enable fathers to share parental leave and have greater access to their children after couples divorce, measures to make it easier to adopt, and more support for children with special needs. While these are laudable proposals we will have to see whether – given their track record – the government will come through on these pledges.