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Improving Life Chances Means Strengthening Family Stability

23/05/2016 12:04 | Updated 23 May 2016

  • Family breakdown is a key driver of poverty
  • Children's life chances can be profoundly harmed by fractured family relationships
  • Addressing family breakdown would disproportionately help the most vulnerable and disadvantaged

It was encouraging to hear in the Queen's Speech the words 'New legislation will be introduced to tackle some of the deepest social problems in society, and improve life chances.' Amongst our deepest social problems - if not the deepest, because it triggers so many others - are dysfunctional, chaotic and fractured family relationships.

The scale of family breakdown in Britain bludgeons the senses. Almost half of all children sitting their GCSEs this year will no longer be living with both parents. This proportion rises to two-thirds in low-income homes. As the Prime Minister himself has said, 'a teenager sitting their GCSEs is more likely to own a smartphone than have a dad living with them.'

Behind these statistics are individual young people whose life chances can be profoundly impacted by the separation of their parents. As the Centre for Social Justice has repeated over several years now, 'Children who experience family breakdown are more likely to experience behavioral problems; perform less well in school; need more medical treatment; leave school and home earlier; become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age; and report more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence and adulthood.'

So, if we care about increasing 'life chances for the most disadvantaged', to quote elsewhere from the Queen's Speech, then we cannot ignore the fact that more support for families, family life and relationships within families at different stages and ages is critically needed. This would disproportionately help the most vulnerable, and directly combat family breakdown as a key driver of poverty. Elsewhere in the Queen's Speech, the Government states its intention 'to tackle poverty and the causes of deprivation, including family instability, addiction and debt'.

Stable families are a key building block of strong societies, and when they break down, all of us are in some way affected. If we are committed to improving the life chances of all children, leaving none behind, we must be committed to reversing the endemic level of family breakdown currently experienced in Britain.

The damage which family instability can cause children starts at the earliest of ages. Babies are born craving attachment. Our adult understanding of emotional and physical connections with those around us can be rooted in how we bonded as tiny children with those closest to us. How much we depend and co-operate with others later in life can be similarly influenced by how dependable and available the adults were in our early life. Living in dysfunctional or chaotic families, children can become hard-wired to assume there is little, or no, security in relationships. Not just in the home, but in the school and at work as well, this subsequently impacts our ability to succeed in a culture which increasingly requires cooperation and communication skills in the workplace.

The tragedy is that many families would like to stay together - that surely is the aspiration of most couples when they start a family together - but often they lack the tools or role models to help to resolve conflicts and to see a way forward through the difficult times, which - let's face it - we all experience at one time or another in family life - that's entirely normal!

Since 2013 the Government has provided some funding for schemes to help prevent relationship breakdown and, as a result, many thousands have benefited. This support needs to be substantially increased if we are really serious about, as the Queen's Speech also states, 'giving every child the best start in life.'

A good start would be making couple relationship support available to every couple when they become a new parent. This needn't be a heavy thing - just knowing someone or somewhere to go to for the right words of encouragement and direction may be all some need. Having a child aged 0-3 years can be a critical trigger for family breakdown, and support given at that time could help couples work through difficulties as a united front. Other more structured programs, such as those provided for couples who are just settling down together - or even simply thinking about doing so - can help raise awareness that no long-term relationship is without its crises, and that it is possible to prevent painful issues from being entrenched.

Many tools for maintaining healthy relationships, married or not, are easy to learn, as MPs heard at a recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Strengthening Couple Relationships, which I have the privilege of Chairing. Harry Benson, founder of the relationship education charity the Bristol Community Family Trust, spoke of his 'Let's Stick Together' programme, which has effectively helped thousands of new families strengthen their relationships. Nicky and Sila Lee also spoke - they founded the Marriage Course, which over the last two decades has been translated into 40 languages and now runs in 109 countries - so there is clearly an appetite for this kind of advice!

To be very clear, there is no judgment in this article of any family. Many parents do a fantastic job of raising children alone or with very little support. There are many abusive and broken relationships from which people need liberation rather than forces trying to keep them together. However, there are also many relationships where couples want to make things work and want to be together to look after their children, but find themselves struggling with the many pressures of modern life. Added challenges, such as those found in some cross-cultural relationships, or greater geographic distances from a network of wider family support can make it harder for couples to clarify, form and maintain strong and lasting commitments.

If we want to fully realise yet another pledge in the Queen's Speech 'to work to bring communities together and strengthen society,' then as the party of Government we have an opportunity - and an urgent duty - to help families build strong and happy homes for the benefit of themselves, their children, and society as a whole.

Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton, Chair of the All-Party parliamentary group on Strengthening Couple Relationships, and founder of the community and family law firm Fiona Bruce LLP

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