THE BLOG

Government Family Policy Groundhog Day

20/03/2017 13:01

Brexit is the divorce on everyone's lips. It seems to be the only thing on Ministers' and policy-makers' minds too. It's fair to say that almost all government decisions now and for some time to come will be influenced by the UK's split from the European Union.

Frustration at this course of events abounds for those of us involved in other policy areas which deserve attention. And I'd suggest that nowhere is it truer than for those of us who deal with the fallout of the more conventional type of divorce - you know the ones, where couples split.

You're never short of a government-funded report or piece of research into family policy. Having been CEO of National Family Mediation for 13 years, I've read scores of the things.

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And in Groundhog Day-style they always seem to come to similar conclusions. You'd be forgiven for thinking the government pumps these reports out into the ether simply to convince the population that it believes in the importance of family life.

You could actually track back to 1922 the statements made by then governments, lamenting the fact divorce and separation was dealt with in the court and needn't have been.

Ever since there has been a steady stream of reports, funded research, Green Papers and limited legislation that confirm the same point.

In my 13 years there have been several White Papers, backed by expensive research findings and recommendations. These covered topics as widespread as paternal separation, children's rights, and parents' responsibilities. Then there was Breakdown Britain and the sequel, Breakthrough Britain. Most recently we had Early Intervention Foundation research funded by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Yet despite the plethora of reports and the myriad statements on the back of them made by Ministers, there's scant evidence of anything actually changing when it comes to family policy.

The latest to cross my desk is one examining parenting behaviours and the extent to which parents can be supported by public policy, from The Social Mobility Commission report, 'Helping parents to parent'.

It indicates children who are cared for in warm, supportive family environments do better than those where conflict rules. And that despite the stigma attached to the idea of 'single parents', lone parenting isn't bad in itself.

Indeed, when separated parents communicate well, the outcomes are better for children in their early development than where parents live together unhappily. These carry through to attainment and employment later in life.

Amongst its 80 pages are some conclusions which, were I not such an old-hand, I might feasibly consider the starting gun to reforming policy-making.

'There is a need for highly-trained practitioners to implement and deliver parenting interventions', for example. Who would argue?

'There is a need for more family centres or single-access platforms, which provide an umbrella of universal parenting support and services and are easily accessible for all families.' Amen to that.

It goes on. But we knew these things already, so this is another report that has looked at various government research on similar themes, and brought us the usual conclusions.

For me and my fellow relationship professionals, the key question is 'does this latest report move us forward?' I fear not. It really is time for Ministers to join up the dots of the various research findings, to see the pattern and act on it.

The government's ongoing pledges to invest in relationship support are always welcome, but the recurring deeper pearls from reports like this shouldn't be ignored by Ministers whose heads are now turning from the UK's 100,000+ annual divorces to the Big One that currently dominates.

Brexit understandably dictates government thinking. But the divorce we face from the EU mustn't blind Ministers to the wide-ranging benefits of well-managed family divorces in achieving better outcomes for families.

They shouldn't forget that the sums that stand to be saved in the long-term for the public purse from shrewd investment in the conclusions that keep on coming are eye-watering.

Decisions about family policy have been stalled for years - a policy paralysis has gripped the government. I'm not alone in fearing Brexit isn't going to help. I hope I'm wrong.

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