UK Family Law Reform

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Prime suspect 7th November 2006

Lifelong Labour supporter Maureen Freely has been at the thick of family policy for a decade as an author, academic and political commentator — and as a mother of four. But she can take no more. The government, she argues, has killed family life. And all the evidence points to Tony Blair being the main culprit

Let me begin with a confession. For the past 10 years I have led a double life. The first was with my family, my colleagues, my students, my neighbours and my friends. The second I spent with those who set the rules by which we live. These are the politicians, civil servants, academics and activists who gathered together after new Labour’s landslide victory to transform family policy. Their brief was to formalise the relationship between government and parents: in bald terms, to turn parents into a new breed of line managers. For if families were right to expect the government to provide proper public services, then the government was right to expect families to turn out proper children. And if they didn’t, well, it was only right that the government step in to sort them out.

Did I ever buy this? No. I had my doubts from the beginning. I feared that the people at the top were interested in families only because they saw in them a source of cheap labour. No, let me correct that. A source of unpaid labour. Slave labour. They weren’t very happy with these substandard children we were producing: we were now to be improved. As alarmed as I was by that prospect, I was more alarmed by the factory imagery in which it was couched. Taken literally, the future of Blair’s and Straw’s and Blunkett’s dreams was an assembly line, along which we, the parent line managers, would impose company discipline to produce the highest-quality product at the lowest possible cost.

For 10 years, I tried hard to convince myself it was wrong to read too much into a metaphor. This couldn’t be what they really meant. Committed Labourite that I was, I had to believe they were castigating parents in the press so they could fob off the Daily Mail. But it wasn’t just blind faith that lulled me. At the conferences, seminars and panel discussions I attended, the talk was very different. Here I found many others who lived double lives like mine. Whatever their professional titles, they had first-hand experience of the hell that is working parenthood. Like me, many had lived through separation and divorce. Married or unmarried, they’d had to care for their parents as well as their children. They had concluded – as I had – that the way we lived today was mad and unworkable. Which was why they were here. Why we were all here. But, reader, we were conned.

I’ll begin as the villains of this piece so often do, by naming and shaming: Harriet Harman, who brokered the new deal for single mothers so they could know the “dignity of work” and give their children a future, but forgot to join the dots; Jack Straw, who dazzled the nation with his bright new package of joined-up policies that promised not just to support families, but to treat them as partners in the enterprise, only to swan off to the Foreign Office, after which nothing ever joined up again; Gordon Brown, who tried but failed to end child poverty; David Blunkett, who, having found lazy teachers, feckless parents and their wayward children to be the source of all social ills, went on to hector and punish them; and last but not least, Tony Blair, the man at the top, who did not just neglect to join up his own policies, but sometimes seemed to go out of his way to make sure they failed.

He has not just turned parents into line managers, but vastly augmented our job description: never before have we been expected to work to such high standards or faced such an array of legal sanctions should we fail to make the grade. Never before have we been expected to do so much with our children in so little time. For we are less and less likely to be at home with them, and more and more likely to be in paid employment – which is, I think, just where Blair wants us. But he has failed to honour his side of the bargain. Though he set up systems that might have made it possible to square the circle, he has starved most of them of funds, making it impossible for them to deliver. He has also refused to heed the messages coming from his own experts, whose studies consistently show that parent support only works if it is respectful, responsive and non-punitive. Instead he has encouraged his disciples to take a fire-and-brimstone approach with failing families. His definitions of failure have become so broad that the day cannot be far off when they subsume us all.

If families are worse off today than they were 10 years ago, it’s Tony Blair who has the most to answer for. So, in the spirit of fair play, let me acknowledge the ways his government has helped many families, at least in some small way. Of course you’ll know about these already. Whenever a new one is introduced, his spin machine ensures maximum coverage.

The government has increased child benefit and introduced a working families’ tax credit and a childcare tax credit that has been taken up by 6m families. The 12.5 hours’ weekly free entitlement to childcare now covers 38 weeks of the year. It has opened 1,000 Sure Start Children’s Centres, all in underprivileged urban areas, offering comprehensive and integrated services to almost 1m children and their families. It has extended paid maternity leave and introduced two whole weeks of paternity leave for new fathers, and given all parents with children under six and the parents of disabled children under 18 the right to ask for flexible working hours. It has significantly increased childcare provision, largely in the private sector, and offered special assistance to lone parents wishing to return to work. In 2004 it launched a nationwide policy called Every Child Matters, which pledges to provide greatly extended parent and child services, using schools as the hub, by the end of the decade. But it has failed to create a level playing field for women at work, or men at home. Why? Because it’s afraid. Afraid of what Business Might Say. This despite the fact that the business case for work-life balance is well rehearsed. Blair could declare it a national priority, suggest to business and other concerned parties that working together to figure out a better way of integrating work and domestic responsibilities would benefit us all, and even (as research has shown) increase productivity. What nation can prosper if it sends well over half its population to work dog-tired?

Instead of addressing the central contradiction of our time, Tony Blair has pretended it isn’t there. Though he’s put more pressure, much more pressure, on mothers to go into paid employment, he has done next to nothing to address the discrimination against mothers in the workplace. After nine years of lip service to equality, 20% of women still face dismissal or financial loss because of a pregnancy. If they choose to work part-time while their children are young, they will earn 40% less per hour than men doing the same job full-time. If they return to full employment after only one year in part-time work, they will still be earning 10% less 15 years on. Some losses they will never recover: despite recent tinkering, pensions are still designed for people who work full-time all their working lives, thus discriminating against those who take time off to care for their families.

But what about men? Shouldn’t they shoulder some of the responsibility? Increasingly, they are. After three decades of arguing about where a woman’s place really was, a recent EOC (Equal Opportunities Commission) poll found that only 15% of women and 20% of men in this country think women should stay at home. Fathers, meanwhile, are spending more time with their children, undertaking about one-third of their care. Where mothers have jobs, one-third cite fathers as the main carer. So it should make a difference that they now have the right to ask their employers for flexible work. Sadly, it doesn’t. Since 2003, 19% of eligible mothers and 10% of eligible fathers have requested flexible hours, but employers (who have the right to say no) still view men’s requests less favourably. This reflects and reinforces the idea that women should put their children first and accept second-class status at work. It also dooms men, especially family men, to work the longest hours in Europe.

And for what? According to calculations by the accountants Grant Thornton, many middle-class households can expect to see half their income disappear in taxes, either when they earn it or when they spend it. According to Ernst & Young, rises in income have not matched rising energy costs and council taxes, making Britain’s families 10% worse off than they were four years ago. So even if some can afford flexible work and the penalties it brings, reducing working hours is not an option for most of us. And still the government bangs on about parenting standards. When, I ask, are we to practise what they preach? How dare they preach at all? Their own record on childcare – I’m sorry, but this makes me angry – is a disgrace. Almost a decade after the glittering launch of its National Childcare Strategy, there is still only one registered place for every four children under eight. Most of those places are private businesses, and half of all nurseries fail. As the government’s own inspectors have found, most existing nurseries offer substandard care.

Childcare costs continue to be prohibitive. The Daycare Trust’s 2005 survey found that the typical cost of a full-time place with a childminder was £127 a week, or over £6,600 a year. A full-time nursery place for a child under two was £141 a week in England, or £7,300 annually. In some parts of the country it was £18,000. This may explain why 42% of lone parents actively seeking work say the scarcity or cost of childcare prevents them getting a job.

Though Gordon Brown has seemed to offer generous support to Sure Start (integrated child centres), the people on the ground say it doesn’t begin to cover its expansion costs. There are, in addition, concerns about his emphasis on urban areas, which means there is very little help on offer for the also deserving rural poor. And though Brown’s much-vaunted tax credits have made a real difference for many lower-income families, they are so complicated and so hard to calculate, even the Treasury seems to have trouble understanding how they work. There have been serious cockups, with the Treasury’s computers overpaying almost 2m families an average of £1,000 in tax credits, then, without prior notice, clawing the money back, forcing many of those families to live on food parcels. The Child Support Agency (CSA), founded under Thatcher to make nonresident fathers pay for their children’s support, was this year announced to be “under review” for the third time in its 13-year existence, having clocked up £3.4 billion in unrecovered payments. We are now assured it is to be scrapped and replaced with a more “streamlined” body. But yet again, the details are still to be disclosed.

Which brings us to the D-word – yet another abject failure. Though officially committed to shared parenting after separation and divorce, and fully aware that our family court system is a disaster – exacerbating conflicts between parents, creating conflicts where none existed, and often permanently excluding one parent, generally the father, for reasons anybody who was not a judge or a family court welfare officer would call capricious – the government has changed nothing. It has commissioned a few reports and pilot projects and left it at that. Meanwhile, families continue to travel through this discredited system at the rate of 80,000 a year.

If we calculate that the average family includes two children, we can see that family courts affect the lives of a quarter of a million men, women and children annually, and often adversely.

Not a very good deal, then, this family business. In a poll of over 2,000 adults last October, the EOC found that nearly three out of five thought it was harder for working women to balance work and family life than 30 years ago. Over half of men aged 35-44 thought it was harder for men. This may explain why our birth rate is falling. At 1.8 per woman, it is not at its lowest point ever, and is by no means the lowest in Europe (that honour goes to Germany, where only 700,000 babies were born last year, in a population of around 80m), but is well below replacement rate. Half a century ago, only 10% of women reached the end of their fertile lives without bearing children. Now that has doubled. It is sure to rise.

A recent Guardian/ICM poll found that 64% of men and 51% of women thought that it was more important for women to “enjoy themselves” than to have children. Only 32% said bringing up children was more important than material success. Sixty-one per cent of men and women said that living comfortably was more important than having children. When asked what put them off the idea of having children, 63% cited the career demands and the difficulty of balancing these with family life, and 54% cited the high and rising costs. These views are in line with those measured in other European countries with declining birth rates. Wherever it is hard for parents to combine work and family, fewer and fewer even want to try.

But even the men and women who decide to forgo families may find themselves obliged to care for their parents. And if they don’t? For one thing, they should give up all hope of inheriting the family home. The government will want it sold to pay for the substandard care it will provide in their stead. The government’s record on elder-care is even worse than it is on childcare. But if you asked me where its greatest failure is, I would have to say education.

I say this even though two of my children went through the system during the 1980s and 90s, and were not (in my view) well served by the Tories. But I have two younger children who started school around the same time Blair came into office. And I teach at Warwick University, where for 10 years now I have been asked to bend and twist as the government exercises its will from on high. I see the same patterns in my children’s schools. Blair inherited a system fraught with problems, and his policies have exacerbated all of them, first by bombarding teachers at every level of the system with targets that do not take into account what we actually do, then by forcing us to assess our students and ourselves by quality-assurance standards that were designed – and I mean it literally this time – for factories. If we fail to fashion ourselves into the right sort of worker, turning out the right sort of product, we are severely punished.

But at least I’m never asked to turn around and punish my students’ parents. This is what teachers at primary and secondary level are now expected to do. It began in the late 1990s with home-school contracts. Before long, parents were being prosecuted and even jailed for failing to stop their children playing truant. Under the new education bill, parents who fail to keep children excluded for five days or less, under lock and key at home, even if they are single and in employment, will face the same sanctions.

This government has vastly expanded its repertoire of punishments for parents it deems to be substandard. It has at the same time convinced people that such parents must be dealt with harshly because they refused earlier offers of help. In fact, and contrary to the spin generated by an endless parade of initiatives, pilots and taskforces, there are huge swathes of the country where there is no help whatsover for parents struggling with difficult or distressed children.

Here we come to new Labour’s strangest and most fatal flaw: it trashes its own programmes. By this I mean it sets up or underwrites parent-support organisations which it presents to the nation at glitzy launches, then forgets. Or if it doesn’t forget them, it grossly underfunds them, so all they can do is operate a modest website. Let me describe a few of these for you. Since its inception seven years ago, the government-funded National Family and Parenting Institute (NFPI) has been working hard to gather together all academics, professionals, and activists concerned with family policy to discuss best practice. It has fostered and disseminated research, so anything the government does, it can do on the basis of solid evidence. It has also engaged with parents, reflecting their views back to government, and arguing for policies that meet parents’ needs. During the same period, the EOC has campaigned tirelessly for an end to the pay gap, mothers’ and fathers’ rights at home as well as in the workplace, and pension reform.

The Parenting Education and Support Forum, recently renamed Parenting UK, has developed structures for the training and certification of parent educators, and is ready to launch a fledgling national network. But at present there is nothing like a national network, and though a parenting academy was launched recently to great fanfare, the details remain sketchy.

Parentline Plus has established a much-lauded if little-known national helpline, offering confidential, non-judgmental help for parents under stress. It, too, reflects back parents’ concerns to government. Since its inception in 1999, most of its calls have consistently come from parents of teenagers. A constellation of other charities are also working closely with government, usually on behalf of specific-interest groups like lone parents, fathers or working mothers, or issues like emotional literacy or family court reform. Increasingly these groups have formed alliances to put more pressure on the government to stop its target-mad, piecemeal approach to family policy.

Recently the NFPI called for a revamped national family policy that dispensed with targeted assistance in favour of a basic income, a right to flexible work with time off for children, a guarantee of top-quality childcare, and an acknowledgment that parents need to combine earning a living with caring well for their children. It also called for the proper and equitable provision of parent-support services. Instead of “parachuting in experts who claim to fix things and go away again”, Parentline Plus called for parent services that were rooted in communities, concerning themselves not just with families but with social networks. These services would, according to Parenting UK, connect with parents at the antenatal stage, fanning out to provide a sort of GP service for parents seeking advice thereafter. Such a service would be open to all, and therefore without stigma. It would be there when you needed it, but only when you needed it. It could be a movable feast – available some days at the local school and others at the surgery, so it need not be hugely expensive. It would be cost-effective because it would allow parents to see to little problems before they got out of hand, while also serving as a gateway for those seeking help with serious problems. It could certainly fit in with the government’s big but still very sketchy new policy initiative: Every Child Matters.

Like the Mental Heath Foundation, Young Minds and other organisations concerned with mental health, the NFPI and its partners want parents to be able to access quick, professional, non-judgmental help when they or their children encounter serious problems like bullying, depression, self-harm or drugs and alcohol. As opposed to now, when there is next to nothing. Anywhere.

Most if not all the above-mentioned groups are seriously concerned about the punitive rhetoric about failing parents, and even more concerned about the punitive legislation. They are very disturbed by the way the government sees parent services as tools in the punishment and re-education of “failing families” – especially when it is implied that these failing families were offered help and then refused it. They argue that most parents who get parenting orders have spent years desperately seeking help and getting nowhere. To force them into parenting courses, one expert said it was “like force-feeding someone who’s been starving”.

Groups like Parentline Plus are also concerned about the lack of parental input into education policy, and the new onus on schools to police their pupils’ parents. They say that while most families want schools that are academically strong, they have serious concerns about the sidelining of pastoral care, which they feel is key to a child thriving academically. Groups like Antidote have produced evidence-based research to prove this point, but back at the DfES the exam-driven ticking of boxes continues.

Although weakened in the past by gender splits, there is now an alliance of almost 40 charities calling for the government to replace the present divisive conflict-driven system with one that would aim to provide guidance and support for parents and children as they go through the separation process.. The highly effective Fathers Direct (never to be confused with Fathers 4 Justice) has proposed a system based on Australian and Scandinavian models that encourages shared parenting and addresses problems like domestic violence that can, without proper assistance, make it impossible.

All these organisations have a hard time publicising themselves, which is why you probably don’t know their names, let alone what they stand for. It is not just that they have shoestring budgets and depend on government funding. If they don’t shout louder, it may also be because they remember that the Family Policy Studies Centre (which did shout loud once upon a time) had its funding slashed and is no longer. This brings us to one thing this government has been very good at: quelling internal dissent and controlling the flow of information.

But there are whispers nonetheless. My friends in the family-policy world inform me that David Cameron has been in touch with many of the organisations that Blair has been ignoring. He knows the issues and has begun to talk about families under stress, and the need for work-life balance. He has said that he wants to see less emphasis on the “work ethic” and more on the “ethical workplace”. That we should measure our success not just by the GDP, he says, but by a newer, family-friendlier acronym, the GWB, or “general wellbeing”. It is all rather vague, and all rather designed not to Upset Business. But perhaps, when he goes back to do more homework, he’ll see that there are other constituencies in need of attention.

Seven out of 10 people in another recent EOC poll said that they were concerned about the sort of society we were leaving for our children. Almost half said that they were very concerned. Three out of four respondents said they would be more likely to listen to politicians who talked about work-life issues, and half said they were more likely to vote for them.

Those are the hard facts, and everywhere I look I see the reasons why. I live in a part of England where roses still grow on cottages and where most families, even those like mine that don’t look traditional on the outside, take families very seriously. We want to give our children a good start. We want to be able to go to work without putting them at risk. We want to be able to go home when our children or our elderly parents need us, and without risking our jobs. We are tired of being lectured and disrespected by politicians who know a great deal less about families than we do. When we’re addressed like line managers on an assembly line, we see red. So watch out, Tony. Watch out, Gordon. Watch out, David. And the rest of you, too. We’re this close to snapping.

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