London, (Parliament Politics Magazine) – The success of this Government’s Levelling Up agenda could be instrumental in determining its electoral fate in 2024, but they undoubtedly risk failure if they underplay the importance of safe, stable and nurturing families. In key levelling up metrics relating to living standards, health and wellbeing outcomes, crime and educational attainment, family circumstances play a central role.
Social infrastructure needs as much investment and attention as physical infrastructure in the UK, not least in the broad area of family breakdown – repeatedly documented by the Centre for Social Justice since their 2006 Breakdown Britain report (here, here and here) – because of the way it drives and sustains disadvantage.
Family breakdown in its varied and interrelated forms – ‘dad-lessness’, divorce/separation, and dysfunctional relationships – profoundly affects outcomes at the individual, community and societal level. Children with broken families are twice as likely to experience poverty; ‘family relationships problems’ are cited as the biggest issue for children and young people’s mental health by clinicians; and it is conservatively estimated that family breakdown costs the state £51 billion each year.
The assumption is often that as poverty causes family breakdown, the best way to prevent it is by ensuring sufficient household income. Obviously, money really matters, but poverty is also caused by family breakdown – women who experience marital splits are on average 12% worse off in the UK (men are 30% better off). Even the robust Swedish welfare state does not prevent single parenthood being the fastest route into financially insecurity.
Families’ need to access help and support, to prevent problems escalating, was the reason Lord Farmer and I established the Family Hubs Network: we brought together existing Family Hubs and the public, private and voluntary sector organisations running them, to make the case for a national rollout. Family Hubs are places to go where someone will have the answer.
They are single access points which open a world of support across the local authority and community network, like help with parenting and parental conflict, domestic abuse services, GP outreach, and debt counselling. Family Hubs are bespoke to each local area, flexible with their particular services, but all characterised by a relational culture, expressed in everything from data sharing to the way a receptionist interacts with a struggling parent.
The government is increasingly recognising the role of Family Hubs in helping children reach their potential, which is why they were included in the Levelling Up White Paper, and 75 local authorities were recently funded to implement their models. Building on the legacy of Sure Start Children’s Centres, many developed out of the decade or so of learning from their implementation. This policy evolution has enabled them to be even more ambitious in scope – as Will Quince said: “I see Family Hubs as being Sure Start +++”. Crucially, they offer holistic, wrap-around support, including in the early years, for families with children from 0-19, or 25 with SEND.
Holistic support also means working across government departments: alongside DfE, DHSC now includes Family Hubs in statutory guidance; delivery of DWP’s Reducing Parental Conflict programme is integrating with them; DLUHC’s Supporting Families programme recommends Hubs in their Early Help Systems Guide; and the Ministry of Justice is running a private family law pilot for separated families, where the Family Court works closely with the nearby Family Hub.
Finally, it means responding to each community’s needs and context. All the family support work currently taking place in a locality – including in community and sports centres, churches and youth groups – needs to be integrated into the Family Hub network, to maximise the resources and strengths of what is already on offer.
These networks will not be built overnight. It’s about every local authority embarking on a journey, sustaining progress and evaluating outcomes to feed into a constant improvement loop for the benefit of local families. Many will need to create or build on strong partnerships with the voluntary sector, health care providers, schools and all other family touch-points, so sources of support become more integrated and work better together.
If the Government is unequivocal in its commitment to level up – and build back better from Covid, improve outcomes for children, and address the mental health crisis – then prioritising the growth and reach of Family Hub networks and learning from good practice across the country will be essential.
Dr Samantha Callan, Parliamentary Adviser to Lord Farmer and co-founder Family Hubs Network