Sunak’s support for the family is destined to failwithout the ‘M’ word


Rishi Sunak surprised many commentators by going out of his way to talk up the role of ‘the family’ in his big new year speech. Alongside his decision to pre-brief a section on British teenagers being forced to study maths, his pledges to keep inflation down, stop small boats and grow the economy got the headlines but it was a homily to the family that is the closest thing we have yet to ‘Sunak-ism’.

The Prime Minister was almost apologetic about mentioning family in a grownup speech on very serious issues. According to the Sunak operation, family is something politicians struggle to talk about, they definitely come in ‘all shapes and sizes’ and the only thing that matters is ‘love’. There is little room for marriage or better parenting in this modern Tory approach to family, but family was somehow fundamental to our vision for a better future. There was no new big idea, just a repeat of a manifesto promise to roll out family hubs, new Conservativestyle children’s centres.

It is almost a decade since a group of fifty Conservative MPs and peers put together a manifesto for families and handed it to the then Prime Minister. A new manifesto, bursting with ideas, is badly needed if the Prime Minister really wants to show that ‘family matters’.  

He could start by looking at the near collapse of marriage in Britain, something that researchers recently found was set to disappear altogether by the second half of this century. It isn’t just in speeches that marriage is disappearing. The married poor are more stable than the unmarried rich in figures uncovered by Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation. Three quarters of married parents are still together when their children do their GCSEs, compared to just a third of unmarried couples. It seems that love is not quite all you need.

The government should look seriously at tax breaks for married couples with children, a full fat version of the existing Marriage Allowance introduced by David Cameron. This tax break gives couples little more than a few pounds a week taken off their tax bill; a government with family running through its vision could improve on this. We only spend about half the budget set aside for the current allowance. We shouldn’t be shy about talking up marriage and backing those who commit, especially when children are involved.

It is bizarre there is not single minister charged with supporting families and reducing record breaking levels of family breakdown. The Prime Minster told us he was determined to talk about this issue. He should extend this to the rest of his government and across every department. A decade ago the government introduced the Family Test, a toothless impact assessment to encourage civil servants to judge policy ideas against the likelihood they would make life harder for families. It has sunk without trace and badly needs a re-boot. Instead the Prime Minster could quickly announce a new government office for family policy, modelled on the Government Equalities Office. This new bit of government could change the way we approach this issue by publishing authoritative evidence on the role family breakdown plays across almost every bit of government. With robust new evidence politicians will no longer need to shy away from this issue; it would have a new respectability among the Westminster class and a cabinet level minister could take charge of the family test. It’s an easy fix that would end the taboo around family in Whitehall.

The Prime Minster dropped a hint that he is looking seriously at how parents balance work and family life. It was a welcome indication that any new childcare policy might actually help parents to look after their own children rather than paying for a stranger to do it for them. The Westminster village is determined to expand childcare in nurseries at the expense of parents who want to spend more time with their children, something two thirds of them say they would prefer. Mothers are particularly keen, with four times as many mothers stuck in the office wishing they were with their children than mothers stuck at home wishing they were in the office. Our tax system is cruelly antifamily, especially where one partner earns and another looks after children.

Over Christmas the Chancellor dropped plans to review the tax system and how it treats families. This is a big mistake. The fact that no one has noticed should make it easier to undo. Other countries tax couples as couples, rather than individuals, allowing families to transfer unused tax allowances and pay a lot less tax. We could extend childcare payments to families, allowing them to keep the money handed to them instead of giving it to a nursery or a childminder. Several Westminster think tanks are now pushing the government to do something like this and the Prime Minister should listen.

David Cameron was the last prime minister to spend a lot of his time talking up the role of families, much to the irritation on George Osbornewho did everything he could to stop his neighbour in Number 10 from doing much about the issue. It is a shame that such a familiar Tory tune gets so little attention from senior Conservative politicians. You have to go back to Iain Duncan Smith in 2011 to find the last time a senior Conservative gave a speech mentioning marriage. There are big ideas on the family the government could announce and some that could be delivered before a general election. Just rolling out family hubs on their own is unlikely to make the difference, it needs a much bigger bang. Without a long, hard look at why some couples stick together and others separate,we wont get much further. If a Prime Minister can mention love, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to talk about marriage.

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Frank Young works for a Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity.

Frank Young

Frank Young works for a leading Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity