We need a shake-up of government if we’re going to help families stick together

London, (Parliament Politics Magazine) – Family used to be a traditional Tory tune but in recent years it has been overlooked as Johnson-ite ministers have been seduced by splashing state cash. The Conservative Party was never likely to embrace the family under Boris Johnson, if there was such a thing as Johnson-ism it was more inclined to grow the state and spend, spend, spend, spend than look to traditional Tory themes around personal responsibility and the family.

The party that once understood the difference between the state and society still shows little interest in talking up the role of the family, despite the evidence pointing to its importance in reducing future demand for welfare cheques. Talking up the family shouldn’t be a Tory taboo.

A big poverty commission, led by Conservative peer Baroness Stroud, found that the secret to avoiding poverty is being in a couple. However, parenting alone is a fast track to falling below the poverty lineThe reluctance of politicians to face up to this means more families on the breadline until we’re brave enough to say something about it and dare to use the ‘M’ word.

Diving into the data tells a story about which couples are likely to split up and which couples are likely to stay together. Nine out of 10 babies are born to couples living under the same roof, but fewer than half to married couples. Fast forward to these children sitting their GCSEs and it is the married couples who will still be together. We should be worried then that only one in 10 of the poorest couples get married, but eight in 10 of the richest do.

If the parliamentary Conservative Party has succumbed to the addictive properties of an ever-bigger state, it seems Conservatives in the country take a different view – telling pollsters they are enthusiastically pro-marriage. It’s time for our political class to listen.

This summer’s contenders for the Tory crown will talk endlessly it seems about their ambitions to shrink the state and cut tax, some more urgently than others. There will be no shortage of economic wisdom, but the long-term vision for a smaller state will only ever be achieved by families doing a better job of raising future adults who are less likely to take from the state.

During the last leadership race, all the candidates were harangued to spell out their approach to the family at private hustings. I know, I organised the haranguing with some willing MPs. Johnson agreed to appoint a family champion in his cabinets but the lack of interest in family has led to the absurd situation where we now have three family ministers, a ‘family champion’ in the Cabinet, a children and families minister and a minister for families in the House of Lords. Imagine a government where there was a minister for trains and another for train tracks, with a minister for signals to boot.

The family just doesn’t fit neatly into a single government department which is why we need to completely upend the way the government machine approaches the topic. This is no deck chairs on the Titanic scenario, it is the first step in really getting to grips with helping families stick together.

The answer is to return to a set of proposals for a Government Office for Family Policy, an idea that circulated around Whitehall some years ago. This government office would be modelled on the Government Equalities Office with a cabinet minister at its head to give it political fire-power. This minister would take charge of delivering the long forgotten ‘family test’ – putting family in the mix across Whitehall with real clout.

A new Government Office for Family Policy would take the lead in producing new research and data making the case for the family, across almost every part of government delivery. It would also take the lead in delivering programmes such as the rollout of family hubs and the reducing parental conflict programme. The Government Equalities Office is a template for a future government to follow if it really wants to show it is putting some welly into supporting families. It would over time help to change the debate through better research and evidence, delivering programmes to help us understand what really makes the difference in delivering family hubs and ensuring the family test finally has some clout around Whitehall.

There is good reason to turn the spotlight back onto families. The public gets it – and it is time our political class did too. The ridiculous taboo on mentioning family in policy needs to be broken. We will soon enough have a new prime minister, and if they really want to shrink the state and cut tax, they need to get serious about families sticking together. The first step is to make family a bigger issue in the Whitehall machine.


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