What is a family friendly government?

In January 2010, before he came to power, David Cameron expressed an ambition for his government “to be the most family friendly government we’ve ever had in this country”. Since Cameron became Prime Minister, we have seen the scrapping of child benefit for higher rate tax payers, a number of changes in benefits and taxation and the scrapping of plans to extend further the right to request flexible working arrangements, among other measures which significantly disadvantage families.

At the same time, the only thing stopping the introduction of tax breaks for married couples is the presence of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government. It is telling that when Conservative Home talks about Britain having the most ‘anti-family’ tax system in Europe it bases this on a definition of family as “a one earner married couple with two children”. More recently the Prime Minister has been telling us how we should wait to have children until we’re all middle class.

Choice is a favourite word of this government. It is the mantra of choice which is relentlessly driving the privatisation of the NHS and the education system, it is the ethos of choice which gets rolled out when someone questions why we are spending tax payers’ money on homeopathic treatments not proven to work. So how is this government enabling our choices when it comes to our families? What does a family-friendly society really look like in the 21st century?

Sex and relationships education

Condom banana.jpgThe first step in family friendliness is to enable people – and women in particular – to choose when to have children and how many children to have. The very, very first step in this direction is making available information through sex and relationships education in schools. In an ideal world, SRE would be compulsory and comprehensive. It would start at an early age and introduce topics in an age-appropriate fashion. It would aim to build confidence in boys and girls, help them understand their own bodies, teach relationship skills, teach facts about sex, pregnancy, contraception, sexually transmitted infections and abortion. It would approach sex in a positive way – not as something shameful and dirty, not as something that only has negative consequences (teenage pregnancy! STDs!) but something which, if handled responsibly, respectfully and maturely, can bring a lot of pleasure. Consent would be taught to young men and women both. Same-sex relationships would be treated as something normal, not as something an entire city needs to freak out about.

Right now, SRE is failing our children. The Department of Education’s own advisory group on violence against women and girls reports that:

  • 33% of girls and 16% of boys responding to an NSPCC survey reported some form of sexual partner violence.
  • 25% of girls (the same proportion as adult women) and 18% of boys reported some form of physical partner violence.
  • Around 75% of girls and 50% of boys reported some form of emotional partner violence.
  • Younger participants (aged 13 to 15-years-old) were as likely as older adolescents (aged 16 and over) to experience some forms of violence.
Our children are not being given the right tools to help them build and maintain relationships, to make informed choices on when to have sex and with whom, to help them make decisions around when to have children of their own or to protect their health

Moreover, the UK still has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe, and the 16-24 age group accounts for over half the new STI infections diagnosed while only making up 12% of the actual population.

Our children are not being given the right tools to help them build and maintain relationships, to make informed choices on when to have sex and with whom, to help them make decisions around when to have children of their own or to protect their health. Yet when asked in Parliament about sex education on the national curriculum earlier this year, all the Education Secretary could do was to respond like a 12-year-old behind the bike sheds:

I am grateful to my honorable friend for, as ever, leaping straight on to sex – I know that it is a subject of great interest to him and to many in this House. I always feel that one should discuss money before discussing sex, because the one and the other are so intimately connected in the minds of so many members… I am happy to reassure my honorable friend that I will not accept amendments in committee that seek to make the curriculum any more prescriptive or intrusive.

In other words, sex and relationships education is going to remain patchy, at the discretion of the school, and continue to fail children. Even at the first hurdle of family friendliness – providing young people with enough information to enable them to make informed choices about families – this government fails.

Access to abortion on demand

Abortion too comes under the heading of choice – being able to choose when to have children, and control how many children you have. Contraception, of course, has a significant role to play here, but contraception fails and when it does it is vitally important that a woman should be able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. For me, this goes beyond issues of bodily autonomy: the birth of a child is a life-changing event, and a woman will be responsible for her child for much longer than the nine months it spends inside her uterus. A woman’s physical, emotional, mental and financial autonomy is significantly affected by having a child, and therefore this should always be a conscious and willing choice. A truly family-friendly government would enable and facilitate that choice, by making abortion available on demand.

Abortion.pngIt is important to understand that, right now, abortion is not available on demand in the UK. In Northern Ireland, for a start, abortion is almost completely criminalised, only permitted in extreme cases. In the rest of the UK, a woman still needs to get two doctors to sign a declaration stating that her mental or physical health or the mental or physical health of her existing children would be at risk if the pregnancy continued. Doctors may refuse to provide or refer women to abortion services on moral grounds though government guidance says that they should not obstruct women from seeing a doctor who will provide the service.

Under the guise of ‘choice’, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries sought to implement further hoops for women to jump through when seeking an abortion, in the hope of being able to talk women into carrying pregnancies to term. This effort was defeated in the Commons, but may still be resuscitated by the Department of Health, which is due to launch a consultation on the issue.

Talking women into continuing with unwanted pregnancies – in situations where their relationships may be falling apart, their partners may be abusive, where they may already be struggling to support existing children, or where having a child is simply not the right thing for them at the time – is never the right answer, and is certainly not the family-friendly answer.

Marriage tax breaks

One of the most publicised Conservative policies at the last election was the proposed tax break for married couples. Even the allegedly paramount need to cut the budget deficit did not stop David Cameron from promising the recognition of marriage in the tax system. Yet the proposed value of this was meagre at best (only £3 a week), and the potential beneficiaries of this policy were restricted to married couples where one partner does not work or earns very little. So not only did the Conservatives want to encourage a particular type of family set-up (marriage), they wanted to actively support only one particular type of marriage – where one partner is completely financially dependent on the other, and in the vast majority of heterosexual marriages the dependent partner is likely to be the wife rather than the husband. While said tax breaks were to be extended to same-sex couples in civil partnerships, there was significant debate about this within the Conservative party, with even gay Conservatives calling for the measures to only apply to married heterosexual couples.

It is easier to blame the decline of marriage as an institution than to admit that it is poverty which causes poor educational and social outcomes

All this was allegedly in the name of being family-friendly, of course, and in the name of “the children”. Children of married couples, we were told, had consistently better educational and social outcomes than children of unmarried couples. “Broken families”, we were told, were to blame for all of society’s evils, with 46,000 of the “worst” families each costing the state £100,000 a year in benefits and services.

If they ever seemed persuasive, such claims have lost a lot of their appeal with the recent publication of a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which shows that, once you control for other factors, and particularly income, marriage does not play a significant role in the educational and social outcomes for children. Apparently saying some words and obtaining a piece of paper isn’t the silver bullet that will save our society after all. The right, of course, is still not convinced. Gavin Poole from the Centre for Social Justice and Cristina Odone at The Telegraph are just some of the right-wing commentators questioning the validity of the report’s findings.

It is easy to see why this way of thinking is so appealing to the right. It is easier to blame the decline of marriage as an institution than to admit that it is poverty which causes poor educational and social outcomes. Giving women £3 a week to get married and stay home is not a family-friendly policy. Even for middle class women like me this “recognition of marriage” wouldn’t support the cappuccino habit I am likely to develop if I stopped working. More dangerously, it promotes the complete economic dependence of entire families on one ‘bread winner’, disempowers both women and children, which in many cases traps people in highly dysfunctional and even abusive relationships.

Even more paradoxically, the shift in the last budget from tax credits (paid to households) to income tax cuts (affecting individuals) means that the kind of single-earner families the Conservatives allegedly want to support through tax breaks for married couples are now at a significant disadvantage compared to two-income households. Not only is government policy here not family-friendly, it is actually self-contradictory.

Parental leave, flexible working and child care

Nuclear family.jpgI was incredibly fortunate. I grew up in a communist country where childcare was affordable and easily available. My mother was entitled to three years of maternity leave, but also had the option of putting me in a nursery at six months and returning to her career. There were many things wrong with communism, but its childcare arrangements weren’t one of them.

Having meaningful choices in terms of childcare, but also in terms of finances and career for both men and women after the birth of a child is extremely important. All too often couples find themselves defaulting to an arrangement where the man becomes the bread winner and the woman the care giver, despite never really intending to live this way. With the average cost of childcare at over £170 per week a woman would need to earn at least £26,000 a year just to break even on childcare costs.

With parental leave, too, it is often the path of least resistance for the woman to take the bulk of it, even if additional paternity leave is now available. As most employers will only pay the statutory amount for parental leave, and with a gender pay gap still at nearly 20%, it is easy to see how most families would find it easier to give up the woman’s wages than the man’s.

This government’s record on flexible working is mixed: while some rights to request flexible working have been extended, they weren’t fully implemented as planned, and small business in particular are exempt from a number of new regulations, including this one. The government claims it is still committed to extending the right to request to flexible working to everyone “in due course” and this pause in implementation is temporary, to allow businesses space to breathe in the current economic climate. This priority call in and of itself is quite telling – when it comes to choosing between being family friendly or business friendly, the government has firmly come down on the side of business. The tragedy here is that this is not a zero-sum game. With the right incentives for business to innovate, flexible working can become a driver of growth, not the “red tape” it is popularly characterised as.

In this area too, however, the simple brutality of financial considerations comes into play: it is hardly uncommon at events showcasing flexible working practices for nine out of 10 case studies to feature women rather than men.

I would love to see the Tories take their mantra of choice to heart and truly enable choices for all of us – men and women – on how we run our lives, how we raise our families, how we balance our aspirations for careers with our aspirations for our children

What are faced with a paradox: to make ends meet these days, most families need both adults to work. At the same time, the workplace, despite some limited advances, is still structured in a way which assumes that in a family unit one adult works outside the home while the other does not. To achieve tangible, constructive change in this area would take a concerted policy effort and significant investment: affordable, accessible child care, parental leave and flexible working available to all and free of stigma, and a commitment to closing the gender pay gap all have a role to play in a family-friendly government.

Moreover, if these items are important in supporting families, they are doubly important in supporting single-parent families. As one single parent put it on Twitter, “single parents are raising children on their own. One wage, one person, all the responsibility.” With limited time and limited finances, support from the state here is vital. Yet in a world where it is a challenge for two-parent families to work and look after children, single parents’ benefits are now being changed so that they will be forced into the job market when their youngest child turns seven. Work may be the best way out of poverty, as Work and Pensions Minister Maria Miller reminds us, but this is only true if the job market is supportive of single parents. Moving people from benefits into part-time, minimum-wage jobs, which are often the only positions available or accessible to single parents, is not family friendly.

Supporting all families

I was at this year’s Stonewall Workplace Conference in March when keynote speaker Theresa May spoke about the government’s plan to launch a consultation on gay marriage. Yet we have learned that the consultation – which was supposed to start in June this year – has been postponed until next March. Moreover, its terms of reference are to specifically exclude religious gay marriage or opening up civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. Trans people undergoing transition continue to have to get divorced or dissolve their civil partnerships in order to obtain legal recognition of their transition. Homophobic bullying continues to be the norm in British schools. This affects children regardless of sexual orientation, and is particularly harmful to children of same-sex couples, putting additional strain on those families. So far, this government has not done anything to specifically tackle the prevalence of homophobic bullying in our schools.

Virgin and child.jpgHere again we see that when the Conservatives speak of a “family-friendly government”, they only have one type of family in mind. It is, however, vitally important that a truly family friendly society supports all types of families. Giving us all a valid choice between civil marriage, religious marriage or civil partnerships, ceasing to break apart the marriages and civil partnerships of trans people, and tackling homophobic bullying in schools would send a clear signal that the government values and supports families regardless of their composition.

These are just some of the areas I would advise the government to take another look at if it truly wants to be the most family friendly in history. I would love to see them take their mantra of choice to heart and truly enable choices for all of us – men and women – on how we run our lives, how we raise our families, how we balance our aspirations for careers with our aspirations for our children. That, however, is not what we are getting. Instead, we get a one-size-fits-all approach shoved down our throats: marriage is best, women should ideally stay at home and look after their children, and we should all just grow up and become middle class, just like Dave and Sam. Like in so many other areas of life, the state under this government is abdicating all responsibility for families, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Unsurprisingly, women are the ones hit worst as a result. Yet, come the next election, I have no doubt David Cameron will be on Woman’s Hour again, trying to appeal to the Mumsnet vote. When he does, I suggest we make it clear quite how far his vision of a family friendly government diverges from our own.

Picture of a condom being put on a banana obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Image of pro-choice slogan prepared for this piece. Picture of a sign showing a family uploaded by the|G|™. Picture of Virgin and Child painted by Boccaccino obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Milena is an economist and political scientist by education, an IT manager by trade, and a campaigner for digital rights, equality and diversity by persuasion. She blogs at milenapopova.eu and tweets as @elmyra