“The Government believes that strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of a strong and stable society. That is why we need to make our society more family friendly, and to take action to protect children from excessive commercialisation and premature sexualisation.”
The Coalition Agreement
Family policy is a complex area requiring collaborative work across Government departments, including the Department for Education, Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Treasury. This can often lead to a fragmented approach to policy making, as the division of responsibility is often blurred across departmental lines. These difficulties are reflected by the fact that of all 31 of the sections within the Coalition Agreement, pledges on families and children have the lowest completion rate.
The previous Labour Government prioritised aspects of family policy including increased childcare provision and the implementation of tax credits for families on low and middle incomes. Between 1999 and 2010, Labour rolled out 3,500 Sure Start Centres and introduced free nursery education for three and four year olds, which private and voluntary childcare providers were also subsidised to deliver. Working and child tax credits were introduced to help parents with the cost of bringing up their children, while a commitment to alleviate child poverty led to the Child Poverty Act 2010, with the ultimate aim of eradicating child poverty by 2020.
The Coalition Government also set out in 2010 to prioritise children and families, focusing on the poorest families, early intervention and the deregulation of childcare. When Cameron announced that he would chair a Childhood and Families Ministerial Taskforce in 2010, there was an expectation that family policy would be at the heart of the coalition’s work. Whilst the Government has introduced policies such as an extension of free nursery education to the most deprived two years olds, there are still a number of areas where policy is lagging behind. Indeed, most of the pledges were unfulfilled at the time of the Mid Term Review, with one high profile example of this being the planned introduction of married couple tax-breaks.
Pressure is now mounting on the Coalition to start delivering on its promises for children, parents and families. In April 2013, research by Ipsos MORI for Unicef showed that the wellbeing of UK children still lags behind other Western European countries. Critics of the changes to benefits and tax credits suggest that these reforms will do little to improve the UK’s international standing on this front. The ever-increasing cost of childcare has been highlighted again by the Daycare Trust, and, when set against the backdrop of slow economic growth and stagnant unemployment levels, it is likely that by 2015 the problems affecting children and families will be one of the most potent political issues. As such, the Coalition is working to drive a number of initiatives towards completion by 2015, including an extension of flexible parental leave and adjustments in family law, which form part of the Children and Families Bill currently going through Parliament.
How much more the Government can achieve by 2015 is debatable, especially as both Coalition parties will now start to focus on asserting their individual identities ahead of the long campaigning road which lies ahead. For instance, whilst the Conservatives will likely focus on introducing transferable tax allowances, the Liberal Democrats will have different priorities. If anything, this is likely to lead to increased strain on the Coalition partners’ relationship, preventing further significant reform in this time frame.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will maintain the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020.
Status: In progress – As part of the commitment to ending child poverty, the Government was required, as part of the Child Poverty Act 2010, to report on whether the target to halve child poverty by 2010 (from the 1998/1999 baseline) has been met. This would require 1.7 million or fewer children living in relative income poverty in 2010/2011. The June 2012 report on progress revealed that this target was not met, as 2.3 million children were still in poverty. However, a consultation on new ways of measuring child poverty, to incorporate measures other than income, was recently conducted and closed on 15th February 2013.
Pledge: We will reform the administration of tax credits to reduce fraud and overpayments.
Status: In progress – Universal Credit is a new system initially launched in April 2013 in five areas of Greater Manchester and Cheshire. The allowances it replaces include child tax credit, income support, working tax credit and housing benefit. Universal Credit will be rolled out across the country from October 2013, and existing claimants of credits in the current system will be gradually phased onto Universal Credit by the end of 2017.
Pledge: We will bring forward plans to reduce the couple penalty in the tax credit system as we make savings from our welfare reform plans.
Status: In progress – Universal Credit includes an enhanced earnings disregard for couples, and a single taper rate, which should enable low-income couples to keep more of their income whilst in work. More widely, legislation is expected to be introduced before 2015 to allow married couples to transfer part of their personal tax allowance to their partner, although this remains a contentious issue between the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat partners.
Pledge: We support the provision of free nursery care for pre-school children, and we want that support to be provided by a diverse range of providers, with a greater gender balance in the early years workforce.
Status: In progress – In September 2010, all three and four-year-olds were given the right to 15 hours a week of free nursery education, with statutory guidance issued to local authorities in England. This guidance was updated in September 2012, and states that local authorities are legally required to provide free early education places of 570 hours a year, over no fewer than 38 weeks each year, to all children following their third birthday to when they reach compulsory school age. In this guidance, the Government also affirmed its target of providing access to free early education to the poorest 20% of two-year-olds this September, before extending this to the poorest 40% of two-year-olds in 2014. There appears to be little available evidence, however, of a greater gender balance being advanced amongst early years workers.
Pledge: We will take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention, increase its focus on the neediest families, and better involve organisations with a track record of supporting families. We will investigate ways of ensuring that providers are paid in part by the results they achieve.
Status: In progress – The Government conducted a consultation on the ‘core purpose’ of Sure Start Centres in 2011, which involved contributions from many local authorities and relevant organisations. Trials of Payment by Results were also conducted through 27 local authorities from 2011 to March 2013, the outcomes of which will inform decisions on rolling out Payment by Results more widely in 2013 and 2014.
Pledge: We will refocus funding from Sure Start peripatetic outreach services, and from the Department of Health budget, to pay for 4,200 extra Sure Start health visitors.
Status: In progress – The most recent progress report on the Government’s health visitor implementation plan indicates that there are 9,000 full time equivalent (FTE) health visitors. This falls short of the plan’s intended trajectory; previously, the number of FTE health visitors available since April 2012 had been on target to fulfil the goal of 12,292 FTE health visitors in April 2015. The Government is undertaking recovery discussions with strategic health authorities in order to bring the increase back on target.
Pledge: We will investigate a new approach to helping families with multiple problems.
Status: In progress – A national network of co-ordinators for ‘troubled’ families was launched in April 2011 to help 120,000 troubled families by the end of the current Parliament. The European Social Fund was announced by the Minister for Employment in March 2012, designed to help families with multiple problems. The Government has also made £448 million available from 2012 to 2015 to meet its goal of helping 120,000 troubled families through intervention techniques. The remaining funding for this is expected to come from local budgets.
Pledge: We will publish serious case reviews, with identifying details removed.
Status: Done – Separate guidance for publishing serious case reviews was made available for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many serious case review overview reports have been published on the websites of local authorities.
Pledge: We will review the criminal records and vetting and barring regime and scale it back to common sense levels.
Status: Done – The Criminal Records Bureau and the Independent Safeguarding Authority were amalgamated into the new Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) in December 2012. Before this, the Vetting and Barring Scheme was simplified so that: more responsibility for checks were given to the employer; ‘controlled activity’ covering people who may have less contact with vulnerable groups ceased to exist; police forces will not be legally obliged to provide ‘additional information’ about applicants to employers; and criminal record checks of under-16s will not be possible.
Pledge: We will crack down on irresponsible advertising and marketing, especially to children. We will also take steps to tackle the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.
Status: In progress – Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union, published Letting Children be Children – Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood in June 2011, which the Government accepted. Recommendations which have been adopted have largely been undertaken by the relevant industries, and include: tighter guidelines from the Advertising Standards Authority on outdoor adverts with sexualised images; ParentPort, a website set up by UK media regulators to make it easier for parents to complain about adverts, programmes and services; and a code of practice developed by the British Retail Consortium on age-appropriate clothes for children. The Prime Minister also appointed Claire Perry MP as his Adviser on Preventing the Sexualisation and Commercialisation of Childhood in December 2012.
Pledge: We will encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy – including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave.
Status: In progress – In November 2012, the Deputy Prime Minister announced a new system of parental leave in which parents will be able to choose how they share the care of their child in the first year after birth. The Children and Families Bill, due to enter Committee stage in the House of Commons, intends to strengthen employees’ entitlements to request flexible working.
Pledge: We will put funding for relationship support on a stable, long-term footing, and make sure that couples are given greater encouragement to use existing relationship support.
Status: In progress – The Government has allocated £30 million of funding from 2011 to 2015 for relationship support. This includes £15 million to be shared between a number of organisations to develop advice on parenting, communication skills and specialist counselling. A report on the effectiveness of several relationship support intervention programmes is expected to be published this summer. This will then be used by the Government to decide how resources can be best allocated.
Pledge: We will conduct a comprehensive review of family law in order to increase the use of mediation when couples do break up, and to look at how best to provide greater access rights to non-resident parents and grandparents.
Status: In progress – In 2010, the Government set up the Family Justice Review whose final report was published in November 2011. The Government has endorsed its recommendations, including legislation which ensures that separating couples undergo a Mediation Information and Assessment meeting before approaching a court, and sign a Parenting Agreement that reinforces the importance of grandparents, and other relatives and friends valued by the child. These recommendations have been adopted into the Children and Families Bill which is currently awaiting Report stage in the Commons.