Love Matters (Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households Report)

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Friday 8th December 2023

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Viscount Younger of Leckie) (Con)
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My Lords, it is an honour to close this debate on Love Matters, the report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households. I start by thanking all noble Lords for their valuable contributions today and, in particular, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for initiating this important debate and for treating the House to a moving and passionate speech. If noble Lords will excuse the pun, in looking up to the gods, I thank the commission for its work in producing the report. It is a landmark report for the Church which makes valuable recommendations. I assure the House that these have been closely studied by the Government and are reflected in our plans and actions across the families agenda.

I add that it is a delightful change to see that there are more recommendations for the Church than for the Government on this occasion. However, just to reassure the House, there still remains much for us to do. As my noble friend Lady Bottomley said, faith groups and the Church are a crucial element in communities around the country and support many families. We have strong partnerships with the Church, including on the delivery of high-quality education in schools, and I will say more about that later.

Before I begin, I will just round up some of the themes. There were a lot of wide-ranging themes this afternoon: the importance and value of marriage, including same-sex marriage and in the traditional sense; a focus on children; views on single-person households and lone parents; relationships generally, and relating better, and how much this matters; a focus on the elderly from the noble Lord, Lord Davies; the joys or otherwise of being married to an MP; national service for young people cropped up; and, it is fair to say, bad days at the office for benefits officials struck me as being quite interesting. There was an emphasis on friends and “Neighbours”, and we have been exhorted to watch “Coronation Street” next Wednesday—I must make sure to put that into my diary.

I happen to be wearing a tie with an elephant on today, and the House will know that elephants have deep family bonds. They are loyal to a fault and they are known to spend time with the relics of their ancestors, so clearly, in that respect, love matters. I welcome the report’s focus on love, which provides an important reminder of the human element, the unconditional bond that underlies the entire families agenda. We all know that children benefit from growing up in a family that provides love and support and is part of a community. These are the things that ultimately make a difference to children’s happiness and success throughout childhood and up through as far as employment.

We also know, sadly, that this is not the case for all children, and that some families require greater support. As a result, providing such support to create an environment where all children can thrive is a key priority for this Government. That is why, in February, we published Stable Homes, Built on Love, which sets out our vision for a social care system built on love, safety and stability, along with the actions being taken to reform children’s social care, a focus shared by the report. This is just one part of our wider support for families, and I will highlight some of the further initiatives shortly.

The term “family” does not automatically imply everyone living together under one roof, nor only those who find themselves under the branches of the same family tree, so I welcome the report’s broad definition of family. In preparation for this debate, I was struck by one definition I happened to come across. It goes as follows.

“Family is loving and supporting one another even when it’s not easy to do so. It’s being the best person you could be so that you may inspire your loved ones”.

Indeed, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister puts it, quoted by the report,

“whatever your family looks like, it doesn’t matter as long as the common bond is love”.

I echo the report’s celebration of all forms of loving relationships. As the most reverend Primate and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, they are significant for every individual, whether they opt for a life as a pair within a family unit or as a single person. We must respect and recognise the different family arrangements and structures, so that we can provide the right types of support. However, I listened very carefully to my noble friends Lady Stowell, Lord Cormack and Lord Robathan. They spoke passionately, particularly my noble friend Lady Stowell, about the value and benefit of marriage and the need to keep promoting this, and they are absolutely right.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham echoed the view, which was also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, that the marriage ceremony is enormously important, and the preparation for the ceremony—preparing for the commitment of marriage—was at the heart of this. The right reverend Prelate cited a role model for this at the Holy Trinity Brompton. I also declare an interest that I believe that I am a beneficiary of good preparation for marriage, having just, last June, celebrated 35 years—not quite as many as some others in the Chamber. I also noted the question raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about the registrar possibly doing some signposting. I will reflect on that, and I will certainly get back to him, and put a letter in the House Library regarding that important point.

In terms of supporting marriage, I remind the House that the Government do indeed support the institution of marriage. The House will know that we introduced the marriage allowance in 2015 to recognise marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system as just one example of our support for marriage. The Government also have a strong track record of advancing LGBT rights, including the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2013. I was deeply moved by the speech from my noble friend Lord Herbert.

The most reverend Primate mentioned the importance of state intervention where needed. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, added in at different stages, and I think he alluded to the reference made to the elderly. I will come back to that, hopefully, with time later.

I will directly address what support the Government are providing on issues that affect families. As my noble friend Lady Bottomley highlighted, my own department, DWP, oversees the reducing parental conflict programme, which shows that supporting parents, inter alia, to reduce the damage of frequent arguing—I make the point that it is frequent arguing, not just arguing, that is very damaging—achieves positive and sustained impacts for children. This programme is delivered through local authority family services and with local community and faith partners. The most reverend Primate emphasised the importance of local action in this respect, and he is right. We continue to provide ongoing support for local authorities across England on this programme and are on track to have directly supported 40,000 parents in the last two years.

In addition, the start for life and family hubs programme has created a network of centres for families with children up to 19, or up to 25 where the child has a disability. These family hubs link professionals, local partners and faith groups to support families. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke about family hubs very eloquently. They also support the very important early years development, which I know is a priority for the Royal Foundation and her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales. I am sure that the House will welcome the joined-up support being given by midwives and family hub workers to expectant and new parents, helping them with both their child’s and their own health and well-being.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked how the Government will ensure that faith groups are involved in family hubs, and that they provide the necessary relationships advice. He is right: faith groups are at the heart of many communities and therefore are a key component of the family hub model. We have published guidance for local authorities on the services we expect family hubs to offer, including helping families access support for separating and separated parents, and to reduce parental conflict.

In another passionate speech, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester spoke about children with a parent in prison—a very important subject. A parent going into prison can have a profound impact on children, which I would say is an understatement. Local agencies are best placed here to determine what support is needed, for example, Keeping Children Safe in Education 2023: Statutory Guidance for Schools and Colleges states that the additional needs of children with a family member in prison or who are affected by parental offending should be considered.

Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of mutual respect, trust and honest communication. In schools, our children are being taught about the importance of healthy relationships through the inclusion of age-appropriate relationships, sex and health education within the curriculum. This helps them to develop mutually respectful relationships more broadly, but that is not all the help that they get on relationships. School mental health teams are already making a difference when relationships get tough, to help children address problems early before they escalate.

The reality is that not all relationships stand the test of time. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, put it very well when he said, “Bad things happen”, and indeed they do. In 2020, the Government introduced the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act. The legislation has modernised divorce laws and has created an online divorce service to help with financial settlements and childcare arrangements after separation.

In addition, the Child Maintenance Service—which I am directly responsible for—plays a crucial role in securing financial support for children where parents have separated. It mandates—and, where necessary, enforces—appropriate arrangements so that children have the best start in life with a solid financial foundation. Through both private family-based arrangements and more formal Child Maintenance Service arrangements, looking at the years 2020 to 2022, on average 160,000 children were kept out of absolute low income on an after-housing-costs basis.

Despite this progress, however, there is much more we can do. That is why, in October, my department announced measures to strengthen the Child Maintenance Service by accelerating our enforcement powers and removing the £20 application fee. We will also consult on the ways in which the Child Maintenance Service collects and transfers maintenance payments, all with the primary aim of getting more funds to children. My noble friend Lord Robathan is right to mention that it is mainly men—93%—who have strayed in a marriage. However, I emphasise that not all do not take responsibility for their children, so it is a complicated story.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke about the two-child limit, which I was certainly expecting to speak about this afternoon. He will probably know what my answer will be; my noble friend Lady Stowell alluded to it. The two-child limit has been extensively debated in this House. On inception, the policy had two clear intentions: first, to make universal credit fairer and more affordable to the taxpayer; secondly, to make sure those supporting themselves through benefits face the same financial choices around the number of children they can afford to have as those not on benefits. The House will be aware of the exceptions that apply. Child benefit continues to be paid for all children in eligible families.

Going further, in 2014—as the most reverend Primate highlighted—we introduced the family test, which guides policy-makers in assessing the potential effects of their decisions on family dynamics, including elements related to marriage. The family test is for individual departments to apply. The approach allows for flexibility to consider the test at the most appropriate points in the policy-making process. In my role, I have actively supported the family test and I remain committed to promoting it across government.

I know the most reverend Primate regards this as being very important. We acknowledge that some people, including himself, might like to see the consideration and publication of the family test become a statutory obligation. To work best, an assessment of the potential family impacts of policies needs to be done early in the policy development process, so that consideration can be given to adapting proposals. Feedback from policy-makers tells us that statutory tests risk becoming a box-ticking exercise at the end of the policy process, with pass or fail outcomes. However, perhaps I can reassure him and the House that we continue to work across government to support officials developing policy to apply the family test from the earliest policy development stages and encourage the sharing of best practice. We are also starting work across government to consider the language of the family test questions and supporting guidance. We really do want to ensure that it continues to be relevant and appropriate. We acknowledge the recommendations in the report, but also in the Children’s Commissioner’s report.

I will turn to some other matters raised in the report. On reducing poverty and supporting low-income families, the Government believe they have a strong track record of helping vulnerable families. There were a number of questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, and I will need to write a letter as there were an awful lot of them. I will be touching on housing later, however, which was a general theme during the debate, so I hope that some answers may come to her from that.

The House will be aware of the £276 billion spent on welfare in Great Britain over 2023-24. I will not rehearse all the Autumn Statement announcements, because the House has heard them on several occasions over the past two weeks or so. However, as I said earlier, I will focus on housing. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, raised this, and the most reverend Primate also spoke about the importance of family, where they live and how they live, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford spoke about the types of houses, the intergenerational focus on the buildings and, frankly, making it a lot better for families to live near each other so that we have the influence of the intergenerational aspects. Those are incredibly important points, which I certainly take on board.

In the meantime, as the House will know, in the Autumn Statement the Government are raising the local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile of local market rents in April 2024, which will benefit 1.6 million low-income households by on average £800 a year in 2024-25, and of course help many who are in poverty. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford asked about timing. I will certainly take her point back about perhaps bringing the date forward but I certainly cannot offer any reassurance on that.

The report rightly identifies many of the features that support families’ flourishing, including friendship, shelter and the ability to deal with conflict. However, I highlight the importance of work. I have to say that I am slightly amazed that this has not been raised at all during this debate, so I will take this opportunity to focus on it. It has been a long-standing principle for the Government that the most effective and sustainable way to tackle poverty is by championing employment, acknowledging the mental health benefit that this brings and supporting people, including parents, to progress in work. Work can be an important part of bringing families together, supporting their mental health, and role-modelling positive behaviours for younger generations. The Government are committed to improving lives by ensuring that more people can reap the rewards of work. The voluntary in-work progression offer is now available in all jobcentres across Great Britain. We estimate that around 1.2 million low-paid workers will be eligible for support to progress into higher-paid work, and we will encourage them to take up this offer.

On childcare and the actions of my department to support parents into work, from June 2023 we increased the universal credit childcare cost caps by 47% to £951 a month for one child and £1,630 a month for families with two or more children. Importantly, we can now also provide even more help with up-front childcare costs when parents move into work or increase their hours. I reiterate my appreciation to faith groups and their commitment to parents, carers and children, and I am grateful to the commission for its invaluable contributions to supporting and strengthening family life since it was established in March 2021.

I want to raise one very important point, which is the role of grandparents—the noble Lord, Lord Davies, referenced the elderly in his remarks, but I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Mann, profusely for raising this important subject. The intergenerational aspects of grandparents—the way they play a pivotal role in families, often stepping up to provide kinship care and support to children and their parents—are important. Many kinship carers, especially grandparents, take on this role at a time in their lives when they least expect to raise a family, we would guess. They provide support, sage advice and stability, forging strong relationships not out of duty but because love matters.

I will answer a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, to do with having a Cabinet-level Minister for Children. Perhaps I can be helpful by saying that of course he will know that we have a Children’s Minister, but that was not his point. The Secretary of State for Education fulfils the role of Cabinet-level Minister. She makes sure that the best interests of children and families are front and centre in policy and decision-making at this highest level of government. She has a statutory duty to promote the well-being of children in England under the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, and is responsible for overseeing domestic implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and leading the reporting process on behalf of the UK to the UN.

The Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing also chairs a cross-government child protection ministerial group. This group helps to ensure that safeguarding is championed at the highest level by government departments that provide services to children and families. Through this group, the Secretary of State also ensures that other government departments are held to account in delivering for children.

This Government are committed to delivering on issues that matter to the British people. That is why we will continue with our mission to help all families to thrive, and our young people growing up within them to flourish.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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Before the Minister sits down, can I ask him whether he used a word in his section on divorce advisedly? He referred to a proportion or percentage of men who had “strayed”. To me, that suggests an element of blame, whereas I thought that the whole thrust of developments in divorce law is for the law to avoid allocating blame.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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The noble Lord is absolutely right. I clarify that I was not attaching any blame; I was just making a factual point that it is the 93% of men who stray. There is a balance that we strike within the Child Maintenance Service to be sure that we take account of the issues relating to paying parents and receiving parents. It is very important that we do not take sides, but we also have to look at the facts.