The RSA



A revolution in family policy

The UK needs a new approach to family policy. Clem Henricson FRSA argues that in developing this, we need to look at the successes and failures of the past.

There has been major shift in how we see the state’s role in personal relationships in the 21st century. Aspirations to reduce child poverty, increase social mobility and deliver social cohesion all focus not just on structural change but on the interactions, culture and aspirations of family life.

The last Labour government’s family policy agenda was very broad, seeming at times to be trying to address our whole social fabric. These ambitions are being implemented in diluted form by the Coalition government. As we seek to develop a more ambitious approach, we should seek to understand to what extent the last government’s intentions were met or indeed realisable?

Labour has been frequently criticised for not achieving their aspirations when it came to family policy. Child poverty targets and a major shift in social mobility proved elusive. Despite these shortfalls most critiques have been blinkered by a two-fold process. First, a simplistic focus on the missing of self-imposed government targets. Second, an habituation of the progressive agenda; society took the goods for granted and continued to ask for more.

Less prominence has been given to the charge that the aspirations were simply too extravagant; that it was unrealistic to expect to change a highly unequal society like the UK, through supporting personal relationships. Likewise, little thought has been given to whether the last government’s ambitions to change behaviour and personal relationships were well founded.

Behaviour patterns are often difficult to predict, let alone change. There is evidence from programmes working with parents that it is hard and takes time, possibly generations, to effect changes in the way children are brought up. Similarly reducing anti-social behaviour has proved problematic, as has the encouragement of sharing caring responsibilities across the gender divide and the engagement of employers with family friendly practices.

Have past policy agendas placed too high an expectation on human malleability and what does this mean going forward? How can public policy manage human relations in a way that is sufficiently aspirational to meet the challenges of the moment, while also being realistic and determined by achievable outcomes?

One significant step forward would be for family policy to have its own raison d’etre, free of other government agendas for social betterment. This requires a much closer, emotional, understanding of family life, not just focused on the economic and social challenges some families face. A premium should be set on the need to manage the multiple core tensions in families: affection, empathy and supportiveness, on the one hand, and aggression, deception and self-interest on the other. A set of coherent support and control polices for family relations are needed which endorse this awareness and embrace a fundamental shift in perspective.

The openly stated aim of family policy should be to facilitate supportive behaviour through meeting families’ core service and financial needs without grandiose expectations of effecting behavioural change. At the same time it should specify the regulation of relationships including, for example, financial dealings within families and the protection of vulnerable members such as children, women and the elderly. Individual autonomy versus the family collective is another area that requires balanced protection.

Family policy might do well to be informed by scepticism of the enlightenment’s conception of the perfectibility of man. Rather than operating with a presumption that ‘things are going to get better’, the new family policy model should respond to the perennial question: how are we going to manage the tensions that exist within and between individuals in respect of family relations?

The need for a new and clearly defined family policy has become more pressing in the face of recent changes in family relations and in the nature and scope of caring. Challenges, as well as opportunities, are presented by an aging population, by shifts in gender relations, by the precarious balance between work and care, by the emancipation of children and by our increasingly liberal attitudes towards difference in sexual relations.

Highly pertinent to future scenarios has been the failure of successive governments to develop a family policy that embraces the full range of interests that exist across genders and generations in a sufficiently cohesive fashion to merit the term family policy. The new model should specify the integrated promotion of family wellbeing from cradle to grave, across the full range of perspectives, some aligned and some divergent, that constitute family life. A new comparative tool – a typology – and a set of family wellbeing indicators should be developed to support the endeavour. Underpinned by human rights values, the indicators would need to span physical, social, economic and psychological domains. The concern with family wellbeing would be reflected in a focus on family functioning, mental health issues, the quality of relationships and caring and morality as cast within families.

As part of this management of tensions, facilities – including regular national consultation and an independent think tank – are needed to gauge and accommodate the fluidity of morality, changing attitudes and the multiplicity of human motives and impulses that affect relationships and behaviours. Building on New Labour’s commendable legacy of social liberalism in regulating human rights and sexual relations, the intention would be to combine a level of stability with responsiveness and flexibility.

This requires a major exercise in establishing, clarifying and publicising the rights and responsibilities relating to families needs. Core family services capable of population wide delivery should be established as expectations from the state. Alongside these ‘rights’ there should be a clearer modern definition of families’ caring ‘responsibilities’, including better definition of the role of parents in bringing up their children, and of adult children in supporting their parents.

Running in tandem should be an on-going review of the distribution of resources across the generations bringing some order and transparency to the current anarchic process of government departments bidding for dwindling resources.

Finally and emphatically – however important it is – it is not a function of this new family policy model to redress inequality. Rather than hide behind family policy, we need to face up to the structural economic changes that are needed to deliver redress, including measures to change the UK’s low-wage economy and the market’s inequitable distribution of income across the population. Trying to tackle inequality through effecting behavioural change in family relations in order to enhance children’s potential to learn and achieve, is not an adequate or appropriate response to the scale and nature of the inequality quagmire in which we find ourselves.


This radical rethink for family policy is developed in detail by Clem Henricson in A Revolution in Family Policy published by the Policy Press.

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  • http://twitter.com/DJWESG Wes G

    I agree with much of what is written here, but i get the feeling a ‘ideal type’ of person/family is still trying to be created with these suggestions, which if im reading right is what you dislike about the enlightened progressive ideas we have embraced in recent times??

    For me the issue is about ‘work’ , and the sort of person we are ‘habituating’ into that monotonous life. A change in behaviour might work, but that would mean all people are open to these changes, which i very much doubt they are unless there is some give and take, its all take these days which is why – imo – it cant work. The issue then is ‘entitlement’ – something i know the RSA likes to comment on regularly – which you briefly touched on. Whats being suggested from what i can understand is more of the same bandage type fixes within the same set of financial structures and sub systems.

    I often wonder if the fix would be to reduce the cost of living for those at the bottom,its the lower working class’ and poorer people in general who currently shoulder the burden of all society, they create much of the wealth and have the cost and risks mitigated upon them, all the while living in lesser desirable conditions and paying over the odds for their goods and services, also higher for their rents and mortgages. The ‘family’ that is currently being ‘made’ to facilitate this disparity, being ‘habituated’ – as you put it – with a whole range of mediated nudges and – what i would call- unethical manipulations should stop.

    But if its the welfare state you wish to destroy then just come out and say it.

  • Robert Burns

    The state and public institutions have no business attempting to micro-manage personal relationships.
    It is not the job of the state to tell people what to think or what to feel in their personal relationships or anywhere else.
    With whatever intentions it is done the results are always the same – failure.
    Further, government is responsible for allowing the existence of the conditions that create many of the problems that have percolated into the family and personal domain.
    What they should do is introduce programs that will roll back the policies and practices that have put family life and wider society into its’ current parlous state.
    Particularly pernicious in my view are low pay, high basic cost of living (particularly housing) and constant intraveinous doses of ‘aspiration’ that the system can’t deliver on.
    These things have driven family life near to destruction and drives dysfunctional behaviour in individuals who fall back on seeking a ‘black market’ solution to the ‘problem’ of lacking social status because of their ‘failure’ relative to the fraudulent ‘aspirations’ fed to them.

  • Robert Burns

    Totally agree, read my comment.